By Kevin Redding
Here’s an idea for a show: Two regular guys sit down on an old leather couch to watch a movie one of them hasn’t seen before. After taking the movie in, and riffing on it along the way, the two reconvene and discuss what they just saw. It’s a simple idea, but if done right, the show could be bursting at its seams with an endless stretch of fun cinematic insight, hilarious off-the-cuff commentary, and a gamut of interesting, quirky, and sometimes downright weird movie selections. All this, if hopefully it is steered effortlessly in the hands of its consistently interesting, quirky, and sometimes downright weird (in the best way) hosts.
Luckily, this show exists. It’s called “Welcome to the Basement,” and just as luckily, it’s done right—by its hosts, Matt Sloan and Craig Johnson.
The Internet web-series, which can be watched on YouTube and on its own website, has been going strong since 2012, when creator Matt Sloan made a New Year’s Resolution to not only focus a show around movies, but to brush the cobwebs off movies he’d never seen before—to strap himself down and begin a journey through uncharted cinematic territory.
But, Matt would need a buddy. That’s where Craig comes in. The two of them combined have an immense arsenal of film and pop culture knowledge, and they also share improv backgrounds, which is very evident in every 15-25 minute episode. But more than that, these guys have a deep, strong, and infectious love for movies, no matter how bad some of them may be.
While Craig is a bit more aggressive in his ousting of problem movies, and Matt, more of a find-the-good-in-garbage kind of viewer, the two of them are clearly passionate about what they do and what this show is. They’re able to see beyond the eye-candy and the quick entertainment value of watching a movie. Instead, Matt and Craig slide movies under microscopes, and look for what each movie has at its heart: what it’s trying to express, what about it worked, what about it didn’t work, and, when the smoke has cleared, what the movie meant for them individually.
For any fellow cinephile, dissector of pop culture, comedy lover, or pleasant human being, I guess what I’m really trying to say here is: This is the show for you.
As a long-time fan of the show, I’ve watched every episode at least twice, always returning to a few certain favorites. And I take away something new from these episodes each time. For example, I learned that a film can be rooted in pointlessness, and feature people doing otherwise bad things, while still being beautiful, like Badlands (1973). I also learned that actors like Udo Kier may or may not be in every movie ever made.
“Welcome to the Basement” has also fueled in me a desire to seek out movies that probably wouldn’t stand proudly on the front shelves of the popular video stores of yesteryear. Instead, they’d be the tapes buried in the back, their only chance of making it out again reliant on an old-fashioned digging.
I recently had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Matt Sloan, who spoke to me from a time zone away in Wisconsin. Sloan, who’s no stranger to Internet fame, having co-created the popular YouTube series “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager” in 2006, has enjoyed a delightfully varied career of writing, producing, directing, and acting. In fact, more recently, he even lent his voice to Darth Vader in several LucasArts Star Wars games.
TB is The Taste Basket.
MS is Matt Sloan.
TB: You were born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, eventually moving to Madison. I love that you’ve always stayed in your home state, never venturing out to L.A. or New York. What is it about Wisconsin that keeps you there, and how has it shaped your interests and style of comedy?
MS: Well, I learned to do improv in Wisconsin. In between Milwaukee and Madison, I lived in the Green Bay area for about nine years. I learned acting improv here. It’s where I established my circle of collaborators, and so, each different city I moved to, I sort of expanded that circle. As soon as “Chad Vader” and Internet fame came along, I already had an established base of operation. So, there was a choice, to either stay here and let it keep growing, or go somewhere else and start from zero, which didn’t seem appealing at the time. It’s just a matter of having a group of talented people who are here that I get to work with.
TB: What initially drew you to improv? It seems to be at the forefront of everything you work on.
MS: Yeah, yeah. I went to the Summer Fest and I saw an improv show, and I think it was the first performance of something I’d ever seen that I thought I could actually do. I’d seen plays and I’d seen stand-up comedy but it never occurred to me that those were things I could try. Improv sort of flipped that switch. That’s what really drew me into that world. Couple of years later, I was able to take workshops and get involved with a group.
TB: In the Help! episode, Craig points out that he doesn’t know what it is about The Beatles playing and singing and smiling that’s always more exciting than bands like The Zombies, etc. That’s how I feel about your show. There’s something about you and Craig watching, spinning a yarn about, and dissecting these movies that’s just so exciting and entertaining and fun to watch. I know it started out as a New Year’s Resolution of yours. How did you enlist Craig?
MS: Craig and I had always been very interested in movies and we’d always discuss movies, but when I came up with the idea for the show, it was going to be that for every episode, there’d be a different person watching the movie with me. Like, I’d invite a different friend over, not tell them what was going on and they’d show up, there’d be cameras, and I’d say “Okay, we’re gonna watch a movie and then we’re gonna talk about it!” and the movie would be randomly determined. That was the original idea.
And then I started thinking about all these movies that I had always meant to watch but never got around to, and this other idea collided with that one. But Craig was always the natural person to co-host that, because I know that he has a really big depth of knowledge about movies and actors/actresses and things like that. He’s also good at improv and he’s funny!
TB: Whenever I share the show’s link with a friend, I describe it as Roger Ebert’s At the Movies meets Mystery Science Theater meets lots of Michael Shannon’s face…what it boils down to is, it’s a damn good show. When you were planning the show out, did you strive to have the movie picks be more or less run-of-the-mill, with silents and auteur features, rather than movies you’ve never seen before that the average viewer would be than aware of?
MS: My angle was—is—to have the widest variety of movies possible. Like, I want to watch movies like Transformers 4 and I also want to watch silents. Just the entire breadth of what’s out there. I’m always trying to figure out what’s the weirdest thing to watch, and also what’s really common and mainstream that I’ve not seen yet. The main thing: I really want a variety. You know, we could just watch cult movies and bad movies, and really move more into RiffTrax and Mystery Science Theater territory, but I want a variety of experiences. So we watch [Terrence Malick’s] Badlands, [Werner Herzog’s] Fitzcarraldo, [F.W. Murnau’s] Sunrise, you know, good movies. Classic movies. Arthouse movies. I just wanna watch all that stuff.
TB: I love that you’ve built your own little filmmaking empire, creating films and sketches for yourself and your target fanbase. Having creative autonomy is the desire of any artist no matter the medium. How important has that always been to you?
MS: It’s always been really important. Well, at the same time, you collaborate with people and you develop things and you have to compromise at times. We’ve done branded advertising videos where you have a company come in and say “Make this video for our product,” and they have notes and that’s not as fun. We’ve been grateful for that work, but it’s always much better doing your own stuff and having your own vision, and carrying out that vision.
TB: Right. Making a show for yourself is further proof of you striving to have utmost creative freedom. What did you set out to accomplish with “Welcome to the Basement?”
MS: I just mainly wanted the show to be really personal. I always resist calling it a movie review show. It’s not. I never want to call it that. I even put that in the YouTube tags and the description of the show. We don’t review movies, and we don’t have a rating system. And we’re not movie experts! You know, we’re not trained movie critics. So the show is all about point of view, and that’s always the way I’ve been doing it. You’re watching a show about two guys and what they think of this movie. And it’s personal and that’s always what I wanted to get across.
And even if we hate a movie, I always tell the viewers they should watch the movie, regardless of whether we like it or not. You know, because if we hate it, you might like it. It seems arrogant to say, “Oh, don’t watch this ’cause we didn’t like it! Obviously you won’t!,” you know? I don’t buy that. Although Craig’s not afraid to say that. I’ll always tell people to watch Fritz the Cat, for example, and he says “Oh, no, don’t! Don’t do it!” and that’s kind of his role.
TB: Do you find that you two balance each other out? Is Craig more knowledgeable in one certain area of film while you’re more knowledgeable in another?
MS: I thought that was going to be the case at the beginning of the show. I thought that Craig was going to be the guy who would have all the facts at his fingertips and be more analytical, and I’d be the one who’s kind of goofing around and cracking jokes. But I found that we both do both things, which, basically, is ideal. And that, I think, is one of the things that’s a lasting interest to me because I’m always surprised by what happens. Craig is quicker to say, like, “This was baaad,” whereas I tend to try and find the good aspects even in a bad experience. You know, in general. Sometimes, we find that we switch those roles.
But just to be clear, I also hated Fritz the Cat. It’s a tough one to recommend, even though I have a policy of recommending every movie that we watch.
TB: Obviously, the beauty of YouTube and internet filmmaking is that you can be anywhere and make things and have it be seen by a large audience. How did it feel to experience the recognition that came about from “Chad Vader?”
MS: It was great! It was a lot of fun, and it really made us want to continue doing the show and also, continue developing the story [of “Chad Vader”]. It was really gratifying that people were into the story of the show and the supporting characters, and not just the gimmick of “Darth Vader’s brother.” That was the really exciting part. You know, the plots are what’s really drawing people in. It was fun creating that world and playing around in it.
TB: So when the “Chad Vader” series blew up on the internet, were you affected by “Internet celebrity?”
MS: A little bit. For a while there, we were being recognized more when we would travel than at home, which was really cool. Going to New York for the New York Television Festival, and having a bartender knowing who we were from the show, was cool. And it still happens. Every now and then, we’ll run into people who have seen our show and recognize us. It’s fun. You always imagine going into a public place and having everyone recognize you, but the reality of that, I don’t think would be very enjoyable. I don’t really like crowds.
TB: So your level of celebrity is the preferred one?
MS: Yeah, absolutely.
TB: It feels like film and television are starting to find places within the industry for Internet filmmakers, giving them a chance every now and then; seeing their credibility through their little 5 minute opuses. If you had your choice—if it was totally up to you—where would you most want to end up in the industry?
MS: Well, I suppose it would be doing what I’m doing currently but for a wider audience. The audience that we’ve built for our current web-series is very devoted to the shows, but I’d love to expand that audience more. And as far as the format goes, I don’t really care because television and cable and streaming video on the Internet is all kind of becoming the same thing. So, whatever is going to reach the widest audience is fine with me.
I like the freedom of being on the Internet, because, obviously, there’s no Executive to answer to, no budget-person; there’s no one you really have to answer to. That’s the most gratifying thing right now.
TB: As a web-based filmmaker, you have experience writing, producing, directing, editing, and performing. Which of those positions do you most prefer?
MS: Well, I really like writing, but our current shows are not really writing-based. They’re more improv-based, really working off-the-cuff. And when you’re doing something like that, editing really plays a bigger role than you’d expect, because you have all this footage and you have to make a story out of it—find the thread of it. That’s a lot of fun. It’s challenging but I enjoy doing it.
TB: What do you think it is about movies that makes it so important to watch and analyze and talk about them?
MS: Well, I’m not sure it’s important, but it’s just something that is natural to do. I mean, movies are our legends and our lore, and they’re subjective. So I think, as humans, that’s what we tend to do. I’m really not sure how important it is. I think it’s important in that entertainment doesn’t always have to be a passive experience. When you analyze it and talk about it, you turn it into an active experience, and I think that’s an important way to live life.
TB: Do you remember the stage in your youth where you thought “Oh! Not all movies are big blockbusters, and Star Wars…?” Do you perhaps remember the first artistic film you saw that shaped who you are as a film viewer today?
MS: I think there’s a certain point when you go from just consuming movies to actually seeking out movies. That usually happens in your late teens, 17 or 18, and I think that was really when I started to go to the video store by myself, and started going to the theater by myself.
And so, movies I was seeing around that time were [Stanley Kubrick’s] 2001: A Space Odyssey and then [The Coen Brothers’] Miller’s Crossing, in the movie theater. Those are the two that really come to mind. And then realizing that oh, Stanley Kubrick made other movies, and I liked 2001 and wanted to see other movies of his. So you start becoming aware of directors and directorial style and wanting to seek out other works. You know: oh, the guys who made Miller’s Crossing also did Raising Arizona, which is such a tonally different movie. And so, that’s when that world kind of opens up for you.
TB: Of all the Blame Society short films and sketches and your own personal videos, which would you love to have a theoretical episode of “Welcome to the Basement” analyze?
MS: That’s a tough question. I think there is a run of episodes in “Chad Vader” season 2, towards the end, that get a little deep, so maybe that. Yeah, I think “Chad Vader” is the most cinematic project we did, in terms of sketches.
TB: How do you feel about the success and overall longevity of “Welcome to the Basement?”
MS: I really like the way the show’s developed. You know, we’ve come up with different segments, ongoing jokes, the “Seen It” section that people really like. If it was just the same thing as it was in the very beginning, I’m not sure it’d come across as dynamic, so I like that we’ve grown as a show.
TB: There are a ton of inside jokes on the show.
MS: I don’t wanna get too bogged down with callbacks. Often times if we’re riffing something and refer to something that happened in a previous episode, we usually cut it because I want these episodes to be modular, and I want people to feel like they can come in at any point and be able to understand everything, without having to have watched a certain episode three months back.
TB: Here comes The Taste Basket lightning round. Who’s your favorite director of all time?
MS: Well, probably the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson, in terms of contemporary directors. You know, you get a question like that and you think, who can I choose who will cover all the bases?
TB: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
MS: We did this on the show—a top five. Let me try to remember what they were. I always point to It’s a Wonderful Life. People don’t expect it but I really like that movie, it’s a really great movie. I think it’s some of the best storytelling ever. It’s a Wonderful Life, that’s my answer.
TB: What is your favorite album of all time?
MS: Oh my god, you’re killin’ me [laughs]…probably The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967).
TB: Favorite book of all time?
MS: Favorite book?! I don’t read enough. Probably something I’ve read numerous times…
MS: [laughs] That’s probably the book I read most recently!
Here are a few of my favorite episodes of “Welcome to the Basement,” where Matt and Craig offer up some of their best commentary:
On Badlands (1973):
On Fitzcarraldo (1982):
On Sunrise (1927):
On Fritz the Cat (1972):
And, in their most recent episode [Eyes Without a Face (1960)], Matt reads a “Customer Comment” from yours truly! In my comment, I mention my desire to interview the guys. Funny enough, I wrote that before I scored this interview: