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eGuider Exclusive — March 13th, 2013
eGuiders Blatman, Goldberg and Mason featured in New York Times
Brooklyn comedy troupe Sunset Television lauded for absurd sketch videos
by Ezra Soiferman
We were thrilled to see eGuiders Drew Blatman, Alex Goldberg and Graham Mason and their sketch comedy troupe Sunset Television featured in a very complimentary New York Times article. Congratulations, guys!
February 22, 2013 - New York Times
Looks Familiar, but Something’s Funny
By ROSS SIMONINI
On the Internet found material is often recycled as comedy: a decade-old commercial, a foreign music video, an amateur’s footage from the zoo. But for the Brooklyn comedy troupe Sunset Television the opposite is true. Its videos are meant to play like artifacts discovered in serpentine YouTube searches.
Take the sketch “Real Life Exorcisms,” from 2011, a 3-minute-20-second video modeled on paranormal reality shows like “Ghost Hunters”: the sound design, captions and mood are indistinguishable from the material it parodies. The absurd story, however, includes a dog medium and a possessed girl whose garbled monologue is recorded and played in reverse by a priest to reveal nonsense: “I like diamonds. And cats and sports. And, uh, awesome tattoos. Lesbian Tattoos.” The YouTube page includes the faulty description, “%100 REAL EXORCISM FOOTAGE.”
Like much of Sunset Television’s work the humor is poker faced, and most of the 3,865 comments posted online involve earnest questions about authenticity. Approaching eight million views now, the video, also available via the group’s Web site, is by far its most popular, and the comedians embrace the utterly confused response.
“In the beginning Sunset aimed to blur the lines between fact and fiction,” Karrie Crouse, the group’s only female member, said recently at Mother’s, a bar in Williamsburg where group members often meet to discuss new ideas. “We wanted the videos to feel excavated, difficult to date or place in a particular culture.”
She and the other members — Drew Blatman, Alex Goldberg, Graham Mason, all in their late 20s or early 30s — met in 2007 in the graduate film program at Columbia University. There they made 7- to 15-minute collages that appeared to be transmissions from a twisted, satirical dimension of television: footage from school projects and appropriated Internet material were edited into a slurry of bizarre commercials, film trailers, old-fashioned public-service announcements and other slivers of televised culture, most of which lasted around a minute or two.
“It was kind of like being in a band at times,” Mr. Blatman said. “We’d get together and just jam on found footage. It still feels that way.”
The group produced five such episodes from 2008 to 2010, each constructed as a channel-surfing stream of jokes. Actors were hired from Craigslist, sometimes for explicit scenes (like eating a sandwich, naked while crying) — a process also used by “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” whose lo-fi stylized look was an influence on Sunset Television.
“The great thing about being on the Internet is nobody can cancel us,” Ms. Crouse said, laughing.
In 2011 Pitchfork, the music Web site, reran the group’s early episodes, and financed shorter, more narrative-leaning sketches. Noting that the videos had a kinship with the music of artists like Ariel Pink and R. Stevie Moore, known for their low-fidelity aesthetic, R J Bentler, Pitchfork’s vice president for video programming said, “I thought maybe there could be a connection with our audience.”
The group’s association with music circles got the attention of Beirut, the Balkan-influenced band started by Zach Condon, who commissioned two bittersweet, nostalgic music videos. “I remember watching what went up on their Web site on a weekly basis,” Mr. Condon said. “Whole evenings with my friends were devoted to recognizing every subtle underhanded joke and absurdity in their videos.”
Though they consider themselves a comedy group, the members of Sunset TV aren’t connected to the New York stand-up or improv scenes, partly because their brand of humor is based on filmmaking, not live performance. Sunset Television builds on the work of sketch television standouts like the State, Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show. What’s funny about the Sunset videos is the group’s ability to replicate the details in genres like Czech New Wave and television crime drama, both in writing and in cinematic technique. “For a comedy group we’re not as concerned with L.P.M.,” or laughs per minute, Ms. Crouse said, “which makes the whole project a little more complicated.”
Some members of the group act more, some shoot more, but all four are involved in every step of the process, from pitching to postproduction. They also have their own outside projects: Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Blatman are members of Weird Days, a production firm that recently finished videos for the singer Santigold. Mr. Goldberg also has a small role this season in the HBO series “Girls,” and Mr. Blatman is working on a documentary about jai alai. Ms. Crouse wrote (with the director Martha Stephens) and acted in the independent feature, “Pilgrim Song,” and Mr. Mason is a screenwriter.
The group’s most recent project is “Two Cops,” a six-episode Web series that emphasizes understated acting and narrative over the manic collage of its early work. The videos are disguised as a fly-on-the-wall documentary from 1981 during a supposedly recessionary New York in which police officers in financial straits are ordered to share living quarters. The show never leaves the apartment of the two cops: Charlie Doogayn (“a nut for the details”) and the PCP-addicted Ricardo Martinez (“a real loose cannon — the only thing he loves more than motorbikes is his sister”), played with unflinching earnestness by Mr. Mason and Mr. Goldberg, who are both new to acting.
Though the setup is akin to fake documentaries like “The Office,” the pacing is slower and the look is bleaker, deliberately reminiscent of documentaries like Frederick Wiseman’s “Hospital” from 1970. And the sad sack officers call to mind “Louis” and other melancholic television comedies.
The series, which cost a grand total of $400, was filmed entirely in Mr. Blatman’s apartment, allowing for an unhurried, improvisational approach. “On ‘Two Cops’ we used the first 10 takes just trying to figure out how the characters speak,” Mr. Goldberg said.
Though there are no plans for Sunset Television to make the leap to actual television, the members are increasingly drawn toward the emotional breadth of continuing story lines. “Initially we wanted the work to feel as if it were totally found,” Mr. Mason said. “But these days we’re owning up to the fact that we’re making it. We’re putting ourselves in there.”
eGuider: Ezra Soiferman
Award-winning Canuck filmmaker, blogger and hemp enthusiast.
Ezra Soiferman is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker in snowy Montreal, Canada. He is also the director and co-founder of the Montreal Film Group, Montreal's largest film and TV industry networking group. Ezra's popular and eccentric EzSez.com blog keeps him (and you) busy on rainy days.