My thanks to Biniam for taking the time for the interview and CST online (Critical Studies in Television online) for publishing a tidy, condensed version that you can read here!
The full interview below:
29-year-old Indianapolis native and Los Angeles-based comedian Biniam Bizuneh created, wrote, produced and starred in one of the first Comedy Central ventures into what is now often referred to as “Social Media Television”: his satirical lifestyle How-To series How To Be Broke.
While an undergraduate student at Indiana University, he was involved in improv and sketch groups and consistently did stand up at the local Comedy Attic, an institution that brought in both cult comedians and those on the cusp of fame: from Hannibal Buress to Chelsea Peretti to fellow Midwesterner Maria Bamford. He hosted of a late night show on the student TV station. Bizuneh would rent out cameras from his department’s major, Telecommunications, to practice his own material. One particular video project that informed his future began with an impersonation of a British foreign exchange student investigating a seemingly inane topic with great seriousness, such as a “North Face” epidemic taking over campus, as if it were a contemporary plague. Like Sacha Baron Cohen of The Ali G Show and Nathan Fielder of Nathan For You, he remained in character and never gave himself away during these projects.
Since moving to Los Angeles in 2012, Bizuneh created, wrote and produced one of the first Comedy Central ventures into what is now often referred to as Social Media Television: two seasons of How to be Broke from 2017-2018, distributed through the channel’s Snapchat, Youtube, and Instagram TV outlets. Before that, he worked on series from Billy on the Street to the Jimmy Kimmel Show.
This interview traces Bizuneh’s career in comedy creator, writer and performer of his own original work, with an emphasis on his understanding of how content on social media should be produced and distributed for audiences. This marks a new transition in the digital era into what is traditionally known as the showrunner figure: the creator, writer, producer, and sometimes star, of a TV series. Like many showrunners, Bizuneh has both the creative talent and industry knowledge to navigate his own project. Unlike web series that were later adapted into television series, from HBO’s High Maintenance to Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girlturned HBO series Insecure, to Illana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City, Bizuneh’s How To Be Brokedraws on medium specificity of Youtube and social media content that directly addresses the audience and plays on lifestyle guidance and advice.
SM/CST:You moved to LA in 2012, how did your career start out here?
BB:I came almost right after graduating college. I got an internship for this company called Maker Studios. I knew someone from college who worked there, Chad Quandt, from doing stand up in Indiana.
I had been trying to get this internship at Funny or Die, and I got really far in the process, but it fell through. And I tweeted something about not getting this internship, it was this really bad joke, I don’t even remember what it said.
But Chad saw the tweet and responded with “The place I work has internships,” and then I ended up getting the internship at Maker Studios because of he saw that tweet. And I also worked at Pac Sun at the Grove, and I started working at a call center. I was doing three things.
I got accepted to do a Masters program in the Telecommunication School at Indiana University, and it would be fully funded and I would be a Teaching Assistant and all that stuff, and my parents were so happy. But I just wanted to turn that internship turn into a job so I didn’t have to go back to Indiana. And it did turn into a job, so I stayed in LA and also kept doing comedy.
SM: What did the job at Maker Studios entail?
BB: It was a weird job because I was a “manger of comedy Youtubers.” This was 2012, and it was a job that never existed before. I was just making it up as I went along. They (the Youtube comedians) were almost like test subjects. I would suggest they do something, and if it didn’t work, then I’d think “OK, I’m not going to do that for my own stuff.” I was picking up intel. I did that for three years and learned a lot. At the same time, I was doing stand up. I was learning from the job, about how to put stuff online, and the best ways for it to be something that people will want to watch and share.
SM: What kind of material were you putting online during that time?
I mentioned those videos from college where I was pretending to be a character, the British exchange student, and I loved doing that sort of stuff. I saw that unscripted material did a lot better than sketches on Youtube, and I wanted to make something that would get attention so I could then get representation and start writing for TV.
I started a series called Lie Guys, which was basically doing my version of Nathan for You: a very hip hop, black culture focused Nathan For You.
SM: I see a bit of The Ali G Showin it too! I think there’s a trajectory from that to Nathan For You too.
BB: Totally. I love The Ali G Show.
And so I would set up these premises and speak to the camera like, “I look [like rapper] The Weeknd, and he’s Ethiopian, and so am I, so I’m going to dress up like him and go to this concert and see if people think I’m him.” I just walked in. So I would set up these long cons, follow them out. And I would re-create the story in post [production] with my voiceover and editing. And I’d make it look like it went really well, I’d edit out what didn’t really work for the narrative.
Lie Guys – Being the Weeknd
SM: The basketball one is amazing.
BB: Thanks, yeah. That was one where, we left that day and everyone was like, “Yeah, I guess we didn’t get anything.” So it was me just cobbling these moments, so I could make it look like this happened, and build on it. When they saw the final product, they were like, “That really seems like a story.” But at the time we were just filming for five hours.
SM: And you just don’t know if you’ll get anything out of it.
BB: Right, it’s sort of documentary style. Found footage, kind of.
SM: And there’s probably an economy of it. You mention these types of videos do better than sketches. I imagine they are inherently cheaper to make as well. Was that a factor?
BB:Oh yeah, yeah. That was another thing. I didn’t know where I was going to get all this lighting, but I knew I could get a couple of friends with cameras and this style lends itself to: you don’t have to have a location, as long as you know how to edit, you can cobble something together.
So I decided to do that series based on my limitations, and what I thought would do well on the Internet. I treat it like a season of TV where I, made six or seven of them, and I edited them all, and show them at live comedy shows and see what work and what didn’t. Then I edited again based on what got laughs and what didn’t. And then, I released them every two weeks for three or four months. It gained a little small following, like 35,000 subscribers or something like that.
And that was enough to get a manager to take note of what I was doing. So from that I started getting opportunities. I consulted for Billy on the Street, which was cool.
SM: And a similar genre.
BB: Yeah, it’s unscripted, on the street stuff.
SM: What did consulting for the show entail?
BB: I would send jokes a couple of times. They would send some scenarios, and I’d send jokes, and they said this is your credit, “creative consultant.” I never went in to a writer’s room and meet around the table, it was all through e-mail, but it was still cool. It was the firs thing I got.
And then I got a lot of little other things. Comedy Central actually saw a lot of these videos, these Lie Guys things. So I met with them, and they said, if I ever have an idea to make something, to let them know. So that was sometime in 2015.
SM: Can you talk about how you came up with the idea, and the development of How To Be Broke?
In 2017, I had the idea for How To Be Broke. It was based on watching Youtube and seeing that there was this whole genre of How-To Videos that were their own thing. Some of them would be so silly and fake and contrived. So I thought this could be a scripted format where we use the How-To thing as a framing device. Because I love when shows do that. Like Review on Comedy Central, where you’re pretending to do a format of a reality type show, but it’s all scripted and more about the characters themselves. And I thought yeah, this could be parodied.
And I started thinking, what could be the funniest character to do this? It should be someone who is completely incompetent about it, like they don’t really understand the consequences, they don’t think anything through. It’s just someone trying to get followers, and do whatever thing he can do that he thinks people will watch. So the idea was for it to seem like this guy was making it on his own Snapchat. And that limitation was cool, because in each Snapchat , there’s only ten seconds. That way, the guy can’t go back and change what happened. So if something goes wrong, he tries to play it off like that’s what he wanted. And it’s like you’re watching his Snapcat story. And people were already watching Snapcat stories of people going through their days, what if I just make it scripted and it will feel so organic to the medium on the phone. It will be like watching the weirdest Snapchat story, basically. That’s what I wanted it to look like. There will be these videos where people capture something they saw on Snapchat and recreate it and upload it to Youtube or Twitter, and it will be this crazy moment of people at a gas station and suddenly someone gets into a fight. And I wanted each frame of it to feel like that. Like you happened to turn on your camera right when it’s going down, that kind of commotion and chaos.
So I pitched that idea to Comedy Central, and they were receptive, and then shortly after that, I got hired to be a staff writer on Jimmy Kimmel for four-ish, five-ish months. And then I stopped working there, and Comedy Central said, OK, let’s shoot the first season of this.
How To Be Broke – Free Charger
SM: What was the production process like for How To Be Broke?
If you watch it, you wouldn’t really think of it, but we had a whole crew. We had sound, a director, extras, a PA, craft services, lighting, a truck for a generator. And there’s a lot of people who see it and say “That’s cool they let you make it on your own.” But nah, we had like locations and departments. It’s funny, to make something scripted look real, it takes a lot more than you would think, because you have to get all the details right, even if you’re trying to do this found footage look.
SM: I imagine people thought that it was similar to web series like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and Broad City, which they did independently on a shoestring budget. But that was more like what you did with Lie Guys, whereas this had the backing.
BB: Totally. If I had been doing these on my own like before, they would be like that, but this had the funding from Comedy Central. It still didn’t cost as much as a lot of their other things because there was a lot of stuff that was, easier. We didn’t need a big set up. We could get a location, but it was okay that other people were in there if they signed off to be on camera. There were things like that that made it easier, but it was still , a production.
SM:And they seem to invest a lot in these shorts. I saw you did some other videos with Comedy Central that weren’t directly related to How To Be Broke, but it had the director from the series, right?
BB:Yeah, they let me do a couple of different things. I did one about, what if a pharmaceutical company made a commercial aimed at black people for anti-depressants, that was written by out of touch white executives, and it was their idea of black people. And that was really fun to do. Each one we got to have production values that were not meant to be found footage, it was TV quality.
SM: The actual medium seems critical for making the right content.
BB: Yeah, so my whole idea on doing How To Be Broke was knowing they were looking for Snapchat shows. I had seen some other people shows specifically for Snapchat, and I was like, “what if I can make something that couldn’t exist anywhere else?” That was something I learned from Maker Studios. If you name off any TV or cable channel, and they would make this content on their Youtube channel that looks like TV or film quality, and they spent a lot of money on it, but it had no views. And they always asked, “why isn’t this working? This is the best looking stuff!”
And the problem was making stuff for the wrong medium. Youtube has its own identity, and people are going to Youtube for a different reason than going to watch TV. So the content for Youtube should be tailored to those needs. When I was working at Maker, I friend of mine working at a talent agency brought me in to speak to their Comedy Development Group, or Comedy Coverage Meeting. He told me, “Tell them all abut the Internet! And Youtube!”
And I was just making it all up, but there’s one thing I said that actually make sense: and it was that, if you’re going to a movie or to watch a TV show, you go to forget you exist. This is how long ago it was, I used the example of Gravity: you go see that in the theater, and you are Sandra Bullock .
You go to Youtube to have a friend. The fourth wall is constantly being broken, and that’s the content that does the best. It’s always like “hey, whats up?” So when I was doing the Lie Guys thing, I wanted to start each video with me speaking directly to the camera. And Snapchat is a medium where people are usually opening it and talking straight into it. And I could make it scripted, but if you scroll through it, it looks like your friend’s doing a video on his own.
SM: And folks are already doing that kind of lifestyle, how-to thing. That’s totally brilliant. That’s all the Kardashians do on Snapchat is promote things and show people how to use them. And then vloggers on Youtube and makeup tutorials. Even this Marie Kondo How To Be Tidy series, I mean that’s a different format but the same premise.
BB:Yeah, it’s an educational “here’s how to make your life better” kind of thing. And that exists in those formats. So I wanted How To Be Broke to feel very native to that Snapchat platform. And when I was first making it, I had to fight for some of those things. Instead of putting up a minute and 30 seconds long video that has all of the Snaps as one video, it should be each individual snap as its own thing so it feels like real Snapchat story, rather than a video. I wanted to integrate with the platform.
SM:And for the second season, things changed?
BB:Yeah, Comedy Central stopped their relationship with Snapchat and told us we didn’t have to be limited to the 10 seconds. So we were going to put it on Instagram, and Facebook, and maybe Twitter. We could still use the format and still make it vertical – and I wanted to make sure it stayed vertical because that’s how people watch things on their phone. Even if they aren’t swiping through each story, watching vertically will make it seem like it is for phones, and not for a laptop. And so, we made each story beat longer because we weren’t constrained to 10 seconds. They were at the longest maybe 20 seconds. We got more of a budget and made the stories a little crazier, and it released on Instagram TV, Facebook and Youtube.
SM: That was also huge when Instagram got videos and the story function, because there is a disconnect between people who use, or can understand, Snapchat versus Instagram.
BB:I think Instagram pretty much stole Snapchat’s whole deal: stories, filters. And they just said, “Hey that’s what happens in the marketplace.” And Instagram already has such a huge user base, so people were like, “Why should I use two apps?” How To Be Brokewas never on Comedy Central’s Instagram story except for one episode of the first season, but they put it on this new thing on Instagram, which is like their Youtube, called “Instagram TV.” And when that came out, me and my director asked if we could release the new season on it, because our content was perfect for it: already vertical, two to three minutes long. So we were the first series, or content in general they put on Instagram TV for Comedy Central.
SM: And for Comedy Central, they don’t need a third party like Nielsen to tell them the viewership, they can tell directly from the video how many views they get and if a show works or not.
BB: Totally, which is very immediate.
SM: Is there going to be a Season 3 of How To Be Broke? I think I read you may be in a Fox sitcom?
BB: Yeah, I got cast in a pilot last year. But it didn’t get picked up. And you know how networks work, they’ll make a certain amount of pilots but only pick up three shows. I had a little holding pattern for it, but since July of 2018, they released me. So I’ve been free.
We might do another season if the ideas come together and it feels like something new, instead of repeating or doing the same thing. I was just really adamant about only doing it if it was good, and not feeling like it was a step backwards.
SM: It’s a good move to have that freedom too. Series can end on a high note now when the creators want rather than keep going because it’s making money still.
BB: Yeah, I’m trying to figure out if there is a linear scripted TV version of How To Be Broke.
SM: And is that the ultimate goal, to be on your own show on Comedy Central or a similar platform?
BB:Yeah, I would say the goal is to make something you know a lot of people can see and enjoy, but also having the freedom to make something be exactly what you want. When you have a TV show, you have the budgets and the kind of, staff involved that can create the kind of vision you want to do. So I like that aspect. That’s even more important to me than whether it’s a TV show or on the Internet even. Because now, people watch things anywhere. It’s more about the budgets.
SM: The work you are doing seems to be a new trajectory of content creators. Even if a lot of showrunners like Donald Glover or Issa Rae started with Youtube as well, then to a more traditional platform on cable or streaming, do you identify with them? Or someone like Lena Dunham, who had more of a privileged background going into her own series?
BB:I definitely look at people like Donald Glover and Issa Rae and find inspiration in making my own stuff. And it’s similar in that I made my own thing, and got paid to do my own thing. It’s definitely at a lower level, a digital, small budget show.
But it definitely comes from the idea that you can’t wait around for anyone else to make a thing for you, or give you an opportunity; you have to create your own opportunity.
And even Lena Dunham, we don’t come from the same background, I even see it’s awesome that it’s awesome she did that. Even someone from money who had connections, she had to make her own thing.
SM: Sure, and she was making her Youtube videos and low budget film, but at Oberlin College, and her mother’s loft in Tribeca.
BB:And Larry David’s daughter, Cazzie David, just got her own show on Amazon. And the way she got it, well I’m sure there are other things involved, but she made her own Youtube series that’s just kind of about being a twenty something millennial going through dating, failures of that.
SM:And there are so many children of famous people, but not all of them have to do that work.
BB: And not all of them do. If you think about how many of those children are out there, and maybe making their own content, not all of their work gets made or distributed. So, those people that do deserve credit I think.
SM :And I think in this autobiographical shows, they write what they know. And Girlswas very white, but that was her world. And a lot of previous works were solely about white people.
BB:I think that criticism to her, you should criticize HBO then. But don’t criticize the creator, that’s her truth. You can’t expect her to make up some fake world where she has black friends, or that she was poor. And a lot of people liked that show. And I can watch it and like it, because it’s not about specifics to me. You see her struggle, and she’s going through anxiety about not having a job, and I’m going through the same. I just think that criticizing her for her show being too white, and she had a white life, so what do you want?
SM: The alternative is a show with an extreme example of tokenism.
BB: It started with her lack of diversity, then she put Donald Glover in, and the response was, “I can’t believe you made him be Republican, wow!” It’s like, what do you guys want? It was an interesting character, and he took the role.
SM:I think the discussion after is what led people in the industry to consider making a show with someone like Issa Rae at the helm, because audiences wanted those characters they could identity with like that. And there’s more content now that is personal and specific culturally and to a region, or a type of LA even that hasn’t been shown before.
BB:I think that specificity is important. It may make something like less travelable, or universal, but it also doesn’t look or feel like everything else.
SM:Within the industry, is the goal to go to a platform, whether its traditional network or premium or streaming or something else, it seems like it still is the standard, because they have the money and the exposure. Even if you and other creators have worked for other series, you’ve been able to create your own early on, without going through a traditional ladder. And a lot of times, you can have a good showrunner but a show they create or want to star in will never air. But they can do someone else’s show. And run it very well and efficiently. They’re fine financially, but not fulfilled creatively.
BB:And a lot of creators don’t have the ability to do what they do. The organization skills or the leadership.
SM:Do you feel like you have someone like that for you, a mentor or partner? Like Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, or Prentice Penny as the showrunner of Insecure, or Dunham and Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow.
BB:I’ve had friends who have directed things for me, but in terms of a mentor who is someone who has been through before… there’s some comedians who gave me advice. But for the writing and production stage, not so much. But I do have a lot of friends who will read things and tell me if something’s good. There isn’t one person.
SM: If you had a project, and say it went straight to series, as a creator, would you work with someone like that?
BB: We’ve had conversations like that, but nothing really stuck. But yeah, I think whether its Broad City and Amy Poehler producing it and bringing the prestige to make Comedy Central be like, “yeah, we should buy this!” or with Larry Wilmore and Issa Rae. If I was ever in a position that, if I had a pitch, and I thought it was good, I think that my representation could hook me up with someone who would like it and increase value, and I would totally be open to that. Yeah.