Five Comedy Incubations That Hatched Into Major Stars and Projects

Last month, during a master class at the Taormina Film Festival, no less a star than Ben Stiller admitted that his career wouldn’t have gotten far if he’d relied on auditions, which seldom went his way early on, for other people’s projects.

“A lot of times, I did things because I wasn’t getting work as an actor,” said Stiller, explaining how he redirected that frustration into making shorts or creating projects that grew into career opportunities. “There’s really no excuse to not be doing what you want to do. Now, you can make a movie with your phone. If you start to create, something will come out of that.”

Here, starting with one of Stiller’s own examples, are five incubations that hatched full-fledged projects or stars.

1. Short Shrift: “Zoolander”

When Stiller and screenwriting buddy Drake Sather invented the character of Derek Zoolander, the vacuous male model was created for a one-off short film at the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards. Had the bit bombed, it wouldn’t have mattered. But the audience response encouraged the duo to shoot a follow-up segment the following year and, eventually, to develop a feature around the character, inspired by a meathead the actor had played on “The Ben Stiller Show.”

“When we told the studio, they didn’t quite understand it,” Stiller explained at Taormina. Luckily, they had the two VH1 shorts to show as proof of concept, and the fact that both Stiller and Sather had spent time developing the character gave them the foundation to create a comedy that holds up — well enough to warrant a sequel, which Stiller has spent years developing. “It’s going to be old Derek Zoolander,” Stiller joked.

2. Sketchy Background: Melissa McCarthy

Rather than counting hits on YouTube, sketch performers get instant feedback when testing out funny accents or weird personalities in front of a live audience, developing and evolving those that show the most potential. Steve Carell had performed the character that became “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” many times at Chicago’s Second City. The experience made adapting to director Judd Apatow’s improv-conducive style easy enough, since he already knew the character inside-out.

That’s one reason “Saturday Night Live” loves casting members of L.A.’s Groundlings troupe, giving them a chance to expand upon existing characters. Now that she’s become the most bankable comedic actress in town, Melissa McCarthy is planning a pic based around Michelle Darnell, a filthy-rich self-help guru she created during her time with the Groundlings. “I just could never get her out of my head,” McCarthy told Variety.

3.The Podcasting Couch: Jonah Ray

Though occasionally a prodigy appears, comedy is one of those fields that seems to bear out Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” — the daunting amount of time estimated to master any given field. “That’s the thing about comedy. The only way to get better at it is just to do it,” says Jonah Ray, who’s burned his way through several thousand hours co-hosting “The Nerdist Podcast” with Chris Hardwick and emceeing a weekly live-comedy show in Meltdown Comics’ back room with Kumail Nanjiani.

When both shows were upgraded to TV series, Ray was ready for it. For “The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail” (which debuts July 23 on Comedy Central), “we tried not to change anything about it. We gave the back room a paint job, but that’s about it,” says Ray, who made a list of conversation topics that had worked well on the show with Nanjiani. “Then we went on the road to try those stories out, to see if it was just the particular magic of that night or if it would work again.”

4. Primetime on YouTube: “Miranda Sings”

Though people were skeptical at first, YouTube has now proven itself a fertile enough platform for comedic acts to develop, giving us the likes of Lucas Cruikshank (who spun off his “Fred” franchise via Nickelodeon) and “Epic Meal Empire” (debuting July 26 on A+E’s newly rebranded FYI network).

From the start, agencies swarmed to sign talent that had demonstrated an ability to attract crowds online, hoping that auds would follow them to more traditional media — and they have, filling venues for cut-ups such as Anjelah Johnson, Bo Burnham and, more recently, Colleen Ballinger, a trained opera singer whose “Miranda Sings” character hilariously butchers well-known pop songs.

Some create fresh material for their live shows, though most seem to get by performing their greatest YouTube hits. In Ballinger’s case, the promoters for a Times Square show had no trouble packing the 1,500-seat venue with minimum advertising after she sent the link out to her followers, who call themselves “Mirfandas.”

5. A Fine Viner: Andrew Bachelor

With the rise of Twitter and Vine, comedians are learning to be funny within even narrower confines: 140-character tweets or seven-second Vines. Posting three short videos a day at his peak, Andrew Bachelor may seem like an overnight sensation trying to break in, but his popular Vine persona, KingBach, is actually the culmination of much practice. Back in college, Bachelor performed as part of the 30in60 sketch comedy troupe: 30 short sketches squeezed into 60 minutes. “It was just us against the clock,” he says.

“I learned that standup comedic acting is very different from TV comedic acting. On stage, it was more about having people relate to me and my personality, whereas acting for film or TV, you have to really commit to a character and tell the story,” he says. As the highest-profile Viner to make the leap, Bachelor is drawing on all his experience: “The pressure’s on me. I have to take all my knowledge and apply that so I don’t ruin it for other Viners.”


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