For artists, creativity isn’t always about the work itself. The same inspiration involved in the making of a thing often goes hand-in-hand with the marketing of that thing, something local musician and now filmmaker Samuel James knows intimately, and is putting to the test with his new webseries “Kitty Critic.” In the series, which began last month, a local musician (James himself in the first episode, Kenya Hall and Chas Lester in the second) plays an intimate one-song concert in the Portland apartment of a fan – and the fan’s cat – followed by an absurdist interview with “Kitty Critic” host, straightfaced Jim LeJames, who asks how the cat liked the performance.
“The idea came because I was brainstorming ways to promote my own music,” explains James, “But then I thought the real idea could be bigger than me.” Citing the myriad expenses and challenges musicians face attracting an audience, James (therealsamueljames.com) looked to the Internet, and the example of a pioneer in the online music business. “Jonathan Coulton hit the Internet lottery,” says James. “He wrote a song about writing computer code (2006’s ‘Code Monkey’) and the people in charge of the largest form of communication in the world also write code, so it went around the Internet in a second. So, what’s the Internet made up of more than anything else (besides porn)? Funny cat videos. Dog owners have dog parks – cat people have the Internet.”
James initial idea was to just make a funny video of him playing his new song to a cat, but that’s when that seed of an idea grew into something…stranger. “There’s nothing funnier to me than someone pouring their heart out to an indifferent audience,” explains James, “Cats are famously indifferent.” Adding to the absurdity is LeJames, James’ best friend since high school who James credits with having “the funniest, driest sense of humor – a little like Zach Galafianakis with (webseries) ‘Between Two Ferns’ – the interviews just let the awkwardness hang there.” James also cites the recently retired ironic persona of Stephen Colbert and meta talk show “Comedy Bang! Bang!” as influences on “Kitty Critic,” saying, “To me, that is a phenomenon and breaking new ground in comedy. If you’re the tiniest bit of a comedy nerd, your mouth is hanging open while you’re laughing.”
Watching the first “Kitty Critic,” I can see where James is coming from – the deadpan silliness of the premise combining with James stellar musicianship and LeJames’ pointedly odd questions (with the owner of kitty critic Boomah) to create a tiny pocket of unsettling musical hilarity – or not, depending on whether conceptual comedy is your bag. “Even if the comedy isn’t something a viewer understands, the music is the most important thing,” says James. “It’s set up so you could just press play and walk away.”
Despite his foray into filmmaking, James is all about the music, both for himself and the talented Maine musicians he’s gathered to perform on “Kitty Critic.” “Streaming is the number one way people listen to music,” explains James, “And YouTube (which hosts the series) is the number one way people stream music. Once the website went up and we started telling people about it, within one day, I had 15 bands and 50 people with cats saying they wanted to be involved (Laughs).” Only one musician turned down the opportunity to take part. “[This musician] really, really hates cats. He thinks of them like sewer rats.”
Far from being a lark, James has suspended his busy touring schedule for six months to work on the six-episode first season of “Kitty Critic,” and has high hopes for it to become an Internet phenomenon. (He’s picked up sponsorship from local business Coffee By Design, and the second season is already in the works.) Says James, “If this works, it will be a thing that Portland, Maine does. We have enough musicians of national-level quality and enough cats that we’ll never run out.”
Samuel James is a friend of the author and has two cats – Black Aquaman and White Blacula. Look for the next “Kitty Critic” on February 15th on www.youtube.com.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Nickelodeon Cinema, Portland (patriotcinemas.com)
Friday: “Two Days, One Night.” That’s how much time a French worker has to convince her coworkers to forego promised bonuses so she can keep her job in this intense, moving showcase for the great Marion Cotillard (“La Vie En Rose,” “Inception”).
SPACE Gallery, Portland (space.538.org)
Tuesday: “Actress.” This acclaimed documentary follows the attempted comeback of actress Brandy Burre after her retirement to raise a family (she played Mayor Tomy Carcetti’s campaign manager on “The Wire”—still the best TV series of all time.) Coping with a crumbling personal life and the added challenge facing a middle-aged actress in show biz, it’s an insightful, moving look at one actress’ journey. Burre and filmmaker Robert Greene will be in attendance.