Watching cameos from the likes of Jane Lynch and Jeff Goldblum, it's easy to forget that the breakout Web series Easy to Assemble is, at its core, one giant Ikea commercial. And what a commercial it's been: Season two of the series has earned more than 13 million views. The kudos belong to creator Illeana, who also stars as—meta alert!—an actress who works at Ikea Burbank. Season three debuts this fall on MyDamnChannel.com, and Douglas recently chatted with us about what to expect in the new season, Swedish meatballs, and how one Web show can help revitalize an entire brand.
Fast Company: When Easy to Assemble premiered, it was one of the only branded shows on the Internet. Why did Ikea approach you to make it happen?
Illeana Douglas: That first year, people thought of Ikea as dorm furniture. And they wanted to take a new, hip approach to their brand. Ikea contacted me after watching one of my pilots, "Supermarket" [about working in a supermarket], on YouTube. We bounced around a couple different ideas, but [show producer] Magnus Gustafson kept coming back to, "But I really loved what you wrote with 'Supermarket.' Would you be able to do a show like that but set in an Ikea?" So I said, "Oh my god, great."
FC: It's a pretty awesome shooting venue, too, what with the model kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, etc.
ID: You're right. We used a lot of the sets that were there. And as we were shooting in the store, we truly became obsessed with the Ikea philosophy. We did these funny 1950's-style training videos: Jeff Goldblum teaching you Swedish, Craig Bierko telling you how to use an allen wrench. We also played on the idea that art is where you make it, so everything that happened on the first season of the show was kind of happening in real time. If shoppers were really there [while we were filming], we'd be like, "Hey, wanna be in a scene with Robert Patrick?"
ID: Yeah, that was the whole idea. It was going to be totally guerilla-theater-meets-art filming in the actual store with actual shoppers watching. And it did pretty well.
FC: But you moved away from the more in-your-face branding in the second season.
ID: To me, any time you see a yellow and blue Ikea worker, it's just naturally funny. But for the second season we decided to make it more character-driven, and focus more on the ideals of the brand, which are teamwork, quality, togetherness, and all that stuff. Instead of highlighting a specific chair, for example, we show an Ikea manager who's somewhat of a parental figure, somewhat befuddled, but also a really genuinely nice guy who cares about his coworkers. If the first year was about being on the showroom floor, the second year was about going behind the scenes.
FC: And your character competing for Employee of the Month with Justine Bateman.
ID: Yeah, that became really fun. We even added a fan component so people could vote.
FC: Does Ikea ever censor what you write?
ID: The first year, there was a line about ice cream. And when we were shooting, they told me it was actually frozen yogurt, not ice cream. We used to joke about how that was the only note they ever gave.
FC: Was it?
ID: Well, the second year, they were much more involved from the get-go. Before we started filming one scene, I sat down with Magnus and said, Here's what I'm imagining. I'm in this fake relationship with Tom Arnold, and he's trying to revive my career by shooting a sex video right before I go to work. Then the camera pans out and it reveals that we're not in his apartment at all—we're on the showroom floor of Ikea. This is why Magnus is the greatest boss ever: Because he laughed and said, "OK, but keep it family-friendly." Which, of course, it would be. Are we knowingly pushing the envelope? Yes. But are we also trying to push the artistic envelope in a classy, funny kind of way.
FC: And create realistic, lovable characters.
ID: This is a group of people who truly care about each other who happen to work at Ikea. We play together, we work together, we love together, we eat good food together ... .
FC: You mean the world-famous Swedish meatballs?
ID: [laughs] Yes. To me, branded entertainment was last year's story. This year's story is, Oh, this is happening, this is independent film. We're making real entertainment that could be on TV or in a movie theater.
FC: Do you ever shop at Ikea?
ID: Yeah, of course. Hardest thing for us when were shooting is to not get things. When we shoot there, we're always trying to save money, we get these $12 coupons, so there's enough ... Everybody has figured out that you can get your lunch for about $6, and then you can also get abut $6 worth of chocolate bars.
FC: Or, like, a lamp.
ID: Yeah, or a lamp or a little rug. But yeah, my dream is to get my mom an Ikea kitchen. I don't get discounts or free furniture or anything.
FC: Too bad. So what can you tell us about season 3?
ID: My character has just won coworker of the year, and I'm on my way to meet the head of the company, and I have to go through all these trials and tribulations to decide if I'm going to be a cog in the wheel of a workforce or if I'm going back to show business. Also, there's going to be a rock opera called "Scorpio Rising."
FC: You've had some pretty notable guest stars, including Jeff Goldblum and Jane Lynch. Anyone you can tell us about for season 3?
ID: We just had Fred Willard on, who plays the fictional head of the company. His scene is very touching, and I used him in a very nostalgic way that I think people will like. One of the lines I say to him is: "I guess as long as Ikea makes living rooms, I know I'll always feel like I'm home in them."
FC: Does that resonate you for personally?
ID: I owe Ikea a huge debt. [Before they greenlit Easy to Assemble], I was struggling, trying to do pilots. Which is the hardest thing, because when you're writing a script, you just want to get it to the general public, because you have this feeling that if you this thing can catch on. That fact that Ikea was willing to give me that opportunity was a huge, huge blessing. And ever since, it's been a crazy, amazing Swedish ride.
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A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.