Beck Bennett's calling answered with AT&T ads

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Beck Bennett

Actor Beck Bennett in a popular AT&T broadcast ad. (January 30, 2013)

"It was a passion even before he started getting instruction," said Andy. "We knew it was going to be his thing."

Bennett chose USC for the acting program, and he still likes doing "serious" roles, although his agent lately has told him to stop confusing the issue and just tell people he's a comic actor.

As a freshman, he joined a campus improv group, and there met Nick Rutherford and Kyle Mooney, who would become the performing members of Good Neighbor. The fourth member, Dave McCary, only wanted to shoot and edit video, a pretty important talent in the YouTube era.

"Beck is incredibly talented as a performer," in both comedic and straight roles, Rutherford said. "Every play I've seen him in, every short I've seen him do, no matter how terrible the production is around him, you can't take your eyes off of him. He is very tuned to the emotions. He kind of has, like, a short fuse, but that's where his power comes from, I think."

Plus, Rutherford said, Bennett has a similar work ethic to him. Instead of talking about doing comedy or making videos, he gets it done.

A shot at more

Good Neighbor's comedy is typically ultra-deadpan, dark, casual and off-center, much more about interpersonal than topical matters.

But their first burst of Internet fame came via a topical video called "Pregnant Jamie Lynn Speaks Out," a reaction to news that 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears was pregnant. Shot TMZ-style, it's an ambush interview of "Jamie Lynn," who's actually a girl of maybe 3 in big sunglasses. In the end, she gets in a car driven by "Britney," another toddler.

Gossip blogger Perez Hilton linked to it, and the page views piled up: It's at 6.75 million now, but the 4 million views it earned in the first few days were enough to get the group meetings, and a deal with a management company.

When Maker Studios, home to some of YouTube's most popular talents, signed Good Neighbor to a promotion and revenue-sharing contract, there was enough monthly money for Bennett to quit his waiter job.

At the same time, they would still do live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, one of Los Angeles' comedy epicenters. And they pitched two TV shows that never made it to air.

An encouraging note early on from Spielberg, Bennett said, was a "huge validation." Spielberg's daughter had apparently shown her father a Good Neighbor video paying homage to the imaginary dinner scene in Spielberg's "Hook," and he liked it enough to tell them to keep at it, said Bennett.

Another encouragement — and Rutherford told this story, not Bennett — came when McKay had Bennett come in and read the Will Ferrell role as actresses auditioned for the "Anchorman" sequel, scheduled to be out in December, according to IMDB.

When it came time to renew with Maker at the end of 2010, the group turned down the first deal, then, "running out of money," Bennett said, took one that gave them signing bonuses and had the three performers also develop individual channels, in addition to the Good Neighbor channel.

He and Rutherford together developed "Theatre of Life," an ongoing, very funny, very low-key series where they set up lawn chairs at (mostly) Venice Beach and conduct a bromance while inventing dialogue for the passers-by they mock. Some of it is very off-color, to the point you wonder what a parent might think.

(Parent? Andy Bennett said that stuff generally doesn't bother him because the material is amusing, but his son "is in an independent film that's coming out this year ('Beside Still Waters'). Apparently there's frontal nudity. I don't know if I'm gonna be sitting in the front row for that.")

It was for his solo channel that Bennett developed the show "Fresh Perspectives," a short-lived Web series that had Bennett playing an anchor type interviewing kids about world problems — a guy who, in his words, "genuinely believes these kids have the answers."

But when he got to the auditions last year for the AT&T ads, the people involved did not seem to know "Fresh Perspectives," he said. He went around telling them, "This is what I do!" and showing the videos.

The ads' creators said the idea for them began not with "Fresh Perspectives" but as a reaction to the "clutter" in the wireless market: "We thought, why not simplify things to the point where even kids would understand? … We found out about 'Fresh Perspectives' after we'd already come up with the idea. It just solidified in our minds that Beck was the perfect guy for the campaign."

Guess who agrees?

"As an actor," Bennett said, "a lot of things you do, people don't see it. It's nice for this to happen. … Now I almost feel bad for my friends, like, 'Yeah, I'm on TV.'"

sajohnson@tribune.com
Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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