Nick Kroll has been planning his whole life for something he didn’t realize was possible
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Comedy Central made a play for a lot of funny people in 2012, signing a slew of comedians to star in series debuting this year. Anthony Jeselnik’s The Jeselnik Offensive premières in February, Amy Schumer’s Inside Amy Schumer follows in April, and Andy Daly’s Review With Forrest MacNeil starts this summer. Before all of them is Kroll Show, a sketch-comedy series starring Nick Kroll, which debuts Wednesday, January 16. Although Kroll has become best known as Ruxin on The League, much of his work as a comedian comes from characters—Spanish-language radio host El Chupacabra, douchebag Bobby Bottleservice, craft-services vendor Fabrice Fabrice, New York intellectual Gil Faizon, and more—so it’s no surprise that character work figures prominently in Kroll Show, from established ones like Faizon or the Rich Dicks to Liz G., one of the stars of a reality show called PubLIZity.
Unlike most sketch shows, which are a series of self-contained shorts, Kroll Show goes long-form, treating sketches like mini-shows it splits up over the course of each episode. It’s a logical extension of the character-driven Thank You Very Cool special Kroll did for Comedy Central in early 2011, but also features the work of a who’s who of the Los Angeles alt-comedy scene both in front of and behind the camera, including Chelsea Peretti, Jason Mantzoukas, Jon Daly, Joe Mande, Seth Morris, Jessi Klein, Megan Amram, Mark Rivers, and many more. As Kroll explained to The A.V. Club in December, bringing his friends aboard was critical to creating Kroll Show.
The A.V. Club: Was the idea to do a sketch show from the beginning, or did you consider other formats?
Nick Kroll: Without realizing it, I think I’ve wanted to do a sketch show since I was like 11 years old. Like everybody else in comedy, I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, and I was doing characters with my friends. My friend Andrew Goldberg—who’s now a writer on Family Guy—we were taping stuff and then also doing campfire sketches at camp, and we’d do Wayne’s World at talent shows. Again, I didn’t know that I could go and make a show. Even leading into New York and doing stand-up and characters, it was only probably in the last four or five years where I was like, “I’ve been building a set of characters that would be fun to do on a sketch show.” So I’ve been planning it my whole life, but didn’t realize I could do it until now.
But I did do the special, Thank You Very Cool, which was a mix of stand-up and characters. And then I had pitched that to Comedy Central, and it was always functioning as a back-door pilot of sorts to doing a show. And then Jon Daly and Jon Krisel and I pitched them a 15-minute show of Rich Dicks, which we shot a pilot of, and they weren’t doing that kind of programming. They decided they weren’t really doing that 15-minute version of a show, and truthfully, they had been after me about doing a sketch show, especially after developing the special. So then it became, “Well, let’s do the Kroll show.”
AVC: Was there anything unexpected that you wanted to try with it? You have a couple of minutes of you talking to the camera doing stand-up, which most sketch shows don’t do.
NK: I think what we were trying to do was, do something that felt organic to what I had been doing myself with my characters, what Jon Krisel had been doing with Portlandia and Tim & Eric before it, what John Levenstein, who’s the showrunner, has done with The Life & Times Of Tim, which I had worked with him on, and Arrested Development before that.
All of us love strong, character-driven comedy, but not necessarily classic sketch comedy. I was more interested in telling emotionally driven stories than I was in doing one-off sketches, and the character and genre were king, more than a specific kind of joke. I think that was a goal, and when we shot the pilot, we didn’t have that stand-up element in the show. We thought that a slice-of-life sketch up top might serve that. Comedy Central always wants that stand-up element, because it helps connect the audience to the central character of the show. Our feeling was, “Let’s try to do without that,” and then when we watched the actual show, we were like, “You know what? After the pilot, it would serve us to have some element of Nick as Nick talking to the camera.” Then it was like, “How do you do it where it still feels like you’re connecting to this character of Nick Kroll, without it feeling like most of these other sketch shows you’ve seen?” So that was our goal, and we sort of settled on this: It’s like Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall.
AVC: It looks a lot like that shot—tight on the face, a simple colored backdrop.
NK: Yeah, that’s what we were doing. You immediately meet and know Woody Allen as soon as you see that at the beginning of Annie Hall. You spend two minutes with him, and then you’re like, “Oh, okay, I know who this guy is, what his perspective is. He’s funny.”
AVC: Have you shot all eight episodes already?
NK: Oh yeah, we’ve been locked since July. We’ve been sitting on this for quite some time.
AVC: Was that expected, or just how it shook out?
NK: We shot the pilot, and then I went and shot The League. Then we went and started writing the show, like, last November and started shooting it in, I guess, February or something, and we wrapped by April, and then started editing it. Sometime during production, Comedy Central felt like they wanted to launch it in January, because they had Key & Peele with the election, and didn’t want to try and launch us in the fall, fighting everyone else. So then they were like, “We think the ideal time to launch you is in January,” and it made sense. I mean, it’s frustrating, because you just simply want people to see it, but their reasoning was totally sound.
AVC: This an especially busy year for them, because several of your peers have shows coming out. Is it comforting to be starting with people you know?
NK: I think it’s really exciting that they’re launching a bunch of shows and by a bunch of people that I like, respect, and have worked with. I think it bodes well for the kind of content they’re doing, and I would rather be sharing the network with my friends than be an island. Like Workaholics—I know those guys and I like those guys, and I think a good bit of people who don’t know me will come in for them. They’ve built such a strong fan base of people, so it’s actually a really cool time to be at Comedy Central.
AVC: It seems like Comedy Central has as a new policy, “Let’s take up all the people.”
NK: When I first got to New York, Comedy Central was the only place to go if you weren’t on HBO or network. And then FX, Adult Swim, and other sort of ventures came up, and all of a sudden there were other places to go, and I think Comedy Central is making a concerted effort to become a place where smart, funny weirdoes can come and do their stuff.
AVC: Was there anything you wanted to try but weren’t able to do this time around?
NK: There is a sketch that Chelsea Peretti wrote back in the pilot that we wanted to do all year, that hopefully we’ll be able to figure out for season two. It just was a production nightmare, but hopefully we will shoot it. I don’t want to spoil it. The amazing thing for me that is so exciting and was so pleasing about doing this show was that… It’s every comedian’s dream that they get to go and make the sketch show they wanted to make. I feel like I got to do exactly what I wanted, how I wanted to do it. Like, my makeup artist is the guy who did my makeup on Cavemen, and is a world-class FX makeup guy who does all the stuff on Dexter, and was a makeup artist on the new Oz movie, so he’s the guy who’s doing my prosthetics and wigs. I was able to amass all the people I’ve worked with over the years, both behind and in front of the camera, to make exactly the show I want to make, exactly how I wanted to make it, and that’s pretty, pretty crazy. Like, my buddy Seth Morris, who is the funniest dude, got to come in and write for the show and pitch some stuff.
There’s something later on that he pitched, which is based off of a boxing trainer. I play a 65-year-old Mexican boxing trainer, and Fred Armisen is my son who just wants to do origami, and it’s all in Spanish, and I look like a 65-year-old Mexican boxing trainer. So it’s like a combination of someone like my buddy Seth Morris being able to pitch a crazy sketch to me, that I can then go to my makeup artist and be like, “Make me look exactly like this guy.” And then have Fred Armisen, who’s a guy I’m friendly with and Jon Krisel obviously knows well from Portlandia, come in, and for us to be able to improvise in Spanish together, and then have our cinematographer, who’s amazing, make it look exactly like an HBO 24/7 documentary… All of these things come together to make something that seems impossible, and it all happened without a glitch. It’s really fucking exciting.
AVC: The Sex In The City For Dudes sketch has a scene of you and a group of guys walking into a bar, and it’s a bunch of all-stars from the L.A. comedy and podcasting scene: Brian Huskey, Adam Pally, Jon Daly, Seth Morris, Jason Mantzoukas. The Bobby Bottleservice sketch in the second episode has Chelsea Peretti. It definitely seems like you’re working with people you worked with in the past, that are almost like returning the favor—
NK: And it’s unclear who the favor is to. Like, Sex In The City For Dudes, for example, all those guys, and a couple of guys who couldn’t be there—like Paul Scheer, Brett Gelman, and Rob Huebel, who just couldn’t work on that day—those are my buddies. Sex In The City For Dudes is something we have been singing to each other since Paul Scheer’s bachelor party, when we were talking about our feelings while swimming in Malibu. Or like, me and Mantzoukas going for a hike and talking about some girl not texting us back and then realizing how ridiculous we sounded, and we started singing “Sex In The City for dudes!” So the fact that I’m the one, that I have the show where we can do that, is so crazy to me. So I’m very grateful that they will take the time to come and do something like that, and then I’m also psyched that I can take this ridiculous bit we do and then make that into a sketch that we put on TV.
Our main goal was to have a combination of people I’m closest with, but also to feel like you’re seeing people you haven’t seen a ton of. Jenny Slate is such a tremendous talent—it’s not like people don’t know who she is, but I don’t think people have seen her as much as what she does on the show. John Mulaney is obviously a great writer and stand-up; people don’t realize what a tremendous character performer he is.
AVC: You work with Scheer on The League as well, and he and Huebel had the Human Giant TV show. Did they have any suggestions for doing a sketch show on TV? Did you talk to them about the process at all?
NK: That’s the other amazing thing: I have so many friends—Aziz [Ansari], Paul, and Rob—who had gone through the sketch-show [process], and getting their advice as to what do you want out of a writers’ room, people that they had worked with before that they liked working with—there’s useful things there. Talk with Rob Corddry about Childrens Hospital, how he figured out who and how he wanted to work with people, and being a guest star on those shows and being like, “I like how that worked.” I like how Paul Scheer writes thank-you notes to everybody. It’s just an amazing time to be doing comedy right now, because so many people can have shows and series. So all the directors of photography, the costume designers, all have been working so much more than they could have 10 years ago, and it means they have garnered so much experience and figured out so many great things that I benefit from in making a show.
AVC: There are eight episodes altogether, and in an older interview with us, you mentioned that Sit Down Shut Up didn’t have enough time to breathe because it went off the air after four episodes. With eight, do you have to try to cram in as much as possible to hopefully establish the show?
NK: I didn’t want to get committed to doing 12 or 14 [episodes]. I wanted to make sure that what we were making was the best show we could, like there was no excess, like, “Oh, we’ve got to film this five minutes because we’re short.” So I wanted to manage our expectation of what we could put out, and obviously with any show, as you move along, you learn a lot. You always want more time, but I also feel like we were pretty responsible about cutting sketches down to the bare minimum, where they could still breathe and feel like you’re hearing a story, but also acknowledging that it’s a sketch and people don’t necessarily want to watch one sketch for more than three or four minutes at a time.
The format that we set up of a big three-parter, you still get to tell the story you want to tell. It’s just broken up. So for me, what I love about the format of the show, they took the best of both worlds, where you’re telling multiple stories simultaneously. An audience is rewarded for watching and paying attention, because there’s so many small connecting points, and you get the satisfaction—for me, it’s the satisfaction of watching the shows you like to watch, with fully developed characters, while also addressing the idea that attention spans don’t necessarily want to see 22 minutes in a row of the same characters. We set some ground rules for ourselves—and then we’ve just created this set of rules we can break them at any moment.