The ideal jester for the dig­i­tal age

Chris Flem­ing’s no-bud­get vi­ral videos have net­ted more than 21 million Youtube views

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

Gayle Wa­ters-wa­ters bar­rels through her sub­ur­ban liv­ing room clutch­ing a pair of vac­uum clean­ers, her purse-lipped face vent­ing fu­ri­ous des­per­a­tion.

“We’ve got to clean the house now, now, NOW, peo­ple! I want this place look­ing like Dis­ney on Ice in one minute,” she barks. “Get rid of the couches. We can’t let peo­ple know we sit!”

The high-stress, al­pha-mom car­i­ca­ture, which has helped the “Com­pany is Com­ing” video net more than 6 million views on Youtube, is fa­mil­iar to any­one who has suf­fered at the hands of an un­hinged neat freak.

As played by 30-year-old Chris Flem­ing, Gayle’s de­fault set­ting seems to be a mix­ture of rage and van­ity, which has pro­vided enough fod­der for 40 episodes of the “Gayle” se­ries on Youtube since 2012.

Less fa­mil­iar is Flem­ing, the Pasadena, Calif.-based co­me­dian be­hind Gayle Wa­ters-wa­ters and other bizarrely hi­lar­i­ous, no-bud­get vi­ral videos, in­clud­ing “I’m Afraid to Talk to Men,” “Polyamorous” and, for ad­vanced view­ers, the ag­gres­sively weird “Frenchin’ the Bat.”

“I pre­tend it’s not Youtube,” Flem­ing said over the phone re­cently. “I pre­tend I’m up­load­ing to Net­flix ev­ery time I put (a video) on­line.”

In­deed, part of the ap­peal of Flem­ing’s work, which in­cludes semi-im­pro­vised rants in his car about veg­eta­bles, the­ater kids and Jimmy Buf­fet, is their home­spun feel, hint­ing that Flem­ing could say or do any­thing at any mo­ment.

That’s no ac­ci­dent. De­spite hav­ing the sort of mo­men­tum many comics would

use to launch a con­ven­tional showbiz ca­reer — with 130,000 Youtube sub­scribers, 21 million views, and pos­i­tive press in Forbes, Huff­in­g­ton Post and The Bos­ton Globe — Flem­ing has lit­tle in­ter­est in climb­ing the in­dus­try lad­der.

That’s partly by choice, and partly be­cause his hy­per-ver­bal, seem­ingly stream-of-con­scious­ness hu­mor is too al­ter­nately goofy, harsh and spe­cific for a broad au­di­ence. Flem­ing also stands out vis­ually thanks to his shock of long, curly hair, over­sized eye­glasses and lanky frame.

He was one credit shy of re­ceiv­ing a mi­nor in dance at Skid­more Col­lege, so it’s not sur­pris­ing to see him throw­ing his en­tire body in com­edy sketches, whether he’s im­i­tat­ing a creepy fan dur­ing an after-show mee­tand-greet ses­sion, or im­pro­vis­ing disco moves in the mu­sic video “Polyamorous.”

Some of Flem­ing’s tricks are as old as vaude­ville — ill-fit­ting wigs, bur­lesqued author­ity fig­ures, wild prat­falls — and some are de­cid­edly modern, such as whiplash edit­ing, crude synth back­ing-tracks and other tech­niques that proudly flaunt their dig­i­tal seams.

That, too, is only partly in­ten­tional. Other than his “Gayle” cre­ative part­ner Melissa Strype, mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Brian Heveron-smith and a hand­ful of oth­ers, Flem­ing mostly works alone, which nec­es­sar­ily sup­presses his pro­duc­tion val­ues.

“I worked with a man­ager for awhile, and by ‘worked with’ I mean she se­duced me into mov­ing out to L.A. and took me out for pas­trami once ev­ery eight months, so I learned rather quickly that wasn’t go­ing to help me out,” said Flem­ing, a na­tive of Stow, Mass., who started do­ing stand-up in high school. “I just pre­fer do­ing things without any of those fat cats or suits, and that’s the only time things have ever worked out for me.”

In fact, Flem­ing ad­mits to delet­ing most of his emails when peo- ple reach out to him pro­fes­sion­ally, even if they might lead to paid work in com­mer­cials, bit parts in TV shows or films, and other bread-and-but­ter act­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. He once starred in a Loc­tite glue com­mer­cial di­rected by cult com­edy team Tim and Eric (with whom he shares some sen­si­bil­i­ties) that aired dur­ing the Su­per Bowl. But for the most part, he avoids open cast­ing calls.

“I don’t want to waste time with things that might not go some­where. I just want to set up the tri­pod and make some­thing,” he said. “I’ve had so many false starts, es­pe­cially ear­lier when I first moved (to Cal­i­for­nia), just wait­ing around for some­thing to come.”

Flem­ing is a full-time comic these days, hav­ing quit his job as an SAT tu­tor about four years ago. Since May 15, when his “Show­pig Tour” launched at Port­land, Ore.’s Aladdin The­ater, he has played nine dates in the­aters across the coun­try. He has a few more planned be­fore the tour wraps this month in Dal­las, in­clud­ing a Wed­nes­day, July 12, show at Den­ver’s Ori­en­tal The­ater.

“The only peo­ple I re­ally work with are these pro­mot­ers who booked me at the Wil­bur The­ater in Bos­ton, and we’ve just worked to­gether ever since,” Flem­ing said. “They had ac­cess to my (on­line) an­a­lyt­ics, which ranks the cities where I guess I’m pop­u­lar, so they’re just like, ‘In Tus­con there’s a CVS branch that’s a fan of yours!’ ”

Flem­ing is ref­er­enc­ing a fa­mil­iar de­bate for artists: remaining pure and true to their art — while po­ten­tially hold­ing back their ca­reers — ver­sus broad­en­ing their ap­peal with a pro­fes­sional savvy that al­lows them to reach more peo­ple.

Flem­ing isn’t against the lat­ter, and nei­ther is he dar­ing peo­ple to laugh at him, in the provoca­tive way that Andy Kauf­man once did, or Adult Swim’s “Eric An­dre Show” still does. He’s sim­ply do­ing what he finds funny — ab­sur­dist word­play that ig­nores the usual punch­lines on the way to de­light­fully sur­real, con­fus­ing coves of hu­mor.

His fa­vorite tar­gets are the smug and the obliv­i­ously trendy: tech bros, fit­ness cou­ples, in­tol­er­ant ve­g­ans, pre­ten­tious artists. His rants are equal parts in­spired and ex­haust­ing, but re­fresh­ingly, he’s never afraid to look or sound like a com­plete fool — the ideal jester for the in­ter­net age.

“The real sign of a lu­natic is that they don’t know they’re a lu­natic,” Flem­ing said. “I re­al­ize I’m re­ally bad at mu­sic. It’s me smash­ing my fore­head against the key­board and mak­ing the most un­for­giv­able sounds. Some peo­ple I work with are le­git, like Brian’s mu­sic for ‘Frenchin’ the Bat,’ which is this great, ‘80s soft-rock type of song. I was re­ally hor­ri­fied when no­body en­joyed that (with 32,000 views, it’s one Flem­ing’s least-pop­u­lar videos) but if you don’t love me by now you’re never, never, never go­ing to love me.

“I just love this fac­tor when I’m watch­ing some­thing of ‘Why am I be­ing shown this?’ It’s a fine line to ride, but for things to get passed around on­line it needs to have this fac­tor of some soror­ity girl say­ing, ‘This is me!’ And you can’t do that for ‘Frenchin’ the Bat.’ ”

Flem­ing’s path is not the smoothest or most ef­fi­cient to a ca­reer-sus­tain­ing au­di­ence. But if you’ve got the stamina, it’s one of the most ec­static ex­pe­di­tions in con­tem­po­rary com­edy.

Photo by Alexan­dra Gen­ova, pro­vided by Shark Party Me­dia

Co­me­dian Chris Flem­ing's videos are a hit on Youtube, de­spite his near-to­tal dis­in­ter­est in climb­ing the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try lad­der.

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