Joe Mande on His ‘Award-Winning Comedy Special’ and Alternating Between Standup and TV Writing
Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special hit Netflix early this morning. The premise of Mande’s first “televised” hour is that he has been intensely studying and training with the goal of creating a special so good it will be awarded the prestigious (and completely made-up) American Humour Award. The training montage-style intro showcases his writing ability, which has been honed over the years from his time spent on shows like Parks and Recreation, Master of None, and Kroll Show. “I wrote up a whole treatment — which is kind of strange for an hour standup special.” Mande called from the set of The Good Place, where an episode he wrote was being shot, to talk about the new special, digging holes, and choking people out.
When I heard this special was coming out I was wondering what you were going to do with it, considering that it’s your first one and remembering what you did with BITCHFACE. I was looking back at an interview that you did with us when the album dropped. You said that you had recorded an album, but didn’t like that it sounded like every other album, right?
Yeah, sort of. It’s not that I didn’t like it. It’s just that it was sitting there and I couldn’t release it because I was stuck in the Parks and Rec writers’ room. I tend to start playing around with stuff if I have too much time.
Is that what happened with your new special? How long have you been working on this?
After I did the album I knew that if I wanted to do an hour special I wanted it to be along the same lines for sure. I started kicking around a couple of ideas. I reached out to Olivia Wingate, who ended up producing it with Left/Right. I wrote up a whole treatment — which is kind of strange for an hour standup special — that was kind of a loose idea of an award show type of thing. She was into it and they financed it. It was really cool.
Knowing what you’ve done on Twitter and your Kickstarter thing, the whole time I was watching it I was thinking, “How am I being fooled?” Even as a cynical comic who watches every special that comes out, I still wondered if I would be fooled. The thing that got me was the American Humour Award. It was presented so well. If you look at my search history from yesterday it says “George Wallace American Humour Award” and “Bo Burnham American Humour Award.”
[laughs] Yeah, man, that makes me feel really good. When we started getting ready to shoot that was my biggest worry. I didn’t want it to look fake at all. I wanted it to seem like an award that means a lot to comedians and no one else.
I thought the joke was that you were undertaking this big stunt for your first comedy special. When I found out that I had fallen for a fake award I was like, “Goddamnit.”
Was there ever a thought in your head about trying to win an actual award of some sort with this special?
No, because I worked for The Comedy Awards a few years ago. It was one of my first writing jobs and the whole notion of that seemed absurd to me.
I like that you spent a lot of your hour trying to convince the audience to buy some really tough sells. You commit deeply to some of these bits.
That’s true. I tend to gravitate toward bits that start off really badly. I like to start in a hole and try to dig my way out.
Is that something you’ve always done or is it a product of being in comedy for so long that it’s the only way you can get off on it?
If you do a lot of shows back-to-back-to-back it becomes a challenge. I like writing things that don’t work the first time and then trying to see if it’s a terrible joke or if I need to just keep doing it until I figure it out.
At what point do you decide to abandon a premise if it’s not going where you want it to go?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, because that ISIS joke probably got no reaction or stunned silence the first ten times I did it. It was so annoying because I would get off stage and be like, “I definitely know that’s a thing. I just need to figure out the right angle.” The first couple times I did it I think I scared people because it was too much. I had overwritten it. It was five times as long and I think it freaked people out. That was more about pruning than anything else.
I think that the bit where you’re pitching ideas to Shark Tank is kind of representative of you pitching the ISIS bit to the audience. The difference is that with the Shark Tank bit the audience is on the outside. They get to look in and see you selling. The next time around you’re actually selling them an idea.
There’s kind of a parallel there for sure.
Yours is — I believe — the third special in the last few months that has really explored autoerotic asphyxiation.
Who else does it?
Rory Scovel and Norm Macdonald.
Oh. yeah. I saw Rory’s. It cracked me up.
I’m trying to figure out what’s going on, because lately I’ve been hearing a lot of dudes at mics talk about choking, mostly related to being with women who asked to be choked. And then we have this autoerotic asphyxiation thing. Choking is this year’s ass eating.
I’m not a psychiatrist and I don’t have a medical degree of any sort, but I do think that it’s maybe because we are all living in a hellscape and we have to find any way we can to get out of the everyday horror that is the Trump administration. I think everyone choking each other out or choking themselves out is just a natural reaction.
Yeah, maybe a lot of people are so depressed they just can’t cum normally anymore.
I don’t know who’s coming normally since last November. I feel like I’m four months away from doing that thing in The Leftovers where I pay someone to shoot me in the chest while I’m wearing a bulletproof vest. Maybe that’ll be the thing in every special now.
You were one of those guys who other standups knew, but I feel like it wasn’t until Parks and Rec that people started to notice you for your writing ability.
That’s pretty much how it happened. I’d been doing standup in New York for years. I was getting kind of pressured to move to LA, but I didn’t want to. Then the Parks thing happened and I couldn’t say no to that. But yeah, I was mostly just doing standup and occasionally these weird opportunities would come up. I was writing for Delocated for a while, which was insane because at the time it was my favorite TV show. But in New York people weren’t really aware of that stuff. I felt like I was a standup who dabbled in writing. Now I feel like I’m splitting my time 50/50.
Do you have a favorite between the two?
No. The way I describe it is that when I’m in the writers’ room too long I go crazy because I want to be doing standup and when I’ve been doing standup for too long I just want to be in a room with other people. It’s sort of bipolar.
But you’re kind of getting the best of both worlds. Even if you are subject to production schedules and touring schedules you always know that soon enough you’ll be getting back to the thing that you want to do next.
Totally. The only real bummer is that I definitely feel like the first couple shows when I’m getting back are like I’m trying to remember how to swim or something. To not do standup in a while and then have to go out onstage and do an hour of material…you’re like, “Oh, shit. How? What do I do?” Honestly, if that’s the only downside I can live with that.