The idea behind the HBCU Young Alumni Series, is to take the time to honor graduates who, since graduation, managed to do the work, create opportunities for themselves, and are now on the brink of success. These alumni defy the myths of life after graduation and prove that reality can be quite rewarding. It also pays homage to their respective HBCU’s for being the reason they have chosen to be successful. Although this series is starting off with alumni from North Carolina A&T State University, which is the alma mater of many of our writers, the goal is for it to continue to unfold and open doors for success stories from graduates from HBCU’s across the country.
This week, we interviewed comedian and film/media maven in the making, John Holland, alumnus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
CH: Long before YouTube was a means to generate income, GreenBench TV, which was shot in the early days on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University started it all. In lieu of humble beginnings, let’s start with your YouTube-channel-turned-production-company, GreenBench TV. How did the initial idea come about to put these comedy skits on YouTube?
JH: It all kind of happened by accident. This was around the time Facebook had just launched, but slightly before YouTube actually went live. I had grown tired and frustrated of being a business major, so one day I just tuned out and began writing what would become our first sketch, “The Blocker”. Upon finishing the writing of it, that same day I decided not only would I go the extra mile to shoot it, but I would switch majors to the place I belonged, TV production. Fast forward to a finished product, and the video simply lived on my computer for weeks. We’d show friends who came by and that was about it. A friend of mine at another school wanted to see it so I uploaded on a friend’s server to send to them.
Little did I know, the owner of the server enjoyed the video and began posting it on tons of HBCU websites and forums. Next thing I know, people on campus are coming up to us saying how much they loved the video, as well as people on Facebook messaging us giving us props. What amazes me is that the video was some crazy link like this, which if I saw that link today, there’s no way I’d click on it. Thank God people were so trusting back then to click on videos and watch them. Seeing that people liked it, we began spamming Facebook hard, sending personal messages to hundreds of people at different schools. Then we had to follow-up so we wrote another sketch and then another, and another. Each time we’d hit every website we could (at the time the only social media was an infant Facebook, infant Myspace and Black Planet). From there we enjoyed “overnight success”. Eventually YouTube would be purchased by Google, so we started uploading our content to there as just another way for people to see it. It would be years before YouTube became our main content site due to the crazy publishing times (it would take up to two days to upload and publish a video in the beginning) and the model for making money at that time was make your own website, people go to it, you throw up banners and you hopefully make money from it.
CH: Talk about technology and its evolution! So now, you and the original crew have decided to take your talents to the West Coast. Since literally going Hollywood 7 years ago, how has your perspective on the film/media industry shifted, if at all?
JH: We’ve definitely become a lot more seasoned, and it’s so crazy how quickly the landscape has changed. When we moved out here in 2009, networks didn’t really know what to do with internet stars. Now they’re getting crazy deals from corporations, getting movie deals and so much more. I remember back in 2005, I would tell people that the future of entertainment was going to be on the internet, with TV shows and movies making their debut on there (we did an internet TV show for two years from 2005-2007). I’d say that to industry people and they’d shrug off the idea of the internet being dominant over TV. Most of it was because networks and studios didn’t know how to monetize the internet (although it was a really simple solution sitting right in front of them). We’ve shifted our focuses from “we got to get a show, we got to get a show, it’s got to be a sketch comedy show” to “we’re going to get a development deal and work behind the scenes, building our reputation until it’s our time to have “The Green Bench Show”.
CH: Last time I checked, you guys were working on a pilot in correlation with Adult Swim. Where are you all now in terms of getting shows aired on prime television? As a young, black, filmmaker, essentially, what has that process been like?
JH: We had a TV deal with Adult Swim back in 2011-2012 that allowed us to shoot two TV pilots. They weren’t picked up by the network, but we continue to work with Adult Swim. It’s amazing when you learn how difficult it is to get a pilot picked up. Hell, it’s even more difficult to get past the show pitch. We’ve worked on another TV pilot for them for World Star and we got the chance to write on season 2 of ‘Black Jesus’. With so many options now like Netfix, Hulu, etc. the TV deal doesn’t seem as prestigious as it once did (of course we’d still take one!). Not sure on the time table for Green Bench on prime time lol. It took two years for our first deal to go from start to finish, but we are making projects now with TV in mind (like Black Angus and World History Barbershop). I haven’t experienced the “racist” moment in Hollywood yet, but I’ve met with agents who want my writing to be less black. I’ve had to lead a conversation with a producer with something that isn’t so inside-joke black culture just to get them to listen. It can be frustrating, and sometimes it can be a fun challenge.
CH: Going to an HBCU, where there any stigmas or negative stereotypes that you felt were attached to your interest in film and media? How were you able to overcome that?
JH: Hopefully this story answers this question:
When I was an intern at CBS in New York, I remember a big meeting with all the interns (like 30 other interns) and everyone went around saying their school. Duke, Harvard, Yale, etc. etc. All the school names are met with awe and wonder. Then it’s my turn and I proudly say “North Carolina A&T State University”. No response. It didn’t surprise me. These Ivy league kids don’t even know what an HBCU was. Because they never heard of it, they just discounted me as if I was some affirmative action pity case. I left that meeting angry, and I remember running into one of the VP’s (who was a wonderful black woman) who asked why I was upset. I explained to her what happened, and then I had a moment where I forgot I was in a professional atmosphere. I had a Kanye moment. I told her “they’re up there on each other’s dicks, little do they know, I’m going to be their boss one day. Each and every one of them will work for me”. She told me that was her favorite thing anyone has ever said.
Fast forward to the end of the summer and guess what? Not a single one of the kids knew anything about TV or journalism. All the interns had been assigned a big end of the program video project, and these kids were struggling. $80,000 a semester and they couldn’t do basic functions like checking audio levels, white balancing, applying ND filters, researching a news story, etc. Little old black school John came to the rescue out of the kindness of his HBCU heart, and let me tell you those kids got humbled really quick when I helped all of them get their projects in proper shape. I didn’t have to, but I wanted to, because how else will they come work for me?
CH: Wow! That answers the question perfectly! Tell me this: in a society that tries to dictate young millennials in terms of what industries are the most lucrative, what motivates you to stay on the path of your dreams?
JH: Oh my favorite question! Listen, I started as a business major. Marketing to be exact. I hated every day in it. The only reason I choose it was because as a black community, we always tell each other to go after the money. Get some benefits. Play it safe. I can’t tell you how miserable and how unemployed I’d be if I had stayed in business. Too many times we pass on taking the risk to chase our dreams for the safety net of working corporate jobs. Get out there and take these risks while you’re young, because when you’re older, it’s near impossible. I moved to LA with 5 guys and lived in a studio apartment the size of a kitchen for an entire year. We ate ramen noodles and slept on air mattresses. I had enough clothes to fill one suitcase and that was it. I did that was I was 24. The perfect age to do something that dumb! And it totally paid off. If I were to try and do that again now at 31, I’d have so many doubts. So many hesitations. I’d be too comfortable to essentially start over.
Just do it! Do it now! Don’t say “I’m going to save up money and do it next year”, because you won’t! Something will happen, your money will be gone, you’ll get pregnant or fall in love and you’ll have to wait until the next year, and the next year. Get on the internet, read a book, find someone who is currently doing it, and find out how you can do it. It drives me nuts when someone says they don’t know where to start. What do you mean!?!?!? You have an abundance of information online to do anything you ever wanted. The best motivation is the desire to want it bad enough! Remember you only live once, and you don’t want to be on your death bed wondering “what if?”. I have too many friends in their 30’s now back home who wish they had gone out on a limb and chased their dream. You don’t even have to leave home nowadays to chase a dream. Sure, I miss home every now and then but when I’m successful, I can go home as much as I want. At the end of the day, you need to want it, and want it bad, and not let anyone or anything get in your way or discourage you, because someone else WILL want it more than you, and they’ll go the extra mile to do it, and they’ll be enjoying the happiness you could be enjoying. Wake up earlier, and go to bed later than everyone else, and you’ll easily hustle your way to the top.
I’m rambling now but this is the question I love to answer because I like getting people fired up about fulfilling their dreams. Half the time, it’s just people being lazy, and they need a little spark. Don’t let this be you!
CH: Whew! There was absolutely a blessing in that message. I felt that!
CH: In 2014, your surprise engagement to your lovely fiancé, Megan “broke the internet” (which I’ve personally watched a million times already, by the way). How has your love life shaped you into the man you’ve become? What role does she play in your career ambitions?
JH: Glad you enjoyed! I was fortunate to meet a woman who was so driven, and it made me wonder if I was working hard enough. Love and dreams can be hard to juggle but putting in the time and communicating will plug any holes in your relationship. There’s 24 hours in a day; a hello and some flowers goes a long way when you’re working a 12 hour day and haven’t seen each other since the weekend. I work hard to give us a better life. I like making her happy. When she’s happy, so am I.
CH: What is one thing you want the world to know about John Holland?
Hmmm that’s a good one. I’m passionate about what I do. I love and accept all challenges with the delusion that I can do anything, and that’s helped me accomplish everything! I move all obstacles and excuses out of my way to get what I want, and I hope that one day I can make whoever is reading this laugh and forget about all their problems!
CH: Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with me on behalf of HBCUbuzz. You and the GreenBench TV production team has made some really positive strides over the years and I have no doubt in my mind that you will continue to be successful in your future endeavors.