For six years, Matt Sloan and Craig Johnson have delighted their audience with what I believe is hands down the best show about cinema on the internet.
Welcome to the Basement has a simple premise — longtime friends Matt and Craig watch and talk about a movie that Matt has never seen before. That’s the context anyway. Not too complicated, right?
Still, this open approach allows for all sorts of engaging pontification, ranging from their off-the-cuff, hilarious quips to an in-depth analysis of each flick that would make André Bazin proud.
Welcome to the Basement, by the by, is part of an enterprise called Blame Society Productions, started by Matt and a very funny fellow named Aaron Yonda. You can see Matt and Aaron, and occasionally Craig, in action in another Blame Society series called Beer and Board Games, which is also pretty damned amazing.
Earlier this month, The Z Review highlighted Welcome to the Basement in an enthusiastic write-up, but we still wanted to know more. So, we sent some questions to the boys and they kindly responded in their typically thoughtful fashion.
TZR: A big part of the charm of your series is the chemistry between you two. You really seem to get a genuine kick out of each other. Where and when did you meet, and how did you come up with the idea for the show?
CRAIG JOHNSON: Matt and I met in a local community theater production of Macbeth. I had just returned to Madison from a couple of years out of state. Matt played the title character, while I played Prince Malcolm.
It was a very long rehearsal schedule. Auditions were around 9/11. That 9/11. And we didn’t open until January. A mutual friend, who played Banquo, was the connective tissue. The three of us were very into music at the time, and we would get together for listening parties of albums that we recently purchased.
We each had our specialty. Matt had a finger on the pulse of what was cutting edge, Banquo was the historian who knew all of rock history, while I was the guy with boots on the ground going to shows and such. I’m sure there was discussion of movies, but music was our main priority at that time of our lives.
One of my earliest memories with Matt was when Banquo got a hold of Lou Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music, and within seconds of starting the album we began arguing over whether or not we should turn it off. It was 64 minutes of debate.
Matt was the one who came up with the idea of the show, so I leave it to him to answer that half of the question.
MATT SLOAN: We met during a theatrical production of Macbeth in 2002. We did theater and improv together over the years and would get together to watch movies and listen to records. I proposed the show to him in 2012, commonly known as “Episode 0” of the show, and here we are today.
I wanted to make a web show where an entire movie was watched. The original idea was to have a rotating cast of co-hosts who didn’t necessarily know what they were getting into, or even that they would be on camera, and they would select a DVD from my collection.
Then I thought it would be much more interesting to watch movies I haven’t seen, and it would make for a better show if I had one co-host so we could develop a rapport, and they wouldn’t be starting from square one every episode.
The original title of the show was I Watched That, which is bland and terrible, so I changed it to Welcome to the Basement. There’s a warmth to it, inviting the audience into your home and such. It probably also evokes certain memories for a lot of people. How many of us grew up watching movies down in the basement?
I also like Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Public Enemy’s Welcome to the Terrordome. “Welcome to the (blank)” is a powerful statement.
TZR: What I find so impressive about the show is your ability to deliver your thoughts, insights and analysis without much time to process. Have you ever felt, after further reflection on the movie, “damn, I wish I would have said that” or “Jesus, I was completely off base”?
MS: “Completely off base,” sometimes. “I wish I would have said that,” nearly every episode. We actually do a segment in our end-of-the-year special episode called “Staircase Thoughts,” where we look back on the year with further or revised observations about certain movies.
That’s another thing that’s appealing to our audience, the immediacy of the concept. It’s our first time watching the movie — one of us, anyway — and we give our immediate reactions. There’s no time to sit around and ruminate and collect your thoughts, and I think that leads to a more unique and lively discussion.
CJ: Every single episode. The nature of our show is that we are talking about our first impressions, and first impressions are often more emotional than intellectual. We have gotten better over the years at figuring out where the emotions come from intellectually in the time allotted, but there is always stuff that comes to us after the cameras have been taken down. It’s not uncommon that Tona, our camera, sound and make-up person, will have a great insight after the fact that makes us realize how much we missed.
TZR: On top of your analysis, your epigrams throughout the viewing are hilarious, and you’ve both demonstrated that lightning-quick wit from the first show. How do you account for it? Were you both serious fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or is it your improv training?
CJ: Both of us grew up fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you look behind Matt’s head when we’re on the couch, you might be able to see some of their DVDs. And the years of doing improv no doubt help out, but I think it all goes back to late nights in my teenage years, when my older brother and I would be watching so much nothing on TV and riffing on whatever crossed our paths.
I had always seen my brother as the funniest person in the world, but like so many older brothers, inscrutable, unreachable and cool on levels I knew I could never achieve. Goofing on the TV was the first time I felt like we were bonding, and the fact that I could make him laugh made me feel that I was, in a small way, his equal.
The one show my brother didn’t like to linger on was Mystery Science Theater 3000. He said they should just show the movies and the home audience should come up with their own jokes. And look at me now! Matt and I are doing just that.
MS: I actually can’t watch the new Mystery Science Theater 3000, because I don’t want them to get into my head. I’ve been spending seven years trying to get them out. Sometimes I delete a riff because it sounds too much like something that Kevin or Joel or Bill would say.
Over the years, I’ve found the most important thing on the couch is to keep talking. When you start editing yourself in your head, then the riffs start to dry up. So I make it a point to say whatever dumb comment comes to mind, because you never know when the other guy on the couch is going to take your dumb comment and make it funny. Or it might change as it’s coming out of you mouth, and become funny.
TZR: You’ve managed to develop an impressive audience with some fairly high brow content. I mean, there are shows dedicated to cinema, but not as erudite as this one. Are you surprised by how many have connected with your show?
MS: Yes, mainly because it quickly became more of a personality-driven show than a concept-driven show. The show is about the two of us as much as it is about whatever movie we’re watching, but I think that’s the appeal for a lot of people. Because we share so much of ourselves on the show, people say it’s like hanging out with old friends.
Also the show can be whatever we want it to be, so it’s unpredictable. We mainly talk about movies, but sometimes we also talk about music or theater. I talk about my cats, Craig talks about his baby. I once shared my recipe for guacamole. Craig once decoded the complicated religious iconography hidden in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. The viewer never knows where the conversation may be headed.
CJ: I like that you find us to be erudite, and maybe we achieve that at times, but I think people watch for a different reason. My wife has a friend who got into the show and she told me once that she didn’t care about the movies, generally. She just liked watching our friendship. I realized then that that was what the draw of the show was. We’re two friends listening to each other. When we discuss the movie we are facing each other a few feet apart, looking each other in the eye, taking turns talking. We’re building off of each other, not trying to top each other, or shoot each other down.
This is an unnatural way of talking. If we were just hanging out, talking after watching a movie, I would be sprawled on the couch playing with a cat and Matt would be looking through his record collection. We’d be interrupting each other, going on tangents, losing track of things. But, we force ourselves to have a conversation on one topic for twenty minutes that Matt edits down to seven. I think there’s something about us talking which moves the audience in subtle ways. And this technique also opens us up in ways that allows us to mine deeper so that we might accidentally say something more erudite without worrying about the other person judging us.
Now that I think about it, the jackets I always wear make me feel smarter.
TZR: This question is really for anyone aspiring to make a career through YouTube. First off, is it possible? Not getting into actual numbers, as that would be gauche, are you able to make a living off of the show? Or the Blame Society enterprise?
MS: Yes, I’ve been doing Blame Society full time since 2007. The money isn’t what it used to be, and it’s sometimes tough to find new income streams when old ones dry up, but we manage. As for a Youtube career now? It happens, but it’s much more difficult than it was 11 years ago.
TZR: Would you define your show as part of the storied “movie review” genre, like a Siskel & Ebert deal? Were they influential in any way?
MS: No, I’ve always said we are not a review show, even though “movie review” is in our YouTube tags, but that’s just playing the algorithm game. We don’t rate movies, we don’t watch movies currently in theatrical release. We always tell people to watch the movie themselves and make up their own mind, even if we hated it.
There are so many review shows on the web, so many of them are the same. I wanted to make something unique and personal and sincere.
Sincerity is the key. I hate snark. On occasion someone will call us “snarky,” and it makes me cringe. Snark is the worst. Every movie on our show gets a fair shake, and every movie gets thoughtful analysis and discussion, even if we are simultaneously tearing it apart.
CJ: The influence of Siskel & Ebert on movie fans of our generation, which would be generation X, is inestimable. Once a week, you could turn on your TV to watch two men discussing film, fighting against each other or alongside each other about a movie. They were both passionate and intellectual.
You tuned in for the passion, and without realizing it, you absorbed their intellect. Or you’d show up for the review of Gremlins and you’d also find out about the new Bill Forsythe movie coming out of Scotland. Without thinking about it, my high school friends and I followed their lead, not just giving a thumbs up or down, but the reasons why our thumbs pointed the way they did.
Now, I wouldn’t put us in the same class as those two, but I would put us in the same genre, but we stand meek alongside those giants.
TZR: Your audience seems to be pretty troll-free. These days even the most benign shows seem to attract a pretty wide contingent of sub-mental muldoons. Why do you think you’ve been able to avoid it? Do you monitor your comments section and delete negative comments?
CJ: “Sub-mental muldoons.” I like it. Trolls are there, but blessedly rare. I don’t know how we avoid the trolls. I try not to think about it for fear that it will jinx us. Sometimes people will complain that our politics don’t line up with theirs, and on occasion we’ll be called racists, because that’s what people do on the web, but generally we don’t get much trouble from our viewers.
MS: I don’t delete negative comments, but I tend to delete troll comments, which happily are few and far between. It’s easy to tell the difference. Sometimes if our discussion leads us to a political topic or if we happen to use certain trigger words like “racism” or “sexism,” that tends to bring the trolls out of the woodwork, because they have nothing better to do.
TZR: Do either of you have aspirations of taking your show to a network?
MS: Not really. If the show is not 100% my vision, with input from Craig and Tona of course, then I don’t want to do it.
CJ: I would not object to Welcome to the Basement branching out to a wider audience, and TV is the gold standard even in the internet age, but I don’t know how we could do that. There would have to be an offer made before we could realistically start talking about how it would change the format, independence and smooth operation of the show, which now that I think about it doesn’t sound all that fun.
There is a freedom in the Basement as it is. We can run the operation with three people who have known each other, our moods, our personal lives for nearly 20 years. Yes, TV is a nice thing to dream about, but it would be more realistic to try to find a broader audience on the internet.
TZR: What’s your favorite genre of movie?
CJ: Heist movies, though I have taken to samurai movies a lot in these last few years.
TZR: What’s your favorite era in movies?
CJ: My favorite era is the 1980s, the dawn of VCRs and cable, when blockbusters and action movies didn’t yet have solid formulas but were instead built on instinctual storytelling. There was a gloss on the films that made them magical again after the grittiness of the 70s, and I do love that 70s grit.
I could go on, but really, I should just write a book. So, I’ll just say that the decade doesn’t get enough praise, yet it gave us The Right Stuff, Amadeus, A Christmas Story, Stop Making Sense, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Local Hero, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Ran, Paris Texas, The Thing, Moonstruck, My Neighbor Totoro, Cinema Paradiso and a few dozen more of your favorite movies.
TZR: What’s a movie you hate that is considered a great work by critics? And conversely, what is a movie dismissed by critics that you both love? Speaking to that second question, I don’t mean some “guilty pleasure” deal, but to give a personal example, I happen to like The Two Jakes a lot. As a film noir fanatic, particularly the B, C, D level efforts of the fifties, I found it to be solid.
MS: I find Some Like It Hot to be overrated, though I wouldn’t say I hate it. I hated La La Land — the old Moonlight switcheroo really made my Oscar night. I dislike most of the films of Noah Baumbach, though I continue to watch them.
The Hudsucker Proxy is one of my favorite Coen Brothers movies. I’m pretty sure most people hate it. Four Rooms is a movie I’ve defended for years. It’s a really fun movie as long as you skip the first two rooms.
CJ: I love every Preston Sturges movie I’ve seen, with the exception of Sullivan’s Travels. It’s considered his masterpiece, but the dramatic parts bore me nearly as much as the comedy parts do. The moral of the story is on point, but everything up to then leaves me numb. I’ve yet to see a WC Fields movie that I like.
A movie I love that is disliked by many is Soderbergh’s Schizopolis. I feel I totally got the joke of the movie, and then when it turns and defines itself at the end, I was left devastated. Also, if it wasn’t a remake of one of the most respected comedies of all time. And how funny and essential is a comedy if it is so “respected”? Brandon Frasier’s Bedazzled would be considered a classic.
TZR: Who is your least favorite actor? And your favorite? And don’t give me Michael Shannon!
CJ: I have raged against a number of actors, both privately and on the show, but I have mellowed in my years. I don’t know if there’s any actors I actively hate anymore, and I’m a happier man for it. As for favorites, Isabelle Huppert and Holly Hunter. They both can make the boldest moves with absolute subtlety.
For more on the series Welcome to the Basement, check out their website for full synopses of their episodes, essays, and more. And of course…their YouTube shows! And if you haven’t read our write up – DO SO! And don’t forget the excellent Beer and Board games as well. You won’t be disappointed.