In the wake of Adult Swim’s 15-minute length series Childrens Hospital rallying two wins and four noms in recent Emmy history, the short form categories have become a popular place to be with such companies as AOL and NBC jumping into the fray.
This year, the Television Academy expanded the short form slot to variety series, and by doing so has allowed more independent voices to flourish, specifically the Maker Studios’ series Epic Rap Battles of History, created by Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist. On YouTube, the pair are better known by their handles Nice Peter and epicLLOYD.
For the Culver City, CA-based Maker Studios, Epic Rap Battles marks one of three Emmy nominations this year including nods for Crossroads of History. However, unlike the slam-dunk days when an absurdist series like Childrens Hospital would corner a handful of votes on a final round Emmy committee, a David vs. Goliath battle pervades in the short form variety category with indies like Maker and ScreenJunkies/DEFY Media’s Honest Trailers squaring off respectively with corporate-funded and cult portal shorts, and in this year’s category that includes two AOL series — Making a Scene With James Franco and Park Bench With Steve Buscemi and Funny or Die’s Gay of Thrones. In addition, an awards committee won’t rule the final votes of this category, but the entire TV academy membership.
On Epic Rap Battles, prominent figures—whether contemporary or truly historical, real people or iconic characters of fiction—are pitted against one another in a string of fast-paced rap battles. Even though the series has racked up an amazing 2.5 billion views in its four-season run, the question remains whether any stigma exists among Emmy voters who might separate YouTube stars from the rest. Yet Maker’s indie endurance and sensibility, and willingness to take chances in cultivating rising talent, remains its greatest strengths, the sling to take the giants down and the sword that could finish the job.
“I think it’s cool of the Emmys to open up to things outside the norm,” Ahlquist says of the series’ recognition. “It shows that they’re growing, and they’re considering the work that we do to be important.”
Shukoff and Ahlquist met on a back porch in Chicago in the late ‘90s—in “a fable-y story,” as Shukoff puts it—while attending a raucous “improv party.” In the beginning, “Lloyd was a very independent comedian, and I didn’t know I was yet,” Shukoff explains. Shukoff has been an employee at Maker Studios since his early twenties, and prior to Epic Rap Battles, produced his own original songs and built a YouTube presence.
Touring through the early aughts with Ahlquist’s improv group, Mission IMPROVable, Shukoff cultivated a self-starter work ethic, teaching himself the skills he’d need to break out online—the ability to edit video content, to record songs in ProTools, and to produce hip-hop recordings for Lloyd’s rap outlet. “At the beginning, [Maker] was a place where I never had to ask permission for anything, really,” Shukoff recalls. “I was always encouraged to try things, to experiment, to learn from the audience, to learn from each other.”
“They’ve let us continue to be ourselves, and be a smaller, independent operation,” he adds. “That’s been really wise of them, I think—instead of coming in and trying to change what we’re doing, they come in and try to support what we’re doing.” Says Ahlquist, “I feel like the creative control we’ve had over the lifetime of the project has been the best and smartest thing about the relationship between us and Maker.”
Per Shukoff, Maker is among those industry rebels providing the content and the avenues from which greatness will always spring. “[The Epic Rap Battles videos] have gotten more sophisticated, but still, at the end of the day, it’s 10 or 12 people, wearing a lot of different hats, Lloyd lying on the ground holding a fan, while our lighting guy puts a light on his shoulder,” Shukoff shares. “It gives the audience this feeling that we’re not doing anything they couldn’t do.”
For a look at the Epic Rap submitted for Emmy consideration—a face-off between Muppets creator Jim Henson and Marvel’s Stan Lee—click below.