Over the last few years, Nick Kroll has racked up an impressive résumé of comedic parts, though many of them were short-lived. He appeared several times on the talking-head version of Best Week Ever. He did voices for Mitch Hurwitz’s Sit Down, Shut Up and the underappreciated comic gem The Life & Times Of Tim. He took bit parts on Human Giant and Reno 911!, and enjoyed a substantial run on Worst Week and Cavemen. (Okay, that last one probably doesn’t count as “impressive.”) He’s been working himself to the bone on his own projects as well, putting out the web series The Ed Hardy Boyz (about spoiled scenesters), Rich Dicks (ditto) and The Oh, Hello Show (about Upper West Side divorcées; it’s also a live show with partner comic John Mulaney). He’s also made numerous appearances as his flamboyant gay Craft Services character, Fabrice Fabrice.
Though Kroll has mostly sailed under the radar as a supporting player, all that work is starting to pay off. He was recently named one of Variety’s “10 comics to watch” for 2009, largely due to his rambunctious, character-based stand-up. He’s currently penning a screenplay with Mulaney, for a film starring Tracy Morgan. And this week, The League premières on FX, with Kroll in one of the starring roles. Curb Your Enthusiasm co-producer Jeff Schaffer is helming the new fantasy-football-based sitcom, and both shows are similarly only loosely scripted, so Kroll’s breezy, cerebral comedy comes through in spades. The A.V. Club called Kroll a few weeks before The League’s première to chat about outrageous character research, his DIY attitude toward comedy, and going on The View in full caveman makeup.
The A.V. Club: The League came about so quickly. Why the expedited process?
Nick Kroll: Largely because of the football season, just wanting to make sure they were able to capitalize on the show coming out during football. That was one of the things that excited all of us in the cast about doing the show. One of the worst things about being an actor, besides people being nice to you and getting free stuff all the time—but really, one of the worst things is not knowing what’s coming next. You could shoot a pilot, and they could have you on hold for six months waiting to find out what is going to happen with the show, and you’re locked into it. With this, we were all, first and foremost, excited about the material, but also the fact that we would know really quickly what was going to happen. It’s actually been a really, really fun job to do.
AVC: Is that rare, to have fun? Does that happen a lot?
NK: No. I mean, it’s tough to say. I feel incredibly lucky at this moment in my career to get paid to do basically exactly what I always wanted to do. I appreciate that in general. But you know, like any job, a job is a job, and there are days that are going to be boring, or you have a boss you don’t like, or people you work with. On this particular show, this hasn’t been the case.
AVC: How did they find you?
NK: I met with them months ago. One of the first things I liked about [the showrunners] was that they were coming to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, they’d come to the Del Close Marathon last year in New York. They saw that all these people they liked using on [Curb Your Enthusiasm] were coming from UCB and the improv world, so they were taking meetings with people. I sat down with them around 8… I had a peppermint tea at the meeting. I was hoping it was going to be breakfast so I could get a free breakfast, but it just turned out to be tea. They were very tight-lipped about the actual premise of the show, that it was going to be about fantasy football, but we talked about the characters and the style of show it was. I was very intrigued.
AVC: When did you first start to get that in-flux feeling with all your projects?
NK: Well, the only date I can tell you is that I came out to L.A. July 24, 2007 to start work on Cavemen, the Oscar-winning television show. And I had done a little bit of a pilot season the year before. There’s just a feeling, when you’re just an actor—I have great admiration for people who are just actors. I don’t understand it, the idea of waiting to get cast, being at the whim of others. I find it incredibly powerless and frightening, so that’s why I’ve been constantly trying to create my own content. We’re in a really amazing time where we have the ability to go off on our own and make things that look just as good as stuff on TV, put it up in the Internet, and within a couple of days, have hundreds of thousands of people seeing it, without having to wait for a studio to approve something. Without having to make sure that, “You can’t say certain words,” or “You can’t use that brand.” That’s the beauty of the web.
AVC: Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to adopt this DIY philosophy?
NK: It’s tough to say. I came to New York and started doing stand-up and improv, and started auditioning for commercials and voiceovers and stuff. My first job was on a pilot of that prank show called Boiling Points on MTV. It was spring break in South Beach, and they flew me down there to do it, and it was amazing. I was in South Beach, I was doing this thing for MTV, and I remember… [Laughs.] Two months later, when the show was coming out, I was driving back down to Georgetown to do some improv festival; I was going to go back down to college and be like, “Look at me, I’m on this show! I’m doing it!” I sent out a big e-mail saying, “Watch out, everyone!” [Laughs.] I sent that on a Friday, I’m driving down to D.C., and that afternoon, I got a call from the producers being like, “Your segments are not going to be on the show; you’ve been basically cut out.” Two lessons were learned, which were, one, you’re at the whim of other people, and two, until something is on the air, and you see yourself on the screen, then it’s not real.
AVC: Have you always thought about these types of showbiz things in such a big-picture way? Not everyone does.
NK: Really? Interesting. Most people are probably like, “I like to get laid!”
AVC: You studied something media-related in college, correct? Did that have anything to do with it?
NK: I sort of was always fascinated with that stuff. Like most lazy upper-middle-class kids, American Studies seemed like a fun way to use your knowledge of TV to get an A. So I was, like, a history major, and I minored in art and Spanish, but I found myself gravitating toward media studies as time went on. I am fascinated with the larger machinations of the media, and where it benefits my career. I think if I did find myself in another profession, I would still be fascinated with the machinations of the entertainment business. I don’t know if I think big-picture, to be honest, but when you start to do these interviews, it forces you to, because you’re verbalizing things you’ve never had to verbalize before. Until you start doing press, you’re like, “I gotta get that fucking job! Oh, I got the fucking job!”… It’s a combination of, like—I love making The Ed Hardy Boyz or Rich Dicks, like I find pure joy in coming up with that stuff and executing it. But I also see the importance of strategizing on what day to put that video out, and trying to find the coolest place for it to get posted. I do enjoy the various aspects of it.
AVC: How did you settle on a stand-up style of doing mostly characters?
NK: The short answer is, I started doing stand-up and improv at the same time in New York, and then I started to do characters. I realized I could understand the character’s point of view better than my own. It was easier to vocalize, like, a gay black Latino’s point of view than it was to know what I thought about something. Or an Upper West Side middle-aged divorcée.
But it was tougher to know myself… I just find myself inherently drawn to that kind of stuff, and that’s what I miss most about living in New York: The immediacy of public interaction is just unbeatable. In L.A., you really are in your car all day alone, and there’s very little public life. In New York, you are forced into having very public lives and observing all types of people, what they sound like, what they’re reading, what they smell like, what they are listening to, how they talk to their friends. Fabrice was—I was on the subway one day, and these boys were sitting there, these like 15-year-old gay black kids. One’s talking to the other, he’s like [Lispy urban accent.] “I got my Von Dutch hat on, I look good! Any of those boys at school fuck with me, I’ll fuck them up, I don’t give a shit. I’ll spill a nigga.” And I was like, “That’s it.”
AVC: What lengths do you usually go to in creating characters? You’ve mentioned before that for the Oh, Hello characters, you found two guys at a bookstore, then followed them to a coffee shop and watched them read for a while.
NK: You know, that was a rare case. We inherently sort of love those kinds of guys, and then we found those guys. We went to extremes in that particular case, but it depends. A lot of times, you’re circling around a lot of things, and then you find that one person, or that little piece of dialogue, and it doesn’t always have to be in person. When we were working on Rich Dicks, we watched Born Rich, the Jamie Johnson documentary, and we lifted a line directly from one of the guys in it—the one that’s like, “You know, I’m from New York and you’re from some shit town in Connecticut, and my father could buy and sell you.” You’ll just hear that one phrase, and that will be the catalyst to spring off from.
AVC: Do you find there’s a theme to the characters you play? On the surface, they all seem to have this sense of superiority.
NK: I tend to play sort of douchey. Fabrice is different. He’s more vicious directly, but Ed Hardy Boyz and Rich Dicks, they think they’re awesome, but the humor is in how terrible and lame they are. It’s this feeling of high status, but when you watch them, you realize that the rest of the world views them as low status.
AVC: Why those types of guys?
NK: I don’t know, because I have recently been trying to figure that out myself. I guess that’s just what I find funny. Just like how Seinfeld has his way of telling jokes—and I’m not comparing myself to Seinfeld, but he’s such an easy example—his genius is observing the small details of everyday life and finding humor in it. I seem to be drawn to finding the awful. [Laughs.]
AVC: What happened with Sit Down, Shut Up? How is it possible that it failed?
NK: I ask myself that every night before I pray to my lord and savior, Mitch Hurwitz. I don’t know. I mean, that cast is so funny, and that writing staff—I think part of it is, Fox didn’t really give it a chance to breathe. They put it between Family Guy and The Simpsons, and you can’t ask for more, but when it didn’t work… People had these expectations for what it was, and it would have been impossible for anything to live up to what people were hoping it was going to be. So then Fox moved it to 7 p.m. Sunday and were like, “This too dirty for 7 p.m.” We were kind of like “Yeah, you didn’t ask for 7 p.m.” And then after four episodes, they pulled it.
That’s the crazy thing about TV. What business would judged on the first week that it’s in business? You have to judge something, but it’s a bizarre system that we’ve created. You work on this show, this pilot, and you’re still figuring out how to do your part, the network is figuring out what it is they want. There’s a lot of moving pieces that rarely lead up to something that is going to be good up top, and my limited experience thus far in TV is that it takes time for shows to find their way. If you keep watching Sit Down, Shut Up, and I would argue the same about Cavemen, episodes got infinitely better as time went on. Partly why The League has been fun is that FX, from what I can tell, basically left them alone. Sometimes shows suffer from having so many cooks in the kitchen. That’s a rarity, and that’s the beauty of cable.
AVC: You’ve been very gracious about Cavemen, always rushing to the show’s defense. You also went on The View in full makeup and riffed with the ladies in character. Was the experience as awkward and surreal as it looks from this end?
NK: It was one of the most fun, surreal experiences of my life. As difficult a process as it was to do that show, with the makeup and the—what I will say about Cavemen is, the critics didn’t really respond to it, but what I always took solace in is that the public didn’t, either. So whatever that show was, the weeks and months of work that were not very well received, for that five minutes, it was all worth it. Afterward, they all individually were like, “That was great!” And I was like, “I thought I just made fun of all of you. Were you guys not around for that?” I know it’s going to sound cheesy, but I love show business. I love doing comedy, I love that I get to do all this with my friends. I love going on the fucking View.