Odd but true: Some of the most innovative comedy in Los Angeles these days happens in a comic book shop on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. Meltdown Comics, which opened its back room to comedy shows about eight years ago, has (with the partnership of Nerdist Industries) expanded into a hub for stand-up, sketch and podcast recordings with an offbeat flair.
One of the key shows in that line-up is a long-running stand-up show called “The Meltdown” hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray. And last year, Comedy Central gave them the opportunity to translate that show for a television audience, which meant giving viewers a look at the realities of life as a stand-up. What sets “The Meltdown” (returning this week for a second season) apart from other stand-up specials? And how did Nanjiani and Ray make sure that the series stayed as intimate and underground as attending an actual show in that little theater? An edited transcript is below.
Talk to me about the genesis of how “The Meltdown” came to be, because there have been tons of stand-up comedy shows for Comedy Central, but there’s something about this that makes it really special.
JR: Oh, thank you. Well, yeah, I think it basically— our show was a pretty well-established show that we’ve been doing for almost five years now. And, if you look at other stand-up shows, for the most part they just kind of put together a TV show for the purpose of the stand-up show, where they set up a theater or a stage, all for the reason of shooting it. So, there’s this kind of, more of a showcase, put-upon feel to it. Whereas this one, our show, it already happened, so it already has its own vibe, I guess.
KN: It’s very important to us that we do the show in the space that we’ve been doing the show for the last five years. So it’s not like we’re taking the show to TV; the TV is coming to us.
The backstage elements are really interesting. What do feel like they add to the show as a whole?
JR: I feel that they show what it’s like to be a comedian almost, to just be at a show. Sometimes you’re doing funny stuff on stage, sometimes you’re doing funny stuff when you’re just hanging out with your friends backstage. We want to show what it would be like just to be a fly on the wall at a comedy show. You’re in the back, you’re in the front, and it gives them a more well-rounded view of what comedians are like, or what a particular comic is like when he’s just hanging out.
KN: Yeah, I think backstage, we get to see comedians as people rather than just their material and I think people like that. We try and capture that aspect of it. I feel like we try and share what it feels like to hang out at that show. When the show’s going on, other comedians just hang out at our stage who aren’t even on the show. They have a night off or something. So, that’s a big part of why we love doing the show. We’re hanging out with friends while the show is going on.
It’s a fascinating aspect to it, which is the idea of doing a show that really captures the complexity of the stand-up community.
KN: Yeah, I think what people maybe know or don’t know is that a lot of us comedians are really good friends, I mean Jonah and I are very, very close friends. There’s this big community of funny people that hangs out and we try and sort of show that in the show.
Looking forward toward this next season, is there anything you’re really excited about in terms of new voices? Because you sell this show on the basis of like, these are great, established acts, but also people I think are really interested in the idea of new talent.
JR: Yeah, I mean, I think we have a pretty good mix this season, especially there’s some people we love […] like, Jack Knight. We love this comic, and it’s going to be his first TV appearance. That’s his backstage moment, too. He was like, “This is going to be my first time being on TV.” It’s kind of exciting to us. You’ve got comics like Hampton Yount or Aparna Nancherla getting to do bigger shows, [and] we’re really stoked on that, for sure.
What, for you guys, makes stand-up work for television? Because I feel like it’s such an interestingly well-established medium in terms of live performance, but, in terms of watching it when you’re not in the room, what makes it translate for audiences?
KN: I think what we really focus on, that we had talked about a lot, is in the stand-up shows it used to be — you’d have this crane shot going across the stage — it felt very produced. We really talked about that; we never wanted a camera to be in a spot that an audience member wouldn’t be. So when you watch the show, it’s always from the point of view of someone who is at the show. I feel like the sort of crane shots that are established to go all the way across the room really pull you out of the intimacy of it.
And I think that that’s what we wanted to really re-capture because stand-up comedy is really a very, very intimate performance and art form. It’s about the illusion that it’s just someone talking to you. These big theaters, these big, produced things, to me always felt so fake and not at all like being there at the show and watching the show. So, we only put cameras in spots where audience members would be. We actually had cameramen sitting among the audience.
JR: Yeah, and also, I’ve been going to comedy shows and doing comedy since 2002, and in that time I rarely saw stand-up in theaters or arenas or anything like that. I was going to small, weird rooms, like the back of a comic book store or the back of a bar or a coffee shop or a bookstore or laundromat. That’s been the state of a lot of comedy for the past 15 or 20 years, and it hasn’t really been showcased on TV. What’s really resonated with a lot of people with that style of comedy is that it’s intimate. It’s just better. It’s more personal, really.
KN: Oh, I was basically going to say as someone who watches stand-up, you only see specials when they’re in arenas and stuff. But the actual development of that material, I think there’s a lot more experimentation going on. And to me, as a comedian performing at shows it’s not these big theaters, it’s these smaller spaces where you develop your material and try your stuff out in front of audiences. And that is a big experience of the LA audience; watching comedians develop their material. We really want to have a show that captures that, where it’s not comedians developing material. It’s not an open mic at all, but it’s more experimental stuff that I don’t think would necessarily work in a huge theater.
Interesting. Something that I just remembered is the basic fact that when a stand-up does a comedy special, traditionally, they do two versions of the same show and then cut it together to create the final version. How much editing goes into “The Meltdown?”
JR: Our show, we just do the one show and we capture it as it happens. And the fact that it’s done once gives it a kind of a rawer sense of this live comedy, as opposed to a glossy, slicked-out version of that set. If someone fumbled a line, we’re going to use that line. It’s okay, it’s all right, because that’s the way it happened, and that’s fine.
KN: There was an episode last season with Tom Wilson, when, before he was going on stage, he has a keyboard, he played his music and we had sound issues, there was a big buzzing and we got all of that on camera and we were like, we should fix it in the show. So, we actually did part of that episode about trying to fix actual, real sound issues that we had. Now, if we had done two shows, we would have had a different shot at it, we would have had another shot at it. But it ended up being a really cool thing that a bunch of people were like, “Hey, that sketch you guys did was really funny.” That wasn’t a sketch! That was real panic.
JR: Yeah, if you do two sets, it would take away from our original idea of the show, is that it’s a, like Kumail said earlier, it’s a documentary of the show that night. We’re not putting out a TV show. We’re just capturing our live show, and then putting it on TV.
Awesome. Having been going into Meltdown for years, I know that it has this wonderfully underground feel to it. Is there any level of success you feel that would compromise that?
KN: I feel as long as we’re doing it on that stage, because it’s purely limited by size, we’re always going to have… We can’t get more than 170 people in there. I don’t think we’re going to lose that intimate feel that we really, really like about the show. Move it to a bigger theater, then, obviously that’s different. But right now, I like the idea that we turn people away every week. I like that. It kind of feels you have to really be looking out on the website for when tickets are on sale and get them. I always wanted to do a show on the stage that was too small for the show.
KN: I think I really, I mean look at the UCB room. They’re so small, given how huge the comedians who perform there are. And that’s what keeps the sort of punk rock intimate vibes.
JR: Yeah, it’s harder, there are people that go, and they know they can get in there and, as long as it’s like, the die hard fans, and it’s not like the new people are pushing out the old people. There is a nice mixture, and there’s always, if we get to a spot where it’s different and the regular fans can’t go to it, that’s when it would not feel as much of a special thing anymore.
KN: And doing the TV show, we still get the same kinds of audience, we just have more people who, every week, can’t get tickets. So they’ll get a ticket for next week. We still see the same faces that we’ve been seeing for the last five years.
“The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail” Season 2 premieres Tuesday, June 30, at 12:30am on Comedy Central.