Listen to Episode #27 here:
Creating Joy with Natalie Barandes
Our guest is Natalie Barandes. She is a producer, writer and director. As Founder and Creative Chief of Joy Factory, she creates original content for TV, film, digital and mobile companies. Welcome, Natalie. I always ask this of my guests. If you weren’t directing, writing or producing, what would you be doing with your life?
I would be a chef in an open kitchen restaurant with a wood-fired grill. I’d want to make people happy eating great food, drinking and enjoying themselves.
That’s a first. No one’s ever said chef in this podcast. Do you think that the skills of a chef are similar to the skills of a writer, director or producer? Do you think it would be a parallel world?
When people go out to eat, they want to have a good time. They go there to find a joyous experience. The reason I call it the Joy Factory is because I want entertainment to be joyous. I want people to go to it because it’s a part of their real life, but it’s an aspect of their life that really gives them some extra pleasure. When you go out for a meal, it’s not eating at home and just whipping something together and throwing a bowl of cereal. You go out and you want the chef to bring you an experience, you want the waiter to treat you nicely, you want your beverage to be in a certain way, you want your meal to taste good. You want to be with friends, family or a loved one or a special occasion and you want to do something that feels wonderful.
I honestly don’t know much about restaurants but what I do understand about the chef, that a good chef doesn’t just create a menu, they hire, fire and they deal with the supply chain. They are a business person on top of being a creative. It’s this sort of overlapping Venn diagram.
You’re producing something. Figure it this way, if you’re a chef and you want to create a restaurant, the first thing you do is come up with an idea or concept. You say, “I want this to be like, ‘I love Italian food.’” You go into an empty space and envision it. Then you decide where people are going to sit, how are they going to feel, where’s the kitchen going to be and what kind of people do you want to have around you, what would the waiters wear and all of that. It’s the same thing with when you come up with an idea in entertainment. You’re setting a stage. You’re creating a story. You want people to walk away and go, “That was a great evening. Wasn’t that fun?”
It also explains why both businesses have such high failure rates. It is so difficult to do that well.
Consistently well because it’s up to what people are into at that particular time. It’s the same thing with entertainment, we all like police dramas and sitcoms weren’t a thing and now they are a thing again. It’s the same thing.
I want to talk to you about your creative side but first I want to talk about producing. I think the average person has no idea with the challenges associated with producing, television, film, even commercials and all this kind of stuff. How did you get your producing chops? Where did that come from? How did you get good at that?
I grew up in New York. My dad and my uncles were in entertainment law. I grew up going to Broadway shows, being a New Yorker, and so we used to go backstage all the time. I thought everybody went backstage, I thought everybody met the talent. We would go to the show, we would wait and then we’d go to the stage door, then we’d go backstage and I thought, “That’s what people do.” My dad and my uncles represented the producers. We stood in the back, we went to rehearsals and I had gotten into casting. In college, I was a theater major. I always liked the idea of taking something from nothing and seeing the whole thing through up until that combination of either the night of the show or the day that the screening happened or putting something on television. It has a beginning, middle and end. That’s what producing is.
It really is having a big vision for everything and knowing one thing, this goes for great producing and the great producers I’ve ever worked for, you have to have a team. It is so not about one person. It’s about knowing what you’re really good at and knowing what other people are even better than you at. I don’t have an ego about it. That’s not how I’m built, about having an ego, about, “I’m so great at something.” There are things I feel I’m really good at and there are so many things so many people are better than I am.
What are some of the things you’re not as good at?
I like to see the details, but there are people who are so great with just sitting down and just getting everything organized. Putting out fires and things like that in terms of a full crew, crunching the numbers, you have to know how to do that. What I hate to do is I hate to ask for favors. I hate to have to negotiate people’s rates down. I like to pay people what’s fair. As a producer, you’re always watching what your budget is.
The elements of producing it are choosing a project, financing the project, casting the project, selling the project, overseeing the creation of the content and the people who do that, and then figuring out some distribution strategy for this. Obviously, there are lots of different skills that you need.
The thing that most people don’t realize is the art of producing. Now that I’m older so I feel a little bit more comfortable saying this, but you’re really navigating personalities and that’s what the most important thing is. Right now, we’re in the middle of a project and I have to handle everybody. I have to handle the person that’s paying for it. I have to handle the talent. I have to handle the lawyers. Handling and it’s making everybody feel like they’re very special. Everything they have to say matters and making them feel that the decisions they’re making are the right decisions even though you’re manipulating them to make the decisions you want them to make. It’s like saying, “I agree. We’re on the same side here, Peter. You’re 100% right. I want to get that for you.” Then you’re like, “Great.” Then I say to the next person, “I love what you’re saying and you’re right, we’ve got to get Peter to agree to that.” You’re really getting compromise and you’re getting people on board. That’s the hardest thing, it really is because people want to stand their ground. They want what they want whether it’s the talent, the writer, the credit or the fee.
The whole great thing about making entertainment, from a producing standpoint, is the big goal. The big goal is, “If we sell this, what will it be and how will it look?” You can imagine that. For example, I know the producers of Will & Grace. They were two young guys. I knew them when they were two kids who were writing a pilot. I don’t think they ever dreamed that they would be not only create one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, then have a dormant period and then recreate it again. That’s a success story like you can’t even imagine, but you can imagine what it would be. That’s not what they went into it. They went into it writing what they believed in and what they knew.
You’re good at managing people, negotiating and pushing people towards this vision.
I think so. That’s what I do. I have been a female in the business, I haven’t been since the beginning. When I got into the business, I never looked at it like I was a female director or a female producer. I just was who I was. I didn’t think about it. I got into the business, my first jobs were in the ‘80s. There were a lot of women breaking the glass ceiling at that time. It was a very open forum. No one ever said to me, “You’re a woman, you’re not going to do that.” There were certain things they pushed me toward.
When I was in the commercial business, they were like, “Why don’t you do some feminine products?” I was like, “Because I like comedy.” I ended up in comedy and certainly, a very male dominated comedy. I happened to like slapstick and ridiculous things. I grew up on things like I Love Lucy and The Three Stooges. I love sports and I ended up working with the NFL. I did spots for the NFL with a comedy bent to it. I like things that are non-traditional. I didn’t do feminine products. It’s not something that was particularly interesting to me or beauty or the things that women were to pick particularly being pushed towards.
Your perspective didn’t actually lend itself to those things very much.
I was lucky that along the way, I did what I wanted to do just like I was saying about the guys that wrote the script they wanted to write. I just always stayed in that.
I want to ask about this. I’ve noticed this more and more and I sensed the tension as a marketing professor. In marketing, on one hand, there is the Apple model of marketing, which is if you build it and you build it well, they will come. The customers can’t tell you what they want and that you have to have some great skill to be able to create the iPod, the smartphone and all those kinds of things. On the other hand, it’s this idea of being very problem-focused and finding out the problems, understanding the consumers incredibly well, and then, devising something often in conjunction with the consumer getting their feedback all along the way. This fail fast, lean methodology. The thing that survives is going to be the thing that is likely to be successful because it’s so battle-tested.
Clearly, both models can work. I think the latter model works typically better but you could easily point to exceptions, like Steve Jobs and so on. When it comes to creative work, it does seem to be more of a visionary, “There’s this thing that I wanted to create. I couldn’t be too concerned about what the audience would think because I need to make this sort of special thing.” I’ve heard you say that. That’s a really interesting approach. It seems to be a high risk, high reward approach in the following way. It’s like you may completely miss the mark because you’re operating on your own and you’re using your tastes and your beliefs primarily as the focus. You might also hit it big because you’re going to come up with something that no one else is going to come up with. How do you think about it? Why do you think that way? Where did that come from?
I want to go back to something you said. In terms of marketing, there’s about a good chunk of my life in the last twenty years where I was in direct marketing. I worked for a company called Beachbody. It created P90X. You talked about “a need.” What they did brilliantly with P90X is they said they went against what people wanted to do. People want to get fit, skinny, ripped and healthy without having to work hard. What they did was it went against the market because everybody was like, “We’re going to make it fast and easy.”
They said, “No, we’re not. We’re going to make it slow, hard and we’re going to bust your ass. We’re going to make it so difficult.” That’s why they called it Power90X, meaning extreme. They said, “We’re going to make it so goddamn hard that very few people are going to make it through this thing, but if you do, you are going to be fit.” In a sense, it taught me a lot and I also learned a lot about marketing. I learned a lot about all of that. Entertainment is you’ve got to write what you know because if you try to write what you think the audience wants, you’re going to fail.
In part because that might not be the thing that you can best write.
All great entertainment, from my perspective, has to come from a deep place. Just like music. I don’t think you could have gone to the Beatles and said, “You’re writing all this rock and roll stuff. You’ve got to write a pop song.” They’d be like, “We’re going to write the music we want to write because this is what comes out of us when we’re all together as the Beatles.” You don’t go to a band and say, “I need you to make this music.” They make the music that feels right to them. You have to write the story that feels right for you.
Then just live with the results, knowing that you’ve written it for yourself.
I think truth and authenticity just rules. For some particular reason, if you think about things that are successful like, I’ll take Get Out. I think he wrote what he felt like writing. I think Jordan Peele was a guy who said, “This is something I feel like writing.” He wrote it, did a great job and it’s very successful.
It’s different. That’s one of the key things.
He didn’t write it because it was different. He wrote it because that’s what he wrote. It was different because it was his voice and everybody’s voice is different. You’re not like any other professor and you’re not like any other person. We’re all uniquely who we are. The more independent and authentic we are to who we are, the more our stories are.
They’re related to marketing. I teach my students about doing what we call the 3Cs analysis. What goes into that is you do an analysis of the customer, you do an analysis of the competitor and you do an analysis of the company, yourself. What the key part of the company C is to understand what your core competencies are. That is, what are you good at? The key is that you should be making things that you’re good at making. When there’s a mismatch, that’s when you get in trouble. When you’re good at making something that the customer doesn’t want or need, your business is in trouble. When you’re good at making something that your competitors are better at making, you’re in trouble. It’s like seeking out this space in the marketplace that allows you to be yourself as much as possible and serve the customer better than the competitor.
I started my career in creating promos and movie trailers. I was in movie marketing and TV marketing. People always said, “How do you know how to do it?” You’re like, “I don’t have to make the show, I have to sell the show.” I’ll take it again. You could have a beautiful vision for a television show about two people who were in love and it’s a very special love story, but there’s a crazy scene in there where you’re both dancing and being ridiculous. That’s going to sell your show even though it’s not that show, I’m going to use it. My job is not to try to second guess what’s the best part of the show, it’s to try to second guess what people are going to respond to turn it on.
As a movie marketer, as a TV marketer, you just want to get people to show up. In the movie marketing business, we always say, “Just get them there the first weekend.” That’s all that really matters. When you say, “How can I sell the best parts of the movie?” That’s what we want you to see. We want you to go in there and it’s not like we want you necessarily to go in there feeling deceived. I don’t want you to feel deceived, but I want you to feel that it’s something that you want to see. I’ll give you an example. There was a movie that we worked on years ago with a very famous filmmaker and the movie was terrible, it was tragic. It was seriously tragic. It was about death and awful things. It was what we call “turkey,” like it was really bad. I remember sitting in the screening and this was a very well-respected filmmaker at that time. This was in the ‘90s and I was working at Sony.
We were sitting in this very expensive screening room and nobody wanted to say anything. We were watching “dailies.” Dailies is, what back in the day, when you were shooting film, you would just see scenes. The film was rolling and executives will come in to see some of the dailies. We were all sitting there and it was awful. I was sitting in the back and I was still one of the young producers then. They were all sitting there very quietly. The filmmaker was in the room and they were like, “It’s brilliant.” I was sitting there thinking, “You all know this is terrible because you’re going to leave this filmmaker, you’re going to get back into the room. We’re all going to talk about like, ‘How are we going to save this thing?’” Of course, we didn’t save it. I think we got people there at the opening weekend but it was a really bad film, it was just badly done. The concept was just too sad and too tragic. There was really no way around it. Again, there was a filmmaker doing something that was from their heart, something that’s from their soul, but it didn’t work.
It’s like with the conflict between art and commerce that when people are spending lots of money to make this film, it can’t just be about art. That’s a risk of it all. I want to ask you about your creative side. You have this producer side which is very practical, making sure that this vision is moving forward, managing egos, negotiating and all those things. You also do a lot of creative work. You have this other side to your career. Do you like that more?
I approach all my producing from a creative side. That’s just the nature of who I am. I always see the big idea first and what’s the story and what are we trying to say. What are we trying to do here? What’s the purpose of what we’re doing? What’s the story? What are the characters? What’s at the bottom of the whole thing first? With everything I do. Even when I’m doing commercials, what are we trying to sell here? What’s the best way to position this thing to get people to pay attention and want it? Commercials, movies, television shows, books and all of this stuff is, even direct response, you want somebody to want what it is you have. To either buy it, watch it or engage in it. It’s a restaurant, it’s a movie, it’s a fitness program, it’s a book, anything. Do people want it and are they going to buy it, watch it and engage?
You’re talking about the story, you’re talking about characters, these are the things that people want. People want good stories, they want compelling, narrative and they want to be drawn in. These affects when you say yes or no to a project?
I see it through a lens of comedy. I know this hasn’t been a very funny conversation but the truth of it is that the lens of comedy is saying that instead of seeing things from a heavy point of view, I’d much rather see things for the irony. When you look at something from a true perspective, it is also ridiculous on so many levels. The best movies about war, to me, are MASH. I was just watching How I Learned to Love The Bomb, Dr. Strangelove. You get such a clear idea of just how insane things are through great comedy.
With all things equal, you’re always going to choose the comedic project or are you going to try to take a serious project and make it comedic?
Even if I take a very serious project, it’s always going to have a level of comedy or humor but heart, smile and joy. If there’s so much we could look at. I’m not a documentarian necessarily, although I love real life. In real life, I try to find what’s funny.
How do you find what’s funny? When you’re looking at a serious scene, a serious story, when you’re seeking out the irony, the levity or whatever, do you have a technique? Do you have a system? How do you do this?
If you look for what the truth in somebody is, what’s quirky about somebody is what’s going to make it funny. For example, I’ll just take a very physical thing because physical thing is easy. If you have a very tall character, what’s funny about a tall character? A tall character in a place that doesn’t accommodate their tallness is going to be funny. That’s physical and that slapstick and all of that stuff but that gives you an example. I am incredibly neat and clean, so what would make life really funny for me? It is something that is just disgusting. I am truly funny when it’s disgusting.
It’s the odd couple. You bring clean and messy together. Two messies, two cleans isn’t funny.
I learned a lot from Peter McGraw’s book called The Humor Code about the benign violation theory. It’s true. It’s putting a character into a situation that is going to make them have to deal with something that doesn’t necessarily work.
I’m actually very flattered by you because you like the theory and that you’ve told me that you seek out these benign violations, and when you’re writing it’s almost like a check. I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. I’m always flattered when people in comedy are accepting the theory more than when academics are accepting the theory. Your whole life is around comedy. A lot of your business is around comedy, your social life is around comedy. I’d spend time with you, the way you interact is comedic, is funny, which is why you’re on this podcast obviously. You have like 100 times more experience than the average academic thinking about humor. When a comic says to me, “That seemed pretty right to me,” I have trouble finding counterexamples. I always feel good about that.
Comedians write jokes. We craft stories in situations. Comedy, for me, certainly comes out of real things.
Are you a joke writer?
I’m not a joke writer at all. There are people that are great at that. It’s a beautiful skill and I don’t have that. People that write funny. I see funny in life. I laugh at real things that happen. When you walk into the wall by accident, I don’t know why I find that funny, but I do. I’ve been making fun of my parents my entire life. We’re relentlessly making fun of my mother because she’s very tightly wound. You have to make fun of her because it’s so ridiculous to watch her do everything.
How does she react to that?
She’s been laughing about it her whole life. She was like the worst driver ever and would say “I’m not a very good driver,” which was an understatement at that time, like an epically terrible driver. You have to make fun. How has she lived with that?
Describe your day-to-day. You wear a lot of hats. You have a lot of things that are happening. What’s a typical day in your life like? Do you have a typical day?
I have a thirteen-year-old son. That’s really funny because it’s gross. It’s truly one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever lived with, as a person who is really neat and clean.
I was once a thirteen-year-old boy so I think I understand what you’re talking about.
It’s an epic stench. It permeates the house. It’s food, it’s BO, it’s forgetting to brush your teeth and washing your hair. It’s just like this sweet little delicious child that I used to clean and love, and has become this beast. He’s like this little gorilla and it’s gross.
That’s the start of your day, you and the gorilla having breakfast?
Yes. It’s just horrible.
Do you tease him about this?
Relentlessly. My son has two mothers, two Jewish mothers. He has it a lot harder than a lot of kids. He has a great sense of humor though.
That seems to be a nice recipe. You start your day with your kid to get him off to school?
I get him off to school. I share an office with a creative agency which has been really comfortable for us and a lot of creative people in there. They’re an idea machine so it’s really fun to be around them. We write, create, make lists and come up with ideas. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning, I’m like, “I have this idea. This is something we have to do.” Recently, we came up with a show, not that funny but a lot of fun though called Waste to Taste. It’s a show about food waste and the idea of turning food waste into gourmet meals. I like this idea because I cook a lot and I waste a lot of food. I thought, “What could you do with all of this stuff? There are just piles of this stuff.”
That’s a fun idea. Where did that come from? How did that come up?
I was looking around at some videos at some point about chefs for some particular reason. I came up with this chef in Italy who takes all this food waste and he does these beautiful things with it. I said, “That is just cool. What if we took a chef competition like Top Chef and we had people compete with food waste?” Again, it’s lighthearted.
Does that have to be comedic?
It has to be comedic. You’re going to go into a supermarket and they’re going to go, “Do you want to see all the stuff we throw away? Here you go.” It’s going to be a mixture of gross and interesting and you’re going to go, “Okay.” A great chef is going to look at it and go, “I have a great idea here.” We’re talking about the creative process, it’s the same thing. We have scrambled eggs in our head. All the time there’s a million things going on.
Typically, constraints are a problem in business. Lack of time, lack of resources, you just don’t make something as good as possible. However, there are cases where creativity is enhanced due to constraints. When you force someone to have limitations it actually makes them think divergently. It makes them think about other ways to go about doing things and sometimes you get something that was better than you might have, have there not been a constraint, which I think is an interesting paradox.
I’ve always hustled and I’ve always been either own my own business or been independent. We never got fat and lazy because if I didn’t hustle, I didn’t get a paycheck. If I didn’t get a paycheck, I didn’t get to do things I wanted to do. Many of us in the entertainment industry are like, “Time and money, I don’t want to hear your bellyaching. Make it work.” You have to make it work.
I want to get back to this. You’re in there in the space, it’s a creative space, there are interesting people. Are you there for long hours or short hours?
Pretty concentrated hours. We really focus. I treat writing and creating a business. We have lives and I am very respectful to people’s lives. I don’t like to work much past 6:30 PM. I just think that’s when people should be with their families or their friends or they should do what they need to do. Exercise and being healthy is extremely important to me.
I think that fuels for the creative process.
I’m a cancer survivor. For me, I’m already on borrowed time. I always say that to people in there. I didn’t look at my cancer as anything tragic. It was bad.
How long ago was this?
That was six years ago. I was diagnosed and it was a late stage and I’m fine, I’m great. I decided that if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go for it the rest of my life. I’m going to do the things I want to do. I’m going to be with the people I want to be with and I’m going to try to create joy, which is why I called my company the Joy Factory. I want to have fun. Ideas come with a lot of opening up space too. Do you meditate?
A little bit. I have a lapsed practice. A few years ago, I’ve decided that I was going to start meditating and started doing Loving-kindness meditation, ten or twenty minutes a day and it had a big effect. Like someone who’s been on his meds for a while thinks, “I’m okay now. I don’t need to do this.” I’ve slowly lapsed back into my sort of premeditative habits. I found that the Loving-kindness stuff really took the edge off. I just ended up being a more compassionate, less angry driver and so on. I’ll be honest, I know I ought to be doing it again because I know it’s good for me. What type of meditation do you do?
It depends on the day. Sometimes it’s five minutes, it’s three minutes, twenty minutes, sometimes it’s yoga, sometimes it’s a hike, sometimes I swim. You have to start from a place like that. Sometimes there are people in my life and they just motivate characters. I’ve seen them and I want to create a character around them. Do you want to talk about The Humor Code?
I want to say one thing about that idea. There’s this trail run in Boulder that I do. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of that place. It’s one of the few things I truly miss when I’m away. When I’m in shape, which fortunately I’m pretty good about staying in shape. When I do that run, I do with no headphones and I almost always come off that mountain with one or three ideas. These are solid ideas because it’s one of those things that I’ve got to pay enough attention to the world and I’m working hard but I feel good, it’s beautiful. I have this nice mix and I get off the mountain, I quickly write down the ideas that I have and I’m like, “I have the best job in the world,” because I just did something that was good for my mind, my body, my soul and my career. I can count that as work in a way that most people don’t get a chance to do. That’s as close as I come to meditation right now.
You just said a great thing too, like work. I don’t consider what I do work. That’s what I do. I write stories all the time in my head or I create ideas and things that I care about. Work is your life and life is your work. Running, in effect, helps you find an idea. You’re getting on a plane, sitting next to somebody, they tell you something and you’re like, “Wow.”
My personal and professional life are so tightly wound. I think of artists in that way, that it’s very difficult to pull off the personal life and the professional life of an artist apart. You think about these impressionist French painters. They paint then they’d go to the café and hang out with other French impressionist painters. They would talk to each other and they would be challenged. They would grow and they would be inspired. Then they would go back the next day and do it. I don’t think what they did was difficult but I don’t think they felt like it worked the way someone who works in a factory thinks about their life as work, which is I show up, I do this thing. I stop doing it and I do it for the paycheck so that I can do other things.
As you’re saying that I’m thinking to myself, “They say that?” If you think about it, those people that work in a factory have a community too. They do go out and have beers together. They have Sunday barbecues with the people they work with and their kids go to school together. Even though they say, “My work life and my home life,” no they’re not. If you work at the factory in your town, those are the people that you spend your life with.
Your argument is they’re not as different from those French painters as I might have portrayed them.
They may not talk about their work with passion the way we do. They may not say, “I weld.” Some do those. Some people do.
There are a lot of tradespeople who are more like artists than they are.
My reference point is food a lot and you watch people in kitchens, it’s like a production.
If I hadn’t gone to college and didn’t end up white collar and I had to go back and pick, I might have chosen to be a plumber. It’s a surprisingly good job. It pays well. You can be creative and you’re valued. Who’s not happy to see the plumber? It’s a craftsperson that truly is a creative skill because you’re solving problems.
I’ve been on sets for 40 years now and the production is beautiful to watch. Like the day you show up to shoot, it’s fantastic. I’m so comfortable because I’ve done so many jobs in productions and I started as a production assistant. I drove the van and I answered the telephone. I’ve been in every low-level thing and I loved every minute of it. You get there and the craftsmanship of the sound man is so specific about his little station, where he sets up the audio and he gets the microphones just right. The gaffer is worried about the lighting and the grip makes sure everything is secured, solid and safe. The script supervisor is making sure every line is perfect. Everybody there is doing their craft and they’re very proud of what they do. Everybody there is to contribute to the whole and it’s a community.
That idea is a really overlooked part of well-being. You talk about this because it will be awkward for me to talk about it.
I met this guy. His name is Peter McGraw, this tall professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He says he’s a marketing professor and he brings in this book with this producer friend of mine. They say they want to do a reality show, like the MythBusters show. I said, “Yeah, my kid watches that show. That could be an interesting way to do this.”
You’re being nice right now and you’re like, “That’s too obvious.”
I said, “Let me take a look.” I read the book and I came back and said, “I have a whole other idea.” I don’t know where it came from because that’s like saying, “I don’t know.” Who knows where anything comes or you don’t know where a song comes from either. I don’t know where it came from, but all of a sudden I had this story in my head and I had these characters and I said, “I know what this show is and I want it to be about this family. This family lives in a business of comedy.” What I walked away from the book with was a couple of things that are really important. One is, the benign violation theory, which in the book is really dry and not that interesting to read about, but in application, it’s the fundamental for what I think really makes something truly funny in real life and in a story.
That felt like an insight for you?
It was like making meditation really simple. People say, “It’s closing your eyes and shutting off your mind.” No. What it’s really doing is it’s being present. I know that sounds really simple. When somebody says to you, “Meditation is really just about being present.” You go, “That’s easy.” That’s a lifetime. You’ve got to you work at that every minute of every day. The benign violation theory to me seems really simple. If I was reading other people’s scripts and saying, “The reason this isn’t funny is because nothing is benign and nothing is violated.” If you don’t do those two things, it’s not funny.
We created the story. It’s about a family that’s in the business of comedy. It’s about a guy that writes a book called The Humor Code and his name is Peter. This is all true. Peter is a professor who loses his job, in our story. He loses his job to a woman who is a professor and her area of expertise is in osmology, which is the science of smell. She’s an osmoligist. Why is that important? I started doing some research on what are some of the newer areas of social psychology and marketing in them. It is the idea of smell and attraction. I thought, “That would be a shiny new thing at a new university and it might push The Humor Code out.” It gives us a really convenient way to get Peter out of the academic world and back to Hollywood, where he has grown up.
Our character, Peter, has grown up in an entertainment business family. His single mother raised him. His father was absent. He was a comedian and had disappeared early on. He had left him with his mother who was a lover of life, a very successful businesswoman managing comedy careers for comedians. She has a son, that out of all the things, is just not funny. He’s incredibly bright and understands comedy on such a scientific deep level. He believes that the way to his mother’s heart and the way to gain his mother’s love is through being funny. He decides to pursue funny as an academic career. He has a younger brother named Richie, from another father, because his mother likes to have a good time.
She’s a lover of life and a lover of young, handsome, charming men. She finds herself another one and ends up with another kid. She raises these two boys the best she can and does a pretty damn good job and a pretty terrible job at the same time. When we meet these characters, they’re all in a crossroads. Pretty much everybody in our story is at a crossroads. Their careers are changing. Their lives are changing. They either have to evolve and change, and they will need each other in order to survive. That’s a pretty typical story. That’s The Humor Code. We say it’s a story, it is about show business, about the comedy business and it’s a situation about comedy. It’s not a sitcom.
It’s not a situational comedy, it’s a situation about comedy. That’s very nice. It’s incredibly flattering to have this happening and it’s exciting. Who knows what will come of it all? What’s fun about this idea is it really is a creative idea in the sense that our thought was, “I will do something while there’s this established type of show. It’s a popular show, it can be done, a little twist to it and so on.” Even the idea of taking this from an unscripted idea and making it a scripted idea, the moment you said it I was like, “That’s smart.” I remember how you said it too, “The show needs to be funny and you can make it funnier as a scripted show than as an unscripted show.” At the moment you said that, my marketing hat I was like, “She’s so right.”
It is a show that’s about comedy. It’s very tragic and I think through the tragedy. As we know, comedy is tragedy plus time.
I have not read anything you’ve written yet. I’m looking forward to it. That should be fun. I’ve not said this to a guest yet, but at some later point we should have you on and update people on what’s happened with this.
We are going to do that and it will be a lot funnier at the time. What I was going to say about in conclusion of this whole thing too is, it’s been a privilege to work on this show. For some particular reason, the timing was right. Sometimes the timing’s is just right. Your book, meeting you and having this dropped in my lap.
Being at the right time in your own career and your experience and so on.
I wouldn’t have been ready to write this at any other point but the characters in this are really interesting, wonderful, complicated, funny, truly tragically funny people. We want to see what they’re going to do and how are they going to make it work.
I like to say, you want to be rooting for people. It’s actually hard to root for someone who’s perfect and it’s hard to root for someone who doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. There’s this sweet spot that exists between those two worlds. Those are the best characters.
Flawed, because we’re all flawed. We don’t touch politics at all in this show and that’s on purpose. The reason is because this is not a show about showing how different we all are, how we all stand and you have your opinion, I have mine. You believe this and I believe that. All we’re doing is we’re going on a journey with a couple of people who are fictitious but are based on a lot of different things. Just go for the ride. Just go and have a good time. It’s like when you go on a trip, you just go on an adventure and all of a sudden you find something or you’ve got to run in the woods and at the end of it you just go, “I don’t know what just happened, but I just feel really good.”
It’s such a wonderful feeling. I’m excited. I’m super flattered and being a little bit part of this has been exciting.
You’re more than a little part of this. You might hate me afterwards, but that’s okay.
Doing The Humor Code, this is a code-written book. My co-author and I made this decision that was a little bit unusual. He was going to narrate the book. He doesn’t always portray me in a positive way in the book because I don’t always act positively. Everybody knows me knows that. Fortunately, I’d like to think I have enough redeeming qualities that can make up for the fact those imperfections. I purposely resisted editing any of that. There are plenty of things that I held firm on to edit. When he said something bad about me or what he said something that didn’t cast me in a positive light, I purposely wanted to allow that because it’s the truth. No one wants to read about someone who’s perfect, the fact that those things happen make for a more interesting story. The good news is you’ll get no pushback from me on the flaws of this fictitious character.
Fictitious characters have to be exaggerated too in order for an audience to relate. If a character is somewhat uptight, that can be extremely uptight in the script.
If they’re a clean freak, they’re especially freakish.
If he’s tall, he’s extremely tall. If he’s skinny, he’s very skinny. If he’s bothered by certain things, he’s super bothered by those things. That’s what makes it funny.
That’s an exaggeration, that’s comedy 101.
You have a lot of 101s.
I always finish with a couple of questions. What are you reading, watching or listening to that is superb?
I read a lot of self-help books because I’m always trying to be better. I’m really trying to get through David Foster Wallace. He had written an essay that I’ve read multiple times and it defines everything for me. It was really before he died and it was a college graduation speech. He tells this parable that I love, “A big fish swims by two younger fish and he says, ‘Hey boys, how’s the water?’ Two younger fish look at each other and then they look at the guy and they go, ‘What’s water?’” To me, anybody that would think about that, that defines everything for me. That’s it in a nutshell. That’s what I’m reading and paying attention to and that’s really relevant to me right now.
What a commentary on wisdom.
You’re just living your life, so it just depends on what lens you’re looking at it through. Right now, the lens I’m looking at it through is funny, twisted and a little off.
Last question, what’s the secret of success that everybody knows, but can’t seem to do?
Perseverance and persistency.
Scott said, “There are no failures in Hollywood, only quitters.”
I am not young in the industry. I’m not old. I’m working with somebody that’s as old as my mother right now, a legend in the industry. He’s still at it at 80 years old and still cares deeply about the show that we’re making. I am working with somebody that’s in the beginning of his career, he’s as passionate, dedicated, has persistence and perseverance. What I do think at this point in my life too, is you really have to stick very true to yourself. Do what you love to do. Believe in it and sacrifice. I’m willing to do that more than I was. I think fear, as a younger person, ruled me more than it does now. I’m less afraid of things. I already faced the worst that could happen. I figured out myself, “So? Have a little less money for a time. Maybe I’ll have a little bit more later. If not, there’s always something else to do.” Persistency and belief.
Natalie, thanks so much for doing this.
Thank you, Peter.
- Joy Factory
- The Humor Code
About Natalie Barandes
Natalie Barandes is a producer, writer, and director. As the creative chief for Joy Factory, she creates original content for TV, film, digital, and mobile companies.