The Emmys Award Show is television’s biggest night of the year, and when Neil Patrick Harris hosted the gala in 2009, his Web series character Dr. Horrible interrupted the ceremonies to inform the stars that TV was over. “I have hacked into your broadcast to tell you that television is dead,” said Dr. Horrible, wearing his trademark goggles and white rubber gloves.
Harris played Dr. Horrible on the hilariously disturbing Web series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the brainchild of director/writer Joss Whedon. Produced solely for distribution on the Internet in 2008, Dr. Horrible won seven awards, including the fairly-new “Streamy,” which lauds the best of Internet-based programming. Time magazine rated Dr. Horrible as number 15 out of 50 top inventions that year.
Harris’ skit at the Emmys mocked the Web series medium, too, working in gags about streams rebuffering and screens pixelating to much laughter. But the point is taken. Internet as an entertainment medium is now permanent. More and more people are cancelling their cable and shunning networks for series they can download for a couple of bucks an episode, or watch for free online. And an industry is starting to form around the YouTube-powered medium, one that right now is controlled by the talent, not big production companies, network bosses or opportunistic advertisers.
Considering how stingy and backward television is toward disability — less than half of 1 percent of all words spoken on TV come from the mouth of an actor with a disability, according to the I AM PWD campaign — the waning of television’s cultural dominance could mean incredible opportunity for our community’s performers.
If You Post It, They Will Come
“If you find a way to get something new, innovative and interesting to people, they’ll support it,” says Lawrence Carter Long, founder/curator of the disTHIS! Film Series and, starting October 2, cohost of the Turner Classic Movies’ month-long series, The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film. “Audiences, disabled or not, are hungry for new material that doesn’t fit into the time-worn cookie-cutter stereotypes.”
Carter Long thinks content created by people with disabilities for the Internet may satisfy this appetite. “The success of The Specials in the UK or shows like My Gimpy Life stateside are similarly invigorating the genre, infusing disability-themed content with new energy, new ideas not bound by the misunderstood conventions ‘mainstream’ media still seems very limited by,” says Carter Long, who has cerebral palsy. “It is very refreshing. And the next wave, I think.” The Specials bills itself as a docudrama following the life of students with learning disabilities and My Gimpy Life is paraplegic actor Teal Sherer’s Web series.
“My Gimpy Life has all these great disability themes,” says NEW MOBILITY blogger and columnist Tiffiny Carlson. “And as we know, [being a wheelchair user] she probably wouldn’t be able to get that leading role on TV, so it’s great she has a platform where she can show her skills.”
And it’s the same with Zach Anner, says Carlson. He lost his show on the Oprah Network and has gone back to the Internet with Riding Shotgun with Zach Anner, returning to the medium that launched him in the first place — and which is where Carlson hopes he stays. “I’ve seen some of his older stuff with his troupe, before he went all vanilla and did the Oprah show. Now he’s back to being edgy on his YouTube channel. He’s rated R, and it’s funny — just him and his friends goofing off. I’m a big fan.”
Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Schnitzel?
Remember Anner? He’s the guy with CP — “the sexiest of the palsies” — who won his own show on the Oprah Winfrey Network that aired on Dec. 12, 2011. Everyone thought it’d be a big hit, since, well, he won. Plus, his campaign was Internet-fueled, predominantly by Reddit.com, on which viewers rank their favorite videos, so the most popular rise to the top and get the most attention. All Anner had to do was get his Web-based audience of millions to follow him to Rollin’ with Zach and he’d be a big star [See “Zach Anner: On His OWN,” July 2011].
His cyber army didn’t follow him from the tiny screen to the small screen, so the show tanked. “I take responsibility for that,” says Anner, shrugging off the idea that perhaps TV wasn’t ready for a disabled guy hosting a cable show from a wheelchair, or that Oprah had somehow sabotaged him — a favorite theory among some of his Reddit followers. “I was the host regardless of what’s going on with network TV,” he says. “If you create something that is engaging enough, people will watch it, so I don’t think it necessarily has to do with people’s readiness to accept people with disabilities on TV.”
But, Anner continues, he thinks television tends to focus too much on a performer’s disability, “which is the wrong focus sometimes. If you treat everyone as an individual and then that individual charisma comes through, then I think people will watch it.”
This is where the Web comes in. “The reason the Internet seems like a good place to do this rather than go pitch around to a bunch of networks is the immediacy of it,” says Anner. “We can get our work up there really, really quickly and we don’t have to go through a bunch of channels to get it approved. We can make something that represents us as a team.”
Another big difference between the mediums is that Internet audiences prefer a different presentation style than TV audiences. “The first day we were shooting this new show I was still doing my very polished hosting Oprah thing, which wasn’t working, and then we had to talk about it. We’re like, well, we just want to show what it’s like to be on the road and travel, and not have any distance between us and the audience or put on a show for them. We want to be true to ourselves and be natural on camera and the humor will evolve from that. The humor has to be punchier to keep the audience, but we try to balance that out with the genuine moments — if there’s a struggle we’re going to show it.”
Although Anner cites fantastic support from Reddit, his new show doesn’t seem to be paying yet. Anner appealed to his viewers on Reddit to help pay for gas. “How do I send y’all a six week supply of wienerschnitzel?” was one viewer’s response. Others sent him cash, and they were off. This type of initial fundraising isn’t all that unusual for a Web series, though, as Anner is hardly the first to make such an appeal.
Nor is he the only one trying to figure out how to make the Internet pay. “The big question right now,” says Sherer, “is ‘can Web-based content be financially viable?’ And discoverability is a big thing as well,” she adds, referring to an article called “Geek and Sundry Pioneers the Web Frontier” on SciFi4me.com. “That’s been the biggest frustration and letdown so far with My Gimpy Life — I want to reach a bigger audience and I’m working as hard as I can to get the show to more people.”
But, says Sherer, she has no complaints. “I feel very lucky that I got to make the show and so thankful to all of the people who worked on the show and made it possible. We’ll all keep pushing to get it in front of more eyes!”
It will happen, says Carlson. “YouTube used to be second-best after TV, but in the past few years it’s been changing. It’s now a huge medium to be reckoned with.” One fairly new trend is that people post videos directly to YouTube, and then embed those videos on their own sites. That means there are more ways than just one for search engines to churn up the material. Plus, Web series are so popular now that they have their own online magazines, and even awards like the Streamy, dedicated to them.
“I highly doubt that Teal and Zach will even want their shows on TV soon,” enthuses Carlson. “YouTube is a huge medium and it’s never going to go away.”
Teal Sherer: A Web-Based Career
Wanna know a secret? Actor Teal Sherer is a World of Warcraft-playing, comic book-reading nerd. Or geek. She’s not sure which, since the line between the two is so blurry. “I grew up in a small town and was a cheerleader and popular, and then was injured. For a while after that I never thought I’d fit in anywhere, until college when I was doing theater — then I fit in,” says Sherer, 31, an L1 para. “Drama people are nerdy.”
She embraces her nerdiness, or possibly geekiness, posting CosPlay (short for the new fad, costume play) videos of herself as the DC Comics Birds of Prey character Oracle and even a Christmas video of her and another woman, both dressed as elves, fighting with light sabers. And we’re not even going to get into the strange little clip of her as Mother Hydra, the leader of the sea god Dagon’s cult, in the short film Transcendent. Anyway, they’re still fundraising for that project.
The clincher? Sherer’s best-known role is as Venom, a wheelchair-using goth mean-girl gamer on the hit Web series, The Guild. This series follows World of Warcraft-ish gamers from a guild called the Knights of Good, who meet in real life and have nerd adventures galore. It stars and is written by Felicia Day, who is so well-known in her medium that number nine out of 10 steps in the tongue-in-cheek video, How to Make an Award Winning Web Series, is: “Cast Felicia Day.” Venom is not one of the Knights. Instead, she’s a key member of a rival guild called the Axis of Anarchy, which lives up to its name whenever it can.
In an online interview with Geek and Sundry, Day said she was proud of the character Venom since it’s such a twist on how people with disabilities are usually portrayed. “She’s nasty, but sexy, and really evil,” said Day, who could not be reached for an interview with NEW MOBILITY since she and other Guild stars were driving in a van to DragonCon, the world’s largest SciFi and fantasy convention.
In one episode, the Axis of Anarchy cuts in front of the Knights at GameStop, where there is a long line stretching outside the store since the latest expansion to their game is finally available. The leader of the Knights, Vork — a balding, middle-aged man in an outdated suit and tie — attempts to rat out the Axis to the store manager, when Venom exploits her wheelchair, pretending Vork shoved her. She looks as victimized as possible while her guildmaster, the kilt-wearing Fawkes, played by nerd icon Wil Wheaton, exclaims, “This poor, innocent, HOT, girl in a wheelchair!” The manager bounces the Knights to the end of the line, apologizes, and offers Venom free posters. She declines at first, but then accepts, saying, “because, you know,” and spreads her arms wide to take in her wheels.
“I never knew the Web is where’d I’d find my place,” says Sherer. “I came to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and TV, but found more success through The Guild and other Web videos.” Day is cast in Sherer’s Web series, appearing prominently in the episode “Inspirational.” That episode, by the way, has some brilliant moments as it explores how ableism is like racism by showing black literati as being completely clueless of their blatant condescension toward Sherer.
Sherer has built a fan base from her role on The Guild. In fact, the first season of Sherer’s own My Gimpy Life was sponsored by Dracogen, since its principal, Steven Dangler, loves Venom. “I met him on Twitter. He followed me because he was a huge fan of The Guild. He funds a lot of geeky video games and other ventures. He knew what the show meant to me and the need for it, since it’s a perspective that’s not usually told.” Sherer’s show has been compared to Curb Your Enthusiasm by MTV Geek. “It’s blunt and it’s honest, but most importantly, it’s funny as all hell!” writes Geek writer Eddie Wright.
"I can’t talk to you right now, I’m being carried up a mountain on a stretcher by my friends for the show,” chortles Zach Anner, 27, when NEW MOBILITY first connected with him. “We’re heading for some waterfalls.” He’s filming for his new travel Web series, Riding Shotgun with Zach Anner, literally answering his cell phone while filming for his new Web series.
Three days later we speak again.
How’d the stretcher thing work out?
“Oh,” he says. “We were going to this waterfall, the Cascades near Blacksburg, Va., and we didn’t know just how inaccessible it was. You have to go through the Mayan ruins to get to it! OK, that’s not accurate, there are no Mayans in Virginia, but it looks like that. We had an idea to carry me on an old Army stretcher, two miles, and the stretcher ripped half a mile into it. I have the best friends in the world because I had to be carried on their backs up all these wicked stone steps and across bridges to get to the waterfall. There is no accessible route to that thing.”
Anner, who uses a power chair, says accessibility of travel sites isn’t the point for him, anyway. “The point isn’t to make the country more accessible or finding all the accessible places, but how to deal with all the inaccessible things.” And also to have a hell of a good time, be as quirky as possible, and get interesting content up on the Web, which has always been Anner’s friend.
Quirky doesn’t half describe it. At the time this story was being written, the only clips available from Riding Shotgun were updates, where the guys took time out from whatever they were doing in whichever of the eight cities their Reddit viewers enticed them to visit to film a quick video. In one, they’re washing down their buddy, Josh, as if he’s a car. Who knows why. Anner doesn’t. “Don’t ask us those questions, we don’t know. We had to make a video to get the info out and we said, ‘yeah, how can we make this more fun.’ We just take every opportunity to be naked with each other. I don’t know why that is.” Um. OK. In another informative clip they’re filming in front of the filled-in lake that, when wet, once served as a romantic backdrop for a scene in Dirty Dancing. So they took the opportunity to read passages from 50 Shades of Grey into the camera because, why not?
Chris Colwell: Telling His Story One Video at a Time
The appeal of YouTube transcends the lure of money and fame for many. Chris Colwell is one of these, using YouTube to tell his story and encourage others with similar journeys.
An extreme sportsman, ex-Marine and skydiving instructor, Colwell broke his neck while diving through the air trying to save the life of his student, who was falling too quickly toward the ground. Colwell’s head collided with his student’s ribs, snapping his neck mid-air. Even though his emergency chute popped open, Colwell was so badly injured that he spent weeks in a medically-induced coma.
Colwell was wearing a helmet-cam at the time, and captured the entire accident, from when he joyfully danced in the air right after leaving the plane to when he hit the concrete runway.
Since he owned the video capturing his fall, he posted a version of it from Spike TV on YouTube. It is the first of approximately 600 videos he has posted since his injury. “I posted it for a selfish reason,” says Colwell, a C5-6 complete quad. “I was feeling sorry for myself and basically was feeling like I was the only one. I put it on the Internet to expose it and let it go, and I knew others would feel it and I’d have the sense that I wasn’t the only one anymore. Somehow it worked — I felt release.”
He kept posting videos, digitally capturing his new life.
In those early clips, Colwell’s pain and bitterness is heart-wrenching, as he forces himself, and his new body, to be recorded online. But then, he began to heal, and his zeal for life returned.
Today, many of the comments people leave about his videos cite his beautiful, full-faced smile. “I realize that putting myself out there like that brought me a lot of great lessons in life, because I had to expose myself over and over, and I have learned a lot being vulnerable,” says Colwell, 41, who currently lives in the United Arab Emirates where he is employed by Sky Dive Dubai. “If you feel safe, then you’re not really living, you’re just kind of existing. When you’re vulnerable is when you feel alive. And if you are patient enough to observe everything going on in your mind when you’re vulnerable, there’s a lot to learn from that.”
Plus, his vignettes have helped others not feel so alone, and as Colwell learned to move about his world independently, he was able to demonstrate to others how it can be done. He shows how he uses a blow torch in his workshop, how he goes grocery shopping, how he is able to ride water attractions at amusement parks, and how he flies with Jordanian royalty — the everyday is mixed in with the spectacular.
“For a long time I was disturbed, dark, unhappy, and felt old,” says Colwell. “Today I feel young and I am happy and I feel alive.”