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Formats Unpacked: 21/9 by Demi Adejuyigbe
How a throwaway comedy idea became a habit its creator can't break
It’s been a while since we’ve unpacked a web series, so I’ve fixed that with a format that’s gone from idea to classic in a handful of episodes.
Today’s format unpacker should need no introduction to regular readers - it comes from Storythings founder Matt Locke off’ve previous unpackings such as Grand Designs, The World According to Jeff Goldblum, and One On One.
Over to you Matt…
What is it called?
21/9 by Demi Adejuyigbe (web series)
What’s the format?
Demi Adejuyigbe - a writer and comedian whose credits include The Good Place and Late Show with James Corden amongst many others - celebrates the 21st September by playing a remix of Earth, Wind & Fire’s stone-cold classic September. He dances throughout revealing in increasingly complex ways that today is, in fact, the 21st night of September.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
I’ve just spent the last few days trying to analyse why I love this short series of Youtube videos so much, but then I read an interview on Vulture with Demi, and this quote jumped right out at me:
“Every year, for the last three years, I’ve thought, I should not do it this year. Or else I risk setting myself in a perpetual cycle: I guess I’m gonna do this until I die. So every year, I think, I won’t do it this year. I tweet, “I won’t do it this year.” And then I come up with an idea and I go, Okay, that might be fun. Maybe I’ll do that. That’s the cycle every year.”
It’s the annual rhythm. That’s the magic.
The 21st September videos are at heart just memes - silly internet videos that make us smile. There are millions of them uploaded to Twitter, Youtube and particularly TikTok every day. But the usual pattern of a video meme, particularly one based on a simple performance, is that they get hot for a few weeks, and then fade away. Nobody is doing the Harlem Shake or Gangnam Style anymore, or if they are, the videos aren’t getting much attention.
There is a particularly giddy rush when something goes viral, brilliantly captured by Bill Wasik in his book ‘And Then There’s This’, an account of how he accidentally invented the flash-mob. As audiences share a viral meme, the original creator becomes overwhelmed and has to choose between surfing the wave of attention, or dropping out and letting it pass them by. It’s a surprisingly hard and stressful position to be in.
But 21/9 can’t go viral in that way. It only makes sense to release the video on one day of the year - 21st September - because that is the whole point of the video. The song September is a classic, but most of us only remember the first two lines - “Do you remember? It was the 21st night of September?” - and so that became the hook for the videos, and set the rules for the project in stone - one short video, released on the same day every year.
Habits and creativity are inextricably linked. Making good culture is not a skill, but a habit. The more you do it, the better the things become, and there’s no shortcut - you have to work through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Hugh, my co-director at Storythings, is really good at this, and has managed to produce the brilliant weekly Storythings newsletter every Friday for over seven years now.
I’m a bit more rubbish. The only regular creative habits I’ve managed have much longer rhythms - writing a newsletter about once a month, or organising a conference once a year for a decade. But even with a cadence as slow as this, creating a habit is still essential, as that is how we understand what works in an idea. As you repeat the same format again and again, you start to notice the bits that work, and the bits that you can leave behind. This is how you get to the good stuff - not by a moment of genius inspiration, but through iteration and evolution.
You can see this happening in Demi’s 21st September videos. The first one is a sketch - a throwaway thing created out of a conversation with a friend. The second year is when it turns into a thing - you can see the repetition of the ‘That’s Today!’ text, a different remix of the song that still only features those two lines, and him playing the final brass sting on a different instrument, ending with a confetti cannon. And so it begins - every year after 2017 the video returns to those tropes, giving the initial sketch a structure and depth, and giving Demi constraints that he can bounce off. Over five years we can watch as someone turns a silly idea into something that has become - go with me on this - culture.
This year’s video is particularly good, not just because of the ambition of the sketch, but because he openly talks about the pressure of having an annual commitment to a silly idea, and then turns it around by using it to raise money for good causes. At the time of writing, this years’ video has raised over $300k.
There are a few memes that have annual rhythms - May the Fourth is one, and in the UK we had Ed Balls Day for a while. But 21st September is more personal and creative than these one-liners. I’d suggest it’s more like other long-term creative projects, like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which was filmed over 12 years, as the cast aged in real time. Now that’s a long cadence for a project, and makes me feel positively speedy in comparison.
I’m so glad Matt chose 21/9. I’ve been waiting for someone to suggest a joke for ages. I even approached a few comedians but to no avail. Strictly speaking, 21/9 isn’t a joke, but it is a collection of gags neatly bound together by a particular date, making the thing itself a recurring gag.
If any of you lovely readers are fascinated by joke and comedy structures and have a favourite format you want to unpack do get in touch. I’d love to have a few more.
Thanks for reading everyone. If you liked this do share with your friends.
(BTW. The next line is “Love was changin’ the minds of pretenders”.)