How Ze Frank became a Web video star.
The growth of the Internet is fueled by yearning: What will happen when I put my thoughts online? Will people notice? Will people respond to my personal video? How many hits did I get? Who looked at my profile today? Who read my post? Who linked to me? Will my blog make me famous? When can I quit my day job?
Sadly, most blogs have an audience in the single digits. And most video blogs, unless made by an attractive woman, have a likely audience of one. But the 34-year-old Ze Frank defied these statistics and achieved laptop celebrity. Over the past year, he has created a five-day-a-week show, called The Show, that's composed of monologues spoken into a camera. The Show ended last week, at the 365-day mark. At roughly three minutes per episode, that adds up to 13 hours of improvised insights and cult creation. It's the best sustained comedy run in the history of the Web. Too bad it's over. And irreproducible.
Ze Frank tasted Internet stardom early. In 2001, he made a party invitation of funny dance moves for a few friends. The invite went viral, and he had the experience of refreshing his e-mail to find 60 to 70 new messages from around the world. He was a network star, and the attention was addictive. The dance thing, however, was a fluke. The real challenge would be to create that kind of attention purposefully, from scratch. He quit his job and built up his personal Web site. He had a few successes, but nothing on the level of The Show.
Reached on the phone in Brooklyn this week, Ze Frank seemed strung out from his yearlong experiment. "On Monday, I bought a newspaper, and literally my mind is cranking out one-liners." (Ze riffed on the news as part of The Show.) He talked about The Show's early days, in March 2006: "YouTube hadn't really caught on. There were a handful of aggressive video blogs. No one was harnessing the conversational energy." That was the genius insight: Ze conceived of his project as a conversation. Most writing and art says, "Look at me." Ze said, "Talk to me."
The first episode is slightly painful to watch. Ze goes on too long, in the way that video bloggers tend to. He comes off as a bug-eyed crank hopped up on Starbucks. But notice the unusual greeting: "Sports racer, racing sports. What's your power move? Ka!" From the start, Ze threw in terms that would become insider passwords. "Sports racers," we would discover, are fans of the show. A "power move" is any sort of singular gesture. It became a running feature, with people submitting their own power moves for the host's approval. (My favorite is the "bonesaw.") The first episode also made no effort to explain the purpose or format of the show.
Ze quickly developed a more alert visual style, something akin to Andy Rooney on speed. It involves lots of quick cuts and, eerily, an absence of blinking. The overall effect is of someone grabbing your shoulders. The JonBenet episode offers a prime example. Ze talks about John Karr, the "football-headed" guy who was arrested then released in connection with the murder. Ze explains that Karr was trying to attach himself to the JonBenet brand, prompting this exchange with himself:
JonBenet Ramsey's not a brand!
She isn't a brand ... but there is a JonBenet brand. It's just not one most people would want to associate themselves with.
And it worked! He got a business-class flight out of it, and the overall brand experience now includes his weird head.
(Blank sheeplike look, bleating) FIRST!
What the hell do you mean by brand?
A brand is an emotional aftertaste that's conjured up by, but not necessarily dependent on, a series of experiences.
An emotional aftertaste? That sounds like sissy talk! But every (Max Headroom-style stutter), but every, but everything has an emotional aftertaste.
Right! And everything's a potential brand!
Think about your grandmother. Feel it?
(Fond, happy little chuckle)
Right, that feeling is your grandma's brand. A bunch of experiences contributed to the making of that brand, like making good cookies. And tucking you in. And chasing you under a table when you called your uncle an alcoholic.
The cuts allow him to set up jokes with himself, to be his own straight man. It's a golden comic technique that's perfect for the time compression that Web video demands. Ze explains the development of his style this way: "The quick-cutting came out of the fact that when I started the project, I did not want to write it. The shows … are basically improvised line by line. I would scour for interesting things and take an emotional pulse for the day. I kept my eyes open because I was concentrating."
Instead of rolling out canned bits, Ze woke up every morning and cobbled together elaborate riffs. The May 4 episode, shot in Cannes, gives a capsule summary of the arguments for and against evolution; eventually, he decides that the turducken serves as proof that God exists. All in all, an impressive afternoon's work. Ze did other things right. He kept the shows around three minutes (which just happens to be the length of a Sesame Street skit). He plucked interesting things from his reading and his life. He was self-deprecating. And, in a pinch, he could fall back on a signature gift: the ability to make up funny songs.
By not planning ahead, Ze was able to respond to the news and to all of the things that his fans threw at him. The longer the show went on, Ze found, the more difficult it was to execute. It was like "running through syrup. Every action had a history. You can play into it, and it becomes format. Or you can play against it. By the end, it was really hard to come up with new things that would challenge the structure." (If you ever wondered why your favorite TV show doesn't change at all, there's your answer.) Ze responded by doing weird formal experiments, such as the "Left Turn" episode, where he inhabits the mind of someone watching The Show. He also cultivated a cult mentality. When he was featured in a glowing New York Times profile, Ze began making boring intros such as a tour of Brooklyn stairs to scare off new viewers.