Today’s subject is somewhat of a child prodigy in the comedy world. Unlike many young actors forced into the profession from overbearing, grueling “stage parents,” he pursued stardom on his terms. He hosted Squirt TV on public access as a high school student, just because he legally could. Since then, he’s remained constantly involved in the entertainment world, keeping his finger on the proverbial pulse on what is new, funny, and maybe a little bit disturbing. He served as the assistant director for Sarah Silverman’s darkly funny stand-up special Jesus is Magic, a show on SiriusXM’s “college rock” station for nearly a decade, and hosted a podcast just to catch up with his LA friends. Most recently, he’s found his true love in writing for television; recently working on the new seasons of Difficult People and Billy on the Street, as well as the Netflix original show, Girlboss, set to be released in 2017. In between his many comedic ventures, Jake Fogelnest had time to stop by Impose’s perennial Couch to discuss his path to becoming a TV writer, his comedic influences, and the importance of mental health above all in the temperamental entertainment industry.
What gave you the impetus to start a show as a teenager? Do you think your comedic voice has changed since you started Squirt TV?
Boredom. I was 14 years-old, in New York City, a freshman in high school, and I just did NOT relate to anyone. I knew about public access television and the idea that they legally had to give anyone a television show if they filled out some fairly easy paperwork. So I just did it. The show was someone for me to talk to, a way for me to say, “This is what’s in my brain, does anyone else fucking relate?” This was over twenty years ago and I’m sad to say that my comedic voice is pretty much the same. Hopefully I have gotten better, but my general interests are still the same as they were when I was a kid: John Waters and Howard Stern.
Before you started your own public access show, were you an outgoing child? Did you perform in any capacity, like theatre or music, before you hosted the show?
I think I was pretty social. I remember announcing proudly to a roomful of adults at one point, “I know all the curse words in the book!” Then I proceeded to rattle them off. I’d been making little movies ever since I was a kid. I guess the difference between me and say, Steven Spielberg, is he was making little movies about aliens or whatever, and I used a video camera to make a short film called “THE WORLD OF TRASH”. I don’t remember really what it was about, but it was my homage to filth.
From the vantage point of a young, immediately post-Squirt TV Jake Fogelnest, you could have taken the route of music journalism or pursuing more comedic endeavors. How did you decide what professional path to take at such a young age?
To me, the goal was always to make movies and TV shows with my friends. Since I was very little. John Waters was very inspirational to me. I remember seeing Pink Flamingos at the entirely appropriate age of seven and saying, “Wait, this counts as a movie? These weirdos just went out into the woods and made this insane thing to freak out hippies? That’s what I want to do. If this counts, I can do this!” I think I’ve carried that with me for my entire life. Through the MTV connection, I was able to get jobs in radio and music industry things, but it was always to pay the rent. SUPER fun day jobs, but they were day jobs. I am so happy that now I feel like I’m finally doing what I want: making television with my friends.
John Waters was very inspirational to me. I remember seeing Pink Flamingos at the entirely appropriate age of seven and saying, ‘Wait, this counts as a movie?’
How do you balance the many different “hats” you wear as a comedian? How do you know whether an idea will work best as a podcast, a sketch show, a TV episode, etc?
I feel like ideas dictate to you, not the other way around. You don’t really know—you’ll think of a scene or a character, a joke, whatever it is—and then it’s trial and error to figure out what goes where. I stopped doing the podcast because I feel like my goals with it were achieved. I started it when I first moved to LA and I wanted an excuse to see old friends, make new ones and share all these clips of things that were running around in my brain. As TV stuff started to become more and more of what took up my day, it was time to let it go and follow the passion. The money is nice too!
When you were writing Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, did you worry that the world created in WHAS did not have enough new stories to tell for a multiple episode reunion?
Michael Showalter and David Wain had SO much already on the first day we all came in. A giant whiteboard filled with index cards of characters, scenes, jokes, random ideas. It was clear that there was a HUGE world to dive into, our task was just figuring out how it all fit together and what new ideas we could bring to the table. Michael and David created such strong characters with Wet Hot American Summer that it felt like we could find stories for them forever! Just thinking about it now fills my heart, it was so fun.
Can you tell me a bit about the role of a comedic director? Most people view stand up performances as one-man productions, but what kind of influence do you exert over the creative process as the director?
It depends on what you’re directing! With stand-up, I would say it is 99.9% a stand-up comedian running the show. I’ve only helped out a little bit with some stand-up stuff. Years ago when Sarah Silverman was workshopping Jesus Is Magic at Joe’s Pub, I was Assistant Director to Tom Gianas. We were really just a sounding board for Sarah, helping her figure out themes and what jokes worked best together. But that was really all Sarah Silverman; all she needs is a microphone! If I’m directing something narrative, it’s just about performance, making actors feel comfortable, creating a fun and relaxed atmosphere, getting the shots we need, fixing stuff that doesn’t work. I guess there are some directors who are tyrannical and obsessive, but I try to keep in mind, “we’re just filming some joke fake thing here, let’s try to be human.”
What is it about a video clip-based podcast that appealed to you? Do you have any intention to bring it to TV? Or is part of the fun in the secondhand descriptions of each clip to the listeners?
I knew it would work from years of listening to Howard Stern do the news with Robin. They play a clip of a thing, pause the clip, get into a conversation—it’s just compelling radio. It was a way of doing an interview without being just another comedy person talking to other comedy people. That ground was well-covered already. No intention to bring it to TV. I don’t want to host a show. I’ll do a talk show or something if someone invites me on if I have something to promote, but there’s not going to be “The Fogelnest Files” on Fusion or something. I’m just not interested. I would rather go into a cave and come back with a story to tell right now.
How is living in LA as a comedian different than living in NY?
Most of my friends are out here now. I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to go back and forth to New York a lot because of Difficult People and Billy On The Street, but I’m pretty settled into LA at this point working on Girlboss for Netflix. I think things in comedy go in waves. There will be a bunch of interesting, dangerous, cool, innovative stuff happening in New York. Then the people doing that stuff will start to get jobs and inevitably move out to LA. Or Los Angeles will have a new wave of people doing crazy new stuff, and they’ll get quickly hired away on things. It goes back and forth. Right now I think it’s one of the most interesting times for NYC comedy, and I don’t think it was that way four years ago. This ebb and flow will hopefully go on forever.
Anyone who works in comedy that doesn’t go therapy is irresponsible and dangerous.
Funny Or Die is setting a new bar for the quality of comedy available online, do you think that short-form, web-friendly content is where comedy is heading in the future?
Working at Funny Or Die was one of the best experiences of my life. I would describe it as a full on Saturday Night Live experience without any of the pressure or money. It has more in common with Roger Corman than Lorne Michaels in the best possible way. I think short-form web-friendly content is always going to be there, but I think what’s far more interesting is when Funny Or Die takes a big swing. The hour-long Trump movie they made was awesome. I think the future of web comedy, at least the future I’m personally interested in, is stuff like that. Or Louis CK dropping “Horace and Pete” on his website. Everything that’s going on at Seeso.
How has your work as a performer across multiple mediums affected your mental health?
Self care has to come before everything else. My mental health is the first thing I worry about. Everything else in show business, comedy and entertainment comes second. Anyone who has this backwards is setting themselves up for disaster. I am better at everything in my work if my head is checked. The minute I stopped looking for external validation to make me feel better, that’s when I was ready to accept the gifts that come from external validation. And that’s when it began to show up. Also, anyone who works in comedy that doesn’t go therapy is irresponsible and dangerous.