It seems like only yesterday Ian Karmel was cracking wise at the Boiler Room open mic on his way to winning the inaugural Portland’s Funniest Person competition and winning over the hearts and minds of millions of readers through his Mercury column Everything As Fuck (AKA the launchpad for his successful comedy career).
We’ve since watched our baby bird soar away to Los Angeles, where he was hired as a writer for Chelsea Lately, made multiple appearances on Conan, and is now a staff writer at the home of Carpool Karaoke, The Late Late Show With James Corden. Along the way, Karmel’s picked up an Emmy nomination for his working writing for the 2017 Tony Awards and somehow found time to start a podcast with fellow Portland expats Sean Jordan and David Gborie.
But our beloved Ian hasn’t completely forgotten us. He still finds his way back to our shores occasionally to sing a new song to our comedy-starved hearts. Today, he makes another triumphant return to town with a headlining show at Revolution Hall he’s billing as “30 Minutes About Trump, and Then 30 Minutes To Make You Forget About Trump.” All we know is that’s an hour that we can spend basking in the warm glow of his rising star. Sigh.
Well before he winged his way back to his hometown, Ian was kind enough to jump on the phone to talk about his work on The Late Late Show, his podcast, and whether or not the moron in the Oval Office equals comedy boomtime. Our edited and condensed conversation is below.
Your past couple of years working with James Corden have been crazy between the Emmy nominations and moments like Tom Cruise pouring liquor into your mouth on a boat riding on the Thames. What has this experience been like for you?
This is a morbid analogy, but you know if you throw a frog in boiling water, they’ll jump out immediately, but if you put them in normal water and slowly boil it, they have no idea what’s going on. It’s a little bit like that. When I started over there, it was me and two other writers in a little trailer and James hadn’t even moved over yet. Now, we were just in New York shooting the sketch I came up with called “Crosswalk: The Musical” where we do a musical in a crosswalk. Corden was so famous that we couldn’t even go to a bar in New York. So to watch his rise has been pretty crazy.
To be a part of the show, coming up, it’s the kind of thing where every couple of months, I step back and look at it, like with the Emmy nominations came in. Or there’ll be certain days when Mel Brooks comes on the show, or Eddie Izzard who’s a personal hero of mine. I’ll step back and go, “Oh, holy shit, we’re actually doing a thing.” Because the rest of the time it just feels like a job, and you’re pissed that you have to go in an hour early so that Julia Roberts can come in. It’s a weird thing and I always feel when I go back and try to talk to family about it, they have all these questions. I get it because it’s Hollywood, but you’re, like, “God, can we just talk about the Blazers or anything else? I don’t want to talk about work.”
Of all the stuff you’ve written for the show, what are you proudest of?
I really do love the “Crosswalk: The Musical” thing because it’s a really silly idea and I take a personal pride in the fact that I was a high school jock who came up with this idea based around doing a musical. Which was also fun when I was writing on the Tony Awards. We did a sketch with Matt Damon where James played Matt Damon’s stunt double that I wrote, that I’m really, really proud of. We did this sketch with John Krasinski, where it was James and John in really iconic movie moments from the past. Also, it’s a little thing but any time I can write a monologue joke that kills, I really enjoy that. I still do a ton of stand-up, but this career choice has been a divergence from what I thought I was going to be doing at this point in my career. Out doing stand-up clubs every weekend and building my career up that way. To write a good monologue joke and have James go out and tell it and have it kill is in a way like doing stand-up by proxy.
Has your association with The Late Late Show kicked open any doors for you? Are you getting recognized on the street because you’re a part of the show?
Within the industry, a little bit. I guess the biggest door that it’s opened is other writing opportunities that have popped up because of it. A couple which I can’t really talk about. I’ve done the Tonys and the Grammys last year. And we’re gonna do the Grammys this next year. The Tonys was wild because I didn’t fly out to New York for it. I stayed here and worked remotely. James and one other writer went out there. We thought it was going to be fairly low-key because we did most of the writing beforehand. And then it was the day of the shooting in Orlando.
One of the weirdest things about writing for The Late, Late Show is that every time there’s a national tragedy like that, James has to go to talk about it on-air. The number of those that we’ve had to do is startling. When it happens you don’t want to think about it too much. You send a couple of tweets and then you dwell on it for a minute and try to move on so you can live your life. But when you have to write an appeal for sanity every month, it really drives home every month how often that happens. And how you can’t be funny about it. It has to be serious and go to commercial with our equivalent of the sad SportsCenter music. Writing on the Tonys when Orlando happened was wild to have to come up with James was going to say. After you’ve been writing jokes about Hamilton and jokes about Broadway. Weirdly, I was part of the staff but there’s really not that much to write. We all barely wrote anything and then we got nominated for Emmys for it. It was crazy. I probably spent a total of 12 hours writing on that. I got to go to the Emmys because of it.
In the description for your upcoming stand-up show, you mention that it’s half about Trump and half about other stuff. One of the things that folks love to say is that because Trump is in the White House, it must be so great for comedians since they have so much to work with and comment on. How do you feel about that line of thought?
Even on The Late Late Show, I think it’s surprisingly political. Our monologues every night are about Trump and what’s going on in DC It makes it easier in a way. It also makes it constricting. Every day, there’s five ridiculous things that you can write about that have come out about DC There’s a tweet or Trump said this or Trump got into a fight with Lavar Ball or whatever it is. At the same time, you realize you’ve written the same Donald Trump joke almost Mad Libs style with different specifics every day for the past year now. That becomes constricting. People wanna hear it and people want to have their experience examined by a comedian so it become easier for them to deal with. It’s suffocating in a way... But if you do no Trump stuff, it feels like there’s a vacuum. “Oh, I thought you were going to talk about this big story that everyone is talking about.” It was kind of that experience in the writers’ room that informed my decision to do this stand-up show. The format where the first half of it is going to be about Donald Trump and politics and real shit and the second half is going to be silly, absurd, observational stuff.
How has it been for you putting this material together?
The writing of it hasn’t been as hard as I thought it was going to be. The writing’s been a really fulfilling experience. It’s fun to piece these things together and try to tell a story. The performing of it has been hard because I’ve been in LA and at most I can get 15 minutes. So you’ll end a bit and in your head, you’ll think, “And then I’ll say this and it will connect to this bit, hopefully seamlessly.” I have gotten to run it a few times but I wrote some stuff for the show today. So I think it’s going to be an evolving thing right up until the 22nd when I go onstage.
I wanted to make sure and ask about your podcast All Fantasy Everything, which has been pretty damn successful out of the gate. What’s your elevator pitch for the show?
The vibe of it is a flimsy excuse for three friends and usually a stranger to hang out and bullshit. The detailed part of it is that we fantasy draft non-sports things and use that as an excuse to have a conversation. If people wanted a way in, I think the good episodes would be the Taco Bell one or the high school or the words that make you sound smart. If you want to get an idea of what the podcast is, those are the good gateway episodes.
The podcast has been amazing, though. I’ve been trying to do it for a couple of years and then I finally got to do it. We started it in the era when comedians were very eyeroll-y about podcasts. “Oh, everybody’s got a podcast now.” Which is fair. Everyone does have a podcast. I went into it in a world where people were cynical about starting a new podcast. But it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. One, because being stuck in the writers’ room and not being able to go on the road as much, it lets me stay in touch with people who liked my comedy who live in Atlanta or New York where I don’t get to go as often. That’s been cool. But the biggest thing has been people feel so isolated right now. We’re all connected via technology but it’s a very hollow connection for a lot of people. So the fact that we just sit around, three or four friends and bullshit for two hours once a week, even though the people who are listening aren’t an active part of the conversation, I think it means a lot to sit around and hear friends talk.
With 2018 right around the corner, what do you have planned for the new year?
I took a show out with Comedy Central. We made a pilot last year. It was a sports/comedy show and it didn’t end up going forward. But that was my 2017. I made it in February and then they decided they didn’t want to buy it in September, ultimately. So this year is going to be about trying again. I have some TV show ideas and some ones I really like. Where I’m at right now is kind of a tricky place to be because writing for a TV show is like velvet handcuffs. I love everyone I work with. Corden is great and our producers are great. They pay you really well. I have health insurance. I can buy my nieces and nephews good Christmas presents. The level of stand-up comedian I would have to be to make this good of a living...I would have to be a much bigger stand-up comedian….
With this hour, I’m hoping it’s something I can take on the road more. Portland is going to be the debut. It’s something I hope I can take on the road a little bit, doing one-nighters. It’s been fun and it’s been a great experience writing for TV but it’s not my dream. It’s adjacent to my dream. So I would love in the next year to figure it out.