Aw, Yeah: Ypsi-filmed YouTube show "Renting and Raving" offers silly humor and strong characters
The first time Basement Guy ate real cat food was the last time.
"Next few instances he was eating chili in a cat-food can," says Evan Greig, the director, co-writer, and co-star of Renting and Raving, a YouTube comedy show shot in Ypsilanti. "The fact that a lot of people find the cat-food scene to be gross is great. To me, it means we made it feel real—because it was."
"I remember we were shooting that night and the plan was to empty the can out and fill it with tuna," says Eric Pullins who co-stars as Bret and is a co-writer, prop master, and production designer for the show. "[B]efore we could do that Cameron just dove right in. Cameron is our star and he really commits. I would not have committed that hard."
The committable Basement Guy is played by the committed Cameron Greig, who is also a co-writer and key grip on the show.
This trio of characters comprises the core of Renting and Raving, which makes up with oodles of charm and smart-to-low-brow humor what it's missing in a budget and the occasional incongruity.
All 10 episodes of the first season, filmed before the pandemic, are now available on YouTube, and it's a labor of love for Greig, Pullins, and Greig, along with cinematographer Johannes Pardi, production manager Emily Weir, script supervisor Brent Bergeron, who also plays Evan's shady pal Tito on the show. Also, the brief but ear-worm-worthy theme song by Jeremiah Heiss will get stuck in your head and have you mumbling "Aw, yeah!" to no one in particular.
Renting and Raving succeeds because all the actors nail their characters' buffoonery and ineptitude without overplaying any of it. It's also easy to genuinely like these oddballs—even Evan, who spends much of the season taking advantage of people with his hair-brained get-rich schemes. Evan's interactions with roommate Bret have a smile-inducing Laurel and Hardy vibe, with the former causing the latter slow-burn frustrations because he never has money for rent and is always planning some crazy way to get the cash, often in tandem with Tito.
The show is filmed as a mockumentary but we don't find out why there's a camera capturing these characters until the fifth episode. It's then we learn that Evan and Bret's mysterious roommate Basement Guy is a former child star who was so traumatized by his experience that he retreated from society and has been living the subterranean life ever since. He just comes with the house now for each subsequent set of renters.
"When we made the pilot we didn’t even really have the child-star thing," Pullins says. "We also had some plots that teased it while we progressed, but they got dropped because they just did not fit in the overall episodes. I also thought Evan’s character would have tried to take advantage of Basement Guy's star power right away if he knew."
"It was important to make Basement Guy seem almost alien early on. We wanted his character to be mysterious," says Evan Grieg. "I thought it would be funnier if Bret and Evan did not realize that Basement Guy was a celebrity until later on in the season. It makes them seem so naive and delusional, which is the cornerstone of Evan and Bret's personalities."
While The Office is an obvious influence, the whole "failed group of schemers" thing feels more in the spirit of Workaholics and another series with incorrigible kooks.
"Writing-wise, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is perhaps my biggest influence on the show—dysfunctional characters who never change," Evan Grieg says. "Directing-wise, I took a lot of inspiration from The Trailer Park Boys' one-cameraman style. Along with lots of wide shots to help establish our environment."
"I have always been a big comedy nerd," Pullins says. "A lot of stand-up, comedy movies, I have rotted my brain out with a ton of television. I wouldn’t want to compare what we are doing to my heroes. I wanted it to have a weird shifting dynamic where we could do whatever, kind of like Community but also tied into a certain reality like The Office."
While Renting and Raving is shot in Ypsilanti, and locals will immediately recognize places like Depot Town, downtown Michigan Avenue, and Washtenaw Community College, the show takes place in a fictitious place with an oddly modern name.
"I thought giving the town a weird back story and name like Syntronix was a good way to develop the feel of the show," Pullins says. "We weren’t able to do much with it this time because we were developing the characters, but if season two starts happening, I have big plans for that."
While the futuristic-sounding town Syntronix didn't end up playing a role in season one, the Renting and Raving crew did make a fake commercial for "The Home of Tomorrow, Today!" that shows the city to be a corporate-run nightmare.
But that sort of broad humor feels like it might be at odds with what makes Renting and Raving special: the focus on the smallness of these likable characters' semi-desperate everyday lives.
You want Evan to succeed even if he's selling crushed-up Viagra as a new kind of miracle high to a motley crew of customers in a desolate parking lot, with Tito hanging out in the nearby dumpster. You hope Bret's search for a job—be it in a coffee shop or as an underground pro wrestler/MMA fighter—comes through so he can start marketing his inventions and fulfill his dreams to make big bucks on Wall Street. You desire to see Basement Guy come to terms with his childhood trauma even as he prepares white-bread soup and eats tins of cat food with such gusto that you might think him living underground is actually the best for society as a whole.
Renting and Raving may be low budget, but there's a clear-cut foundation in the writing and characterizations that make the show feel like it's the equivalent of a band's really strong demo tape before they get signed to a record deal.
"We [plan to] send it to companies like Adult Swim and Comedy Central. We want to get it out to anybody that distributes and manages comedy and just see what happens," Evan Grieg says. "I think we have made something original and funny."
He's not wrong.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.