“I look back on that going, ‘how the fuck did they let us shoot it?’ ” Rob Schrab tells me, discussing the ill-fated Fox pilot Heat Vision and Jack. “It is so out there. And back then, I thought ‘out there’ meant, ‘pretty cool, pretty creative.’ When your agent or a producer says, ‘wow, that’s out there,’ that’s not a complaint. They’re going, ‘you’re nuts. That’s completely unsellable.’”
It’s a somewhat depressing assessment of the state of creativity in Hollywood, but anyone who has followed the career of Schrab and his longtime writing partner Dan Harmon can tell you that that there’s a happy ending to all of this. Schrab and Harmon helped start the wonderful DIY film festival Channel 101, which has since launched a number of careers in the industry.
As for their own careers, Harmon is an executive producer on NBC’s Community and Schrab recently wrapped up work on The Sarah Silverman Program, after three years with the show. There’s also some happy news for those who’ve hoped the Scud creator would return to the medium that had Hollywood knocking on his door in the first place.
When you and Dan Harmon pitched Heat Vision and Jack, was it something that you really thought could be picked up by a major network?
Yeah. Why not? It was based off of a bunch of stuff that had already been on TV, so why not? Again, I look back on that going, ‘how the fuck did they let us shoot it?’ It is so out there. And back then, I thought ‘out there’ meant, ‘pretty cool, pretty creative.’ When your agent or a producer says, ‘wow, that’s out there,’ that’s not a complaint. They’re going, ‘you’re nuts. That’s completely unsellable.’
People want to do stuff that’s not risky. Nobody wants to risk their job or their company’s money on something that’s risk. But they want to do something original. That’s what every company in town is saying, “we want to do something different and new and blow the lid off of everything.” But they kind of keep on doing the same thing over and over again.
You mentioned the Adult Swim project you were working on [Children’s Hospital]. In 2010, doesn’t Heat Vision and Jack seem like something that could exist somewhere on TV?
Maybe, yeah. But I don’t think for features. It would have to be something like an animated series on Adult Swim. But I don’t even see anything like that on Adult Swim. They don’t really do action-adventure stuff. Scud, I would say, is a funny book, but It’s I would say that’s it’s an action-adventure property that happens to be funny, instead of a funny—it’s not a spoof action-adventure or horror. And you don’t really see much of that on Adult Swim.
Adult Swim, I love it—Tim and Eric are great friends. They’re really, really—they’re at the epicenter of cutting-edge comedy. And then you’ve got people like David Wain and Rob Corddry and The State guys doing stuff on there. They’re great. They don’t have a lot of money, though. So, when you do something animated, it’s going to have this lo-fi look to it. Though it’s changing, it’s definitely changing.
I think Scud—animation is not cheap. You think that you just draw a background, or whatever. It’s not cheap. To do it right and to make it good, you’ve got to spend a lot money.
One of the things that works about Heat Vision and Jack is that cheap live action look.
Yeah, yeah. that works definitely in what we were doing as a send up. We were trying to do this homage to old school TV. Nowadays we could have made it totally look like something out of the 80s. But animation-wise, that’s not really the bit you’re doing with Scud. Again, we tried to make Heat Vision and Jack look kind of cheesy on purpose, because we thought that was the joke. Of course not everyone got it.
You and I got it, but that’s the shock you get when you come out here—we are a small group of people in the eyes of Hollywood. We’re a tiny group of people. They look at the people in Comic Con and go, ‘well, that’s a small group. We want to get the people that keep Britney Spears alive and love Lady Gaga,’ and all that kind of stuff. That’s where the money is.
Was that the impetus behind Channel 101? Creating your own little niche?
Oh sure. Yeah. We got very, very luck at the beginning. We came out of the gate with Monster House and Heat Vision and Jack. We did a deal Jim Henson’s studios and did a bunch of stuff around TV. We wrote a bunch of pilots and a couple of features, here and there. We made a living, but after five years in the business, we made two things. And those were in the first year we were out here.
For the next four years, we realized that you’re just filling shelves. People would say, “we want to do this with you.” And then you would write it up and put all of this energy and love into it and then it would hit a wall. Someone up on top doesn’t get it. We were really, really getting tired of falling in love with these ideas, writing them, and then selling them to somebody, and then it just never goes anywhere.
After Heat Vision and Jack, I wanted to focus on directing, so I did Robot Bastard, which I shot all on film. It took me a year to do and it was a very time-consuming process. But, while I was doing it, I was shooting behind the scenes with this little video camera. I would shoot video storyboards like Robert Rodriguez taught me, in the Desperado DVD extras.
When you say “taught me,” you mean that you watched the extras on the DVD.
Oh yeah. I’ve never met him. I went to the extras like anyone else would. I wanted to cut them together, and then, all of the sudden, I started making dumb videos around my apartment and cutting them together. I had a great time doing it. And then, slowly, our friends around us would start buying these cameras and getting this editing equipment. And I said, “we should have a little festival.”
And we did a couple of things here and there, but eventually we landed on Channel 101. We said, “we’re going to do this once a month, without fail, and it’s going to be competitive, and it’s going to be a microcosm of television. “ So, instead of doing a short film that you might see on Funny or Die or YouTube—we did that in 2003, I don’t know if YouTube even existed, back then.
We wanted to make a microcosm of television, because we wanted to prove that our ideas were good, by allowing the audience to say whether or not we could do more of them, which is what we never got a chance to do with Heat Vision and Jack. We wanted to at least—if we had been able to show it to the cult audience, maybe we would have gotten picked up for, I don’t know, six episodes, or something like that’.
But I learned more Channel 101 than I learned anywhere else. That really was my film school, because I learned by doing, rather than sitting in a classroom.
It offered you a sense of reinforcement that there were actually people out there like you.
Yeah, people that wanted to see what we did. We don’t have huge downloads. We’re not at that level, where we’re getting huge hits, but every once in a while, we would get a House of Cosbys or Lonely Island, which started at Channel 101.
Yacht Rock is a personal favorite.
Yeah, Yacht Rock. Everybody that I know who has been at Channel 101 since it started, has gone on because of their Channel 101 experience. They’ve gone on to do TV and movies and acting and directing. When I said, “hey, I want to direct The Sarah Silverman Program,” people would say, “well, have you done anything?” and I would go, “boom, here are all of the DVDs I’ve been doing.” Because, when you’re shooting a short a month, for a couple of years, that’s a lot of content.
After working on The Sarah Silverman Program for—even though we were on for three seasons, I’ve been working on it for like five years. It’s a lot like comic books. When you’re the comic artist and writer, you write the book, you draw the book, you send it to the printer, and if people like it, they buy it, and if they don’t you don’t make another one. So, that’s how Channel 101 is. You make this thing, you send it off to the audience, and the audience votes whether or not you can do more. It’s exciting, it’s cool.
I miss that relationship. When you’re working in either features or TV, you have to get past—it’s art vs. commerce. There’s art, but that art has a price tag, so you have to go to the people who have money. And when you go to the people who have money, you have to say, “give me your money and trust that I’m going to do something right.”
But those people—it’s their money, and they want to have a say in how their money is being spent. They have a right to be involved, even though it’s annoying. But when you’re self-sufficient and you have a camera or a pencil and you can do your own comic book or shoot your short…
This is a bit of an aside, but I was watching an episode from the second season of The Sarah Silverman Program the other week, in which Steve [Agee] is making videos in his apartment. Was that autobiographical?
For Steve. I met Steve through doing improv around here, and he was one of the first people who jumped on-board Channel 101 and submitted videos. He was a guy that Comedy Central had never heard of, and we were saying that we wanted him to be one of the main characters on the show. And they were like, “why do you want this no name, when you can have anyone you want?”
And we were like, “because he’s one of the funniest people I know. And I know that he can act on camera and can be hilarious.” And it’s because of all of the stuff I’ve done with him on Channel 101. But all of those videos were based off of dumb videos that Steve made around the house. And all of that equipment laying around their apartment when they’re shooting the video is my actual equipment that I had left over from shooting stuff for Channel 101. So yes, it’s a little of his life and my life converging.
At the beginning of our conversation, you’d mentioned that you were trying to get in touch with Image. Is there the possibility of a new comic?
Oh sure, sure. Right now I’m publishing a sketchbook with them, which is going to feature art that I drew before Scud—a little bit of that, not a lot. The stuff that I did in-between my 10-year hiatus and the stuff I’ve been doing recently. Most of it’s coming form the pitches that I’ve pitched. I would draw stuff for visual aids to get stuff off the ground, and a lot of the stuff would never see the light of day, if I don’t publish it.
I have stacks and stacks of it, and it, and it’s getting worn out. Rather than completely chucking it or letting it disintegrate over time, I said, ‘there’s a lot of fun stuff in here. I would like to publish a book.’ It’s like, ‘I did this back in 2003, when I was trying to pitch a show to MTV,’ or, ‘here’s one that was a movie idea that I working with with Ron Howard’s company that fell through.’ I want to give a window into what I’ve been doing, outside of Scud.
And then, once I’m done with that, I have a plan—like I said before, instead of comic books being considered a jumping off point to go into movies, I’d like to make a comic book with the purpose of turning it into a film. I really would love to do that. There’s no better visual guide to what a movie could be than a comic book—even more than a screenplay. The producer can sit down and go, “oh, I can see this as a movie.”
Since, I think, comic books and movies are so close, and I can do both, I’d like to revisit that and do a book that has nothing to do with Scud, and use it as a way to kind of get my ideas out there. It’s just another way. Whether it’s doing a comic book, doing a short film, or writing a screenplay, I think it’s all one big glob of awesome coolness.