Deez Interviews: Jack Corbett — Planet Money’s “TikTok Guy” — on creating the "coherent weirdness" of those vids + getting called the next Bill Nye
This week’s interview is with the international man of mystery AKA “the Planet Money TikTok guy” whom I wrote about last week: NPR production assistant Jack Corbett!! (big shoutout to the deez links network for getting us in touch!)
We talked about his origin story, all the work that goes into keeping @planetmoney wonderfully weird, and how he feels about being dubbed the “Bill Nye” of economics TikTok. Enjoy! (p.s. this one’s longer bc we chatted over Google Hangouts and there was too much good stuff!!)
First, tell me about your background! What brought you to NPR?
I studied experimental cinema and like, bizarro weird video art stuff in college, at Ohio State University, which is where I got a film theory degree. It was the closest thing my university had to a film degree. For a senior-ish project, I made a documentary that I included in job applications, and one of the places I applied to was NPR, for their music video internship. I was hired on last fall as an intern, helping out with Tiny Desk concerts and all video stuff at NPR. For a while I was sitting right at the Tiny Desk with Bob Boilen, which was bananas.
How did you get into making TikTok videos from there?
There’s this great series called Planet Money Shorts, which are Planet Money episodes turned into five-minute videos, mostly for YouTube. There was a whole team working on that, and I jumped on to help with the script process.
Then, when everyone started working from home, the stock market circuit breakers were in the news, and it was my turn to work on the Planet Money Shorts. So I was like, what if we do it kind of different this time? What if we did it as an explainer? Because I thought it was really funny that the circuit breakers were about having people just chill out and calm down. It felt like that’s what everyone needed at the time. My friend Shanti [Hands], who was in some of the earlier TikToks — she was also an intern at the time — she was like, I just want to watch slow motion videos of water and clouds. I was like yeah! That’s what the traders on the market floor need.
So I just combined those two ideas. Originally it was a 3.5 minute long video, and then they sent it to the Planet Money people. One of the producers was like hey Alex [Goldmark], you gotta see this, and he was like hey I really like this can it become a vertical video that’s 59 seconds? Because they were already trying to figure out how to make TikTok work. It came together at the perfect time.
Tell me more about the creative process. I’ve been showing friends videos like this one with the skateboard effect, and they’re always like, wait, can you do ALL of that on the TikTok app?
Oh, no, I don’t edit them in TikTok. It would be impossible, even though I know the app does have crazy cool effects. But I just worked with Premiere so much in college, so it felt like I already knew how to use all those tools and “break them” a bit for fun and really push the bounds. Like if the video is exporting and it’s not overheating my computer, it’s probably not a great video.
With each video, I’ll work on a script beforehand, which will have a certain amount of weirdness in the concept. But when I’m standing in front of the green screen and looking at the iPhone and reading through the script and trying to memorize it, then I’m like, what if for this part there’s a tiny little version of me falling through the sky, and there are all these characters...I’ll come up with stuff as it’s going and then make sure I cover all the bases while I’m filming it. Then I do the hard work of actually making it afterwards.
And you film everything yourself?
How long does it all take?
Some of them are so easy and come along just like that. Throughout the whole process, I work with Planet Money, so I will base a lot of stuff on old episodes or stuff they’re pushing out, and then I’ll rework it, turn it on its head and then bounce ideas off them too. I work closely with my supervisor, Mito [Habe-Evans], and we’ll find ways to make coherent weirdness along the way.
That takes the longest time — bouncing ideas off people and having scripts signed off on. To actually shoot it and edit it, I can turn them around in like a day. I think I actually have two today that I already have scripted to shoot and edit.
Are there specific influences from your background in film theory that you use for the videos?
One of the strangely biggest influences in the way I got to thinking about this stuff is this project from my senior year, where my professor had us do this thing called “experimental karaoke,” where we had to make the background video for a karaoke video. I was so stuck because I was not sure if I wanted to make it artsy or funny or goofy. Usually it was all very serious stuff.
So I made one for that Flaming Lips song that’s so sad, the one that’s like, everyone you know someday will die. And I just cued it to a bunch of footage from that game show Wipeout — it’s one of those obstacle course games where people run around and they get tossed in water … cued that really sad song to a bunch of people getting hit in the obstacle courses and falling in the water in slow motion. That was the start of it, making these goofy bizarro videos … very Tim & Eric-y, kind of Adult Swim-ish.
Have you had experience being onscreen talent before?
No. I mean, in my documentary, I was on screen for two seconds. But not really. Not quite like this.
I ask because well, you have all these serious fans in the comments. And on Twitter. How do you feel about that?
It’s very funny. Everyone’s so incredibly nice. It feels like so...not Midwest. Not very “Ohio.” I don’t really know what that means. But I didn’t really expect people to react that way. And I don’t really know how to react.
How familiar were you with TikTok before all this?
I had gone through that stage where it was like, ohhh TikTok. I’ll never download that. Then I did and I’m like oh my gosh. I’ve opened humanity. The people who are making these, they’re the future. That was probably right around January or February when I really started getting into the platform, scrolling night after night. It also coincided with when I started getting less sleep.
What do you want people to get out of watching these videos?
I don’t know. I don’t know! I think what Planet Money has already been already doing — making economics accessible, making it not so heady that you have to take a class to understand it — that’s the aim.
People say I’m like Bill Nye, which is cool. Bill Nye was the best thing ever when I was in second grade. I was like, who needs teachers. So I think that’s what the channel can be, some kind of Bill Nye.
Last question: we’ve all seen a lot of outlets trying to pivot to TikTok, and sometimes, you know, it really doesn’t work. What advice do you have for these places who are looking at the platform and trying to think oh, we should get down with the kids, but we don’t know how to do it?
There are already so many insanely creative kids and young people on TikTok. Honestly, just look at what they’re doing, and respect the platform. Make a video for TikTok so it’s 59 seconds max, 10 seconds minimum. It’s not other platforms. Just treat it like its own thing. And just scroll. From midnight until like 5 a.m. That’s what I did.