‘I secretly wish that I was an Irish Catholic boy‘ – Siobhán Kane spoke with US comedian Nick Kroll who will be appearing at the Vodafone Comedy Festival
Rodney Ruxin, Bobby Bottleservice, Fabrice Fabrice, Gil Faizon…evocative names and characters that have one thing in common – Nick Kroll. Over the last number of years, from his work in series The League, to his own show, Kroll has steadily been creating a compelling comedy universe.
That universe began expanding when he was studying history at Georgetown University, where he met fellow comic, and friend John Mulaney, and became involved in the college’s improv group. New York followed, and time with the peerless Upright Citizens Brigade, as well as performing in several open mic nights, including Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale’s Invite Them Up.
Some years ago, Kroll moved to Los Angeles to begin work on The League, an acerbic, brilliantly written series about a group of friends and their fantasy football league, and he has appeared in other series such as Parks & Recreation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, New Girl, Community, and The Life and Times of Tim, and has written for Dave Chappelle, among others.
It was really his 2011 Comedy Central Special Thank You Very Cool that paved the way for Kroll Show-his excellent series that has managed to fold in so much of his creativity, his love of pop culture, and working with friends, but now both The League and Kroll Show are coming to an end, allowing space for new adventures. Ahead of his performances at the Vodafone Comedy Festival, down a crackly telephone line, Kroll talks with Siobhán Kane.
You sound like you’re in a tunnel. Well I’m in a car, which is essentially a tiny one-person tunnel, and I am an actor-comedian living in Los Angeles, so what else would I be doing? [Laughs] I came here from New York, and there I really loved walking and the subway, so coming out here has been strange. I’ve been here 7 or 8 years, longer than I lived in New York, which is quite weird, and I’ve certainly been here longer than I’ve been in Dublin [laughs], and just to give you a visual sense, I’m 6ft 5″ and have got long, bright red hair, just so you can put a face to the name.
Yes, you’ve never been to Ireland before. It’s very bizarre, and weird for me, because I have met and spoken with numerous Irish folks over the years, but I’ve never been to Dublin, never been to Ireland, I’m really excited and nervous, so I am just testing out my sensibilities on you, to see how audiences might react.
Has John Mulaney [fellow comic, and writing partner of Kroll] ever been? I believe he did a semester abroad there, and he survived. I made the mistake of going to Spain for my semester, but John headed to the sunny skies of an Irish winter.
You both met at Georgetown University, didn’t you? Yes, we were there at different times, but we crossed over for one year, he was a freshman and I was a senior. My most glorious thing was really captaining our college improv group, I think it was the last time I felt like the funniest person in the room.
Because you met John? You once said that he remains the funniest person you have worked with, can you qualify why? There are two things, one is that he just has such a sharp, nimble mind, and interesting perspective on his own life and the world around him. He’s just such a smart, playful mind. I also think that he’s a good Irish Catholic boy from Chicago, and secretly wants to be Jewish, and as a Jewish comedian, I secretly wish that I was an Irish Catholic boy. I think, especially in the US, that there is a consistent crossover of those two groups fetishising each other.
What do you think the common thread is? An acute sense of death? I think there is that, that sense of death, but also a small sense of being too smart for their own good, and I think they both have a culture of putting an onus on words, of speaking, and verbal dexterity, and they are two cultures that have suffered just an ongoing internal war.
This is a particularly unusual year for you, in that Kroll Show has finished after three seasons, and The League is about to finish after its seventh, strange times. I feel you. It’s been a very interesting year of not knowing exactly what was coming next, and wanting that, in a way. For years I was going from The League to Kroll Show, and I loved it, but I was tired and ready not to know what was coming in the year. It’s been sad at moments, but going to the Comedy Festival in Dublin has never been possible for me before. I’ve been such a lucky guy to do so many things and work consistently, but, because of that, there have been other opportunities that I’ve missed – I’ve performed in Canada, but apart from that I’ve never performed out of the country, so I am excited by the opportunities.
It also means that you get to be part of the Funny or Die Oddball Festival which also features people like Aziz Ansari and Amy Schumer, later in the year.
Exactly. Every year I have been on The League while the Oddball tour has been on, and what’s crazy is that that tour is now all the people I came up with, Aziz and I did open mic together, John [Mulaney] and I go back to college, Amy [Schumer] and I knew each other early on in New York, T.J. Miller and Anthony Jeselnik, also, a lot of the people on the tour are people I started with, so it’s pretty cool, and weird to think of us in the middle of it all.
There seems like something of a movement happening in comedy in the last few years, do you think that there is a correlation between that, and the internet? I’m thinking in particular of outlets such as Funny or Die, and College Humor, people are more easily finding their tribes in comedy, perhaps. Absolutely, I think that the internet has been an insane boon for comedy – it has democratized it, and whether you put out a funny video, a podcast, a stand-up set, whatever it is, comics can build a tribe, as you said, or solidify a following.
Ten or fifteen years ago it was different, as unless one of our shows was put on television in Ireland, or put on DVD in a major way, you wouldn’t hear about it, but now, because of the internet, you can go and see Kroll Show, or Schumer, and it has really helped people discover new folks and become educated comedy fans, so for me, I could go anywhere in the country and not have to drastically alter what I’m doing. Previously, the audience might not have been as comedy-literate or well-versed in what I do, now, people, even if they don’t know who you are, are familiar with the kind of thing you are doing, and that is the same all over the world, it is moving beyond that barrier, and getting to the motive behind the comedy.
Years ago you would have to get on Saturday Night Live, or get into the Aspen Festival, or Montreal, or Edinburgh, and really kill, to get noticed in every way. Although, festivals are a great opportunity to reconnect with comics as well, like your David O’Doherty, I met him years ago in New York, and Montreal, and we’ve been emailing each other to meet up again in Dublin, that’s another great thing about festivals, to meet up with other comics whose work you appreciate.
You know, in my early twenties, I spent so much time traveling and absorbing so much of the world, and then later, understandably wanted to focus on my craft and career, which has been great, but I still have that itch – life is a big old pot and you want to fill it with work, but also new places and experiences, so being able to go to Ireland is great, and I’m taking an extra few days to take it all in.
You’re a real observer, so perhaps you’ll get a character out of it. Actually, I’m already working on a character, but I haven’t absorbed enough of the culture to make the appropriate references, but I will.
You studied history in Georgetown, it seems to have really informed the way you flesh out your characters, you give them so many dimensions, and we end up of having a real sense of their family, favourite bands, the kind of food they eat, and their worldview, a believable personal history. I think that’s fair, it’s probably giving me a lot of credit, but I’ll take it! I would hope that’s it. It could also be that history was just the easiest to bullshit my way through, as I realised philosophy was very complicated and a lot more maths than I thought, and English had far too much writing, so history seemed like the one where I could verbally assault people to the point where they just wanted to get rid of me, give me a B, and let me go.
Who were some of your comic heroes, growing up? Growing up, Mel Brooks was a huge influence on me, all of his movies, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World…. and obviously Saturday Night Live was really big for me, and I watched a lot of Monty Python, and Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life, and Woody Allen stuff, obviously, but nothing crazy out of the ordinary.
Do you think that the soul of comedy still lives and dies in stand up? It’s a pretty exhilarating thing to get up on stage, and be able to interact with the crowd and create a show specific to that time and place, whereas with creating TV and films, there is such a delay in what you have made, and engaging a reaction, and even then, it’s based off numbers and comments, but getting on stage and telling a joke, whether it’s something you have been working on for a long time, or in the moment, getting that kind of a reaction is such a satisfying feeling.
Your year is evolving into one where space is being created for other projects, what is ahead? I’ve shot a few movies this year, like My Blind Brother with Adam Scott and Jenny Slate, and I am working on a couple of new animated shows, and doing some other kinds of film work and animated movies. I guess I’m setting the table for what comes next, and I’m just enjoying the idea of working on other people’s things along the way.
It’s nice to reset my brain a little bit, and figure out what I want to do next, and going to Dublin, and doing the Oddball tour, have reignited my desire to do stand-up, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do in the longest time.
You can see Nick Kroll at the Vodafone Comedy Festival: