Like a lot of Los Angeles-based comedian-actors, Nick Kroll has plenty of film cameos listed on his IMDB page (Little Fockers; Dinner For Schmucks; Get Him To The Greek; Date Night; I Love You, Man), plus a few TV projects that didn’t make it—Sit Down Shut Up, Worst Week, Cavemen. The Life And Times Of Tim was poised to join them, until HBO had a last-minute change of heart. Like the show, Kroll is enjoying his own good fortune. The League, the FX show he co-stars on with Paul Scheer and Mark Duplass, was just picked up for its third season, and Kroll is stepping out on his own with Nick Kroll: Thank You Very Cool, his first hourlong stand-up special for Comedy Central, which airs Saturday night at 10 p.m. EST. It’s a hybrid of Kroll doing stand-up and sketches, nicely mixing new material with characters he’s developed over the years (Latino radio personality El Chupacabra, flamboyant craft-services supervisor Fabrice Fabrice, douchey Bobby Bottleservice, New York intellectual Gil Faizon of Oh Hello). Before the special’s première, Kroll spoke to The A.V. Club about the seven-year rule, finding his comedic voice, and how The Muppet Show shaped his special.
The A.V. Club: On the Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick quoted Patton Oswalt or Brian Posehn saying that you have to do stand-up for seven years before you’re good at it. You hit that milestone last year, right?
Nick Kroll: Yeah. My New Year’s resolution in 2002 was to do an open mic. I started doing stand-up for a bit, and then I focused more on the characters and then came back, but every time from 2002 on, getting onstage, holding a mic, and talking to an audience. Then going back and forth trying to do stand-up and then trying to do characters, then figuring out where the two sort of met together. But I think that’s fair. I hope to think that I’m on schedule with Patton Oswalt. [Hardwick later said he might have been quoting Brian Posehn, but we didn’t learn about that until after this interview was conducted, so Oswalt gets the credit throughout this interview. —ed.] But I do think it takes a while, and I still think we’re all hopefully always getting better.
AVC: What were you doing at the time, when you had the New Year’s resolution to do an open-mic?
NK: I had graduated from school, and I was doing improv. I had taken workshops at Upright Citizens Brigade, taking classes and loving it, but also just jonesing to get onstage, because when you’re starting with improv, you’re practicing alone in your groups in weird Chinese sweatshops in the Garment District, but not getting a ton of time onstage. That’s what sort of propelled me to try and do an open mic. The first open mic I did was a show called “Surf Reality,” and I saw some people I still see today, and still work with today, in those early day of open mics. Chelsea Peretti, who’s a friend of mine who was a writer for Sarah Silverman and is a writer for Parks And Rec, and is actually in the opening for my special, she and I came up together at open mics. A bunch of people, Ed Helms. It probably took me a few weeks to find an open mic to do in January, and then I quietly did them for four or five months, and then invited my family and friends to come see me perform. I did it at a bringer show at the Boston Comedy Club, and Ed Helms was the host of that show. [A bringer show is where a performing comedian must bring paying guests, usually getting an amount of time based on the number of guests. —ed.], He’s a friend now. We went to Africa together with Malaria No More. It’s been amazing to come up with people and see people’s careers flourish and just remember the earlier days of guys like me and Aziz going to book shows, seeing him at UCB, at Hump Night, doing ridiculous videos, and live stuff with him. You just have a lot of people you came up with, and it’s exciting to see all that work over the last eight years come to fruition, for me and my friends.
AVC: When did you know you were ready to do a special?
NK: I don’t know exactly. I credit Aziz with it, in that I was sitting with him, he had shot his special, and I was talking about what I wanted to do next, whether I wanted to do a half-hour or what. He was like “You should just do an hour. Do an hour special.” I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t know…” He was like, “Just ask. Just tell them you want to do it.” I did, and they were like “Okay, great.” I was like “Oh. Well, I guess I have to figure out what that means now.” So I guess that was, let’s see, we shot that in November. My guess, it was sometime probably like in January or February that we pitched it and sold it. I talked to my reps about it, and we sort of worked out the deal as the year went on, and I started to formulate what the special would be from there.
AVC: Did you have all the material at the time, or did you still have a lot of the writing left to do?
NK: No, I had a lot of the writing to do. I had never gone on the road, really. I had done dates, I had opened for Aziz and opened for friends. But I did the Funny Or Die Tour with Chelsea and Whitney Cummings and Donald Glover, and that was the first time I had really headlined and done 40 minutes onstage, 45 minutes. So there was the stand-up, which I was working on until literally the week of the special, and then all the character stuff I was writing. It took me a while to conceive exactly what the show would be, and the framework of it. It’s not a typical stand-up special. It took a while to figure out what it was and how all the characters fit into it. My goal was to do something that incorporated all the stuff I do and have it feel like something new, like it was hopefully taking the stand-up special paradigm and turning it on its head.
AVC: It seems like that choice complicated the process, because it would be one thing to say “I have to go up there and have 45 minutes of material and bang it out” vs. “What’s going to be a sketch? What will be stand-up?”
NK: Yeah. It felt natural simply because it wasn’t like I created all these characters for the special. These are all characters I had been doing. Fabrice and Bobby, I had been doing live, so it didn’t feel abnormal to perform them live in a presentational fashion. What we were trying to do was do some version of a one-man Muppet Show, and it’s not just me. That’s what I liked also, was to collaborate with John Mulaney and Whitney Cummings, Lake Bell, Chelsea Peretti, and Brandon Johnson, who are all people I’m friends with and admire and was psyched to be able to include. I like to think that the stuff I do is oftentimes collaborative, so to have other people in it felt natural.
AVC: How did you end up shooting it?
NK: I think the key phrase we sold to Comedy Central was that it was going to be a one-man Muppet Show. So you’d see the show onstage, but you’d also be backstage, and from there, once we had that, it was like “Well, Fabrice does craft services, so he can be the craft services at the event.” Then it took a little while, but then it was like, “Oh, Bobby can be the security guard. Oh, great, and at the beginning of shows, people make announcements, so we can have Bobby make the announcements.” Oh Hello can be in the crowd like Statler and Waldorf, and Chupacabra as a radio personality can be an announcer for the show and can be sort of the “voice of God” and also announce sponsorships and all that stuff.
AVC: Does character work preclude you from doing a straight comedy album? Had you given any thought to doing a CD?
NK: We might still do an album. We’re definitely doing a DVD, and the DVD probably won’t be released for a little while, because we shot the special and are airing it so quickly that they didn’t have time to physically make the DVD and cut all the special features and stuff. The cool thing about the DVD is that the show you’ll see for air is 42 minutes, whatever an hour of televised comedy show is. But we have like 70 to 80 minutes of material, including all the Fabrice Q&A stuff, which didn’t make sense for the air, but will all be for the DVD. There’s a lot of cool stuff that will be on the DVD.
AVC: You said you hadn’t really toured before, though you’ve been doing comedy for a while. Do you feel like you’re level-jumping? You have guys who grind it out for so long and never get to the point of having a special on Comedy Central.
NK: Yeah, it’s only sunk in the last couple weeks, like “God, I’m doing an hour special on Comedy Central. That’s really wild!” It’s really crazy. I am beginning to understand that it’s a big deal. Leading up to it, I didn’t take it lightly, like “This is what I’m doing comedically at this moment.” There’s something scary about that, because it’s sort of a time capsule: “Here’s what I was doing at the end of 2010. Here’s what I thought was funny.” Comedy Central’s been really cool about letting me do what I wanna do, and again, this is so far out of what they would normally do for a stand-up special.
AVC: When The A.V. Club spoke with you in 2009, you said it was easier for you to do character-based comedy instead of more straightforward stand-up, because you had a hard time knowing yourself for it.
NK: Yeah, it was easier to know a character’s point of view than it was to figure out what your point of view was.
AVC: Has that lessened at all?
NK: I think so. Again, the Patton reference is a good one. In those seven years, what Patton is saying is that you get to know what your voice is. It’s almost easier to look at someone on a train and be like, “Oh, that guy, I bet, thinks this about Obama.” But then when you’re like, “Well, what do I think about Obama?” You’re like, “It’s complicated.” [Laughs.] I don’t have any jokes about Obama, but I realized that I have very strong opinions about dogs and cats. But I think that it takes a long time to figure out what your point of view is, and the character stuff, at least in my case, I found it easier to have a sense of what they would think about a specific topic. In the case of the special, making Bobby the security guard gave him a purpose for being onstage, and Fabrice, having such a clear point of view that he’s the star and that he deserves to be onstage, gave him a purpose. But I think that being on the road and doing more and more stand-up has allowed me to figure out… like, I don’t think I’ll ever be Bill Hicks, but I think I’m figuring out what my opinion is on things.
AVC: Well, you have a lot more avenues than Bill Hicks did. In a way, it’s a blessing and a curse. You have a Twitter feed, you’ve been active on Funny Or Die and other web videos, you’re on podcasts like Comedy Death-Ray Radio. So you have all these avenues to both get material out and sort of—
NK: Build a base.
AVC: Yeah, but it seems like it can also make your attention so diffuse that you’re not necessarily focusing on “I need to get a solid hour.”
NK: I look at—let’s just call it “the digital media,” between podcasts, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, online videos and such—that it could be viewed as a blessing and a curse, but I don’t think it’s a curse. I think it’s a hungry beast. It’s ravenous for content, which is amazing, because it means people want to consume what you’re putting out there, and you can create a really strong following of fans and admirers, and people who are invested in your career and your comedy. It also means that you are churning out a ton of content, and sometimes you’re putting out content that isn’t ready, that hasn’t been honed like you would 10 years ago when you’d put out your hour special, where you’ve been on the road, not anonymously, but quietly building and creating this routine. Whereas with me, there’s stuff that, you’re on a podcast, you’re messing around, it’s not always gonna be gold. But I also think it allows you to find out who these characters are and create a relationship with them, and they have a relationship with you and hopefully want to watch your special because they’ve listened to you and gotten to know your comedy.
AVC: Chris Hardwick says he gets way more people coming out because of the podcasts than he gets from all of his television stuff combined.
NK: Oh yeah, I think there’s something specifically about podcasts that people have really… I think Chris and Death-Ray and Marc Maron and Sklarbro Country, and all these things that I think people really grow quite a loyalty to. Going on the road, for every person who’s like “I watch you on The League,” there’s another person who’s like “I love Chupacabra,” or “I love seeing Bobby videos.” The beauty of it is, there are all these different ways to connect with people.
I just created a Bobby Bottleservice Twitter account. I did it because I’m about to do a little mini promo campaign for the special where Bobby is going to New York, L.A., and Las Vegas, to do—you’re the first person I’m telling about this—but with limited-edition screen posters we made up for the special, of Bobby, he’s going to be doing in-store signings. He’s hosting, like Kim Kardashian would host a nightclub, but he has to do it during the day at a store. It’s going to end with an appearance hosting a night at one of the nightclubs at the Palms. We’re doing a video for Funny Or Die for it. The idea is that, as opposed to just me going out and doing it, Bobby can handle some of the promotional lifting himself in his own way and language. But I think all that stuff, and the other side with the podcast is, you have guys like Hardwick and Scott Aukerman with Comedy Death-Ray who are amazing at plugging other people’s stuff. So it’s like, if you’re not a fan of mine, you know Hardwick, and Hardwick’s like “By the way check out…” I think it’s created an even more communal sense. We’re not all these islands, so it’s not only connecting fans to comedians, it connects comedians to each other. I think it’s reflected in the material. I think all that stuff helps build it.
AVC: Do most people know you from The League now?
NK: It’s definitely really increased. It’s the first thing I’ve done on a TV scale that’s really hit with people. It’s been really crazy. People really, really like the show a lot. I don’t mean that egotistically—I’ve just never had anything where I’ve had so many people so passionate, and a real mix of people from good old comedy nerds to Midwestern pleated khakis at the airport. It really has managed to cross all those different borders, and that’s fucking cool. But I also think that for every time I get The League, another time I get Bobby Bottleservice, and then I get Chupacabra, or stand-up, or Fabrice. I like the idea of people getting to know you from different angles and then realizing “That guy is also that guy!” “Oh, he does that!” I really like having a number of different ways to reach people.
AVC: You put it well in an interview when you said you couldn’t really understand how people could “only” be actors. You needed to be doing a bunch of different things at the same time to keep yourself busy and sane. So it seems like that all goes back into it.
NK: Yeah, I think it helps. For me, it’s to stay sane. I feel like we have so many different ways to express ourselves now, and I relish, I feel very lucky to be doing comedy at this time. It’s a real democratic time for comedy, and I think my special is a sign for that. You don’t have to just be a classic stand-up to get a special, or you don’t just have to be on Saturday Night Live to do characters and sketch on TV. The web has allowed me to show that there are different ways to make people laugh, and the special is a combination of those things. For me, the goal wasn’t to turn the stand-up special on its head, but to do what I do specifically, and hopefully that reads as something new.