“Baskets” is a new FX comedy series starring Zach Galifianakis. He plays an aspiring clown named Chip Baskets who moves to France for training. The problem: he’s horrible at it, and he ends up back in his hometown of Bakersfield, working as a rodeo clown.
The show was created by Galifianakis, Louie C.K. and Jonathan Krisel. The show also features the actor Louie Anderson, who plays Chip’s mom. Yes, his mom.
The show is pretty absurd, but that was Krisel’s intent. He’s also made and worked on other off-beat comedy shows including “Portlandia,” “Tim and Eric,” and “Man Seeking Woman.”
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Jonathan Krisel about why he likes making absurd shows, why he tries to target bands on tour as his audience, and why he likes reading bad reviews for his work.
What attracts you to making such strange comedy shows?
Louie Anderson actually coined it perfectly from the outside looking in at me, saying what I like is "the absurdness of reality," which I felt, Yes, that's exactly what it is! I love the smaller, lamer moments of life that we all experience. And I'm laughing when they're actually happening to me: a lot of customer service things, a lot of people telling me, No, you can't get this thing. I love it.
I was reading a negative review of "Baskets" on Slant that said, "Its ultimate goal seems to be little more than to depict the struggles of a rude, vaguely talented artist, and to find entertainment in his ego-driven failures." That's high praise, right? This is a slam, but that's high praise.
It's funny, we were reading a lot of the negative reviews and [saying], God, they're so well written. Because we did set out — in the writer's room — [thinking], What if you could tell the tale of an artist who's just a selfish person? Because if you're an artist who doesn't make it, maybe you're just a selfish person who relied on the family and you didn't get it going. If you did, then it's all forgiven. It's hard, you don't know what you're doing, you're trying things. But it is sort of a selfish pursuit.
I consider myself some sort of artist ... and it's not like, Hey, this guy is misunderstood and if only his small-minded family could understand. [But] he's not that good, and they're trying to see what his art is, but it's not that good.
A lot of your shows revolve around the idea that the situations are not funny, but they are at the same time.
Yeah, I like dry-to-the-bone stuff. I don't know what it is. I was raised on PBS showing weird British comedies. So a lot of those shows are so dry.
Like "Fawlty Towers?"
"Fawlty Towers" was a huge influence on me, I mean it was so slapstick, too. "Are You Being Served?" was on 15 times a day it seemed like, and I loved it.
Were your parents interested in comedy and theater and the arts? Were you in a creative household?
I wouldn't say it was like an extremely artsy household. My dad did show me interesting movies at a young age. I remember he showed me "A Clockwork Orange" and my mom said, "I never want to see this movie in my house again." There was some exposure to that golden age of '70s movies. I made a list of movies I think were great, and you could request any movie in the public library and it would come to my local branch. I would go there after school, get my movies on VHS and watch Robert Altman movies and I loved it.
I think it's fair to say that "Baskets," "Man Seeking Woman" and "Portlandia" are all polarizing or divisive shows, but I suspect that's part of the design?
It's not by design, it's by accident. It's what I find funny. I don't know what everyone finds funny. You know, "Baskets" for instance, my goal was Louis C.K. — who is our executive producer — I'm trying to make him laugh. Sometimes, like when we started "Portlandia" or when I worked on the "Tim and Eric" show, I would [think], The coolest band is on tour. They want to watch something. Bands on tour are very good cultivators of what's the avant-garde of comedy. I would hear from bands [that said], "Oh yeah, we watched 'Portlandia' on tour."
That's the ultimate compliment then.
They have a good sense of humor. I'm never trying to make something esoteric, it just happens. In my mind I'm [thinking], Oh, everyone would just go along with this weird clown."
This is a minor question, but how do you go about coming up with a character name like Chip Baskets?
I think one day Zach [Galifianakis] and I met up in the early stages and he said, "What if the character's name is Chip Baskets? It's a dumb, dumb joke." I said, "I love it." I think, what we were talking about earlier, is like when you're on the same page it's like, Yeah, a dumb character name and then we should make it the name of the show. Because that's what the show is really about, it's the dumbest things elevated to ... The name of the show is "Baskets?" They really considered that to be a good idea to name the character a bad pun? Yes. Yes, we did. There's a thing in comedy where you take one step into a bad idea, but if you take 10, then it becomes a good idea again.
How do you work with actors who have great comic instincts, especially when your format has very strict rules?
Well, I came up through these weird shows. "Portlandia" is 100 percent improvised and I came into this business not knowing anything. I went to film school and I came in when video art was king, weird stuff was king, and there you don't have a script as your bible. To me, [it's about] getting together with these amazing, talented people, and sitting on that set and letting it change and morph and not being scared that the script has gone out the window, and just listening.
I try not to impose because comedy is this thing that you can't ... even when you write it on paper you think, This is so funny. That doesn't mean it's funny. So you just have to sit back and watch and listen and if I'm laughing on the set, most of the time it means it's gonna be funny. So my process is get amazingly talented people and listen to them and follow what's actually happening, but don't let it get sloppy. I'm still trying to tell a story and deliver a specific joke. So it's a give-and-take between what's unfolding and what you had in your mind.
“Baskets” airs Thursday nights on FX.