Why Are We So Obsessed with Facebook Live? An interview with UCB Comedy’s Creative Director Nate Russell


Facebook Live isn't just what your friends use to stream poorly lit shenanigans on a Friday night. It's a petri dish for new forms of interactive comedy — one that Nate Russell, creative director at UCB Comedy’s production division, Don't Think Productions, has been busily experimenting with over the course of 2017. Russell sat down with UCB intern and Loyola University sophomore Kyle Hand to discuss where Facebook Live is going and what this burgeoning medium means for entertainment, branded content and talent.

So what is UCB doing with Facebook Live?

UCB Comedy has always been what we call a comedy science lab. So we’re trying to throw experimental comedic ideas against the wall and see what sticks. Starting in about January of this year, we got pretty serious about trying to take Facebook Live, which is a great space for improv and improv talent, and use it to execute comedic ideas live in an interactive format. We’ve been producing at least one weekly Facebook Live video out of our studios in New York, playing with different ways to apply a broad set of comedic ideas in this new exciting medium.

What's the most cutting-edge thing you think you've done with Facebook live?

Probably a project called “Learn to Draw with Rob Boss." It was the brainchild of a UCB comedian, Eric Yearwood, who wanted to do a psychedelic, semi-fucked-up Bob Ross character, where he's painting live on Facebook and taking suggestions from the audience on what to paint.

So we’ve got Eric in a bad wig with bad teeth, and he's got a tablet which is programmed into a computer that he's able to draw on, and through the green screen, he's drawing the world around him. He’s also got a sidekick called Happy Little Cloud, who is an animated character puppet voiced by Kevin Cobbs; it's live animated on another laptop, and Kevin’s voice and motions move this puppet on the screen. So there's a composited puppet being voiced by another improviser speaking to Eric, who is on screen while he’s also drawing his environment around him, and taking suggestions, and responding to comments from the audience.

How would you describe the range of videos you're producing on Facebook Live?

We're trying to execute ideas that feel like they are different from each other so that we can learn what works best in this format — and what keeps things fresh for us, for the audience, and for performers who are coming to execute on them. So we're doing talk show formats, we’re doing single camera or single character, truly just direct interactive content. We’re doing long-form improv structured inside of a Facebook Live environment.

We have an event coming up in the middle of August called "Your Comments: The Play," in which a group of writers and performers will take comments and, in real time, scribe a play that will then be performed as part of the show. You know, trying to do things that feel like they are technically different every time and show a range of different comedic approaches, but all of which answer the question: why does this need to be executed live, and what's the fun aspect of the interactive format?

Can you describe Facebook and UCB’s relationship?

Like everybody else on the internet, we're always on Facebook. There's a big audience out there consuming content on Facebook, which is rapidly becoming a really vibrant maker community, so we're populating our channel with content that we feel is additive to that community and that we’re proud of producing. And we're also looking for ways to work with partner companies, to produce content on Facebook for their channels as well.

So where do you see Facebook Live going?

I think that Facebook Live is an underutilized resource for branded content and for cutting-edge storytelling on the internet. I think, in short order, we're going to see brands looking to reach an audience on Facebook Live that can be interacted with, and who are having fun and doing fun things that are also speaking to their brand goals. We're excited to sort of be in this position where we have a lot of great ideas that we can find partners to help execute.

I also think that the technology is only getting better and better for making truly dynamic, interactive storytelling. So I think that we are going to be able to live stream narrative storytelling that operates like an improv show or a play, but that has also a cinematic component to it in that it’s filmed, plus an interactive component to it that's going to be really fun and fresh. We’re hoping to be there as that world gets easier to produce inside of.

Do you have any tips for an organization just starting with Facebook live?

Organizations should know that it's still the Wild West. The tools that are out there right now are changing all the time. The tech is changing all the time. The features are changing all the time. And that’s exciting. It just means that you should be throwing stuff up, not being overly precious about the execution. You're gonna learn by doing it in an environment that is changing so quickly. The way that we did stuff six months ago is totally different compared to now; it’s getting better — exponentially better.

Instagram, YouTube, Twitch — there are all these places whose products are getting increasingly better as this year goes by, and we're excited to work in all of those spaces because they each have different features and different fun ways to apply different ideas. So I’d say, throw stuff against the wall.

Have you had any problems or challenges using Facebook Live?

When you’re doing stuff that’s multicam, there can be sync issues. That was one of the things we had to solve very early on. On Facebook specifically, there seems to be a comment visibility inconsistency, because people's privacy settings are different. And so it actually has been a challenge to come up with ideas that don't rely so heavily on the comments so that people who can't see a specific comment don't feel like they’re left out of it, because some people can't see comments marked as only private, even on a public feed.

So maybe that will come in the future.


Do you have any questions that you would like to ask yourself, or any that we didn't cover?

I mean, I think the other thing we're excited about, in this Wild West format, is mixed reality. VR and live composite environments that are animated with real character elements are gonna make a real dynamic, fun playground for content creators...And so we're also trying to jump into that world, as well, as it develops; because, as with anything on the internet, when new territory is staked out, comedy is usually the thing that brings it into the mainstream. . And we're excited to try and participate in that next wave of breakthrough technology, because we see the talent at UCB as being the best comedic talent in the world, and we want to be an exhibitor of that talent in new, cutting-edge ways. Constantly.