Formats Unpacked - The Show with Ze Frank
How an early web show became one of the most interesting and influential series ever
Hugh here. Today I’m doing the unpacking.
Since I started Formats Unpacked I’ve loved being introduced to hugely popular formats that I didn’t know existed. Things that have been watched by millions of people but somehow remained a secret to me.
That’s how stuff made for the web works. The distribution channels aren’t the same as TV and film. The stars of these shows are rarely discovered on a couch talking to a late-night talk show host about their thing. They’re found by fans talking to fans talking to other fans.
This is definitely the case with today’s format. It’s one of my favourite internet things, EVER. Ze Frank has been a big influence on me for the last 15 years and his obsession with human behaviour is something we share here at Storythings.
OK, time for some unpacking. Enjoy…
What’s it Called?
What’s the Format?
Before YouTube was really a thing, internet innovator Ze Frank launched a web series in which he delivered a witty monologue on current events direct to camera. He did this every weekday for a year. Think Max Headroom meets The Daily Show. As they developed, these 3-minute episodes became a hybrid of monologues and songs, often shaped around ‘s-s-s-s-s-s-something from the comments’. The Show also featured challenges for his fans, who Ze referred to as Sports Racers.
What’s the magic that made it special?
Ze captured the imagination of early internet users, and made them part of The Show in a way that TV couldn’t. TV just didn’t have the tools for two-way engagement. The internet did, and Ze and his fans were some of the first people to experiment with them.
His curiosity, and his ability to make things on the internet, meant that he was always tinkering with what the future of entertainment might be. This curiosity, coupled with his desire to understand what gets people’s attention on the internet, drove his daily obsession to make The Show. He was always pushing fans to participate in new and interesting ways - ways that meant that his fans had to stop looking at him and start looking towards each other.
For example, Ze built a wiki so that fans could collaborate on writing a comedy script. He built a GPS tool that helped fans find the coordinates of the opposite side of the earth so that they could make an earth sandwich Other show challenges included the RunningFool Relay in which a fan was passed like human baton across the US, or the MySpace Adoption Program in which his fans found a profile that looked like it needed a few more friends.
Ze’s ideas were too small for TV, but perfectly in size and shape for the internet. He was probably too weird for TV too, which made him the perfect host for a daily internet video show in the era of MySpace, Bebo and early Youtube, when the web was still weird and unformed. Slate described him as a ‘Laptop Celebrity’ at the time, because the idea of YouTuber didn’t even exist yet.
In the first messy decade of the world wide web, there was a lot of experimental storytelling. Most of it was pretty unwatchable, or unusable, because it was so abstract. What was really smart about The Show was that, despite being very forward-thinking, it didn’t dispense with the 60-year history of TV that Ze Frank had grown up absorbing. TV hadn’t failed, there was just a new way of making it now. So he borrowed TV’s best bits and used the new tools at hand to make something that felt like a TV show, but made just for the internet.
He recognised that TV schedulers knew the importance of a regular publishing rhythm, so The Show was always going to be every day, Monday to Friday, for a year. And he knew TV commissioners used formats as a way to build audience loyalty - structure and visual language were important because audiences come back if they know what they are going to get.
The framework he created meant that The Show rarely went over 3 minutes in length. It was always shot in close up, with the camera locked on his face. The editing was choppy, using cut-aways, repeated lines, and extreme close-ups for impact. And Ze never blinked. As he broke the aesthetics of traditional TV, he was also building the new grammar of internet video.
Then there was the language and common phrases - Sports Racers could send videos of themselves doing a Power Move to get into the League of Awesomeness. These in-jokes cemented the fanbase and became important identifiers for fans who were connecting on forums. Giving people a language that binds them together is a classic fandom-building power move. Lady Gaga understood this, calling her fans Little Monsters and using Paws Up as a non-verbal signifier on social media.
Ze was not a megastar in the way YouTubers are megastars now, and The Show’s viewer numbers were in the thousands rather than the millions. I don’t think building a brand for himself was ever a priority. For Ze the web was a playroom for human connection that helped him understand what gets attention, and what it meant to ‘feel and be felt’ in non-physical spaces, an obsession he brought to BuzzFeed Video years later.
The Show not only influenced early YouTubers, but it also influenced TV as producers started to come to terms with how the internet changed their relationship with audiences. At once intimate and global, small yet epic, he took the zany stunts of late-night talk show hosts like David Letterman, and turned the camera around, so it was no longer about the host, but about you. You didn’t just watch The Show, you were The Show.
This was 2006, the same year that Time Magazine decided the Person Of The Year was You, and put a mirror on the cover. It was an exciting time, not yet tainted by the trolls and fake news that social media would end up enabling. For a short while, before it all got a lot more complex and dark, the web was weird in a nice way. Ze Frank was responsible for a lot of that weirdness.
Braincrack. I’ve shown an edited version of this so many times at conferences, in workshops, or just as a little help for someone struggling to get an idea out of their head and into the world. It says absolutely everything important there is to say about where ideas in just over a minute.
All YouTubers doing monologues, using fan comments and setting fans challenges
Thanks for reading and I hope newcomers have fun diving into more of the work of Ze Frank. Sadly a lot of the links on his site are now broken. He originally hosted episodes on Blip.TV but moved them to YouTube. You can see the highlights or watch the full series.
If you have a favourite format you would like featured get in touch. If you want to know a little more about Storythings and what we do visit our website and sign up for one of our other newsletters.
More unpacking next week.