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Terence Nance Is Indescribable

The writer, director, and actor talks about the influences behind his new HBO show, ‘Random Acts of Flyness’

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The most common descriptor applied to Random Acts of Flyness, the new HBO late-night series from artist Terence Nance, is “indescribable.” But here goes: Random Acts is a half-hour multimedia montage that combines comic sketches, musical interludes, animation, faux video games, and documentary interviews. The only common denominator to Random Acts many components is an interest in exploring contemporary black life in America.

As a genre-defying work from a black creator in the lily-white landscape of premium cable, Random Acts has already earned more than its fair share of comparisons to Atlanta. But the most intriguing parallel between the shows isn’t necessarily subject matter: Both are the product of creative teams with little to no experience in conventional narrative television. Nance is best known for writing, directing, and starring in An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the 2012 Sundance hit he’s described as “one-sided nonfiction”—a dreamlike autopsy of a real-life relationship years in the making. The 36-year-old Texas native has also made music videos, short films, and performance pieces, one of which, “18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion,” is excerpted in the most recent episode of Random Acts.

To help realize his vision, Nance assembled a team of collaborators from his largely Brooklyn-based artistic community, many of them fellow filmmakers: Naima Ramos-Chapman, Frances Bodomo, and Darius Clark Monroe number among Random Acts’ credited contributors. Traditional writers’ rooms generate stories then hand their work off to a series of directors for hire. Random Acts of Flyness, however, is the result of visual storytellers who can conceive and execute their own concepts. The results include “White Thoughts,” a satirical infomercial starring Jon Hamm; “Everybody Dies!,” a macabre public-access children’s show hosted by Ripa the Reaper; and “Nuncaland,” a failed plea to preserve innocence in a cruel world set to song.

Every episode of Random Acts of Flyness adds something new to the audience’s understanding of what the show can be, whether by adding new characters like Najja (Dominique Fishback), a love interest of sorts to Nance’s on-camera persona, or interspersing observations from gender-nonconforming artist Alok Vaid-Menon at sporadic intervals throughout a chapter. At the halfway point of Random Acts’ six-week summer run, The Ringer got on the phone with Nance to discuss the challenges of trying to make something without precedent, Random Acts’ roots in late-night reruns, and the appeal of video games as a new storytelling frontier.

I was reading an interview from last year’s Sundance Festival where you describe the TV project you’re working on as “about how ineffectual political satire is on television.” Can you talk about how the show developed from its original concept to the final version?

Just to contextualize that quote a little bit better, I would say it’s ineffectual in its stated goal, which is to create some sort of consciousness shift through laughter, specifically laughter at the power structure.

I think that the initial idea had some—I actually don’t remember what I was thinking about or why I wrote it down or even had the idea. I was in college at the time. I had the idea in 2006, and then around 2013 or ’14, I’d say, is when I started actively working on it. The creative element didn’t really change at all. There’s a kind of evergreen-ness to it that’s a little bit related to trying to figure out how to make something that doesn’t have a stated form or doesn’t have a formal precedent. I think that kind of broad desire still exists and is continuous from the initial energy of the initial idea.

You spoke to The New York Times about the difficulties of breaking into the feature world, even after your Sundance debut in 2012. Is that why you ultimately went into television? Had you ever thought about TV as a possibility before?

I always think about everything, you know? [Laughs] I’m always trying to find ways to make work that lives in a lot of different spaces. Not to say—I definitely didn’t think about, like, “I’m gonna do this and then this and then this.” I don’t have that kind of linearity, I guess, to the way ideas might gestate and then get on different types of platforms. But yeah, I was always thinking about [Random Acts] as a television show, and more specifically, a late-night television show.

I remember my brother and I—he was not even in college. He was in high school, actually. But I was in college. I remember around that time, TV One had just come on, and it was like 80 percent reruns of black TV from The Jeffersons all the way to Living Single or whatever, collected on TV One. It was essentially an anthology of the history of black TV, as a network. I think around that time also, Adult Swim was starting. I remember we had the idea to somehow convince TV One to allow us to curate or take over midnight to 6 a.m., and we could just do whatever we want. [Laughs] Because nobody’s watching TV One from midnight to 6 a.m.! They could give us a thousand dollars and we’d figure something out.

That was his idea. He’s a writer on the show and a director and composes music and stuff. He designed the game. I think that idea from him is part of what the show is and became, just that energy of knowing there’s a space on television that has always been there and will be there, especially on late night.

Random Acts is loosely categorized as a late-night show, and to the extent that it resembles any existing TV, it’s probably closest to a sketch comedy series. Were there any influences or precedents you were looking to?

Definitely not any specific shows. But you know, I think that just in general, growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, on BET late at night, they would switch to this thing called Uncut. There would be all the homemade music videos that were either a little raunchy or just, like, lo-fi or kind of nonsense. [Laughs] I remember one was by this dude named Prussia. I forget the name of it; it’s probably a YouTube classic now. It was a very famous, terrible R&B song. This guy had a yellow suit on. He was by a pool. It was this space where they would play, like, the TLC music video or whatever was really popular at the time. It felt like you could just send your tape in and they would play it, even though that probably wasn’t what was happening. That wasn’t a show, but that kind of energy.

Around that time, they also had this digital host. I think her name was Theda, something like Theda Explains It All. She was, like, a 3-D digital avatar for some voice actor. [Laughs] She introduced the videos. I think that’s all part of it. Obviously, we grew up with In Living Color. We grew up with that kind of Dada, absurdist … that’s definitely a sketch show, but I don’t think that, other than that, we were explicitly thinking about shows.

My mother, she worked on a television show, like a proper variety show. I think it was Ossie and Ruby!. I wasn’t alive at that time, but it was very rooted in the Black Arts Movement, especially the theater element of it. Obviously, because Ossie [Davis] and Ruby [Dee] come from that, but at that time, the playwrights and the poets were central. The August Wilsons and Amiri Barakas and Ntozake Shanges and that kind of vibe, that way of using language. Me and my siblings all grew up with that, in that world. I didn’t really know she worked on that show until a few years ago, but I’ve seen it since we’ve made the show. It’s very similar to what they were doing.

And to that point, there’s Ja’Tovia Gary, who’s an amazing artist who makes animation and video work. We’ve known each other and been connected for a really long time—since high school, essentially. She kind of put me up on independent films. She has this film called An Ecstatic Experience that was at the MoMA recently. I think it actually centers around a clip from the Ossie and Ruby show, where Ruby Dee is doing a monologue around sharecropping or something like that. But if you watch Ja’Tovia’s film, it definitely has a tonal familiarity, because it’s sampling that element, that generation’s expression of the variety show. Which I think is different than what we think of as a variety show now, a sketch show.

Rather than assembling a traditional TV writers’ room, you worked with a group of collaborators who were mostly other artists from an independent film background. Was that tough to sell HBO on? What did you see as the advantage of that kind of approach?

No. I was never asked to sell anyone on anything, especially in terms of that. I think the expectation was I would work with the people I always work with. I wasn’t thinking about anyone’s quote-unquote experience level in television, because in my mind we weren’t making a quote-unquote television show. That wasn’t even something that crossed my mind or was important to me.

I think that in general the thing that I was most excited about in making the show was finding a way for it to be a platform for our community of artists to make stuff at a scale and with a speed that we don’t usually get to work at. I think that freedom, that opportunity to exercise that freedom, it was very central to the tonality in the room and how the room extrapolated out into the shoot. Basically, everybody in the room is also a director and directed on the show. I think it was really important to retain the level of intimacy within our community in terms of making things and being in conversation—that birthed all my work but also definitely birthed the pilot.

Definitely the most talked-about [segment] and the tonal jumping off point for the pilot is “Everybody Dies!,” and that film is by Frances [Bodomo]. Frances had that film. I was around when she was making it; I remember reading it and seeing a rough cut. She was making that while I was making the pilot. Us being in conversation, our conversations around that film in the pilot definitely are the gestating energy that creates the pilot. If I’m trying to make a season that reflects the creative process of the pilot, it was kind of a no-brainer that we had to all be in conversation. Not just with Frances, but with Mariama [Diallo], and Naima [Ramos-Chapman], and Nelson [Mandela Nance], and just all the people in my community who I’m always around, making work with.

How do you think of your on-camera role on the show? It’s probably most analogous to a “host,” and you do introduce the show in the pilot, but in future episodes you’re more like one actor among many.

I don’t think the show is a variety show in terms of having a host. That idea is only relevant as a material thing to play with, even the character of me kind of attempting to host, and then that not working out or being interrupted or destroyed or attempting to be destroyed. I think that element of self-awareness, or this mirror room of being, is what is happening with the show. The show is kind of a sentient being. [Laughs] And what’s happening with the characters that I’m playing is sort of riffing on my experiences but also other people’s experiences in the room, embodying them. I definitely feel like I’m just one performer of many, embodying the different idioms or characters or conversations that came up in the room as opposed to a host.

Every episode of Random Acts is loosely clustered around a theme or motif. Individual elements could stand alone, but they fit together into a cohesive flow. How did you organize those themes into semi-cohesive episodes?

It was important that we prioritize the viewing experience as seeing the whole thing. I think the viewing experience of watching the segments is cool, but hopefully as a means of baiting people to watch the whole thing. It’s scripted and conceptualized to stand alone as episodes. There’s also episodes that have some time in between where you can talk about them before seeing the next one. Secondarily, it’s conceptualized as a whole season you can watch more or less continuously and in order, and watching it in that way or experiencing it in that way will bear fruit for you because there are connections that can be made that are easier to make if you see it all.

Building that continuity into it is part of the thing that we challenged ourselves with. Because it was a thing we hadn’t seen before. It would have been very easy to make a thing that was more like a sketch show, that has a whole lot of segments that just worked as segments and were funny or interesting or dramatic or whatever. I think, on some level, that’s a thing that exists. It maybe wouldn’t exist as something that has this many tones, but it’s still closer to something that exists. The thing, to us, that felt like a challenge worth our time and energy was to find a way to have something that flowed but had a causal relationship, and there was a cumulative impact of seeing it all, seeing it in sequence.

The show incorporates documentary interview subjects but in a way that isn’t always clearly demarcated from the rest of the show. How did you cast them? Can you talk about casting for the show as a whole?

It was a team effort. Obviously the narrative casting is done really well, and I think in an avant-garde way, even, by Susan Shopmaker and her team. But we obviously supplemented that with a lot of really creative documentary and background casting. Also, just texting everybody, “Yo, do you know somebody who wants to talk about this?” That type of thing. Because a lot of what we’re looking for isn’t the type of thing you’re gonna be able to go to a company to locate these people for you. It was a team effort by very committed individuals.

Video game imagery figures very heavily into the show. Can you talk a bit about what interests you about the medium and what you’re hoping to do with it?

I’m not a gamer. I didn’t grow up as a gamer. But my younger brother did, for sure. He’s a big influence within the writers’ room. Just observing the next generation and how they interact with games and gaming as a media experience and a programming experience and an emotional experience is really important to me. My goal is always to have a very integrated, relevant conversation, and especially with kids, with younger people. If you’re not working on the stage that they’re looking at, then you have no chance, you know?

Definitely the show represents the tip of the iceberg with that. Obviously, we made a game so that people would be able to play it, but I think the ways that the metatextual experience of the game mirror what it’s like to live in a three-dimensional world—the lines between those two experiences are blurring every second to the point where there’s theories that this is all a simulation. Even stepping back from that idea, the human drama as explained or told through a game is another way to inhabit different subjectivities that are not your own. The power of games to simulate subjectivities outside of your own is what we’re trying to suggest with the show, because everyone watching the show isn’t a gender-nonconforming brown person. There’s a way, though, to access some sort of subjectivity of different people if you understand the formal idea of gaming. Which, because of the world we live in now, almost everyone will or does.