Netflix is taking a big swing into YouTube talent with, perhaps, YouTube’s least talented.
Miranda Sings, a character created by Colleen Ballinger eight years ago, is known for a handful of unfortunate idiosyncrasies: off-key tonal ignorance, brash overconfidence, lipstick like a Florida storm, and an unyielding desire to be a star. But that’s just the character, who bears no such talent equivalent to her creator.
Ballinger, 29, is the headliner of Netflix’s new series Haters Back Off, an eight-episode comedy about the extended family life of ambitious wannabe Miranda. She is, to be sure, as talented as they come — contrary to Miranda, Ballinger is a trained singer and stage actress, and her brand of online comedy began long before the YouTube boom (or, some could argue, helped start it).
Now, she’s emerging from behind the thrift-store aesthetic of Miranda and leaping into Hollywood headfirst as executive producer, writer, and star of her first Netflix show (streaming on October 14).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long has Miranda’s expanded world been kicking around in your head — and did you approach Netflix, or did Netflix come to you?
COLLEEN BALLINGER: Well, ever since I created the character and it started to go viral, I had these other characters in my head: Miranda’s uncle and Miranda’s mom and Miranda’s best friend. They’ve been living in my brain for so long and I’ve been dying to share them with the world, but I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity and platform to share them with everyone. So my brother Chris, who’s my co-writer and my co-producer, and I, we started developing the idea for this show maybe five or six years ago, and then we got paired up with some awesome writers and producers, and we started pitching the show to people a couple of years ago. We just got lucky that Netflix was interested and excited about our idea, which is just incredible because they were the one network that we were dying to put this show on.
What did your showrunners Perry Reinand Gigi McCreery add to the project?
One thing that was really important to me throughout the process of handpicking people to be on the team was finding people who were super collaborative. I’m not creating a whole new world with new people; this is a character and a world that already exists in my head, and it exists for millions of people online, so if we tell this story and it conflicts with something I’ve already put out there in the world, my fans will notice! And they will get very upset! So it was important to find people who could collaborate with me and work with the story that I’ve been telling for the past eight years. The showrunners we ended up with, Perry and Gigi, are so collaborative and so smart and so funny, and they were passionate about the show, and that was something really important to me. I didn’t want people to be on the team who saw this as just another job; I wanted everybody to be as passionate about it as I am, because this is my baby. It means a lot to me!
What was the strangest part for you about bringing Miranda into this real world context?
It was all strange! My whole life, I’ve worked by myself. I’ve produced, edited, and I write and do everything all by myself. That’s been my entire career. So to work with a huge team of people was so new and so scary for me, but it was incredibly rewarding. I think the weirdest part, and the moment that it really became real, was the first time I did a scene with Miranda’s mom and Miranda’s uncle. Angela Kinsey, who plays my mom, is incredible, and Steve Little, who plays my uncle, is just the funniest man in the world. We all sat down together and did our first scene and I couldn’t keep it together. I kept laughing hysterically. I was just giddy. It was so crazy to be sitting in Miranda’s house with these characters that have been living in my head for almost a decade, and they were sitting in front of me in real life. To act with them and laugh with them and create this world with them, it was so surreal and so magical. I went home from set that night and I just cried of joy. I was so excited. It was such a wonderful moment.
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Tell me about fleshing out Miranda’s family. What qualities must a Miranda family member have?
I think it’s very easy to look at Miranda and think she’s this wacky, crazy, out-there girl, so everyone in her world needs to be out-there and wacky. But we wanted the opposite: We wanted people who you believed and who felt relatable. To me, it’s hard to be funny and tell a story if people aren’t relatable at all. I really feel like we found it. The casting was amazing. Miranda’s sister, Emily, was the hardest role for us to cast. That was the one role that I hadn’t had in my head for eight years. She was the newest character for me, and the hardest for me to get a grasp on because the other ones I developed so much over the years. Emily was really challenging because it was this girl I feel like I didn’t know very well yet, but we really lucked out with Francesca [Reale]. She’s wonderful, and we’re like sisters in real life, too.
Does your brother Chris have any heightened stake in the Emily character?
[Laughs.] What’s funny is that on set, Chris was the one who would always run up to Francesca. They had a really good relationship because he is my sibling and he was such a huge role in creating these characters [that] she really entrusted him and relied on him a lot to answer questions. They had a really tight relationship, which was pretty cool. And my actual sister came to set a lot, too, and it was so weird to have Francesca and my sister Rachel with me at the same time. My real-life sister and my alter ego sister in the same room with me was very bizarre.
Miranda stands out from other YouTubers because there’s an element here of traditional character comedy, which you only see with folks like Paul Reubens, Andy Kaufman, Martin Short, or even Stephen Colbert, whose characters have all existed outside of their stages, so to speak. Are you inspired by that?
That’s a huge compliment, thank you! I think a lot of the character and a lot of my comedy comes from what I watched growing up. The comedy that my father and my grandfather instilled in me. I watched a lot of old movies, and a lot of Carol Burnett and Andy Kaufman. My favorite movies were Singin’ in the Rain and stuff that had a more classic comedy type feel, that more slapsticky stuff. It’s the comedy I’ve gravitated towards. But I don’t know! That’s a huge compliment to me. I think for me, the best comedy comes from when something feels real and genuine, so even though Miranda is this wacky character, there is a real vulnerability to her that we finally get to show in Haters Back Off, and I think that’s what makes this comedy rich and more fulfilling, at least for me. Maybe that makes me sound really cocky just like Miranda, but I do feel like there’s a whole new sense of richness and fullness to the comedy with this show that I couldn’t get on YouTube.
What did you need to learn about Miranda before you could do this show?
The thing I needed to learn about Miranda was where her motivation comes from when she gets upset. There’s been a few times where Miranda’s a brat or crying online, and it seems very surface level, and I think that I needed to learn where her insecurities came from, because online she just comes across as kind of bratty. But I needed to learn where the true emotion was coming from. A lot of it stems from her family. That was important for me to learn about these other characters. I developed Miranda so much over the last decade, I really needed to dive into these other family members before I was able to make the show because they stake this character. Without really developing Uncle Jim and Bethany and Emily and Patrick, I was unable to really dive into the heart of Miranda.
The show is accessible for people who don’t know Miranda, but I want to know, for fans who have been watching you forever — what’s in Haters Back Off that’s only for them?
Oh my God. [Laughs.] There are so many things! You’re totally right, I wanted to make the show in a way that anyone could sit down and watch it. On YouTube, I cater my videos to the people who are watching them; with this show, I made what I wanted to make and what I felt was important to create. So, I’m excited for a whole new audience to watch it. However, it was very important to me that my current audience was excited about this show and felt like there were secrets in it just for them. So I brought up [to set in Vancouver] suitcases full of props that I’ve used in my videos over the last eight years. Costumes and props and tons of stuff like that, which I sprinkled around set. And what’s crazy to me is I thought it was going to take a really long time for people to notice those things, but my fans have already found everything in the show! They’ve zoomed into a dark corner in the background and they’re like, ‘This is the shirt you wore in this video in 2011!’ They know everything, and they really appreciate it. It’s something just for the fans that they can enjoy. That was definitely on my mind and something really important to me, that the fans felt like they had some special gifts just for them inside this show for everybody.
Haters Back Off is streaming on Netflix now.