Ze Frank sometimes makes you feel a little stupid. But it's not on purpose — he's pretty brilliant. In case you've forgotten, Frank was the occasionally singing, speed-talking, non-blinking (he edited out his blinks) online genius from The Show, an early exercise in interactive Internet video intellect, creativity and pop culture. When The Show's one-year run ended in 2007, it had a legion of fans called “Sportsracers” and its own universe of in jokes (i.e., the running fool, duckies and an “earth sandwich,” where two people on opposite sides of the earth put bread on the ground).
Setting up on Kickstarter a few weeks ago, Frank began to create what he hopes will evolve into an alternate reality game/show/experience of sorts. We say “of sorts” because Frank's not entirely sure what will happen. We'll get to that in a minute.
Ending Friday, Frank's wildly successful Kickstarter campaign lasted 10 days and included his signature absurd whimsy. (Don't you dare call it “twee” — the man has an Ivy League degree in neuroscience, after all.) He promised his backers all sorts of Ze Frank-style oddities in return for their contributions, including but not limited to: jars into which Frank himself will whisper words of encouragement, plastic babies that might not “grow up into a Ken doll” without your support, signed signatures, potato stamp art, black-on-black ducky T-shirts, and tons of The Show swag. If you're confused, don't worry, he's more than adept at explaining it — cool college professor adept.
Basically, Frank's got some new shit up his sleeve and it will blow your mind — and he told us all about it.
We caught up with Frank near his creative lair in Culver City, interrupting his reward-creating blitz — at last count he had 30 or so Moby Dick blackout poems to do, dozens of duckies to paint, and even more plastic babies to rescue and swaddle. He had almost 4,000 responses to his request and reached his modest $50,000 goal in just seven hours.
“The crowdsource community says that the first three days and the last three days are where you raise 90 percent of your money, so the entire middle is just you spinning your wheels against the natural order of things,” he informs us. “I didn't have the balls to do a six-day campaign.”
At campaign's close in the wee hours of Friday morning, he had raised $146,752 (he'd promised to “buy Greece and install sea-to-sea carpeting” if he raised $1 billion). Any contribution of at least a dollar allows you to help decide where the show would go next — in the “contributors only” section of Kickstarter.
“I'm always fascinated when I go into a platform to try to figure out if there's interesting things to do native to that platform. I'm actually using Kickstarter to begin the show. Once you pledge, you're in a part of the conversation where we're actually making decisions about the show. … Right now we're already collecting media, making things … it's really fun,” says Frank.
He continues, “Hopefully the format will be generated by the fans.” A richly textured online mythology like the original The Show is not necessarily the end goal, but it may happen.
In having that user-generated format, Frank speaks fondly of Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are rooted online but protrude into real life with offline activities and hands-on puzzle-solving or — gasp — physical activity and real human interaction. He hints that this new project will involve quite a bit of the interactive narrative and transmedia activities that are hallmarks of ARGs.
“With the idea of Alternate Reality Gaming, there's the idea of bringing virtual experiences back into the physical, and that's really important to me with this show — not just having a set of virtual experiences, but really trying to focus on getting people to make physical objects … like their own Hanko stamps,” he says, referring to the Japanese identity and trademark stamps. He suggests that they may do even more than that — like incorporating Linked In or Pinterest — doing what he calls “bringing play” across those boundaries.
He refers to his game-theorist friend Jane McGonigal (whose brilliance we highlighted last August) in his admiration for ARG's:.”Jane's so great at creating joyous moments,” he says, referring to some of her work with The Lost Ring where participants created living labyrinths with their friends, or setting up massive multiplayer thumb wars.
There is a challenge in carving out such an online space and a community where people can insert themselves into an online community and also be fully expressive while not getting too formulaic in its interactions — a pitfall that tends to happen in Facebook, or even The Show — and Frank is aware of that. He wants to keep it constantly evolving and as creatively fresh as possible.
“We can't all be like Ryan Seacrest … the perfect platform manifestation of a human. I don't know if we all have those gifts for restraining our emotions … or whatever it is he does,” adds Frank, stressing the difficulty in breaking the banal constraints of predictability.
So wait, what is the new show about again? Nothing and everything? Maybe. Maybe not. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. Just don't hold your breath for Ryan Seacrest-like consistency — unless, of course, that's where its creators take it.
One thing's certain: Frank's show will stretch minds as well as the barriers of goofy humor and wacky taste. Now he has far more tablets, smart phones, social media outlets and established online communities at his disposal (including good ol'-fashioned potato stamps). We're extremely stoked to see what he and his some 4,000 Sportsracers do with it all.