Jay Chandrasekhar made a name for himself acting in and directing movies like Super Troopers and Beerfest with his comedy team Broken Lizard, whose most recent produced project Freeloaders came out last week. In addition to his movie work and standup, though, Chandrasekhar has guest directed episodes for a handful of critically acclaimed fan-favorite TV series including Arrested Development, Undeclared, Happy Endings, and Community, where he’s directed some of the series’ best episodes (“Mixology Certification”) and one of the most talked-about moments (Chevy Case emitting the N-word on set).
In light of Freeloaders’ DVD and online release, I talked to Jay Chandrasekhar about ensemble comedies, the difference between directing film and directing TV, and what really happened with the whole Chevy Chase thing.
Your movie Freeloaders was finished in 2011. What’s been going on with it since then?
You know, movies tend to come out whenever the best release window is, so, for example, Super Troopers was finished over a year before it came out. It’s just that the distributor decides the best date. There’s movies that are anywhere from three to four months finished to years … To be clear, it’s not a Broken Lizard movie. It’s a film we produced, so we’re in one scene; we’re not the stars of this film. Adam Duritz came to me with the script, the director who also wrote it named Dan Rosen, and the money to make it, so he asked if we’d help make it and we said yes. Then they asked us to be in one scene and we said yes, so we’re in one scene, too.
In addition to Freeloaders and your directing with Broken Lizard, you’ve also guest-directed a lot of episodes of shows like Community, Happy Endings, and Arrested Development. How did you get involved with that?
The first thing I did was a show called Undeclared years ago. I’d never really done any television before. I did about four of those, and once you start working in television and they see that you can work on that much faster timeline, they throw as much work as you want at you. So I ended up on Arrested Development, which was incredible, and they were such great writers and great actors and great directors. We knew we were making a great show, they just unfortunately couldn’t get anybody to watch it. Now hopefully people will watch the new version of it; I have a feeling the fan base is still dedicated enough. It’s exciting.
Community has been a lot of fun, too. Everybody on the show is great. The writers are all great, and they’re taking really adventurous risks about what kind of stories they’re telling; they’re really kind of odd, and weird, and bitter. It’s fun, and Happy Endings is also a great show. Again, it’s just great writers and great actors. I’ve been lucky to be able to meet a lot of great comedians through the TV business. In the film world, you sort of end up being in certain casts, like there’s Judd [Apatow]’s cast, and Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s cast, and we [Broken Lizard] have a cast. TV has allowed me to work with a lot of different people.
Community, Happy Endings, Arrested Development, and Undeclared all have a small fan-base and, like you said, didn’t really gain popularity at first. Do you think you find those shows and purposely choose to work on them?
No, I don’t. Often the way it works is you end up working with the same network over and over again. When they like what you’ve done on one show, they try to hire you to do it on another show. A lot of those shows for a while were on FOX, and then for some reason I ended up doing a show on NBC, and now I’ve done, 10, 15 shows on NBC. It depends. I’ve never worked at TBS; I have worked at ABC. That’s kind of how the system works. They realize that you can accomplish what they need done on TV, so they hire you.
Do you think you’re drawn to ensemble-based comedies because of your work with Broken Lizard and all the shows you’ve done?
I think that’s just sort of coincidence. If you have a comedy group, it’s going to be automatically an ensemble film. I think most of the TV comedies that are out there are ensemble; it’s just how it works. I’m happy to do single-character dramatic work centered on a main hero. With TV, you don’t choose so much as they call you and you just pick which ones you want to do. The last film I made The Babymakers was about one guy and his wife.
Do you think you want to go more in that direction?
I think the stories are probably easier to tell and easier for audiences to identify with. But I don’t know, if I make a movie with Broken Lizard, it will be ensemble. There’s a film I wrote that I think I’m gonna star in that is very much a main character/ main hero sort of thing.
What is that one about?
It’s about a shotgun wedding. I play a guy who meets a younger Southern girl and end up getting her pregnant, and she’s pro-life, and we end up getting married. The film is about the wedding, and her father’s a bit of a Southern racist.
In relation to Community, I know you directed the episode where Chevy Chase used the N-word on set. I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
Well, in that one case, Chevy was just making a comment on how the writers were making his character look racist. That is the joke we were doing; Chevy’s character was being racist. So Chevy’s use of the N-word was more of a political comment. He wasn’t calling anybody the N-word. He was saying, “You guys are making me out to be a racist, and that’s not something I want.” And in so doing, he used the N-word, and unfortunately that word is so charged that there were, in my opinion, misunderstandings in the press, and then it blew up into something that, in that case, shouldn’t have. Now, he’s had other issues in the past with the cast, and that’s separate. In this one case, Chevy was not guilty.
Did you have other experiences where you think he was guilty of being prejudiced?
No. I wasn’t there for that. I don’t know. You don’t really know. He’s a bit of a legend, and he’s earned it. He and the cast have had issues. I’m not saying they were racial, I don’t know that. I know that, in this one case, he wasn’t being a racist.
Were you a fan of Chevy Chase previously, and did it change your opinion at all working with him?
No. I love Chevy. I’ve always loved him and thought he was such a great actor filled with years of great movies like Fletch, Seems Like Old Times, and Foul Play. My job as a director is to make the actor look good in front of America. That’s what the director’s there for. So relationships with different actors shouldn’t matter; they don’t matter to me. There are other actors that I have issues with, and I still try to make them right. Chevy and I had good times.
How closely do you work with writers on different TV shows you’ve worked with?
For me, I’m just trying to solve logic problems and also flag jokes that I think could be sharper. I read every draft and I send notes saying, “I don’t think this is tracking the way you want it to,” or, “I think you could use a little extra moment here…” They have twelve writers that are working very hard on a big-picture story that they’re trying to tell over a whole year, and I’m there for two weeks, so I’m trying to just really sweep up behind them and make sure that what they’re trying to do is coming across.
Is that different from how you interact with the Broken Lizard writers and the writers for Freeloaders?
Yeah, in that I pore over every comma and every little word – everything – so carefully. And that takes an immense amount of time, which is why I don’t poke my nose too deeply into the TV writers’ room because I know what they’re going through. That’s the hard work in television: writing. The rest of it is not as hard.
How did you get your start in comedy?
I started doing stand-up when I was about 19 in Chicago. I went back to Colgate University where I was in school, and I started the group that became the Broken Lizard comedy group. Then we moved to New York City. We had been doing shows in college and we started doing more shows in New York. At the time there was a big independent film scene. We had already been making all these short films of our shows, so we decided, “Why don’t we make a feature film?” We made the film Puddle Cruiser, and we got into Sundance. We were then able to raise money for our next script, and that was Super Troopers. After that, we started getting pretty big.
Do you think you have a favorite form of comedy?
I do not. I like it all. I love stand-up; I love making movies. Stand-up is great in the first month that you’re doing a new set, because it’s brand new. It gets repetitive after a while. Movies are fun once you’re cutting them together. It’s pretty fun.