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‘Will & Grace’ On Speed: Gotham-Nominated Web Series ‘The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo’ Is A Surreal Ride

Creator and star Brian Jordan Alvarez reveals how he packaged his subversive fantasy as a mainstream comedy.

Creator Brian Jordan Alvarez in “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo”

YouTube

Remember this name: Brian Jordan Alvarez. He is the director, writer, producer and star of the short form comedy “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo,” an electric comedy that plugs into the zeitgeist the way “Girls” did, banters like “Broad City,” and boasts the chutzpah necessary in order to get away with naming a character “Lenjamin McButtons.”

Part of the genius of “Caleb Gallo” is that it defies conventional wisdom about making a short form series compelling to online audiences: The episodes are long, there is no discernible premise that can be squeezed into a snappy log line — even the title is a mouthful. Most potentially problematic is that if one were to summarize its plot, “Caleb Gallo” is basically a series about the love lives of five actor friends living in Los Angeles, one of the digital space’s most tired premises. These days, anyone making a web series had better have a more original story to tell. Either that, or just make it really effing good.

READ MORE: National Coming Out Day: 5 Online Shorts That Celebrate Queer Lives

The reason “Caleb Gallo” can tread such well-traveled ground is that Alvarez creates a world a few marbles short of reality. The characters speak at a breakneck pace, drawing the viewer in by forcing them to sit up and pay attention or risk missing the next offhanded quip or absurdly long laughing spell. With eyes slightly crazed and voices raised a hair above natural, the stakes feel absurdly high for each character from moment to moment, yet they recover from setbacks with a resilience only an actor could muster. The rules of this world are entirely fluid, with a logic of their own: Dates are walks, siblings are different races, gender is whatever, and sexual preference is something to be tried on like a fabulous hat. Alvarez achieves what all storytellers should attempt at least once — to bring fantasy to life.

“It’s a little bit of a magic trick to make it so aggressively mainstream in a certain way, so that it has a kind of universal pop drama. Then you really edge out the world all the way to fantasy,” Alvarez told IndieWire by phone from his home in Los Angeles. It was the day that cyberattacks knocked out Twitter, and he expressed concern about hovering military helicopters in between reflective outpourings.

“I think a lot about texture with the show,” he said. “Honestly, so much of it is the way it’s cut. The editing is like a secret ingredient. Sometimes I tell people I’m secretly just an editor. It’s an invisible art form.” Just as the characters in “Caleb Gallo” seem guided by their own unique logic, Alvarez does not waste time with exposition or transition shots. Caleb (Alvarez) is on the phone with Karen (played by fiery redhead Stephanie Koenig), Karen invites him over, et voila! — he appears at the front door. The camera lingers too long in some places, and cuts abruptly in others. The music halts during a shirtless dance party, and the actors keep dancing. In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a show afraid to break the fourth wall.

READ MORE: ‘Valentina’: Talking Vagina Short Film Director On How Surrealism Reveals Deeper Truths

Though he holds a BFA in acting from USC, Alvarez made stop-motion claymation as a kid, even booking an early gig sharing his skills with apathetic peers. He re-discovered his love of stop motion in college, using SLRs before they shot video. “I would make my friends act in slow motion, kind of like human claymation. Actually, they looked like Buster Keaton movies, flickering a lot,” he said. One such film, “A November,” is still up on his YouTube page, starring Troian Bellisario (“Pretty Little Liars”) and Peter Vack (“Mozart In The Jungle“).

Like many visionaries before him, Alvarez struggled to graduate college. He wanted to make experimental work, not follow someone else’s rules. “Going through the school system with that kind of personality is so draining,” he said. He struggled with substance abuse, which brought on a manic episode. The mania resolved itself once he got sober, but traces of it can be seen in the off-kilter pace of “Caleb Gallo.”

Daniele Watts (“Django Unchanined”), who plays Tatiana in the show, recognized Alvarez’s talent early on when they met as undergrads. “He knows what it feels like to be called crazy, or ‘too much,’ and he has learned how to redirect that energy to craft his own brilliance,” she said in an email to IndieWire.

Jason Greene as the gender fluid character Freckle in "The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo"

Jason Greene as the gender fluid character Freckle in “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo”

YouTube

When Alvarez graduated, he decided he needed to pick one path, and that acting was it. “Almost as though you’re trying to stifle part of your sexuality, I was like, ‘I’m just an actor now,'” he said. He felt dishonest feigning interest in other people’s visions when he really wanted to be realizing his own. He made a short film starring Watts in which he also appears, and realized he could combine acting with filmmaking.

“That energy kind of fused, and then it skyrocketed,” he said, and he wasn’t exaggerating. He began making short comedic sketches for his YouTube channel, which quickly picked up a loyal audience. “I knew if you make a lot of something it tends to work better. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna make ten videos.’ And then it turned into twenty.”

READ MORE: Gotham Awards 2016: ‘Manchester By The Sea’ Leads With Four Nominations, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Paterson’ Also Dominate

At first, he was only getting views in the hundreds. Then, Alvarez hit the viral mother load with a one-minute silent comedy, “What actually happens when gay guys see other gay guys and straight people aren’t around,” (clunky titles are his forte), which now has over 2.8 million views on YouTube. That video, which also stars Stephen Guarino (“Happy Endings”), showcased Alvarez’s physical comedy chops as well as his offbeat humor. “The channel just grew, and people started to understand the texture of my comedy,” he said.

It’s something his co-stars agree with. “The kind of entertainment he creates is like addictive candy,” Koenig told IndieWire. “I crave it. It’s very clear to me that he is the next big thing.”

In dozens of short situational and character sketches, Alvarez and his crew of equally talented collaborators (including Koenig and Drew Droege, of “Chloe” fame) shine as performers, but what is evident from their unified aesthetic is that Alvarez’s vision is the driving force. “Once you establish the channel and the brand, you have an audience that is ready for whatever content you bring to them,” said the filmmaker. “It’s nice to keep the taste level as high as possible so they trust you, and they know when you put something up, it’ll be good.”

Apparently, that audience includes people on the nomination committee for the Gotham Independent Film Awards, IFP’s awards show known for predicting Oscar contenders (as well as its swanky Cipriani location). Alvarez was in for a surprise when he found out “Caleb Gallo” was nominated in the new short form series category.

He has stiff competition with “Her Story,” which made history earlier this year when it was nominated for an Emmy. That show is groundbreaking as a story by and about transgender women, but it offers an otherwise traditional story. “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo” uses the traditional sitcom as a foundation to imagine a colorful world — one where gender, sexuality and even time is as fluid as a mindfulness practice on the beaches of Santa Monica.

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