VR is 'the most fun way to blow people's minds,' top comedians say

Funny guys Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer star in the first virtual-reality comedy sketch from Funny or Die, putting you right in the scene with them.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Comedians Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel (front row centre) and their Funny or Die comrades discuss virtual reality at Sundance.

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Virtual reality is officially a funny business. "It's the most fun way to blow people's minds," according to comedian Rob Huebel, one of the funny folk embracing the comic potential of VR.

Huebel and regular on-screen partner Paul Scheer appear in the first virtual-reality sketch from comedy website Funny or Die. In it, Huebel and Scheer play police officers interrogating you, the person wearing the VR helmet, with hilarious consequences. The sketch debuted Friday here at the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah.

Established by Robert Redford in 1978, Sundance is arguably the coolest film festival on the calendar, so it's a big deal that VR is playing such a prominent role in this year's event. Oculus and Samsung are among the tech companies tempting film fans to get a taste of VR.

At Sundance, Huebel and Scheer, stars of TV's "The League" and "Children's Hospital", discussed VR on a panel organised by Samsung. They were joined by the director of the sketch, Lex Halaby, and writers and producers Christian Heuer, Sean Dacanay and Allan McLeod. Also on hand: Owen Burke, boss of Funny or Die, as well as Nick Dicarlo, Samsung's vice president of immersive products and virtual reality. The riotous panel featured running gags about virtual-reality pornography, Robert Redford's attitude toward VR, and how the performers took inspiration from "The Revenant".

"Comedy works really well in VR because comedians are used to performing on stage", Burke said. The VR sketch was largely performed in two long takes, unlike a TV or movie recording. Some edits were concealed in moments designed to hide a cut, like a moment when a bag is placed over your head or smoke is blown in your face, but it largely involved longer takes. "We're live performers," Scheer explained. "We do a live show every week, we do improv, so doing it live in one take is what we've been trained to do."

Their improv experience also allowed the comics to embrace the rough edges of each take. "It's that imperfection that makes it feel so real," Huebel said.

Dave Fincher "would have an embolism doing VR", Scheer joked of the man who directed the psychological thrillers " Seven," "Fight Club" and "Gone Girl."

The Funny or Die sketch was shot on a custom camera rig built by director Lex Halaby, who opened up and adjusted a selection of GoPro action cameras. The production design of the sketch added comic elements all around the room, and the creators also payed extra attention to the "blocking" of the scene, or where the actors stand and move around. "When Rob's talking to you," Halaby said, "you can look around and see what Paul's doing that's funny or interesting behind you."

Take a closer look at Samsung's Gear VR headset (pictures)

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"There are some things you can do in VR comedy that you can't do in traditional sketches", Halaby added, "like playing with personal space. When these guys get into your personal space there's a visceral reaction."

Sound is also important, Halaby continued. "That brings so much to it. That 5.1 spatial that's supported on Milk VR...that does a lot to really put you there. When Rob's whispering in your ear it's like he's really there."

"My favourite part of this was watching people watch this," said Huebel, who along with Scheer was in the room when Sundance attendees strapped on Gear VR headsets and watched the sketch for the first time. "It's such a solo experience but at the same time, strangely also a communal experience. Assuming everyone starts at the same time, we get to see what your senses of humours are -- there's some people laughing their asses off and some people are like, 'Nope'."

Huebel enjoyed seeing people looking around with their helmets on to explore the sketch. "Ninety percent of the fun is looking for jokes -- oh there's a joke on the wall, now there's a lady making a funny announcement," he said.

Added Scheer, "The thing that I love about VR in general is that you get to be in a sketch with us, or you get to be front row at a Paul McCartney concert or whatever. You get to experience something you'd never do. You really are getting to do a scene with us. Not that millions of people have been crying out to do that."

Both Scheer and Huebel see a lot of potential in VR. "It only makes me ask what else could we do," said Huebel. Yelled Scheer, "I'm calling it now. 'Fast And Furious 8' in VR!"