Jeff Burns is a man that seemingly arose out of nowhere. Look around anywhere on the internet, and you’ll be met with his most popular works, Super Knocked Up and Super Geeked Up. Try to go any further back, and you’re met with relative silence. However, fame doesn’t come cheap. While it might be great to imagine that one day, you too could suddenly be discovered, Burns’ sudden burst into the spotlight shows just how crucial years of hard work are in order to finally reap the benefits of what the general population sees as success.
Born in 1975, Jeff Burns spent his days growing up in Albany, New York. From the beginning he found a passion in comic books unlike any other topic he came across, firmly cementing him in the geek culture that is now taking the world by storm. This love, however, wouldn’t come back into play until years. At the age of 26, Burns directed and produced his first short film, Everything About Her, a comedy about a Britney Spears-obsessed young man. His second short film was More Than Friends? In 2002 This would prove to be the start of the path that has inevitably led him to his current position.
Following his two short films, Burns waited another four years before releasing Chasing Fate in 2005, Breaking Up in 2007 and producing 2010’s A Rose in the City. These shorts broke away from his comedic first film as he tackled the more serious drama and romance genres. While each proved to be popular, it wasn’t until 2012 that Burns finally emerged into the limelight.
After taking a screenwriting course, Burns was struck with the idea of a super hero and super villain having a one night stand and then being forced to raise the child together. Unique in its own right and chock full of conflict that makes for a good comedy, Burns knew he had struck on a story that had to be told. Instead of trying to pitch his script to big media companies, Burns took to the web, seeing it has a space with total creational freedom that reached a far larger audience than any other medium could have. With that figured out, Super Knocked Up took to filming.
After two successful seasons under its belt, the 10 episode series proved to be a critical success in the nerd community, garnering it 8 out of 10 stars on IMDb and over a million views. It was this success that really brought Burns into his own as an online figurehead. Propelled by the first season’s success, Burns expanded his web presence further with the development and launch of his live video show and podcast, Super Geeked Up, in late 2012. This first episode featured Super Knocked Up’s leads as they waxed nerdy for all to enjoy.
Since then, he has continued to grow his podcast’s audience with weekly shows and appearances at comic conventions. Most notably, however, Burns has now taken on the role as Chairman of the Board of the International Academy of Web Television, an organization built around promoting and supporting the great talent emerging from the various internet media outlets. He is also currently the Director of Content Acquisition and Marketing and Promotion for New Media at Frostbite Pictures, a team of professionals seeking to raise the bar for online content, making him a key player in the world of web television.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending a panel that Jeff was on for New Media Expo about starting a web television series and then again to see him awarded at the International Academy of Web Television Awards. And, I’ve also had the opportunity to interview him about developing his personal brand.
Tell me what do you consider to be your personal brand?
Jeff Burns: My personal brand is being a geek! Geeky things like sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, and video games are what I love and permeate everything I do. The word “geek” itself we work into almost everything we do for our Super Geeked Up show. We do the “Geek Tweet of the Week” question. We play games like Geeky Accents and Geeky Movie Mashup. We really celebrate how awesome it is to love geeky things and encourage people to embrace their geekiness, no matter what form it might take.
I even establish my brand in the clothes I wear. Every time I go to a Comic Con or festival I wear a different geeky T-shirt every day. So maybe Star Wars one day, Batman another, Harry Potter after that. And especially my Superman T-shirt. There’s a picture of me pretending to be Clark Kent ripping off my shirt revealing my Superman shirt underneath. I use that as my social media profile pic. And people got so used to seeing it that they would recognize me in person at events because I was wearing that shirt. So that’s become a branding thing for me. Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy more awesome, geeky shirts.
What made you originally get involved with film and web series?
Jeff Burns: I got involved with film because I love telling stories especially visually. There’s nothing like being in a theater seeing and hearing an audience react to your work. I got involved with web series because I truly believe it’s the future of telling stories in the entertainment world. It’s not even really the future anymore. It’s the here and now. I think everything’s shifting to people watching things online, whether that’s via their TV, their laptop, or their smartphone. So when I got into making web series a few years ago, it just felt like the right time. And I’m so glad I did. I love the web series format. I love being able to make the episodes whatever length they need to be and being able to follow characters’ journeys through multiple seasons. That’s incredibly freeing and awesome!
What lessons have you learned from hosting Super Geeked Up that can be applied to other areas of your life?
Jeff Burns: I’ve definitely learned to not be afraid to put myself out there and embarrass myself. That’s something I and my co-hosts Nicole and Tonya do regularly every week on the show. Whether it’s making a terrible attempt at a Scottish accent or trying to rap about superheroes, we’ve learned we just have to go for it and not worry about how silly we may look. In fact, the sillier we are and more we take chances, the more the audience seems to love it and really respect that we’re willing to do all that zany stuff live on-air. It really goes back to what I’ve always believed in terms of doing the show: if people see us having fun, they’ll relate to us more and want to watch us every week. I’d say I’ve learned to try to have fun in everything I do in life and not be afraid to take chances.
How did it all start? How did you get to know your Super Geeked Up co-hosts?
Jeff Burns: I originally created Super Geeked Up as supplemental content to my web series Super Knocked Up, an action comedy about a female super-villain who gets knocked up by a superhero and has to raise the baby with her nemesis. Between Seasons 1 and 2, we had to recast our lead actress. And that’s always a tricky thing to do: how do you get your existing fans to come onboard with this new person playing the role? So one idea I had was to start a weekly live show where our fans could meet get to know our new lead actress as a person before they saw her in the role. If they related to her as who she really is, I hoped that’d get onboard with seeing her play the role. I wanted to make a real connection with our fans. I and my two lead actors were the original co-hosts of Super Geeked Up. That seemed to have worked very well as people loved our new actress and really enjoyed Season 2 of Super Knocked Up.
After Super Knocked Up ended, my two lead actors moved on to other things. But I still wanted to keep doing Super Geeked Up. I felt at that point it had really become its own show. It wasn’t just extra content to Super Knocked Up anymore. It was a show where we were having a great time talking geeky topics and playing geeky games with awesome guests. We had established some really loyal fans of just Super Geeked Up who didn’t even know about Super Knocked Up. I wanted to find permanent co-hosts who loved geeky things as much as I did, were really fun, and would work super-hard every week with me to make an awesome show. I found that in Nicole Wright and Tonya Dodds.
I met Nicole at the 2014 IAWTV Awards (International Academy of Web Television Awards). She and her cast and crew from web series Progress came to the Awards Show all dressed in steampunk costumes, which was amazing! I struck up a conversation with them, and Nicole and I stayed in touch after the show. I thought she had amazing energy so I asked her to guest co-host some Super Geeked Up episodes and then shortly after that invited her to be a permanent co-host.
I met Tonya a few months later when we and a bunch of other web series creators were out in LA for the Indie Series Awards and two web series festivals all happening around the same time. Tonya was good friends with several creators I was also amazing friends with so we wound up hanging out a lot (we even went to Disneyland together!) and, like with Nicole, hit it off with our love of geeky things. Tonya also came on to guest co-host and then became a permanent co-host a little after Nicole joined. The three of us have been doing the show together for a over a year now and I feel it’s never been better. They’re the perfect co-hosts and have become two of my closest friends. We just started a Patreon for Super Geeked Up to bring and introduce more people to be a part of the the series!
Who are your influences?
Jeff Burns: In terms of being a host, Chris Hardwick is definitely an influence. He’s really funny, always has a positive attitude, and just makes anything he does so entertaining and fun to watch. I’ve been to the last three San Diego Comic-Cons (best thing ever!), so I’ve gotten to see him moderate a ton of panels there and he really is just the best at it. When I moderate panels, I try to do it in a similar style to him, putting my own take on it of course.
In terms of filmmaking and storytelling, Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon are two big influences. I’ve thought for quite a while now that Nolan is the best filmmaker working right now. No one can tell a story quite the way he can. Whedon has been an influence ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I usually write kick-ass, female protagonists in my stories and Whedon is one of the absolute best at creating real, well-developed female characters. I’ve always been in awe of the way he blends comedy, drama, and action together so seamlessly.
What advice do you have for those who are thinking about creating a web series?
Jeff Burns: Do it! Web series are where it’s at! More seriously one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to surround yourself with amazing, hard-working people who will have your back no matter what. Creating a film, TV series, or web series is incredibly hard work. The hours are crazy. There are a million things that can go wrong and probably will. You need people who can have a super-positive attitude no matter how bad things are going. People who will do whatever it takes to help you get the series made and be with you every step of the way. When you have people who bring negativity, you can feel that bad energy and it will bring you and everyone else down. It will make creating the series not very fun. And it should be fun. It’s hard work for sure. But it should always be fun. I and every creator I know does it because we love it. Find people who have that same passion and positive energy. You’ll discover this the more you make series or work on other projects. You’ll find the people you love working with and know who to ask to be on your next project.
How do you stay motivated and bring that energy to hosting Super Geeked Up or going to Comic Con (or several Cons and Festivals)?
Jeff Burns: For me it’s actually not that hard to stay motivated because I love doing Super Geeked Up and going to Comic Cons and Festivals. Traveling around to cons and other events are usually the highlights of my year. It’s amazing to get to do the show in front of a live audience and feed off the crowd’s energy and get to play the games with audience volunteers. That always energizes me! Even if I’m sick or feeling rundown, I feel I have to turn it up and bring a lot of energy. Because if I as a host don’t bring that, how can I expect the audience to get excited about what we’re doing?
I also look forward to doing the show online every week. I mean I get to talk about geeky stuff I love with people I love so how can that not be awesome? I think it’s easy because I love what I do and I get to do it with two of my best friends.
What has been the geekiest moment of your career?
Jeff Burns: The geekiest moment of my career is probably getting to be on and then moderate panels at San Diego Comic-Con. SDCC is really the mecca of everything geek. The first time I went, which was two years ago, was because I was invited to be on a Web Series panel. That had always been a goal of mine: to be on a panel at SDCC. But it actually happened much sooner than I expected it would. Then this year, they accepted a Web Series panel I submitted so I got to host the panel and bring on super-awesome web series creators and actors to be on it. It was awesome! Just attending SDCC is amazing. But being on panels there has been an amazing geeky experience!
Who is your role model and how have they inspired you?
Jeff Burns: My role model would be a film producer friend of mine named Terry Field who also has been my film mentor. I met Terry at a local film organization meeting when I first got involved in filmmaking. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing back then, but when I approached Terry, he was friendly and kind and gave me great advice. And since then, he’s always made time out of his insanely busy schedule to read my scripts or watch my films and web series and give me feedback. And I mean always. Not once has he not been there when I needed him. That’s an incredibly rare thing to find. He’s also always super-positive and shows such extreme kindness to everyone he meets. And that’s what I always try to do in my own life so Terry has been a great friend and a great role model.
It’s safe to say that Burns’ journey from comic book kid to making a living off of hosting and producing web television content has not been fast, nor has it been easy. However, his hard work and persistence in not only creating content but regularly producing new stuff has led to his well-earned position. There’s no secret formula he followed, no single path he took to get where he is except following his passions. After all, if he hadn’t been extremely excited to produce and direct a series about comic book-inspired characters, the product that finally earned him the recognition he deserved would have never come about, and it’s this drive that has truly allowed him to make a living doing what he loves to do. He honed his art over a period of 10 years until it was great enough to capture the imagination of the internet. In the end, it’s a lesson we should all take to heart. As Martian Manhunter once said, “The future is worth it. All the pain. All the tears. The future is worth the fight.”