14 December 2012
Neely: Let's continue our discussion about "Lords of the Playground." So now it’s at Parenting magazine. Is Parenting still a print journal as well as online?
Jason: Indeed. I think their online presence is more their focus than print at this point, but they’re definitely out there.
Neely: I don’t know anything about webisodes, but I do know that monetizing it is seemingly impossible; but you’ve become what is called “bonus content.” That’s got to be worth something to them.
Jason: That’s the big question. I think they wouldn’t be going through this deal with us if they didn’t feel like we could help them and earn some money. How much? Who knows. There’s very little money in the web.
Neely: For now. It’s the next frontier.
Jason: Yeah. Everybody wants their webisode to do one of two things: they want to make money off it on the web or, better yet, they want some genius executive somewhere to go “That’s what I’ve been looking for. Let’s hire these guys as writers and these guys that they’ve already cast as actors and we’re going to make a television series that’s exactly this.” (laughing) And the chances of it happening are sooo slim. My favorite webisodes are the ones that people are doing for their own enjoyment. Those are the best ones. That was originally what “Lords of the Playground” was. I think we were just going to put it out there. I thought it was funny stuff. I just wanted to get it out on the web.
We did make a minor detour after CBS, through Broadway Video. We were in talks with them to be part of their new web venture. Parenting magazine came around in the middle of that. The Broadway Video thing started to go on for a very long time as they were trying to develop a new channel and we finally decided just to do it ourselves. And by doing it ourselves, I mean putting them up on YouTube.
We picked the week before Father’s Day and took two or three and put them up to get them out there. We had another guy join us who was in the marketing world, Joe Cerbo, and he and I spent a lot of time narrowing down which Dad Blogs and parents’ publications and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds we were going to hit to let them know that this existed. And within a week we had a call from Parenting magazine that they were really interested in partnering with us. Compared to the length of time we spent with Canada and CBS, it’s been a blink of an eye getting to a point where we’re going to start working with them. They would like to order more episodes at some point and they want to get us a sponsor. It’s very exciting for us. We spent three grand on this and it’s paid itself off already in a couple of ways. It is, however, very hard to figure out how to monetize webisodes. I feel you just have to do what’s funny and you find a way to get it out there.
What I’m also learning is that even the people who I think have a good handle on this kind of product don’t necessarily have a good handle on it. I have friends who are working on a webisode and putting a lot of money into it and I’m able to say to them, “That’s great. Have you gotten all the IP down?” And they’re like, “What IP?” You’ve got to get the website name; you have to get the Twitter feed; you have to get the Facebook page. You want all that and then you want to narrow down how you’re going to direct market this thing if you want it to get out to the right people and get the maximum amount of attention. And if you’ve done all that, then maybe, eventually, somebody might come up and say, “We want this.” You can then say, “I’ve got it all. You don’t have to go and get anything. You don’t have to get the Foursquare Page. You don’t have to get the Twitter feed. It’s all set up for you. All you have to do is take it over.” There’s a lot more in the marketing of something like this than just trying to get it up on “Funny or Die.”
Neely: Were you on “Funny or Die?”
Jason: No. We avoided putting stuff up on the web for a long time because everybody was all, “You want to make a splash when you put it out.” We finished our webisodes about three and a half years ago and we only put them on the web about 6 months ago, once we were sure that nobody else wanted to do anything with them. Once we knew that, we decided we were finally ready to show them to the world and the world came knocking a little bit more. And that’s another lesson I had about this business.
If it had played out like it did in my dreams, we would have put them on the web as branded content, made that splash to that someone else would say, “This needs to be developed into something longer form.” Now I’m not even concerned about it being developed in longer form. If it happens that way, if somebody wants to take that route again, even knowing how hard it is to turn something into an actual television show, that’s great. Come on. Come talk to us about it. But in the meantime, I’m very satisfied with doing these micro-movies, making more of them. I’d love it if somebody else would be responsible for presenting them, for taking them out and getting people to look at them.
Neely: How successful was your Father’s Day launch? How many hits?
Jason: I don’t know if it’s a big amount or a small amount. For us it seemed huge. Over the course of the week, we started on Father’s Day and by the middle of July, about a month, we had about 7,000 hits and for us that was remarkable because none of us had that many friends. (Neely laughs). Somebody else was looking at this besides our friends. And then Parenting decided they were going to run a special on us in their September issue. We were going to be featured, by featured I mean, we took up about a quarter of a page on page 11 of that issue. But it tripled the number of hits we had. So just in that little thing alone, (and we’re not even monetizing it at all at this point because we haven’t flipped that switch yet and made a page with them), in that little mention in Parenting magazine, we ended up with 21,000 unique hits. Small potatoes in some ways but no one was pushing it. And yet people passed it around enough to get that far. That gives me a lot of hope that once Parenting starts pushing it, something more will happen with it. More people will see them.
In one respect, I’m a writer in this situation, but in another, I’m still that actor who wants everyone to see the funny stuff we’re doing. (laughing) Maybe we won’t make any money on it but maybe a lot of people will see it. That would be cool. I’m still doing TV where millions of people tune into a television show that I’m guest starring on, but I really just want them to see this “30 second me” on a bench because that’s really what I’m proud of because it’s really funny and I like it.
Neely: I actually love it! Let’s talk a bit more about you. I first met you when you went from guest star, to recurring actor to series regular as the weasely assistant district attorney on “The Practice.” We had these great casting directors on that show – Megan McConnell and Janet Gilmore – who were told to try to get Jason Alexander for that role, but they knew your work and pushed for you. They were so right.
Jason: I’m going to throw in another name for you – Jami Rudofsky.
Neely: Of course. Jami was their assistant and now she has her own fabulous career as a casting director.
Jason: No one knew me and I was new to LA, maybe 7 months at that point, but Jami saw me first and got me a pre-read. Jami pushed for me with Janet and Megan; and Janet and Megan pushed me to the next level. So I owe all of them a debt of gratitude.
Neely: You had a really good run but in the second year of your run, David Kelley killed your character after two in years in spectacular fashion. I hope it’s not still too raw and you can tell us a bit about your reaction.
Jason: At this point I look back and I go, you live by the Kelley, you die by the Kelley. It was a total blessing to be on a show where somebody wanted to write for you and your character so much. So in a way, it’s like “Do whatever you want. You can kill me. You got me a career.” At this point I look back on it and am very pleased that it had ever happened at all. I don’t care about getting killed. Plus, he killed me on the 100th episode, so it was a big event. I got a nice funeral out of it. I learned I was a Presbyterian, which I’d had no idea about during the actual shooting of the series.
But I think the first reaction I had was great disappointment, not just because it was a great gig on a top ten show with great writing, but I really enjoyed working with everybody else – cast and crew alike. I felt like I was not being asked to Thanksgiving dinner this year with the family. I was still having such a great time working on the show, I was very disappointed. I remember the day we were actually shooting the scene where I got shot – it was about half way through the shooting of the episode – I was driving down the 405 and I kept thinking, “If I keep going, I would be in Mexico in a couple of hours and they can’t kill me. (laughing) How can they kill me if I’m not there. Nah, they’d probably find a way to do it.”
I got to the set and remember thinking that I should just be really sour and dour about the whole thing. And I tried that for about an hour. I put on my headphones and played The Smiths and Radiohead and really somber, moody music and then I just couldn’t. I had so much fun being involved in a show where I was working with people I knew and liked. It was a great gig so I didn’t want to deprive myself of that for the last week, so instead I just turned it on its ear and had a great week. I saw David about two days after that and the only thing he said to me was, “Hey! You look pretty good for a dead guy.” (Both laughing) It was disconcerting that he was taking it so lightly; I was hoping he would be in tears at the sight of me, but… no. So I just ended up having a really great time and everybody there threw me a lovely going away party.
Neely: By the way, they didn’t do that for everyone.
Jason: Well, I heard that and I was very honored. The crew was incredibly nice. They got me a chair with my name on it to take with me. I really enjoyed working with those people and still try to keep in touch with several of them.
Neely: I’m happy to be one of them. You parlayed that experience into a piece that was part of something Ileanna Douglas created called “Fired.” Why don’t you explain what that was.
Jason: Sure. It wasn’t Ileanna Douglas, though. It was Anabelle Gerwich. Ileanna Douglas did one of them and I did it with her. But it was Anabelle’s creation. When she approached me about that, I thought, “Man have I got a story.” There were so many interesting parts to that story starting with getting the word from David, to… wait did I tell you the story of when Michael Badalucco called me?
Neely: No. I don’t remember a Michael Badalucco story.
Jason: I had been talking a lot to Michael. I was worried that I hadn’t been appearing in the last three or four scripts, maybe a line here or there but nothing much. And I’d been told by Bob Breech, the executive producer, that there was a story line coming for me. I was worried because I wasn’t hearing anything. So I was talking to Michael about that and then I got a call from David that he was going to kill the character in the next script but to keep it to myself because he didn’t want to give it away. Then I got the script and I read it and there it was on the last page. By the way, the writers of that storyline, Luke Reiter and Jonathan Shapiro, had told me that that was not their initial ending for the script. (Laughing) So they weaseled their way out of responsibility for my death; they blamed David.
But Michael called me after he got the script and he said, “Hey man! I just got the script.” And I said, ”Oh you did, huh.” And Michael said, “Oh man, you’re all over this script. Look at that. You’ve got huge speeches. This is great (Neely starts laughing), you’ve got this big scene where you get shoved up in a garage. You’ve got a ton of stuff in this script. I told you it was going to come around.” I said, “Michael. Have you read the last page?” He said, “No. What’s on the last page?... Oh no! You’ve got to be kiddin’! (Neely is guffawing) Oh, man! I didn’t know that. I’m so sorry.”
I also had the experience that I talked about on “Fired!” about getting shot in the car. Somebody pulls up with a machine gun and just blows the whole car away and I have to die in that scene. Just getting in that car – the death car – knowing that this is it… then having to go through the motions. I remember I talked to the director and I said, “How do you want me to die in this? I’ve never really done this before. How do you want me to die?” So he said, “Okay, here’s what you do. You get in the car; you put on your seat belt; you hear ‘bang, bang, bang, bang;’ you do your Sonny Corleone in the toll booth imitation and you die facing the camera.” (Neely is doubled over laughing) That was all I got. Everybody was milling around, making sure the car was good, that the camera was in place. I had the guy who ran the special effects talking me through the ¾ inch plexi that was going to keep the glass pellets from shattering me as well as the windshield… He’s instructing me, “There’s ‘this’ that’s going to blow out and you’re going to hear this noise and don’t touch that walkie talkie (or whatever it was).”And then he yells, “Okay everybody. Clear!” And everybody disappeared. You die alone, man. There was nobody. They said “Roll the cameras!” And they hid… behind pillars. The only guy I could see was a guy on a ladder about 10 feet away from the car with a pellet gun about to shoot glass pellets at me. Other than that, it was silent. I couldn’t see anybody and I thought, “Okay, here we go. This is when you die.”
And we did the scene; we did it in one take, thank goodness, so I didn’t have to do it again. I was covered in squibs – covered in blood. So everybody applauds and I go back to take a shower, get all that crap off me and get out of those clothes. Cindy, the wardrobe woman, is there. I go out and she’s the only one left. Everybody else has gone home. And I was like, “Wow. You really do die alone.” And then I remembered that I had to come back the next day to do another scene – a courtroom scene. I named that piece in “Fired!” the same thing I was thinking of at that moment, “Dead Man Working,” because the next four days I was clearly dead, but I still had four days of courtroom scenes to do. It was a really entertaining story… later on. That experience was very lonely. But like I said, David can write whatever he wants, as long as he gives me a job. (chuckling)
Neely: Have you always been a writer as well as an actor? I remember a staged reading you did of a script you and your writing partner did for Universal on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” It was an absolute scream and another missed opportunity on the part of the studio.
Jason: I’ve been writing a long time. I’ve always written short form, whether with sketch groups or once I wrote a two man show with a buddy of mine named Joel Jones (he was the partner with whom I also wrote “Rocky and Bullwinkle: A Christmoose Story”). We did a two man sketch show that we took to Aspen that was well received. I’ve written a bunch of short plays and kids’ stories, nothing that’s been published, but stuff that I’ve had done around town. But yeah, writing has always been something I’ve loved to do; so that was one of the reasons that when I was thinking of this idea for “Lords of the Playground,” I originally thought of it as a series – 22 minutes, come on let’s go. The more I thought of it at the time, though, it really wasn’t my forte. Now I think I could do it because I’ve been through the ringer, but 4 years ago, no.
I like short form stuff. I like getting in and getting out. The Rocky and Bullwinkle thing was kind of an anomaly. Joel and I were hired by Universal to write the Rocky and Bullwinkle Christmas special. I was a huge Rocky and Bullwinkle fan as a kid. All it is, really, is that you have a plot that is somewhat plausible, somewhat implausible and it’s pretty much bad puns and non-sequiturs. Bad puns and non-sequiturs, that’s what I grew up with; that was my family. So Joel and I set out to write this thing. We had a lot of fun writing it and a lot of fun toning it and rewriting it. We pitched it around and nobody was interested at the time. We didn’t realize it but it was because we were pitching it in the spring before the summer that the movie came out. Universal put out a half-live action version of Rocky and Bullwinkle with Jason Alexander, Renee Russo and Robert DeNiro. I think everything was predicated on how well that movie did. Nobody wanted to invest in a property that was possibly going to be damaged, and sure enough, the movie tanked. So no one was interested in the property anymore. So we started doing a semi-annual reading of “Rocky and Bullwinkle: Christmoose Special” for our friends. We had a blast doing it and people really like it. I always had in the back of my head that somebody would approach us again one day and say, “You know, it’s time. It’s time for the Rocky and Bullwinkle Christmas Special.” But I think that time is only in my head, unfortunately.
Neely: Who besides your circle of friends remembers it on a studio level?
Jason: I don’t know. This is the other naïve part for us. I don’t think we had control of the script.
Jason: I’m sure we could fight and try to get it back at this point. Out of all the people we worked with, there’s only one lady I’ve kept in touch, and only sporadically at that. Universal has no plans on doing anything from Jay Ward Productions anytime in the near future. They’ve had bombs with everything they’ve done. “George of the Jungle,” had a modicum of success; “Dudley Do Right” failed… I think somebody told me that they’re coming out with a short of “Sherman and Peabody” again. A lot of the stuff that they’ve tried that Jay Ward Productions has put, Tiffany Ward is now in charge, but I’m not a big fan of it. It’s not really in the spirit of the old style which I think is still workable. It’s still officially a Universal property. They’ve given back some of the rights to Tiffany Ward but not the full media rights. I could ask them but Universal probably doesn’t want to let it go because they don’t have to. I could fight it someday if I really wanted to, but, you know, I’d have to get Tiffany Ward and people to want to pitch it again.
Neely: You know it would make a great small musical for off-Broadway (which is how “Avenue Q” started).
Jason: Well if it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done through Universal with Tiffany Ward’s approval. I know she’s a big fan of it. She’s come to some of the readings that we’ve done. She’s a fan of the script. It’s just such a process to go through at this point. I’d be surprised if anybody was interested in pushing forward with it.
Neely: I absolutely love it. I’m still such a huge fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I would love it if they would just put it back on TV. They were always trying to make something that was already tongue-in-cheek more tongue-in-cheek and that never works.
Jason: They were trying to make it hip for kids, too. It doesn’t work that way. It wasn’t a kid’s show. It was for adults and kids liked it because it was cartoons. I don’t think that kids really got that it was a Cold War parody. That was the adults. So no kid would understand that the character Boris Badenov was a take-off on Boris Godunov. No one would understand that Natasha Fatale was the femme fatale. That was her name. Like all good cartoons of the past, whether Bugs Bunny or Rocky and Bullwinkle, they were written for adults and kids enjoyed them.
Neely: Well I think kids did get it on a certain level because both of the cartoons you just mentioned were fueled by anarchy and chaos and kids love that stuff.
Jason: Well if it were up to me, I would take the script that we have, which other than taking place after the Cold War, contains very few modern references. It should be animated in the same way; send it to Mexico and have people do it by hand like Jay Ward did. It should look like it’s a lost episode that Jay Ward did before he died. It would have the same tone; Tiffany approves it and that would be my way of doing it. It should look exactly like the old one but I don’t think that people want to do that. They’re afraid. Networks are always afraid. They’re afraid that no one would watch it because it’s not something people remember anymore; it’s not hip enough, it’s not cool enough; it’s not “South Park” enough. Rocky and Bullwinkle was not edgy, or at least not by today’s standards.
Neely: No, unfortunately all it was was really funny. And this is a good place to stop and continue later talking about “the funny” and you. To Be Continued. And make sure to check out "Lords of the Playground" on Youtube.