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Student Blog: Lights, Camera, Commentary!

An Interview with Pretty Much It’s Eric Striffler

Student Blog: Lights, Camera, Commentary!

During quarantine, I've spent a lot of time on YouTube. Almost definitely too much time on YouTube. But one channel that brought a lot of joy into my life during the difficult time was Pretty Much It. The channel, founded by Eric Striffler, does commentary tracks of different movies and television shows, ranging from 13 Reasons Why to Hamilton. One of my favorite videos, a clips from the commentary track of the 2012 Les Mis movie, literally makes me cry with laughter. The witty commentary, even in dark moments of media, brings a great new perspective to films and shows you might have already seen.

This past week I had the opportunity to speak with Eric about his theatre-related commentary tracks and how he believes the tracks fit into performance art as a whole. Enjoy, and Go Tigers!

Kat: So for those who might not be familiar with the channel, how did Pretty Much It come into existence?

Eric: It's funny you worded it that way, because back about 10 years ago, in 2010, I started my own company, at high school called Existence Media. It was basically the hub of all the different projects that I was doing. And one of those projects was Pretty Much It. I was doing movie reviews and stuff alone on YouTube, but I wanted to bring my friends into the mix. And so I started Pretty Much It as a new YouTube channel to bring them in so it wasn't all of them on a YouTube channel that was named after me. I was doing movie reviews and stuff, just for fun. This is, you know, like 10 years ago, and in 2013, we started doing these commentary tracks. And for some reason, that's what stuck because that kept going from 2013 to now. Everything else, all the different types of content we were making, all changed and fluctuated so frequently, except for the commentary tracks. They've been pretty much the exact same thing for over eight years now, since March of 2013. So it was just a side thing to the other content we were making, and now it's become the main thing that we do.

Kat: So I read that you also have done improv and directing, along with film commentary. How did you apply the skills you learned from the two to your commentary?

Eric: When I was like, 12 years old, I took some pretty loose improv classes. It wasn't like at a major improv school, like those institutions that you know of, it was just very early on. When I was a little kid, I was like, "Oh, this will be fun. This seems cool!" And it wound up being something that I could apply to more than just doing funny improv scenes and stuff like that. I think, on a side note, that it's actually beneficial for anybody to just be able to interact with people better. But the way that it comes into play with the commentary tracks is that we don't script anything, we don't watch the movies beforehand. Sometimes we've seen the film beforehand, but that's irrelevant. Like we don't sit and write jokes and stuff like that, or write ideas down, we just come up with it all on the spot. And I think that is the most fun way to do it. And that's just the way that we've always done it.

Some people don't believe that we're not making it up on the spot, which is a big compliment! Of course, some people are like, "You must have written this down. That was too quick." And it's like, that's why we do this man! We have fun with this. But that's the thing - Having had any improv experience, even though it was just when I was a kid was enough that it stuck with me and made it much easier to actually do this stuff on the spot and on the fly. Not all of my friends have had the same experience, but enough of them have. And when I have a friend come in that doesn't have any experience with improv, I think that I know them well enough to know that they'll be able to do the commentary even without the "training" or experience. But having the improv experience does help a lot since it is all supposed to be off the cuff.

Kat: How did you first decide to do musicals like Les Mis as commentary tracks?

Eric: I unabashedly love musicals. I love Broadway. I love theatre in general, I just loved anything that's fun. We decided to do a commentary track for The Greatest Showman, and that was the first musical. This was the first time that we did a full-blown musical kind of movie, you know? I mean, not everybody loves The Greatest Showman. I love it. I think it's a big, theatrical, beautiful production. But we did that. Not because we wanted to do musicals, just because we wanted to do The Greatest Showman. And then from there, we were like, "Oh, well, we can also do Les Mis. We can do Rent and Hamilton. It just happened to become a thing that was springboarded from doing The Greatest Showman. Once we did that and we saw that people really enjoyed it, a whole Pandora's Box opened that we can't close now! Yeah, we have more musicals also done, going back to kid's movies like Hercules. We just did. We're going to be recording a track for Sweeney Todd, the Johnny Depp movie, very soon. We just recently recorded a commentary track for Tarzan with all the Phil Collins songs. So we have a whole bunch more in the pipeline. Yeah, like I said, it's a Pandora's Box that we can't close. Now we have to do all the musicals!

Kat: So for fans looking for more musical stuff, they can find it in the commentaries.

Eric: Yeah, there are definitely more commentary tracks, but we are trying to pump out more videos. The easiest way for people to access us is through the videos, so there might be more of those soon.

Kat: So when you're doing the musical commentary, do you specifically choose friends who are into musicals? How does that process go?

Eric: Yeah, there are a couple of different versions of it. One is with a group and we call ourselves "The Showmen," because we did The Greatest Showman. That's me, Miles Andrew, and Nick. And now that is just the group that does it. In that case, we pick certain musicals that will work with the group. But with other things that I want to do, then I might have to think of who would be good for it. Like the Hannah Montana movie that has singing and dancing and stuff. So there's a sing-along aspect to it. And I consider that to be part of a musical category that we've done. That was one where I wanted to do something with my friend Gwen, And so this would be a perfect pairing. Now she and I are trying to figure out another track, I texted her and was like, "Have you seen Spiceworld growing up? We should do that." And she was like "I don't know anything about it." And I was like, "Alright, maybe not. Maybe we won't do that." So there are different categories that are pretty clear. There's the old Disney Channel or Nickelodeon musicals we grew up with, versus your Hamilton, your Les Mis, your Sweeney Todd. And then I have my friend, Allison. We did Emperor's New Groove. Not that that's too musical, but there's music in it. We just recently did Tarzan. So she is the one that I tend to go with for those specific types of things. So there are different groups at this point that are established and it just depends on what kind of musical it is to see who's going to do it.

Kat: Do you have a favorite musical commentary you've done?

Eric: Oh, my gosh, I mean, The Greatest Showman is certainly up there as the first one. It's certainly up there. But I have a funny feeling we haven't recorded my favorite yet. I have a feeling that Sweeney Todd is going to be my new favorite. I just think that it's such a perfect movie. I mean, it's Tim Burton, the movie is so wacky and is his version of it. But the songs are funny and weird. I think it'll be a good, really good one for us to do. And it might be my new favorite. We'll see. Fingers crossed! Of course, we don't go in with an attitude like that. But it just sometimes happens. When we did Les Mis, my buddy Andrew was like, "How is this going to be better than The Greatest Showman? I'm a little nervous!" And I was like, "Don't be nervous. Let's just do it." And when it was over, he thought that was even better. I don't even know how we did that. But so we don't go in with any nerves or stress about it. It just happens. But The Greatest Showman is certainly up there since it was the one that sort of started this theatre grouping.

Kat: In general, do you believe that commentary is its own form of art and performance? Do you think it should be in its own category like film or theatre?

Eric: You know, I've never really thought about that. That's interesting. I don't look at the commentary tracks like, "Oh, you know, my art," necessarily. We're having fun and we're goofing around! It's riffing on something that already exists, so it's not a wholly original thing, you know. But at the same time, our commentary is basically a feature-length comedy album. If somebody an hour of stand up, they're making jokes and stuff, right? Or it's like an improv show. That's a whole separate thing. So yeah, I would look at it as its own category in the sense that whether you're writing your jokes in advance or you're coming up with it on the spot, it is original, even though we're watching something else. So again, I don't look at it like it's my opus or my masterpiece. Creatively speaking, it's really so much fun that I don't even think about it like that. But you know, when I think about it, I can see someone being like, "Why don't you guys make your own thing?" Technically, this is all our own jokes and stuff. So yeah, it's interesting. I'm on the fence about it, but I can see people explaining both sides pretty well. I think that's where I land on that.

Kat: Do you have any tips for people who are interested in doing film commentary, whether it's funny or serious?

Eric: For the serious stuff, a lot of people do like video essays and stuff like that. It's in a world that I know less about. I really like the way you said whether it's for fun or not. The only thing I know is the fun part. We're only doing it for fun, but we have people ask all the time about how we do this. People will even comment and be like, "Man, I really wish I could do this." You could just do it! What are you waiting for? I recommend everybody do it. I have no interest in holding a monopoly on this, anyone can do it. Me and my friends were trying to make each other laugh. Everybody that does that, you know, everyone watches a movie or TV show and tries to make their friends laugh while they watch it. You might as well just pick up a microphone and do it - You never know! If you do it, you might find out that it makes other people laugh. That's literally what happened to us. So you know, I think that's nice. The more people that you can make laugh, bring a smile to their face. Why not? It's worth it.

Kat: And now some rapid-fire Broadway-themed questions. What's your favorite musical, not including The Greatest Showman?

Eric: Oh my god, that is so tough. That is so freakin' tough. I'll go with Hamilton. Honestly, I find it to be so damn impressive. But at the same time, I haven't seen In The Heights and stuff like that, so maybe the earlier Lin-Manuel Miranda stuff is better. And I'll also say Wicked because that was a really early experience in my childhood. And I really loved that. So I'll go with Hamilton and Wicked as my most recent favorite and earliest that I can remember.

Kat: Favorite Broadway song to sing karaoke to?

Eric: Oh, "Shiksa Goddess" from The Last Five Years. You know, add The Last Five Years onto that list of favorites. I really love that one as well. I like it when you can do time-jumping in live-action. I love that. And Hamilton does that with "Satisfied." And then in The Last Five Years, of course, that infrastructure is just brilliant stuff. It's unreal. I've never seen it on stage. I don't know how they do it. I don't know how they made it clear on stage. Like I understand how they did it physically. But I feel like the movie makes it clear enough and I'm like "Wow, it's really intricate how they do this. It's crazy!"

Kat: What's a movie you'd love to see turned into a musical. One that's not currently a musical, like how they adapted Back to the Future into one.

Eric: I was gonna say The Social Network, but that's too easy because it's just my favorite movie. But I'm just thinking that a "talkie techie" thing would be interesting. So I would say Steve Jobs, the Sorkin movie. A musical about the founding of Apple would be pretty damn cool.

Kat: I'm curious as to how Sorkin would be with writing musicals.

Eric: Oh boy, just the thought of that! What an amazing concept. Is there already a Steve Jobs musical?

Kat: I don't think so. There was a musical called Nerds but that didn't make it to Broadway.

(EDIT: Turns out that there's actually an opera about Steve Jobs, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Who knew?)

Eric: I was gonna say, I'm sure that there is some Steve Jobs musical that played in a small theater in LA or somewhere. We'll go into the specific movie that Aaron Sorkin did if you want to look at it specifically or just the concept of the founding of Apple. I think that it would be pretty interesting. Something nerdy and techie like that as a musical would be cool.

Kat: And final question - Dream role on Broadway?

Eric: Oh, my gosh, "skinny Hercules." Because I want to sing "Go the Distance!" So I can be a little shrimp and sing it. When I was a kid, I played young Simba in a local production of The Lion King. The way that we did the aging up into the adult characters was that we were all running in a circle, and then I ran off into the wings and the adult one ran on at the same time. And so that's the way we would do it. You would have skinny little me run off stage and then buff Hercules run it. So that would be the dream role. Literally just so I could sing "Go the Distance." That's it.

Kat: Fair enough!

The commentary tracks for Sweeney Todd and Tarzan will be coming out soon! If you're interested in listening to any of Pretty Much It's commentary tracks, feel free to check out their website or their YouTube channel. You can also join the channel's Patreon to receive new commentary tracks and other bonus features!

A special thanks to Eric Striffler for letting me interview him for this article!!

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From This Author - Student Blogger: Kat Mokrynski