Turning a Disparate Group of Standups Into the ‘Friends of the People’

In a sketch that comes early in the midseason premiere of TruTV’s Friends of the People, a presumably fictionalized Kevin Barnett informs a presumably fictionalized Josh Rabinowitz that his cargo shorts are hardly date-appropriate attire.“You’re going on a date in a fourth grader’s shorts,” he tells Rabinowitz, who insists he’s wearing cool shorts – date shorts, even. “Those are date shorts?” retorts Barnett. “Those are the shorts that you would choose to wear on a date where you might possibly have sex with somebody?”

The second beat finds Rabinowitz in a restaurant waiting for his date; he has exchanged the cargo shorts for a reasonable pair of black jeans. He spots a child in the restaurant wearing the very style of shorts he forsook, so naturally he snaps a pic to send Barnett. But, twist – he left the flash on, and the boy in question is, er, facing away. The child’s mother, played by Jennifer Bartels, reacts exactly how we all fear strangers will react to our well-intentioned candids. It’s a funny sketch – a very funny sketch – though not due to any sort of ingenious gameplay. With the exception of a third beat I won’t spoil, the thing plays out almost exactly as you would expect; it’s funny precisely because it feels like it could easily be a documentary. Rabinowitz is an exquisitely charming comic whose material often revolves around his own social ineptitudes. It’s hardly a stretch to think this misunderstanding befell him, or that his response was to painstakingly explain the situation to everyone in the restaurant – “I’m not a creep, I’m just not stylish” – as they all wait for the police.

A funny thing happened when I met with Barnett and Rabinowitz to chat about the show they helm as head writers. As Barnett went to order a cup of coffee, Rabinowitz noticed his friend was wearing dress socks with a decidedly un-dress outfit. He took his phone and captured the moment in pretty much a shot-for-shot reenactment of the sketch. When I pointed this out, he noted with some satisfaction that this time the flash did not go off. He’s learned his lesson.

Friends of the People, which premieres the second half of its first season on July 16th, is something of an oddity among televised sketch series. Most of its contemporaries enjoy the star power of one or more well-known comics who give their show its title and personality: we watch Kroll Show for Nick Kroll, Inside Amy Schumer for Amy Schumer, Key & Peele for Key and/or Peele; Saturday Night Live for its sheer institutional momentum and because it provides a launchpad to comedians who deserve a launchpad.

Friends of the People offers no such star and no singular identity. “We’re not a sketch group,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s really seven individual comedians trying to make comedy together.” As head writers, he and Barnett have the unenviable task (Barnett: “Basically, it, uh, it sucks…”) of determining what to do with thousands of pitches by each of the show’s seven actor/writer/executive producers – only one of whom, Bartels, has a background in sketch and improv rather than standup.

The cast’s individual voices are by no means irreconcilable, of course. They came up together, toured with each other, and have largely overlapping tastes. As Barnett put it, “I feel like I have more in common with those dudes than with most people I’ve met.” And one of the many benefits of close collaboration is rapid growth: “We learned a lot from each other,” Bartels said, adding that her castmates’ “standupness has rubbed off on me.”

Lil Rel Howery echoed her sentiment: “Jennifer has made me a better actor,” he said before proceeding into a (totally unsolicited) litany of praise for each of his fellow actors. “I work with probably some of the most talented comedians I have ever worked with… to put that group of people who were that talented, that gifted, in one place is insane!”

Yet each of the Friends – shall we call them the Friends? – has distinct sensibilities which a 22-minute show cannot possibly smooth out, and this is probably FOTP’s greatest strength. In one seven-minute span it delivers equal doses of the Lucas Brothers’ casually intellectual anti-humor, Jermaine Fowler’s explosive charisma, and Howery’s, well, general unpredictability. That’s just before commercial – and only half the cast. Given that each of the seven is a talented actor in his or her own right, even sketches that favor a group voice, such as the midseason premiere’s absurdist take on a conference call, allow for a satisfying range of performances.

It would be tempting to assume the cast’s standup backgrounds might hinder their success as sketch comedians; after all, these are very different forms that make very different demands of audience and performer alike. But this is wonderfully not the case. The standup factor adds a rare jolt of humanity to a form that often feels robotic – consider the SNL cast’s visible reliance on cue cards and you’ll appreciate the earnest ingenuity of FOTP’s interstitial sequences: the man-on-the-street bits where, say, Rabinowitz confesses to a stranger that he shaves his back, or a behind-the-scenes segment wherein the cast wrestles each other in enormous bubble-armor outfits.

Any good standup comic treats the audience as participant more than spectator, and the Friends are very good standup comics. They don’t look to get a laugh here and a laugh there so much as they aim simply to give us a kinetic experience. “I get bored a lot,” Barnett said of his experiences watching standup. “For me, the biggest thing is being interesting… I really like to see genuine stuff more than I like, just, killing-it funny stuff.”

It’s worth noting that he and Fowler were a clear highlight of May’s Vulture Festival Comedy Night, an evening they shared with the likes of Wyatt Cenac, Colin Quinn, and Michelle Wolf. They are honest storytellers who eschew the setup-punchline artifice employed by many lesser comics: Fowler spoke of a homeless woman he flirted with only to learn she had a boyfriend, and Barnett – after warning the audience that Fowler is a sociopath – related a prank the two of them played on Rabinowitz. They told the types of stories you tell friends at parties; they stole the show.

For Matt Porter, a comedian and filmmaker best known as half the sketch group Good Cop Great Cop, FOTP’s application of standup sensibilities to sketch comedy is a tremendous success. “You can tell they are standups,” he wrote in an email, “because they are compelling not just as actors but also as human beings… they have a sense of personal identity and voice that doesn’t need to be scripted out for them to convey. Part of what sets FOTP apart is the way in which the show acknowledges that this is a group of funny friends that are hanging out making a show together, not just actors portraying roles in scripted sketches.”

It’s an apt point. The Friends are young and have everything to prove, but they also have nothing to prove. If the show has any overriding feel, it is indeed that these are just people doing what they love; it’s no big deal.

This is bold.

Sketch has been around (warning: generalizations ahead!) for well over half a century and as a culture we’re still not sure what to do with it. Series like FOTP often seem like little more than stepping stones for writer-performers who will probably end up making movies and sitcoms – look no further than The Ben Stiller Show, The Dana Carvey Show, The Amanda Show, or, I don’t know, literally everything else in the category. Probably the best sketch comedy happens live on a New York stage before never happening again. But no one mourns the death of a sketch – there’s nothing to mourn.  I was bummed when Parks & Rec ended because I liked those people and that town a heck of a lot, but I don’t think I’ll be all that broken up when Portlandia wraps up. I know Fred and Carrie will bring roughly the same experience to bigger and better platforms. We don’t come to sketch for the sketches: we come for the people in them, for the promise of a high only they can deliver.

And yet the form persists in spite of its own disposability. We hunger for it because, while many of its pleasures are accessible elsewhere, the fundamental stuff of a sketch is not. Not to get existential here but, come on, this is existential shit. Rare is the delight of a world creating and destroying itself for our pleasure; it’s fuckin’ cool to light a match and watch the thing disappear. This is the contract of a sketch, and it’s simple but hard to refuse: “Just go with us for a bit and something great is gonna happen. Then it’ll be over and you can get back to your life. Or – if, you know, you want – we can do it all again.”

How could anyone pass that up?

The Friends I spoke to pondered the creeping influence of sketch sensibilities in their other work. Rabinowitz said the form has given him a “broader perspective” of what he can accomplish as a solo performer; Barnett noted that sketch’s facility for dealing with current events has softened him to topical humor in his standup. “I guess I can’t not talk about this,” he now hears himself thinking. “I’ve never had that before.”

Friends of the People’s new batch of episodes sees the cast operating at the height of its powers. The sketches are longer and more confident, darker yet more playful. Guest stars include Ben Bailey, David Alan Grier, Rachel Dratch, and Mick Foley; guest director Bobcat Goldthwait joins series director Neil Punsalan to create some of the season’s finest moments. “This cast genuinely really loves each other,” Goldthwait wrote in an email. “Their respect really shows in how they cast, write, and shoot.” The product of this love is a show that feels at once new and old, an exhilarating reminder of a 90s-era flavor of comedy pioneered by series the Friends grew up on – Mad TV, In Living Color, All That – a glorious, multitudinous, populist show in which sketch is not a vehicle but an end in itself.

Friends of the People’s midseason premiere is on July 16th at 10:30pm EST on TruTV.

Turning a Disparate Group of Standups Into the […]