Kroll Show debuts tonight on Comedy Central at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. Hulu is currently streaming a preview of the series première.
In pop music, the conventional wisdom goes “You have your whole life to make your first album.” As more and more comedy performers make the leap from stage or the Internet to cable, a similar line of reasoning can be applied to their TV efforts. Case in point: The excellent and assured debut episode of Kroll Show arrives with its voice intact, but it’s a voice (or, more accurately, a chorus of multiple voices) that have been a part of Nick Kroll’s live performances and online work for years. Some comedy fans might not recognize the bookish comic at the center of Kroll Show, but they’d have an easier time identifying club-douche Bobby Bottleservice, Spanish-language radio personality El Chupacabra, or caterer to the stars Fabrice Fabrice. (Or, you know, Rodney Ruxin, the wry attorney he’s played for four seasons on The League.) With its mix of sketches and stand-up, Kroll’s 2011 Comedy Central special Thank You, Very Cool was something of a dry run for Kroll Show, and there’s a whole backlog of informal pilots for the series in the archives of the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast.
So it’s to Kroll’s credit that good ol’ Bobby B doesn’t show up until the second episode of Kroll Show. (Comedy Central submitted two episodes to critics: The première, “San Diego Diet,” and “Soaked In Success,” which airs next week.) Instead, the show’s writers and performers—many of whom, like Jon Daly and Jenny Slate, came up alongside Kroll through the Upright Citizens Brigade system—push to build a world for the small population of personalities they’ve been carrying around in their pockets all this time. The characters are road-tested; the fake-TV empire into which they’re being ushered provides a renewed freshness.
In its early episodes, the format of Kroll Show feels like a hybrid of SCTV and Chappelle’s Show. Dave Chappelle’s breakthrough program remains the ideal for all Comedy Central efforts, its “pre-taped sketches with live stand-up interludes” format eventually adapted and updated by Key & Peele and Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time. Kroll Show offers a further variation by introducing its episodes with a brief comic monologue from the show’s star—the only difference being he’s not in front of an audience. Comedy is so often a game of expectations, and presenting Kroll’s observations in this manner sets up one crucial expectation for his show: The action is going to jump around, and it’s going to do so at a moment’s notice, and we’re never to forget we’re watching a TV show. In fact, in the channel-surfing context of Kroll Show, the viewer is watching multiple TV shows. Considering the kinds of self-absorbed fame whores Kroll specializes in, the format is a perfect fit: Not every sketch in the first two episodes is positioned as a fake TV show or commercial parody, but those that are give the show a sense of place and ease the transitions between sequences. Without establishing its own equivalent of SCTV’s Melonville, Kroll Show gives itself a setting: This is the sketch show that takes place within your TV.
So what’s on Kroll’s programming grid? Lots of Bravo-style reality shows, the occasional sports broadcast, Sex In The City For Dudes (extra funny points for making the common mistake of swapping out the conjunction in Sex And The City with a preposition), and, funniest of all, a dead-on sendup of Degrassi entitled Wheels Ontario. The success of the last segment in that list depends on your familiarity with the various tragedies visited upon the student body of Toronto’s most unfortunate secondary school, but Kroll and the writing staff balance those specifics with broader references to Canadian culture and much, much broader Canadian accents. It’s a smart move on the part of Kroll and the writing staff, granting some accessibility to a sketch that could easily alienate the average Workaholics viewer sticking around to check out the new sketch show. And the implication that there are more episodes of Wheels gives the staff a good excuse for returning to the characters or the show (or just those cartoonish Canadian stereotypes) later in the season, the way one of the supporting characters in the Publizity sketch from “San Diego Diet” gets his own spotlight in “Soaked In Success.” No need to strain to find recurring characters—they’re built into the series.
The monologues’ apparent historical precedent aside—according to Kroll, they’re meant to recall the opening of Annie Hall—the weekly check-in with the real Kroll makes for a stranger fit. The segments do provide a hint of the star’s POV, though, and that has an important grounding effect after his third or fourth costume (and hair and makeup) change. They’re also a good space for establishing the themes of a given episode, providing direct thoughts from Kroll that he and the writers can then extrapolate from, expand upon, or completely ignore. A battle of the sexes riff at the top of “San Diego Diet” draws a direct line to Sex In The City For Dudes, but it’s a more roundabout trip to get from Kroll’s remarks to the infomercial parody that gives the episode its title. Kroll has stated that he wasn’t interested in doing a straight sketch show, and the monologues, though jarring, place the character-based material of Kroll Show on solid conceptual ground.
With so many solid concepts and hilarious characters at his disposal, Kroll could have rested on his laurels and still turned in a halfway decent sketch series. But Kroll Show resists such laziness, establishing itself as both of a piece with its creators’ past work and its own entity. (And for the uninitiated, the shows-within-a-show format make for a type of familiarity.) Nick Kroll and his team had their whole lives to make these episodes—it bodes well for Kroll Show that they opted not to repeat everything they’ve done up to do this point.