Brainfox, a new North Shore-based web comedy collaborative, finds humor in the daily grind of local life. By Emma Haak
The Masters of Laugh: Brainfox Team
It’s a typical afternoon inside the Gulu Gulu Cafe in Salem. Locals and tourists come in for lunch, hot drinks, and to catch up. But at one particular table, a lively story is being told about, of all things, chewing gum. Specifically, a game involving chewing gum, a car ride, and the old Nintendo game Star Fox. For the members of Brainfox, a North Shore-based web comedy collaborative, conversations like this are all in a day’s work.
Officially launched in September, Brainfox is the comedic brainchild of Audrey Claire Johnson, Brett Johnson, and Tim Lewis (who is no longer with the group). It started as a way for the trio, who worked together sporadically on previous projects, to collaborate creatively on a regular basis. With several well-received web videos under their belt, the group, now led by the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Audrey Claire, has big plans to bring the funny to the North Shore.
Though Brainfox is relatively new, Brett and Audrey Claire have a long history. They met as undergrads at Gordon College, each involved in their own performing niches: Audrey Claire as a dramatic actor and Brett as a member of an improv troupe. In fact, it was theatre that first brought the couple, now married for four years, together. “I worked as a [teaching assistant] for the theatre department, and I was whipping out of a professor’s office and ran almost smack into him in a hallway,” she says. “Later that semester, we crossed paths again, involved in separate shows but always curious about the other. He also wooed my affection with card tricks, which is embarrassing to admit.”
After graduating-Audrey Claire in 2005, Brett in 2007-they continued to work in performing arts, occasionally working with In the Car Media, a production company started by fellow Gordon grads. The group collaborated on many projects, including Song and Dance, a short about two couples going to great (comedic) pains to disguise their broken relationships, which took home numerous prizes at the 2011 Boston 48 Hour Film Project, including Best Cast, Best Script, and runner-up for Best Film. “When we got together, it would be really fun and really productive, and we’d make something we’d be really proud of,” says Brett, “but it was sporadic.”
Audrey Claire Johnson as Debbie and Jill Rogati as Nina
Enter Brainfox, a way to work together continuously. The trio started the group last June and named it after the childhood car game that Brett, who grew up outside of Albany, New York, played with his brother. They spent the summer brainstorming before beginning their video releases in the fall. First up: “Nina and Debbie,” the first in a planned series about the misadventures of two North Shore moms. In the first installment, the heavily accented Nina and Debbie (played by actress and frequent Brainfox collaborator Jill Rogati and Audrey Claire, respectively) break a sweat by walking around a local track at a glacial pace while discussing their latest annoyances and having a crucial debate: whether to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts or Honeydew Donuts after their so-called workout.
It’s obvious from watching “Nina and Debbie” that Brainfox finds plenty of inspiration in their surroundings. “The people around me inspire me to write female characters that I want to impersonate,” says Audrey Claire. Plus, the Delaware native says, “There are things about Massachusetts that just strike me as really different and strange.” And apparently ripe for parody, like Santa landing via lobster boat in Marblehead and the amusement park horror ride that is Route 128. It’s in these small oddities that Brainfox finds its best material. “Ideas come from seeing things in everyday life that are sort of off and then pointing that out and heightening it,” says Brett.
But the group doesn’t limit its sources of inspiration to what’s immediately around them. Take Slavoj Zizek Shoreside, Brainfox’s imagining of the obscure and eccentric Slovenian philosopher and theorist. The video, shot at Salem Willows, features Brett as Slavoj Zizek, dressed in tattered clothes and gesticulating wildly as he discusses the sexual undertones of yachting, chatters nonsensically about Avatar, and explains why recycling cans signal the end of Communism, all while questioning the cameraman’s cinematographic choices. “I wanted to recreate this specific individual who’s very gestural and accented,” says Brett. Mastering Zizek’s unique speaking style required quite a bit of prep work on Brett’s part. In the end the practice paid off: The video has reached more than 1,000 views on Brainfox’s YouTube channel. Their videos can also be found on the group’s website, itsbrainfox.com.
Brainfox’s videos appear effortless. They’re well written, acted, directed, and, most important, achingly funny. And while comedy comes naturally to the couple, a lot of work goes into making a short video. On average, it takes about a month from inception to completion for a medium-length video like “Nina and Debbie” or Zizek. During this time, a script is written, passed along to friends and collaborators for suggestions, and rewritten until it’s perfect. Then the actors rehearse the skit while the team scouts locations, perfects costumes, and decides how best to film it. For a video that calls for high production value, they’ll call in friends from In the Car to help them out behind the scenes and bring in more actors to fill the roles. It all depends on the story they’re trying to tell. “When we sit down and have our artistic meetings, we talk about the full range of mediums you can use in online video. We have stuff that would be really funny if we shot it on an iPhone, all the way to the other spectrum, because the characters or the story are best represented like that,” says Audrey Claire.
This production process is highly collaborative and draws on the strengths of both Audrey Claire and Brett. Each is involved in many aspects of a video, as they take turns writing, directing, and acting in the shorts. Audrey Claire says that Brett’s “Mary Poppins’ carpet bag of comedic tools” makes him an asset in any kind of video they shoot. Citing the small fraction of independent comedy teams that feature female actors and writers, she says her female presence is her draw. And while they’re both irreplaceable for different reasons, it’s the combination of the two that helps Brainfox come up with unique and innovative comedic content.
Dan Stevens and Dave Ells
Brainstorming these ideas can happen at any time for the Beverly-based couple. “I wake up in the morning saying, ‘So, about that one lineÂ…’ and, ‘Do you think it would be funnier if we did this instead?'” says Audrey Claire. But since Brainfox is not a 9-to-5 time commitment yet, they have to work around busy schedules at their respective jobs. Brett works as an IT administrator at the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly and does regular standup comedy gigs around the North Shore. Audrey Claire is a full-time actress, shooting movies in the area and recently scoring a leading role on the upcoming web series, “617 The Series.” But the two make sure to keep Brainfox a top priority, and they take any available opportunity to discuss the next video shoot, the production order, and any new ideas coming down the pipeline.
At the moment, Brainfox’s pipeline is very full. A second installment of “Nina and Debbie” was shot in early November, in which the ladies are invited to participate in a 5K run for breast cancer research, but would rather sit or shop for a cure instead. December also marked the official premiere of Albionic, a high-concept, highly stylized story about a man whose legs are replaced with those of an albino person-and the fact that everyone around him thinks that’s totally normal. Both Audrey Claire and Brett cite the piece as their favorite Brainfox creation thus far. “It’s unique in tone compared to the rest of our videos,” says Brett, while Audrey Claire loves the “campy, soap opera-style” humor.
The Brainfox leaders are equally excited about branching out into new areas, as they plan to do with two upcoming projects. One is their mockumentary-style take on a woman (to be played by Rogati) who lives and breathes rainstick playing. “She’s been rejected from every music festival in Connecticut because they don’t take her seriously,” says Audrey Claire, “so she decides to throw her own concert at a local dive bar.” The other will mark their first foray into a multi-episode series: a comedic look at political intrigue and small-town gossip in the fictional New England town of Whatsboro.
From their first video about two North Shore moms discussing their daily minutia to a mini-saga about one man’s journey to come to grips with his incredibly pale legs, Brainfox has come a long way in a just a few months. While their own ambition and work ethic have certainly helped, they say being based on the North Shore has also been a factor in their success. “Being in this area, we have an amazing community full of people who work with us and appreciate what we do,” says Audrey Claire. “The North Shore is a really good place to be an artist-not speaking just to comedy-because it’s a community that’s really aware and supportive of the arts.”
And just as Brainfox has no plans to change locale, they also have no plans to slow down. “Who knows what we’ll have done a year from now?” says Brett. “There’s still so much we want to try. So much room for discovery.”