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Abby Elliott profiled in Death + Taxes

Feb 27, 2015

Abby Elliott
Dear Abby

Saturday Night Live's new darling

For thirty-five years, Saturday Night Live has been an American institution. Sure, the variety show has fluctuated in popularity and prominence through the course of its many seasons, ebbing and flowing with the collective talent of its stars, from the golden days of John Belushi or Eddie Murphy to the eminently forgettable comedic stylings of Joe Piscopo or Cheri Oteri. Still, through it all, a few things have remained constant over the last three decades of Saturday nights. Viewers tuning in to NBC could count on a steady diet of risque jokes, presidential parodies, and absurd character sketches. Many of these more memorable skits were handled by comedians who boomed and bellowed and aimed for the hearty belly laugh -- comedians like Chris Farley and Will Ferrell.

Lately, however, a new face has emerged amidst the aforementioned skits of repute. That face, framed by curly red tresses and animated by a wry, demure grin, belongs to third-generation comedian Abby Elliott. At the age of twenty-one, Elliott became the youngest female cast member to appear on the show, edging out Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the title by three months. Now, at twenty-two, Elliott is also a confident veteran of that SNL staple: the impersonation. Yet the mimicry crafted by this young redhead is clearly in a league of its own. Not for her are the farcical slapstick approaches used by Chevy Chase as President Ford, nor the obvious gags spotted from a mile away, like Tina Fey's Sarah Palin. Rather, Elliott has exhibited a nuanced approach that picks up on the subtle shadings of character and tone of her marks, avoiding the slavish, exaggerated apings beloved by so many of the comedians that came before her. To date, she has impersonated more actresses than I can count on my fingers. And, while some, like Drew Barrymore, whose discerning idiosyncrasy, her lisp, makes for an easy copy -- others, like the perpetually blase Kirsten Dunst, have quirks which require a bit more digging and attention to fully capture.

During rehearsals for her second season, Elliott took a break from work to discuss her ascent into the spotlight and the genesis of her spot-on mimicries. Elliott treats her budding career with all the reverent humility of a person still very much excited to be performing Saturday nights -- live from New York.

Tell me about the first time you solicited a laugh.

I was a little bit of a diva child -- always singing and running around and dressing up. My dad would film my sister and I doing bits outside, but I guess there was one time. I think I was in fifth grade, where I recorded a bunch of parodies of Calvin Klein commercials and I also did this talk show where I played Cameron Diaz. I think it was right around when my dad was doing There's Something About Mary so Cameron Diaz was the only celeb woman that we knew.

I know you did some improv work, but when did you decide to pursue comedy professionally?

I think it was when I was seventeen or eighteen that I started going into the city from Connecticut. I would take the train into the city and go see comedy shows and I just started getting into it. I was scared, and still am, of stand up, but I loved watching it and went the improv route and started doing improv and sketch. I guess I've been doing impressions for a long time. Throughout my childhood my mom would be like, Do that face! Do the Angelina Jolie face! So I'd do that at family things and I'd hate her for it, but now I'm thankful.

Your Meryl Streep is my favorite. It's so dead on.

Oh thank you!

Did you do an impersonation for your audition for Saturday Night Live?

Yeah, I did Drew Barrymore breaking up with the cameraman, and I did a couple of characters, like a girl that worked in the book department at Urban Outfitters who takes all of those books very seriously. And then I did Angelina Jolie, Anna Faris, Katie Holmes -- who else did I do? Joan Cusack -- my wild card. I think they were like, Oh, she could do someone older!

A lot of those have unique cadences to their voice, but how do you go about doing someone like Katie Holmes?

Something about it is just me being a fan of theirs, watching them so much and sort of just listening to their voices. For the most part, I just really like them, and I want to watch them over and over again.

On top of being fairly new on the show, I know you are the youngest too. What are some of the hoops you've had to jump through in order to get your airtime?

I think it's just about getting comfortable at the table reads. That's the main thing. Getting that room to laugh at what you do. Then once they're accepting of you, they will put you on air more. As a featured player it's hard, because nobody really knows your voice or what you can do, and it's also hard because you are still getting to know everyone and trying to get these amazingly funny people to laugh. So that's what I'm trying to do now: Make my peers and these awesome people laugh.

Tell me more about the table read.

We go in on Tuesday afternoon and we write a couple sketches each. All night we'll work with writers to come up with ideas together and put that up at the table read, which includes the writers, Lorne , Marci , Steve and the director.

I didn't realize it was that collaborative.

Yeah. We're there all night until five a.m. It's kind of like the old schedule of the seventies or eighties where they stayed up all night writing.

It's got to be grueling.

You get used to the schedule. .

What's been the highlight so far?

The best thing is just working with these amazing people and having the opportunity to be here. Everybody's time here is different. I'm just sort of trying to go with the flow, and I'm really enjoying myself.

Is having to memorize lines ever an issue? Have you ever had to improvise your way through a sketch?

We have cue cards that are there for us, but it's a tricky thing in itself, because you have to figure out how to read the cue cards while acting and also have it look like you're looking at the person and not the cue card. So that was a struggle at first. It felt unnatural to do, but you get used to it. I think with regards to the improvising -- it helps when you're feeling out how the scene is going. Maybe you'll need to throw in a couple, uh-huhs or okays -- there's room for that type of stuff. Jason Sudeikis is the master of doing that. He is unbelievable. Everything he does when he's improvising makes me laugh so hard.

Do you find it hard to keep a straight face? I remember when Jimmy Fallon was on he'd crack up in every skit, which by the way was my favorite part.

Totally! I think it's so endearing when people laugh. There's a Debbie Downer sketch, which might have been one of the first ones that Rachel Dratch had done -- with her and Lindsay Lohan, and they all started laughing and that made me happy .

This current cast is accredited with revitalizing the show. I know it sounds a bit egotistical to acknowledge, but is being a part of a beloved SNL cast something you think about?

I'm just trying to get what I think is funny out there. I think the Lonely Island guys made their mark and made changes to the show and format and what people want to see. But it changes from decade to decade. You watch shows in the nineties and wonder if one of the sketches they were doing would be relevant now.

It's interesting to think of SNL in those terms. I remember when Obama was beginning his presidency Jon Stewart was asked if he was worried about not having any material to satirize. But it's true, your show is also topical.

Yeah, and in the nineties there wasn't Funny Or Die or YouTube, and now people can create their own comedy. So I think the show has been really great in changing and evolving with that.

Speaking of new technology, I've been following your tweets. Please explain your obsession with the Kardashians.

I love 'em. I love those girls! They're so entertaining. My sister and I just sit and watch marathons. I've never met them. I'd be star struck if I did.

Have you ever been star struck with a host?

I was really star struck when Drew Barrymore hosted. I am such a big fan of hers and I did her for my audition. So when she came she was just like, I hear you do an impression of me. And I was like, Oh yeah -- and she sort of waited a beat and I wasn't sure if she wanted me to do it then or not. So I did a half-assed imitation and she was like, Meh. But then I ended up doing it at the table read, and she liked it.

What would you like your legacy to be at SNL?

I think I just want to leave people with a good taste in their mouths.
LA General

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Donald Glover interviewed by Jason Reitman for Death + Taxes

Feb 27, 2015

Jason Reitman interviews Donald Glover: Life of the (Tea) Party

Ok, so Donald Glover is not exactly a Tea Party man. "It feels two steps away from white robes," he told the Huffington Post in a recent interview. "I'm sorry, I know there are some good people there, but any time I see white men over sixty screaming, I get nervous."

And probably for the better -- Donald Glover is too busy to party these days. In the last couple years he's been the youngest staff writer for 30 Rock, a star of Community with Chevy Chase and Joel McHale, a pillar of Upright Citizens Brigade and a regular of the stand-up comedy circuit, recently appearing on the Axe Twisted Humor Tour and starring in his own Comedy Central Presents special last month.

And that's not even mentioning the rap career. Somewhere along the way, the comic found time to release the mix tape I Am Just A Rapper as the Childish Gambino, mixing indie rock like Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks" into his track "Bitch Look At Me Now." Jason Reitman, director of Juno and Up In The Air, who also moonlights as one half of the electro turntable duo Bad Meaning Bad, made waves when he listed "Bitch Look At Me Now" as one of the top-played tracks on his iPod in an Entertainment Weekly interview. Suddenly everyone wanted to know -- just who is this Childish Gambino? D+T contributor Danny Fassold asked Reitman to find out for us. In a sit-down at the director's house in Beverly Hills, he did his best.

Jason Reitman: When I listen to your hip-hop, you talk about being unpopular in high school. But I know you and you're really funny and charming and handsome. It's hard for me to believe that the guy you're describing in high school is actually you, because I was that guy in high school.

Donald Glover: Yeah, but people would say the exact same thing about you, right? I'm sure that everybody that went to your high school, they would not be like, "Reitman, yeah, he was the white Urkel."

JR: Ha! When I tell people that I was that kid stuck in the video lab, they actually think it makes a lot of sense.

DG: But yeah, my unpopularity bit was totally genuine. I was nervous because I was around all these tough inner-city kids, so I was trying to make them laugh all the time and getting myself in detention.

JR: You were a smart-ass?

DG: I was. But I was also getting my ass kicked a little bit. Kids just were not having it.

JR: You've been in fights?

DG: It wasn't like a punch-punch crazy thing. I just remember kids pummeling me. I came to school once with this new Nike hat I'd gotten from my dad and this one kid took it and filled it with dirt that a cat hat pissed in. Like something out of a movie! He's like, "Wear the hat with sand in it, damn it!"

JR: It's amazing, right? I mean, you would never do that to an adult.

DG: You can't do that to an adult! You can only get away with that when you're a kid.

JR: In your music you talk about the idea of not sleeping a lot because you're constantly working. There's a few people I know who are like that. Apatow is one of those guys. He just doesn't sleep. He's like a machine, where he'll wake up at like two in the morning and start writing. Is that how you are?

DG: That's me. It's a problem because I want to get my sleep, but it's like as soon as I get home, even if it's a long day, I'll have all these ideas. So there's this weird cycle where I'm wide awake and I have all these things I want to do, so I usually end up getting three to four hours of sleep.

JR: And you don't go looking for porno at that moment? You actually buckle down?

DG: The porno's a weekend thing. My producer was over at my house the other day mixing the album, and that stupid history thing on it went to instead of Youtube! I was so embarrassed, but he was like, "Oh, so when you do this you've got to go to the private settings." It was very sweet of him.

JR: This was a normal porno clip?

DG: Yeah, it wasn't a weird one, like a cat and a dog and some sweaty guy chewing on glass, or a snuff film with a hippo or something like that.

JR: Jesus, Donald!

DG: I need to talk about this in this interview. I have a problem...

JR: It's interesting because hiding porn has become very different. It used to be that you would hide the physical magazines and tapes, and now you're hiding it on your computer instead.

DG: There's really an art to hiding porn. You can't just clear your history because your parents or your girlfriend will see that it's cleared and know.

JR: Exactly, so then you have to go fill it with all this stuff.

DG: Right! And of course you have to make it look organic. So then you're like, Okay, I went to this shoe website. But then I can't go directly to Google because that wouldn't make any sense, so then I have to look at the whole catalogue! See, you've got to make it look convincing. But then, I don't have a girlfriend right now so I can just go straight back to more porn.

JR: So when did you start figuring out what kind of comedy you wanted to do?

DG: The two things I remember having a huge influence on me when I was young were the Looney Tunes and my dad. My dad had a bad back so he wasn't able to play with us. So he would watch Looney Tunes with us and crack up.

JR: That's interesting because I see Looney Tunes in your work. Like when I think of you guys in Mystery Team dressed up as gentlemen, and you're walking into the gentlemen's club with monocles on and everything, I can imagine a group of Looney Tunes characters doing the same thing.

DG: And so later on when I was going to NYU I'd go out and see comedians like Bobby Moynihan, who's on SNL now, and Louis C.K., and these were dudes who had the exact same sense of humor as me.

JR: So it was more like, "Oh my god, I thought I was the only one!"

DG: Yeah, especially after I got into the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre. The first thing we did there was something called "The Dirtiest Sketch Contest" and this one comedian was explaining how a lot of stand-up comics will make jokes about anal sex, but yet they've never seen it or done it. So their whole thing was, "We're going to take the bullet for this!" And then this guy in this Darth Vader mask pokes this dude with a dildo in the butt on stage!

JR: No...

DG: Yes!

JR: Are you kidding me?

DG: On stage. Everyone's jaw in the whole audience just dropped. It was so rough, but at the same time the guys are laughing because it was so awful. And in a weird way I was like, "I'm home!"

JR: So ten years from now if you could only be doing one of the things you're doing right now, what would it be?

DG: That's a hard-hitting question. I guess I'd have to choose music because you can do that forever. Like Dr. Dre -- he can put out an album once and a while and people are ready for it.

JR: I'm very intrigued by what Dre will do next. My problem with the second Chronic is that on so many of the songs the theme was, "I'm still here." And it's like, okay, I get it. I'm a fan, I'll buy your album. Just give us something new!

DG: That's the problem. The thing about rap is that it's always about how young and fresh you are. That's why I'm really excited for Detox because it'll be the first album where he can be that older rapper.

JR: It would be funny though if he's like, "I'm still killing people."

DG: "I'm in the studio here just chopping people up." Yeah, it'd be nice if it was just about enjoying life, cuz rappers don't really do that.

JR: Have you done live hip-hop yet?

DG: I did it in a basement once. That's about it.

JR: Do you know all your shit by heart? Because your words are intricate. I don't know if that's the kind of thing where it's hard to get them on beat every time.

DG: I have pretty much all my lyrics memorized, but it is one of those things where when I have live instrumentation it will be trickier. However it goes I feel like my shows will be really different. Because I love hip hop, but when I see it live a lot of times I feel it's a little weak.

JR: Well hip-hop has two problems. One is that a lot of rappers can't flow live. They're basically studio rappers. And on top of that, for whatever reasons, with hip-hop performance there is a lack of quality in the sound system. It's just awful.

DG: It's become a studio art. It's not about how you play it live.

JR: I saw Busta once live, and he could flow. He's like a monster. And Jurassic 5 was fantastic live. Yeah, but a lot of guys, they just can't do it. It's strange how ill-equipped they are to perform. So when are you going to tour?

DG: Hopefully in May. I'm supposed to go to New York soon and talk to Chitty Bang. They're like an electronica indie rap group.

JR: I could see indie music really being a good fit for you in terms of opening up for somebody. It's so much easier to think of you opening for like Phoenix than opening for a traditional hip-hop group.

DG: I honestly think the same thing. When my live act gets going I'm planning on having a guitarist and a bassist and a drummer. But also a D.J. to scratch in other indie bands. Because I feel like that's not used enough in live shows. I saw the Beastie Boys live once and Mix Master Mike did it in such an amazing way.

JR: He'll come up with anything! And even the other band members will have this look on their faces where you can just see them getting wowed. When his mix song comes in at the break it can be anything. It can be "The Girl from Ipanema" and it's in rhythm!

DG: I don't get why more rappers don't do that.

JR: See, that's the kind of stuff Badmeetingbad is all about.

DG: When are you guys going to do another show?

JR: Now that the Oscars have happened, Mateo and I are practicing again. We brought the live drummer in the other day and it sounded awesome. In about a month I want to start booking shows again for over the summer. But we have to play together.

DG: Absolutely.
LA General

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Nick Kroll featured as 2010's New Class in Death + Taxes

Feb 27, 2015

Krollin' With My Homies

"You know who likes fried chicken? Black people. You know who else likes fried chicken? Everybody."

Nick Kroll has been doing the friend chicken joke for a while, and wherever he is, whether he's on Live at Gotham, performing on Jimmy Kimmel or on his home turf at Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, everyone in the room laughs. He has a sharp yet friendly way of delivering it -- like he's doing a bit with you rather than telling a one-sided joke. "I love doing stand up," he says. "I love that you can grab a microphone and go anywhere in the country and talk to a group of people and make them laugh. And you don't need props, you don't need wigs, you don't need anyone explaining anything. Everyone understands it. Sometimes they're not gonna like you -- but you know, I like that."

Upright Citizens Brigade is a home base for Kroll, a foundation to keep the emerging talent anchored as he spins his career through enough media channels to make your head spin. First there was the Internet -- his shorts like "The Ed Hardy Boyz" and his audition tape as Bobby Bottle Service for The Jersey Shore were some of the most-watched pieces of comedy online this year. Then there's television, with HBO's Life and Times of Tim and FX's The League. Most recently he's clawed his way onto the big screen with roles in four movies releasing this year.

If Nick Kroll were an outfit, he'd be described as "high-low." If your shirt is from Target and it looks good enough to wear with your Chanel bag, then ynot only is it a damn good shirt, it's also available to everyone. Being high-low is having range.

"I came up at UCB and this place called Rafifi in New York and Largo, and it's a very specific audience that goes to those shows," he explains. "It's college educated, upper-middle class white people in their twenties and thirties." The difference between Nick and most of the comics who come up in that scene, even the really good ones, is that most of them stay there. Being part of this hyper-intellectual community is both exciting and essential for Nick, but he has his eye on a much broader fan base.

"The people who I respect a lot like Louis CK, Chris Rock or Seinfeld -- those guy scan go and make anyone laugh. It doesn't matter if it's super blue collar or super rich, or whatever. They're just funny. There are certain universal truths that everyone can understand, and I think that's what I aspire to." On the other hand, he's careful to qualify. "If I only can make certain people laugh then so be it -- I don't want to tell jokes that I don't think are funny to get a broader audience."

At the high end of Nick's "high-low" continuum are the characters he invents for his bits at UCB. "The UCB audience has a very specific point of view on the world," Nick admits. "It's very ironic." Fabrice Fabrice, who was his first character to catch on with live audiences, is the vicious, gay craft service guy on the set of That's So Raven. He struts on to the stage at the start of every show in a pink polo belly-shirt, pink flip-down Uggs, and two pairs of sunglasses. Another UCB favorite is Gil Faizon, an Upper West side divorcee with an affected accent,an affinity for Alan Alda, and possibly a coke problem. In a skit at UCB in New York, Nick and John Mulaney gave a walking tour of the city in ribbed turtlenecks, blazers and gray wigs. In front of a picture of Central Park Nick points to an imaginary passer-by and says, "Oh look at that, it's a brown woman walking around with her white babies," to which John responds, "Oh that is a genetic mystery." "We applaud it," says Nick. Then they take the audience to "The hot cultural center, Times Squaaaaare", where John comments, "You know the problem with an anonymous jerk-off booth, is that you still know who you are." The audience laughs at every joke. They're New Yorkers, so they get it.

Falling somewhere in the middle ground between the Chanel bag and the Target shirt is Nick's TV work. There's his role on FX's The League, which has lately been getting him recognized on the streets by meatheads and bespectacled comedy nerds alike. Then there's his role as Stu on the animated HBO series, The Life and Times of Tim. Nick describes Stu as "the kind of guy who eats garbage burritos and is totally in love with Tim's girlfriend and talks about it openly in front of everyone." The show is mostly improvised, and it was Nick's first big job -- one he got after a casting director saw him perform live. "My first audition literally on a skype internet phone from my friend's place in Chinatown. We've done two seasons and it's so fucking fun. The guests this year -- Will Forte came in and Jennifer Coolidge came in and Super Dave Osborne came in. I got to improvise a scene with Elliot Gould. Bob Odenkirk and Bonnie Hunt came in. All these people who have been making their living in comedy for forty years -- they just come in and I get to fuck around with them on a completely even playing field."

On the mordantly delicious low end of his lowbrow side, Kroll has ensnared a huge audience obsessed with his newer personalities who live on the Internet. Bobby Bottle Service has been getting a lot of play lately -- an Italian-American, Vaseline-lipped entrepreneur (record producing and pool cleaning) with a giant photo-realistic tattoo of his mother's face on his back. Bobby Bottle Service has an audition tape for The Jersey Shore in which he promotes to "Respect the shit out of those girls, like Snooki, who looks like she's been smooshed down to the size of a bowling ball with a tan and fake nails,which is very attractive to me." And the audition tape is a side project for Bobby B, who's best known for solving crime in "The Ed Hardy Boyz," an Internet series Kroll writes and produces with Jon Daly. The first episode is called "The Case of the Missing Sick Belt Buckle." Kroll's Internet characters aren't just for people who work in the entertainment industry or live in a big city and are friends with the guy in the ticket booth at UCB. If you get MTV, you get these characters and you laugh.

And then there's the Target shirt, that golden icon of lowbrow success. The Big Screen. Kroll has landed parts in four movies coming out this year -- Get Him to the Greek with Jonah Hilll and Russell Brand, Dinner for Schmucks with Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd, Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, and Little Fockers, in which he gets to do a scene with Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robert De Niro. "It's amazing to be in a room with De Niro, but to be able to fuck around with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson and come up with a bit with Owen Wilson. I got to be like, What if we do this and what about that and do you like that? And they were like, Funny, we'll do it."

If you take Nick's joke about fried chicken and replace "fried chicken" with "Nick Kroll" and "black" with "nerdy," you have a picture of where he stands on the map. "I get to do so many different things simultaneously. I get to live and breathe comedy and make living doing it, and get recognized occasionally. There's so many ways to create things and so many ways to let people know what you're creating. That's what's exciting for me."

It's like he's on SNL, but with limitless creative freedom. On trusting his instincts, Kroll says, "What it comes down to is that I'm much more scared of regreat than I am of rejection. And that makes me do embarrassing things. But I'd rather do embarrassing things than regret not having done them. And ninety-five percent of the time I feel right. Everything is a risk at various levels, and sometimes I'll jokingly say -- not even jokingly -- that it's easy to risk failure if you can't conceive of not being recognized for what you do."
LA General

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