Icing: Traverse the World Wide Web with Your Lolz-Seeking Internet Explorer MARK VIGEANT
You’ve all heard the figure of speech “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Well, that’s not the case with comedian, writer, director, performer, and programmer MARK VIGEANT (Clusterfest Up Next Showcase, FunnyOrDie, Live From Here). You’ll soon learn he’s dabbled in a WIDE range of activities and managed to find two crafts he both loves and has mastered. In Vigeant’s HTML-based show INTERNET EXPLORERS (happening TOMORROW at Caveat), the performer marries the artistic discipline of comedy and the mega technical skill of programming with major audience-pleasing results. The show blossomed out of his experience with his Let’s Make a Website show and has since morphed into it’s own “Code Lord” force to be reckoned with (buy Ts here).
If fake lectures by NYC’s best comedians, and a website built on the spot for one lucky headliner is what you’re after, INTERNET EXPLORERS is sure to please. TOMORROW’s first ANNIVERSARY edition tackles the addictive world of “Online Gaming” featuring Joe Firestone, Mary Beth Barone, Angel Yau, two legit game developers, Jess Fiorini and Pete Vigeant, live game demos and music by the Square Roots. Vigeant generously squeezed in enough time out of the intensive show prep process to go dark web deep about his journey into the sketch world, how he’s applied his programmer skills to his thriving, laugh-inducing calling, the IE anniversary show, his 2019 plans, and, of course, his thoughts on the Netflix interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch! Enjoy!
COMEDY CAKE: A little birdie on the interweb told me to ask you about the “trumpet, juggling, pinball, and being an Eagle Scout.” So how have all those activities paved the way for you becoming an entertainer/nerd god? In other words, how the heck did you get into sketch?
MARK VIGEANT: Haha I mean all nerd gods are born in improv classes right?
The activities listed are all good conversation starters. I can casually say “I’ve played trumpet at Carnegie Hall and the Tomorrowland Cafe in DisneyWorld” which proves to you that I’m obnoxious AND a dork in one sentence. And that I probably enjoy Renaissance Faires and Ultimate Frisbee. Or I could say “at my Eagle ceremony I got signed congratulatory letters from both Junior Senator Barack Obama and nutcase Rudy Giuliani.”
But truly the amount of times I’ve wasted an entire general meeting chatting about my deep knowledge of Pinball is staggering.
I did a lot of different stuff growing up because I wanted to figure out what I specifically was good at. I envied folks who had one thing that was their thing, you know? Like my friend Brian S who was always doing flips- he is now an acrobat. Perfect fit. And my other friend Brian M was always passionate about his trumpet- he is a music teacher. And my other friend Brian K whose family works in construction- he is a Republican. They always knew who they were. I’ve always had my fingers in a lot of different pies (is that an expression?) and thus was always like “Oh I could be a Mechanical Engineer or a Park Ranger or first chair of the Empire Brass when Rolf Smedvig passes on.”
What I realized through doing so many disparate activities growing up was the through line of being really silly. I wanted to make everyone laugh. I always liked being the funny kid (I was obese growing up so my middle school survival depended on it) and the idea of doing it professionally fully dawned on me after I saw ASSSSSCAT at UCB for the first time when I was 15 and I thought “Oh wow, this is exactly who I am.”
VIGEANT: Hahaha absolutely not. Although I think it’s fairly gauche to make generalizations about all programmers because they’re not all rich white boys anymore, in my experience most people who are gifted programmers don’t love the spotlight– Not that I haven’t seen some AMAZING presentations given by programmers, and some of the funniest people I know are programming geniuses- but in my experience the stereotype we see of the computer nerd who is socially awkward is largely accurate.
That being said, many programmers are very very funny. Performing onstage is one very specific version of “performance.” Platforms like Twitch are allowing folks who otherwise might never have gained an audience as an entertainer to show the world how their mind works and it’s really awesome. LOWER THAT COASEAN FLOOR BABY
I do love the idea that Scott Aukerman is low key scripting applets on the side though.
CAKE: I like to imagine that The Auk just needs a Mr. Robot signal to save the world with his programming skill set. So what was the first computer you programmed on and do you remember the first script you ever wrote? Hello World!
VIGEANT: I was interested in writing code at an early age but my older brother told me not to because he didn’t want me to break the computer haha. I resent him for that but he’s also justified in thinking I would break stuff because that’s how you learn. You gotta break stuff! And if you let your fear of breaking shit prevent you from learning then you’re never gonna grow.
Whatever, I should’ve snuck around my brother’s wishes I was lazy haha. Not his fault. Not gonna blame him for my lack of growth at the time.
I did teach myself HTML3 on my parent’s old Gateway 2000 in… 1998? It was really exhilarating. I can’t find the website I made… I don’t know if it was GeoCities or Angelfire or something much more obscure… one day I hope to find it in the archives. But yeah it was my glorious corner on the ‘net. I recall at the time being obsessed with autoplay sound.
The first time I ever wrote actual CODE was in college on my 2007 Macbook Pro. I was at Cornell for Mechanical Engineering and casually hating every second of it. Once I admitted to myself I was going to be a comedian I switched majors to Information Science Engineering so I could get a job in NYC. What’s Information Science? CS but easier. What was my first program… huh, probably a very simple matrix multiplication thing haha. Not funny in the least.
CAKE: How did the idea for the shows “Let’s Make A Website” and “Internet Explorers” first explode with promise in your cerebellum?
VIGEANT: Love the way you phrased that.
I had a frustrating/funny moment recently where I was casually flipping through one of my old notebooks from college and I found that I had written that I will find my voice at the intersection of comedy and technology. It’s frustrating because for my first… 5 years in New York I was dedicated to anything but that. I was just cutting my teeth doing really big silly sketch comedy and videos and stuff. It took me a long long time before I realized I had this unique perspective I could utilize. I didn’t fully commit to being the Code/Tech/Computer comedy person until halfway through last year.
I think it worked out for the best because in that time I learned how to write and perform, and if I tried jumping directly into writing+performing+using my computer onstage I would’ve failed too hard and gone a different direction. Still, it was like “Oh I knew this 9 years ago. Sigh”
I first started messing around with tech+comedy with The Mark Vigeant Web Ring. I spent, God, hundreds of hours on those websites. And while they were never a viral sensation, they still exist and they still make people laugh while pointing you to everything I’ve ever done professionally.
Let’s Make a Website was one of those ideas that stuck around in my head for a while. Every year there’s a show at UCB called “The It Sucked Awards” that happens in the final week of the year, and characters accept awards for the suckiest [blank] of that year, and I had this bit where I would be the character responsible for the biggest tech fuckup of the year: in 2013 I was the engineer who made healthcare.gov, in 2014 I was the head of iCloud Security, in 2015 I was a Snapchat filter designer, in 2016 I was in charge of Hillary’s email server, in 2017 I was a Verizon rep explaining that Net Neutrality is a bad thing- and it always went really well. It was like a magic trick; the audience would be blown away whenever code ran successfully on my computer. It’s wild: Vaudeville performers had to be good at at least 6 different things- oh you can sing, dance, play the harp, be funny, act- but can you do magic? Now I feel like if you can do one thing kind of okay on stage audiences are like “WOW THIS GUY’S A FUCKING GENIUS!!!”
I knew I could be doing more with the character but I needed a hook. I couldn’t just be “Guy with a computer onstage trying to make you laugh!” for 30 minutes… since I didn’t have a name or an audience I needed to have a premise that would attract folks who didn’t know me. That’s a trap I feel like a lot of performers fall into early on. You have the skill to write and perform a show, but the title “Kingmaker: Bird Week!” is a lot less appealing than “Punderdome 3000” when you’re judging purely based on the premise.
When the idea to make a website onstage based on audience suggestions came to me I knew that was the one, but I didn’t act on it right away. It would be an exciting thought that came up in my writing from time to time but I was busy with my sketch group OSFUG: The Fast Fuckin’ Sketch Show and the show I had with my buddies An Evening with the Trumpet Boys. The gestation period was pretty long.
But then in the summer of 2016 I was going through a really tough time, I was frustrated with myself and my output, I was freelancing 2 draining coding jobs, I saw my friends advancing in their careers while I stagnated- and I wanted to do something purely for me. So I sat down and I wrote the show in about 3 weeks, with the help of my director Matt Gehring. I remember wrapping up my tech rehearsal at 2 in the morning the night before our trial show and the tech guy, the incredible and deadpan Alex Adan, said to me “Huh. Do you think people will get it?” God bless him. I cried on my way to the theatre the next day. It was really hard because I was not certain anybody would think it was funny. Would people laugh as I clicked through folders with silly names? Would my character be too much?
But the audience loved it. Shannon gave me a run on the spot. And the whole run at the theatre was magical. I think I cracked myself open over the course of that run. I’ve made a lot of comedy I’m really proud of… The OSFUG Pilot, The Trumpet Boy’s Christmas Special, my friend Sam and my book of Dad Poetry… but this was different. Let’s Make a Website is the closest I’ve come to being exactly who I want to be onstage and it rocked.
The run ended, I took it on tour a bit (including the KENNEDY CENTER haha) and I thought- this can’t be the end. I need to keep exploring this stuff. I have new ideas for bits, for videos, for websites- I love this character. So Internet Explorers was borne out of just wanting to keep making cool weird stuff for the screen. And now that show has a life of its own.
CAKE: How does the HTML-spewing character you present on stage differ from the dude interacting with daytime plebes in the meatspace? (You know, the one that goofs around at the gym for Instagram.)
VIGEANT: Haha, thank you for watching my Instagram videos, please like and subscribe. #instafunny
The Code Lord, as I call him, is a combination of all the people I worked with at my full-time software development job when I first graduated combined with who I’d be if I didn’t do comedy. Things we have in common… an affinity for the MCU, a deep knowledge of pinball, and mediocre programming skills. He’s more brash than I am. More stubborn. He is more in love with dated online memes. And he’s single.
That being said, the character I do at Internet Explorers is morphing into a closer version of me, which I like. It’s like a Colbert Report level of character. I look like myself now and I am obviously a joke, as opposed to the Code Lord proper from Let’s Make a Website who is a clown.
There is this truly magical thing that happens when you perform as an absurd character- you can be honest and people will be onboard. I’ve gone on and on about things that I actually deeply care about while in costume, and people respond with laughter. For instance, I’ve explained in depth about the bullshit that is The Sopranos pinball machine. It’s a great pinball machine, but it ruined the series for me. It tells you every major character who dies IN ORDER. Isn’t that insane!?!?!?!
CAKE: Which website or presentation you’ve created for a show has garnered the most attention to date? We do admire the custom gem you made for Mike Drucker, complete with a copious list of pene jokes (HEY, kids are reading this!)
VIGEANT: Ha, okay so the websites I make for the comedians are littered with in-jokes from the night I built them: those dick jokes on Mike’s website are pulled from an archived version of his old website, for instance. At Internet Explorers, one of the highlights of the show is always when I assault the headliner’s web presence onstage. It’s soooo fun, because most comedians work so hard to get seen that they forget about a lot of the things they put online. So stuff like old geocities pages and old websites that are on archive.org surprise the hell out of them. Always a treat.
The thing I’ve made that has popped off the most thus far is my Dropbox Maze. It’s super fun, and as far as I can tell only 3 people have made it to the end. Yes, this is a challenge to you and everyone reading!!!
CAKE: How much prep goes into putting together each “Internet Explorers” show? We want deets, great digital wizard!
VIGEANT: So much. Probably on the order of 100 hours per show.
Thankfully I have a producer now, the unbelievably talented Carly Hoogendyk. She helps with booking, promotion, and all sorts of higher-level show-running stuff that wouldn’t normally occur to me. But I’ll still end up spending at least 5 or so hours in the production end of the show; writing a press release, promoting each performer on different platforms, stuff like that.
Each show has a theme. I start off by researching that theme. I’ll spend about 6 hours diving into that world, compiling as much information on that topic as I can, seeing who the interesting people are in that world.
Then I have to make two bits, a presentation, and a video. The presentation is rough because I usually have 10 pages of research that I have to condense to a page and a half of funny yet educational material. Plus a visually engaging presentation. In fact, this is what I’m supposed to be working on right now. That’ll be 4 hours. Then I need to punch it up and memorize it, which I usually do day of just to make sure I’m really nervous about it lol.
One of the bits for the show is on-theme, so I have to brainstorm what will work based on my research before actually building it- and that could take a looong time- for instance the dropbox maze probably took me 15 hours all told because I broke my dropbox in the process haha. DID YOU KNOW: Dropbox will start to fail when you have 300k+ folders, no matter how large they are?
The other bit is decided by the audience at the previous show. For this upcoming show I have to build a screensaver that people can download. I think that’s going to take me a full day because I’m not even sure OSX allows you to do that anymore. And I’d love for it to also work on PC. So…
And for every show I premiere a video that’s also on-theme. That takes time because you simply MUST factor in all the time I spend looking at my idea saying “This is too stupid” before finally saying “TOO BAD ITS ALL I HAVE AND WE’RE OUTTA TIME!” So that’s 6 hours, writing + shooting + editing + editing + editing + editing.
Add to that the research I do on the headliner’s web presence and the obsessiveness I dedicate to trying to sell out the house and… well, that’s a whole mess of time!
But I justify the amount of effort I put into each show because everything I build for the show gets a second life digitally. Once I build it I can just toss it online. One of my goals this year is to promote my digital creations better… I think my Net Art would kill in front of the right audience, as would my Text Adventure Game. I also take pride in the fact that when I build something I’m not cutting corners… like for the last show about Artificial Intelligence, I trained a neural net to create a christmas carol that was then performed by the awesome Kuhoo Verma. For my show about Hacking I literally hacked a game of Minesweeper onstage. It’s harder this way but it stretches my brain and earns me some cred with the handful of hardcore technologists who come to every show.
CAKE: What do you have in store for the upcoming FIRST ANNIVERSARY event (happening at Caveat 1.16), featuring Jo Firestone, Mary Beth Barone, Angel Yau and some badass game developers? Care to divulge your most memorable installments of the show so far?
This show is going to be super badass- the entire lineup is straight FIRE. I’ve been trying to get Jo on the show for literally a full year so the fact that she’s here at the 1st anniversary is DOPE.
Obviously I am doing a game demo (with my brother) and the video I’m premiering is very fun. I still have to make the aforementioned screensaver, but if all goes well that will be downloadable and fun.
Really looking forward to making Jo a new site also… I have some ideas…
Some of the most memorable moments of the show thus far? Live surfing the Internet Archive with Jason Scott, live surfing the dark web and showing off my dark web site, and live-hacking Minesweeper on a legal copy of Windows XP I got to run on my mac.
CAKE: What do you love most about performing at Caveat?
VIGEANT: It’s a beautiful space in a cool location with an awesome staff + community. I have an affinity for dark intimate basement theatres and this one opened up almost the second UCB Chelsea closed. Plus they have a full bar and a mission that I fully support. Caveat is good people, and I try to perform there as much as I can.
CAKE: What will be keeping you the most busy in 2019, Internet Explorers, Let’s Make A Website, OSFUG, creating thumbs up snaps for Ig spectators or something completely different? Any new year’s resolutions?
VIGEANT: In 2019 you can expect a lot of videos (please hop onto my YouTube channel and MASH that like button), a lot of experimental web stuff, and an all out push to get all the funky shit I do at Internet Explorers in front of the largest audience possible.
CAKE: Please divulge your biggest programming pet peeve. Super fans, get ready!
VIGEANT: Thinking you’re better than everyone else.
CAKE: Thoughts on “Bandersnatch?” Pick up the family photo twice yet?
VIGEANT: Bandersnatch is fucking awesome. It’s exactly what I’ve been wanting the streaming services to do. I have so many ideas for interactive television and the fact that Netflix just had a big success is dope as hellll.
The genius of Bandersnatch is what it learned from Interactive Fiction programs. As you pointed out with the family photo twice thing, they’re able to pull off stuff that you can’t do in a CYOA book.
Honestly I can’t get into Netflix’ offices to pitch a comedic version of this fast enough.
CAKE: DO IT! And we end with the final and ultimate question, what is the proper way to pronounce GIF? (01110011 01101111 01100110 01110100 00100000 01100111 00100000 01100101 01101110 01100100 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01110011 01110100 01101111 01110010 01111001
Mentions: Don’t miss the “Online Gaming” edition of INTERNET EXPLORERS tomorrow at Caveat. Doors 9:00pm, show 9:30pm. Purchase $10 tickets HERE. 21+. Caveat is located at 21 A Clinton Street, Manhattan (212-228-2100). Learn all the digital deets about Mark HERE! Feature image by Mindy Tucker.