You may know Keith Powell as “Toofer” from NBC’s 30 Rock, but the cool kids on the Internet know him from Keith Broke His Leg, the web series that follows his semi-autobiographical adventures as he hobbles around Los Angeles. All 10 episodes are available on getbroken.com.
The series was nominated for seven 2016 Indie Series Awards and won for Best Lead Actor (Powell) and Best Web Series. With the Primetime Emmys opening eligibility for Web Series in 2016, could “Toofer” be on his way to an EGOT next to Tracy Jordan?
I talked with Powell about the inspiration behind his web series, some of the standout episodes (watch “Baller” as soon as you’re done reading this), and why he thinks it’s the perfect time for web series to join Emmy contention.
AwardsDaily TV: So when I first starting watching your web series, I had trouble viewing it on my laptop before I finally broke down and watched it on my smartphone without any issue. Then, it dawned on me that I’m old and this is probably how most people are viewing everything nowadays. Is that one of the reasons why you decided to venture into a web series, since it’s short and easily digestible?
Keith Powell: Yeah, I wanted to do a series that showed that I could act, write, and direct a body of work. I also felt like my voice wasn’t really being heard. I’m an actor for hire, so a lot of the time the stories I want to tell have to be foregone for the stories that other people want to tell, which is totally fine. That’s my bread and butter, but I really wanted something that was 100% me out in the world so I could share it with people. I have an entire philosophy on writing and directing that’s always a fun anecdote around the dinner table, when I have dinner parties, but I wanted to share something that said this is who I am, this is my voice, and this is the way I believe in comedy and the way you should tell a story. Then, I took the short form genre and really wanted to exploit that. I really wanted to tell a complete full story in 10 minutes. So often web series just give you part of a story or give you half a story. I wanted to have each episode have a beginning, middle, and end, and be about something. And each episode, I’m very proud of, is about something.
ADTV: Is the show all scripted? Do you have a lot of improv?
KP: It is 100 percent scripted. Actually I wanted to make sure that it was still authentically my voice so I only gave myself one rewrite of each script. So it’s scripted and what came out of me in the first draft is pretty close to what you see in the final draft. Especially for the “Chocolate” episode, which I really wanted to do like a fever dream (Keith eats weed chocolate and sees a version of himself with a regular leg).
ADTV: My favorite episode is “Baller,” when you’re advertising commercials for Black cruises (“cruises with two z’s”).
KP: Oh! That’s the one that I’m putting up on the For Your Consideration site. Thank you for that! There’s a lot of debate on which episode we should post. It’s between “Soup” and “Baller.” “Soup” is the one where I get my finger caught in the blender.
ADTV: I love that one, too! I also like “Class,” the one where you’re teaching the kids.
KP: It’s so weird because when I wrote that, there’s a line in it where I go “I guess I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about George Takei” and that’s really what happened in the writing process. Cause I started going, “How do I know so much about George Takei?”
ADTV: Each episode has its own tone. Sometimes it’s really funny. Sometimes it’s really moving. Sometimes it just makes you think as in “Id,” where a woman tells you the story of her dream about having a baby made of ice.
KP: I’m so proud of that one, too. I wrote that one at the last minute, and it wasn’t originally on the shooting schedule. But we found ourselves with an extra two hours. And that dream really is a dream I’ve had after the death of one of my parents. I had written that dream down, and I’m not exaggerating, 12 years prior. I wanted some way to get it out into the world because I’d been sitting on it for so long and I wanted to share it because I think there are a lot of layers in that dream for me. And so that’s how it manifested itself in the show. And that’s why the episode is called “Id.”
ADTV: That actually leads me to my next question. Does the inspiration for your episodes come from real life? After all, your real-life wife Jill Knox plays your wife in the series.
KP: Yeah. 100 percent. I always like to tell people that the show is just the events of my life put in a blender and you press pulse. So everything that happens in the series happens to me in real life. Just not in the order and out of the mouths of the people that are saying them in the way it is presented. Most of it is autobiographical. It’s a series of stories I want to tell. The karaoke episode (“Mellow”) when the police officers come – that actually happened. I wanted to tell a story about the Black Lives Matter movement, but I didn’t want it to be didactic or preachy. I wanted it to be light and fun, but talk about a serious thing about harassment. What happens in the episode is much lighter than what happened in real life. It was the way I wanted to get the story out. The way I begin each episode is I want to reveal a truth and work backwards. Each episode ends with mostly my character, and sometimes Jill, revealing a truth that you didn’t know before the episode. And it’s a slow revelation of truth.
ADTV: Speaking of truths, will we ever know how Keith has broken his leg?
KP: Never. (Laughs.) In my mind, he breaks his leg in a new way every episode.
ADTV: It could be in a variety of ways because he’s kind of klutzy!
KP: I’ve never broken a bone (knock on wood), but the show came about because I wanted to have a visual metaphor for the growth and change my life was making. In a way, the character of Keith juggles between being aloof and angry with everybody. He doesn’t want to engage with the world. Through the breaking of the leg, it makes him more active and more involved and sympathetic. Like a healing leg, he’s healing into something that’s more of the world – to be a better person. That’s kind of the idea behind the whole show. I’ve written a draft where the cast comes off and where we find out how he broke his leg, but I don’t know if I’ll ever reveal that to the world. It depends on what kind of shape the show takes going forward.
ADTV: The show reminds me a little of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Were you influenced by Curb?
KP: I never thought about it like that. I did in the promotional material because it says it in the promotional material.
ADTV: It does?
KP: Yes, it says: “Like Louie with a Los Angeles sensibility, Curb Your Enthusiasm with heart, and Inside Amy Schumer with a black dude.”
ADTV: Really? (Laughs.) The last one?
KP: Yes. [Laughs] Somebody said that to me about Curb before, but I never thought about it that way. But to be honest with you the inspiration behind the show was Mad Men. Matt Weiner is a friend of mine, and I actually got Matt on the phone and talked to him about Mad Men for a while, to help write one of these episodes. Just because, picking that man’s brain is one of the most satisfying classes you can take. He’s so smart about writing and so smart about storytelling and how it gets told. Each Mad Men episode is about something very specific. It has its own theme, and that is what I wanted for Keith Broke His Leg. At the end of “Baller,” the character goes into a refrigerator and pours a beer into a martini glass. That was the oddest way I could visually show what I wanted the episode to be about. And that is directly from an inspiration on how Mad Men does its shows. Mad Men ends its episodes with a visual about what the whole episode was about, and that’s what I wanted to do with the martini glass.
ADTV: 2016 will be the first year of Emmy eligibility for web shows. Why do you think it took so long for Emmy to take notice?
KP: Daytime Emmys have recognized web series, but Primetime Emmys haven’t. We’re in a new medium. There are 400-plus shows on television, and technology is changing. We’re in a revolution with the television industry. We’re now seeing that some shows are only 15 minutes long. There’s only really one network that does that at the moment, and it’s Adult Swim. So with places like Vimeo and Amazon and YouTube Red, there’s a lot of avenues now for short form shows to be seen, and I think it’s just the right time for the Television Academy to start recognizing that. They’re trying to get ahead of the curve. Web series have been around for at least ten years, but we haven’t had the technology to make them look as good as television until just recently.
ADTV: I wonder if the Oscars will eventually recognize more web-based films.
KP: I would love to sit down in a room with Netflix and say to them, “Please invest in short films and 15-minute web series because there is a market for them.” Netflix is completely blowing the idea of day-and-date release out of the water. They released Beasts of No Nation in a movie theater for a week in order to qualify for the Oscars and then really just put it on their platform. So the Oscars at some point have to contend that the way Netflix is doing it is just because of a parliamentary procedure they’re asking for and that they need to get rid of that parliamentary procedure. Sometimes it’s not such a bad thing to do a day-and-date release on a streaming platform and in the movie theaters. But we’re still figuring all that out. It’s all still a mystery for us.
ADTV: Unlike many artists and filmmakers who crowdfund their projects, you didn’t with this web series. Why did you decide not to?
KP: Because the story was very personal for me. Because it just didn’t feel right to ask people to believe in a project that didn’t exist but know this is all telling very personal stories about my life. It just felt exploitative to do that. Season 2 might be another story, who knows! I’d like to self-fund Season 2. Season 1, I didn’t feel like going to people and saying, “Hey! Give me money for this thing you’ve never heard of! That I’m going to have star my wife! That’s set in my house!” It just felt so masturbatory. Honestly, it would distract from the stories. I feel like people connect more to the show because they stumble on it and realize that each episode is its own story. If it were more of a crowdfunded publicity thing, I don’t think people would be able to connect to the episodes in the same way.
ADTV: The final episode in season one has one of the most moving scenes, something more emotional than a lot of things seen on network TV. When can we expect new episodes? Will a new season explore this cliffhanger?
KP: That is such a wonderful question, and I’m now trying to figure out how to answer without revealing too much. There will be a season two. I don’t know when. The show is now starting to hit its stride in terms of people who are seeing it, and I want to give that its due and its time. I have outlined season two and what I love about the show is how there is a loose plot that overarches the whole show, that slowly reveals itself to you. I want to keep that going. So it’s not so much as picking up with the cliffhanger, but it’s about the cliffhanger being something that slowly reveals what the show is ultimately about. And so we’re going in that direction. We’re getting there. And season two will start revealing more about the mystery of the show and what the overarching theme of the show is. But it won’t handle it in the most direct way. Season one starts to lay the groundwork of that last moment throughout the season.
ADTV: Do you know when those new episodes will start being available?
KP: No. Because we haven’t shot them yet. I normally like to shoot them all. It’s my never-ending fear of rejection. I held on to all of these episodes for six months before I released them because I don’t want to be rejected. (Laughs). I want to make sure I have them in my hand, they’re mine, they’re perfect.
ADTV: (Laughs.) Even after you’ve won awards for it? You still have that fear?
KP: Yes. Because I didn’t expect to win those awards. I always feel like eventually it’s going to be revealed as a sham. (Laughs.) The first season was actually 12 episodes. We shot two extra episodes that I’m holding on to. Those episodes are really good. I haven’t released them because they didn’t fit into the arc of the season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t show themselves at some point. I almost guarantee that they will. I’m still kind of figuring out how I want to show this to the world. I’m hoping before the end of the year we’ll have new episodes. But I’ve made my peace with the fact that KBHL is a show that people will discover slowly and so I want to give that time.