What Joe Schmo 2 Taught John Levenstein About Crafting Surprising Comedy

From Joe Schmo 2. Photo: Spike

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Remember the 2000s, when reality TV was new and nobody knew what was going on? A lot of those early shows took on the guise of being a “social experiment,” or at the very least a commentary on the pervasiveness of media. Big Brother, The Real World, and Survivor all purported to show humanity’s face laid bare. At our heart, we’re all just scheming drunk assholes, right? 2003’s The Joe Schmo Show started out with that premise. One man thinks he’s on a reality show, but he’s actually being pranked by a host of actors and producers. It was one of the first breakout roles for Kristen Wiig. But what the producers didn’t count on was that their mark, Matt Gould, was a very sweet person. When Wiig was injured doing a fake game, Matt gave his prize to her. He was too nice to prank. The show prompted a lot of navel-gazing and warmed the icy hearts of the executives at gentlemen’s cable channel Spike. Joe Schmo’s second season … did not do that.

John Levenstein (Kroll Show, Silicon Valley, The Inbetweeners, and host of John Levenstein’s Retirement Party) first saw 2004’s Joe Schmo 2 between writing seasons one and two of Arrested Development. He was instantly onboard with the new format: Tim and Ingrid were the only two nonactors on a staged reality show, Last Chance for Love. (The cast included Natasha Leggero in one of her first TV roles playing an early version of her Reno 911! character named Rita “The Drunk.”) “You have this golden couple, Austin and Piper,” he tells Vulture. “Everyone’s trying to win their hearts … It’s as if you were doing The Bachelor, but the Bachelor and the Bachelorette are both there.” What immediately hooked Levenstein was the fluidity of storylines on the show and how the format challenged the performers. “They had to always walk that line,” he says, “between being funny for the home audience and not giving themselves away to the person they’re playing the scene with [who doesn’t know] that it’s a gimmick.” One of them did figure it out. About halfway through the season, Ingrid realized the show was fake. Rather than stop production or have her “voted off,” the producers decided to invite her in on the game. Ingrid became another fake contestant, in on the prank, and they brought a new girl on to be duped.

It’s nearly impossible to find Joe Schmo 2 online today. “I’m going by memory,” Levenstein says. “I haven’t seen this show in almost 15 years, so I don’t know what the sexual politics are like. You can go back and look at something you thought was funny at the time, and now it’s horrific. And I haven’t. That’s a caveat.”

Why did you pick The Joe Schmo Show for this?
Joe Schmo 1 wasn’t really underrated. It was kind of a big deal at the time. I do feel like Joe Schmo 2 is a little bit under-regarded. I would almost rather focus on that because that was the first one I saw. I think it’s the one people think of. Joe Schmo [1] is the one that led to that catchphrase, “What is going on?” He was such a sympathetic character. Joe Schmo 2 was more complex to me. There are a lot of reasons for me that I like it a little bit better.

Well, let’s talk about that. You’re right, that does seem to be the critical consensus — that the first season had all this unexpected humanity.

And season two got so ridiculous that one of the marks figured it out. People saw that as a failure.
To me, it wasn’t a failure when Ingrid realized it was all fake. The audacious thing in Joe Schmo 2 is that they were testing the limits of how hard they could lay it on. And they knew they were being reckless with it. Season one changed when they realized that this guy was so sympathetic: We don’t really want to trick him; we want to embrace him. We feel bad about what we’re doing. They were trying to trick him more delicately because they liked him so much, and they were having a crisis because of what they were doing to him. Season two, they were testing the limits of what they could get away with, even with the host. The host in season one was playing a hyped-up version of himself, but it was pretty real. In season two, he was playing this fake British guy. It was like a crime: Can I get away with it? I want to get away with it; yet I don’t want to get away with it. Walking that line was so funny. To me, it’s evidence that they walked the line well that one of the contestants figured it out and one of them didn’t. If they fooled both of them, then I would think maybe they could have gotten away with a little more.

Here’s what the season built to, and why it was incredible to me: In Joe Schmo 1, the main relationship was between him and his buddy.

Earl, “The Veteran.”
Right. And at the end of the season, he was like, “Was our friendship real?” That’s such a heartbreaking thing. “Were you really my friend?” Season two, you had Tim. The guy whom we’re following is not that likable. He’s kind of cheesy. He’s kind of a frat boy. You could totally imagine him, a little guy himself, kicking the littler guy. He thought he was falling in love with Piper, but cultivating a catchphrase along the way: “Jackpot!” When he finally learns that he was tricked this whole time, and it wasn’t a real relationship he was having at all with Piper, and the joke was all on him, he tries to control it. He says “Jackpot!” To me, it’s a better moment than “What is going on?” because it has more levels. It doesn’t mean what Tim thinks it means. That moment of the guy who’s been fooled, and lost everything, trying out his catchphrase in his moment of despair is the perfect Joe Schmo moment to me.

Back to Ingrid, who figured it out. It’s wild that she just became one of the actors tricking Tim.
The storytelling itself was very nimble and gave me a glimpse into what’s possible. Maybe from 1995 until 2003 when I was working on Arrested Development, my storytelling was very structured. The sitcom machine, there’s money behind it. You have to be ready on tape night. There’s very little improv. Arrested Development was still very transitional. It was still an expensive network show — there wasn’t that much improv. But in the storytelling, we were starting to feel more free about playing in the margins. But something like Joe Schmo that mixed genres and the storytelling was very nimble and embraced whatever’s going on, that feels to me like it was more influential later in my career.

How so?
The first time I really dealt with improv a lot was The Life & Times of Tim, a comedy cartoon for HBO. And that’s where I first met Nick Kroll. And Kroll Show was always a balance between what storytelling we planned to do and then what would happen on the day with the improv. We had to adjust the storytelling to fit [the improv]. If Jenny Slate did a really funny improv, that could change the plot of the story we were doing. Kind of like in Joe Schmo, how the real person reacted would change the plot. They didn’t feel so bound by genre parody that everything was dictated from that. The storytelling was so open-ended.

It is hard to be free in your storytelling, when you’ve outlined your story and you’ve got a beat sheet and everything. But then, in the writing, something can surprise you. Do you follow that surprise or course-correct back to the preapproved structure?
My problem with comedy, when I have a problem with comedy, is how predictable it can be — how often you know what’s going to happen. Audiences can be so self-congratulatory when they feel like they’re right there with the creators figuring it out. But I love that feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen and being surprised. My goal is always to be surprising. I think that’s true with Arrested Development; it was true of Kroll Show for sure.

Joe Schmo 2 was certainly surprising.
The details were very impressive, too. The falcon twist was hilarious; the way the falcon would fly in when something happened. The eliminations were very funny. The comedy styling was remarkably fresh.

Joe Schmo resembles modern reality TV more than the shows it was parodying at the time. The meta editing, finding jokes in the edit, is all of reality now.
In Joe Schmo 2, they were doing an extreme parody of a thing that was supposed to be serious at the time. But now the reality shows do it because they’re being funny, too. That was tricky on Kroll Show. We were doing a lot of reality parody, different kinds of reality shows. A lot of times, when we would be trying to directly mirror the reality-show style, it would seem like we were trying to be funny in a way that was falling flat, when really it’s reality shows that try to be funny and fall flat. If you’re doing a really good reality-show parody, you’re doing some stupid stuff. The audience asks, “Is it the reality show that’s doing stupid stuff or the comedy show?” Reality shows now have definitely merged more [into self-parody], probably to the point that it would be harder to tell if you were being fooled. Although, the one they did like five years ago sounded crazy. They did a bounty-hunter thing.

Oh, yeah. Lorenzo Lamas was the first-round elimination. He was playing a heightened version of himself. That was crazy, but Steven Seagal had a reality show where he was a cop.
How do you parody that stuff? That’s why on Kroll Show, we used reality shows more as a way to tell stories. If we had just been parodying them, it would have been low-hanging fruit and not that satisfying.

Let’s go back to how, in Kroll Show, a joke could change whole plots. Because that show did have a lot of low-key serialization. So one joke could not only change one sketch, but change whole episodes down the line.
I was the one who was on top of that. I knew everything that was going on, as far as the state of the different stories, the state of the different scripts. By the time we were in production, most of the writers would be gone. Onstage that day, we’d deliver the script, then all sorts of other things would happen. Nick was in control on the day. But what I’d do every night was take all that, make decisions based on what I’d seen that day, what I thought would make it in the episode, think about how that would affect later episodes, and rewrite. And sometimes it would be little continuity things, but sometimes they would be big things. We’d have to talk about it: Is this great thing that happened in improv today great enough to change what we were going to do later in the season? The serialization was a dialogue that happened between the writing and the improv. It would happen on a daily basis. Every day you’re improvising; every day you’re writing.

Honestly, that sounds like what story producers do now on reality shows.
Right. It was all-consuming for me. I was writing every weekend. It was exhausting for me and Nick for different reasons, but we both felt at the end of three years like we’d done it. It was impossible to do it without being fully immersed.

In your podcast, you did an oral history of a guy who vomited and ruined your show at Aspen. That was kind of a Joe Schmo 1 moment, where you find out the content of somebody’s character is completely different than you thought it was going to be. It turned out they were nicer than you’d imagined or remembered.
That’s true! It all started with a private internet message group that writer Jay Kogen put together 20 years ago, which is where I first met Jill Soloway. It was that group that got together and did Sit n’ Spin in Aspen. So when I started recording this podcast episode, it was just a way to get this group of friends together, and I thought rather than talk about going to the Aspen Comedy Festival in a generic way, I would build it around this story. I assumed that when we caught up with the guy who’d thrown up in the audience that he would be the villain of this piece. He was an agent! I just assumed he was a douchebag. So in telling this story together, we’re getting more mad at him. We’re talking about going to Aspen, what it meant to us to be reading to the crowd there. As we’re talking about it, we’re getting more irritated at this guy who we think blew our big chance 15 years ago. So by the time we finally caught up with him, I was primed to give him a hard time. I had cast him as the idiot who drank at altitude and threw up and ruined my show. In the course of the conversation, not only did he emerge as a more sympathetic character — someone who had been unjustly maligned — he was also very generous.

That’s such a beautiful full-circle thing. Fifteen years ago, your night can be derailed because things aren’t going according to your plan. And after years of experience — and, yes, watching The Joe Schmo Show —you’ve learned to roll with the changes.
He works at Caesars Palace Las Vegas now. He was offering us all discounts to come to Las Vegas anytime, and he was sincere. I believe he would treat us very well in Las Vegas.

John Levenstein on the Surprising Genius of Joe Schmo 2