On a scale of one to zero, how happy are you?
By Derick Rivas
“You are here because you want to laugh. And you want to forget about your problems” a robotic female voice says, opening Bo Burnham’s Make Happy Netflix comedy special. “I will not allow it. You should not forget about your problems. The world is not funny. 12% of the world’s population does not have access to clean water. The world is not funny.”
It’s a depressing start to a comedy show yet I can’t help but laugh a little at the sheer abruptness of it. When Burnham comes on stage and the audience erupts in cheers, hilarity with a side of perfectly rehearsed songs, gestures, and unexpected twists ensues. Bo makes it very clear that he’s here to entertain us with his show. And his show, through catchy rhythms, quick quips, and dirty remarks, cleverly invites us to peer into his doubts and burdens.
There was not a moment of that hour long show where I wasn’t gasping for air from laughing too hard. Well, except for the very end. Bo ends his show with a stellar lightshow and comically auto-tuned finale song. What starts off as menial problems like getting too many add-ons in a Chipotle burrito escalates into an expression of the pressure put on artists and performers. I was in complete and total awe.
Bo finishes, saying, “Thank you. Good night. I hope you’re happy.”
As soon as the show ended, I begrudgingly shut my Xbox off and started getting ready for another closing shift at Sports Authority. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college. I left school that year in a stressed out daze, questioning why the hell I ever thought I could be a game developer. Sophomore year had kicked my ass with the workload, responsibilities, and expectations. Now, here I was, apathetically working a dead-end summer job at a company going out of business. Bo’s last four words haunted me for the rest of that day.
I came into college much, much different though.
I went into my freshman year guns blazing. I always made sure to have a smile on my face and to introduce myself to anyone and everyone I met. I was here to make connections and break out of the introverted shell I had cultivated for myself for the last 17 years. I had the wildest ideas that I wanted to bring to life in my game design classes. I was done being outspoken. In my first game design 101 class, I stood up and explained that I wanted to leave college having developed at least one successfully launched game on the App store. I was overflowing with optimism and passion. The world, my world, felt like it was at my mercy. Life felt good.
In my endless drive to put myself out there, I ended up joining over 15 different clubs on campus that year. One of them was called Q30 Television, a student-run television station. I never had an interest in pursuing a career related to film or television. I had already found my obsession in developing games. I only joined because I just wanted to screw around with a camera. I wasn’t even going to go to the first meeting until my roommate dragged me there.
The meeting was overflowing with people trying to squeeze into seats and sitting on the floor. I ended up stuck against a wall, having to stand over an air-conditioned vent while cold air blew up my shorts for the longest hour of my life. Despite that, the moment Jon Alba, the general manager of Q30 at the time, stepped to the front of the room, you could feel the energy shift around you.
“All for one and one for all. We’re a family here and that’s our motto at Q30” Jon Alba, proudly exclaimed. Those words surged throughout the room. Everyone could feel the passion emanating from Alba and it was utterly electrifying. That was the moment I was hooked.
Except, I didn’t know how to be a part of it. Everyone in that room was a film major, a journalism major, some sort of communications major. I wasn’t. I was so far out of my depth but I refused to let that stop me. I ended up joining a comedy show called Late Night with Joe Kohl. I did want to mess around with cameras after all.
Joining Q30 was the first of many new experiences in my life. I was independent for the first time in my life. I was getting to know a vast abundance of different people and their ideas. I traveled to states all by myself to visit friends at another college. I was growing up. But college has a way of slapping reality in your face.
My friend group from back home completely fell apart. Someone roofied me. I broke up with my girlfriend. I found out my mom got remarried without telling me. I witnessed and dealt with the aftermath of a rape. One of my roommates hid cocaine under my mattress before a room check. A very close friend of mine dropped out of college. I saw someone try to commit suicide.
It was unrelenting, one thing after another. It was like having a sore throat that just wouldn’t go away. Every time you swallowed, it just got worse and worse. One of my neighbors stopped me walking back to my dorm once. She said, “Hey are you okay? You’re always smiling but you’re not today. I wanna see those big, cute dimples of yours again!” That was the day I had broken up with my girlfriend. I didn’t know what to say.
By the spring semester that year, I was left alone, vulnerable, and with no direction. My optimism had turned into crippling pessimism. I wanted to find my place in all of this. Hell, I needed to.
That’s when Quinnipiac Tonight came along.
Quinnipiac Tonight was actually Late Night with Joe Kohl until the host of the show had a major falling out with the producers by the end of the fall semester. After trash talking the crew multiple times on air, the executive producers, Sommer and Rebecca, fired him. They had to quickly figure out a way to keep the show alive. Instead of one main late night host, they turned to Saturday Night Live’s rotating guest hosts for inspiration. Segments became less “talk-show” oriented and more comedy sketch-based. They still kept the jazz band though.
I had only participated on the show a handful of times during the fall semester. I felt like an outsider looking in because of my major. The rest of my freshmen were all film majors or lived in the same dorms. Everyone seemed to know each other already. Even the older kids were intimidating. They felt like towering professionals compared to me, a measly freshman.
I volunteered to make graphics one time, despite never having touched editing software like Photoshop until I got to college. I actually stayed up for half the night working on my very first graphic for the show. I made it in PowerPoint. And it was bad. Really bad. I didn’t even go to the show where that graphic was being used because I thought I had screwed up big time. I stopped going.
But by spring semester, the show had been revived as Quinnipiac Tonight. And I needed a place to let go of my steadily-growing frustration. It’s funny how things work out.
Suddenly, Tuesday and Thursday nights, the time we held meetings for the show or when the show went live, became something I looked forward to. A time where the pain and confusion I was going through could disappear for a couple hours a week. The new show format presented the perfect outlet to vent my emotions using the wild, passionate creativity I came to college with. It wasn’t video games but I was starting to fall in love anyways. It was fun but what really sold me was the people.
Anna. Richie. Drew. Grace. DJ. Markell. Rebecca S. Laura. Dan. And me.
That was the first freshman class of Quinnipiac Tonight.
Sommer. Rebecca C. Amy. Kara. Steve. Alyssa. Stephen. Jill. Cailyn. Christina. Jacky. Alan. Eric. Another Eric.
These were some of the funniest people I had ever met. Their ideas were oozing with insanity but they always found a way to pull them off. One episode, we rode in dumpster bins as we filmed, just keep up with our hosts as they messed with families during an open house. I thought they were geniuses. They made that show fun but most of all, they were people I could call my friends. We all had the same kind of humor, the same kind of interests, and the same kind of lust to become better. The glue was Quinnipiac Tonight.
I met one of the most important people in my life, to this day, in that show too. His name was Dan and he had this thunderous personality with a voice to match. He was the coolest freshman on the show to me and for the longest time, I was too intimidated to ever speak to him. Ironically enough, he thought the same way of me. When we finally did have our very first conversation, we were only a couple of sentences in before I decided to say, “Wow, you really remind me of a friend from back home. Are you bi?” He was stunned. Once I realized what I had just said, I was stunned. It was the first time anyone had ever asked him that. Here I was, asking 5 minutes into formally meeting him. We didn’t know it then but that was the moment we became inseparable best friends.
By the end of freshman year, everyone in that show had grown incredibly close. We were part of something new and exciting and we had the ability to steer it in any direction we wanted, together. I had tears in my eyes as the last show ended and the seniors said their goodbyes. I wanted to be as accomplished as they were with the show by the time I was a senior. As some of us were walking back to our dorms that night, Grace said, “Just think, 4 years from now. That could be us. We could really grow up with this show and who knows what it’ll be!”
Up until that point, I had been toying with the idea of transferring. Yet, when she said that, I decided that I didn’t want to transfer anymore. I finally found a reason worth staying for.
As sophomore year entered the fray, a new shadow of doubt was cast over me. It was a particularly hard year. The workload spiked in difficulty. I took 18 credits in the fall semester. I found myself teaching the fundamentals of physics, two programming languages, economics, and philosophy just to stay afloat in all of the work I was drowning in. The first game I ever developed crash and burned. I started experiencing anxious breakdowns. I began to hate my computer science classes. I stayed up days at a time, slaving away just to get all my work done. I’m pretty sure I was hallucinating at some point.
I found my solace in Quinnipiac Tonight more and more. It was Round 2 and I wanted to get more involved. I had spent the summer working on my designing skills and when the position for director of graphics was made available, I applied. I got it and almost immediately, I dedicated myself to learning the art of graphic design. It never occurred to me that I could ever do more. I still had the notion that because I wasn’t a film major, I wouldn’t be fit to be an actual producer.
Dan and I were eating lunch together one day. Dan said, “You know what I want to be one day? The EP of the show. I think the both of us could be EPs actually. We’d kill it!”
I replied, “I mean, you definitely can do it. You just became an AP but I don’t think I could. I don’t know film like that.”
Dan inquisitively scoffed, “So? That doesn’t mean anything!”
When an associate producer position opened up a few months after I became director of graphics, I couldn’t shake what Dan had said. “Why the hell not” I rationed. I applied, knowing much more qualified candidates like Anna and Drew, who were film majors, would probably get it. Except, they didn’t. I did.
The new executive producers at the time, Kara and Amy, saw something in me. That’s my best guess but, to this day, I don’t really know why they chose me. No one saw me coming, not even me but I was the newest associate producer of the show. And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to direct. I didn’t know how to edit. I didn’t know how to produce. Somehow, underneath the monumental pressure that was placed on me, it’s when I finally fell head over heels in love with film and television production.
The thing I heard most in the beginning was, “You’re just a game designer”. They were offhand comments that reflected an unspoken suspicion of if I could be a competent producer. I needed to prove my capabilities but I also needed to prove to myself that I could do it. My whole attitude about school changed. I forced myself to become more responsible and organized so I could be on top of my education and the show. I devoted myself to learning every aspect of filmmaking and graphic design. I experimented with all different styles of filmmaking, from writing to directing to editing. I vigorously self-taught myself programs like Photoshop and Illustrator. A lot of my first couple of segments were hilariously bad but I was learning at a tremendous rate. At the core of it all, the more I began to fail in game design and especially computer science, the hungrier I got for success in film and graphic design.
I wasn’t the only one experimenting, learning their styles, and building up their skills. Everyone else was too. Like I said, it was Round 2. The show was growing while we all got closer to one another. We had an actual 7-person cast, similar to SNL again. Our hosts were prominent and influential people on campus. We established the position of head writer, a small marketing committee, and an editing team. We were making some noise.
When I finally finished sophomore year, I left feeling disenchanted. One half of me felt like I was beaten to a pulp in a sketchy alley way. The other half was just confused. I didn’t really know what to think. I had never worked so hard in my life and for some reason, I was still so unsatisfied. I had learned so much in just a few months. I had found a new passion but I couldn’t help but wonder what the fate of my other passion, video games, would be. And maybe, I was still hallucinating a little bit.
When junior year finally started, I couldn’t wait to get back to school. It was the third season of the show and everyone could feel the momentum and traction the show was getting. It was, how I like to describe it, the beginning of a “golden age of producing.” The show doubled in size and the show welcomed a new generation of “Quinnipiac Tonighters” in the form of a large, enthusiastic freshman class. Many of the producing staff and I were entering our second year as producers. Our content became sharper and more organized. We began livestreaming to YouTube. We kept raising the bar with our content every other Thursday night when the show went live. We were more than willing to test our limits in the pursuit of that bar. We were on fire.
For me, I let my passion and love for the show take over that year. Besides the ever-growing lack of confidence in my skills as a game developer, I was really good at producing. It was a kind of high-stakes stress I thrived on. I would crawl through the student center for hours at a time just to get hidden camera shots. One time, the writers wrote a segment that involved a conversation two actors were having while running. Running. I had absolutely no way to record a scene like that and only an hour to pull it off. I drove myself crazy. I couldn’t help I crave the adrenaline rush. I felt like I was on top of the world again.
The better the show got, the better I got. For the first time in years, something made sense to me again and the pieces were slowly but surely coming together. I found the first tangible bridge between games and film through motion graphics and animation. I started to believe that it truly was possible to do both films and games. I applied and got into grad school with a specific focus in interactive media. I even landed a video editing internship with a respected game publisher in the video game industry.
Although the show was making ripples, the more I got involved with it, the more responsibility I took on. The show’s problems became my problems. I wasn’t the only one. The rest of the juniors like Dan and Anna sensed it too. We were all setting a higher standard for one another, especially the freshmen. They probably thought we were maniacs. At the same time, they couldn’t help and look up to us. Being a producer got much more complex. We had to be role models. We had to start thinking about the longevity of what we were doing.
All the while a darker cloud was looming in the horizon.
Quinnipiac Tonight had always been the odd-ball compared to the rest of Q30. We didn’t report on sports, entertainment, or even traditional news like the rest of the station. We were the only show to challenge the standard Q30 show format because we only focused on entertainment. We had a live band and a live audience. The show demanded a devoted style of producing, much to the dislike of the Q30 executive board, or Cabinet, as we called them.
Q30 had become fractured with the departure of Jon Alba and his “all for one, one for all” mentality. Lines were drawn and a lot of the shows unofficially competed with one another. Personal relationships began to mix with business too. The values that had made Q30 so inviting had become corrupted. There was no strong representation for the entertainment department on the cabinet either. It was a sports-dominated station with sports-oriented goals. With the success of the show, Cabinet began to question our loyalty to Q30. We were the largest show in the station with an equally impressive crew size. But as the show expanded and grew in popularity, there was this notion that started to be whispered behind our backs.
“Do they even care about the rest of Q30?”
“They do whatever they want”.
“What do they even do? Like are they crazy or just weird?”
Q30 wanted to crack down on the kind of content we were creating and how we filmed our live shows. It pissed a lot of us off and it added to the increasing tensions. An all-out cold war with Cabinet was beginning to stir.
All eyes were on who was going to be the next pair of executive producers as a result. “Could they bridge the divide between Quinnipiac Tonight and Q30? Could they run the show successfully?” This was the chance for my class to have creative control. There was Dan, who was the biggest visionary out of all of us. He had grown to become an excellent but outspoken director who could get you to do anything in front of the camera. There was Anna, the technical backbone of the entire show. She was a brilliant actor and crew member, someone who was never afraid to question you in an attempt to get the job done right. There was Brandon, a guy who was a year younger than all of us but had the natural mastery for filmmaking the moment he came out the womb. And there was me, the kid who once taught he would never be good enough to be an associate producer but ended up clawing his way to the top.
I think the reason Dan and I ended up becoming the next executive producers was because we were the only ones crazy enough to sacrifice our actual health to put on the show. One episode, Dan only had 2 days to produce a 10-page scripted segment. He stood in the freezing cold for four hours just to get it done. I personally would have murdered him but the segment, Drug Lord of the Rings, would go on to be one of the best segments we ever premiered. There was another episode where I had an excruciating sore throat and a high fever. It hurt to breath, much less talk but I willed myself to run a week long film shoot. That ended up being Normal Things, a parody on Strange r Things. It was the segment that finally proved my worth as a capable producer and director.
We invested a lot of our time and energy into the show. And it paid off.
If we were on fire our junior year, we were an inferno senior year. We were at the top of our game and Dan and I were running the show. And man, did we have ideas.
We added a fifth associate producer. We made our live show longer. We double-downed on the idea of committees and formed a promotion, graphic, and editing team. We hired an off-week producer to film web-specific content. We redesigned the logo and introduced a neon sign, comedy club inspired aesthetic. We started filming in high definition. We expanded the cast to 16 actors. Our production quality just went through the roof.
To tie it all together, Dan and I realized we needed unity. For the past two years, Quinnipiac Tonight had been so successful because everyone on the show did it together. We were a family, so that’s what we stressed.
“We are comedy. We are family. We are Quinnipiac Tonight” Dan and I used to say. We were like broken record players.
I’m sure everyone was sick of hearing us scream “We’re family!” but we always made sure to be transparent. Anyone, from producer to crewmember, could speak their minds. We welcomed criticism. We made sure that everyone knew exactly what was going on at all times with the show. We ran a very tight ship.
I call that fall semester the “Flawless Fall”. We had not only doubled in size again with our freshman, it was one episode after another of perfect or near perfect live shows. We drew gigantic crowds that would fill the Piazza, the location of where we filmed. People would have to stand on second-floor balconies just to get a look. It was exhilarating to get on stage in front of that many people, we felt like rock stars.
That didn’t stop the Q30 Cabinet though. The “cold war” that was brewing junior year hit a new boiling point.
“Dan and Derick are out of control” the whispers were saying now.
Dan and I were always aware we were never going to steer clear of opposition but we went into that year with a fresh mindset about Q30. We didn’t want trouble, we wanted unity. Quinnipiac Tonight was our family but so was Q30. If you’re a part of the show, you’re also a part of the station. I made it a point to always reach out to the other shows and even send our crew to help with their productions. But the hammer was always going to strike.
We were in the middle of a pitch meeting when Cabinet came into the room and abruptly pulled us out. They sat us down and said, “We’re going to have a conversation.” And the proceeded to not have a conversation. They told us we were “going to shut down our YouTube, no exceptions.” I thought Dan was going to jump over the table. It felt like we didn’t have a choice but a silent war had begun.
Every contrived little detail they could criticize us for, they found. They tried to censor our writing. They tried to shorten our show time. They tried to cut our content. They told us we needed to be more professional.
The production manager of Q30 at the time looked me in the eyes once and said, “You guys are doing too much. None of the other shows can keep up. It’s unfair”. It was downright infuriating. We’re being punished for being too good? We weren’t going to stand for that.
Our response was to do a musical. Dan had been pitching a musical since his sophomore year and I was crazy enough to try and finally do it. We drew a lot of raised eyebrows. They told us we couldn’t possibly produce a live, televised musical. They said it was impossible. So we went and did it twice.
I think those musicals broke me in the end. I had become obsessed with filmmaking that video game development took the passenger seat. It was too easy to lose myself in filmmaking and the show and the musicals were my first real dream come true.
The first one, the Not So Spectacular Holiday Spectacular, was definitely more for my ego. It was going to be pinnacle of the “Flawless Fall”. It was a statement.
“You can try to control my content, cut my show time, and censor my writing. But I’m still going to get what I need to do, done.” I kept telling myself.
We wrote songs based off of classic holiday songs with our jazz band. We built the props in my driveway in the freezing cold of November. We landed an acapella group to come perform. We wrote the story to be centered around the Q30 television channel. We even conducted a full dress rehearsal a whole week prior.
Ironically enough, when the holiday musical premiered, it was the first show to actually have technical difficulties that year. But it was still so perfect to me. The technical problems had come from an old tricaster that Cabinet refused to replace. It was poetic justice but more importantly, I had pulled the impossible off. Quinnipiac Tonight pulled the impossible off.
It wasn’t easy being an executive producer though. The “Flawless Fall” quickly gave way to the “Stressful Spring”.
Being the executive producer was the hardest, most demanding thing I have ever done. There were many nights where I wanted to scream, cry, and punch the wall. If I wasn’t asleep or hastily doing my work for my senior game, I was doing something for the show. Dan was the creative direction but I was the organization that pulled it all together. I wrote the emails. I managed all the scheduling. I was the first one to know about every problem. I ran the graphic and promotion teams. I even memorized everyone’s names, majors, and where they were from.
Those choices had consequences though.
When spring semester started, it felt as if the entire atmosphere of Q30 and Quinnipiac Tonight seismically shifted.
Dan was away for the first two episodes of the semester while he working on his senior film. All of a sudden, multiple people started to come up to me with issues they had with the show. People were forming cliques and talking behind each other’s backs. 4 cast members quit. More crew members wanted to. I was blindsided. The show almost imploded and it was barely two weeks into the spring semester.
I had to quickly hold auditions just to fill the spots in the cast. The first show was held in a cramped media suite because the Q30 secretary couldn’t secure the Piazza on time. It was one bad news after the next.
The rest of the semester devolved into patching up holes while simultaneously making sure the show had a host and went off every two weeks. On top of all that, we had to begin gearing up and teaching the next generation that would take over the show. It was time to pass down the torch. It was time to plan the grand finale, the spring musical.
I remember the night Dan and I sat down to finally plan the damn thing. We realized then and there we only had a month and a half to pull this show off. And somehow it was going to be bigger and better. When we finally laid out the plan to the entire club, even our own producers couldn’t help but doubt if we could really do it again.
We insistently marched forward. I stopped seeing my friends and housemates. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping as the musical got closer. I had so much at stake. This was my finale as a producer and my final message to a family that I had poured my life into for the past 4 years.
Maybe it was my constant stream of annoying emails or maybe enough people in the show still liked Dan and I enough to actually try. I’m pretty sure every single person hated us at some point. Still, every single person in that show, no matter involved they were, contributed to that musical production.
That’s what the spring musical, the Teleplaysical, culminated in. It was really a giant lesson in disguise. It was a story centered around family and about learning to work together. Yes, it was a way for the 7 remaining seniors who started the show to leave a part of their personal legacy behind but it was always really about them. The rest of our Quinnipiac Tonight family. The kids who were the spirit of the show. They’re the ones who wrote the musical’s story. They’re the ones that filmed and edited the segments. They’re the ones who put on the show. Without their hard work, none of it could have ever happened.
Dan and I stayed up until 6 in the morning the day of the musical. I remember trying to film a secret video we had planned to show at the end of the musical but this cleaning lady just kept sliding chairs and slamming doors next door. I was ready to rip her head off. We only got 3 hours of sleep. We spent that goddamn day filming and editing down to the wire.
That day was abnormally humid too. The air conditioning was broken so everyone was bustling around the Piazza setting up, drenched in copious amounts of sweat. I was running on some coffee, a half-eaten sandwich, and Adderall. I just had to hold it together for 2 more hours.
To be honest, once the show began, everything became a big blur. The mics weren’t on at first. The girl in charge of the teleprompter didn’t know how to use it. The band tried to leave halfway through the show. I was frantically signaling actors to get ready for their scenes. And then our secret video played.
“Crew. This one’s for you” I said into my director’s headset as my eyes began to swell.
Everyone in that Piazza was shocked. Dan and I’s secret video was really a message to the cast and crew of Quinnipiac Tonight. We weren’t talking to them as their executive producers. We were talking to them as equals. Dan and I were two trailblazers who dared to do the impossible. We set an astronomically high standard and we were scared we’d leave the show with a giant shadow. I wanted to get across the essence of why Quinnipiac Tonight was so successful. It was truly just a group of a friends who got together and let their creativity, curiosity, and passion fuel their work for a couple hours a week. As long as the show stayed true to that value, whatever came after us would be just as great, if not better.
I remember breaking down and crying in that moment. Grace, who was in the front row, ran over to hug me, tears streaming down her face. I could hear Dan holding back muffled whimpers over the headset. To my shock, the rest of the backstage crew all started to surround me with a giant group hug, tears in everyone’s eyes.
The video ended, the actors got back on stage, and for one last time, they sang their hearts out. There were confetti cannons. There was dancing. There was even a black dildo involved. We really had outdone ourselves. It was finally over.
We broke down the set and the seniors said their final goodbyes. The younger kids had actually made a secret goodbye video so we cried some more. We ended up winning not only “Show of the Semester” but “Show of the Year”. It was the first time Q30 had recognized our talent. We were the first entertainment show to ever win those awards, much less back to back.
The weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. But it was replaced with a feeling of bitter sweetness.
Bo Burnham didn’t actually end his special with “Thank you. Good night. I hope you’re happy”. The Netflix special ends with Bo walking off stage as the camera follows him and pans to black. You can still hear the audience applause as the camera continues to pan to reveal Bo, alone in a room. He places his journal down on a piano and the audience audio cuts to a ghostly silence.
He turns to the camera, “Oh good. It’s just us” and begins playing the piano.
“Now the show is done. I hope you had gut trembling or something resembling fun…Could you find a little more time for a parting questionnaire? On a scale of one to zero, are you happy? Cause you’re on your own from here. So, are you happy?
As the last stragglers trickled out of the Piazza, Dan and I were the only ones left. Our show was done. We silently walked back to Dan’s car and as he drove me home, all I could think about was that Netflix special ending. Dan parked in my driveway and in that moment, I turned to him and said, “Are you happy?
It’s really hard to see the beginnings in the ends but I guess that’s the point.
He took a moment. And then we both started laughing.