Comedic filmmaker Neil Mahoney of Osterville makes it big in the high-stakes world of Los Angeles show biz.
Twelve years ago, Neil Mahoney was just one of thousands that head to Los Angeles each year in search of a place in the spotlight. Just like the rest of them, Mahoney, an Osterville native, thought he had a story to tell. But unlike most, he’s now a bona fide film director.
Carving out a name in the fledgling realm of online comedy, Mahoney found his own path to Hollywood and worked alongside some of the funniest folks in the industry. In 2010, one of his online films won a prestigious award, and earlier this year he wrapped production on his first feature, Freak Dance.
Growing up on the Cape, Mahoney enjoyed fishing and clamming with his father. He was into skateboarding and setting up punk rock shows in VFWs and warehouse spaces. He graduated from Barnstable High, then cum laude from Emerson College, where he spent his final semester in 1999 in Los Angeles, landing an internship with Dakota Films. His application was simple. “I wrote them requesting an internship and included an eight-by-10 glossy of myself as a baby wearing green velvet lederhosen,” he says.
Mahoney was hired by some interesting folks. Back then, Dakota Films was the production company behind Mr. Show, a cutting-edge 1990s program that spent four seasons reinventing sketch comedy into a kind of comedic cubism on HBO—something like a latter-day American Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Mr. Show was ahead of its time—ignored during its original run, but inspiring a generation of comedy writers and performers. After the show was canceled, Mahoney worked as assistant to director Troy Miller on the film Run Ronnie Run! and helped with the Mr. Show Live Tour.
After that, Mahoney plunged into L.A.’s underground comedy scene, a competitive crapshoot where every bartender is hawking a screenplay and every valet burns to direct. In his first years in town, Mahoney says, “No one wanted to hire me.” He started at the bottom—literally. “I swept out the sand from the pool they used to sink the Titanic,” he says.
As production assistant to flamboyant fitness guru Richard Simmons’ show Richard Simmons’ Dream Maker, Mahoney ran any number of oddball missions, from fetching birdseed to delivering snakes. He helped produce several scenes for Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie, a stint that had Mahoney playing a dead body floating in the grotto at the Playboy mansion.
All the while, he wrote and wrote. He tried stand-up comedy, and he met funny people. Soon, he was working with Mr. Show alums Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter, creators of Comedy Death-Ray, a popular live comedy show. CDR has played to packed houses in LA since 2002, showcasing already and soon-to-be famous comedians.
As technical director and DJ, Mahoney met kindreds with whom he would later collaborate. Among those he met at the comedy clubs was Jen Kirkman, who is now a successful touring comic whose TV writing credits include Chelsea Lately and NBC’s Perfect Couples. Mahoney and Kirkman married in Massachusetts in 2009.
In the hothouse vacuum of L`os Angeles, getting your name on something—anything— can be the difference between more work and cold anonymity. Mahoney tried his hand at performing, shooting, and editing. As a producer, he soon learned to “help my friends deliver their ideas in an artful way.” Among the artists he worked with was Zach Galifianakis, then a piano-playing stand-up comic who later went on to mainstream fame as Alan in The Hangover.
Mahoney arrived in Los Angeles at the dawn of a new era. As digital video exploded and powerful non-linear editing systems came to everyday laptops, underground comedy found a new venue—on-line. “There was a window where you could make something cheap, and the fact that you could basically broadcast it to the world for free was exciting,” says Mahoney. But even if online content has hit a saturation point, he says, “It’s still more efficient to send someone a link than to mail them a videotape, or have them come to your show in the back of some donut shop.”
One of the industry leaders is FunnyOrDie.com, a website that hosts usner-generated content and original videos from well-known comedians. (The site premiered with The Landlord, a two-minute segment featuring site co-founder Will Ferrell squaring off against his two-year-old property owner, which has since been viewed more than 76 million times.) Viewers vote on the videos they watch—the funny ones stay, the rest don’t.
The site launched a series called Drunk History, created by actor and writer Derek Waters. Here, a comic pretends (wink, wink) to get drunk and then describe a moment in history, which actors recreate. Drunk History 5 is narrated by Kirkman, and Mahoney is assistant editor. It features Ferrell and accomplished actors Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel in a slurs-and-all recreation of the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass. Coming full circle from web content to old-school industry success, Drunk History 5 won Best Short at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
In 2008, while he was producing a series for TBS.com, Matt Besser, a founder of the seminal sketch comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade, approached Mahoney about turning the stage show Freak Dance into a feature film.
Mahoney describes it as a “spray-paint by numbers music and dance comedy film,” but written from Matt Besser’s point of view. Mahoney agreed to join up as co-director, and the project was green-lit.
The film stars Besser and Joshua Allen, a winner of the television show So You Think You Can Dance, as well as Saturday Night Live alums Amy Poehler and Tim Meadows. Shooting took place over 13 days in October 2009 in Los Angeles.
“For a feature length musical-slash-dance comedy, that’s pretty insanely short,” says Mahoney. “There’s something like 15 song-and-dance routines in the script, and these are full-on Broadway show tunes kind of dance numbers.” (Mahoney has a cameo in the film, talking on a pay phone outside a strip club.) Scoring, mixing, mastering, and other post-production duties took another 15 months. “We really only got it locked up this March,” says Mahoney. The filmmakers are offering the finished movie to some film festivals and are hoping to land the all-important distribution deal.
Since wrapping the film, Mahoney joined the Motion Picture Editors Guild and is busy editing Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time show for Comedy Central. In every project, there’s a lot of money—someone else’s money—on the line. That means there’s pressure, but there’s a certain challenge to his imagination that he enjoys, a challenge that he likens to an art or a sport. “You’re constantly pushed to innovate and separate your work from others without alienating mass appeal. It takes creativity to walk that line, and that’s a fun kind of thinking for me,” Mahoney says. In comedy, both on-line and in the mainstream, fun comes first.
Rob Conery is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life.
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