Keep the Smooth: An Interview With 'Yacht Rock' Creator JD Ryznar

by RJ White

In 2003, Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab founded the monthly film festival Channel101 with a simple premise: Make a five-minute pilot and if enough of the audience at the live screening in L.A. votes for it, you have one month to make another episode. If they vote for it again, you make another. Repeat. In 2005, JD Ryznar submitted Yacht Rock, which would go on to become one of the most successful shows in 101's history and, over 12 episodes, create a new notch in the Internet's heart for smooth, smooth music. We caught up with Ryznar for this interview:

NAMag: Why this genre of music? Had you been wanting to do something about this specific time in pop?

Ryznar: Since I first moved to Los Angeles, 10 years ago, a dream project has always been to create a Steely Dan biopic that's completely made up. Then, I settled with what was a more realistic ambition and made a Channel101 show about Michael McDonald.

NAMag: There is a bit of reality behind all of this, right? It's fictionalized and exaggerated, but the people and the groups portrayed here -- they all really did work together all of the time?

Ryznar: Yeah. The collaborations are all real, the connections are real. You got to have some truth as the backbone to all the outrageous places you want to take the characters. The real-life collaborations and connections are also extremely inspirational when coming up with a story.

The creator of "Yacht Rock" shares his 12 favorite videos featuring The Protomen, The Postmarks, Journey, and 'The Rock-a-Fire Explosion" robot band from Showbiz Pizza. (!)

NAMag: How did you decide on the pseudo-documentary/reenactment format? Were there other ones you'd considered? It seems like it was a really efficient way to get right to the story, by letting those familiar elements do some of the heavy lifting within the five-minute constraint.

Ryznar: I don't think it's pseudo-doc at all; it's completely a straight-up narrative, just with a dude introducing each episode.

We had a ton to do in five minutes. It's super important in Channel101 and storytelling in general, that your audience knows RIGHT AWAY what it is they're watching. The sooner you get them in the loop, the sooner they can relax and enjoy what you've done. When you're working with horrible celebrity characterizations in a five-minute format, in a venue where you want to get votes from a live audience, the chyrons just allowed for the audience to have some instant gratification. Yacht Rock without chyrons would work fine. The characters are almost always addressed as they're introduced, the chyrons are just a punctuation mark.

So again, Yacht Rock isn't a documentary or mockumentary AT ALL. Is Masterpiece Theatre a documentary because some old douche in a library introduces the stories? Is an unrestored grindhouse film a documentary because it's grainy and ambered? Is Walk the Line a documentary because Johnny Cash was a real guy? Yacht Rock is the furthest thing from a mockumentary, and my skin crawls a little whenever it's called that. Incorrect genre labels are a pet peeve of mine, so naturally, something I had a hand in that's been incorrectly categorized is like a seeing-eye peeve.

Here's the first 10 episodes of Yacht Rock! Uploaded in HD so looking better than ever!
How did you arrive at the look for the show? That washed-out old film stock effect, alternating with other things. For example, in episode three, the way it switches to full-color with VHS glitches and transitions instead for Steve Perry -- the crazy details like that. How much of that was in the original script and how much in the editing?

Ryznar: Co-creator and editor Lane Farnham added that film look. That was all his idea, and all took place in editing.

The VHS glitch is the result of a shooting mistake. We were shooting on a camera that shoots in 24p, which basically tricks your eye into thinking you're watching film by using film's frame rate of 24 frames per second. For that Steve Perry sequence, our camera slipped off of 24p mode, making the footage have the look of something that was clearly shot on video. So, instead of reshooting, we took off the film grain and played it clean w/ VHS glitches. It couldn't have been a happier mistake in a scene about a character being seduced into the more modern times.

Then we wrote the video thing in on purpose when Loggins and Perry duet in episode four.

NAMag: Guest stars like Drew Carey, Jason Lee, Doug Benson, Wyatt Cenac -- how did you get them involved?

Ryznar: I had heard Drew Carey was a fan, so I was emboldened to grab him a few minutes while we were shooting the Acceptable.TV pilot [for VH1] and he graciously went along with us.

Doug Benson was at the Channel101 screening for the first Yacht Rock. This is back when he was doug benson, not DOUG BENSON. [Co-creator and producer] Hunter Stair was a fan and struck up a conversation. He had him booked for episode two before we even knew we were voted back.

Jason Lee's a big fan. I had done some work with him, and he'd quote Yacht Rock at me every day. I knew he'd be honored to appear in an episode, and I love that dude, so I was pumped to give him that honor. He was an absolute blast on set. I want to see him in more roles like this, where he can fly off the rails. Also, I wanted the Kevin Bacon character to make a big splash, so I was pretty determined to cast a celebrity.

Wyatt Cenac was far from famous when we shot Yacht Rock. I think he was almost broke and just about to interview for The Daily Show at that point. I like to think Yacht Rock was his good luck charm, but more likely the only good luck charm he needed was his talent.

NAMag: Have you specifically heard from anyone portrayed in the show? Or has it mostly been from mentions they've made in interviews here and there?

Ryznar: I haven't heard from anyone personally. Hunter Stair has met Steve Porcaro, and Drew Hancock & Wade Randolph, who play Oates and Hall, got to meet Hall & Oates.

NAMag: So, what has Yacht Rock led to for you, mostly?

Yacht Rock led to a career as a "blue collar" Hollywood writer. It's led to more opportunities I can name, and has given me a reputation that gets my foot in a lot of doors.

NAMag: What do you think of this whole thing becoming a bit of a pop cultural phenomenon? You do a google search for Yacht Rock and you find themed bands, parties -- people are still watching this and devoting time to it and the music.

Ryznar: I guess bros needed a new old music to DJ. It's pretty awesome and super satisfying that the term, and in a smaller way, the internet show, hooked into the American psyche. I'm all like "damn" when I find out someone I admire is a fan of the show, which happens more than I could ever dream. I'm so satisfied by the impact, that if Yacht Rock had made me rich, I'd be willing to give up now. And even though Yacht Rock cover bands are prolly making money hand over fist, I luckily haven't made a dime off of it, so I'm still super-motivated to create stuff I love to make and people love to watch. I can only hope that everyone is more excited for the first JD-Ryznar-created TV show than the next Yacht Rock Revue cruise ship gig.

NAMag: What was the actual shooting of episodes like? Watching them -- you see a ton of other 101 people in various roles and it really drives home that sense of it being a community, which kind of also fits in with the way these musicians would work on each others' projects.

Ryznar: You ask other Channel101 people to be in your stuff because they know what they'll be in for: potentially long days, no pay but lots of low-grade glory in an awesome little community. Collaboration like this always happens in artistic communities amongst people of a similar talent level. Whether it's the L.A. rock scene in the '70s or a bunch of high school nerds turned Hollywood nerds in the mid-2000s, it's always a blast to be a part of some kind of movement.

You can see JD Ryznar's current Channel101 show, Canned Beer Cases, at He also posts other ongoing projects to his YouTube channel.