Jay Chandrasekhar Talks Writing Super Troopers, Starting Up In Standup Comedy


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In this week's print edition we interviewed Jay Chandrasekhar: Director, writer and editor with the Broken Lizard comedy troupe (responsible for suck films as Super Troopers and Beerfest) and standup comic. Chandrasekhar had more to say than could fit in the paper; here is what wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Chandrasekhar will be making an appearance at Vintage Vinyl this Saturday in honor of Record Store Day and will be performing that night, April 20 at the Firebird, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15.

[On the writing process for Super Troopers.]

Kelsey McClure: So when you write these characters, do you write them with the idea already in your head of how you want to play them, and then embellish it?

Jay Chandrasekhar: We write about twenty drafts of the script before we shoot it so really, for the first ten drafts we are trying to create a story that is unpredictable and funny and dynamic and grounded in whatever world we are setting it in. Then the next ten drafts are sort of more "character" kind of things. where you are like, "Kkay you're kind of the blonde, you're the screw-up guy, you're the guy who doesn't really want to be the cop, you're the guy who's the rookie," and you kind of go through it and sort of separate it.

Because initially everyone sounds sort of the same, and then you separate it and the next ten drafts are more about making characters different. So you can go "Oh I like that guy, or that guy." And people have different favorites in every movie, and that's kind of the way the work happens later. And once you put that uniform on and grow that mustache and get a crewcut, you can lean into it in your own way and make it yours. Inevitably that's what you do as an actor. You can be like "My guy is really -- would probably do this here." And then if the director agrees with you -- in this case me -- you just do that.

Again, that's the opposite of the way I envisioned it. I have always watched movies and thought of the story coming out of the characters rather than as you just described it as having the story first and then creating characters to drive it.

I think sometimes you will see a movie right and you'll think, "God, that was a great performance." And the movie wasn't right and you'll say there a couple of reasons why: The story was predictable or wasn't logical and maybe the tone was uneven -- like some scenes were super serious, and some were super light, and some scenes were medium, and it felt like multiple movies. The director has to go, "This joke is hilarious, but it's not in this movie because it's too broad." "This joke is hilarious but it's too small." "This is the bandwidth; all the jokes have to fit in there." Great directors fit all of the stuff into that bandwidth and they cut the rest. Some people will go, "Oh! If it's funny, too bad, it's going in the movie!" And there are those kinds of movies too, that people also like, but I mean when I watch a movie and there's a joke that I don't think fits in the movie, I'm like "Eh, okay, didn't love that part." And if you have enough of those "I didn't love that part"s then you're like, "Eh, that was a good performance."


[On performing his first standup gig.]

So your first time on stage you were already thinking about it in terms of a career?

I figured if I couldn't do it, if I couldn't make a room of strangers laugh, then what success could I ever have? This is an insanely stupid career to go into for me. An Indian kid from Chicago....What? How does that work? How is that going to work without any connections in show business? So, I knew it was up to me to either make it or not make it, and so I tried it. That first day I got laughs. It wasn't a perfect set; I did ten minutes of material and I said it so fast that I got it done in about five, but there were laughs in between. And I said, "Oh, okay."

So I tried it again and it was better. And I tried it again and it was about as good and I was like, I'm going to try this. I'm going to do this. And so I went back to school and I did a little bit of standup at school and a little bit, like I got into some hotels somewhere, and then I went back to Chicago my junior year. I took half my junior year off and I went back to Chicago and studied with like this sort of comedy group type thing, improv sort of thing. Then I went back to Colgate and started Broken Lizard at age 21 or so, and then we moved to New York City and performed there for about ten years and did a couple...you know, performed on stage, did some movies and then moved to LA.

So is your comedy now similar to what it was in the beginning, or did it develop from something else?

It was certainly more bizzare in the older days, because you're spending a lot of time with your friends, and you're smoking a lot, and you're drinking a lot. And you're out all the time, so you get these tiny little side jokes that nobody in the world would really understand, but you just do it anyway and you find a way to make it funny. I think that we were very strange when we first started. Like for example, we did a twelve-minute sketch that included video about a monster that lived up in the Great Northwest, and the monster was "Big Fat" and it was a plate of fat that would come for you and take you into the woods. It was the exact Big Foot story, but with Big Fat. So how did we get to that?

You don't know?

But we did it. And it got laughs and people were like "Uhhh, that's weird." The truth is, you can't really make a feature film about "Big Fat" in the business this day and age and have people go to it. It's either the concepts for movies are so much more critical and clean, like they're cops, they're bored -- okay, get it? You want to go? The really complex concepts -- unless you are Chris Nolan, and that one luckily worked for him -- they tend not to fly. Where you're like "Okay! We're on this planet and you're invisible but you people..." Okay, that's just not what's going on right now. So yeah, our sense of humor, we're still very bizarre people and we make very weird and strange jokes amongst ourselves, but we don't always show those jokes.

I think now audiences have taken a step back and want more simple comedy. Stuff they don't really -- and not that it's not "smart" comedy, because a lot of times the easiest and most simple jokes come out of very intelligent thoughts -- but people want to be able to have a drink and laugh. They don't want to have to focus too much on anything.

Yeah. I think that works really well on a standup stage. I think that works really well on a sketch show and I think it could probably work really well in these great little -- Rob Corddry has a show called Childrens Hospital. Have you ever seen that?

I've not seen it, no.

It's funny, and it's eleven minutes long. There's just no time to set up the classic "This person has a problem and she's romance," and there's no time for it so you end up creating a different kind of structure, and it's very funny. It's very random and very weird. Adult Swim is creating these sort of eleven-minute episodes that are, I think, feeding what you are talking about. The problem is, to the outsider there are multiple layers of show business. There's big-time feature film, there's independent feature film, there's television, then there's these eleven-minute television bits. And there's standup on stage, there's sketch on TV... there's so many different ways to do it in general, and you can't ultimately do them all because you don't have time to focus on it all.

I think too though, speaking from the point of view of a standup, not only does someone have to be funny, but they have to understand the point of view of the audience. And like you described, if you tried to do all of those things, you would be breaching into a category of "too much" rather than staying focused on one particular thing.

The beauty of standup is it can work on a million different levels. You can go up there and tell an honest story that's funny that happened to you where people are like, "Oh my God I can't believe that happened to you! And I can't believe you're telling this." Then you can also just introduce a premise and then take it to a very weird place. You can do imitations. The standup stage is so pure -- it's such a pure form of show business that I think you can...I tend to like getting a lot weirder on a standup stage than I probably typically do on a film. Probably. I mean there are rules to film that you have to...you know, a movie has to abide by the rules.

With standup, people are going to shows particularly to see either you or to see standup comedy, and they are a directed audience. Whereas with a film, you don't know whose hands it's going to wind up in. So with standup, you have room to breathe. Like, my policy is, "No weird, no fun." And it's nice to hear someone say it's okay to make people uncomfortable and see how far you can take that.

I think that Zach Galifianakis does a lot of great stuff in that world. I'm guessing you like him a lot?

Yep. Big time.

He's willing to stand up and just be really strange and let it get weird. Sometimes the audience will laugh because it's funny or just because they're uncomfortable, but he's confident, and it's an interesting medium.

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