Splitsider

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Talking with the Sklar Brothers About Their New History Channel Show, Their Podcast, and the Evolution of Their Standup Process

The Sklar brothers, Randy and Jason, have been the Sklar Brothers for about 20 years, ever since a post-collegiate move to NYC and an embrace of the alternative comedy community. Where alt comedy has grown to be one of those terms that means everything and nothing, to the Sklars it meant an opportunity to do duo, and sibling, comedy in a different way, a more genuine way. Instead of endless jokes about being identical or an aping of a false straight-main/funny-man thing, the Sklar's comedy is an honest representation of who they are as everyday people.

And they've been able to take their comedic lens and successfully apply it towards many projects throughout the years: From their part sitcom, part sketch, part standup show Apt 2F – to their acclaimed and cultish Cheap Seats – to their podcast, Sklarbro Country  – to their new show, United Stats of America, which premieres tomorrow, May 8th, on the history Channel.

I head the pleasure of speaking to Randy and Jason about their new show, expressing themselves individually inside the duo, and how they balance creating for their standup, podcast, and TV show.

 I know you guys script more of your podcast than most do, what is your process and does it then feed into your stand up writing?

Jason: Yeah, you know that’s a great question. We do write our podcast every week, a lot of it. A lot of the comedy comes outside of the interviews and you know, we’ve been really working hard to try and figure out a way to merge that writing on the podcast into material for our stand up. Because, number 1: it takes a lot of energy to write the podcast and number 2: it’s definitely taken a little energy away from our standup. I feel like we’ve created less standup since we’ve been doing the podcast, which is fine, but as we’ve been trying to develop enough material to create an hour special, and we’ve been getting close, I feel like we need to figure out how we can use some of this material from our podcast for that standup. And we’re just now starting to do that a little bit. But the difference is what you create for the podcast, you’re not putting it up and testing it a bunch of times, working on it and trying to make it better. With the podcast, we’re thinking of it, we’re writing it, we’re putting it out there, and then we’re moving on.

So what is the difference between what you write for your podcast and what you write for your standup?

Randy: What we try to do with the writing of our stand up is that, number 1: you’ve gotta experience life so put yourself in experiences that either are comfortable or most times uncomfortable, then see how you react to it and observe it. Number 2: we take the kernel of the idea of something that we’ve observed, whether it be in our lives or something that we’ve seen and it feels true-ish, and make it the basis upon what we try and write a bit. Then we take it and put it up in as many places as we can and sort of find out what’s our attitude to it, where the jokes are, and then we just keep trying to add jokes to it so that it’s the funniest thing that it can be. Then we perform it as much as we can. As far as the podcast is concerned, we ask ourselves what happened this week in the world of sports, specifically, but even tangentially in the world, and then how can we write about it in ways that are funny and relatable to everybody. And I think that we are realizing now with the podcast, having done ninety episodes, we think like, “What’s the most human moment here and how can we develop comedy that came out of this human moment or this interesting thing?”

We’ve been building this bit about how you build your posse the right way because sports athletes have posses and that’s just the way it is. So we developed the rules for having a good posse on the podcast and it got us to write a bit in our standup about how now it’s gotten to people who really shouldn’t have posses having posses, like reality stars, like Snookie’s got a posse and it’s this really weird thing. And what it’s doing is forcing people who could legitimately have a posse to make their posses crazier and weirder. Like someday, 50 Cent is going to have to include a white baby in his posse. Not his baby, just some white baby hanging out in his posse. So that was born out of something we did on the podcast and now we’re trying to take that and make it up for the stage. And last week we were at Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia and we really made it a case to try to take that bit and work it through four shows and make it fit to where the audience is laughing. And we were able to figure out what they like about it and what about the set-up is working. So that was actually a great experiment in how we take an idea from the podcast and try to turn it into stand up.

There's something that you do on the podcast and your stand up. These back-to-back riff avalanches of sorts, where you trade off heightened, alt punchlines. Do you remember when you started doing that?

Jason: When we started out in comedy as a team, we made the conscious decision that we weren’t going to take on characters that felt inorganic to us, like a straight man and a funny man, or a smart guy and a dumb guy, or a crazy guy and a button up guy. So what we turned to, right when we started doing comedy, twenty years ago, was this sort of one-upmanship between one another and seeing who can do it better. Like these layers of things coming at you, like machine gunfire, back and forth, back and forth. Growing up we were really big fans of The Beastie Boys, mainly because they were funny and they seemed to have their own voice and were purveyors of their own style, whether they were conscious of it or not. There are parts in our comedy, where we have this sort of rapid fire, back and forth, line – line – punchline – line, overlapping thing that we started to do twenty years ago. And it’s developed over time as this signature thing that we do.

I have brothers, and there is that sort of one-upsmanship that happens between siblings. Do you think that started before you did standup?

Randy: Oh yeah. I’m building one, and he’s building one, and then he takes it higher, and then I take the next one and build it lower. We were doing that as kids. I remember there was a kid at our high school, Jay Lu was his name…

Jason: Lou Yu, his name was Lou Yu.

Randy: Jay Yu had a little brother named Lou Yu. I just remember with our friend, who is now a writer out in LA, we used to joke around and just talk about this guy Lou Yu, because that was the funniest name ever to us. Like where’s he going to college? He’s going to IU, KU, and BU? His favorite indie rock bands are Hüsker Dü and The Hoodoo Gurus. Suddenly you’re just one-upping each other until suddenly somebody is just like, “What’s his favorite Eric Clapton song?” And you think it’s gonna be one thing and then they just come in and go, “It’s Badge.” Silliness. That was who we are, our type of humor, and I’ll say this: when we started in comedy in the late 80s and early 90s, there was an expectation from the comedy world that we would do twin humor the whole way. And then, thankfully for us, at that time in our development, alternative comedy started to explode in LA and New York, especially where we were in New York, and that opened the door for us to do whatever we wanted. We weren’t constricted to just doing jokes about being twins. It was well if you’re funny, just do funny stuff. So that incorporating of the one-upmanship that we would do when we were kids to be funny amongst our friends had nothing to do with us being twins, it just was being funny. We then tried to incorporate what made us funny around our friends on stage and it was a huge watershed moment for us. Alternative comedy flipped the script and said that you could do whatever you want.

So when you are coming up with this trading punchlines, do you share? Is there an ego to the joke? Is there a specific voice that each of you bring?

Jason: When we’re on stage together, we’re trying to get the most laughs as a team. So I don’t know if there’s a line that’s specifically Randy’s or a character trait that’s more him then me, but if there’s something funny and I write it and he says it and it comes more naturally for him, the way the flow of the joke is going, I don’t care. I don’t care if he gets the bigger laugh because I seriously do believe that when we’re on stage, when we’re up there, it’s about us getting laughs or not getting laughs. I would never say, “Hey, that’s my joke, you can’t do that.”

Randy: And there are moments, a lot of times now in our standup, where we’ll do an act out or do a little scene to show a point that we’re making in a premise, and in those moments we do pretty much fall into two defined characters. Like I’ll play Snow White and Jason will play Snow White’s Prince Charming, when talking about how the basis of their relationship is necrophilia. We’ll fall into those same roles, but maybe we’ll only know where the scene’s going and it's like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where we know what the set-up is but how we do it will change every time. Even though we’re in the same roles, we can still surprise each other.

I was actually gonna ask you about that particular bit because it seemed like it was based on something very specific that might have happened to only one of you. Though you are a duo, how have you been able to work personal things into your act?

Randy: That’s actually a great point. We now have brought into the act stories that have happened between my daughter and I. Jay has a son and I have two daughters. I tell the story of trying to write a joke with my daughter because she was trying to figure out what I do for a living. And then Jay will be my sounding board on stage for what we did. We talk about growing old and what that means for us and how we know that we’re getting older and Jay will offer up his personal experiences of something that actually happened to him and I would never think of that story as something of my own. If it happened to us individually then we will remain truthful to it and act it out individually. The other person will be the commenter on it. I think that people think that’s funny too because you are your biggest critic and your twin brother is as big of a critic on you as you are on yourself.

Can you tell me a little bit about the new History Channel show?

Jason: It's called The United Stats of America. We’re super excited because History let us be as funny as we could be. It’s a show about how statistics tell the story of why America is how it is. Why are we this tall? Why are we this fat? Why do we spend our money this way? Why do we spend our free time like this? What are we most afraid of when it comes to death? And all that stuff. Stats on their own can kind of get a little boring – I wouldn’t say boring but they don't pop off the screen. So what they said to us is, “Bring your humor to this. Bring as much of yourselves to this as possible. When you’re talking to experts, when you’re talking to people on the streets, when you’re talking to everybody in the universe, bring who you are and what makes you funny into the show and then that will bring the stats to life.” And it really did. So the show kind of starts with one stat, like one episode starts on the stat that 99% of us in America live on 8% of the land. That’s a fascinating stat to me so the show then starts to unravel. How did we get there? How did that happen? And really the show becomes about the seven inventions that moved our population around within this country and put us where we are today. And so that’s fascinating to me, and if we can make people laugh along the way. Then they’re kind of learning without knowing that they’re learning.

So how did the idea come up? Was it something that you guys were always interested in? Was it something that History Channel already had?

Randy: I’ll tell you, it’s kind of an amazing and interesting story.

Jason: We’ve always been stats guys. We’re big sports fans, Randy and I sometimes in our free time, when we’re just tooling around on the Internet, will look up which baseball players are close to getting 3,000 hits? It’s just fun for us to think about that, to contextualize people’s performances throughout history through their statistics. So as sports fans we’re already predisposed to liking statistics and being interesting in statistics. And then Randy will tell you the story of how it happened.

Randy: All right here’s the amazing story of how it all happened. So there was a viral video that went around, where this Danish statistician was talking about life expectancy versus the wealth of a nation and got into the hands of somebody at History Channel pretty high up, Nancy Dubuc, and she really wanted to do this show about America. So the production company, Left Right Productions, they did This American Life on Showtime, and they started looking for one host and they found some people they liked but nobody that they were super excited about. We didn’t know about it but then Ken Drucker was out here in LA with Left Right Productions and he was driving to the auditions and he heard me and Jason on NPR…

Jason: We do Madeline Graham’s show on NPR every Thursday, through KPCC out here in Southern California, and we break down sports for the NPR fans. We take something that’s boring to them, something that’s full of statistics and something that may not make a lot of sense to the NPR listener and we make it relatable using humor. He heard us do the segment that day and thought, “These guys are exactly what we need! We need to get them for the show.” So they did and we made a tape and got the show. It rarely happens like that, it was really, really wonderful and a great experience.

I was able to watch the pilot and it was a really natural fit. You say at the top, that being a twin is a statistic. Was that something that you knew you’d be able to bring to it, the ability to look at it from two different sides?

Randy: Yeah. I feel like now at this point you can’t watch this show and not think of us as the hosts of it, which was our goal all along. We really wanted to make it feel like it was our show. Like we did Cheap Seats, seventy-seven episodes on ESPN Classic, and that was our show, that was our baby, so we want all of the people who watched us there to then come to History Channel and watch this show and not feel like they’re getting short changed in what we do. And again I give so much credit to History Channel and to Left Right Productions for allowing us to say, “Look we’ve done this before, in terms of creating TV, and we know the way we want to be portrayed in this, can we work within the confines of what you guys are trying to do, to make it feel like a real collaborative and natural show?" And the end result is definitely something that I’m proud of. This is our litmus test, Jay and I always say, “If this was on TV, would I say to myself, 'I want to be a part of that? I wish I was doing that?'” And I feel like with this show passed that test for us and that’s all that we can ask for.

It definitely does reflect you guys. With this and your podcast, your NPR spots, and everything you do, what would you say is the Sklar element that you've brought to all of them?

Jason: I think it’s taking a look at the minutia of a situation. It’s using a specific portal to then open up an entire point of view comedically to the world. In Cheap Seats it was sports, in this show it’s statistics, on the podcast it’s sort of weird stories about the world of sports. In the way that on Cheap Seats and on our podcast, sports and the stories of the sports world are just jumping off points for our comedic point of view on the world, it’s the same way with statistics.

Randy: And we feel like it’s all an opportunity for us to talk the way we would in standup comedy about a certain subject. One of my favorite moments, from an episode we shot about personal space, we were in the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the curator of the museum. We’re talking to him about an apartment in the museum and it didn’t seem small – it kind of seemed like Jason and my dorm room at the University of Michigan. Which is not that bad, it’s small, but not that small. And that whole thing led us into this discussion about why we decided to room together in Michigan. We literally had this guy stand by and listen to us justify living together while we were trying to go out and make other friends. It was a really funny moment that we would do on a standup stage but that just blossomed in that moment there. So we were really like, let’s just take every opportunity to drop pop culture references, which we do a lot in our stand up, and just make it feel as naturally us as possible.

Moving forward are there projects on the horizon or any other things that you really want to do together, moving forward?

Jason: Yeah, our immediate goal is the History Channel show. I’d love to come back and do a second season of the show. Our podcast continues, which is exciting. We’re involved in a couple cool web things that we’re going to get up and running, as we wait to see what happens with the History Channel show. But I feel like what Randy and I are trying to do with the podcast, with our stand up, and the new History Channel show, and these new web things that we’re gonna be involved in, I feel like our goal is to try and continue to get our brand of comedy out to the people who don’t know about us, but would like us. And all that supports going out and doing standup and it would be our dream to go out and do theaters. I think that we’re starting to get to a place now, with our podcast, that we’re able to fill up comedy clubs on the weekends and really start to have some sell out shows. So we’re hopefully inching towards performing in bigger venues, and that would be a thrill for us. That was certainly a goal way back when.

Randy: And I would say we’re gonna go out and pitch a scripted show this development season to the networks, and we’d always like to get involved in scripted stuff with film and TV. Everything that we’ve done TV-wise, on a scripted level, we’ve really enjoyed. Hopefully the success of the History Channel show will allow us to do other things like more scripted programming on TV as well.