No Formula for Funny: An Interview with Nick Kroll

[15 February 2012]

By Nathan Pensky

Ubiquity is not kind to comedians. Oftentimes, the sentence “That guy is everywhere these days” is followed closely by, “Wow, I am sick of that guy.” By the same token, comedians who play overdrawn, broadly comic characters move from being buzz-worthy to annoying faster than you can say “Larry the Cable Guy.”

And yet for Nick Kroll, the brilliant, seemingly omniscient comedian with the large arsenal of characters, ordinary rules just don’t seem to apply. Kroll is one of a few comedians working today who has appeal both with underground and mainstream audiences. He does goofball comedy and satire with equal ease. This may have something to do with the affection he feels for his outlandish characters, creations like El Chupacabra, Fabrice Fabrice, and Bobby Bottleservice.

Then there’s the fact that Nick Kroll’s IMDb page reads ... well, like the IMDb page of a very successful comic actor. He currently appears in The League on FX, The Life and Times of Tim on HBO, and soon in his own sketch comedy show on Comedy Central, The Nick Show Kroll (for those of you keeping count, that’s three roles in three cable series). And let’s not forget his numerous recurring roles on shows like Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, Reno 911! and Children’s Hospital. Oh, and then there’s his appearances in such films as Date Night, I Love You Man, Get Him to the Greek, and the upcoming A Good Old Fashioned Orgy.

So yeah, this guy is everywhere these days. Yet so far the world is in no danger of Nick Kroll oversaturation. PopMatters talked with Nick Kroll about his new comedy DVD special Thank You Very Cool and how comedy really comes back to trying to make girls laugh ...

* * *

First off, congrats on the new special.

Thank you.

Your stand-up involves a lot of characters, but you’ve also done a lot of acting. Where are you most comfortable, doing characters in stand-up or with a script in front of the camera?

I think I’m most comfortable in small, intimate porno shoots. Um, but if I don’t have access to that ...

So acting then?

Yeah. Some people call it acting. I call it performance art. Other people call it illegal in a few states.

Nice.

I really enjoy doing all of them. I would never choose ...  and I think the special reflects that. I think equal weight is given to the characters and to the short films, and to just general live performance. I would never choose just one of them. And hopefully I never have to.

You have a lot of versatility that way, where it’s not really one or the other ...

Thanks. I try to do a lot of things, just really mediocre.

That’s a good game plan.

Yep, best to spread it out. That way people aren’t like, ‘He’s not very good at that one thing.’ They’ll say, ‘He’s just decent at a couple things.’

So for you, where does the impulse to do your characters come from? Did you do characters as a kid?

I guess so. I grew up, like, doing Wayne’s World sketches with my friend Andrew in elementary school talent shows. Obviously, I grew up watching Saturday Night Live. But I got to New York and started doing improv there, and I started doing stand-up there.

And as the alternative scene in New York grew, I was able to see all people doing all different types of things. You could get on-stage as a character, and I found myself, as opposed to doing straight sketch, getting on-stage and talking to an audience, but talking to them as a character. I really just got such a kick out of that.

I’d imagine that there’s a lot of different places that you could go with that.

Yeah, and once you’re doing a character, and you know that point of view, then you can improvise and constantly be writing while on-stage, while acknowledging the audience.

You ever get yourself in a jam while you’re on-stage, like, mix up character traits? You have so many of them ...  and I know improv can have a lot to do with playing off of other people.

No, each character is such a clear point of view that I don’t ever confuse them. And if I’m doing multiple characters in a single show, like I did with the special on one night ...  each of them has such a specific look that once you’re in the clothes, it’s a lot easier to be right in it. And I usually have a line or two that I saw that will cue me in to the character.

So it sounds like costume is very important to your process of getting into character.

Yeah, usually one of the first things I think about when I’m developing a character is what they’re wearing. I mean it sounds very cheesy and very actor-y, but it really does help me figure it out.

How involved does the backstory get, when you’re trying to fill out a character?

Well, a lot of the back story ...  that’s something that gets done on-stage. I like writing on my feet. Like Febreeze, who for the special does all the question and answer stuff—and there’s a lot more Q&A stuff on the DVD special features—like I learned a lot about Febreeze from improvising answers to questions while I’m on stage. Like that his best friend is Angel, who DJs at CVS.

Have you ever really surprised yourself with something that you’ve come up with for a character on-stage, something that just you had no idea would be a part of a given character?

All the time. All the time. And I think with each character, if you know who that character is on a basic level, then you just know and trust that you’ll be able to come out with good things. And some of them last and become an important part of it.

Like, that Bobby loves his mother ...  it came up once when I was doing the bit. You know, I used to do Bobby just to make girls laugh. And then at one point it came up that Bobby’s mother made him very emotional, and that became a part of who Bobby is.

How do you test out new characters? I have this image of you just going out in public as a new character and seeing how people react ...

It depends. They develop in different ways. But largely, no place has been more important in the development of these characters than the Upright Citizens’ Brigade. Up in New York, and then now in L.A. for me.

And other places that have been helpful out here in L.A ... I have a monthly show out here called, ‘Nick Kroll and Friends’ at Largo. But I’ve developed a lot there. And then now with podcasts, they have been incredibly helpful. Comedy Bang Bang has been very helpful.

All those kinds of shows give you an hour of time to just mess around with these characters and then listen to them, and you can find out by listening to the feedback, like, what people are responding to. And you can listen to them and see what works.

Is it safe to say that some of your characters are based on real people?

You know, it depends. They’re amalgams of people I’ve met, and also just general archetypes ...  Like Febreeze is based off living in New York, and like all the kids who live around Christopher Street in Manhattan, observing those guys.

And Bobby is based on—I grew up in Westchester and in the Tri-state area—and obviously that shows. I developed Bobby before The Jersey Shore, but you know, watching reality TV shows helps inform all of that stuff. Getting stuck in Facebook k-holes, YouTube k-holes. Finding and watching those things. Discovering, “Oh, I’ve just spent three hours watching some Armenian dude’s vlog.”

I actually just read your piece in Details about Internet etiquette. There’s a lot of helpful tips in there.

That’s the hope.

Have you ever met someone and thought, ‘This guy would be a great character’?

You know, I mean, yeah. I definitely run into people and think about it. I do a lot of eavesdropping. That’s one of the things I miss about New York, just checking people out.

It sounds a lot cheesier than it is, but I get a lot of people calling me or emailing me, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I met the real Gil Faison!” or “I just saw Febreeze on the street!” or whatever. To me, that is the biggest flattery, to hear that there are real versions of the people I’m celebrating.

Well, I’m guessing there is probably no shortage of characters to discover in L.A.

Yes. New York and L.A. both have them. But I think everywhere you go in the country there are just some hilarious people. And I’m always trying to find one of those folks who I can make relatable.

I just watched a YouTube of you doing a parody of a character. I think you were at Banaroo? You were doing a parody of the “You might be a redneck ...” thing?

Oh, right. The “You might be a deadneck ...” with David Cross and Aziz [Ansari]?

I thought that was funny because it was like a character of a character.

Yeah, it was like a double mash-up. Yeah, all that stuff ...  there are characters that make sense as a one-off, and there are other characters that make sense to build out. All of it. I really just love performing live. I love doing stand-up. I love doing the characters. I love doing sketch, acting. I’ve been very lucky to do all of it. And I think the special reflects that.

The DVD has, like, 40 extra minutes of extra materials. And the DVD menu is just me talking for 20 minutes. So if you wanted to just sit and watch the DVD menu, you could hear me talk for 20 minutes. Pretty awesome.

So who are some of the character-type comics that you look up to?

Wow. There are a bunch of guys and ladies that I really get a kick out of. Jenny Slate. She’s super-funny, and she’s on my TV show. John Daly, super-funny and talented. Bret Gellman is another one, an insane funny talent. James Adomian is an amazing character guy and amazing with impressions. Andy Daly, another UCB guy.

If you listen to Comedy Bang Bang, Scott Ackerman’s podcast, you can hear a bunch of them. I think a lot of podcasts have a lot of amazing character work. Seth Morris does this amazing character, Boch Duco, which I think is one of the funniest, most well-realized characters that I’ve ever seen or heard.

I interviewed Michael Ian Black a couple of weeks ago. And he talked about wanting to just walk into any comedy club in the country and pick out a guy in the audience and just say, “I’m going to make that guy laugh.” Is that desire to connect with everyday people something that drives you, as well?

I think so. Because Michael is a guy that I have looked up to for so long, and you know I respect all of the stuff that he’s done in the past, and what he’s doing now. And I agree with him, you know?

I want to be able to go into the most alternative room in the country and make a bunch of hipsters laugh, and then go a mile down the road to a group of tourists and get them to feel the same way. But without ever compromising the material ... and that’s what’s complicated is finding something that works across the board for people without ever compromising what you’re doing.

Do you think that character-based comedy has a broader appeal?

It all depends. I have friends who have never done a character in their life and who can go anywhere and make people laugh. I think it’s just, funny is funny. And it doesn’t really matter what form it comes in. If people can relate to it, and feel like they’re seeing something that makes sense to them, then they’ll laugh and enjoy it ...

You have to find what you’re doing funny and trust that other people will feel the same way. If you try and figure out a formula to it, you’re gonna end up having trouble.

Do you feel that any of your comedy is in response to aspects of American culture that disgust you, or that you think are ridiculous? Is there any part of a serious message under all of it?

Not particularly. I think my goal is just to find things that are funny. And there are types of people that I think are funny. And the truth is that, as mean as all my impressions are, I really kind of love all of them.
I feel that you really have to love all of the guys your playing. If you’re gonna spend a lot of time portraying someone, you kind of have to like him, even if he’s a dick. You know? You wouldn’t spend an hour with a person that you hated.

Have you ever had a character that you wanted to develop but that you didn’t, because you didn’t feel that affection for?

You know, the characters that grow and develop just have legs behind them. And there are others where someone could say, “Oh, that’s a funny line.” But like, there’s not enough there behind him. You really have to develop the characters, where you can see their whole life, to build it out. And those are the ones that really last, the ones that people respond to and feel are really human.

Some of the bits that you’ve done could be said to skirt the line of what could be called offensive. Do you have some kind of internal system that determines what’s transgressive and funny, and what’s too much?

It doesn’t ever cross my mind in that way. It’s just, if it feels like, if it’s funny, then ... you know, I don’t think anything is off limits. But I think my goal is never to shock or offend. It’s really just, what is funny and what isn’t. And that’s the only thing that I ever think about. And I don’t find ... beyond that, once you start to think about “That’s offensive” or “That’s not offensive,” you just start to get away from what’s important, which is “Is that funny” or “Is that not funny.”

Has anyone ever complained to you about a bit being offensive?

Yeah, you know, every once in a while ... I mean, look. We live in a very big country, and everyone can comment online. And so there are a lot of opportunities for people to be offended.

But very rarely have I had people offended by what I do. Because again, I go back to what I said before. I try to love these characters. And if you believe in these guys, and if you play them as honestly as you can, then even if they say offensive things, you see that they’re human.

I mean, we all have offensive people in our families. Racist people, homophobic people in our families. It doesn’t mean that they’re terrible people all the time. It just means that they have some stupid views on things. But it doesn’t mean that I’d never talk to them again.

So tell me about the role of Adam in A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy. How did that come about? Did you end up writing any of that character, or ad-libbing any of it?

No, that was like the first real ... I mean, I think I had been in I Love You, Man by that point, and one or two small indies. But that was the first real feature film that I had done. And the guys who wrote it, Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, I had lunch with them in a restaurant. And Billy Dee Williams was there, which was pretty awesome.

And I just talked with them about how I identified with that role. And I felt like I identified with all the people in that movie, because they all seemed like people I grew up with. They’re all in their late 20s and all trying to figure out their lives. So I felt like I understood that world well.

Adam is a guy who has a lot of hang-ups. You know, he’s a germaphobe and all that stuff. But he ends up in the orgy, and he kind of lets himself go. I think you get to watch a nice evolution of him.

It’s a very sweet, funny movie. Pete and Alex work a lot with Judd Apatow now, and the model where we shot that was very collaborative. We didn’t have a ton of time to improvise, but there was a lot of discussion and collaboration in coming up with the jokes and really discussing what’s going on with these characters. And they opened that up to the cast, very much.

So to me, [filming that movie] felt a little bit like Apatow made The Big Chill.

Was there ever a bit or a joke or a bit that you told, or that you’ve heard someone else tell, that you loved, but that just died on-stage? Anything that pretty much only you think is funny?

Oh, man. I have a bunch of stuff like that. Especially of my own, but also some of my friends who are insanely funny, but who people just don’t know or whatever.

What’s your favorite one?

I’ve been trying to do a joke for years, when I come out on stage ...  what I’ve found is that there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t work a long time ago, and then you’ll bring it back years later and it’ll work, because you’ll figure out how to frame it, or the audience is just more on-board with you or whatever.

But one thing that I always wanted to do, and that I’m gonna try and start doing again is, when I first come out on stage, saying, “First of all, it’s good to be here ...  second of all, it’s great to be here.” I’m gonna see if that works now, because I used to do that when I first got out on stage, and it did not work at all.

I’ve heard that you want to start with something that really wins them over, so ...

Yes. And with that, the audience is like, “Is this guy making fun of us, right away?” So I’m interested in that. I’m gonna try that. There’s a guy called Neil Hamburger ...

Oh, wow. I love that guy.

Yes. He’s a guy who can bomb on-stage, and make the comedians laugh all night. And people also love him. But he’s a guy where a lot of people don’t get it, even though he’s really funny. And he’s doing it on Twitter, too.

Yeah, I could see that happening with him.

Yeah, you know, he does shows where there are people like us, who love him from the start. But he’s definitely gone into some hostile places, where people don’t get it at all. And he just seems to thrive on that.

That’s just a whole different level of toughness.

Absolutely.

So what’s next for you now?

Well, we’ve got The League coming out October 6. We’ve got the new season of The Life and Times of Tim, coming out on HBO in December. And yeah, this Thank You Very Cool is out on DVD now. And we’ve got a ton of extra content on this, which I think people will enjoy. And then eventually I’m going to do this Comedy Central sketch show called The Nick Show Kroll.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/150972-no-formula-for-funny-an-interview-with-nick-kroll/