Long before video essays were in vogue, there was the Nostalgia Critic. Portrayed by online satirist Doug Walker on the hit Channel Awesome site, ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com, the character delivered scathing reviews of everything from forgotten childhood time-wasters like the “Super Mario Bros. Super Show” and the “Star Wars Holiday Special” to unholy disasters like “Garbage Pail Kids” and (my personal fave) an animated musical version of “Titanic” that features plagiarized Disney characters and a rapping dog. For over four years, Walker and his creative team (including his brother and frequent co-writer, Rob Walker) produced weekly reviews that combined illuminating insight with uproarious gags, editing it all together with peerless comic timing.
Toward the end of 2012, it appeared as if Doug were growing tired of the Nostalgia Critic. The character was retired in favor of the short-lived show, “Demo Reel,” but on January 22nd, 2013, it was announced that the Nostalgia Critic would indeed be resurrected in a whole new format. With improved production values (courtesy of Channel Awesome’s Lombard-based studio) and loftier ambitions, the new NC reviews have allowed Doug and his collaborators to continue exploring the possibilities of online entertainment, while redefining the art of modern criticism. Indie Outlook spoke with Doug about his revamped version of “Nostalgia Critic,” the stretch goals of his triumphant Indiegogo campaign and what it truly means to be a film critic.
Q: Congratulations on reaching your campaign goal of $50,000! What made you decide to use Indiegogo as opposed to other crowdfunding sites?
A: We were looking at Kickstarter but their guidelines didn’t quite match our own, and Indiegogo seemed much more open to them. The main reason we did the campaign was because we wanted to do these other shows, and we could still do them, but it would take much longer than we had anticipated. [laughs] We kept saying that these shows were coming, but upgrading the location to become a studio instead of a heavy machinery warehousewas taking up a good chunk of the funds, so we thought, “If people really want to see this, they can have their choice of whether or not they want to throw money at it or not.” It’s worked out really nice so far.
Q: At what point was it decided that production needed to shift to the Lombard studio?
A: It was always sort of the plan, even from the beginning. As our site kept growing, we realized that if we wanted to go more pro, we would need a studio. Having it close [to home] really helps, and it just seemed like it had the right amount of space. We like the fact that there is a certain distance between the front office and the studio space itself. It was a big enough area for us to do all our crazy s—t in.
We’ve done green screen before, but it’s always been in a tiny room with a tiny green screen, so we’ve only been able to be framed from the chest up. It’s very limiting. In the studio, you can get many more angles. One shot that I really loved was in the “Power Rangers” review where the Optimus Prime character stands up near the end and we get this nice low-angle of him rising up. It looks so good.
Q: What sort of projects will this campaign fund?
A: The game show [“Pop Culture Challenge”] is the first project that we’ll be throwing money into. We’ll also be soundproofing the place. The nice thing is that everything we throw into that game show can be used for other productions too, such as mics and bigger sets. As that game show set is being put together, we’re designing the walls differently on the other side so that we can literally switch them around for another game show that we want to do based off of video games.
The goal is to make a game show that you would want to watch in syndication. Most game shows are meant to be watched only once and there’s no need to watch them again. We’re hoping to create some really funny moments with a really funny host and some strange, bizarre elements. We’re hoping to build a nice rapport between our host [Brad Jones] and the guests, so that instead of just watching them answer questions, you’ll get to know these people. We want to see how much fun we can have with them and their personalities.
Q: What has this new format for the Nostalgia Critic offered to you creatively?
A: The biggest thing that it’s offered me is time. That may be the biggest element because in the old format, I was pretty much limited to sitting in front of that wall. Occasionally, you could go outside or do a crossover, but for the most part, you can’t explore as much within the limitations of a single week. It worked very well within those limitations, but after a while, you want to grow and go beyond that. One of the big attractions about coming back was that I could do the show every two weeks and do an editorial every other week. I could get those editorials out pretty fast and approach the [commentary] from a different angle. Our CEO, Mike Michaud, was totally okay with that.
That was the biggest reason for me to come back. I wanted to see how else we could do reviews. How could we do a review that no one else is doing? Part of it is telling a story or working in characters while still delivering the review. “A.I.” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, in how it [tackles] what it means to represent someone truthfully, faithfully and honestly—while working at TMZ. You see how good Spielberg did it while comparing it to how badly the people [at TMZ] do it.
Q: Your co-stars in the new Nostalgia Critic shows, Malcolm Ray and Rachel Tietz, are both gifted chameleons.
A: They were originally brought on for “Demo Reel,” but what I liked about them was pretty much the same reason why I kept them for the Nostalgia Critic. I liked that they could do a lot of voices and have a lot of variation in their [personas]. They could morph their faces, they sing and dance, they could do all sorts of various things. It also just made sense to have an actress and a black actor because they could inhabit parts that we can’t play that often and are going to be required quite often. So it was nice to find two people that could really, as you said, go chameleon and blend into these different roles and have many different talents on top of that.
Q: How have the editorials allowed you to explore different forms of film analysis?
A: The editorials are really nice because they allow me to talk about things I wouldn’t be able to talk about otherwise. I wouldn’t have brought the Nostalgia Critic back unless I knew that I could do more with him. I like the idea that this character can actually go into some legitimate analysis instead of just being the one-dimensional jerk that he started off being in the beginning. He actually has grown, and in my opinion, the reason he does the editorials is because of the effect that the Plot Hole had on him in “Demo Reel.” I’ve never told that to anyone, but that was always my mindset. Because he went through the horrible experience of remaking old movies and seeing how tough it is, he might actually be a little more sympathetic to filmmakers and be attuned to the good in certain things. Even though “Nostalgic Critic” is still about making fun of movies, it doesn’t shy away from more analytical discussions of what makes them good or why they failed.
Q: So you still consider yourself “in character” in the editorials?
A: The critic’s opinion is often in line with my own, it’s just more exaggerated, but that’s not the case with the editorials. For so many years, the character has had such hate and that made for great comedy. But after a while, it can just get so grating and so tough, and I’ve found that some people grew to like it too much. When I do try out different ideas, some people are closed off to it, so I like the idea of veering towards different points of view while analyzing stuff in ways that the critic hadn’t thought about before.
Q: Was the character grating on you as well?
A: It wasn’t grating in that I didn’t like doing it. It’s still fun to do, but as a character goes, you sort of want to put a limitation on that and realize that there’s only so much anger I can show before the character gets boring. I like giving some variation to him. When you review a film that’s epically bad, the screaming and yelling feels very justified and it’s not like a broken record playing over and over. It’s nice to have these episodes where the sketches incorporate different locations sandwiched between shows where I’ll be at the desk talking. If every episode had a big storyline, it would get old really fast, so we spaced it out and made it every other episode. “Jurassic Park” and “Master of Disguise” and “Sailor Moon” are more about me at the desk while other ones like “A.I.” and “Power Rangers” can go to different locations.
Q: You recently praised a blogger’s article criticizing your own review of “Sailor Moon.” Do you benefit from reading counter-opinions?
A: It has to be well thought-out and written. It’s the same thing if somebody says that they love my stuff and that’s it. That’s not going to get you printed or remembered. It’s the fact that you can really analyze something and look at it from a different point of view. Even though I didn’t fully agree with that article, I liked that it was introducing me to a point of view that I hadn’t thought of. A lot of people could get behind it and I liked that, even though at the end of it, the reviewer says, “I don’t think he understands ‘Sailor Moon,’ I think he missed the mark.” That’s fine. Anything to spread a different point of view that actually is intelligent and thought-provoking.
Q: You can’t really grow as a critic without opening yourself to the views of others.
A: After Roger Ebert died, I was hit with the question of what It really means to be a critic. It sounds like a cliché, but I was really trying to figure out what makes a good critic. It can’t just be voicing your opinion in a smart way. Is it about figuring out the audience for a given film? To say who would and wouldn’t like something is presumptuous. So I was thinking about what film criticism is really meant to do, and I realized that a big part of it, for me, is challenging people with a different point of view. Maybe you hadn’t thought of it before, or maybe it’s the same point of view coming at the film from an angle you may not have considered before.
I really enjoy the fact that I don’t have to go into each review with the idea that I have to hate the film. I like going in thinking, “Maybe some parts are good, maybe some parts are bad, here’s why I don’t think it all comes together, what are your thoughts now?” I sort of like that idea, and that’s one of the things I do when I go to conventions. I do a panel called “Movies That Everyone Disagrees With You On,” trying to get across the idea that if you disagree on a movie, it’s fine. If anything, you can learn more about a person from why they like or dislike a movie and end up having a great conversation. You can learn by listening and sharing.
We realized that once we started hammering in this “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality with the critic, people will start thinking that’s how criticism should be, even though it’s played for comedy. Films should be discussed and analyzed from different points of view, so that’s what I’m trying to do with the critic now. I’m trying to say that I can have my opinion but so can you.
Q: What additional projects will the Indiegogo funds go to?
A: We have a comic [book] show we want to get going, we have our game show about video games, and we want to get some of our other shows looking more professional, such as “Sibling Rivalry.” We want to get more cast and crew members and more high-tech equipment, while trying different things to see how much more we can expand. The goal is to create more shows at a faster pace. If someone wants to rent our space to film their own production, it doesn’t have to be under our name at all. People can come in and film their own stuff, using our costumes, equipment and green screen room.
Q: Is there any place in the area that offers filmmakers a similar production space?
A: There’s one place called High Voltage Software. It’s a video gaming company that actually toured us around. They had a similar production space comprised of a warehouse with a green screen, but that was more video game-based. As far as I know, that’s about all I can think of. I don’t know how many of them there are around, but my guess would be not many. You go to California or Hollywood and that stuff is everywhere, but around here, it’s a little tougher to find. So I think it’s nice to give people an option to do their work in Chicago and make that space available for them.
Q: What has it been like connecting with artists like Mara Wilson on your show?
A: Mara Wilson was probably the most surreal. [laughs] You have people you look forward to meeting in your life. Meeting the RiffTrax guys was really cool, for example. Mara Wilson is the sort of person you never have on your radar. You never expect to meet this person, so when you do, it’s more fun in some respects. You know this is a very talented person and considering the fact that you’re both strangers who technically haven’t been influenced by each other, you’re able to just hang out with them. I felt influenced by Mara just by getting to know her as a person.
Q: Was it true that she initially thought the Nostalgia Critic’s opinions weren’t of a satirical nature?
A: Yeah, that’s totally true and to her credit, she came around very quickly. It wasn’t a situation where you had to convince her. She came around the same day, and said she was so embarrassed and that she felt so fooled. Of course, after that, I turned around and asked, “You want to be in a video?” and we just sort of went from there. [laughs] I think that’s still my favorite joke. It just makes me laugh so hard when I say her name and she’s right there.
Q: What makes that joke doubly funny is the fact that you include clips of homemade movies that you made as a kid. They embody the sort of childlike exuberance that fuels the spirit of the Nostalgia Critic, and Channel Awesome in general.
A: That’s very true. Because we did that filming when we were younger—and obviously, a lot of it is just childish stuff that doesn’t work—it still gave us an idea, when we would watch them, of what got a big laugh and what didn’t. You can find out so much through that experimentation because you don’t have anything to lose. You’re only doing it for fun and there’s no pressure so you can just try stuff out. It instills in you an ambition that makes you eager to try new things without worrying about what anyone says. I think it’s important to keep that as much as possible, within reason anyway.