It’s not an accidental smell. Not exactly, anyway. The 12-pack of Pepto Bismol-colored discs, currently taking up space rather fragrantly in the common area, did not arrive by mistake. The two had needed maybe a handful of the pink pucks, but they were only available in bulk. Hence, the apartment’s temporary coating in chemical potpourri.
Call it an occupational hazard comedians might incur when a funny bit bleeds over into real life.
Here’s how Ciarelli and Evans came to suffer for their art in this way. It started a couple weeks ago, when the pair released a video making fun of corporate Twitter accounts. In it, they play the social-media geniuses behind Otter Pops (a real thing) and Pine Breeze Urinal Cakes (not a real thing.) For anyone who has ever had the misfortune of marinating in a stew of casually nihilistic tweets from faux-edgy brands pretending at sentience, this video should be very funny.
— Nick Ciarelli (@nickciarelli) June 25, 2019
Of course, the video alone was not enough for these two. Not now, anyway.
“We’ve been kind of dicking around with stuff that crosses over into the real world lately,” says Ciarelli.
To that end, the pair decided to create an ongoing social-media presence for Pine Breeze Urinal Cakes, and have been interacting with fans of the nonexistent brand who are in on the joke. They offered to send one a free “depression-curing” urinal cake if their tweet mentioning the brand got 500 RTs.
Once it did, in under six hours, they had no choice but to go shopping for industrial toilet accessories.
In order to find any of this funny, it helps to be immersed in digital culture at least half as much as Ciarelli and Evans. That way, one would already presumably know about the #Resistance-grifting Krassenstein brothers or the celebrity message-recording service Cameo, or any of the other topics the two have taken on recently in videos and in their monthly live show, Atlantic City, at UCB Franklin in Los Angeles.
Since increasingly more people seem to have become more fluent in digital culture as Ciarelli and Evans have gotten more masterful at satirizing it, their work has found influential fans in the comedy world such as Jon Daly, Paul F. Tompkins, and Bob Odenkirk. Ciarelli and Evans’ comedy can seem esoteric if you’re not immersed in online memes and inside jokes, but they’re doing so at a time when esoteric might just be an asset.
“Nick and Brad have such a funny, distinct voice that is unmistakable,” says Drew Tarver, star of Comedy Central’s The Other Two, and a frequent collaborator. “I think that’s what makes them so special as writers. Whenever I hear a joke from them, I can always tell it’s theirs. Their stuff is always very smart and also very stupid, in the best way.”
Sex and drugs and rock and roll
The two writers first met each other when they were randomly thrown together on a UCB sketch team in 2013. Other members in their cohort included more established comics like Tarver and Betsy Sodaro, who had already been around the bicoastal comedy institution for a few years at that point, and with whom they still regularly work today.
After about a year of writing sketches together, Ciarelli and Evans became roommates and embarked on their first longform project: a fake pilot script for the short-lived show, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. All they knew about the then-forthcoming series was that Denis Leary created it and that he’d be starring as a rock star who goes by the name “Johnny Rock,” which they thought was insane. It was enough to inflame their imaginations and spur them into work mode. They put themselves in the mindset of someone who’d lend a lead character such a goofily blunt handle, did no further research, and ran wild with it.
Where they landed was less subtle than the real show, but not terribly.
— Nick Ciarelli (@nickciarelli) January 7, 2015
In a move that prefigured the kind of playful ruse that has since become Ciarell and Evans’s signature, they put the fake pilot script online in a Google Doc and tweeted it out into the world with Leary’s name and production company info on the cover.
“We really wanted Denis Leary to sue us,” Evans says, “but he never did.”
Death Valley Tween Fest
It wasn’t until Death Valley Tween Fest that the writing team found the ideal symbiosis between source material and parody project.
They’d been searching for inspiration to write a stage show for Drew Tarver when they stumbled across a promo for something called Teen Roast. The video featured a coterie of young Vine and YouTube stars known by absolutely no one over age 16, performing their questionable talents live on stage.
Naturally, it had become an object of merciless ridicule within the UCB ecosystem.
What Ciarelli and Evans saw in the video—rather than an opportunity to dunk on it with withering tweets—was an ideal vehicle for Tarver to play a whole cast of characters the audience would be pre-conditioned to laugh at. The writers set to work, and soon saw their vision realized on the UCB stage, with Tarver starring and comedian Jack Allison directing.
As the show got more polished during its run, Death Valley Tween Fest became a hit. Word spread among the industry set that regularly scours L.A. comedy shows for talent, and soon some suits encouraged the two creators to expand the project. After pitching a Death Valley Tween Fest show to several production companies, the pair ended up going with Funny or Die. The resulting web series, wisely shortened to Tween Fest, aired on the now-defunct Verizon platform go90 in August 2016, eventually earning an Emmy nomination for its star John Michael Higgins.
Ciarelli and Evans had successfully expanded their half-hour stage show into eight episodes that added up to the length of a feature film. They’d done so by grafting on a narrative about Higgins’ character throwing a Coachella for internet celebrities just so he could give stage time to his daughter, Maddisyn (Joey King), a YouTube zit-popper turned songstress.
Could they now come up with a way to turn their successful web series into a TV show?
How to sell a series in the streaming age
Since go90 had exclusive rights to Tween Fest for a year, the two didn’t have an immediate opportunity to map out its future. They decided instead to wait to discuss which direction Tween Fest could go in until after the year was up. By that time, though, they’d moved on to other projects.
They helped out on Billy Eichner’s Billy on the Street and sold a pitch for a sketch show to Comedy Central in 2017, during the wake of the Emmy nomination. It was a script deal intended for a young ensemble cast, but that cast did not yet exist. Although the writers went through several drafts, ultimately the show never got off the ground.
“We had no actors attached to it, so you had to just kind of imagine what it was,” Evans says. “We’re writers. If you look at our videos, we’re not actors. So it was hard trying to get a show on the air with just our voice being the thing.”
Indeed, the kind of sketch shows that reach the audience of web-addled comedy nerds who gravitate toward Ciarelli and Evans’ work tend to be fronted by their writer/performer creators (e.g. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and Joe Pera Talks to You.) Although the explosion of streaming services over the last few years has provided more venues than ever for niche comedy—allowing shows like Hulu’s gloriously weird and heartfelt Pen15 to flourish—the pipeline to reach them remains as twisty as ever. The odds of a corporation investing heavily in a sketch show from two comedy writers who have yet to break through as performers are the kind you’d be loathe to take in Vegas.
“I don’t think comedy translates globally as well as horror or action does,” Ciarelli says. “I think it’s getting harder and harder to sell a comedy show, which is why you see a lot of stuff happening online instead. Comedians are just kind of betting more on themselves with the Patreon model and becoming their own destinations for people to check out their stuff.”
Although he and Evans are currently at work on some television projects they can’t officially discuss, they’ve spent the past year venturing out more from behind the keyboard. Since March of 2017, they’ve been hosting and writing for the UCB sketch show Atlantic City, which also features Tarver, Sodaro, and guests like SNL’s Kyle Mooney and Ego Nwodim; but when Tarver had to go out of town to shoot The Other Two last year, Ciarelli and Evans stepped into the spotlight. In addition to their hosting duties, they started filming themselves in videos to air during the show.
Becoming karate meisters
Some of the bits they’ve created for Atlantic City—and tweeted out to much acclaim—are as simple as the Resistance Grifters parody of the Krassensteins, or as involved as the Corporate Social Media Managers piece that spurred them to create new Twitter accounts and turn their apartment into a halfway house for urinal cakes. A lot of bits they’ve created for the show tend to live in the space in between, though, inspired by the internet but branching out into the so-called meatspace.
After droves of digital denizens in 2017 seemed convinced that Sinbad starred in a genie movie called Kazaam in the mid-90s (he did not), Ciarelli and Evans set out to reverse-engineer their own Mandela Effect movie.
Enter Vincey Masters: Born to Be a Karate Meister, an extremely plausible, but fake, early-aughts Sean William Scott vehicle, which the pair conjured into quasi-reality. They made fake DVD covers, riddled with spot-on jokes about this lost era of home entertainment—it’s the unrated “Sensei is Not Pleased” edition of the film—and planted them at Goodwill outlets around Los Angeles. They also handed out dozens of copies copies at Atlantic City shows, asking audience members to plant them around the city. And they inspired friends like Tompkins and Megan Amram to tweet out remembrances of the nonexistent film.
— Nick Ciarelli (@nickciarelli) March 18, 2019
They were ahead of the curve on Cameo, commissioning four semi-famous bodybuilders to record ridiculous messages back in January—six months before the service scored $50 million in funding—and they were quick to parody the edgelord podcast Legion of Skanks when Milo Yiannopoulos caused a mild stir in May by joining as a guest at a New York live show. The range of topics they’re plugged into is duly matched by an evolving arsenal of tools for mocking them, and tight turnaround time.
“These are things that feel like big stories that you don’t see comedy on television tackling quite so much,” Evans says.
“It’s more the kind of thing it would be fun to do a take on and try to put out immediately,” adds Ciarelli.
The duo’s stranglehold on digital culture, and their innovative approach to parodying it, is helping them make a name for themselves on the very medium they’re making fun of. It also just might be what ultimately helps them move beyond it, if the right people continue paying attention. In the meantime, though, as they plot their way onto TV, which tends to take months, if not years, to produce, the pair will continue mocking the ephemeral moment with the urgency of a tweet but the indelibility of a cache server. Enjoy it while it lasts.