With a half hour special under his belt, Joe Wengert’s standup career is taking off, so it’s not hard to believe that he’s also an accomplished improviser. Wengert ran the UCB Theatre’s school in New York and then in LA and still regularly performs improv at the LA theater with the team The Smokes in addition to the long-running show ASSSSCAT. His TV writing credits are impressive as well: Wengert has written for Kroll Show, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Playing House. You can catch his episode of The Half Hour this Friday, July 18th, at 12:30 am.
I got to talk to Joe about preparing for The Half Hour, writing for three different TV shows, and emojis.
You started doing comedy in New York and have been at UCB since 2003, but when did you start standup?
I started standup in 2009, right after I moved to LA.
Why did you get into it? Why did you decide to move to LA?
I had a couple of different reasons I moved to LA. I was working with the UCB on their improv manual and I was kind of doing it long distance prior to this point and my girlfriend at the time was moving to LA because she got cast in a movie and TV show, and there were multiple reasons for her to move and I was thinking about moving and they didn’t have anyone running their school in LA so they decided to just transfer my job to LA and hire somebody new to run the school in New York. And then we were able to continue writing the book once I was out there.
How long were you running the school in New York? And now you’re just performing or are you still teaching there?
Right now, I’m just performing. When I started, you start as a teacher. I used to teach middle school, that was my day job when I first got to New York. When it started getting too difficult to do that and also pursue comedy, I talked to the UCB about adding more improv classes. And at that time Chris Gethard, who also did The Half Hour this year, was ready to step down from running the school so they offered me that job. I guess I did it six years if you combine my time on both coasts.
Do you think you’re more relaxed on stage or able to change bits around because of your improv background? Is your standup less scripted?
No, no, no. I think other improvisers maybe would be, but in terms of me, I’m always very terrified of the people I’m performing for and that’s an extension of how I feel when I’m not performing. I thought I would be good with rolling with things on the fly, but it terrifies me still. It doesn’t translate. When you’re doing improv, you’re with a bunch of other people that are like, “We’re all agreeing to make stuff up under a certain set of accepted rules.” But when you’re doing standup and somebody [in the audience] just starts talking, that’s a person that’s playing by their own rules so it’s a different sort of improvising.
Has your focus shifted at all over the years from improv to standup or writing at all?
No, I try not to put too much of a division between any of that stuff. I try to think of all of it as comedy. Whatever opportunity presents itself to me, that’s what I’m gonna pursue. Any writing job I’ve had, I feel like I’ve drawn upon skills that are related to improv, sketch, and standup. To me, it’s all kind of the same thing because I’m always trying to be working on something in each one of those formats.
Was The Half Hour special something you were working towards? Did it come as a surprise at all?
Yeah, when I first started working with my agent that I’m with now — I’ve been with the same manager for a while — and when we went and started working with this agent was around the time I did Montreal. They were like, “You could probably get a Half Hour in the next year or two.” Part of my whole dynamic then was that I kind of doubt myself and then they go, “No, you can do it!” So it was that same thing where I was like, “Okay, I’ll put a tape together,” but yeah, I was kind of surprised when it happened because that’s like an integral part of my personality.
How was the taping?
It was fun. They did them all in one week in Boston, and they put us up at a hotel, I was able to hang out. I was pretty nervous and then watching a couple of other people do their specials kind of calmed me down. The audiences were great. The venue was really cool. It was great.
You do a rehearsal early in the day before you film it that night, and my parents came up from Philly and my little sister came up to watch it. I did the rehearsal where you practice walking out on stage and you kind of just go “Blah, blah, blah” for the cameras to get set or something. Right after that, I went and met my parents at this like shitty mall that was across from the hotel, and I got real nervous at that point just ‘cause it felt super real. But once you get into the swing of the show, it’s just jokes I’ve been doing or working on for a long time. There was so much preparation that went into it that; it felt like it went fine.
Once I found out I got the special, I was able to do some feature spots on the road. That was nice because they don’t know UCB or Kroll Show or anything like that, so it was sort of trying to test the material I was going to do on the show in front of a less friendly audience. Also, UCB was cool enough to let me run it at UCB again. That was comforting to do it like on my home stage. They also let me do my taping that I submitted there. And then right before the special, I did this weird show. In LA, all the standup shows are always like you do standup in a pool, you do standup in a hammock: there’s all these weird alternative shows like that. I did a show in a hostel called Travel Size. There was an audience, they set up chairs, but there were also a lot of non-English speaking people in t-shirts and boxer shorts on a bed watching me do my half-hour. That was a nice thing to do because getting any kind of reaction from those people was fortifying before I had to go do the show in Boston.
Are you working on new standup material now? It sounds like the special was kind of getting rid of material you had been working on for a while.
Yeah, I’m almost focusing completely on new stuff. It’s funny, I kind of already was working on a lot of new stuff. The stuff from The Half Hour spans from the entire time I was doing standup, so like five years. It’s all stuff that I was really ready to move on from, and then, also in the meantime, I’ve had other things that I’ve started working on but weren’t quite there yet. So it’s a mix of trying to figure out that stuff that I’ve been trying to figure out and just coming up with completely new bits.
You’re still doing improv three nights a week. How do you balance that with standup?
It’s hard. I think it’s important to try and devote as much time to either of those things as you possibly can. It definitely is difficult. I’ve been writing a lot this year. I was on Kroll Show and then I wrote for this show Playing House, and Comedy Bang! Bang!, now I’m back at Kroll Show. And sometimes it’s just hard to go out and do a standup show after being on set all day or being in a room all day. I don’t think I’m completely mastering that balance. I just try to book myself to do as much as I can and then see how much I can actually keep up with based on the schedule I create for myself.
That’s so impressive. So as you said, you write for Comedy Bang! Bang!, Kroll Show, and Playing House, three hilarious but very different shows: a mock talk show, a sketch show, and a single camera sitcom. How does the writing process for each of those shows differ?
It’s all about tone, that’s the main thing that’s the difference between them. Bang! Bang! and Kroll are probably the ones that on the surface look the most similar. Bang! Bang! was much more premise-based in terms of the sketches. It’s more like, here’s a funny idea we can explore in any way that we want without being beholden to characters, whereas with Kroll Show you’re always thinking about each of his characters and how they’re intersecting with each other and how those worlds are colliding and what’s something new we can do with these characters.That’s the big difference in the process between those two.
And then Playing House, for me the biggest thing was trying to think of really funny and original ideas but always keeping things grounded. It’s two real people in a real, believable world, and then, on top of it, one of the characters is pregnant and about to give birth to a baby. You can pitch a really funny crazy idea, but some of the things you get away with on Kroll or Bang! Bang! is pretty hard to have Maggie or Emma in the real world do those sorts of things. It’s shifting between the realities of the shows.
Do you have a favorite sketch or character from Kroll Show?
Oh man, that’s a question I should have anticipated, and I did not. I think it kind of changes. Trying to find something fun for every character is one of the fun things about the show. You don’t really ever get burned out on one character because you’re always hopping onto something new. I do have favorites in terms of being on set with the character. Sometimes when Nick is getting into character, he’s doing the voice in between takes so it’s more fun to pitch a joke to some of his nicer characters than to some of the less nice characters. Like, we did a Larry Bird sketch last week, Larry Bird was a dream to pitch jokes to. He was very nice, happy to be there, but then we do these “Pawnsylvania” sketches where Nick plays this guy from Philly and the guy from Philly is kind of mean and reminds me of people I grew up with so I don’t like pitching jokes to Murph as much.
With Playing House, what was it like being part of one of the USA network’s first comedies? Did that affect the approach?
USA was very supportive, and they really trusted Lennon and Jessica. Working with them was really great. And then the room itself was super fun. I was on my first Harold team at UCB with Lennon and then one of the other writers, Anthony King, was also that team. And Jessica coached our team at some point. John Lutz was an improviser that I loved watching at the theater. It was a really fun room, and then it was a lot of people from improv, UCB background. And the people that weren’t from that background just completely locked in and fit into that mindset right away, so that was a really fun job to go to everyday.
The decision to have the baby be born in the second to last episode rather than the finale was really great. What went into that decision?
Anthony King was the one who pitched that. It was one of my favorite things that we decided upon. He was kind of using HBO dramas as a model. All the big crazy shit goes down — all the murders and deaths happen in the second to last episode — and then the last episode is looking forward. We didn’t murder anyone on Playing House, but that was an influencing decision. It also felt like it would be a little too predictable to have the baby come home and have that be the last moment of the season; it felt a little bit too on the nose. Like, let’s see one episode of what their life is going to be like with this baby.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
I feel like people always have to give a vague answer here like “I’m working on a bunch of different things and keeping my fingers crossed.” But I’m not doing anything else. I hope that my manager and my agent is reading this because once the special airs, I’m cashing in, I’m going to move to Prague. I’m going to help the sick children there or do something like that, totally outside of comedy.
No, no, it’s a joke. I’m just joking around. I’m immediately regretting that I wasn’t funnier in this interview [laughs].
Don’t worry about it. Anything else you want to talk about?
Can you guys do emojis, or does it have to be just words?
I’m not sure.
If you can’t do it, will you just write out the emojis?
I just want it to be funny if people don’t know who I am and they’re reading this interview. So I was going to say this at the beginning but then you had a kind voice and I decided to double-back and not do it, but I would like to give emoji answers to some of your questions. Do you want to just throw me some of those questions again and I’ll give you an emoji answer?
Okay. How was The Half Hour taping?
It was money bag, money bag, piece of shrimp.
What was the move from New York to LA like?
You know the little dude who looks like he’s shocked and he’s thinking like, “Say what?” That’s me when I got to LA, and I started doing standup. But then I would say baby bottle, race horse, like you’re giving a baby bottle to a race horse. And then I would say, now the little dude is winking and he’s blowing a kiss. You don’t have to use any of this.
How excited are you for the new 150 emojis to come out?
You know what, I’m doing this bit like I’m a real emoji expert and the fact of the matter is no, I’m not excited for that. I have my steady go-to guys that I always use and I don’t know why we need 150 more. You can say a lot with what’s already there. I feel like you can be challenged by the restriction.
Emma Soren is a writer from Chicago living in Philadelphia.