As the light fades and a teenage girl talks at her friend about her position on nanobot-assisted metabolism in the far future (and how, with her diet, she wouldn’t need them), I realize that I missed my stop. The bus exchange at which I was supposed to get off, cleverly disguised as a disparate cluster of single-bench stops, passed by the window minutes ago.
I’m in Victoria to get to know the people behind LoadingReadyRun, a sketch comedy group that has most recently found a venue here on The Escapist. After a cursory phone call explaining my propensity for instantly getting lost in any new locale, Graham Stark and Kathleen De Vere pick me up from under the red neon glow of a closing Boston Pizza.
Graham, Kathleen and Alex Steacy (a frequent actor and on-set crew member for LRR) are letting me occupy a spare room in a charming old house they’ve been calling home until Graham’s parents sell their old heritage house. The quaint neighborhood and facade of the house belie that this is a house furnished by the internet. Iconic pictures of cute web-things and robots line the walls. A model of “that-chainsaw-maniac-from-Resident Evil 4” presides over a collection of figures in a wall-mounted display rack.
They relate to me the history of LRR over a game of Mario Galaxy and cake (which everyone eats too much of without regret). I’m surprised to learn that they’ve been making videos since 2003, seven years in reality and roughly since the late Cretaceous period in internet time. LRR was around before YouTube. Let that sink in. They may have been producing content for The Escapist since 2009, but they are most certainly not the new kids on the block.
Most of the LRR crew have been friends since high school – Graham and Paul Saunders, the group’s founders, since elementary school. It’s also accepted that Dungeons & Dragons played a large part in their conception, and perhaps helps explain how a group that primarily identify as gamers came to stand in front of cameras for all the internet to see. “It’s not a huge stretch to say that D&D brought LoadingReadyRun together,” says Jeremy Petter of the group’s genesis.
Graham and Paul entered The 2009 Escapist Film Festival and, after an exhausting production period, created the first video in the series that would become Unskippable – a Mystery Science Theatre dub-over of the opening cutscene for Lost Planet. Thinking it nothing special and being unhappy with the end product, they stopped short of entering the video. Luckily, Graham went ahead and submitted it anyway, encouraged by the infallible logic of Kathleen who said, “Well, it’s done. What’s the worst that can happen?” With the video in the hands of The Escapist, the pressure was off and they forgot about it. Later that week, they got an email asking them to sign on with the site, and production of Unskippable went into full tilt immediately.
Before LoadingReadyRun, Graham worked in data entry at ICBC, a provincial auto insurance company. “Imagine opening a letter addressed to ‘Crooks and Assholes,’ reading a check with ‘paying for government’s lunch break’ written in the memo field, and then having to phone that person because they underpaid,” he says about the experience. Graham did not renew his contract.
Following the success of Unskippable, The Escapist EIC initiated talks with LRR to develop a fake news program, which became ENN. The move of the “official” LRR sketches to The Escapist followed shortly thereafter. Jeremy, Kathleen, Paul and Graham are the primary writers, but everyone is free to take a shot at writing a sketch.
The group’s most viewed videos to date have been, maybe aptly, simple jokes. After filming a sketch where the group joked about stupid viral videos, they actually went out and made them. Graham’s video “Epic Nunchuck Fail” – a classic nutshot gag and an ingenious follow-up slip on a skateboard – has almost 272,000 views on YouTube and was shown on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Meanwhile, Paul has established an entire YouTube channel called “Things on my Head,” complete with an independent following and over 500,000 views, where he balances objects on his head and stares at the camera for exactly 1 minute and 21 seconds. “We never expected that anyone outside our group would even watch, let alone enjoy our videos,” says Matt Wiggins. “That there are ‘fans’ out there is something we’re still amazed by to this day.”
They’re surrounded by a community of their own that existed long before The Escapist signed them on, and, last year, their charity marathon Desert Bus for Hope raised over $140,000 for Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play fund. “I don’t know how or why it turned out this way, but LRR has seemed to have lucked into one of the coolest fan bases I have ever seen,” says Paul. For the unfamiliar, Desert Bus is part of an un-released Sega CD game created by Penn and Teller, and is perhaps the most agonizingly boring game ever created. The crew took turns guiding an ever-so-slightly drifting bus through a cruelly repeating backdrop of the Arizona desert for over five days as donations kept pouring in.
Saturday morning we head out to the office for a full day of meetings and shooting. The capital of B.C. sits on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. An 18th century rival to Vancouver as a thriving port city, Victoria is an old place. In surreal fashion, the LRR office sits snugly amid ancient looming cathedral spires and old stone churches. “Yeah, there are a lot of churches around here, aren’t there?” Matt remarks, as if noticing them for the first time. Entire districts of this city are home to huge brick monoliths astride cobblestone streets and iron streetlamps that would not seem out of place in turn of the century London. The only difference is that here, in modern-day Victoria, there is a building wherein young people make dick jokes on a regular basis.
Business consists of meeting around an impromptu conference table, end-capped by a whiteboard with the week’s shooting schedule. The LRR crew run a tight meeting, something I can appreciate from experience – it’s hard to stay on the rails in a room full of people with things to say. “Our weekly meetings have developed a lot over time,” Paul tells me. “When we first started, it was just Graham and I talking about video ideas when we were hanging out, but once we started taking it more seriously and rented our own office, it became obvious that we needed a little more structure.”
Following new business for the week, they break out a script that Graham and Kathleen had been working on, pulling it up on Google Wave, and the whole crew starts to dissect it. Kathleen elaborates, “We try to leapfrog across each other’s concepts, and we rely on each other to make sure that each punchline is tight and polished.” After the script is hammered down and stage notes are written in, they decide what elements need to be shot today and what can be done with graphics.
When the meeting wraps, we head downstairs to start shooting. Next to the ENN desk is a green screen and a ping pong table, which is folded up to make room for equipment. A long clothing rack lines one side of the room and props are stacked in tubs along the other. As I search for a hat in one of the bins, I hear something you will only hear from sketch comics: “We organize our hats by rank of silliness.”
It’s Sunday and the crew are holding a special breakfast meeting to discuss a super-secret communiqué they received the night before. I lie on my Snoopy-blanket-furnished cot and stare at a near-blank page of my notepad. Kathleen’s cat Annika (who is actually a male cat, long story) does his best to anchor me to the bed, ensuring that I write something down. Scribbled in the top left corner is the fragment “They reflect something … ” until writer’s block kicked in immediately and brought it to a halt. I’d started to write that their comedy is a perfect reflection of the core gamer – an incredibly humble group of talented, dare I say, nerdy friends who spend their time making a metric ass-tonne of funny videos, playing videogames, watching movies and reading comics just because. Hardly all of their content is directly about videogames, but this is humor as produced by gaming minds. And, as gamers, their sense of pride is held stiffly in check. If it so happens that they are praised or paid, it is, in some sense, unsolicited. The fact that they did this for years before they made any real money is a sign that they do it because that’s just what they do. It is a bonus that like-minded people have crowded around their content to enjoy and support it. But really what I’m trying to say is less stilted than that original scribble – they make people like me laugh, and that’s the short of it.
For most involved, LRR is a full-time job, yet some do it without it paying like one. When asked if the end goal was to make a living out of it, Jeremy responded, “Yes – whether that is achievable for seven people remains to be seen, but I think this is certainly the hope. Going in to work to be creative every day is what some might call a dream job.” On the development side of videogames, people work hard to find a place at a big company, and then usually splinter off to forge something for themselves; the LRR crew has, astoundingly, set their own groundwork with their own sweat and toil since day one.
Don’t think I’m kidding about sweat and toil. Scripts are being written all week, shooting throughout, and they meet every weekend. Just following them around was exhausting enough to break my insomnia streak for the duration of my stay. What does Paul do when he’s not working on LRR? “Sleep,” he said.
I’m at a loss for words (well … not literally). I’ve done some interviews in the past, but generally I have trouble being around people. But spending the weekend with LRR was a blast. These are the sort of friends any gamer wishes that they grew up with. According to Kathleen, the feeling is mutual. “Without exception, every single LRR fan I’ve met is someone I’ve wanted to hang out with and be friends with – I’d say to them ‘you’re great, let’s get some beers.'”
Nick Halme is loaded and ready, but probably too out of shape to run. He spends his daylight hours watching an incredibly angry spaceman hit orcs really, really hard.