Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Interview with Zach Weinersmith and James Ashby of SMBC and SMBC Theater

In terms of presence on the Internet, the name Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (or, better known by its acronym, SMBC) is one that stands out, being constantly found in most forums, Reddit threads, and even Facebook posts.  A daily webcomic written and drawn by Zach Weinersmith, SMBC exploded in popularity due to its zany, intelligent, satirical and sometimes crass humor.  As one of the Internet’s longest running webcomics, Mr. Weinersmith joins other well-known webcomic titans like Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade and Scott Kurtz of PvP. 
Zach Weinersmith
In 2009, Zach and his long time friend, James Ashby, created the SMBC Theater, a sketch comedy channel on YouTube that shared the comic’s social satire and adult humor.  The channel now has almost eighty thousand subscribers and over 20 million views.  In the following interview, I interview Zach and James about the origins of the comic and the Theater, their comedic influences, the workings behind the Theater, and their Internet fame, as well as one major upcoming project from SMBC Theater.  I’d like to thank Zach and James once again for their time, and ask that everybody check out the comic and the channel.
James Ashby, King of SMBC Theater

SMBC Comic
How did the comic come about? 
Zach Weinersmith: [The comic] started long ago in high school as a way to write things and make fun of friends.  Years later, it became the only way out of a very shitty job. 

An example of Zach's more intellectual jokes.

The art style of the comic has definitely improved as time has gone on, but remains quite distinct in its simple, yet effective portrayal of characters.  How do you think you have grown as an artist in the years of drawing SMBC?  Have certain shortcuts or computer programs come out that have made your life easier, or does a daily comic just make art simpler?
ZW: I'm more of a writer (i.e. my art sucks), but yeah, it's incrementally improved over time. I recently got a tablet and manga studio 5, which has been a godsend. I was getting very painful hand cramps for a long time, and now I can work faster without the pain. 

Are there any artists in particular that have inspired your art style?
ZW: Parking Lot is Full, perhaps. 

And a bit of social critique.
Have you ever had to give up on a joke because you found that you couldn’t draw a character or object, or just couldn’t figure out how to visualize how the joke would look?
ZW: Not really. If it works in the writing phase, it'll work in the art, unless you write yourself into a corner or something. Now and then I've fucked that up. Some things are easy to say and hard to visualize.  

How do you keep up doing a daily comic?  How do you keep thinking of material?  How do you keep up your drive and motivation?
ZW: I try to read a lot.  If I'm behaving myself, at least 3-5 books a week, plus some deeper studies for perspective.  I'm very motivated by the idea that I don't want to have a real job.  

The humor of the comic has definitely evolved over the years as well.  Originally starting as one-panel, bait and switch humor, the comic has definitely become more intelligent, discussing concepts like philosophy, physics, government, and other topics.  What inspired this change?
ZW: Generally speaking, the comic reflects what I'm currently interested in.  I used to try to just do gags, but I found that people actually liked some of the more thick stuff now and then. Since I do dailies, I have a bit of latitude in terms of nerdiness.  That is, if today's joke is too in depth, I can do a joke about boners tomorrow. 

An example of Zach's "bait and switch" joke style, where the caption betrays the image.

Do you think the change to the humor was well received?
ZW: Not by everyone.  I could probably have more readers if I stuck with something, but I think it'd get boring after a while. 

Who has inspired or influenced your humor? 
ZW: Early on, I really liked Glen Baxter and PLiF.  I loved the understatement in Dilbert.  I don't read too many comics, but in terms of humor authors, Mark Twain and Stanislaw Lem are awesome. 

My favorite SMBC comic.
How do you feel about being one of the longest lasting, and most influential webcomics on the Internet?
ZW: If there were a cash prize for that, I'd feel great.  Honestly, I kind of live in a bubble (on purpose), so the numbers are a bit abstract to me. It's nice, but it also offers a temptation to relax a little, which I want to avoid. 

Where do you think the comic will go from here?
ZW: No idea. I've been getting into political theory and some more advanced (for me) physics lately; oh, and Robert Burns, so maybe something hideous amalgam of those is coming. 

SMBC Theater
Whose idea was it to create the Theater?  Were these ideas that Zach felt he couldn’t properly convey as a comic?

ZW: James and I had wanted to do it for ages, way before the comic was a "thing." At some point we just barely had the resources to pull it off, and voila.  In terms of ideas, not really. James and I wrote them together, which already gave them a different flavor. Plus, comics and sketches are pretty different. In comics it's very easy to control composition in timing. Video is harder. But, in video, you have Real Live Humans, which means you can get a lot more out of expression.   
James Ashby: Yeah, we never wanted to try to recreate the comic.  Comics are about a perfect moment captured as well as possible.  Sketches are about pacing and delivery and performance and a number of intangibles. Zach and I had tried to do some film work in our early 20's when we lived in a bachelor apartment with another friend and Zach's un-spayed cat, but we didn't have any money or connections.  6 years later I graduated with an MFA in screenwriting from Carnegie Mellon with some prize money and Zach had a trickle of income, so we decided to spend it on sketches instead of health insurance.  

Who comes up with ideas for the sketches?  Does it vary?   Does the person who came up with the idea also write it, or have there been times where a person comes up with an idea, but has someone else write it?
ZW: James and I, 50-50. For a given sketch, it varied a lot. But, we had a big honkin' list of ideas we'd grind on every 2 weeks. 
JA: We've been doing this so long it gets muddy.  Zach and I have written together since we were in our late teens (NO ONE EVER GETS TO READ THAT STUFF), so at this point it's mostly a tag team sifting for funny through email. One of us will have an idea for a joke, another will write half a page on it then pass it off, etc etc.  Then we fight for a week about the last line.

How do you cast each video, given the pool of talented actors you have?  Do some people just play certain characters well, so they are always cast as such?  Like JP Nickel as a news anchor or creepy dad?
ZW: James can answer this better than I. We *did* have people who were really good at certain characters, but I think we also tried to vary a little. 
JA: We have a few recurring tropes (JP Nickel as a newscaster is always funny), but we have an all-volunteer army so there's an availability factor that comes into play.  I never cast anyone I don't feel is right for a part, but we have some very talented people who can do some really wonderful work when given a chance to stretch. 

You have created a persona for yourselves in the SMBC Theater canon.  For example, James (now the “King of the Theater”) is portrayed a disheveled, sociopathic, schizophrenic slob.  How do these personas get developed?
ZW: James can answer this better than I.  I think early on our personas were sort of exaggerations of the real us from a few years ago. 
JA: Zach and I like to write about the id and jerks because we're very polite in person, and the ability to say things bluntly is a great comedic tool.  Slobby James and King James can say things that make people laugh, so we can say interesting things without being boring or pompous.

You also have a new project, a science fiction series called Starpocalypse, can you give us a hint of what the show is about and when can we expect to see it?
ZW: This is King James territory. 
JA: THIS FALL!  It's called Starpocalypse and an AWESOME team of artists have put in hundreds of hours of work to bring it to our audience. We're really proud of this dark, weird, crazy space comedy. It could only have been made through crowd-funding.  The major plot thrust: God is a space alien with a fetish for watching humans fuck and murder each other.  

Other topics
It often seems like everyone on the Internet knows each other, as illustrated by your constant collaborations with the 5secondfilms crew.  How did you all meet?
ZW: King James again. 
JA: Michael Rousselet and Kelsey Gunn came to do a cameo for Starpocalypse and seemed awesome.  They invited me to come have a beer during a 5secondfilms shoot and I met a ton of other awesome people.  The rest is history.

Having an Internet presence like you two do brings you in contact with not only a lot of fans, but other online creators as well.  How have your experiences been with both groups?  Any horror stories or awesome tales?
ZW: Ha!  If I have horror stories, there's no way I'd tell them.  James knows more about the YouTube/vid community than I do, but the comics community is pretty tight.  Almost everyone who's a professional knows every other professional. 
JA: I've found following the rule of only networking with people I like and respect has really worked out nicely for me.  I'd say we actually have a very supportive fan base.  Some dudes might be a little awkward when they come to meet us, but Zach and I are kinda awkward. Who's judging? 

Snowflakes is a comic you both do with your friend Chris Jones, and features a very different sense of humor than we see in SMBC and SMBC theater.  It’s much more mellow and childlike. How did this comic come about, and how do you keep it in this more innocent, less racy tone?   

ZW: As I recall, Chris Jones and I had recently finished Captain Stupendous, and wanted a new project. And James and I wanted to work on a comic together. I think perhaps it was Chris who suggested a kids' comic, but honestly I don't exactly recall how the final decision was made. 
JA: Chris wanted to do a children's comic and had this vision of kids in an orphanage in the snow.  Zach and I developed characters, then I did story structure, plotting, and character development while Zach focused on dialogue and Chris made us look way better than we deserved.   

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Comic:
SMBC Theater's Facebook Page:
SMBC Theater's Twitter Page:
Zach's Twitter Page:
James's Twitter Page:
Parking Lot is Full:
Snowflakes Comic:

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