Inside the Comedic Freedom of Netflix’s The Characters

Comedy Features Netflix
Inside the Comedic Freedom of Netflix’s The Characters

We know that Netflix has brought change to how we watch TV and how TV is made, but it’s also brought change to how we talk about TV. The weekly recap model of TV criticism is already being supplanted by marathon review binges, where websites try to have authoritative reviews of every episode of a Netflix show the day it launches. That cuts both ways, though: it’s turned immediate coverage into a mad dash, but it’s also blown open the window for more in-depth coverage, diminishing old concerns about timeliness. Just as Netflix shows live on the platform in perpetuity, always discoverable by a new audience at any moment, critics and writers can approach those shows in their own time, especially the more obscure ones that don’t arrive amid fusillades of hype.

Take Netflix Presents: The Characters: the sketch anthology show debuted on Netflix almost a month ago with ample praise within the comedy world but a muted wider response. The series is the sort of inspired, unusual play that a traditional network would probably never commit to, giving eight different comedians the freedom to create their own independent half-hour sketch showcase. Think of Comedy Central Presents or HBO’s One Night Stand comedy specials, only with filmed sketches instead of stand-up. This isn’t a sketch show with a troupe or company, like The State or Mr. Show. It’s eight unique voices given free rein over a half-hour of Netflix bandwidth, but with the same crew and director to lend everything a visual consistency. The quality obviously varies depending on your reaction to each specific comic, and even from sketch to sketch within episodes, but there’s not really a single installment that’s completely disappointing. The entire series is more than worth your time, especially if you’re interested in catching some of the best young writers and sketch performers in comedy today.

That talent includes Natasha Rothwell. The Saturday Night Live writer and occasional Nightly Show panelist describes a submissions process that sounds similar to most comedy writing jobs, but with a different outcome. She was invited to submit a packet to be considered for the show, incorporating both sketches she had written before for other jobs and new ideas she was fleshing out for the first time. Instead of a gig writing jokes or struggling to get sketches on air, though, she was trying out for a half-hour special. Most of what she sent made it into the final cut of her episode, and it reflects the smart, character-based work she’s known for.

“All the characters predated the special but were in various stages of completion,” Rothwell tells us. “Some were just pitches and ideas. Some were things I’d written for showcases—I’d done Just For Laughs and an NBC diversity showcase. Others were characters that I discovered while doing improv scenes that I wanted to flesh out. I’d write that down and write down things I’d say on stage that I thought would make for a good sketch.”

Others took a different approach. Kate Berlant, who also appears in John Early’s episode, saw The Characters as a chance to experiment. Her episode is “all new original content that I wrote specifically for The Characters,” she says. “I was initially paralyzed by the vastness of the opportunity. I decided to not be too precious and instead write new material that simply would be fun for me to perform.”

Henry Zebrowski, one of the more recognizable stars of The Characters, thanks to his lead role in Adult Swim’s Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell and appearances in The Wolf of Wall Street, the recent Heroes reboot and in the Jack Warden role in Amy Schumer’s 12 Angry Men parody, approached it from yet another angle. He turned his episode into a collaboration with his long-running sketch troupe Murderfist, which dates back to his college days at Florida State University. They adapted a couple of character ideas from old Murderfist sketches, and then whipped up some new ideas that they never would’ve had the budget for before.

“The question for us was ‘how do you put 14 years of doing sketch into 30 minutes?’” Zebrowski explains. “Our concept was History of the World Pt. 1 if it was directed by David Lynch. We wanted it to feel like a satanic Hanna-Barbera cartoon. The special is a tribute to the intense style of comedy of Murderfist that my partners and I have been a part of for many years. I think we achieved that. It’s aggressive and it looks like it was made by crazy people.”

Having an actual budget was a significant draw for the talent assembled for The Characters. Rothwell rewrote much of that original packet after she realized the possibilities opened up by being able to actually spend money. “Everything ultimately had to be reimagined and adapted for the screen because a sketch on the Upright Citizens Brigade stage has a budget of zero,” she reveals. Netflix gave her “the opportunity to really explore what that world would be with lights and costumes and wigs and extras.”

“One of the coolest parts of writing was the special was including jokes and bits we put in video sketch scripts years ago but didn’t have the budget to do then,” Zebrowski adds. “Netflix accidentally made a lot of my dreams come true, like making love to a rock woman and blowing up a bunch of cyborg police.”

Another crucial aspect of the show: the eight different stars had almost no idea what each other was doing. Beyond the fact that these are eight distinct voices, this separation guarantees that every episode has a unique feel and style, and it’s unmistakable as you watch the series. If it wasn’t for the similar opening credit sequence shared by every episode, the Lauren Lapkus edition wouldn’t necessarily be recognizable as part of the same series as Dr. Brown’s half-hour. Paul W. Downs from Broad City doesn’t share the same exact sensibility as former SNL cast member Tim Robinson. Berlant and John Early do appear in each other’s episodes, but even after preview episodes were made available to press she hadn’t seen any of the others. “From what I’ve heard they are all different,” she says. What unites them is the direction of Andrew Gaynord and the opportunity to express their comedic vision on Netflix’s dime.

“There was no first day of camp,” Rothwell adds. “It was cool not to feel any pressure from the beginning that we’d have to collaborate in a way that would make us compromise or sacrifice our own comedic voice in any way.”

“I’m glad I knew nothing because we would have constantly compared what we made to what everybody else was making,” Zebrowski says. “We made ours in a vacuum which probably helped our ‘unique perspective.’ That’s part of the beauty of the whole Characters concept. Each special has its own feeling and direction.”

All three comedians that we talked to expressed interest in returning for another season. (Zebrowski emphatically so: “I could write 10 more of these specials and they could pick two to throw out. TAKE MY SPECIALS FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS.”) They also agree that it would probably serve the concept of the show better if other comedians were offered the chance. “It’s a beautiful opportunity and I would love to see what other comedians would do with it,” Berlant notes.

“If any co-comedians of mine got chosen to do the special I would do anything to help them do it,” Zebrowski states, reemphasizing what a great opportunity The Characters was. “I got to work with my comedy partners for years to make something completely our own and Netflix made that happen.”

If you missed The Characters when it was released four weeks ago, don’t stress. Take your time. It will be on Netflix when you’re ready for it. And without recurring characters or plotlines, there’s no need to rush through it. You can literally chill with this one. Netflix helped create the concept of binge watching, changing how we watch and think about TV, but with The Characters it’s created a show that doesn’t encourage or benefit from binging in any way. Just as every episode is fundamentally different, The Characters is unique among Netflix’s library. Watch it when you can.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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