I was born in 1977, so I’ve been playing video games since they became part of the American mainstream. I grew up in video arcades, and I’ve had a video game console in my home since I was 7. From Pac-Man to Mario to Mega Man, my childhood memories — and my outlook on life — have been shaped by what I learned from video games; both from the games themselves and the act of playing them.
Here are eight lessons that pixels and joysticks taught me about life and love.
We Are All Playing Someone Else’s Game
When I was 5 or 6, my parents used to go to Perkins every day for breakfast. (Perkins is like Denny’s, only green.) This particular Perkins had a Ms. Pac-Man machine next to the restrooms, and I would play it every day.
Even though I played it all the time, I wasn’t very good at it. I’d rarely get past the first few levels. My parents would give me a few quarters every morning, and I’d usually be back at the table asking them for more after just a few minutes.
That winter, my parents bought me a book of level-by-level maps and strategies for beating Ms. Pac-Man. As I learned from the diagrams, there were patterns you could follow to safely complete every maze. All you had to do was memorize them.
I was shocked.
Because in my little kindergarten brain, I realized that someone — a human being — had to have programmed those ghosts to move in a certain way. And that meant I was playing a game created by a person. Which means I wasn’t just trying to beat the game; I was trying to outwit a person.
And that’s really what each of us does with every social system we encounter, all life long.
Everybody Thinks the Game Is Fixed
One day, we took my grandfather to breakfast. When I asked my parents for a few quarters so I could play Ms. Pac-Man, my grandfather told me it was a waste of money.
“You can’t win. Those games are rigged. You can’t beat ‘em. They just take your money.”
I tried explaining that there were patterns you could follow and you could win, but he remained convinced that these games were just money-making schemes for their creators.
Technically, we were both right. But just because a game is fixed, that doesn’t mean you can’t win. You just have to understand how the game works. Beyond that, I realized that my grandfather only saw games as something to be won, whereas I saw them as an experience to enjoy. And for that, I was willing to play (and pay) whether I won or not.
Everything Has a Price, Which Is Different from Its Value
That Christmas, after all the other gifts had been opened, my parents had saved one gift for last. My dad brought it up from the basement. It was huge, probably as large as I was.
I unwrapped it. Inside, there was another gift.
I probably spent ten minutes unwrapping a multitude of nested boxes, each one getting smaller and smaller, until I finally got to the last one. And when I opened it, I found the real gift:
“What’s that for?” my grandmother asked.
“So he can play Ms. Pac-Man.”
My mom called it a booby prize. My grandmother thought we were nuts. I was just excited because it meant I could play four more games of Ms. Pac-Man the next time we went to Perkins.
Sometimes life is all about perspective.
Every Hero Is Just a Villain in Someone Else’s Story
Dig-Dug is a classic arcade game. In it, you control a space helmeted dude who digs tunnels underground and destroys the monsters he finds there by blowing them up before they can reach the surface.
Dig-Dug is also a sociopath.
The game gives you no context about why Dig-Dug is tunneling underground and killing these creatures. Like any game, you play it because it’s there. You don’t ask questions… until you’re old enough to step back and realize that these creatures were probably just minding their own business underground when all of a sudden some terrorist jackass invades their homes and blows them up in front of their friends and families.
In life, the truth depends on the teller.
Learn by Doing
Growing up, my dad and I used to go to Putt Putt Golf & Games at least once a week. It was a mini golf course that had a video arcade, and we’d play all the latest games as they came out. That was where I first played the original Mario Bros., and Food Fight, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and perhaps the trippiest game ever created, Journey (in which you… uh… played as the band Journey).
One game that fascinated me was Dragon’s Lair. It was larger than most arcade games, and it was animated (by Don Bluth’s studio, which also produced The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale) to play like a movie that you could control. It was also the first game to cost fifty cents in an era when other games only cost a quarter. And, to me, it was hard as hell. The game flashes directional hints of what you’re supposed to do next at all times, but if you miss them, you make the wrong choice and Dirk the Dragon Slayer dies a horrible (but amusing) death.
One day, an older kid saw me playing the game. When I lost, he said that if my dad gave him fifty cents, he’d show us how to beat the game. So my dad did. And this kid proceeded to play, and win, the whole game. He lost a few times along the way, but he’d gotten much farther than we ever had — and we were so interested in seeing the ending — that my dad kept paying his way.
When it was over, we were both really impressed. I think the kid hustled my dad for a few more bucks — which was basically a tip — and then he left to go play a different game. But then a funny thing happened: I stopped playing Dragon’s Lair.
Having seen the ending meant I’d seen the whole thing, so what reason did I still have to play it? And yet, all these years later, what do I remember of that ending? Almost nothing. Watching someone else win the game was nowhere near as fulfilling as winning the game myself would have been, plus it robbed me of my appetite for exploring the experience myself.
Anything worth doing is worth doing firsthand. The rest is just a fee.
Teamwork and Tenacity Pay Off in the Long Run
By the time I was in high school, I had graduated from having a Colecovision to an NES to the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. And yet, despite having state-of-the-art home video games at my fingertips, I still spent most Saturdays playing video games with my friends at the Millcreek Mall’s two (!) arcades. Tilt was the seedy, maize-colored arcade located in the mall wing that no one ever walked down, while Red Baron was located next to the movie theater, the McDonald’s, and the coolest of the mall’s three (!) record stores. The Red Baron was obviously the “winner” of the two, and it was where we spent most of our time (and money).
Then Tilt got a new game called NBA Jam, and everything changed.
Keep in mind that until 1993 it was extremely rare to see professional athletes portrayed in video games. They may have lent their name or likeness to a title or package, but you almost never got to play as them. And then along came this amazing game where you could play as two NBA stars at the same time, with sick dunks and clutch three pointers from anywhere on the court.
In the golden age of SportsCenter (and the NBA itself), my best friend Tom and I were quickly addicted.
One problem with an addictive game is that everybody else wants to play it too, and that means you have to get good if you want to stay on. So Tom and I played against the computer a lot, just in case two other guys came along to challenge us. We got good, and we won more than we lost, against both the computer and other players. We also learned each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we learned how to pep talk each other and pick up the slack when the other was off his game.
One day, two assholes challenged us.
We knew they were assholes because they chose to play as the Knicks (because who else chooses to play as the Knicks except a couple of assholes?), and because they were just absolute dicks. These guys were cocky, and they kept trying to intimidate us by mocking us out loud and by constantly knocking us down in the game so we could never get into a rhythm.
Because these guys were loud, they attracted a crowd.
And because Tom and I were good, we forced overtime.
And then came “the three.”
In my mind, this happened at the end of the first overtime, but I may be remembering it wrong. What I do remember is this: Tom and I were playing as the Orlando Magic, which was our usual team. He loved Shaq’s unparalleled ability to dunk and I loved Scott Skiles’s range. In the game, Skiles could hit a three from almost anywhere on the court.
I don’t know how we ended up in this situation, but with the clock running out, I (Skiles) had to attempt a three from well beyond half court or we were going to lose.
And I hit it.
And these guys LOST THEIR MINDS.
They were convinced we were only surviving against them out of dumb luck, but what they didn’t know was Tom and I had played the game so many times before that we each knew I could hit that shot. Were we relieved? Hell yes. Did we think it was just dumb luck? Hell no.
And that’s when these guys started to sweat.
No matter what they threw at us, we stayed with them. When we realized what their game was, we started trash-talking them back. And when they realized we wouldn’t fade, they started to get frustrated.
Eventually we knew they were getting rattled and desperate because they started complaining about the game and yelling at each other. One of them would try to knock us down, but he’d miss and we’d score, and then his teammate would bitch him out. Or we’d get a goaltending call in our favor, and they would complain that the game was conspiring against them.
I don’t remember how much we won by. All I remember is that we won, and these two assholes stormed off while a few people in the crowd stuck around to congratulate us and tell us they were glad that we shut those other guys up.
Now, you could say this is a lesson about practice. Or about keeping your mouth shut and getting the job done. Or about respecting your teammates and keeping your cool, rather than panicking or blaming someone else for your own mistakes.
Regardless, the reality is this: when the trolls find you — and they always do — don’t back down. It’s your game, too. Know how to play it.
Everyone’s Window of Mastery Has a Shelf Life
When the NES got popular, video games started getting more complicated. My dad’s interest, and his ability to stay competitive with me in these games, declined. The turning point for him was probably Super Mario Bros., which doesn’t seem complicated to anyone born after 1980 but which was just enough of a departure from games like Burgertime and Frogger that my dad voluntarily checked out of trying to keep up with the advances in arcade games.
But there was still one game that he and I could play at home: R.B.I. Baseball.
We’d first seen it in a hotel arcade in Orlando in 1987, before I even owned an NES, and we bonded over it partly because I’d just started collecting baseball cards and partly because it was one of the few games that let users play as real athletes. When my parents eventually got me an NES and I saw R.B.I. Baseball for sale at K B Toy & Hobby (!), it was a must-buy.
My dad didn’t have much time to play games at home, but we played that one whenever we could. The problem was, I had a lot more time to play it than he did. And I played it obsessively.
I got so good at it that I couldn’t lose to the computer anymore. I would win most games by the 10 run mercy rule before the fifth inning. The computer no longer presented a challenge, but I loved the game so much that I still played it anyway, because it was one of the only games that my dad could still play.
The first time I beat him, it felt great.
The second time I beat him, it felt a little less great.
The tenth time I beat him, it didn’t feel very good at all.
Eventually, he stopped being able to win against me, and we stopped playing R.B.I. Baseball… which meant we stopped playing video games together, because there were no other games left for him to play.
With video games being such a huge part of my childhood, it was sad to realize this was no longer an activity that my dad and I could enjoy together. It was also frustrating for me to think that a game as relatively simple as R.B.I. Baseball had too many nuances for my dad to keep up with. Maybe if he had as much time to play it as I did, we’d have still been even. But he didn’t, so we weren’t. And somewhere deep down I also realized this meant that someday there would be technological advances that I would have trouble keeping up with myself, even though they’d probably seem intuitive to the rest of the world.
Ironically, that day was only a few years away.
The good news is, my dad and I would find a different way to bond a few years later, when I would spend more than a year traveling the country with him.
The bad news (in this context, anyway) is that a new kind of game became incredibly popular in that year when I wasn’t gaming: DOOM, the first-person shooter that revolutionized the entire video game industry. By the time I finally sat down to play it, I was so hopelessly out of touch with its interface that I was terrible… and I didn’t feel like getting better at it. Either I’d moved on from games, or games had moved on from me.
Every Ending Is a Lie
As anyone who’s ever finished Super Mario Bros. knows, the endings of most video games suck. And if you feel compelled to win the games you play, very few of them reward you in such a way that seems worth your time and effort.
But that’s only if you’re judging the experience by its final moments, rather than appreciating all the fun you had in getting there.
The truth is, the endings of most films suck too. And most books, and most stories in general. That’s because it’s hard to end a narrative in a satisfying way. The best stories make us want more of what we just experienced, so even their earned ending feels bittersweet, while the worst stories leave us with unanswered questions and empty hearts.
Only after you finish Super Mario Bros. do you realize that it was never about rescuing the princess; it was about exploring and improving, and the thrill of new challenges and discoveries. The princess, like most goals, was just the excuse to attempt the adventure.
I haven’t played video games much since 1993.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Maybe what I should say is, I haven’t played most kinds of video games since 1993.
My love of sports games persists. I’ve lost years of my life to Madden and NBA Live, among others. And I’ve always liked simulation and strategy games. Every few years, I dust off my old CD of Heroes of Might & Magic III and I binge on it for a month, until the rush wears off.
But I’ve never once played Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call of Duty, or Warcraft. I have zero experience with the whole post-DOOM evolution of combat games. I’ve played enough Resident Evil to know I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve never even seen Braid, though I’m told I’d love it.
Now I’m the one who doesn’t have time for video games.
But that’s okay, because I have video game memories. I’ve spent countless hours exploring someone else’s puzzles, and trying to outwit them at their own games.
And I don’t regret that experience for a minute, regardless of the ending.
In September of 2003, before the launch of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or MySpace — before you could watch a video on your iPod, much less on your cell phone — the first episode of a brand new, so-called “web series” was uploaded to the Internet.
The writer-director of this web series had no prior experience. The actors were unpaid students and amateurs. The locations were borrowed, the equipment was borrowed, and all of the music was borrowed from the labels who loaned it. The show was an experiment, created simply to see if it could be done — “it” being the ongoing production of a dramedy, a sitcom structured like a soap opera, invented from scratch and made available solely online by dreamers who had free time, no obligations, and nothing to lose.
The writer-director was me, and the show was called Something to Be Desired. It ran for six years, generated over a hundred episodes, accumulated hundreds of thousands of views, and was nominated for a 2008 Yahoo! Video Award for Best Web Series.
Then, in 2009, it ended.
Ten years after that first episode was uploaded to the Internet, here’s a look back at the long, strange road that led me from a dead end future to becoming the creator of the Internet’s longest-running sitcom.
It’s August of 1995 and all of my friends are leaving for college, but I’m not going anywhere. As a high school dropout, I don’t even have my GED. I’m 18 years old, unemployed, and living in my grandfather’s house in Erie, Pennsylvania, sleeping in the same bedroom my dad grew up in. There’s a picture of him receiving his first Holy Communion hanging on the opposite wall from my bed. I look exactly like him.
I make a living doing a small amount of work for my dad’s import business, and I spend what little money I do make on three things: food, music, and the long distance bills I rack up every month making phone calls to girls I keep meeting in a chatroom on this newfound distraction called the Internet.
My best friend, Tom, is still in town, so we hang out pretty much every day. He goes to Penn State’s Erie campus, which has a computer lab. That’s where we go to get online. Because Tom is a student with an ID, they let him in, and because I’m with him, they let me in too. I’m there with him so often that the lab monitors all assume I’m a student, so I’m never questioned.
I spend hours every day in that computer lab chatting with complete strangers from other colleges who’ve all met on a Telnet site called The Chatting Zone (TCZ), a MUD run by some bloke from England. Our friend Steve, who’d left Erie to attend Case Western Reserve the previous summer, told us about it. He said it was a free way to keep in touch, since long distance phone calls were expensive. If he saw my phone bills from that winter, where I’d spent hours talking to girls with handles like Shugar and Wild Child, he might have rethought pitching the TCZ as an affordable solution.
One day, Tom shows me something else we can do with these computers: it’s called Yahoo.
It’s 1996, and I’m a deejay on a college radio station, but I’m not enrolled there and I’m not getting paid.
Erie is a small city, maybe 100,000 people. It fills up that little box on top of Pennsylvania’s rectangle, sandwiched between Cleveland and Buffalo. It’s a friendly city of mostly Polish, Slavic, and Italian-Americans, and its three most popular radio stations play oldies, alternative, and classic rock.
And then there’s Energy FM 90.
Gannon University, a Catholic college in downtown Erie, has a radio station that no one pays attention to in 1996, including most of the school’s faculty and staff. On the weekends, the tiny, windowless station in the cramped basement of the Zurn Science center is home to a variety of “ethnic” shows hosted by local community volunteers, from Super Soul Saturday to the Sunday Polka Party. But during the week, WERG plays all the underground rock, punk, and metal it can squeeze into its limited airtime, hosted by third shift refugees and wayward Communications majors. And while it’s a low frequency on the radio dial, it piggybacks off the tower of the largest radio station in town, which means its signal is carried from the Ohio border to the New York border and all the way across the lake to Ontario.
In a city that epitomizes middle-American normality, Energy FM 90 is my one source for strange, quirky sounds being played by strange, quirky deejays.
When summer comes, there aren’t enough interested students to keep the station running, so they staff it with community volunteers. Two of them are named Nick Steele and The Hotbod, and they happen to be on the air every morning when I wake up. I become a frequent listener, then a frequent requester. One day, I call to make my usual request (“Over and Out” by Drill), and Nick Steele asks me a question. He says he’s getting tired of being a deejay every morning, and asks me if I want to take over his Thursday show. I say sure, because the offer is so unexpected that I can’t think of anything else to say. I tell him I’ve never operated a board before. He says it’s easy. I tell him my best friend Tom is a Communications major who took a radio class, and I’d feel more comfortable with a more experienced partner in the booth. He says that’s fine. What I don’t immediately realize is that it really doesn’t matter what Nick Steele says, because when Tom and I meet him, we find out that he and The Hotbod are still in high school. Clearly, Gannon University cares not at all about who has access to their transmitter, which broadcasts at 89.7 on Erie’s FM dial, in the middle of 1996.
Mayor McCheese and Locobone, circa 1997.
That summer, Mayor McCheese (me) and Locobone (Tom) take to the air on Gannon’s WERG Erie, Energy FM 90. We’re friendly, competent, and have a skewed sense of humor. (One show involved Locobone wandering downtown Erie in a bathrobe, carrying a vacuum cleaner, and calling in from a payphone as people tried to find him and make him eat an apple because he’d never had one before. All of this, amazingly, is true; his first-ever bite into a piece of fruit was broadcast live.)
We’re also willing to pick up as many shifts as the station will let us have, which is basically as many as we want. We do well enough that Tom and I are allowed to stick around throughout the following school year and help train the incoming Communications freshmen who have an interest in radio, despite him being a student at a rival college and me being a grifter.
We befriend a few of these freshmen, and I start seeing what actual college life is like. When they ask me why I don’t have my GED yet at the age of 19, I start running out of excuses. I eventually make up my mind to change my trajectory. Telling no one, I obtain my GED, get a haircut, and get hired at Blockbuster. I start asking how much tuition at Gannon costs. I start thinking about my future.
At the same time, I’m also co-hosting the WERG morning show from 6 AM to 9 AM four days a week, going home to sleep for a few hours, going to my night shift at Blockbuster, and then coming home to crash for a few hours before I do it all again. It’s hell on paper, but it’s wonderful in action. Thanks to our collective antics, WERG is voted the #2 station in the city in the free paper’s reader poll that year. Suddenly, the school notices they actually DO have a radio station. Student engagement jumps, as does listenership. When the deejays meet up on Friday nights at Eat ‘N Park, we’re hailed as minor local celebrities. We start to develop egos. I start dating one of my fellow deejays. It ends badly, but for a good reason.
One day she sits me down and says we’re not going anywhere, and the reason we’re not going anywhere is because I’m not going anywhere. I tell her I’ll look into colleges, but because I want to work in arts and entertainment, it’s unlikely that I’d actually go to one of the colleges in Erie. She tells me that’s fine. I say that means we’ll probably break up. She says that’s fine too.
A few days later, while her younger sister is reading the names of in-state schools out loud from her college application guidebook, she mentions one that actually sounds interesting to me. I ask her to repeat it. “The Art Institute of Pittsburgh,” she says.
A few months later, I’m enrolled there.
I always drew and wrote when I was growing up, and my parents presumed I’d become an artist one day. I’d also I’d recently developed an interest in filmmaking, due to a series of home movies we’d made with Steve’s camcorder during the last few summer breaks. I wasn’t sure which major I should pursue, but my recent ex had seen those films we’d made and she told me I had no future in filmmaking, so she urged me to select a major I could rely on for a steady income. I called AIP and asked about their Graphic Design program, but my admissions rep instead shepherded me toward a brand new major that he thought I’d be perfect for (and for which he had an enrollment quota to meet): Computer Animation and Multimedia.
Toy Story had just opened the previous year, and computer animation was suddenly all the rage. With this degree, he assured me, I could work in Hollywood, video games, TV, or any other field I wanted to pursue when I graduated — even designing album covers(!). I signed up. It was an Associate’s Degree program. I’d be out in two years with a degree that could get me any job I wanted, and a hodge podge of drawing, animation, programming, and audio and video production skills that would be useful no matter where I went.
I moved to Pittsburgh for a two year degree. I ended up staying for the next 12 years.
AIP turns out to be a blast, and I meet some incredibly talented people who push me to keep doing my best work. We’re a competitive, supportive bunch — we refer to it as co-opetition — and while I can hang with them artistically, my heart isn’t in the computer side of Computer Animation the way theirs are. I’m less interested in animating splines and booleans and minimizing mesh face counts. I want to tell stories. While everyone else is trying to nail their 3-D reel, I’m obsessing over my 2-D animation, despite our job placement office having found no jobs for 2-D animators that I can recall.
At the same time, my mandatory video editing course reminds me how much I really do enjoy video production. When we’re assigned a final project, I take it upon myself to write, direct, film, and edit a short called “Maybe It’s Just the Beer Talking.” We film in a real bar. Three of the actors are underage, but drinking real liquor. None of them have any acting experience. My classmate and future roommate Ben Bratt botches enough of his lines that the outtake reel is almost longer than the short itself. And yet, despite all of this, I’m hooked on the experience of telling a story with video.
I ask the head of our department if I can take more video courses as electives. He bends the rules, and I end up graduating with a subpar 3-D reel, a decent 2-D reel, and a 40 minute movie I wrote and shot in a month called “Milk & Honey.” It’s a story about a guy who realizes everybody has a plan after college except him, so he scrambles to figure things out.
It’s 1999, and I don’t have a job yet, but I do have this crazy idea.
My college graduation is immediately followed by a series of comedic tragedies, including a month where I pay my rent by selling my baseball card collection and a night where my car is totaled by a sixteen year-old girl who ran a blinking red light. So while I have no money, no car, and no job, I also have no obligations, which means I can stay out until 3 AM drinking coffee in diners with my friend Scott who hasn’t graduated yet.
One night we’re discussing a screenplay I’d written for a low-budget horror movie, which turns into a discussion of movies, which turns into a discussion of the difference between movies and TV: in a series, you can see the characters evolve over time. The conflict doesn’t have to be forced into a neat little ninety minute package; it can expand. We start debating what makes a good movie or a good TV show. Of course we’re both opinionated; we went to art school, didn’t we?
And that’s when I start getting an idea for a different story altogether.
It’s more like a vignette, really, about a bunch of friends sitting in a cafe, arguing about life and relationships. A story about people like us, just out of college or just about to graduate, who have no idea what they’re going to do next, but at least they’re all doing it together. Is it a movie? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a short film. We cobble together a loose plotline, a convoluted tale of love and revenge that involves an exploding lawn jockey. It’s amusing, and we start thinking of ways we could film it…
… but I keep asking myself, “Sure… but what happens next?”
And that’s when I realize this isn’t just a story; this could be a series.
And that’s a problem, because you can’t just make your own TV series.
Well, maybe you could. Maybe something like Clerks, but episodic. But where? A film festival wouldn’t show a serialized story, and there’s no TV channel for DIY fiction.
Could you do a video series online?
I call my friend Steve, who by now is an engineer at GE who knows far more about technology than I do. He tells me why my idea won’t work: broadband. In 1999, not enough homes have an Internet connection fast enough to allow them to watch video. (This was the era of Napster, after all, when downloading a 4 megabyte song in 20 minutes was worth calling your friends over to watch.) If we produced video for the Internet, we’d be broadcasting to an incredibly small audience, and no one wants to watch video on their computers anyway.
It’s an interesting idea, he admits, but it isn’t worth it.
It’s 2002, and I’m finally employed.
There was a glut of animation talent graduating in 1999, and not many students from our AIP class had found work in our chosen field. Some, like Ben, went back to school to get a Bachelor’s Degree. Others took jobs in tangential fields like packaging design or medical illustration. I took a retail job at Media Play.
One day, I came home to a message on my answering machine from AIP’s job placement office. Another AIP alum was in charge of production at a local multimedia company, and he’d been looking for someone with skills in animation and video production. It turns out I was the only grad with those two skills sets. Was I interested in a job producing safety training videos for the steel industry? A better question would have been, Did I want to pay my rent and still have money left over for food? Of course I did.
I took the job. I wound up serving as the Video Producer at Multimedia Training Systems for five years. During that time, I spent 40+ hours a week editing OSHA-compliant fall prevention videos and accident recreations of men who’d lost limbs in heavy machinery. It didn’t take long before I sorely needed a creative outlet.
My boss, Shawn, was a year younger than me but he’d graduated a year ahead of me. He was also a drummer in a punk band, and he was tired of me talking about wanting to make a movie but never doing it. One day, he told me his band was headlining a Halloween show and they wanted to show a short movie before they played. Would I make them a movie?
I said sure.
Now I just needed a story and a cast.
My friend Erica (who used to date my roommate Ben) was managing the cafe in a Barnes & Noble, and she mentioned that one of her new baristas was an actress at Point Park college. She introduced us and we hit it off. The girl’s name was Lacey Fleming.
Erica’s new boyfriend Dan Stripp and I also got along well, so I asked him if he’d like to act in something I was going to film. He’d never acted before, but he was willing to give it a shot. He and Erica volunteered their apartment, which was the second floor of a somewhat gothic house, as the film’s location. With Dan, Lacey, and a set, I came up with a five minute story of suspicion and sexual repression that also involved a knife. I called it “Killing Time.”
A still from “Killing Time” (2002) starring Lacey Fleming and Dan Stripp.
We filmed it. I edited it. We screened it. People liked it.
At the screening, Lacey looked around for me but couldn’t find me. She found me in the lobby, where I had retreated because I realized I hate watching my own work in a room filled with strangers. She assured me that some people in the audience really liked it, and one of them was her friend and fellow actor, Will Guffey. She started to introduce us, but we both stopped her because we already knew each other; we’d worked together at Media Play, but in different departments. I’d been the assistant lead in the book section; Will was a film junkie.
Will said he really liked what we’d done, and he told me he’d be up for whatever it was that we were going to do next. Then he and Lacey asked me if I was going to do anything next.
And that’s when I finally said, “Well, I have this idea…”
It’s 2003, and I’m in a house in Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington neighborhood, surrounded by student actors.
The top half of the house is Lacey’s apartment. We had dated briefly after we shot Killing Time, and while it ended badly, we were still friends. Will was also there, and he’d invited some of their fellow classmates to read through a rough draft of my harebrained idea.
As a lifelong fan of TV and comics, I’d always been frustrated by how little characters would change over time. My grandiose vision was to create a show that could run for thirty years, in which the original characters would age, get married, have kids, and eventually hand the story over to a whole new generation. But it had to start somewhere, so I’d created a handful of characters to get the ball rolling.
The actors performed the script aloud. They liked it. It was wordy, and it didn’t quite work, but there was something there. They were interested in working with me on it. And they were also interested in doing something that hadn’t been done before: creating a serialized story on the Internet, where we could post an episode and get immediate feedback from our audience. Additionally, after years of performing traditional plays in school, I think they were interested in creating characters that they could build from the ground up and “own” indefinitely.
In what would become an unintentionally recurring theme over the years, everyone in the room that day wound up getting cast.
The male roles were the easy part. I’d written three competing male leads, each representing a different aspect of my own personality. Jack Boyd was the passive intellectual, Dean Dockerty was the insecure womanizer, and Leo Straub was the manipulative cynic. I had written Jack with Dan Stripp in mind, and Will Guffey had the flamboyant theatricality that would make Leo work. The role of Dean went to Will’s former roommate Shaun Hall, whom I’d been impressed by when I’d seen him act in a previous Point Park production.
The girls, on the other hand, were trickier.
In addition to Lacey, Will had also invited two other actresses to that reading: Mia La Monica, who was just 17 at the time and knew Will because they’d gone through the same high school drama program, and Ann Turiano, who was 19, smart, and quiet. While the other actors were eager to offer their opinions and talk at length about the story, Ann kept to herself, but her instincts in the read through were sharp. I knew she was talented, but I just wasn’t sure how to include her in the story. And yet, I also knew it was foolish to turn away talent willing to work for free, so I set about finding a way to work her into the ensemble.
In my original drafts, there were only two clearly defined female characters: Jack’s ex-girlfriend Alison, and a sardonic barista named Dierdre. But none of the girls in the room that day was right for Alison, and I hadn’t found a coffee shop to film in yet, so Dierdre was in danger of being omitted from the story entirely. That meant I had three actresses and no specific roles.
Based on their chemistry during the read-through, Lacey was cast as Dierdre, who was conceived of as the one girl that Dean can never have. Mia was cast as Dean’s long-suffering girlfriend Marjorie. And Ann wound up being written in as Jack Boyd’s little sister, Caroline. Because we’d be heading into filming without a cafe location, Dierdre was reimagined not as a barista but as Caroline’s roommate, so we could keep the dialogue from her first meeting with Dean. (“You’re Dean Dockerty, aren’t you? You’re a lot more charming on the radio.”)
Casting Alison turned out to be harder than expected. We finally found her in Natalie Nicolian, a classmate of Will’s with limited acting experience, but she had “the right look.” In the world of free web video, casting actors with little or no experience would become one of my core survival habits.
We also didn’t have our eighth character locked down yet. Alison’s new boyfriend in the script, Ray King, was the boss at the struggling radio station where Jack once worked, and where Dean did now. He was as close to a villain as the show would have, given my conceit that there are no such things as villains in this story, just people who perpetually complicate each other’s lives. Our first two attempts to cast the role fell through, so in a pinch, I asked my ex-roommate Ben Bratt to play Ray. Given the potential awkwardness of Ben and Dan having to play men who had each dated the fictional same woman (considering they had actually both dated the same woman in real life), Ben said he would do it if no one else was able to. When no one else could, Dan and Ben, with no real experience, wound up playing Jack and Ray for two seasons.
Jack Boyd (Dan Stripp) meets Alison’s (Natalie Nicolian) new boyfriend Ray (Ben Bratt) in the first episode of Something to Be Desired (2003).
Our last hiccup? The radio station itself.
We thought we’d be able to film in Point Park’s radio station, but that idea was nixed by the school just as filming began. Scrambling to find a backup location, I delayed the onscreen introduction of the radio station until the show’s second episode… then the third… Finally, in what may be the result of a completely misunderstood phone call, I reached one of the decision makers at WQED, Pittsburgh’s classical radio station, and told them we were filming a show about a struggling radio station. The voice on the phone invited us to come down and see if their station would meet our needs. Optimistic, my boss and I took a lunch break and wound up getting a full tour of the facility, including the TV studio where they’d filmed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “Would this do?”
We said yes.
We were given free run of the station after hours, including any incidental areas like foyers and commissaries, as long as we weren’t interrupting normal station business.
To this day, we remain convinced that the powers that be at WQED thought we were shooting a student film that would be finished in a few days. Instead, we stayed for three years.
With all the pieces in place, we filmed the first five episodes of the show.
The plot was simple: in the pilot, Jack Boyd — a formerly popular overnight deejay on a tiny radio station called WANT 89.9 FM — returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh to see his little sister Caroline graduate from college. His return is heralded by his old friends and rivals Leo and Dean, but he’s immediately pulled back into the same in-fighting and chicanery he thought he’d escaped when he moved away to his “dream job” in Chicago. What he has trouble admitting is that his dream job is completely unsatisfying, and he has no idea what he’s doing with his life, but he’s perceived as a success and a savior by his old friends — especially Alison, who sees what Ray has planned for the radio station that brought them all together and hopes Jack can intervene to save WANT from being run into the ground. And, in what would become a hallmark of the series, when push comes to shove, Jack… does nothing. In fact, he leaves town immediately after Caroline’s graduation, so eager to flee from his old life that he can’t even be bothered to attend the family’s celebration. Despite this, Caroline — with her brand new and oft-derided degree in English — overhears her mother telling her father how much she wishes Caroline would be more like Jack. And instead of confronting her mom, Caroline… does nothing either. She just internalizes her frustration and carries on.
The turn comes when Jack stops the cab he’s taking to the Greyhound station and sneaks into the building that houses WANT. In an earlier episode, Dean tells Jack that Ray has replaced Jack’s old overnight time slot with a computerized satellite feed, so Jack breaks into the booth, turns the feed off, and broadcasts his own impromptu soliloquy to whomever’s listening. Why? Because he can. Because he needs to. Because it’s what he used to do years ago, when he was the man they all still think he is now: a guy who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Except this time, he tells them what he hasn’t been able to tell anyone else: that you grow up following a curriculum and earning accolades, and then when you finally graduate college, you realize that there is no syllabus for the rest of your life, and you find out that sometimes real life leaves a little… something to be desired.
Jack’s speech is filmed in such a way that he seems to be speaking to Caroline, telling her what he knows he should have said in person, but he’s also speaking to complete strangers we’ve never seen before and never will again — people who just happened to be listening to the radio, who stumbled across a momentary bit of wisdom. Really, he’s speaking to us, the audience. And, ultimately, he’s talking to himself, alone in a room, rationalizing his own life before he runs away from it once again.
Jack Boyd (Dan Stripp) in the WANT studio (really WQED), on the cover of the (now-defunct) PULP magazine, 2003.
Something to Be Desired debuted in September of 2003. I had an old URL, forgingmag.com, that I wasn’t doing anything with, so my boss at MTS built me a framework and uploaded the episodes for me as they were completed. YouTube was still more than a year away, so we were uploading 100 Meg WMV files and expecting people to watch them on a dial-up connection.
I would tell people what STBD was and they would say, “Oh, you make a show on the Internet? Do you want it to be on public access someday?” They weren’t kidding; they though public access TV was a step up from putting video online. They meant it as a compliment.
The episodes varied in length from ten to twenty minutes, built around LOTS of dialogue and soundtracked exposition. I had a side gig as a music reviewer for an online zine, so I contacted the labels from some of the CDs I liked and obtained written permission to use their music in the series, with the expectation of payment if the show ever went to DVD. (This is one reason the show has never gone to DVD.)
Eventually the show got its own URL, somethingtobedesired.com (which was amazingly not already taken in 2003), and my boss built me a video upload system that could best be described as “YouTube for one.” (Ironically, YouTube and Blip TV would both be online within two years; yet another case of us spending a lot of time, effort and money producing something that would have been a hell of a lot easier if we’d just waited.)
Our initial audience obviously wasn’t very large, but they were interested. Those who connected with the show did so because they said the characters felt real and relatable. (“Everyone knows a Leo,” someone once told me.) The cast was also interested in continuing the show for another season. They’d started playing with these characters, and they wanted to know what happened next, too.
The only problem was that Dan and his wife Erica had a baby now*, and they were planning to move across the state. If we did keep going, could STBD survive without its main character?
The answer, as we proved for six seasons, was yes.
The season three cast of STBD (2005), post-Jack Boyd.
Over the next six years, we produced six seasons of Something to Be Desired amid a reliable recipe of annual cast departures, lost locations, rushed production and zero budget. Dan Stripp (Jack) and Ben Bratt (Ray) left after season two, so we shifted the focus to Dean and Caroline, who’d become Dean’s girlfriend on the show.
By 2005 I had begun dating Ann Turiano (Caroline), and we did our best to keep our personal relationship from interfering with the show. When Ann was accepted to grad school in London that summer, we rushed to shoot all of her scenes out of order. That created a continuity nightmare as I spent the rest of the winter shooting the rest of the series in order, working around the remaining cast’s availability and editing the show in a barely-heated apartment. I had quit MTS and I was supposed to be freelancing as a videographer, but I was really spending all my time on the series.
By June of 2006 I was broke and living off credit cards, but still producing STBD. Shaun Hall (Dean) had also left the show to move to Virginia, which meant Dean would have to be written out next. At this point, I seriously considered ending the show so I could repair my career and move on with my life, but three things stopped me.
First, I got an email from a New York City actor who’d just moved to town. He’d been performing in touring productions of musicals for years, and now he and his wife had moved back to Pittsburgh, where her family was from, so they could try to start a family of their own. After a few months his creative urges had become desperate, so he’d been scouring the Internet looking for a local project he could get involved with. He stumbled across STBD and he really liked it. He asked if there was anything he could do to help. His name was Erik Schark.
Second, Ann returned from London and helped me get my career and finances in order, and she also agreed to return to STBD. Without Jack or Dean, the show — if it continued — would have to shift its focus once again, and that meant Caroline and Dierdre could become the new leads.
And third, I just didn’t want it to end.
Despite all the trouble of juggling schedules, equipment, batteries, tapes, hard drive space, all-night editing binges followed by hours of restless sleep, and a complete lack of business acumen or forward momentum, I still really really really wanted the show to succeed. It was my baby, and I just wasn’t ready to give up on it, even if it hadn’t quite taken the world by storm the way I’d naively thought it would when we first began. And even though the story had technically wrapped up when Caroline and Dean filmed their last episode together in the season three finale, I went back to my original purpose for the show: “Sure, but what happens next?”
I made my mind up to keep going.
All I needed now was a new story.
Erik Schark auditions for STBD opposite Kevin Koch (Dex) in 2006.
In June of 2006, I organized a casting call.**
While the show still had Caroline, Dierdre, Leo, and a few other characters to rely on, it was a messy jumble of loose ends and unsatisfied conflicts due to other cast departures. I knew I could string a story together from the pieces I had left, but I also hoped I could take the story in a new direction by adding one or two new cast members.
Instead, we added almost a dozen.
In the space of just two hours, I saw auditions from Erik Schark (Rich Mathis), Courtney Jenkins (Tabitha), Jenn Koegler (Liz), Ryan Ben (Tim), Josh Hansen (Brent), Teresa Trich (Gloria), and several other actors who would land recurring roles on STBD. At other casting calls later in the year, Rick Hertzig (Glenn), Hans Rosemond (Lloyd), and Trent Wolfred (Pryce) were also added to the show. I was blown away by the amount of talent I suddenly had at my disposal, and my gears started turning, finding ways to work as many of these new faces into the show as possible.
Clearly, this was going to be bigger than a story about a tiny radio station. It was going to be a story about Pittsburgh.
The STBD cast in season four (2006) included Jenn Koegler (Liz), Erik Schark (Rich), Courtney Jenkins (Tabitha), Ann Turiano (Caroline), Will Guffey (Leo), and Lacey Fleming (Dierdre).
I started phasing out the radio station and free paper where Caroline and Leo had been working so I could make room for the new characters. Caroline found a new job at a chintzy publisher called Vanity Press, run by the cartoonishly egomaniacal Rich Mathis, while Dierdre finally took that fateful job as a barista in a cafe called Affogato. In reality, Affogato was the same Pittsburgh cafe I’d had in mind when I first conceived of STBD. It had recently come under new ownership, and the girl who bought it was open to the idea of us filming there on evenings and weekends.
The good news was that we now had new characters and new storylines. But we also had a tonal shift, away from the introspective humor of the first three seasons and toward a broader, more plot-driven approach. Not everyone liked the change or the ballooning cast size, but it did give us a chance to film in more Pittsburgh locations than we had previously, and that in turn exposed us to more and more viewers. The show was evolving.
Unfortunately, all these changes were starting to get complicated to manage.
One night Crystalann Jones, who played Vanity Press’s buxom receptionist Hailey, showed up for a shoot in what essentially amounted to a bustier. She arrived early at WQED, the fictional home of both WANT and Vanity Press, and went to the executive boardroom where we were intending to film that evening. Hearing voices inside, she mistakenly thought she was late to the shoot, so she opened the door and walked in on an executive board meeting in her corset. Heads turned; jaws dropped.
Needless to say, we were informed that evening would be our last evening of filming in WQED. So if you ever wondered why WANT was dropped from the STBD storyline so abruptly — or why so many Vanity Press meetings happened over lunch in other restaurants that season — that’s why.
And yet, through it all, we just kept filming.
Handheld shots had become the norm that season, and the series acquired a faster, more visceral look, so we’d film scenes as quickly as we could. We’d lose one location and pick up another. Borrowed homes, outdoor cafes, city parks, art gallery openings — we filmed in them all, guerrilla style. When we needed a new home for Vanity Press, a friend who worked in AIP’s PR department let us film there after hours. Whatever we needed, we found a way to get, and whatever was offered to us, we found a way to use.
The season finale culminated in Caroline, Dierdre, and Glenn crashing a lavish wedding in the Pittsburgh Aquarium. A real life fan of the show was getting married there, and he invited us to film our finale during his actual reception as long as we didn’t get in the way. Somehow we pulled it off. And that individual success mirrored the success of the show: growing ever more complex, yet remaining just under the radar.
And then, one day, Yahoo noticed us.
STBD’s cast for season five (2007) included Lloyd (Hans Rosemond), Chloe (Clare Fogerty), Leo (Will Guffey), Liz (Jenn Koegler), Rich (Erik Schark), and Caroline (Ann Turiano).
In 2005, two things had happened that forever changed how video worked.
First, YouTube debuted in February.
Then, in October, the iPod became video-enabled.
Just a few years before that, people had asked us why we’d ever want to put video on the Internet. But by January of 2006, Steve Jobs was showing the Tiki Bar TV podcast onstage at an Apple event, and articles like “Is the Web the New Hollywood?” started popping up all over. For a cast that had been dedicating years of their lives to a free Internet show, our answer was, “We sure hope so!”
STBD meets TROMA. (Sometimes things got weird. Yes, that’s Lloyd Kaufman and The Toxic Avenger…)
iTunes allowed video podcasts to be listed in its store, so STBD went there. By the time our fifth season debuted in 2007, iTunes was our audience’s primary way to watch the show. Fans would tell us they were letting episodes backlog so they could binge on them all at once.
Other players joined the web video distribution game, including Yahoo, who built themed channels to compete with YouTube and Google. In 2007, STBD started getting frontpaged by Yahoo! Video whenever a new episode would come out. YouTube followed suit in 2008, going so far as to ask us to change our listed category from Comedy to Entertainment because the employee who hand-picked the Entertainment page videos liked us.
Suddenly, instead of getting a few thousand views per episode, we were getting upwards of 30,000. Things started to feel like they were taking off. Famous Pittsburghers were doing cameos, including Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, who became a foil for Rich Mathis’s political plans. And when actress Jenn Koegler had to be written out because she was moving to Australia, her character, Liz, died in a plane crash during a cut-rate vacation from Vanity Press; her death was reported on the show by actual Pittsburgh TV reporter Bob Mayo, filmed live at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Our increased exposure was starting to pay off.
In 2008, we were nominated for a Yahoo! Video Award for Best Web Series.
The finalists were all hand-picked by Yahoo! employees, but the voting was done by the general public. We marshaled a decent showing, coming in third behind the admittedly fine productions Break a Leg and The Guild, who had built larger niche audiences in a shorter amount of time.
We may not have won that particular award, but even being nominated had felt like we’d finally arrived. The world of web video was starting to attract sponsors, and we had a feeling we might be able to tap into that pie if we could keep boosting our viewership while maintaining our relative quality. Our episodes from season five had garnered tens of thousands of YouTube views, and our return was being written up in the Pittsburgh newspapers. We were feeling good as we headed into season six.
Tim (Ryan Ben) and Dierdre (Lacey Fleming) in Affogato during STBD’s sixth and final season (2008).
Sure, we were losing a few cast members, but that was nothing new. By now I’d grown used to reloading the cast every year as actors inevitably graduated, got married or pregnant, moved away, or simply opted out of continuing their roles. But Caroline, Dierdre, Leo, Rich, Tabitha, Glenn, and others were still there to keep the engine running, and we’d just added a few new faces to the cafe to make up for the pending departure of Affogato veterans Tim and Brent. If I’d learned anything in six years, it was that the show could survive the loss of any character.
What I didn’t count on was having to replace myself.
In May of 2009, Ann got an offer for a new job in Baltimore. The money was significantly better. There wasn’t much to discuss. When she accepted, she was given six weeks to pack up and move.
By then we had been dating for four years and living together for three, and it was a given that I would go to Baltimore with her. And that meant STBD had come to an end.
We hadn’t planned on ending the series, so the final episodes don’t feel like the final episodes. They’re the end of Tim’s and Brent’s storylines, but everything else — Caroline dating Pryce, Dierdre beguiling Glenn, Leo making up his own autobiography, and Dean’s unexpected return — all feels like a loose end that’ll be picked up again in season seven… except there is no season seven.
It just ends.
The cast still wanted the show to go on, but obviously there was no way to do that with me in Baltimore and them in Pittsburgh… was there?
In 2010, I was asked to speak at a Maryland Film Festival panel. The topic was DIY filmmaking, and Something to Be Desired was cited as an example of creating something from nothing. When people asked me what my budget was for the average episode of STBD, I told them every episode cost about $20, give or take. That’s what I paid for tapes. Everything else was free, aside from any food I could afford to share with the cast.
My fellow panelists and the moderator had all worked on films that had real, if minor, budgets, so they’d become familiar with a fundraising tool I hadn’t heard of until then: Kickstarter.
I went home and researched it.
By August of 2010, I had a new plan.
I launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a season of an STBD spin-off called The Baristas. My rationale was that if we shrank the cast, filmed only in Affogato, and binged on production in week-long bursts, I could travel back and forth from Baltimore to Pittsburgh on three or four separate occasions and film a twenty episode season. It seemed just crazy enough to work. I asked for $3000; I raised $3500, mostly from dedicated fans of the show who wanted to see it live on, even in an altered form.
The Baristas debuted in January of 2011. It ran for eleven episodes, and then went on hiatus because we simply couldn’t film it as quickly as I’d expected. Instead of only traveling to Pittsburgh three or four times, I was driving up at least once a month, and shooting whatever I could around the schedules of whomever was available. The show, which was even more formally plot-driven than STBD had been, was suffering from too many moving pieces and no stabilizing force because even its creator was always somewhere else.
By then Lacey was justifiably burned out on having invested seven years in a show that never quite seemed to go anywhere, and she informed us that she was leaving. As with STBD, I knew we could reconfigure the show around the other characters, but her absence was palpable. By the time we sorted out the details of how to keep the show moving without her, the other shoe dropped: Affogato was being sold.
The new owners knew about the show, and they agreed that we could keep filming there, at least until we found another location. My goal was to wrap up the last nine episodes of the season and then consider my options, but I was once again out of money and couldn’t afford to travel back to Pittsburgh as often as I needed to. Making matters worse, the new owners immediately began remodeling and repainting the cafe, creating continuity problems galore as we tried to work every new change into the show despite having filmed it all out of order. One day they decided to sell all the books that had been on the shelves for years, and a guy came with a truck to pick them all up. Our cast, dressed to film, helped him load hundreds of books into his truck, and then he drove away with three years’ worth of our set. After that we couldn’t show the cafe’s west wall for the rest of the season because it wouldn’t match what we’d already shot. By the final episode we were confined to shooting everything but the kitchen area in tight angles because nothing else matched.
I had filmed STBD almost exclusively with a crew of zero — just me and my handheld camera — but The Baristas had a small, loyal volunteer crew. My cameraman, Mike Sorg, ended up directing large portions of those last nine episodes while I reviewed the footage online from Baltimore days later and ordered reshoots for the following week. Scheduling was such a nightmare that they would sometimes film scenes for Monday’s episode on a Friday or Saturday night, after exhausted cast members had just been in stage productions hours earlier, and then the footage was uploaded overnight so I could splice it into that week’s episode.
Given all of that, it’s a miracle that The Baristas actually did finish its first season with a relatively coherent storyline. And yet, I knew it couldn’t keep going on like that. I struggled with how we might keep the show afloat. I’d been quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying the show was expected to run for 100 episodes, but now I was considering shutting it down after 20.
In a particularly apt case of life imitating art, the bottom fell out on The Baristas when Affogato’s new owners couldn’t keep up with their bills and the cafe was shut down and liquidated, much like the fictional WANT FM had been years earlier.
With no location, a cast in flux, and no ability to guarantee that we’d be able to produce new episodes, The Baristas ended even more unceremoniously than STBD did.
Perhaps worst of all, since the show ran vastly over budget, the $3500 we started with was gone long before we even finished the first eleven episodes. In fact, our Kickstarter backers never even received their perks, which is a failure that will weigh on me for years. Sometimes I think I should make good on those perks, even if it is a few years later. But then, I’m not sure anyone would want a free pen and a t-shirt from a web series that no longer exists.
In 2012, Ann and I broke up. Unlike most of my relationships, this one actually ended well. We’re still friends. She’s happy in Baltimore, and she intends to stay here.
I, on the other hand, am indifferent.
Baltimore is an interesting city, and while I like some things about it, there are other problems here that never seem to get better. It’s a city that exists in the minds of most Americans as the drug-infested hellhole depicted in The Wire. And while that aspect of the city is inarguably true, that’s not its whole story.
Maybe someone should tell that story, but I’m not sure that person is me.
The cast of STBD and The Baristas have mostly moved on. Many of them are married and have kids. They’ve become the adults that their characters always resisted becoming.***
Meanwhile, The Guild has also completed six seasons. If they produce another, they’ll become the web’s longest-running sitcom.
When I mentioned on Facebook that STBD was 10 years old this month, Will Guffey commented that I should reboot the series wherever I’m living now. Others agreed. Suggestions were offered. Maybe STBD could start over with the same characters, just recast with new actors in their 20s, and we could see what would have happened if Jack hadn’t left in the middle of the story. Or, maybe STBD could somehow continue with all new characters, and a nominal appearance by one of the original cast members, just to cement it in the same fictional world.
I’m not sure about that, either.
In truth, I haven’t created anything since The Baristas ended. When I accepted a full-time job last year and took a break from freelancing I thought the stable income and structured day would provide me with ample time to do something creative, but as anyone with a full-time job knows, that “spare” time is usually spent long before it arrives.
I do write a lot, though, and I’ve been tinkering with a few new stories for a couple years now. None of them are in script form yet. Just notebooks filled with names, plotlines, themes, bits of dialogue… Mostly for films, because that’s still the easiest way to “break in” from the outside.
But there’s one idea I keep coming back to that’s too big for a movie. It’s a large, complicated ensemble dramedy, about characters delaying their own adulthood over the course of several years. It feels like a natural extension of STBD, or its spiritual twin. And sure, I could boil the story’s core conflict down to ninety minutes and try to film it all as an independent feature…
… but every time I think about it, I ask myself, “Yeah… but what happens next?”
* In the first of dozens of cases where real life forced STBD to adapt on the fly, Jack actually was supposed to be at Caroline’s post-graduation celebration. But on the day we were filming, Erica went into labor, so his absence in the scene had to be accounted for. In the middle of shooting that scene without him, Dan called to let us all know that he was now a dad. His daughter Ava turns 10 in January.
** Fun fact: I asked a friend of mine to take photographs of that 2006 casting call. Her name is Justine Ezarik, but a few years later the world came to know her as iJustine. She’s currently one of the most-watched YouTube stars of all-time, but before she was huge, she made guest appearances in two episodes of STBD.
*** In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the STBD cast members with the most IMDb credits are two non-actors who left the show after season two: Mia La Monica (Marjorie) has worked as a PA on dozens of movies and TV shows filmed in Pittsburgh, including The Dark Knight Rises and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, while my old AIP roommate Ben Bratt (Ray) went on to get a Master’s Degree in visual effects and has worked on films like Skyfall, X-Men: First Class, and Man of Steel.
A few weeks ago, I decided to go back to school, kind of. Tired of the “straight white male” POV that dominates American pop culture (even though I am one), I wanted to actively seek out books and films authored by voices that don’t fit that mold.
And I asked for your suggestions, because I wanted to know what you thought I should know.
Since then, via blog comments, email, Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve received 21 recommendations for authors and 6 for filmmakers.* Based on those suggestions (plus my own thoughts), I’ve compiled a curriculum for myself to follow between July 1st and November 30th.
Books to Read
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (American female) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Japanese male) Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (African-American female) The Namesake by Jhumpa Laihri (Indian female) The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish male)
Films to See
? by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese male)
Tiny Furniture by Lena Dunham (American female)
Pariah by Dee Rees (African-American female)
? by Abbas Kiarostami (Iranian male)
Author or director cannot be a white American male
Works should be freely available (presumably at the library)
Works should be self-contained (not anthologies or other formats)
Selected works should be equally representative of female and male creators
No two selections from the same nation of origin in either medium
My film selections will be somewhat reliant on what’s available at my local library, which is why I didn’t choose a specific Kurosawa or Kiarostami film up front. I also left a blank spot in the film lineup — presumably to be filled by something from Bollywood — but if a completely arbitrary title catches my eye, I’d like to have that freedom.
Also, I didn’t consider who’d suggested what in my final selection process, so there are no politics or favorites being played here. I did shy away from nonfiction this time around, but I might try all nonfiction if I do this again in the future.
So, Now What?
Now I have to go to the library sometime in the next week and track down a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (which was the only book suggested to me twice, by the way) and whatever they have in the way of Kurosawa. I may not read and watch these works in the order I’ve listed them, but I figure I’ll start there and adapt as I go.
And then, in December, I’ll write up my thoughts on each of these works individually, and on what I learned from this process as a whole.
If you’d like to join me on this cultural odyssey, feel free. Maybe we could even do a group discussion in the end.
But please: in the meantime, no spoilers.
* I was surprised I only received 6 suggestions for filmmakers who weren’t white men. Then I realized most people probably can’t name more than 6 white male directors anyway. Compared to books, film has a long way to go to reach anything resembling a balanced artistic representation.
Whether you love or hate the Marvel Comics movies of the past decade, the way they used each character’s solo films to introduce other characters and build toward the inevitability of assembling The Avengers was marketing genius. It was also good, smart, logical storytelling based on character and theme.
So why can’t DC do the same thing?
With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and the other writers and creators of the recent DC films, Warner Bros. has completely botched the launch of a DC film universe. I could rant at length, but let’s sum it up in one point:
Once you have Superman, you don’t need other heroes.
The Marvel movies do a great job of balancing every character’s role within their ever-expanding cinematic universe. They allow us to believe that Hawkeye, who’s essentially a soldier who specializes in archery (for god’s sake), is as legitimate a hero as Thor, who’s a god. If they didn’t grant equal weight to their characters, there’d be no reason tell stories about any of them except the most powerful.
DC missed that lesson when they insisted on launching Man of Steel, a newly dour take on a hero who’s always epitomized honor and idealism. He burst into theaters to the tune of $120 million and a chorus of middling to frustrated reviews that focus on, among other things, the film’s wanton destruction and lack of a moral center.
Because that’s what DC superhero movies have to be in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s globally unstoppable Batman trilogy: grim, gritty, and obligatory.
Paradoxically, it’s Marvel — the comic book company that was launched 30 years after DC as a realistic response to DC’s 1930s-era idealism and innocence — that’s now producing films which are relative joys to watch (The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor) compared to DC’s squalid nightmare of Gotham in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.
In the modern DC universe, fun is dead.
And now that Batman and Superman have had successful film launches, it’s a safe bet that Warner Bros will churn out a Justice League movie as soon as possible, so it can get all of its most commercial properties onscreen at the same time and let the market sort out the sequel opportunities from there…
… except that movie is on pace to be The Least Fun Anyone Has Had at the Movies Ever.
It’s Spider-Man (a Marvel character) whose pages coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it’s the DC universe that treats power as a horrible burden, as though being a superhero is somehow the worst job imaginable.
And so, as we psychologically prepare ourselves for a decade of miserable superheroes with ill-fittingly happy names like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, I’d like to propose a fanciful escape:
Not that anyone asked, but here’s how I think DC (and Warner Bros.) should have handled the rollout of their post-Batman superhero film universe.
1. Reboot the Batman franchise.
Christopher Nolan dragged Batman to hell and took the whole DC universe with him. A Batman movie that was comparably lighter in tone (we’re talking Tim Burton here, not Joel Schumacher) would allow us to see the hero in his traditional role: a wealthy, charming, paranoid genius who’s an expert fighter, strategist, and mechanic.
But wait… that sounds a lot like Iron Man, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the difference: Iron Man is a walking weapon who fights global battles, but Batman is a localized vigilante who defends his city from evil in the streets. Iron Man is a drone strike; Batman is hand-to-hand combat.
And if any hero feels the burden of duty, it’s Batman. He’s a hero whose entire life is a reaction to feeling helpless as he watched his parents get killed by a street thief. His quest to never feel helpless in the face of evil again isn’t just a great motivation for a single hero — it’s also the perfect rationale to launch the rest of DC universe onscreen toward the inevitable assembly of The Justice League.
2. The Flash
Barry Allen was a police scientist (they have those?) who was sprayed with chemicals during a lightning strike (hey, it happens) and developed the power of super speed. The Flash is known as The Fastest Man Alive, and that’s a bottomless well of storytelling possibilities, because there’s literally nothing the Flash can’t do if he has enough time… but who does? And it’s the choices The Flash has to make — how to use his powers for the most amount of good — that makes for good drama.
Plus, The Flash’s sheer exuberance at his newfound potential makes him the opposite of Batman in terms of tone. Where Batman sees his heroism as a gravely serious duty, The Flash sees his powers as a lifelong adventure. Introducing them as counterpoints to each other would create the kind of “buddy movie” juxtaposition that good multi-hero stories require. (Think of it as DC’s “World’s Finest” comics, only with The Flash taking Superman’s place in the lineup.)
In cinema reality terms, there’s no way The Flash could operate in the public eye without Batman being aware of him. Hell, retcon Barry Allen into a Gotham police officer prior to his accident so he has a direct tie to Commissioner Gordon and Batman’s larger narrative. (I know The Flash defended Central City in the comic books, but let’s bend a bit for the sake of cinematic narrative.)
The other reason to introduce The Flash so early in the Justice League buildup? His rogue’s gallery is nearly as good as Batman’s, which gives each hero a litany of villains to help define them. I’d establish the Weather Wizard as the Flash’s arch-nemesis here, since a villain who can control the weather within a structurally flawed metropolis like Gotham would create rescue-focused action scenes aplenty.
And if nearby Metropolis newsman Clark Kent just happens to be on hand to report on the story… well, that would make sense, right?
Then, once The Flash and Batman coexist onscreen, let’s go global.
3. Hawkman and Hawkgirl
In the comics, Hawkman’s origin has changed over the years, but it usually boils down to something like this: an archaeologist discovers an artifact that imbues him with the Egyptian warrior spirit of Hawkman, because we eventually find out that this archaeologist is actually the latest incarnation of the original Hawkman. And Hawkman and Hawkgirl are soul mates who have loved each other throughout the centuries, as they’re reincarnated time after time to rediscover each other in times of great trouble.
This would be the perfect opportunity to introduce distinctly non-American heroes. (A Middle Eastern Hawkman and an Indian, Japanese, or Chinese Hawkgirl would be thematically consistent with the characters’ origins and a nod to our newly global cinemascape.) And they’d also be the first heroes in this new universe with the power of flight, which gives them an ability that Batman and The Flash, for all their upside, can’t match.
Also, by launching Hawkman and Hawkgirl early in the Justice League buildup, they could be established as far more pivotal characters than they’re usually allowed to be in the comic books, where they’re surrounded by far more powerful heroes. They’re also one of the few romantic duos in superhero comics, and their bond of love is a much-needed human linchpin in a narrative that might otherwise seem built around men fighting for supremacy. And if Batman / Bruce Wayne is an emotionally unavailable playboy and The Flash is a ladies’ man who’s looking to settle down, the Hawks represent the emotional stability that the other, more powerful heroes lack.
Which brings us to…
4. Green Lantern
No, not the Ryan Reynolds version. Let’s relegate that to the dustbin the same way Marvel keeps insisting that previous versions of Hulk movies never actually happened. Instead…
Let’s have a retcon twist on the John Stewart version of Green Lantern: instead of a Green Lantern who’s a rich black architect, let’s introduce a Green Lantern who’s a streetwise black kid. Green Lantern’s whole conceit is that the Guardians of the Universe gave him a ring to protect Earth, and this ring manifests whatever the wearer can think of as a sheer projection of his will. Call me crazy, but a kid surviving on the streets of Baltimore or D.C. — or Metropolis — is exhibiting an impressive amount of willpower already, which would undoubtedly put him on the Guardians’ radar. And giving a kid who’s previously been focusing only only protecting himself the power to suddenly protect the world would be a source of endless character growth.
In our new DC universe, the ring’s arrival could also serve a double meaning. Until now, the villains in our previous movies were fairly pedestrian foes like thieves and mad scientists, operating on a local, national, or global scale. But Green Lantern has a cosmic origin, which implies an entire galaxy of sentient creatures that could come calling on Earth — for better or worse. (In other words, shades of “all the unknown unknowns”… including the eventual emergence of Superman.)
And once we’ve established a cosmic scale, let’s take it a step further and get mythological.
5. Wonder Woman
She’s a statue who was turned into a woman by a god on an island of Amazons. This isn’t exactly an origin story that jibes with tech and science heroes like Batman and The Flash, but it does allow for the expansion of our DC film universe beyond the spiritual (Hawkman) and intergalactic (Green Lantern) to establish that this same world is broad enough to encompass the existence of actual gods.
The problem with Wonder Woman as a character is that Superman’s existence renders her somewhat redundant. How many invulnerable paragons of truth and justice do we need running around Earth anyway? Thus, introduce her first — not just as “a strong woman,” but “the strongest hero we’ve seen yet.” Give Wonder Woman the place in DC’s pantheon that she’s always been afforded without ever truly making it her own: Earth’s mightiest hero.
And if her rival in this film is a fellow mythical creature like Circe, it allows our pre-existing heroes to gauge their powers against those of gods and find themselves lacking, which makes Wonder Woman’s existence a necessity for combating the threats that are beyond the others’ control. Plus, a temporary romantic triangle between Batman, The Flash and Wonder Woman would be fascinating… at least until…
Yes. Motherfucking Aquaman.
Poor Arthur Curry has been the punchline of every superhero satire since… basically forever. He wears orange and green, swims really fast, talks to fish, and he can’t be out of water for more than an hour? HOW USEFUL, right? In the ’90s, Peter David did his best to make the character “gritty” as a way to get people to take him seriously, but — as with most attempts at seriousness — it robbed the character of his joy. (And his hand.)
Introducing Aquaman this late in the Justice League buildup would automatically imply that he’s a force to be reckoned with, as he should be. He’s the King of Atlantis, which means he’s the ruler of all the water on Earth while the rest of us are fighting over scraps of land. And with water expected to become a resource worth warring over in our own lifetimes, Aquaman just might have something to say about all these land creatures trying to invade his territory.
To that end, if Aquaman were to use his speed, strength, and command of all sea creatures to cause a few natural disasters that destroy some Wayne Foundation deep sea oil rigs (notice how we’re graduating up from the Weather Wizard plotline from a few movies ago?), he might initially be seen as a villain that the other heroes would need to stop… or, realizing his power, a creature they’d need to reason with. (Or, if you’re Wonder Woman, someone finally worth falling in love with — like her, he’s a king in one context who’s nearly helpless in another, and who must occasionally depend on “lesser creatures” in order to survive.)
Not only would Aquaman’s introduction be a cinematic tour de force effects-wise, but it would also be the final plot point required to setup the arrival of You Know Who.
Thus far, all the films to this point have introduced heroes who each represent specific skills and values:
Batman (intellect, responsibility)
The Flash (speed, potential)
Hawkman & Hawkwoman (spirit, love)
Green Lantern (protection, willpower)
Wonder Woman (justice, equality)
Aquaman (leadership, honor)
They also each continually expand the scope of the DC Universe:
Batman (the city)
The Flash (science)
Hawkman & Hawkwoman (time, globalism)
Green Lantern (the universe)
Wonder Woman (mythology)
Aquaman (nature, war)
He’s an alien who was sent here from a dying world to become a beacon of inspiration for our people. It doesn’t get any bigger than Superman, which is why he needs to be introduced last in the lineup of central DC heroes. His very existence negates the need for almost every other hero, aside from the things they do well that he cannot.
Batman is smarter than Superman. The Flash is faster than Superman. Hawkman is wiser than Superman. Green Lantern is more imaginative, Wonder Woman is more empathetic, Aquaman is a better leader.
But Superman is stronger and harder to kill than any of them.
And that means the kinds of battles Superman can fight — and the scope of threats his existence can unleash on Earth — are larger and more dangerous than anything else we’ve seen.
Once you have Superman, you have a range of perspective that puts every other hero into his / her context. You can still have Batman fighting to save his city, or Aquaman fighting to save the planet, because you always have Superman fighting to save the idea of freedom.
And it’s from that core ideal that Batman would create…
8. The Justice League
Batman is the person this cinematic DC universe would revolve around. He might seem like he’s proactively forming the Justice League to fight threats to the world on any scale, but he’d also be doing it so he could keep tabs on all his superpowered peers… in case one of them snaps. He’d be their founder and their potential nullifier, should anything go wrong.
And once all those pieces have been united, each character could carry on in his or her own solo film storylines, with the inevitable team-ups and crossovers in-between Justice League movies. From here, DC could introduce secondary characters like Green Arrow, Black Canary, Zatanna, The Atom, Firestorm, Metamorpho… the possibilities really would be endless.
And everything would exist within a hierarchy of context and meaning.
Alas, we won’t ever have that experience now that Man of Steel has redefined Superman as a glum destroyer of people and property before almost every other hero we’ve mentioned has appeared onscreen.
But hey… when DC decides to reboot their whole cinematic universe again in 15 years…
When I was in art school, I really enjoyed my experience — mostly because I like to learn, but also because I excel when I know what the rules are and what’s required to obtain the “A.”
In the years since I graduated, I’ve done what most of us do when we reach “the real world” — I stopped learning in any structured way. Yes, I still read, watch, and learn about the topics I’m most interested in — or the topics my friends or girlfriends are passionate about — but most of that is accidental or incidental; it’s not intentional, because I didn’t have a structured goal.
But now I do.
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the lack of diversity in mass media. Most of the stories we experience here in America are stories about white men, created by white men, for presumed audiences of white men. And hey, I’m a white man, so I appreciate all the attention… but I’m also a bit burned out on the endless retread of the “straight white male as epic hero” storyline.
I’m sure there are plenty of college courses I could take on this subject… but I can’t really fit a time-specific course into my schedule right now.
So instead, I’m giving myself a challenge, and I’m structuring it like a curriculum because I think that’s what I’ll be able to stick to.
Here’s what I want to do:
From July 1 through November 30 of this year, I want to:
read at least 5 books that were NOT written by a straight white male
watch at least 5 films that were NOT directed by a straight white male
And then, in December, I want to summarize my initial reactions to these stories — and this experience — in an essay, which I’ll post here on my blog.*
I want you to help suggest the books and movies.
Please list your suggestions in the comments below, and why you’d suggest them. (It doesn’t have to be any profound reason; maybe it just happens to be your favorite book or movie.)
Then, based on your suggestions, my instincts, and a little of my own research, I’ll announce my self-imposed curriculum in July. (Apologies in advance, since I doubt I can include everything that’ll be suggested, but I’ll try to select things without any conscious bias. Also, I can only read in English, so please don’t suggest any books that aren’t available in an English translation.)
And hey: if there’s something you think you’d enjoy learning about in a similarly structured self-imposed curriculum, be my guest. Let me know and I’ll try to lend my own suggestions.
Let’s all get smarter together, shall we?
* NOTE: It’s not like I don’t already try to read and watch media created by a diverse group of artists, so I don’t want this to come across like some newfound burst of cultural tourism. What I’m actually interested in are the similarities and differences between the “traditional” straight white male stories that populate most of our mass media and the stories told by people who don’t fit that type. Maybe I’ll learn that the differences are surprisingly negligible, or maybe I’ll learn that different creators rely on different patterns just like the traditionalist media I’m questioning. Who knows? But the sooner I start consciously exploring, the sooner I’ll start to learn… whatever it is I’m about to learn.