In the 1950s, NBC aired a show called the Adventures of Hiram Holliday. The titular hero was a geeky, Coke-bottle glasses-wearing newspaper proofreader. I’m not kidding.
Holliday’s adventures kick off when he’s sent on a trip to see the world by his grateful publisher after Holliday saves the paper from a $500,000 libel suit by inserting a comma into an article. While traveling the world, he transforms into an unassuming, all-knowing star who, as I noted in my book, appears so frail at times that “You half expect him to die from a common cold, only to suddenly see him thwarting Nazis in the name of a distressed princess, or saving the entire American naval fleet while searching for the lost consonant of the Hawaiian Islands.”
When I first discovered him, I thought Holliday was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of hero. Imagine a current-day network building a series around a copy editor or—ha!—a magazine fact checker. Preposterous.
Well, this week, NBC began airing a eight-part Web series entitled FCU: Fact Checkers Unit. It’s based on a hilarious short film that you can watch on FunnyOrDie.com. You can go here to watch the first three roughly six-minute webisodes, which feature guest stars such as Luke Perry and Karolina Kurkova. Future episodes will feature Jon Heder and Alex Trebek, among others.
“Focus on the fact, not the supermodel!” one checker admonishes the other in the Kurkova episode. (The series is also something of an experiment in product placement, as a Samsung phone features prominently on the Web site and in each episode.)
The series focuses on a pair of magazine fact checkers at the fictional lad mag Dictum. They stop at nothing to check even the most mundane of facts, including spending the night in the same bed as Perry. All the while, they tussle with an ornery writer who hates them, a blogger who torments them by posting manifold inaccuracies, and an editor who cares more about bedding one of them down than getting articles checked.
Earlier this week, I spoke with the three series creators: Peter Karinen (who plays Russel the checker), Brian Sacca (who plays Dylan the checker) and Daniel Beers (who is the director). We spoke about the similarities between their fictional checkers and the real world, and I gave them a pop quiz about checking facts.
I’m wondering if one of you had a specific experience with a fact checker or fact checking? How did the idea for the short come about in the first place?
Peter Karinen: We started off thinking wanted to do some sort of spoof of CSI or those procedural dramas that are on TV and are all pretty much exactly the same, and Brian came up with the idea for the fact checkers unit. I think he just thought it was a funny name … I had a friend who used to be a fact checker for GQ magazine and she didn’t really have very many hilarious stories, so we kind of had to come up with the exciting part of the job ourselves.
Daniel Beers: I also wrote some pieces for Vanity Fair, like some really dumb little blips, and they had the fact checkers call me at one point and I thought that the job was so weird. The thing I was writing was about movies and one was Fever Pitch and the fact checkers called me and they were like, “How do you know the movie is about the Red Sox?” … I had one friend that was a fact checker and she was twenty-four at the time and a couple of people [she worked with] were older—they were in their forties and fifties—and she said they were so intense at all times about everything. That was one of the details she grabbed [from the experience].
PK: So, yeah, basically Dan was interrogated rudely by a fact checker and that’s the inspiration for the short. Forget everything I said.
So there was no actual field research—no going into one of the big magazines and saying, “We need to see how the fact checkers work”?
PK: That’s the real beauty of doing comedy—we don’t have to do any research or verify that anything is actually real; we can always just make it up. When people say, “That never really happened,” we can say “Yeah, well, this is comedy.” It’s definitely one of the perks.
DB: On that note, what’s funny about it is that we didn’t do any real research—we just made it up as we thought it would be—and people came up to us and said, “Oh my God, it’s just like that.”
Brian Sacca: So, basically, we just instinctually knew how fact checkers work and we nailed it.
I have to say, as somebody who wrote a book that has a couple of chapters dedicated to fact checkers and fact checking, there were a couple things where I was like, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” One was the tension between the writers and the checkers. Is that one of the things you’ve heard about?
BS: We’ve all heard stories and fact checkers that have talked to us about it have said that tension is real. You can just image that it would be real with any kind of creative situation when someone is getting in the way of a writer’s writing process … I also think there is something relevant when you’re talking about tension with writers and fact checkers now with all the blogging going on. There must be even more tension between fact checkers and bloggers because bloggers can just write whatever they want.
I would have to image some of the guest stars that you approached had also dealt with a checker when a profile was written about them. Did you ever have any conversations with any of the guest stars about their experiences with checkers?
DB: They just came in and were very game to come in and play along. But none of us brought that up that I’m aware of.
PK: When we originally wrote a short for Pauley Perrette I think we had it in there that her hair was naturally black, and the checkers were verifying that she didn’t dye it. But she said, “Well, my hair is naturally blonde so I don’t really understand where you guys are coming from.” We hadn’t checked our facts. So we changed the script.
BS: In a similar vein, working with Alex Trebek we were talking about facts with him constantly and talking about the show, about Jeopardy!, and … at one point we asked him something and he had the answer and we said, “Mr. Trebek, is there anything you don’t know?” He responded with, “What I don’t know is not worth knowing.” It was so good that we put it in the show.
I’m going to give you a couple of facts about real fact checkers and I want you to decide if they’re true or not …. So, do they fact check cartoons at The New Yorker?
BS: No. I’m gong to say no because some of those captions are ridiculous.
DB: I’m going to say no as well.
PK: I gotta go no with this one but, again, Russel and Dylan would fact check a caption or a photo in heartbeat.
I’m sorry to say you’re all wrong—they in fact do fact check the cartoons at The New Yorker.
DB: Are you serious?
Yes, if you are citing a company name in a caption or draw the White House, you better have the right number of pillars for the White House and have spelled the company name correctly. Last question, this is a piece of trivia: What famous American novel that was later made into a film starring Michael J. Fox had a…
DB: Bright Lights, Big City—boom!
That’s right! Bright Lights, Big City had a magazine fact checker as a main character.
DB: A cocaine-addled fact checker at that.
Correct … Is there anything you’ve learned about fact checking that we haven’t talked about?
DB: What’s funny was that during the shoot I was at a friend’s house for dinner and there were two people there that were actually fact checkers from Maxim magazine, which is just really funny considering it’s the magazine I think we’re lampooning. And I was like, “I’m doing a series about this” and they were not impressed. They were not impressed at all. It tells us that this is a little more on the nose than we had thought it was.
PK: I also want to add that every fact checker I’ve ever met since 2007 has seen our short with Bill Murray and has enjoyed it—or at least told me they did. So what I’ve learned is that fact checkers should probably spend more time fact checking and less time watching funny videos on the Internet.
BS: What I’ve learned is that fact checking is hard. When we’re writing these things and we have facts that we want to reference, we have to check them to make sure that they’re true—and it’s hard.
Is there anything else you want to add?
PK: I just want to add that I think today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of women’s suffrage and, you know, we also wanted to give voice to a group whose voice had gone unheard for far too long. These fact checkers, you know, they don’t create anything—they have to interpret, and hopefully we…
DB: Don’t print this, Craig! Don’t print this! [laughing]
Wow, that’s a link I just didn’t expect to get. But the fact checkers feel very maligned right now. They are losing their jobs in droves, so they might actually be thankful for that. Now, do you want to compare yourselves to Rosa Parks, or is that good for now?
Correction of the Week
“A capsule summary on Friday directing readers to pictures of ugly creatures at nytimes.com/science left the impression that fish and crustaceans are not part of the animal kingdom. Many of them may be ugly, but they are no less animals.” – The New York Times