It's a tale as old as time. Irish boy comes to America, chasing a dream of becoming a forensic pathologist. Boy realizes that being a forensic pathologist is terrifying. Boy becomes involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Boy discovers that he's got a new dream: being a comedian. Boy who prepared all his life for an entirely different career path finds out he's really gifted at being funny. Boy creates smart web series. Boy does interview with Splitsider — the first step on his path to becoming a household name. How many times have we heard that one, right? Oh. No times? No times. Well, now we've heard it once, and the Irish boy's name is John Purcell.
How’d you get into comedy?
I got into it only since I moved to America, which was about three years ago. I’m originally from Ireland and moved here to go to grad school. I signed up for UCB classes to meet people and have some kind of a social circle. I ended up really enjoying it and that kind of took over my life, like it does for a lot of people. I did improv and then was able to take sketch classes and have been lucky enough to have a show run at the Theatre and be on one of the improv house teams and have done comedy through that, but before that I really had no experience [in comedy]. In Ireland, I was actually involved in music and then thought maybe I’d be a forensic pathologist — that’s what I ended up going to grad school for — and now it seems like this is what I’m doing.
Is comedy your full-time job now?
Well you’re talking to me at a very opportune time because, two days ago I found out that I’m getting an artist visa. I was here originally on a work visa through my job as a forensic pathologist. I went to prisons, like Rikers Island and Sing Sing, and would meet with prisoners, and I hated it. It was not a fun job to do and obviously the population is all very mentally ill so it’s really tough. But literally two days ago, I got an artist visa. So next week I’m going to quit my job and then work as an artist full time.
Congratulations, sir! How did Business Work come about?
Well I was doing mostly stage stuff at UCB, and I was doing improv and sketch for three years but had no videos, so I decided to make one. I wrote the first sketch, which is actually the first sketch in the series, I just wrote it as a one-off. I shot that with my friend Nick who’s in the video and, after I edited it, I thought it would be cool to do a whole series around and expand the cast a bit. I shot some of those and was really happy about that so I’ve just decided I’m going to keep doing it for the foreseeable future.
Who are your comedic influences?
Growing up in Ireland I didn’t see SNL or Mr. Show, I didn’t have access to any kind of American shows unless it was a really well known show like Friends or something like that. So I liked British comedy and other more alternative comedy. Like Faulty Towers and this Irish show called Father Ted, which I think is really great and absurd. It’s about these three Irish priests who live on an island, it never really traveled well outside of Ireland because of the heavy accents. It was hard to market. But one of the guys who wrote it went on to write The IT Crowd and stuff like that. They’re huge Simpsons fans so it had this real Simpsons vibe to it even though it was written by these Irish guys. I really love Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I love movies like The Naked Gun and Airplane. I’m really drawn to absurd humor and movies that have misdirection jokes. That’s something I think I’ve started to be able to articulate more through doing Business Work. I think that’s my favorite type of joke: a misdirect joke. Like Children’s Hospital, I think they do that kind of humor so well and I really love that show too. I also really love just word-based humor. It’s really dumb but it just makes me laugh so much.
What’s next for you now that you’re going to be devoting yourself to comedy full time?
I’m making more of the series. We shoot them all in one day, last time we did four in a day and this time I’m going to try and do five and that’s gonna be in October. We’re also going to be shooting a “full length” — 5 minute or so — Christmas special in December. Aside from that, I want to start a YouTube channel like Jash or Buh where it’s videos but they’re not necessarily linked to my name or related, just to have another outlet to put out stuff. I’m not quite sure what it will be yet, but I have some ideas for videos. I’ve also written a stage show with my friend Vince Moore that we’re going to do at UCB, and then also touring around the country with my improv group.
What other web series are you watching right now?
Benjamin Apple has a really funny YouTube channel where he literally puts out a video every day and I think that itself is so amazingly commendable and they’re actually really funny which is even more impressive. I love all the videos on the Long Haired Businessmen YouTube channel. I think George really is a genius; he’s so funny. I really love the new Tim Heidecker web series called Decker. It’s very silly and funny. My buddy Anthony Apruzzese just put out a new web series [Web Presents] that is really great. And I really love the web series Catherine, which is Jenny Slate’s web series. It was very weird, subtle humor, no real jokes, but I loved it.
What advice do you have for people reading this column, wanting to do what you’re doing in the web comedy space?
I recently read the Poking A Dead Frog comedy interview book and I kind of realized that every single comedian in life is the exact same. All the 50 comedians’ advice in that book basically boils down to “Just do it” and it’s very cliché, but I think it’s the most effective advice. Do a lot of things and put stuff out there and don’t worry about the quality. One thing I’ve found helpful is: don’t be afraid to make people watch your stuff. I used to not be very aggressive about getting people to watch my stuff, but it’s ok to tweet at people and email people. People don’t mind, all you’re doing is sending them a comedy video. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and do what you think is funny.
And, without further ado, bebs, here are your three reasons to watch.
- Comedic influences
Any UCB disciple was taught very early on to steer clear of “crazy town” ideas—scenarios rooted in the nonsensically silly—but that doesn’t mean you can’t pepper the absurd into your sketches. In fact, as Purcell proves, you really really should.
Purcell’s comedic influences are so clear. Any creator should be a student of all the folks who’ve done it better, earlier and no one should be afraid of paying tonal homage to the greats.
Business Work is one of the most creative series I’ve seen this year. Kudos to Purcell and his team for pushing the weird envelope.
Luke is a writer for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.