Roll the footage.
Families trickled into Ritter Park after an early Saturday evening storm passed over Huntington, pounding the city with sheets of rain before puttering eastward toward Charleston.
It was a typical Ohio Valley sprinkle. It started as a shine shower, before darkening into a black, brooding gulley washer, then lifting.
If a family took a corner booth at Jim’s Spaghetti House over on Fifth Avenue, away from the window, they might not even have known it had rained by the time they finished their dessert.
Back at Ritter Park, just down the hill from the city’s rose garden, Cody Lambert is stuck inside a green toddler’s play tunnel, bobbing it rhythmically and occasionally twisting it around. The tube is over his torso, riding to that sweet spot where his T-shirt crawls up his gut, exposing his belly button.
“Listen, I get this part of the training, but I don’t know why I have to do it!” Lambert said. “I’m a man, not a dog!”
On the scale of big guys, Lambert is quite small.
But for purposes of physical comedy, he definitely pays his homage to the late, great Chris Farley.
Unlike Farley’s bacon-grease and booze-soaked chubbiness, Lambert has the physique of a retired football player—firm but flabby.
Either way, while funny on camera, Lambert said it could be a nuisance at the bar, when twisted “tough” guys try to pick fights with him. A few months ago, he laid out a sloppy drunk after he checked his chin in the middle of a downtown hangout.
Nate Cesco is peering into the viewfinder of a digital camera, standing behind the tripod. Cesco is quiet small, but he is not frail—years of manual labor toughened his physique. Typically, dressing in button ups and snug jeans, today Cesco is in costume as a mailman, with cargo shorts, a ball cap and blue multi-pocketed shooting shirt.
He basically looks as if Jason Bourne, of the Bourne Identity franchises, tried to disguise himself as a mailman, like a cheap movie spy in a tacky wardrobe. The price tags still dangle off his articles, because he has no intention on owning this $40 get-up longer than it takes to shoot this shot.
As the duo along with Liz Northcote—Cesco’s lady friend and ironically a native of Huntington, New York—set up the next shot, a middle-aged man approaches them.
“What are y’all shooting? You doing one of them videos for that Daniel Tosh guy?” he asks, referencing the runaway Comedy Central hit about Youtube videos.
“No, we’re shooting something for our Youtube page, a sketch,” Lambert says, in his Lincoln County drawl.
“We’re Coseri,” Cesco added.
When Lambert and Cesco were in diapers, if a dreamer wanted to make it on a screen, big or little, they had to buy a one ticket to the City of Angels or the one that never sleeps. It took waiting tables, appearing as extras and jamming up talent agents’ mailboxes with reams of head shots and resumes—to an extent, it still does.
Now grown up, all Lambert and Cesco, as well as many Huntington area filmmakers, need is a sharp camera, a speedy internet connection and some good’ole fashion Mountaineer hard work to make those dreams come true in their own backyard, along the banks of the Ohio River.
This is the story of two dudes in their mid-20s working 40-hours a week to pay the bills, then using the remaining 128 hours of the week to write, shoot, edit and publish more than 50 sketches, short films and a television pilot.
Cesco and Lambert might not be the first filmmakers in Huntington, there is no doubt they’re one of the most duos prolific to graze its scene, according to local film veterans.
This is Coseri.
Short for “Comedy-Series,” Coseri is a multi-media entertainment company helmed by the two Huntington-area comedians. For roughly two years, Cesco and Lambert have shot multiple sketches and developed a decent following in the city and surrounding areas.
The two started out in the area’s open mic scene, cracking jokes at The Black Sheep Burrito and Brews and pizza shops. But as is common in post-Funnybone Huntington, they tried their hand at getting some “features” shows to come to town.
“The problem is, while we might have a thriving open mic scene around here, a lot of times if you go to a bigger town like Lexington (Ky.) or Columbus (Ohio), they end up treating you like a tourist,” Lambert said. “So the idea was to bring regional local comics here to help build connections for the talent in the tri-state area.”
While arranging the tables and dimming the lights for their first show on the dance floor of a Huntington bar, the two men realized something—they fed off one another.
“I’d move the chairs one way, Cody would see it, then he’d say, ‘why not try it this way?’ then I’d look at them and we just kept improving off each others ideas,” Cesco said. “We just realized we click. I think we saw we could do something bigger than setting up comedy shows and decided to go ahead and pursue it.”
And when the two found out the other one was sitting on notebooks scribbled full of sketch ideas, Coseri was born.
Winning the Huntington Music and Arts Festival’s 72-hour film challenge last year with “The River Dolphin” helped propel Coseri’s work from the city’s comedy circles to a broader audience.
Shot in three-days, the seven-minute long sketch features Lambert as an Appalachian grandfather trying to convince his grandson, played by Cesco, that there is no dolphin living in the Ohio River.
Shot documentary-style, the sketch showcases sites around Huntington, as well as local performers such as the infamous Aaron Michael-Fox and Lauren Gray, a local dancer and fashionista.
While Lambert and Cesco have deliberately shied away from producing strictly Huntington-centric material, a few Coseri sketches have paid tribute to its principal filming locale.
Take for a example Lambert’s portrayal of a pizza delivery man who brings a pie to local anchorman Tim Irr, and he’s stiffed hilariously.
“I think we’re trying to really market our product to millennials, maybe on the younger side of it, who don’t mind the occasional f-bomb,” Lambert said.
“We’re not trying to make a joke out of West Virginia; we hardly ever mention it. Instead, we’re trying to make comedy that somebody on their laptop in Minneapolis can relate to and laugh.”
Coseri’s latest skit is about the world’s first “therapy dude”—a full grown man acting like a therapy dog to help the anxious and depressed. There’s only one hitch. The therapy dude keeps getting beat out for gigs by pups.
Lambert wasn’t even supposed to portray the therapy dude, but a work conflict caused a recast. So he donned a orange work vest and went in front of the camera, not that it takes much for the gregarious, yet soft-spoken, extravert to seize the center of attention.
Given his full beard—somewhere in length between Duck Dynasty and a turn of the century gold prospector—it’s a tad bit fitting he’d portray the therapy dude. With wide-eyed expressions of surprise and confusion, he effortlessly plays a fumbling ne’er do-well before Cesco’s camera lense.
Eight years ago, Lambert couldn’t even imagine being a comedian, much less forming a small sketch comedy company.
Growing up in Lincoln County, he lived the stereotypical John Mellancamp ballad about small town ways, playing center on the varsity football team and hanging out with his friends after the games.
But he had another side.
“I was doing all the stereotypical small town stuff, but secretly I was a nerd,” he said. “See, my dad was a coach and my whole family was pretty athletic, so I felt like I was a nerd being raised by jocks. They were loving, but they never quite got it.”
Kinda like how Harry Potter was raised by “muggles” a wizard slur for mortals in J.K. Rowling’s famous fantasy series. Speaking of Harry Potter, if there is ever a sci-fi/ fantasy series for which Lambert holds a doctorate in fandom, that would be it.
Outside the Pullman Plaza Starbucks on June 9, 2017, Lambert provides proof of his nerdom.
“Today is the anniversary of Dumbeldore awarding 170 points to Griffdor at the end of the term feast,” he rattled off.
My reply is equally quick.
“I have no idea what that means, but I’ll go ahead and stick it in there for those Harry Potter fans out there.”
Along with fantasy novels, Lambert said he also watched what little art house films he could snag and religiously stayed up to watch reruns of the Chappell Show and first runs of Saturday Night Live.
In rural Lincoln County, Lambert said he always sensed his buddies on the football team would think it was an “unmanly” interest—thus he kept his passions to himself, for fear “the word would get out.”
Nevertheless, every once in a coon’s age, he could let his guard down.
“There was this one guy I used to work out with who asked me, ‘you like to read, right?’ And I thought, ‘Oh God, they’re onto me,’” Lambert said. “Turns out he had a book about dragons and he wanted to lend it to me so we’d have something to talk about.”
When he attended Marshall University in 2009, he thought he was going to live the screenplay of Animal House or Old School.
While he had his share of drunken debauchery, Lambert found something deeper: a community of artists and performers.
“I was always friendly with the creative types in high school, but when I came to college, I saw I had the freedom to join them,” he said. “So, I got involved in the comedy scene and from there things developed.”
Now, when the therapy dude skit had a last minute recast, Coersi didn’t just lose their actor, they lost the ukulele he was going to play for a scene. Cody works his magic with that community he stumbled into all those years ago. Within minutes of sending an all-points-bulletin for the instrument on Facebook, Cody gets a hit.
We saddle up in his Jeep Wrangler and ride from downtown, under the 10th Street viaduct, past Ritter with its loop trail and majestic fountain, to the southeast side of Huntington, where the city turns from flood plain to hills.
Lambert is in producer mode. Sure, he’s a producer that has to do everything himself—act in the film if the actor can’t make it, pick up a prop, but he gets it done.
Need some extras? He can wrangle them up.
Need a random instrument? He has it covered.
People can’t say no, because he’s a slick-talker who can sell a ramp to a hillbilly. He’s actually a little slow on the uptake at times, and he’ll ramble on about something until he says, “oh, well, I guess it’s not that important” if you let him.
People can’t say no because he is freaking lovable.
Michael Valentine is a local film veteran, editing films for the Brain Wrap art collective since 2004. He’s also done some on-camera work with Brain Wrap and Coseri, appearing in the latter’s sketch “Good Cop, Rad Cop.”
On this Friday evening, as a serious shower is forming over the his rancher on the hill (a street away from the posh neighborhood colloquially called “Beverly Hills” by locals) Lambert pulls up in his Jeep.
Valentine is the man with ukulele, three to choose from, actually.
One is painted up like Spongebob Square Pants, ostensibly for his toddler son.
Another is old and cracked, used in the 2013 Brain Wrap feature Trace Around Your Heart, about a one-hit wonder puppet who tries to find redemption in Cabell County.
A Huntington Police officer sitting on his living room couch is strumming the last one—a true-life “rad cop”. Even though the officer, in uniform and strapping his service pistol, teaches Lambert a few chords, it isn’t until I point it out while we’re riding down the hill. That’s when he realizes there was totally a cop in the house.
Valentine started his filmmaking back in 2004, while he was working with future local comedian and Marshall University professor Ian Nolte at the Huntington Mall’s movie theater.
A friend of theirs received a digital camera for Christmas, so they decided to write up a script and shoot Sienma 6 about two robbers who stick up a movie theater at 11 a.m., but come up empty handed. So they ended up working at the movie theater for a day to collect the money at the end of the night.
By the time they got done writing a script, the friend with the camera had moved away. This would turn out to be the least of their problems; the duo had zero filming experience, zero editing skills, just nothing but a script and dream.
“It was definitely a learning curve for us,” Nolte said. “Our first day of shooting, I thought we could just let the tape roll since it only cost $1.59 for a tape. Then when we were looking over it, we realize there was 20 minutes between takes where people were just walking around.”
But the lack of skill didn’t account for the rather “guerrilla” nature of the shooting schedule, according to Valentine. It turns out, the two didn’t really have permission to shoot on the premises.
“I have a whole list of things you shouldn’t do in filmmaking and trying to shoot a feature length film without permission from the location is definitely one of them,” Valentine said.
They shot what they could during their shifts, then shot on Sunday mornings before the theater opened and other less opportune times.
Only a trailer remains of the lost film.
Today, Brain Wrap (named after the part of a film projector that controls the speeds of the frame and frequently gets wrapped by the reel) produces shorts and features, acting somewhat as the elder statesmen of the Huntington film scene.
In a small-town, local arts scene, whether it’s bands or film collectives, healthy competition is optional, while collaboration is imperative.
The relationship between Brain Wrap and Coseri is definitely friendly, with the two young upstarts sitting in on the older filmmaker’s meetings. So it wasn’t a surprise Valentine would lend out his ukulele for a Coseri sketch.
“We love to support local people doing what we do as much as we can. We give Nate Cesco or David Smith (another filmmaker who appears in the therapy dog sketch) a shout sometimes when we need help, and we try to in turn do what we can for them,” Valentine said.
“There is no competition, only support in this community.”
Cesco is a reserved young man, polite yet seemingly aloof.
At a comedy show, he’ll pace about the venue, sometimes exiting and wandering around the block if too many people try to talk to him. Not that he’s being rude—his furrowed brow and downward gaze should be evidence enough he’s deep in thought, reviewing how he’ll crack up an audience for three-to-five minutes.
In the event someone can catch him for a handshake, he looks as if he awakened from a dream.
But that ain’t the case when he’s filming.
“It’s crazy to watch him work,” Valentine said. “You can actually see him editing the film in his head, ticking off what he needs and moving onto the next thing.”
At another south end home, this one in an Edwardian neighborhood off Hal Greer Boulevard near the hospital, Cesco is peering into the screen of his digital camera. It’s not an extravagant camera—honestly, it looks like a step up from a point and shoot grandma uses at high school graduation—but it does the job.
Rosie Bright, a Marshall student who got her introduction to the comedy scene as a hostess during open mics at Black Sheep, is sitting on a high leg chair in her parents’ living room. Lambert is standing off camera, feeding her lines.
“Say it like that, but maybe expand that last part you had there,” Cesco says, staring into the camera.
Bright goes over her lines, reciting them for the camera as Cesco takes quick glances up and down from the camera’s screen.
Then he shifts the tripod over.
Lambert and Bright move to the couch, where he strums the ukulele. Lambert can’t seem to master singing and playing simultaneously. Cesco steps out from behind his camera and takes the instrument out of Lambert’s hand.
After a little more practice, and many apologies to Bright for not being prepared, Cesco and Lambert finally end up with the keeper shot.
Ask any musician, writer or artist about “flow” and they’re sure to say it’s that perfect pace they hit when they’re creating a piece and just comes together. Complete engagement with the work, it pours out effortlessly—the piece literally “flows” out of their hearts, like a gushing geyser or a throng of people on a busy street.
Cesco at work behind the camera is “flow” personified.
He’s fast, instinctively knowing what the next shot should be, how to tweak the next angle, where to pan.
The camera is no longer a camera in his hands; it’s an extension of his eyes and his heart.
“You know, when I’m working on something, I kind of feel a bit of a drum in the upper part of my chest,” he said. “That’s when I know I’m in the zone with it.”
Cesco always loved film, especially flicks with quick pacing and pitter-patter dialogue like the remake of Ocean’s 11 starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
When he attended Fairland High School in Lawerence County, Ohio, Cesco was finally able to translate that appreciation into art by getting involved with its award-winning video production program.
It turns out he took to the technical side of videography.
“Shooting and editing is like one big puzzle, because once you sit down to edit something, you have to work with what you got, typically,” he said.
“So on the front end, you have to have an idea of what you want, what kind of video you want to see. Then when you edit, you have to make it work.”
Long before the success of the River Dolphin, Cesco got a nod from a state competition with his short film, 7 Minutes to Be. A bit gloomier than the Coseri fare, the film featured a young man contemplating suicide on camera.
“It was good to get that recognition and felt good to be rewarded, but just making it made it worth it to me,” Cesco said. “Of course I like recognition, but it’s not necessary. Just making videos is enough for me.”
Take two at Ritter.
Out of his mailman getup, Cesco is lurking on the hill above the Huntington Dog Park as Lambert strolls down the concrete slope.
They need “b-roll”—footage that will be overlayed with music—for opening credits on this therapy dude sketch. If the skies were sunny, shooting the b-roll wouldn’t be a big deal because there would be a few packs of mutts running around through the tubes and elevations.
Since the rain rolled through, only a handful of dogs have returned to the park, so Cesco thinks it would be prudent to ask permission from the owners before shooting them.
“I think it just looks weird if I’m shooting a couple dogs,” Cesco said.
After a brief chat with a group of women, Lambert waves Cesco down, the shoot is on.
With the exception of one last shot at a friend’s apartment, the sketch is ready for the editing table—a two-day shoot, rather fast by the easy-going Huntington standards.
“They just work fast,” Valentine said. “I know at Brain Wrap, we have to keep writing a script, pick it apart line by line, then make a shooting schedule and then we’d get to shooting it.”
“These guys just get an idea, write an outline and find some people to make it.”
And that’s how Out of State was born, written, shot and edited in a whirlwind month. While still trying to attract the college student on his laptop in a Midwestern city, the 30-minute pilot is Coseri’s most unabashedly Appalachian production yet.
An Ivy League poli-sci professor finds himself down on his luck. He has to teach at a rink-a-dink college in Appalachia in order to sell off a warehouse full of books his publishers shelved due to a modicum of public controversy.
The slickly produced pilot is not only a devastating commentary on both Appalachian and liberal arts college stereotypes, but also a testimony to the blooming arts scene in the Huntington-Charleston area.
“We used a lot of people from the local comedy and film scene as actors in the pilot, as well as local bands for the soundtrack,” Cesco said. “It was worth losing all the sleep to get this out.”
While under consideration at the New York Television Festival this fall, it is a swan song of sorts for Coseri. Not unlike the pilot’s namesake, the two young men are looking to go out of state this fall with a move to Chicago.
“I think we’re in a good position to try to see how our product stacks up outside of the area,” Cesco said. “We got to get out there and see how we measure up, see if we have the stuff to make it.”
Lambert said he believes he and his partner are talented enough to get noticed by the right people, if they’re given the shot. But it’s not just about Coseri, Lambert said.
“I would love nothing more than for us to be a jump off for the Appalachian art renaissance we’re seeing in Huntington,” Lambert said.
“I think if we can go out there and be noticed, maybe folks will start coming in from LA or New York to look for the talent we have here in our backyard.”