Ian Karmel is a standup comedian, head writer for The Late Late Show With James Corden, and podcast host. Ahead of the High Plains Comedy Festival, Karmel spoke to Westword about writing for The Late Late Show, Netflix supporting comedy's "middle-class comedians," The Rock, and promoting male sensitivity.
Westword: What took longer to grow into — being a standup comic or a writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden?
Ian Karmel: When I technically started writing for late night, it was with Chelsea Lately, but that was barely writing for late night. That barely qualifies. I guess the one thing I’d say is the nice thing about starting standup in Portland, Oregon, was that it was the start of a cool thing where people were being themselves. There weren’t veteran comedians there trying to bully us into doing it any sort of way.
People really became big versions of themselves. You see that in Ron Funches and Shane Torres, as well, and hopefully, in my best moments, in me. The nice thing about The Late Late Show is there wasn’t really a model for doing it when I stated writing there because James Corden wasn’t a standup comedian, so he didn’t have this big, established voice. We got to invent it as we went along.
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In many ways, I think it’s the same with comedians. If you look back three years ago, I was terrible back then and with writing for The Late Late Show, it was the same way. I don’t know if I’ve come into my own quite as either yet. I’ll say writing for The Late Late Show took a little longer because you’re writing for someone else. You have to keep that in mind — whereas with standup, I could do any dumb thing that popped into my mind and it would be okay. I have to think I’m writing for Corden, who has his own big career, and it’s going to show up on CBS, and you have to think about that.
There isn’t a ton of overlap in the type of humor in your standup act and on The Late Late Show. How often do you have to choose where a joke is better suited between the two?
I think people are often like, if you think of a funny joke and then have to flip a coin, who gets this, me or Corden? To be honest, it would always be me [laughs]. If there were those jokes, I think Corden would even know that. But really, there isn’t a lot of overlap. What we’ve developed isn’t really a comedic persona, because James Corden is very much himself, but it’s also a comedic entity that’s pretty separate from me, even though I’ve been a pretty big part of helping craft and create and guide it because I’ve been there since day one.
How do you think writing for Corden has helped you become a better comedian?
I feel like I’ve been fairly free of this constraint in comedy in general, but there are a lot of people that think comedy needs to be a certain way. Especially now. There were all those big dumb Nanette debates about Hannah Gatsby’s Netflix special, like, ‘Is this comedy? Is this not comedy? Who gets to decide what’s comedy?’ and while writing for Corden, we’ll write stuff, and we’re all aware that this isn’t very funny, but we know it’s very entertaining, very fun to watch, and you see people in the audience at the show really enjoying it. You know it brings people joy.
I never was [an elitist], really, but I think I’ve gotten rid of any shred of elitism in my comedy. Sometimes I’ll go on stage and do this bit that I invented for The Late Late Show, which is this stupid, dumb game where I bring people on stage and see how fast they can say "Dame Judy Dench" over and over like a tongue-twister.
When I first started out, I never would have considered doing anything like that because I’d be like, ‘This isn’t standup comedy.’ But now sometimes I do it because it’s fun and because I can tell people in the audience are enjoying it, and fuck it, you know? If people in the crowd are having fun and it’s a silly moment, then why not do it?
The next thing I’ll do is a well-written standup bit or a traditional standup bit or whatever — it’s been liberating. It’s made me care less about the how-I-get-there part and more about what the ultimate result is. I try to keep that mentality and apply it to my own comedic aesthetics.
Is it difficult figuring out a fifteen-minute spot for Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup after you’ve already put out your hour-long special, 9.2 on Pitchfork?
It is hard to do that. Ultimately, I went with the fifteen minutes I was enjoying the most, even though I’ve been very fortunate in my career with the television writing and stuff like that. I mean, geez, I’ve been doing standup less than ten years. Nobody wants to hear somebody who’s been doing it for a short amount of time complain about the hard road to get there — but for a while, I was on this trajectory where it went, "All right, next year you’ll get the half-hour, and then you’ll start touring on the Comedy Central half-hour, then hopefully you’ll get the full hour after that."
You’re just on this path where you put out an hour every two years. It felt like I was on this path toward that direction, and then I just couldn’t get the half-hour. The first year I submitted, they were like, "Ooh, we really loved this, you were the last person who didn’t make it. But it’s okay because you’re so new. Keep going. You’ll get it the next year," and then they said that again the following year, and then I tried to get it again and the note was “It’s just not good enough.”
Sometimes notes are constructive; that one wasn’t constructive at all. It was really frustrating to try to keep doing it.
I remember the last time I didn’t get it, my agent called me and said, "Yeah, you didn’t get it. They just don’t think it’s good enough," and then I went up and killed for an hour and a half. You’re thinking, "Well, what the fuck was that, then? I was myself, and I know I can kill, and I just did it for ninety minutes, but they don’t think I can do it for 22.” It was a weird...I don’t want to say dark, but it was a somewhat dark period for me just regarding my standup.
When it finally came time to pick the fifteen I was going to do, I said, "Fuck it, if I get it, fine; if I don’t get it, whatever — I’m not that worried about it. I’m just going to do the fifteen that I enjoy doing the most."
Overthinking it got me nothing before. I think for a lot of people, carefully constructing a set is a good idea, but for me, it just didn’t. I put it together by saying, "This is what I’m going to do, because this is what I enjoy doing the most. I won’t be worried about introducing myself to the crowd or having some amazing closer. I’m going to do this anti-closer closer and talk about my fucking mustache — whatever it is that brings me the most joy on stage."
Do you feel that because there are options outside of the traditional HBO or Comedy Central Special, people feel like they have a bit more freedom to figure out their brand of comedy?
I like to think so. I had a really good experience with Netflix, and I’m sure there are probably comedians that didn’t, so I don’t want to speak in absolutes. But what it seems to me that is happening — and this is just one person’s opinion — is that because Netflix has so much real estate, they’re able to take chances on comedians that maybe have a weirder voice. They tried to do that Characters thing, which is maybe not some smash hit, but that’s up there. A bunch of people got to learn who Kate Berlant is from that.
I think Netflix facilitates a standup middle class that is really good and important and healthy for comedy. I think people are going to get chances in the form of fifteen, half-hour, or whatever it is, a chance to put something out there that people can see all the time and are going to stumble upon.
Maybe people saw my fifteen and then followed me on Twitter, and from that found my podcast; then they become a big fan that comes to see me when I go to their city. [It allows me] to sort of put together a comedy career in a way that is unlike someone who has a big hour-long special on HBO with bus ads and a billboard in Times Square. I can go tour in different cities, make a little money from my podcast, and talk about the stuff that I want to talk about. I think that’s healthy for comedy.
What fucking kills me is all these people on Twitter — comedians on Twitter — making fun of how many specials Netflix puts out. I’m like, "This is for all of us. We should never critique this!" [Laughs.]
Maybe you didn’t get it this year, but maybe next year you will, and then it’s going to be up there. People are going to be able to find you in a way that... No hate on Comedy Central — they’re so important to comedy in general — but people don’t use their app the way people use Netflix. Then they bury their half-hour specials and run them at like 12:30 a.m. on a Friday night.
People might not see it, especially the ones that like comedy. They might be at a club at that specific hour anyway. Netflix lets people come find you. I think it’s a really good thing for comedy.
You’re a huge basketball fan. Not sure if you know this, but Denver considers Portland to be a basketball rival.
I think real Blazer fans feel that inherently. There’s the Nurkic-Jokic rivalry alone that is worth the price of admission.
Utah might also be a Denver rival, but it doesn’t seem like people in Denver actually want to start any beef with Utah fans. They seem very intense.
Utah fans are very intense; I can give firsthand testament to that. I’ll go after Salt Lake City on Twitter sometimes just because of the era I grew up in — the mid-’90s — with the Karl Malone-John Stockton teams I hated, because often they’d knock the Trail Blazers out of the playoffs. I just hated them, so I sports-hate — not real hate, sports-hate — the Utah Jazz, and I’ll go after them on Twitter and their fans come back. Hard. They’ll come back with personal attacks and shit like that.
I’ll be making fun of Deron Williams or whatever, and they’ll come back with “Your mother never loved you.” Shit like that.
Do you think there’s a television or music comparison to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the Blazers? A middling playoff team that has potential to be occasionally great?
A high ceiling. Yeah. This is a good question. I don’t know exactly who the comparison is.
What about The Rock and Kevin Hart in a movie? The movie might not be good, but they will be.
That’s fantastic. Or like when Jason Statham shows up in a movie, you say, “Now wait. This could be fucking amazing." And then the movie completely eats its own ass, and then you’re upset that you spent two hours of your time watching it.
Kevin Hart and The Rock — that’s a great comparison. Except both of those people have better senses of humor about themselves than Dame. I love Damian Lillard, but, oh, he’s so serious. It’s very silly to me.
All of The Rock’s characters have an unexpected “in” with the audience too. His movies are very fun when people just embrace it.
You know what’s weird about The Rock, and this is a thing I’ve talked about before, but he’s become the world’s biggest movie star, at least highest paid, without ever really being in a great movie of his own. He joined the Fast & Furious franchise, which is kind of becoming his, but you’d say Paul Walker and Vin Diesel launched that, and he came along after and put his own touch on it. But what is the definitive Rock movie? He’s never had his Terminator 2, the way Arnold did. It’s interesting. He’s this massive movie star that has never been in a really good movie.
His movies usually range from fine to pretty good, but he hasn’t had the one great movie.
There’s not one of them! He’s good in all of them – he’s the same effervescent, charming guy, but there hasn’t been one that makes you say, "Oh, okay, here is the good Rock movie." People are so hungry for it.
There was a girl I matched with on Tinder that I’m pretty sure stopped talking to me because she liked The Rock a lot more than me. And I love The Rock, but I shared this theory with her, and she was like, "No, Jumanji is a really, really good movie." I’m sure it’s fine. I’m sure it’s a very fun movie. It’s not a really good movie [laughs]. It’s not some classic action movie.
The Rock is so interesting to me, and maybe in that way he is like Damian Lillard: He’s always entertaining. He’s always very fun. If you just let yourself enjoy it, then you’re going to enjoy it — but he’s never going to get you a championship.
That’s a nice perspective to have on the Trail Blazers. Let’s end on your podcast, All Fantasy Everything, which is delightfully strange. Sometimes the episodes reach well over two hours. How do you have time to fully commit to a podcast with all the other stuff that you’re doing?
It can be really hard. Recently I’ve been promoted to head writer of The Late Late Show, which has been amazing, and I’m really loving the opportunity to do it. But suddenly at work, I used to leave at like 5:30 p.m. and now I’m there till 8 p.m., sometimes 9 p.m., every day. It’s hard: You sort of have to give a weekend day, or structure your life so that you can leave early to go record an episode.
First off, there are the tangible benefits, which should be acknowledged: I can’t go on the road as much because of the writing job, but this way I can still build a fan base and keep those fans through doing All Fantasy Everything, and then fans come out specifically to see me [while touring], which is nice.
But other than the tangible benefits, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. We get these messages from people who listen to the podcast, and they’ll send us these messages like, "Hey, I’ve been going through a really tough time." People have said "My dad passed away" or "I had cancer" or "I have cancer, and listening to you guys just bullshit for two hours is two hours that I don’t have to think about this shitty thing I’m going through. "
You know, I honestly never thought I would ever have that kind of impact on anyone, and I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating sort of way. I became a standup comedian, I make people laugh, but to have people reach out like that is amazing. It’s the best part of the podcast when we get those types of messages.
Even if it’s just with a handful of people, when you can have that sort of impact, that connection with people, it’s powerful. Today I may have preferred getting stoned and going to the beach or something, or tried to rest up for the week of work ahead, but instead I went to the studio and part of it is because, you know, there are people out there riding for you, so you want to ride for them as best as you can.
The other part of it is that we’re not down in coal mines or anything. We’re sitting in a studio drinking La Croix and making each other laugh. The podcast is like if you recorded a snippet of conversation between Sean, David and I and a fourth friend. Whether we’re doing it in my living room or in a studio is negligible.
There are worse ways to be in someone’s life while they are driving to work.
Exactly. It just comes down to we love doing it, and we love that people fuck with us. People give us way too much credit for being good, positive, male figures who aren’t negative and talk shit about women or gay people, which I guess is more rare in comedy than you’d think it was, for three straight dudes to have a podcast like that.
But hearing people talk about that is cool, too. It’s a personal mission of mine to reclaim the word "bro," because I am a fucking bro, and it’s become such a negative thing in the world. Some bros are the biggest threat to democracy that we have, but I think Sean, David and I are bros, and we want to show that there are positive bros in the world, and if you are a bro, you don’t have to go to the bro dark side. There’s another way to be a bro, and we will show you that way.
That’s about as compelling an argument as there is for being pro-bro in some form.
I think the flip side of that coin of us getting too much credit is the fact that we can — this is overanalyzing my podcast way too much, but the fact that we can provide passively, because sometimes we’ll talk about body positivity and other stuff like that — but just to passively show that you can be a fairly good dude, you don’t have to feel bad about yourself, and that being "soft" can be a good thing.
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There has been a lot of — and I have been this person before — especially dudes and white dudes and straight white dudes, who feel lost and isolated and feel like the fact that other groups are finally getting attention for these systematic issues that have been plaguing America since it became an idea... because these groups are finally getting attention, and these white dudes facing specific issues rather than systematic issues aren’t getting the attention, they feel aggrieved and the system is somehow fucking them over.
I think there’s a lot of those people feeling vulnerable and can be pushed to join groups like the fucking alt-right or Proud Boys, and if we can show them that you can be a positive person, that there’s another way to do it — if we can get that message across to five dudes a year, that’s enough for me to want to get out of bed on a Sunday to do a podcast.
Normalizing male sensitivity is another thing we do that I’m really proud of. It’s also a funny show!