Jeremy Seglem began his acting career about five years ago, in a collection of short comedic web videos called “Treading Water.” Since then, in partnership with writer/director Tim Young, he’s continued to produce original video content for the web — first as the co-creator and star of the mockumentary series “Twilight with Steve Cooper” and its follow-up, “Behind the Steve,” and now as the co-creator and writer of “Cop/Cop,” a new improvised comedy series starring Tyler Gilmore and Rob Cuthill as two inept cops who will go to any lengths to get a confession.
The first episode of “Cop/Cop,” titled “Old Dogs,” premiered online this week, and another episode has been selected to debut at the Channel 101 program at this year’s New York Television Festival on Friday night in NYC. Channel 101 is a monthly series in which five-minute shows are screened for a live audience, who vote to “cancel” some series and “renew” others, new episodes of which are then presented as part of the new “prime time lineup” at the event the next month.
“I have not experienced a live situation, where people will laugh at something I’ve made,” Seglem says. “So my goal is just to have people laugh at it. That’s really all I can ask. It’d be nice to advance, but as long as people think it’s funny, I don’t care.”
Watch the first episode of “Cop/Cop” below, then read my Q&A with Seglem to learn more about his creative process, how he finds an audience for funny three-minute videos among so much competition online, and why all actors should take on the role of a casting director.
(Warning: Language and situations may be NSFW)
How did you get started acting in and creating your own web videos?
Jeremy Seglem: Initially, I met Tim Young, who’s my creative partner, through “Treading Water,” a web series which I was cast in while I was living in Philadelphia and came up here [to New York City] to shoot episodes. It was the first acting thing I’d ever done. I never had any acting or writing experience. I went to business school, so I wasn’t a theater kid.
So that was this collaborative thing, part scripted and part improvised. And then when I moved up to New York, I developed this idea for “Twilight with Steve Cooper,” which I had written all these scripts for, and I asked Tim to help direct it. And then that morphed into “Behind the Steve,” which was almost all improvised.
But it’s improvised within the plot and what we really want to get to. We have a box, and we work inside that. “30 Rock” is notorious for that, too. “We’ll start here and we want to get there, so do whatever you want to do in between.” And I think that makes organic, really funny stuff, when you just let people go.
I think that the hardest part of doing predominantly improvised web video – besides no one seeing it (laughs) – is the post-production aspect of it. You’re not having guys hitting the same lines every time.
The people we’re working with are really seriously talented improvisers, and they’re funny every single time. But because of that, they want to do something new every take. And you kind of have to rein them in, but you still have loads of funny stuff. But yeah, it does make it difficult to organize. I think that’s a good thing. It’s an embarrassment of riches, so to speak. It’s really like a journey. These are fun to make for that reason, because they end up differently than you think they will.
I really enjoyed making this one, and as tough as it was to put together, it is in my opinion the most flexible of all the projects I’ve done. You can come back with a thousand new ideas that will work in this world.
Within the past few years, you’ve transitioned from acting to writing to co-creating your own web series. What have you learned about the process?
That’s an interesting point. I think mostly, I just like to learn all of this stuff. And for me, acting kind of came easily, and I also took it for granted, and still take it for granted. I think a lot of actors do. When you get into writing and producing, you play God in a sense. It tapped into the control freak aspect of me. I really like being able to influence the entire piece. And that doesn’t mean I don’t like to act.
After your first videos for “Treading Water,” did you go to more auditions and act in other projects?
Yeah. I moved to New York after I graduated from business school, and I was like, “I’m gonna give acting a shot.” I used Actors Access, I used Back Stage, Craigslist, every sort of means to find auditions. I booked a few things, and I would occasionally get auditions for commercials. Mostly what I was getting were staged readings or other web series.
That’s something that really influenced me to get into creating my own videos. When you’re dealing with independent acting, there’s such a load of stuff out there that isn’t great, and it came to me that I can make better stuff myself, that I can be in.
Rather than just accept any gig you can to put it on your reel, you can be more selective and in control of your own destiny.
Right, exactly. That’s another thing that affected it. But I gave acting a shot in New York in the traditional sense, where I’d go to Equity open calls at 6 a.m. on 42nd Street and wait in line to read for some Broadway play that no one had any shot of getting. I did that for two or three years, until it just became clear to me that that was in vain, and since I’ve sort of let that go and gotten more into selling my own stuff, I think it’s worked out for me better than searching the internet for auditions at Ripley-Grier.
That entrepreneurial approach to creating your own work makes sense, considering you were a business major.
To be honest, I was actually a sports management major, at Temple University. It was entertaining. I had classes with dudes on the basketball team. But it was a joke.
Part of my motivation for going to business school was the fact that both my parents are artists, and I was like, “I don’t want to do anything creative. I want to do my own thing.” And it came full circle.
That’s funny because for most people, their parents are the ones urging them to get a practical job.
Yeah, exactly! (laughs)
Has your past experience as an actor affected how you find talent and cast your projects?
I’ve done auditions for all the projects we’ve had. It’s about knowing who’s right for the part. Particularly if you’ve written it yourself, or you’re engaged in the creative process, you know what you’re looking for and you know what you want. I can’t imagine being a casting director for “Spider-Man,” like, “I didn’t write this. I kind of know what they’re looking for, but I’m not on the same page…” I can’t imagine how that works and how that’s possible.
But we did casting for all the shows. We used Actors Access and Back Stage, Breakdown Services. I’ve got to say, that’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything theatrically related, is sitting behind a casting desk. I would recommend that any actor who wants to learn should do that. It’s unbelievable to look at people pour out this stuff in front of you, and you don’t have any nervousness about it, and you can see what works or what people do that doesn’t work.
Has that changed your approach to your own auditions?
Oh, absolutely. I look back and think, man, I can’t believe some stuff I did [in the audition room].
People come in and give hugs and stuff, and when you’re on the other side of the table, that comes off as weird and nervous. Sure, maybe it works for some people. I don’t know. Once again, all that matters is how well the person can act.
For the most part, the people we’ve cast have been supporting actors, so we’re looking for types, basically. For our main actors – for instance, Tyler Gilmore is a UCB grad and has been in almost all the projects we’ve done. He’s very funny, and he’s a great actor, and he can play multiple roles. We know what we have with him. He can be the lead, and then we just kind of have to fill in around that with casting other actors.
Does casting for chemistry become a concern, or do you just look for the best actor?
I think a lot of production companies and casting directors are looking for people who can be great improvisers. That, to me, is number one. We’ll have sides when somebody comes in, and then we’ll be like, “Hey, let’s do this off book.” You immediately can tell if someone can hang or not, by the way they’re either scared shitless by the prospect of having to improvise, or they embrace it. I think if you know how to improvise, you can have chemistry with anyone else who knows how to improvise.
So you’d recommend that any actor should have improv as part of their background?
Look at the acting process. You receive a script, and it has definitive lines, but as an actor your job is to look beyond those lines anyway. “Who is this person? What world do they live in? What’s their past, what’s their history?” So when you get into that, then you can start playing around with who they are. And I think that should be required for an actor, to be able to morph into whatever is needed to play a character.
Did you take acting classes before moving to NYC?
I took an acting class on a lark freshman year of college, loved it, and then didn’t take another one until senior year. I only took two classes, and I really enjoyed them both. But I think I’m a very lazy actor. I don’t prepare like a lot of people do, and I don’t have the same passion. I like to make people laugh, and I like to be up in front of people, but it isn’t so much as an art for me as writing is or producing is. I take those much more seriously, I think, than I take acting.
What about your own improv background? Have you taken any improv classes?
When I moved up here, I got into the UCB scene, Upright Citizens Brigade. That’s sort of been the feeder system and the network of contacts of almost everyone I know in the acting industry in New York.
I took five classes. I got up to the advanced levels, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It’s easily been the most influential thing I’ve done creatively, in terms of finding my voice and being able to branch out and meet people and try new things. I’ve taken acting classes in New York City, too, and they pale in comparison, I think, to what you learn and are capable of doing with improv. It’s just a different game.
Is that because the group setting of improv appeals to you more?
Yeah, and also, you don’t get a chance to fuck around in improv, as funny as it is.
I would actually think that’s all you do.
Well, yeah, it is, to an extent. But it’s survival of the fittest. You have to be good all the time. You can go to acting classes and be a schlub, and the acting coach will be like, “Oh, great job!,” because you’re paying them 200 bucks a week. Meanwhile, at UCB, if you don’t get laughs, you don’t get laughs. That’s why I love comedy. It’s an instant, visceral reaction to what you’re doing.
But when you’re creating comedy content for the web, you’re reaching anonymous viewers instead of seeing the reactions of a live audience. You don’t really know how people are feeling as they’re watching it.
It’s this strange medium that hasn’t really found its footing yet. And I don’t think that a lot of people, when they watch stuff online, watch it with the same intent and the same emotions that they do television or a stage play. If you go to a Harold improv night at UCB, and you watch people there, you’d laugh and it’s hysterical. But if you try to translate that into a television show, it wouldn’t make any sense. It wouldn’t work.
Do you just have to trust in yourselves, knowing that if you think something is funny, the viewers probably will, too?
Yeah, and I think that’s a source of much of my ego, is that I think I have a very definitive comedic voice. Comparatively speaking, I know shit about acting. But when it comes to comedy, I’m staunchly in control of my voice.
You also get affirmation from view counts and online comments, not to mention the fact that your videos have been posted on Funny or Die.
I think one benefit of going to business school is that I’m fine with reaching out to people, even people that I don’t know, and asking them to do something for me, which a lot of people in the creative world either don’t know how to do or don’t care to do.
It’s about tact, and it’s about grace, and it’s about finding the people who you’re supposed to asking things from. For Funny or Die, I researched – it sounds like I’m a stalker, a perv, “I looked up these guys’ names and found their emails” –but that’s basically what it was. I emailed them and said, “Hey, this is something I think you guys would think is funny, you want to feature it?” And sure enough, they did.
I don’t want to give away all my secrets, and I’m not even saying I’m successful by these standards yet, but I think if anyone really wants to get anything of theirs seen or wants to get their name out there, that’s all it takes. Find the people you need to find, and ask them. That’s it.
For a website like Funny or Die, I think a lot people might be intimidated. “I’m not friends with Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow, so why would anyone care about me?” But they do need new content.
That’s the fantastic thing about web video. Everybody needs good content. Funny or Die needs content, and they make their own, but they also need people to give them content.
Every time we launch a new series, I always worry if anyone’s gonna watch it. Unless you’re an established comedic presence, you have to do a lot of leg work.
I think another thing that people overlook is that there’s a serious amount of internet savvy required to get your stuff seen. I spend hundreds of hours doing things that are essentially hacking techniques to get people to look at stuff. And I’m not saying to cheat or anything like that, but Digg has ways that you can get stuff on their front page. Back when Digg was much bigger, we got on their front page twice. That was a huge achievement, but you needed to have this sort of underground connection.
I’ve heard that there were about 30 people who essentially controlled that site via their own networking, who you needed to get in touch with and become part of the group in order to get traction on Digg.
Yeah, exactly! You basically sit there IM-ing strangers, like, “Hey, can you Digg this?” It sounds really shady, but if you’re not established, you’re looking at these options of how you get your stuff out there.
Have you made these web series work for you financially?
We had this ad revenue deal with one company. For “Twilight with Steve Cooper,” we were on this website called KoldCast TV, and they do ad sharing. We got 150,000 views, and I’m like, “Man, that’s gonna be like $3,000!” And I got a check for $22. It was disheartening.
But web videos, you can’t monetize it. We spend a few thousand on all these projects we do, each of them. Long ago, I stopped thinking I could recoup my money on any of these projects. It’s more to build a portfolio, and hope that someone at Sony Pictures sees it and goes, “Let’s give those guys a million dollars and a three-picture deal.” (laughs) I think that’s the overall goal, as extreme as it may be.
“Cop/Cop” has been selected for the Channel 101:NY screening at the NYTVF on Fri., Sept. 23 at 8:30 p.m. at 92Y Tribeca in NYC.