Good comedy rarely comes out of isolation. Often, it relies on collaboration between multiple writers of different styles and sensibilities. When comedians get together to work on a project, the group can produce gold, but collaboration also holds the potential for disaster. With its new documentary, “The Exquisite Corpse Project,” comedy group Olde English explores the effects of stilted collaboration by having five different writers, each working in complete isolation, write a single comedy film.
For those unfamiliar, Olde English is a sketch comedy group founded in 2002 by comedians Ben Popik, Adam Conover, Dave Segal, and Raphael Bob-Waksberg. The group quickly found internet fame with YouTube sketches and then live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. After seven years of draining infighting and attempts to break into television, the group disbanded in 2009. However, before moving to Belize, Popik decided to bring the group back together for one last project.
The documentary was screened at the Powell Cinema on Oct. 13, followed by a question-and-answer session with the writers. The night began with a stand-up performance by Conover, who drew from childhood experiences that included his relationship with his overachieving sister and some of the weirdness of the original “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Ultimately, the most interesting part of the routine was its service as a prelude to the mannerisms and senses of humor of one of the five core figures of the film.
The documentary begins with an explanation of the title. The Exquisite Corpse is an old parlor game, wherein three people each draw a different section of a human figure without seeing what their counterparts are doing. Usually the different parts have no relation to each other, leaving an awkward yet comical mess.
With this documentary, Popik sets out to create the cinematic equivalent. Three of Olde English’s comedians, along with the returning Joel Clark and newcomer Chioke Nassor, were each given the task of writing 15 pages of the script while only being able to read the final five pages of their predecessor’s section. Once the script was completed, Popik would then attempt to direct the 65 page script into a coherent movie, while also filming the writing process and the screening of the finished piece.
The film essentially functions within five chapters, one for each writer. Each of these chapters begins by introducing the current writer, rapidly cutting between interviews with him and with the other comedians. The documentary has an amazing sense of pace; it manages to dart between the interview segments so rapidly, showing the close friends often saying surprisingly harsh things about each other, that it almost seems like they’re in the same room arguing with each other.
When the film documents the writing process, the story begins by following a couple who realizes the two need to steal in order to keep romance alive. However, even as the mise en abyme is taking place, it’s continually interrupted by the reactions of the other comedians as they watch the finished project. The collective scrutinizing reiterates that this is a group project, even though it’s supposed to be a task carried out in isolation. It also helps that the different comedians are able to constantly point out the foibles of each other and even themselves.
This film within the film is a mixed bag. In spite of the director’s intentions, the different sections really end up feeling like separate sketches with the same character names and some repeating locations and motifs. Almost all of the writers are willing to completely discard continuity and go their own way with the project. And this lack of cohesion works more often than not; it proves interesting to watch how each writer brings an incredibly distinct sense of humor to the project.
The film definitely peaks during the absurdist second part. You’ve got lines that are out of sync, corny jokes, and even intentionally disorienting editing. While other sections never reach the same level, it’s immensely funny to watch a romantic comedy morph into a stalker thriller and then into a weird episode of “Super Friends.”
Interestingly, the intention was for the original film to be written for release, with just occasional diversions to the writers themselves. But turning the spotlight on the creators is what makes this documentary so interesting. Beyond the meta humor of its premise, the film soon becomes a fascinating personality study of how five, incredibly different comedians can come together and, even while working in isolation, try to create a movie together.
During the question-and-answer session that followed the film, the conversation focused on understanding the importance of collaboration in comedy writing, emphasizing the dynamics of the group and just how much chaos can be expected during the creative process. Ultimately, the resounding message put forward was that arguments are an unfortunate and inevitable by-product of collaboration; when people work together, it’s necessary to create some kind of safe zone.
As one member of the group explained, there’s a skill to learning how to work together.
“The more time you spend collaborating, the better you become at finding out, ‘How can I improve this and not just show I’m smarter than them?’” Bob-Waksberg said.
The group ended the night by emphasizing that, in spite of the many challenges that had just been exemplified on screen, constantly working on projects and producing content is always necessary.
“Use the resources you have now, and make as much while you’re still in college,” Clark said. “The more you make in college, the more skills you have. And you’ll have this body of work. Then once you get out into the real world you’ll find it’s fucking hard to make a video and finish it and put it out there. Because it’s so hard, if you have videos, people will just give you so much respect for finishing something.”