Jay Chandrasekhar on the Rhythm of Comedy

chandrasekhar
Jay Chandrasekhar is a writer, actor, comedian, and director. He was one of the founders of the comedy troupe Broken Lizard, and has directed many of their films including Puddle Cruiser, Super Troopers, Club Dread, and Beerfest in addition to a long list of TV shows including The Grinder, Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings.

Chandrasekhar is also the author of the new book Mustache Shenanigans: Making Super Troopers and Other Adventures in Comedy. The book is a memoir of growing up the midwest, his love of comedy, and a behind-the-scenes story of how Broken Lizard started. Chandrasekhar also makes the point that he was not just in the comedy scene in New York at the time, but also the independent film scene, working for John Sloss, and was picking the brains of great young filmmakers as he was starting to think about directing a film. Chandrasekhar talks only about drugs and addiction, being Indian-American, how Broken Lizard works, and about the upcoming Super Troopers 2.

I really enjoyed the book but I was fascinated to learn that Broken Lizard and The State were competing to get a sketch show at MTV, which as everyone knows went to The State.

Standup was pretty big in New York City and there just weren’t many sketch groups. There was improv happening in Chicago, but not a ton in New York frankly. And there was almost no sketch. It was us and The State. It was a vastly different world than it is now.

Comedy Central actually came and filmed some sketches, but you make the point in your book that you never thought they captured the group’s energy.

What happened was they brought us into a sound stage and we filmed there. We basically just shot the sketches in a theatrical way instead of adapting them for the cameras, which would have been a better way to go. I wasn’t directing it and I didn’t have a view as to how it should be done. We were on TV and it was fun and exciting, but there was something off. It wasn’t quite our rhythm and it wasn’t done in a way that I think maximized the jokes. That said, we were happy to be on TV.

When you started directing the group, or just thinking about directing, were you able to say back then, this is what we need to figure out, we need to do this differently?

We knew the theater portion of it worked. We put this in front of a crowd and they laugh, so let’s not rock the boat and just shoot it that way. We’ll shoot it like it’s a play but the reality is that doesn’t take advantage of all the great things about film. The sketch was “Dante’s Levels of Hell” and the gag was that hell was, for example, somebody who read over your shoulder. That’s what hell was like for one person. We could have done more with it. It wasn’t a fully realized film, it was a filming of our stage show. As we started to make movies, we started to build a world through sets and wardrobe and camera movement. That’s how you take advantage of the camera.

From the beginning, you guys would write twenty or thirty something drafts of a script together.

We still do.

Why?

What we try to do is show up on set and if it we shoot the script, we know we’re going to love it. You can’t count on improvising the perfect joke in the moment. You may improv a pretty good joke — and that may go into the movie — but pretty good isn’t really good enough. We write so that everything is funny to us. Then we go perform it and I tell everybody to create their own improv, but worst case scenario, if we just shoot the script, it’ll be good. Sometimes we’re off and it doesn’t quite work and we know it. You can feel it. You can fix it on the spot, but it’s not a whole film of improvisation like my friend Judd Apatow works. He has a different, more fluid approach whereas our films are much more structured. We’ll improvise jokes but not whole scenes. Both can work. I think Judd is the master at channeling improv into a great structure, and Judd is able to work it in a way that really works for him.

I was intrigued to learn that you don’t decide who will play which role until fairly late after you’d been writing for a while.

Inevitably once you get a character you start to work on advocating for that character and trying to find jokes for that character. You should be writing for everybody — and you still do — but your heart is with your own character. I think we cast it at draft fifteen or sixteen or something like that. I think that system has worked well for us.

You’ve worked with a lot of actors who we don’t think of as funny. Brian Cox for example, who you reveal you wanted to be Jerry Lewis when he was young, but he’s not someone most people think of as funny — but he is in your movies.

He did! He thought that’s where his career was going to go. That he would be a Jerry Lewis type.

The thing about our films is I try to hire people who understand tone and who understand that we all have to act in the same movie. It’s not about your personal performance being great, it’s about your personal performance being great within the tone of what we’re trying to do. You can hire an actor like Brian who understands that and understands that tempo is key. It’s a lot like a song. You can’t have a drummer who’s off beat, you can’t have a bassist who doesn’t have the beat in his head. You have to have actors who can do that. You can hire a dramatic actor as long as they understand the rhythm. Often they’ll go too big. A lot of people jump into comedies and they overact. That’s not where we are.

There’s this idea by some people that comedy isn’t something you need to take seriously.

That’s right. The truth is that dramatic films are far easier to make than comedy films because you don’t have to have this rhythm in your head. There’s a different rhythm, but it’s just not as critical. It’s not. A dramatic director has a much harder time directing a comedy than a comedy filmmaker has directing a serious movie. Look at The Big Short. That was done by Adam McKay and it was a great movie. A great movie. When you see one of these guys who’s well known for big action or drama trying to do comedy, it doesn’t always work. I can tell why. The rhythm is off and the tone of the performances are off. That’s my opinion. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t try shit — just, that’s the reason it doesn’t quite work.

So the book is out and soon Super Troopers 2 will be out in theaters. When you guys started thinking about making a sequel, what did you think it needed to do or have? Because you’ve never made a sequel before.

I think I wrote this in the book — I told everybody that they had to be the same weight they were when we shot the first film. Because they could call us old, but that way they couldn’t call us fat and old. Ultimately I wanted the audience to have as seamless a transition as possible. So I grew the mustache a little bigger, we tried to stay the same weight, and then we went out and made another one. NYPD Blue makes 150 episodes, we can do another one. It’s a little bigger. We wrote a lot of jokes. Are they better jokes? I don’t know. We’re certainly better at delivering jokes now. I’m a far better filmmaker than I was then. Those elements that are not the jokes — the filming, the camerawork, the lighting, the level of actors in it — are all higher. The question is, are the jokes as good or better? We’ll be lucky if they’re close, because people have an emotional connection to the first film. We can’t make them have an emotional connection to the new film. So far people have really responded to it. I think half of it is, “Thank God that didn’t suck,” but there seems to true passion for the new movie too. We’ll see. It’ll come out and the internet will explode one way or the other.

As you say, people have a connection with the first film because they’ve seen it so many times. So they may watch the new one and go, “It’s just not as good as the first one.” But years from now they might see it again and go, “The sequel is actually better.”

I think it’s going to end up getting a pretty good response. At the end of the day, I can’t put you back in college and put a bong in your hand. That’s the kind of thing we can’t do. That said, maybe there’s a nostalgic side where people get together with their college pals and go see it. I’m hoping that’s what happens.

You make the point in the book that casting this movie was easy because you could call up, say, Rob Lowe and just ask him.

And he said hell yes!

I’m sure you got that response from a few people.

We did. It was the easiest film to cast that we’ve done. It was nice because it’s a risk to be in a sequel but I think people liked the script and said, let’s go for it.

You’ve directed a lot of TV episodes in recent years. Do you think that directing multiple episodes of the same show gave you a sense or an understanding of how a sequel needs to work in some way?

Yeah. I shot Community and occasionally we’d run into a line and Alison Brie or somebody would say, I have a hard time believing that my character would say that line. Usually we’d shoot an alt or rewrite a joke or whatever, but that’s one of the key parts of this. The continuity of character. You want to feel like characters the audience knows are behaving the way they think they should or would. You don’t want to have a joke that doesn’t quite work for that character. It’s all about tone and rhythm.

You talk throughout the book about drugs and you’re very candid about using drugs but also about addiction and what it’s done to a lot of people. That drugs can be helpful to the creative process, but writing thirty-something drafts of a scripts and making films is work.

You’re not going to be able to get high and just make seven movies. It’s a lot of work. You can write great jokes high — and many people do — but you’ve got to take that raw honest material and craft it into a three-act structure. You can’t do that high. I mean, some people can, I suppose, but we can’t work that way.

Some people do have trouble with it. Some people think they’re only funny when they’re high. That’s the danger: “I can only perform when I’m high or I can only write when I’m high.” You really don’t want to be addicted. The truth is everybody can write sober. It’s the same brain.

This is really the worst transition ever, but I did want to ask about Potfest, which you guys have talked about making for a few years now.

I know a lot of people say they want to see it. I just wonder if people will go. Those sort of movies have done really well on home video. The big exceptions are Up in Smoke and Pineapple Express, but for the most part stoners are too lazy to go to the theater and then they wait to catch it on home video and it becomes huge. Maybe there’s a Netflix version of this? You never know. We’ve written forty pages of it. It’s something we’ve thought about and we have some really funny ideas for it, but I don’t think we’re 100% sure that it should be made theatrically. That made change so you never know.

The film is coming out soon and you’ve been busy in recent months directing episodes of shows like Powerless and Superstore. Is there anything else you’re working on right now?

I have worked on a lot of television. That’s been very good for my filmmaking chops because I’ve shot twenty party scenes and twenty sex scenes and you work with all sorts of different actors and personalities. After Super Troopers comes out I would like to make a comedy that deals with politically correct conversation and race and racism surrounding an interracial wedding. I’ve written about twenty-five drafts of the script and I think I’m going to try to get that up and running. There are a couple of television shows I’d like to do on my own. In Hollywood one of the best times to set something up is when the trailers are in the theater because it’s all promise, nothing has failed yet. If things go well with the film you can say, “I want to do this and that.” That’s the strategy — to be ready when they want you.

Check out a clip from Chandrasekhar’s audiobook Mustache Shenanigans, which is available now, below:

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