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The Secret to Great TV Comedies Like ‘Portlandia,’ ‘Man Seeking Woman’ and ‘Baskets’

The Secret to Great TV Comedies Like 'Portlandia,' 'Man Seeking Woman' and 'Baskets'


So today’s a big day for director Jonathan Krisel. Not only did the third episode of FXX’s “Man Seeking Woman” Season 2 air last night, but tonight at 10pm IFC’s “Portlandia” returns for a sixth season, and the comedy “Baskets” premieres on FX. Krisel just so happens to be a director and executive producer on all three of those shows, continuing a career in directing and creating comedy that began on Adult Swim and has included stints on “Saturday Night Live” and “Kroll Show.” 

READ MORE: Why ‘Man Seeking Woman’ Switched to ‘Women Seeking Man,’ And Simon Rich’s Hopes for Season 2

At the TCA Winter Press Tour, Krisel sat down with Indiewire to talk about the launch of “Baskets,” which he co-created with Zach Galifianakis and Louis CK. The odd but sweet comedy stars Galifianakis as a Paris-trained clown who moves back to his hometown of Bakersfield to work for a rodeo and live with his mother (Louie Anderson). That doesn’t have too much in common with the adventures of Portland hipsters or a young man unlucky in love. But according to Krisel, it all comes from the same sources: collaboration, dedication and a DIY mentality. 

In the edited transcript below, he reveals what kept him from becoming “a hack,” why “Baskets” made him cry on the set and why he feels that television is now what independent film used to be. 

So it seems like, in general, you’ve had a really interesting few years and have been able to make some really exciting stuff. And I kind of want to dig into the origin story of that.

I guess the origin story of that would be, I went to film school in the ’90s when film was the thing. Everybody wanted to make movies.

You actually had film.

We had film. We worshiped Quentin Tarantino and Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz. It was the heyday of Sundance and all that kind of stuff. So, you come out of school loving that kind of Wes Anderson art. You know, you just love that stuff. I didn’t know how to work in the industry. I didn’t have any connections of anything. So, I decided I was just going to work. I got a job doing Photoshop.  I was doing Photoshop for four years in New York. I just worked in different places freelancing Photoshop. On the side I was doing a cable access show. This is pre YouTube, so there’s no outlet for things. I just liked cable access. I liked the awkwardness of it. I liked the weirdness of it. It seemed like a fun place to experiment. New York public access is such a richly weird, funny, interesting world.

Yeah. I’ve been following what Chris Gethard’s doing there for a while.

Yeah. Exactly.  So, I did that. I don’t know what I was doing exactly. But I was just making things with people at the ad agency I was working at. I made some things on the side. Then I moved to LA, and a friend of mine from NYU said, “This guy I know is coming to LA. He’s going to do this show that’s basically like Photoshop. You should work on it.” It was “Tom Goes to the Mayor.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

It’s been a while.

It’s one of the weirdest shows. But I was working with Tim [Heidecker] and Eric [Wareheim]. They were two of the creators of the show. I came on board there, and the three of us became this team that did that show and “The Tim and Eric Show.” You know, what happened was right before I moved back to LA I was living in Brooklyn and he was like, “A friend of mine gave me this VHS tape.” It was “Mr. Show,” and I said this is the best thing I have ever seen. I loved it so much because what they were doing was so crazy and so funny and so different than sketches I had ever seen before. And so groundbreaking. And Bob Odenkirk was the executive producer of “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” so about not that long afterwards I was working with Bob. I was in awe. I could not believe my luck.


Did you have to bury that?

Yes.

You buried the awe?

I think I told him right off the bat. And working on “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” Zach [Galifianakis] was there a lot. And all those shows we were doing, the budgets were so low, and Adult Swim was so open and exciting. We had no right to make anything that was on television. We didn’t know what we were doing. Tim and Eric went to Temple [University]. I went to NYU. We knew film. We had been trained in film. We were all kind of the same generation, but we also knew computers. I knew After Effects and Final Cut Pro, and we just made stuff. There was nothing we were copying. It was really video art of the ’70s that was the most influential thing for that show. William Wegman — the guy that does pictures of dogs — he was a really avant-garde video artist in the late ’70s. That was our model for sketches for the “The Tim and Eric Show,” which became this sketch show, but the format was — we’d seen “Mr. Show.” We were all fans of “Mr. Show,” but this was our attempt at a new thing to talk about. 

Through that I got hired at “SNL,” did some digital shorts with Zach. Did them at “Kroll Show” and “Portlandia,” and it all sort of spiraled out of control from there.

Looking at your resume, is there some stuff that’s director for hire?

I would say that never happened.

Really? Is it always just a real collaboration?

I would say that I’m trying never be a director for hire if possible, because coming on “Tim and Eric Show” I was a writer, director, editor and animator. It was like an art project. You do the whole thing. That’s kind of how Louis [C.K.] does his show. You’re just making stuff. And then going to “SNL,” I was working with Andy Samberg. It’s the same kind of thing. You’re creating it. You’re making it. So, I’ve been lucky that I’m only ever involved from creation to making it. And now I’m starting to get into development. But I’m such a hands-on person that I don’t know how to make somebody else’s thing, necessarily.

Oh, okay. When you see titles, it’s hard to figure out the current state of television using traditional guidelines. Because, like you said, everyone on the more indie level does do everything.

I think one time my agent was trying to get me an episode of “The Office,” so I met with the guy who hires the directors for “The Office” and he goes, “Don’t do this. If your resume has a couple episodes of this — a couple episodes of ‘The Office’ — you’re going to become a journeyman director. And you’re going to be a hack.” And that’s just– I’m trying to steer clear of that, and I took that to heart. So “Baskets,” I directed every episode. To me, it’s a movie. I treat it like it’s a passion thing. “Portlandia” is the same way. I was there from the beginning. I’m the head writer, director. That’s a relationship thing. It’s not farming out. It’s the only way I know how to do it. It’s just to be all in or not.

How does that compare to your experience on “Man Seeking Woman”?

That’s a slightly different thing. In the first season I was heavily involved with the pilot, and now, second season, I have taken a step back to executive producer, but that’s what you do as you grow. It becomes, “I guess I know something. I can help somebody else out.” And I love that team too. Reading Simon [Rich]’s books, they’re so funny. We met at “SNL.” But I try to bring “how to run a show” and “how to set up a show,” the culture that we had at “Tim and Eric,” to bring to all the shows. It’s a down-home, unprofessional environment. People are really good at their jobs, but no one is phoning it in. You’ve gotta be there. You’ve gotta be present.

When you say unprofessional, is it personal?

It’s personal and present. It’s not big and unwielding. It’s stripped down. We have as small a group as possible. The writer’s room is really small.

I know “Man Seeking Woman” is like four people? 

That one is the biggest. That’s maybe six people. But it’s small. “Portlandia” is five. “Baskets” is four. Louis CK said to me, “You don’t want a writer’s room for this.” He’s like, “I hate writer’s rooms.” But I’ve never been in a real writer’s room. I’ve only been in the ones I’ve created. The “Tim and Eric” one. The “Kroll Show” one. The “Portlandia” one. They’re not real. I run them, and I’ve never had a real experience in my life. I’m basing it on my own system. Someone could come in and tell me I’m doing it completely wrong, but I just have to work on my own weird system.

I want to hear a little more about your system. Small writer’s room. Small as possible. And everyone is really committed. It’s really personal. It’s kind of an everybody-does-everything mentality.

It comes a lot from working the low-budget sphere, in that you learn how to write in a way that’s not going to cost a lot of money and you’re always compromising to make things feasible. I always look at “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” They talked about how they wrote this movie with horses and then they realized that horses are super-expensive and time-consuming. Why don’t we just change it to coconuts? That’s part of my process. We’ve got to figure out a way to do this that maybe is better. Because I think that choice is really good.

It’s iconic.

If you’re working in an assembly line, there’s an efficiency to how things are created. What I try to do, especially on “Portlandia”… We do our writing, we do our shooting, but it’s still open because Fred and Carrie are amazing improvisers. The whole show is improvised. It’s a very inefficient way to make a show. Of all three shows, it’s by far the hardest. But it’s also why “Portlandia” became “Portlandia.” It’s why it’s so funny and interesting. It’s because as a filmmaker I know how to shoot this and figure this out, but then let’s let them go and try some stuff. If you’re looking at the time, don’t do that. That’s a waste of time. But that’s just what it takes. 

And that’s the kind of corporate culture I try to infuse. Let’s let the creative energy be very inefficient and indulgent. And let’s be experts in our craft. Let’s know our camera stuff really well. And all be super pro, but not let that overshadow things. The crew mentality is so against that, and the production methods of a lot things are so against that, that you have to say, “Stay back. Give us five minutes to try some stuff, to fail in this huge money-cranking-down-the-drain system.” And that’s okay. 

So that’s what I try to do on “Baskets.” Bring in someone like Ernie [Adams], who plays the cowboy guy. You don’t have to be a real actor with real training to get in here. I’m going to make a safe space for you to just be authentically you. Don’t worry about all this other stuff. I got it. Take your time. I’ll figure it out, and make you as comfortable as possible so we can get something cool.

So I work for Indiewire–

What is Indiewire? I hear it a lot and I see it, but I’m not sure what it is.

The short version is that Indiewire started out about 20 years ago as a newsletter about independent film, but now it’s expanded, so I’m covering TV–

Well, TV is now what that was. it’s the same thing I think.

Exactly.

I was so influenced by that stuff because it had those authentic performances in it. It had Parker Posey. I love that stuff. I loved “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” That was one of the most influential movies ever. You know that genre with the nerdy girl and she redeems herself in the end. Like “Napoleon Dynamite.” And in “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” she doesn’t. She sucks. It’s like, that’s what’s real. That’s what’s heartbreaking. I was in the theater watching it with my roommates from college and they go, “Do you want to go? This movie is terrible.” And I’m like, “No. No. It’s so good.” But it’s painful to watch. I just love that character so much because she doesn’t become cool in the end. And she’s so vulnerable. Sometimes I feel like Todd Solondz goes too far with a knife in you. Oh God. Come on Todd. Give me some joy. 

And I think that’s what we tried to do. If “Baskets” is too dark or too failure-driven, it’s too much. The third episode I just said, “Martha and Zack. We’ve gotta see a moment where you make each other smile.” Because if it’s too bleak it’s too much. So I like happy endings, but that movie was big for me. And you know, Paul Thomas Anderson. To me, I could tell this opportunity when it came up was the opportunity I wanted when I was in school. Now it’s a TV show. But I’m not going to treat it like that. I don’t know how to do that. I’m just going to do whatever this is. It’s not a sitcom. but it–

I think the only reason I brought up Indiewire is because we talk about TV the way we used to talk about independent film. It’s totally driven by the same motivations.

Characters. Innovative voices. Totally. And that’s what FX is really good at. Doing, “here’s a voice,” and let it go. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And I think Comedy Central is good at that, too. They don’t try to force you into anything. Here’s the unique voice — Amy Schumer — let’s try it. And if it works, it works. If the audience hates it, okay. But it’s got to be the comedian’s true voice. Because that’s what people like.

It’s lead to fascinating things. Comedy Central has three or four female-led comedies. And they’re all different and unique.

I think there was a game changer over there when this guy Kent Alterman came in. He is a creative guy who directed some movies and stuff and he kind of just saw that you don’t fuck with it. You let it go. And if it works it works. If it doesn’t it doesn’t. And that changed them. Whereas Comedy Central, in the beginning of the 2000s was kind of looked down on,  then it became this thing with so many good shows. “Nathan For You.” That is a weird show and it’s awesome.

How’s it working with IFC?

At this point, I barely talk to them.

You just kind of show up at their doorstep?

Yeah. Exactly. They’ve been supportive. In the beginning they were really great and more involved. So great. But I would say FX is a little bit more of a grown-up network, and I would have to say the FX notes — even though they weren’t a lot — were so so helpful because they’re people who really know what they’re doing. They’re really smart, interesting people. Not coming at you like, “What’s she going to wear in this scene because we gotta make sure for sweep-sweep…” They’re coming at you with drama character notes that are really helpful.

It’s nice to hear FX has notes for “Baskets” because the show feels risky in its way. For you, what is the thing that makes the show come together?

The examination of being a sensitive person. I feel like I’m a very sensitive person. So this is a story about a highly sensitive kid, his sensitive mom, and how they relate to each other. Both of them you love. They both hurt each other and love each other. If I could create a great moment, then I feel like we’ve succeeded. It’s through all the tools that you have. Can we make something where you feel genuinely for all the characters? Because all the things I’ve loved, there’s characters that you fall in love with.  When there’s moments of that in the show, I get really excited, because I put so much of my own life and my own family’s experiences into it and try to go to as vulnerable a place as possible. 

This show, more than any other show, is the child going to preschool — “please don’t hurt it.” Because I love it so much. I’ve never been on set — because I was usually doing insane comedy stuff — but there were a few times where I would start crying because it was either Louis [Anderson] doing something and one time Zach doing something that– I was so excited to see it. I couldn’t tell if I was crying for the moment or to be a part of something so sweet. because Zach is such a giving, loving person. He gave me this opportunity. That was such a kind thing to do. To see Louis there every single day. He loved it. He just loved it. And we had a wrap party and we showed some clips from it and he was just crying because he loved the acceptance that we’re the new comedy kids and we love him. He’s like, “Me?” There was so much genuine love to be there. You can’t match it. You can’t fake it. You can’t manufacture it. Martha too. She’s like, “You guys really want me to be here?” They’re doing her hair and it’s like, “Whoa!” And that’s why I feel so loving towards it. Sometimes, you can have that experience. Like “Portlandia,” we love each other. It’s a great environment, but what comes out into the world is pretty silly and all over the place. I just love it. Too much. Too scary.  

“Man Seeking Woman” airs Wednesdays on FXX. The sixth season of “Portlandia” airs Thursdays on IFC, and “Baskets” premieres tonight at 10pm on FX.

READ MORE: Indiewire’s 17 Most Anticipated New TV Shows of 2016

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