I first came to know Shannon Plumb upon viewing her short films at MOMA several years ago. They were funny, clever, intelligent, and well crafted. She hasn’t stopped after that successful bunch of hysterical shorts. Now she has created a new comedy series. In this essay, she talks about that series and the problems and joys of independent film production.
A show isn’t a show until it’s seen somewhere by someone else. At 12 years old, my first show was in my grandma’s kitchen. Behind a chair at the head of the table, next to the stove, on a mat wiped by shoes tromping in from a greasy garage, there I stood. My little show consisted of one impression: the classic Hollywood actress ZaSu Pitts. My aunts, cousins, grandma, and mother sat around the table. A cloud of cigarette smoke lingered in the air. The coffee pot percolated on the burner. And I saw my family laughing. From grandma’s kitchen to a college stage, to TV monitors in New York galleries and silver screens in avant-garde cinemas, I found ways to present my comedy to a live audience. Around 2018, when theatres were closed and stages empty, I was at a loss for how to screen the show. The only screen I had access to was my computer.
So, four years ago, I created a sketch comedy show called Chopped Liver. At one time, it was contracted with an internet platform to potentially live on their website. It was dropped when they decided drama was in greater demand than comedy. I don’t have a lot of marketing advantages, so it’s hard to find support. I’m not famous. I don’t have a net worth. I’m over 50. I don’t paint my nails, or dye my hair much. Agents and managers aren’t sure what I’m good for. To them, I’m like a mint in a bowl of many mints. They pop one in their mouth, and while they suck on it, the experience is refreshing and pleasurable. They might say, with their minty fresh breath, “Mmmm, what a good mint.” But a mint with no name is just another mint from a mint bowl.
Peddling Chopped Liver around was impossible without a meeting. I wasn’t meeting anyone who thought I should have a meeting. In the entertainment world, it’s all about the meeting. In the meeting, you might get a free water, maybe a free lunch, and maybe a mint on your way out. The meeting was everything. I’m not sure what was supposed to happen in a meeting. Were they looking at my height? Did they know my name is Shannon, not Sharon? I just wanted to know if they watched the show. I waited four years, with four finished episodes, in hopes that the people who did support Chopped Liver could help find us an audience.
But nothing was happening. I was starting to get whatever my dog has … I just wanted to collapse on the floor and lay around all day. I was starving for the end of the process. For an audience to see the show. It was shot and edited, but not complete without being seen. Should I really wait around for someone else to believe in the show as much as I do? Wait for when they were ready to present it to people in positions of power? Or could I just do it myself? I’d have to start praying more. Pray that the word got around. I decided, with the encouragement of my teenage sons, to upload the show to my YouTube channel and forget about Hollywood and big-name platforms. After sitting on the finished episodes for years, I sent out my link to all the contacts I had.
I sat at my desk. I refreshed my YouTube page every five minutes. The views slowly went up. I only know about 300 people. Two are my mom and dad. Eight are cousins. Three are strangers who have the same last name and say we must be related.
The moments after you upload or post are like getting high and coming down all at once. The whole experience is like riding a rocket into withdrawal. It’s great! It’s not great! Oh, the need! The desperation. The begging you do in private. You perspire. You get a few more views, then you don’t. Who didn’t I think of? Can I find one more person to send a link to? Would my dentist want to see it? I check the views. My knuckles tighten over the keyboard. If I don’t close the computer, unplug it, and bash its chips out, I’ll spend the rest of my days staring at the numbers on my YouTube page. I don’t go to the bathroom. I’m checking Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and my emails. Did my mom write yet? Did I eat? I don’t know. Is that me drooling? I just have to check my views one more time.
The autonomy of YouTube is luring. You don’t need permission or proper introductions. But you do have to have a lot of friends.
It takes large numbers on YouTube to impress someone who could support you with all your marketing needs, meetings and financing. I’m imagining one million views as the magic number that might impress. To get to that number, at a venue, in person, I would have to fill Madison Square Garden 50 times with sold-out Chopped Liver shows.
For the artist’s satisfaction, funny stuff requires a live audience. How do you know people are laughing, and which parts they are laughing at, if your audience is just a number on a screen? I sent the link to one of my friends and asked if he could tell me the parts he and his wife thought were funny. He sent me a text with the timecode of every place they laughed. It was a really long text. They were laughing!
The first days of posting are at least somewhat rewarding. Friends who have always supported your work write back with words of encouragement. Love. Messages telling you to keep going. They tell you their favorite skits. These friends are the only affirmation that what you do is worth something. If it weren’t for them, I would have given up on this long long ago.
I go to my YouTube channel. Views: 201 … I click the refresh button … 205. I take a breath and then refresh again … 212 …
It’s working! I can’t wait to post the next show. There’s an audience for this. Maybe I’ll make it to that noticeable number. Maybe we’ll get on the late-night show. I get to 356 views. I only need 999,644 more views. I wait. I stare at 356. It’s not moving. I wish I still smoked crack. No matter how many times I refresh, it won’t go up. 356 persons is not a big enough audience. My fingers go into rigor mortis hovering over the keys.
In the “old days,” 356 persons would have been a perfect audience for a screening. 356 bodies all facing the screen for 27 minutes. No one was cleaning their ears between skits, no one was grabbing a pickle from the fridge during the show, no one made a hair appointment in the middle of a scene. Everyone at the old venue was there, present, absorbing the movement in front of them. A live and captive audience, like campers, or cavemen, sitting around a fire, listening to the Odyssey! The merging of all kinds of laughs into one reaction. The community. It was an event. It was a lesson for me on what was working comically and what wasn’t. People laughed at skits that contained an element of each of them. It was a celebration of being human.
And it was a reciprocal gift. The crowd gave me their attention for 27 minutes and hopefully, I gave them something funny to remember when they needed a laugh the most. 356 audience members would have been a great screening!
I checked my views. 356 … Refresh again … 356 … The numbers came to a standstill. Oh, life sucks! No, it doesn’t, but shit, my whole career flashed in front of me. The time I have left. The time I wasted. What else can I do at 50? Is it too late to be a race-car driver? At least I entertained my friends for 20 or so years.
Whenever I would get ready for a screening in the theater, I’d be so nervous. I had to prepare myself for the audience’s reaction. I had to face the consequences. Sitting within the audience, I could feel the vibe of the crowd. Sometimes, it’s been a bad day for a lot of people. They aren’t laughing where you expect laughs. Maybe they aren’t laughing at all. You can hear the usher outside talking about the weather. There’s a nervous cough. But then, a sound like a giggle emerges, or maybe it’s a rat squeaking in the back row. The giggle mutates into a guffaw. And then it spreads. Contagion. Shoulders in the front row start moving up and down, a face next to me sparkles with shiny, giant teeth. Then my body bounces without permission, out of control. I’m laughing unexpectedly.
I was surrounded by friends in those screenings, but also by strangers who took a risk coming to see something they didn’t know about. Being there was the reward for making the show. What is the reward in refreshing your screen? Seeing that one more person viewed your work? Someone you will never meet, who you can’t be sure watched the whole show, a person who is a number, not a name. What can you learn about your work that would make you a better artist? Should you assume you suck if you only have 400 views? What can you learn about the people watching your work?
My son tells me to stop looking at my YouTube page. “Just one more time,” I tell him. “Wait until tomorrow to check again,” he says. Everything is about tomorrow. If I have to wait for another tomorrow one more time …
I can’t stop clicking refresh. I’ll never get anything done ever again. How do I escape? Do I need someone to tie up my hands?
If I refresh my YouTube page right now, and it’s gone up just one itsy-bitsy view, I’ll close my computer, knowing in my heart I have to keep making these shows.
I stare at the YouTube page. I put the pointer on the refresh button. I prepare myself for the same number that I saw five minutes ago: 356. I get ready to click. But I pause, ’cause it looks like my phone is lighting up. One of the actors from the show just posted the link on her Instagram page. I gained 20 new followers. Did they watch the show? I click refresh on my computer. The number on my YouTube channel is moving.
The views just jumped from 356 to 431. Refresh 460…it feels like Christmas morning in a millionaire’s living room… refresh … 501. I love the new way of screening. 516 views. I love staring at my computer. 549 views. I love being alone and not seeing the audience. 601 views. I love … mints with no names.
Reprinted with the permission of TALKHOUSE
Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.