The new comedy/nature series Grading Animals is an often coarse yet unfailingly informative primer on the animal kingdom’s most famous and little-known creatures. True to the show’s title and hilarious vibe, Grading Animals’ host/creator Jonathan Kaplan (Killing It!, Mares & Kaps) humorously schools viewers about mammals as giant as the amphibious sperm whale and as adorable as the red panda, while sharing fascinating factoids on each animal before “grading” them on their good and bad qualities.
The ongoing series, which continues to seek funding on its Patreon page (link below), can be viewed on YouTube and Instagram (links below). A highly versatile actor/funnyman/filmmaker, Kaplan first caught the eye of web series viewers as part of the duo Mares and Kaps (Kaplan and creative partner Marianne Bayard, a.k.a. “Mares”). While Kaplan has devoted a majority of his adulthood to comedy, though, that interest was preceded by one that first captured his fancy during his pre-teen upbringing: wildlife.
Having collected the popular early ‘80s-era “Safari Cards” series of educational flash cards (which he still possesses today), Kaplan also found his passion for animals crossing paths with his developing appreciation for the outrageous humor exhibited by such comic legends as Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Those unique interests merge in each episode of Grading Animals, and as Kaplan explains to Snobby Robot, it’s a show that is sure to surprise viewers who’ve been used to otherwise matter-of-fact animal documentaries.
Chris Hadley: Discuss the factors that inspired you to create Grading Animals, not the least of which was your lifelong fascination with the animal world (including the pack of “Safari Cards” you first collected as a kid, and still have today).
Jonathan Kaplan (host/creator, Grading Animals): Grading Animals began as another one-off video I made in April 2019. At the time, I was making vlogs, sketches, and some experimental concepts to find something I could complete each week and be excited about making.
While creating Mares & Kaps and Killing it! and picking up strategies from (web series creator resource) Stareable and peers over the last few years, the idea of making content for a specific audience was a challenge I wanted to confront genuinely.
I’m a comedian with a lifelong obsession with nature. I remember being 11 or 12 years old, staying up late, listening to George Carlin’s The Planet is Fine, Richard Pryor’s Lions, after watching “Shark Week” or a David Attenborough documentary. Those primary influences and intersections of comedy and nature are where Grading Animals w/ JKAPS is inspired from.
I have these Safari Cards from the 1980’s I got as a child, and decided to improvise off of them and edit together the first few episodes. I enjoyed the results and felt excited about making more, so after 10 episodes I designed the look of the show to pay homage to the original cards and launched the instagram account.
CH: You wrote, produced, shot, edited and hosted each episode of Grading Animals yourself, including while on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. What were the biggest challenges you faced while working as a “one-man band” during production, how did you learn to overcome them, and how did that experience ultimately prepare you for being forced to work while sheltering in place?
JK: I’ve been making episodes since summer 2019, so while creating them I’d also been working a full time job as a photographer, traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh writing and producing the next Mares & Kaps season, doing a podcast, performing stand up and balancing my relationship, which was plenty to juggle.
At best, I could release 2 episodes a week. After the first 10 episodes, I stopped improvising on camera because it was too much pressure to set my studio up and pray I’d have enough mental juice to improvise something good. Once I started writing them, they took on a life of their own.
When I started, I did 34 episodes before I burnt myself out (after the “Krait” episode in November of 2019.). I took a break till January to reassess my home studio and fix lighting and sound issues before I started what I consider the ‘second season’ – (from the) “Brown Rat” episode to current.
When the pandemic hit, I was actually freed from so many life obligations. I live alone in a very small apartment in Long Island, and when my job furloughed me and shopping etc. got difficult, I was able to focus on just being an artist. I was able to put out 21 episodes between March and May. I shot my outdoor walking scenes by driving out to remote parks and had time to clarify my writing and editing without distractions.
CH: What’s the typical research process like for an episode, and in what ways do you enhance the educational aspect of Grading Animals with your own comedic style?
JK: I research online and when I could, at libraries. I try to gather more information than I need and approach the subject from many angles. Obscure animals need more set up. Not everyone knows what an axolotl or a deep sea isopod is, but a rat, a moose or koala have enough built-in context where I can play with the audiences’ expectations.
I don’t intend for the episodes to be educational. I think of it as my own version of ‘late night comedy’ writing, where the animal facts are like headlines I can attack with humor. I try to let each animal’s story inspire the episode in a unique way.
CH: Clearly, Grading Animals is not a kids’ show given the overall tone of it. That said, who do you think would like to watch it? What audiences/demos are you hoping to target with it?
JK: Grading Animals is definitely not a children’s show, but if you’re old enough to have a cell phone with no parental controls, you can watch Grading Animals. Nature documentaries are about animals killing, animals f*cking and nature being a nonstop horror show where every living thing has to watch its back every second. I don’t think there’s any reason to sterilize the language. Plus, I think part of the appeal is that I say crazy sh*t. My target demographic is people who like comedy and nature.
CH: You’ve also started a Patreon campaign to fund additional episodes of the series. How will that work, how can people contribute to it, and what incentives can people get from contributing to the campaign?
JK: My Patreon page is up and running. It’s an opportunity for fans to support me, starting at $5 a month. I want to make the wildest nature based comedy series the world has ever seen, and if enough people want that too, they can help me build it. I am truly just one person creating the whole thing, so the financial support really makes a difference. Right now, subscribers get a weekly “Behind The Episode” vlog, but I’ll be adding more content as people join.
CH: Overall, what do you want people to take away from watching Grading Animals?
JK: I want people to get inspired about nature while laughing their ass off, and then think, “what the f*ck did I just see?”
NOTE: The series is not currently closed-captioned or subtitled.
Watch all episodes of Grading Animals on Instagram:
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