Christopher Rithin (left) and Jay Oliver Yip (right) are two actors who carry with them some of the most exciting trends in the production of comedy.
Entering their studio in one of London’s many creative clusters, Hackney Wick, our conversation about their creative lives begins. Christopher and Jay run one of London’s most forward-thinking production startups, and I want to know its story. As we sit, the only outside intrusion on our interview table is winter’s soft, natural light. The street outside is quiet.
Christopher and Jay set up their production company, Wolfpack Productions Ltd., in 2013. Since then, the company has created a number of web series and earned itself a string of awards and achievements worldwide, including getting into Raindance.
But well before the collaboration began, Christopher grew up in North Wales and Jay in Bristol.
At the age of nine, Christopher found an interest in magic. His mother bought him a book of magic tricks, and he read it cover to cover.
At the back of the book, there were extra tips to do with magic.
It said: ‘It’s not the trick that the audience like, it’s the performance’. That was it. It was sort of: ‘Ah, I don’t want to do magic, I want to stand in front of people and do things!’ moment”.
Christopher’s childhood was characterised by an exploration of everything extra-curricular – from gymnastics to learning clarinet and being a scout. But nothing he tried clicked.
Then one day at school, Christopher found himself on stage.
I remember being in the car with my dad and my dad asked, “How was that?”, and I said, “I like that a lot, that was great”.
Christopher’s teens and early adulthood fascination with acting – with amateur dramatics followed by a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts – was a case set in stone. He knew he wanted to perform and briefly went to drama school too, but soon found out not only that it didn’t work for him, but that he didn’t really need it. Instead, a self-assured Christopher embraced film and immediately piled all his energy into getting work.
Meanwhile, in Bristol, Jay took a different route into acting. Without drama facilities at school, he took up design technology (DT). Jay went as far as beginning a four-year university course in DT, but midway through the first year felt something was missing. Jay left the course and began working at a bank.
After entering his new 9-5 lifestyle, Jay developed a habit. Every Friday after work, Jay would go to Virgin Megastore.
They would always have something like five VHS tapes for twenty quid and I just started buying s*** loads of films. So I just built up this massive VHS collection, and later DVDs too.”
Jay soon fell in love with film. And it eventually reached a point at which he realised something: he should try acting.
For the next year, he spent one half of his time at the bank and the other half doing a BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts. Before he knew it, he was studying drama at university.
In 2012, both Christopher and Jay each responded to a casting call for a feature film entitled Convention of the Dead. It was to be set in a hotel in Brighton and to be about a comic book convention-turned-zombie apocalypse. Christopher and Jay’s characters would be best friends and the shoot would take place over the course of a month.
After being chosen for their roles, Christopher and Jay thought it a good idea to meet up before filming started to get to know one another.
Creative Londoners: Christopher, what were your first impressions of Jay?
Christopher: Jay is more laid back than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, and I didn’t know how to take that at first. I mean, he’s practically always horizontal and in the most calm, hippy-like state, where everything is fine and the world will be OK.
It’s a wonderful thing to work with because it keeps me down, keeps me solid and that’s great. But that first drink when we met up I was thinking: “God, this guy’s quiet”. When you meet someone and it’s this [points to Jay] – I’m talking, talking, talking and there’s just… [points to Jay again]… silence. It’s like “Cool! OK great!”. When you don’t know someone, you kind of go: “No idea if this is going to be… – Is this fine? Is this OK?…”. And then it’s like “Oh, that’s just him! Oh I see! Oh no it’s cool”.
I sometimes enjoy working with Jay because I feel like I don’t need to speak. There’s just this calm silence that isn’t awkward or anything. Jay has this content silence, and it’s great.
Creative Londoners: Jay, what were your first impressions of Christopher?
Jay: Well, when we met up for that drink, he had me saved in his phone as Cooper (which was my character name) – and he’s terrible with names and he’s never gotten better since then. I don’t know why, but that’s always my thought of when I first met Chris is that he had me as my character name on his phone. And probably, thinking about it now, he probably spent the first couple of weeks with him not knowing what my actual name was. He probably just called me Cooper. That just always stuck with me. I wasn’t Jay in his phone, I was Cooper.
To elaborate on that, though, I think that Chris is incredibly friendly and energetic. So I think with me being laid back and Chris being energetic Wolfpack has that happy medium between us both.
Christopher: I’m there wanting to run off a cliff and he’s there like, “No, maybe let’s just…”.
Jay: So I think in that respect that’s how we’ve managed to work with each other for this amount of time – it’s because we have these opposing energies.
Christopher: But we’ve found a nice balance between them and we know how to work with each other because of it. I don’t think it would have been possible if we hadn’t lived in each other’s pockets for a month doing that film because you really learn a lot about someone. We were living in a hotel and filming in the same hotel. The director asked me, Jay and Andy, one of the other characters, to all share a room. So we all bonded in a very method way as best friends. We spent every minute of the day with each other. And to be fair, if we weren’t going to come out as best friends and working partners then it wouldn’t have worked at all.
Convention of the Dead had been a successful feature film debut for Christopher and Jay, and they each decided that it made sense to move to London together. Wolfpack Productions was born.
In their first debut show Outside the Box, a web series in which two flatmates find themselves in numerous surreal situations as a result of their inventions, Christopher and Jay developed the art of narrative storytelling.
Jay: We’re not trying to be YouTube or web personalities. We want to make stories and perform with narrative structure.
They kept their vital storytelling and narrative tools in hand as they moved onto their second show, a sketch-based comedy series called #sketchpack, in the following year. The sketch format helped them to keep an active online presence, growing their audience whilst keeping true to their own style of storytelling. Having gotten the ball rolling with the series, they were then able to delegate more and more of the organisation over to the cast and team, and the project is ongoing.
Creative Londoners: How much of your creative energy does #sketchpack now use?
Christopher: My work for #sketchpack has become more spread out over time. For example, I’ve taken a step back from #sketchpack this season. I’m normally much more involved creatively, certainly in the editing and things like that. I’m still involved in #sketchpack in terms of filming and a bit of production. But with such a nice team, we’re able to share out some of the work now and work together a bit more. So it’s much more of a machine that’s carrying on by itself so I can focus on other things.
Jay: I think, for me, #sketchpack still involves a great deal of my creative energy. Because I really enjoy working with other people, and because we’ve kind of got a team of different writers and performers, I really enjoy that collaborative process of getting in the room and knocking around ideas, re-editing and writing and things like that. Even though it’s not just me writing as well, there are other people as well, it’s given me a license again to write small things and also perform with them as well. So I think #sketchpack is at the moment the most creative outlet for me. But again, even then I still want to kind of produce something which is a narrative format, something that’s a bit bigger, but be more involved in the writing creative process of that next time around rather than just being in the producing creative process as I have been on the last couple of shoots. I pretty much did most of my scenes right at the very beginning where I could concentrate on just performing and not really producing much and once I got those out of the way then I could help out a bit more production wise.
And crucially, Christopher and Jay have been able to move onto new series: their most recent, MidnightMiracle, and NightwatchMan, soon to be released.
Creative Londoners: What’s the best platform for a web series nowadays?
Christopher: That is becoming more blended. For a long time, Dailymotion had the flagship for web series. But you have companies now like Amazon who are starting to look at setting up a channel devoted to web series. It’s all becoming very mainstream. The independent corner of it is becoming very much diluted. But everyone’s now saying, if you want to be taken seriously: get off of YouTube. By all means start there but learn to let it go and come off. Use it for advertising, use it for sketches, use it for tiny little things, trailers, or anything, or to start out with videos. But with your proper stuff, you need to get it onto something more valued than YouTube.
Creative Londoners: What’s the next project on the horizon?
Christopher: We’ve got a couple of things cooking. Jay is writing a series called Hypsteries. Hipsters solving mysteries. It’s gonna be good. It’s going to be really funny. It’s an idea we’ve had for a couple of years now and we’ve been slowly developing it – having learned after everything we’ve been doing that you shouldn’t rush it. With this one we’ve said: OK let’s just keep it there in the background, let’s keep it going. We also have a short film that we filmed a couple of years ago now, but it’s taken a while in the post-production process. That’s how life works out sometimes; it just doesn’t finish. So we’ve got different things always cooking, always going.
When we first started with Outside the Box, we were just sitting there twiddling our thumbs thinking: well we should be doing something. That’s why we started #sketchpack. And #sketchpack led to MidnightMiracle – it came out of one of the sketches. And through that we had the reputation to do Nightwatchman. And we’re getting better all the time. So we make sure that we’re consistently making things. We’re always making sure we’ve got something else to focus on. As soon as one thing finishes, we’ve got something else.
Jay: There are some pilots we’re doing for people as well. With MidnightMiracle and NightwatchMan we made the series and we don’t want to do that anymore. We think it’s quite counter-intuitive to spend a lot of time, energy and money on producing something only to whack it all online, we really think pilots are the way to go. Because these are pilots that are the ideas of other people, we’re not really involved creatively in them. But because of our reputation, we have people coming up to us asking if we’re available to shoot their ten-minute pilots and stuff – people we’ve already worked with over the last couple of years and who trust Wolfpack to do that for them. Things like that get in the way, which is why Hypsteries hasn’t really come to fruition yet.
Creative Londoners: If someone was to watch something you’ve produced with Wolfpack in 10 years time, what you want them to know you as?
Christopher: I’d want to know that even though it was crude and cheaply made it still made them laugh. That’s what I like. We’re don’t do high budget stuff and I think that’s understandable, that’s fine. But if we were to be very successful in the future and someone watched our earlier stuff, I’d just like them to laugh even though it’s 10 years old.
Jay: One thing I’m incredibly proud of that we have done with Wolfpack and in comedy as well is our attention to diversity and equality. That’s something that I look out for if I ever watch anything mainstream. We’ve made mistakes before as well, but we certainly have a responsibility with what we do to improve chances of equality and diversity in the stuff we make. Everyone always has good ideas and funny ideas. For example, you could say The Office set the benchmark for a new type of comedy: mockumentary (or Spinal Tap if you go further back). It’s always very difficult I think to find the golden nugget, that one idea that suddenly blows up and everyone else wants to start doing. So I think for me that’s what I feel most proud of, that we’ve stuck with that and tried our hardest to develop the underrepresented through comedy as well. So for me, I hope that’s what in ten years’ time will be recognised.
Creative Londoners: Is your ideal future in television?
Christopher: Yeah, I think that’s where we’re going, especially with the steps towards pilots now. We’ve proven that we can do episodic narratives, even on a small scale. Now we’ll do pilots and look to distribution channels we can sell it to and then maybe make on a bigger scale. I think that’s where we’re headed and I think that’s where we would like to go.
Jay: I think with Hypsteries, having waited so long before we’ve actually started to do something with it, the chances are that that’s one of the first things we’ll start looking at going into television with. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Please Like” on BBC3? That was released this year by a production company called Rough Cut. And the director of MidnightMiracle was speaking to someone at Rough Cut and managed to get MidnightMiracle funded through them. They really enjoyed it, but they’d just made “Please Like”, which was almost exactly the same thing. If we had just made a pilot of MidnightMiracle instead of making the whole show online, we could have been there instead. So it’s something that we’re very much aware of and in tune with at the moment. When we first started we came up with a five-year plan. We said that we’d want to be at a stage where we could confidently pitch to broadcast networks, which I think is just around the corner. Our fifth year is next year, so we’re not far off.
Creative Londoners: Where would you pitch to?
Christopher: Anywhere and everywhere. I suppose the next step for us is to begin building relationships with distributors such as BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, maybe even get into coproduction with people who are already making things for these channels, going into business with them. It’s building relationships and working with others on that next level – that’s what we need to focus on here.
Jay: We’re interested to see how this Amazon channel pans out as well. If it does go ahead and Amazon has its own specific web series then obviously that’s going to be a very good outlet to go through to get something to a wider audience.
Chirstopher: We originally wanted to go into film – and that is still a possibility. People always tell you that you need to decide what you want to do. Do you want to do TV or do you want to do film? I think b******s. I think you can do both. I don’t understand the reason why. If you think of any big studio, they can do both. Paramount – just plucking a name out of my head – they do TV and they do film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably easier to start with one. In fact, Hypsteries is quite regularly mutated in our heads from TV to film and back again. It’s constantly shifting: “No, it’s a series… No it’s a feature film…”. And as the script has been written its evolved and devolved and evolved again. And we’re wrestling with what we think it is. But there’s no reason why we can’t do both.
We’ve found that scripts are better if they’ve got someone to work with. And they’re less reluctant to take constructive criticism when it comes to rewrites because we’ll get together and go through them, talk about them, say where we think it can be developed. Naturally, you’re quite precious about your own writing. But if you’re writing with someone else then all of a sudden that dilutes it and you’re much more likely to take on other ideas because you’re already doing so as a pair.
Jay: I’ve found out that I really enjoy editing other people’s writing. I think that might be a skill in itself, making sure that the writer’s vision is still intact. We know from production how much stuff you have to cut out just to make it work.
Christopher: Yeah – just edit it out. It’s amazing how much you can get rid of in a script. It really is. I wish that on every project we’ve done we’d put our feet down more and said: “No, no, you don’t need this – this doesn’t make sense”. And what’s wonderful is when in the editing process, the director is sitting next to me, and he’ll say: “Yeah… don’t know why that’s there”. And it’s like, “We could have gotten rid of this whole section now if we had just focused more on the writing – we didn’t need it, you don’t need it”. So having an understanding of editing in the writing process is very good.
Creative Londoners: What are your overall concerns in the creative work you’re doing now?
Christopher: I’m going through a fighting relationship with what we’re doing. We’re getting to the point where we’re about to hit that next level. But to be at that level, you would potentially be employing people. And I’m feeling a lot of sort of “OK, we’ve got a lot now – that’s great, brilliant. S*** – it’s just me and him doing it. OK… Cool”. I mean like I said with #sketchpack we’re growing, but my working relationship with everything we’re doing now is: “Wow I’ve got a lot of stuff to do”. And it’s very sort of overwhelming. But there’s lots of pride and excitement and “Wow, we’re doing this, we’re actually doing this”.
Most people said we’d be done in a couple of years, and we’re not. We’re continuing and it’s great. It’s like “Oh my God I’m on this rollercoaster… Crap I’m on the rollercoaster and I can’t get off”. And it’s great, it’s all positive. But it’s something I didn’t expect to go through, this thing of “F***, we’ve got a lot to do”, and there are deadlines now and it’s not just us we’re making it for anymore, it’s for other people. So I’m going through this journey of this working relationship with the material, because it’s not so hand-in-hand friendly anymore, it’s “I’ve gotta do you, I’ve gotta finish you, then I’ve gotta do this”. It’s an interesting experience, but I do love it. At school when I had a lot of coursework to do, I wouldn’t do any of it. When if I’d just done it, it would have been fine. But it’s that thing of “I’ve got so much to do!”. It’s a wonderful thing to learn to do. It’s overwhelming but in a good way; “Oh my God I’ve got so much to do but it’s great”.
Jay: I think my creative work is about trying to find a way of making a difference. When I first went to college to train and then went to university to train, I was very fortunate to have tutors who would say that theatre should be a socio-political tool. I was taught that there needs to be a point to everything. They’re not just stories; there’s always a point of the story.
If you look back to the ancient Greeks, what they did with comedy and drama, it was always to teach the populous to think. For me, I’m always conscious of that. I’m thinking: what are we making? Are we making a difference? Are we trying to say something that people are going to talk about, think about and listen to? That goes back to what I said about being proud of our record on diversity and equality. By doing that, I feel like I’m making a difference. That overrides everything, I think. And particularly with everything I write, it’s not enough for it to just be another funny sketch or story, there needs to be something else underlying it to make a difference. For me, that’s a constant. It’s about finding ways of expressing the things I don’t like about society and the industry, and how can I express that through what I create. Which I think answers the question: what is comedy to you? It’s trying to do it in a way that makes people laugh, and then maybe afterwards it makes them think.
Aziz Ansari has written some amazing episodes based on an American-Asian who has just turned thirty – which is pretty much the same stage of life that I find myself in. He’s an actor trying to find out his place in the world in terms of relationships and career, but he does it in such a different way and such a more cinematic way than any sitcom that’s ever been produced. And I don’t think any network TV channel would have gone for it, it had to be Netflix because they give more freedom to the writer to express what they want to say. There are so many good episodes in there. In one of them, Ansari’s black, lesbian friend comes out to her mother and it goes through Thanksgiving every five years. I just think it’s one of the best episodes of a sitcom that’s ever been on TV. What I’d feel most proud of with Wolfpack in ten years, with breaking down stereotypes and aiming to bring about equality, I think Ansari’s sitcom, Master of None, does that extremely well (and in a very funny way).
When we studied comedy in training, our tutor said to us that comedy and drama are just two sides of the same coin. We used to do this thing called show time where every week we had to do a two-minute monologue or duologue based on whatever we were studying in that semester. And as an exercise for one whole term, we had to pick one monologue that was dramatic and then reverse it to make it a comedy. That really informed why and how I do comedy.