MTV has provided plenty of laughs over the last 10 or so years, but rarely have they been intentional. Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer are about to change that.
Tonight at 11 EST the duo will debut Nikki & Sara Live, a weekly half-hour comedy show set in front of a live studio audience. It’s MTV’s first late-night talk show since The Jon Stewart Show went off the air in 1995.
Glaser and Schaefer are both accomplished stand-up comics and writers. Glaser has appeared on Conan and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and is a regular performer at The Comedy Cellar in New York. Schaefer has appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and won two Emmys for her work blogging for that show. The two met a few years ago and together started hosting the popular You Had to Be There podcast, where they bring in comedian friends as guests and rarely hold back when discussing their personal lives. The chemistry they display on the podcast is part of the reason MTV decided to give them a shot co-hosting a television show.
I recently had a chance to chat with Glaser and Schaefer about pitching the show, hiring a writing staff, and why they might hold off on buying an orange corvette.
What is the format of the show? Is it going to be like a traditional talk show with monologue jokes and interviews and stuff?
Nikki Glaser: There’s going to be a monologue at the opening of the show. We’ll go back and forth at the beginning of the show telling jokes and then there’s going to be in-studio pieces, comedy sketches, man-on-the-street pieces, different sketches and stuff like that, and then a different celebrity interview. So it’s gonna look like a late-night talk show mixed with a comedy news show. With two hosts, so it’s a little different.
And it’s going to be live?
Sarah Schaefer: Yes.
Why the decision to do it live?
SS: We did not decide to do that. MTV called us one day and was like, “We have something to tell you!” And we were like, “What?” They decided it a couple of months ago and we were really excited about it and also terrified and like, “Oh my god!” We always wanted it to feel like a party with your friends and laughing along with it and talking about it on Twitter. I think making it live gives it that special extra something. Like the way I feel when I watch SNL. And… SNL. [Laughs.] I guess that’s really the only live show I watch that I’m into. Well, I watch the Today show too.
NG: We’re both stand-up comics so we’re used to performing in a live situation and not being able to say, “Cut, can I take that over?” So I think we’re the girls for the job.
Is there a conscious effort on your part to be different than other shows? Do you find yourself in situations where you’re thinking “We can’t do that, that’s what Fallon does,” or are you just doing whatever you find funny?
NG: A lot of the stuff that we find funny has been done before. There’s so much on TV - it’s hard to find your own original ideas and voice. But I think our voice is something that is already unique coming into it.
SS: We don’t want to seem like we’re copying anyone but we aren’t ashamed or afraid if it seems like we’ve been inspired by someone, because Nikki and I are both inspired by so many comedy sources. I think it will all come through combined with our own comedic personalities to be something original.
What’s your target audience? Are you’re trying to reach out to women?
NG: We’d love it if everyone would watch, but an MTV crowd is kind of who we’re trying to please.
SS: It’s mostly female, but there’s also a ton of guys who watch that network too. I think the main thing is we can’t be doing jokes about obscure stuff because we know our audience is younger than we are.
NG: Like Danny DeVito.
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, Danny DeVito or obscure references from the ‘70s. That’s not gonna fly. And that’s good because that’s how Nikki and I are.
NG: And the audience that we have in the studio is going to be mostly comprised of that younger demographic. We’re trying to make them laugh in the moment and at home. But Sara and I are very well-versed and excited about the things that age group is excited about. So it’s not a hard stretch for us to write and cater our comedy for that.
Do you find yourselves ever going against your natural tendencies in making something for MTV that might be a little bit broader than you’re used to? MTV audiences tend to be younger and your comedy is a little more sophisticated.
NG: Well, I think that my act can be pretty dark. I typically go towards the darker and the raunchier in terms of my stand-up because that’s just where my brain goes but it’s been a really exciting challenge to clean my act up and make stuff that’s funny and not offensive. I’ve discovered a whole new passion for clean comedy that isn’t snarky.
SS: It’s really a celebration, laughing at ourselves, being silly. Calling something out that needs to be called out, like, “We love you, but come on.” We’re fans of these things in our real life so when we make a joke about Taylor Swift, we’re coming from a loving place. And I think for me my stand-up is intensely personal and sometimes awkward and that is not going to work on the air on its own, but trying to find a way in there in its own way. Nikki and I are doing what we do in our stand-up and filtering it through our current work. I feel like we’re flourishing. I feel like I’m finding my voice more than ever in this process.
NG: Same here.
SS: It’s making my stand-up better.
Working so many hours on this show, will this limit your stand-up or are you still going to try and make that a priority?
NG: It’s definitely cut down on the amount of stage time that I can do in a week. I can’t work all day and then do five sets a night like I may have done in the past. But it’s good because it’s made me step back from stand-up and when I do it I truly appreciate it and feel grateful to be on stage as opposed to just feeling like a zombie doing as many sets as I can. It’s good for me that I’m taking some time off but it’s not something that I won’t ever not be doing.
SS: I’m cutting back; I’m just trying to keep the muscle working. I have this whole set of material that no one has really seen or heard on a larger scale and I would love to get it out there more. I’ve spent so much time on it; I don’t want to lose it.
And you’re still going to be doing the podcast?
NG: Yes. We’re fitting it in.
Still doing it weekly?
SS: Yes, but we’re not doing it at my apartment anymore. We’re doing it at our office. It’s too hard to do it at my apartment; at the office it’s just easier to get guests with scheduling. We’re not really having an audience anymore for now. It’s bad losing that, but we’d rather keep it going than to stop doing it all together.
Do you anticipate getting bigger guests now? You already had some bigger names in some of the episodes that I’ve listened to, but now that you’re big TV people, are you going to try and up the ante a little bit?
SS: No, not really. We are so busy. It’s harder.
NG: It’s harder to book bigger names now that we’re so busy, but I enjoy now having on whoever we feel the most comfortable with since that’s the goal. But we definitely have some people on the horizon that we always wanted to have on and now we can get them.
How did you guys wind up at MTV? Did you pitch to several networks?
SS: We only pitched to two networks: MTV and another one. In the early stages we kind of went into it thinking, “Okay, this is just us practicing pitching. We’re not going to get anything; it’s just forcing us to get the idea together.” We were able to get these meetings set up; we had just enough of a reputation and contacts set up that we could get these meetings. But it turned out MTV was looking for a late-night talk show. It was just right place, right time, right strategy for me and Nikki on how we pitched it. Everything just came together. And magic happened. [Laughs.]
I imagine the podcast played a big role in you landing these meetings?
SS: The MTV meeting came from my manager. If you want the nitty-gritty, my manager saw one of the MTV development executives in Montreal. I’ve never even been invited to Montreal, but he saw her there and asked her what she was looking for. She told him. He said, “Oh my client Sara Schaefer might have something.” And then Nikki has been a rising comedy star for a couple of years now. The podcast might have been the linchpin, but it definitely was on top of a very large foundation of things we’ve been doing.
NG: And it was a good way for them to see our chemistry together and trust that we could host a show together. We could say listen to this episode, to this episode, and this episode – all of them actually and see that we have something special together.
You do have good chemistry together. I’ll go ahead and say it. I’ll go out on a limb.
SS: I don’t think this show would’ve happened if it wasn’t the two of us together. Not that we wouldn’t be wildly successful on our own [Laughs.], but I think this show was meant to be the two of us.
Talk about bringing on Brian McCann to be the head writer. Now there’s a comedy idol. How did that work out? Was he your first choice?
NG: It was perfect timing again. He had just left Conan in August, and he wanted to move back to NYC to be closer to his family. He was still interested in working in TV and he came in for a meeting and we were just beside ourselves that we got to meet him and even entertain the idea of him being our head writer. He was really passionate about the show once he heard the podcast and got acquainted with us. He was really on board and it’s been great to work with him. He’s hilarious. He’s just as funny as you’d think and supportive.
SS: He’s really there to serve the show. It’s not about him. Sometimes you hear about these comedy legend writers that are just there to forward their own agenda and put their own mark on it. He is doing that, but he’s doing that in a way that’s complimentary to us. And that’s just the nicest thing. I’m blown away by how cool he is.
NG: He keeps the mood light and it’s really fun to work with him. He’s really, really fun.
SS: Nikki has compared trying to get him to laugh to trying to get your father’s attention. We’re just like, “Please laugh at something!”
NG: Daddy, Daddy!
SS: [Laughs.] He is not our daddy.
NG: I’ve always thought he’s one of the funniest people alive and working with him has now confirmed that. He makes us laugh so hard and when we all get going on something we know it’s gonna be gold.
What are you learning from him about making a show? What are the ingredients to making a successful, funny talk show?
NG: I think that attitude of keeping it light, making sure everyone is having fun and not taking it too seriously.
SS: No anger, no groans. And he doesn’t talk about working at Conan.
NG: You would never know it.
There’s no “Back at Conan, we did it this way?”
SS: It’s interesting to see that he has clearly learned a lot from working at Conan. He doesn’t necessarily want it to be like how they do it there. It’s like he’s taken the good and he’s leaving behind the bad, just like you would do coming from any job. He understands comedy and TV and talk shows really well. He’s bringing the absurdity of Conan; his humor was such a big part of that show for a long time. He’s coming from left field and our show is very much about down-the-middle, broad, pop culture jokes but he’s sprinkling the absurdity in. He said that. He said, “I’d like to sprinkle in a little bit of absurdity and that I think is going to make our show a little different than what people might expect.” [Laughs.]
NG: And talk about knowing if it’s been done, that man knows.
Sara, I read your essay about submitting to a late-night show, which was really cool and you talked about how the other writers on your show were un-repped, if I’m not mistaken, and I think I read somewhere that one of them is going to be Chase Mitchell. Is that right?
He’s hilarious. I think he’s one of the funniest people on Twitter, and I think it’s really cool to open it up to people who have not been in the industry. It’s a great experiment. Just wanted to hear your thoughts on that.
SS: I don’t know because we didn’t do it the other way, but I don’t know if we would’ve looked at these other four people so closely, because we wouldn’t have known who they were. We would’ve just looked at them and said, “I don’t know who that is. Next,” and then moved on. We were able to compare people on an apples to apples level. Each of them does have experience of some kind either in TV or comedy writing. They’ve just been a little bit under the radar and this is their first thing. I don’t want to say that we plucked these people out of nothing. I don’t think that we would’ve trusted people with our show if they were the funny friend in the parking lot. These people have been working for a very long time. I’m very glad that they found their way on. Two of them I had no idea who they were. I don’t even know how they found out about it. Jenny, I don’t know how she heard about it.
Who are the other writers?
NG: Emmy Blotnick.
SS: She’s actually the only one that we knew.
Are you going to try and get some of your friends from the New York scene into the show? I saw one of the bonus clips online it looked like that was Ben Kronberg sitting on the rooftop with you. Is that something you’re trying to feature?
NG: Yeah. I think it’s always our goal to work with friends. We know people who are so hilarious, and it’s a dream to be in a position to cast and write your friends into a show and show others what you’ve always known. We definitely have a list of people we want to throw in the show.
SS: Will Ferrell is definitely one. [Laughs.]
NG: Will Ferrell, Google him.
Are people around the NYC scene treating you differently now that you have a show? It’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be at least a little jealousy.
NG: Not to our faces. I think everyone has been really excited and genuinely happy for us, and I think that’s because Sara and I are genuinely nice people and we work hard and people know that.
SS: We’re real; we’re not schmoozers.
NG: This didn’t happen overnight; we’re here for a reason.
SS: And I think also what we are doing now is a really big dream for a lot of comedians but we didn’t specifically beat anyone out for this. I think our story to our fellow comedians is inspiring, whereas something like Montreal or getting a special on Comedy Central - there’s a whole group of us trying to get that. Only a small amount do and you feel like you’ve been beat by that person. I think our story of getting this show is inspiring to a lot of people. Because Nikki and I haven’t done a lot of the things that you’re told you’re supposed to do on the way to fame. We’ve skipped a lot of the steps and that doesn’t mean we don’t work hard. We’ve actually been shut out from a lot of things, and I think a lot of those doors are being opened for us now, which is ironic and funny but I’m not sensing any bitterness. There have been a couple people where I’ve felt like, “Oh somebody’s getting mad.” But that’s human, I’ve felt that a lot of times too.
Has any of this been surreal for you guys? Now that you have publicists and you’re on MTV. Have you had a moment to let that all sink in yet?
NG: We have really made it. [Laughs.] It’s totally surreal. Last time I talked to you, I was talking about working on the road and it was really depressing. I was broken. I wasn’t depressed, but I was like where is this all going, is this my life, when is this going to end? Am I ever gonna be able to have a family? And those questions are not answered, but I am in a place where I feel like, wow, I achieved something great. And I realize that maybe it might not last. I hope it does, but it’s crazy.
SS: It is really crazy. I get very emotional when I talk about it. I have to control my tears sometimes in moments because of the struggle. Nikki has gone through her own struggle, I’ve gone through mine. There’s so much rejection and there’s so much doubt. My dream has always been to host a TV show. I would’ve hosted a cooking show if they gave it to me. My sister called me after I got the show and said “You got your dream, what are you gonna do next?” Obviously I’m going to do the show, but it could happen for one night and then be cancelled and it would be devastating but it would also be like, “I did it!” I really had many times given up in my heart but then the ember would come back and be a full flame again and then it would go down to almost completely burnt out because I didn’t really think I could do this but then now it’s like, “Fuck all ya’ll. I’m gonna own a ranch in Montana and own cows and stuff.” [Laughs.] That’s the way I think of things, I could do anything now!
Congrats again. Sara, you talk about your debt a lot. What freedoms does this show allow you?
SS: Well, we haven’t really gotten paid that much yet. [Laughs.] I am in a lot of debt and I have a lot of work to do to get out of that debt and I’m just hoping to God that we get a lot more episodes because I can’t really change my lifestyle until then.
NG: This is all still very new to us, but we’re not in over our heads in terms of buying cars and houses and stuff.
SS: I’m going to be buying an orange corvette, a la Boogie Nights, in two weeks.
Can you talk about some general goals for the show? Is there something you want the show to be known for? Within the first couple of weeks, what would you like to see happen?
NG: Oh man, that’s a good question.
SS: I think for me I know what we’ve been working on and doing has been so good, but what I’m waiting for is the moment when Nikki and I say something off the cuff, something really funny. And that’s been happening in our test shows and I want people to think that we’re funny in the moment, not just on script.
NG: I can’t wait to get truly comfortable and have it feel like second nature. Because at this point we haven’t even done the show yet, so we’re nervous and it’s exciting, but I can’t wait until it’s like just another day at work, like the podcast. When we first started the podcast, I was super nervous and now we could do it in our sleep, and I can’t wait to get to that point. We hope it’s a destination show that people tune into every week, where anything could happen. The fact that it’s live – I want people to be excited about that.
SS: We’re going to get good guests. I’m excited about our guests. I want a guest to go fucking crazy on set. It’ll be terrible for MTV and I’m sorry, but it’ll be great for our ratings.
NG: We want spontaneous stuff to happen, which inevitably will.
SS: If there was a show on like this with two smart, funny women leading the way, I would’ve been obsessed with it in high school. But there really wasn’t anything like that during our time. I would love to inspire not just women but younger people to have fun and laugh and maybe pursue that as a career if it appeals to them.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.