7 Questions* for Sam Reich: director, internet comedy pioneer
I fell for Sam Reich –not that there’s anything wrong with that– the minute we sat down at lunch at New York’s Blue Smoke, at the introduction of our mutual friend, writer Fred Graver. Was it his smile, his beard, his twinkle in the eye? Couldn’t really tell you, only that I wished I had a chance to see him all the time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be, and I had to settle for our every three or four year coffee klatch.
Sam’s got one of those seemingly enviable, creative life trajectories, and certainly he wouldn’t begin to say anything other than he’s one lucky man. A high school dropout who started in the theatre and graduated to writing and directing internet video when his employers at CollegeHumor were considered a joke by the television establishment. But they knew, and Sam knew, that their “low quality” “little” web videos were going to dominate comedy (in 2003, one of the founders of CH casually mentioned to me that they had twice the amount of users as ComedyCentral.com. And, I’m now humiliated to say, my jaw hit the floor in disbelief). His path was an unusually bumpy one, and probably not to be emulated, so the “high school dropout made good” narrative doesn’t do justice to his very hard work and talent. Oh, and his smile and beard, of course.
Oh, attention Frederator’s cartoon nerds, check out the Homestar Runner inspiration below (question #3) that got our hero started in the new internet world.
Sam’s now a big honking comedy executive, comedy writer and director firmly in the Hollywood catbird seat, overseeing a creative empire that’s everywhere on television and streaming video. I’m not sure he would claim a disproportionate amount of the credit for the innovations he’s been part of, but I’m sure he would rightly, proudly, beam over the work he does. Watch out for Sam Reich, he’s taking over the world.
Well, I was always the black sheep of the family. My brother, who followed in my parents’ footsteps, was a traditional overachiever: president of his class, captain of the cross country team, etc. I liked to draw and play piano. I was essentially a quiet artist kid growing up in a rigorous academic environment. I fell into a deep clinical depression at the age of 14 – one that I was medicated and put in treatment for – feeling on some profound level like there was nothing out there in the world for me.
That summer, my parents enrolled me in an intense acting program, one that took itself very seriously, and I realized that there was a tiny sliver of a possibility that I could make art for a living. If the window was open even a crack, I would die trying to fit through it. After all the alternative was suicide. I had a “nothing to lose” attitude about my career, which I think served me well. As my acting teacher, Mark Lindberg, used to say, “If there’s anything else you can imagine yourself doing, do it."
2 You probably don’t remember this… the first time we met you told me that you guys at CollegeHumor didn’t think about whether an idea would be good (something like “It’ll be as good as we can make it, but you never know how it will really turn out.”) but you considered whether or not it would be viral. When I asked you what that meant you said it needed to be funny, topical, and sexy. Explain.
I do remember this. And I’ve done a complete 180 about it.
Now, everybody knows that science. Whole businesses have been built on it (Buzzfeed) and also TV shows (Jimmy Fallon). In other words, the secret sauce isn’t secret anymore.
Now, it seems correct, and more ambitious, and nobler to care about the science of what makes things good. 10 years ago, I probably would have found that question intimidating and wanted nothing to do with it. Now it’s my obsession.
3 How does one go from loving the theatre to funny crap for the internet?
It was really just a matter of necessity. I’m a generally creative person: I love to act, direct, write, produce. Just put me in a room with other creative people, allow me to make something, and I’m happy.
I remember giving my headshot and resume to the Theater Studio in NYC and asking how many they got per year. "50,000,” they said. So I asked how many director resumes. “500,” they said. I remember thinking, “I like those odds better.”
So I started directing. But even then, how does one become known and get work? Video on the internet was just taking off – the flash video player hadn’t even yet been created – and a couple of guys in Atlanta had created something called Homestar Runner. It just floored me. They were basically running their own little entrepreneurial web show based nothing on their talent and free time. So I was like, “I’ve got a little bit of talent and a lot of free time. I’ll do the live-action version of this.”
I got a group of starving comedy artists together, and together we formed a group called Dutch West. We had no idea what we were doing when we got started, but we eventually identified ourselves as an “internet sketch comedy group.” We made short, weird, dark films for the internet. I acted in, wrote, and directed some of them.
Some years later, CollegeHumor came to me and asked me if I wanted to spearhead their new video content division, which was a glamorous way of saying “You’ll be the guy who makes videos.” I was curious how well I’d do with a job-job, and also broke, so I accepted.
4 Are you still directing?
Yes, but only things I write. That was a difficult decision, but in the end, I don’t want to be a career director. Meaning, I don’t want to make a career out of directing alone. I’m most passionate – or, to use the corporate term, most “activated” – when I’m at the beginning of ideas. So to be the executive producer or writer coming up with an idea is my sweet spot.
If I’ve written something, then chances are I’ll want to direct it, or at least co-direct it and co-edit it. The experience of conceiving of something, writing it, directing it, and editing it – of seeing it all the way through from start to finish – is, to me, pretty close to an orgasm.
5 And now? What do you do for a living?
I’m Head of Video for CollegeHumor and President of Big Breakfast, CollegeHumor’s offshoot production company. I executive produce our variety of long-form projects, including Adam Ruins Everything on TruTV, Bad Internet on YouTube Red, Fatal Decision on Go90, and a handful of other stuff in development.
So what does that mean?
My strengths are creative, and so I have a creative voice in whatever we’re doing. I’m in CollegeHumor video pitch sessions and read-throughs, offering ideas and notes, and then I also note finished videos. With the long-form projects, I help to develop them creatively, to sell them to a network, to put their teams together, to note their scripts and cuts, and to in general make them thrive.
The executive piece of my responsibility is to make sure that we make more money than we spend, handle staff-related situations, report up to my bosses, and – most importantly – stay true to our core values: that of a great culture and great product.
6 New York vs. Hollywood. Discuss.
When I was living in New York, I felt like New York was the star of the show. Now that I’m in LA, I feel like I’m the star of the show.
New York is a more dynamic city, for sure – in fact, I’m almost ready to say it’s irrefutably a better city – but in LA, I feel more in control, more confident, and saner.
Theme parks are fun, but I only need to go to a theme park once per year. If you go to a theme park more than once per year, then New York is for you.
Also, New York tried to fool me into thinking it had 30% of the industry. The truth is that it has about 6% of the industry. It makes sense to spend some time in New York, networking and getting good at your craft, almost as an extension of the college experience.
But don’t do what I did and wait ten years to graduate [from New York City]. I think four years in New York – or Boston, or Chicago, or really anywhere that’s not LA – is all you need. Anything more is grad school, is procrastinating.
7 What are you excited about right now? What are you in love with today?
At work, I’m excited about our upcoming YouTube Red series, Bad Internet. It’s a comedy tribute to science fiction anthology series like Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone and I think is some of our most imaginative work to date.
At home, I’m excited about my garden. Everything grows in California. My wife Elaine and I just planted three different kinds of lettuce, basil, parsley, cilantro, radishes, and snowpeas. We turn them all into a big salad every night. And then I have ice cream, just so I don’t become too LA.