Comedy Chose Ian Karmel

The stand-up comic and co-head writer for CBS’ “The Late Late Show” chats about work-life balance and how cannabis is the vacuum seal between the two.
Comedy Chose Ian Karmel
Courtesy of R&CPMK

Ian Karmel has his hands full. Between stand-up, writing for “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” running his podcast “All Fantasy Everything,” and starring in the sports-based comedy game show “Game On” on CBS, it’s a wonder he has time for anything else.

When we connect by phone, Ian’s in good spirits, but mindful of the strange duality of the current global health crisis. “We have no choice but to accept the “suck” of this era, of being in a pandemic and being stuck inside. But if we’re going to take the bad, we might as well take the good, which maybe means more time to be reflective and introspective,” he says. He goes on to discuss the silver linings that can be found in isolation, the importance of a healthy work-life balance, and how cannabis can be a vehicle that helps maintain the homeostasis.

The good and the bad are all one, in some ways. We’re certainly living in interesting times.

Ian Karmel: That’s the old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I do miss listening to Blink-182 loudly as I drive to work to give seventy-five-percent for ten hours. But, listen if [quarantine] is the great struggle of our generation, we got off easier than some other generations.

What’s the remaining twenty-five-percent?

Ian Karmel: My day job is writing on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” and I really enjoy it. I really love it. But if you’re the kind of person who gets into writing or comedy at all, you’re definitely a fairly curious person. So I’ll find myself reading articles, looking at Twitter, or learning about other stuff. I have to remind myself, “You’re supposed to be writing a sketch right now,” and I jump back to it. I definitely have curiosity issues.

I feel like that’s actually fantastic for your work because you might be reading something that informs your sketches.

Ian Karmel: Absolutely. One of my favorite bits I’ve come up with for the show is “Crosswalk The Musical,” where we put on a musical in an active crosswalk for thirty-five seconds. I’d been reading an article about the Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway when I decided to go for a walk around our studio. I happened upon a crosswalk at Fairfax Avenue and thought, “We should have ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ on Fairfax Avenue.” We still haven’t done it, but that was the inspiration for “Crosswalk The Musical.”

You can’t be “output” all of the time. There has to be “input” time or else you just start copying yourself. But there are times where it’s four-thirty and we’re taping at five and you don’t get to be the kid laying in the grass staring at the clouds. You have to buckle down and write something. But I strongly believe you need the balance.

Does your day-to-day on the show fluctuate between the extremes of “input time” and “crunch time”?

Ian Karmel: It’s both, especially since I’m co-head writer now. Everything’s gotten more intense. The thing about working on a daily show like this is you have projects that are all happening simultaneously, all on different arcs. Like, we’ll get an email saying, “Will Ferrell’s going to be on the show in three weeks, let’s think of ideas for Will so we can get them in front of the host.” I’m really lucky because James is a really hands on host who likes to be involved in those ideas and is so fun to riff with. We get an idea in front of him and if he likes it, we send it to Will Ferrell, and if he likes it, then we’re off to the races. We’ll go through four or five different versions of the script, and get the props people, the costume people and production involved. That arc is one thing, and it’s like a three week process.

But while that arc is happening, you’ll also have scenarios where it’s 1pm and Trump’s just said some shit, and now you’re scrambling like, “We can’t not talk about this” because it’s the biggest story in the news, and if we don’t talk about it that night we’re going to seem out of step with the country. All of a sudden, it’s like skiing down an avalanche. You’re just trying to stay above it, getting as much done as possible. No matter what, we have to start taping at 5pm. If we don’t, we’re not going to get the show out in time to the east coast.

When you’re writing on a scripted show, you have a lot of time to think. Sometimes, you can think yourself out of a good idea. With us it’s like, “Yo, this has to be done at fucking five or it’s not going to be in the show.” If we didn’t have such a talented group of writers, producers and crew, it would be impossible.

Speaking of possibilities, growing up in Oregon, did you ever envision yourself being a comedian and writing for late night television?

Ian Karmel: Never. When I was a kid, I told people I wanted to be a lawyer because I knew it sounded impressive for a child to say. I knew it would get a reaction out of people. Turns out, all I really wanted was a reaction out of people. I know this sounds weird, but it didn’t even occur to me that [a comedy career] was something you could do. I was aware that there were people who were stand-up comedians, I just couldn’t fathom the process to get there. As a kid, I didn’t know about open mics or anything like that, but I would listen to so much stand-up comedy. For some reason, I couldn’t fall asleep unless I was listening to people talking. I would listen to a lot of sports radio, and once Napster came along—I’m sorry to all my heroes—I downloaded every comedy special I could get my hands on.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took an improv class because my uncle taught the class. I was a Political Science major and needed arts credits to graduate. [Improv] clicked like nothing in my life ever had. It was like a gift I hope everyone gets to experience at some point in their lives, whether it’s a romantic partner or something else. I swear to God, within ten minutes of being in that class and making people laugh, I was like, “Oh, it’s this.” Although I was always a happy person up until then, I’d never felt I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Once I took the class, I was so sure, so quickly. The clarity of that moment is something that I’m very grateful for.

Did taking the improv class plant the seed for you to pursue comedy full time?

Ian Karmel: No, I didn’t even start stand-up then. There were some kids from the improv class who had an improv group. They invited me to join and again, things clicked. I’m not saying this in any sort of self-aggrandizing way, but I really loved performing and was really good at it, too. I was like the “Portland College improv Lebron James.” It was crazy. I always had a head for weird facts and stuff, but I don’t know if I’d actually describe myself as “smart” the way actual smart people are described. I can’t do math to save my life and I was never good at science or anything like that, but I was able to think quickly and make connections. [Improv] suited me so well that I kind of took off from there.

My uncle told me about The Groundlings in Los Angeles and was like, “Will Ferrell came out of there. Phil Hartman came out of there. That’s where you should go if you really want to be serious about this.” So, I dropped out of college and moved down to Los Angeles. I used my Bar Mitzvah money to pay for two Groundlings classes until I found a job working at P.F. Chang’s. I really loved the first two levels, but there was a year wait to get into level three. I still wasn’t doing stand-up yet, so I didn’t know what I was going to do in LA with a year on my hands. I couldn’t start my own improv show because nobody gave a fuck who I was and nobody would come to it. I ended up moving back to Portland to finish my degree and started doing improv up there again.

We started to get a little following at my shows and somebody had either heard or assumed I did stand-up and invited me to perform on one of their stand-up shows. I agreed to do it—having never performed stand-up before—and wrote up an act. I had no idea how much a written page translated in front of a microphone, so the first stand-up set I ever did was like forty-minutes. Some of it was good, some of it was very bad, but once I got into stand-up, it was another moment of clarity where I was like “this is what I want to do.”

When I started doing stand-up, I caught on quick. Within my first six months of doing it, I won the Portland Amateur Comedy Contest. Then the Helium Comedy Club came to town and I won the first year of their comedy contest. You don’t need to win comedy contests, but you do need little milestones along the way that tell you “Hey, you’re doing good, keep going,” because [stand-up] is such a vulnerable thing to do. Once you get those little signs, it becomes less scary.

Part of it is repetitions. When you first start doing stand-up and you’ve done ten sets and you’ve bombed at three of them, you’ve bombed at thirty-percent of your sets. That fucking sucks and you feel bad. But once you’ve done one-thousand sets and you bomb, you can be like, “Okay, I bombed, but I’ve done eight-hundred other good sets. I’m alright.” Maybe you were off or the crowd was off, but you’re doing okay.

How did continuing on with stand-up eventually lead you to “The Late Late Show?”

Ian Karmel: It involved some ego death. When you’re an individual performer, you live and die by the laughs and how you deliver. It’s all on you. You take the lumps, but you also get one-hundred-percent of the reward. I love writing for James Corden, but there was definitely a feeling early on when you’re watching someone else go up there that they’re getting your laughs. I had to learn how to enjoy writing for someone else without being the person who gets that endorphin rush of having people laugh at me. Now, it’s pretty fucking cool to think of an idea and know right away that it will be in James’ wheelhouse.

It’s definitely been a detour that I never expected my career to take. Once I started to catch a little bit of heat in independent stand-up circles, I always assumed I would be the person in front of the camera, which I’ve gotten to do a little bit more of with “Game On” and my podcast. One of my favorite things about being in comedy is also the scariest thing about it, which is you never know where you’re going to be in six months. That’s true of life in general, and with [my writing job] it’s also been true. You might be working on a monologue one day, and in six months you might find yourself at a decommissioned military base outside of Los Angeles with Tom Cruise and James Corden, ready to go skydiving. It’s been such a crazy adventure and I’m so grateful for it. I know whenever this part of my life is over, I’m going to look back on it fondly. 

Word is you’re also a cannabis enthusiast. What role does weed play in your life?

Ian Karmel: Some people only do stand-up stoned and only write stoned. There are people who are better when they’re stoned, and lord I wish I was one of those people because I do enjoy being stoned. I’ve never been stoned at work and it makes me a little bit slower on stage, however, I’ll generate ideas completely sober and then I like to – if I can – go back and read them stoned. If I can get to a point where I’m making my brain think differently and be in a different state of mind, it’s very valuable to me.

I didn’t start smoking weed until I was twenty-five, but still my favorite thing to do while high is to sit in a room with other people and start talking and joking. Someone will say something funny, you’ll start riffing on it like you would in a normal conversation, and then I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait – I’ve got to text that to myself.” So many of my stand-up jokes have been born that way. I have this joke that I ended up doing on Comedy Central’s “Meltdown” about how Shaquille O’Neal—if basketball never existed—would just be a guy too big for this world. I could have come up with that sober, maybe, but I didn’t. I don’t like to rely on cannabis completely for creativity, but I love to have it be part of the process.

Other times, weed acts like a barrier for me. I’ll keep thinking about work even when I get home, up until I have a gummy or hang out on my porch and smoke a joint. [Weed] becomes the vacuum seal between my working life and my relaxing life. It’s been so valuable for that. If you don’t figure out a way to turn off your brain, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to solve the show every single night.

It just consumes you.

Ian Karmel: I’ve seen it happen. People burn out all the time. Your brain will overheat and crack if you don’t give yourself time to spend not trying to further a goal or thinking of ways to make other people and yourself money. You have to accept the capitalist reality, and try and be as funny and original as you can within that structure. But if you only spend your time thinking about the “pay-the-bills part of it,” you lose sight of the fun part and then you wash out. I’m a big believer in giving your brain a break. It doesn’t always have to be through smoking weed, but for me, I just happen to really enjoy it.

Follow @iankarmel and check out http://www.iankarmel.com/ for tickets and tour dates.

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