On the UCB Rise with Dan Chamberlain
Above Average’s new original series Thingstarter premiered on Seeso on May 19th, parodying the absurdity of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites. The show stars a number of New York comedians, many hailing from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. Dan Chamberlain plays Justin, Thingstarter’s hipster Michael Scott equivalent. Having made a name for himself in the NYC comedy scene, it’s no surprise that Dan is taking the lead on Seeso’s new show. A veteran of UCB’s Maude Night, a writer for Funny or Die and Above Average, and a sketch comedian appearing on videos for a number of comedy sites, Dan has a voice unlike any other. I spoke to him about his beginnings as a comedian, his influences, and the work he does on the show and beyond.
How did your start with UCB and other comedy theaters influence your professional career?
I think when you’re starting out, before you’ve ever done a show or anything, you start to realize, “Oh, well someone has to write the bad jokes on TV shows.” And by the time I was in my late teens and early twenties I got hip to the fact that it was UCB and Second City and Groundlings, and that’s how people do the stuff. And when I was living in Massachusetts with a cruddy retail job, I noticed most of the comedy in Boston is behind closed doors or in universities, or at least that’s the way I perceived it when I was there. So it was like, alright, New York then.
When I first started going to shows there wasn’t a Maude night or anything. People would do their one-person shows, like Jason Manzoukas and Jessica St. Clair, I remember seeing their show and being like “holy shit.” A guy named Charlie Sanders I love, he writes on Key and Peele now. That was before any of them were on TV shows or anything. And I had never seen people do stage comedy. Haunting UCB stuff, it was people doing the coolest things, and you’re physically on the same plane as those people. Like, “I could maybe do that.”
You’ve done a lot of shows at a lot of different theatres around New York. Do you have a favorite? One you think is the most enriching, or shaped you the most?
Honestly, I think two of my favorite things I did were two shows I did with Brandon Scott Jones. We had this bad pattern of us writing a show, like a SPANK, and we would self-direct it and be the only ones in it, and it would just be one of these insane, in-a-vacuum things. And then we would do them, and the artistic director would give us notes, and we would say okay and just never do them again. We did that twice.
One of them was a show, I don’t even know if it had a title, but it was a half-hour sketch show of him finishing frosting a cake, and the whole show would be getting the other person to leave the room so we could be alone with the cake. We had a big stupid chocolate cake onstage that we wasted money on, and we were both unemployed at the time. And of course it gets dropped on the floor at the end. And then we did it again! We did a show that was a second season of American Idol musical called “From Ruben to Clay.” He was Clay Aiken and I was Ruben Studdard. It was sort of like if John Steinbeck had written like a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie, like them going from Dust Bowl, Oklahoma to California to make it in showbiz. It was really deranged, and we were so proud of it. I remember when we got our notes a week or so later, they said like, “I guess our big question is why?” And we were like “This is great! So we’ll never do it again.” They weren’t to get a run or to get a manager, they really served no other purpose other than to psych each other into doing really strange, weird shows. I think of those things very fondly.
You and Brandon Scott Jones sound like a great pair.
Yeah, I really mean it, he was one of the first people I met in New York City that I could sit down with and write. Neither one of us said to the other that their ideas were stupid, which I think when you’re young and new to collaborating it’s so exciting when you first find people like that. People that you can trust and that can trust you enough without coddling each other or biting your tongues, but you can be honest with each other about the work you’re doing, you know?
What was your favorite part of shooting Thingstarter?
Shooting was bananas. We did that whole show in nine days. And some of them were really fourteen or fifteen hour days. It was pretty wild. But gosh, I guess my favorite thing…there were so many people on it, and there’s people that you know who they are and you’ve seen their work, but you’ve never been able to work on anything with them before. Like I’ve never really got to hang out with Jonathan Marbelli before, and he was one of the funniest, nicest dudes. Even Kirk Larsen, the guy who directed it, I’ve known him socially for years, but we never actually worked on anything before. So I think the opportunity to finally make a thing with these people was great.
Above Average, who you currently write for, created this series. How did this project come to be?
It’s a great sketch group called The Bilderbergers (Lucas Klauss, Matt Moskovciak, and Ben Stadler). And they’re really cool guys because they’ve built a reputation for themselves in New York as guys who write and produce excellent sketches and they never put themselves in them. They’re just always these softball gifts for performers, like they’ll email you and ask “Will you be in this sketch for us?” And it’s like “Fucking yes, thank you!” I think for a lot of people as they embark on their career, their first instinct isn’t to create opportunities for other people, and that’s literally what these guys are all about.
So this show, they [originally] produced a string of sketches for Thingstarter, like fake pitch videos parodying Kickstarter. And I think they did well. I don’t know the nuances and dances of how that got shaped, but at some point last summer, Ben had emailed me and sort of put out a soft feeler like, “I think we might be able to do this thing, you wanna maybe do this thing?” And I was like “Yeah, sure!”
Last question: how do you feel the current generation of New York comedians are different from previous generations?
I think, like water eating away through stone, every person who you can watch, you can look at their path and think “Oh, THAT’S how you do it, THAT’S how the thing happens.” It’s not easy at all, but I think you can see only through the fact that we can broadcast so much of our lives. Like you can follow someone on Twitter for five years, and then you see that they get a writing job. Or you see someone in a show and then see that they got a TV show. I think that there’s real value in seeing this, there’s almost less of a secret to it. I think a lot of things are sort of being demystified, which is great.
You know, it’s still difficult to make a living doing it, and it’s still difficult to get a grown-up person at a network or whatever to give you money, and it’s still difficult to get a manager and an agent. All those things are very much the same, as they’ve always been and will forever be. Even in the time I’ve been in New York, like a decade now, and doing comedy most of the time for the last five years… the intermingling, there’s so much more of that now too. I feel like there used to be a lot more of sour, toxic garbage, and there just fucking isn’t anymore. Again, while it’s still hard to make dollars and have this be your all-the-time thing, there is room for everyone. It’s like, “There’s still room for my voice, too.” That’s great. Everyone wins with that.