For every Jay-Z, Drake, Kanye West (or Ye, as he prefers to be called these days) or Eminem, there are many other rappers who’ve either never lived up to record company hype or are still sending their respective mixtapes out to their supportive local fans and social media followers both near and far as they dream of escaping their boring day jobs.
Then, as seen in the six episode rap mockumentary Anxiety Boys, there are some wannabe MC’s who’ve got the support but neither the skills nor the street cred. The obnoxious “mumble rapper” Xanne Hathaway (played by series creator Ben Ball), is one of those wannabes. While presenting himself as a performer who believes he can instantly concoct epic rhymes on the spot, Xanne is more of a poseur in terms of his talent and personality.
Those red flags aren’t yet obvious to his ambitious would-be manager Andrew (played by Andrew Hurt) who’s frustrated with the monotony of being a cog in a major label’s employee workforce and finds that the chance to take Xanne’s career to the next level by becoming his new manager is too irresistible to turn down.
Unfortunately, Xanne’s excruciating qualities and lack of preparation soon test the patience of Andrew as he prepares to turn his client’s improvised wordplay into potential chart hits. With a camera crew in tow to capture Xanne’s entry into the hip-hop world, Andrew struggles to make sense of the upstart rapper’s puzzling mannerisms and equally baffling rhymes.
Having left the relative comfort of his anonymous job at a major record company, and already astonished at Xanne’s preposterously haphazard approach to his career, Andrew finds out to his dismay that he’s got no choice but to turn his “project” into a bonafide star; a dimwitted work-in-progress who also happens to be his new boss’s son.
While Andrew’s nerves are constantly wracked by Xanne, his free-spending partner Maya (Sonya Proehl) stands by him as he stumbles into what could either be a successful career or a spectacular flameout in rap. While Xanne’s focused on his music, his and Maya’s friend Justine (Justine Riches) traverses from job to job. Their relationship, on the other hand, could soon be on steadier ground.
An official selection of the 2021 Stareable Fest, Anxiety Boys fits right in with such beloved music comedies as the 1984 Rob Reiner/Christopher Guest classic This Is Spinal Tap and other mockumentary favorites from the likes of such legends as Ricky Gervais (legendary actor/comic/creator of the British version of The Office), but what makes Ball’s series both funny and relatable is the real life genesis for its idea, which came from Ball’s first-hand memories of working as a cinematographer for hip-hop videos during his high school years.
Ball was already well aware of not just new trends building in the genre (specifically, the melodic and radio-friendly subgenre of “mumble rap”) but also the inner insecurities that were common in several of the rappers he collaborated with. In Anxiety Boys, the rapper Ball plays may be zany and ill-fitted to the responsibilities of stardom, but he is also a character whose longing to be accepted on his own merits is at the heart of his creative aspirations.
Chris Hadley: What (and/or who) inspired you to create Anxiety Boys?
Ben Ball (co-star, “Xanne Hathaway”, creator, Anxiety Boys): I was inspired to make the show because of my experiences shooting music videos for rappers when I used to do freelance in high school. There was this one rapper in particular that I based Xanne off of who I always felt wasn’t being true to himself at all, and was using his rapper persona as a sort of mask to fit in. Noticing this coincided with my interest in the new wave of melodic rap sometimes referred to as ‘mumble rap’ that started in the early-to-mid 2010s.
The artists making this type of music seem to be very vulnerable and innocent in nature (Lil Uzi, Lil’ Yachty, Juice WRLD) which I found was a nice refreshing change from the previous wave of hip hop that almost seemed to require a veneer of toughness and aggression. This combination of my own experience working with rappers and the following new wave of rap that I came to deeply respect and appreciate was what birthed “Xanne Hathaway”, and ultimately Anxiety Boys.
CH: Who and what are some of your biggest creative influences, and how (if at all) did you channel those into the work you did on your show while also developing your own unique voice as a storyteller on this series?
BB: I am hugely inspired by Ricky Gervais and his prolific writing and knack for TV development. I think he is one of the most multi-faceted comedians of our time, having produced numerous TV shows as well as being a notable standup and comedic voice in his own right. I like to think I channeled Ricky Gervais in this show by writing a character-driven series that has the energy of an indie production with a talented cast curated not based on their star power, but on their individuality and talent.
I also was largely inspired by This Is Spinal Tap, having set out to make Anxiety Boys the “Spinal Tap of mumble rap”. This is what inspired me to write the script as a loose outline to leave room for improv, which is also how Spinal Tap was written. No one will ever recreate Spinal Tap but I’m proud to have even just taken a stab at a rockumentary comedy that explores my generation’s contemporary music.
CH: What was the production process like for your show, and what were some of the biggest thrills/challenges you experienced during that process?
BB: It was a very tight shoot schedule for Anxiety Boys, having shot all six episodes in only one week (our last day of shooting [was] March 1, 2020, only two weeks before the pandemic hit). One of the challenges we faced was one of our cameras completely freezing up in the cold and dying on day 3 of production, leaving us with only a single camera for the rest of the week. This was terrifying and caused our director, Benjamin Christensen, a huge headache, but he adjusted the shot lists and got the rest of the series shot without a hitch.
I almost forgot that this happened because there are no signs throughout the series that anything had changed after the incident, but there are always challenges like these on set, and my team and I have enough experience with these types of hiccups that there is little to no panic anymore. It’s all about acknowledging that we’re facing a challenge, and that on the other side we will be totally fine and get the thing done (although getting from point A to point B is quite unpleasant in those moments).
The thrill for me was simply being able to challenge myself every day by improvising fun scenes with strangers dressed as a rapper, and getting to see a bunch of my friends having fun acting out scenes that I had written for them. It’s really an unmatched experience making movies with your friends. You should try it. Go write something silly and get one or two friends to act it out with you, (and) you’ll have a blast.
CH: What makes Anxiety Boys similar to/unique from other comedies like it?
BB: There are plenty of other works like Anxiety Boys out there (Dave on FX, Netflix’s People Just Do Nothing), but I knew that once I started making my show I would eventually find what made it different from the rest by simply approaching it with honesty to my own creative voice. I wasn’t trying to copy anyone or ride any coattails, and in that process, Anxiety Boys has its own flavor. I wanted to avoid making Xanne a goofy one-note ‘fool’ character and by digging deeper into what made him insecure, I achieved a deeper, more original result.
I will always follow that template and keep integrity in the work I do, and even if I never make a profitable living out of my writing/performing, I will always be happy by following that template of honest self-exploration. It’s a great guide! (It’s) better than money, because money is actually attainable. Continually exploring yourself is an endless well that is always satisfying but (it) never runs out. I recommend it.
CH: In terms of audiences, who do you think would like to watch Anxiety Boys?
BB: Anyone who knows about this new wave of melodic ‘mumble’ rap will understand Anxiety Boys. But I think due to the deeper themes integrated into the story, there is room for any person who is interested in the human condition (and that should be everyone) to enjoy it. If you’re not looking that deeply into it, however, there’s a fun rockumentary buddy-comedy on the surface for you to dig your teeth into!
CH: What have you taken away from the experience of making Anxiety Boys?
BB: I learned from this show that I can now be as ambitious as I want with a concept or a character as long as I put the work into figuring out why I’m making the project, and who the characters are.
I had an epiphany back in 2019 when I was asked by my mentor, Andrew Barnsley (Emmy-winning executive producer of Schitt’s Creek and the upcoming CBC comedy miniseries Son of a Critch) to write out the theme for a project I had been pitching at the time.
I realized that I had only been asking myself how I would make my content, and not why. It’s very important to start with the why and work from there. Or if you don’t want to overthink it, start with instinct and ask yourself that later. But always look into your themes and ensure that they’re consistent throughout the piece.
CH: What do you want viewers to take away from watching Anxiety Boys?
BB: I want viewers to walk away from Anxiety Boys wanting to see more. I just want people to have fun with it, and if they can also feel a little less alone, or like they’ve peeked into a new corner of the world, then that’s just an added bonus. Thanks for watching!
NOTE: Ball says that Anxiety Boys is not currently closed-captioned, but that he plans to add captioning to each episode in the future.
Watch all 6 episodes of Anxiety Boys, plus its promo trailer and more special content featuring Ball as “Xanne Hathaway” on YouTube: