How do you make things funny in virtual reality? That’s the question CollegeHumor is exploring with 1600 in 360°, a new video series depicting some of the, um, highlights of U.S. presidential history.
Apparently, Google approached IAC-owned CollegeHumor about creating 360-degree content for YouTube and for its DayDream VR platform. Sam Reich, president at CollegeHumor’s production studio Big Breakfast, told me Big Breakfast considered some of the constraints — mainly the fact that the camera should be stationary to avoid giving viewers motion sickness. And because the series would be stuck in one room, they asked themselves, “What is a room where you would love to be a fly on the wall?” Their answer: The Oval Office.
The series will feature six presidents, starting with today’s episode on John Adams. As you watch, you can spin the camera around and look all over the room, which is full of gags and jokes. (Yes, there’s an obligatory Hamilton joke.)
Asked about the challenges and opportunities of the new format, Reich said, “I’m going to get really comedy nerdy here. Comedy dating back to Buster Keaton has been about playing with the frame, sort of making use of your body in space. That’s what makes VR so intimidating … There’s not the same amount of room to play around with framing.”
Put another way: It’s harder to pull off a visual joke when you don’t know where the audience is going to be looking, so the dialogue had to carry more weight, both plot- and humor-wise. The script had to be much more detailed than usual, because it was both describing the main events and what’s happening on the other side of the room. And because the video is just one continuous shot, they couldn’t cut between different takes.
“We rehearsed for a full week, did five or six takes and then used the best take,” Reich said.
The next episodes will tackle Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Nixon — plus an episode planned for Election Day, which Reich said they’re keeping as a surprise. He added that he’s proud of the show’s “non-traditional casting.” John Adams, for example is played by Siobhan Thompson — not exactly the old white guy you’d expect.
“We realized that if we weren’t thoughtful, all of these roles could go to white men — American History is chock full of them,” Reich said. “So we had to get a little bit more thoughtful and creative about it. A lot of these roles went to women and minorities.”
As for whether there’s more VR in CollegeHumor’s future, Reich said the company is waiting to see the response to this first show, but he added, “We have a big appetite for VR in general.”
And hey, they could even keep going with U.S. history: “We’re only tackling six presidents here. There’s clearly room for more.”