Easy to Assemble

The Man Who Built Ikea A Web TV Hit

By: Dan Macsai September 1, 2010
Thomas Bannister on the secrets to Easy to Assemble’s success, show notes from Sweden, and the power of celebrity.

Watching cameos from the likes of Jane Lynch and Jeff Goldblum, it’s easy to forget that the breakout Web series Easy to Assemble is, at its core, one giant Ikea commercial. The real kudos goes to show-runner Thomas Bannister, whose production company, SXM, has a history of turning ho-hum settings--such as, say, a Burbank Ikea--into hilarious Web entertainment.

Last year’s CTRL, for example, stars Arrested Development’s Tony Hale as an office-worker who discovers his keyboard has magical powers. FCU: Fact-Checkers Unit, which premieres August 17 on NBC.com, follows a duo faced with the daunting task of confirming random details about celebrities such as Luke Perry, Alex Trebek, and Dave Navarro (all of whom cameo).

As Easy to Assemble gears up for its third season, we caught up with Bannister to dissect his success.

Fast Company: How did you wind up making a show about IKEA?

Thomas Bannister: It all started from a short firm called “Supermarket,” which starred Illeana in basically the exact same concept--she was working there. We spent about two years searching for a branded partner. The idea was that she could work in any branded space: Reebok, Nike, anything from a shoe store to a restaurant chain. Ikea turned out to be the ideal choice, because their store is full of locations--kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, that kind of stuff.

FC: What was it like working with Ikea?

TB: A lot easier than working with a lot of brands. They’re very flexible at playing with their own brand image, and really making a little bit of a joke about themselves. So we really lucked out.

FC: They never edited your jokes?

TB: To be honest, they had very, very few notes. But there was one training video where Jane Lynch is pretending to be Swedish. She’s really improvising the whole video. And she talked about Älmhult, Sweden, the home of Ikea, being depressing and suicidal, in kind of a joking way. And I remember having to edit it down per Ikea’s request, because they didn’t want to represent their hometown in that kind of way, which is perfectly fair.

FC: What’s the best way you’ve promoted the show?

TB: The press, from the beginning, was very organic. Everyone from Entertainment Weekly to the LA Times to Craig Ferguson interviewed Illeana about the first season. We were just able to tap into a lot of traditional mainstream media with it. But the key is to get everyone from the small blogs to the big sites talking about your show.

FC: It helps that you have a well-known lead.

TB: I mean, the entertainment business is largely celebrity-oriented. It always has been, it always will be. Celebrities have fan bases. Also, generally speaking, they’re celebrities for a reason: They’re really good at what they do. And in all of our shows [he’s currently producing three others], the celebrity factor has been the deciding element in selling it. Casting Tony Hale in CTRL, for example, helped us tap into the whole Arrested Development fan base, who are really, really vocal online. Illeana definitely has her own following, as well. And that makes people listen to you more.

FC: Do you think the Web can grow into its own legitimate entertainment medium?

TB: For that to happen, there has to be a way to make more money off of it. As business models for online media change and more people start watching it—as well as ad revenues will go up and microtransactions getting more people to spend money online—then yeah, I think Web TV will become media in and of itself. There’s no reason a Facebook TV show can’t get the traction of Farmville. It’s all about trying to figure out the right economic model, which no one has done yet.

FC: Any scoop on season 3 of Easy to Assemble?

TB: It’s called ‘Finding North’ and it’s about going to Sweden. The best place to learn more is our Facebook page.