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Fail Army: How Did a Proudly Stupid YouTube Ripoff Become a Smash Hit?

Lost amongst TV3’s big budget reality imports and current affairs cancellations has been one unexpected hit: YouTube-on-TV clip show Fail Army. Duncan Greive tries to figure out how this designed-to-fail show works.

Of all the millions of new shows TV3 has launched this year, few had lower expectations than Fail Army. A clip show screening in the old Jono and Ben slot on Friday nights, it was precision designed to be terrible.

For starters, the clips came direct from the original US version of the show, and the contract made sure there was to be no tampering with them. They couldn’t be re-edited, and everything from the arbitrary section titles (‘Medal of Honor’, for no reason) to the on-screen graphical style was locked in. Then came the budget – rumoured to be as low as $5000 per episode, to cover talent, studio shoots, writing, voice over, a set… it is amongst the cheapest shows on network television.

Designed to fail, then, probably because the commissioners knew that Newsworthy was coming, and could comfortably slide into that slot. Only, Fail Army surprised everyone involved by becoming a hit – consistently in the top five of TV3’s Friday line-up, and pulling anywhere up to 220,000 viewers. At times, in the TV3’s target 25-54 demographic, Fail Army equaled Hilary, Mike and the 6pm news.

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You don’t want to think too hard about what that means for our democracy. But I will admit to being one of those viewers. At first I watched out of a morbid curiosity. Joseph Moore was a writer for the site, and a host of the show, alongside fellow comic, 2014 Billy T winner Guy Montgomery. I was attracted to the absurd idea of two of our best young comedic talents being deployed on such a grim assignment, and wanted to see how they handled it.

The show I found was intriguing on a number of levels. The clips were awful, lowest-common-denominator, humans-in-agony stuff. But rather than just play the required roles, Montgomery and Moore seemed to be performing a low-key act of civil disobedience – taking the paycheque while at the same time openly deriding the show’s content and presentation.

The Wire, The Sopranos, Downton Abbey, Fail Army,” said Montgomery cheerfully. Later in the same episode he and Moore apologised profusely for a segment involving clips of women doing stuff with beer bottles and cans and their boobs. “This segment is a bit sexist,” said Moore, “but it came with the show, so we have to give it to you.”

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The next segment rolled around, and we cut back to the hosts in their dimly-lit studio, wearing what looks like the clothes they walked in wearing. No effort involved. Again with the apologies: “It’s times like this we need to really reiterate and get across to you people that we did not come up with the names for these segments,” says Montgomery. “It’s time for ‘Egads my Nads’.”

Cue a parade of grainy clips, featuring men on bikes or skateboards or at dodgeball tournaments, all ending the same time-honoured way. “This does not get old,” said Montgomery’s voice over, somewhat sadly.

I became slightly obsessed with the show. It seemed to epitomise a particular kind of cynicism, in the way its product was so tightly controlled from a contractual sense – the inability to alter graphics or running order – but that clearly no one at franchise owner Dick Clark Productions gave enough of a shit to even watch the finished New Zealand product. Or maybe they did, and just didn’t care that the hosts of the show spent nearly every voice break deriding the entire enterprise for existing.

The hosts began to reveal more and more about what a cheap, nasty arrangement they had going, celebrating their lack of creative control. “Now remember,” said Montgomery in episode three, “if you want some of your clips to be part of our show – you’re shit out of luck.”

“We do not know how to do that,” added Moore.

In this way the show was like a prison, a fact Moore and Montgomery initially lamented, then embraced. They spent a whole episode talking, vaguely metaphorically, about being locked into the show’s set and forced to make this vacuous television. “Honestly, we’re trapped,” said Moore. “If you know anyone in a position of power, please, please get in touch with them.”

This idea exists in the twilight between a joke and reality. Moore, Montgomery and the many other young comedians contracting to MediaWorks are in a strange position. Creatively they feel collectively like the sharpest minds in current comedy. Yet they’re still waiting for the opportunity to make something truly their own (that might be forthcoming comedy Funny Girls, if rumours are to be believed).

Some of this is just waiting your turn, and unproblematic. But some of it also feels like risk-aversion from MediaWorks, an unwillingness to give the next generation a shot while the older one is still turning in the big bucks. So long as this dynamic lasts, regardless of their creative vitality, guys like Moore and Montgomery will work on shows like Fail Army.

Speaking to Moore about the show, he told me stories about he and Montgomery pounding beers on their 20 minute breaks in the studio carpark, and writing in a kind of depressed frenzy. I wanted to see them at work, so walked up Hobson St to watch them record voice over work for the final episodes of season one. The booth is tiny, wedged into a corner of the room, and they stand alongside one another, taking turns to read lines while the clips play silently on a monitor.

There’s a montage of wedding scenes. A pair dance, badly, in the corner of a room, eventually falling over in a heap. Moore’s take is particularly intense: “I don’t care, I don’t care who’s watching. I don’t care that your dad’s filming,” he yells, disturbingly. “Let’s fuck right now.”

“That’s good. That’s a good gag,” says the show’s producer, Rob Brown, dispassionately. “Just two people fucking right in front of the reception.”

It’s super dark, yet somehow makes the cut, with the proviso that they censor ‘fuck’. Fuck is a grey area at this time of night. It can get through only so long as it doesn’t refer to the actual act of fucking. So this fuck needs to be bleeped.

The life of a young working comic in New Zealand is cobbled together through gigs like this. It’s easy to be sniffy about this kind of work, and try and focus on the purity of your art. But humans have to live and eat, so it becomes part of the financial ecosystem: you write for 7 Days (though 7 Days doesn’t want you to know that) or Best Bits. You work on Jono and Ben in front of camera or in the writer’s room. You do podcasts and gigs and commercials and voice overs and sometimes even Fail Army.

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Fail Army is not important work, and has no aspiration to be. Watching Moore and Montgomery hustle through these takes – they’ve recorded up to four episodes in an afternoon before – you can see the way the TV work both helps and hinders their stand up work. They’re throwing ideas around constantly, experimenting with odd characters and themes (today’s: a solemn “then they died” to end a number of clips) which might recur throughout.

Their producer Brown doesn’t always love this: “ramble, ramble, ramble,” he grumbles at one point. The rambling and writing, though, clearly has a usefulness beyond the show in forcing the pair to create ceaselessly. But it also eats into the time and energy they have to pour into their own work. Moore and Montgomery are unquestionably in higher demand in mid-2015 then they were 18 months prior. But their 2015 comedy festival shows, while very funny, were less energised than their predecessors from the year before – likely because they’re working so much harder on other projects. Like Fail fucking Army.

Perversely, the better they do these weird jobs, the less time they’ll have to work on their own projects. That dynamic will continue to roll, because Fail Army’s status as a rare cheap hit means it was immediately commissioned for a second season.

Moore and Montgomery talked somewhat hesitantly about asking for a deserved raise. I don’t know whether they got one. But I do know that Fail Army, a deeply, proudly stupid show which somehow proved oddly compelling, returned to TV3 last Friday. And the most likely scenario is that’ll keep happening. It should be a disaster for the hosts. But in constantly pointing out the show’s cheapness and stupidity, Moore and Montgomery emerge from the shabby experience elevated, rather than degraded, and have created a show far more interesting than it had any right to be.

Fail Army screens on TV3, Fridays at 10.05pm

NB: After this story was published, Moore texted to say that next Friday (June 26) “has a Matrix-style segment where we ‘enter’ the world of Fail Army and get stuck in like a dimension warp of clips, complete with dimension warpy SFX that we added”. So watch out for that.