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A yearlong chat ends

Ze Frank's online show was a grand-scale viewer-participation experiment

March 18, 2007|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

New York — Peering down from an airplane last spring, Ze Frank decided to turn the Earth into a sandwich.

After he landed, the comedian, who was making Internet videos years before YouTube existed, challenged his audience to place two pieces of bread at exactly opposite ends of the globe. They did, and he posted videos and photos of their exploits on his website, www.zefrank.com.

"The Show With Ze Frank" was a yearlong online experiment in interactive entertainment that was to end Saturday. And it's an example of how one guy with a camera in his living room can take viewer participation made popular through television shows such as "American Idol" to absurd levels.

Frank, a wide-eyed 34-year-old New Yorker with a drawn face, isn't afraid to hand control to his fans, who include movie stars such as Jack Black and Ben Stiller.

He played chess with viewers, performed scripts they wrote and told them a bedtime story about a four-legged duck when he was asked for one.

"We have this incredible ability to communicate with each other," Frank said. "I want to play around with it, see what this mass audience is really capable of."

Fans say his give and take with them harked back to the days of vaudeville, when performers improvised and fed off the energy of an audience. That type of interaction can make entertaining online very different from TV and movies.

"He understands that this is a social medium," said Terrell Russell, a graduate student studying online culture at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "He engages with his audience and invites them in for a conversation."

Frank hatches much of his own material, such as this line from a show dedicated to wasting time: "A good procrastination should feel like you're inserting lots and lots of commas into the sentence of your life."

Although the show generally ran only about three minutes long, it could be hard to digest. It used foul language. Frank posted it at different times each day. It was full of inside jokes that discouraged new viewers from jumping in midway through the year; for those who wanted to try to catch up, his website offered an archive, which will stay available.

Still, he hooked some of the biggest names in comedy.

"Ze Frank is a rare gem, a brilliant comedian with an artistic undertaste," Black said. "He might be my hero."

Frank didn't set out to be anybody's hero. He just wanted some friends to come to his birthday party.

In 2001, he posted a video of himself dancing in goofy Charlie Chaplin fashion, then e-mailed a link to it as a party invitation to 17 friends. Within days, hundreds of thousands of people flooded his website to watch "How to Dance Properly" -- so many that his Internet service provider billed him several thousand dollars for the excess traffic.

For Frank, it felt like discovering that there was life out in cyberspace -- and he desperately wanted it to talk back. He quit his job as a Web designer and began what he called his "traffic junkie" days, creating online games, cartoons and videos of his cat Annie to attract visitors.

Nothing he did, however, reproduced the traffic spike generated by his dance video. That taught Frank one of his first lessons about the Internet -- you've got to get lucky. His video happened to be at the right place at the right time, when millions of ordinary people were becoming more comfortable with the Internet and were open to sharing something fun with friends.

More difficult was building the kind of community that engages in the lasting, meaningful conversation that Frank craved.

Sometimes that conversation had to do with paper clips. Early on, Frank created a contest called "When Office Supplies Attack" and received more than 500 entries. People e-mailed photos of themselves pretending to be throttled by paper clips, devoured by copy machines and drowned by water coolers.

For his video project, he delivered many segments gazing wide-eyed into the camera.

"What better way to connect with people than by staring and talking straight at them?" he jested in one show. "Don't blink -- that's one less connection you could have made."

He posted his show Monday through Friday. Saturday's final episode, marking the show's anniversary, would be his 250th.

"I think it's kind of amazing that one guy is doing this every day, with such energy and a real point of view about what is going on in the world," Stiller said. "I'm always interested to see what he has processed from the news that day."

Frank's monologue was done on the fly. He woke up each morning in varying stages of anxiety over what he'd say. After reading the news, he cobbled together an array of odd bits.

One recent morning, he was fixated on two stories, one about an iguana and another about a giant baby.

"Today, we're going to talk about iguanas!" Frank said as he paced in his one-bedroom Brooklyn walk-up, smoking Marlboro Lights and sucking down Starbucks coffee.

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