A modest studio nestled in a corridor of industrial Chicago is the latest front in the ongoing battle to marry news and pop culture. Here, writers for the Fusion network’s new weekly show, “The A.V. Club,” are discussing how to best taste-test a Nintendo Switch cartridge.
The gag will serve as the cold open for the second episode of the pop-culture website’s eponymous TV show, which premiered March 16 and will air a new episode every Thursday evening. Host John Teti and his writers, Yolanda Carney and Fran Hoepfner, recently learned that Nintendo has coated cartridges for its new gaming system in something deliberately foul-tasting, to prevent children from eating them. “So we’re feeding it to adults,” Hoepfner said.
Teti laughed at the phrasing. “Let’s remember that,” he noted. (They wound up with, “I’m sure a grown man was the first to try them.”) Finding odd angles into pop culture is going to be this show’s stock in trade.
When Univision bought a 40 percent stake in The Onion in 2016, they wanted TV show ideas from the stalwart humor publication for their youth-skewing Fusion, in addition to an election-night special. Teti, a former field producer for “The Daily Show” who became editor-in-chief of The A.V. Club, pitched a weekly show that he would host, centered around The Onion’s sister pop-culture site.
Fusion has greenlit a run of 30 episodes, and now The A.V. Club, which floods the Internet with daily cultural criticism, has some skin in the game of what it’s covering. It’s a fortuitous opportunity for Teti, who had always wanted to be on TV. “I used to sign things, when I was a kid, ‘John Teti, Future Game Show Host,’” he said.
After leaving “The Daily Show,” he pursued improv and stand-up. At The A.V. Club, he starred in several web series, but was mostly content to settle into writing and editing. He had no idea when he joined that the gig might lead to his first TV show.
There has been a consistent TV audience for pop-culture news ever since “Entertainment Tonight” debuted in 1981, but few shows have successfully gone much deeper than tabloid level. Some attempts had a good run, like G4’s “Attack of the Show,” which lasted from 2005-2013, while Comedy Central’s snarky effort, “The Showbiz Show With David Spade,” lasted three seasons in the mid-2000s.
But more competition is on the horizon: AMC recently announced it would spin off Chris Hardwick’s “Talking” franchise, which had previously focused on recapping popular dramas on the cable network, to its own pop-culture talk show to launch April 9.
So how will “The A.V. Club” distinguish itself? Unsurprisingly, the first episode feels very much like “The Daily Show.” Teti gets behind a desk and riffs on the pop-culture headlines of the week (with the occasional Trump barb thrown in). A longer feature goes deep on Nielsen ratings. And Bob Odenkirk drops by to talk shop.
But the staff hopes it can become more experimental as it develops, with dips into surreal sketches and one-off games like “Find Two People,” where a contestant wanders around the studio’s often-barren neighborhood, hoping to encounter two people on the street. (It seems Teti will get his game show, one way or another.)
Carney cites Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show” as a model of the kind of absurdist humor she’s shooting for, while Hoepfner loves HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” for its deep dives. Both writers described the program as “pop culture with jokes,” rather than a comedy show.
“I don’t spend a ton of time thinking about how the show will find an audience,” Teti said. “I just want to make a quality, fun, intelligent show that I’m proud of. Either it finds an audience that responds to it, or it doesn’t.” He’s also not concerned about distinguishing himself from Hardwick’s show: “I’m pretty sure there is room for both of us on the television dial. Real pop-culture criticism — as opposed to promotion — is a bizarrely under-explored topic on television.”
On that note, because Teti sees himself primarily as a critic, he hopes to take a different approach to booking guests than other shows: He’s not interested in booking anyone “if I hate their movie,” he said. “My bias has to be in favor of the viewers. If we lose a guest, we can figure out something else to do with that seven-minute segment. But if I start doing the talk-show host thing of, every movie is wonderful and everything is great forever, then I’m just another asshole on TV.”
The show’s slate of guests is heavy on people that The A.V. Club’s website has already declared cool, like Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo. Some upcoming bookings are built around a specific mission: bringing on Anthony Hemingway, who directed episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, for an episode focused on black TV, or David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, for an episode about the intersection of politics and Twitter.
Behind the scenes, everything about the show feels low-key and lo-fi. Teti also serves as showrunner and head writer. The set is economical; stacked behind Teti’s desk are vintage audio speakers and other media equipment. He’d initially wanted to cover the walls behind him with pop-culture debris, but that was axed once they realized how hard it would be to get clearance for, say, a “Star Wars” poster.
Though the show has a separate staff from the website, Teti hopes the show will carry the “voice and spirit” of the site. A couple of the site’s franchises will transfer, including the game show-inspired “Pick a Choice” and “Mom on Pop,” where Teti brings his mom on the show to review pop culture. And most episodes end with a staff-picks segment.
Teti knows the personality that fueled The A.V. Club’s online success, and wants to stay true to it. He even has kind words for the site’s rabid comment section.
Fittingly, when news of the show was announced on the site, commenters began asking who would recap it. The fusion of worlds has begun.