A lot seems to happen to Kemp Baldwin at the intersection of two streets. It was at a crosswalk that he found inspiration for his web series, “Don’t Walk”. It’s also where he was recently struck by a passing cement truck.
“I was on my bike at a street corner, and this truck hits me,” he recounts with a waff of amusement. “Somehow, it miraculously spins me 360 degrees, and I come out unscathed with my bike pointing in the right direction. I don’t think that the guy even felt hitting me, but I was screaming really creative profanities at him as he drove off.”
According to Baldwin, his brush with the grim reaper hardly raised a nearby eyebrow. “There were thirty people around and no one even realized what had occurred. This stuff just happens! I wasn’t thinking, ‘Everyone around me is a fucking asshole.’ With eight million people in one city, shit happens.”
“Don’t Walk” is the story of stuff happening to a doe-eyed protagonist, Phil, as he navigates New York City’s crosswalks en route to a first day of work. Along the way, he’s accosted by a jealous boyfriend, saved by amateur superheroes, asked to save the planet, questioned by the police, and caught up in a hipster stand-off. In other words, it’s a typical day in America’s busiest city. “I’m always thinking, “Holy shit. Did that just really happen to me on the street?” Baldwin says.
Baldwin wrote and produced the series with Mike Laskasky and Gates Bradley, two friends he met working on a pop-up video show a few years ago. Laskasky and Baldwin also write and film segments for Chris Rose’s monthly Brooklyn talk show “Late Night Basement”. It was through that program that the two met Max Silvestri, the quickly rising comedian who would become their hapless Phil.
“Max did the show, and we were standing there watching him and thinking, ‘He’d be fucking perfect for this.'” Baldwin recalls. “We’re all big fans of ‘Big Terrific’, which is the best indie stand-up show in the city, and Max runs. We thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s just e-mail him and see if he wants to do it.’ We sent him the script, and he was like, “I’m totally into this. It’s great.'”
“We got lucky in that he said yes and he’s really talented and a great actor – that was the springboard to moving this forward,” Baldwin adds.
Moving forward has translated to the series being picked up by Thundershorts, the recently launched comedy arm of DC-based SnagFilms. A second season is potentially on the way too. “We’ve definitely kicked around plans to do some more ‘Don’t Walk’.” Laskasky shares.
“I think that we’ve figured out how to do it even better,” Baldwin says. “We’ve seen what’s successful and know how to work with the crew and the cast. We’re really excited to do that again.”
What was the initial inspiration for “Don’t Walk”?
Baldwin: We were trying to figure out a web series that we could make together for a while. To make something costs money, and when you don’t have a lot of money, you have to consider what you can do with limited resources. We didn’t want to make something that was set in an apartment – that seemed well trodden. We wanted something a little bit unique.
One day, I was standing on a street corner, and I was like, “Weird shit keeps happening to me on street corners. We could make something within this format. Everyone is familiar with it. Everyone has been on a street corner. Everyone has dealt with a don’t walk sign, and knows how long it takes, and knows that weird shit can happen there – especially in New York.” That format gave us a range of options of what we could do.
Laskasky: During pre-production processes, you end up listing all of the things that you can’t do, and eventually you just decide to pick something. We tried to make it both simple and unique, and then we spent the next six months making it as complicated as we could. [Laughs]
Baldwin: At first we thought, “We can just do a bunch of different, unconnected sketches at a street corner. We’ll have thirty to ninety seconds that we can do weird shit in.” But, of course, that turned into: “Well, maybe we’ll have a main character, and it’ll have a narrative arc, and it’ll have call backs throughout.” It just got away us from a little bit. It was still simpler than having a ton of different set-ups. Each episode pretty much had one set-up and played out in that real time scenario.
Laskasky: It’s like the opposite of a magic trick. It looks impossible that Houdini is going to escape, but then you learn the trick and it’s super easy. At the start of this web series, it looked super easy – “Oh we’ll just shoot it on a street corner!” – and then it became borderline impossible. But we figured it out.
Baldwin: At the beginning, we were like, “We could shoot twenty of these a day!” At the end, we were shooting the last episode on Kenmare – which is what Delancey turns into after the Williamsburg bridge, so it’s a main street in Manhattan – and we had two camera set-up: a guy standing on top of a U-Haul truck in rush hour traffic, and a second guy standing on the street corner, seemingly without any concern of being hit by a car. I’m thinking, “Oh my god. Two people are going to die making this two minute video that I hope someone somewhere thinks is funny.” We did have another camera on those people, though, trying to capture their deaths, so we knew that we get something out of it, whether it was a web series or “Faces of Death”.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered?
Baldwin: We shot on the coldest days of the year. We wanted to shoot four days, but then it was supposed to snow ten inches on one of them, so we cut that day. Luckily, it only snowed three inches and it mostly melted, so there wasn’t this vast continuity difference, because the whole series is supposed to take place in one day.
But it was 15 degrees every day that we shot and everyone was outside. Max Silvestri, our lead, is outside all day. We were just trying to keep people happy. We were also wrangling twenty cast members, and because we worked hard to have a really great cast, everyone in it has a pretty busy schedule. We only had these three days to shoot, and then those days turned into the most awful days of this awful winter. So, it was a challenge trying to keep everyone excited and happy to be working on this thing.
But everyone was so game and such incredible, talented people. No one was like, “I can’t believe you have me out here in 15 degree weather!” They were like, “Oh yeah, lets do another take. I’m dying of hypothermia, but I’m totally in for another hour of shooting.” If you looked at the takes that we’re not using of the superhero episode, the girls are shivering. Brooke Van Poppelen is in a Wonder Woman costume that’s basically a swimsuit with a skirt, and it is freezing out.
From a writing perspective, did you have to fight a temptation to not over-stuff a 90 second episode?
Baldwin: Gates, Mike, and I were locked in on a vision of the show, and we worked together on perfecting that. If an episode started getting too jokey, we’d be like, “Let’s scale it back.”
Laskasky: Some of the scenes lent themselves to cramming jokes in there, but other scenes ended up closer to what was on the page, because we had to let the action speak for itself. With the superhero episode, we had to let the action happen and hope that Max and Don could make it funny physically – stage directions themselves are only so funny. With other episodes, we could play with how much we were writing it and see what everyone came up with in the moment.
Baldwin: Having that limited amount of time was challenging, but also good thing. You couldn’t stretch it too long. You could only fit in a certain amount of jokes while keeping it real and actually getting story across. But we also wanted these super talented and funny people to play with the time that we had, knowing that we could handle it in editing. It was a real collaboration.
Why did you choose to perpetuate the negative stereotype of the hapless Phil?
Baldwin: We don’t think there’s a negative association with the name Phil or even that we’re perpetuating one with this Phil. Our Phil is one of the more charming, nice people that you can meet on the street.
Laskasky: I’ve never even heard of a Phil being guileless and in over his head. Usually, Phils are so together. They’re so professional and on top of things that it really adds a layer of comedy. Once you watch a movie seven or eight times, you see that different layer, and as a Phil, I’m sure you understood that right away. It’s one of those “Arrested Development” style Easter eggs that we left for you: “It’s ridiculous, because no Phil is like this.”
Living in New York, do you often comes across that type of dazed and confused, new-to-the-city transplants?
Baldwin: I can come off as that. I think that everyone has days or moments when you’re like Phil. New York can do that to anyone. You can be one of the Ramones or the most New York person in the world and still experience something that makes you feel like you’re a child seeing New York for the first time. I do come across people like our Phil – especially in their first few days / months / years living in New York – but I relate to that character too.
Laskasky: Everybody is some version of Phil on their first day in New York, whether you’re following the rules or your head is on a swivel looking at everything. We thought that it would be fun to play with the idea that is who Phil is all of time. Years down the road, New Yorkers develop this incredible tunnel vision and an ability to ignore everything around them no matter how insane it is.
Baldwin: Since doing the show, I keep imagining getting hit by a car jaywalking, and this show being my obituary: “Man creates show about not walking. Jaywalks. Dies.” I just imagine my parents thinking, “What a fucking asshole.”
Are you two seasoned jaywalkers at this point?
Baldwin: We could get capitol punishment for the amount of jaywalking done on the set of “Don’t Walk”. It was pretty rampant.
Laskasky: If you’re going to get anywhere in the city, I don’t know if you have to break the rules, but you certainly need to bend them.
Baldwin: You’re not with the police, are you?
Do you have a preferred method of deflecting street canvassers?
Laskasky: Always go with “I’m on my way to a meeting” or “I’m running back from lunch,” depending on whether you have food in your hand. I usually go with the meeting excuse, because at some point I will have a meeting, so it’s pretty true. I’m from the Midwest, so I throw an “I’m sorry” in there too. Kemp probably doesn’t since he’s from the East Coast.
Baldwin: Yeah, I’m just an asshole. If you look closely in that episode at the people walking by, one is me, one is Mike, and one is Gates. My response is just gargled bullshit. He’s like, “Do you have a minute?” And I’m like, “Ba blah gulagula.” That’s usually how I handle it in real life. I act like I’m caught off guard and I need a moment to think about what I’m going to say and I’m a crazy person. They usually are like, “OK, keep going, please. You’re not going to have a lot to say. Or, at the least, you will not have a lot of money.”
Do you have a favorite episode?
Baldwin: I’m like a parent. I look at them all with an equal eye. I love them all equally. There are some that I’m very much a fan of. There are ones where on the day we made them, I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to work out,” and now I look back on it and I really, really enjoy the episode.
If I were to say what people have really reacted to, I would highlight the neighborhood episode. I loved working with Kate [Berlant] and John [Early]. I like the “Bagman” episode with Murf Meyer – that dude is just a fucking force. He’s the type of great comedic actor that I see onstage or in a video and I just start laughing.
Making the series was such a rushed experience. We shot all nine episodes in three days, and I figured there would be something that I regretted, but I’m really happy with all of mine. There was tenth episode, which I was really disappointed that we couldn’t shoot.
Laskasky: It would have been the best one, obviously.
Baldwin: It was going to be a real standout.
Laskasky: I can give you the diplomatic “I love them all” – which I do – but in terms of production, I will most remember the first one that we shot, which was the Greenpeace one. All of us were looking around like, “Hey, people are showing up to shoot this!” Later on, I remember Max telling us a story and being like, “I was talking to so and so, and I said that the first day went well. You guys had a van, so it seemed legit.” And I was like, “Yeah, we did have a van! We were legit!” We had no idea how much legitimacy having a van would lend us.
When you’re shooting, there’s so much happening around each episode that doesn’t make the cut. It was fun to just watch some of these guys, especially Murf and Jermaine Fowler.
Baldwin: It sounds clichéd and annoying to say that it was a delight to work with everyone, but all of the folks in each episode are all such funny people and were on top of their game and up for whatever we asked them to do. It was a blast to make, even though it was the most miserable weather and circumstances possible.
Web-based content and videos has to be exposed to the harshest level of feedback on the planet. Do you pay attention to what commenters say?
Baldwin: We got lucky with Thundershorts, because they don’t have a comments section. But Gothamist picked up the neighborhood episode and embedded it on their page, so that’s where we got the most trolling and negative commenting. There are 100s of “Likes” on the page and not one positive comment. [Laughs] They’re all like, “Who are these fucking assholes? This is written by a bunch of non-New Yorkers and played by non-New Yorkers.” That’s kind of the point: The characters aren’t really New Yorkers and they’re assholes. We don’t think that all New Yorkers are assholes.
I actually think that New Yorkers get an awful rap. People say, “You go to New York and people are jerks!” It’s, like, no, there are eight million people and they’re all just walking. They’re doing something. But if you were to ask for help, it’s a different story. If someone asks me for directions, I am very happy to answer them or give them a recommendation or whatever. New York isn’t a small town. You don’t wave at every person. You walk by. Saying hi to everyone makes you a crazy person. But people are happy to helpful. New Yorkers aren’t generally assholes. They have armor up.
We looked at those comments and found them funny. They were a couple like, “Just wasted three minutes of my life!” It’s like, all right, man, I’m sure that you’ve wasted three minutes of your life on lots of other things if you’re also wasting another fifteen seconds to comment on how you just wasted time watching a video. Why put that negative energy into the world? Is someone going to read it and say, “Oh, well, that’s a good point.” Like I’m going to take an anonymous commenter’s opinion on anything. I applaud those people if only because it’s extremely entertaining.
If my mom commented on Gothamist and was like, “My fucking son – what a waste of space,” then maybe I would take that to heart. Then maybe I’d get another job. At some point, maybe it’ll get to me. One day I’ll cry. For now, it’s funny.