The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
If you two characters named Liz, and one of them goes by the nickname “Pretty Liz,” does that necessarily make the other one “Ugly Liz?” Last weekend at the Paley Center, as part of the New York Comedy Festival, Nick Kroll informed the audience that no, it does not. That character is just named “Liz.” This was just one of the many illuminating behind-the-scenes pieces of info learned at “The Kroll Show” panel held on Saturday, November 9th, 2013, featuring star Nick Kroll, director Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia, Tim and Eric), producer John Levinstein (Arrested Development, The John Larroquette Show), and moderated by Seth Meyers.
First the audience was shown the premiere episode of season 2 of Kroll Show, and without spoiling anything (I’ll save that for later, but I’ll warn you properly first), I can say that if you enjoyed the first season, you won’t be disappointed with the next. The discussion began with a conversation about how the show started in the first place. Director Jonathan Krisel and Nick Kroll were set up on a meeting and despite the fact that Krisel was bleary-eyed from editing a segment for HBO’s Funny or Die for the past 48 hours, he and Kroll still managed to click right away. Nick pitched the sketch that would become “Rich Dicks,” and after hearing the title, Krisel cut him off: “Oh, I get it.” “Well, it’s-” “No, I get it.” Along with Jon Daly, the short was made for the Internet, which turned into a Rich Dicks pilot for Comedy Central, which turned into Nick Kroll’s comedy special “Thank You Very Cool,” which finally became Kroll Show.
If you’ve seen Kroll Show, then you already know how it’s different from other sketch shows, but it’s key difference that was discussed frequently at this panel was it’s combination of sketch and overarching plots. (However, Seth Meyers’ attempt at making a portmanteau of “sketchuational comedy” is not welcomed by Kroll, who cringed visibly upon his coining the term.) There are several season long arcs again in Season 2, with PubLizity, C-Czar, and the Too Much Tuna “prawnk” show appearing in the first episode, setting up future appearances. Producer John Levenstein attributes this partly to working primarily in the realm of storytelling. Though he was initially a sketch writer in his twenties, he then moved on to sitcoms, and today feels as though he is “not a bottomless fountain of premise sketches.” However, this skill is easily funneled into creating unique situations for these characters and, in a turn that is fairly unusual for a sketch show, allowing these characters to experience actual change and growth over the course of a season.
Kroll is asked in a number of different ways throughout the evening to consider his various characters and what they say about him, if anything. Through this, however, we learn that Nick was initially very resistant to appearing as himself on the show. They decided early on that they didn’t want to do the “on stage, introducing sketches to an audience” thing that Chapelle, Key and Peele, and Mencia have done, if only to differentiate this show from others. However, the idea was presented of Nick doing his stand up to the camera, and it quickly became apparent that doing so made him much more appealing and provided viewers with an opportunity to gather their footing and transition into the world of Kroll Show. This season there is a lot more of this material, particularly moments of Nick interacting with his various friends that appear on the show. Prior to a PubLizity sketch, for example, we see Nick and Jenny sitting in makeup chairs, riffing, as Nick is being transformed into Liz. These short moments serve as a change of pace in what is otherwise an incredibly fast-paced show, allowing the audience to take a breath before jumping back in.
I feel strange writing this about a sketch show, but I’d like to now give you a spoiler alert. Much of the conversation of the evening centered around the opening sketch from the first episode of Season 2. I am going to describe the mostly silent sketch but I believe that even if I describe it perfectly it will not replace the experience of actually watching this very, very strange sketch. However, if you want to avoid it, jump down to the last paragraph and you’ll be fine, even though if you care that much about spoilers, you probably stopped reading this already.
You guys. There’s this sketch called Cake Train. It opens with a montage of people going about their days, working at their jobs, washing dishes, etc only to hear a mysterious whistle in the distance that causes them to literally drop everything and run off in its direction. After seeing this happen to several people, we see an actual train running down the track, which is suddenly chased by these various workers. Standing at the back of the train is Zach Galifianakis, dressed in a chef uniform. An assistant presents him with a cake; Zach presents it to the people chasing the train before, in slow motion, heaving it into the air. Everyone reaches out to try and grab the cake, trying to absorb as much of the dessert as they can with their body so they can pick at it and eat whatever they can salvage as they continue to chase the train. Several more cakes are tossed, and it doesn’t get any less funny (or strangely beautiful) as the pastry grabbing continues.
This is a weird sketch in general. It’s an even weirder sketch to show as the opener to your second season, but that’s exactly what Kroll Show does, and it’s exactly what makes it different from every other sketch show. The thing I love about this sketch that was revealed during the panel, is the fact that writer and actress Chelsea Peretti pitched this idea for the pilot episode of Kroll Show, which would have been a very bold statement for the show to make. It was instead shoved off as a potential idea for the first season. However, everyone was then informed that there was no way that there would be enough money to have a full train running. So, when they were picked up for a second season the immediate goal became, “How do we make Cake Train happen?” (Answer: To save money they filmed a different sketch on a train that did not need to be on a train.)
Thankfully, Comedy Central has been very supportive of all the strange turns Kroll Show takes. Nick states, “Nobody was clamoring for a Billy Joel homage. But we’re respectful of the audience and the network, and it’s all stuff that we think is funny.” There is a line that some shows cross where they go to areas of humor that are too niche and alienates the audience with its specificity. While some of the sketches on this show may not appeal to the broadest demographics, great pains seem to be taken to ensure that even if you haven’t seen Degrassi, you’re still going to enjoy “Wheels, Ontario.”
The characters that Nick plays are all very clear stand-ins for groups of people, whether they be vacuous publicists, rich dicks, faux-tough guys who love their mom, and so on. When asked if he’s ever been confronted by someone from one of these sub-cultures for poking fun at them, he responds, “People love to see themselves parodied because they don’t see themselves. They see their friends.” Nick describes talking to his father about his show, and he quotes his dad by using the same robotic intonation he uses for his Dr. Armand character, “Do people just flip for Dr. Armand?”
However, to a certain extent this same viewpoint seems to work on Nick as well. When asked which of the characters are closest to him as a person, and it becomes immediately clear that there is a little bit of himself in each of the characters in the show. “I do love my mother. I am good at business.” When another panelist jokingly suggests Ref Jeff, Kroll accepts it earnestly, “Well, I do like to lock down plans.” Nick may not see himself as one of these characters, but perhaps he plays them as well as he does because he doesn’t feel as though he’s parodying himself: just the people around him. There’s no doubt that smart writing and talented actor/improvisers make for a great comedy show, but when the characters come from a real place and seem like authentic people, that goes a long way too. Luckily Kroll Show covers all of those bases.