A young man walks into a coffee shop…
It sounds like the set-up to a joke, and in fact it’s the set-up for fourteen of them, each an episode of Charles, By The Way, a comedy series created by Daniel Hurwitz and Charles Gould. The show follows an earnest, charming, and bumbling young man named Charles as he attempts to find love in a coffee shop — and fails exceptionally.
Take the episode “Jennifer.” Charles sees a girl in trouble: she can’t buy her two dollar coffee because of the coffee shop’s five dollar credit card minimum. So he gallantly steps in, realizing too late that he doesn’t have enough cash. She ends up paying for his croissant. Watching Charles crash and burn with women is so enjoyable because the show excels at awkward humor. The episodes are short (between ninety seconds and three and a half minutes) but Hurwitz and Gould know the importance of pacing. They really mine the awkwardness of Charles’ attempted romantic connections, never rushing the scene, even gleefully expanding the moments in a manner reminiscent of The Office.
I met Hurwitz and Gould at, where else, a coffee shop to discuss writing for an Internet audience, building character, employing friends, and why they still love traditional TV.
Disclaimer: they bought their own croissants.
Carrie Mullins: With the exception of a few episodes, the set-up of Charles, By The Way, is that a guy in a coffee shop tries, and fails, to pick up girls. What was the genesis of the series?
Charles Gould: At the time both of us were spending a lot of time in coffee shops. I didn’t have much experience approaching women and getting rejected, but in my head I went through all the possible scenarios and what would happen if I were to talk to people and how it could go wrong and that was sort of the inspiration for the show.
Daniel Hurwitz: I think everyone wants to do something like that, but in their head they’re always playing out the worst case scenario. So we just put our nightmares into a series.
in their head they’re always playing out the worst case scenario, so we just put our nightmares into a series
CM: Did you think up the whole series before you started filming or did you film one episode and then sit down and create the next scenario?
DH: We shot them four at a time. We didn’t really have a plan. We knew we wanted each episode to be its own self-contained scenario. So we did the first four and then saw what did well. We started to build the character: we brought him outside the coffee shop and filmed two episodes that didn’t revolve around women.
CG: With the first four episodes we didn’t know what to expect. We had a really small crew and this coffee shop that never had anyone there. And then the reaction to the show was so much better than we expected and it felt like a people related to it, so we were like, let’s keep doing this. We got reactions from people in the industry, they said we like this and it shows potential but the character needs to grow more. So we made it more about a guy who’s struggling to find a connection in our world and not a guy who’s just trying to get laid. At the end of the day, that’s ultimately what we were going for anyway.
CM: Some people say that web series are halfway between sketch comedy and a sitcom, do you agree with that?
CG: I don’t think either of us is interesting in doing sketch. I think we wanted to do something where there was one character to hold onto throughout. But online you can’t make anything longer than three and a half minutes, and at first we really wanted to keep it between one minute and one minute and a half. We thought having one character as the anchor was the best way to make it watchable online but make it not a sketch.
DH: Yeah, when we started, I liked the revolving door, where you had Charles in every single episode but the object of his attraction changed. The audience understands the plot from the second you start watching, and you get a rotating cast of characters. That dynamic works online.
CM: Is it difficult having the hard stop at three and a half minutes or is it in any ways more freeing?
CG: It depends. In some ways it was more difficult. It’s not necessarily the time, it’s how long can you hold someone’s attention online without a cut or without an action. How long are people really going to sit through characters just talking to each other? But then in our last round, we were like who cares? And we put out videos that were more like three and a half minutes and people actually liked those the best. [To Daniel] But what did you think, you were the editor.
DH: It’s funny, I kind of treated it like a hard and fast rule: it’s the internet, it has to be quick. But once we knew what was funny, we thought why not expand it, why not make it better?
I kind of treated it like a hard and fast rule: it’s the internet, it has to be quick. But once we knew what was funny, we thought why not expand it, why not make it better?
CG: Plus we got John Early to come in for the Actor episode. And he was so funny we were like, we can’t cut this down to two minutes.
CM: What was it like to produce the show?
DH: In hindsight it was great, but at the time it’s pretty stressful.
CG: It’s all favors from friends…
DH: Yeah, paying the location and buying croissents from them and feeding them to the crew. We’ve done bigger productions since then and I feel like I sort of miss those days of doing it all ourselves.
CG: We made a digital series for Comedy Central called Tips for a Happier, Healthier You and it was interesting to go from it being totally ours to having to work within a framework.
CM: I’ve noticed there seems to be a split; some people see web series as an entrée into a more traditional television format, they use them to get exposure, while other people are committed to web series as the format of the future.
DH: I always considered us more of the Broad City mindset of let’s make a web series that we want to make and then hopefully it will jump to TV.
CG: That was definitely the goal. We created a Charles, By The Way pilot for TV. I think at the end of the day, that’s what we both want to do.
CM: As web series creators, what do you think about the fact that Snapchat and Facebook are trying to host content? Do you think that this is the future, watching series on these platforms instead of on traditional TV networks?
DH: It’s funny, I don’t think we see ourselves as necessarily part of the YouTube community. We come from a more traditional comedy background. We love Seinfeld, we love TV comedies. We hope and want a place where you can make high quality, narrative storytelling that can live on the Internet as opposed to slideshows.
CG: Top 5 things to do in a coffee shop.
DH: Wait a second…
CG: We’ve got our next video!
DH: But yeah, it depends. I think everyone will watch on their computers but will it come through platforms like Facebook? I feel like people will age out of that.
I don’t see Charles, By The Way as part of the the stream, even though it’s in the stream category. Hopefully people want to invest time, people want to come back and watch it. Hopefully people remember it when they walk away.
CM: That’s the billion dollar question isn’t it?
CG: It’s like the stream and the garden analogy. You watch the stream and it goes by and you don’t think about what you saw and it moves on. You go to the garden and you spend time there. The stream is like Twitter or Facebook, and the garden is like Netflix, Hulu, things like that. I don’t see Charles, By The Way as part of the the stream, even though it’s in the stream category. Hopefully people want to invest time, people want to come back and watch it. Hopefully people will remember it when they walk away.
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December 15, 2016