One of the first things I discovered about David Ebert is his claim to have been in, or made, 17,000 commercials. Conveniently, now I can’t find the link to that fact, or maybe I’m just a conspiracy theorist. When I mentioned that number to him, however, he laughed. Sort of a chortle. He chortles a lot.
The inspiration for Ebert’s original series on truTV, Ghost Story Club, is much in the same chortle-worthy vein as his colossal cumulative commercial claim. Airing Friday nights at 11:30pm as part of the goofy Late Night Snack, Ghost Story Club is a surprisingly layered parody of the classic 1990s Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Yet what makes Ebert more noteworthy is that he wrote, self-funded and produced the first pilot of Ghost Story Club purely on spec. He found a producing partner and then, in the fine tradition of that most highly humanitarian of all artistic disciplines — TV — he had to endure months of false starts and failed deals until he finally sold the series to truTv. That’s when the fun started. In two weeks, Ebert told me, he conceived, wrote and delivered an eight-episode season by himself — story and scripting, casting and production design. He’s the Everyman of hilarious horror. He did it all because he had to it all. And he likes it that way.
Here how Ebert’s (seriously patient) publicist pitched Ebert to me:
He collaborated with and managed six different departments and oversaw every element of post-production (managing two editing teams on both coasts, sitting in on all color grade and sound mix sessions, and sculpting every visual and aural element of the series).
Putting this another way: Jared Kushner, you can suck it.
Clyde Fitch Report: Do you sleep?
David Ebert: I like to create a very strong illusion of being busier than I am.
CFR: Seriously, you’re an over-achiever. Which planet do you come from?
DE: I grew up on a horse farm in a family that was basically in a religious cult — Assembly of God. One of those religions where you speak in tongues and kill people by touching them. Outside of Buffalo, NY, is a town called Springville. I was raised in the church and was very sheltered. I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, so, when I went to college, I did a 180 and went to school for theater: SUNY Fredonia.
CFR: I bet that went over well.
DE: My exposure to theater was church sketches. To the degree that I don’t believe any of this stuff anymore, there was a sketch where we’re all aborted babies in heaven, saying all the things we could have accomplished if we had lived.
CFR: In other words, church comedy.
I like to create a very strong illusion of being busier than I am.
CFR: Ha, I didn’t see that coming.
I’d entered rap battles in college and done pretty well, but I’m, like, the whitest guy on the planet. I look like I’m going to do your taxes. But…a big, dumb, unassuming guy can do well in commercials.
DE: See? I auditioned for The Ride because it was the only job I could find that paid rappers. I got the phone number of the casting director and rapped him a voicemail.
CFR: Tell me how you channel these talents to make Ghost Story Club?
DE: I think talent is a myth. I don’t think “talented” people have some innate or incredible ability. The thing I have, to some degree, is an ability to observe; to interpret something I see and say, “OK, that’s to do that.” Theater is harder because theater is harder to see — there’s not as much exposure. With commercials, you’re bombarded with garbage 30 times a minute. Think about the actual percentage of time you watch things. What of that time is devoted to commercial programming?
CFR: Fair enough, but selling beer isn’t selling, like, Hamlet.
DE: In theater, the script is your god. Your job is to bring them to life. The difference is commercials aren’t precious about language. Every commercial in the existence of the world can you tell a joke. The narrative is constructed as a joke, even if it’s 15 seconds or sometimes it’s even seven seconds to present a narrative and say “Buy this.” Acting for commercials, you can go for the intent.
CFR: Even as you’re learning — as a trained stage actor — a whole new technique for the camera, I assume.
We live in a garbage-gig economy.
CFR: How did you turn that into an interest in producing?
DE: I’ve never liked being hamstrung by not knowing something. How many people say they want to produce something but say they don’t have the means? Like, “I don’t have a script.” Nobody knows how to write. You start by doing it. The first 10 things you write are going to be bad; my first 100 commercial auditions were garbage. I learned things when I worked at that print shop — I lied on my resume and said I knew InDesign and Photoshop, but, by the time I left, I’d taught myself to be an expert in those programs. So from there, I switched to Premiere and taught myself animation with After Effects. If I wasn’t the best at it, it never made me less valuable.
DE: My dad drove a forklift for Ford for 35 years, and he drove a school bus after that — he didn’t learn anything else. We live in a garbage-gig economy and companies are not your family: they’ll chew you up and spit you out. The best way to take care of yourself is to learn as much as you can. It can’t just be hitting a wall: “Oh, I guess I can’t make a thing because I don’t know how to make this thing.”
My parents had a very fearful relationship to money: “Don’t cause any waves because you could get fired and then life will be over.” Your relationship with your employer is that you solve a problem for them. Money is a tool, not a source of happiness, of status or power. Does that make sense? It’s like I said to myself, “I want to do this thing, I need money to do this thing, I want to make something that costs $15,000, how do I get the skills to do this thing?”
CFR: And this informed the way you developed Ghost Story Club.
DE: Well, my management company is 3 Arts, whose mandate is you have to make stuff, not just be stuff. So I set off to develop things I wanted to make, like TV shows. I wrote a few pilots that weren’t very good, then I came up with an idea about Are You Afraid of the Dark? I love ‘90s TV shows in general. I pitched it as a Web series to Funny or Die and they said they had stuff just like it. Then I booked a campaign for Sonic, and we filmed eight commercials across the country. As we traveled together, I became close to the crew. When I told the producer about my idea, he said that this was not a Web series but a TV show. Using the money from the Sonic campaign, I hired that crew for $35,000 and we shot the pilot for Ghost Story Club.
CFR: Was that, like, a windfall for people you’d just met?
Not entirely. I got Arturo Castro for the show, who used to work at The Ride with me. And George Basil, who’s on a million shows now. We shot the pilot over 72 hours consecutively — two crews alternating — and I stayed up for all of it. We took it to MTV as I’d done some shows with them at this point, and they said they wanted to buy it. There was a five-month negotiation process that fell through and I thought the project was dead. Then after I had a “general meeting” with [production company] Super Deluxe; they bought Ghost Story Club and it was another year of producing more scenes to make a full pilot, then another full six months of pitching. After truTV saw it, it was another calendar year before they gave it the green light. That’s why I like having a ton of projects at any given time.
CFR: It’s like a really long tease with no guarantee of, um, release.
DE: And, while I was waiting for the green light, I was broke. I’d just bought a house and relied on the idea that maybe I’d continue to work — but I didn’t work for almost a year. I was applying for retail jobs and taking jobs on sets as an art director or a production coordinator. There was a month where I didn’t pay my mortgage — “Doesn’t the bank give you a mulligan?” “No, the bank doesn’t give you a mulligan. Meantime, I’d submitted a packet for Saturday Night Live and got rejected, so I tossed the sketch online and put “This is my rejected sketch from SNL” on Twitter. Within a day — a day — I raised $10K to make it. I got the DP [Director of Photography] from Borat to shoot it. I got Dylan Sprouse of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody to do the stupidest sketch in the world — I mean, anything not to have to think about Ghost Story Club not getting ordered. A diversity of interests and projects is the only way I find to stave off constant disappointment. It stings less because I don’t have time to be sad.
CFR: It occurs to me we haven’t actually talked that much about Ghost Story Club.
DE: Tell people to watch it.
CFR: Do you think you’ll get an order for a new season?
DE: They could order it again. Or kill it. I put in a billion jokes, so I hope they do.