Nick Nurse’s shocked made-for-meme face fell right into the Malamuts’ creative laps.
It was during Game 4 of the Raptors’ opening-round playoff series versus Orlando. The Toronto coach was shocked at a three-second violation call. His mouth dropped open into a comically perfect O.
The face went viral. And Craig and Adam Malamut, the creative brains behind Bleacher Report’s popular satire “Game of Zones,” went back onto their latest episode — featuring the DeMar DeRozan trade — for a last-minute edit.
“We had (Nurse) in the episode already,” Adam Malamut said. ”And when he did that face, we worked with our production manager, like ‘how can we squeeze this shot in?’ It fit so naturally already with what’s happening.”
“We got super lucky,” said Craig.
Originally intended to be a one-off, the “Game of Zones” series of YouTube shorts is now in its sixth season of parodying the NBA, with the vibe and spirit of HBO’s smash hit “Game of Thrones.” Their most popular episodes have been viewed cross-platform as many as seven million times.
Their recent DeRozan episode, written back in February and released a few days ago, is already one of the most popular. Raptors president Masai Ujiri plays the ruthless “Lord Ujiri,” who sacrifices DeRozan to the “Trade Raptor” — a clever nod to the team’s giant inflatable mascot — in the name of an NBA championship.
A crying Kyle Lowry pleads with Lord Ujiri, while a wailing DeRozan cries out: “Please! I’ll do anything! I’ll try on defence!”
“We didn’t know what to expect from this episode because we know it does touch on a genuinely sad subject for a lot of people,” said Adam Malamut, who at 36 is seven years older than Craig. ”We’re not necessarily trying to make something funny, we try to make something interesting and a lot of times funny is a way of making something interesting.
“And so we weren’t sure if that was going to be too sad for people, but this one has been really popular.”
The Malamuts borrowed from GOT’s “The Dance of Dragons” episode (Season 5 spoiler alert) in which Stannis Baratheon sacrifices his daughter Shireen by burning her alive.
“We knew we wanted to do the DeMar trade,” said Adam. ”There was just nothing that felt more ‘Game of Thrones,’ the human drama behind that with the friendship between Lowry and DeRozan … it was just so human, and it fit so perfectly into a theme with Stannis, the idea of having to make a cold sacrifice … it felt a lot like the sacrifice of DeMar to bring in Kawhi (Leonard), the sacrificing a beloved person for the greater good.”
Jakob Poeltl, whose name is hilariously butchered in the episode — Norm Powell calls him “Jake Puddle” — was asked if he’d watched the episode.
“No comment,” Poeltl told reporters, then added: “No, I watched it. It was pretty funny.”
Numerous players have tweeted their approval of the series, including Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Portland’s C.J. McCollum, and the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball, whose animated character comes out of an egg (which pays homage to the Daenerys Targareyn dragons eggs episode) hatched by his dad LaVar Ball.
“Thon Maker loved his episode where we joke about theories that he’s older than they say he is,” Craig said.
Some of the Malamuts’ satire is more scathing. The size of Andrew Wiggins’ heart, for instance, is the butt of a joke in a Timberwolves episode featuring an axe-wielding Jimmy Butler.
The Malamuts, who are both self-taught animators and big GOT fans, originally pitched the show to Bleacher Report in 2014 as a mashup of “Game of Thrones” and the NFL, with Tom Brady as Jaime Lannister and Bill Belichick as Tywin Lannister.
“(The NBA) ended up being a better solution because the NBA, people know the drama and the human faces of it so much more than the helmeted players in football,” Adam said.
In early episodes, the brothers drew on “low-hanging fruit of major characters and the biggest NBA storylines,” Craig said.
LeBron James became Jaime Lannister. Pat Riley was Tywin. The San Antonio Spurs were the White Walkers. Derrick Rose, who has an infamous history with knee injuries, was the wheelchair-bound Bran Stark.
“We were just planning on making this one little episode as a novelty piece,” Craig said. ”But then the episode went so viral and (Bleacher Report) came back and said ‘Hey can you make another one?’ so we dug deeper into NBA storylines and dug deeper into ‘Game of Thrones’ and managed to squeeze one more out.”
Craig had just finished completing his masters degree in astrophysics when Adam, who was working in television in Los Angeles, asked Craig to join him, pitching a career in cartooning together.
The brothers from Cherry Hill, N.J., originally comprised the series’ entire staff, but found that most of the six to eight weeks of production that each episode requires was consumed by animating. It left little time to writing. But as the series exploded in popularity, Bleacher Report invested more resources. The entire team now has 22 people.
“We do the writing, we do the voices, some of the audio editing and the directing, and we have an entire animation team of about 10 people who does the animation for us now,” Adam said.
Surprisingly, there is very little laughter during the production process.
“We (initially) laugh a lot, but then we have to make the same joke a thousand times to follow it through just because of the animation process,” Craig said. “It’s actually a hard phenomenon where we’re really laughing the first time, and then we really have to remember that moment so we know as we record it and as we board it and as we animate it: ‘OK, it was funny the first time we heard it.’”
It’s tough to gauge an episode’s response, Adam said.
“One of the most challenging things for me, being a person who’s all over the place ADD creative, I get bored of things really fast, I lose a sense of if it’s funny or not,” he said. “What happens by the end is I think: this episode is terrible.
“And then it goes out and it’s like ‘OK, maybe it’s not. People seem to like it.’”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press