Inside ‘Baskets,’ ‘Portlandia,’ and Keeping Comedy Zen with Jonathan Krisel

jonathan_kriselWhether or not you know Jonathan Krisel by name, chances are high you’re very familiar with his directing and writing work. From his early days on Tim and Eric and SNL to his more recent work on Portlandia, Kroll Show, Man Seeking Woman, and debuting tonight, the new FX series Baskets, Krisel has proven time and again to be an intuitively skilled comedy nerd-filmmaker hybrid. Ahead of the series premiere of Baskets — which he co-created with Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. — I spoke with Krisel about his steady rise as a comedy director, how Baskets came together, and whether stress is the friend or enemy of funny.

You have three shows on TV right now — Man Seeking Woman, Portlandia, and Baskets. What’s it like juggling multiple shows at once?

It’s hard, because I come from being very hands-on and keeping everything very art project-like and not farming a lot of things out and treating it like an assembly line — everything’s handcrafted. So it does become a little bit stressful at the seams to manage it all, but basically, the way I can manage all the three projects is by sort of moving everybody up in my ranks to help — people who I’ve worked with for a long time. I have a good family of people to draw from I can put in higher positions because we’ve been in the trenches together for so long, and everybody knows my sensibility and we have a similar sensibility, so I try to promote from within and keep the family together. I don’t really like bringing in outside people who maybe might have great resumes or whatever — I just have a very specific way of working, and a lot of the people I’ve worked with know that, so I just promote them and we keep this very punky system going on a bigger scale.

Has it been challenging at all for you to get used to that shift in control — where, on a bigger scale, you have to trust that your team gets your vision for something?

It is a little hard, because I don’t do social media and all that stuff. I like having real moments in life, and to me, a lot of the work that I do is being very present during the shoot, listening to the actors, throwing out ideas…so it’s always alive and you’re always fine-tuning things. On Man Seeking Woman this year I’m executive producer — I’m not directing any episodes, so I’m just kind of giving my two cents along the way and hiring people who I think are really good; I’m sort of curating it, but I’m not micromanaging it. I was even talking to Jordan Peele about this on Sunday — he’s doing a lot of bigger stuff, and I think for a lot of us, you come up just based on your craft and then people are like “Hey! Can you maybe make something else for us?” and you go Well how do I sell what I do in a little bottle so that there can be more of it? You know? But that’s a little bit of a growing pain — you almost have to step outside of yourself and ask Well, what is it that I do? I look at people like Judd Apatow who have one million things going on at once, and you can do it, and I look at him as an example of someone who brought up the people he was working with — you just work with great people and then you reward them as you move up. If there’s a lot of love around, it can work. So you grow, but you keep your values.

You’ve worked on shows that are all known for having unique styles — Tim and Eric, Portlandia, and Kroll Show, to name a few. As a director, how do you stay true to the voice of the creator/star of the show while also staying true to your own sensibilities?

I went to film school at NYU, and they would teach this thing where they would say “It’s gotta be motivated.” You don’t just do filmmaking for your own ego as a cool thing — you have to be motivated by something. So there’s a lot of restraint to what I’m doing. I never want to overshadow the content — I’m there to facilitate it. When I started on Portlandia, I just saw what Fred and Carrie were doing online, and I could just tell, like Okay, they need a certain type of shoot experience that will bring out the best of who they are. And to me, I could tell that that means it shouldn’t be too structured and rigorously managed — there needs to be openness, which is what we had at Tim and Eric. When we were doing that show it was so loose and there was no crew at all — it was just a gathering of people coming together very comfortably. We’d shoot from like 3:00 in the afternoon to 5:00 in the afternoon, so it was small and it was comfortable, and that’s what I try to bring to all the projects — a relaxed environment where we can try funny things and there’s nobody who’s like “Guys, this is so stressful!” Because that is the enemy of funny: stress and managing things. So I’ve got to do all that, but I’ve got to keep it away from the moment of the performance so it can be an open space.

Carrie [Brownstein] didn’t have that much experience — almost none — coming in, but it’s like, that’s okay, this doesn’t need to be a scary environment. That’s the #1 thing that I try to create, and that’s actually what Zach [Galifianakis] told me. We had worked together a number of times, but when he called me for Baskets he was like “I just like working on your shoots. They’re really fun and I just don’t need…” even if it’s not someone yelling at him, if it’s a director yelling at other people he just feels bad, so he just wants to be in an environment where it’s just like: “Things are good! Things are good.” And then in terms of directing, I know what makes me laugh, and I think that if you look at all the projects I’ve worked on there is a similarity to the style of humor in a way. I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to do a straight-up network comedy kind of thing — I just don’t understand those jokes or anything, they don’t make sense to me. Louie Anderson actually kind of coined what my comedic sensibility is — it’s called “the absurdness of reality.” Which I think is totally perfect, because for me, one of my favorite Portlandia scenes is where it’s just Fred and Carrie trying to get a cell phone plan from Kumail [Nanjiani], and it’s almost 100% realistic but just slightly tweaked to become absurd. That’s what I love. When I’m on the phone with a cell phone customer service person, to me, I am just dying laughing because it’s so dumb as it’s happening; there’s so many rules and regulations and it just reminds me of classic Monty Python doublespeak customer service.

So that’s where my brain comes from. And I don’t need big fancy premise-driven crazy stuff — I think the simplest, lamest things can be funny. And as a director, in terms of Kroll Show for instance, I just try to honor the genre that we’re sending up and steady it. The reality show or whatever we’re in the genre of — see what they do, do what they do, but then when you’re shooting it you have that as your base, but then you just go with what’s funny, you don’t over-manage it to get those tropes correctly. You have it, and then you break it. We did the same thing on Tim and Eric, and as far as Portlandia I just thought Okay, this is the Independent Film Channel, this is gonna be heavily improvised, I’m gonna go with the idea of “What if there was an independent film version of sketch comedy so it kind of looked like Gus Van Sant?” Kind of, you know, nice-looking, slightly cinematic — or not — world, just this kind of indie version of sketch. And I try to keep my filmmaking as serious as possible because all the shows are pretty wacky and crazy and silly, and I think if you keep the filmmaking not on board with that as well it can kind of act as a straight man to the silliness of it.

That’s why all the performances that I like feel realistic; even if Fred [Armisen] is doing something crazy, there’s such a truth to the characters. He’s such a student of humanity, and that’s why he’s so funny. You can kind of understand — you know the character he’s playing. I’ve been lucky to work with sketch people and super funny people who are also good actors — there’s a groundedness to their performances, even when they’re crazy. Even when they’re super broad. If you look at sketches from SNL or classic sketch, it’s always very premise-driven and driven by big concepts, but I think in my world the characters and their idiosyncratic things kind of steal the show above the concept that’s going on. So the Fred and Carrie characters always have these weird issues with each other or with relationships or with how they see the world, and those kind of steal the show. And for Kroll too — he created these great characters, and it’s like, let’s let that be the funniest part of it. So it’s a lot about people: I think people are interesting and funny, and I try to bring that out. And Baskets is just an extension of me wanting to delve deeper into people and do something that’s really funny but at the same time, in the narrative, show that there are different things at stake.

So how did Baskets come about? How’d the idea originate?

Zach and I had worked together over the last ten years here and there with the Tim and Eric Show, and when he hosted SNL the first time I was there and I did his digital shorts, and that was a really great experience. So he just emailed me “Hey, do you want to do this show with me and Louis C.K.?” and I said of course — there was no real idea at that moment. But we just started meeting up talking about some ideas and meeting with Louie too, and this idea of a rodeo clown who had trained in France kind of bubbled to the top. Initially he wanted to do a behind-the-scenes of Between Two Ferns, and I really did not want to do that because I didn’t want to be fenced in to some other existing thing…I just wanted to start fresh.

A behind-the-scenes Between Two Ferns show?

He wanted to do kind of the character who hosts Between Two Ferns — a behind-the-scenes of that guy’s life. But for me, as a fan of his, what I like is his commitment to intensity. One thing I really wanted to include in the show was the performance he gives in the Absolut Vodka short he made with Tim and Eric — it was so Zach and so crazy, and it was just him yelling at them “The hot tub is too hot!” I just remember people loving that stuff. And also, he’s a great actor, so I wanted it to just be a family drama — almost a soap opera in its intensity, but about a very lame family. So that’s where I was coming from, and then there was the idea about the rodeo and all that stuff, which was a great way to showcase everything that Zach can do. I wanted to see him do highs and lows and be silly then serious and everything, because to me, he’s just an amazing person, and if you’re doing a Zach show, it’s got to be everything he can do — a tour de force of Zach.

So the three of us — Louie, Zach, and I — kind of cobbled this pilot together, and all along Zach was saying “I want my friend Martha to be in it…she says she doesn’t want to do it, she’s scared, can you just meet with her?” I have a long history of working with non-actors and I actually really enjoy it, and I think you can get a performance that is so authentic and genuine from them. On Portlandia we have a bunch of people who are amazing; we did this one episode about Battlestar Galactica where Fred and Carrie want more episodes of Battlestar because they watched them all, so they track down this guy because he has the same name as the writer and it happens to be this local Portland guy, and that guy was someone who was in the audition room — he had driven his friend to the audition and the casting guy was like “Hey, why don’t you jump onstage too?” And the performance blew my mind — it was the funniest thing ever, because he’s just a real guy! You just can’t beat that. So what I saw in Martha…and I told Zach, I’m like “She can just be herself — it’s gonna be amazing.” If she gets scared in front of the camera — sometimes people ham it up because the lights and the camera get stressful — but, as I said earlier, it works with a lot of people, and we’ll just keep it really relaxed; you hardly even know when it’s rolling and when it’s not. I think I know how to work with someone like her. Zach’s the only “real” actor in the show, and then the rest of the cast is friends who are genuine people — the guy who runs the rodeo is someone we discovered on Portlandia who’s a similar non-actor, and the woman who plays the wife is a musician and she’s not an actress. Obviously I’ve worked with musicians-turned-actors, so that’s easy because if they can perform onstage it’s not too different; they’re passionate, they’re excited, and they perform so it’s the same thing.

And then the time came to cast this mother character, and were looking for a serious actress, and we reached out to some serious actors and they were busy. And then one time Zach was just kind of explaining “I just gotta have this tone to it,” and he kind of did a voice and Louis C.K. was like “Well that’s Louie Anderson.” And we all just sat there for a second and burst out laughing, like Oh my God, this could be great. We could just imagine it in our heads for some reason: He’s pretty feminine-looking as is, and it’s just his body and everything…we just knew it was right. The three of us were on the same page instantly, and within five minutes Louie had called him and he had agreed to do it. We didn’t really know what it was going to be exactly, and when we shot the scene for the pilot it was so amazing. Then in the editing I’m putting it all together and as soon as I’d seen it I was like Oh, well that’s the show — the mother and the son. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen in a performance from Louie Anderson — so real and so not trying too hard, and this sort of “stunt in drag” thing was not interesting to us at all; it was just a crazy thing that worked. And you know, Louie Anderson’s standup is a lot about his mother, so that’s kind of what put him on the map when we were talking about the mother — he’s really in tune with mothers and he has a lot of sisters, and he’s sort of doing an homage to all of them, and he’s really the most genuinely loving, vulnerable, open person who happens to be extremely funny. I think that’s the cool thing about working with Zach and Louie — when you work with the people who are the smartest and at the top, there’s a simplicity to it, and you go to what’s good. You don’t try to manufacture these really complicated ideas, you just go Louie Anderson…doesn’t really make any sense, seems so crazy and outside… but it’s just like boom, you do it, and it’s super exciting. And so then when we wrote the rest of the series, we didn’t want to write Louie in too much, but seeing how the show turned out, the response to him has been amazing, and the performances are so exciting.

So really, you start with “Okay, this is a Zach Galifianakis show — we’ll just lean on Zach…” but actually, we have a really great ensemble of characters who are all doing such unique things, and it’s not flashy, it’s not aggressive, and it’s very nuanced and small what all of them are doing. It’s such a small story about a small family and their small hopes and dreams and their little moments of when their feelings get hurt — the pilot’s basically about trying to get $40 to help his wife get HBO — that’s the lamest plot that there ever could be, so in terms of directing, I want to take it very seriously. I love Robert Altman and this combination — things like The Graduate — things that were funny but also serious. And I was also thinking about Mike Leigh movies, which are very naturalistic, stripped down, raw…but I wanted to up the drama in a way, because it is such a small thing, and again, I wanted to focus on Zach’s acting abilities. If a joke ever felt like it was written on a page and then delivered on set, we took it out. We wanted everything to feel as natural as possible. Because when you watch network shows it’s like Oh, they’re jokes! They’re saying jokes! And it’s this heightened reality. But for us, we really wanted to get a “real” reality of emotion, and Zach said many times in the writers’ room, “Please, don’t worry about the jokes — I can make anything funny.” Not as a brag or anything, but I know what he meant: We tried to make things track emotionally. There’s no fake crying or a joke of emotion — these are real emotions, and then we layered the comedy on top of that. So the bones have an emotional logic to them, the feelings are real feelings, the reactions are funny or whatever happens, but we use a drama housing for the show. We did not use sketchy, comedy bones for it. It’s really a drama, and then we layered the comedy in.

Many times we would write something that was really funny and we knew we could really execute it, but then we’d take a step back and go “It’s gonna take you out of it. It’s gonna be too silly.” And you sort of, as a viewer, kind of check out sometimes once you go Oh, okay, this is silly, the characters are fake, this is stupid, so we tried to not do that, because I think for me, as a comedy snob, when I come home at the end of the day, sometimes comedy can be too sugary and sweet and packed with jokes, and sometimes, as you know, sweet things need some salt in them too to make the flavor not disgusting like bubblegum, you know? So that’s what we tried to do: The funny moments will be funnier if there are moments of sadness or whatever mixed in, because you care about the characters. Another thing we really tried to do is even though he’s really a sullen guy, we weren’t trying to do 100% the anti-hero, edgy thing of “Look at how bad this guy is! But we love how bad he is!” and all that stuff. We really wanted to have a lovable character, because for TV especially, all you’re tuning in for is the characters because you like them. You want to see what Julia Louis-Dreyfus is gonna do on Veep — you looove her so much. You want to see what terrible decisions she makes or whatever it is. The plot I could barely recount to you — the plot is just that she’s running for Vice President. The plots are really smart and well done, but I just wanna see her and Tony Hale doing their thing — they have such a strong point of view, and I love that show. Same with Louie’s show — you just wanna see Louie and his take on it, you wanna see Larry David’s take on whatever it is, you’re just coming back for the character. You’re never coming back because of, like, the “cool concept” of the show unless it’s some murder mystery. But I think when it comes to comedy, you just love those characters. So having really zero experience doing a show like that was exciting.

I remember I was at the bookstore and there was a book called How to Be a Showrunner, and I thought I should probably read that. But then I was like Ah, who cares? It doesn’t really matter — I’m gonna do it the way I do it, we’re gonna make the show that I would want to see, and whatever it turns out to be, it is. I know in my mind what I’m gonna make it be. I don’t know if it’s right or correct, but we have these awesome people involved, and as a fan, I want to see those people take something to the next level. And to me, that’s what the show is. I just love it so much.

Baskets and Portlandia premiere tonight at 10:00pm on FX and IFC, respectively.

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