Jay Chandrasekhar has a work ethic that borders on multiple personality disorder. Alongside the rest of his Broken Lizard comedy toupe, the multitasker wrote, directed and starred in Super Troopers, the 2001 micro-budget comedy about bored cops that wound up a cult classic, kick-starting the film-industry careers of its major players. Since then, Chandrasekhar has been busy touring the country performing standup, as well as writing and directing movies such as Beerfest and The Dukes of Hazzard.
On Saturday, April 20, Chandrasekhar will perform at the Firebird, delivering the humor you may be familiar with from his movies then elevating it to the next level of strange. He will also be appearing at Vintage Vinyl that afternoon, in honor of Record Store Day. We talked to the multi-talented Chandrasekhar about his journey to become a standup comic and the benefits of making Super Troopers.
Kelsey McClure: Producer, director, standup comic, writer — is there one that you prefer to be called? Or perhaps "man of many talents"?
Jay Chandrasekhar: You know. I'll tell you, I am a bit of a chameleon in the sense that my true love in all of this — and this sounds like a total lie — but it's the editing part of it. I came up as an editor. I was an actor first, and then I sort of directed our [Broken Lizard's] own short comedy film, and then I had to learn how to edit that. And once I did that I said, "Oh, this is really my favorite part." The truth is, I started doing all of these jobs because we really couldn't afford to pay other people to do them.
So is it typical now, as the projects get bigger, that you still encompass all of that by yourself?
It's not, really, because if you end up making something with someone who has made a couple of things before, you kind of know what you are getting, you know? If you work with Quentin Tarantino, you know he is going to write it, you know he is going to shoot some of it on his own, and he's going to direct it. And he might even be in it — he'll probably be in it.
So you kind of know that, and the truth is, the difference between big movies and small movies is a big movie is a lot easier, because you have so many people and dollars that are devoted toward making your experience go smoothly. The more smoothly it goes for the director, the faster you get done. And on a small movie you have much less time, and there's a lot more pressure on you to figure out what shots you need and move on. Frankly, shooting The Dukes of Hazzard, which cost about $55 million, was a lot easier than shooting Super Troopers, which cost $1.2 million.
But I look at a movie like Super Troopers, and it comes across as being one of those movies that was just like — it must have been so much fun to be on set, every day. But now that you've described it as being harder work, did you still have a lot of fun?
Well, everything gets put in perspective. I'm definitely not digging ditches; I'm making movies with my friends, and it's a blast. We write our own jokes, and then we're in them; we perform them, and we direct them. It's phenomenally fun. Along the way in a movie like that you get to grow a mustache and dress like a cop, and frankly, to be honest with you, when we did that film we really expected to have a lot of trouble with police for the next... the rest of our lives.
We thought police that saw it would hate that movie. You know, we smoke pot in it, we dick around — and it turns out cops love Super Troopers. Now real cops are just like, "What can we do for you? Oh, a speeding ticket? Forget about it." We had a party in New Mexico while we were making Beerfest, and it was a rager, and there was a noise complaint. The cops showed up at the door, and I answered, and he goes, "Oh...oh...OK, uh, yeah...don't worry about it." And then within five minutes, three cars pull up outside, and they all park, and suddenly there are six cops in the party. And we're drinking, and we're taking pictures, and I'm like, "Hide the bong...Jesus."
I'm sure it was certainly a breath of fresh air for cops not to be portrayed like Stabler on Law & Order: SVU, where you don't want to like them, but they're some kind of hero so you have to.
Yeah. The truth about cops is they're kind of like us. They just have mustaches and uniforms.
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?
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, "OK, you're kind of the blond, 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. Later, once you put that uniform on and grow that mustache and get a crew cut, 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 would probably do this here." And then if the director agrees with you — in this case me — you just do that.
To switch gears over to the performance side of things, you're coming to St. Louis to do standup — how long have you been doing standup comedy? Did that come before all the acting, filming and editing?
Yeah. When I was nineteen years old I went up to Chicago and did a set. And I had some luck; I was an actor in high school, I was in some plays, and I tended to get laughs, and so I was like, maybe I'll just go up and see if I can make a random audience laugh. Let's see if this is even a possibility for me as a career. I don't see anybody that looks like me do it but, hey, so what? Maybe I can get in this way. Comedy is sort of a great way for outsiders to get in. Because ultimately if you can make people laugh, it doesn't really matter what you look like, and that's why there are a lot of funky-looking standups. They're funny, and you can't deny that.
The comedy I'm drawn to feels conversational, like you could be sitting down at a table or hanging with a couple of buddies, and they're telling you a story, just having a good time.
You're exactly on it. The reason anyone thinks they can be a comic is because they have been in a bar with their friends, and they tell stories, and people have laughed. And a club is the same thing: You're in a bar, people are drinking and telling jokes — to me, the more conversational the better. The more it seems like you're just up there chatting. When it gets too rehearsed it gets a little, I don't know, a little stink on it.
Because comedy is fun. I can't imagine telling the same joke over and over. I think it'd lose its funny.
It does, to you, but it doesn't to the audience, because it's the first time they've heard it. You know it must be funny because people are laughing, but you've stopped innovating on it. You've just sort of said, "This works, well great. I should move on the next bit." And typically standups will hone an act, get an hour down and run it around the country for between a year and two and a half years and then write a new hour. But then Louis C.K. is writing a new hour every year so people are like, "Jesus. OK. What are we going to do now?"
It is certainly a process.
Yeah. A fun one. When I go up and a joke doesn't work, I still made Super Troopers. I still did that. I don't leave a stage going, "God. I'm just not funny." I don't ever think that; I don't worry about that. I'm just going to go up and say what I think it is funny, and hopefully it will get some laughs.
It must be nice to have Super Troopers as a fallback.
It is. It really is.