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Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Talking to Nick Kroll about ‘Kroll Show’ Season 2 and "Sketch-uational Comedy"

The second season of Kroll Show, which premieres tonight, brings back tons of popular characters from the first season with the return of sketches like “PubLIZity,” “Rich Dicks,” and “Too Much Tuna.” The focus on building characters and telling stories separates Kroll Show from other sketch shows on air, which caused Seth Meyers’ to coin the term “sketch-uational comedy" when discussing the show.The audience becomes invested in the storylines of the characters as the show masterfully connects the sketches together, which will be extra exciting to see this season since Pretty Liz is pregnant and Dr. Armond is arrested for murder. While Nick Kroll himself stars in nearly all of the sketches, he works with equally talented guest stars. The show’s list of guests starts off impressive since mainstays include Jon Daly, Jenny Slate, John Mulaney, and Chelsea Peretti, and Season 2 adds Amy Poehler, Bill Burr, Katy Perry, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Laura Dern, Will Forte, and more.

I recently talked to Kroll about the new season, the show's penchant for narrative, and Zach Galifianakis in a baker’s outfit.

I was able to see the first three episodes of Season 2 of Kroll Show, and things are even funnier and bigger and crazier than in Season 1. How has Season 2 evolved from Season 1?

In Season 1, you’re just always trying to figure out the show. You don’t know what it is until it’s done and then you have the ability to sort of take a look back after finishing it. We waited for it to come out and got to watch it with fresh eyes and also see what people responded to. We were able to go into Season 2 and say, “Okay, people seemed to like the characters, the longer-form storytelling stuff, and also seeing me with my friends in real life.” You know, me talking to Jenny [Slate] or talking to Jon Daly, so it might be fun to see more of that kind of stuff. We focused more on that. There’s a term that Seth Meyers coined when he did an interview with us, half-jokingly, but I think is very good, which is “sketch-uational comedy.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s actually a really good way, I think, to describe what we’re doing with the show, which is sketch but it’s really more narrative and long-form storytelling.

Where we mostly saw your standup between sketches last season, now there were more conversations. You mentioned that there was a demand for that. Was that the reason you added more of those conversations between you and the guests?

Yeah, Comedy Central really liked the moments with me and my friends. And there’s still moments of standup in the second season, but really, it felt like the more interesting thing, fresh stuff that was making people laugh and wasn’t making me cringe was the stuff that was just me chatting with my friends. And that’s really what the show is – it’s me and all the people that I’ve come up with or people that I admire just messing around both in the show and then in between. It’s just like why not see what we’re all like just when we’re kind of hanging out in a really sort of loose format? Almost none of the things that made it into those in-between moments are things that we had planned out or scripted. It’s just literally us joking and messing around.

I really loved the sketch “Cake Train,” which was the first of the new season. Why did you decide to open with that particular sketch?

We shoot the show, and then we start to put it together based on any number of factors, based on what seems like a cold open, what feels like there’s some sort of connection to other things going on in the episode, and so on and so forth. And so, “Cake Train” was something that we’ve been trying to make since the pilot, and we finally got a chance to make it. It’s pretty big and cinematic and fun and kind of absurd, which is sort of what we’re doing on the show, but also different from a lot of the stuff we’re doing on the show. It’s something that we wanted to do since the pilot and so the fact that we finally figured out a way to make it – I think we were all just really excited by it. And it’s really beautifully shot, and I can say that because I had nothing to do with actually shooting it. It looked great and it’s fun. And who doesn’t want to see Zach Galifianakis in a leather baker’s outfit – a pink leather baker’s outfit – throwing cakes off a train?

How much do you stick to the script versus improvising dialogue?

There’s a ton of improv. We fully script most things, but there’s always a pretty large deviation from the script. That’s sort of the background that I have. It’s not like someone like Bill Burr took improv classes at UCB, but he’s a super funny guy and is improvising on his podcast or improvising in live shows and so there’s always room to improvise. But I think there’s some scripted jokes in there for sure and then there’s always a lot of improvised stuff that gets in there. So me and Chelsea Peretti shooting Bobby and Farley, there’s some jokes that – really every single sketch, besides “Cake Train” which is really not many words being said, there’s a ton of improv in them.

I was glad to see so many of the characters return in Season 2. What do you think is the benefit of adding more information to the characters we’ve already seen? 

I personally don’t want to see characters come back and repeat the same jokes that they said last season. The fun of what we get to do is keep adding information when seeing a character. Like in Season 1, you only saw one “Wheels Ontario.” Now, not only do you see more “Wheels Ontario,” but you meet the characters who play those characters, like in “Show Us Your Songs Toronto.” So I think there’s those kind of elements that just keep letting the characters and the storylines grow and change and evolve. I think with any kind of entertainment, hopefully you keep getting more and more information about these people and worlds.

Who are some of the new characters that will appear throughout the season?

There’s a character last year who we saw briefly named Nash Ricky who was the game interrupter. He was the guy who would sings sort of like heavy metal songs during timeouts at football games. He’s sort of a Bret Michaels kind of character. We meet him as he puts his band back together called Sloppy Seconds, and so we see a rockin’ reunion with Jason Mantzoukas, Brian Huskey, and Peter Childs. “Pawnsylvania,” which is sort of making fun of those pawn shows. I own a pawn shop in Philadelphia and Jon Daly owns a pawn shop in Pittsburgh, and then they switch pawn shops and are totally out of their elements in these totally different cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And that’s because more than half our writing staff is from the state of Pennsylvania for some reason. Christine Nangle, Gabe Liedman, Jon Daly, and Joe Wengert all hail from Pennsylvania, weirdly. It’s bizarre. Jenny Slate not only plays Pretty Liz but also Liz’s niece, Denise, as well as Ruth Diamond Phillips, the prosecutor in the Armond murder trial. If you watch the new trailer that’s out, you see a bunch of the guest stars we have this season.

Are you a fan of the shows you parody? Does “Wheels Ontario” come from a love of Degrassi? 

I was not a huge Degrassi fan, but Jon Daly was obsessed with Canada and Joe Mande loved Degrassi. Our editor Dan Longino loves Degrassi, so we handed him last year’s “Wheels Ontario” and he was so excited to be able to cut that together. And then Gabe Liedman who wrote for the show this year wrote some of the “Wheels” stuff, and I think he was a fan. So it really evolved out of people’s love of Canada and love of Degrassi, and then also simultaneously a love of making fun of Canada and Degrassi.

Do the sketches follow narrative arcs in order to more closely reflect the shows that you’re parodying?

You know, I think it depends. With something like “PubLIZity,” the idea that Liz is pregnant is fun for storytelling. One thing is that John Levenstein, who is our showrunner and executive producer, comes out of the sitcom world. He worked on Arrested Development and a bunch of other shows, and I met him doing the The Life & Times of Tim, so he really was always focusing on, even though I had these partners on a lot of these things that are playing similar characters. Whether it’s me and John Mulaney as George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon, me and Jenny Slate as Liz and Liz, or me and Daly as Aspen and Wendy, there’s always a power dynamic happening between them. They always have a different take on their life or their relationships. So it’s always about trying to create these distinctions between them and a believable relationship. We’re always trying to add information and the struggles between them and make these relationships as nuanced as possible so that even though they’re these broad characters, they’re having emotions and dealing with stuff that is real.

Reality show stuff, like the shows that we’re parodying, does that as well. Our goal is to make fun of them, but also use what they do well and what makes people want to go watch Degrassi, which is high drama and crazy, real high-stakes stuff. Or the conflict of the techniques that a reality show uses of a teaser, like a cliffhanger to see what’s gonna happen next, and you stick around and watch even though they’re gonna tell you in the promo what’s happening next and when they come back from commercial they told you what just happened, you stick around and watch because there’s something interesting about it and intoxicating. Our goal is to make fun of those shows, but also use the techniques that work for them successfully – get people to really engage with the shows.

Since many sketches follow storylines, I was wondering what the writing process is like. Will you know how a particular narrative will tie up before you’re writing the sketches and thinking about them in terms of how they’ll fit into the episodes?

It depends. At the beginning of the season we’ll talk through big storylines for people. Like the season, it was like, Liz should get pregnant by C-Czar and we’ll see that play out. But we don’t know what the order of the episodes are yet, so every episode Liz is going to reveal to Liz that she’s pregnant and it’s going to seem like a surprise every time. And that will serve to give us flexibility about when things would air. But also, in reality shows they’re constantly reinforcing these premises that they’re dealing with. I haven’t watched The Kardashians this year but I’m sure every episode is about whether Kim is feeling good about her body or not after having had a baby. You know what I mean? It’s like every episode is that.

And then, we decided early on it would be fun for Armond to go on trial for murder. So then it’s building the story out about how did we get there. We want to see him get arrested, we want to see “Armond of the House Arrest,” and we want to see the trial. And then certain things evolve as the season goes on. As we were building the season and Jenny did her niece Denise, which we really fell in love with and wanted to bring back. And John Levenstein pitched the idea to – when you see the final episode, all of these worlds start to collide. That’s based off of what was exciting to us, what was who we had access to – whether it was Seth Rogen or Katy Perry – and we integrate Seth Rogen’s character into this larger storyline. That’s the real fun part, starting to put together the puzzle and piecing things together and allowing things to organically evolve. So, you have some storylines and you have some ideas but then also leaving room for these characters to sort of dictate what happens to them.

There’s such a payoff from watching all of the sketches. They all really come together in the end.

Yeah, I think you definitely benefit from watching more of it. I think the viewer is rewarded for watching the show. The more that you watch, the more that you see how interconnected things are and how many things are crossing over and that worlds are intersecting or that things are coming up in multiple spaces and culminate in a fashion that – I think our goal is to make something that’s really the funniest show you can make but also that is really satisfying. The more you watch it, the more I think it becomes satisfying as a whole.

When we spoke to you last year about Season 1, you said you had started working on Season 2. Have you started anything for Season 3?

We started to bat around ideas. I’m in New York right now; I’m about to make a movie and as soon as I’m done with that, we go back and start writing Season 3, so we’re definitely starting to throw around ideas. I don’t want to give you away too many spoilers, but Liz might be talking about getting bangs.

Speaking of the movie, you’re playing your first starring role in a film. Is there anything you can tell us about Brother’s Keeper?

It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time and Mark Duplass from The League is helping produce it. It’s me and Rose Byrne plays my sister and Bobby Cannavale plays my brother-in-law. We’re shooting it in New York and Westchester. I’m just really excited about it. I think it’s really a funny story but there’s some more dramatic moments to it. And we’re putting together all the folks who are coming in to do it like Joel McHale’s gonna do some stuff in it, I think Mike Birbiglia’s gonna do a bit in it, Josh Charles – so it’s a bunch of really fun, smart, funny people are gonna come up and do pieces in it. I’ve been a big fan of Rose and Bobby for a long time, and I’m really excited to be able to just get in it with them. I think they’re both really funny but I also obviously think they’re both really good actors so I’m excited to kind of learn from them.

Kroll Show premieres tonight at 10:30 on Comedy Central.

Jessye McGarry is a writer living in New York.

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