As the online video world awaits the next project from creative genius Ze Frank, it’s worthwhile to step back a bit and see what made his year-long project “The Show” so heads-and-shoulders better than anything else out there.
Besides being a unique talent, with a rare combination of tech, politics and mass culture savvy, Frank also had the editing chops to give his one-man operation a flexibility and flashiness that traditional talent/producer teams would find hard to match. But what really distanced The Show from the rest of online video was Frank’s quick embrace of interactive technology to make his audience part of the proceedings, a facet that will likely live on as an enduring case study of how to build a supremely successful online community that doesn’t just watch, but participates.
Right from the start, it was clear that Frank’s show was something completely different. While the zany antics and not-safe-for-work language were the hooks to get your attention, from its earliest episodes The Show started fostering a sense of clubbiness with its inside jokes (“are the new viewers gone yet?”) and sense of belonging (“Good morning sports racers!”).
From a content perspective, there simply wasn’t anything on par in online video with Frank’s exceptional writing and crazed regular-guy delivery. If you ever saw the Those Brooklyn Stairs episode you know what I mean. Personally I was hooked when Ze (it just seems wrong to call him the formal “Frank”) delivered the single best take on the whole network neutrality debate, zinging MoveOn.org and AT&T with equal fervor. Tech, politics and culture with a take that was the polar opposite of boring. Jim Rome would have been proud.
And humor? The difference between Ze’s educated silliness and sophomore stuff like the Jackass shows came across perfectly in the infamous towel in the butt crack episode. The nuance Ze adds is the perfectly timed edit of him asking a hotel employee for some clean towels after we just watched Ze walk around with a towel stuck between his cheeks.
The cheeks episode also showed another side of Ze: Getting a little testy with the ever-expanding audience who left him s-s-s-something from the comments. But instead of going farther down the mean curve, Ze zagged and started embracing the audience more, eliciting their active support for stunts like trying to create Earth Sandwiches.
The list of audience-inclusion events goes on: Google maps mashups to show where earth sandwiches were made, Vacuum cleaner dress-ups, playing chess against viewers, and the ground-breaking let-the-audience-write-a-show episode that started to gain Ze national fame. My favorite audience participation riff was the Remixes for Ray, great musical mashups of an Internet-famous message. The creativity of the varied Remixes shows that when something is done out of sheer joy, fun or personal pleasure, it’s bound to be a better thing than say, videos submitted for fleeting fame or for some cash prize.
Ze’s most enduring contribution to vlogging may be his give me some candy sponsorship idea, allowing viewers to contribute small amounts of cash to buy a duckie image with a message attached. The give me some candy idea will live on at Ze’s new home, Blip.tv, where other popular vloggers may benefit from the idea.
The final smart power move? Quitting after a single year. Any comedic riff is hard to maintain, much less a daily one, much less a daily self-produced video-based one. Ze got out before he got stale, never an easy thing to do since from some angles it might seem like the ball was just beginning to roll.
“In the beginning it was really about ‘nothing ends on the web,’” he told NewTeeVee in a recent interview. “But knowing that it had a finish allowed me to focus on some things that were certainly not sustainable but were really, really interesting. It also, I have to say, allowed me to understand better the time arc.”
But is there any doubt there will be a second or third act? Since most of the links for this post came from the user-edited The Show wiki, it’s clear there is a devoted community ready to follow wherever Ze leads them next.