THE warning signs of a medium that may be reaching decrepitude are obvious: say, multiyear plummeting box office receipts, untrammeled product placement, sequel numbers in the double-digit range. The signals that an infant medium has reached its rambunctious adolescence are probably less clear. But one of them surely must be the ability to gather enough practitioners together to stage large-scale competitions. To be specific: large-scale comedy competitions with police and jail themes.
Such a coming of age is being celebrated this month at the site of Web comedy providers JibJab (best known for the Kerry versus Bush "This Land Is Your Land" satire widely circulated in 2004). This summer, JibJab began recruiting sketch comedy troupes from across the country to participate in "The Great Sketch Experiment," a bold challenge to erstwhile comics to create the funniest three- to five-minute prison-themed video ever created, with a $10,000 JibJab development deal on the line for the winner.
This still being the early, if post-infancy, stage of Web entertainment, utilitarian limits drove the artistry -- the prison theme was selected, according to JibJab Chief Executive Gregg Spiridellis, after a police station set became available to them. "Part of the challenge," he explained in an interview at the JibJab HQ in Santa Monica, "is to make the budgetary limitations part of the creative process. The way the 'This Land' video used that herky-jerky animation, we wanted people to use this one set and plan for a quick shoot."
The Jabbers narrowed down the more than 50 scripts they received to six finalists chosen to go before the cameras. And bringing in some Old World savvy to the fledging contestants, JibJab secured the services of legendary comedy director John Landis ("Animal House," "The Blues Brothers") to direct the six films.
In September the finalists, who were from Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, gathered in L.A. for a crammed two days of rehearsing before Landis led a marathon shoot of the films, putting all before the cameras in three days. The resulting sextet explores a range of prison-themed Web humor, including a 1940s-style mock newsreel "So You Want to Be a Cop" and a stagy interrogation room scene in which the policemen switch from playing good cop/bad cop to tall cop/short top, followed by rich cop/poor cop and hot cop/cold cop.
The winner was scheduled to be announced Friday. The strong front-runner was a piece titled "Shawshank in a Minute," a condensed retelling of "The Shawshank Redemption" as a rap musical. Written and performed by a comedy duo called "Famous Last Nerds," the video opens with a courtroom scene in which star Jordan Allen-Dutton, in the Tim Robbins role, faces off against his partner, Eric Weiner, who portrays the judge. They share a rap duet:
Judge: Please state your name.
Andy: I'm Andy Dufrenes.
Judge: You're on trial for murder in the state of Maine. You murdered your wife and we found where she was buried.
Andy: You mean Susan Sarandon? We're not really married.
Judge: No! Your wife in the movie.
Andy: I didn't do it. Please don't doubt it!
Judge: I sentence you to life.
Andy: But, but ...
Judge: No buts about it.
Soon, the piece explores some of the film's harsher themes. A pitch-perfect Morgan Freeman sound-alike raps as Andy is taken to his cell:
When Andy arrived, I remember that day.
I liked him right away but not because I'm gay.
But those guys are. And you'll see what I mean,
When they gang rape Andy in the very next scene.
Reached by phone in Amsterdam where their hip-hop translation of Shakespeare, "The Bomb-itty of Errors," is being performed (translated into Dutch), the Last Nerds said after being recruited into the competition that "Shawshank" was actually not their initial choice of themes. "When we first heard the guidelines," Allen-Dutton said, "that it has to take place in a prison, we immediately thought of, 'Sodomy, the Musical.' " That was shot down. "Our next choice was 'Abu Ghraib, the Musical.' " Only after those failed to pass muster did they settle on "Shawshank." "We were attracted to the format of trying to cram a movie in the shortest length possible."
Indeed, that is key to what seems to make "Shawshank" work. It's the quality that Jib co-founder Spiridellis refers to as density that makes it likely you'll find yourself drifting back to the JibJab site during your workday to take in repeated screenings. "Viewers online" he said, "are more reflexive than on the couch. At the computer, you need to be hitting them nonstop. The storytelling has to be sharper." Every JibJab video, he emphasized, strives to have a visual joke underscoring the line or lyric in every frame.