Sketch Anatomy: John Levenstein Goes Behind the Scenes of ‘Kroll Show’s ‘Niece Denise’

Welcome to our new column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch – one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated – to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with John Levenstein, who has written for The Life & Times of Tim and Arrested Development (behind AD episodes like “Top Banana” and “Good Grief”) and is currently co-creator, writer, and executive producer of Comedy Central’s Kroll Show. Levenstein chose to take us behind the scenes of one of his season 2 Kroll Show sketches “Niece Denise” starring SNL alum Jenny Slate as the awkward titular teen opposite Kroll as PubLIZity co-owner Liz and later, Denise’s fatherly savior C-Czar.

Why did you pick this particular sketch?

I picked it for one reason: because it was last year and I have a fresher memory of it than I do of certain other things. But I also picked “Niece Denise” just because I love Jenny Slate, Niece Denise was one of my favorite characters, I think the story of how the character happened is interesting in terms of how it impacted our whole season – it started out as one little idea that ended up turning into a lot of ideas – but I also picked it because a lot of it’s a mystery to me. There’s a limit to what my contribution was, and even after thinking of wanting to do it and writing it, I was very surprised when she came to set. So there were elements of it that I was completely not in control of and not aware of, which is part of why it was so interesting to me – the whole team played a part.

What did you have control over?

I deal mainly with the story phase and the script phase. I involve myself in other parts too, but there are limits to my skills. The way it played out with “Niece Denise” was that after a live show at Largo in Los Angeles a year and a half, two years ago, I was talking to Jenny and she started pretending to be this innocent 13 or 14-year-old girl in this fake conversation we were having. What struck me about it was just how credible it was – in that moment I felt like Jenny could play a real 14-year-old girl that wouldn’t be a joke and would feel real. The way it ended up affecting the season was that I wanted for a while to do this thing where Pretty Liz [Slate] was pregnant with C-Czar’s baby and C-Czar [Kroll] was learning how to become a parent but was feeling constrained and stifled by his life, so at the end of the season he would rebel, and at the height of his rebellion he would somehow do something that would be heroic and would prove he was a good father after all. So when I saw Jenny doing this 13 or 14-year-old character, I realized that it could fit in with that idea I had of C-Czar being a hero, then what came along with that idea was Liz losing Niece Denise. So there were like five ideas that were all combined – Liz losing Niece Denise, Pretty Liz was pregnant, C-Czar was trying to become a father – and ultimately C-Czar proves that he can be a father by helping Niece Denise. I don’t remember the exact order those ideas came in, but they started for me with Niece Denise. And then the other way it had an impact on our whole season was that early on we made the decision to delay gratification and that we would lose Niece Denise in episode 1, it would be a big deal, but then life would go on and we would never refer to her again until the very last episode of the season when she was found. So it gave form to the season in that we had these bookends we didn’t have before, and we knew what we were starting with and what we were building to.

So we planned and wrote all that, and then there was a period of time leading up to production when Jenny couldn’t remember exactly what the character she was doing after Largo that night was. So we wrote the script and we were talking about it and she was doing this character for me that had a lisp and was a little cartoony, and I was saying “Well that’s not the character you were doing for me that night at Largo – the character that night was more realistic.” Then she tried another voice but it was too close to Marcel the Shell, and she could not remember what she was doing that night and we had to try and figure it out. I don’t know when in the process it was decided she would have braces; when I say that a lot happened that was out of my awareness, that was a decision that got made, and I’ve got to assume the director Jon Krisel was involved with it. Kroll may have been involved and I’m sure Jenny was, but there were things that went into her wardrobe that I think ultimately allowed her to create the character and play the part. Because when she appeared on set that first day with the braces and in wardrobe, there was such a hush over the set – it was like magic. They’d never seen Jenny play another part, let alone this part. It was so realistic, and I’d never heard until she played it that day that thing where she was sort of gasping for air between her lines of dialogue. Literally everything about the performance was a surprise to me. So it was interesting as a writer how you can play a part in creating a character but still at the end you’re on the outside and the actors have to do it. There were just things that happened with Nick and Jenny in the scene that still seem more like magic to me.

Do you enjoy working on sketches on the “outside” like you said, where your job is to help set the actors up for success but it’s ultimately up to them to hit the home run?

Oh I love that. I love actors. The older I get, the more I feel like I’m not as concerned as I was when I was younger with the specific joke as I am with setting up the preconditions for actors to be free to do their best work. I think it’s partly because I have the luxury of working with good improvisers – especially Nick, but also Jon Daly, Jenny Slate, Chelsea Peretti, Jason Mantzoukas, John Mulaney – these people are all great improvisers where we give them scripts and I like the scripts, but it’s about something bigger happening in the dynamic of the scene.

What I will do sometimes is drive things back to whatever the heart of the scene is or whatever the dynamic is that we need to have happen, because usually it fits with something else going on in the show, and if one part falls apart the whole thing will topple over. So there’s days I go into a scene knowing what I need, but it’s usually not like a piece of information or specific joke like that; it usually has more to do with each character’s attitude. And when we talked about improvising on Kroll Show, the writers are improvising too, the directors are improvising too. We’re all shouting out lines of dialogue and coming up with things, so it’s mainly on the actors but when they start going away from the script it’s not like the writers feel shut out. If anything it’s another opportunity for the writers to take more swings at things that we’ve been taking swings at already.

How do you approach sketches like “Niece Denise” in terms of being standalone sketches but also smaller parts to the larger format of a faux reality show episode?

Well, one of the things about my job that’s hard is I approach each sketch the way I would approach any sitcom episode. So whether it’s a three-minute sketch or a three-parter where each part is two minutes long, I’m looking for a story, conflict, a beginning middle and end. There’s a level of complexity on Kroll Show where each episode feels like I’m writing ten episodes because I take each one of those little pieces seriously, but then there’s usually an added layer where we’re tying those things to each other, tying those sketches to the larger stories that are happening over the course of the season. Some of that is planned ahead and some of it is just being aware in the moment of connections that we can make up as we go.

C-Czar’s tattoos seem to be the most obvious example of Kroll Show doing that.

Yes! And in a lot of cases we really have to be on our game, and not just to know which tattoos to put on him and which episodes require a certain amount of forethought, but then some of the things that tie together don’t require forethought at all – they just require openness and recognition, I’d say.

What inspirations have you drawn from the most for your writing on Kroll Show?

You know, in the beginning I’d say a lot of my influences were reality shows, which I used to watch a lot of but I seem to watch them a little less since I’ve been doing Kroll Show – just the human drama of reality shows. They also have so many tricks that are available to you in editing. TV shows like The Office that brought comedy documentary into television have testimonials and use some of the advantages of documentary and reality, but reality actually has so many tools for telling stories in terms of text and flashbacks and ways to show things to the audience that it’s incredibly convenient for comedy and storytelling if you use the full reality show toolkit. So it started off that I was watching a lot of reality shows – I liked the human drama – then it became that I liked a lot of the reality shows’ tricks.

Somewhere along the way though, I started thinking of most of these characters more like real people, so I feel like I’m more influenced by life at this point than television shows while I’m writing Kroll Show. It’s like I try to see especially when Nick is paired with someone else similar to him, like when he’s paired with Jon Daly or Jenny Slate, and they’re playing characters that on the surface are similar to each other, I try to find the differences between those characters; I try to find the conflict, and ultimately I just go to human behavior. So I end up drawing from relationships and dynamics I see in real life more than I draw from television shows. When I’m drawing from television shows now, it has more to do with the tricks than anything else.

So you stick with the source of the show’s inspiration and the humor is a natural consequence of that?

Well, with the improvisers and the actors that we’re working with, yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s a formula that I could take from show to show, but Nick and his friends happen to be incredibly funny and quick on their feet and there are some things they need going into scenes and there are other things that they can create along the way.

I saw you posted a picture with Niece Denise recently. Can we expect to see her again on Kroll Show next season?

Yes, Niece Denise is returning this year as is Pretty Liz as is Ruth Diamond Phillips plus one other Jenny Slate character. I like it when our characters can roll out into playing more than one character, just because I think it’s more impressive when they’re playing different types. It can be easy for an audience member to think, for instance, that Jenny Slate was playing Pretty Liz because she’s like Pretty Liz in some way, but then once you see her playing four parts and they’re all different from each other and she’s like those people and she’s not like them, it just becomes more impressive to me. So with our main actors we keep trying to lay on and give them more to play when we can. And the timing hasn’t worked out yet, but I really want to get John Mulaney to play a young man on our show because so far he’s only played an old man, so it would be more impressive if we also could see him playing a young man.

That’s a great idea: Kroll Show as a yin-yang of the cast’s character work.

Yes, I would love that.

Sketch Anatomy: John Levenstein Goes Behind the Scenes […]