Jessi Klein is worried about the beginning of this profile. “I was joking with my husband, every celebrity interview starts with the person walking in with no makeup and looking flawless,” she says, affecting a dreamy voice as we settle in for brunch at West Village eatery Jack's Wife Freda, just around the corner from her childhood home.
“I literally walk in wearing a dress over a skirt, and I couldn’t get it together,” she continues, taking a bite of her pancakes, served with orange marmalade. She speaks in a dry tone, imbued with the kind of warmth usually reserved for brunch with a close girlfriend. “I’m wearing no makeup, but a dress over a skirt.” (At seven months pregnant, Klein is dressed for comfort in maternitywear that’s more stylish than she makes it out to be: a long green shirt with a boatneck collar, layered over a black skirt.)
Klein, 39, is an accomplished stand-up comedian, but these days, she spends most of her time offstage as head writer and co-executive producer of Amy Schumer's sketch-comedy show, Inside Amy Schumer. Both Schumer and its star are having a moment. Schumer has been heaped with media attention surrounding her Peabody Award–winning Comedy Central show since its season-three launch in April, which attracted just north of 1 million viewers. Her sketches are also enjoying a wildly successful internet afterlife. The premiere alone featured three breakout viral hits, all with a feminist bent: the Nicki Minaj–flavored twerking parody “Milk Milk Lemonade”; a Friday Night Lights parody about rape in sports culture, “Football Town Nights”; and “Last Fuckable Day,” a polemic against ageism in the entertainment industry co-starring Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette.
Tuesday night’s third episode went bolder, filling the show’s full runtime with just one sketch: A 12 Angry Men parody on the horrible way men talk about women, starring Paul Giamatti, Vincent Kartheiser, Dennis Quaid, and nine other recognizable character actors. The sketch burned across the internet, picking up praise along the way. The Daily Beast called it “the greatest sketch to air on TV this year,” and Schumer said she’s “more proud of it than anything I’ve ever done.”
“If you have someone in your family who is going to the Olympics, it’s like those videos where they’re from a small town and it’s like, ‘I drove him 15 hours all the way to the ice-skating rink,’” Klein says of Schumer’s rapid rise. “Then they win a gold medal and you’re like, ‘Holy shit!’ It’s like that."
Klein had been driving Schumer to the skating rink, so to speak, since day one of Inside Amy Schumer. Schumer first approached her to lead the show in 2010. Klein had spent the previous decade working every angle of comedy — heading up development at Comedy Central, appearing as a fixture on VH1’s Best Week Ever, polishing her stand-up routine at nights, and writing for SNL.
Her first big break, however, was a temp job at Comedy Central. “I was temping for the person who hired the temps, which was a weird meta loop,” she says. Because she was in human resources, she knew when there was an opening in the channel’s development department, eventually parlaying that into a full-time job. She spent seven years watching tons of stand-up, reading mountains of pilot scripts, and developing shows like Strangers With Candy and Chappelle’s Show.
It was her work at Comedy Central that piqued her interest in stand-up. “I had been into stand-up, and being in that environment you’re always going to see stand-up, and I was really scared of it. Finally, a dam burst. Like, how hard is it to try this?” she says. “I would go to open mics just scoping them out, and they weren’t even full open mics, like they were the type of things you’d see in movies. Lots of bad poetry about their dads. I thought, If I can’t rise to this, there’s a larger problem.”
In 2009, Klein landed as a writer and co-star on Michael and Michael Have Issues, Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter’s Comedy Central show, which is where she met Schumer, before moving on to SNL. She lasted there one season, writing the classic Brownie Husband sketch when Tina Fey was a guest host. Klein talks about the experience writing for the show in a story for "The Moth," noting the blend of panic, performance anxiety, and long hours were a horrible combination for her. When they asked her to return for a second season, she turned it down.
Schumer had been following Klein's work, and once she exited SNL, she asked her to be head writer on a pilot Comedy Central had committed to make. Both Schumer and the show’s other executive producer, Dan Powell, credit Klein for helping come up with the format of the show.
“We met to talk about it, and we had drinks — a lot of them,” Klein says of her first meeting with Schumer. “She had a loose idea that it was supposed to be a talk show, but the more we talked, she’s trained as an actress and her passion is in acting, and I was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ That’s where the experience of working in development at Comedy Central for so many years came in, because I sort of knew there is a genre of pilot that works. I said, ‘What if we did something more ambitious?’ And that’s where the idea of doing more slice-of-life-type scenes came in.”
Klein was always Schumer's first choice as head writer for the show because they share a comedic sensibility. "She is one of the silliest people I know," Schumer says." Whenever the song 'Jai Ho' comes on, it's a known fact Jessi will have to dance to it in its entirety. We are kindred comedy spirits, I believe — we enjoy one of the rare relationships where we can make each other laugh until we are breathless."
As the head writer, it’s often Klein’s job to be the grown-up in the room, but she keeps the creative process open over the 13 weeks they take to write a season. “It’s so collaborative from beginning to end,” she says. “We have a small group, but ultimately, in some way, everyone writes everything together. People write sketches, and there is a point where you’re alone with your computer, but I like a spirit of collaboration and no closed doors.”
Klein is proud of creating such a collaborative environment ("Ideally, you're not seeing anyone's fingerprints on anything," she says), and is loath to take credit for anything, always praising Schumer, Powell, and all the other writers. But her well-observed, sarcastic, and slightly raunchy sensibility that has become the show's stock-in-trade is evident in plenty of sketches. The season-two hit "The Foodroom," a parody of how people talk in Aaron Sorkin dramas, came about as Klein and her husband struggled through The Newsroom; "Milk, Milk, Lemonade" was born after Klein shared her obsession with Nicki Minaj videos with the rest of the writing staff; and she conceptualized this season's "Cool Girl" sketch, where Schumer goes to the strip club with her guy friends. In the sketch, Schumer talks about how her dream horse is a palomino. "My friends who know me will sometimes call me after a show airs and ask if it’s mine because they know me and my voice," she says. "They all knew that I worked my palomino into the sketch. I’m obsessed with them. Their skin is like gold."
Beyond that, it's her relentless energy behind the scenes that keeps the show on pace. “She is honest and strong and fights for what she wants in the writers’ room. She is a great collaborator, and has an extremely keen eye for behavioral patterns in people,” Schumer says. “Her [determination that] things be right and fair keeps the show where it is.”
Her fellow executive producer notes that it’s also Klein who does the yeoman's work of elevating their writing. “Of the three of us, [she] probably keeps the closest eye on the caliber of the writing in terms of making sure the jokes are the best they can be, the commentary is logically sound, and that we are being as intelligent as possible, even when the sketch is about buttholes,” says Powell. “It would probably make for a more interesting article if I told you she was a coke-snorting maniac who kept us in the writers’ room for 36-hour punch-up marathons, but honestly, she runs the most pleasant and laid-back room.”
Entering their third season, Klein says they’ve finally hit the show’s sweet spot, arriving at the tone they’ve been honing for two seasons now. However, they don’t consciously strive for what The New Yorker calls its “raucous feminism.”
“We don’t sit down and think, Let’s make sure we write a super-feminist show today, but, and I include the men in this, we’re all feminists,” Klein says. “It’s rewarding that people think that it’s an incredibly feminist show.”
Tuesday night’s “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” sketch has a particularly incisive feminist tenor, though there are practically no women in the episode. Taking a break from their usual blend of stand-up bits, sketches, and interviews, the 22-minute-long parody features a jury deliberating whether or not Schumer is hot enough to be on television.
“Amy had pitched it early on in the season,” Klein says. “And then I got a text from Amy to me and Dan [Powell]: ‘What if we did that sketch as a whole episode, and we got amazing character actors to be in it?’ As soon as we saw that, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that could be really crazy.’ So Amy wrote a first draft and laid out the bones of it. And we all watched the movie again. I had seen it more than once, but not in a long time, and I watched it again and took a crack at it with the movie fresh in my head, to shape it with as much of the movie beats.”
From there, the writers’ room had a go at it. “This is how we work on everything,” Klein explains. “Someone does a draft, then there’s another draft, and then everyone is in it. It took a village, in terms of the casting of it and the producing of it."
Klein is especially proud of the episode. “It was one of the most special sets I’ve ever been on,” she says. “We started to get the feeling by the end of the first day that this was something that was kind of amazing. You’re there sitting next to Jeff Goldblum and Vincent Kartheiser, and it’s safe to say they’re making way less than usual. There was a blizzard so we started four hours late, but everyone was totally in to do this thing that on paper is super-weird and is going to be on basic cable.”
Schumer’s higher profile has the added benefit of attracting bigger talent than they used to. “Amy is now a force, and people know who she is and respect her,” Klein says. “This is the first time I’m saying this out loud, but now we’ve won a Peabody. Now there is a body of work where people want to say, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
As for Klein, she has some projects of her own on the horizon. She’s developing a pilot loosely based on her life for Showtime (with Jason Reitman attached as a producer), and she may even step out from behind the camera to play herself on the show. “I would love to be in it," she says, "but if they find someone thinner and hotter than me, then God bless."
Klein plans to continue working after giving birth in June. It's possible her material may change once she’s dealing with a kid at home, an area that doesn’t quite conform to Inside Amy Schumer’s shtick: jokes about sex and dating. But she isn’t worried.
“It is like an insane wealth of material just being pregnant,” she says. “I joined a LISTSERV for parents in New York City. There was a thread the other day with many posts and the subject was ‘Gender-Normative Playground.’” Can we expect to see a sketch about this for season four, which Comedy Central has already ordered for next year?
“Let’s just say it’s saved.”