By now, those of us working from home have had our share of video conference gaffes, whether it’s the spouse who walks in the background pantless or the child who throws a shoe at you while you’re meeting with a client. Office life and personal life have now become inextricable. Such dynamics drive a side-splitting series of shorts by Smuggler director Benji Weinstein.
Their premise is simple—each of the five episodes is a conference call between members of an ad agency trying to develop a campaign for its client. The work, however, is a side note to the mad personal interactions that ensue—it’s as if the gang from “The Office” were forced into quarantine.
"Join Meeting" starts out with a slow burn, but ratchets up with each episode. Among the characters are Jeff, the semi-lecherous senior account manager who bumbles his attempts to be both team leader and everyone’s pal; the take-no-shit Chloe who has zero reservations about speaking her mind; new mom Alexis who breast pumps during the discussion; the lackadaisical creative Tim; the bored and lonely Lynn and outside IT consultant “Walter” whose advice largely consists of terse one-word responses. There’s also a bit of mystery involved—the apparently beloved team member Tyler, who’s quarantined back in his native Australia, remains curiously absent from the calls until the final episode reveals why.
Like a lot of creatives right now, the coronavirus crisis served as a kind of muse for the series. “The starting point for good comedy is human truths,” says director Weinstein. “When the pandemic hit, we all woke up to an avalanche of new realities, with old truths. I thought it was worth exploring them.” Moreover, “ I was really bored.”
Weinstein tapped actor friends for his cast, and he says the entire series was shot “in-camera”—each take was an actual meeting in Zoom.
“Zoom lets you simultaneously record Speaker View and Gallery View, so in the edit we toggle between those two to hide the occasional cut,” he explains. “ But even that was flawed—I kept forgetting to mute my mic, and then I'd ruin the Speaker View footage by laughing, which would cause my camera to interrupt the meeting.”
Weinstein is known for his comedy on spots for Credit Karma, Wrigley, Pom, Geico and more. This format, however posed a whole new challenge.
“It was much more difficult, and I felt like I was missing a lot of my normal tools,” he says.
“In terms of working on the comedic beats, I’m so used to rehearsing together with the actors in person, or calling cut and then walking on set to discuss, try stuff, and pursue different paths to see what feels right. None of that was possible here—we’d discuss a direction, and then they’d run with it. With a cast this talented, though, it was a lot of fun.”
For each episode, Weinstein would start out by discussing the story arc and each character’s beats with the actors. “There were often specific lines or reactions we wanted to hit, but otherwise we kept it loose and the actors brought their ideas,” He says. “We probably did 4-6 takes per episode, and would tighten as we went.”
According to Weinstein, the entire series was created with an all-in budget of $53—the cost to make and deliver the cake that appears in the second episode. “We’re saving up now for more episodes,” he says.
Update: Weinstein went on to drop part two of the series, with a surprise visit from a very special guest.