Sesame Street for  Grown-Ups: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on His New Show

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 21 2014 10:24 AM

Sesame Street for Grown-Ups: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on His New Show

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

You’ve probably never seen anything quite like actor-director-producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new variety show HITRECORD ON TV, which premiered at Sundance this week. It may be the first truly crowd-sourced television program: Gordon-Levitt and his producers put together contributions from Internet fans—short films, songs, cartoons—to create the episodes, each based on an organizing theme, like “trash” or “fantasy” (Episodes 2 and 3 respectively).

It’s like “Sesame Street for grown-ups,” Gordon-Levitt says, and it sounds like it could be terrible. But he pulls it off: While gimmicky in parts, it is great in others, thanks to what must be herculean curatorial efforts and the infectious charm of Gordon-Levitt himself. (If you like him, you’ll like the show; if not, stay away.) The contributions, of course, range in quality, and sometimes the interactivity feels forced, but at their best the shorts are groundbreaking and unlike anything else currently on TV. The premiere of a TV show at a film festival is also unusual, but perhaps a sign of things to come, as creative talent continues to work the small screen.

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The show airs on Saturdays at 10 p.m. on Pivot. I spoke with Gordon-Levitt at the premiere.

Slate: What do you view as revolutionary about the show?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: We never aimed for that—“Let’s make something revolutionary.” We just wanted to make good stuff. Though even just a few years ago it wasn’t technically possible to make a short film with hundreds of people from all over the world who live in different countries—it’s a great time to be alive.

Slate: Were you inspired by other variety shows?

Gordon-Levitt: We talked about it as a Sesame Street for grown-ups. I love all of Jim Henson’s stuff—The Muppet Show was another good one.  Some of the stuff that’s old-fashioned as well, like even Judy Garland had a variety show.    

Slate: How about The Ed Sullivan Show?

Gordon-Levitt: What happens on The Ed Sullivan Show is that people come and bring their acts that they have made independently. HitRECord is not so much showcasing one person’s act—it’s about lots of people coming together to put things together.

Slate: There’s a stereotype that Web content can be bad, crazy, and angry. 

Gordon-Levitt: A long time ago, when my brother first helped me set up the first version of HitRECord, it wasn’t supposed to be collaborative, it was just a place where I’m putting stuff. The initial decision to put up a message board for people to post was something I had to think long and hard about. Because the Internet can be a shitty place. People often use the anonymity to take out their animosity toward each other and be needlessly hostile. I was worried that that would happen.

We decided to give it a try, and to our surprise people were really cool to each other. And I think it’s that if you are nice and generous and thoughtful to people, that sort of spreads.

Slate: There’s a lot of philosophy embedded in HitRECord. In last year’s introduction to Don Jon, you spoke of the importance of I and Thou and other works to the film.

Gordon-Levitt: There’s an interesting parallel between the philosophy of Don Jon and Hit RECord. Don Jon is about a guy whose whole existence is a one-way street. He doesn’t connect with anybody in any way.

Our media, in the 20th century, was much that way: a one-way street. There was a small clique of industry people who made everything, and everyone else had to sit and consume it. There wasn’t any interaction. 

Now technology is changing that. HitRECord is our way of taking advantage of the way technologies are changing, to add connections that are not just one-way.

Interview has been condensed and edited.