Ten years ago, the Knights of Good began their quest for loot, experience points, and friendship. Through all their highs and miserable lows, Codex, Vork, Tinkerballa, Bladezz, Zaboo, and Clara stuck together as the heroes of The Guild, the revolutionary comedy that ran for six seasons and became one of the earliest hits on YouTube.
The Guild, which premiered on July 27, 2007, was created by Felicia Day, then a struggling actress who sought to turn her World of Warcraft obsession into something productive. With the help of her producer Kim Evey, and several others, Day shot a half-hour pilot inspired by her lost hours raiding dungeons and slaying orcs. The pilot was then edited into chunks that suited the web audience, who could get back to gaming and surfing.
“She was keenly aware of the difference in a way other people weren’t,” says Evey. “She understood this is something a person is watching at their desk. It needs to keep up with the attention the internet demands.”
The Guild was a smash hit that, later in a run that ended in 2013, transcended YouTube, with reach stretching to the top of iTunes and comic books from Dark Horse. More importantly, it advanced the momentum of geek culture, which was growing out of its niche image and into the mainstream.
Unlike today’s web shows, from the polished YouTube vlogs to streaming Emmy contenders, The Guild had precious few resources. But everyone behind the little show that could proved what is possible with sheer will and passion.
After their emotional reunion at San Diego Comic-Con in July, Day and Evey, along with actors Sandeep Parikh, Amy Okuda, Robin Thorsen, Vince Caso, and prop master Greg Aronowitz, looked back on The Guild in a series of conversations with Inverse.
Writing the Show
Felicia Day was an actress in her late 20s who, other than a short arc in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was struggling to get roles… and break an addiction to World of Warcraft, the mega-popular online game that peaked at 12 million players. While Day’s obsession never became crippling, it did suck up entire days. So Day turned to a support group made up of women in Hollywood, introduced to her by her friend and writing instructor, Kim Evey.
Day: We were in a support group where we sat down every week and shared our wins and losses, as far as our career went. Because I was always playing video games, their encouragement led me to stop playing and start writing about them instead. I ended up with a script, and it became a group project to make it happen in real life. Without them there would be no show. I’m always grateful for that group of people.
Evey: She was super talented and didn’t need me to teach her anything. She told me she finally sat down and made herself write the script in a day. She had given herself this deadline.
Day: It was written as a half-hour TV pilot. In 2006, Kim uploaded a video to this new service called YouTube, and it went viral. It was called Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, and it was based on a sketch she did in a comedy theater.
Evey: My husband put it up on YouTube, and it got millions of views. So, we shopped it around, and I was doing that when Felicia showed me her script. So I was in the mindset [of the web].
Day: When she read the script, she said we can break into pieces, because gamers are online, so you might reach more people than TV. We pooled money and shot the first 10 episodes of the script on our own dime, in our own houses.
Evey: From the beginning, [Felicia] understood cliffhangers. That would make you come back. We split the first episode into two. We weren’t planning on having it stop when Zaboo [Sandeep Parikh] shows up at the doorstep, but it makes you feel, “Oh, the guy this whole episode has been about. What’s going to happen?” The other thing was that we wanted to keep them short and shareable. When we started, this was still word-of-mouth, people emailing links to each other.
The Guild was shot inside Day’s and Evey’s homes. So it was no accident that Day’s library of TV sitcom boxsets were in the background during Codex’s “vlogs.” In a single frame, The Guild referenced the two sources that profoundly shaped its comedic tone and unique episode structure.
Day: I wanted to base [the show] on Friends. A traditional Warcraft guild were only five in a party. The six was a reflection of my love of Friends. I did make a conscious decision in translating the show to the web to draw from what people were already doing. Vlogging emerged with lonelygirl15 and early web shows. I think that was the best thing to do, because that intimate connection was important and took the show to the next level.
Getting the Guild Together
From the beginning, Day knew two people she wanted to cast: Jeff Lewis (“Vork”) and Sandeep Parikh (“Zaboo”), with whom she did improv at the Empty Stage in West Los Angeles. Day wrote Parikh’s and Lewis’s roles around their comedic styles, while others auditioned for the remaining heroes. That’s how Vince Caso (“Bladezz”), Robin Thorsen (“Clara”), and Amy Okuda (“Tinkerballa”) came aboard.
Parikh (“Zaboo”): I was a computer science major at Brown University and disappointed my parents with the news I wanted a career as a writer and director. I got the improv bug and met Felicia, Jeff Lewis, a bunch of amazing people. We had this summer school camp vibe at this tiny little theater. It no longer exists, sadly.
Caso (“Bladezz”): I’d already done a film called Humble Pie. I’d done a good deal of theater, but this was the first project that took off and gathered a following. I got the call from my agent that I was auditioning for a 30-minute comedy pilot.
Thorsen (“Clara”): I graduated from college and was like, “I’m gonna be an actor.” A breakdown of a show said, “Filming a pilot about gamers.” My character was an “ex-cheerleader who’s neglectful of her kids and loves to game.”
Okuda (“Tinkerballa”): I was in high school when I booked The Guild. The first table read was the day after my senior prom. I wanted to be a dancer. My agents were like, “We know you dance, but it’ll be nice if you could do other stuff like acting,” so I was starting to dip my toes.
Prop master and set designer Greg Aronowitz joined The Guild after its second season to create props for the music video “(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar?” which racked up 1 million views on YouTube in two days. Aronowitz quickly became an integral part of production. It was on his shoulders to create the show’s epic settings, such as conventions and a game studio in its later seasons.
Aronowitz: I started doing art for film and television. I had done Power Rangers. I had just produced my movie Labou. I saw the internet as this Wild West I wanted to explore. On Power Rangers, as much as I loved it, I was constantly going against the system. Every decision, there was 50 execs and marketing people that had to weigh in. I felt like there was more I could have done if I had more control. The web seemed to be where that was going. Kim’s pitch to me was: “We want to show the characters as their in-game avatars. There’s no time, no money, we can’t ask you because you do Hollywood stuff, but we figured you know somebody.” I was like, “This isn’t that big. I could do this.”
“We Never Had Enough Money”
The Guild was indie to the core. With the exception of Season 1, which had to wait for fans’ donations via PayPal to continue shooting, production on a season never lasted more than a month. Sometimes, shoots were finished in under two weeks. Although the show scored major sponsors in Microsoft and Sprint, the companies were hands-off, and the budget only ever peaked in the thousands of dollars. Making the show was a juggling act of resources and time, and there was never enough of either.
Day: We started in our garages, and until [my company] Geek & Sundry we didn’t even have one employee to help. We worked out of our houses. Kim and I didn’t know how to scale. We just didn’t have the experience.
Evey: There were no crews. Our cinematographer was also our gaffer. [Over time] it got more professional, and that’s due to the fact we have so many professionals donating time. The indie feel never went away. We never had enough money. We never had enough resources.
Thorsen: We didn’t get paid the first season, and that’s a testament to the writing because everyone stuck through it. Everyone knew it had potential to be something amazing. It was run like any other production. It was legit. I didn’t feel like, “This is some jinky ass show. What am I doing here?”
Aronowitz: I’m not shy saying what I was paid. In some cases it was zero. Even when we got to crazy stuff like the convention [in Season 5], my budget was several thousand dollars. This was about trying to break barriers and prove what could be done if you have a good team. I love doing studio stuff, but there a lot of hurdles. The beauty of The Guild is that there was freedom. It was collaborative. Felicia or Sean Becker, the director, would just have a vague idea of what they’d like to see and let me run with it. I was able to get more creative satisfaction, which compensated for lack of a paycheck.
Evey: We would not have been able to pull off the convention in Season 5 without people who volunteered. These 100 people who gave up their weekend to sit for long periods of time, eat the only thing we could afford, which was pizza, so they could help the show they love. There was no glory. But our fans would amuse themselves. They would bring games and meet each other.
Aronowitz: Season 5 was huge in terms of build. We did build a whole convention, and we built a 20-foot-tall blimp.
Day: There was a lot of burnout. I didn’t have the fortitude to really see it through in a way that was healthy. I wrote in my memoir I had a mental breakdown. I had to learn a lot about myself to get through. My mental and physical health took a toll, because I had this vision and drive and didn’t have the support to protect myself. I look back and think, Wow, that was not the way to do it, but I’m grateful to have had that journey because now I’m a lot more functioning. I’m able to multitask in a way that keeps me healthy and enthusiastic versus burning out because I’m too busy managing insurance forms.
For the Fans
All the headaches were worth it when it came to the show’s legion of fans, many of whom became extras, which became especially helpful in Season 5 to fill out an entire convention. Fans formed “the Guild of Extras,” who enjoyed being with each other at Comic-Con just as much as they enjoyed unparalleled access to the cast.
Day: We’d have fans in our houses, bring us food — every extra was a fan. We went to conventions, and we did make money to support us, but every person we met was a face-to-face interaction. It makes you realize that what you do, even if it’s a dumb comedy, affects people. The idea of community and fan interaction is part and parcel to content now, but not in the same way [as our time]. It’s more manufactured, holding fans at arm’s length.
Thorsen: I don’t know if any of us were prepared for the popularity. When you’re at the convention, you’re working, you’re on, because people are paying for a signature and a photo and a hug. Some of the best times were after the conventions in the hotel with Sandeep and Jeff, and a fan was like, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” Heck yes you can!
Caso: At one of the first Comic-Cons we did, we had a panel. It was one of the smaller rooms because we’re an upstart series. They’re not gonna put us in Indigo [Ballroom]. I see the line of people wrapping around the corner. I’m like, “What are they waiting for?” I ask and they say it’s for The Guild. I’m like, there’s no way you’re waiting for us. That somebody liked the show enough to want to meet us, to see us live and engage, I realized this is something.
Parikh: We started our own Knights of Good guild on Zangarmarsh in World of Warcraft, and [Jeff Lewis] just became Vork. I had the unfair advantage of them power leveling me, so I’m sure I never got the true harsh experience of having to level your own character. It was special, to be treated as a celebrity on a video game.
Okuda: I got to meet Rick Fox. He was a basketball player on the Lakers and my hero growing up. He’s a fan of the show. He was on Season 5 of The Guild, and I wasn’t on set. When Felicia told me, I bursted into tears because no one told me. At Dragon Con, him and Eliza Dushku was in the booth next to us, and he knew who I was. He’s like, “Oh my God, it’s Amy!” It’s so random I would meet him through The Guild.
Parikh: I remember the first time I was recognized on the street, just being bewildered that someone could differentiate me from the billion other Indians in the world. The best was folks coming up to us like, “I was in Iraq, all we could get was internet stuff and we play MMOs, so we watch The Guild and it got us through our days.”
As the show’s popularity grew, The Guild ventured into music. The show produced three singles: “(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar?” in 2009, which hit the top of iTunes when it debuted, the Bollywood-inspired “Game On” in 2010, and “I’m the One That’s Cool” in 2012. The first video was directed by Jed Whedon, whom Day worked with on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and shot it just three weeks before it premiered online.
Evey: I remember [Felicia] was on an ‘80s music kick, and Lady Gaga, so she had been kicking around this idea and just decided to have Jed help her write it.
Caso: Those shoots were the best intersection of fun and grueling you’d find on the show. We’d shoot them in one day. For “Date My Avatar,” the one that got a lot of people into The Guild, that was nine hours on a porn soundstage. They had ceiling-high racks full of couches. Nine hours of that song on repeat, and I never got tired of it.
Parikh: On the set of “Date My Avatar,” we were rushing because we had the space for a certain amount of time. It was a really ambitious shoot. These are the first times we were in the costumes, so we didn’t have a print fitting. As I was dancing, the crotch ripped open. It was like, “Uh, I need to stop dancing now because I’m exceedingly exposed.” The costume designer, she had to sew inches from the family jewels while I was wearing it. It was a harrowing experience.
Caso: [on shooting “I’m the One That’s Cool”] We went to an actual middle school that was being used. Students were there while we were filming. For my vignette, Felicia’s like, “We’re gonna give you a swirly.” I’m like, “I’m down.” Then she’s like, “No, hang on, we’re gonna have two buff men hold you upside down and dunk you into the toilet.” I remember Felicia and Kim on their hands and knees, scrubbing and bleaching the toilet so they could dunk my head without me getting crud everywhere. Then we film, two jacked dudes lift me up, dunk me. We had to do three takes. On the first take they hit my head on the porcelain.
After six seasons of laughs and triumphs, The Guild came to an end. Between new ventures like Day’s and Evey’s YouTube network Geek & Sundry, the inability to grow while retaining creative control, and the dwindling popularity of MMOs, it was time for the Knights of Good to log off.
Day: I could see the long term being difficult, to get the budget to do another season in a way we can get more people, because I did not have the bandwidth to do it the way we’ve been doing it shoestring before. That was when influencer content took off. The industry was looking toward one person in front of a camera, getting their money back in a way. Spending six figures on scripted content was not proving to get their return. I was overwhelmed with running a company and producing nine shows at once. So I decided to end the show.
Evey: I think [Felicia] was open to having it move to a network. It’s interesting, because it was just a few years early. Now there’s a proliferation of content through so many channels and services. But, it was just a bit early for the platforms we could get at that time.
Day: I wish I’d created a writers’ room, or scale the show in a different way, but I was in the middle of burnout writing Season 6. I found myself in the middle of this big company. If I could go back and continued it, I probably would have. But every journey leads to self knowledge, and I know so much more about myself, and I’m so much happier that I can’t regret anything. We had six seasons, that’s more than most TV shows.
How The Guild Changed the Guild
During The Guild, Day’s career took off, earning roles in hit TV shows like House, Eureka, and Supernatural. After The Guild, Geek & Sundry thrived in producing popular web shows like TableTop and Critical Role. This year, Day starred in the acclaimed Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival on Netflix. Similar blessings extended to everyone, who enjoyed personal and professional growth following the show’s conclusion.
Day: The Guild is why I’m here today. I don’t know if I’d still be an actress, because it was a very frustrating life for me before. I became a lot of things by accident. I became a showrunner, a writer. I worked on many TV shows directly because of The Guild; I started a business because of The Guild. Every opportunity it’s opened has challenged me and made me grow in ways I never thought. My life is much richer, and my skill set is much broader because of The Guild. I’m so grateful to it.
Evey: It completely changed [my career]. I didn’t know anything about producing at all. It changed who I am as a person. It taught me I could do things that I didn’t know that I could do.
Parikh: Everything I do is like Lego, and hopefully at the end, I’ll be able to look back and see the full sculpture. [The Guild] was an integral piece. I was never an actor, and now I’m comfortable in front of the camera. I have been on set opposite Robin Williams, and just realizing that, it doesn’t matter. He’s another improv partner, just treat him as such. It allowed me to fill my 10,000 hours, so when I got to that point, and I was acting alongside Robin Williams, I was comfortable. The things I direct now, I’m informed by that experience.
Aronowitz: The Guild changed the game for me. Any fan base I had would be through Power Rangers. That was the only group that actually knew who I was. Through The Guild, I was able to connect with people that would say, “You did Terminator 2?” That opened a lot of doors because people suddenly connected a name with work. I’m sure I would have gotten involved with social media but not to the scale The Guild gave me.
Thorsen: I’ve learned so much, and I’ve made friendships that are gonna last forever. I’ve done a couple of TV shows. I did Parks and Rec. The cast knew The Guild so that was cool. I’m writing.
Caso: Every opportunity I’ve had has been because somebody knew me from The Guild. It’s inspired me to write. It’s inspired me to continue acting, to grow my career.
Okuda: I don’t think I would’ve survived the last five years without The Guild. I got to play a lead character, and that’s so rare for a new actor. Having that under my belt gave me confidence, and I knew what I was working towards. Felicia and Kim helped me find my way. I feel like I took it for granted before, but seeing it at Comic-Con this year and reminiscing, I’m really appreciative. I get emotional talking about it now.
Aronowitz: I just don’t see how the networks haven’t picked them all up and made them an assembled cast in some series.
Day: The Codex outfit and staff are now part of the Smithsonian American History collection. The fact I created something in my garage are now pieces in the Smithsonian, I can’t comprehend how awesome that is. I have a storage unit I’m trying to clean out. I’m trying to figure out charity options.
All six seasons of The Guild are available to watch on YouTube and Netflix. To learn Felicia Day’s thoughts on a Knights of Good reunion, read more here.