Behold human giant, sketch group extraordinaire! Only recently unearthed from the wilds of YouTube by MTV for your delectation and delight! They are Internet friendly! They will save your network and restore your cool! They have four heads and eight eyes and one beard!
Such is the story of Human Giant. It’s a familiar one, at least at first glance, because it seems to confirm a lot of things that you already think are true. For example: The Internet is hot! And: MTV is cool! And: Three crazy young nobodies put some funny short films online and now they’ve got a show premiering April 5 at 10:30 p.m.!
Which is a pretty good story, except that it’s not the actual story. For starters, Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer, and Rob Huebel (the onscreen portion of the group, though they’re quick to explain that it’s a four-man operation, including their director–cameraman–editor–jolly muse Jason Woliner) may not be household names, but they aren’t exactly unknowns. In 2005, Rolling Stone named Ansari the country’s hottest young stand-up. Scheer is recognizable for his roughly one jillion appearances as a pundit on VH1. Not long ago, Huebel moved from New York to L.A. for a development deal with NBC. So we’re not talking about three guys with a Webcam in a basement in Minnesota. “Our videos weren’t even insanely popular on YouTube,” says Aziz. “It’s not like ‘Ask a Ninja’ or something.”
And here’s another wrinkle: MTV’s not cool anymore. In case you weren’t paying attention, it just laid off 250 people. MTV has spent too long glutting itself on tween-targeted junk food like My Super Sweet 16 and Date My Mom, so it now has what might be charitably termed “brand issues.” Even worse, MTV’s Web presence is negligible, which is a problem. Because MTV’s audience isn’t just migrating away from MTV, they’re migrating away from TV, period.
Oh, and there’s one last complication: Sketch comedy is dead. Everyone knows that. The last golden age—SCTV and SNL in the eighties, The Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show in the nineties—is ten years gone. “For the longest time, people would say, ‘You can’t pitch a sketch show,’ ” says Scheer. “People would rip you apart. But then ‘Lazy Sunday’ hit. And it was like, ‘Oh, wait—maybe people like short comedic things.’ ”
So this is the simple task Human Giant is charged with: Save sketch comedy and, while you’re at it, MTV. Come up with a “Lazy Sunday”–quality viral “short comedic thing” for American teens to devour on their cell phones, or their iPods, or their as-yet-undiscovered content-delivery-devices. And do it every week.
“In the old days, Lana Turner got discovered at Schwab’s, and then every actress started hanging out at Schwab’s,” says Tony DiSanto, the development executive behind Human Giant. “Now the Web is the virtual Schwab’s. And Human Giant is our Lana Turner.”
In 2006, a colleague showed DiSanto a few of Human Giant’s self-financed short films, including Shutterbugs, about two profane, cutthroat agents to toddler-age actors, and Shittiest Mixtape Boombox Blast, in which Ansari walks around New York with a boom box playing the shittiest mix tape ever. This may not sound to you like Monty Python, but if you don’t laugh out loud at the sight of Ansari in Washington Square Park, his boom box blasting “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer while he endures the withering, What’s up-with this loser? glances from jaded New Yorkers, then you may want to put a mirror in front of your mouth, because there’s a good chance you’re officially dead.
“MTV just came to us and said, ‘Do you want to do this for us?’ We didn’t have to pitch them or anything,” says Scheer, over beers with the group at the Half King. Of course, there’s a big difference between making a funny film in your spare time that someone might forward to his office buddies for free, and coming up with nine to eleven sharp sketches every week. However, the members of Human Giant have a few factors in their favor. For one, they’re funny. Second, their self-titled TV show retains the rough-edged, Web-friendly charm of their films, which means it should translate very well online. And because these guys are serious comedy nerds—asked for their influences, they rattle off the current canon: Delirious-era Eddie Murphy, the U.K. Office, The Ben Stiller Show—their sketches are fast and original and, in the best cases, deeply weird, as when Huebel dispatches a troublesome girlfriend by promising to meet her out back “in the corn maze.” Cut to dozens of woebegone women, wandering eternally, while Huebel watches from a window and whispers malevolently, “Corn maze.”
“We really agonize over, Has someone tackled this type of idea before?” says Scheer. “We’ll think, Wait, in 1994, this one sketch had a reference that’s kind of similar.” So much so that when a sketch was about to be filmed, the group suddenly got worried it might be too close to a Mr. Show bit. So they phoned that show’s co-creator Bob Odenkirk. “He said, ‘That’s totally different. Do your idea,’ ” says Huebel. “Then he said, ‘If you start doing this for every idea, you’re never going to get your show done.’ ”
As for MTV’s image problems, well, in this transitional age of cell-phone-content synergy, does it really matter if you share a channel with Date My Mom? “MTV’s probably not the first place you think of when you think of comedy,” Huebel says. “What we’re hoping for is, funny is funny.” In a way, Human Giant is arriving at a strange time for a sketch show: Ten years ago, they might have landed a late-night network gig and been heralded as the new Kids in the Hall; ten years from now, they’d probably skip TV altogether and instead be beamed holographically into your brain. But in the here and now, Human Giant is happy to have a platform to spread their patented DUIY aesthetic.
There isn’t, of course, such a thing as a “DUIY” aesthetic, at least not until Scheer accidentally coins it at the Half King. Weirdly, it fits.
“What’s DUIY?” says Woliner.
“Yeah, yeah!” says Ansari. “Do It Under the Influence Yourself! That’s what we’re shooting for! Get drunk and make your dreams come true.”