Inside a studio in sun-baked Sylmar, a guy in a suit, a guy in a wife-beater and one wearing a very fake-looking mustache are hanging out on a set styled to look like a beachside bar and speaking to one another in Spanish. A French maid picks at craft services and another woman, a fortune teller in a caftan and turban, occasionally makes an appearance. Everyone seems pretty chill considering that in about 30 minutes, they'll be performing an absurdist drama live on the internet.
In an adjacent control room, Super Deluxe's live video team are peering into a variety of laptop screens, monitors and cellphone screens preparing to go live — on Facebook, YouTube and Twitch — with the third edition of their audience-interactive Live Telenovela, an hourlong program with a plot that's dictated by the whims of people watching and participating on social media. The abundance of talented 20-somethings milling about is enough to make a 35-year-old journalist — for a print publication, no less — feel like a fucking dinosaur. But it's consistent with the Turner-owned, L.A.-based media outlet's image and mission. As the brand's Facebook page says, “Super Deluxe talks to a generation of insatiably curious viewers who grew up clutching smartphones.”
That makes it sound much more insidious and way more niche than it is. Sure, Super Deluxe isn't for everyone, but I'd argue that its cavalcade of weird content has a broader appeal than that, even if it's incidental. They're not here for me, but I'm here for them, I guess. Cyrus Ghahremani, who runs the live division, credits the content's sometimes “deliberate dumbness” for its popularity. And then there's the participatory aspect. They recently did a live video that allowed viewers to submit selfies that would subsequently be printed on edible paper and eaten by someone on camera. In the thick of post-election protest fervor, they sent a “snowflake” down to Pershing Square and then asked Facebook Live viewers what her protest sign should say. As commenters submitted new ideas, she was periodically handed new signs with slogans like “I don't want to poop!” and “Our son is MEAN to us!” and “Men shouldn't have nipples!” They've figured out how to poke at mainstream millennial tendencies while still making things that are fun as hell to watch.
The Live Telenovela feels like the live video division's crowning achievement thus far, and perhaps the most ambitious use of live video by any media outlet. Of the 250 live videos Super Deluxe launches each year — a new one every single weekday — it's certainly the most involved. The process begins with Daniela Hamilton composing a script that goes in any number of directions based on what the live audience votes on using the “like,” “love” and “wow” features on Facebook. She writes the script in English and then has her mother translate it to Spanish. The actors receive the script a week before the live broadcast; rehearsals begin two days before taping and the day before is spent on taping things like flashbacks, dream sequences and the credits sequence.
The story — about a handsome lawyer, a maid with a missing baby, a formerly institutionalized psychic medium and various people becoming incarcerated for assorted misdeeds — is secondary to the act of allowing audience members the experience of steering the action and providing them with a constant stream of bizarre things to choose from. At one point, the maid reaches into her top and the audience gets to pick what she pulls out: a placenta or baby teeth. In another scene, the character Ricardo, posing as a psychic, tells the maid he needs something from her before he can reveal whether she will ever find her baby. What will it be? A lock of hair, wisdom teeth or a photo of Esteban Buscemi?
The live show goes off nearly without a hitch. At one point, the vote screen takes too long to materialize, leaving the lawyer and the mustachioed evil twin staring at the camera waiting for their cue. But that's the beauty of making live, absurdist videos for snarky millennials. “If something goes wrong, it's not the end of the world,” Hamilton says. “All the little things that go wrong, we laugh at it, too — and we know [the audience] will laugh at it. It's like SNL; they like when people break character.”
Watch the latest episode of Live Telenovela below …