The call is for 11 a.m. at a quaint clapboard house on a quiet, suburban cul de sac in Highland Park just off the Avenue 43 exit of the Pasadena Freeway. I arrive at the set to find the crew in a blur of activity in a tastefully kitsch-festooned living room. The production is AVE 43, the most jaw-dropping, taboo-twisted and outrageously funny soap opera satire I've seen on the internet. The entire 25-actor shoot must wrap by 4 p.m.
By “crew,” I mean the show's creator and one-man movie studio Justin Tanner. By “set” I mean AVE 43's permanent sound stage, the home he shares with his husband of 13 years, artist-composer Kristian Hoffman, the founder of NYC punk-rock legends The Mumps. In the course of the day, Tanner will shoot 14 scenes and convincingly create the illusion of as many locations without ever leaving the property.
For the first set-up, an armchair and the end of a couch become a psychiatrist's office for unethical shrink Selene Luna and patient Danny Schmitz, who stars as the sex-addicted serial killer Shayne. Luna will be treating the handsome psychopath to some long-overdue therapy even as she wheedles his bank PIN and home safe combination while under hypnosis. “One-take” Tanner gives the actors just a single chance (and three camera angles) to get it right, so the scene wraps ten minutes ahead of the 20 scheduled.
It can be somewhat dizzying watching Tanner work. In addition to writing, producing, directing, shooting and editing AVE 43 (today's episode inaugurates its fourth season), the wiry, 40-something force of nature also enjoys a 20-plus-year career as L.A.'s most consistently successful playwright. It exhausts me merely to be in the same room with him. So I move onto the sun porch, where the gathering cast members are already nibbling at a heaping plate of Tanner-baked banana mini-muffins.
The faces are immediately familiar: Actors like the dazzlingly daffy comedienne Danielle Kennedy, or versatile veterans like Tom Fitzpatrick and longtime Tanner stock company players Jonathan Palmer, Melissa Denton, Cody Chappel and Chloe Taylor, all of whom just starred in Tanner's hit comedy, Day Drinkers, at the Odyssey.
Cheryl Hawker, who is later scheduled to accidentally push her witchcraft-wielding daughter, Ava Bozem, off a second-story porch, struggles to explain why an actor would be willing to give up every other Saturday to appear in anything so diabolically demented, and for pay that — today, at least — consists solely of Tanner's homemade pasta: “It's just great as an actor, because you don't really have to think about it; you just come here and see everybody, do the best you can, and have a great time. And then you're onto the next thing.”
In this instance, the next thing proves to be a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey that has arrived with Fitzpatrick, and which is immediately cracked open. The volume of the room quickly rises from church-sanctuary hush to barroom roar, forcing the exasperated auteur to close the set and banish this reporter and the now-full-throttle party to the back yard.
To view Chapter 33 of the fourth season of AVE 43, click here.
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