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#CharacterADay: Heighten or die

web series

Although I usually concentrate my comedy-based NolaVie guest blog on my own web series #CharacterADay, I too have influences, so my comedy-centered NOLAvie guest blog is shifting focus. Rather than recounting lessons learned in my own projects, I will be writing about those who inspire me. The comedians who have worked their way up into the spotlight, and those whose names you've never heard before. Each week, the blog will look at one of these creators to see what their writing and creative decisions can teach those of us who want to tell better stories.

Let’s talk about web series. The bite-sized nature of the genre has forced writers to construct their stories to be more compact and creative. As a web creator myself, I’m fascinated by the question: How deep can you take your audience in the tiny space of a web video? The series Next Time On Lonny answers this question beautifully. The brainchild of Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf, this web series is a fake reality-TV show that unfolds wildly within the small frame typically reserved for showing previews of the next episode. The project began garnering attention in 2011, and now -- three years later -- has rolled out a Season 2, produced by Ben Stiller's company Red Hour, in conjunction with Maker Studios rebranded Nacho Punch YouTube network. Lonny’s journey is not only the dream of web creators everywhere, it is a level of success earned by the show’s obsession with going real big real fast.

Observe.

There is a mantra in the New Orleans comedy scene: Heighten or die. Coined by Chris Trew and Tami Nelson, founders of The New Movement comedy theater and authors of the book Improv Wins, “heighten or die” is the notion that in any scene -- improvised or written -- you will lose your audience unless you continue to heighten the action. Toward conflict. Toward chaos. Toward the terrifying unknown. Improvisors like Chris and Tami know better than anyone: The audience just wants to go on a ride.

Lonny is an embodiment of that mantra. In less than five minutes, each episode somehow manages to take the audience on an epic journey. As one tiny problem spins wildly and horribly out of control, we see worlds explode, friends devolve into cannibals, aliens enslave the human race, time travel fold in upon itself. There is list of wonderful things one can rattle off about the show -- the quality of performances, the obsession with film genre -- but what sets the series apart for me is the urgency of the narrative.  In a world of meandering self indulgent blogs and web series that attempt to mimic the pace of network TV, Lonny is one of the few pieces of web content I've seen that truly makes every single second count. It's story on speed.

It's as if each episode begins with a quiet wink to the audience, “let’s go on a f*$%ing ride!” Whatever story you are telling, consider for a moment, what would happen to your narrative if you took Lonny’s approach of pressing the gas pedal to the floor? What happens when you move with urgency? How much deeper can you take your audience before the ride ends?

Intrigued? You're in luck. Lonny, creator Alex Anfanger, will be in New Orleans this weekend as part of New Orleans Video Access Center’s Web Weekend. Held November 7-9, Web Weekend is a conference focused on web series creators. The weekend is full of parties, networking events, and panel discussions with the likes of Anfanger, Luke Ryan (producer of Hulu’s East Los High), Sam Toles (VP of Content Acquisitions at Vimeo), YouTuber and comedian Akilah Hughes, and Blaine Hopkins and Zach Perkins of NorthSouth Productions. That list of heavyweights will be on hand discussing how to tell great stories on the web and how to do so without going broke. It’s pretty wonderful that something like this happens in our city. I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one who looks like a Filipino Denzel Washington. That's not a heighten. It's the honest-to-god truth.