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Joss Whedon
New Media Guru
Meet Joss Whedon the Web Slayer.

Joss Whedon is wired to write. If he had lived back in Cro-Magnon time, he would have drawn stories on cave walls. (And some Neanderthal would have given him notes.) Fortunately, he has slightly easier formats today, including films, comic books, and the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Last summer, Whedon’s primal storytelling prowess was applied to that brand-new cave wall known as the Internet, with his self-produced, self-funded, self-you-name-it musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

A mass of silliness with a tender center, Dr. Horrible tells the tale of one young wannabe super villain, the Dr. of the title, who is dying to get into the Evil League of Evil. With equal ardor, he pines for Penny, a sweet do-gooder frequenting his laundromat. His archnemesis is Captain Hammer, a self-aggrandizing show pony who steals Penny’s affections. Dr. Horrible schemes to put an end to Hammer, guaranteeing his entree into super-evil society, but things go awry in classic Aristotelian fashion. Seriously. Careful what you wish for, wannabes.

The show was a web pioneer, streaming online for free before becoming available for sale on iTunes, where it shot to the top of the charts. It also broke new ground in its Guild contracts, forged during the writers’ strike. Although there’s no way to tell where it ranks in terms of online programming, it is certifiably the most successful web musical of all time. Whedon’s traits are on display—humor, humanity, musical chops, reversal of expectations, tragic twists—but serving a new medium and no masters. Make that two masters: Whedon and his audience. What makes it even more delightful is that it sprung from the mind of a man who is so Internet-unsavvy, he insists, “I’m the guy who can’t find the porn.”

Finding the Pen

Whedon grew up in New York, decamping to England for a couple of high school years at a 600-year-old boy’s boarding school. I first met him during the 1980s, when we both attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He struck me as ridiculously funny, smart, and engaging, with a playful way around words. I didn’t know that back then he used a Brother manual typewriter that he named Mutant Enemy, which he still owns but can’t find ribbons for. The typewriter gave his production company its name and him some of his writing methods. “I have never written a single thing that wasn’t meant to be read, and that’s part of why I never wrote rough drafts of any of my papers,” he says. “With my little typewriter [and] before we could delete things, every paper I wrote, I thought, The next sentence better be the right one, because you can’t go back.” He adds that he never kept a diary because he assumed it would have to be read one day. He’s been writing for fans since the first moment he picked up a pen.

 

Which isn’t to say he always knew he was going to be a writer, even though he was genetically predisposed. His grandfather, John, wrote for The Donna Reed Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, among others. Joss’ father Tom was the first second-generation Guild member and wrote on shows such as The Electric Company, Benson, and The Golden Girls.

But TV didn’t interest Joss. He had the notion that he would be a filmmaker and loved the hell out of the film program at school. So after Wesleyan, he moved in with his father in Los Angeles. And as graduates will do, he took a job at a video store and wrote and recorded a radio musical parodying the Oliver North scandal, titled Oliver, with songs set to the melodies of the original musical. Family members, including his younger brothers, Jed and Zack, played roles. The show was played at a party, which caught the ear of a producer, who suggested that young Joss try his hand at writing a TV spec. So he did.

“It was one of those things, like in the movie when two people are in love, and everybody else knows it, but I didn’t know,” Whedon says. “And then I knew, Oh wait, writing is the most fun that you can ever have.”

I ran into him on Main Street in Venice around that time. He was on his way to the video store to quit because he had just landed a job on Roseanne. “That was a good day,” he recalls, as we sit in the office of his latest television show, Dollhouse. Getting hired on Roseanne made him the WGA’s first third-generation writer. “The first half of the year, I wrote five scripts; in the second half, I wrote one,” he remembers. So then in his spare time he completed a film script called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A longtime horror movie fan, he was inspired by the trope of the cute blonde walking down a dark alley and getting attacked. But this time, the helpless-looking girl turns around and kicks some serious ass.

He left Roseanne because he didn’t like getting paid for nothing and took a job on the series Parenthood, a half-hour single-camera show. Meanwhile, his vampire script bounced around, acquiring the proverbial “this is a great screenplay that nobody will make” buzz. Fran Rubel Kuzui and her husband, Kaz Kazui, produced it independently as a feature, in the process turning the drama into a teen comedy. The reviews were mixed, but as Whedon puts it, “If it hadn’t been for [the Kuzui team], nobody would have made it.” Not to mention that Gail Berman, then at Sandollar, would never have thought of turning Buffy into a television series. The Kazuis called Whedon as a contractual obligation, to let him officially pass on the project, “and I’m like, ‘Hold on a minute…’”

Welcome to The Hellmouth

At the time, Joss was working in movies as a script doctor, doing well financially but creatively dying inside because none of his scripts was seeing the light of a projector. “The only ones where I really affected any real change were Toy Story and Speed.” (The former gave him an Oscar nomination, with six others, for original screenplay; on the latter he lost the credit in arbitration.)

He jumped at the chance to revisit Buffy and came up with a simple, elegant metaphor for the proposed series: High school is a horror movie. “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”

So began the show. Briefly, young Buffy Summers moves to the town of Sunnydale, which happens to sit on top of the mouth of hell. She is the only person who can defeat the demons that emerge from said mouth. The show was filled with hand-to-stake combat, cute girls in hot outfits, and monsters that lent themselves beautifully to the characters of adolescence—cruel jocks, overbearing parents, boyfriends who turn bad when they get what they came for, teachers who bite the heads off their students. But there was more, always more. Buffy was layered like a napoleon and just as filled with creamy goodness. The underpinnings were philosophical and psychological as well as mythological, addressing free will, loneliness, friendship, love, sexuality, death, accepting one’s path in life—your basic hero’s journey.

Incredibly, Whedon continued his college method of writing in final drafts. Still does. “When I write, I spend most of my time on my feet, and then when I know what it is I want to say, I sit down,” he explains. “I don’t like to look at a computer screen and see a placeholder line; it will make it harder for me to write.” He can also get stuck for days trying to think up a name. “I need to know who that guy is, so I need the name, and it can kill me. I’ve got this time blocked out to write, and I can’t just say Mr. X. It’s really debilitating.”

With the premiere of Buffy in 1997 on the WB network, Whedon’s life became an open blog. Fans went online to discuss and debate episodes, to create fan fiction (their own continuations of storylines) and role-playing scenarios—in essence, to form a community. Whedon surfed the sites to get feedback. “For a while I used it as my Nielsen ratings—what did they get, what did they hate,” Whedon says of the fan-created sites, such as The Bronze and later, Whedonesque. He soon found himself responding, both directly and through his scripts.

When fans complained about the new character Oz, a potential love interest for Buffy’s best friend Willow, “I wrote the scene wherein Willow would fall for Oz and the audience would too, very deliberately. ‘You don’t like Oz? Watch this.’ And it worked.” When others pointed out the lesbian subtext between Buffy and a rogue slayer named Faith, he berated them for seeing lesbian subtext every time two cute girls are onscreen together. Then he was directed to an online treatise that carefully analyzed every interaction between the two characters. And he humbly apologized. The exchange also made him realize that viewers must be allowed to interpret the work their own way: “That’s the point of telling a story, to a large extent.”

He didn’t get a real look at his fan base until he attended Comic-Con with actors Alyson Hannigan and Nicholas Brendon the first year of the show. “We walked out on stage, and people went banunus,” he recalls. (See? Playful word.) “There were a couple thousand of them. And we looked at each other like, ‘What’s going on?’” He figured the frenzy was just for his actors. But then the first question was directed to him: “Can you say it?”(For those unfamiliar with the show, the Mutant Enemy logo appears onscreen after the end credits, with a hand-drawn demon creature being walked across the screen as Whedon’s voice says two words: “Grr. Argh.”)

Embarrassed, Whedon repeated those two grunts for the Con audience. And the room exploded. He felt a rush like he had never experienced before. “It was a real lesson. Be very careful because this is literally a drug. But at the same time, it was an amazing day for us. The people that care really care. And we were just getting started.”

I didn’t expect to be a Buffy fan. I tuned in to be vaguely supportive of someone I knew was a good guy. And to be frank, I’m not a fan—that word is too tepid for my shameless adoration of the show. Fortunately, I am joined by a bevy of television critics and a pride of academics who have dissertated the show up one side and down the other. There have been Buffyverse conferences held worldwide and at least 20 books and hundreds of essays on Buffy Studies published to date.

Other TV writers became fans too and not always the ones you’d expect. Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and Greg Daniels (The Office) have both named the comedy-horror-romance-drama show as an influence. “Buffy really changed the landscape,” notes Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies). “It demonstrated to networks and studios that you can meld genres in a unique way and create something that is altogether new yet very powerful and resonant. It’s vampires, but it’s emotionally honest, and that’s what makes it work.”

Even the language was fresh, with creative variations on words and phrases that are now part of the lexicon (and collected in a book of Buffy slang). “Words that end in monkey tend to come from our show,” Whedon confirmed. Like cuddle-monkey. “And of course the adding of unnecessary Ys. But the fact of the matter is we didn’t create catchphrases, we deliberately never said the same thing twice, it was always just a manner of speaking, a manner of the way we twisted language.”

Or eliminated it. The episode “Hush,” featuring 29 straight minutes without dialogue, was nominated for an Emmy and gives me nightmares every time I watch it. “Once More, With Feeling” was a musical with a perfect melding of plot and song. Whedon has never been afraid to push plots to the edge or kill his darlings but always in service of the story. I challenge anyone to watch “The Body” episode, in which Buffy loses a loved one, and remain unmoved. Of course, that requires watching the previous four and a half seasons, to catch all the nuance.

A spin-off of Buffy called Angel, which Whedon created with David Greenwalt, premiered in 1999, and ran for five seasons. It starred Buffy’s true love, a vampire with a soul, fighting evil in Los Angeles. A few years later, Whedon created Firefly, a futuristic western. I saw him at an alumni event that year. He looked very tired. “The last year of Buffy, the first year of Firefly, and the fourth year of Angel were all in the same year, and Kai [Cole, Whedon’s wife] was pregnant and nobody knew, and two of my showrunners left,” recollects Whedon. What was he thinking? “Why did my showrunners leave? Why did I have that sex that time? And create these shows? I don’t remember thinking for the entire year. I was a monster of efficiency. And I had Tim Minear [Angel, Firefly], and all things are better when you have a Tim Minear. But I thought, It’s the last year of Buffy, I gotta go out hard, it’s the first year of Firefly I gotta come in hard, and so Angel’s where everybody expects me to drop the ball so I’ve got to be super hard there. I can’t put stuff on TV that’s lame.”

Firefly, a sci-fi show with none of the sleek sci-fi look, or any of its aliens, quickly spawned another online community of fans. They called themselves Browncoats, after the show’s rebel heroes. But the series quickly hit turbulence with the network. Fox had ordered a two-hour pilot and then decided it was too long. They stuck Firefly in a Friday timeslot, where shows go to die. They ran the episodes out of sequence, then cancelled the show without airing the final three episodes, but did run the pilot as the finale. Whedon vowed not to work for the Fox network again.

Browncoats were outraged. They tried to save the show, raising money for an ad in Variety, then starting letter-writing campaigns to other networks to pick it up. It didn’t work, but their fervor did lead Fox to release a DVD set of the entire show, with the episodes in the correct order. Sales were fantastic, reaching 200,000 in its first few months. That was enough for Universal Studios to give Whedon the okay to write and direct a Firefly film called Serenity in 2005. The fan-spurred enterprise did pretty well in combined theatrical release and DVD sales, but the numbers weren’t large enough to greenlight a hoped-for sequel.

A year or so later, I saw Whedon sitting alone and writing at a table in Jiraffe, a restaurant in Santa Monica. It was the night that the first issue of the comic Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight was released. I picked up a copy from the conveniently located Hi De Ho Comics across the street. Whedon, a lifelong comic geek, has been writing books for years. Titles include Fray and Sugarshock, a free online comic. The Astonishing X-Men for Marvel was a particular thrill. “That was probably the most straight-up fantasy fulfilled,” he says. “As a child this was the holly bibble.”

Restaurants are his favorite places to write, “Because I love good food, as my belly will increasingly attest. And I work on a reward system. I write a line, I want a pellet. Push the button, monkey.” These days he goes to Craft, near the Fox lot, to work and eat dinner solo. “Synaptically, I can’t work at home,” he says. He and Cole have two young children, Arden and Squire. “Kai and I look at each other and then collapse on the sofa.”

It was over lunch with actress Eliza Dushku (Faith in Buffy), casually discussing her career plans, that he came up with the idea for Dollhouse to showcase her talents. Set in present-day Los Angeles, people known as Dolls, or Actives, are used as fantasies for clients, their personalities wiped clean after every venture. But one Doll, Echo, starts to regain memories. The show found a home at Fox, which surprised fans, but networks being what they are, none of the same people are around from the Firefly days.

Then the strike happened. And Dr. Horrible was born.

Getting All Internety

Whedon was inspired by shows he had seen online, like Star Trek: New Voyages, a show created by fans that continues the original Star Trek series. “I sat at my counter in my kitchen watching the thing, and so help me God, crying. And I’m not even a Trekkie,” he says. The Guild (www.watchtheguild.com), a sitcom webisode about a group of online gamers, was another influence. The show’s star, Felicia Day, who played a recurring role on the final season of Buffy, had created and self-funded it. Whedon ran into Day on the picket line and asked her to explain how the Web works. “She has one of those crazy Rainman brains, she’s sooo smart, so I sat her down to tell me about monetizing the Internet, and halfway through I was like, I’m just going to drink my tea and smile and nod and pretend I understand because my God she talks fast.”

He kicked around the idea of Dr. Horrible as an audio podcast. Then he decided to go big, so he could create jobs during the strike. He went to Silicon Valley for funding, but the negotiations took too long. “They’re still making the deal,” he reports. “So I finally said, ‘Let’s just do it ourselves,’ and my wife was onboard for that.”

Brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed’s fiancée, Maurissa Tancharoen, had created a YouTube video called WGA vs. AMPTP that he loved. So he asked them to work with him on his Horrible idea. They thought they’d be playing the roles themselves, until Joss started calling actor friends. Neil Patrick Harris signed on as Dr. H., Nathan Fillion (Firefly) as Hammer, and Day as Penny. As Jed puts it, “It wasn’t going to be Neil on a webcam.”

Pretty much everyone worked for free, with the idea of getting paid if the show ever made money. Two budgets were created, the real one, and the one that paid everyone what they would have cost. The first was just more than $200,000, the second about twice that. Joss and his line producer David Burns went to the WGA and SAG to work out deals. It was especially important during the strike to show how that could be done without screwing people. “For original content for the writers there was no model,” Joss says. “The Guild said, ‘This is what we would ask per-minute for reuse or repurposing or for a webisode spun off a show.’ So that’s what we used as our model.” They also worked out the DVD fee and are still trying to figure a rate for theatrical showings, so people can have sing-alongs to the Sing-Along.

Joss also positioned the writers and three principle actors as profit participants. “There’s no reason why there can’t be a business model that is completely inclusive in profit participation. I’m the studio. I still get way more than everybody else, after I make back my production costs and everything’s paid out. When we’re into pure profit, which at this point we are, I win. So—and this was the whole thing during the strike —why try to offer us nothing, when all we’re asking for is a percentage? You can’t say that 99 percent is ever a bad number.”

There was no model for the show itself, and here Joss’ ignorance of the Internet came in handy. “Nobody will watch anything over three minutes, nobody will watch anything over six minutes, nobody will watch anything over nine minutes,” were admonitions he heard, but his reply was, “They’ll watch what they like.” He and the writers decided to create the show as a special event, like an old-school miniseries before the days of VCRs (let alone DVRs). People would have to tune in on the same days to see it, for free at least.

Then the strike ended. “We sort of lost the ethos of let’s fight the man, because I was busy by night getting Dollhouse ready,” Whedon says. They pulled off the Horrible shoot in six days. The whole shebang, from conception to streaming, took five months.

Once the project was completed, a few companies took interest in it. Joss and his cohorts went to a meeting at CAA, “and they were literally like, ‘We don’t know how to proceed with this,’” at which point Day took the lead. “Felicia was following sites and [explaining that] ‘you have to go here, and they don’t have a bandwidth, and we always said we were going to stream this for free, and we don’t want to let go of that,’” Joss says with wonder. “She was so on top of it, the rest of us were like, ‘Yeah, what she said.’ It was like a Buffy moment—the cute little girl in the room blows everybody out of the water.”

So Joss and his crew proceeded to distribute and publicize the show themselves. Except the fans almost beat them to it. Jed was uploading a teaser to see how it looked online before releasing it publicly. He and Tancharoen went to dinner, and an hour later she got an email saying that the teaser had already leaked online. “We hadn’t even made our website yet, so we spent days trying to look professional,” says Jed.

Joss posted a message on Whedonesque, alerting everyone to the Internet miniseries event. The three acts would air on July 15, 17, and 19, respectively. At midnight on July 20, the free show would be pulled, to be available for paid download after that.

Then Jed hit the button, and the show dropped. In America anyway. “The first response was, ‘Why the fuck can’t I see this?’” Jed relates. “Angry Australians.” Turns out the host site, Hulu, didn’t have international capability. They stayed up all night remedying that.

Oh, and there was the crash. “We like to say we broke the Internet, because ‘we were too cheap to pay for more bandwidth’ doesn’t have the same ring to it,” notes Joss. The show was getting so many hits—1,000 a second—that the server couldn’t handle the traffic. “We broke other things they had streaming nearby and all ancillary sites, like Whedonesque and Felicia’s site for The Guild, they all went down,” Joss says. “So there was this domino effect, people either looking for it or some connection, and that made us feel pretty awesome. We didn’t feel bright, but we felt cool.”

By day two all was smooth, and the hits kept coming. But when the show went on to iTunes, things really went nuts. The show went to No. 1 and stayed there for five weeks. The soundtrack was No. 2 and also entered the Billboard Top 200 at No. 39, which was incredible considering that it was only available as a download. Joss the Studio isn’t talking specific numbers, but he acknowledges that online sales alone have put the show in the black. (Still viewable for free on Hulu, now with commercials, it’s had millions of hits.)

Time Magazine listed the program in their Top 50 inventions of 2008, at No. 15. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of,” says brother Jed. For Joss, the high point was probably when the issue of Variety came out with the headline, “Scribes Strike Back.” “Okay, admittedly five months too late,” he admits, but it made him weepy nonetheless. “There was a picture of Dr. Horrible, a picture of me with a picket sign, and nothing else on the front page. Just that article. All of a sudden the politics came back into play, in a good way. People started going, ‘Okay, we did accomplish something, we didn’t do it during the strike, but we did it and now it means something.’ Because it went from this is a political action to this is us making jokes about a horse, to this is a political action again. That was very gratifying.”

The DVD was due to come out December 19, after press time. The reason it took so long is that Joss came up with the idea of making Commentary, the Musical, a commentary track entirely composed of songs composed by the writers. Almost twice as many songs as the original show, in fact. “It’s the most labor-intensive whimsical idea I ever had, especially for poor Jed, who’s producing the whole thing,” Joss confesses. Pre-orders began on November 28; four days later, it was ranked No. 38 on Amazon. If I may predict the past, I believe that show is going to have stuffed a record number of stockings.

A Faster Future

Joss went to work on Dollhouse, bringing Zack and Tancharoen along on staff. But returning to studio life was jolting. “I came back to Fox and all of a sudden got notes on everything. ‘Those are the socks you’re going to wear? Hmm, will teenage girls respond to those socks?’” And it’s not just the notes. He’s impatient with the studio pace now that he’s seen how fast things can be done with a digital video and a good idea.

The new series has encountered some familiar difficulties. Originally a fall show, it was rescheduled for midseason. The pilot didn’t work, so production was shut down for a few weeks in September for a rewrite. But Joss has said this time it was his idea to rework the first episode, not the network’s. While fans are in a panic about the show’s Friday slot (at 9 p.m., beginning February 13), he and the staff seem unconcerned.

Dollhouse has had a troubled start, that’s not breaking news, and there was a time when I literally was like, I don’t think I can stomach this process anymore,” he admits. “That’s not a dig on Fox or the people here, because I’m dealing with a much better class of network people than I was. It really is just the process and all of the other stuff that keeps me from just making the show. I don’t feel like in these, my declining years, I have time for that anymore. I need things to happen quickly. I found out that I am a sketch artist, I really am. I was talking to—name drop, Stephen Sondheim—and he said, ‘I would not open a show without out-of-town tryouts, I need to mess with it, I need to tweak it.’ I’m like okay, He’s Rembrandt, at best I’m Hirschfeld. I need to put out a drawing every week. That’s who I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t take enormous care with the work. It just means I’ve got to get it out there.”

Joss insists he has no interest in shunting Hollywood aside. In addition to the television show, he’s producing a horror film that he co-wrote with Drew Goddard (Buffy, Angel) called Cabin in the Woods, for MGM-UA. At the same time, “as I’ve said to Eliza, ‘We’re running the daycare on the Death Star; if you’re going to be in the mainstream, it’s fairly polluted.’”

He points out that he still has the smoke of the strike rising off of him: “That’s the kind of person I am.” But he adds that, while the AMPTP’s stance during the strike was completely unforgivable, “the fear that generated it was very real and very understandable.” The only thing everyone knows about the change that’s coming is that nobody knows what it will be.

People have been asking Joss to explain Dr. Horrible’s business model, which amuses him no end. “Somebody coming to me for business advice is like somebody asking a guy who makes balloon animals how to pick up women.”

Nevertheless, he is a pioneer. But can his success be replicated by others? Or is it only possible for a Joss Whedon, with his fervent fanbase, critical support, and name recognition that’s rare for a writer? Maybe, for now. But he’s got big ideas that are entirely realizable . . . when he can find the time. “I would like something to be created that isn’t beholden to the frost giants, because their need for extreme monetization is antithetical to what this needs to be,” he explains. “It needs to be small, modular, to pay off in a respectable but not hysterical fashion. I’m interested in being an Internet Roger Corman. He’s responsible for a slew of the greatest directors of the last couple decades, because he was the only B-movie system that there was. Now the whole world can be that system.”