Alex Anfanger isn’t an aspiring filmmaker, but he plays one on TV.
Big Time In Hollywood, FL is a show about two twentysomething goofballs who live with their parents and spend their days striving to make movies (badly). Anfanger created the show with Dan Schimpf after the pair’s web series met with the kind of success that eludes their characters–clicks, followed by critical respect and powerful phone calls from on high. The two commanded attention with the brilliant Next Time on Lonny, which satirized TV shows. Now they have a TV show. And the web series that allowed them to make a TV show only exists because of an idea that sprang up while developing the script for that TV show. If all of that sounds a little meta, wait until you see the show itself.
Anfanger and Schimpf met during freshman year at NYU; they’re a theater nerd and a film geek, respectively. They were paired as roommates, and it didn’t take long before they started to collaborate on sketches and different projects. The pair bonded over a shared sensibility that manifested in short films about murderous campaigns for high school class secretary. There’s a reason, however, why you will never see any of those early films.
“We made a ton of shorts at NYU, but we were just old enough to recognize that maybe you shouldn’t put every little thing that you do online,” Schimpf says. “We both felt like people threw stuff online so haphazardly. We wanted something that felt more polished before putting it out and praying that we wouldn’t regret it later.”
The first thing they felt confident enough to put online was an outgrowth of the first thing they eventually ended up getting on TV. While developing the initial version of Big Time five years ago, Anfanger and Schimpf thought it might be funny to end each episode of the show with an insane, nonsensical preview of what would happen on next week’s episode. After toying with this idea for a while, they conceived of a “next time” section of a show that would fully eclipse the show itself.
Next Time on Lonny premiered online in 2011, with reality TV as its satirical focal point. Each installment began with what might be the climactic moment of a typical show about a single guy navigating life in The Big City. Then came the preview for the following week’s episode, a wholly divergent descent into several different kinds of madness. Arrested Development may have already tacked on “next time” scenes at the end of its episodes that didn’t actually happen the following week, but that show’s sequences never involved, say, aliens destroying the entire planet.
“We thought it would be a great format for a web show,” Anfanger says, “and we had this reality character because we thought that would be the best frame for being able to go on those adventures.”
Shortly after the series debuted, Anfanger and Schimpf got exactly the kind of reaction everyone in their position hopes for. They got managers, and those managers started getting phone calls. The team at Ben Stiller’s production company, Red Hour, responded to the series and sent it forward to Stiller himself. The next day, he personally called the filmmakers and told them he wanted to work together. It was a pivotal moment that lead to Red Hour producing Lonny’s second season and Stiller appearing in promos.
As soon as Lonny started getting attention, the pair knew they would be able to use it as a tool for pitching a TV show. Just as they’d waited to put anything online until they felt certain about its quality, they didn’t share their TV pitch with anyone until it was polished to a glimmering sheen. They looked back with fresh eyes at their first big idea, what eventually became Big Time In Hollywood, FL, and reworked it with the benefit of the experience they’d acquired since. When they finally had a draft of a script they felt was worth presenting, they gave it to Stiller. He was on board.
“A big thing for the pitch was getting a treatment for the whole season,” Anfanger says, “and really trying to explain how we wanted this series to develop and move and be a serialized show.”
It was a new challenge for the pair, but not a completely unfamiliar one. While there’s no continuity in the wild flights of fancy on Lonny, each opening scene plays as the condensed version of a key moment from a long-form narrative. Taken as a whole, the series had the constellation of a larger plot, without any burden on the filmmakers to connect the dots.
“When you’re outlining a true season-long arc, that’s kind of where you start anyway, with those big moments, and then you fill in the details and the scenes and how you arrived there,” Schimpf says. “So in a way it’s almost like Lonny would be an outline, and Big Time, would be the outline with all the details and all the character developments filled in.”
He and Anfanger had always had a loose arc for how a full season might work, even when they wrote the original years before. They envisioned Big Time as having the same kind of arc a snowball has as it goes downhill. The profound heap of trouble its protagonists find themselves in would be both dramatic and silly. With Stiller and Red Hour’s help, the pair successfully sold this aspect of the show, which Comedy Central is now billing as its “first serialized comedy.”
Watch any episode from the first and fifth season of Workaholics back-to-back and you will notice very little has changed in between. That show and the channel’s other nonsketch shows, like Broad City, are episodic in nature, and designed to exist in perpetuity. Big Time, on the other hand, has an intricate plot that is not chunkable. Watch any episode without having seen the previous episode, and you will be lost.
Big Time follows Jack and Ben Dolfe (Anfanger and Lenny Jacobson) as they aggressively pursue a backyard filmmaking career. The problems begin when their parents (the mighty Stephen Tobolowsky and Kathy Baker) attempt to remove the pair from that backyard. Jack and Ben’s scheme to avoid leaving home ends with one of them going to rehab and an ex-junkie actor (played by Stiller) in an even worse place. It’s a situational snowball that gets bigger as it continues its descent, pulling in a detective played by Michael Madsen and Cuba Gooding Jr. as himself along the way.
If the show is an act of branching out for Comedy Central, it is even more so for Anfanger and Schimpf, who suddenly found themselves collaborating with a lot more people than they previously had. Comedy Central made it clear from the beginning that Anfanger and Schimpf had the creative control to do what they wanted. Any notes that came down the pike were more like suggestions, which could ultimately be vetoed if the pair felt strongly enough. Stiller was also on hand in his executive producer role–remotely, from around the world–to ask questions and provide advice when needed, but the logistics of making the show were left to the filmmakers to figure out.
“With Lonny, we had a really small collective of super-talented filmmakers, and we gave ourselves a lot of time to kind of perfect these little small things that we wanted to achieve,” Schimpf says. “With the TV show, we’re shooting essentially a four-hour movie in 40 days, so you have a lot of people in place and the schedule is pretty aggressive. It really boils down to trying to execute as best you can within the timeline.”
It was a punishing schedule to film the show, a continuation of the daunting effort to crash out scripts for the entire season in a limited time. While Anfanger and Schimpf had taken years to perfect their pilot script, upon reaching a deal with the network, they had to produce nine additional scripts in 12 weeks.
“I think back on the experience of Lonny and Big Time as one of the best experiences of my life, but then if I think back to, like, specifically day-to-day, what it was like, there were so many days where I just wanted to kill myself,” Anfanger says. “It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. But if I don’t think about it too hard, I look back and it was amazing.”
Perhaps the next project will involve filmmakers looking back on the process of not being “aspiring” anymore, and it will also be funny, twisted, and meta. Ben Stiller is attached to play himself.