A closer look into student webseries Higher Education

April 17, 2014, 11:59 p.m.
Courtesy of Cody Behan.
Courtesy of Cody Behan.

“You throw together a bunch of overachieving, over-analytical, occasionally inebriated college kids who have never really been exposed to rejection, and what you get is a recipe for disaster. We pretend we’re too cool or too busy or too smart to care. I think that’s pretty stupid.”

Sound like a fairly accurate description of Stanford students? It’s actually a line from a new student web series, “Higher Education,” set at the fictional California University of Palo Alto, or CUPA. It manages to poke fun at college life while also imparting some pretty universal truths about it. Last week, I sat down with creators Cody Behan ’15, Weston Gaylord ’15, and Safiya Nygaard ’14 to talk more about the process behind their witty, entertaining web series.

The idea came about last spring quarter, according to the creators, when Behan approached Gaylord and Nygaard about creating a web series. At first, they planned to create 20-minute episodes, complete with fake commercials, with narrative threads throughout: on-campus Senate elections, a “skeezy” RA and a girl who doesn’t even go here.

Over the summer, however, the plan changed. Internships took the creators to opposite ends of the country, and three-way Skype sessions ensued as they shifted the web series from a narrative format to the episodic form it takes now. They also cut the episodes down to around five minutes each. Despite that upheaval, however, the original vision persisted.

“Though we’ve had so many different iterations of this idea, the people who we knew we were writing for have always stayed the same, and I think that’s the reason it all worked out,” Nygaard explained. “That’s why we ended up having something after all these changes.”

When they came back to campus, the creators already had collaborators – actors, camera operators and many others – on board, mostly friends who they’d asked personally to join.

“We filmed every weekend, often for eight hours a day,” Behan explained. “And then towards the last three weeks of school, it was literally every day, trying to get just one more scene. You have to chip away at it, or it’s just not going to get done.”

The creators faced complicated logistical challenges, including navigating filming rights, actor schedules, last-minute location changes and a fluctuating number of extras. As time progressed, their process became more streamlined, but filming eight episodes proved ambitious – they used every second of free time they had, eventually wrapping a few hours before Behan and Gaylord left for their 4 a.m. flight home.

The first four episodes were released last quarter, and are full of clever jokes that are particularly relevant to Stanford students.

“Even when we were spending 8 hours a day on it, exhausted, it was still fun every time on set,” Gaylord told me.

The time invested clearly pays off – each shot truly adds something, whether a comedic beat or an important piece of information, to the overall episode.  Behan, Gaylord, and Nygaard evidently also spent time honing the jokes and succeed with perfectly delivered lines, including a personal favorite: “That’s why I live in a hermetically-sealed bunker underneath campus. I’m not going to say secret society, but I don’t not live in a secret society… so… double negative.”

Each of the actors is so perfectly in character as recognizable faces from around campus, including the co-op girl who brings jars to class, the sleazy frat boy, and the girl with a Tumblr of cats facing foreclosure. Each episode focuses, with eerie accuracy, on one aspect of campus life, through the lens of the student tour guides at CUPA.

“Higher Education” is a shining example of the direction I hope arts and entertainment goes on campus– it’s a carefully crafted, innovative, and accessible student creation. Keep your eyes open for shorts that may be released over the summer, and a potential season two next year. You won’t want to miss your classmates delivering great one-liners like: “I mean, roses, really? It’s a gala, not an orgy.”

Don’t just take my word for it. Catch up on the past episodes, and get ready for the new ones coming soon. I have to warn you, though— you might just get hooked.

            Full disclosure: The author has one line as an extra in an episode. To see her say, “wait, who is that?” and, more importantly, to see the results of months of hard work, visit http://highereducationseries.com


Contact Noemi Berkowitz at noemi11 “at” stanford.edu.

Noemi Berkowitz is the Chief Theater Critic and a desk editor at The Stanford Daily. She is a junior from Lincoln, Nebraska, double majoring in theater and psychology. You may see her reciting Shakespeare, wearing tie-dye and hiking. Contact her at noemi11 'at' stanford.edu.

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