Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar on directing sitcoms, Freeloaders and the future of TV/movie distribution

Jay Chandrasekhar is best known as the ringleader of sketch comedy troupe Broken Lizard, but he’s also a stand-up comedian and an in-demand director, helming TV episodes over the past year of Community, Happy Endings, Franklin & Bash, Ben & Kate, and Royal Pains — plus acting in movies such as Freeloaders, which is out now on DVD.

Chandrasekhar spoke with me following a recent comedy club tour in April called “A Night of Stand-Up & Film Stories” and before shooting another episode of Royal Pains. He expects to perform again live in June running up to shows at Montreal’s Just For Laughs in July.

“Stand-up is so pure,” he said. “You don’t need millions of dollars to do it. You just need a mic and to get there and do it. I also love all the planning that goes into making movies and television shows.” This love of comedy goes all the way back to his teen years, before Broken Lizard. “I’m from Chicago,” he said. “At 19, I went down and did an open mic set. And then I did that a number of times. I took a semester off and took six months and studied in Chicago, ImprovOlympic (iO). Studied the Harold.”

How has your stand-up evolved for you more recently, since you and Broken Lizard put on a combined sketch/stand-up show and tour a few years ago?

“It’s a whole different thing when you’re speaking for an hour. It’s not all jokes. It can be, but it’s not all jokes. You can introduce themes that you’re going to be talking about 40 minutes. I try to make it feel like we’re in a bar, and I’m telling you a story. The currency in stand-up is confidence. If you’re anxious to get a laugh every few seconds, you miss the long game of setting up some huge laughs, mentally, things that require some thought. The more movies and TV I’ve made, when you’re being compelling, it doesn’t matter if you’re being funny or dramatic. The audience, if they’re leaning in and listening, they’re into it. They’re entertained. They’re just as entertained if you’re talking about being harassed, or hurt or attacked, or embarrassed as if you’re telling a story thats just funny. It’s really convincing. You have to be confident that what you have to say is worth saying. You can feel it, if they’re in to it. If they’re following you or whatnot.”

Is that confidence part of how you’re more or less the director of Broken Lizard?

“What happened was, I’d had been in a lot of plays in high school. It was coming time to graduate in a year. I didn’t see a single Indian in show business except for Ben Kingsley. If I’m going to make it in show business, I’m going to have to make it on my own.” How he did that: Form his own group. “I had been a big Monty Python fan. I thought, ‘I’m going to find the funniest 8 or 10 people I knew and make a show.'” One of the first funniest: Kevin Heffernan. “He had been Captain Hook in a play in third grade. He said, ‘Nah, nah, I’m not doing it.’ He said no. I had to twist a lot of arms to be in this fucking show. ‘Heffernan, you can be in this show. You can either do it for me or you can audition for me.’ That first day there were 40 people there. The next day 400. It was a huge hit suddenly. The thrill of that was something that’s fueled us ever since. That second show created this sense…’We can do this!’ We went down to New York City. Fortunately Colgate emits into New York City, so we’d do a show on Monday night and sell it out. And it was more money than the bar would ever sell….so they said you need to be on Saturday night. Whatever it is. We like selling this beer. That was a huge thing for us.

Charred Goosebeak. It was an instant sort of hit. Colgate had nothing like it. Then we moved to New York City…it’s still a thing at Colgate.”

You wrote an essay last summer about how much independent movie-making had changed since you directed Super Troopers during the summer of 2000. With the changes just in the past couple of months, with Kickstarter and specifically the Veronica Mars movie and Zach Braff’s new film both using fans to finance them, what do you make of filmmaking now in 2013?

“On the one end, as a simple human being in America in a big city, there is so much entertainment out there. There are so many great TV shows being made. The movie business has hinted, they’re only willing to make remakes of old television shows or toys. The reason is they need unaided awareness.

“They want you to have some knowledge of what it was, because there’s so much money at stake. We’re running out of material, which is a good thing. I think the next decade will be more original than the last. If you want to make movies, this is how it happens. What they’ve stopped making is small-to-medium-sized comedies. There’s still a demand. They’re just not coming out on 3,000 screens. They’re coming out online and in select cities. The new distribution I write about is by no means the only way to do it. And there’s tremendous resistance from the movie theaters. Because they say if it comes out the same day On Demand as in the theaters, why will they come to the theaters? This day-and-date releasing…it’s going to be strangled by the theater owners. They just don’t want it to be that way.”

“This ultimately is not figured out yet. In terms of Freeloaders, it’s a really funny little film. Maybe the best way to release it is this way, online and through iTunes…the minimum they spend to release is $25,000.”

So what about a Super Troopers 2? “Kickstarter? If we can negotiate a deal with Fox, that we would seriously consider, we have a lot to offer people. It’d be fun to see what the excitement level would be for that film.” “We’ve been watching it. We’ve certainly been eyeing it.”

What do you see, directing sitcoms, in terms of the trends swaying between single-cam and multi-camera series with the networks?

“Every year there’s a batch. Bottom line is, there’s a new generation of comics out there, and they’re getting chances. You never know. The old system, where 10 million people tune in to watch a sitcom, are for the most part fading away. Whether the studio will continue to make sitcoms if the money doesn’t justify it. I can see that going to places like Amazon or Netflix. On the flip side, Modern Family is still a huge hit, it’s a single camera, and no laugh track. Nobody else has been able to repeat. it. Even Happy Endings, which is a fabulous show, but doesn’t have the ratings. It’s not because of a lack of quality, so what is it? The audience is segmenting so much.” He talks about the theory of the long tail in producing successful entertainment. “Show business and pop culture used to be a short tail, where everything was guarded by the studios. Everybody watched Seinfeld. Everybody watched Raiders of the Lost Ark…now, there’s so many channels, and so much music, everybody’s sampling a little bit of everything, so it’s stretched out to a long tail…he whole thing is shifting so dramatically. It’s why the movie studios stopped making comedies. You can’t make enough money.”

Money wasn’t an object in the true story behind Freeloaders, which focuses on a group of slackers shacked up rent-free in a rock star’s mansion until the musician decides he wants to sell it. “When I moved to L.A., my friend Henry, he said come over” on day, he said. “I drove up to this huge fucking mansion in Beverly Hills. There were all these Counting Crows records on the wall.” The friend told Chandrasekhar he’d been staying in that mansion for a year. What about the guy behind the records? “Where is he? I’d love to meet him. Oh, he hasn’t been here for about a year.” Cut to a couple of years ago. “One day, Adam Duritz came in, with a script about the freeloaders.” As in Chandrasekhar’s friend. That freeloader. “It’s not a Broken Lizard movie. We didn’t write it. We’re in one scene.”

You can see all of Freeloaders On Demand, via iTunes, and as of May 7, on DVD through Walmart.

Follow @jaychandrasekha on Twitter or check his site for tour dates this summer. His Broken Lizard mates, Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme, also are on a joint stand-up tour which resumes at the end of May and through June.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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