Ian Karmel is a man of many different worlds. Sometimes, he’s working behind the scenes as the co-head writer of The Late Late Show with James Corden. Sometimes, he’s onstage (but not presently for reasons that we assume should be pretty obvious) doing stand-up. Sometimes he’s an actor-such as on Portlandia and I’m Dying Up Here– or making videos that wind up going viral. Or as of right now, he might be dancing with a ball in a leotard and it just so happens to be on television. That’s something we all can relate to, right? But whatever it is he may be doing, take our word for it that he is making you laugh as he does it.
This summer, Ian has been on a new game show on CBS called Game On!. In it, Ian has teamed up with Venus Williams, opposing teammates Rob Gronkowski and Bobby Lee, host Keegan-Michael Key, and a revolving door of celebrity guests and doing things that would make anyone who grew up watching the obstacle courses on Double Dare envious. It’s a sense of nostalgia mixed with sports mixed with humor that we all desperately need right now. In it, you can find Ian Karmel running an insane obstacle course or becoming a human bowling ball or even sumo wrestling a 600 pound professional sumo wrestler. The fun that everybody is having on the show is deathly infectious. And with his often self-deprecating but consistently hilarious off-hand remarks, Ian Karmel has definitely shined on the show and become a favorite on social media. And for anyone who didn’t know who the hilarious Ian Karmel was before, they definitely do now.
We recently spoke to Ian over the phone about a recent viral video, things he wishes he could’ve done on Game On! (which is everything), wishing he could’ve kept his leotard, balancing writing for The Late Late Show, staying busy in quarantine, and also what sort of triggered him really missing stand-up again.
Let’s start off by talking about a video you did that just went viral recently, where you parodied the police officer who did the video about her McDonald’s order [which had just happened earlier that week at the time of this interview]. After 2 days, it’s up to over a million views. Did you expect that at all?
(Laughs). When I woke up and watched the first video, I thought “Alright, well this is right in my wheelhouse. It’s somebody complaining about fast food.” Which somebody was quick to point out was already the topic of several of my stand-up jokes. And I was like “Alright, that’s incredibly fair.” But when I saw it, I absolutely didn’t think it would go viral. I thought it would be one of like 10,000 parody videos that came out that day. I really thought that. I thought it was going to be like the video that launched 10,000 ships kind of thing. And I didn’t really have a script. I just went out to my car and I was like “Alright. What’s a real thought I’ve had? Okay, there’s combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bells. How come they don’t combine the ingredients? It seems like a really missed opportunity.” So it was a real fast food complaint I had.
I thought it would be like, maybe the people who already liked me would get a kick out of it. But then it started getting shared like all over the place. Chance the Rapper retweeted it, which was crazy. You never think you’re going to get an assist from Chance the Rapper. But yeah, it was a fun video that I had fun making and I thought it would get like a couple laughs. And then it kind of blew up. It’s been crazy.
Totally. And I’m just happy to know that there’s still Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combinations that exist out there. All the ones that were by me have disappeared.
They’re still out here. I see them in L.A. every now and again. It’s so tempting. The siren on the rocks.
Let’s talk about Game On!. When I first saw the show, what immediately struck me is how much fun it looks like you guys are having. You watch some game shows, and they have this formulaic quality to it. But with this show particularly, it looks like you guys are having such a damn good time while making it that it’s pretty fun to watch.
It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in comedy. It’s like an adult fantasy camp. I grew up watching Double Dare and Legends of the Hidden Temple, and even like Rock N’Jock. And this was a combination of like all of those for me. So I got to run obstacle courses. And the episode that was on last Wednesday I’m hanging from a harness while David Ortiz hits baseballs at me. For someone who was a fan of those shows growing up and like a huge sports fan- Look I’m glad they paid me for it. I appreciate that and everything,- but it’s the kind of thing where you’d pay to have a vacation like that. It would be so fun. The days like flew by. And once we filmed all 8 episodes, I was like sad. I hope we get to do more of these.
The episode that aired the other day showed you ribbon dancing in a leotard. So what I want to know is, did they let you take that leotard home?
No, I didn’t get to keep it! That was like the first thing they filmed. So that was before we did anything in the studio or anything like that. It was the first time we [Bobby Lee and Rob Gronkowski?] were all together. I had met each of them individually. Bobby just from both of us doing stand-up and I actually met Gronk weirdly through a thing we did on the Late Late Show that I was writing. But that was the first time any of us were together. Bobby is just an absolute pro. He’s such a funny dude. And with Gronk, this is like flowery language to describe him, but he is very generous with his spirit. For someone that has been famous for as long as he has in a world that loves tearing down athletes, he’s just such a sweet dude. And when we met him, he just like fell right in. It felt like you were on the Football team with him. I played football in high school, and it was like “Oh, he’s an absolute jock. I know the kind of person he is.” But he’s like a friendly jock. He’s like Robert the friendly jock.
But I didn’t get to keep the leotard. I asked about it. I was like “Can I get this back?” And the wardrobe person was like “I’m sure you can.” But then like, things picked up so much and by the time it was over I forgot to ask. Which is too bad because I could’ve dressed like Bam Bam Bigelow for Halloween every year. It’s also not like there’s a lot of other uses for that leotard after I was done wearing it. (Laughs). It’s not like it’s in some wardrobe storage at CBS like “Well, we could use this for a lot of our shows. We need like a 300 pound guy in a leotard for Hawaii 5.0. next week.” So I wish they would’ve let me have it.
Now I really want to see that leotard pop up on Hawaii 5.0,, I’m gonna be honest.
I’m available. (Laughs).
(Laughs). Well I look forward to seeing you on there. But going back to the show itself, are there any games on the show that you wish you had gotten to do?
I’ll be more specific, but I would’ve liked to have tried all of them. When we started the show, you have a meeting with the stunt coordinator and the producers. This was right after I got hired. And they’re going through everything they were thinking about doing on the show. They said “Would you do this?” And I just said yes to everything. When in life are you going to have the opportunity to do some of that stuff again?
Keegan and Gronk got to go up in like World War 2 fighter planes and do a simulated dogfight kind of thing. The pilots flew it, but then a couple times they got to control it. And to me, that would’ve been like so fun. Now, there weren’t a lot of people who were the same size as I am back then, so I couldn’t have fit in the plane. But if they had had a big enough one for me, I would’ve been all over that. That’s probably the one I would’ve wanted to do the most.
You wouldn’t have been scared to go up and fly a plane?
Oh, I would’ve been terrified. But there’s a lot of the stuff on the show that absolutely terrifies me. So it’s scary for like 30 seconds and then you just start giggling because of how fun it is. That’s been my experience with all the scary stuff we did on the show. We had to jump off like 30 foot platforms and stuff like that. And you have a harness on, so you know it’s ostensibly safe. But it’s scary until it’s like the most fun you’ve ever had. So I would’ve loved to have done that. There’s a thing that we did on one of the first shows where they had to jump from one platform to another. Gronk and Venus did it. I think that would’ve been fun, too, if only because I knew that I couldn’t jump that far. So I would’ve definitely gotten lowered down like 50 feet from the top of the studio, which I think would be fun. It’d be fun to have a video of. But yeah, I was game for all of it. If we get to do more of them, I’m like getting in shape right now hoping that I can do everything that they have to offer.
Now let’s move on to the other thing you’ve been doing, which is co-head writer of The Late Late Show, which you’ve done for 5 years. But this year has been a little different, given the quarantine of it all. How has that changed the job itself?
First of all, I’m so grateful to even be working at all right now. I know that’s the thing you’re supposed to say, but I have so many good friends who are stand-up comedians and they just make their living from doing stand-up and going on the road. And I see what a challenge that is right now. So I just thank my lucky stars. The show, though, has gotten a lot more challenging to make. We’re doing everything over Zoom, so things that are like “Oh, let me just walk down the hall for a second and talk to this writer in person. Like everything has to be a meeting that you have to set up with a text message or a phone call. And it’s kind of hard to get a comedic rhythm going in a room with Zoom sometimes.
So days that used to be 10 hours, 11 hours in the studios, are now turning into like 12 or 13 or 14 hour days at some point. It’s definitely taxing, but as the writer or a funny person, it’s definitely an interesting challenge. When you start taking clubs out of your bag, to use a sports metaphor, you’ve got to get really creative. So as frustrating as it has been at times, and as hard as it is, everyone there and everyone working on the show are all aware that this is not what we want to be doing. But I think we’re also having a lot of fun figuring out “Okay. What’s the funniest thing you could do over Zoom?” What is the funniest thing you can do when James is in his garage or in the studio and nobody else can be in there. It’s kind of fun to like challenge yourself like that. It’s like a writing challenge. And our team is like so, so good. Again, I know that’s a thing you’re supposed to say, but I f*cking love our writers room so so much because they’re all working their asses off, but also like having fun doing it and coming up with amazing ideas. And we’re doing sketches. I think every show is kind of retreating to their strengths right now. Like you have Seth, who is still doing amazing political comedy. And so is Colbert. But we were always like a big show. Like a big song-and-dance, bright lights, happy fun time sort of late night show. And I think we’ve been able to do as good a job as possible at approximating that. And then when the protests started, and it was not really appropriate to be like “Okay, here’s like a fun sing-a-long we’re going to do in the garage. That’s not really what anything wants to or needs to be hearing right now,” that threw another angle in there that we had to sort operate around. It definitely got tricky, but again it was like “Here’s a challenge.” And I think we rose to it pretty good.
So it’s been tough. But knowing it’s temporary has definitely added a layer of kind of fun.
And from an audience aspect, I love what you guys are doing. How things are not ideal, but it’s like “Okay. Let’s make this work by any means necessary.”
Right. I mean, we can complain, but who would listen? (Laughs). So we might as well get to work and try to make people laugh. The weird thing about being a funny person right now is you see all these people who are truly essential. Like my mom’s a nurse. Like she goes to work every night. That’s an essential person. And you feel power to an extent. Being a comedian is like a job for the best of times. You feel like a little bit useless. You see the pandemic and the protests against police brutality, and you’re like “What the f*ck? What the f*ck am I doing with my life?” And then you’re like “Okay, but this is what I do. And these nurses are coming home from their shifts and maybe they just don’t want to think about the coronavirus for like an hour. And these people who are out delivering food all day, maybe they want a funny sketch to watch on their phone in between calls.” And then you start to feel like “Okay, I do fit into this in some way. I’m nowhere close to like essential or anything like that. But let’s go out there and do the best we can to try to make these people laugh for a minute.
Are there any things that you guys have done for the show that have sort of come out of being in quarantine that you might not have thought of otherwise that you’re really proud of?
Oh. That’s a great question. I’m a huge sports fan- which stands to reason given the whole Game On! thing- and early on I came up with this idea called the Shirt Off Shoot Out challenge. Where it’s like “Okay, the NBA playoffs were supposed to start right about now. We have all these NBA players at home. We’ll put 60 seconds on the clock, they’ll put on as many clothes as they can, and then we’ll see how many baskets they can make into their laundry basket by taking their clothes off and shooting them in there.” It was just like super fun and I missed sports and it was kind of sports-y. And that was something that we probably never would’ve thought of if we weren’t like trying to make the entire show over Zoom. So I thought that was really fun.
Another one we did was when the Met Gala was supposed to happen, you know where everybody dresses up in crazy outfits, and that got cancelled. So one of our writers came up with this idea for the Pet Gala, where we have people at home trying to dress their pets up and do little fashion shows. And it ended up being really, really funny. And there was commentary on all the outfits. It was like super fun. It was really, really fun.
And to ask from sort of a stand-up point of view, how badly are you missing going onstage? Because you’re so busy with the Late Late Show, do you still feel that feeling most comics are of missing the live audience?
Weirdly, going back to the beginning of our conversation, I didn’t know how much I missed it until I made that video. But I’ve been on The Late Late Show for like five years, and before that I was on Chelsea Lately for like a year. And T.V. writing is such a demanding job. If it’s 60 hours a week, you’re lucky. So I’ve been able to like mostly do hiatuses. So I’m good at going like a month or two without doing stand-up if I have to. But when I made that video, and people started reacting positively to it, I was like “F*ck. I miss making people laugh so much.” I also like writing stuff for James to say that makes people laugh. But like when you start out as a performer yourself, there’s really nothing like that. And more than any of the Zoom shows I’ve done, and I’ve only done a couple, that made me miss it so bad. I was like “I would give anything to be doing even a crowded bar show in Portland, Oregon right now and just be able to get that energy back.”
But the f*cked up thing is, man, before quarantine hit work had been so intense that I hadn’t even been able to go on for about a month anyway. I had maybe done like one show here in L.A. So my break has been even longer than like most stand-ups. I’m definitely itching to get back to it, but I don’t want to do it until something’s safe. I don’t want to put anyone in that position.
Yeah, I’ve definitely seen a lot of comics going back to it, but there are also a lot who are still opting to wait until it’s totally safe. So I get where you’re coming from 100 percent.
Yeah. And like I said, I’ve been in a privileged position where I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. So it’s easy for me to say “I don’t want to go out and do it.” But yeah. I think the people who are kind of like between a rock and a hard place don’t wanna go out and do it yet. But those outdoor shows, like what Chappelle did, if you can make that a reality over the summer, God bless you. I think that could be cool. But I am not a medical expert at all, so I have no idea how safe it is or anything like that.
Right. That’s sort of the debate. And the last thing I want to ask is, given your long hours on The Late Late Show, how do you still find time to write for yourself? What’s that balance like? Was it tricky to find at first?
It’s absolutely tricky. Like the time management is one thing. You have to be really, really disciplined time management wise. But the other thing is if you spend all day [writing for someone else], you have to write for your own voice. And James and I do have a bit of an overlap of what we think is funny, but it definitely is two circles, you know. So you spend all day trying to write in Corden’s voice, and then at some point you have to be like “Okay, how am I funny again?” It’s weird. You can kind of forget. My trick is I’ll just listen to my own stand-up. (Laughs). And it just kind of like tricks my brain into like “Oh yeah. That’s my rhythm. That’s how I see the world.” And then I can sort get back into it. But I have to listen to like 20 minutes of myself doing stand-up before I can start writing most days.
The final episode of Game On! airs Wednesday night on CBS