Comedy Writer Jensen Karp’s Second Wind of Success

The rapper-turned-comedy-writer talks hip-hop, transforming failure, and getting too weird on weed.
Comedy Writer Jensen Karp’s Second Wind Of Success
Courtesy of Allison Rosen

Coinciding with the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in Los Angeles was the cancellation of the NBA season. It also marked the cancellation of longtime KROQ DJ Kevin Ryder and his radio morning show, “Kevin in the Morning with Allie and Jensen.” Jensen Karp, the former hip-hop-sensation-turned-comedy-writer was now a radio show casualty. 

When Jensen and I catch up by phone, he seems to have processed the initial sting of the firing, and opens up about the circumstances surrounding it, the horrible timing, and the potential silver linings.

For readers who may be unfamiliar with your journey, maybe give a little background to how you got involved in the entertainment business.

Jensen Karp: I gravitated toward hip-hop at a very young age. I was probably five or six when my cousin started playing me hip-hop records and something just clicked. I was obsessed with the words.

My book [Kanye West Owes Me $300] tells it better than I will on the phone, but I started mimicking the words to a rap song at bar mitzvah and the DJ came up to me and asked me if I would rap on the mic. That guy ended up being a party promoter in Los Angeles and asked me to rap at a concert with Ice-T and Tone Loc. From that point on, my career sort of went in and out of hip-hop. I ended up being managed by Ice-T, battled people everyday on the radio, and that turned into a million-dollar record deal with Interscope Records. 

But [the music career] didn’t work out and I had a totally abnormal music industry story that became a book. What was normal was the lesson “you don’t always get what you’re trying for.”

From there, I went to USC for writing. I was also doing stand-up every once in a while, writing jokes for people, and sort engulfed myself in that. I started producing a lot of videos for Funny Or Die, JASH and other smaller Internet companies. Some people saw [those videos], which turned into writers’ rooms. I worked on The Grammys and the ESPYs for five years, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” which turned into my own show “Drop The Mic” on TBS/TNT.

Me embracing my old [rap] life changed my outlook on stuff because I’d hid from it for so long. Rather than say, “This is Jensen the comedy writer,” now it’s my full story. I’m a comedy writer now, but also, I was a rapper at 19-20. It’s a crazy story. Once I started to embrace [my past], the rest of my life started to open up.

My book is probably my favorite thing I’ve been able to do. It’s not just a book, it’s my own therapy and release from something that was considered a failure in my head for so long. Hip-hop’s still in my blood, I still rap for work a lot. There’s two different worlds for me, and somehow, I was lucky enough to find a medium between them.

Was it the perceived failure of the rap portion of your career that made you want to hide it?

Jensen Karp: Failure and hurt. In the book, I talk about my dad getting sick. Him dying—before I really showed how great my second wind would be–was really painful. When you’re twenty-years-old and someone says you no longer have a record deal, it hurts a lot more than when you’re thirty-six looking back. When you’re thirty-six looking back, you’re like, “Oh, right. This is a business.” A lot of the personal feeling gets pulled away. The book does a good job with saying, here’s where I hurt, here’s where I was stupid, here’s where they were stupid, and now I’m okay with it.

Before the book, I was always on the Internet trying to pull down [Hot Karl] music videos from YouTube. My first writers’ room was for “WWE Monday Night RAW,” and when I walked in, they had Googled me and called me “Hot Karl” and stuff. I wanted to throw everyone up against the wall and punch them in the face. I was so mad [my rap career] had followed me. Now, it’s the exact opposite. I’m totally fine talking about it. I’ve also been very lucky that the music has aged well. I think I was ahead of my time. Now, it’s way more acceptable for someone to keep it real if they’re from the suburbs.

By owning your past, you’re probably a much more authentic “you.”

Jensen Karp: One-hundred percent. I think I put my own embarrassment and my own feelings of failure on everyone else. Now, I understand things a bit better. I had a once-ever kind of experience in the music industry, and I was able achieve all these other things because of it. To look at [the rap career] as a failure is not only a disservice to myself, it’s a disservice to my motivation.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have even taken a phone call with an interview that talked about Hot Karl. It’s about accepting who I am and being more comfortable in my own skin.

How did your music industry experience prepare you for the situation with KROQ?

Jensen Karp: [With rap], I really felt sideswiped by what happened. I was a kid and [the record deal going away] came out of nowhere. Now, being forty-years-old and knowing radio is kind of a garbage business, I was always looking for the ax in the front. Experiencing what I experienced at twenty-years-old at Interscope and feeling those feelings really helped to field the rejection or whatever you would call it at forty. The reason I wrote the book was to help people understand that when you hit a dead end, it’s not really a dead end, it’s an opportunity for a U-turn. 

I miss making jokes on the radio and I miss my friends, but at the same time, I know it was just one chapter. Luckily, I already have another gig with The No-Sports Report, which I’m thrilled about. So I never really freaked out about myself. I have other gigs. I have severance. What I freaked out about – and what I still freak out about – is that they fired the entire team. 

They fired a phone opp, they fired a board opp, they fired people who work hourly, people who depend on their benefits during the coronavirus. Kev, Allie [Mac Kay] and I have privileged resources in these times. Some of our staff live with their parents. To put them out during this time was a step above and beyond getting rid of hosts. Everyone can use a phone opp, everyone can use a board opp. It was a massacre that I don’t think was fair for everyone on the team, and on top of that, they’re seeing the reaction from the listeners now. I was shocked to see how much people depended on and loved the show. And to get rid of it at a time when people want stability in their lives and familiar voices…

It sounds like there was a lack of empathy in the way in which everything was handled.

Jensen Karp: Kevin probably speaks to that more than I do. I was only there a year and a half. But yeah. They fired a guy over the phone after a thirty-year career.

And they let him go on the air and talk for five minutes or whatever. I doubt they were very happy with what he said, but I’m in the same boat as him. I’m just as shocked by the result. I’m humbled by it. I’ve never received this many messages of positivity in my life. Thousands of messages have come in between social media and email about [our firing], so I feel like our work [at KROQ] was well-regarded. 

Nielsen Ratings for radio are laughably old school. They don’t include streaming or podcasts. I was shocked to discover more people were listening, more people were passionate, and more people felt hurt by what happened than I would have ever imagined.

In the most bizarre of ways, and not to be inconsiderate to anyone else affected, the situation helped you get to the next thing that was right for you, which may not have happened if the [mass firing] didn’t happen.

Jensen Karp: Absolutely. Like I said, I think I’m the lucky one here. Kevin would consider himself that and so would Allie. All three of us were well-paid, and even though I was only [on the show] for a year-and-a-half, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out Kevin’s a millionaire from his 30 years on the radio on one of the biggest LA shows of all time. I think the problem, again, is not everyone has the opportunity that maybe the three of us have. 

It was a team effort, but I sent an email about getting someone rehired and I’ve been trying to get another one of our employees a job in television. If the employer’s not going to worry about them, I was going to.

You’re doing what you can with what you have, which I think sets a good example for others.

Jensen Karp: My wife [Danielle Fishel] is a working tv director. Disney Channel postponed five tape dates, which is a pretty significant run. And that doesn’t make the news. She had some Comic Con appearances that were cancelled and has lost a ton of other business. Her loss of work isn’t in the news. A lot of people’s loss of work isn’t in the news. I know that (my job loss) got a lot of the attention, especially since it was so early in the pandemic, but I know the whole nation is struggling.

You and your wife have used quarantine to create your own Instagram show. How did that come about?

Jensen Karp: It’s the stupidest explanation. [In the early stages of the pandemic], there were a couple of nights where Danielle and I were having trouble sleeping. One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and told Danielle, “I just had the weirdest dream. We were giving away things from our house in a trivia show.” She was like, “That sounds insane.” And I was like, “I know, but could we do it?” Remember, early on, no one was doing recurring Instagram Live shows. John Mayer was doing one, but he had been doing it long before quarantine. So, [the idea] came from a dream. Danielle was like, “It’s such a funny idea that we have to do it.” And she’s been the one to say, “We have to keep doing this.” 

We always saw giving away stuff from our home as a fun, nice gesture. We didn’t know [the show] was helping people. I told Danielle the other night I was feeling sad—not for myself, but other people’s predicaments—and didn’t know if I could do [the show]. She was like, “We’re not doing it for us. It’s fun for us, but at this point, we would have stopped if people weren’t having a good time.” If doing this dumb thing three times a week is actually making people happy, I feel like that’s worth it.

You’re also shooting “The No-Sports Report.” How did that opportunity come about?

Jensen Karp: Basically, the [day after the firing] I had gotten a couple of calls from people asking me what I planned on doing in the future. They were sort of interested in being in business with me, which was great because not everyone has that luxury. I was stoked. Out of all the offers, the one that spoke to me the most was “The No-Sports Report” podcast because I’m a big sports guy. On KROQ, I wasn’t necessarily able to speak about [sports] too much, and when I did, it was very localized.

I’d been thinking, “What are the athletes doing [during the pandemic]?” Like, Lebron James has played basketball competitively probably since he was six. This is the first time that he’s gone a certain amount of time without playing a sport since that age. That is a crazy thing to wrap my brain around. These athletes are facing something they never thought they’d face and it’s something probably no one [in our time] will ever face again. I wanted to get on the phone with these people and ask, “How did you go from doing this activity to trying to find somewhere to workout?” I wanted to research, interview and make it fun. Not just heavy stuff. Like, ask Gavin Lux what sneakers he’s rocking during quarantine. Or ask Sugar Ray Leonard, “Your father worked as a supermarket manager. Did you know what supermarket workers meant to our society before this time?” I wanted to ask questions to athletes that were obviously in a time where the questions could never have been asked before.

At any other time, those questions don’t have the relevance.

Jensen Karp: They don’t exist. I talked to Bismack Biyombo the other day, and other than being an incredible NBA utility player for the last seven years, he’s from the Congo! He’s faced Ebola before. Now he has to face it—not only as a player—but as the VP of the Players Association. I think a lot of people are looking to see what the sports industry will be doing in the next year, and I’m happy to provide both informative and humorous content around it.

What role does cannabis play in your life?

Jensen Karp: In college I would try it, but I would just get so weirdly neurotic. And that’s coming from me, a guy who’s already neurotic. I never really connected with [weed] only because I think I’m such an analytical person. I’ve always seen the fun-ness of being an observer, and the few times I’d get high, I’d be anything but an observer. I’d just want to eat Cheetos and drool on myself and think about chemtrails. I was the exact opposite of cool. So I just thought to myself, “This isn’t for me.” But the CBD element…My father suffered from cancer and died eleven years ago. If CBD was around then, we would have been the first in line to get it for him.

We used to run an ad on “Kevin and Bean” for a convention about how to make money in the medicinal marijuana business, and John Boehner was the speaker. Which is so dumb. Now it’s all political. Now that people can make money off [weed], they’ll turn the corner, but people don’t talk about how [weed] criminalized a complete minority for a long time, and how we jailed people who looked different from us.

We talk about it on “The No-Sports Report,” how the NBA has pulled drug testing during [the pandemic]. It’s so crazy to me that weed is even listed as a drug for them. MLB just lifted it, the NHL as well. The NFL is getting into a position for allowing it. It seems the positives outweigh whatever fake problems people pretend are involved. 

We talked with Al Harrington on the podcast, and he said 80% of players in the [NBA] have used some form of cannabis at some point. Which makes sense. Their knees hurt and their bodies hurt. Trust me, if I wasn’t playing “Animal Crossing” for five hours a day right now and I was out there getting pushed around, I would probably need it too.

Bill Walton went from being one of the greatest basketball players in college history to going to the NBA and his body stopped working. That’s how he got into marijuana. He needed pain relief. [Cannabis] would have helped people with their body troubles, whether it was CTE, knees, achilles or whatever. We absolutely destroyed Ricky Williams and other guys for being so ahead of the times on [marijuana], which always riles me up.

Me though, I’m a square. I’m too weird on [weed]. If you want to hear how I think there’s a fake Avril Lavigne that they replaced the regular Avril Lavigne with, or if you want to hear how Elvis was possibly an alien, just get me high.

Follow @jensenkarp and check out The No-Sports Report on all podcast platforms.

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