Talking to Nick Kroll About ‘Kroll Show,’ Characters, and Complex Sketch Shows
Following the immense success of Key & Peele, Comedy Central is betting big on sketch shows this season. With The Ben Show and Inside Amy Schumer still to air this winter, the network this week launched a high-profile new show, Kroll Show, fronted by one of the most recognized and beloved names in comedy. Nick Kroll’s characters are a mainstay of Comedy Bang! Bang!, while his dry wit is on display as Ruxin on FX’s The League. I caught up with Kroll recently to discuss reality TV, character work, and the perks of having your own sketch show.
Why did you decide at this point in your career to do a sketch show?
You know, I’ve been doing character work for a long time and this felt like just a natural evolution of my work. Having done the special for Comedy Central, Thank You Very Cool, a couple years ago, which functioned basically as a backdoor pilot to see what the characters would feel like on TV, it just felt like the stars were aligned with the timing of what Comedy Central was trying to do and the kind of stuff that I wanted to do. And meeting guys like Jon Krisel and John Levenstein and Jon Daly and feeling like we could assemble a really solid team to make the show.
In the two episodes I saw, Jon Daly popped up in a lot of the sketches. Are there other actors that recur throughout the series?
Yeah. Jon Daly is the most consistent because he’s in a couple different bits, but Jenny Slate is in “PubLIZity” which, in various incarnations, comes up throughout the season. John Mulaney in “Oh Hello” comes up throughout the season, Andy Milonakis plays through a bunch of episodes. And then one-offs of like Andy Daly, Maria Bamford, Hannibal Buress, J.B. Smoove, Chelsea Peretti, I could go on with the amount of friends and folks who do fun little guest stars on it.
There are a lot of familiar characters on the show, but what kind of new characters are people gonna see?
Well, the “PubLIZity” show is me and Jenny Slate as two publicists named Liz [on] the reality show called PubLIZity, and they come back throughout the season. And then that also introduces a character named Dr. Armand, who’s California’s premiere animal plastic surgeon, who becomes a recurring character throughout the season. Then Andy Milonakis plays Dr. Armand’s son Roman, and his bad influence best friend is a character that I play named Cesar, who’s a toilet baby with an infected lip ring, who plays throughout the season. Ref Jeff, who’s in the pilot, comes back a few times in a few different formats and genres. Those are the bigger pieces that come in and then there’s a ton of smaller, one-off characters. Me and Fred Armisen play a Mexican boxing trainer and his son, who wants to do origami. Young Billy Joel.
There were a lot of things about reality shows and a lot about sports. What drew you to those ideas?
I think our interest was to sort of dissect what people in America are watching and are interested in. And there’s a ton of reality television in different formats. You know, we try to get very specific with the kind of reality show that we’re parodying at any given moment. And people love sports. It’s so ingrained in our culture that it felt like a natural fit. We also are interested in looking at music and melodrama, like “Wheels Ontario”. Filmic stuff, like some of the “Oh Hello” stuff feels like old Woody Allen movies. Really anything that is filmed is something that we’re interested in. It’s different from a lot of sketch shows in that it’s sort of a multi-layered, recurring character, narrative-driven show that you’re rewarded for watching all of and going back and finding all these little connections that keep popping up around each other.
You’ve done some of your established characters in so many places – on your special, on Comedy Bang! Bang!, now on Kroll Show. Do you think about there being a canon that follows them wherever they go, or do you sort of reset them everytime they pop up someplace new?
I mean it’s gonna sounds cheesy, but since so much of it is based off an improv, everytime I do the character there’s new stuff to be learned about them. So it’s really just amassing information. If I’m doing Comedy Bang! Bang! and improvising as Chupacabra or Bobby [Bottleservice] or Fabrice [Fabrice] or “Oh Hello” guys, there’s just more and more information that gets added into the database and then that gets translated over into the videos. I try not to cross over too many jokes, but there are certain catchphrases and things that become part of the, as you put it, canon of work. But it’s really just constantly amassing more background on who these people are, and that informs all the other incarnations of them.
Does it get more difficult when you have other writers to make sure that everything lines up?
No, because it all passes through me at some point. So even if the guys are in the room writing, I’ll come in and chat with them as we’re moving along. And then at the end of the day, it’s always me saying it. I always have a pretty solid idea of whats truthful or what a character would say or not say, or what feels right for them, the kind of thing that they would do. That’s the easiest part, that it simply all has to go through me, because I’m the one who has to say it. But the writers that we hired for season one and who are working on season two are all super funny people who are largely friends of mine and have been watching these characters, and are all writers who develop characters on their own. That’s why they’re in the room, because of their ability to build smart truthful characters, and a lot of that is due to our head writer John Levenstein, who I met doing The Life & Times of Tim, and he’s also a very senior guy at Arrested Development. And Jonathan Krisel, who directed Portlandia and Tim and Eric before it. Those guys are masters at helping to craft this kind of stuff, so everything goes through them as well.
Did you say you’re already working on season two?
We’re writing season two. We’re obviously waiting to see if the show gets picked up, but we are in the process of writing scripts.
Cool. I wanted to ask you about one sketch in particular. On the show, you do “Sex and the City for Dudes”, which I saw a version of at the Del Close Marathon this past year, and I was just wondering what are the origins of that sketch idea?
The origins of that are, that’s just kind of our crew of buddies. We all came up together, largely at UCB in New York and live out here. We’re at Paul Scheer’s bachelor party and swimming in Malibu and talking about our emotions and where we were, and at some point, I think it was maybe Rob Huebel or Owen Burke who sang it for the first time, and it just became kind of a joke amongst us, a bit that we would just do as friends. And then when I got this show, I was like, I think we could do this as a sketch. And that’s the amazing thing about having your own show. You can insist on doing a completely ridiculous and pointless idea with your buddies and get it on TV.
That’s awesome. Everyone is in that sketch, it’s an amazing group of people.
I know and there’s a bunch of people who would have been in it but couldn’t because they had work schedules. People like Huebel, Scheer, Brett Gelman, Rob Corddry, Matt Walsh. We’re all really good friends in real life and scheduling meant that those were the only guys who could make it, but still, such an amazing group. And for me, such a great little like time capsule of where we all were in this particular moment in time.
I had that song stuck in my head after DCM for weeks. It just doesn’t go anywhere.
I’ve know you’ve been touring a lot recently. How much of your live show now is standup and how much was character?
It’s all standup. It’s a new hour that I’ve been traveling with and then I showed just like three sketches in the middle, snippets from the show to give people a little taste of it. But at this point, you know, I do some version of characters at times depending on the bit, but really the goal is to develop standup and keep the characters for the sketch show. But there are bits in my standup that get developed into characters and bits in the show.
When you were doing your characters live, how much was scripted and how much improvised?
It really depended. My process for writing tends to be having an idea and then getting on stage and messing around with it and seeing what sticks. And then starting to polish it and keep refining it so by the time you do a TV appearance or a special that there’s not a ton of improv, because you’ve just been working on honing the matieral. But I don’t sit down at a desk and write a ton. I tend to write more on my feet.
Kroll Show airs every Wednesday night at 10:30 ET/PT on Comedy Central.
Photo credit: Robyn Von Swank