A yearlong chat ends

Times Staff Writer

Peering down from an airplane last spring, Ze Frank decided to turn the Earth into a sandwich.

After he landed, the comedian, who was making Internet videos years before YouTube existed, challenged his audience to place two pieces of bread at exactly opposite ends of the globe. They did, and he posted videos and photos of their exploits on his website, www.zefrank.com.

"The Show With Ze Frank" was a yearlong online experiment in interactive entertainment that was to end Saturday. And it's an example of how one guy with a camera in his living room can take viewer participation made popular through television shows such as "American Idol" to absurd levels.

Frank, a wide-eyed 34-year-old New Yorker with a drawn face, isn't afraid to hand control to his fans, who include movie stars such as Jack Black and Ben Stiller.

He played chess with viewers, performed scripts they wrote and told them a bedtime story about a four-legged duck when he was asked for one.

"We have this incredible ability to communicate with each other," Frank said. "I want to play around with it, see what this mass audience is really capable of."

Fans say his give and take with them harked back to the days of vaudeville, when performers improvised and fed off the energy of an audience. That type of interaction can make entertaining online very different from TV and movies.

"He understands that this is a social medium," said Terrell Russell, a graduate student studying online culture at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "He engages with his audience and invites them in for a conversation."

Frank hatches much of his own material, such as this line from a show dedicated to wasting time: "A good procrastination should feel like you're inserting lots and lots of commas into the sentence of your life."

Although the show generally ran only about three minutes long, it could be hard to digest. It used foul language. Frank posted it at different times each day. It was full of inside jokes that discouraged new viewers from jumping in midway through the year; for those who wanted to try to catch up, his website offered an archive, which will stay available.

Still, he hooked some of the biggest names in comedy.

"Ze Frank is a rare gem, a brilliant comedian with an artistic undertaste," Black said. "He might be my hero."

Frank didn't set out to be anybody's hero. He just wanted some friends to come to his birthday party.

In 2001, he posted a video of himself dancing in goofy Charlie Chaplin fashion, then e-mailed a link to it as a party invitation to 17 friends. Within days, hundreds of thousands of people flooded his website to watch "How to Dance Properly" -- so many that his Internet service provider billed him several thousand dollars for the excess traffic.

For Frank, it felt like discovering that there was life out in cyberspace -- and he desperately wanted it to talk back. He quit his job as a Web designer and began what he called his "traffic junkie" days, creating online games, cartoons and videos of his cat Annie to attract visitors.

Nothing he did, however, reproduced the traffic spike generated by his dance video. That taught Frank one of his first lessons about the Internet -- you've got to get lucky. His video happened to be at the right place at the right time, when millions of ordinary people were becoming more comfortable with the Internet and were open to sharing something fun with friends.

More difficult was building the kind of community that engages in the lasting, meaningful conversation that Frank craved.

Sometimes that conversation had to do with paper clips. Early on, Frank created a contest called "When Office Supplies Attack" and received more than 500 entries. People e-mailed photos of themselves pretending to be throttled by paper clips, devoured by copy machines and drowned by water coolers.

For his video project, he delivered many segments gazing wide-eyed into the camera.

"What better way to connect with people than by staring and talking straight at them?" he jested in one show. "Don't blink -- that's one less connection you could have made."

He posted his show Monday through Friday. Saturday's final episode, marking the show's anniversary, would be his 250th.

"I think it's kind of amazing that one guy is doing this every day, with such energy and a real point of view about what is going on in the world," Stiller said. "I'm always interested to see what he has processed from the news that day."

Frank's monologue was done on the fly. He woke up each morning in varying stages of anxiety over what he'd say. After reading the news, he cobbled together an array of odd bits.

One recent morning, he was fixated on two stories, one about an iguana and another about a giant baby.

"Today, we're going to talk about iguanas!" Frank said as he paced in his one-bedroom Brooklyn walk-up, smoking Marlboro Lights and sucking down Starbucks coffee.

"There's this iguana that's had an erection for a week!" he said. "For me this is like the most wonderful sort of gift, because I laugh when I hear stories like this. We're going to pair this with the giant baby story and get people to send in videos of themselves."

Over the next four hours, Frank daisy-chained together his show, recording on the same Sony camera he used for "How to Dance Properly." He swiveled his Aeron chair back and forth from the camera to a Macintosh he uses to edit clips.

He ended the show with a call for people to send videos of themselves doing "power moves." To demonstrate, he broke into a goofy maneuver that looked like the Incredible Hulk trying tai chi.

Juvenile? Absolutely.

Mindless? Not quite. Frank had given the gag some serious thought.

"You're doing something silly, energetic, playful and childlike," Frank said. "Power moves are one of the most fun things you can do."

They're also anti-cool, which helped draw in people who might be intimidated by the hipness exuded by so many of the so-called technorati who video blog. Frank preferred to play for what he calls the proletariati.

Some activities were simple. Frank challenged his fans to a game of chess, announcing his move at the end of each show. Viewers went online to devise countermoves. A month and 32 moves later, his viewers won.

Others projects were more complex.

In the Earth sandwich challenge, the winning team coordinated using global positioning devices. Some members laid a baguette on the ground in a field in Salamanca, Spain, while others did the same in Wellington, New Zealand, more than 12,000 miles away.

Another day, a viewer forwarded a news item about a four-legged duckling and asked Frank to weave a bedtime story around that. So he posted a tale about one named Stumpy who fended off a weasel attack. Viewers spontaneously submitted illustrations.

Scott Moore, a fan in Minneapolis, called the interactivity on Frank's shows "a beautiful thing to see.... It's part of what keeps me coming back."

Last June, Frank gave viewers the chance to write an episode. Hundreds of people used collaborative writing software he put on his site to crank out more than 2,000 revisions to a four-minute-long script. When he performed it, he left out nothing, not even the part that required him to refer to himself as a feminine hygiene product.

The results weren't brilliant. But he says that's beside the point.

"That's not how we should be thinking," Frank said. "You don't walk into a kindergarten class where everyone is drawing houses and trees, and say, 'That doesn't look like a tree!' My biggest interest is more in facilitating the desire to play in this space, and less in the output itself."

His passion for play infects his fans. Many initiate their own projects.

Luke Vaughn, 22, a math major at the University of Oregon, embarked on a cross-country trip in December, courtesy of more than 100 fellow Frank fans who drove, housed and fed him.

Another viewer took "How Do You Spank a Giant Baby?" and other silly tunes Frank sang in his videos throughout the year and arranged them in the style of Bach as "Zechorales."

Frank studied these activities in the same way a gleeful scientist inspects a petri dish teeming with fascinating life forms.

He got paid through advertising, sponsorships and merchandise sales.

In addition, he pulled in $27,290 from a feature on his site called Gimme Some Candy, which was part tip jar and part personal ad. Viewers who contributed a few bucks could write a short message that was displayed below the next day's video. His Valentine's Day show about "romanticynicism" took in 92 donations totaling $1,700.

Frank declined to say how much he earned from his show, except that it paid the rent and then some.

Over the years, his online notoriety has helped him line up Hollywood representation from United Talent Agency and speaking gigs such as TED, a star-studded technology, entertainment and design conference in Monterey, Calif.

Now that the show is over, he plans to take a break.

"I felt it was better to have a hard end, to allow the show to be what it is and let it live in that moment in time," Frank said. "Then say, 'Here we go! Let's do something else.' "

He's not sure what that will be. He'll probably do more speaking engagements. Maybe write a book about the last year. Most likely dream up other online projects. And "if Hollywood would have me," he said, try his hand at television or film work.

Regardless, he said, it's going to take time to get used to not hearing from his online audience every day.

"That conversation has so completely become a part of my life," he said. "I'll feel pretty lost for a while."

alex.pham@latimes.com

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