Hand to Mouth, a cooking show dedicated to teaching broke, young people how to cook easy, cheap meals, is written by Marque Franklin-Williams (left) and produced by James Ashby ’04 (right).
It’s not uncommon to find James Ashby nearly nude and painted red or green. He was illegally elected president. He had to stage his own intervention. Buddha and Jesus punched him in the face. But don’t feel too sorry for him: it’s all in the job description, and he’s self-employed.
Ashby, is seemingly not unlike our mascot: a mythical creature—a theatre major who acts, writes, produces, and directs full time. His online comedy sketch show, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Theater, has more than 69,000 subscribers on YouTube. SMBC Theater was briefly the most-funded web series on Kickstarter, raising over $100,000 from fans to support a feature-length space opera, STARPOCALYPSE, slated for release later this year.
James and comedy partner Jon Brence were recently chosen as members of the elite inaugural class of Space LA, YouTube’s new digital entertainment production hangar in Los Angeles. SMBC Theater is one of 25 channels, out of 100 selected to apply, with the opportunity to use YouTube’s space and state-of-the-art equipment for free during a three-month residency.
Ashby in action is big and brash, with piercing blue eyes and a propensity for self-exposure. His comedy skewers everyone from hackers to a fictional women’s magazine editorial staff, D&Ders, Satan, emotional vampires, writers, and Greek philosophers. (Jamesicles is sentenced to death by hemlock for selling the youth opium, among other corrupting offenses.) He plays an insecure mugger in a Communism, Atheism, Free Love T-shirt. “Give me the tacit self-assurance of a life well lived!” he orders a victim at gunpoint. “Convince me my internet girlfriend loves me!” The video, like many on the channel, has over 100,000 views.
Is it hard to be consistently funny?
“No,” said Ashby.
Time spent in the Black Box Theatre, culminating in the fall 2003 production of his thesis play, Gross Generalizations advised by Prof. Craig Clinton [theatre 1978–2010] and Prof. Pancho Savery [English 1995–], helped him hone his craft. “At Reed I was given the latitude in the theatre department to kind of do the more experimental stuff and the weirder stuff and the stuff that didn’t necessarily have a lot of financial backing,” said Ashby. He went on to earn an MFA in screenwriting at Carnegie Mellon, winning the Sloan Screenplay Competition for Boltzmann’s Demon, a biopic of Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of theoretical physics, who fought Ernst Mach and the scientific traditionalists.
After relocating to Los Angeles, Ashby launched SMBC Theater in 2009 with best friend Zach Weiner, author of the popular Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic. Their sketches specialize in moral incongruities. In “Mad Scientist,” Ashby passionately presses a button that would kill thousands instead of himself, and in “Orientation,” he bargains with a coming-out son: “You can be ‘weregay’—you know, usually straight, but occasionally overcome by an overwhelming force of gayness,” he says. “Your mother was weregay all through college, and I still turn gay under the light of a full moon.”
“When we started SMBC Theater, lack of money or lack of traditional resources didn’t seem to be the greatest impediment to me,” said Ashby. “I think that ethos came from Reed: do it yourself. You don’t need a special system to support you in order to go out and make art. It’s good for this new media world, where you kind of have to stake out your own space.”
That’s not to say 21st-century funny doesn’t pay: 823 backers more than doubled the $7,000 goal for their new YouTube channel, Broke Eats, which will support Hand to Mouth, a comedy cooking show with Ashby and Marque Franklin-Williams. Ashby also worked his crowd-funding magic for GaymerConnect (formerly Gaymercon), a LGBTQ-friendly video game convention to be held in San Francisco, executive producing, writing, and starring in a campaign that raised $91,000.
But money isn’t everything. “The thing that I have learned in the last year is that money is not a cure-all. Money would be great—I love money—but at the same time money is only as useful as what you can spend it on, and when it comes to making film or theatre or any kind of performance art your real limitation will always be the skill sets of the other people you are working with,” said Ashby.
Laura Birek ’03 costarred in some early SMBC sketches. “Laura and I knew each other from the theatre program, and she’s been great to work with,” said Ashby. “When you reach out to Reedies, they tend to be very, very generous and supportive of weird ideas.”
Consequently, he is open to offering a helping hand to Reedies looking to make their mark in online comedy. ‘The hard part is making something that anybody else wants to watch,” he says. “That’s the part nobody can tell you how to do. That’s got to come from you.”
Yoram Bauman ’95, a stand-up economist who’s “permanently on tour,” took his signature show to Monaco in 2012. “Economics comedy is attractive to bankers, who have money and who hang out in places like Monaco,” said Bauman. He proclaims Reed a fine incubator for future comedians. “You have to have a little bit of a different view of the world; you have to have enough courage to get up onstage and talk to people about it; and you have to have enough discipline,” he said, adding, “If you can make math funny, you can do anything.”
Amanda Egge ’00 is actively involved with The Moth, a non-profit story slam, in Los Angeles. Her first one-person show, “Friend Request,” ran at UCB LA; she’s working on a second, and a book—all of which may be easier than a Reed thesis. “I remember I had a great time at Renn Fayre my junior year, but I don’t even remember Renn Fayre from my senior year. I think I turned in my thesis and, like, slept,” said Egge, who majored in philosophy and wrote 100 pages on vagueness.
Roshin Mathew ’04 was serious and studious at Reed, passing up a friend’s suggestion to audition for Fellatio Rodriguez. “I didn’t know what improv was, to be honest with you,” she said. Fast forward to 2013 and Mathew just wrapped “Re-Neglected President,” her comedy team’s first show at Second City Hollywood. Now studying at UCB Theatre Los Angeles, Mathew plans to start work on a new show, and is developing characters for a comedy web series. She hopes to inspire others to give improv a chance. “Maybe there will be some other young Indian girl from Texas who says, ‘Whoa, I should do that, too!’” she said.
Louis Melendez ’11 trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City at 16, and brought those skills to Reed, founding long-form improv group Y.A.M. as a freshman. Now back in New York, Melendez performed his first stand-up show at Gotham Comedy Club in February, and already has the next booked. Set topics include the irony of working at Pinkberry after writing his thesis. “That was the application of my 75 page thesis on the birth and metamorphosis of the Tea Party: I got to serve pomegranate yogurt to yuppies,” he said.