The friends and 2007 graduates (Bennett from the USC School of Dramatic Arts and Mooney from the USC School of Cinematic Arts) who have been Saturday Night Live cast members since 2013, recently returned to campus, spending hours with students in the university’s sketch comedy class.
First, they talked to class members in conversation with Dramatic Arts instructor Kirstin Eggers ’01, the Groundlings alum who teaches the acting component of the class. (Eggers said she ran into Bennett at the Target in Eagle Rock when he was on hiatus from SNL and issued the invitation.) Then, they answered questions informally from eager students for half an hour. Finally, Bennett and Mooney moved to the Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts soundstage to watch a rehearsal of the ongoing class project, a three-episode live comedy show that is USC’s version of SNL, and gave thoughtful feedback to the actors, writers, directors and production crew.
The students paid keen attention because Bennett and Mooney have forged national comedy profiles in a distinctive, digital-age way. The two, along with Nick Rutherford, a fellow member of USC’s oldest improv troupe, Commedus Interruptus, and Mooney’s childhood friend, Dave McCary, were part of the first wave of actor/filmmakers to create their own YouTube videos. Rutherford went on to write for SNL and McCary, who directed the videos, is now a segment director for the long-running NBC show.
“We actually got our start in videos from the Ed Wood Film Festival,” said Bennett, a 24-hour festival that began at USC 19 years ago.
After graduation, “we had all these sketches we had written,” he added.
Moving on to Plan B
At first, Bennett, Mooney and Rutherford tried touring. They tried unsuccessfully to get a sponsor and book enough gigs to make a go of it.
Plan B became making their own videos, and the four friends eventually produced 50 short videos under the Good Neighbor moniker. (The videos can be seen at goodneighborstuff.com) Frequently brilliant, the videos attracted attention, most notably Unbelievable Dinner, based loosely on the film Hook, which prompted its director, Steven Spielberg, to send them the following note.
“My daughter, Sasha, showed me your film, and we just howled with laughter. Keep making funny movies. — Steven”
The videos helped the creators get agents and managers, but the USC grads also did their own promotion. The Good Neighbor team gained traction for their videos by giving cameos to already established YouTube personalities, thus gaining access to other subscriber pools.
When they produced a video for the Funny or Die channel, they would attempt to boost its popularity by taking over an empty multimedia lab at USC. They would move from computer to computer, clicking the “funny” vote for their videos, trying to push them to higher rankings on the site.
While back at USC this spring, the duo talked about how the show is different from a live multi-camera comedy because of the use of cue cards — necessary because sketches are rewritten up to air time.
“They basically tell us not to memorize our lines,” Bennett said.
“You can be pretty prepared if it’s your own sketch,” said Mooney, but political sketches, particularly, are open to last-minute changes.
When asked where they find inspiration for ideas they pitch to the show’s writers, the two said they seek out unintentionally hilarious people on YouTube who post videos of themselves that attract perhaps 25 views. “They talk as if they are talking to the whole world,” Mooney marveled. “I love weird Internet videos.”
Mooney, a critical studies major who worked after graduation with Cinematic Arts legend Herb Farmer at the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Library for a few years, has written Brigsby Bear, a feature film that will shoot this summer, with McCary directing. The dark comedy is about a man obsessed with a children’s television show.
Both said the USC live sketch class, which involves a studio audience and live airing of episodes over TrojanVision is a terrific idea.
“It’s important to find collaborators at college you can continue to work with,” Bennett said.
His career — and those of Mooney and their Good Neighbor collaborators — are proof of that.