Inside ‘Nathan For You’ with Co-Creator Michael Koman

Michael Koman is the co-creator of two of the best comedies on TV – Nathan For You and Eagleheart – and he’s about to add a third to his roster. Koman is gearing up for production on an yet-to-be-titled Adult Swim sitcom that pairs Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Jack McBrayer, which Koman co-created with Robert Smigel and David Feldman. After spending seven years on the writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Koman left the late night world, and he’s since become some sort of anti-Chuck Lorre, responsible for multiple TV shows that are some of the most original and funny things currently happening on TV. Nathan For You, the critically-acclaimed Comedy Central series that Koman co-created with its star Nathan Fielder, is currently in the midst of its second season. The show’s “Dumb Starbucks” episode – in which they turned a coffee shop into a Starbucks ripoff called “Dumb Starbucks” to test the limits of parody law and attracted a ton of unexpected media attention in the process – is set to air tonight.

I recently interviewed Koman about struggling to hide his laughter during a surprising moment with a gas station owner on Nathan For You, a mysterious international episode that Comedy Central deemed too expensive, and whether or not there will be a follow-up to Eagleheart’s excellent third season.

Is it difficult not laughing on set while shooting Nathan For You?

Oh yeah. It’s really important that the crew is not laughing while we’re making the show. When something like that happens, I’m not on camera, so I can go outside. But you do get good at it. Weirdly, it’s like method acting where I’ll just think about something sad while we’re shooting.

That’s the main way you deal with it? Thinking of sad stuff?

I tell myself “This isn’t funny.” I’m just watching a serious conversation, and I try not to imagine that there’s anything comical about what’s happening. Usually, if you really can’t stop yourself from laughing, it ends up being good on the show. In the gas station episode, when the owner talked about drinking his grandson’s pee, I had lost all control. I was behind racks of candy in this gas station. I was shuddering. It was really, really powerful.

But that was something where it seemed funny in the moment and as soon as it was over, it felt like that would never be part of the show. It was just too insane. It was so out of nowhere. Once we were editing, we realized how incredible it was. Because the people the night before were all talking about how comfortable they would be drinking urine. We thought to mention it to the gas station owner because maybe he would just have a small funny reaction that would be good near the ending. It was just the most amazing thing, that you meet what seem like the only three people on earth who will openly talk about drinking urine and you mention it to a fourth person and he would react that way. I still can’t believe it happened.

The show walks a line where you aren’t trying to get the audience to laugh at the expense of the people on the show, but is it difficult staying on the right side of that?

We’re all people with consciences. Everyone on the crew is very quick to say if something feels like it’s at a person’s expense. There’s an illusion when you’re looking at it on television that Nathan’s doing more to put somebody in an uncomfortable position, but there’s also the reality that they’re on the set of a television show and there’s cameras right there. In general, the main thing you’re thinking about is ‘We have this idea and we want to find a way of conveying this idea to the owner in a way that makes sense for their business.’ Most of the time when we’re thinking about “Well, is this or that fair?”, we’ve kind of thought about that before we even get there, so we’ve thrown out a lot of ideas that feel like “Well, that would just be unfair to a person.”

Let’s take the exorcism episode for example. That seems like one where she’s sharing an experience that a lot of people wouldn’t talk about publicly.

We never ever could have anticipated that she had an experience with ghosts and that it was that specific. In our minds, if we had an idea of where that segment would go, it was more like, ‘Well, she probably doesn’t believe in ghosts, so we’ll have to convince her to give this idea a try anyway.’ At first, it seemed like, “Oh, is this gonna work at all if she really believes in ghosts?” I guess the idea of something being embarrassing is really subjective. You’re watching somebody expose a part of themselves that is personal, but it’s definitely not done by design or coercion. We never knew she felt that way; it wasn’t something we were trying to get out of her.

It’s almost too perfect how that one worked out.

Yeah, that’s like the gas station thing. It’s like, that’s so perfect, will people believe it happened on its own? When we choose to work with a person, the only criteria we have is that this person is, in this case, a realtor. She seemed like she had a nice personality and would work well with Nathan. You hope that you work with people who, if you suggest an unusual idea, they’ll give it a chance. So that’s it. That’s all we know about her, and the rest is this kind of one in a million likelihood that she has incredibly personal ghost stories. The show does have, in a lot of ways, a really high percentage of luck.

But I assume there are other times too when the opposite will happen — when you’ll have an idea and just wind up with the wrong person for it. 

The thing is, the show doesn’t have that high a budget. We can’t do things more than once, so if we had to keep trying the same thing with multiple people before we got the right reaction, the show wouldn’t work. And you would assume that would happen a lot. And for some reason, it doesn’t happen to us.

Do you guys ever have ideas for segments that are too ambitious?

Oh yeah. I was so convinced that the centerpiece of the whole season was gonna be — I don’t wanna give away the idea in case it happens in the future, but it required travel to Asia. I just was so convinced that was gonna be the big episode and when we found out we couldn’t afford it, I was just depressed for two weeks.

Do you fear the show ever becoming so well-known that you can’t trick people?

After the first season, I was like, “Well, there’s just no way we can do this again with Nathan.”  But I really don’t think it was ever an issue in the second season. I think one piece was affected by somebody talking to a relative of theirs and the relative kind of blowing it. I think it’s something that you and I know about; if you pay attention to Comedy Central, you know about it; but with the vast majority of the world, it would not be an issue.

You gave Nathan Fielder his first US TV job when you hired him to write for Important Things with Demetri Martin, right?

I guess, technically, I did.

How did you become aware of him?

Well, he had submitted to the show, and his submission was funny. And then, I Googled him and all these videos came up. It just was one of those things where it felt like you found out about somebody before the rest of the world did and you kind of got the scoop. He was really talented and unbelievably funny. It was just sort of a like a lucky break for me as much as it was for him. He was new to the country. It was weird, he was on staff of the show and I was the head writer, but immediately, I enjoyed working with him and we would write things together. I just sort of got along with him right away.

But he was very developed. Compared to most writers, he was already an incredible editor and a really smart filmmaker. He could go off on his own and just direct something and bring it in and you could just put it on the show, which is unique. He’s so good at so many different things and he does them all in his own way. He’s a really good actor, he’s a really really good writer, and he has his own unique way of directing and editing and they’re all sort of his own style. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with.

How did you two decide to make a show together?

Comedy Central wanted to make a pilot with him. I was working on Eagleheart, but we had a little break. He asked if I would work on it with him, so we just talked about ideas for a while and pitched it to the network. I think the first idea that we pitched was like this but slightly different, and I think they were into it. Then, we talked a little more and realized that it would be better to make the show about businesses and to make it a documentary, so we went back and re-explained it. We made the pilot and it turned out pretty well.

How was the initial idea for the show different?

Basically, it was this with some written pieces. My feeling is that even if we had made that, we would have looked at it and cut out the portion that wasn’t documentary because I can’t imagine it would have been as strong. But I think at the time, we just felt like, “Well, you’re gonna want jokes.” Once we made the pilot, then we realized, you’ve just gotta make sure there’s enough funny moments that feel like jokes to keep it moving. You don’t have to actually write real jokes. I mean, they are real jokes; it’s just not a sketch. We thought, ‘Well, it’s Comedy Central, maybe they’ll want that.’ But [Comedy Central exec] Kent [Alterman] was very happy when we pitched a version that was just purely documentary. I think they were more excited about trying that.

Were you a big comedy fan growing up? What was some stuff you were into?

Oh yeah. I really liked SCTV when I was growing up. That show, I was just so crazy about. Joe Flaherty was my favorite person to watch when I was a kid. I watched reruns of Saturday Night Live when they started coming on cable. I really loved that Dana Carvey/Phil Hartman era. When I was in high school, finding out about Woody Allen was a big deal for me. I lived in San Diego. There was this music library at UCSD and for free, they had tons of old vinyl comedy albums. After school, I would go over there and listen to Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Bob & Ray, Bob Hope. They just had every old comedy album. [I was into] a lot of older comedy because that was what they had. That was the stuff I got most excited about. I couldn’t say anyone that would surprise you that I liked. The Marx Brothers. I loved pretty much everyone you like if you like comedy at all.

Did you do comedy in college?

I did it in high school, actually. My parents moved to this area in San Diego called La Jolla when I was in high school. We lived a mile away from The Comedy Store. I got a job there after school answering telephones. The manager was this wonderful guy named Fred Burns. He was a great comedian but he had spina bifida and he had outlived any estimates that doctors had given him, so he genuinely did whatever he wanted. And because it was hard for him to travel, they gave him the job of managing The Comedy Store so he wouldn’t have to tour but he would still make money. He was so nice to me. He let me go on stage a lot, a few nights a week. Basically, after school I would go to The Comedy Store. I would answer phones, take reservations, hang out with the bartender, and I would come back later and I would get to do 10, 15 minutes. I was not a good comedian, but it was really fun.

Did you keep doing standup after high school?

I was really into it down there. There were really funny comedians in San Diego, and it was very friendly. So it wasn’t really embarrassing to do standup and not be that good. I was nervous, I would get terrible stage fright. I would be incredibly anxious hours before I went on stage, but I was never embarrassed about doing standup. For college, I went to Los Angeles and I would go on at The Improv occasionally. There, I didn’t feel like I was all that great. And I wasn’t.

I just got lucky. I wrote a sketch show with a good friend of mine who’s a really great comedian named Todd Glass and our friend Steve Rosenthal. We put it up at the HBO Workspace. It was called Todd’s Coma, and we thought maybe someone would like it and give him a TV show. We asked all these people to be in it people we had no relationship with, like Herb Alpert and they did it. We sent a letter to Fred Willard — we were just people who were putting up a show for one night, we had no money — and he just did it. He’s just that nice. A couple other well-known people as favors to Todd did it. I was still in school, but I lucked out and got a job out of it. Fred Willard’s manager sent a tape to MADtv, and I think they just arbitrarily wanted to hire a young person. Like, I think they got some actual note to do that. So, this tape came to them and they hired me.

Had you done a lot of sketch prior to that, or was the Todd’s Coma show the first sketch show you’d written?

They were the first sketches I’d ever written. I wrote three sketches, and I got hired at that show and I had no idea how to write a sketch. I was lucky that it wasn’t Saturday Night Live or I would have been really terrified, but I hadn’t seen MADtv before I worked there so I was more surprised than nervous. But quickly, you had to learn how to pitch an idea and then write it up really fast and then have it be so it could actually be produced and go on television. It definitely felt like they had made a mistake by hiring me, but there were nice people there and they kind of helped me figure it out.

From there, how’d you wind up at Conan?

When I started at MADtv, I started the same week as Greg Cohen. I have a bad habit of using superlatives, but Greg is the most original writer I know and the person  whose writing, on its own, makes me laugh the hardest. He had this huge effect on me. Greg was this great writer who had written at Conan for several years. He left Conan and was living in Detroit. MADtv offered him a lot of money to work there. They saw Greg’s Conan reel and felt like “This could be a great thing to add to the show. The show needs new energy.” And then, once they hired him, they never used anything he wrote. Greg and I became really close. He was the person who taught me to write what I would enjoy watching. He recommended me to Conan, and that’s how I got the job.

Are there any Conan characters or sketches you wrote that people would know?

The Interrupter, that Brian Stack character. I would write those with Brian. His salesman character also; we wrote those with Andrew Weinberg. The Walker, Texas Ranger Lever. What sucks about this is you tend to remember stuff that became a recurring bit, but stuff that I was always proudest of was a one-off thing. I did a thing one time, it wasn’t in the style of most of what we did at Conan, but I was proud of it, it was this Aaron Sorkin “Studio 6A” sketch. Tht was fun. This stupid sexually harassing skeleton thing I did with Weinberg.

Also, Andrew and I did the whole show where Conan went to Finland. I was really proud of that. I really miss working there. That was the best time. Conan was just the funniest person I’ve ever been around. I’ve never seen anybody be that funny. Him liking something and laughing at stuff was sort of the high point of how I felt about anything I’ve ever worked on.

Was it tough to leave the show? You’d been there for seven years.

Yeah, it was really tough. Demetri Martin, who worked on that show, got his own sketch show and he offered me the head writer job and it just seemed like a good idea. It seemed like it would be nice to know what it was like to have some more responsibility, and I love Demetri’s comedy. Conan was gonna move to LA and, at the time, I really thought I didn’t want to move to LA, so I thought this would be a great way to jump onto another show and stay in New York. But then, Demetri moved his show to LA the second season, so I moved out there the exact same time as everyone else.

I guess the other thing is, I was 30 years old. I felt like I should try to do something else to have other experiences. Years can go by in a job like that. I remember specific things that happened while I was at Conan, but I don’t remember if they happened in 2004 or 2006. Everything pushes together because it all happened in that building, in between the studio and the office and the edit room. But that’s probably normal. If you’re at any job at the same place for a long time, the time just shoots by.

Have you guys figured out whether you’re going to do more Eagleheart or not?

I don’t know. I kind of doubt it, just because the end of season three seemed pretty definitive. And I think we’re all pretty proud of season three. I guess nobody ever officially canceled it, so we could possibly go back to Adult Swim. If we had a really convincing pitch, they might let us do more.

Yeah, the season did have a very concrete ending, I was just wondering if they wanted to do more or if you guys had a crazy idea for something to keep the show going.

If Jason [Woliner] and Andrew wanted to do one last big episode or something like that and it was a great idea and Chris [Elliott] was into it, that’d be great. That really is up to Jason and Andrew. The last season of Eagleheart, we all wrote it together, and then I had to leave once they started shooting, so I was writing Nathan once they were in production. I’ve never been more proud of anything than that third season, but they really put in all the time and effort of getting it done, so they’d have to want to do it.

One of the greatest nights I’ve ever had was when we screened some episodes from the third season at Cinefamily and Conan came and he really laughed hard at it. He’s an executive producer of the show, but being in an actual big room full of people with him there and seeing him laugh kind of felt like, ‘Ah, I’m fine ending there.’ But Jason Woliner is the most persuasive person I know, so if he wanted to do it, I’m sure it would happen.

Can you talk a little bit about the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog/Jack McBrayer show and how that came about?

It really just came out of that remote that Robert [Smigel] did with Triumph and Jack at the Chicago Weiners Circle for Conan, which was one of the best Triumph remotes ever. Robert had an idea to do a sitcom with Jack and that they would make a good pair. He thought maybe a multi-cam sitcom, all in front of an audience — if we could make it work, that would be a really interesting use of Triumph. So we worked on a pilot with David Feldman, and we’re gonna shoot it in a few weeks. So hopefully, it’ll work. I feel really good about it. So far, it’s really making me laugh.

Inside ‘Nathan For You’ with Co-Creator Michael Koman