Interview: Tim Savage, Actor/ Writer

by Joshua Goldfond

Tim Savage is a 28-year-old actor and writer who has spent the better part of a decade creating characters for radio, television, and the internet. After getting a start in local Florida radio, Savage moved out to Los Angeles to take a shot at Hollywood. In an effort to hone his craft during financially perilous times, he began to experiment with character-based satirical Youtube videos.

After some trial-and-error, Savage struck on his most popular character to date: “Skweezy Jibbs”, an impoverished, dim-witted, and hapless wanna-be street hustler who frequently regaled his viewership with (rather unimpressive) tales of sexual and financial conquest. Savage played the character as if it were real for the first few years of its existence, using every element of Youtube’s interface to maintain the illusion (even if his actions sometimes strained credulity). And while Skweezy might, at first blush, appear to be a crude stereotype, Savage’s clever writing and impeccable comic timing conveys a subtle, but undeniable depth of pathos and social commentary.

Savage eventually chose to reveal that Skweezy was a fictional character, and has used him as a calling card with which to present his other projects and characters. His new work has demonstrated a chameleon-like ability to shift seamlessly between disparate personalities. As is emblematic of the digital age, Savage’s growing online popularity has created professional opportunities not possible before.

Savage spoke with me regarding his career, and ambitions, and Skweezy Jibbs in April of 2012.

 

You mention in one of your videos that your background is primarily in radio. Can you expand a little bit on your experiences and talk about some of your creative influences? How long did you work in that medium, and what made you choose to move to Los Angeles? Had you always wanted to work in entertainment?

I was in radio for close to a decade, having worked my way up from minimum wage board-operator/phone screener to program director in Florida before giving that up to go to a larger market. I worked there for a few years, getting more into talk radio and also breaking into television with a local sketch comedy show. I was in my mid 20’s at that point and made a decision with my creative partner at the time to take the big leap to L.A. Two weeks before we left, he told me he met a girl and was staying behind. Unfortunately, he owned all the cameras/computers, etc., and all the plans we had were based on “us.” I made the move on my own, and it was a very rough couple of years just trying to figure out what the hell I was doing/going to do.

A little on my background. I had the “luxury” of being raised in a very strict, fundamentalist Christian household and basically wasn’t allowed to do much of anything. I actually was just talking about this with my roommate yesterday cause I got jolted into remembering a really embarrassing story. I was about 7 or 8, and had become a pathological liar because I got tired of answering questions like “Why don’t you have a Nintendo?” with answers such as “Because my mom says they’re demonic and the demons come through the TV screen and make me sick,” so instead I would just say “I’ve got a Nintendo and ALL the games” to make myself sound less like a freak. I told that particular lie to a kid in my class, and invited him over (never thinking he would call my bluff), and sure enough there came a knock on my door one Sunday morning. The kid had gotten his mom to drop him off so he could play Nintendo with me. What he got instead was a sermon from my mom about how evil Mario was and then an apology from me. Then my mom invited his mom over, and proceeded to try to “save” her as well. She refused, so we kicked them out and headed out to church ourselves. That was my life.

As if that kind of shit wasn’t bad enough, that was also my last year in school, and I was pulled out and homeschooled from that point on. And I learned a lesson about lying. Not to stop, but to lie bigger. The devil’s in the details. So I went through a period where I told ridiculous lies to everyone and got real good at it. And never to hurt anyone, but just because I felt so alienated. I wanted people to like me, just like anyone else. It’s just not as easy for us weirdoes.

In addition to all that craziness, I was also the one telling jokes and stories. My family is actually full of storytellers; it’s our way of bonding. My favorite memories as a kid were of me, my dad, and my brother all telling stories and my mom just laughing and laughing at them. It doesn’t happen as much like it used to, but when we do get together and let it happen, we’ll fall right back into it again. Another way the men in our family bonded was with old movies. My brother and I weren’t allowed anywhere near the new stuff, but we were immersed in the classics. Most kids my age grew up with Jim Carrey and his ilk; we grew up with Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Errol Flynn, Claude Raines, and “I Love Lucy”. Lucille Ball and Laurel and Hardy were fantastic, but my god did I love the Marx Brothers. I’ve probably seen “A Night at the Opera” 300 times. I definitely stole a lot of my early inspiration from them. As I got older, I really fell in love with the dryness of Norm MacDonald (meeting him and making him laugh hard repeatedly is a fond memory of mine) and the sharpness of Chris Rock. But creatively, I also learned that real inspiration is far better cross-borrowed. That is, if you’re a musician, don’t look to music for your ideas. Look everywhere else. Same with comedy. I find my inspiration anywhere from life experience to my favorite science fiction books.

Once I was old enough to look beyond the way I was taught to think and actually think for myself, a whole new world opened up to me. I had never seen or heard most things that many kids my age took for granted. The first time I owned secular music was when I bought “Thriller”. Probably the same first album for a lot of kids. Except I wasn’t like, you know, 6. I was 17. I had to wait til I got my first car and I could only listen to it in that fabulous Grand Marquis since it wasn’t allowed at home. That lack of culture hit me full throttle and all at once, and I consumed so much art/media in my late teens and early 20’s that I felt like a kid. I’ve always been curious, and the repression melting away into pure freedom was a huge accelerant to my inquisitiveness. And, as ironic as could possibly be, my ultra conservative parents are a writer and painter, respectively (go figure). So I have the desire to tell stories and make people laugh, combined with wanting to experience all the things I wasn’t allowed to growing up, tossed in with the fact that creating things is in my blood.

 

You have said that the “Skweezy Jibbs” character and his Youtube videos began as a satirical extension of your own experiences upon first moving to Los Angeles (i.e. your time living with an elderly roommate was mined for comedic material). What else did you draw upon to create the persona, and what was the aim of the project?

Skweezy started off as an experiment to keep my acting skills fresh after I had to drop out of acting school. The original goal was simple; to see how much I could get away with as a ridiculous character and still have it be believable. I mined content from everything I could, from popular trends to true life experiences to amalgamations of things. I grew up poor and kinda white-trashy, and Skweezy is still not as crazy as some of the people I knew growing up. The big difference is that in real life, their shit was just really sad, so there was definitely a challenge of making it more funny than miserable – at least for the viewer, if not ever for Skweezy. As I’ve evolved, so has the character. It had to. I felt guilty about younger audiences looking up to Skweezy, and I also felt creatively bankrupt with him for a while, so I pulled the plug and originally “revealed” him as a gay British writer.

There was a third reason for the reveal as well, and that was because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as Skweezy. I have so much stuff that I do (I’m editing my first novel, I have two feature screenplays, I have a non-fiction book about radio sitting on the back burner, an animated show that I pitched, and so on and so on) and I didn’t want to be only know as “Skweezy,” and not only that, be so convincing that no one can take me seriously because they don’t even know he’s not a real, white-trash loser. Now, I did to that myself – I orchestrated Skweezy’s “realness” from the beginning with so much fake “real” information across the web that very few people ever knew the truth for a couple years. But how the fuck am I going to get noticed by a producer or director or whatever if I’m so convincing that I’m immediately discarded as a loon? Poe’s law in full effect. And sure enough, right after I made my first reveal video, I got hit up with three big offers in Hollywood that resulted in some really good opportunities for me. So it ended up being good timing. Now the secret is out, and Skweezy is more popular than ever, and it gives me more freedom to try different things (including injection of some of my own personal beliefs into the character). The pressure to constantly outdo myself is greater than ever, but that’s a lot better than the pressure of not having anyone give a shit about anything you do, hahaha.

 

The videos are crafted to gift the illusion of being done on the fly, with little preparation and by you alone. How close is this to reality? 

Pretty close. I’m very self-sufficient (comes along with the “homeschooled” thing), and my whole life is based on challenging myself and then seeing if I can figure out how to come out on top. Few things excite me more than being told I can’t do something. I’ve met a lot of great young talent in my years, but so many of them only know what they were taught in film school or by movies or in acting classes. I’ve read a dozen scripts that are pretty damn good but can’t be made for less than tens of millions. Which is awesome, but all you’re doing is playing the goddamn lottery. Same with actors I know. One of the scariest things you learn when you come to L.A. is that it’s not like home. I’d like to think I’m pretty funny. And then I got to L.A. and in every room, and every class, and every audition, and every party, and even every fucking 711 line for 2 for $2 Big Bites there are people funnier than I am. It’s quite overwhelming at first. So I know all these comedians and actors that have been here longer than I have and you’ve never heard of them, and some are lazy, and some get dissuaded, but some are putting in the work and getting auditions and it really is THAT hard. It’s a fucking circus. So I just said “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself. What do I have? A shitty camera? A 99 cent store hat? A toilet paper roll? Let’s make something happen” and BOOM, there it goes. Creativity doesn’t come from getting what you want. It comes from taking what you have and saying, “Well what can we do here?” Everyone needs to read Robert Rodriguez’s book, “Rebel Without a Crew.” Specifically the “10 minute film school” part (I think that’s what it’s called). If you REALLY want to make stuff, any stuff, read that. It will change your life.

As far as how each video is made specifically, it varies. A lot of the older videos are one take, straight through. Some were done in one take, some took a dozen and I picked the best one. I’ve also literally spent 5 hours filming straight through and scrapped it more times than I can count. If I’m “on,” I’ve been blessed to be able to put out something I’m really proud of in one take. If I’m not feeling it that day, I could film the opening 30 times to get something that works. I don’t release stuff I don’t like/respect.

The old videos used to just be based around bullet points. I’d have certain checkpoints I needed to hit, and certain punchlines that I needed to hit verbatim, but other than that I worked freeform around those. The new videos are usually entirely scripted. It has allowed me to get much tighter and make much sharper points. As such, because they’re all fully scripted, I can’t usually film them straight through anymore so I’ll break it down into a few parts.

 

Since revealing Jibbs’ fictional nature, the personality has developed (something of) a moral center and a (slightly) higher intelligence. More recently, a video about Jeremy Lin ended with a surprisingly poignant monologue about the character’s struggles with poverty, addition, family tragedy, and the (somewhat desperate) notion that religion and the American Dream would bring him wealth no matter what. How much would say that the scope of the character’s satire has changed? Do you have an larger goal in sight for the project, or is it simply a good way of maintaining an online presence?

I think I answered most of this with what I said in 2, but I’ll add one more thing. I am currently working on a live action Skweezy pilot with an incredibly talented writer who currently writes for a well-known TV show. I’m going to keep him anonymous for now since I don’t know if he’s ready to reveal himself, but he presented me with an incredibly good script that really hits the edginess of Skweezy’s universe while keeping the appeal of pathos of the characters. Hopefully we’ll be pitching it to networks this summer. Besides that, I’m keeping myself open to almost any path that Skweezy could take me. I never would have guessed Skweezy would have been what would be opening the most doors for me here, but I’m happy that’s the case.

 

With the massive shifts currently taking place in media, do you see Youtube videos like yours as ends unto themselves? Or, do you think that actors/artists should instead view the internet as a training ground for their craft?

There is a quote I like from a guy named Eric Hoffer. “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” That one mentality is the difference between success and failure, in my opinion. I’ve been really getting into eastern philosophy and they talk a lot about the same thing. The mighty oak is strong and revered. And then the mightier storm comes and knocks it out of the ground, roots and all. But the bamboo, thin and seemingly weak, bends effortlessly in the harshest of winds. SAME SHIT HOMEY.

Referring back to my actor/director/writer friends that are super talented yet fight for years just to get two lines on CSI, many of them still scratch their heads about all this Youtube/internet stuff. I told one guy how much I made off of one very lucky video I had and he couldn’t believe it was as much as he made for a week’s work on a feature film. Plus, I got 2 million views that month. 2 million people seeing my writing/acting/story development/talents/whatever. For better or worse. Now that said, I’m still barely scraping by financially. But I am scraping by my own work exclusively, and that makes any artist smile. I’d love nothing more than to break into TV and film and even successful novel writing, but to turn my back on anything that allows me to create and have an audience is silly. And I think the only thing holding back a lot of my peers is simply conditioning. No one pays 30k a year to go to film school to learn how to hold a camera up in front of themselves and then upload it to Youtube. But that’s a huge part of the future, and more importantly, the present.

 

Any advice for young actors starting out in the Hollywood trenches that are looking to make a name for themselves?

Good fucking luck. Or not. Those are your two options. All these stories you hear about how Christian Bale made it or Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Michael Fassbender or even huge Youtube stars with half a billion views or anyone that’s “famous” tend to leave out the absolute most important part of the story. Luck. For every Daniel Day Lewis there are 100,000 that are just as good, just as dedicated, and just as skilled. What very few will tell you is that all Hollywood is for the most part is a lottery. So you better be doing what it is you’re supposed to do on this planet and having some fun in the meantime, otherwise you’ll get eaten alive and left bitter.

The “Or not” I refer to is my preferred plan of attack. I plan on getting nothing. No help, nobody seeing my work, nobody giving me anything. So I do it myself. I could sit around waiting for a part, or I could create it myself. I could hope a good script crosses my path. Or I could write one myself. I could hope to be cast in a movie, or I could cast myself. One of my goals for the next few years is to make one of the features I wrote. I wrote it in such a way that it could be filmed easily for under a hundred grand, and with some creativity for possibly under 20k. And if I meet and befriend some really funny actors, I’ll guilt them into doing it for free and we can knock the budget down even more, haha. You can wait, or you can do. And it’s a lot more fun to do. If you act but can’t write, partner with a writer. If you’re a damn good writer but can’t act, get some actors. Make something. Use it to pull each other up a level or two. I currently have a half hour pilot up on Youtube (released in 4 parts so far to make it more digestible to the internet audience) that looks and sounds as good as anything else on the internet. It’s not “quite” TV quality, but it’s damn good. Fully professional video, sound, music, editing, and so on. It would probably surprise people to hear that it cost $1000. It would probably really surprise people if they knew it was actually only the cost of feeding the cast and crew, so total cost is probably in the $80 range. For a mostly-professional looking half hour pilot. With the amount of technology out there and the tools available, there’s just no excuse to not create at least a variation of anything you’ve ever wanted to create.

 

Do you have any other new projects that you’d care to discuss? Your Youtube page features a new comedy series, and you seem to be branching out with some new characters.

If anyone wants to check out the pilot I mentioned, it’s at Youtube.com/thegentlemenpirates. Start with Heaven Scent, Chapter 1. I’d love to be able to say, “Check out my new show on Fox this fall,” but I’m not there yet, haha. Maybe with a lot of luck and more work, that could change by the end of the year.

 

Skweezy Jibbs’ Youtube channel can be found here. His Twitter feed is here.

Tim Savage’s website can is at www.timnasium.com.