We recently talked with The team behind multi-platform media brand Wisecrack about one of the crown jewels in their burgeoning online empire: Thug Notes. Centered around the literary exploits of certified ganster/Ph.D Spark Sweets, the series has helped out many struggling students and attracted countless fans from all walks of life. Below is the full Q&A with Mendeloff; you can read our longer article about Thug Notes here.
1. Where did the idea for Thug Notes originate?
It was a combination of things. Jared, who created and directs the show, was waiting in line to see Barry Lyndon at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. He was jokingly comparing Barry’s rise to power to that of Scarface, which is a widely appreciated film in hip hop culture. A woman overheard his comparison and suggested that he clearly didn’t understand the film. But, upon further reflection, he realized that just because the language didn’t match the rather “stuffy” demeanor of a classic film didn’t mean he was wrong. It struck him that almost anything, no matter how “elevated,” could be broken down in slang. Also, when Jared was in high school, he didn’t want to go home and read classic literature like his teacher required. He wanted to watch Chappelle’s Show instead.
So he figured: Why not mix the two?
2. How do you choose which books you want to cover on the show?
We mostly go by commenter requests and books that are on high school reading lists.
3. What are some of the best responses the videos have received?
We’re fortunate enough to have fans who say that we’ve rekindled or even created their passion for reading, and in certain cases, changed the way they view the world. On a few occasions, we’ve had fans who write us saying that Thug Notes inspired them to pursue an education or to make a positive change in their life. The true gift of literature is giving people new perspectives and new ways to view the world, and whenever a fan reaffirms that message, it makes it all worth it.
4. What are some of the worst?
As you can imagine, we get some pretty reactionary people who are offended by the portrayal of a racial stereotype. But truth be told, these people are few and far between. The vast majority of messages we get are overwhelmingly positive.
5. Has there been any blowback to your decision to discuss literature the way you do?
Not in any significant way. A few individuals have been offended, but we think because we treat the books with such reverence and put such care into each and every episode, people respect that we’re doing justice to the literature.
6. How did Greg Edwards (AKA the notorious Sparky Sweets, PhD) get involved with the series?
Greg was a personal recommendation from a comedy writer Jared had worked with in the past. Jared talked with Greg about the project, and the rest is history. Greg has always been working in both education and comedy so it was kind of a match made in heaven. He used to do educational theater, and currently, while doing stand-up, is also working with special needs kids in an educational setting.
7. Take me through your process for crafting an episode: how long it takes to write, when do the animators get involved, Edwards’ role in bringing Sparky to life, etc.
The first thing that happens is the book is read cover to cover. This role has jumped between different people depending on scheduling, but for the most part its been two individuals that have been in charge of reading the books. After that, a research document is crafted that includes key passages from the text, various academic discourse, and a breakdown of themes, symbols, etc. From there, Greg and Jared collaborate to turn the research document into a script. We usually film 4 episodes in one day. So it takes about 2 months to get all the research/script writing in the can to prepare for one intense day of shooting. After shooting, we annotate the scripts with illustration notes and send it off to our illustrator who brings the narratives to life.
8. One of the most memorable aspects of Thug Notes is the crude yet extensive animation used to describe the plot of each book. Why did you decide to present it like that?
Well the real answer is because we had no money when we were starting and needed to find an approach that distinctive and cheap. Actually, the original idea was that it was just going to be Greg the whole time. There were originally going to be no animations. Remember a couple years ago there was a Funny or Die video of Michael Shannon doing a dramatic reading of a sorority girl freak-out monologue? Well, that was going viral by the time we were developing the first couple episodes of Thug Notes, so we figured if that worked, it could work in this format too. But after we filmed the first three episodes, we realized in post that we needed some kind of animations to help guide the audience through the narrative.
9. To your knowledge, has Thug Notes ever been used by teachers as an educational tool?
Absolutely. We get emails every week of teachers, students and parents praising the show for allowing them to FINALLY understand a book they had been struggling with for a long time. We also get a lot of teachers asking for cleaner versions of Thug Notes that they can share in the classroom – though we do bleep curse words. Though there are “cool” teachers who use it in the classroom anyway.
10. Some of the books Sparky discusses deal with some pretty touchy subjects (rape, racism, etc.). How do you navigate those issues while staying true to the series’ comedic tone?
That’s a pretty significant challenge. Obviously we do our best to add levity where appropriate and add a tinge of seriousness when dealing with sensitive things like that. Basically, we’re not afraid to set the comedy aside when necessary. Then again, if racism comes up, Sparky saying something like “ain’t that some shit?” is both humorous and sensitive to people’s plight.
11. Are there any books you wouldn’t touch? Why?
Infinite Jest, War and Peace, and Ulysses. The episodes would have to be about 45 minutes in order to do justice to the texts.
12. How has Thug Notes evolved since its premiere in 2013?
More than anything, Greg’s performance as Sparky has changed a lot since 2013. He’s been doing the role for so long now that he’s really comfortable with it and really found his sweet spot. Also, after doing about 80 certified classics, we decided that we’d try some more contemporary stuff too, so we’ve done Gone Girl, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and have an episode coming up on Steven King’s IT.
13. In your opinion, why is Sparky Sweets such an enduring character?
It has a lot of it has to do with Greg’s magnetic performance. He’s just really good at what he does!
14. Wisecrack has built itself a reputation for producing highbrow content in a funny and accessible way. Where does Thug Notes fit into that equation?
In many ways, Thug Notes is the epitome of the Wisecrack brand – taking highbrow literature and breaking it down in a fun, easy-to-digest manner while still maintaining the integrity of the most revered academic discourse on these texts.
15. What are your plans for Thug Notes and your other brands going forward?
It’s a dream of ours is to take it to Thug Notes to TV, with reenactments similar to Drunk History.
Featured image courtesy of Wisecrack.