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Michelle Buteau Is One Dope Talk Show Host

“There’s no budget for black hair in public radio,” Michelle Buteau laments as a woman with waist-length braids wraps sections of the comedian’s voluminous hair around a curling iron. Buteau sits with her feet propped up on a chair in a small green room at WNYC’s Greene Space, just south of the West Village, where she’ll soon be taping an episode of Late Night Whenever, her new talk show–style podcast. When I ask if it hurts, having her hair pulled and pinned like that, she lifts her shirt and points to her high-waisted jeans. “This is way more painful. I just saw Louie Anderson on Bill Maher, and I’m like, that’s what my tummy looks like. That’s my future.”

As a video editor at WNBC in her early twenties, Buteau used to sneak her friends into 30 Rock for “ten-cent tours” of the iconic skyscraper, ushering them onto soundstages and inviting them to sit behind Conan O’Brien’s desk. “I always felt like, I’m not good enough to get on SNL but I’m good enough to work in the building!” she quips. More than fifteen years later, Buteau is the one behind the proverbial desk. Late Night Whenever, which launched in early April, is taped before a live studio audience at the Greene Space every Tuesday night, on a small stage outfitted to look like a cozy living room (there’s no actual desk): bright-orange armchair; funky patterned throw pillows on a gray couch; a small cabinet holding knickknacks, including a framed photo of Oprah. In each episode, Buteau gets personal with her guests — so far, they’ve included The Detour’s Jason Jones, Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., and cabaret star Bridget Everett — as well as her keyboard-bound sidekick, the prolific music director Rob Lewis (“My black Dr. Phil”).

At forty, Buteau has been doing stand-up for seventeen years. Alongside her pal Jordan Carlos, Buteau hosts a semi-regular show called #Adulting — in which the comics dispense advice and interview guests — which recently outgrew its Union Hall space and has moved to the Bell House. She appeared in the very first episode of 2 Dope Queens, the WNYC podcast–turned–HBO-special hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, and has since earned unofficial “third dope queen” status. A New Jersey native born to a Haitian father and a Jamaican mother, Buteau worked in broadcast journalism throughout college and into her early to mid twenties — until 9-11 hit, and the stress of editing gruesome video in sixteen-hour overnight shifts took its toll.

“I had no money,” she recalls, “so I would eat at Dojo’s all the time, because I could get crispy chicken and salad and green tea for, like, six dollars. And I would just read all the free magazines.” She saw an ad for the American Comedy Institute in one of those free publications, the Village Voice, and that was it. She took a course, started performing stand-up, and never stopped.

Michelle-Buteau, Comedian
Gina Yashere and Bridget Everett chat with Michelle Buteau on “Late Night Whenever”

Buteau came up in the gay cabaret scene, honing her act at Manhattan bars like Marie’s Crisis, Don’t Tell Mama, Duplex, and Therapy. When a friend who was doing audience booking for Maury offered her a warm-up gig — talk shows often trot out a comedian to get the audience in the mood before taping — Buteau didn’t even ask how much it paid before saying yes. (It paid in pizza.) She started holding dance contests to get the crowd going, and quickly figured out that she fed off the energy of her audience. She landed her first TV gig in 2005, appearing on the now-defunct Comedy Central stand-up showcase Premium Blend.

Buteau met Robinson and, later, Williams, in 2012. “We all live in Brooklyn, and if you’re performing and have brown titties, you usually end up knowing each other,” she says. It was Robinson — whom Buteau calls a “hustler,” and who in addition to 2 Dope Queens has written a book, appeared in the TV series Search Party and I Love Dick, and launched a solo WNYC podcast called Sooo Many White Guys — who urged Buteau to get involved with the New York–based NPR affiliate. Buteau pulls out her phone and plays me a voicemail Robinson sent her almost two years ago to the day, after the first episode of 2 Dope Queens: “WNYC really likes you and they, like, loved your set,” the recording begins. “I think you should maybe try to pitch a show there.”

Buteau took Robinson’s advice and met with the fine people of WNYC. She pitched them her favorite kind of program: a late-night talk show. “SNL’s great, but I’m not into sketch or character or accents,” she says. “Watching Johnny Carson or Arsenio Hall, that just looks like so much fucking fun. Everyone’s having a blast — the band’s having a blast, the guy holding the cue cards behind the camera’s cracking up, and I’m like, what kind of party is this?”

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Of course, Late Night Whatever is a party only for your ears. But its talk show format is simply a more structured version of the now-ubiquitous podcasts on which a roundtable of chatty nerds voice their opinions on various topics. And Buteau has found a receptive audience in the podcasting world. “When someone’s like, ‘What kind of show do you want to do,’ even if it’s a podcast, you better say what kind of show you want to do, otherwise it’s your fault if it doesn’t work out,” she says, recalling her meeting with the WNYC brass. “So I was like, ‘I want to do a late-night show with a lot of feelings, and I want to say fuck.’ And they were like, ‘Cool.’ ”

Buteau has reached the stage of her career, and her life, when she’s comfortable with who she is, and that sense of ease is apparent on Late Night Whenever. She jokes about her husband, who is Dutch and apparently laid-back enough to be cool with her mentioning that he’s European white, a/k/a uncircumcised. She calls people “honey,” and smoothly strikes up conversations with people in the audience. Buteau is funny even when she’s not telling jokes, which is a skill that’s harder than it looks: During a stand-up set at the Greene Space for the variety show 44 Charlton, she chuckles, “Did you guys pay for this? I should tell you some jokes.” When an audience member yells out, “No need!” she doesn’t miss a beat before shooting back, “No need? Perfect, I don’t have any. I just have a raging camel toe that I can’t pick.”

With Late Night Whenever set to run through the end of June — this week’s guests are Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks and High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair — and an April 23 instalment of #Adulting featuring SNL’s Leslie Jones, Buteau is feeling confident. “I want to be the Steve Harvey with titties, have, like, seventeen different shows!” she insists. She’s grateful that in the years since she started stand-up, there are more avenues to success than landing a multi-cam sitcom.

“I’m a size eighteen right now,” she says. “My mom used to straighten my hair and cover my freckles. I have done everything for society, and now I’m fucking done. I’m just really excited for people to hear my shit.”

New episodes of Late Night Whenever drop Tuesdays. The next #Adulting show will be April 23 at 7 p.m. at the Bell House.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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Scott Thompson on Buddy Cole and the Plight of the Queer Comic

Former Kids in the Hall member Scott Thompson birthed the gay barfly Buddy Cole over three decades ago. But the character has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past few years, popping up at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, as a special correspondent for The Colbert Report, and on Vulture’s recent list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy.

If you grew up watching The Kids in the Hall — the legendary Canadian sketch series that aired from 1988 to 1995 and shot Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, and Dave Foley to cult stardom — the trailblazing Thompson might’ve been the first openly gay performer you saw on TV. These days, he splits his time between Toronto and Los Angeles, where he lives and performs stand-up both as Buddy Cole and as himself. After years battling gastric lymphoma, the 58-year-old is cancer-free and feeling creatively renewed.

At Joe’s Pub on Sunday and Tuesday, the Canadian comic will perform his one-man show Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues, composed of material he’s amassed since The Kids in the Hall went off the air. And on Monday, the Stonewall Inn hosts the 20th-anniversary re-release of the fictional memoir Buddy Babylon: The Autobiography of Buddy Cole, by Thompson and his writing partner Paul Bellini. Thompson spoke to the Voice about the perils of performing while openly gay, the joys of stirring things up, and finding satisfaction in the work and not the results.

Buddy Cole is this guy who’s been there, done that, seen everything there is to see. But of course, you were pretty young when you created the character.

I hadn’t done anything! I was practically a virgin! I mean literally, a virgin! In every sense of the word. I was pretending to be this world-weary homosexual at the fin de siècle. It’s ludicrous!

Do you feel like you relate to the character more now?

Yes, I think I’m better at being him now, actually.

I wonder, if you were starting out today, if you would have performed some of this material just as yourself, rather than in character.

If I was young today, I don’t think there’s any question I would have become a stand-up comedian. I think that’s exactly where I would have gone. I’ve been judged by people who say, “Oh, that’s such a stereotype, you’re such a Stepin Fetchit.” But people don’t really have any idea what things were like for gay people. Buddy Cole was something that I had to create — he was my mouthpiece. You couldn’t really stand up there and be yourself. Not in those days, particularly the ’80s and ’90s, with AIDS just decimating the gay community. Gay men were in a terrible, terrible state.

I know you’ve been performing as Buddy Cole for a long time, and lately it seems like he’s been popping up all over the place. But there was a long stretch when Buddy went quiet.   

I had a one-man show that was supposed to open in New York on September 19, 2001. It was a show I’d been working on for a year, and it was about, ironically, terrorism. It was supposed to open blocks away from Ground Zero, and the first monologue was about Buddy Cole’s relationship with Osama bin Laden, if you can imagine. I just became toxic. They canceled my show and I went back home, and I tried to re-do it in Toronto a few months later, but it just was destroyed by the critics.

Jesus. How did you pull yourself out of that funk?

I went into a depression, and it lasted quite a long time. Then around 2005, 2006, I had a revelation that I got my joy out of the work rather than the results. That was the beginning of me coming back to myself, in terms of figuring out who I was. I was furious about how I wasn’t given the same opportunities as other people because I was openly gay, and that just made me crazy. After that, things started getting better. The first show I wrote after The Lowest Show on Earth, which is the show that went down in New York, was called Catastrophe, and that was about that show, about what happened, and about my relationship with my brother, who had committed suicide. It’s a very dark show! I would have continued doing it, but then I got cancer. My life circumstances had changed so drastically — it just felt like, another room has opened up, and I can’t really pretend that this is the thing I’m most concerned about any longer.

You’ve never been afraid of making people uncomfortable. Do you find you get pushback today from a different segment of the audience than you might have back in the 1980s and 90s?

There will always be pushback, but it’s always coming from different directions. People are uncomfortable, and I’m, like, well, that’s where I live. I enjoy stirring things up. I think it’s important. That’s what a comedian should do.

What do people push back on these days?

Anything to do with religion or race or gender or sexual orientation, people get very uptight about. But right now the thing that people are most uptight about is Me Too. That is an issue that men are not supposed to discuss. But I’m very lucky, because I’m a gay man, so I’m allowed.

I actually think it would be great if more men were talking about this.

What I wish is that men and women would talk honestly with each other. Because the way that men talk with each other and the way that women talk with each other — they’re different languages.

You’ve been performing a lot of stand-up in L.A. these days. What has that been like?

I basically say yes to everything. I’m at a club three times a week at least. It’s amazing, I’m thrilled by it. Last night I did this show, I didn’t get home till 12:30, 1 o’clock. I’m like, what the fuck am I doing? Everybody my age is getting ready to retire! Retire? It makes me ill to think about it. I’m with all these people that are 20 years younger than me, at least. I feel revitalized right now.

And you’re re-releasing your Buddy Cole book, too.

It’s the 20th anniversary of Buddy Babylon, which I’m extremely excited about because when the book came out 20 years ago, no one even reviewed it. I think it got one Canadian review. And they trashed it. The Canadian literary establishment, as I’ve discovered, hates comedy. Hates it. Oh, they’re so uptight! I also think homophobia was so much worse then, a male critic would have to pretend he didn’t know what I was talking about just to make sure that his heterosexual credentials were in order. I really believe that. When people would tell me that I was their favorite on Kids in the Hall, if it was a straight male, they’d whisper it like it was a dark secret. Don’t tell anyone, but I like you as much as Bruce. Everyone was trying to prove they weren’t a fag.

Well, what could be worse?

It’s still the worst thing you can call a man. I do think male homosexuality is different than female homosexuality, and it is seen as much worse. A male falls from grace, and a female, when she sleeps with other women — this is my theory — in some ways, she moves up in power. Because she’s going after the same thing that straight males go after, and she’s taking on masculine traits, to be politically incorrect.

It’s also just something straight men like to think about, and the entertainment industry basically turns on what straight, white men find appealing.

People say, “Oh, the young kids, they’re all gender-fluid.” I go, “No, the girls are.” But boys aren’t. Boys aren’t kissing each other to turn on girls!

You’ve talked about queer comics being “castrated” by not talking about sex more explicitly. Do you still find that’s the case, or are queer comics talking a bit more openly now?

Oh, absolutely, it’s changed. They’re still not going to the next level. There’s still never been an openly gay male comic that’s a star. Not one.

I’m racking my brain right now….

Everyone does that, they rack their brain thinking I’m exaggerating and then no one can come up with a name. There’s James Adomian and Guy Branum and Andrew Johnston and Ted Morris and Darcy Michael — none of them. And I think that’s really sad.

People often talk about you being “ahead of your time.” It’s nice to get recognition, but maybe it would have been nicer at the time.

When you’re young, you can say it, when you’re young. It would have been nice if it had happened when I was doing it. It would have made things a little easier. One of the things I’ve learned in life is, there’s no money in being first. There’s really only — I wouldn’t even say glory, because the glory comes after you’re dead. When you’re first through the door, you just have to accept that the person who’s third is going to get all the attention.

 

Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues
Joe’s Pub
425 Lafayette Street
April 1 and 3, 9:30 p.m.
www.publictheater.org

Buddy’s Back!
The Stonewall Inn
53 Christopher Street
April 2, 7 p.m.
www.thestonewallinnnyc.com

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Bill Hader on “Barry,” Reading the Russians, and Learning to Write on “South Park”

It’s been five years since Bill Hader left Saturday Night Live, where he’d been a cast member since 2005. In that time, the 39-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has played a man recovering from a suicide attempt in The Skeleton Twins, alongside Kristen Wiig; the love interest in Amy Schumer’s 2015 rom-com Trainwreck; and a variety of roles on the mockumentary TV series Documentary Now!, which he created with another former SNL star, Fred Armisen. This past weekend, Hader returned to Studio 8H for his second SNL hosting gig.

In Barry, a new HBO comedy created by Hader and former Seinfeld writer Alec Berg, premiering on March 25, Hader plays a former Marine-turned-hitman named Barry Berkman who discovers his true calling when he travels to Los Angeles for a job. Tasked with killing a man on behalf of a Chechen mob ring, Barry follows his target to an acting class. There, he finds his people.

Co-starring Henry Winkler as the acting coach who changes Barry’s life; Stephen Root as Fuches, Barry’s boss; and Sarah Goldberg as Sally, a fellow aspiring actor and the object of Barry’s affection, Barry is anchored by Hader’s somber, darkly comic performance. The series combines a clichéd Hollywood conceit — a hitman who’s dead inside, dulled by his time in the military — with another cliché that’s closer to home: L.A. wannabes yearning for their big break. The result is a show that subtly tests both of those familiar scenarios in surprising ways.

I spoke to Hader in February at the Midtown offices of HBO, eight blocks south of his home for eight years. “Just being on Sixth Avenue, I’m like, oh, 30 Rock’s right over there,” he remarked with a sigh. He’d flown in from L.A., where he lives with his three children, the night before, and he was still a little jet-lagged. A particularly vicious strain of the flu was snaking its way through the country. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and a black beanie, and we did not shake hands. “Just wash your hands, that’s all you can really do,” he said. “Wash your hands and don’t touch your face.”

How does it feel to be back in New York?

It’s always a bit anxiety-inducing, because this city is just about SNL for me.

You’ve talked about feeling anxious during your SNL years.

Yeah, I was very anxious. But you just try to calm down the best you can and just work through it.

Does L.A. help with that? It’s pretty chill out there, right?

Yeah, it’s pretty chill, even though you sit in your car a lot.

Watching Barry, I was thinking about your move to L.A. from Tulsa, when you were twenty. How much, if any, of the scenes with the aspiring actors came from your early years in the city?

I wanted to be a filmmaker, so it wasn’t so much “aspiring actor,” but it was still a community of people who wanted to be filmmakers and things like that. The emotions Barry is going through is a bit like how I was when I got Saturday Night Live — he’s sitting at that bar with those people and he’s like, I just want to be a part of this.

There’s a moment in the show when your character says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I just had this flash of you, Bill Hader, saying that about your time on SNL; this sense of weariness.

Yeah, yeah.

Did that play into the character?

A bit. Not when he says that in the show, necessarily, because when I said I couldn’t do SNL anymore, it was more because I had a young family and living in New York was too hard. It’s a grind after a while. I always admired people like Kenan Thompson or Fred Armisen, who seemed really chill and were just having fun. It was a real struggle for me every week. I was very, very, very nervous, and I’ve always had a lot of anxiety, since I was a kid. I was just having to work through that every week.

The idea of people saying, “Hey, you’re really good at this” — that played into Barry, that emotion: What if the thing you’re good at is destroying you? Alec [Berg] and I had another idea that was much more like the shows you would see now that would be fronted by a comedian. We like those shows, but once we were working on that, I went, “We only have 30 minutes to tell this story, and it’s just nice when there’s really high stakes, and the highest stakes are life and death, so what if I was a hitman?” And he went, “Ugh, I hate the word ‘hitman,’ I hate what it conjures up in my mind.” And I said “No, no, what if it was me?” And he started laughing.

Somehow, we got on the acting class really quick — the idea that acting classes are kind of like group therapy. The hitman world is living in the shadows, and the acting world is in the spotlight, and so you have this conflict there: If he achieves his goal, which is to be an actor, and to be a good actor, and be seen, he’ll probably get killed. You’re weirdly rooting for him to achieve something that will get him murdered.

It’s funny that Alec Berg rolled his eyes when you said “hitman” because when I first heard the description of the show, I was like, ugh, a show about a hitman.

Exactly. I get it. I mean, people said that to me — “I’m doing a show about a hitman”; “Oh, one of those.” And I’m like, yeah, but just wait. You’ll see, it’s different.

It feels like a show made by people who are really immersed in the world of film and TV. There was a lot of subtle commentary on the clichés that I thought the show was going to just propagate.

A movie we kept talking about was Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood movie. That western is all about Clint Eastwood as a retired gunslinger and they come and take him out of retirement to go find some guys and kill them. But he hates killing, and there’s a scene where he has nightmares from murdering people. And then this young kid’s like, “Oh, you’re the famous gunslinger who murdered all these people.” And he’s just totally haunted by it, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s when I drank. When I drank, I killed people, it’s fucked up, basically.” We mythologize violence in this country, and that movie’s so brilliant because you end up seeing the guy for what he is, and it’s brutal, and it’s incredibly sad. Alec and I talked about that — it should be sad.

But the thing we learned was, if you went too hard [in that direction] it started to feel didactic and a bit maudlin for us. Because Alec and I both have kids, there’s this very conscious idea of children — Barry gets the car at the beginning and there’s a car seat in the back. It’s this idea of, what are you gonna give to another generation? These things are rolling around in his head, [but] he can’t talk like that, so it’s like how, visually, can you put it in there, and maybe five people out of a thousand will maybe understand that? But for us, that meant something. It was very important to be like, no, there has to be a car seat in the back of the car.

But you don’t want to necessarily zoom in on it.

The movies I like, you kind of pick up on things, and they let you come to it a bit. That’s why you do it at HBO. I think if we were at a big network, they’d be like, “There has to be a funny fight between him and this guy, and the guy has to accidentally kill himself, because you can’t have Barry killing somebody, because we want him to be likable. You want to be able to root for him.” But he murders people. I want people to feel a bit conflicted watching him. Alec’s good friends with [Game of Thrones co-creator] David Benioff, and David Benioff watched some of the episodes and he was like, “Man, that ending of episode three is so dark.” And I thought, you made Game of Thrones!

Bill Hader and Sarah Goldberg in a scene from “Barry”

The show is funny, it’s just that the humor doesn’t announce itself — it’s not like, “Hi, I’m a joke, and I’m here to make the scene lighter.”

I think what you’re describing is, when you start with a joke first, and go, “How do we shoehorn this moment into a scene?” It’s easier when the scene has the emotions right, and has the point right, and it can be totally straight. I always approach things more from the standpoint of, what’s a good story? What’s a story that’s interesting, and let’s just concentrate on that. If we can make a good script and a good story, I think we’re in good shape. And then after that, it’s like, so I guess I play Barry. It would be logical for me to play Barry.

Why “Barry”?

We were in the meeting pitching it [to HBO], and I said, “And his name’s, I don’t know, like, Barry.” And they laughed. Then Mike Lombardo, I remember, who was running HBO at the time, was like, “That should be the name of the show.”

It kind of sounds like a show about a goofy dad. Barry!

Look at this asshole! I like the font we have, the red font — we took forever to just figure that out. What’s a funny font?

Did you know you wanted to do a half-hour series?

I had no idea. I had the deal [with HBO] first and then it was like, well they gave me money for this deal, I have to turn in a script. Then I realized a lot of people make their living that way, not turning in anything. I remember being on a set, just freaking out: “I have to have an idea for HBO!” And people were like, “No, you don’t. You just didn’t come up with something, they deal with that all the time.” And I was like, “No, I can’t deal with that, I have to turn in something.”

How did you hook up with Alec Berg?

We have the same agent, and the agent said, “You should work with Alec Berg.” We just hit it off. I think we’re just two people that — so much of it is just doing it, and going, “Alright, let’s meet up at this diner every Tuesday.” He was doing Silicon Valley, and Tuesdays were good [for him]. So we met up at this diner at 8 a.m. every Tuesday and just ate breakfast and talked out ideas. His mentorship period came from Seinfeld, and mine, as far as a writers’ room, is South Park. We’re kind of structure guys. Some people like it to just be very free-flowing, and our attitude is, “I’ve got 30 minutes, and I don’t like wasting people’s time.”

The thing I’m very proud of when I watch this show is, these scripts are really tight. Each scene has its purpose that moves the story along. We’re not fucking around. And then to be funny on top of that and be emotional on top of that is good. You gotta have a structure. The biggest thing I learned at South Park was, Trey Parker would go up to the board and he’d have the show lined out by acts, three acts. And then he would go, “It’s all ‘and, and, and,’” and I didn’t know what that meant. He’d go, “This happens, and this happens, and this happens. It needs to be this happens, so therefore this happens, but then….” And I fucking use that all the time. It makes you crazy. Barry gets called to L.A., so therefore he goes to L.A. and he’s gotta go kill Ryan. So therefore, he goes to the Chechens, they give him his assignment, so therefore he goes to tail Ryan and kill him. But he gets to the acting class and decides he likes the acting class, so he goes and hangs with them, so he doesn’t [kill Ryan], so therefore Fuches has to come. You know? It’s all causal. Coincidences now really bother me in stories. So that person just happened to be walking by when that robbery was happening? That’s why the best movies, weirdly, are these animated movies. If you want to see perfect structure, watch those Pixar movies. And Paddington 2, I will say —

Everyone fucking loves Paddington 2!

I took my kids to see Paddington 2, and I was like, that’s a perfect movie.

What’s so great about it?

It’s exquisitely made. And it’s really sweet, and everyone in it is having a ton of fun. It has its own fairy-tale kind of logic to it, but I was always engaged. It was just incredibly charming. Also, I just really respect all those British actors because they’re not afraid to be in an ensemble, you know what I mean? I feel like sometimes in the States, I don’t know if they’re afraid, but it’s just kind of like, “Well, how big’s my part?”

There’s a real every-man-for-himself feel to it here.

And I’ve never been that way, because I came out of SNL where it was a big ensemble and you could be the lead of one sketch and the next sketch you’re a waiter saying, “Can I take your order?” Brendan Gleeson’s one of the greatest dramatic actors, [and] he’s in Paddington as this really funny curmudgeon, and you can tell he’s taking it as seriously as he would the movie Calvary or whatever. He’s really going for it! And Noah Taylor, who, I mean, god, Shine, he was unreal in that movie, and he’s like, one of the prisoners in Paddington 2. That’s a job. They’re taking it seriously, which is cool.

It seems like you’re drawn to performers or projects that don’t fit into just one category — like, the idea that not everything has to be separated into comedy and drama, etc.

Yeah, exactly, or like, you leave SNL and there’s a very clear career for you. I did Skeleton Twins, and people were like, hmm. HBO is a nice place — “We really liked Skeleton Twins, do you want to do more stuff like that?”

Your character in Skeleton Twins did remind me of Barry, because it’s a pretty somber performance but then there are moments where you’ll crack a smile or raise an eyebrow and it’s like, oh yeah, it’s Bill Hader.

They’re both depressed, but even depressed people have moments of at least trying to elevate yourself out of the swamp. The hope with Barry is that he goes someplace as a character. There is a thing on television of, keep it the same, because people are tuning in for a thing that they like. Stories change, and people change. They have a forward momentum, even if it’s some gigantic — like, I read War and Peace.

You did? When?

Like, two years ago. I just knuckled down and did it, and I think it’s because I didn’t really go to college so I read these big books and people are like, “Why are you reading that?” I don’t know!

I have a B.A. and an M.A. and I’ve never read War and Peace.

I know, it’s so dumb. My friends are like, “What are you trying to prove?” So many people like George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen, all these people talk about the Russians and how great they are and how great this book is, and I wanted to see what the hubbub is.

And?

I mean, I needed an online guide to understand a lot of the shit, the names were confusing. It was hard, it took me forever. But the one thing that stuck with me was the characters, how they changed. There are great sections of a guy going into battle and the fear he’s feeling.

The interiority.

Yeah, and like, Anna Karenina, there’s a thing where she comes back and she sees her husband that she’s not in love with anymore, and there’s just a whole thing about his ears. Do you know what I mean? His ears are getting on her nerves. This was written in the nineteenth century, and nothing’s changed. I totally relate. Picking up on little things, someone’s annoying you and you pick up on a thing —

Did you see Phantom Thread?

Yes.

The toast!

That made me laugh so hard. He’s just staring at her. But it is, it’s that thing — that’s just a part of being a human. That’s the thing I got from reading those Tolstoy books. You see it in Tolstoy, and then I see it in a Kurosawa movie, like Ikiru, and then you see it in Phantom Thread. Or, to be honest, Girls Trip. There are moments in that where I’m like, “Yeah, that’s totally true!” I totally got emotional watching Girls Trip, and it might have been because I was on a plane. But I was really moved, weirdly, by the end of that movie.

What did you take away from that?

I just liked that she stuck up for herself, and that being honest was the thing that was celebrated. And like everybody, I think Tiffany Haddish is a fucking genius. She is unbelievably funny. But you have no idea what the thing is that will affect you. The thing I’m always trying to get to in writing is, what’s the finite humanity of the thing? What’s the thing we all can say, “Right? That! That’s a real thing, right?” Have you seen Ikiru, by Kurosawa? Ikiru’s unreal. What you think would be like, a totally inspiring movie about a guy dying, the ending is just so that thing, where you’re like, “That is exactly what would happen.” And you can say it’s cynical, but I think that’s more honest.

I think that’s why Lady Bird has resonated with so many people — there are so many of those moments.

My favorite part of that movie is when she goes, “Oh, I’m from San Francisco.” People don’t change! She kind of learns her lesson, but then she’s like, “I’m from San Francisco,” she gets drunk, has to get her stomach pumped. You’re not gonna just change, that’s not the way it works. You’re gonna be dealing with that shit for the rest of your life. As a movie fan, that’s where stories lie to you, because you go, “Oh, see, I can overcome my anxiety, and I will always overcome my anxiety.”

And then the movie ends!

And you’re like, right on! I get why they do that, because a shit-ton of money’s been put into it, and if we don’t end on some sort of a happy note — it’s an age-old thing. At the same time, that’s why I think people enjoyed Lady Bird so much, because it was just so honest. The scene with Laurie Metcalf in the car, I thought, was just unreal.

For me it was the scene where they’re shopping for dresses.

Yeah, and that both guys kind of don’t work out. They’re both disappointing in different ways. It’s funny, because my daughters, so many of the things I watch with them —

How old are they?

Eight, five, and three. They want to see things that star girls. And so many of those, when you watch things starring a boy, I always felt it was like, the fate of humanity rests on you. And then when it was a girl, it’s like, you need to find a man. And the fate of humanity rests on him. The end of the thing was like, I got a boy. It wasn’t like, you saved the galaxy. Not to bash Sixteen Candles, but it was like, you got Jake Ryan. Marty McFly gets his parents back together, and he saves the world. It isn’t like, Marty McFly gets with a girl and then that’s it.

Yeah, a little while back I wrote this essay on the idea of the ingenue, this kind of role that no young female actor can avoid.

That was a thing when we showed Barry to a bunch of people and said, “Do you guys have any notes or anything in the first four episodes?” And a guy said, “I just find Sally so unlikable, she’s just such an unlikable character. She’s so mean.” And Emily Heller, one of our writers, went, “Barry kills people!” It’s the Breaking Bad thing. No one likes Skylar, and she’s dealing with a baby and a special-needs child, her husband’s lying to her, and he’s off becoming a drug lord.

But fuck her.

But fuck her. That makes no sense to me!

I recently tried rewatching Breaking Bad and after one episode I was like, I don’t think I can watch this right now.

You felt like the show made her unlikable?

I felt like if that show had premiered today, it would not have gone down as well as it did then. The way the first episode ends, with him coming home into their bed after having done all this crazy shit, and having sex with her, and she’s like, “Walter, is that you?” It made me livid.

Now he has a new vitality because he’s a bad guy and he’s gonna get off on this.

Yeah, it really turned me off. It was also not long after the election.

Well, that’s what happens. When you have a leader who is out and out racist, and will walk over certain people on the street, those people are gonna be really angry and feel threatened. And the last thing they can take is a joke, you know what I mean? That was a thing one of the South Park writers said: “We have an insult comic as a comedian, and he’s fucking it up for all the other comedians, because people are super sensitive and I totally understand why.”

Because he’s not joking.

He acts like he’s joking, but he’s not joking, and people feel threatened and feel like, “I’d be dying on the street and this guy would walk over me.” When that person is the president of the United States, it fucks with people. We saw that, because he was elected while we were writing the show.

Did that change anything?

Yeah, I mean, that scene with Sally and her agent came out of us talking, and that was a thing where I went, “I’ve never experienced this before, tell me what would happen.” And not only the female writers in the room, but the assistants, the script PA — our script PA was like, “She would say she’s sorry!”

What was it like to direct some of these episodes?

Oh, it was awesome. It was the best experience of my career. I learned so much watching Maggie Carey and Hiro Murai and Alec Berg, they have much more experience than me and they directed the other episodes. But it was like a 35-year itch that I finally got to scratch.

It didn’t let you down?

The only way it let me down was that I didn’t put any thought into the acting. When you watch the pilot, the scene with the Chechens, I don’t say a lot in that scene, because it was my first day directing and I fully was like, “I don’t know how to play Barry.” So I’m just nodding the whole time.

Barry premieres Sunday, March 25 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.

 

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

“Portlandia” and the Sad Hilarity of the Aging Hipster

In a sketch from the first episode of Portlandia’s current season, Fred Armisen plays Spyke, an aging punk rocker with stretched ears and a goatee, who seizes on the dismal political climate as an excuse to get his old band, Riot Spray, back together. For the bit, Armisen enlists a trifecta of indie stars of the Eighties and Nineties, who play Spyke’s friends and former bandmates: Henry Rollins, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty. They reunite in Spyke’s basement to rehearse Riot Spray’s defiant single, “I Refuse” (“You wear a blindfold but complain that you can’t see/You pin the tail on the donkey or does the tail get pinned on me?”). They might be a little rusty, but as Spyke insists, “What matters is getting our message to the government.”

By the end of the episode, fed up with America’s corrupt regime, Spyke has reached the Canadian border, where he pleads his case to a sympathetic guard who eventually coaxes the truth out of him: He’s not mad at the government; he’s mad at his friends. “They turned old in a way that we were against originally,” Spyke explains. “They went to their houses and their decks and their cars — I mean, we wanted to smash the system!” Finally, Spyke admits, the person he really hates is himself. He turns around and heads back home.

That kind of left-y self-loathing defines the comedy of Portlandia, which is halfway through its eighth and final season on IFC. Created in 2011 by Armisen, while he was still a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and his friend Carrie Brownstein, whose band Sleater-Kinney was on hiatus at the time (director Jonathan Krisel is also a co-creator), Portlandia captures the slightly sheepish, somewhat smug attitude of the aging hipster as only an aging hipster can. Full of absurdist commentary on “the way we live now” — this season features a parody ad for a tech start-up that claims to have hacked the humble sandwich by replacing it with the much sleeker “chicken sprinkler” — the show targets its own audience, lampooning the hipper-than-thou, infamously twee inhabitants of its title city and beyond.

For Armisen, Portlandia is an opportunity to take aim at what appears to be his favorite subject of ridicule: artists and their endearingly self-indulgent habits. That’s also the topic of his new Netflix special, Standup for Drummers, which was released last week and which is, quite literally, a stand-up set delivered in front of an audience made up of fellow drummers. (Armisen played drums in the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth, after he dropped out of art school and before he started performing as a comedian. He’s long mixed music and comedy; he used to do his SNL character Fericito, a Venezuelan nightclub singer, at Chicago rock shows before he was cast on the show.) At one point in the Netflix special, moving behind a drum kit onstage to demonstrate impressions of famous drummers, Armisen quips, “The weird thing about being a drummer is the pathway behind the high hat. Where do we go?” Later, he admonishes the practice of lightly dinging the cymbal at the end of a ballad: “Why? Leave it. Leave the song alone. It’s great! It ended already!”

Standup for Drummers relies on the almost ridiculous specificity of its humor; you don’t have to play the drums to appreciate it, but the number of viewers who can relate to the frustration of tipping over a high-hat stand as you make your way behind a drum kit is, well, limited. Still, as on Portlandia, Armisen takes material that appears so particular as to be alienating and turns it into surprisingly accessible comedy. Midway through, he brings out singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen on acoustic guitar to accompany him for a parody of the typical NPR live performance of a folk-y, fingerpicked tune (instead of sticks, he uses a mallet and a maraca); in a purring, Feist-like voice, Nguyen coos, “A window by the porch/A faded mirror in the vestibule.” Standup for Drummers contains plenty of jokes that have nothing to do with music; in one memorable bit, Armisen, pointing at a map of the U.S., takes the viewer on a state-by-state tour of the country’s varying accents. But at its best, the special showcases Armisen as a kind of crossover star, an embodiment of the cultural intersection between music and comedy.

For obvious reasons, Portlandia sits at that same intersection. Armisen’s co-star and co-creator is an indie rock icon, and over the years, an entire festival’s worth of rock stars have appeared on the show, either in character or as themselves: Annie Clark, Eddie Vedder, Steve Jones, Aimee Mann, Johnny Marr, and Sleater-Kinney’s own Corin Tucker are just a handful. Given its mission to relentlessly interrogate the minutiae of the coastal hip lifestyle (“Put a bird on it!,” “We can pickle that!”), the show’s position in between the cultural spheres of music and comedy is entirely appropriate.

Both Armisen, 51, and Brownstein, 43, have talked about how discovering certain bands and musicians in their youth gave them a sense of purpose and identity; in a New Yorker profile from 2012, Brownstein remarks, “You can never underestimate that moment of somebody explaining your life to you, something you thought was inexplicable, through music. That was the way out of loneliness.” With the rise of “alternative comedy” in the 1990s and early 2000s, coupled with the advent of the internet and streaming video in particular, sketch comedy came to function similarly: as a dispatch sent from various pockets of hip out into the wider world, where a lonely kid with a weird sense of humor might discover that he’s not so alone after all.

Of course, that lonely kid will eventually learn what Brownstein’s and Armisen’s Portlandia characters so often do — that by the time you can confidently claim for yourself the label of “cool,” you’ll probably realize it no longer matters. There are bills to pay. Your wife’s pregnant. Your roof is leaking. Cultural capital matters both more and less in a world where actual capital is derived from how cool you are; if you’re an Instagram influencer, great. But if the commercial world wants nothing to do with your particular brand of cool, or vice versa, you might as well get comfy: In the opening sketch of the final season, Armisen and Brownstein play a couple with a baby who dream of giving up their home for the #vanlife. While Armisen’s character imagines the family running through sepia-toned fields of wheat, free at last, Brownstein pictures gas station hot dogs heated over a trash can fire. Finally, she proposes, “Let’s just get a new condo where everything’s really clean and sterile.”

In one scene from last week’s episode, a yuppie couple (Armisen and Brownstein, duh) simply cannot wait the twelve hours until their favorite meal: breakfast. “Steel-cut Irish oatmeal with a little maple syrup,” she giddily suggests. “We can have coffee with almond milk,” he responds. “Rye toast or wheat toast or sourdough,” she lists, overwhelmed by the possibilities. They go to sleep; they can’t sleep. They wake up and prepare the meal so it’s ready as soon as the morning light hits. When the time finally comes, the camera lingers in slo-mo over the food in their sun-soaked kitchen: Golden orange juice raining down into dainty glasses, glistening berries being tossed in a sieve, steaming coffee cascading into a ceramic mug. It’s a funny bit on the mundane pleasures of middle age. But I have to admit, that breakfast looked good.

Portlandia airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on IFC.

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

There’s Nothing Funny About Turning Women Into a Punchline

Earlier this month, yet another story surfaced of a famous man abusing his power. In the Hollywood Reporter, actress Kathryn Rossetter described serial sexual harassment behind the scenes of a 1983 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, at the hands of her co-star, Dustin Hoffman. At parties after the performances, she writes, when posing for pictures with Rossetter, Hoffman would grab her breast just before the picture was taken and drop it right away, so the image wouldn’t show up on film: “Everyone around always laughed when he did this.”

At one point during the play, Rossetter had to stand backstage and laugh on cue into a microphone. Her costume was a slip with a garter belt and no bra, and she writes that, for six to eight performances a week, Hoffman would sit behind her and slip a hand under her skirt, groping the inside of her thigh. One night, she noticed there were more crew members backstage than usual. Hoffman reached for her leg, again, and Rossetter began her ritual of batting him away while looking out for her cue. “Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face,” she writes. “I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.”

Sickening, and revealing. This year, as men and women have confronted long-suppressed evidence of sexual abuse so pervasive it’s simply the air we breathe, we’ve also begun to reckon with a kind of toxic humor that so often excuses such behavior — the ways in which humor is used as both sword and shield, and women as cannon fodder. As Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York magazine, this moment is not just about sex, but about work. In the context of the comedy industry, it’s about how women have been and continue to be shut out of professional opportunities and the chance to shape cultural narratives because of the adolescent prurience of the men who run the show.

Women in comedy have long reckoned with an industry that by and large considers them props first, performers second, and writers a distant third — passive recipients of humor, rather than active creators of it. Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that conflates humor with sexual appeal. His underlying assumption — that men are funnier than women — is offered as an empirical claim, from which it follows that men have developed this superior sense of humor in order to appeal to women. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” Hitchens writes. “If you can stimulate her to laughter…well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.”

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The argument is absurd for reasons beyond the gross generalization of half of our species (those who aren’t interested in women, apparently, have no need to be funny; we all know how stodgy and humorless the gays are). Tying the impetus to be funny to the impetus to get laid isn’t just a lazy generalization; it also pushes women out of a market they helped create in the first place, and implies female spectators of comedy are participating not in culture but in a mating ritual in which they may or may not want any part.

Reading Hitchens’s piece is particularly infuriating, and instructive, at a moment when one of our most celebrated comic minds, Louis C.K., has been exposed as a sexual harasser, and when the entertainment world is beginning to reckon with its pervasive sexism. As Yael Kohen documents in her 2012 oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, women have not just performed alongside men for decades, but have been instrumental in shaping the comedy industry as we know it. As performers, writers, and bookers, women played key roles in the stand-up boom of the 1950s and ’60s, which was largely concentrated in New York City but also owed a debt to Chicago’s improvisational theater scene; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a fictionalized account of this time, centering on a housewife-turned-aspiring-stand-up who works out her confessional material in Greenwich Village clubs.

As the #MeToo movement has shown, 42 years after feminist scholar Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment, women still struggle, constantly, to earn professional respect in a society that sees us primarily as a collection of body parts. It strikes me as especially difficult for the comedy industry to reckon with its gendered power dynamics because this is a business that attracts the kinds of men (and women) who never considered themselves as particularly powerful to begin with. Like the Silicon Valley billionaire who looks in the mirror and sees a pimply-faced underdog nerd, even the most successful comedian may not think of himself as a titan of industry — especially if, like C.K., he’s built his career around a comic persona that squeezes laughs out of his self-perceived weaknesses, like his shameful eating habits. But, like those tech industry overlords, when these guys “make it” in comedy, they only become a new iteration of the oppressive jocks they grew up resenting.

From Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to Judd Apatow’s early-Aughts man-boys, the pathetic, put-upon dude is a stock character of modern comedy. The funniest, and weirdest, iteration of this type in recent years is Nathan Fielder, who plays a version of himself on the Comedy Central reality-parody show Nathan for You. The show premiered in 2013 as a business-makeover spoof in which Fielder, who really does have a business degree, proposes wildly idiosyncratic improvement ideas to the owners of independent shops. As the series went on, however, it became less about the business owners and more about Nathan himself, or at least the persona presented on the show — a friendless loner so socially inept he makes Napoleon Dynamite look smooth.

Critics and fans fawned over Nathan for You’s season four finale, a two-hour special called “Finding Frances” that aired in November and that centers on Fielder helping a weird old man named Bill track down a former girlfriend that he wishes he’d married. But, as a I wrote back then, the episode left me feeling queasy, and called to mind other moments throughout the show’s four-year run that wring laughs out of the spectacle of a woman in an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, situation.

My reaction to the episode wasn’t the first time this year I’ve found myself the lonely skeptic in a crowd of chortling men; in March, I sat in a small theater with a room of men watching a press screening of Dave Chappelle’s first new stand-up specials, for Netflix, in over a decade. I was the only one who didn’t laugh through Chappelle’s bit comparing Bill Cosby to a hypothetical superhero who “rapes, but he saves,” a routine that requires the viewer to weigh Cosby’s accomplishments and advocacy for the African American community against the nearly sixty women who’ve accused him of drugging and raping them. I suspect it’s a calculation that’s a lot easier for a man to compute, even in the context of a joke.

I’m also continuously struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to dismiss claims of impropriety or discomfort when defending jokes that come at the expense of a woman’s dignity. On the New Yorker’s website, filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a fawning appraisal of “Finding Frances,” which he calls “my new favorite love story.” True to form, Morris’s piece is mostly a series of apparently unanswerable questions, a celebration of the unknowable: “Can one fall in love with nothing? With the desire to be in love?”; “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” The very real women at the center of the episode — Frances and Maci, an escort Fielder hires and “falls in love with,” although, as ever, it’s unclear where the real Fielder begins and his character ends — are barely considered.

Morris’s effusive abstraction reminded me of the Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, released in the fall. The doc features archival footage from the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, for which star Jim Carrey immersed himself so fully in the role of the cult comic he was apparently forever changed. Carrey, in the present day, reflects on Kaufman’s old routine of wrestling women, and publicly taunting and disparaging them, at the height of the women’s movement in the late 1970s — all part of an act that was intentionally difficult to separate from the “real” Andy Kaufman. “It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood,’” Carrey remarks. “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal — they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it — he’s not interested in them.”

Carrey assumes that those who look for the “absurd truth” behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But in the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate wage a successful campaign in part by casting his patently misogynist comments about women as a joke, all in good fun — while winking to his chortling MAGA minions who view their leader’s sexism as proof of his manhood. We’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.  

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“Finding Frances” reaches its climax when Fielder drives Bill to Frances’s house and, having dissuaded him from approaching her door trailed by cameras, watches as he phones her and confesses his regrets — knowing all the while she’s married with children and grandchildren. That didn’t feel abstract to me. My pulse quickened, my body tensed, and I couldn’t wait for the scene to end, for these men to drive away and leave this old lady alone. Morris’s and Carrey’s stance, the equivalent of a shruggie emoji, sidesteps the very real feelings of the very real people who participated in Fielder’s show and Kaufman’s antics — including the women who are often visibly uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re put in. I guess it’s all worth it if it makes Errol Morris scratch his head and think deep thoughts.

The truth is, comedy as we have always known it relies, to some extent, on the exploitation of women. Humiliating women is a safety net for male comedians; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a male stand-up who’s ever so slightly flailing pick on a woman or two in the audience, often with sexual overtones, because he knows it’s a surefire way to get a laugh. There’s scarcely a more predictable argument in this industry than the knee-jerk defense of a comic’s right to call a bitch a bitch.

We allow male comics a kind of breathing space between art and output, while constantly demanding that women answer for their work. Remember the instant, unrelenting outrage over Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” bit? Or the frequent condemnations of Amy Schumer’s tone-deafness around race? Or the never-ending barrage of criticism any time Lena Dunham opens her mouth? And how many female comics, over how many years, were asked about the rumors surrounding Louis C.K. before the truth finally came out — as if their silence, and not C.K.’s, was the problem?

I don’t know what kind of impact the #MeToo movement will have in the years going forward, but one thing it’s certainly done already is shine a blinding, fluorescent light on the baseline situation for women going through their daily lives. As correspondent Michelle Wolf put it on an October episode of The Daily Show, “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!” My hope is that this moment will also make us stop and think about the baseline of what we consider funny, and why. Loud farts? Sure. A woman being groped in public with no recourse? Not even as a joke.

There’s a moment from a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, with The Office star Jenna Fischer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Fischer is talking about her post-Office career, when she fielded offers for much racier roles than Dunder Mifflin receptionist Pam Beesly. “They thought I wanted to blow up the image of Pam,” Fischer says, so she’d get scripts where “she gets bent over a car and fucked in the ass, and her tits are flying but no one will expect it! And I’m like, what the fuck script is this? Why are you raping Pam on a car?” We’re talking about an Emmy-nominated comic actor fresh off a nine-season run of a wildly successful sitcom. And yet the producers who sent Fischer those scripts saw in her the potential not to make people laugh, but to re-enact a fantasy straight out of a porno — the good girl gone bad.

I hope #MeToo can take on another meaning besides the claim, “I, too, have been a victim of assault.” I’ve come to think of the term in a broader sense, as the collective cry of generations of stepped-on women to the men who call the shots: We, too, are people. We are not your mothers or your wives. We are human beings with a full range of emotions, experiences, and ways to appreciate and express humor — whether it’s Tiffany Haddish building her exuberant debut stand-up special around her foster care upbringing, or Tracey Ullman doing a goofy song-and-dance number as Angela Merkel, or the wonderfully weird Cocoon Central Dance Team’s “dance comedy space odyssey” Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We are so much more than a place to put your dicks.

In 2009, two years after Christopher Hitchens’s joke of an essay was published, Vanity Fair ran a piece about the dearth of women writers in late-night TV by Nell Scovell, one of the few women who was on the writing staff of Late Night With David Letterman. Scovell wrote that part of her motivation for the article was to “pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room.” It apparently took a sex scandal to prompt the magazine to publish such a piece in the first place; it was written in the wake of Letterman’s on-camera confession that he had slept with women who worked on his show. And it looks like it’s going to take a torrent of lurid stories about potted plants and shuttered window blinds and hotel bathrobes to really complete that pivot. The irony’s not lost on me. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on all this and laugh.

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Michelle Wolf Is the Voice Comedy Needs Right Now

In January 2013, Michelle Wolf tackled her greatest challenge yet: She got herself fired. Then a 28-year-old aspiring comedian, Wolf had been working at a biochemistry research lab in New York City during the day and doing stand-up sets at bars and open mics at night. But she wanted to devote herself to comedy full-time, so, over the course of nine months, she pushed against every overachiever instinct in her body. “I did less and less work until I got a warning,” she explains, sitting in a booth in the Olive Tree Café, the restaurant above the Comedy Cellar in the West Village. “And then I got fired, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

With the severance, plus some money she’d saved up, Wolf devoted the next year of her life to stand-up. By Christmas of 2013, she was submitting a packet to Late Night With Seth Meyers, which was just staffing up; a couple of weeks after that, she was hired as a writer. In April 2016, after two years writing for Late Night and craving more onscreen time, Wolf jumped to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, where she’s now a correspondent. And on Saturday, HBO will air her first stand-up special, Nice Lady, a hilarious hourlong meditation on bathroom politics, feminism (“I’m not like a buy-my-own-drinks kind of feminist”), Hillary Clinton, birth control, and the innumerable everyday demands of being a woman in 2017.

The cliché of a working comic conjures images of a sad-sack dude shuffling to the club every night to dump his demons on an audience of cheerful tourists slinging back their mandatory two drinks. But, at 32, Wolf isn’t indulging in swooning platitudes about the fickleness of the creative spirit. Every morning, she wakes up, fills an entire French press with strong coffee, and drinks it all. Then she goes to work at The Daily Show, where each day starts with a 9 a.m. pitch meeting. The staff members go off to write and rewrite their jokes before gathering for another meeting in the afternoon to pitch ideas for the next day’s show. They run through a rehearsal of that night’s show, go off to do more rewrites, then return to tape the show at 6:30 or 7. Wolf is usually out the door by 7:30 p.m. at the latest. “Then I come right here,” she says.

“In all my years traveling the world doing stand-up comedy,” Noah told the Voice over email, “there are few comedians I’ve ever seen who exude pure comedy perfection like Michelle. If we’re all normal people, she sees the code of comedy like Neo in The Matrix.”

In between her staff writing duties, penning jokes for Chris Rock’s Oscar hosting gig last year, and performing a prototype of Nice Lady at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Wolf has done hundreds of stand-up sets at the Comedy Cellar, the venerable New York institution where countless comedy stars have honed their jokes. By her estimation, Wolf is onstage at the club somewhere between thirteen and sixteen times a week. Since her first performance at the Cellar in August 2015, she says, “I’ve been here every night that I’ve been in town and been available.”

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Growing up with two older brothers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wolf was the kid who’d come into school on Monday morning and re-enact the skits from that weekend’s Saturday Night Live. But that was hardly a career path. “I’ve always been a really big comedy fan, but in my mind, you got a job,” she says. “I didn’t think it was feasible to pursue an art.” Wolf grew up running track — she runs three or four times a week, eight to fifteen miles at a time — and studied kinesiology at the College of William & Mary before graduating and moving to New York.

She got a job in private client services at Bear Stearns, recommending mutual funds and separately managed accounts to people with too much money. Wolf also started taking improv classes at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), right around the time Bear Stearns collapsed and was swallowed up by J.P. Morgan. (“I was young and cheap, comparatively, so I stayed on.”) A few classmates at the PIT suggested she audit a stand-up course — Wolf suspects it’s because in her improv sessions, “I was making jokes rather than playing out a scene” — and she quickly took to it. “The thing that frustrated me about improv was that once it’s over, it’s over,” she says. “You don’t have any body of work or anything. I like the idea of being able to build something.” In an email, the comedian and Late Night writer Amber Ruffin wrote that Wolf “is a perfectionist, and it shows in her stand-up.” When Wolf first got an iPhone, she created a folder in her Gmail account to collect her stand-up ideas and joke drafts. She labeled it “work.”

That blinders-up attitude is on display in Nice Lady. Although it was taped in August, the special feels retrofitted to this moment, when the entertainment industry (for one) is cycling through a seemingly endless torrent of bad news about your favorite dudes. Over the past decade, the comic most closely associated with the Comedy Cellar has been Louis C.K., the subject of a recent New York Times report that confirmed years-long rumors of sexual misconduct. The introduction to C.K.’s FX sitcom, Louie, immortalizes the tiny basement space, tracking C.K. as he travels from the subway to the Cellar, stopping at the corner of MacDougal and West Third to inhale a slice of pizza. A regular at the Cellar, C.K. was known to pop in unannounced, even at the height of Louie’s popularity, to try out new material. He’d frequently pepper his show with bits of stand-up, the Cellar’s iconic brick wall and stained-glass sign forming a now-familiar backdrop.

The night after the Times article hit, Vulture sent a reporter to the club. She wrote that while most comics referenced C.K. in some way, others — including Wolf — did not. Wolf hasn’t just appeared alongside C.K. at the Cellar; in 2016, she had a small role in his self-funded TV show Horace and Pete, and last year, she opened for him on tour. In an interview with New York magazine last June, C.K. singled out Wolf when asked to name promising comedians, calling her “relentless, funny, consistent.”

But when I bring up, to borrow a phrase from Sarah Silverman, the “elephant masturbating in the room,” Wolf deflects. “In the biggest moment in my career so far, I don’t really want to spend time talking about bad men,” she says firmly. “I want to focus on me and what I’ve done and my hard work.”

The truth is, the fact of Wolf herself — her rapid rise to the top of New York’s comedy food chain; an hourlong HBO special, one of only seven that the cable channel has produced in 2017 (others include sets from Jerrod Carmichael, Chris Gethard, and T.J. Miller), and for which it reportedly paid an unprecedented sum; the way her comedy reframes everyday truisms, from an unapologetically female perspective, as totally absurd — all this is a powerful retort to the ceaseless flow of stories about celebrated men who’ve used their clout to keep women down.

“Michelle has the perfect combination for comedy,” says her former boss Seth Meyers. “She is kindhearted and also deliciously cruel.” Chris Rock, who invited Wolf to open for him on his 2017 tour, echoes Meyers’s sentiment: “Michelle is just one of the funniest people I know,” he says. “Like most great comics, she hates everything. She’s helped me out way more than the other way around.” 

“Michelle has a very loud laugh to begin with, but it was loudest whenever I flubbed,” adds Meyers. “I would mispronounce something and would immediately hear her and see the silhouette of her hair bouncing. I am not being sarcastic when I say I truly miss that.”

Early in her special, Wolf uses her own distinct voice as a way into Hillary Clinton and why she lost the 2016 election. (“I think it’s ’cause no one likes her.”) When she performs, Wolf speaks clearly and deliberately, her voice scraping up against the top of her sinuses before crumpling into a contagious chuckle. “Somehow I got this weird Midwestern twang to my voice where I say my a’s weird — I say ‘cay-at’ and ‘hay-at.’ I don’t know, I’m broken. No one else in my family talks like me, or looks like me,” she says, referencing her shock of naturally curly, naturally orange hair. (“I’ve seen pictures of Carrot Top where I’ve been like, ‘I mean, we do look alike.’ ”)

“People have made fun of my voice for a while — rightfully so,” Wolf acknowledges. “This is a voice that deserves to get made fun of. But it wasn’t until people kept commenting on Hillary’s voice that I was like, oh — it’s, like, a thing. It actually helped me think of the joke. It was like, ‘Oh right, her voice isn’t shrill because she wants it to be — it’s just her voice!’ ”

In Nice Lady, Wolf jokes about sucking the helium from a balloon and realizing, with dismay, that it caused absolutely no change to her voice — an incident that actually happened on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. It happened, of course, at the Cellar. “Even when I write during the day, when I get to do stand-up at night, it’s, like, the thing I get to do for me,” Wolf says. She likens stand-up to a science experiment, a situation that’s totally under her control. “It’s my thoughts, my jokes. It’s the most fun I have. A lot of people, very often, they’re like, ‘You need to take time off, you need to do things for you.’ But this is more fun than the other stuff I do!”

That creative obstinacy has served Wolf well, and it informs the kinds of jokes she tells. She rarely mentions Trump in her sets, because it feels too easy, and because everyone’s got a Trump joke. “I’m very selfish when it comes to stand-up,” she says. “I want to work on what I want to work on.” But like a messy spill, the outcome of last year’s election seems to have seeped into every crevice of our lives regardless, and Wolf’s comedy is not immune.

“That’s kind of where the whole ‘nice lady’ thing evolved from,” she says, lowering her self-professed “crazy” voice to a quietly determined murmur. “No, we can’t be nice ladies. The time for being polite is over. The time for doing things just to please other people for no reason — because it’s what we were raised to do — is over. We’re done being nice. That’s kind of the overarching theme of the show, so even though I don’t talk about it a lot, it’s more just like — yeah, I’m done.”

“When I get to do standup at night, it’s like, the thing I get to do for me.”

On a recent Friday night, I went to see Wolf perform at the Comedy Cellar. She was the only woman on the bill, and the last comic to go up. The show was sold-out, so I turned up an hour early, gave my name to a large man sporting a black “Comedy Cellar” beanie, came back at showtime, waited to hear my name called, showed the man my ID, was handed a slip of paper and instructed to turn off my phone, and descended the street-facing stairs down to the shoebox-sized room, where a waitress showed me to my seat. Each stand-up performs a fifteen-minute set, introduced by the night’s bantering host. Then you pay your bill, wait for the waitress to stamp your receipt, and show your proof of purchase to the doorman on the way out. On Fridays, the Cellar offers four shows a night, back to back, and this process, from seating the audience to delivering each patron her minimum two menu items to ushering the crowd out the door at the end, runs as smoothly as a Japanese rail line.

It was early, the first show of the night, but the place was packed and lively. In between the first two sets, host William Stephenson quipped, “Louie’s gonna come out and jerk off in front of you. I brought a tarp for the front row.” The audience laughed. A mother and her adult daughter sitting near the stage — the room is so tiny the round tables that make up the front row are pushed right up against the stage, which itself is so narrow, most comics end up hugging the wall — were easy targets for crowd work. It became a bit of a running joke. One comic, Des Bishop, commented on how attractive both mother and daughter were, then added, “Maybe that’s inappropriate. I’ll wait for Page Six to tell the story” — an apparent reference to a Page Six report that claimed Chris Rock dropped by the Cellar recently and tried out some sexual harassment jokes that fell flat.

Wolf went up last. She opened with a bathroom bit from Nice Lady, and moved on to some new material about dick size. There was no hint of hesitation, no self-conscious hedging — she was confident, masterly, louder than anyone else onstage that night. The audience was in hysterics from start to finish, and then we were out the door, wiping stray tears on the sidewalk in the cold November air.

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In October — shortly after the Harvey Weinstein revelations broke — Trevor Noah devoted a segment on The Daily Show to the topic of sexual harassment. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, “but I’ll tell you who I really want to hear from — The Daily Show’s own Michelle Wolf.”

Wolf took the stage in her uniform of long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and delivered a short monologue on Weinstein and the #metoo social media campaign he spawned. “Trevor is right,” she began. “This problem is bigger than Harvey Weinstein.” She talked about the “obstacle course” women tackle every day: “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!”

She closed the routine by pointing out that it’s not enough to just fire individual men who harass women. This moment isn’t just about sex; it’s about power. “My solution? Every time a guy gets caught sexually harassing someone, you don’t just fire him. You have to replace him with a woman.” The crowd erupted. “It’s a policy that I call, ‘Pull out your dick, get replaced by a chick.’ ”

Noah returned to the stage, microphone in hand, as the audience cheered. “Michelle Wolf, everybody!”

Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady premieres Saturday, December 2, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Jen Kirkman on Election-Night Anxiety, Touring as a Woman, and Dealing With Rumors

Shortly after taping her most recent Netflix special, Just Keep Livin’?, in October 2016, comedian Jen Kirkman took a year off touring. When she hit the road again earlier this month for her new North American tour, All New Material, Girl, she found confronting the post-election crowds pretty much exactly the same as before you-know-who was inaugurated. “I’m a woman on the road,” Kirkman says. “When I talk, there’s misogyny. It doesn’t matter if Hillary is queen. I have the same crap no matter who’s president.”

This week, Kirkman brings her tour to New York City, where she’ll play the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan on Thursday before heading across the river to the Bell House on Friday. With two memoirs (one of which, 2013’s I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, became a New York Times bestseller), and four comedy albums under her belt, Kirkman has spun her brand of unapologetic personal comedy into a successful stand-up career. But touring the country as an unabashed single woman — she titled her first Netflix special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) — has its drawbacks.

Kirkman has long been outspoken about the challenges of being a woman in comedy, the subject of a now-infamous podcast episode she recorded in 2015, in which she alluded to the alleged inappropriate behavior of a successful male stand-up who was widely assumed to be Louis C.K. “This guy didn’t rape me, but he made a certain difficult decision to go on tour with him really hard,” she said on her weekly podcast, I Seem Fun. “Because I knew if I did, I’d be getting more of the same weird treatment I’d been getting from him.”

Three years earlier, Gawker had run a blind item alleging that some female comics had accused a male comic who sounds a lot like C.K. of cornering them and forcing them to watch him masturbate; in 2015, the site (which was sued out of existence in 2016) published another piece containing similar allegations. Those rumors resurfaced recently, after comedian Tig Notaro, who was promoting the second season of her Amazon series One Mississippi, told an interviewer that C.K. needs to “handle” the rumors.

“I don’t know why Tig is talking about this stuff,” Kirkman says, adding that she and Notaro are friends but haven’t spoken in several months. She hasn’t seen the second season of One Mississippi, which includes a scene reminiscent of the C.K. rumors, in which a young female employee watches, horrified, as her male boss begins touching himself under his desk while they’re alone in his office.

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“There are rumors out there that Louis takes his dick out at women. He has never done that to me,” Kirkman asserts. “I never said he did, I never implied that he did.” She continues, “What I said was, when you hear rumors about someone, and they ask you to go on the road with them, this is what being a woman in comedy is like — imagine if there’s always a chance of rain over your head but [with] men, there isn’t. So you go, ‘Should I leave the house with an umbrella, or not?’ ”

For his part, C.K. is not going there; last year, when questioned about the rumors, he told Vulture, “I don’t care about that. That’s nothing to me. That’s not real.” He reiterated this stance while promoting his new movie, I Love You, Daddy, at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, telling the New York Times, “I’m not going to answer to that stuff, because they’re rumors.”

“Sometimes there’s nothing there. I think this might be a case of there’s nothing there,” Kirkman says. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and if any women want to come forward and say what he’s done, I’ll totally back them, because I believe women. But I just don’t know any.”

For what it’s worth, Kirkman and C.K. have known each other for many years, and she describes him as a mentor figure, the person who encouraged her to branch out of alternative comedy spaces and into larger, mainstream theaters. She says they still talk regularly, but she’s been reluctant to speak about the whole incident; after Jezebel caught wind of her 2015 podcast episode, she deleted it. “I’m the one that opened it up by doing that dumb podcast, and I thought people would understand the nuance of what I was saying, and they didn’t,” Kirkman says. “So I brought it on myself. And then I deleted the podcast, not because Louis paid me off, but because it was causing so much attention.”

Kirkman would clearly prefer to focus on her current tour than a controversy she never asked for. Kirkman’s vocal support for Hillary Clinton has earned her the wrath of the Bernie bros, at least online, but her new set includes a bit about how she was the “original Bernie fanatic,” a die-hard third-party voter, as well as a story about election night, “when I was disappointed and couldn’t handle reality,” she says. Unlike some topical material, that bit has a shelf life: “Like, where were you when JFK was shot? That’s a story that can last forever. And for me, I put up my Christmas tree and decided to watch Hallmark Christmas movies when I knew that he was going to win. It turns into a bit about how I think Hallmark Christmas movies are bizarrely feminist.”

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A former writer on Chelsea Lately, Kirkman had dreams of writing for The Daily Show — until she realized her comedic style was the polar opposite of the wonky political satire series. Still, if you’re one of Kirkman’s 250,000 Twitter followers, you might go into one of her shows expecting to hear explicitly political comedy. Kirkman rarely tweets out one-liners, but, particularly in the wake of the election, she’s found it difficult to pull herself out of the Trump-Russia nexus.

“I’m in bed at night refreshing Twitter because there’s so much addictive stuff to read,” she admits. “All those lunatics that are like, ‘Big news coming!’ I don’t care if it never comes — I’m obsessed. I’m just waiting for that 6 a.m. raid on the White House where they arrest everyone involved in the Russia scandal. That’s what I go to bed dreaming about.”

Like many people who work in creative fields, after the inauguration, Kirkman says she questioned her commitment to her chosen profession. “I was like, ‘Oh god, do I even want to be in comedy? I should be doing something important,’ ” she recalls. But she says her current tour bears out the old cliché about the healing power of laughter. “I think the vibe around the country is like, ‘Can anyone please come entertain us?’ ” she says. “I thought people would be like, ‘Really, you’re still doing that comedy thing while the world’s ending?’ And it turns out that’s exactly what people want.”

 

Jen Kirkman plays the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 21, and the Bell House in Brooklyn at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 22.

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Just Say ‘Julie!’

By the time I meet Julie Klausner at Marie Nails on Elizabeth Street, on an unreasonably sweaty Wednesday in July, the temperature is creeping past ninety degrees. “I’m not a huge fan of the summer,” the comedian announces. “It’s hot. There’s a lot of pressure to have fun. There’s a lot of pressure to grill. There’s a lot of pressure to relax.” The thirty-nine-year-old creator of Difficult People is a regular here (and the spirit guide for my first gel manicure), stylishly dressed in a blue-and-white patterned sundress and a straw hat to endure a day of air conditioner drippings and sticky subway poles. Klausner’s personal strategy for beating the heat has mostly involved holing away in the climate-controlled sanctuary of an editing bay to put the final touches on the third season of the show — out on Hulu on August 8 — which she can’t wait for you to see. “I’ve basically spent the last two months editing,” she says, “looking at my face over and over again, which is a circle of hell.”

On Difficult People, Klausner and real-life pal Billy Eichner, host of TruTV’s Billy on the Street, star as Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, fictionalized versions of their earlier-career selves. It’s like Curb Your Enthusiasm was crossbred with Absolutely Fabulous (and injected with carefully isolated DNA from Pizza Rat), or maybe the mathematical inverse of La La Land: a love-hate letter to show business, and to New York, as delivered by an embittered TV recapper (Kessler/Klausner) and a waiter (Epstein/Eichner), both with frustrated ambitions of comedy stardom and a pettiness elevated to an art form. The real Klausner and Eichner first worked together on the latter’s pop-culture game show, on which no pedestrian is safe from a barrage of questions like “For a dollar, what would you say to Jon Hamm’s penis if you could?”

“There are many great things about working with Julie,” says Eichner. “She’s just so damn smart and funny. There are some very long days involved in making Difficult People, but no matter how exhausted or stressed we are, the saving grace is that we manage to maintain our senses of humor and can always make fun of the situation and make each other laugh.”

We get settled in the salon’s basement, where we’re soon joined by another client’s restless French bulldog. Klausner selects a red-orange polish that’s only a few shades more vivid than her trademark copper hair. This is, after all, the woman who founded the Redhead Hall of Fame — actress Julianne Moore and the B-52s’ Kate Pierson (both of whom have appeared on Difficult People) supreme among its members — on How Was Your Week, her late-night variety show in audio form and a longtime fixture on best-comedy-podcast lists. Thankfully, Klausner is considerably warmer and more thoughtful than her caustic, id-forward TV alter ego, though just as quick with a joke. It’s also worth noting that, while Julie Kessler cohabits with two basset hounds, Julie Klausner — who co-wrote and starred in an online comedy series called The Cat Whisperer — is hopelessly devoted to her tuxedo cat, Jimmy Jazz. Ahead of her first-ever visit to a cat café for a photo shoot for the Voice, Klausner told me, “I’ll have to shower. I’ll have to go to the Y and burn all my clothes. I’m going to smell like other cats for a week.”

Executive-produced by Amy Poehler — with whom Klausner took a workshop at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and who also serves as an EP for fellow UCB alums Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad CityDifficult People was originally produced as a pilot for USA. “It’s great to work with someone who is so diligent about tone and protecting the voice of her characters,” Poehler says. “Plus, Julie is a smart woman, hard worker, and the ultimate joke machine.” The show is based loosely on premises explored in How Was Your Week, on every episode of which Klausner offers a “freeform train of thought” about her life, a monologue that’s both deeply personal and instinctively contextualized within a pop-culture framework. (“That’s just how my brain works,” she explains.) She might discuss the four times she saw the American Psycho musical (she walked out twice in the midst of panic attacks) or her years-long feud with “enemy of the show” and NCIS actress Pauley Perrette, who once tried to get Klausner kicked out of a dog awards show and eventually blocked her on Twitter.

Klausner grew up in Scarsdale, forty-five minutes outside the city, in close proximity to her family’s television. Her father is an accountant, her mother a clinical psychologist (as is her TV mom, played by the flawless Andrea Martin), and she has one brother, older by eight years. She was raised on a steady diet of Mr. Belvedere, Small Wonder, Dana Carvey-era Saturday Night Live (she sent the sketch comedian a birthday card when she was fourteen), The Kids in the Hall, and The Monkees. “We actually have [Monkees drummer] Micky Dolenz playing himself this season, which is crazy,” Klausner says. “The nice thing about our show is that part of the criteria when we’re writing is: Could this happen on any other show? Have we seen anything like this? And if the answer’s no, then put Micky Dolenz in the show.” An occasional cabaret singer who’s performed at Joe’s Pub, Klausner also fell in love with musicals as a child — her parents took her to Broadway shows like Cats, A Chorus Line, and Guys and Dolls. When she was a little older, she took herself to Manhattan, armed with a fake ID. “I had this fake Georgia driver’s license that I would use not to drink, but to get into Luna Lounge for their Monday-night comedy shows” — the venue’s weekly “Eating It” lineup routinely featured the likes of Marc Maron, Todd Barry, and Louis C.K. — “which was extremely embarrassing.” She never attempted a Georgia accent, though. “That would’ve been offensive to all parties: the bouncer, me, the good people of Georgia.”

She attended NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she designed a concentration in cultural criticism. In her 2010 memoir, I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned From Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated, Klausner wrote that she’d chosen NYU “because of my crippling fear of places that are not New York City and Gallatin’s decidedly laissez-faire policy about what you actually had to learn.” While in college, she landed an internship with Strangers With Candy, the Amy Sedaris-starring perversion of after-school specials. Having a “front-row seat” to the production of that weird, wonderful Comedy Central series crystallized her show-business ambitions. (She even made a cameo as a Flatpoint High cheerleader.) Now Klausner — who recently visited past Difficult People guest star Sedaris on the set of her upcoming “insane, beautiful, off-the-wall, wackadoo-sensibility” TruTV show, At Home With Amy Sedaris — is working on color corrections for season three of her own series in the same building where she interned more than fifteen years ago.

Sedaris, a “big fan” of How Was Your Week, has fond memories of Julie the intern. “I have some great pictures of her from a wrap party we had and it looks like she was having a blast,” she says in an email. She’s equally positive about the experience of appearing on Klausner’s own show: “She is very supportive and a great laugher and you need that when you are not in front of a live audience.”

When Klausner and Eichner see something, they say something.

Difficult People is what happens when a television obsessive makes television. Its central pair of narcissists converse in pop culture like it’s a second language. Julie and Billy’s staggeringly specific, hyperliterate references comprise an extensive celebrity pantheon, glittering with the highbrow and the low-, the famous and fame-ish alike. Among them are the frequently mocked Kevin Spacey, whom Klausner has called the show’s “patron saint” (and whom Billy compares to a “participator” date at a Bridget Everett show: “His hand shot up faster than Kevin Spacey’s fly at the opening of Newsies”); there’s also Sunday in the Park With George, Rachael Ray, Sasha Grey, Joel Grey (no relation), Botched, Star Jones, Jenny Jones (no relation), Jenny McCarthy, and The Real Housewives of New York City. In season three, the show’s pop-culture fixation has meant re-enacting, in breathtaking detail, the Kenny Rogers-scored “Gutterballs” dream sequence from The Big Lebowski (although, on Difficult People, it’s technically an ayahuasca sequence), as well as building a replica barbershop from Woody Allen’s “pretty shockingly bad” Amazon series, Crisis in Six Scenes.

The best testament to Difficult People’s cult popularity might be its inordinately high-wattage guest stars, some of whom play themselves, some of whom inhabit characters who are degenerate even by Billy and Julie’s standards. This season alone, you’ll see John Cho (as Billy’s boyfriend), Stockard Channing, Maury Povich, Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Chris Elliott, Vanessa Williams, John Turturro, Lucy Liu, and Coco, reality star and wife to Ice-T. On the dream list for Klausner: “Someone who takes people’s breath away when they walk into a room.” Your Anjelica Hustons, your Glenn Closes, your Cate Blanchetts. “Our guests are not the same old five or six comedy cameos, mostly because those people don’t return my calls anymore,” Klausner says.

Meanwhile, it feels like we’re living in a very different world from the one in which Difficult People’s second season premiered last summer. In the background (and sometimes the foreground) of season three, a sense of Trumpian dystopia has enveloped New York City: The Quiznos Qlinic is now Manhattan’s foremost sandwich-slash-healthcare provider, and a new government program incentivizes gay “conversion” with a $6,000 bonus and a therapy kit, emblazoned with Mike Pence’s face, that contains, among other things, a hacky sack, barbecue tongs, and the complete Hangover series on DVD. “All these protests, they keep popping up like Cosby accusers,” Billy says.

“The election was dark, man. I think I’m still recovering from it,” Klausner tells me. The day after Donald Trump won our nation’s highest office, she was back in the Difficult People writers’ room — conjuring comedy felt like both an impossible challenge and a welcome diversion. “It was nice to not think about what was going on, but you can’t not think about what’s going on.” Ultimately, while the third season does skewer the new administration, Klausner will be more than satisfied if it’s received purely as comic relief. “If our show exists to distract people with a laugh, or so people can see people who look like them who they don’t usually see on TV, that’s good, too,” she says. “I think our show represents a group of people that Trump supporters would really hate.” Indeed, there’s plenty to hate here (or love, more likely, if you’re reading this story), what with female characters who couldn’t give a shit whether they’re “likable” and some of the most fully realized LGBTQ roles on television, like Shakina Nayfack’s “trans truther” Lola, a part-time waitress and full-time Bush-did-9-11 conspiracy theorist. Amid a political climate that becomes more difficult to abide with every passing day, maybe being difficult right back is the only logical response.

Back at the salon, after recommending that I incorporate into my media diet both Andie MacDowell, whose timeline is full of rescue Chihuahuas in need of forever homes, and playwright John Patrick Shanley (why? I ask; “I’d rather you discover it yourself,” she says), Klausner pauses: “OK, watch this.” She produces a pair of UV-shielding fingerless magenta gloves and puts them on before sliding her hands back under the light. “Listen, I don’t have a lot else going on,” she says. “I don’t have any children. This is how I spend my money, dammit.”

Klausner, of course, has a lot going on. As Eichner puts it, “‘Julie Kessler’ and ‘Billy Epstein’ maintain a very strong ‘us against the world’ attitude that often ends up getting in their own way, hopefully to thrillingly comedic effect! In real life, I think we’ve evolved past some of that — not only professionally, but in terms of being more self-aware and more appreciative of what we have.” She’s no longer a TV recapper, recounting the exploits of various Real Housewives for Vulture — she’s a TV star in her own right, with all the unexpected baggage that entails. For example: An off-the-cuff, Twitter-typical joke that Klausner made about Gwyneth Paltrow at Difficult People’s second-season premiere became a Page Six story last year, after a reporter asked if it was a myth that Hollywood stars are all really good friends, like Paltrow and Demi Moore, and Klausner responded that the celebs are just pretending — “Well, Gwyneth Paltrow, there’s many a tale to tell. All kinds of backstabbing.”

“I realized I’m being listened to, and I’d never felt like I was being listened to,” Klausner recalls. The increased scrutiny is part of the reason she went nearly a year before releasing a new episode of How Was Your Week. “[The podcast is] as much for me as it is for the people that like it, if not more so,” she says. “It’s genuinely therapeutic, but I have a big mouth and I don’t want to jeopardize [Difficult People], the people that work on my show. I also have this amazing outlet now: If I have something to say, I have a TV show. I could put it on the TV show.” Beyond that, Klausner doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, she just wants to make people laugh — though, yes, that sometimes means hurting other people’s feelings. As she sums it up, “Dance like nobody’s watching… and then a couple of people might be watching.”

On her show, Klausner reps for underdogs, weirdos, and cranks.

Even now that the idea of her having “beef” with an A-lister like Paltrow is not totally unimaginable, Klausner still “absolutely” feels like an outsider. “I think that so much of that is formed by your childhood, that even if you are accepted, it’s less like the Groucho thing [the Marx Brother’s apocryphal resignation from the Friars Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”] as much as it is, like, ‘I’ll never belong in this club. They don’t really understand me. The stuff they like isn’t really me.’ I’ll always have a means of rationalizing my misery, I think.” And so her show remains a “celebration” of underdogs, weirdos, and cranks — and also of New York City, the only conceivable habitat for those underdogs, weirdos, and cranks.

Most New York-set sitcoms are, as if by law, set in enormous apartments, improbably affordable on struggling actors’ and intermittently employed caterers’ non-salaries. But Billy’s place — originally a real apartment, now a set — is only getting smaller. Really. “The walls are literally closing in on him. It’s like we’re gaslighting him, essentially,” Klausner says. This season, Dave Attell makes a truly inspired, career-highlight appearance as a pizza- and porn-bingeing personification of the city. Filled with inflatable Scabby the Rats (Scabbies the Rat?) and crickets released by performance artists on the subway, Difficult People’s version of New York is as “nasty and dirty and obnoxious” as its misanthropic inhabitants. “And I say that with all the love in my heart, because I could never live anywhere else,” Klausner adds. “Nobody wants me behind the wheel of a car. Nobody wants to see what I look like when I’ve been in the sun. It’s kinder to the world that I stay in my little hidey-hole here.”

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Donald Glover Is More Talented Than You

Red sweatshirt hood pulled tightly over his head, brown leather jacket wrapped tightly around his torso, fresh whiskey sour sweating in his hand, Donald Glover peels his way through the packed crowd in the upstairs lounge at the Lower East Side bar Pianos to the area where a lifesize panda, peering from behind a giraffe, pig, and monkey in a display window above the stairs, is staring at him.

The previous night, the 27-year-old recorded his first hour-long comedy special, Weirdo, at two sold-out shows at the 500-capacity Union Square Theatre. He flew his family in to watch. His younger brother, Stephen, Tweeted after the performance from the bar: “Watching two women fight over my brother, LOL.” Glover didn’t go home with either of them—he went home instead with a woman he calls “the Holy Grail,” the one he tried and failed to get the entire time he lived in New York, before bolting to Hollywood two years ago.

“Why now?” Glover asks no one in particular, turning his back on the panda—its eerie eyes staring like some sort of harbinger of ill times—and gazing into the mass of bodies writhing in the center of the room, speaking as if to the Holy Grail herself. “What changed that you’re making out with me now?”

What changed is that Donald Glover is blowing up.

Donald Glover, the black hipster from Stone Mountain, Georgia, who landed a gig writing for 30 Rock while still an R.A. at NYU. Donald Glover, the former Jehovah’s Witness who penned some of Tracy Morgan’s most classic lines as idiot savant Tracy Jordan, only to leave his Emmy-winning writing job for California and quickly snag the role of Troy Barnes, the clueless jock, on the NBC show Community. Donald Glover, the asthmatic nerd who remixed Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise album into a dreamy, chill hip-hop record and whose latest rap EP, released under the moniker Childish Gambino, has been downloaded 150,000 times. Donald Glover, the guy whose viral videos as the part of Derrick Comedy team have been watched 200 million times and counting.

This week, Glover embarks on the first large-scale mash-up of all of his abilities in the “I Am Donald” tour—a live show for the ADD generation that combines hip-hop, comedy, and viral sketch video. He will tour 23 cities in 33 days, including stops at the Bowery Ballroom on May 10 and Williamsburg Music Hall on May 14—both shows sold out in three hours.

Ten years ago, “I Am Donald” could never have happened. Handlers and brand managers may have allowed a guy who played a lovable character on a popular mainstream network TV show to perform hardcore, dirty-mouth stand-up, and even dirtier emo-rap—but they would have insisted he do it all on a separate stage. But the transparency and immediacy of the Web makes it possible for Glover to avoid cutting his talent into tiny pieces for his different audiences. In a sense, he has spun the TV-personality paradigm on its head—his persona is what people see on the Web, and the TV show is merely an extension.

“Because of Twitter, people don’t go to my shows expecting Troy to rap,” says Glover, a reference to problems other performers have encountered, like Andy Kaufman facing crowds that only wanted him to be his Latka character from Taxi.

When Glover randomly Tweeted that he wanted to audition for the role of Spider-Man in the Marc Webb reboot of the franchise, the Twitterverse began a campaign to make it so. (See Donald Glover’s 10 Favorite Nerd Things.) Even if it was just PC diplomacy, both creator Stan Lee and Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis said they approved. Alas, he didn’t audition, and the role went to Andrew Garfield. It was probably for the best—because even though he claims he needs just three hours of sleep a night, Glover is running at breakneck speed, criss-crossing the country fueled by ambition and whiskey and girls, heading toward a moving target that is flashing either “Next Big Thing” or “Next Tragic Hero”—all depending on how the next year plays out.

It’s nearly midnight at Pianos. When he made his way through the bar downstairs, he received countless hugs from male fans. Most knew him from the television series, others knew him from the viral videos. A select few know his raps. A lot of people know him from Twitter, which he checks constantly on his iPhone throughout the night.

Glover checks his Twitter again. There are way too many bros under the tight ceiling of Pianos’ second floor. He asks Twitter—”In NYC, where should I go right now to drink?”

After getting numerous responses of “My bed,” from lady followers, he migrates down the street to Darkroom, where a follower promises “saucy bitches.”

Glover leads his family caravan down Ludlow into the blackness that is the Darkroom. His brother comments on how damn cold it is. Glover enters the room and immediately realizes—this is where all the women on the Lower East Side have been hiding. It’s a long way from Stone Mountain.

A suburb of Atlanta, Stone Mountain sits in the shadow of a large relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved in the side of the mountain of the same name. It is the place where the Ku Klux Klan was rebooted in 1915—and Martin Luther King references it in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

There was a television in the Glover household, but the kids, being raised Jehovah’s Witness, were not allowed to watch it. So Glover would take his Talkboy, record the audio of episodes of The Simpsons, wait until bedtime, and listen to them as he lay in his bed. (He would later write a spec script for The Simpsons in which Homer is arrested for stealing a single song off the Internet and taken to court by the RIAA, where he must face his victims, Hall & Oates.)

His parents, mother Beverly and postal-worker father Donald Sr.—contrary to what you might read on the Internet, Glover is not the son of Lethal Weapon actor Danny Glover—were also foster parents, which meant a steady stream of kids entered Glover’s home.

Glover says he was happy growing up, but always had a fear that something would go wrong—that something bad would happen around the next corner. “I was the type of kid—I felt like I was always being blamed for things that weren’t my fault. So I always wanted things to go smoothly. And growing up in the South, people didn’t like me because I was black. And it took on this thing: I’m gonna be me so much, and be sooo likeable, that I will change their minds. And I know now that that’s impossible. But I had to try.”

The kids who would come through his front door had often been through a lot already in their lives. When his parents brought home a child who had been molested, they had to explain to Glover that the boy needed a lot more attention. As a kid, Glover remembers asking himself, “What about me?”

So he would do anything to get his parents’ attention—puppet shows, plays, skateboarding.

For a while, he was the only black kid in his school. A black kid who liked the Muppets and Korn. A good student but a disruption in class, he migrated to the DeKalb School of the Arts, where he starred in plays like 42nd Street and Pippen, and then used his performing as a way to escape Georgia to New York for school.

“NYU is like a Jurassic 5 concert—there are supposed to be black people there, but there aren’t,” Glover says in his stand-up. Studying dramatic writing in the hopes of being a playwright, he began performing in sketch comedy troop Hammerkatz, where he met current writing partners DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes. The three split off to start Derrick Comedy with director Dan Eckman.

The sketches of Derrick are teeming with frat-boy, racial, and homoerotic humor. But underneath the dick and fart jokes is a sincerity that makes them work.

In even the smallest roles in the sketches, Glover’s star power is evident. But it’s the ones in which he takes the lead that you’re likely to wet yourself, such as the student-film-as-revenge epic “Girls Are Not to Be Trusted” and the most popular Derrick sketch, “Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report,” a Dateline send-up involving Natty Ice–drinking, Jack Johnson–listening male predators.

And then there’s “Jerry,” in which Glover plays a high school student who tries to fart but accidentally shits his pants in class, then spends the rest of the sketch trying to pass it off a million different ways while bawling his eyes out. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but there is a believability and earnestness in Glover’s performance that makes you care for him. At that point, we are all that kid. And it’s a microcosm of Glover’s range—wild and heartfelt . . . with poop.

Glover landed in New York a virgin who had never tasted alcohol. His first drink took place in a dorm room at NYU’s Brittany Hall as a sophomore. He sat in the corner of a room full of people, his hoodie pulled over his head, debating the whole night whether to take a swig or not. When he finally did, he thought for sure he might die—the fears that nagged him while growing up ruling over a lot of what he did.

In his junior year, he lost his virginity—to another R.A. in his dorm. Never having been in any kind of intimate relationship before, he was unsure of what to do when the deed was done. Was he going to have to marry this girl? But she told him, “No, it was just fun. It doesn’t mean anything.” “Doesn’t mean anything?” Glover thought to himself. “Oh, OK.”

It was then that the Childish Gambino was born.

He had been mixing beats since freshman year with a ripped version of Fruity Loops, but now he began rapping over them with rhymes about girls and love. The name “Childish Gambino” popped up on a Wu-Tang Clan name-generator site, so he kept it and put the first tracks on tape.

He can go from a suck-a-dick verse (“When rappers start rappin’ over indie shit/Just remember I was first to hit this shit”) to a child just trying to fit in (“I coulda been a tragedy/That’s why these fake niggas who call me ‘pussy’ are ‘mad’ at me/’Cause they ain’t have the smarts or the heart/Ain’t you read the fuckin’ book, Things Fall Apart?”) to a wailing, hopeless, and hurting romantic (“I don’t wanna be alone/’Cause you know/Somewhere inside/I cannot find/The feeling I got from you”).

It’s a bit schizophrenic—but much like how Glover doesn’t separate his TV persona from his Web persona, he doesn’t care to compartmentalize. For this, he has his detractors. Satirical cultural critic Hipster Runoff teased him by wondering if the “blipster” is too eager to “make it as a buzz band” (in a review of a Voice review). The AV Club picked apart his album Culdesac as “a collection of good ideas that still need to be finessed into a strong statement,” attacking the wild range of emotions and personality from song to song. But that’s exactly the point. “Fuck Rap Cool,” the hashtag Glover often adds to his Tweets, is the one tattoo to be etched on him at this stage in his career.

In his raps, he makes frequent mention of his manhood. His propensity for thick women, particularly of Asian descent, is well-documented, and on one track he gives a shout-out to e.e. cummings—you can fill in the rest. But in between, he’s rapping about alienation, trying to fit in, getting girls to like him. Nerdy emo with a fro. Name-dropping Greedo and Inspector Gadget one minute, then laying something like, “Whiskey-sippin’/Wanna drink the whole bottle/But these smart middle-class black kids need a role model” the next.

“So many black kids Tweeted me about that line,” says Glover. “This is the first time in history we are able to talk about alienation and nerd things. Black kids do like white stuff. Arcade Fire were at the top of iTunes—it ain’t all white people listening to them.” He represents a new archetype of entertainer—a black nerd who can like white stuff. Not a black nerd in the over-the-top Steve Urkel or Dwayne Wayne sense, but a regular black guy who likes the same stuff white people like—but just happens to be more talented than you.

The black middle-class kid is a real thing. Earlier that night, before heading to Pianos, around the table of Boka Bon Chon with his two biological siblings, brother Stephen and sister Brianne, and high school friend Lauren, the conversation turns to race—who can say the N-word and who can’t. “He was voiced by a black dude,” he wonders out loud. “So is it OK for Darth Vader to say the N-word?” He quickly Tweets the question out to the world.

“During the whole Spider-Man thing, the only thing that ever hurt my feelings was this one comment. The guy said, ‘Look, I love you. I think you’re great. But let’s be honest: There are no black kids like Peter Parker,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “There are!”

And Glover will let us all in on a little secret: His first taste of rap wasn’t NWA. Or Run-D.M.C. Or even Eminem. No, his first taste of rap was guys like Fred Durst.

“They say there’s no place in hip-hop if you’re in the suburbs,” he says. “Kanye is a suburban kid. The struggle is finding your place.”

While in his senior year at NYU, Glover got an e-mail from David Miner with the message “I heard you write.” Miner had gotten his name from Tina Fey, who got it from Amy Poehler, who got it from his teacher at Upright Citizens Brigade.

They asked him for some writing samples. He sent the spec script he wrote for The Simpsons, along with one for Everybody Hates Chris, along with some sketches he had written.

Miner and 30 Rock co-creator Fey liked them. Not yet having graduated from NYU, he was now a writer on 30 Rock.

While Glover is often cited as a driving force behind a lot of Tracy Morgan’s best lines, his first joke to make it on the show was a punchline for Kenneth, the white hayseed NBC page—whom he says he actually most identifies with, if anything because of the fact that both (fictional white clueless guy and real black nerdy guy) hail from the same town: Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Eager to perform as well as write, Glover started doing stand-up. In the beginning, he took advice from Tracy Morgan: “Talk about penises—dudes loves that.” And later, advice from Chris Rock: “What the hell was that!? It looked like you went onstage and said ‘dick’ for 45 minutes.”

Meanwhile, he continued to mix beats and rap and, with his Derrick partners, produced and starred in the Encyclopedia Brown send-up indie film Mystery Team. But he wanted more. In 2008, he auditioned to play Obama as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but didn’t get the part. At the end of the third season of 30 Rock, he told Fey he wanted out. She gave him her blessing, and he left the most stable and secure thing he had, packed up the Derrick team in a two-car caravan, and headed to L.A., moving to Beverly Hills Adjacent, in an apartment building that also housed a brothel and a dentist’s office.

Then he got a call from Community. The character of Troy was actually written for a white guy, but he made it his own. Troy was also originally supposed to be paired up on the show with Chevy Chase’s character, Pierce, but it was clear early on that Glover’s Troy would enjoy a heated bromance with Danny Pudi’s film-school geek, Abed.

“It was pretty immediate,” says Pudi of the connection as he watches Glover’s band set up for a show on the cracked concrete outdoor patio of Austin’s Red 7 bar. “Both characters do things at 150 percent,” from bonding over Kickpuncher to building a dorm-wide blanket fort. Pudi has come down to Austin to party and hang with his friend and watch him perform. The line to get into the club on 7th Street stretches down the block, a diverse mix of b-boys and hipsters and normal-looking folk excited to see the guy from Community.

Glover appears from backstage wearing a vintage-looking red Coca-Cola T-shirt, tight jeans, and green-and-white Adidas. (See our review of the show, “Live: Donald Glover Gets Emo as Childish Gambino During SXSW.”) He is going solo tonight—his writing partner Pierson is back in L.A.—but I ask him if Pierson ever sealed the deal with a cute chick he was talking up before the Woodies a few nights ago.

“Which chick?” he asks, confused.

“The cute blond chick he was rapping to,” I answer.

“Oh, that one,” Glover says loudly with a smile. “No, I hooked up with that chick.”

“But DC was killing it!” I say incuriously.

“I know DC was killing it!” he retorts, and then says sincerely and unapologetically: “But I have money.”

He’s not saying it to be a dick—that was just the dynamic. “We started talking about money, and she was like, ‘So you think money is evil?’ and I’m like, ‘Money isn’t evil.’ But I could see dollar signs in her eyes.”

“So does she keep texting you?” I ask.

“Nah,” says he with a bigger smile. “I asked for her number first. I always ask for their number first. They see you put it into the phone and they’re like, ‘OK, he’s doing it,’ but . . .” his big smile turns into a sheepish grin. “Yeah, I’m a little girl-crazy.” (“He’s a silent assassin that way,” Pudi remarks later about his sitcom partner’s prowess.)

Glover, talking in a tone between a hush and a whisper as he tries to save his voice, goes back to his MacBook on the side of the stage to work on arrangements for the show.

He has told his entourage that now is the time to strike. When most performers usually wrap a TV show, they take a holiday. But he is charging ahead. The week of SXSW, he wedged a Chicago performance on Friday in between the Wednesday’s mtvU Woodie Awards, Thursday’s unexpected cameo at the Voice/Wu-Tang show at the Austin Music Hall, and Saturday’s show at Red 7. Then he’s going to do another gig in Texas, one in a church in Atlanta, up to New York for the Comedy Central taping, then Virginia, back to Texas, up to Arkansas. Nonstop. Why the rush?

“Funny you should ask, because we were just talking about that,” says Glover’s manager, Greg Walter, as we eye Glover talking to the band on the stage. “For the past three months, I have not been calling him saying, ‘Take this job.’ I am usually calling him saying, ‘Don’t take this job—you need rest.’ I get worried because he doesn’t sleep enough. I tell him to slow down, and he says, ‘You know what, I’m 26, 27—I can do it now.’ ”

Pudi, who looks decidedly healthy and rested in a military cap and fresh face, walks up to the side of the stage. Glover sees him and flashes a smile.

“Are you alive?” Pudi yells, leaning his body across the stage.

Glover, still resting his voice, holds up his pointer and thumb, pinched with little space in between.

Just barely.

The previous week had been one of the biggest in Glover’s career.

On Tuesday, March 8, he released the new Childish Gambino EP. Over the next four days, he was on the set of Community as they tried to finish shooting the second season before the weekend. He wove press interviews about Childish Gambino in between takes, and after each day’s wrap went back to his studio to remix some more songs and put them on the Web. At night, he was preparing for the Comedy Central special as well as working on slides for the “I Am Donald” tour. He spent eight hours on Saturday, March 12, covered in orange paint for the last day of shooting for Community. (They are revisiting a paintball theme.) 5-Hour Energy. Whiskey. Remixing. Girls. Bits and beats flowing through his head that needed to be captured on his iPhone. Writing a new song for the Woodies. Sunday was a Community goodbye get-together followed by performing at his regular Sunday-night comedy show, Shitty Jobs.

Three hours of sleep over the previous 48, Glover finally found his bed at 5 a.m. on Monday morning for some semblance of a proper rest.

He woke up three hours later, stumbled into the bathroom of his new Silver Lake home, and started throwing up.

He didn’t drink any whiskey the night before. It wasn’t food poisoning, either. It was the pace. His work—from the clueless jock Troy on Community to the indie rapper Childish Gambino to his black-nerd stand-up—constantly needing to be fed, had just left his flesh in its wake.

“My body was just done,” says Glover, safe in Austin. “My left arm was numb. I had to stop and sit down.”

Everyone—from his manager to his mother to his Gambino co-producer—wants him to slow down. He even raps about them telling him to slow down. But he’s not having it.

“You don’t get to where all my heroes were without giving up a part of who you are,” he says. “Right now, I refuse to even have a dog. No girlfriend. I don’t want anything tying me down. I want to be everywhere. I don’t see a limit for me. I want to do everything. I never thought I was this type of person: Have a good time, not a long time. As a kid, I was always afraid of dying.” But now, he’s driving full-speed. Pushing himself. He crashes. He gets back up. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Onstage at Red 7, you can see some ill effects of the pace at which Glover is living. His voice cracks in certain places, which he acknowledges, giving the crowd a look of promise that it will get better. He refuses to use Auto-Tune—the product of his performing-arts background—and it just adds to the sincerity of his delivery. On the last song, his best song, “Not Going Back,” he encapsulates all he wants to say.

Couldn’t see me as Spider-Man, but now I’m spittin’ venom
Now you payin’ attention, pick your fuckin’ face up
When I wanna be a superhero, I just wake up
Renaissance man with a Hollywood buzz
I refuse to go back to not likin’ who I was

He is currently writing two movies. He just signed on for a part in The Hand Job, and will have a cameo in the James Bobin/Jason Segel Muppets movie coming out this fall. These are all just Lego blocks of the nerd fortress Glover wants to construct.

“If one day, I can be a neo–Michael Jackson, I want that. I don’t know if it is possible for someone to be that big anymore. But I want that.”

And it’s not as if he is looking for Elephant Man bones or backyard amusement parks. Money—even if it can land him cute girls he might have already gotten anyway—is not what’s changed him. And it’s not what he’s after.

He’s after power.

“Power is what allows you to do whatever you want,” he says, getting energized again. “If Will Smith wanted to play Hitler, they’d make that movie. That’s power. I want to do a Nazi movie. I want Jay-Z and Eminem to rap on the same track with me. I’m in it for the power.”

It’s 3:45 at Darkroom. His brother and sister went home hours ago. But as the bar begins to shut down, Glover heads off into the night with a tiny Filipino girl on his arm. When he reaches the corner of 8th and Broadway, he peers across the street and sees something moving behind a window inside the Bank of America ATM lobby.

He squints to get a better look, and spots a two-backed monster crawling over itself. The girl propped up on the deposit-slip counter, her stiletto heels in the air, her partner thrusting. Glover immediately posts photos of the public sex from his iPhone, giving a play-by-play to the world.

He chronicles the entire tryst, makes a judgment call on its conclusion, and shoots one last photo of the two lovers hailing a cab.

“The most passionate thing I’ve ever seen!” he Tweets.

He puts the phone away and walks his new friend back to her place, where he drops her off with a kiss. The sun starting to rise, he heads south to the Bowery. He’s got another gig in Virginia in just a few hours. He might be able to snag a couple hours of sleep.