The world of podcasting has created its own stars, but few have more dedicated fans than Nick Kroll. After graduating from Georgetown in 2001, Kroll had the curious honor of starring in Cavemen, a rapidly cancelled sitcom based on the Geico Cavemen commercials. Kroll had much better luck as a regular on Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast as a series of outrageous characters, including DJ El Chupacabra, his sidekick The Baby, Jersey Shore wannabe Bobby Bottleservice, and Gil Faizon, a strange New York Jewish man obsessed with pranking people via excessive amounts of tuna.
In 2009, Kroll was cast as one of the stars of The League, a heavily improvised show about the fierce competition among a group of fantasy-football-playing friends; the series was just renewed for a seventh season. The League co-stars Kroll’s fellow podcasting favorites Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas. In 2013, Kroll launched the half-hour vehicle Kroll Show for Comedy Central, serving as star, co-creator, writer, and executive producer. Kroll has also been a popular guest on shows like Parks And Recreation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the television version of Comedy Bang! Bang!
Kroll has also branched out into film with supporting roles in I Love You, Man; Dinner For Schmucks; and a co-starring role in 2011’s long-delayed A Good Old Fashioned Orgy. He recently took his first cinematic leading role in Adult Beginners, a delicate comedy-drama about an arrogant man who learns humility while serving as his sister’s nanny. The Dissolve recently spoke with Kroll about his show ending, getting into podcasts, and learning to serve the story rather than go for laughs on Adult Beginners.
The Dissolve: Why did you want to tell this specific story?
Nick Kroll: I’m the youngest of four. I have 12 nieces and nephews. All my siblings have four kids. And I’ve almost never been asked to babysit, and I’m not the godparent to any of the kids. So I was like, “Boy, I don’t think I’m seen as a caretaker for children,” which I’m fine with. It seemed to be an interesting idea, a guy’s younger, more selfish brother who’s suddenly thrust into the role of becoming a nanny for one of his nieces or nephews. It just seemed to make sense as an area to explore. The truth is, I really wanted to use that as a springboard to then tell a story of a brother and a sister.
The Dissolve: Why do you think you aren’t asked to babysit?
Kroll: Because I don’t give off that “I want to” vibe. My oldest nephew is 12. I’ve lived in L.A. for almost eight years, and I live cross-country from them, so the truth is, it’s not like there’s a ton of free time. And I just don’t give off—actually, that’s not true. I think I’m actually pretty good with kids. I think it’s part of a larger thing I’m figuring out. I think I was always the first one in the family when we have dinner, though, to say, “I gotta go, I’m going out to meet friends.” And now that I live in L.A., I think I was always the one who was like, “Uh huh, I love you guys, you guys are great, but I gotta go out.” [Joking.] Maybe it was my drug addiction or alcoholism.
The Dissolve: Did making this film alter your perception of parenthood or children?
Kroll: Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox, who wrote the script, had a 2-year-old when we started writing, and had their second right before we started shooting. And seeing how exhausted they were was definitely intense to watch, but also working with a kid—they were actually twin boys—was great. It was really fun. I go back and forth. I always assumed I would have children, and who knows. I have no idea.
The Dissolve: That’s not something you want, necessarily? Or you’re an agnostic when it comes to the subject?
Kroll: I just never have planned ahead with anything in my life beyond what sandwich I’m going to have that afternoon. I have ideas for my career, though. This movie took three and a half years to come to this point, so I thought ahead on that. You could argue that children are the same way. You have to decide that you want to have children, and then it takes a while to figure it out, and all of a sudden you have a child. It takes more than nine months.
The Dissolve: I became aware of you through Comedy Bang! Bang!, relatively early in the podcast revolution. What did you know about podcasts the first time you went to the Earwolf studios?
Kroll: The first time I did it, it was at the El Gato studios. They were recording it as a regular radio show that was on a Latin radio station. So the first couple of times I did it, it felt more like a radio show. And then it soon became the podcast. And I was aware of podcasts. I was probably one of the first 10 people on Mark Maron’s show, WTF. Maron said, “Come to my garage and do this thing,” which obviously now, has a real, underlying charm. It was part of a selling thing, going to some garage.
The Dissolve: It’s the most famous garage in the world. It’ll be the first garage in the Smithsonian.
Kroll: Exactly. [Laughs.] I think the Smithsonian will definitely have its podcast wing. It’s interesting to be touring and hearing how much people do listen to podcasts. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that people become really attached and engaged with podcasts, in the same way they did with Howard Stern. Something about audio experience draws people in, and connects people, and gives people an incredible amount of loyalty to a show or a personality. In retrospect, it’s weirdly not surprising. For me, the beauty of the podcast, and specifically something like Comedy Bang! Bang!, and I think it’s why it’s resonated with people, is because it’s the kind of stuff we have been doing in New York, Chicago, and L.A. And obviously every place has their version of it. UCB, Largo, or like here in Chicago, iO or the Annoyance or Second City, where on any given night, people would get up and do characters and fuck around, and in an hour and half, build something interesting. Vs. the rest of the country being like, “I’m watching a stand-up special on TV,” or “I’m watching Saturday Night Live,” or “I’m watching the sketch show.”
There’s something really fun about the organic nature of a loose, character-driven thing with personalities. You really are just listening in on people fucking around. It’s part of a larger thing with web video, but the podcasts have really democratized comedy, and also just spread the gospel. You can just go to Portland or Austin or Athens or Madison or the Berkshires, and there are people who are familiar with people who even 10 years ago, would only have been known to comedy fans in Chicago, New York or L.A.
The Dissolve: Do you remember the first character you did on Comedy Bang! Bang!?
Kroll: I think it was El Chupacabra.
The Dissolve: Was that inspired at all by the fact that you were in El Gato?
Kroll: I think I had started doing him already, but it was the perfect fit when we were out there. I think Jon Hamm was on that episode, and I had never met him before. Or, we’d met briefly. I was doing improvised advertisements in Spanish and English, and Jon Hamm started doing them with me. And I was like, “This motherfucker can improvise in Spanish.” I’m like, “That’s my thing. You’re Don Draper, just be Don Draper. Don’t tell me you’re also capable of this.”
The Dissolve: You’re better known for doing characters. You don’t necessarily have a stage persona. So you had a rare stand-up special with characters in it. Was it important to integrate these different worlds?
Kroll: I guess so. I’ve always done a little of everything. I started in college doing improv, and studied at UCB in New York. And then while I was taking classes at UCB, I was annoyed that I was in a practice group. I wasn’t getting any stage time. So I started doing stand-up. And then as I was doing stand-up, I started to feel good about it, but also being like, “I still want to do characters.” So I started to do the character stuff as well. It was not like I was annoyed through the whole process. It just led me to do a little bit of everything. So when it came time to do a special, I thought, “Well, I do stand-up. I have some jokes I tell as myself that I really like, but I also have these characters I think make me a little more unique.” There haven’t been a ton of specials like this, so I thought it would be an interesting way to do it. And it was also functioning, in a way, as a back-door pilot for Comedy Central of being like, “I do these characters as well.”
The Dissolve: I’m bummed Kroll Show is ending. Why are Coach and Full House coming back, when a genuinely awesome show like Kroll Show isn’t?
Kroll: I would argue that, just like Coach or Full House, 10 years from now, we might come back. But I do think there is a world where some of the characters come back in some format. [John] Mulaney and I just did the “Hello Guys” down in Nashville live at the Ryman Auditorium.
The Dissolve: Did they bring you a giant pile of tuna?
Kroll: We pranked a girl with a box of Dom Pérignon filled with tuna. Various versions of things can live on. In a weird way, and it wasn’t purposeful, but it’s kind of like The Harold [a long-form version of improvisation where improvisers tell an entire story —ed.] which was the base for what we learned at UCB, and obviously comes from Del [Close] and everyone here in Chicago. In the first act, you establish these various worlds. Then in the second act, you start to integrate them, and heighten them. And then the third act is hopefully all these worlds start to collide, and you heighten them out and come to a hopefully fulfilling conclusion. It wasn’t intentional, but it was kind of what we ended up doing with the show. It just felt natural. I just never wanted people to watch the show and say, “It’s not as good as it used to be.”
The Dissolve: If you saw the show as an ongoing narrative that could be ended satisfyingly, then was Kroll Show practice for Adult Beginners?
Kroll: I would love to say that was always the goal. It was not. But the goal was always to do character-driven comedy vs. premise-driven comedy. You watch Key & Peele, and they are so great at a premise and nailing it, and those guys are so talented. Both the writing and the acting are so good on it. It just felt like I was always interested in following these characters more than I was in playing a specific joke. It allowed the characters to live on, and get this snowball going of various narratives that then collected into one big horrible snowball.
The Dissolve: What was the most rewarding thing about making Adult Beginners?
Kroll: I think it was making it, if that makes sense. There’s so many aspects to making a movie that were new to me. It felt like a natural extension of what I’d been doing on Kroll Show, which was acting and producing and writing. Film space is just another medium, literally, but also, it’s just a different process. It wasn’t like we had a network giving us the money. We had to go and build it, and continue to sell it to get it to the scripting stage, and then sell it so actors like Rose [Byrne] and Bobby [Cannavale] would want to do it. And then get financiers on board. And then get our director, and then shoot it, and then go to Toronto and sell it. And now, going around the country and literally trying to sell it. There were just so many elements that were new for me, and I found their exploration of specifically the brother/sister stuff interesting. I have two older sisters, and I have an older brother. I hope that theme—the complicated relationships of siblings and in-laws—is something people will respond to.
The Dissolve: This movie has a very specific tone and sense of humor. Do you feel like you have to repress your broader comic instincts, that you can’t go for a big laugh?
Kroll: I think having been involved in so many stages of it, I knew what we were getting into. There were definitely times where my instinct is to be like, “I don’t know if that’s funny enough,” and then remember, that’s not necessarily the goal of this scene. But I was used to improvising on The League or Kroll Show. When something wasn’t working, we just thought, “Let’s just come up with an alternate version,” vs. on a movie like this, we’re thinking, “Let’s try to really work these lines, and figure out a way to make this work.” It’s not because the writers will be pissed if we don’t, but we spent a lot of time trying to get the script in a place where we were telling the story we wanted to tell.
The Dissolve: Was part of the idea of ending Kroll Show so you could focus on movies?
Kroll: The idea of Kroll Show ending and The League ending, it’s exciting that I would have more time to pursue other kinds of things, but it wasn’t the intention of being like, “I did my three seasons of a sketch show, and now it’s time to be a movie star.” There are no movie stars left.
The Dissolve: Tell that to Mr. Tom Cruise.
Kroll: I literally will. I think for me, the opportunity to do different types of things, that’s how Kroll Show was, “I like these eight different worlds, and I want to be able to go from one to the next.” I would love to continue doing that with my career, too. I’d love to go do a movie, and then be on someone else’s show, and then go do a Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast, and then go on the road and do stand-up. I think that mix of stuff is what really is fun.
The Dissolve: I’ve seen every episode of Cavemen, and at the risk of high praise, you’re the best thing about it. How did you get involved?
Kroll: I moved out to L.A. for pilot season. It was like the second-to-last audition of the year, and I thought it was really funny. I loved the commercials. And I thought the script was funny, and it felt right in my wheelhouse. That guy’s not that different from Ruxin [Kroll’s character on The League] in a way. I would say that if you watched every episode, you might agree that it’s no worse than the majority of sitcoms that have been on the air over the last seven years. And I just needed a job. I had never acted on TV, besides a commercial.
The Dissolve: Did it feel weird to be in makeup?
Kroll: Yeah, it sucked. It was four hours every morning. It sucked. I was happy to have the job. I learned a ton about acting. And then I was happy for it to be over.