Formats Unpacked: Making Fun
How a format put the transformative power of making at its heart
A special hello to all our new subscribers. If you want to get up to speed on what we’ve been doing here for the last couple of years, let me point you in the direction of last week’s second birthday newsletter. As a one-off, some of the team at Storythings chose their favourite five formats.
As promised, this week the regular Formats Unpacked format returns with our very own Matt Locke digging revealing the magic in a new Netflix show about making.
Matt is the founder of Storythings and previously spent many years at the BBC and Channel Four running digital and innovation departments. It’s fair to say, Matt knows a great format when he sees one.
Over to Matt…
What’s it called?
Making Fun (TV series)
What’s the format?
When you were a kid, did you enjoy drawing illustrations and plans for fantastical machines? Did they involve farting, exploding, rainbows or unicorns? Now imagine if you had a team of expert makers that could actually make those drawings come to life. Welcome to the world of the Netflix series Making Fun.
In each episode, designer, maker and toy entrepreneur Jimmy DiResta gets video pitches from kids for their fantastic inventions - everything from a dinosaur-taco-toilet to unicorns that fart glitter - before choosing one to build in his well-appointed upstate New York workshop. Helping him is a gang of plaid-shirted fellow maker friends - Paul Jackman, Graz Makes, Derek Forestier and, my favourite, Canadian Pat.
On paper, Making Fun looks like it follows the structure of many other factual entertainment formats. There’s a core cast of talented experts, a challenge they need to overcome, a member of the general public they’re doing it for, and a pretty spurious time limit. On the way, Jimmy and his team have to learn about the problem they’re solving, find out each other’s strengths, overcome obstacles, and then get it ready in time for the big reveal.
On paper, this could be a million similar shows, from Repair Shop to DIY SOS. But Making Fun is so much more than that…
What’s the magic that makes it special?
First of all, the production design is as wacky as the show itself. Jimmy DiResta and his gang of misfit makers all have backgrounds in Youtube and online video, and it really shows in the use of graphics, edits, and general fun in the show. Every episode is absolutely packed with visual puns, snapchat-style filters and graphic effects that make it an absolute joy to watch. The best of these revolve around the enigmatically French-leaning Canadian Pat, whose inner thoughts and dream sequences are brought to life as if he were an anime character.
Years ago, Storythings worked with Pulse Films on a pilot for Channel 4 that tried to bring the worlds of TV factual entertainment and Youtube creators together. We really wanted it to have the fast cuts and heavy use of graphics that were native to online video, but the pilot ended up looking much more like traditional TV. Making Fun is exactly the kind of thing we were trying to do - the usual visual grammar of TV is ripped up, and the show buzzes with the kind of chaotic and inventive editing style that has emerged through online video over the last decade or so.
Secondly, the cast is terrific. The maker crew are obviously all experts, but also have a goofy, dumb side that complements the bizarre challenges the kids set them. Best of all, the host, Jimmy DiResta, does something that connects him to a rich history in children’s literature - he acts as if he hates kids. In the show intro, he tells the story of his time as a toy inventor, how that made him resent kids and their stupid ideas, and how he can’t believe he’s agreed to put himself at the whim of a bunch of kids again.
This is the real magic of making a brilliant kids’ show - tell the kids that you can’t stand them. Because there is nothing a kid loves more than the challenge of getting a recalcitrant adult to pay attention to them. Jimmy’s disdain is the real challenge in the show, and the kids have to work hard to convince him their stupid ideas are worth his effort and skill.
Artist and Writer Dan Catt once wrote a lovely description of how he learnt to talk to kids by asking them 20 questions about ghosts. One of his insights was that kids don’t just want to be listened to, they want adults to join them in their world:
“There’s always time for ghosts, though, and the abstract nature of ghosts seems to work well. There isn’t a wrong answer, and they seem to instinctively know that adults don’t have the answer either. This makes it more of a level playing field, and you’re conversing as equals.”
The scenes where kids pitch their ideas to Jimmy and the gang over a video call are a brilliant example of this. The kids spin out their wild ideas, which are then batted back by Jimmy with equally ridiculous questions. You can see the kids literally jumping around with excitement that this adult has not just listened, but is engaging with their ideas on their own terms, as stupid as those terms might be.
And then, in the big reveal, a couple of lucky kids get to see their fantastic ideas brought to life by Jimmy and the gang. Although the show seems to take nothing seriously, this moment is always surprisingly moving. Because we can all imagine being that kid, and the sheer wonder at seeing your fantastic-yet-ridiculous idea brought to life.
I love this show as much as I love Repair Shop, and the two feel like opposite sides of the same coin. In one show, adults bring broken objects to a group of expert makers in the hope that their skill and craft can bring their memories to life. In the other, a group of kids bring crazy ideas to a group of expert makers in the hope that their skill and craft can bring their fantasies to life. One show uses craft to help adults connect to their past, another to help kids imagine their future. And at the heart of both is the transformative power of making.
There is only one season so far, but my favourites have to be the Unicornicyle, for the epic race at the end, and the Guitar Boat. Both episodes feature a surprising amount of jeopardy. But honestly, if you are feeling at all jaded and tired of being an adult, grab some unhealthy snacks, build a pillow fort, and just binge your way through the whole series. I’ll bring some pizza.
As mentioned, this show perfectly blends TV factual entertainment formats and youtube aesthetics, so you could compare it to everything from DIY SOS to Mr Beast. But Jimmy DiResta’s character most strongly reminds me of another childrens’ anti-hero who challenged a bunch of kids to make their wildest fantasies come true - Willy Wonka.
Following last week’s Five Favourite Formats from the Storythings team, our newest team member, Laura, posted her Five Favourite Childhood Formats to Slack. It was so wonderful I had to share it. Laura grew up in Romania in the mid-late 80s/early 90s and her obsession with stories came via a variety of formats:
The contraband VHS - during communism and even after, VHS tapes were our contact to anything from movies, music videos, to random Italian TV shows, and cartoons. It was this totally asynchronous reception model removed from the commercial and contextual aspect. For example we were watching music videos without the MTV, radio power play or Top 40s. Just like the Diafilms from point 2, VHS were more than a physical support, they sparked an entirely parallel reception model with different value and meaning.
The Diafilms - before VCR and film projectors, my first introduction to visual stories was the diafilm, or filmstrips. We also used them to watch family pictures and accumulated quite a collection. These were the 80s btw:)
The “Oracle” - a proto-Facebook sharing notebook that we used to circulate among our peers (in school mainly) where each of us had to answer several questions such as: say something to introduce yourself, what music do you listen to, favourite movie, favourite flower etc as well as the occasionally who do you love, who loves you back:)))
Garbage Pail Kids - for basically being outrageous. It should probably be more analysed as a format and its impact. I remember that for me, before Baudelaire it was GPK:)
The spoken and visual travel chronicles - a sort of vlog avant la lettre - people would gather in local event halls to listen to their peers’ travel stories in foreign countries and look at… diafilms. People would applaud or boo, of course.
“Just to put things in context, I grew up with Rambo and Alien and the first TV series, after ’89, that everyone was hooked on was Twin Peaks. My grandparents however were suddenly fans of Sailor Moon. And Top Gun was huge while its meaning was far removed from its war - propaganda context. I remember, that as random as it was, each contact with any given story was utterly exhilarating.”
Laura is currently working on an audience research project looking at how we find, share and use stories in the world of hybrid working. For those working in communications in particular, this research will help you develop content strategies more closely aligned to the new habits of your audience or customers. If you’d be interested in partnering with us on this or simply finding out more simply reply to this email.
Thanks for reading. More format unpacking next week.