Joe Wengert breaks down the challenges and rewards of a comedy career
You won’t hear Joe Wengert and I complaining about our jobs.
Wengert, a stand-up comic whose Comedy Central Half-Hour is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year, grew up helping his dad in construction and landscaping before building a show business career. I worked on my grandparents’ farm and had several construction jobs before diving headfirst into sports writing and interviewing comedians.
Neither of us longs for those bygone days and I’m of the opinion that the hard labor in our pasts helps us appreciate the relative ease of our current occupations. Writing jokes, and writing about people who write jokes, beats lawn work and digging potatoes.
Now that I’ve released that breaking news, let’s get to my interview with Wengert, who has worked with two of my all-time favorite comedic minds — Nick Kroll and Scott Aukerman — on two of the best comedy shows — “Kroll Show” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” Wengert and I talked about what it’s like inside, and sometimes outside, the writers’ room on those programs, how inviting people to his place to watch his half-hour turned out to be the right choice and much more.
TC: I’ve been playing the “You’re wrapped” game and my life is better for it. Just wanted to thank you for that.
JW: That’s great. You’re welcome.
TC: I work in a newsroom and overly chatty co-workers get wrapped on an almost daily basis.
JW: Everybody has those people all day long and I think it’s a little bit of a release to just imagine you having that power to make people go away.
TC: Did you watch your half-hour the night it aired?
JW: I did. I was torn on whether I was going to do that. I don’t love watching myself do anything. I was just going to not do anything and then I was going to watch it with my girlfriend and she was like, “Why don’t you invite friends over to your apartment?”
I had probably like a dozen people over and it felt weird. I invited people over at 10 o’clock. I’m in my mid-30s now and I’m usually trying to leave a party by 10:30. (interviewer laughs, and agrees) All my friends were over here and I watched them look tired for 2½ hours and then I’m like, “OK everybody, be quiet now and listen to me talk,” which was very weird.
In retrospect, I’m really glad I did it and I have a great group of friends out in L.A. Some of them are people I started doing comedy with. To have them all around for something like that definitely gave me a little bit of a feel of being a narcissist. That’s probably unavoidable.
TC: You’ve got an extensive background in improv, writing and stand-up. Does one bring more joy than the others when it’s going well?
JW: I find it hard to compare them in that way. They all have their challenges and they all have their rewards when it goes well.
I did largely improv and sketch before I did stand-up and the immediacy of stand-up is what attracted me to it. A sketch, you have to block it and you have props and you have to worry about all of that shit. You can still make a funny point, but it can be a tough thing for you to do on stage and have it provide that instant gratification.
When an improv show goes really well, it’s a really great feeling, but it’s also frustrating in a way because it’s never going to happen like that again. Even to describe a good improv scene or a good show to someone afterwards sounds completely stupid. It’s just impossible to explain why it was good in the moment.
With stand-up, in the beginning I found it very novel to go, “Oh wow, that worked and I can do that again and it should have the same effect.” That aspect of it was really nice.
TC: Is working on “Kroll Show” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” as fun as it sounds?
JW: With those two examples, yes. For sure. I think it’s mostly because they are shows that are created by and are filled with friends of mine. It comes from the top down. Scott is having a lot of fun doing exactly the show that he wants to do and I think that trickles down to the staff writers.
Nick is the same way. On “Kroll Show” one of the producers and kind of our head writer, John Levenstein, who’s worked on “Arrested Development” and a bunch of great things, right from the start he didn’t want the writers’ room to feel like a prison. He’s very flexible in terms of rules. I’m always careful on how to word this because I don’t want it to seem like he’s being too lackadaisical about things.
Here’s what sums it up. He’s like, “If you want to go for a walk and walk around and do bits, that is just as likely, if not more likely, to lead to a great sketch or a great character than if we sit in a room and put cards on a board and do it in a more sterile way.” Most of the work days when we’re in the writing phase at Kroll, usually the first couple hours is just everybody sitting around bullshitting, talking about videos they’ve seen or movies or TV shows they’ve seen and then, like, complaining about stuff that’s bothering you. (Wengert, interviewer laugh) Then we look at angles for which one of Nick’s characters we can use to exploit that or what could be a new character and that sort of stuff. I think that’s fun. That’s kind of what I do when I’m not working.
There are times where it does feel more like work when you’ve got to plow through a re-write or come up with something in the moment on set, but even then, whenever I get frustrated, I try to remind myself that my job is to write jokes for Bobby Bottleservice. (interviewer laughs)
TC: That is a great perspective.
JW: My dad would take me to work with him when I was 14, 15 years old and he works for a variety of construction and landscaping companies. He was the foreman for a topsoil company and I would have to do hard labor all day so I always think about what he’s doing for a job compared to what I’m doing for a job and that stops any of my inner complaints.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find In Five Minutes:
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— Mary Charlene (@IamEnidColeslaw) July 31, 2014