An Oral History Of Joe Kwaczala's "21 for 21" Sketch Project
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Do It To It.
In March of 2020, Joe Kwaczala had to pause the production of the second round of videos he was making due to the exploding pandemic.
In March of 2021, he finally was able to post those videos.
In March of 2022, I pitched a few culture websites on an oral history of the production of these videos, and started interviewing Joe, his director Daniel Clark, and Sam Wiles, who acted in both sets of videos.
In June of 2022, I’m finally getting around to editing that oral history for this newsletter after it was soundly rejected as a pitch.
Things don’t always go as planned.
One of the best things about starting this newsletter was the way it drove me to write more, become more thoughtful in my writing, and push the boundaries of what I wanted to write about. And then I got the dumb idea that maybe I could get paid for doing some of this work.
Which is, somewhat, true. I spent the earlier part of this year pitching websites on various think pieces and hot takes, and after getting one quick TV wrap-up published, I thought “this is it, you’re famous now.” That’s not true, but it did lead me down a path where I’ve found a really solid niche of freelance writing to pursue, which sadly, has taken up most of my project time. I will send out a newsletter once that stuff is published.
The other speed bump we’ve run into is the manuscript I’ve been working on. I was super grateful for all the feedback after sending out the first rough draft to those of you who requested it, but it became glaringly clear that some massive work had to be put into rewriting huge swaths of it. That’s a good thing! And I also joined a writers’ group, which is also a good thing, and has helped me push my fiction writing.
Again, bad for this newsletter.
Good Ones isn’t dead, it’s just going to continue being less frequent. Because you don’t pay me.
At the same time, the spirit of the following oral history is all about finding ways to succeed in making the thing you want to make. And it is truly inspiring!
If you haven’t already watched Joe’s videos, what the fuck are you doing? I mean, seriously. Go watch them all, right now.
Once you have, proceed below, where I have dastardly re-worked three separate email interviews into a single narrative to tell the oral history of Joe Kwaczala's “21 For 21” series of videos.
Joe Kwaczala: I'm really pleased with this crop of 21 videos. I think it's the best work me and (director) Daniel Clark have done. Especially considering that the pandemic hit in the middle of producing these, so we were forced to take a six month break and weren't sure how (or if) we were going to soldier on. We had to completely rethink how to do the rest of the videos safely, which meant a lot of pivoting, including a lot of new writing. But we got it done, and I'd like to think you wouldn't watch any of these and go "Oh this was obviously a pandemic shoot" because there's some observable sacrifice of quality. I'm also happy that the videos seem to have found some sort of audience. Patton Oswalt was very sweet to share some of them, which was really exciting and got them in front of people who I don't think would have seen them otherwise.
Daniel Clark: When we made the 31 videos, it was a really fun but grueling process. The actual creation of the videos itself was a giant feat we were proud of, but when it came time to do the second set (originally called 20 for 20 before COVID derailed it all!) I told Joe that I really wanted these videos to be more cinematic and emblematic of good filmmaking as well as comedy. Because it was such a passion project with no budget, the only way I really wanted to approach it was to be impressive from a technical end on top of the comedy being solid. For Joe, it was an example of his range as a writer and actor, and for me, it was a range of my directing capability.
JK: The idea of a 19 video release dubbed "Joe Vid 19" was briefly considered but ultimately was deemed to be in extremely poor taste. As for the future, I do not know exactly what's next. I think we want to try some other things for our next projects, but I will always be tempted to do it again, and maybe next time instead of doing fewer videos (we went from 31 to 21) we can ratchet it up to something even bigger. Like "Fuck It: 50" where we say fuck it and we release 50 videos. If you tell Daniel about this idea, he might have a heart attack.
This time around, Daniel really wanted to make a specific and intense shooting schedule. The idea would be that he would do a two week rental on some really great (and expensive) gear and we would churn basically everything out in those two weeks. So we'd treat it like a job and get the most bang for our buck that way. This would be instead of just shooting on weekends with whatever we could borrow or rent last second. And also it required that we have the scripts in place, so everything could be planned. That was gonna be the second and third weeks of March 2020, so you can guess how that went. We only got three or four days of shooting done before it was clear that everything had to be delayed. We had shot 10.5 sketches up until March 12, I think. Then we just sat around until September when we started talking about if there might be a way to finish this safely. Our friend Maggie Kaufman really bailed us out by offering some locations where we were able to shoot. Some of those locations ended up inspiring the sketches. Like "OK this is a weird bench. Feels like there should be a weird little ghost boy sitting on it." Or when Daniel and I were checking out this empty house, and I just started pretending it was MTV Cribs as though everything was invisible. Those are actually the same house! Lonely Little Ghost Boy, The Prediction Model, and Empty Cribs were all shot on the same property. Devastating News was shot a block away. In trying to keep things safe, I tried to write things where I was the only actor, so we could keep the number of people on set very low. We Need GIFs was written with the intention that it would be an ensemble piece, but I knew having six actors in an office together just wasn't smart, so we reimagined it where I'd play all of them and just shave parts of my beard and do costume changes in between takes. Even though the original plan was for Daniel to have a lot of equipment and a crew and stuff, we ended up shooting a lot of stuff just me and him, which was sweet in a way since that's how we used to make videos together back in college.
DC: We have the advantage of having been working together for almost 15 years at this point, so when Joe sends a script, I can tell exactly what he's going for and what he's going to do. We also love the one-actor-one-camera stuff because we can explore options and takes and hone in on a voice or performance characteristic without much pressure.
Any time Joe writes a sketch with an audience, my heart starts racing. Because we have virtually no money and we hate asking people for favors (we are surely running out of goodwill with our friends), we keep the big ones to a minimum. Most of these videos were just Joe and me or Joe, me, the DP Terrance Stewart, and another actor.
The other catch about that sketch was that it was filmed on March 12, 2020. The day before California issued the Stay-at-Home order. At that time, the big thing was wash your hands, don't touch your face. It's crazy to watch it now, though, because we just have a bunch of people yelling in each other's faces. Terrifying. But as far as we know, everyone was healthy before and after that shoot.
JK: So first, we knew we needed a venue large enough that you'd believe a Gallagher-like comedian would play in his prime. A black box wasn't gonna fly, and honestly neither was a comedy club. Dynasty Typewriter felt like the only choice, not only because of how it looked and felt, but also because it's run by people who love comedy and are so friendly with the comedy community. So they opened their doors to us, and I'm so grateful to the team over there for doing that. Letting people into your space to shoot something is a huge pain, and it would've been understandable if they had just said no. We had worked out with them that we would shoot 4 hours in the space, which might sound like a lot, but given the shots we needed, it was tight and it meant we had to work fast. So that was stressful to be on the clock, and then on top of that, it happened to be March 12. Shit was really starting to hit the fan with COVID, and the messaging at the time was like no gatherings of more than 100 people? 250 people? It felt like we were in the clear, but there was just so much uncertainty. This shoot also required extras, which are hard to get anyway. We were lucky to have some awesome folks join us, but we also communicated to everyone that it was totally fine if they didn't want to show up because they felt uncomfortable. I was surprised that a lot of the extras really wanted to do it, if not just for the distraction. So that gave us the confidence to go forward, and we got it done. Everyone's really good in it, from the background actors laughing in the audience to the actors (Joe, Rachel, James) who jump on stage. It looks great, too. And actually the first shot you see in the sketch (of the marquee) we didn't get on the day and wound up filming it almost a year later, our final shot of the whole project.
DC: In terms of the most difficult to shoot, I'd say Ax Murderer because it was a real production. We had Terrance, our DP, a gaffer and a grip, makeup, a PA, Sound... man... we had it all in a rented space by, of all places, LAX. There was a lot of coverage and movement of the cameras in that one. As well as lighting the entire school yard from the outside. We were racing the clock because we didn't want to keep people late (I, as a producer/director/person, absolutely hate long night shoots). We also had blood effects, running through the hallways and lots of set decoration to do. I think if I were to look at my shot list for the day, we had to kill like 6-10 shots to make the day work, but I don't think it was a major sacrifice. The edit works! That, on a side note, is something I'm always thinking about on shoots - "Do I have enough to make it work?" One day, I'll have a budget and an AD to worry about the schedule, but until then, that's always the biggest hurdle with these smaller-crew shoots.
Funny enough, I think in terms of audience appreciation, the size of the production has zero effect. It's tough to know what will resonate with people. I'd guess that people didn't fall in love with The Smash Man or Ax Murderer as much as something much simpler like Horn Honk Depot or NUVO.
JK: Our process is I write the scripts, and then if Daniel is into it, he's then tasked with how to get it on the screen. He's really a visionary in that way, and I am totally not, which is one of the many reasons why I'm so fortunate to collaborate with him. But it's way tougher for him-- I write whatever my mind comes up with, and then he goes, "OK how do we do this so that it looks the best it can look?" And I think sometimes that results in him wrestling with a more truncated, anxious version of that same thought, which is "Fuck, HOW do we do this?" I think that's just a testament to his commitment to quality though. I'm much more prone to "Whatever works!" which is why I'm not directing these things. He knows what is required to make these the right way, and he's not accepting anything else, which yeah... might give you some doubts if shit isn't lining up! And I want to be clear that Daniel is so, so nice, too. On top of all of that. The man is a human miracle.
In terms of actors, it's first and foremost who fits the sketch. But also for this batch, I wanted a good mix of some people who were in the 31, as well as some new faces that I really wanted to work with. The pandemic made that hard to do though, when we had to shift away from doing sketches with a lot of actors. So there was stuff that had to get shelved that was going to include people like Maddie Connors, Dana Donnelly, Emily Heller, to name a few. But I was still able to sneak in new folks like Alyssa Limperis and DeMorge Brown, while including old friends like James Austin Johnson and Anna Seregina.
Sam Wiles: [Filming] 21 and 31 were remarkably similar experiences (for me, anyway). Joe and Daniel are so exact and practical that being in something they make is purely just fun and easy. I guess the literal difference for me as an actor was we filmed Jurgen after I'd worked an early morning delivery job and I straight up fell asleep between takes. I was very awake for the Seth MacFarlane sketch because it was the only time I got to see other human beings that month. We shot Seth MacFarlane mid-pandemic and we were all giddy to be doing something. We also memorized the dialogue kind of as we went along, so I think the takes they used are all our later ones when we were looser. The most fun thing for me about that sketch was that its genesis was just from a weird tangent we went on driving around one night. A lot of that stupid conversation is verbatim in the sketch.
Plus, the root of it is so funny to me, like a butterfly effect but the results are inconsequential. Seth MacFarlane would've become a comedy folk hero but whoops, he lived and became kind of the opposite? Imagine if Jimi Hendrix had survived his drug overdose and then joined the Reagan administration.
My biggest takeaway is that sketches can be good. Most sketches are terrible, even from funny people. Joe doing it 52 times is wild in and of itself.
I also think the other thing I picked up is that good sketches have a real ear for natural language. Every one of Joe's sketches is written well in the margins, no weird setups or strange use of dialogue or throwaway things. I think that's really important.
JK: Maybe that's something I'll be able to look back on in a few years and understand, but right now I'm not sure. I think in general, when you do something a bunch, you get better at it. I'd like to think that's the case here. I think also there's something to the process of writing something that you are then involved with the filming and the editing. You start to know what's not needed at the script level because you're developing a better sense of what you usually cut out in the edit.
SW: The best 21 for 21 for me is NUVO. It captures an insane nexus, which is "bad boy" comedians and product placement and being a Gen X loser and baby food. It's exactly what I think is funny.
DC: Parody videos are so much fun. A lot of the 21 are parodies or odes to something that existed. I'd say only 5 or 6 were not going after a specific existing style. There are the obvious ones that were direct parodies like NUVO, Cribs, or Chimmy, but then there are stylistic parodies like Bad News that is meant to look like an NBC family drama, or Comedian in COVID which is ...I guess a parody of my own documentary filmmaking style? Can you do that?
The production of a parody is kind of nice because it hones in the approach you take rather than trying to create it from scratch. For some like Chimmy, NUVO, and Sports Corner, Joe sent me exactly the videos he had in mind and was using as a framework when he was writing. From there, my job was to make sure that the key stylistic elements came through.
On NUVO for instance, we kind of combined two BOKU commercials. One was an all black room with a paned window and it was actually a single take. The other was a much more frenetic shoot with Richard Lewis in a brighter, decorated room. I thought the darker room was more of a memorable visual, but the frenetic style was much more fun and could add to the comedy. So, we combined them.
There was a lot of that. Parodies tend to work best when they play at the memory of a style rather than the exact replication. Kinda starts creating Mandela Effect problems in society, but we'll worry about that later.
JK: We are so lucky to work with a one man music department named Yoo Soo Kim. He is based out of Chicago and handles all composition for us. I know him from my days of doing a talk show The Late Live Show in Chicago, and his band Hemmingbirds was the musical guest one week. We stayed in touch, and I'd asked him about original composition for a pilot I shot a while back, not even knowing that he was already pursuing that stuff on his own. And since then, he's always been the guy I reach out to for music stuff. I got to say, Daniel and I are blown away every time we ask him for something because he turns shit around so fast and always nails it. He also has a huge library of music he's composed for other stuff that he's very nice to make available to us. So sometimes we'll peruse his archive to see if there's something that already fits with what we're doing, so we don't have to bother him. But he doesn't see it that way-- he's always so eager to pitch in with his talents, and again, we're just so, so lucky. And Yoo Soo's work is all over these, whether it's a small piano ditty in "My Life with Greatness" or a full-blown kids' song in "Chocolate Rocket." The dude's got range! And often it's me like singing lyrics into my phone, sending the nonsense to him, and he constructs a full damn thing around it.
And then for graphics and animation, my friend Mike Lloyd, not unlike Yoo Soo for music, is a one man studio. Like he did all the animation for "Chocolate Rocket" and then for "SOAP!" we really let him loose. He got the song that Yoo Soo made, as well as some green screen shit we filmed, and from there, he had free creative reign. And no surprise, what he delivered was amazing. I'm just so obsessed with his work, from the box art for the fake video game Chimmy to the label on the Nuvo jar.
DC: Yoo Soo and Mike are world-class artists. Yoo Soo made the music way better than it ever should have been and Mike Lloyd not only gave us exactly what we wanted, but went extra steps and gave us stuff we didn't even know was possible. NUVO label was Mike. Chocolate Rocket animation was all him -- and so much more. Those two guys in particular along with the other crew and post people added elements that made these videos shine to a higher degree than I thought would even be possible -- given our time constraints and budgets.
The challenges with stuff like this usually are to be able to communicate to the people working on the videos what you want. Rarely, if ever, with Yoo Soo and Mike did Joe or I have to push back or did we feel any disappointment with the end product. The video, SOAP, WHAT IS IT? for instance was entirely Mike & Yoo Soo. Mike was given a bunch of Joe on the green screen and Yoo Soo was given a voice memo by Joe singing a capella. The first track we got back from Yoo Soo blew our minds, and when Mike had the freedom to be weird, he delivered something way too good for what it should have been. Hire Mike & hire Yoo Soo, everyone!
I love collaborations with people who are so talented but also creative. There's a difference between those two things. Sometimes you'll have graphic people who deliver only what you ask for exactly. Then you have Mike who will invest himself into the project and has the desire to make it great. Same thing with Yoo Soo. This is not the norm, so if someone is reading this and thinks that it applies to them, know that you're special and the world needs you!
JK: Speaking of Chimmy, I want to give a shout-out to Matthew Barnauskas who did all the 8-bit design and animation for that. That guy's so great, I had to frequently tell him to make his stuff worse because part of the joke is that Chimmy is supposed to look like a shitty game. I'd have to be like "Hey, listen, this is so awesome, but Chimmy's walk can't be that fluid. His walk has to be... stupid?" And full credit goes to him for making a Guernica level just for fun, which we did sneak in there at the end as kind of like a "What?" I also want to shout out Jeff Altman who does all the color correction; Terrance Stewart who often DPs and makes it all look so good; Nick Moore who helps us with editing (the quality of "Empty Cribs" is all in his incredible, pitch perfect MTV editing); Hayley McFarland, Caroline Clark, and Maggie Kaufman who helped as producers in a number of ways.
Sometimes with these shoots, it's just me alone with Daniel holding the camera. Yes, there's something fun and pure about the DIY nature to it, but also it would be so nice to have a full crew. Hair & makeup, wardrobe, production design, a damn gaffer gaffin' it up. With the support from a network or a streamer, we could hire these types of people! When we shoot, Daniel and I take on a lot of these duties ourselves, and we don't always know what we're doing. So not only would the production value skyrocket up with a professional crew, but it would also free us up to be able to focus on just the directing and acting, respectively.
I guess the concern there though is we'd want to make sure we maintain the spirit of what we do. There's (hopefully) a charm to me & Daniel running around making videos just the two of us, and we wouldn't want to lose that. It's similar concerns when like an underground band signs with a major label. Will the powers that be interfere in some way? Will there be pressure to adapt for the mainstream? That kinda shit. But luckily I have Daniel and he has me, and I know we'd keep each other grounded.
DC: We'd love a blank check, but honestly, we'd prefer just a big check for a set amount because when you have a limit, it informs the choices you can make on what to create. However, my first impulse would be to get our DP, Terrance Stewart, a proper crew for all these. It's fun to work directly with Joe with me operating and directing, but I'd love to be able to have someone handle production design, costumes, hair/makeup and lighting so I can just focus on getting the performance and not worrying about making my day before the other actors need to get to their other job. We have a lot of larger-scale concepts that we'd love to do if we had a budget. For now, we'll use our connections to get cheap locations, and keep the crews light.
Full Credits for 21 for 21
Daniel J. Clark - Director, producer, editor, sound mixer, cinematographer, etc
Michael Lloyd - Animator, illustrator, graphics
Yoo Soo Kim - Composer
Jeff Altman - Colorist
Terrance Stewart - Director of photography
Caroline Clark - Associate producer
Hayley McFarland - Associate producer
Maggie Kaufman - Executive producer
Nick Moore - Editor, graphics
Cullen Crawford - Co-writer of "Horn Honk Depot"
Rob Scerbo - Location assistant
Matthew Barnauskas - Game design & animation on "The World Record History of Chimmy"
Jake Bradbury - Additional editing, assistant camera on "The Smash Man"
Tyler Manning - Gaffer on "Cornered by the Killer"
Caleb Harris - Key grip on "Cornered by the Killer"
Ryan McDuffie - Production sound on "Cornered by the Killer"
Noah Villanea - Makeup on "Cornered by the Killer"
Mahogany Aminzia - Production assistant on "Cornered by the Killer"
Isobella Antellis - Camera production assistant on "The Smash Man"
Alex Waxenbaum - Production assistant on "The Smash Man"
Ethan Kempsell - Graphics on "Sports Corner"
Andrew Malott - Additional effects on "Sports Corner"
Dave Horwitz, Sara June, Shawn Kenji Pearlman, Alyssa Limperis, Luke Mones, Cullen Crawford, Mike Lloyd, Meghan Lloyd, Julia Pace Mitchell, Jordan Doll, Danny Palumbo, Anna Seregina, Meredith Casey, Kelsey Griswold, Hayley McFarland, Lou Wilson, Richelle Meiss, DeMorge Brown, Joe Hospodor, Rachel Staman, James Austin Johnson, Sam Wiles, Alex Hanpeter, Jude Tedmori, C.J. Toledano, Anthony Gioe, John Eisenrich, Carl Tart, Taylor Garron, Clare O'Kane, Chris Stephens, Dani Fernandez, Brodie Reed, Joe McAdam, Dana Donnelly, River Butcher