Master Ken and Todd Talk About What It Takes To Make Their Hit Web Series - And What's In Store!
As I pull into a parking spot in front of the worldwide ameri-do-te headquarters, a smile spreads across my face. The dojo door is locked, but that's OK because a banner sporting a familiar tiger tells me I'm in the right place. I snap a few pix for social media, then drive off to kill time until my appointment with Master Ken.
I return a little early and run into him and his sidekick Todd, who just drove up and are still stuffing burgers and fries into their faces. As I follow them inside, I'm accosted by the aroma of onions, which for some reason does not seem out of place.
A kids class is going on — yes, the tiger's lair is a functioning martial arts school. We walk by a few Master Ken posters and some custom-made ameri-do-te gear, then take a load off in the office. I get right to the point: "What's been happening in the world of Enter the Dojo lately?"
"Well, we've released four seasons of the show," begins Master Ken — I mean, Matt Page.
I interrupt him for clarification: "What exactly does a 'season' mean on YouTube?"
"That's a good question," Page replies. "We consider a season to be a set of storylines that include the same characters, which usually means Master Ken's students. But what has become a lot more visible and more popular are the trending topics, the videos where we comment on things that are happening now. These don't require context, and they tend to be shorter. We're able to pick up on waves of discussion — if something happens in the news, we say, 'Let's go to the dojo and see what we can come up with.' Some of those videos we turn around in less than 24 hours."
I ask how the creative process unfolds, especially when deadlines are in place. Joe Conway, aka Todd, helps me understand the workflow: "The hardest part is getting started. Once the camera's rolling, then it's all business."
"We do have some bad takes," Page adds. "We may do four or five takes where it's like, that's not it. Then we start thinking, OK, what are we missing? Maybe we don't have enough one-liners. Maybe we don't have enough references to the story."
Those stories, it turns out, come from real life. Page says he collects inspirations from real martial artists. "With me, it's like the Clark Kent/Superman thing," he says. "Clark takes off the glasses, and no one recognizes him. I take off the Master Ken mustache, and I'm invisible. That's nice when I go to events because sometimes I need to do reconnaissance. I can sit in a seminar and gather material for jokes. I'll be taking notes and thinking, We're going to make fun of that … and that … and that."
Making fun is what Master Ken does. And fans get to watch him do that more often than ever, it seems.
"To stay current on social media, you have to put out content every week, almost every day," Page says. "What's interesting is that when we started, we were doing what the platforms we're looking for: bite-size content. But now people want longer videos. At one point, I felt like maybe we'd done enough regular seasons of Enter the Dojo, but now I'm thinking maybe we'll do a new season or maybe a spinoff series. You have to play to what people are watching, and right now, they're watching longer content."
Page notes that "longer content" means videos that are at least 10 minutes. I ask how many such shows he and Conway can manage in a week. "We shoot a season like a TV show," Page says. "There are three cameras and a crew — the whole deal. It takes about a day and a half to two days to shoot a 10-minute episode, but then it can take a week to edit."
"It's a little different if a sponsor is involved," Conway says.
"It really helps when we can get a video sponsored," Page continues. "It allows us to take a little more time, to hire a couple of people to help. We've done a variety of sponsored videos. We've done product reviews for Century Martial Arts. We had a great collaboration with a software company, where they gave us very wide parameters along with notes on where they would like to put their product in the storyline. And we just worked with a local firing range and firearms dealer, and they actually had scripts already written. We just plugged our characters into what they were doing."
"It can be tricky, though," Conway adds, "because sometimes the people writing the lines don't understand Master Ken's character."
Page concurs. "This is the trickiest thing in sponsorship," he says. "Master Ken evolved by being irreverent, by being offensive, and to take him away from that is risky because that's what made him popular. When we have to take the edge off to deliver a commercial, we notice it. In one shoot, we got all the way to postproduction and then finally somebody in charge watched the video and they were like, 'Whoa, wait a minute! There are a couple of words in there we cannot say.' We had to go back in and rerecord the dialogue. But that's OK. It's about learning that balance."
Master Ken has risen to such a status that Page and Conway have no problem recruiting famous martial artists to guest-star. "We've had Cynthia Rothrock, Michael Jai White, 'Karate Hottie' Michelle Waterson, Chris Casamassa and others," Page says.
One admirer jetted halfway around the world for his close-up. "He flew in from Israel," Page says. "He said he was a fan who just wanted to be on the show.
"Master Ken has been in some feature films, too: Sicario, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Recently, I was on a show called The Night Shift and another one called Midnight, Texas — things they shoot here in Albuquerque."
Master Ken, it seems, isn't the only one getting some notoriety. "We did a collab in Las Vegas with Funker Tactical," Conway says. "We did videos with all those guys, then got to the locale where a seminar was going on with probably 50 to 100 people. We walked in and heard some rumbling, and they were looking at us. Then one guy went up to Matt and said, 'Can you take a picture of me and Todd?'"
"Then they turned to Joe and said, 'Where's Master Ken?'" Page adds, laughing.
Conway says getting recognized as Todd is fun — for the most part: "One time, I was in line at Starbucks when a guy was driving by. He screeched to a stop, put his phone out the window and started taking pictures. That one was odd. It's a little uncomfortable when they make it obvious."
I ask if it's ever a bad thing. "I don't think so," Page says. "It's a reminder that people like our work, and that's a big motivator. It's especially cool when they reference a recent video we've done. …"
"As opposed to the people who say, 'I'm such a huge fan — and I really got to catch up on Season 1," Conway says with a howl.
Both Page and Conway say they're amazed at the famous martial artists who are fans of Enter the Dojo. "We were on a trip once when a guy came up to us and said, 'Somebody wants to take a picture with you,'" Conway says. "It was Carlos Machado! The same thing happened with one of the Gracies."
"And Cynthia Rothrock," Page says. "She said she really liked our videos and then agreed to do a collab with us. I've been aware of her since I was a kid watching her movies, so when somebody whose work you grew up watching says they like your work, it's a special kind of validation.
"It was similar with Michael Jai White. Originally, we met him briefly at the Martial Arts SuperShow, then he watched more of our videos. Later, the makeup artist who works on Enter the Dojo was working on a movie he was making, and she mentioned us. He was like, 'Oh, yeah, those guys are funny.' She reminded him that we're in Albuquerque, so he came in and did a video."
Recalling the discussion we'd had when Page visited our office for the aforementioned Black Belt cover, I wondered if he still harbored hopes of landing a Master Ken TV series.
"When we started the show, the point was to get on TV, but it feels like in the six years we've been doing this, the flow of content has shifted," Page says. "It seems like legacy media — feature films and traditional television — are trying to adapt to more current platforms. Out of necessity, we have been doing the thing that's coming into popularity now because we didn't know how to get a TV show going. That's why we decided to just make our own show and put it online.
"The further we progress, the more I believe that creating your own content and putting it out on various platforms, building your following and having your own brand is where things are going."
Page says he'd be excited if he was offered a TV series, but he's not holding his breath. "We've had those meetings, and nobody seems to know what to do with us," he says. "It's not that I don't want to collaborate with people, but I'm not going to sign away control of the show with the promise that maybe someday this will work out financially. I'm a lot more excited about what we can do on our own with these new platforms. We have almost 300,000 YouTube subscribers, we have half a million Facebook followers and we have 46 million channel views on our YouTube channel."
Despite taking a beating in the majority of those YouTube views, Conway never gets tired of it. "He hungers for it!" Page says with an evil smirk.
"Todd actually gets insulted if Master Ken chooses somebody else to demonstrate on," Conway says. "Sometimes I'm like, 'You've got to make more contact because it's easier for me to sell it.' There are times when people think, Oh, Master Ken really hurt him. I'm like, 'No, I'm just a good actor.'" (laughs)
That ability — and willingness — to take a shot prompts me to ask about Conway's background. "It all started when a friend took me to The Perfect Weapon," he says. "That movie got me into kenpo. I started training in Santa Fe and went up through the ranks. Then my teacher moved. I went around to other schools but wasn't impressed. I don't want to be snooty, but what I was getting from American kenpo was something I wanted to continue.
"I moved to Albuquerque years later and learned that Jeff Speakman was doing a seminar here. I met him and found out he had a kenpo school in Albuquerque. So I started training. One day, I was told Jeff Speakman wanted to take me to lunch. He said he wanted to move to Albuquerque and develop the school, then asked me to be the instructor."
Conway admits that was nice to hear, coming from the kenpo icon — but he says he didn't feel worthy. Nevertheless, he accepted. "I took over the Jeff Speakman school about seven years before we started doing Enter the Dojo. That was back when they were doing kenpo 4.0."
Kenpo 4.0 eventually gave way to the MMA-influenced kenpo 5.0. "I was there in the embryonic stages of that," Conway says. "In fact, I was able to go to Australia to share some of that knowledge with his schools before it had even been presented."
The next step on the martial path for the man who gives life to Todd was Brazilian jiu-jitsu. "The grappling in kenpo 5.0 seemed like just the tip of the iceberg," Conway says. "It left me hungrier for more jiu-jitsu. So a couple of years ago, I started training at the New Mexico Jiu-Jitsu Academy. I dabbled in other things, too — like stick fighting in Bobby Taboada's system. I tested for level four in that. Kenpo 5.0 is still my passion, though."
Passion, indeed. Conway just received his fourth-degree black belt in the system.
"ABQ Karate is the name of our school here," Conway says. "As most martial artists will tell you, there's not a lot of money in teaching. The great thing is, Enter the Dojo has given us the opportunity to meet with successful martial artists. All of a sudden, it's like, you mean you can make a living doing this? You don't have to keep your day job?"
Conway is clearly pleased with his new lot in life as a full-time instructor, but I feel compelled to ask the dynamic duo if visiting martial artists — people like me — ever interfere with the routine. Page says they used to deliberately keep their school and the fictional headquarters of ameri-do-te separate to reduce the chance of that happening, but then they relented.
"We thought it was silly because even without us putting it out there, people who are on road trips across the country find out where we are and stop by," Page says. "They'll take a picture outside the door. They'll message us. Sometimes they'll even knock on the door. Once Joe called me and said, 'There's a kid here who's a big fan.' I was like, 'All right, I can be there in 15 minutes.' I drove down and we took a quick picture by the banner."
"We're really excited about what next year has in store for Master Ken and Todd," Page says. "We have a lot of plans — new material, new people we want to have on the show, new hero videos we want to make and new trending topics we want to address. We're going to put out content as often as we can, but we want to make sure it's good content."
Conway jumps in: "Now I'm going to put Matt up on a pedestal. He comes up with the ideas, directs us, acts, edits — it's a lot of work."
"I wouldn't mind some help!" Page bellows, then grins. "It is a lot of work, and I couldn't do it without Joe. He's a school owner and a martial artist, which makes the brainstorming so valuable. I'll come in and say, 'OK, so here's a concept for a video. Here's what I think is funny about it, but I don't know what the video is.'
"And Joe says, 'Well, today some students said this or that,' and we end up taking this abstract concept and grounding it in what he can relate to as an instructor."
Conway summarizes: "Matt comes up with the idea and then …" — a smile spreads across his face — "he forges the goblet and I polish it."
"And as long as people keep watching, we'll keep doing it," Page says.
See more of Master Ken and Todd at youtube.com/user/EnterTheDojoShow.
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