Kroll Show. It has a certain Chappelle’s Show ring to it, don’t you think? Not that Nick Kroll is trying to follow in the footsteps of a certain comedy legend who also created and starred in an eponymous sketch show for Comedy Central. But, well, if we insist on making comparisons, Kroll is not likely to protest. Kroll Show, currently in the throes of its first season — with new episodes every Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. ET — may not be as ground-breaking as Chappelle, but it can be just as risky. Never has a white guy played so many non-white characters with such unapologetic impunity.
I called Kroll — who you may recognize from FX’s The League — to talk about his first television project with his name in the title. We did not end up talking about our feelings while hiking or swimming in the Pacific at midnight, but as I learned, it wouldn’t have been completely unprecedented if we had.
Eric Spitznagel: You’ve been on the road doing stand-up, right?
Nick Kroll: Yeah, over the last couple of months. It was sort of a mini-tour in support of Kroll Show. I went to Boston, New York, Philly, DC, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, I did LA early this week, and I’ll be in San Francisco this weekend.
Is it still fun? Is it as fun to do stand-up as it was when you were an unknown newbie with something to prove?
It’s actually more fun, because now people are specifically coming to see me, and I’m staying in nicer hotels. When you start out, it sometimes feels like you’re fighting audiences every night just to prove that you’re funny.
I have friends who are stand-up comics, and they all have war stories from the road.
Like bad experiences?
Yeah. Stories about creepy hotels or run-ins with locals, something where they almost didn’t get out alive. Do you have a memorably awful stand-up tour story?
I was in Portland earlier this year, and I was having lunch before my show with a friend, and I was like, “Where’s a good place to go hiking around here?”
Hiking? Like in the mountains?
Yeah. Or a park, whatever. So my friend was like, “Yeah, I’ll drive you up to this great place and drop you off.” He lets me borrow some shorts and I…
I’m sorry, your friend gave you his shorts?
That’s right. Not right off his body or anything. I just didn’t bring any proper hiking clothes with me.
Okay, so he gave you shorts and then dropped you off in the woods?
This sounds like the first act of a porno or a horror movie.
Or both. So I’m out there by myself, taking a quick hike. I don’t know exactly geographically where it was, but it was beautiful. I’m surrounded by all these huge Northwestern trees. I feel like I’m in the middle of a rain forest. Just a phenomenal hike. I’ve got my phone with me and I’m getting reception, so I’m using GPS to get around. I’m out there for about an hour, and I’m feeling good, and getting ready for the show that night, thinking about what I’m going to say onstage. And then before I know it, it’s been two hours.
Two hours alone in a Portland rainforest?
I’m about ready to wrap this one up. So I’m looking at my GPS and trying to figure out exactly where I am. I recognize a road that I know runs near my hotel. So I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just hike my way over to that road. That’ll get me back on my way to town.” But when I get there, I realize it’s a highway, and I’m a long, long way from downtown.
Do you call a cab?
No, I walk it all the way back.
You’re like Bruce Banner out there?
Yeah, totally. I finally get back to the hotel, and I’ve done basically a four hour hike in mid-day. I am just exhausted. I jump in the shower and get over to the club and do two of the lower energy shows I’ve ever done in my career.
Most comics I know spend their free time abusing alcohol and weed.
Well, I found my way into both of those as well. And let me tell you, after hiking for four hours, it’s probably a better idea to hydrate than smoke one-hitters and drink whiskey.
Yeah. The lesson learned is quit hiking.
Help me out with a comedy enigma. When comedians aren’t being paid to make jokes, are they funny or not funny?
Like in their private life?
Yeah. There’s one theory that the funnier a comic is in his act, the more mind-numbingly boring he’ll be when he’s not holding a microphone.
Sure, sure. I’ve seen that a lot. They’ll kill onstage, and then they come off and it’s like you’re talking to a stool.
But then there’s the Aristocrats documentary, which makes a convincing case that when comics are just hanging out with each other behind the scenes, that’s where the true comedic genius happens.
That’s true, too.
Most of your friends are comics. What are they like when nobody’s watching? Is it non-stop hilarity, or are they dull as tax accountants?
A comedian is sort of like a wild animal. It really just depends on where you catch them. Sometimes they want to cuddle up, and sometimes they’ll snap at you. But for me, more often than not, if I’m talking to somebody who makes their living in comedy, it’ll be a very thoughtful conversation driven from an emotionally honest place.
Are you joking?
No, no. They’re some of the most introspective people you’ll ever meet.
I heard that one of the sketches in Kroll Show, “Sex In the City For Dudes,” was inspired by Paul Scheer’s bachelor party. Something to do with emotional over-sharing?
Yeah, there was a huge group of us, mostly comics, and we rented a house in Malibu, right next to the beach. We were all wading around in the ocean, talking about our feelings. And somebody said, I can’t remember who — it might’ve been Owen Burke, Rob Huebel, lore has taken over a bit — just started belting out [sings] “Sex In the City for dudes!” And it sort of became our anthem.
You have a lot of emotionally vulnerable moments with your comic friends?
Oh god, all the time. Those moments are much truer for me than that testosterone-driven lone wolf version of a comedian that I think some people have in their head.
I’m not sure if anybody actually thinks that.
Well, okay. But yeah, I have those emotional moments all the time. I’ll be hiking with my friend Jason Mantzoukas…
Again with the hiking?
It’s a regular thing for me. When Jason and I go for a hike, we talk about projects, we talk about our lives and our feelings, dating girls, whatever. And every once in a while we’ll catch ourselves being too touchy-feely about it. One of us will say something like, “You know, my dermatologist is basically an allergist as well.” And we’ll look at each other and realize, yeah, that just came out of our mouth. And it’ll be like [sings] “Sex In the City for duuudes!”
For a white guy, you play a lot of non-white characters on Kroll Show. Guys like El Chupacabra, Fabrice Fabrice, the Mexican boxing trainer, the guy with the deadlocks. None of it’s done in black face, but it walks a fine line. Do you ever worry about how your ethnic characters could be misconstrued as borderline racist?
Not really, no. When we’re writing these characters and these scenes, our rule is, if it makes us laugh but doesn’t make us cringe, then it’s fine.
And you trust your judgment of what’s non-cringe worthy?
I do, yeah. As long as it’s not an easy, outdated stereotype and it comes from an interesting or emotionally driven place, then anyone can be made fun of. What’s interesting about the Mexican boxing trainer is not his ethnicity, it’s that he’s a withholding father. Which may be true in the Latin community in general, I’m not sure.
One could argue that a white guy shouldn’t be using this stuff as comedy fodder.
My thinking is, if we’re setting out to make comedy in which nothing is off limits, then everybody is fair game. Fabrice Fabrice, he’s maybe Latino or something, and who knows what his sexual orientation is, but that’s partly what’s interesting about him. I also have an Upper West Side Jewish character. He’s one of the Rich Dicks, and he doesn’t identify with, or especially like, Judaism. And there’s Cesar, a white kid who wishes he were black. So it’s across the board. We’re not picking on anyone or any race in particular.
So you’re not expecting a phone call from Al Sharpton.
I would be psyched to get a phone call from Al Sharpton. I need to find out who does his hair. It’s beautiful. It’s a gorgeous mane.
Before this interview, I was perusing your Wikipedia page, and I came upon this sentence: “A graduate of Rye Country Day School, where he gave a contentious graduation speech in which, contrary to widespread belief, he did not expose his genitals.”
Is any of that in any feasible way true?
This is a perfect example of the power and ridiculousness of a website like Wikipedia. I did give a slightly contentious graduation speech, where I decided not to be funny as my classmates had hoped, which was why I was chosen. I was not valedictorian, that’s for sure. Instead, I talked about the failure to communicate between the administration and the teachers and students. That’s what was contentious about it. At some point, somebody wrote about that incident on my Wikipedia page. And then somebody added the bit about me exposing my genitals to the crowd.
Which is not true?
It’s not, no. But then somebody took it upon themselves to change it. But instead of writing something based remotely on facts, like “contrary to what somebody wrote on Wikipedia one day while kind of stoned,” it became “contrary to widespread belief.” As if Doris Kearns Goodwin had written about it in my biography.
Does that annoy you, that stoned teenagers are rewriting your personal history on Wikipedia?
Oh god, no. I love it. I guess there should be somewhere on the Internet that feels like a source of sacred truth. But Wikipedia sure isn’t it.
It’s too easy to manipulate.
And that’s part of what’s great about it. Go ahead and make up a ton of lies about me. That’s way more interesting than pretending Wikipedia has any real information.
I’m still curious why whoever doctored your Wikipedia page went with penis-exposing. Why that specific lie?
What is it about me that suggests I’d take out my penis in public?
Yeah. And why at a graduation speech?
That’s the worst place to do it, isn’t it? If I was going to take out my penis, it wouldn’t be there. The podium’s in the way, for one thing.
So where then?
Where would I take out my penis?
Yeah. Is there an ideal venue for public penis exposure?
Wow. That’s a tough one.
How soon into a four hour pre-show forest hike does your penis make an appearance?
Just to quickly take a pee. This is a good lesson for all the readers out there. If you’re ever hiking in a very cold environment, you should pee as soon as you’re able, because your body is expending energy keeping that pee hot inside your body. So you want to get it out.
Is that science, or are you just making this up?
No, no, that’s science. That’s science. Although I’m a comedian, I’m also an amateur survivalist.
So this isn’t like Wikipedia “science”?
No, no. This is real information. Contrary to widespread belief, I do know something about science.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)