Clowning Around: Jonathan Krisel on Baskets and Zach Galifianakis

Comedy Features Zach Galifianakis
Clowning Around:  Jonathan Krisel on Baskets and Zach Galifianakis

Whether you know Jonathan Krisel’s name or not, you probably know his work. He’s risen quickly as one of television comedy’s biggest go-to guys with his success in writing and directing Portlandia, Man Seeking Woman and various Tim & Eric-related business. With his latest show, FX’s Baskets, he’s once again shepherded an unexpected idea to the screen.

Baskets, the brain child of Krisel, Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K., follows a man named Chip Baskets. He’s an aspiring professional clown who, after failing out of clown school in Paris, moves back home to Bakersfield, California, where he has to face the frustrations of living with his mother and working as a local rodeo clown. While Chip’s passion in life is to achieve the high artistic value of being a classically-trained clown, he must face the realities of a loveless marriage, reliance upon the support of his family, and uncertainty over how long he can financially support himself while chasing his dream.

While network comedies use rapid fire punchlines to draw in the broadest possible audience, Krisel and company like to let the characters do the work. Particularly in tragic, real life situations, where the character’s failures mean a lot more than just getting a cheap laugh.

Krisel gave a TedX Talk in 2013 titled “Doing It Wrong and Getting It Right,” about how as an artist you can unexpectedly find success within failure. He used the process of making Portlandia as an example, in that they would try new things, let paintings fall, have people performing ridiculous actions in the background, and somehow that would be where the comedy came from. We see a lot of failure within Chip Baskets, but according to Krisel, that’s very much the point.

“I think any person who is starting out in a creative endeavor is not going to be good at it right out of the gate,” Krisel told me. “What we tried to create is a character who is trying to be a clown and he’s in the academic pursuit of it at the school or when he’s performing he’s coming up short. But in his real life, in the drama of his real life, he’s knocking things over and falling down.” A foolish, yet determined, lead character, Krisel believes, is a perfect conduit for the absurdity of life that conjures up true laughter. “Because being a klutz in real life is so funny, like him getting hit by a bull is classic clown stuff that we’re introducing, but it’s funny because he doesn’t want those things in that moment and he does start to realize that he is a clown to the world. He wants to be a clown when he’s in the spotlight, but he’s only one when it’s behind the scenes.”

It’s clear from watching the show, and talking to Krisel about its intentions, that there’s nobody else but Zach Galifiankis who could lead us through this journey. When I asked about the show’s commentary on the art world and what it means to be an artist in comedy, Krisel quickly praised the brilliance of Galifianakis and how he is much of the driving force of the show.

“I wanted to make something to showcase Zach as a master performer in terms of comedy and drama. So since the character is sort of perceiving clowning as high art, I wanted to, in my own way, write a fan love letter to Zach to showcase that he is one of the smartest people doing very high concept comedy that could on the surface look very stupid.”

While he is no stranger to TV, Galifianakis is best known for his work in major studio comedies such as The Hangover trilogy, where he plays the dopey but lovable Alan. But the roles that general audiences see him in are only scratching the surface of what the talented comedian can really do. “Throughout his career, I’ve known him a long time and followed his work, you don’t want to say genius but nobody could do what he’s doing,” Krisel said. “Nobody could do, ‘oh I’m going to do Zach style things,’ because it doesn’t exist past him. He’s such a loving, observant person of humanity. He actually is an amazing actor and I think he has been cast in bigger, more dramatic things.”

Baskets is a rare show within two genres where its halves work in conjunction instead of against each other. Even something as silly as a sales negotiation of a 4K TV becomes real and emotional once Chip buys it and brings it to his wife, who won’t even have a conversation with him without looking into the eyes of another man. Krisel described moments like these like a delicious dessert with too much sugar. “It’s kind of like when you eat something too sugary, it just becomes disgusting after a while,” he said. “Like with so many network comedies that have too many jokes you go ‘just stop.’”

The solution to a story filled to the brim with sugar? Add some salt to the recipe. Varying up the tone can give your comedy what it needs to really make an impact. To not only make your audience laugh, but to sympathize with and see these characters as human beings, and not just caricatures or joke machines. “It balances your palette so there isn’t just one flavor,” Krisel explained to me.

The tone Baskets aspires to should come as no surprise when Louis C.K. is on the team. C.K. can be a dark comedian when he wants to be, and has proven that time and time again with is own show, Louie, also on FX. While Krisel, Galifianakis and C.K.’s brands of comedy don’t entirely overlap, being on the same page is key in creating a cohesive comedy. “I think when you work with people who are super exceptional there’s simplicity to it because everybody is on the same page in terms of tone. Knowing that less is more a lot of the time and everybody was so on the same page with what this show was going to be from the get-go,” Krisel said of his colleagues. “So many times we’d almost be speaking in unison about what we want out of a performance or scene.”

The way Krisel describes comedy, it sounds like the most human form of art there is. He went on to tell me that the type of jokes he likes to write in his shows are “almost just attention to details of reality.” Everybody knows somebody in his or her life much like Chip, and it’s funny because we all do. We see him get smacked around by a bull or have a conversation with a coyote, and that’s funny to us because of it feels both exaggerated yet real at the same time.

Despite its less likely moments, Baskets is a true to life comedy. Nothing is ever completely serious, and nothing is ever taken as a complete joke. Something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store and waiting in a slow line could be a comedy scene if you look hard enough. That’s exactly the type of show Jonathan Krisel and his colleagues set out to make—the kind where the absurdity of life is highlighted and the humor can be found in just about anything, including tragedy.

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