For comedians, finding success is often about building a tribe — a fan base that thinks like you and will follow you wherever. If you’ve ever been to a live taping of the How Did This Get Made?, the podcast co-created and co-hosted by Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas, you’d see exactly what a tribe looks like. That audience laughs at all the inside jokes and speaks in the same language when they ask questions to the gang.
Scheer and his collaborators have built that rapport with their fans by creating comedy that is for and by pop-culture fans. Examples from his career are plentiful, ranging from How Did this Get Made? to shows like NTSF:SD:SUV:: and Filthy Preppy Teen$ to “The Illusionators,” a Criss Angel parody from his breakout sketch series Human Giant. On the most recent of Vulture’s comedy podcast, Good One, he talked about the creation of “Illusionators” and how it shaped his career.
Before we talk about this specific sketch, why don’t you tell me about how Human Giant, the group composed of you, Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, and Jason Woliner, was formed?
Human Giant started in an ass-backwards way. Aziz was hosting this live show at UCB called Crash Test, and was trying to figure out a bit to make the show a little bit larger than a stand-up show. The first week, Rob hosted with Aziz, and it was the beginning of “Shutterbugs.” The second week, I hosted with Aziz, and we did this bit where we went to the Scientology Center and tried to get stress tests. So we became friends because we did these shows, and Rob and I were friends because we were performing improv. We would go out on the road as the UCB touring company, and before one of those shows, Aziz and I had this moment where we realized we liked everything the same. We both like Lost. We both like 24. And we were both obsessed with Criss Angel.
That was the genesis of “The Illusionators.” It was a bit we were doing at Crash Test. We had Donald Glover in the audience, and Aziz and I are onstage doing this live-action thing. We had the video piece, and we pulled Donald out of the screen and put him into the audience or the other way around. We were not magicians.
Then Aziz and I were doing this movie, the least-successful Todd Phillips movie, School for Scoundrels, and we were like, “Let’s make a 30-minute movie of ‘The Illusionators.’” We went out to Las Vegas and shot in the desert. Aziz and I, for this 30-minute piece, were in Las Vegas with no crew, just Jason Woliner — our director, writer, producer, amazing everything — taping us and we crossed a busy Las Vegas intersection blindfolded. Which was crazy. We’re in these costumes, no one knew what to make of us.
We never pitched a sketch show. We just had this 30-minute presentation reel of “Illusionators.” That, along with “Shutterbugs,” led someone to be like, “Do a sketch show.”
I’ve heard you say in interviews that you all watched sketch comedy, so you knew you didn’t want to do what had been done. What did you figure out you wanted to do?
“Shutterbugs” started off at [the serialized short-film competition] Channel 101, so it was this story, but it wasn’t a sketch. Then “Illusionators,” we were making this 30-minute movie. The attitude that we had was, Can we make short films? Can we make these little things where the end of the sketch didn’t need to be punch line? It just needed to crescendo.
Chappelle was doing a little bit of that, and we pushed it even further. We always wanted it to be like, “This is going to be our ‘Illusionators’ episode,” but MTV really pushed us to do bits as ourselves — Rob, Paul, and Aziz sketches. “We need to connect to you guys. We need to know what your voice is.” And I was like, “Our voices are these sketches.” If you watch our show, we come back to the same sketch two or three times.
When you think of an SNL-type sketch, something happens, and then it happens again and again in more extreme ways. With “The Illusionators,” though, you escalate between installments.
Yeah, it was chapter-ized sketch comedy. We’re going to revisit these characters and, based on what you already know about them, we can heighten the story.
To the point that the second season had the N-word one.
Oh my god, right. The N-word one was crazy, because that was brought on by the Michael Richards incident. Criss Angel never got embroiled in anything about racism. It just became a funny way of taking something so dumb and then making it so serious.
But the sketches aren’t necessarily takedowns of Criss Angel.
I bristle a little bit when I hear “parody.” A parody, to me, feels like — and no offense to these guys — but the Wayans Brothers, like Fifty Shades of Black. What we did on Human Giant, and what I was able to do with NTSF:SD:SUV:: too, is, live in these worlds. I like going, “What can we do with this type of character?” Not like, “He said this, so I’m going to say that.” It becomes just kind of …
An homage, yeah. NTSF wasn’t a show parodying 24 as much as it was parodying tropes of action films. All the characters stand on their own two feet. That was the thing we did with Human Giant, too. You didn’t need to know the reference point, even though there are sketches we wrote that were clearly based on something. It starts in this world of Criss Angel, and then we immediately go to the N-word. If you don’t know Criss Angel, it stands by itself.
What was it about Criss Angel?
Here’s a magician unlike any other magician. He had this specific voice and he was trying to be cool, with this energy and attitude of this punk-rock guy who is not admitting it’s magic. David Copperfield is like, “I’m a magician.” Penn and Teller obviously are showing you how the sausage is made. Criss Angel was like, “No, I’m really flying.” This created a lifelong obsession with Criss Angel. When I see something so stupid, I want to chase it down.
You met Criss Angel in Las Vegas one time. Was he aware of these sketches?
He’s aware of sketches, I would imagine, the way that Donald Trump is aware of certain bills. Like, “I’ve heard of that, yeah. I think I know.” Aziz and I were in this club in Vegas because we love that scene. We got a tap on our shoulders from this very big guy whose neck muscle was bigger than my thigh. He was like, “Criss Angel wants to see you guys.” So they took us upstairs to where Criss Angel was above the club, in these little banquettes. And there’s a lot of VIPs up there. We get brought over to him and he looks at us and he’s like [in Angel’s voice], “Nice to meet you guys, imitation is the highest form of flattery.” We’re like, “Cool, cool.” And we left. We were like, “What just happened there? What did we just experience?” Because he didn’t say, “I liked it.” He didn’t say he didn’t like it. He didn’t ask us to stay. It was kind of like, “I see you, you see me, now go.” He was surrounded by, like, three women. We found out later he was getting a divorce at the time. We were like, “Yeah, he didn’t need us to be tagging along.”
How did he even know that you were there?
I have a feeling his security team spotted us. They probably are like, “Hey, you see this thing?” And then, “Yo, Criss. Those are the guys that made fun of you.” And he’s like, “Bring ’em here. I wanna talk to them.” Then we get shoveled up to his little perch where he is, at that point, a Vegas god. Now, I remember I saw his Cirque du Soleil show. It was a little bit lackluster to say the least.
It’s interesting that your interest in him hasn’t waned.
Oh, not at all. I almost went to Vegas with Jason for a charity event that Criss Angel hosted. I was like, “I need to see this thing.” Unfortunately, I had a baby about a week before, and I sat up one night when my wife was asleep and our baby was still up and I was like, How can I say, “Can I go to Vegas for one night?” Maybe I could leave on Wednesday and come back on the same night. Thankfully, I did not say that. I don’t consider myself the best husband or father, but I am a better father for not asking for that.
You’ve done a lot of things in the pop culture parody-homage realm. Also, there’s your podcast, which is focused on pop culture. What is it about pop culture as a source of material that drives you?
There are political comedians, absurdist comedians, people like Seinfeld, Louis C.K.’s very personal comedian. To me, there is pop culture. I am a fan of all of this stuff. NTSF came out of the idea that I love these shows. They’re not gonna cast me as the Corey Hawkins part in 24, so how can I create something for myself?
Also, there’s how some pop culture takes itself very seriously. A great example is the whole Oscar thing. The wrong envelope was given out. People were freaking out and online everyone was like, “Wha-wha-what happened? I’m gonna get to the bottom of it.” When people get too high on their horse or things are treated with too much gravitas, I feel like, Oh, this is amazing. I want to take the piss out of it, because I also know it’s stupid.
I know there are things you’re interested in and there are things you’re obsessed over. What moves it from a thing that you like to a thing that you want to build a show around?
That’s the trickiest thing, trying to figure out what has legs. The idea of NTSF originated with me wanting to do a Fawlty Towers-esque show in a safe house. I was really obsessed with safe houses, and it slowly morphed. Fawlty Towers is a little bit small, so it became, How can we widen out the world? To me, it always comes down to, Are these characters fun? Are there ideas past the first couple of episodes? At the time of NTSF, there was 24, CSI, NCIS, CSI: Miami, there’s all these cop shows. I saw a lot of runway. I just did a pilot that went to Sundance, and it was a very different thing for me. It was just about a couple that has two kids. That is something that I relate to, because that’s the world I’m in now, and I see a runway for that.
With comedy about culture like “Illusionators,” NTSF, and Filthy Preppy Teen$ — as is the case with topical comedy in general — it’s exciting because it’s happening right now, but also in danger of becoming dated. How do you avoid this?
That is why you have to go back to character and story. If you were to watch Not Another Teen Movie or Epic Movie, and no offense to these films, they are very much time stamped.
But I like Con Air. I’m inspired by Con Air. How can we do that on NTSF? Well, what if it was Comic-Con Air, which is a pun in the title, but then that’s about it. Now we’re just gonna get the deadliest villains from Comic-Con being transported. It becomes its own thing. It’s not the same plot at all. Now that NTSF is on Hulu, people have been finding it more and more because it’s more archetypes than specific references.
Do you have a favorite street joke?
Oh my gosh, can I tell you this story? So we’re doing Human Giant and we get taken out to a fancy restaurant by the head of MTV and it was very exciting. Pauly Shore sits down with us. Pauly Shore obviously has a history at MTV. We’re having a good time with Pauly Shore. He’s being crazy. Then all of a sudden, who approaches the table, but Russell Crowe. It’s just Human Giant, Pauly Shore, and now Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe’s first move in sitting down is, “Pauly, you remember me?” And Pauly’s like, “No, I don’t remember you.” Which is the craziest thing. Russell Crowe’s a huge celebrity at this point. Russell Crowe does this thing — the nicest guy by the way — he’s like, “Can we take the lights out here?” They bring a waiter over to unscrew the light bulbs above the tables and now we’re in the dark with Russell Crowe.
Then he’s like, “Well, now you guys are gonna hang out with us. Let’s hang out.” So we go over [to his table]. Pauly Shore leaves. Head of MTV leaves. And Russell Crowe is like, “Well, you guys are comedians, tell us jokes.” Aziz, me, Rob and Woliner are like, “Um … what do you mean? What do you mean?” He’s just like, “A street joke. Tell us a street joke.” I don’t know what to say. We are caught with our pants down. He was like, “What? You don’t have jokes?” And we’re like [stammering], “Well, we don’t have them like ready to go …” He’s like, “I’ll tell you a joke. Why do we do the sign of the Father?” Like the cross over the chest. And he goes, “Because …” And it’s this joke about bee and some honey and he’s like, “That’s why.” He’s like, “’Cause he’s trying to swat away the bees.” And we’re like, “Okay.” He’s like, “Okay, your turn again.” We’re like, “We didn’t even go the first time!”
You recently did a movie with Nicolas Cage. Do you remember what he smells like?
You know, very good. You would think Nicholas Cage would give off an odor, a perspiration if anything. I will say that, like all great people, he didn’t have an odor that was recognizable. He just was one of the team. He has a crazy beard and a crazy long hairdo at that point. I have to say, for a guy, you know, if you’re rocking a crazy beard and a ponytail, there’s smells that are just coming. Hair holds in something. His smell was, I would say, didn’t bother anybody. It was good.
This interview has been edited and condensed.