If you’re any sort of respectable comedy nerd, you know who Jason Woliner is. He’s the guy who’s directed and written for some of your favorite comedy shows: Human Giant, Delocated, Nathan For You, Parks and Recreation – this list just doesn’t stop. Currently finishing up the third season of Adult Swim’s Eagleheart (among a plethora of other projects), Jason graciously took the time to chat with us about directing, being funny and magic.
Serial Optimist: Hi Jason! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. Let’s get started at the beginning of your career, when you were discovered as part of a father/son magic team. Which part of your routine do you think caught people’s attention?
Jason Woliner: I would guess it was my dove-handling skills. There’s a YouTube video that my dad uploaded a few years ago that will give you a good sense of my dove-handling skills. I shall not link to it for legal reasons. It probably contains equal parts child and bird abuse.
SO: I’ll resist from linking to it as well. Did working as a child actor form your approach to writing and directing? When did you realize you wanted to have a say behind the camera as well?
Jason: If anything, I hope it gave me some perspective on what it’s like to be directed. But the way directors work with kids can be pretty different from working with trained, professional actors. It’s probably more akin to working with an animal. And I didn’t have anything approaching a “process” when I was eight years old. I think I was only able to do it because of the ridiculous overconfidence that comes when people start giving you praise/attention when you’ve only just learned to put on your own clothes. That faded pretty fast around twelve or thirteen. Practically, there’s a side of being an actor that can be a real demeaning hassle – going from audition to audition, walking into rooms of strangers and being instantly judged – that part stuck with me, and I try to give anyone who auditions for anything I’m doing the fairest and most respectful of shakes.
SO: You went to Sarah Lawrence briefly but then left to pursue comedy after a few years – did you have a realization that you would learn more outside the academic system?
Jason: I remember thinking that pretty strongly even before I went to college. It seemed like college didn’t play a huge role in the careers of anyone that I admired when I was young. So I think I was itching to get out of there from the “get.”
SO: You were the director for the majority of the Human Giant episodes that ran for two years on MTV, and you’re frequently described as the “non-performing member” of the group. So, two questions: 1) what was the experience like directing your friends Aziz Ansari Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and 2) does it hurt your sexual ego to be described as a “non-performing member?”
Jason: I don’t really remember much about directing that show. We all wrote it together, so I think sometimes, I would probably just help remind us all what we found funny about an idea in the first place. And try to come up with new lines and help set the right tone on the set and shoot crazily fast. But I used to operate the camera back then, too. Directing was pretty different. Looking at that stuff now, it feels more like ‘comedy boot camp’ than an actual TV show that was on the air.
And yeeeouch, I’d never thought of it like that. It does now.
SO: What was the dynamic of working with MTV on a post-State sketch show like?
Jason: I don’t think anyone we worked with at MTV was around when they did The State. We thought it was pretty strange of MTV to give us a show. But they do have a history of every once in a while taking a chance or letting people try to do a show that isn’t what you’d think of as a typical MTV show. The only real MTV-ish notes we got were that they wanted us to have a certain amount of what they called “guys as themselves” sketches, which would start with Rob, Paul, and Aziz playing video games or hanging out in a park or something. Paul would have to wear a hat. Otherwise, I think they were really cool with us. It was a cheap show (and it shows) and none of us knew how to make a TV show but it was a lot of fun.
SO: You’ve directed and written for a dream list of shows on a variety of networks – Delocated and Eagleheart on Adult Swim, Jon Benjamin Has a Van on Comedy Central, Parks and Recreation on NBC – is it hard to calibrate your humor for all these different projects? Or do you have a sensibility you bring to each new show?
Jason: Something like Eagleheart, which I also produce and co-write, is a really different job than coming in to direct friends’ shows like Nathan For You or the others. On Eagleheart I’m involved from sitting in a room with Michael Koman and Andrew Weinberg (and a revolving group of a few other friends) all the way to watching/approving a final version of an episode at 3am two days before it’s airing, which happened last week. When it’s more of a director-for-hire situation, I’m there to a do a pretty specific job, throw in ideas here and there, add some perspective, keep things moving and so on. I’ve never really thought about calibrating my taste or sense of humor – I’m lucky enough that I’ve gotten to mostly work on stuff that I think is funny.
Eagleheart: Paradise Rising
SO: Well, speaking of stuff that’s funny, congratulations on the now-airing third season of Eagleheart on Adult Swim. This season, called “Paradise Rising,” has 10 episodes telling one long serialized tale. Was it challenging to conceive an Eagleheart season as a 10-part story rather than stand alone episodes?
Jason: For whatever reason, this show has always been this weird kind of exercise. For the first season, we shot a pilot that we wound up completely throwing out. We knew we had to make twelve episodes of a show, it starred Chris Elliott (which was a dream come true) and he had to be a cowboy hat-wearing law enforcement officer. So we tried to see if we could take that and do something different with it that could change week-to-week and accommodate whatever idea we had that we found funny or wanted to explore. With this season, we wanted to see if we could take what we liked about the first two – the characters and the elastic reality and the sense that it could go in odd directions, etc. – and see if we could add stakes and wrap a story around it and make it actually something you’d want to watch from week-to-week.
SO: The episodes so far this season have looked amazing – like slick movies. You recently said on Julie Klausner’s “How Was Your Week” podcast that season three is more like a dramatic comedy. Did that affect your visual style for the show?
Jason: We’ve always intended the show to look pretty dramatic and straightforward. When our DP, Christian Sprenger, and I started talking about how we wanted it to look, we decided we wanted to try and create a world that’s a little heightened and stylized and intentional, and avoid handheld shots (except for fight scenes) and steadicam (for the most part). We switched to prime lenses this year, which make things look prettier and a bit more serious. We try to be careful and not make things look too nice or stylized or filmic. For one, the show can start to feel too heavy, and we don’t want it to feel tooo tooo serious. I also think the ideas and jokes are often pretty fast-paced and a flashy style could get in the way of that. So the visual style is somewhere between Mad Men and a Popeye cartoon.
SO: Does 11 minutes ever feel too short for Eagleheart? Do you have to have a bunch of 5-Hour Energies before you sit down to shoot or edit to force your brain to go into double-time?
Jason: Yeah, it was probably too short this year. We were lucky enough that Adult Swim let us do three of them as half hours. But most of the others work best in 14 to 15 minute cuts. It wouldn’t have been a ton more work to get them to 20, and we’ve had to cut out a lot of jokes we like to get them down to time. And the finished episodes blow by so fast that you have to watch them with your eyes glued to the TV to enjoy it and save your laughs for the end. I also think, in hindsight, it may be hard for a viewer to really follow and invest in something you see for ten minutes a week. Maybe that’s why there aren’t a lot of ten minute serialized pseudo-dramas on TV right now.
SO: You’ve worked in a lot of different mediums (animation, stand-up specials, 11-minute, full-length sitcoms). What’s something you haven’t done yet that you’d like to tackle at some point?
Jason: I would like to make a movie some point soon. Also, maybe a haunted house.
SO: I think the haunted house industry is ripe for some revitalization. Do you have any entrepreneurial advice for young comedians? What did you learn from working on Che Leno and Je Shirts?
Jason: Stay out of the T-shirt biz.
SO: Duly noted. You really use the Internet correctly. Your “reveal” of the last page of the Mad Men finale script last year made me scream with laughter. How do you think Internet humor and the bits that can be done have evolved since you started doing comedy? Any favorites you can point us to?
Jason: Aw, thanks! I haven’t seen a ton of stuff on the Internet that I really love lately. My friend David O’Reilly has put out a lot of brilliant animated work on the Internet. Look him up!
SO: Any additional things you want SO readers to watch/read/do? Command us in a magical incantation.
Jason: Alakazam. I think Nathan For You is a really funny show, and would even if I hadn’t gotten to work on it. I’m excited to see the new season. Sim sim salla bim. I just saw a video a young comedy man named Mike Cullen did that made me laugh hard. It is called “Old Beauty.”
SO: Thank you!