The Resnickssance: Exploring the Wham City and Adult Swim connection
By By Brandon Weigel
Aug 26, 2015 | 3:00 AM
With less than a month before the shoot of their next video, the members of AB Video Solutions are keeping a long list in their Old Goucher office of everything they need to take care of before filming begins.
There are things on there you might expect, such as costumes and getting permission from certain locales to haul in the cameras and crew. And then, partway down, there's the question: "fake baby?" You see, the employment of an infant actor is still being considered; the list also includes "real baby crawling" and "baby approval"—as in, you know, legal permission to use the baby.
The decision is one of dozens that will have to be made as the production company begins its next project for Adult Swim, Cartoon Network's late-night home for NSFW animated shows, screwy sketch comedies such as "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" and surrealist short clips like those made by AB.
It was on Adult Swim last year that the team fucked with insomniacs and stoners, and later on, a huge chunk of the internet, with "Unedited Footage of a Bear," a short clip of seemingly surreptitious nature footage that is interrupted by an ad for allergy medicine, which in turn becomes a twisted, horrifying alter-suburbia of grisly crime scenes, violence, and paranoia.
Complete with a website for the fake nasal spray and a hidden game contained therein, "Unedited Footage of a Bear" was immediately a hit, with people across the internet dissecting the little Easter eggs they found and offering theories on the meaning of the video.
"We knew some of that would happen, but the degree to which it happened, I think, surprised all of us," says Cricket Arrison in the company's office. "When Dina [Kelberman] was designing the video game, she included a part where you could pick up a random present and then go in the backyard and bury it in a hole. And I remember talking right before it launched, and we were like, yeah, I bet nobody will figure this out.
"And within an hour of the show airing there was a Reddit thread with people saying, 'Did you see that you can bury the present in the backyard?'" she continues. "And we were just like, oh my God, we want to give these people more."
They'll be able to do just that, thanks in part to the continued support from Adult Swim. And there's going to be perhaps more beyond AB's next video coming from Baltimore. Over the last couple of years, the channel has found a deep pool of talent through Wham City, the arts, music, and comedy collective, enlisting them for projects to air during the network's more-experimental 4 a.m. block.
Most recently, Adult Swim has given airtime to "A Family Affair," a collection of old radio-comedy-like recordings, voiced by polymath Ed Schrader, depicting everyday domestic scenes for an upstate New York family who is friends with none other than David Bowie; the recordings were earlier this year turned into little one-minute cartoons by illustrator Kevin Sherry.
"To my delight they were all quite excited about the cartoon and presented me with the idea of including it on their viral series 'Off The Air'!" Schrader writes via email. "I called Kevin from the bathroom and told him the news!"
Schrader says the reach of Adult Swim parent company Turner Broadcasting has helped to generate positive buzz about the cartoons—"that's how the show 'Renegade' got big!" he jokes—and Schrader hints at having more irons in the fire.
"We're very excited about the future and have some fun plans which I can't really discuss at this moment," he writes.
For Arrison, Kelberman (who drew Important Comics for City Paper for several years until January 2015), and fellow AB co-founders Ben O'Brien, Robby Rackleff, and Alan Resnick, getting their videos on the airwaves is what allowed them to start their production company, and they hope to turn into a full-time operation that one day, they hope, makes a series or movie.
Dave Hughes, an Atlanta-based producer for Adult Swim who created the showcase "Off The Air" in 2010 and describes his role as a "utility guy for them when it comes to strangeness," writes via email that Wham City's aesthetic dovetails nicely with the channel's loose boundaries.
"I think the main thing for me was that they felt like they were on their own path with everything. Nothing felt derivative or cynical or grabby to me. And they were constantly blurring the lines between art and comedy and video and music, which felt exciting and right."
Hughes first learned of Wham City through the music of Dan Deacon. Someone had forwarded him the video of Deacon playing on the morning show of Savannah, Georgia's NBC affiliate. "I was totally fascinated, and wanted to understand who he was and how this had happened," he writes.
He went to see Deacon perform in Atlanta, but he must have received the wrong information because when he showed up it was a thrash-metal show. Still determined, Hughes dug up Deacon's email address and the two started corresponding. When Deacon came back through town in 2007, around the release of "Spiderman of the Rings," Hughes invited him to Adult Swim's studio, Williams Street, to work on a few projects. Though nothing from that session went on the air, Deacon's performance of "Spiderman" track 'Okie Dokie' was edited by Hughes for an official music video.
Over the years, Deacon would bring members of Wham City or Wham City-affiliated acts with him on tour to open his shows with music, performance, art, or comedy, and whenever he came through Atlanta, he would bring people along with him to Williams Street. Hughes writes that in 2010, at Moogfest, he saw Wham City Comedy for the first time.
"[T]he Wham City group was evolving . . . and individual members were figuring out their styles and roles, and they sort of hit their stride just as Adult Swim became ready for them."
In 2013, Adult Swim accepted its first project from Wham City, "Live Forever As You Are Now With Alan Resnick," an adaptation of a performance piece, co-written with Kelberman, where Resnick describes how he used a computer to create an avatar, Teddy, with his likeness and personality.
For TV, it was turned into a faux infomercial, with Resnick as the TED-talking tech guru hawking his services and backed by the testimonials of widowers, lonely old ladies, and sick children. After successfully getting a show completed, AB realized they wanted to keep doing projects on that scale.
"If someone hadn't suggested we take that specific performance and turn it into an infomercial—that wouldn't have been an organic thought we would have had. We would have done something different," says Resnick. "And so now that that door had been opened, we kinda thought, 'What do we actually want to do?' We don't really want to make fun of infomercials now necessarily. What's closer to our voice that we want to do?"
The next major project was "Unedited Footage," which started out as several very different ideas from O'Brien, which Resnick, Rackleff, and Kelberman eventually worked into a script. One idea featured a couple hiking and the man getting attacked by a bear—the woman keeps hiking as nothing has happened. Another was about a man chopping wood after taking his arthritis medicine. He's feeling good, taking his firewood downstairs, when he falls and breaks both his knees.
Rackleff and Kelberman pulled the original ideas through a looking glass inspired by David Lynch and the horror film "Phantasm" to land on our nasal-spray-needing mom.
"I think we were all kind of obsessed with people being able to walk around at night in kind of a seemingly normal area but just know that behind doors and windows, there's always something lurking that's either supernatural or metaphysical, personifications of people's innermost issues," says Rackleff.
Working within the confines of a major network can also present some hindrances for artists who came up in DIY. Permits must be filed, any fonts and images must be pre-approved, and scripts have to be sent to legal. They had to start a LLC—they picked the name, in part, for Alan and Ben, who were the two main members at the time, and because it sounded like a company someone might find in the Yellow Pages to make a local ad—in order to get paid.
But Adult Swim has also been really great, the members of AB Video Solutions say, in helping them figure out what the hell it is they're doing.
"It's hard to even get perspective on how they were as producers, because they're kind of the only experience we have," O'Brien says. "But they are so supportive and really positive."
"Even when they're like, 'I don't think you're going to be able to get this through, but here's how you could try,'" adds Kelberman.
Everyone in AB is working full time and still pursuing their own individual artistic projects, but the eventual plan is for this type of video work to become a steady gig, especially if a TV show ever were to get picked up.
"We're trying to put in place something so that we're slowly working up to essentially making a sustainable amount of money," says O'Brien, "but at the same time not doing something we think would undermine the integrity of what we want to do. It's slow going."
But as Arrison points out: "We already get to hang out with our friends all day and make videos. So that's cool. That's a good gig if you can get it. And hopefully we'll be able to do that and then also have health insurance."