At first glance, the premise of VH1's new Acceptable.TV seems like the product of committee thinking. Each week, the show screens five brief shorts. The audience votes (online or via mobile phone) for two of them to continue; the others are replaced by new "pilots." Each episode also features one fan-submitted pilot that earns its way onto the show through online voting. Creators Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab (who wrote last year's Oscar-nominated animated hit Monster House) honed the show's precepts through their online television station Channel101.com, whose user-submitted content stays or goes depending on feedback. Then they—and executive producer Jack Black—added a sketch-comedy element to create Acceptable.TV. Harmon hosts the show and leads its small ensemble in the sketches, with Black and Schrab staying behind the scenes. The show debuted in March to mostly tepid reviews, but has since produced its own hits: the Apprentice parody "Operation Kitten Calendar," and "Mr. Sprinkles," a darkly humorous look at the fall of a Cat In The Hat-esque character. Harmon and Black recently recently told The A.V. Club why they confuse their audience, why individuals are idiots, and why we aren't all vomit-eating baby birds any more.
The A.V. Club: You're halfway through your eight-episode run right now. How is it going?
Dan Harmon: It's going good. Everything I do, in the middle of it, I lose all objectivity. The business of comedy is kind of ridiculous in that respect. Your job is to have a lot of fun in a jar, then sell it. There's something inherently illogical and impossible about that, but that being said, this is as good as it gets. I'm creating little tiny TV shows with a lot of friends of mine that enjoy doing it. I'm not a schoolteacher, and I'm not a registered nurse, and I'm not eating my own foot in a bomb crater in Lebanon somewhere. I'm probably one of the top .01 percent of the population in terms of self-satisfaction right now.
AVC: The first reviews weren't terribly positive. Did you anticipate that?
Jack Black: I didn't. I anticipated great reviews, because I think it's really creative, original shit, but at the end of the day, if you think it's great, that's the most important thing. Maybe it's because it's ahead of its time.
DH: The best review you could hope to get if you're doing something new from an established reviewer, I would think, would be pretty much what we've been getting, which is kind of a resounding "Ehhhhhhhhhhhh. I'm confused." Well, good, because we're trying to do something confusing. We'll find our way and find our audience. Even the worst reviews, they always praise one or two of our sketches and say the other things are just shit. Well, that's what you're supposed to think. You're supposed to vote for what you like.
AVC: Everyone's still trying to figure it out.
DH: There are a million forces at work in what you see, and I don't blame other people. I myself sit and go, "Maybe I should host the show sitting on a couch." And then I go, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life." And then I go, "Yeah, let's make it more like The Muppet Show and have these crazy characters that we interact with behind the scenes." And then I go, "That also is the dumbest thing I've ever seen." When you combine that with getting notes from the network, and feedback on the website, and just reading the facial expressions of loved ones when you show them the episode, and you combine that with the fact that you've watched what you're showing them a thousand times in an edit bay, you lose your mind. You just have to surrender and hope that the good stuff bubbles up.
AVC: It's never been easier to get someone's opinion, thanks to the Internet.
DH: That is insane. I can't find the quote anywhere, but somebody told me a Quentin Tarantino quote, something along the lines of "Audiences are geniuses, and individuals are idiots." I have to be really careful, because I have nothing but love for this entity known as "the customer" in entertainment. I would never, ever, ever put myself above them and say, "They don't get it, but it's funny, believe me." If they're not laughing, I'm doing my job wrong. Period. But that being said, the individual, the 15-year-old Canadian that for the first time in their life has a blank space underneath a video they're watching, with a blinking cursor in it, I can't fucking take it. It drives me insane, reading the things they say.
AVC: Have you learned to cope with it?
DH: Yeah. You don't get up in the morning and dance around in the living room for your parents' friends if it's not vitally important to you that they accept you. Part of this whole voting gimmick, which people think is inspired by YouTube or American Idol or something, I've been doing for a long time with Rob Schrab, because we share an insecurity there. We always want people to validate us constantly.
AVC: It does seem like the show synthesizes the phenomena of YouTube and American Idol. But other shows have tried to replicate those formulas, and it never works. How did you address that while planning the show?
DH: I'm probably one of the least pop-culturally aware people working in television. I know there's a show called American Idol where they vote for who can sing the best, and they give that person an album or something. I know that that became a phenomenon, and I guess that phenomenon predates Channel 101. Channel 101 was really just me and my partner, Rob Schrab, not wanting to be responsible for what the audience saw at our film festivals.
AVC: Channel 101 has the tagline "the unavoidable future of entertainment."
DH: Which I should change, by the way, at this point, because it was a joke, way back when it wasn't true. Now, it doesn't ring so ironic anymore.
AVC: It makes sense, though. Standard, drecky sitcoms are an endangered species.
DH: Yeah, well, thank God. With media, it's never bad-to-good. It's always just moving from different to different. Faster, more stuff, but there's always good, more good, and more bad. The more good with this is, we're breaking free, once and for all, from the passive one-way transmission from rich people to poor people, of programming that's controlled indirectly by other rich people, in the form of sponsorship and stuff… We're graduating as viewers from baby birds that wait to have vomit put in our mouths, to being adult birds that fly around and look for what we like, and share it with other birds, I guess is where the metaphor stops.
AVC: You've done a lot of work within the network framework. You both worked on Jack's failed pilot Heat Vision And Jack. Dan, you wrote for The Sarah Silverman Program, and you did Monster House. How do those experiences inform what you're doing with Acceptable.TV?
JB: Maybe just keep it on the cheap if you can help it. Because if we keep our overhead low, we'll not only have a greater chance of getting picked up, but it also affords us more freedom to do what we want. The more you spend, the more a studio is like, all up in your kitchen telling what you do creatively.
DH: I guess working in the legitimate industry, the best thing you can take away from it is acceptance of the incompetence that often surrounds you. No, that sounds horrible. The most important thing, I guess, is the fact that working in the legitimate industry, what I see all too often is people trying to interpret the wishes of the audience, which with today's technology, is all too easy to measure empirically.
AVC: Jack, is it good to step away from acting and into a more behind-the-scenes role?
JB: Definitely. I mean, having the pressure of performing as an actor is stressful. This way, I can just focus on the product itself without having to worry about my own ego, whether people are gonna think I suck or not. Because I know that these guys are great writers and that the show is great. I don't have to stress over that little shit. But, nah, I guess I like that Dan and the rest of the writers never dumb it down the way you see in a lot of TV shows.
DH: What I see time and time again, even with myself, is that ego—putting yourself above the audience. It fucks you up. It always makes the content worse. Which is not to say that pandering is good, because pandering is also trying to anticipate what the audience wants, and giving that to them so you can be their best friend. They don't want that either. What they want is someone who doesn't give a shit that they're there, to do something they can either like or not like. So Acceptable.TV, in its most noble form, what I would hope is it would create a Darwinian Petri dish where franchises that are satisfying would flourish and the other ones would drop away, and the audience would actually make those calls. What I would hope that would happen by next season is that the executives would stop worrying so much about whether a joke I just wrote is funny, because they can realize, "Oh, I have the easiest job in the world. I'm an executive on a show that the audience runs. If this joke isn't funny, it'll die as quickly as they don't laugh at it."
AVC: Do you feel under the gun to catch on?
DH: No, I don't feel under the gun at all. I'm pretty good at surrendering to the universe. I focus on making those individual little TV shows, those little three-minute things. By and large, people are watching those on the Internet, and they're being driven to the TV show by watching those… We're producing more traffic than anything else at VH1.com right now, and Viacom is paying heavy attention right now. I honestly believe that the media conglomerate is at this very scary stage of history, where it would trade a .1 rating for 50,000 clicks. They are more concerned with being 2010 compliant than they are with getting millions of people to buy Alpo during I Love New York. They love that stuff, that still means money, but they're very, very nervous about the future right now, and it makes them feel comfortable to have things that feel multi-platform. So I feel like for that reason alone, whether it's a good reason or a bad one, we have a good shot at continuing to have fun over here, and letting things evolve and grow. I'm looking forward to finding our voice, and our point of view, and getting a bigger audience, and having that evolve us. I have an optimistic outlook right now, but even if we just do eight and then finish up, I feel pretty proud of what we've done.