by Jeanette Bonner
Let’s pretend you are a recognizable celebrity in the comedy world because of your association with one writer-genius Tina Fey. Maybe you were on her show. Maybe you became known for being a character on that show, predictably wacky in a wonderful way, say, Toofer on 30 Rock. Now let’s pretend that after the show is over you want to create a web series about your life, written by you, acted by you, directed by you. Your show biz friends all say: “No way man! The market’s oversaturated! You’ll never stand out in the mass of comedy web series out there!” Do you say:
- I’m doing it anyway! I have 85K Twitter followers who love me!
- You’re right. Anyone got any new pilots?
- That’s fine. I’m not out to be funny. I just wanna tell my story….?
To compete against the vast array of web series on the market, creators are going to great lengths to impress their audiences, but one new show takes an entirely different approach. Keith Broke His Leg, is an autobiographical original series by Keith Powell. I’m a big fan of 30 Rock so I went in expecting an alt-world version of Toofer – dry, mocking, too big for the situation he finds his proverbial britches in. What I got instead was a gentle storytelling series, its subtle comedy bordering on the mundane. Which is in itself a groundbreaking concept.
In 2015 Keith Powell actually broke his leg. Maybe. In an interview with Vimeo he claims to have had a “minor surgery” and was incapacitated for just one week. (One week!? Try three months on crutches, Keith!! – err, sorry.) Suddenly no longer mobile, and processing all the emotions that come with a major injury (to which I can clearly relate), from boredom to soul-searching doubt, he decides to create a web series in order to “relearn all of the things he needed to relearn.” According to Powell, “The show is about a man who is relearning how to live his life in a new environment.” [Vimeo, Nov 15].
I thought I would smile. I thought I would chuckle at his hubris. I thought I might laugh-cry at the wry twist of fate we had both experienced. But I didn’t do any of those things. The show is humorous, but not funny. At times I even found myself a little bored, and more often than that, confused. WHERE WAS TOOFER?!?!
In another interview with Awards Daily TV, Powell explains that despite your expectations that it be a 30 Rock-style spinoff comedy, his plan for the series was much simpler.
“I wanted to do a series that showed that I could act, write, and direct a body of work. I also felt like my voice wasn’t really being heard… I really wanted something that was 100% me out in the world so I could share it with people… I wanted to share something that said this is who I am, this is my voice, and this is the way I believe in comedy and the way you should tell a story.” [Awards Daily TV, May 2016]
He wanted to simply show what his life is like via actual experiences that happened to him, using his own voice (ie, unedited, often using the first draft). Each episode is a complete story with its own tone, style, and message. One of my favorite things about it is his complete lack of artifice in achieving that goal: it’s filmed in his own house, and even stars his own IRL wife.
This is new. New in that it de-celebritizes celebrity culture, in an age when most celebrities lean towards Reality TV and game shows in order to enhance their TV persona. To show your life as it actually is – boredom, frustration, broken legs and all – takes balls. Who amongst us would open up our lives and insecurities to the public in such a vulnerable, real way? To resist glitz, glamour, good lighting, a little celebrity cameo or two?
This is not to say the series is without its charms. But its droll humor (eg, Googling “marriage: sexy?”) comes from a different place entirely, a place – to be honest – few web series have gone. Not since Curb Your Enthusiasm – a TV reference Powell himself uses to describe his show – has any series turned the mundane comedic. I find it fascinating that Powell has the balls to be unfunny. It’s a comedic web series, however he’s not exactly spitting out one-liners, and at times the series can come off a bit tedious. To broadcast (like Curb Your Enthusiasm before him) discomfort humor, or the humor of not seeking a resolution outside of a given moment, takes courage.
No wonder Keith Broke His Leg has such a large fan base. No wonder the series received seven (yes, seven) Independent Series Awards nominations. No wonder the press is talking about it. But Powell stays humble:
“I never wanted a web series to be viewed as a showcase for my work, I wanted a web series to viewed as telling a story. So many web series are used as self-promotional platforms and therefore they lose the story in it. And people connect to characters, people connect to situations and environments, and not so much of the performer showing how talented they are.” [Vimeo]
One could argue that because Powell already achieved a bit of stardom in 30 Rock he had the freedom to play with his image. By creating a juxtaposition to the character of Toofer he helped to define his own voice as an artist. But many other new content creators are on the reverse path: they are creating new series in order to seek recognition and a foothold in our industry. They too are trying to tell a story, but unlike Powell they are seeking mass audience approval. They want to make you laugh, cry, squirm on the edge of your seat, and then tell 100 of your closest friends.
It’s an interesting question. In our new era of Look at Me TV, which one holds your attention more?
Watch Keith Broke His Leg on the show’s website: http://www.getbroken.com