Inside ‘Alone Together’ with Esther Povitsky and Benji Aflalo
In the opening scene of the pilot episode of Alone Together, a new comedy produced by The Lonely Island, a guy picks up a girl from her one-night stand and they talk about getting “smashed,” the walk of shame, and Boko Haram. There’s nothing entirely unusual about that for a cable sitcom, but it is a little surprising when you consider the “Disney ABC” logo in the bottom right-hand corner. Esther Povitsky (the girl) and Benji Aflalo (the guy) certainly did not make a show for the Disney audience you may have come to expect, but teens, millennials, and people of all ages will be able to relate to the dating, aesthetics, and LA-based comedy contained within.
Initially shot as a short in 2015 — which opens at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, the same place where Povitsky (also known as “Little Esther”) and Aflalo first met as new standups years earlier — Alone Together is a show about two friends who don’t always know the right things to say or do in certain situations as they try to “make it” in Los Angeles. Already renewed for season 2 by Disney-ABC on Freeform (formerly known as “ABC Family”), the show perfectly demonstrates different personalities, voices, and the relationship between Povitsky and Aflalo.
And it’s that relationship that got the two working together on Alone Together in the first place, though they insist: “We are not a duo.” Perhaps not, but they do seem to work quite well together.
I have to say that this really broke my expectations going into it as a “Disney” show, because there’s a lot of mature talk on sex and dating.
Esther: They were very clear with us: “Don’t treat us like we’re Disney.” They were almost like, “When any Mickey Mouse Clubber comes out of Disney and they want to be naughty” — that’s what they were ready for. They were abundantly clear to not treat them like they’re Disney, to treat them like any cable network and that they’d be cool, and they were. It was wild to all of us.
Benji: Going into it, you know it’s Disney and it previously used to ABC Family, and we wanted to do an edgy show, and do we consider it “edgy.” At first, we thought, “Are they gonna think we’re crazy with some of the stuff we’re pitching?” but they encouraged us to be edgy and be ourselves, and so it’s been really fun.
Is there an x-rated version of this show you want to make that takes it even further that you weren’t able to do in this version?
Esther: I think we got to do the version we wanted because neither of us are super dirty. We’re not squeaky clean pilgrims, but neither of us are blue.
Benji: We’re not gonna do blowjob jokes or anything. We’re not into graphic stuff but we do wanna be edgy. They don’t push back on anything really. I don’t ever feel like there’s things we can’t do and there was never a sense of that. I don’t feel restricted in any way.
So you’re differentiating between just talking or joking about sex and being a blue, dirty comic.
Esther: Exactly. I’m not going out of my way to talk about something just because it’s super dirty. At the same time, if I have a yeast infection, I’m gonna tell everybody.
Benji: As a standup, I don’t talk about sex too much because I don’t’ think people will believe that I actually have sex. So in terms of content, it’s always something I try to avoid.
How much of your situations in Alone Together were pulled from real life?
Benji: A pretty good amount. You can’t always make something 100%; we have certain episodes that are very based in reality, maybe not exactly what happened but still very much pulled from our lives. Even little situations where we bumped up against people who are typical LA folk. A lot of it we pull from our real lives. I always get confused for a valet parker if I’m standing anywhere near where people park. Esther gets confused for being a busboy, as do I. We love pulling things from our real lives, which honestly makes it easier because you don’t have to be as creative, you can just use stuff that actually happened.
Esther: I in real life wanted to freeze my eggs, then found out it was way to expensive, then I considered going down the road of donating my eggs — we had an episode based on that. It’s the TV version of it, but that’s a real thought process I had in my life. A lot of this stuff really comes from us.
Benji: And I don’t have an acting background at all, so I kind of lean into whatever I am because I don’t want to put the pressure on myself of having experience that I don’t have.
How’d you two meet and did you ever think you’d be a duo? That seems like a huge life and career decision, much like finding a romantic partner.
Esther: We met at The Comedy Store, which at the time was not the cool place to be. It was kind of where losers congregated and we identified as that. That was how we met, as two of the misfits who were hanging at The Comedy Store until 3:00am every night. In terms of being a partnership, I do want to be clear, and Benji will agree: We’re not a comedy duo. We both do standup on our own, we do a lot of stuff on our own, so it was never like “Let’s team up.” It never felt like a partnership, just a friendship, and we wanted to do one thing together. It was borne out of how we spent so much time together and people took notice. “Why are those two always hanging out? They’re not dating. Are they dating? Are you dating? Have you had sex? Have you kissed?” People are always asking us those questions. We couldn’t understand what was going on, and that sort of became the starting point for us. People clearly want to know what’s up, so that just got in the mood to do stuff together.
Benji: We have a codependent friendship and those friendships get a bad rap, but I think the codependent friendship helped us because we relied on each other. We made that short, and I didn’t have any experience doing anything like that, and neither did Esther, so we really had to lean on each other to fill in the holes where the other person couldn’t really contribute. It was a partnership out of necessity because I don’t think either of us could have put a short together on our own.
Benji, you wrote for The Burn with Jeff Ross and on Comedy Central’s roasts. How did that come together, and what’s a moment that stands out from your experiences behind the scenes on the roasts?
Benji: When I met Jeff Ross, I was still just a guy at The Comedy Store, didn’t have any representation or anything, and one of my buddies knew Jeff and helped him out on different writing projects. So when his show was hiring, my friend helped me put together a packet and I was so motivated because I’ve always loved Jeff Ross since I was a kid. The packet was probably three times the length of anyone else because I really wanted the job, and I got it. His show The Burn was mostly all roast jokes, and I have always liked roast jokes. I don’t come from the nicest people, so I know how to tell mean jokes. That got my foot in the door of roast stuff.
The most fun I had on the Comedy Central roasts was working with Andy Samberg, and we worked with the Lonely Island production company on Alone Together. I didn’t have much experience seeing people of his talent and ability work. So when you’re younger and get your first few jobs, to see someone at his level — I just think that the work on those roasts, like the James Franco roast, it was just like magic. To just come up with this idea of an anti-roast, and see it come to life, was just incredible. The one thing that’s really cool about those roast jobs or random awards show jobs that I got early on is that you get to see high-level people execute different stuff, and it teaches you a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have learned at The Comedy Store.
Esther, you started out doing stuff at Second City and iO. What was your experience like with improv?
Esther: When I was in Chicago, I did iO. Even when I was in college I would take the train to the city every weekend to take my classes there. I loved that. That was the honeymoon of my life; going to improv shows at iO in Chicago, taking classes, and I really felt I was in the right place, like I really belonged. It was really awesome and magical and inspiring. I ended up leaving Chicago because I ultimately felt like I couldn’t successfully have a career there because my family was there. I just felt like if I stayed there, at night I would try to go to a show and my dad would be like “Why don’t we go to Whole Foods instead?” and it was hard to not hang out with my dad and buy food. So I made the hard decision to move to LA and I thought I was gonna pursue improv. I think standup was on my mind but I didn’t have friends and didn’t know anybody and couldn’t rely on anybody. So I had to do standup because improv was just not an option for me.
What were the biggest changes/improvements in your standup from 2006 to now?
Benji: There’s no words to describe how stupid I was in my first few years of standup. I had no idea what I was doing. I can only speak for myself, but I was very naive and from the way I viewed the world of standup to the way I was trying to be funny on stage. I was completely clueless. I think most standups would probably say that: You’re not really funny in your first two years, and there’s a lot of snake oil salesman in standup. I’ve come a long way.
Esther: I agree with that, and I also feel like I just had no life. I had nothing else. I had to work three side jobs, but I had no friends, no family here, and for me at that time, standup was my life. I did as many open mics every night of the week that I could and when i wasn’t I was at The Comedy Store until 3:00am watching the show and getting up on stage when I could. And it’s different now because I have my TV job, and my job on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and two podcasts. I can’t quite give standup all the time and attention that I did early on that I’m so grateful for. But back then I didn’t really believe in having a life, and I’m glad that I do now. I missed weddings, funerals — I checked out of the real world and just was a standup comedian, or was trying to be. I think that’s something that is very different now that I miss but I certainly don’t think that it was sustainable.
Benji: Yeah, you really throw the kitchen sink at standup when you’re first starting.
You have some great guest appearances in season 1, including a standout character by Jim O’Heir, aka “Jerry” aka “Gary” from Parks and Recreation.
Esther: To have him on the set of our pilot was unbelievable. His improv experience really lit a fire under me. He was so funny and it was really fun to see him in a very different role. He’s definitely Jim O’Heir still, but it was kind of weird to see him in this role. I don’t know how else to explain it.
Benji: Sort of a dark thing to it because he’s so nice.
You’re playing versions of yourselves in Alone Together and leaning into that, which seems like an important strength in comedy — to know yourself and to express your voice through characters. Was it difficult to find that awareness and voice or just something you’ve always had?
Benji: I don’t think I’ve found it necessarily. Standup is still really hard for me to do, I’m still struggling to develop new material, and it’s not easy despite how much I think I know my voice. The strangers in the audience don’t know you, so I still struggle there. As far as the show, I rely on a lot of people. I rely on Esther and writers and a lot of people to tell me what is funny. Sometimes I think of five ideas and it helps to be surrounded by people you trust. For me it’s about having that discussion with people. I get to play myself and lean into whatever my personality and mannerisms are, but at the same time I still appreciate feedback. Because at the end of the day, people are looking at you and they might have just as good of a perspective on you as you might.
Esther: I feel like I didn’t really know when I started what that concept meant, of “finding your voice” or “having a voice.” I’m just so uneducated that I didn’t even know that was a thing. I remember being in a first meeting with managers and they were like “You really have a voice.” And I was like, “Do they think I can sing?” I was so confused by it. I think just through that I realized yeah, I do. I know who I am. I do feel really confident and secure in who I am. But I still have a hard time writing standup material. Just because I know who I am doesn’t mean that I can always find a joke in things. I think ultimately you really want that as a standup or someone who’s writing a show, but it doesn’t always make everything easy-peasy. It’s good to know that when someone pitches an idea, I know right away if that’s me or if it’s not and that’s helpful.
Benji: In standup you bomb so often that it kinda keeps you in check. Not everybody — some people are really good at standup. But I bomb pretty often so it keeps you in check. You’ll have ten good shows in row and you’ll feel like Chris Rock, then you’ll have three in a row when it’s not going so good. It keeps your ego in check and reminds you of how vulnerable you are, because it is really hard.
Do you embrace bombing after awhile?
Benji: Absolutely not. I do not like bombing. Bombing, from a distance it’s fine and I realize it’s part of the process, but after I don’t do well on stage it’s usually a 24-hour period of me really second-guessing myself.
Esther: I do feel like lately I’m just so happy that I’m doing standup that even when I bomb, I think it’s fine. I try to bomb gracefully. My first TV job was working on New Girl and Lamorne Morris said “I saw you do standup, you were really funny. You bombed! You had a terrible set but you were really funny.” And he said it in front of Zooey (Deschanel) and I was like “Uhhhhh” And she said, “Maybe you’re embarrassing her?” He said “No I said she was funny!” And that always stuck with me. I don’t know how to feel but okay. Ever since that moment, I was like “Okay, that’s good.” There’s ways to bomb gracefully. I think I’ve done it before, but I definitely don’t always do it. I think bombing is just part of it.
Benji: I can bomb on set too sometimes just because I don’t have a lot of experience acting. I had to do a red carpet the other day, my suit was poorly tailored, I’m looking at the Getty images of myself and my face has the most idiotic smile. So I get in my head that everyone who has to be in front of camera as much as I am has a way better ability of what to do with their face than me.
Alone Together debuts on Freeform tomorrow night at 8:30pm.
Photo by Freeform/Vu Ong.