I'm a child of the '80s. I remember the amazing launch of MTV and watching that first music video ever go live. I remember playing Oregon Trail version .01 and Choplifter on an Apple II in elementary school and Shufflepuck Caf on a DOS operating system in Junior High.
I'm old enough to not only know the origin of the term floppy disk, but also to know that you should never touch the circle on the bottom of one.
Those were the days. So much innovation and excitement, yet so much naivety.
As consumers, we knew so little about where computers were headed. I mean, it really wasn't even until the mid 90′s before the average person started using the internet. And even then, we had no idea what was possible--we probably still don't.
I was brought down memory lane last week when I just happened to stumble across a new, brilliantly produced and written web series called, Computer Show.
The show's lead character goes by the name Gary Fabert, who plays a naive, yet confident host of a tech talk show set in the early '80s. The kicker is ... the guests he interviews are companies and people from the modern day.
If you aren't one of the 75,000 to have seen this episode yet, continue reading after you're done watching it.
After watching the first episode (which there are only two at this point), I was hooked. I was also curious to know how this came about, so I reached out to Jonathon Triest, whom I had known previously and was listed as the Executive Producer.
Jonathon connected me with the co-creator and Director, Adam Lisagor, who shared the story behind the series:
How did the project come together initially?
Tony (writer and co-creator) had been wanting to write something narrative around the idea of early car phone salespeople in the late 80′s. He had a fascination with that era of tech and the aesthetic of the new modern, in an era that from here looks so ancient. Roxana (Tony's younger sister and my life partner and babymama) got interested in helping Tony formulate the perfect vehicle for this story world. I was casually aware of this project ambition but never really participated. It went through a few iterations--short film, sitcom-like web series, multiple script drafts, but nothing ever stuck.
Then, as I understand it, Roxana (who used to run a well-regarded men's style blog called Nerd Boyfriend, which was based on deconstructing the outfits worn by famous cultural icons in lesser-known photographs), was traipsing through YouTube one day and came upon something magical: a series called "The Computer Chronicles" which was produced from 1983 through the mid-90s by a man named Stewart Cheifet, in which he and a cohost would interview tech luminaries of the day on a set that looks very much like the one we constructed for our show.
There was an infinite amount of nostalgic charm and retro-navet in this series, especially the earliest episodes, which hit a chord with all three of us because we were children of the 80′s and it recalled the time just before we all became awakened to the powers of the personal computer.
There was an innocence to the show, and a humility in it that's so refreshing compared to the overconfidence and self-importance in the tech world of today. And, the styles of dress and communication could not have been more different than what we've come to expect in the tech world now.
So it just became clear to Roxana and Tony, there was something here. Roxana had the idea to make something in this universe. To produce a show like "The Computer Chronicles".
One day, over Slack, Roxana asked me for the contact info of a producer I know. When I asked why, she told me she had this idea, and also asked if I'd maybe be a contributor on it. When I got more info out of her (she tends to be a little private about her personal projects) and explained to me that she had this idea of a tech talk show set in the early 80′s, where the guests would interview people from modern day, I just about flipped out and lost my mind I was so excited.
What was the process like to go from idea to inception?
So Roxana and Tony and I started thinking hard about the format of the show. Roxana put together a mocked up edit, what we would call in the commercial production industry a "rip-o-matic" which is a template for an episode of "Computer Show", cobbled together from clips from the various 80′s tech-related shows we'd been using as references.
And let it be known, from an early stage, one of the strongest points of reference was the British comedy series "Look Around You" by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, which for a few years in the aughts I considered my most prized personal possession (the 2-season DVD box set). That show was a parody of science education programs on the BBC, set definitively in the early 80′s, with delicious period touches like wardrobe, video look, music, and production design.
Other reference points for us: "Between Two Ferns", the Zach Galifianakis web series on Funny or Die, and the Onion News Network's "Today Now!", which was a send-up of mindless morning shows, which was so brilliantly written, improvised and edited. I pretty much used that editing style as a template for how multi-take improvised performances can be cut for the illusion of seamless interview, where you get to really dig in and find the jokes in each moment as you're shooting.
The next step was to get people on board. So literally the first person Roxana and I got on the phone with and told was Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, one of the world's biggest online communities. Alexis had interviewed me earlier in the year for a show he produces with The Verge called "Small Empires". He'd done an episode on my company, Sandwich Video, exploring the unique structure we have and how we sometimes work with our clients partially for equity.
I arranged a phone call with him over the weekend, and told him I had an exciting idea and wanted his feedback. We got on the phone and it was the first time I'd really said the idea out loud to someone who wasn't us, so it was interesting to hear it formulated into concrete terms. Saying things like "The Computer Chronicles" meets "Between Two Ferns" and wondering whether that would go up like a lead balloon.
It turned out, Alexis could not have been more receptive. He was excited from the get-go, and even asked how he could get Reddit involved. So we had our first captivated audience, as well as our first guest. Now we just had to write and produce a show--something neither of us had ever really done before.
Luckily, I own a production company and know a lot of people who do this stuff for a living. So I called in favors from a bunch of my favorite regular crew, who were excited to help us produce something for the fun of it--an important distinction in my field.
First off, people responded to the general concept of the show, and the creative opportunities it afforded. But I work with great people who I consider friends as well as colleagues, so it was just a feel-good operation from its inception.
The guy who plays the lead character, Gary Fabert, is just the perfect combination of ignorant and arrogant. How did you find such a perfect person to play the role of the host?
Roxana is Sandwich's full-time casting director, so she hit the ground running, trying to find our host. We didn't know yet who the character would be, but we knew a certain age range and a certain demeanor, and we figured it would be funnier if he thinks he knows more about the tech world than he actually does. We didn't know yet whether that would present as ego, or straight up ignorance, or machismo, but we knew we'd find out once we started seeing some people in the clothes.
Then Roxana had the stroke of brilliance (yes, another one). What about our friend Rob Baedeker, a SF-based writer/performer from the sketch group Kasper Hauser? I'd been looking for a good role for him since I started making commercials, but when Roxana mentioned him for the role of the host of "Computer Show", everything just sort of gelled for us.
So we flew Rob down for the weekend, we brought in one of my regular wardrobe designers, Courtney Arthur, to pull some 80′s suits from the rental houses. Roxana wrote some preliminary scenes to play with, and we went to my office and put him in the clothes and shot some screen tests with placeholder interview subjects. Our first of which was our booking producer, Julia Smith, who sat down at the desk with Rob and posed as the founder of a fictional dating site called (if I remember correctly) Lovetaps. So dumb, but it worked as a proof-of-concept.
Over the course of a couple of hours of playing with this interview format, we discovered the character in the role.
At first, Rob was playing him more like a news anchor--straightforward and informational, but with the twist that he didn't understand much of what was being said to him. He even sat straight up like a news anchor, and for some reason, it was stiff.
I suggested that he sort of lean back, or slouch. Put some more cockiness into it, like a Fred Willard. And then it sort of clicked--this is a man with a ton of ego, a little bit of ambition (he's a TV personality), and a whole lot of ignorance. Not only because it's the early days of personal computing, but he has a genuine ignorance of technology of the day. He thinks he knows way more than he does, and he has sort of a lack of appreciation and respect for this computer stuff. He thinks of this gig as his stepping stone to doing the weather or having his own local morning chat show.
And when Rob leaned back and started letting that character flow, magic happened. He started improvising this whole backstory for his character--an ex-wife he was pining for, who would make her way into his line of questioning of his guests, a passion for racquetball and Bob Seger, little anachronistic touches that brought the character to life.
We were eating it up. And, my favorite part was standing behind the camera, listening to him riff, and then if I'd think of something funny for him to add, I'd shout it out, they'd repeat the last interaction, he'd throw in the line and build from there. It was a new kind of directing that I wasn't accustomed to, but felt really awesome and productive.
And after about an hour, I knocked on the door of my friend Stephan Ango, who I shared an office space with at the time. He had a little bit of an improv background, so I quickly explained the idea of the show to him and asked if he'd sit in and play an interview subject for our camera test, talking about his company, Lumi. And we discovered that this works best if the guests of the show play it totally straight--don't try and be funny. Let Rob do the heavy lifting and it'll fall into place. Stephan was such a natural at this that we decided he and his cofounder, Jesse Genet, would be the perfect actual guests for an episode. They agreed, and ended up in the show.
The co-host, Angela, was also great, but I noticed she was only in the one episode. What's the story there?
Roxana and I had lunch with a friend of ours, a writer/actor named Brian Sacca, and we explained the idea to him. We told him we were thinking there should be a co-host, someone to be the foil to Rob and give him the opportunity shine.
Brian thought it might be fun to have that person be different every episode.
We got a big huge kick out of that idea, and when we found the character of Gary (the host) in Rob's performance, it became clear why. That the co-host would be inexplicably replaced by a new one every episode, presumably because Gary had taken issue with them, they'd upstaged him, they'd dressed inappropriately ... whatever the reason. And this would have the added benefit of us getting to cast a new up-and-coming talented performer in that role every episode, which is huge since LA is full of funny people who would be perfect as the co-host.
Now with the idea and cast in hand, what does it take to make a show like this a reality?
We set a date for the shoot so that we wouldn't let ourselves go months and months without making this thing. I enlisted one of my favorite production designers, Gabe Wilson, to build the set. We basically sent him clips of "The Computer Chronicles" and said "make this--try to keep the budget reasonable". And, because most of my commercial work doesn't involve a lot of set building (we shoot actual locations and dress them instead of building sets on a stage), I got a lesson in the costs of doing this kind of thing right. And Gabe did it right. He got it absolutely perfect. The table he had built is basically an exact replica of the table from "The Computer Chronicles" and when I saw it in person for the first time, the day before our shoot, I got tears in my eyes. But holy hell, did it cost some money.
Then, we went about finding other guests to shoot.
In the process of trying to lock down one founder, I needed some help, so I called my friend and VC partner, Jonathon Triest at Ludlow Ventures in Detroit. I told Jonathon what the idea was (this was just a few weeks before we were to shoot) and he got so excited that he asked if he could kick in some money to help produce it. I love the guy, so who am I to refuse his money? Hence, the shiny, retro-styled Ludlow Ventures logo card at the head of the episodes.
Finally, we crewed up and shot three episodes in a 17-hour day (one of the three has been withheld from distribution as of now), and it was one of the most stressful but fulfilling days I've ever had on set.
I got to play a character--the self-important monologuing editorializing "thinker" who ends up being just a crude pitchman at the end of the day. Putting on the three-piece suit with the gold digital watch and tie-chain was the closest I've ever experienced to time travel. I looked in the mirror on that day and I saw my dad.
We shot a field segment with Tony as a clueless roaming reporter Tino Sabroso, reporting on something in the realm of whatever the current show's topic would be.
Then we set upon the task of editing them all together with our editor Zena Grey. The part that I was looking forward to the most was having the motion logos designed and the music composed and crafting the final video look, to age the whole thing like it had been dug up from a fault at the back of a local TV station on 3/4" U-matic videotape.
For the music, I enlisted one of my regular composers, Adam Deibert, who actually remembers having watched "The Computer Chronicles" as a kid, so the aesthetic was very dear to him. And spending those couple of days in his studio with him was something I'll never forget, because the music is where a piece really gets its soul.
To create the graphics, we researched a number of people out on the Internet that had done retro 80′s graphics, but none of them had really gotten the authenticity exactly correct. It's a very nuanced thing, and it's so easy to assume you're doing it right if you throw a laser grid and some blue steel lettering on a star field, but there's more to it than that. There's a richness to the early 80′s aesthetic of graphic design that is defined by constraints as much as it is by modernity. Because the artists and designers of that time could see what was just on the horizon--they knew what they'd be able to eventually do but couldn't yet, and the aesthetic of the time was clumsy attempts to get there. And the one person I found that captured it perfectly was a guy I've never met to this day, by the name of Jarred Hageman.
We had given ourselves a deadline to show an episode as a sneak preview during the XOXO festival in Portland. Up to the week of the festival, I still wasn't sure whether we'd be ready, so I hadn't even asked the festival's founders if we could show it. But we stuck to the deadline, and with the piece still needing to be fully mastered, and all the R&D still in progress for authentically aging the video, without final graphics, Roxana and I got on a plane to Portland to hopefully show the audience what we'd been working on.
The final renders were still being completed and quality-checked up until 90 minutes before I was to go on stage and present the episode. But when I downloaded it in the lobby of our hotel, when I saw the totality of our show with final graphics and music and video look and everything we'd been imagining for it, again I got teary.
It finally felt right. In my line of work, the thing you're making just plain sucks until it doesn't, and in my opinion, our show sucked until it got the final patina of 1983 on it. And then it was right. And then we showed it to the audience of a few hundred, and it brought the house down, which felt pretty amazing.