By Emily Rome
June 23, 2013 at 07:00 PM EDT
Hutton Supancic/Getty Images

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing garnered the attention of many Whedonverse fans with its cast of frequent Joss collaborators, including Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg and Amy Acker. But there are also a few less familiar faces in the cast of the Shakespeare play adaptation, including Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher of New York-based comedy duo BriTANicK. The two first-time entrants to the Whedonverse talked to EW about getting cast, their experience making and promoting the film, and catching Whedon’s attention with their YouTube videos.

In Much Ado, in theaters now, Kocher and McElhaney play First Watchman and Second Watchman, who, along with the constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), take down Much Ado‘s villains in a very comedic manner. They’re two small parts without proper names, but the size of the role, the miles they had to travel from New York to the set at Whedon’s Santa Monica, Calif. home, and the small paycheck for the indie production did not at all deter the two actors from jumping aboard the project because, of course, this was Joss Whedon.

It turns out, Whedon was also a fan of theirs. He wrote a post on praising BriTANicK’s YouTube videos (which McElhaney told EW “blew our minds”) shortly before beginning production on The Avengers. When Kocher and McElhaney arrived at Whedon’s house for the Much Ado shoot, “My wife and I were fan gushing over them so badly,” the director tells EW. He discovered the duo’s sketches when a friend sent him “A Monologue for Three,” in which McElhaney attempts to remember the closing lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“My first experience of Nick and Brian was Shakespeare,” Whedon says. “I then proceeded to watch all of their videos religiously and relentlessly.”

When Whedon was getting the cast together for Much Ado‘s stealth production in fall 2011, the director’s assistant sent an email to McElhaney and Kocher, and then Whedon followed up with his own email offering them the parts of the Watchmen. “[When they emailed back,] they were like, ‘Sure, we’d love to fly ourselves out to Los Angeles to make less money than airfare to play characters that don’t have names.’ I was really sort of stunned,” Whedon recounts.

Kocher and McElhaney met in 2003 and became fast friends at a performing arts camp the summer before their senior year of high school (though they later discovered that their paths had crossed in their hometown of Atlanta many times before that, including at preschool and in Little League). They worked together sporadically throughout college, and then in 2008 they officially formed BriTANicK (rhymes with Titanic) to create video sketches for YouTube and to perform live comedy shows.

Winning over the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the director of the third-highest grossing movie of all time is quite the achievement for a comedy duo whose website claims they’re just “two guys wasting their degrees” and whose early work includes a student film initially hated by McElhaney’s professor. Both BriTANicK comedians studied at New York University — McElhaney majored in film and Kocher in drama — and when McElhaney pitched his wacky senior thesis Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses, his professor told him, “This is not something of the caliber of students at New York University’s film school,” McElhaney recalls.

But an early cut of Eagles ended up getting praise from that professor, and the 15-minute short got into both the Slamdance Film Festival and South by Southwest.

“I was not loved by NYU film school, so I’m glad that I retroactively made my mark,” McElhaney now says of BriTANicK’s clever video “Trailer for Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever,” which has become a much-shared video among film students and movie fans. That video was a breakout hit for BriTANicK when Cracked funded and released it in 2010. College Humor has also released some of the duo’s videos.

Kocher and McElhaney act as directors, writers, editors, actors, and more on their videos. “At first, one of us would write a sketch and show it to the other and get notes and input, then we’d just film it,” Kocher explained. “But we very quickly lost the fear of telling the other person, ‘Uh, that’s not funny.’” Now the duo write their sketches together “to the point where I can’t tell you whose joke is whose anymore,” McElhaney said, adding, “We basically hang out all day every day, go hop from Starbucks to Starbucks, just talking about s— that frustrates us or makes us excited or just problems with girls, anything, until we find little moments [that become a sketch].”

BriTANicK’s sketches tend to start off with some situational comedy, and then the antics escalate into absurdity. Though McElhaney says he and Kocher “love going off into that la-la land of comedy,” they typically aim to root the story of the sketch in some kind of truth or common human experience. Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses, for example, begins with Kocher’s character afraid to break up with his girlfriend, so he contrives a ridiculous story about, yes, eagles turning people into horses to get rid of her.

Whedon says of their sketches, “Some of theirs are very ‘take a left turn,’ which I love. Some of them are perfectly structured that it’s stunning, and some of them are so weirdly structured that it’s delightful. It’s like watching an episode of Louie where he’s just like, ‘I’m just going over here. Nothing you can do about it ’cause it’s my show!’” (Kocher has actually appeared in an episode of FX’s Louie, and BriTANicK counts its creator, Louis C.K., as one of their comedic influences, along with Monty Python, the Coen brothers, David Sedaris, and Dick Van Dyke.)

NEXT: Adventures of the Much Ado cast at SXSW; Plus Kocher and McElhaney’s in-the-works feature film

For BriTANicK, that freedom to create comedy on their own terms and at their own pace is largely owed to their role as the voices of Cartoon Network. Since they got that gig in May 2010, the duo have spent only about an hour a week doing voice recording for the network’s promos, but the job gives them the income and the time for their YouTube videos and for other acting projects, like the Jason Dohring-starring film Searching for Sonny and, of course, Much Ado.

Alexis Denisof, who plays Benedick in Much Ado, tells EW that McElhaney and Kocher “are hilarious and fun, and whatever room they walk into is more fun when they walk in than it was before they got there.” Any room — or bus. The comedy duo were among some Much Ado cast members who rode a promotional bus from Los Angeles to Austin for SXSW. (Above, McElhaney and Kocher are pictured with the film’s cast at SXSW.) That bus became the location of more than one dance party and of frequent rounds of Running Flip Cup Charades, a drinking game McElhaney and Kocher invented. (Fillion warned, “If you play charades with them, they cannot be on the same team.” And because EW wants there to be no risk of us becoming the cause of any rift between Whedon and the BriTANicK guys, we should also mention that Whedon told us, “They are the masters of Running Flip Cup Charades. If I don’t mention Running Flip Cup Charades, they will be super pissed and hate this article and probably stop being friends with me.”)

Clearly Kocher and McElhaney managed to maintain their friendship with Whedon after the Much Ado shoot; they got the director to appear in their sketch “The Coach,” and Fillion also appears in their recent video “Sexy Pool Party.”

McElhaney and Kocher are currently in the midst of writing a script for a feature film they hope to star in about two guys who attempt to save their friendship using time travel. After the duo spent a week away in Michigan last November pounding out the first draft — with a whole day devoted to just figuring out the rules of time travel in the movie — Kocher’s Christmas present to McElhaney was a white throw pillow that bears the words “Never Write A Goddamn Time Travel Movie” in blue, cursive embroidery. Despite the inevitable headaches induced by a temporally complicated plot, the duo are moving forward on the project, which they promise will be — in true BriTANicK fashion — “really crazy” and “totally insane.”

But even if all goes well with that project and any aspirations of more mainstream roles and TV writing pan out, McElhaney and Kocher plan to continue making sketch comedy videos because of the creative freedom BriTANicK’s YouTube channel allows. “I think the secret about YouTube is we’ve always known it was a steppingstone, but you can’t treat it like a steppingstone. We’ve wanted to move onto bigger media, whether it be TV or film, for a while now, but at the same time I think YouTube and our sketch comedy lineup will always exist for us because it’s just a place with no eyes on us, no bureaucratic system to get our jokes onto the screen,” McElhaney said. “It’s just literally a thing where we do whatever we want. And there’s really no other place in the industry where you can do that.”

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing expanded to theaters across the U.S. on Friday, following a limited release on June 7 and a U.K. release on June 14. For a list of theaters showing the film, visit Much Ado’s website.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome.

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