Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Interview: Evan Endicott & Josh Stoddard, Creators of Amazon's BETAS

Amazon Studios - Betas
 Amazon's foray into original programming just wrapped up it's inaugural season. Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard, creators of BETAS, one of Amazon's two comedy offerings, talked with Nerds of a Feather about the entire process. To watch BETAS (first three episodes are free without Amazon Prime membership), go here.

NF: Congratulations on a successful first season of BETAS, which helped launch the inaugural season of Amazon Prime's original programming. How did you wind up getting involved with Amazon, as opposed to a network?

EVAN: Thanks! Success is all relative, of course, but we're happy with how the show turned out and where it's going. And the people who've seen it seem to be responding positively, which is really satisfying-- we'd love to make more!

Getting involved with Amazon was our producer Michael London's idea. He heard Amazon was getting in the original content game and met with them to discuss their vision for the new network. After speaking with Joe Lewis, Amazon's head of Scripted Comedy, Michael thought Betas, which we'd been developing as a more network-y show up to that point, would be a great fit.

We pitched Amazon the show and they agreed-- although we all decided to take it in a more serial, cable-type direction as opposed to the wacky sitcom we'd originally concocted. It's worth adding that we pitched more traditional outlets as well-- F/X, HBO, Showtime-- but that Amazon responded very strongly to the idea and the creative team behind it. Perhaps because they're from the tech world the show inhabits, the idea made sense to them from the get-go-- they didn't need us to walk them through the ins and outs of start-up culture or explain why it was a rich setting for comedy.

Amazon Studios
NF: Having created some controversy with its first attempts at getting involved in film, there were a lot of eyes on Amazon, and on you, when Amazon premiered its pilots and opened them up for fan voting. What was that process like for you, and when did you know BETAS had gotten picked up?

JOSH: It was thrilling, fascinating and occasionally brutal. Users' reactions were popping up in real time-- offering opinions, insults, praise... I couldn't tear my eyes away from the screen the entire month the pilots were up. It was like TV Thunderdome, streaming live for the world to watch. And although we were told we weren't in competition with any of the other shows, it sure felt like we were. And once the month was over and Amazon quietly, painstakingly, collected all their data and measured all their metrics, we were notified that we made the cut. We couldn't believe it -- not because we didn't think we made a great show -- but because they only chose TWO of us (out of eight) to go to series (Alpha House being the other). I couldn't understand how we survived while some really high profile, high quality projects were back-burnered. A strange, humbling and mysterious experience all around. We feel very lucky.

NF: Both BETAS and ALPHA HOUSE are TV-MA. Were you aware of a conscious decision from Amazon to embrace more risk-taking in its comedies, or is that just how the fan voting shook out?

EVAN: I think it's a conscious decision on their part, although it also reflects what viewers expect from premium content. Since network TV is free to all, offering shows similar to what's available on those channels (but charging for it) doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Amazon wants to set themselves apart, to deliver something viewers will seek out and join Prime for, and that tends to means more "mature" offerings. Betas is a part of that package. So are their new dramas. And I'm sure they'll keep expanding to offer a range of content that reflects the diversity of their viewership.

NF: Can you talk about how your roles evolved on the show from the pilot to the season actually being in production? I know TV veterans Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland are the showrunners, so how do you the four of you work to create a consistent vision?

JOSH: A lot of the pilot process consisted of the four of us (Evan, myself and the Alans) getting to know each other, our visions for the show, our different sensibilities, different backgrounds (theirs being more network and animated comedy, ours being more indie film) and finding the best ways to synergize it all into a cohesive voice. And although, personally, I thought it would be a hard process, full of starts and stops, the Alans were great, gracious facilitators and collaborators. There was much more overlap in our vision for BETAS than there were bridges to build.

Once we went to series and the Alans began to trust us a bit more creatively, they really let us take the reigns and run. They protected us, protected our time, fought for our crazy ideas and made our less inspired ideas better. I don't always like to be gut-checked creatively and I can be a bit precious with my stuff, but having someone there to make sure you aren't crapping the bed, is really really valuable. The Alans changed our sheets more than once. They helped create an environment that allowed us to come into our own as creators. It wasn't always easy, but it was worth it.
Amazon Studios - Betas

NF: One of the things I most admired about the season was how -- despite the TV-MA rating and potential for abusing racy, over-the-top humor -- you kept things grounded in character, very much like a cable drama. I mean, you had a guy carrying around an embalmed cat for weeks and when he finally...ahem, got rid of it...I felt a legitimate pang of regret for him. Were there times in the writing that you consciously cut jokes to save that real estate for honest character moments?

EVAN: First of all, thanks for saying that. Josh and I strive to keep our writing grounded and to mine our characters for humor rather than writing to punchlines-- so it's nice to hear it worked, at least some of the time. And to answer your last question: Absolutely! Any time you have a writer's room, there's a temptation to cram every script with jokes, and we had a ton of funny people pitching hilarious shit left and right. But we tried to be ruthless and determine what jokes actually made sense for our characters and the overall tone of the show, rather than throwing in whatever made us laugh in the room.

Since we don't strive to be a joke machine, we have to dig a little deeper and find the pathos and the vulnerable, human aspects of these characters. Hobbes's tragic arc with Ray Catzweil is a perfect example of that-- something that started as a one-off joke became a metaphor for his relationship with his ex-wife, and then his inability to let go of the past. And when we saw the first cut of Episode 6 (with the infamous, ahem, "bit" you refer to above) we didn't think Hobbes's emotional arc was really working so we wrote a new scene (Hobbes in the bathroom with Ray, drunk and weeping) and shot it during another episode so we'd have that connective tissue. And even though it's just a brief scene, it adds a lot to the cumulative emotional effect... while still being hilarious, at least to us. So yeah, we work hard to keep our characters honest and real, no matter how outlandish the situations get.

NF: After you had firmly established the world of the show a few episodes in, the episodes seemed to begin focusing on a single character. You had a Nash episode, a Mikki episode, a Hobbes episode, and so on, while the season's longer arc played out behind them. Was that originally your plan, or a natural evolution of having a fantastic cast, or did I just read too much into what I was seeing?

EVAN: I think that's a legit observation, and the result of a couple different factors. First and foremost, any time you launch a show, you have to introduce a world and a group of characters very quickly. As a result, you rely on stereotypes and shorthand-- Mitchell is the immature geek who can't talk to girls, Hobbes is the grizzled vet/jester who's always causing chaos, Nash is the uptight stress case, Trey is the cool, ambitious leader, etc etc. But if you know and love your characters, you have ambitions way beyond that-- backstories and flaws and nuances you can't wait to dig into-- and the later episodes provide an opportunity to pull back the layers and reveal who they really are.

It's a tricky balancing act, 'cause you want them to feel unique enough early on that viewers will want to watch them, but you sort of have to cheat and give viewers something familiar too, as a gateway into the world. There was so much to establish in those early episodes, especially the particulars of Silicon Valley, which can be a bit arcane-- we just hoped viewers would stick around to see what else these characters had to offer beyond their superficial "type."

So anyway, that's the main thing-- but what you suggest about having a fantastic cast is also true. Like, we knew early on we wanted Mikki's mom (played by the incredible Sandra Oh) to show up during the season, but if Maya Erskine hadn't turned out to be such a phenomenal actress, that episode would have been scripted very differently. But after working with Maya for awhile, we knew we could push the envelope dramatically and that she would deliver, which allowed us to show parts of Mikki's character that weren't apparent from the first few episodes, where she was the dry, wise-cracking tomboy. We lucked out with an amazing cast, and feel like each of them could carry an episode that way-- hell, I'd watch an entire season that was just Dashawn and Trevor working the graveyard shift at Game Go-- so we look forward to coming up with more dimensions to these characters as time goes on.

NF: Do you know when you'll hear about whether we have a Season 2 in our future (Amazon doesn't have upfronts, after all), and what kinds of things might be in store for your Silicon Valley denizens?

JOSH: We're hoping to hear something by early March. That's the word on the street at least. Amazon likes to keep their decision making process farily hush-hush, so all I know is what trickles down. We know they like the show and are happy with it, whether or not we did enough to warrant another season is anybody's guess... Fingers crossed. Obviously we'd jump at the chance to do more.

That said, it's not too late to influence Amazon's decision! We need eyeballs on the show! We need people to talk, Tweet, favorite, spread the word, yell from the rooftops, review on amazon, imdb, etc... Amazon Instant Video is an exciting new way to watch original content, but its still very much a new way, people may need some help finding our underdog show about underdog app developers. We need all the homegrown, grassroots support we can get.

The good news is, there's no shortage of ideas for Season Two. The tech industry is so full of wonderful, too-crazy-to-be-true material, I feel like we could go for ten seasons and still have stories to tell. We'll continue to build on the seeds we've already planted in Season One; BrB vs. Zach Casper's social juggernaut, Trey & Nash's friendship, The Murch's fight to reestablish his good name, Hobbes' debauched (but earnest) misadventures, Mikki having to experience life in Mitchell's "friend zone." We've got some new characters in mind, a few peripheral ones who will play surprising roles in the BrB universe. Mostly though, we just want to get to know these characters even better, watch them thrive and falter, grow up and grow apart -- have them continue to make us laugh. We've got a great cast -- full of brilliant actors that are game for anything. That's an exciting prospect for any writer. It makes us work harder, dig deeper.

NF: Finally, whose idea was the "All Your Beers Are Belong to Us" banner at the bar? I kinda want that for my kitchen.

JOSH: That was all Evan - a brilliant gag, by a brilliant man, designed for a very small (but hopefully appreciative) audience. We try to sprinkle as many niche references in there as possible. It makes us laugh and hopefully will make a few other folks chuckle as well.

To watch BETAS (first three episodes are free without Amazon Prime membership), go here.

Posted by: Vance K, cult film aficionado, unapologetic lover of terrible movies, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.