Ever wonder which bag at the grocery store is better for the environment, paper bag versus plastic? How about what fuel burns hotter in a grill, propane versus natural gas? For anyone who's ever pondered these or the myriad other questions that pop up in everyday life, television and comic book writer Marc Guggenheim and executive producer Jon Hotchkiss have the answers, courtesy of their new web show This Vs. That.
“Very simply, it’s a TV show that answers questions people have that they haven’t been able to figure out the answers to,” Hotchkiss said.
Created by Hotchkiss and produced by Guggenheim, the two spoke with Spinoff Online about the series, which is set to air on television outside of the United States starting next year. Hotchkiss and Guggenheim summed up their web series not as reality TV but as “factual entertainment” dedicated to answering the daily questions people face in their everyday lives.
For example, “When you’re stuck in traffic and you’re in a bumper-to-bumper scenario, there’s always a couple of people you see on the highway who are zipping in and out of lanes and you’re wondering, ‘I wonder if that guy is getting to his destination?'” Hotchkiss said.
The inspiration for This Vs. That struck while Hotchkiss was pondering some of these himself, wondering where he could get an accurate and unbiased answer to questions like, “Is a Prius actually better for the environment?”
“Because I’m a cynic at heart, my first reaction is none of those things are true! But I didn’t know how to get real information about that,” he said. “I wished there was some place where I could get scientific, unbiased information and be entertained along the way.”
As Hotchkiss saw a lack of those places on television and online he decided to take matters into his own hands and created This Vs. That. Hosted by comedians Chris Tallman (Reno 911) Mark DeCarlo (Studs) and Brad Sherwood (Whose Line Is It Anyway?), each episode focuses on one question, such as whether cats or dogs are smarter, and then runs an experiment to test it with the help of experts in related fields. However, unlike similarly themed shows on Discovery Channel and TLC, This Vs. That is entirely independent, funded by Guggenheim and Hotchkiss.
“This kind of show presents factual information in an entertaining kind of way, and the tools to make that kind of show are readily available and are small enough and cost so little I can do it all out of my garage," Hotchkiss said. "So I thought, 'Well, if I can do all of it out of my garage, why do I have to get in business with one of the big networks or the big broadcasters?'”
Shortly after his epiphany, Hotchkiss turned to his friend and colleague Guggenheim to help bring the show to life.
“I don’t watch unscripted television. I don’t watch the Discovery Channel, I don’t watch Real Housewives, it’s not interesting to me,” Guggenheim confessed. That said, the writer admitted he was immediately captivated by the idea of trying to answer the odd questions that pop up in daily life.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God! This is the kind of unscripted show I would watch,’ because it has a discussion of all these questions that I’ve wondered about," Guggenheim said. "For instance when you go the grocery store you are asked paper versus plastic, you want to pick what’s best for the environment, but what is best?”
Guggenheim recognized that reality TV is a departure from his normal comic book and scripted television work. However, Guggenheim revealed that comic book design actually influenced the look of This Vs. That and the official website.
“We have word balloons, we have the graphic," he said. "It’s not supposed to look like a comic book, but it definitely has those design elements as part of it. A comic book sensibility is alive and well on the show.”
Saying the show has a “geek aesthetic,” Guggenheim said he thinks This Vs. That will appeal to a wider audience beyond his comic-book follwoing.
“The thing for comic book readers is -- and I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense at all, I consider myself one -- comic book readers are geeks, and I think geeks have an particular interest in science and a particular interest in the world around them, but I also think they have a particular appreciation for humor,” he said.
“The show’s funny, it’s hosted by three guys who feel like they’re friends of yours,” Hotchkiss added. Saying that hosts often can be the weakest part of many science-based reality shows, Hotchkiss explained the big difference between This Vs. That and other shows is that this series has an underlying sense of fun.
“Often times when you see a show that has science or technology associated with it, they put together a bunch of people who don’t have any chemistry, who one guy is an expert on physics, the other is an engineer, and when they stand next to each other you’re thinking that they’ve never seen each other until that very moment," he said. "What we have is three guys with a long history of comedy and improv experience who also know each other off screen."
That familiarity also extends to Hotchkiss and Guggenheim, although sometimes to the detriment of actually getting work done.
“Chris Tallman is a huge comic book fan, I think we’ve spent more time talking comics with each other on the set of the show then we have about the show!” Guggenheim laughed.
“Believe me, I’m going to put a stop to that!” Hotchkiss jokingly threatened.
They both acknowledged that at first glace This Vs. That seems to share a similar tone and mission with the hit Discovery Channel series Mythbusters.
“One of the things people ask me about is, “Hey, it sounds a little bit like Mythbusters," Hotchkiss said. "My answer to that is that it’s only similar to Mythbusters in that it’s hosted by men and it’s on television, that’s it."
“We don’t even have the television part!” Guggenheim laughed.
Hotchkiss then pointed to the mission of This Vs. That, to scientifically experiment and provide unbiased and factual information for life’s nagging everyday questions, as the core difference between the two shows.
“[Mythbusters]is about things that are mythical, things that are ethereal, things that slip through your fingers," Hotchkiss said. "It’s not about things that are going on in my life."
This Vs. That also stands apart from Mythbusters and other shows of its ilk, as Hotchkiss and Guggenheim are producing it independently, without the backing of major television studio, a decision that appealed to Guggenheim from the get-go.
“The idea of doing it for the web really spoke to me because Jon makes a really good point: The nature of unscripted television is that he can produce the show out of his garage -- it’s a literal truth for This Vs. That -- but its quality is indistinguishable from anything you would see on the Learning Channel or the Discovery Channel,” Guggenheim said.
As well, Hotchkiss told Spinoff that part of the reason they ultimately decided to produce the show for the web rather than TV for the simple reason that it gives them more freedom.
“I had pitched this show to several of the television networks in advance of making my decision to go at it on my own, and the first thing people said was, 'Oh, you could never do that experiment about the hybrid cars versus the high-mileage combustion cars on a network because there is no way they would piss off Ford or Toyota by revealing the results of the experiment.' Those people just spend too much money advertising on their network,” Hotchkiss said. Because the series is self-produced, without advertisers, “We’re able to do something that you can’t see on regular television!”
While there are plans in place for international television, inside the United States This Vs. That is now only available online through the show’s website. Initial Internet response has been positive, and the very first episode, which features an experiment to test what method of boarding an airplane is quickest, has received a lot of online attention as a little-known method shunned by the major airline companies proved most effective.
Hotchkiss chalked up their initial success to their ability to test questions that other shows can't because of advertiser interference, and their collaboration renowned and credible scientists to ensure those tests are as accurate as possible.
“We’ve managed to associate ourselves with the smartest people in their fields," he said. "We worked on the airplane-boarding experiment with the guy who has the grant from NASA who studies dark matter in the universe, he works on the Kepler Project, Dr. Jason Steffen. Other notable experts include Dr. John Newport, an inventor of urethane carpet, who lent his expertise to an experiment testing how to best get stains out of carpets, and a team of scientists from the animal behavior institute at University Of California Los Angeles, who helped to test which animal was smarter, cats or dogs.
“We are aligning ourselves with people who are the top of their field to get you information that’s credible,” Hotchkiss said, adding that the show's motto reflected their commitment to the truth.
“No bias, no bullshit, just science and facts,” he recited.
Despite their online success, Hotchkiss and Guggenheim admitted that the difficulty lay in trying to figure out how to monetize the show online, as people are used to material on the Internet being free.
“People are accustomed to things are for free: They get porn for free, they get music for free, they get three-minute videos on Funny or Die for free," Hotchkiss said. "So the question then becomes how do I get them to think what I’m offering them as something that’s more valuable than free?”
“It’s more valuable than free porn!” Guggenheim added with a laugh.
Along those lines, Hotchkiss and Guggenheim said there are many ways This Vs. That could go, including the possibility of airing the show on television.
“I retained the rights in the U.S. to air segments or episodes, so there’s a lot of different ways we could make money,” Hotchkiss said.
Guggenheim told Spinoff the online nature of This Vs. That means they have nearly endless opportunities to get the show directly into the hands of their audience.
“We can do an iPad app or an Android app, and you could watch them on your phone," he said. "The one thing that is certain in the future is the fact that the audience wants maximum flexibility. This is the future.”
With episodes online and more in the pipeline, Hotchkiss laughed when asked to select his favorite episode.
“I have to say that, for me, it’d be like asking me to pick the favorite child!” he said. “There are little things about each of them I love.”
Guggenheim, however, had no such trouble choosing from among his “kids.”
“My favorite has to be the car experiment, the weaving in and out of lanes versus staying in one lanes versus taking surface streets!” he said. Naming the question one he as a Los Angeles driver deals with every day, Guggenheim said ultimately the episode was his favorite as it exemplified the goofy fun at the heart of This Vs. That.
“We have three hosts, they were in three different cars, one of those cars was a limousine, and they were writing a theme song for the show as they are driving in and out of lanes!” Guggenheim laughed.