With Cake, FXX sought to bring prestige short-form content to mainstream TV. Spearheaded by Kate Lambert, SVP, Original Programming at FX Networks, the show was conceived as, “a collection of bite-sized snacks that were all of one piece,” the executive says.
Inspired by Liquid Television and the wacky variety of Adult Swim, the series is a treasure trove of animated and live-action programming, ranging widely in aesthetic, length and tone.
From Lambert’s perspective, the show emerged from a couple of drives, on the part of FXX. “One is wanting to have a space to innovate, to try things that could be a little bit more experimental, to have a space of the brand that could hold that,” she explains. “Then, we were looking at the progenitors of this kind of form, [thinking] about, how do you develop, in a different kind of incubator, material that could be up to a half hour or an hour, [with] creators that just wanted some space to play, or creators that needed some space to grow?”
Prior to the existence of Quibi, a streaming service which has given a new platform to short-form, the medium was primarily embraced on YouTube and Vimeo, as well as on film festival circuits. Having worked at FX for a long time, on both hour and half-hour programs, Lambert watched the renaissance of the limited series form, and continuous innovation within the half-hour space, questioning why short-form content hadn’t gone through its own revolution. “We were like, ‘Okay, well if one-hour and half-hour and limited series are all having tone, character, story innovation, having structural innovation, why isn’t short-form?’” she says. “‘Why isn’t the less-than-half-hour form being taken seriously, also, as a way to tell story?”
Anchoring Cake on a handful of quarter-hour shows, Lambert acknowledges the way the show has built on the techniques of its predecessors, as well as the ways in which it has pushed the form forward. “There’s been versions of quarter-hour shows stacked together; there’s been versions of cartoon short-form. [But] we just got excited by the idea that an episode per week could have some kind of narrative surprise—could have, I guess I would say, some length surprise. From 30 seconds to five minutes, you could find something that you discovered and really enjoyed,” she says. “Maybe one thing wasn’t for you, but something else, you really dug, and you were exposed to a bunch of new voices and artists that way, kind of rolling that up into a weekly show, in the sense where you have 10 episodes, and then you drop another 10.”
In curating pieces for Cake, Lambert looked for diverse voices, and voices that might not otherwise be embraced—leaning in, at the same time, to the fearless, adult-driven brand ethos of FX. “We knew that our target audience for this would probably be more of the millennial age. We were aiming for smarter, young adults who wanted something with a point of view and authenticity, that was a little bit challenging, but was still cinematic and told great story,” she says. “So, it came about just looking for pieces that fit into that. What would we define as FX, if the mandate of Cake was to be slightly younger-skewing, in that sense? And then what kinds of pieces, five seconds to 15 minutes, felt like they had our ethos?”
A hodgepodge of original content and licensed material, Cake’s talent search was helped along by FX’s John Agbaje, as well as SLAQR’s Ariel Hart. The challenge in curating talent for the show, Lambert says, “is that there’s not a giant marketplace of agents pushing material to you in short-form.” Therefore, the team had to undertake “a solid year” of outreach to festivals, animation schools and the like, finding a great pool of talent as well, on platforms like Vimeo and Instagram.
In Season 1 of Cake, one of the raw talents that Lambert and her team came across was Samantha Jayne, the creator and star of the recurring segment Quarter Life Poetry. An exploration of a young woman’s struggles in her personal and professional life, Jayne’s project began its life as a series of poems published on Instagram, which then inspired a book, and a series of cinematic pieces that have connected with young women the world over.
“I really loved being able to kind of facilitate that kind of conversation amongst women that we don’t normally have, because it’s about all these things that we don’t really feel, sometimes, are worth talking about,” Jayne says, of her initial inspiration, “or it just doesn’t come up naturally in conversation, unless you’re like three drinks in.”
Starting to write poems and pen “little four-line jokes” when she was going through a quarter-life crisis—feeling both stuck and isolated—Jayne was initially approached by FX about a half-hour version of her series. But in creating nine Quarter Life Poetry shorts for Cake, the artist was able to fully realize the tone and flavor that would define her half-hour show.
Directed by Jayne’s longtime collaborator Arturo Perez Jr., the highly cinematic and relatable shorts were set in the context of a heightened, “fantastical” reality, viscerally expressing a feeling through the use of original music and gorgeous choreography.
One such piece, “Circle Back,” explored the trials and tribulations of a young woman working within a stifling and misogynistic environment. “We always described as like an emotionally distant airline video, where it’s like, ‘Hi, welcome to this structure that has always been in place, and will continue to be in place.’ Like, ‘Welcome to internalized misogyny.’ So, it’s like, how would that look? That would look very polished, devoid of color, very blue and steely and cold,” Jayne says. “We treat each one completely differently, and our approaches to them completely differently, based on the feeling that we want to portray in each one.”
For Lambert, the qualities that make Jayne an artist to watch couldn’t be clearer. “I think she is wickedly talented. I think [her shorts] grab what a millennial workplace female experience is like. I think she walks about anxieties in a really interesting way. I think she is a very talented young woman who is just at the beginning of her career,” the executive says. “Those are the people we want to bet on, and hopefully help expose their talent to the rest of the world, and see them take flight in their careers. That’s part of the heart and soul of development at FX, is just finding those people, and giving them a platform, and letting them take off.”
Over the course of two seasons, Lambert has spotlighted talents from around the world, each with their own distinctive point of view. Premiering in March, Season 2 was of a markedly different tone than the season prior, and per the executive, you can expect each new season of Cake to have its own feel. “We love that. I think it’s as much a part of the original brand as every other element. Like, you wouldn’t expect me to do a half-hour comedy that was exactly like the one that came before,” she says. “Every piece needs to be distinctive. Every piece needs to be bold and fearless in its own way, and have a different point of view.”
Looking toward Season 3, Lambert has a few elements to tease. “Season 3 is going to be anchored primarily by an animated show, and it’s again a very smart, clever style of comedy that is very dialogue-driven. It’s headed by John Hodgman and David Rees, so once you have John Hodgman, there’s a certain verbose dexterity to his comedy that automatically comes with that,” she says. “They created a show about being detectives in a small town. So, they wrote it, they voiced it. It’s very much their style of comedy, so the same as the rest of the brand, it’s very authored pieces.”
In terms of half-hour series stemming from Cake, Lambert says Quarter Life Poetry is just the tip of the iceberg. But with her series, Jayne looks forward to continuing to provide “the sugar that helps the medicine go down.”
“It’s been the most lovely collaborative process with FX. We feel so lucky to be with them,” she says. “They’re just masters at storytelling, and we feel so lucky that they’ve really believed in Quarter Life Poetry and what it stands for, and how it affects conversation.”
As Jayne explains, the half-hour version of QLP will live in the same visual and tonal world as the shorts, while introducing more of a continuous narrative. “It’s a story about a young woman, and it’s very much based around my story, things that have happened to me, where I was working in an ad agency, and feeling empty and stuck, and just didn’t know what was best for me,” she shares. “What I really love about this half-hour is, we’re going to introduce so many more characters, so many more young female perspectives from different walks of life.”
For Jayne, the idea of providing this platform for others—the same kind of platform that FX gave her—is both exciting and urgent, at this moment in time. “With Twitter, everyone has opinions, and everyone is trying to divide ourselves and label ourselves, and it is really important to recognize our differences, so that we can all be cognizant of them, and be allies and advocates for each other. And I think that Quarter Life Poetry, what I’m so excited about is, it’s the things that we, on a human level, can connect on,” she says. “In terms of the main characters in the half-hour and my perspective, it really is just about the shared struggles of young women—and then on top of that, individual struggles, coming from all kinds of different backgrounds and experiences.
“I think it will be a really personal show, but it will connect,” she adds. “It really is the specificities of the human experience that we want to dive into, and the entire point of the project is to make other young women feel less alone, so that we all feel heard and bolstered up.”