Blog Post

A Somewhat Sexy Q&A With Young American Bodies‘ Joe Swanberg

[show=youngamericanbodies size=large]Joe and Kris Swanberg’s Young American Bodies, a cult hit and one of the great early pioneers in web-distributed drama, has been peeking in on the lives of the young and sexually active since 2005, providing a semi-scripted take on the tangled romances of a group of 20-something Chicagoeans. The decidedly NSFW series, distributed originally through Nerve, launched its fourth season today exclusively on IFC.com; I spoke with Joe Swanberg via phone about his approach to sexuality, his “fantastic” deals with Nerve and IFC, the show’s future, and the increasingly inaccurate title. An edited transcript follows.

NewTeeVee: Young American Bodies has always been known for its frank inclusion of nudity and sexuality. How has the adult content been a part of the show’s evolution?

Joe Swanberg: When we pitched Nerve in 2005, the model we were working on was a show that had a lot of realistic sexual content and a lot of realistic exploration of issues with parents and friends and whatever else. And as it’s evolved [the sexual content]’s remained important to us just because everybody’s sex lives are changing too, with commitment coming into it, and people getting older and thinking about having kids and stuff like that. Your reasons for having sex are starting to change.

There was an HBO show called Tell Me You Love Me that was kind of like this, but it was so bleak. I think that’s generally the way sex has been treated on TV. Like, if you’re going to portray sex realistically, you have to take it super-seriously. So the thing that separates Young American Bodies from like pornography on one side and Tell Me You Love Me on the other side is that it’s not always really serious. It’s able to be really serious or funny or awkward or stupid, all those shades in between that I don’t think TV wants to deal with.

We’ve been lucky in a sense, because we fit perfectly with Nerve and what they were doing then, and then it was great that IFC was bold enough to take us on and get the show out to a much bigger audience than Nerve did.

NewTeeVee: How did the switch from Nerve to IFC happen?

Swanberg: I think Nerve and IFC have always had some sort of relationship or advertising partnership; they seemed really familiar with each other. So the first two seasons were exclusively on Nerve, and then for the third season IFC came in and co-produced it. They basically paid for the third season, but kind of in a roundabout way through Nerve, so [new episodes would] premiere on IFC first and then on Nerve the next day.

Nerve is great, but there’s a much different staff there now than there was when we first started. So with this fourth season I just went straight to the people at IFC and was like, look, I don’t even know who the people at Nerve are anymore, so let’s just keep this relationship going.

NewTeeVee: Have there ever been any product placement or sponsorship issues you’ve had to contend with?

Swanberg: No, never. We got money from Nerve and we made the show with that; now we get money from IFC and we make the show with that. There’s never been any internal sponsorship. IFC does put commercials before the shows, but we’ve always thankfully been left out of that side of it. The show has a lot of sexual content but it’s not extreme about it; I think that would be where we would run into issues, if we tried to put some crazy sex stuff into the show.

So the sponsorship thing is their deal and the making the show thing is our deal. And that’s fantastic. That’s how it should be. We just get money from them and are left to our own devices. We give them rough cuts and there are notes, but we’ve never been strong-armed to do anything. Nerve was even more hands-off; they would just let us do whatever we want. But they were giving us less money, so I think they could afford to be more hands-off.

IFC has been really great about getting YAB out to a wide audience. I mean, the thing about Nerve is that it’s a sex site — a smart, interesting sex site, but still a sex site. But IFC is the Independent Film Channel; it’s a destination for anyone who’s interested in independent or alternative things. I think that’s brought in a lot of casual viewers who might not have been interested in Nerve content.

NewTeeVee: Can you comment publicly on what your budget is like?

Swanberg: At this point with IFC, it’s like a couple thousand bucks an episode.

NewTeeVee: What’s it been like juggling the web series with your work in features?

Swanberg: It’s been good — basically the web series serves as a project I can fit in between the features. It keeps a camera in my hands and keeps me active. For me and Kris it’s also one of our main sources of income. Often the money from YAB goes directly into the features. But I consider YAB just as important a part of my body of work as the features.

NewTeeVee: Previous seasons of YAB have run eight to 12 episodes — what’s behind the decision to do a slightly shorter season this time?

Swanberg: Our feeling is we’d rather do six episodes and then do another six in a few months, rather than do 12 and have a year-long gap between them. When we’ve done 12 we’ve been so exhausted by the end of it that we’re always like, “Never again.” This is the first time when I’ve finished a season and feel like we have more stories to tell and more interesting things to shoot.

NewTeeVee: Do you have a target release date for the next six?

Swanberg: We’ll probably start working on them next spring, so probably sometime next summer. My perfect schedule would be six episodes every six months.

NewTeeVee: Given how long the series has lasted already, it definitely seems like it has that kind of longevity.

Swanberg: Yeah, we’re up for doing it as long as people are interested in watching it. I think the title Young American Bodies is gonna be a little silly if we’re well into our 30s, but that’s one of the nice things about the episodic format vs. feature films, is the ability to follow characters for a really long time. It’s one of my favorite things about television, feeling like you’re growing up alongside characters — your life is changing as their lives are changing.

I would love to do it for another 10 years. As long as all of our schedules permit and as long as everyone remains interested, we’ll keep going with it. The only threat is that as our actors start getting married and having kids, no one’s going to want to keep on doing a web series where they have fake sex with other people. That will be ultimately what spells the demise of the show — everyone feeling like “enough of this.”

NewTeeVee: What do you think has been the key to making YAB successful and sustainable?

Swanberg: I think people are interested in seeing other people going through the same problems that they have. Hopefully there are moments where people keep tuning in because they recognize themselves in them. The show is not for everybody. But the people who have liked it and are still tuning in have identified themselves with one of these characters, and have found someone else who sees the world the way they do.