Emmys: How Sketch Comedy Writers Create "Boner Bait"

Courtesy of IFC

For the first time in Emmy’s 66-year history, sketch series are competing in their own category, which sheds a fresh light on their outrageous comedy risks: "People got to hear Jeff Goldblum say 'dildo' a bunch of times."

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

There's long been grousing about late-night talk shows competing with sketch-format programs at the Emmys. But grouse no more as the TV Academy finally has split the variety race into two competitions because of lobbying by sketch writers for a separate category. Nine contending sketch series reveal the boundary-pushing concepts ("Negrotown," anyone?) and happy accidents that have landed them in the Emmy race.

Scott Aukerman, Writer, producer, host
Comedy Bang! Bang! (IFC)

Proudest moment this season: "It was how we dealt with the departure and arrival of our emcees Reggie Watts and Kid Cudi. I was very afraid people would stop watching the show. Also, we had an almost entirely new writing staff in the season's first half and surprised them on their first day: 'Hey, not only is Reggie leaving, but we have to write his exit and it has to be great.' But [head writer] Neil Campbell tackled it and it honestly was the best script he'd ever done. It brought a tear to the eye."

Kevin Barnett, Co-head writer
Friends of the People (truTV)

Most wonderfully distasteful moment: "A sketch/song we did about gentri­fication. It was about a rapper who had heard about the gentrification of other neighborhoods and was hoping it would come to his hood. It was a play on all the times we hear rappers say that they'd do anything to make it out of the hood, and here was a rapper who was actually beckoning gentrification and staying there until [his neighborhood] changed. It was a silly take on gentrification with a guy who looked at it thinking, despite the consequences, it would be nice to have organic vegetables, artisanal everything and weird art close to him. This, of course, could have come with considerable backlash, but I think the silliness helped us get away with it."

Colin Jost, Head writer, "Weekend Update," co-anchor
Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Favorite network note: "The one we got from NBC censors about the 'Indiana Jones Jungle' sketch [SNL performer] Pete Davidson did when The Rock hosted: Caution on staging when Pete sucks the poison out of Dwayne's butt and when simulating the standing '69' position. I would avoid direct 'head to crotch' contact. Flirt with the presentation of them 'going to town' without it being accurately depicted. I'd say they definitely 'flirted' with the presentation."

Jessi Klein, Executive producer, head writer
Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)

The sketch she can't believe she got away with: "Our '12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer' episode. It was one of the first things [creator-star] Amy pitched at the beginning of the season. At first we envisioned it as a three- to four-minute sketch. I think of it now as something we got away with in the sense that its edginess was in its total non-edginess. We've done a lot of material that has felt sexier and more stereotypically 'outrageous,' so we worried about how our audience would respond to us parodying a black-and-white movie about the jury system in the 1950s. On paper it wasn't exactly boner bait! We had no idea if people were still familiar with 12 Angry Men. So when we decided to do it as a whole episode -- with Amy barely in it -- we fretted that Comedy Central would push back, but they were supportive. When it aired and got such a positive reaction, we were thrilled that we'd committed and had gone at the concept whole hog. People got the deeper message. And they got to hear Jeff Goldblum say 'dildo' a bunch of times, so it was a win-win all around."

Jonathan Krisel, Writer, director
Portlandia (IFC)

The sketch he can't believe he got away with: "It was about escrow. You know, the thing that happens when you are buying a house. It's not topical, it's not controversial and it's not relevant. It's not even helpful in defining the esoteric term. It's long-winded, hard to watch and boring. The response from the real estate community was through the roof."

Scotty Landes, Executive producer, writer
Adam Devine's House Party (Comedy Central)

Proudest moment last season: "Our season finale in New Orleans. It opened with [star-creator] Adam [Devine] dancing with [New Orleans icon] Big Freedia, and ended with Adam and [musician] Trombone Shorty leading a huge parade down Frenchman Street. We'd originally planned for the parade to have around 100 people, including Anders [Holm] and Blake [Anderson] from Workaholics. But local brass bands, performers, weirdos and drunks poured out of the bars and joined us without hesitation. A guy in a hot dog costume appeared out of nowhere and marched with us. A half-naked contortionist rode on my shoul­ders. We ended up with over 300 people dancing in the street. Then about an hour after the parade, our director Kyle Newacheck wrestled an alligator. What can I say? Sometimes things work out."

John Levenstein, Executive producer, head writer
Kroll Show (Comedy Central)

Proudest moment this season: "When all the seemingly separate storylines came together for the series finale. A 'runaway bris' sketch transitioned into a final 'Too Much Tuna' prank. The mysteries of 'Dead Girl Town' were revealed. And Dr. Armond bounced back from his shocking death, making a triumphant return as a ghost in the reality show Armond Is Everywhere. Kroll Show had always been a thinly veiled serialized sitcom masquerading as a sketch show. But these were the moments when we realized we'd pushed the bounds of narrative as far as we could."

Jay Martel, Executive producer
Key & Peele (Comedy Central)

Proudest moment this season: "Our sketch 'Negrotown.' We'd talked about doing a version of those old 1940s musicals like Cabin in the Sky, and the concept for 'Negrotown' came out of that. Everyone loved the idea, but the sketch started to change drastically from week to week, with writers Colton Dunn, Phillip Jackson and Rebecca Drysdale doing the heavy lifting. Even though it went through some major changes, we never doubted that it would work out, which is remarkable since almost nothing ever works out (our staff writes five sketches for every one that gets on the air). The customs of Negrotown were constantly in flux: At various points, grape soda poured out of every spigot and a chorus of white women sang about the sexual prowess of black men, who sang happily about having lots of babies. In the first draft, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were happy residents and Wally, our tour guide, turned out to be white (he wore black face just to take advantage of the town's delights). We cast a wide net, then chopped here, expanded there, working hard to get the tone right, up until and through preproduction. Then it seemed like suddenly we were standing on the New York street set at the Disney Ranch with dozens of singers, dancers and extras dressed in bright colors jumping around and singing, 'It's a motherf--ing black playground!' Hell yeah."

Derek Waters, Executive producer, co-creator, host
Drunk History (Comedy Central)

The sketch he can't believe he got away with: "This entire show! After 15 years of trying to make a living in this business, who could have predicted that drinking with my friends as they recount history, and then getting iconic actors and comedians to re-enact the stories without ever actually speaking at all, would make it on television! But as my grandfather once said: 'The rest is …' I don't remember how it ends. Also, the fact that there's a show on TV with the word 'drunk' in the title … and people watch it. Even kids. I'll never know or care to know how I got away with Drunk History, but I'm grateful I did!"

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