Nick Kroll, Anthony Jeselnik, Other Comics Talk Flops, Fury and Disagreeing with Fallon
Rob Delaney, Kristen Schaal and Saturday Night Live's Cecily Strong joined THR's comics roundtable to discuss Louis CK and the (many) things network execs get wrong.
This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
WHAT NETWORK EXECS GET WRONG
SCHAAL: Gosh, I think there's a certain network out there that is very nervous about putting female leads on their network. It's been five years or so since they had one, and they're like, "Well, it didn't work, so we're too scared." But there's been other male-driven comedies that didn't work, and you still went with males again. That really drives me crazy.
JESELNIK: Are you talking about Oxygen?
SCHAAL: I'm talking about (coughs). The big problem is that if they take a risk on something different and it works, then they're geniuses. But if they take a risk on something different and it fails, then they're fired. So everybody just wants to ride the middle ground. They just try to reproduce hits from the '90s. Wow, I got really nervous. Maybe I just like ruined my whole career.
JESELNIK: Why would you even want to be on Comedy Central and take a pay cut at this point in your career? (Laughs.)
KROLL: Technically, I'm on FX and Comedy Central right now. … It's not a brag if you say it very casually. I've found that with FX, there is more of a hands-off approach. There's as much competition on the network side as there is on the talent side because there are so many venues to go do a show now that I think that there's less meddling, at least in the cable world. It used to be like, if you didn't get a show on Comedy Central or HBO, that was it.
JESELNIK: I kind of agree, but I've definitely gotten some weird notes. We were talking about this story about some guy who put his baby in the dryer on my show, and we played a game with the panelists: Is that a baby in the dryer? We'd have this graphic of a baby in a dryer. Comedy Central was like, "This is really funny, but at the end, can you please say: 'Guys, this graphic isn't a real baby in the dryer. You shouldn't put your baby in the dryer.' " I was like, OK, and I just typed, "Everybody, Comedy Central wants me to tell you that you shouldn't put your baby in the dryer and Comedy Central thinks you're f--ing idiots." I got a call 10 minutes later: "Maybe you don't have to include that. Maybe people will know."
MOST IMPORTANT COMIC WORKING TODAY
JESELNIK: I don't even want to say his name because he's gotten so much smoke blown up his ass. But how can you not say …
JESELNIK: Louis C.K. owns comedy right now, and it's not even in a way that gets you down about your own comedy. With Louis C.K., every year there's a new hour of all of this new stuff. He'll also go on Leno and not let Leno say a word and just do a monologue that you'll never see in a stand-up or anything, and millions of people get to see it.
SKETCH COMEDY VS. STAND-UP
KROLL: The worst part about doing sketch versus stand-up for me was at least in stand-up, you can acknowledge how badly it's going. But with sketch, when a sketch is going badly …
SCHAAL: You can't stop.
KROLL: You can't stop it. And that's a terrible feeling.
SCHAAL: Yeah, because in stand-up, the audience is more on your side if you just call out what everybody's feeling. They're relieved. You can get them back.
JESELNIK: But you're never doing a sketch and thinking, "I've got an hour more of the sketch to do." With stand-up, it's like you're there forever.
STRONG: I feel like you do [think that with sketch]. You're like, "If you didn't like that one, wait till you hear the next 80 minutes!" We got burned [doing sketch] by this old-people audience somewhere in Florida for New Year's Eve. These people hated us so much. We were like, "Now give us a line of dialogue that you haven't heard in the show so far." And this guy goes, "Humor."
WALKING THE LINE
JESELNIK: There is no line. And if there were one, I would try to cross it immediately, much to the detriment of people who work for me. So there is no line; there are just ways to try to get across it.
DELANEY: All of us have said filthy things that are reprehensible and, taken out of context, would be monstrous. But it's how you are talking about it. Are you talking about it to encourage people to do more of that? Then I would say that's a line I wouldn't cross. I'll talk about those things in an effort to make people point at it and make fun of it and try to make it not happen anymore.
JESELNIK: People will be like, "What's funny about rape? What's funny about suicide?" And I would say there's nothing funny; our job is to make people laugh at those awful things.
STRONG: It's so much harder to get away with that doing improv or sketch. The audience will so quickly turn against you if you just throw something like that out in an improv scene. It's like, "Oh, you did a cheap joke in a scene."
JESELNIK: I've been asked to apologize repeatedly. I'm like, "Why the hell would I ever want to do that?" It's like asking LeBron James to clean up the victory parade after they win the championship.
KROLL: Do you think you're as good at comedy as LeBron James is at basketball?
JESELNIK: Better. (Laughs.) People keep asking for an apology or to explain your joke, which, why? Why ever defend or explain anything?
KROLL: The hardest thing about comedy is finding your voice. What's amazing about Anthony is that he has an incredibly clear voice, and it's the equation of putting together a beautifully structured joke that is both surprising and shocking. That's not the goal of every comedian.
DELANEY: Also, if you apologize to somebody, then they're not going to be able to masturbate to their anger anymore. So you're kind of doing them a disservice because people who get offended about a joke and blog about it or whatever, they're so happy that they're getting to do that. I wouldn't want to rob them of it by apologizing.
FINDING YOUR VOICE
JESELNIK: I got into stand-up because I wanted to be a writer. I said, "Let me try to write the smartest jokes I can, get comedians' attention, then they'll hire me to write for them." I thought comedians always had a darker sense of humor, so I'll try for that. I basically didn't get hired on so many things that I was able to get good at stand-up by the time I finally got the Fallon job years later. One of the first days, we're sitting around a table, and I thought, "Oh, the fun job is to be the guy writing the funny jokes and throwing them out to their friends." Then I realized that we would pitch a joke and be like, "Jimmy [Fallon], what do you think about this joke?" And he would go, "No." Maybe the whole room would laugh, and he'd be like, "Not for me." Then they'd be like, "Jimmy, what do you think about this joke?" That joke that he would like that no one really laughs at [he'd say yes]. As soon as I saw that he could say yes or no, I was like, "I want his job."
KROLL: The guy who gets to say no.
KROLL: I'd been doing stand-up for about six months, and I was at an open-mic night in New York. The waitress came downstairs and was like, "Bill Murray's upstairs." So I went upstairs and completely bothered him while he was having a drink with his son. I was like, "If you'd come down and watch me, I would be so appreciative." As I'm getting onstage, I see these charcoal pants coming down the stairs. I freeze up. I can't get a joke out. And then I started speaking, and all I was trying to do was apologize to him onstage.
SCHAAL: I did a show at a college in upstate New York with my friend Kurt Braunohler, and we were going over the set. So we're like, "OK, so at this point we're gonna say, 'Now for our live sex act onstage,' and then just hit this Prince song." And the guy was like, "Whoa, whoa, what do you mean, live sex act?" I'm like, "Don't worry, we're not gonna bone each other." And he's like, "You know this is family weekend, right?" And I was like, "No, I did not know that." And I look outside, and there are just like families lined up waiting to get in. And I have basically five minutes to go backstage and just look over my set and just hack out all the sex jokes.
DELANEY: I got asked six or seven years ago to do a benefit in Salem, Mass.
SCHAAL: Oh, where they burn witches.
DELANEY: They burn them all. And I definitely added topical witch jokes, so I bombed locally and nationally.