Maria Blasucci and Amanda Lund in Ghost Ghirls (above); Written by Hannah McIlveen
Imagine this: every television network has a team of people dedicated to finding the next Tina Fey (or, at the slightly edgier networks, the next Lena Dunham); the next female powerhouse who has the kind of talent, charisma and chutzpah they can really build a show on.
These imaginary people sit around a table into the wee hours, drinking too much coffee and wracking their brains, the walls behind them lined with white boards, names frantically scribbled and circled and crossed out. They’re looking for the next big woman to shake up TV comedy.
As much as we wish this fantasy team dedicated to finding the next “funny femme” actually existed, comedy TV is still mostly a man’s game. And for every Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Mindy Kaling, there are countless other men making it in lieu of women.
But there is hope. Rather than continue to struggle to make it in traditional comedy television, many women are heading online to make their own opportunities in digital TV.
Through online video sharing and streaming sites, female creators, screenwriters, directors, producers and actors are telling exciting stories from viewpoints that Hollywood tends to marginalize—not only sharing their own experiences as women but exploring the viewpoints of racial minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQ individuals, proving that web is the home of inclusive comedy that television just isn’t ready for.
In bypassing Hollywood’s structured institution of television production, the women of web series are able to worry less about getting permission, following rules and fighting sexism. Instead, they can put all of their creative energy into telling stories, many of which touch on deeply personal subject matter (embarrassing sex and struggles with prejudice, anyone?) that reach out to a very specific and dedicated audience. Furthermore, these women always retain a commitment to bringing something new—something that matters and that isn’t being seen elsewhere—to TV culture.
Take web series East WillyB, co-created and executive produced by star Julia Ahumada Grob, which features a cast of Latino characters of all shapes, sizes and ages. Telling the stories of gentrification in Bushwick, Brooklyn (dubbed East Williamsburg in an effort by realtors to sell the neighborhood, traditionally known as crime-heavy, to new, often White, tenants) the show features singing, fighting, loving and everything in between. Not only does East WillyB tell a story that a massive portion of the American population can relate to, it does so without the stereotypical portrayal of Latino culture that is often seen on network television.
Then there is Teal Sherer’s My Gimpy Life. The series explores the prejudices, exploitation and condescension that the disabled face daily.
Sherer asks people to re-examine their assumptions about disabilities, but she does so in such a fun and self-deprecating way that it never sounds like preaching; just like damn good comedy. Sherer’s goal with My Gimpy Life is to represent people who deserve a voice in television, but who aren’t getting one.
“As a disability advocate,” says Sherer, “I want to share my perspective and broaden people’s minds. Disabled people are out in the real world, but we’re underrepresented in films and on TV. I want producers and casting people to consider disabled actors for any role, not just ones that are written as disabled characters. It’s so important to have people in the media that you can relate and connect to.”
Another marginalized demographic that’s flourishing in web series is a group that has been perhaps inelegantly titled “the uncool LGBTQ” set. While lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters and storylines gain more attention on network shows like
FOX’s Glee and HBO’s Looking, the focus still remains squarely on the young, hip and impossibly beautiful. Meanwhile, on the web, women like Ingrid Jungermann and Amy York Rubin are telling the less glamorous (read: more realistic) stories of LGBTQ life. For Rubin, the game is all about celebrating life’s wonderfully awkward and painfully relatable moments in a way that feels authentic.
For Jungermann, the act of bringing verisimilitude to lesbian storylines also has everything to do with relatability—most notable in the age of her characters.
She’s dubious about traditional television’s interest in LGBTQ people past a certain age saying, “I don’t know if networks or cable are ready for a lesbian show about a gay lady approaching 40.”
But she’s used her two web series, The Slope and F to the 7th, to represent a broader range of gay characters. While networks continue to employ mustachioed hipsters and Naya Rivera-lookalikes in gay and lesbian roles, women like Rubin and Jungermann cast a refreshingly matter-of-fact (and touchingly amusing) light on LGBTQ culture.
On the lighter, though no less meaningful, side of women bringing innovative comedy to digital television are series like Ghost Ghirls and Seeking the Web Series. The women behind (and starring in) these shows each bring their own exciting additions to TV culture.
When Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci co-wrote, executive produced and co-starred in Ghost Ghirls for Yahoo! Screen, they brought a whole new genre of comedy to the table: the ghost hunter spoof. Their deadpan delivery, sharp dialogue, and seamless rapport with impressive guest stars like Molly Shannon and Bob Odenkirk shot this Jack Black co-production to viral fame and made many wonder how something like it had never been done before.
With her own series, Seeking, up-and-comer Ronit Aranoff is also bringing something undeniably refreshing to comedy by updating the stale genre of rom-coms through crowdsourcing.
She wanted to tell what she calls“real life dating stories” by pulling from strangers’ lives; to make an engaging comedy by using stories that literally happened to real, live people—and not just the oft-bland fictional people whose stories you’re used to hearing.
“I was tired of watching shows that told stories of a very small cross-section of the population,” says Aranoff, “So I decided to ask everyone across age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, [and] religion what their dating experiences were.We’re so proud that it’s a show about everyone’s story.” Because of this deeply human framework, Seeking never feels contrived. Even when the storylines are silly, it somehow manages to make the silliness ring true— freaky Confederate hipsters and all.
The individual reasons women head online to exert their creative energy may vary, but they usually fall into two broad categories: accessibility and creative freedom.
The most obvious benefit of going digital (as every film school student with a sock puppet and a borrowed Handycam knows) is the low barrier for entry. Anyone who can rent a camera and sign up for a YouTube account is free to start a show—though, of course, it helps if you’ve got something interesting to say. The lower barrier of entry for web series has a lot to do with money, of course, but it also has to do with rules and permission.
Making a network TV show is one giant rule-following, permission-seeking party. The process of how to submit spec scripts and proofs of concept, the political back-and-forth with executives and all the spoken and unspoken rules to follow before you even go so far as to make that first exploratory contact can stop creators before they’ve even begun. If you hear back at all from a network, what you hear will probably be a “no.”
But as Aranoff so blithely puts it, with digital content, “the only person you have to wait for a yes from is yourself.”
From left: Amy York Rubin, Julia Grob, Ronit Aranoff
When it comes down to it, many women creators get into digital content because it feels like the only option, which is hard to believe considering they’re bringing us some of the most exciting, hilarious, and emotionally brave content out there. Even Jack Black’s main gals, Lund and Blasucci, fell into this camp before they got hooked up with Black’s production company.
“We started writing and making web shorts because we couldn’t get any auditions,” says Lund. “It was kind of a last resort that we also really enjoyed.”
With self-directed digital content, the “yes’s and “no’s and rules of Hollywood are moot, fostering an environment that’s a lot more comfortable to many creatives.
Jungermann remarks that,“the web series form is perfect for people who are comfortable making their own rules.”Many of the women in web series are excited about finally being able to do their own thing, playing by their own rules.
“Seeking is on my terms and I’m really proud of that,”says Aranoff.
Jungermann’s personal tactic for making content (which seems like something that applies to many web series creators) is to “reshape ideas in a way I can understand them, rely on humility and honesty and hope that whatever I put out there will be understood.” A decidedly more zen approach to content creation than you would find from any network executive.
The digital realm is not only a creatively fulfilling place for writers and producers, but for whole casts and crews. The deeper sense of ownership and creative control that comes with going independent and digital can also lead to a greater sense of community for everyone on set. According to Grob, the set of East WillyB really felt this impact.
“There was a real family, community energy to the series,” she says. “Everyone felt like they were contributing to something very special, a series that was unlike anything that ever existed before, so they gave everything to [it].”
Rubin also experienced the innate sense of community that comes with independent productions on the set of Little Horribles.
“Anything indie—which is more the defining factor than it being for web or TV—[is] a really collaborative environment,” she says. “There’s no client, no studio—it’s just about making something everyone feels good about.” And that’s something viewers can in turn feel good about, too.
Of course, for every benefit of going digital, there’s a corollary negative aspect; nothing as beautiful as creative control and freedom of expression comes without a cost. While digital content is inclusive, democratic, and exhilarating in its endless possibilities, it’s also unstable. Web series are rarely lucrative and the format is still struggling to gain the recognition it deserves from advertisers and TV’s power players.
“I think the web is a great place to explore your creative voice, experiment artistically, learn, and show ‘proof of concept’ of what you are capable of,” says Grob. “It’s a very hard place to make money, though. That is the largest challenge indie creators face.”
Teal Sherer in a scene from My Gimpy Life
Money continues to be a big issue for web series producers, even as the medium gains popularity among viewers and consideration among critics. Sure, web series are easier to make on the cheap than a multi-cam sitcom, but there’s still the need for capital to get that Handycam recording. The trouble with digital content and the almighty dollar isn’t just a concern for starving artists who need to pay their rent, either; it’s also something viewers should be worried about. As Jungermann is quick to caution, “No matter what anyone says, making work without enough money is detrimental to creativity.”
But as the struggles increase for these women, so do the rewards, which is what will keep the creative juices flowing through the web series genre for as long into the future as people have stories to tell.Lund puts it most eloquently when she remarks that holding all the creative power on a series is “way more rewarding… You just have this adrenaline kick when you’re super passionate about a project. Like when a mother lifts a car up because her child is stuck under it. It’s exactly like that.”
In a way, though, all the common limits of web series are also a big part of what make them so special. A tiny budget, low space allotments, and limited mobility of a production can lead to appealingly intimate results. As creators like Jungermann have no choice but to “keep it small and focus on characters and writing,”viewers get the benefit of seeing thoughtful, tightly written, and carefully pared down episodes that encompass only what they really need to. Nothing is stretched to fill time or cut down to allow for commercial breaks. Things just are the way they need to be, with a compelling story front and center. It’s a refreshing departure from bombastic network shows with their extraneous sets and scene-stealing CGI. In contrast, an episode of a web series that takes place exclusively in someone’s living room—but that feels as emotionally grand as any pearl-clutching scene from Game of Thrones—feels fresh.
And that freshness is leading to great strides for women in content creation. Issa Rae, unofficial queen of the web series genre, has built a digital content empire for herself, proving that it is possible to have a career in web content as a female minority. And though it feels a little bit like saying every computer science major has the ability to be the next Mark Zuckerberg (not quite realistic) the inclusivity of the space will continue to foster creative growth—and the hope is that financial sustainability isn’t too far off. Rae, creator and star of Awkward Black Girl, believes this is the case.
“The corporate world has started to embrace digital content in a major way,” Rae says. “Companies and networks alike are scrambling to try to figure out the digital world and advertisers are putting out a lot more money toward digital content than they were before. The first web series I took seriously (Fly Guys present The ‘F’ Word) was back in 2009, and I remember asking a colleague about trying to get sponsorships and hopefully taking the series to television. She told me nobody was checking for the web, and that there was no money there. She said my best bet was to go the traditional route. That was only five years ago and things have done a 180.”
Hollywood’s gender and diversity gaps, both in front of and behind the camera, narrow year by year. And though the stats have a long way to go before they’re anything close to equal, it’s not unreasonable to question how much longer network executives can ignore all of the incredibly talented women out there (though Comedy Central’s adoption of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s web series, Broad City,was a step in the right direction.)
As much as this is about feminism and equality and fairly recognizing talent where recognition is due (“It shouldn’t be a newsflash in 2014 that we are hilarious!” jokes Aranoff), the truth is that traditional TV production is largely about money—and good talent and good content lead to good money.
Perhaps this will come as digital content continues to gain respect and raise its profile with critics and the general viewing public. Lund agrees, “I think digital content and traditional TV are eventually going to be indistinguishable. Digital content is now equal to, if not far beyond, the quality of TV. Shows that Netflix does like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are better than most shows on TV.”
Rubin’s also optimistic that the distinction between digital and traditional television is on the way out. She says, bluntly, “It’s all just content.”If the critics are behind it, and the creators, screenwriters, and actors are behind it, then digital content is well on its way.
As frustrating as it can be for creatives trying to make their voices heard online (according to Grob, to sustain a web series financially you need to aim for at least 100,000 views per episode—no small feat), the tides are indeed changing. Maybe the eventual financial success of web series will rely on the continued expansion of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Ghost Ghirls‘ home base Yahoo! Screen. The global takeover of these services does seem kind of impending. Netflix’s subscribership gains points each year while HBO’s and Amazon Prime’s original content gets sharper and more critically acclaimed with each new pilot season.
Techno-financial wizards are working on new ways to eek dollars out of online video, and general awareness about the high quality of web content continues to grow. Perhaps in ten years’ time, it’ll be possible for new digital content creators to skip the aspiration of traditional television altogether and spend their time appealing to the likes of Reed Hastings instead of Richard Plepler.
In the meantime, these women’s work is smart, hilarious and often brave, and it’s going to shape the TV landscape of the future in big ways. These are the women the networks need to watch.
See more in Lydia Magazine’s Summer Issue!