Anyone with a cellphone and a laptop can make a Web series. But it's tough to pull off something that looks professionally made. Not when there's barely any money involved. There is a huge opportunity here for indie filmmakers, especially those inventive enough to shoot great-looking videos on nonexistent budgets, to step in and make a name for themselves.
Plenty of comedy videos emanate from Chicago. Few, though, are as sharply produced as "Kam Kardashian," a satire of pop culture and minority status as seen through the eyes of hard-drinking, hair-brained schemers. It began its second season this month at kamkardashian.com.
Filmmaker Ryan Logan and theater actor Fawzia Mirza (who stars) created the series last year, centering the action on a fictional long-lost lesbian Kardashian sister who has been "cut off, kicked out and left to fend for herself" — banished to Chicago and relegated to black-sheep status.
That's a ripe premise. Mirza created the character for an audition, and the idea took on a life of its own. (She and Logan are also the show's co-writers.)
"I have about four different layers of minority status," Mirza told me. "I'm queer, I'm Muslim, I'm Pakistani, and I'm a woman. I've spent my life trying to insert myself into the majority. And, like them or not, one of the greatest majorities in pop culture right now are the Kardashians."
Logan and Mirza have been smart enough to develop a narrative that credibly exists independent of the Us Weekly wormhole where the Kardashians typically exist. This character is bitter and sardonic. She's a mess. And she's saddled with that famous last name. Except for a brief tag at the end, the show's creators avoid the mistake of casting actors to play recognizable celebrities. That would kill the illusion. The illusion is key. Because Mirza really looks like she could pass for a Kardashian.
"I'm someone who looks a certain way," she said. "Am I the most TV-friendly looking person? No. And my castability in Chicago is limited. (She currently co-stars in "The Happiest Song" at the Goodman Theatre.) This was about, let's create our own stuff and tell our own stories, and cast people who look real and who are funny."
According to Logan, the first season was made with no budget at all. They raised $5,000 on Kickstarter for the second season (which they shot in February), but even that is a negligible sum.
"Ryan Logan is basically a one-man-band post-production house, so he does all the work," Mirza said.
I asked Logan about this. "A lot of people might think, 'You're making a Web series, so make as simple as possible.' But you're putting your name out there. We want to show people what we can do. If something looks too videolike, we try to change it, because we want it to look cinematic."
That TV-ready gloss makes a big difference in terms of watchability. It's performed and edited with a real instinct for comedic timing. You're not distracted by second-rate production values. It's the kind of work that should get Mirza and Logan noticed outside Chicago. Someone should throw a little money at this team and give them a bigger platform. The crossover potential is substantial. This is quippy, self-lacerating stuff. Even the costume choices are bang-on. Kam's signature look is biker chick topped with a quasi-Kris Jenner haircut; her idiot best friend (a very droll Mary Hollis Inboden) is a walking parody of quirk in a ratty fur jacket and swim floaties.
There's a real confidence at work in the series that's evident from the start (the first episode, called "The Gay One," features Kam knocking back shots of whiskey and ranting to an unseen bartender), but it wasn't until Episode 3 that the series found its voice with the addition of Inboden. At its best, the show is like a latter-day version of "Laverne & Shirley." Here's Inboden trying to explain the plot of "The Kids Are All Right" to her BFF: "We've got these kids and this life and these groceries and these candles, and we're just not talking enough, we're not talking! And you are my Miss Right, Annette Bening, but Mark Ruffalo is my Mr. Right Now!"
A later episode sees the pair kidnapped by an underworld gay-and-lesbian cabal. "We spoon-feed the media stories about queer celebrities that we handcraft," they're told. "The gay agenda is real, ladies. And we want you to be a part of it." That includes burying any evidence of Kam's long-ago affair with prosecutor Marcia Clark, a contretemps that got Kam booted from her family in the first place.
That's a funny detail even the real-life Clark (who faced off against the late defense attorney Robert Kardashian in the O.J. Simpson murder trial) can laugh at. This month Clark tweeted: "Given Kim's romantic choices, you wouldn't think they'd be so intolerant, would you? #kamishilarious."
The Kardashians themselves have not acknowledged the series. "But wouldn't that be great if they did?" Mirza said. "It definitely falls under parody, so if I did get a letter from them I would be a little nervous, but I'm sure I would be able to find an attorney who would love to take on the case because it would be fantastic and absurd. But one of the things Ryan and I strive for is, I don't want this to be mean. There's so much mean comedy out there. That's not our intention. It's too easy to mock the Kardashians. I'd rather Kam take the brunt of the jokes."
Logan has shot all over town, and he has picked his locations well. Nothing looks jury-rigged (Amanda Clifford is the director of photography), and the lighting and sound, which are usually terrible when budgets are low, are good. That's what you get when your actors are wearing body mics, and you have a cinematographer who finds interesting angles from which to shoot. Logan and Mirza have created an entire cockamamie world in these videos, one far richer and more entertaining, it turns out, than the many reality series featuring actual Kardashians.
New episodes of "Kam Kardashian" are posted every Wednesday.
Fund a film
A group of Chicago improv and sketch performers are in the midst of shooting "Party Time Party Time" (a comedy about an epic party) that they're hoping to fund with some help from Kickstarter. So far they've raised almost $5,000 of their $21,500 goal. To learn more about the film and kick in a few dollars, go to kickstarter.com and search by the movie's title.
As international adoption becomes increasingly complicated — often expensive and mired in red tape — producer Craig Juntunen hopes his documentary on the topic will prompt Congress to take a more active role in streamlining the process. "Stuck" screens Friday, followed by a discussion led by Juntunen at the Music Box Theatre. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
A lawsuit against Michael Keaton, star and director of the 2008 indie "The Merry Gentleman," was filed in federal court in Illinois by the film's producers this month. Shot entirely in Chicago and based on a screenplay by local filmmaker Ron Lazzeretti (who is not involved in the suit), the film (which had a $5 million budget) played at Sundance but earned just $348,000 at the box office. The suit (which doesn't specify a dollar amount that the producers are seeking) alleges that Keaton went over budget and hampered promotional efforts.
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