All photos by Aricka Lewis
Jason Suel puts the variety in variety show.
The actor, teacher, comedian and musician may have found his career calling when he blended his many and diverse talents together as the namesake and creative leader of Later with Jason Suel.
What: “Later with Jason Suel”
When: 9:30 p.m. Saturdays through June on Fox 24
The show debuted in April 2013 on Fayetteville Public Television and made the transition to regional television on New Year’s Eve on Fox 24 and in the process went to a weekly format. The local variety, sketch and informational show, which is styled in the tradition of popular late-night talk shows, can be seen at 9:30 p.m. Saturdays. The current season runs through the end of June, with a hope to continue with a fifth season later next year.
“I am involved in a variety of things,” said the host, a Fayetteville resident for the past eight years. “It’s been difficult to pin me down.”
It started back in college. People would ask him what his major was, and he could never decide. He ended up with a communications degree from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, then a MA in Theatre & Film from Bowling Green State University in Ohio before moving to England for four years and working as a youth theater instructor and director.
He came to Fayetteville to work in the arts and took acting and teaching jobs as they became available. In particular, he credits his work in various improv groups (such as Phunbags and Rodeo Book Club) as a major help to his newer role in front of the camera. The classic improv mechanism of listening to a scene partner and then building from there – known as the “yes, and…” in the improv world – helped him develop a voice.
“Doing improv has helped me hone the skill of talking to people in Northwest Arkansas. I wouldn’t have been able to sit in a chair and talk to people (without an improv background),” he said.
Jason Suel / Photo: Aricka Lewis
Dan Robinson, director of FPTV and also a man of many talents, walked Suel through the process of creating a show. Over a series of coffee meetings, they set the show’s style and its central conceits. The idea was always to focus on Northwest Arkansas and its many colorful characters and bustling businesses. And there was also a discussion on the tone, language and character of the show.
“I errored on the side of political correctness, and making it something for everyone,” Suel said.
The coffee meetings began in late 2013 or early 2014. Production on Season 1 began in March 2014. The first show debuted the next month, with a second episode following a full month later.
The first season was orchestrated by a small group of friends. Suel did much of the writing himself and invited his friends to fill in as guests. Robinson quickly assumed the role of producer. Editing was (and still is) handled in house by Flint Woods. Live music was provided by Jason Reddecliff, who soon brought along musical partners Owen McClung and Charlie Platt. To further liven up the backdrop, Suel borrowed set pieces from all around town.
There was enough momentum after Season 1 that a second was planned with the caveat that it be better than the first. In a rarity for local public television, Suel went around seeking sponsorships for Season 2. Working through his pitch to potential partners also helped in define what kind of show he wanted to sell, and who might be involved.
“The first season was an experiment. I told him [Suel] I’d take care of him,” Robinson said.
The second season, which like the debut consisted of eight shows, picked up steam. “And the third season, it was just, ‘Pow!,’” Robinson said.
There was enough “Pow!” that local networks started to call Suel and ask if he’d ever considered moving to the networks. He eventually agreed to terms for the weekly 30-minute spot on Fox 24. It’s too early to know the ratings of the show, but Suel says he’s noticing a far larger radius of fans and more social media engagement. It’s been a whirlwind three years.
“That’s really fast for a local show to get picked up for local airing,” says Bo Counts, who joined midway through Season 3 as a co-host. Suel wrote to Counts on Facebook to ask him to serve as a musical guest when another act backed out at the last minute. Beat Bachs, as Counts calls himself when performing, agreed to the task. A bit of banter between the two developed into a friendship and the idea for a recurring co-hosting gig. Counts describes his role as sidekick as the Andy Richter to Conan O’Brien or the humanoid robot Geoff to Craig Ferguson.
The show continues to evolve. Later with Jason Suel streamlined to pack in more material. Future episodes will continue to keep favorite bits, such as the ones featuring the befuddled, technology averse “Instagrampaw,” played by local actor Mike Thomas, and also incorporate new segments such as “Every (Fill in the Blank) Ever,” which attempts to poke fun at the redundancies of life. The soon-to-be-aired bit “Every Halftime Sideline Interview Ever” catches a coach deadpanning the expected rote answers during his on-the-field chat with a sideline reporter.
Counts, who has a background in video and production, says that as consumers continue to migrate toward video content, there’s a need for a show like Later to inform viewers of people and events they might not otherwise discover. The show can also be broken down into shorter segments which are then uploaded to social media.
“We want the show to last longer than Saturday night,” Suel said.
And, he wants it to last, period. It remains mostly a labor of love for the on-screen talent, as revenue from sponsorships is almost completely dedicated to production costs. Big picture, Suel has the idea of becoming the middle-of-the-country late night host, telling local and regional stories that traditional late-night talk shows based on either coast skip right past. That might mean Suel travels outside of the market on occasion to pick up a story in Tulsa or Little Rock or some other regional city. It would be in the hope that viewers in those markets would pick up on Later with Jason Suel as a resource for learning about the region in general and Northwest Arkansas more specifically.
It found a market because “we had so much passion for what it could be,” Suel said.
And so much passion for what it might still become.