This week, we’re highlighting 20 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual “Comedians You Should and Will Know.” Our goal with the list is to introduce a wider audience to the talent that has the comedy community and industry buzzing. (You can read more about the methodology at the link above.) This year, for the first time, we also asked the comedians on the list to answer a series of questions about their work and comedy under quarantine. Next up is comedy team Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh.
When did you feel that you were funny enough to make a legitimate go at comedy?
Rajat: I don’t know if there was ever a moment I felt like, Now I’m going to give this a stab seriously. But I think a moment where I felt very validated was when I got a contributor position at ClickHole. I applied through an open call that was just up on the Onion’s job-application portal, so I didn’t expect anything from it. But somehow, they ended up liking the stuff I sent! They barely took anything from me as a contributor, but that was still a really big moment for me. I ended up becoming a writing fellow for ClickHole later, which was another very big moment for me.
Jeremy: I’m worried my answers aren’t very funny, so before I start, I’m going to grease the wheels with a good joke: Fart, pee pee, doo-doo, and ass. [Note for ed: Include link to slide-whistle sound effect here.] My actual answer is that I’ve always resisted thinking I’m funny enough for comedy because, as a self-conscious Jew, I don’t allow myself positive self-talk (though I should). I grew up in a high-achieving upper-middle-class suburb, too, so there was a lot of pressure to pursue an elite education and a good career. A place where adults are, like, squatting down to ask 4-year-olds what colleges they’re eyeing. So despite knowing I wanted to do something in comedy at a young age, I aimed to be successful by those bullshit Ivy-pedigree, NPR-liberal standards. (My family wasn’t of that world, but I felt competitive with the kids whose families were.) Even once I decided I wanted to be in comedy, I was still hedging my bets: My first fantasy was to be like the Simpsons writers and become a math Ph.D. turned comedian, which is of course … fucking delusional!
My junior year of college is when I lost steam and just aspired toward “comedy writer.” I spent those last two years of school desperately trying to be an Onion contributor. I wrote Onion headlines, like, every fucking day. It was a huge relief valve — the first creative thing that I really loved. I became a very low-level Onion freelancer as a senior and felt so fulfilled that I pretty much stopped doing school on a dime and said, Okay, this is my life now. I’m a political comedian, fuck society, fuck the Establishment. I’m a genius, and I’m going to solve the world’s problems with satire. The cool thing is, that’s exactly what happened. Donald Trump never became president because I wrote the 2015 Onion headline “Man Arriving Late Forced to Use Excuse He Was Saving for Leaving Early.” Trump said, “Damn, I have totally done that before,” and felt so seen by the joke that he just up and died.
One last thought I have is about money/power (prospective employers, please stop reading). The prerequisite for making a legitimate go at comedy is not only being funny, but also money. We don’t talk about it, but there are start-up costs. Years of working for free or at a financial loss. That weeds people out. Headshots cost money, late-night internships cost money. Spec scripts, open mics, Onion packets — this very Q&A! — all take time, which the working class has less of. It helps to go to NYU. It helps to go to Yale. It helps to live in New York or L.A. I wrote a whole rant about how, until recently, 99 percent of late-night writers went to Harvard or Brown or Yale, yada yada, but I’m not saying anything new. I’ll leave it at “the system is rigged.” It’s a structural issue. I don’t think the individual people are evil or anything, but it’s something we should be aware of! Doo-doo, pee pee (callback to beginning of answer).
Describe your comedy in five words.
Jeremy: Imitating conceited people, (and also) political satire.
Rajat: Comedy that Rajat made … ok?
If you weren’t a comedian, what would you be doing?
Rajat: This is a tough question. I was a business major in college (I am sorry), and I learned pretty quickly I didn’t really want to be a consultant or investment banker. I think the honest answer to this is that I’d be working some dumb job at a start-up. Or maybe, since I have some experience interning, I’d try to work my way up from PA to being some sort of production guy at some show or something? I’m not sure. I don’t know how true this is, but I’d like to think there’s also a world where maybe I would try to get a job in politics? Before I started working, I applied to a ton of positions with various socialist/progressive politicians’ campaigns because canvassing, phone-banking, all that stuff makes me feel good, helpful, etc. I never got interviews for any of these positions, however, so maybe it’s a bit of a reach to say this.
Jeremy: Probably copywriting, which I did a little bit of before my current job. Once I wrote a Mack Weldon ad for Howard Stern where he called his listeners slobs. There were also points in college where I wanted to teach. I tutored a sixth-grade math class through a work-study program and briefly worked at a kids-oriented math museum. Kids are funny and awesome and say insane shit. Through some miracle I got hooked up with a onetime gig tutoring Rachel Weisz’s son in math (“maths” she called it). It was at their apartment, and she and her husband, James Bond, were really nice. Their kid was as good as me at math (he is 11), and I was not invited back.
I fantasize about doing something more materially helpful for others instead of comedy sometimes. Rajat and I got involved in mutual aid in our respective neighborhoods when the pandemic hit, since we had new fancy jobs and felt responsible to share our resources and time. A lot of comedians are now getting into local politics and housing justice, and they’re joining DSA, and they wonder if they should be doing that full-time, whatever that means. A lot of people having the spontaneous panicky thought of, Oh, shit, I should have been a nurse! It’s a panic- or guilt-induced thought, but it’s a good thing to pay attention to. You can act on that (by having more panic-induced thoughts that debilitate you).
What of your work do you think you’re best known for?
Rajat: People probably know me as the liberal cucklord who got owned by a conservative genius.
Jeremy: Probably a video called “Conservative Lecturer DESTROYS SJW College Student” where I play a Ben Shapiro type that uses logic to school Rajat’s SJW character about whether a mouse in a children’s book is good at sharing his toys. People quote “Define special mouse” at me a lot, which is a line I say in the video, and I’ve seen the phrase in a few Twitter account names. That all is extremely cool to me!
The other thing I do, separate from my work with Rajat, is I make videos where I ramble on and on and sound like an idiot. There’s one where I ask the cast of the movie Tag if they were just “laughing the whole time” and “cracking each other up on set” and “laughing through the scenes,” and that’s my magnum opus to some! I want to do more of these videos because they’re fun and I get to act insane.
What’s some of your work that you’re most proud of?
Jeremy: I’m proud of all the videos I do with Rajat, but the conservative video in particular. That one we put a lot of effort into. We treated it like a real, legitimate production. For months we were super meticulous about every little detail, as if we were working on a high-budget film or something with studio money. We never discussed approaching it that way, but our fascination with the nuances of the “conservative owns SJW” genre naturally led to us laboring over it. Being “detail-oriented” is very much a cover-letter term, but we are actually detail-oriented and believe the more details in our parodies, the better, and the more convincing the thing will be. That’s an Onion thing I learned, I think. Getting the details right and researching how your subject talks makes the satire better. The jokes also just sound funnier against a realistic backdrop. We watched a thousand Ben Shapiro YouTube videos, and I’m glad it wasn’t for naught because he sucks. So, anyway, yeah, we put a lot of work into that one, and I think it paid off, and I have no regrets about how we approached it, which is rare for me!
Rajat: I’m really proud of everything I make with my comedy partner, Jeremy Levick. It’s the classic thing to say about your comedy partner, but he really does make my stuff so better. I think if I had to narrow it down to a specific thing, I really liked our Shane Gillis parody video we did about a year ago because of how organic that was. Jeremy and I were just talking about how insane that Gillis video was, and came up with a joke, filmed it, and put it up within the span of like two hours.
How has quarantine affected the way you approach your comedy and your audience?
Rajat: I don’t know if I approach it any differently now. I was pretty “online” before quarantine, so I honestly don’t think a ton changed for me comedy-wise. I do think this year, with quarantine, BLM, the election, and everything going on, I don’t feel as compelled to make the silly evergreen joke that has nothing to do with anything. I don’t know whether satire works or whatever, but I think I’ve definitely made way more jokes online about politics or opinions that piss me off. It’s definitely not changing the world or anything, but it’s at least a little cathartic for me. I still love to make the silly nothing joke from time to time though.
Jeremy: My Twitter was suspended for four months, and I guess I’m primarily a “Twitter comedian,” so I’ve been cut off from my audience for most of quarantine. So I don’t even remember who my audience is. I think one of them is named Adam. His avatar was a weird-looking cartoon with a hat. That guy was awesome. Actually, I don’t remember if he was awesome.
As far as how quarantine has affected my approach to my comedy, just logistically, Rajat and I had to delay larger-scale ideas and refocus on ideas we can do at home or in person with a few people. In a more abstract sense, this political moment is fucking insane and influences my every thought and all of my writing. And as our national situation gets more dire, I’m less interested in political satire that uses kid gloves to joke about politics (of which there is a lot!), and I feel more of a responsibility to “hold power to account,” as they say. I go more HAM. It’s the same with any political writer right now, I imagine. As our political leaders drop the ball more and more, it makes me want to be tougher and more critical and precise. My jokes are angrier right now, because it’s what the moment calls for. By contrast, a lot of popular political comedy refrains from criticizing Democrats or attacking Republicans too harshly despite the fact that a lot of this shit we’re dealing with is their fault. That infuriates me! But also, like, who cares, comedy is not where the fight is.
On the other side of the coin, I’ve realized how important it is for comedy to be frivolous and pointless. People also want a break from all this stuff! There’s a Trump joke–industrial complex now (I coined that term) because some executives decided in 2016 that America loves Trump jokes and only Trump jokes. But fatigue sets in, and sometimes you want nonsense. What I refer to as Rajat’s “nasty jokes” make me laugh harder than anything right now, for example. That’s currently the funniest thing in my life. Rajat and I take politics and what we say about politics very seriously, which is draining day in, day out, so when Rajat Slacks me a picture of a llama nuzzling another llama’s crotch, it breaks my brain. Nothing is funnier to me than investing my energy for a full day into processing and commenting on the most traumatic news I’ve ever read and working hard at the most demanding job I’ve ever had — probably the best job I could possibly have to lose — and seeing that Rajat has said “self-suck” in a company-monitored Slack channel. We worked hard to get our job, and we’re honestly very good at it, and we wonder if we’ve just risked losing it constantly, which makes us laugh even harder.
Everyone needs a chance to laugh at stupid bullshit sometimes. I try to be thoughtful about political satire, yada yada yada, but I also try to be just funny. Rajat and I like fuck-around jokes that are just stupid. Everyone does. You always need that stuff.
What have you done in quarantine for comedy that you thought you would never do?
Rajat: I guess I’ve done some of these online comedy shows that are a little tough because there’s no audience. It definitely isn’t as gratifying an experience because there’s no immediate reaction you’re getting, but I got used to them and kind of think they actually work better for my whole “shtick” to be quite honest.
Who are some of your favorite comedians right now? Who is putting out work that excites and inspires you?
Rajat: I’m going to have a really long answer for this if that’s okay. There’s such a long list of underappreciated comedy writers and performers. I will definitely forget some, and I am going to get so pissed at myself later for it. All right here we go …
Lorelei Ramirez is always doing the craziest shit, and it always makes me laugh really hard. The Three Busy Debras — Sandy Honig, Alyssa Stonoha, and Mitra Jouhari — are of course amazing; everyone should watch their show on Adult Swim. Colin Burgess, my roommate, is also insanely funny. Colin and Tynan DeLong make really good and funny short videos together that everyone should check out. My friends Zach Dunn and Jake Bender are the wannabe Jeremy and Rajat on the West Coast, but I like them a lot and think they’re really funny. My friend from ClickHole, Grace Thomas, makes really unique and funny stuff that I dig. Another friend from ClickHole, Chris Gilman, sometimes sends me scripts he wrote just for fun that honestly require me to shut my computer every so often because I’m laughing so fucking hard.
ClickHole and the Onion have made some of the funniest stuff ever in my opinion. There are some old ONN clips Jeremy and I rewatch a lot, and I take a trip through old 2014–2015 ClickHole stuff every now and then to feel inspired. “Beautiful!” Haha. That’s just some ClickHole speak for all of you (A side note: Almost immediately after I started contributing to ClickHole at a higher capacity, ClickHole started to lose funding FAST. Draw your own conclusions from this.) The writing staff at Tooning Out the News — Jeremy, Jack Bensinger, Brittany Van Horne, Maureen Monahan, Addison Anderson, Bob Powers, Naima Pearce, Ike Ufomadu — also cracks me the fuck up. Eric Rahill makes videos that are truly insane and I love them. Scotty Nelson also does videos that are extremely quotable and funny. Jeremy and I also laugh really hard at Nick Grunerud’s super-hammed-up fake songs. There’s also the cartoonist Pants (Josh Mecouch) — his stuff is very cool to me. The characters in his cartoons have such three-dimensional emotions. I love it. Also, I don’t know them, or even know people who know them, but the minds behind PEN15, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, are some of the funniest people I’ve ever seen on television. Not controversial to say or anything, but Succession is also one of my favorites on TV right now.
I think of course you guys should know I think Jeremy is the funniest person I’ve ever met, too. When I was a freshman in college, I remember reading a piece in an issue of the college comedy magazine about a scared kid who asks his dad what a boner is, and the dad is being absolutely insane, saying shit like, “Haha, idk man, I think that means your dick falls off lol.” Jeremy wrote that damn piece! I also specifically remember Jeremy running those magazine meetings, and reading out the most insane shit in the driest voice imaginable. It was so fucking funny to me.
Jeremy: I’ll break it up into political and not political. There are not a ton of comedians who do the kind of political stuff I like, but I think the Onion is the gold standard for satire, and I think Chapo Trap House is the funniest shit ever. Both are ruthless and critical of power, which good satire is supposed to be, and, unlike most of the TV landscape, they’re allowed to acknowledge when Democrats fuck up. Most political comedy we see has undergone corporate filtering, which defeats the purpose of “satire.” Chapo, in particular, inspires me because they’re one of the few popular political comedy outlets that ruthlessly critiques other media outlets and media figures. And do it in a funny way. Coming at power from the left without pulling punches is not typically considered financially viable by the people who finance things, so it’s reaffirming to see others not only do it but prove there’s an audience for it. Rajat and I also currently work on a political comedy show that satirizes centrist news media, which is a very rare and cool opportunity! A lot of the people I write with on that show are extremely funny and do satire well and inspire me every day: Brittany Van Horne, Rajat, Maureen Monahan, Jack Bensinger, Ike Ufomadu, Naima Pearce, Bob Powers, and Addison Anderson, Meg Stalter, Simone Norman.
Non-political stuff I’m loving: Tim Robinson is the funniest performer and his show I Think You Should Leave made me laugh really hard. A lot of Brooklyn alt-comedy people we’ve worked with are people whose comedy I love. Lorelei Ramirez, Colin Burgess, Sandy Honig, and Jack Bensinger all make crack my shit up. I love Eric Rahill’s videos. I feel weird mentioning his name because he’s more of a friend of a friend and I’ve never even met him, but I think Clay Tatum is so funny.
There’s also a lot of good not (explicitly) comedic stuff that all informs my work and inspires me. Kristoffer Borgli is a filmmaker I’ve met online whose work is really inspiring to me lately. The Safdie brothers, Naomi Fry, cartoonists like Josh Mecouch and Will Laren, I like Ben Lerner’s books, I love Sally Rooney’s books, too, which might be basic. Sue me! It’s corny, but Bernie inspires me. Lastly, I’m inspired by the people keeping good online journalism and fun internet alive in the face of gross billionaires and private equity vultures and Facebook. Some newer publications I’m liking a lot are Jewish Currents, Drift, and the former Deadspin writers’ new site Defector, which they run entirely themselves. You should subscribe to them!
What is the best comedy advice, and then the worst comedy advice, you’ve ever received, either when you were starting out or more recently?
Rajat: I think the best advice I got was kind of unspoken. In college, I think I felt really bogged down by everyone I knew doing comedy being hot/cool or clawing for fame — I even got caught up in that a little bit and it felt pretty bad. I’m going on and on about this, but when I joined my college’s comedy magazine — which was run by Jeremy and one of my other good friends, Calvin Lord — they were just kind of dicking around. Nobody read the magazine either. I think the readership might have been less than 20 people outside the writers, and that’s including the friends of the writers. It really helped me just have fun doing comedy rather than seeking something from it. I specifically remember the stuff in the magazine didn’t have a “structure” or anything, which felt really cool. At one point, it felt like everyone was doing extremely structured sketch comedy that’s just a very clear “Here’s the game; here’s beat 1, beat 2, beat 3; and here’s the button!” structure. Honestly, I felt everything I made that followed those structures felt so uninspired and unoriginal, so the magazine was great for me. I don’t know if this counts as “advice,” but I think it helped me a lot.
For worst advice, I always used to hear that you have to churn out one million jokes to get one good one, or one million bad scripts to get to one good one. And I honestly think that’s just a recipe for making bad, uninspired stuff. After hearing this, I would just write a bullshit spec script for no reason other than that somebody told me my first couple scripts were going to be bad. Also, at ClickHole, I would shit out headline lists that were like 50 headlines long. Then during the meeting I would have to listen to the EIC read out 50 straight headlines to deafening silence. Yeah, that stuff is gonna suck because when you feel like you’re doing reps, like you’re working out or something, you’re going to make uninspired shit. In my opinion, you could very well just write a good thing right off the bat. You should always be inspired or excited by what you are creating. That is what I think.
Jeremy: The only ones that stick out in my mind right now are the ones that are bad that I’ve later retold as anecdotes. In college I wrote for a comedy magazine called the Plague, and we invited Mike Sacks to speak to us, and Mike told us not to consume comedy, just to write it. He said, “Don’t watch The Simpsons.” I instantly felt targeted because I had literally just started rewatching The Simpsons. At the time I didn’t have the authority to say definitively that’s weird advice, but now I feel confident saying that’s weird advice. I think the idea behind it is to not get stuck just consuming comedy, because eventually your time is just better spent honing your voice and trying your own material, etc. Anyway I watch The Simpsons all the time, and it’s funny and makes my day better, so fuck off Mike Sacks! Maybe this will come back to bite me. I’m gonna get impaled by a Simpsons DVD one day and die.
In all seriousness, Mike Sacks’s books are pretty helpful, and I think reading interviews of people whose careers you like can be very instructive.
Tell us one story from your childhood that is a good representation of your life.
Rajat: When I was in fourth grade, I had a crush on a girl and talked to her every day because her cubby, locker, or whatever was right next to my desk. One day in math class, our teacher asked a question and I raised my hand (math was kind of my subject), and my teacher just, like, refused to call on me? I remember thinking that my teacher must be racist or something, but then I looked around and saw a lot of people staring at me. I looked over at my crush, and saw she had the most disgusted look I’ve ever seen in my life. Then, I felt my upper lip, and it was absolutely drenched in snot. I never talked to her the same way ever again. Humiliating.
Jeremy: When I was 7, my parents asked me where I’ll be when I’m 26, and I said, “Working at the CBS All Access program Tooning Out the News, being friends with Rajat, and living with four roommates in Crown Heights where I pay $825 a month for rent. A pandemic is going to happen, but I’ll still keep my job, which is definitely very lucky, with, you know, everything going on,” and then I did the “everything going on right now” gesture.
Assuming quarantine ends at some point, is there anything about the way that comedy or the industry in general has changed that you hope continues post-quarantine?
Rajat: Maybe I’m cynical, but I’ve only really been seeing how quarantine has made people who work below the line in comedy (and working-class people in other industries) get even more exploited (as if they weren’t already). But I like this question because it forces me to not be cynical. I don’t know whether it’s because there’s a huge election coming up in November, but I’ve been seeing a lot of comedians use their platform to amplify progressive/socialist campaigns and messages, which is something I really dig and think should keep happening. I also like some elements of writers’ rooms being remote I guess. But, I also do miss seeing my co-workers in person. So maybe if quarantine ends, there could be a good balance of remote rooms and in-person rooms.
Jeremy: Because we write together at our job, Rajat and I Zoom each other every day. I love seeing Rajat every day. When quarantine ends, I hope I continue to see Rajat every day.