Friends of the People: The Wu-Tang Clan of Comedy

Comedy Features The Wu-Tang Clan
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“It was kind of like the Wu-Tang Clan,” Jermaine Fowler told me over the phone. “There are so many members of [Wu-Tang] and everyone picks their favorite member, but when you put them together, they have great chemistry and do well together. It’s all individual voices that can coexist together and make some crazy shit happen.”

We were discussing the dynamics of his show, Friends of the People, which is in the second half of its first season as truTV’s first scripted sketch comedy series. The show stars Fowler, The Lucas Brothers, Jen Bartels, LilRel Howery, Josh Rabinowitz and Kevin Barnett, and unlike many sketch comedy shows, this collective wasn’t an established group. Only one (Bartels) came from a theater/improv background. The rest are primarily stand-up comedians. After Fowler, Bartels and Howery worked on the reboot of In Living Color that was not picked up, they decided to pursue something together. Management group 3 Arts Entertainment helped assemble the rest of the cast, and they began working on a pilot.

“It’s so cool and weird how we came together,” Bartels said. “It’s like organic, but not in the traditional way. It’s not like we all grew up together and went to the same high school, or were a comedy troupe in the 80’s. That’s not us. The fact that we did all come together, and we have different things to offer comedically and performance-wise and we all get along? It’s so cool.”

The non-traditional origin story hasn’t stopped Friends of the People from creating fresh and fun sketch comedy. Fun is the key word to keep in mind when talking about this show. It’s something each one of the cast members I spoke with wants the audience to feel when they are watching the show. Even though the comedians hail from different backgrounds, they were all familiar with each other and many had worked together in some capacity before the show began. The titular “Friends” are actually friends in real life.

“We all basically knew each other’s work,” Fowler said. “It was no different than working on YouTube videos, and that’s really what we wanted to do: bring that work ethic and vibe of how fun we shoot sketches on YouTube or on stage to a TV show. It’s apparent; you see how much fun we’re having. We’re just a group of friends shooting shit together.”

Rabinowitz, who also serves as a head writer on the show with Barnett, echoed that sentiment.

“You’ve basically got seven friends legitimately making something. The difference between an idea from each person to being on TV is not much. Since we are all executive producers, writers and actors, the barrier between idea and making it, and that excitement… There’s almost like a childish excitement with everything we do. It’s like, ‘Oh today we’re gonna get to make a video,’ and there’s a lot of joy in that.”

The show premiered in October of 2014, and after the first few episodes, the network picked up another ten episodes to round out the second half (which premiered on July 15). Fowler, Rabinowitz and Bartels were all pleased with the reception that the first half of the episode received.

“It wasn’t something a bajillion people watched,” Rabinowitz said, “but it was cool that it had enough of a hold that we would get more episodes. Those first ten I always figured would be the hardest part of it for viewers; trying to watch something new is difficult, especially in a place that’s not known for what you’re trying to do.”

“I thought the response was great and it’s become built,” Bartels said. “It increased organically, which is nice. People were discovering who we are as a group. And I know for this last show that aired, the mid-season premiere, it was just so cool to see how the response is growing and how people calling us a sleeper that should be discovered, all these positive buzz words that mean a lot to us because we’ve worked so hard on this.”

Although the group was very comfortable with each other, they still had to find a balance between all of the individual voices and make the transition into sketch comedy. That was one of Fowler’s concerns early on.

“The main thing thing I was worried about was seven voices of the show. I commend our showrunner [Neil Punsalan] for melding all those voices together and making it fluid, because sometimes with so many people who are creative and have a hand in producing and writing sketches, it can get jumbled and kind of messy. It came out really smooth, it was kind of seamless.

All of the stars are also writers and executive producers on the show, all bringing their own influences and ideas to the table. That left some kinks to be ironed out, but the group grew as a result.

“Actually, a lot of my friends and standups have told me you can see the progression of how we’ve come together more as a unified voice,” Bartels said. “We’re seven different people. I’m the only girl on the show. A lot of the guys come from stand-up. We are a collective of people, but we all have different backgrounds. I think that it takes a minute. You can be seven funny people, but it takes time and putting time into creating something that feels more unified. I think we’ve done that. It’s like practice makes perfect. The more we shot, the more we wrote, the more we spent in the writers’ room, the more we realized what the show was.”

When making the first half of season one, Rabinowitz said that the group wrote and produced around 100 pieces of content, much greater than normal sketch shows. “Our goal was to pack episodes with as much content as we could. We kind of try to separate ourselves that way. Some of our episodes might have 10-12 sketches in them as opposed to other shows that have five. The challenge with that is just churning out that many things, having them all be good, and then figuring out how to piece the episodes together.”

Rabinowitz and Barnett had the arduous task of taking the “thousands and thousands” of pitches from cast members during the course of the season and choosing the ones that got the best response. Even though Barnett would often joke that the job sucked, it served a valuable purpose. These comedians now have been there for the writing, production and editing of those 100 pieces. When everyone returned to start on the second half of the season, there was a familiarity with the process that made everything much easier. There was also a better understanding of what kinds of things worked and didn’t work in sketches.

“It was sort of an instant amount of experience that we didn’t have before, and even though it was only four months ago, it’s a huge boost in experience,” Rabinwitz said. “I think people felt emboldened. We were drawn to things that were a little longer, a little more complex in the second half”

“We all realized that the first season was kind of introductory,” Fowler said. “Some sketches play by the book, others were a little crazier, but we all kept in mind that with a next season, we were gonna go even crazier.”

There is a definite level of absurdity present in several of the sketches, like an insane attempt to rob a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire-like show (hosted by Ben Bailey), or a commercial parody for a new app called Tuber, a combination of Tinder and Uber where you can have sex with your cab driver. Fowler told me that the second half of season one is on “so many drugs” and that it’s like “the first season on steroids, PEDs, heroin, cocaine, all of that.” Rabinowitz added that the absurdism and not taking everything too seriously really helps make the full episodes feel a lot more fun.

But aside from the added comfort to get even crazier, there was an added comfort to branch out to try new things and creative freedom granted by the network to make the kind of sketches they wanted to make.

“Stylistically, this half is a little different,” Bartels said. “I have a scented candle sketch that comes out like a mapping of Requiem for a Dream. We have another one called ‘Squirrel’ that is coming out that is just beautifully shot. A lot of them are just more like mini movies. There’s a more cinematic feel to them.

“And we had more time to write. TruTV really nurtured us and gave us all more time to write and vibe. Some of them are short and tight. We kept the runners (a series of recurring sketches that usually come in a series of three). We enjoy a good wrestling bit. But there are a few more that are long and have a more stylistic feel to them. We played with filters, we played with film noir, we played with style and paid homage to the movies that we like and things that we like, and kind of incorporated that into the sketches.”

Bartels also noted that not only were the sketches and concepts starting to branch out, but so were the performers. Bartels performed regularly with powerful comedic voices like Kate McKinnon and John Milhiser during her time at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, so she was used to vastly different personalities and sensibilities. Now on Friends she’s watching comedians who were primarily stand-ups get more comfortable performing in sketches. Instead of being very good at just being funny on stage, everyone is learning to perform within sketches and act more. “Everyone’s actively listening more,” she said.

In addition to these wide varieties of sketches, the Friends also throw in a number of “Man on the Street” segments. So far during this second half of episodes, these have included Rabinowitz admitting to strangers that he owns a back shaver, Bartels asking a cab driver if he loves the Tuber app, and the cast members having wrestling matches in gigantic bubble suits. These segments show the cast members as themselves and really give the viewer a chance to see how close everyone is with each other. It’s already evident when you watch the show that the cast is having fun, but here they are, out of character, actually having fun with each other.

Part of that fun and familiarity creates what Rabinowitz calls a “dangerous writers room.” They all know each other’s deep, dark sensitivities and can rag endlessly on each other because of it. But working with friends has a much greater benefit: there’s increased honesty during the creation process.

“In the writers room, people aren’t going to be like, ‘Oh yeah! That’s a good idea!’ They’ll go, ‘What is that? That’s terrible!’ in a way that isn’t mean, but just like you are hanging out with your buddies. I think the cool thing about working together in general is that everybody does something different from each other that’s really great. There are certain things that people will respond to where one idea gets everybody at the same moment where they go, ‘Oh that’s great.’

“It’s a really nice cross-section of senses of humor,” Rabinowitz continued, “and it’s a really rewarding way [to receive feedback]. I work with, I think, some of the funniest people that I know, or in comedy at all. So when they really love something, knowing that they will tell me they hate a terrible idea and I’ll tell them the same, when they tell me when they love it, it’s such a rewarding and honest thing.”

Bartels added that there is a mutual respect between the cast and the different comedic sensibilities that each comedian brings. “We all get along, but I think we respect each other. We respect each other’s talents and work ethics, and we want the show to be a success. Not everyone’s gonna love everything. We want to find the people that will enjoy the stuff that we like, and we have fun doing it. It’s awesome. I mean, we’re all getting to do our dream job. We’re writing, producing and starring on a show with funny people and the network is like, ‘Go ahead! Do whatever you want!’ They liked it, and to see more people enjoying it now and getting on board is a good time.”

The show has attracted a considerable amount of guest talent. The likes of Hannibal Buress and Michael Che appeared in the first half of season one, and this second half ups the ante. David Alan Grier, Rachel Dratch, Jim Norton, Doug E. Doug, Ellen Cleghorne, Ed Lover, Jay Bromley and Mick Foley all make appearances. While they might not be big, crowd-drawing cameos, Fowler thinks these kinds of cameos will resonate better with audiences.

“We love guest stars, and we want to get guest stars on the show, but we don’t want to get the typical guest stars. We want to get people that were legendary but in kind of an obscure way. We want to have a guest star where people are like, ‘Holy shit they got him!’ You appreciate that more. You appreciate Doug E. Doug more than like an A$AP Rocky or a typical rapper. You rarely see guys like Doug E. Doug. You rarely see a Jake the Snake. These are the people we have on our show, and that’s special to me.”

All of this culminates into a show that is fun, fresh, and fast-paced. While there may not be one clear identity among the show, the common goal that they all had was to make something fun. With so many voices coming together, there’s something for everybody. In this growing world of sketch comedy, Bartels says that people are more open to exploring the spectrum of sketch and are more willing to take a chance on it.

Loiter Squad is very different from Key & Peele which is very different from Inside Amy Schumer,” Bartels said. “I think that where they are in common, and where we can fit in as well, is honesty and rawness, and we just kind of explore the issues we want to explore: what’s affecting us, what we want to say, what kind of message we want to get across. A lot of our things dabble in the 90s, and a lot of our things dabble in social and racial issues. It’s definitely what we do and what we know in the room.

“The biggest thing with ours that makes us a little bit different is our pace,” she continued. “We set a real fast pace for the show. Everything is getting faster and faster, and no one wants to watch a six-minute sketch that doesn’t have an end anymore. People want to be able to share it or post it, or if they don’t like one sketch, the next one is going to be completely different. I think there’s something for everybody. There’s a lot more sketch out there, so more people are willing to approach it.”

And as far as that Wu-Tang comparison from Fowler? Rabinowitz has heard him say it before, and he has to agree.

“I think that’s a cool way to put it because everybody can function on their own, especially doing stand-up. That’s you writing it, that’s you performing it. It’s just you. By the time we made this, the Lucas Bros. had their cartoon, but no one had had a 20-year career. But when we originally pitched it, myself, Jermaine and the Lucas Bros. were all doing things in Montreal at the time on an individual level. And I think it’s rare to find seven people, especially in the stand-up community, who want to collaborate this much with each other. I think it leads to a lot of great work and I think you’re already seeing it with people branching out and doing other work. Hopefully we become the Wu-Tang of comedy.”

As long as they stay committed to making the show they want to make, and truTV allows them to do it, these rising comedians just might do it.

New episodes of Friends of the People air every Thursday at 10:30pm on truTV.

Ross Bernhardt is a freelance pop culture writer in the New York City area and probably spends far too much time listening to podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter.