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Making an internet sensation

Sell-out live shows, viral videos and a new web series, Aunty Donna aren’t sticking to rules, but paving their own path to success.

Aunty Donna are kind of a big deal.

In the past year the YouTube sensation has made a series pilot for ABC/Screen Australia’s Fresh Blood, become Comedy Central’s first choice for local online video and are now prepping for a national tour.

Oh yeah, and they have created the original web series 1999 that’s releasing exclusively on YouTube. No biggie.

The ten episode web series is thanks to Screen Australia and Google’s Skip Ahead funding, which also saw the trio – Zachary Ruane, Mark Samual Bonnano and Broden Kelly – fly to Los Angeles to hone their online sketch comedy skills.

Settling on 1999 as the title and location of the web series was part of the challenge.

“We just went through all the years from BC 400 to now, put them up on a wall and tried to find the funniest year,” Kelly says.

“So 1947 was particularly funny, while 1958 was the least funny year, not because anything particularly horrible happened, there was just not much funny about it – it was very bland.”

There was something just particularly amusing about 1999.

“Like genuinely for a little bit of time everyone had this niggling thought that computers were going to eat people,” Kelly says.

Bonnano says it’s the first time Aunty Donna have created a series around a particular theme. Meaning that while there’s no real narrative through-line between the 10 different sketches, they are set in this late 90s world.

“We just wanted to give the whole thing a similar aesthetic,” he says. “We all chose 1999, because we’re all kids of the 90s and we love that era so much and that idea that Y2K was coming, it was an interesting place to set sketches around.”

The sketches range from songs, similar to the viral video Bikie Wars the Musical, to ideas that escalate (“we apologise in advance,” Kelly says) and more.

While Aunty Donna are killing it on the comedy scene, with a live national tour kicking off in March, Bonnano admits none of them come from a comedy or “stand-up” background.

“We all come from an acting background and comedy was just something we really loved,” he says. “We usually say, we’re performers first and writers second.”

Aside from the onscreen faces of Aunty Donna – Bonnano, Kelly and Zach – behind the scenes there’s also composer Tom Armstrong, director Max Miller and co-writer Sam Lingham.

The guys first met while studying in drama school at the University of Ballarat, where they naturally gravitated toward all the roles that made people laugh.

Aspirations moved from Shakespeare into pure comedy and they spent a year brainstorming if Aunty Donna could actually work.

Their plan was to get a television show the same way their idols had – doing a live show that gets noticed by a producer, who develops an idea with you that you then pitch to a network.

But what their comedy idols didn’t have, was YouTube.

“We came to have a following on YouTube pretty much by accident,” Kelly says.

“Very early on we put up some stuff on YouTube and the response was so supportive and so clearly hungry for good content that it fundamentally shifted the way we thought about what we were doing.”

It meant weeks were spent working full-time, while weekends were for rehearsing or creating sketches.

“We’ve been doing it for four and a half years now while working full time,” Kelly says, adding, “It’s been a big slog but a fun slog”.

And it’s paying off.

Kelly says it’s still crazy to think fans are buying tickets to their lives shows, purely based on the fact they’ve watched all their sketches online and liked them.

“I often think how lucky we are that we got to be in this generation where we’ve been able to make our following pretty much thanks to YouTube and thanks to guys like Screen Australia,” he says.

“We got to make our channel and our fan-base purely by doing what we like. We didn’t have to please any executives, we didn’t have to go tick any boxes. We wrote what we thought was funny and then people who like our sense of humour supported it.

“It’s incredible.”

Bonnano agrees, adding that it also means they can immediately connect with fans no matter where they are in the world.

“We put up a video and a big thing that we try to do is always respond directly to our fan-base with anyone that wants to reach out to us,” he says.

“It’s amazing to be able to do that, because that’s how you cultivate fans as opposed to cashable watches.”

Episode 1 of 1999 is out now on YouTube, with a new episode releasing every week for the next nine weeks.