Creatively elastic Jonathan Krisel is on a mission to make you laugh.
Not just with one series, but currently with three critically acclaimed comedies which are each uniquely brilliant and come at you from wildly different perspectives.
Krisel oversees FXX’s Man Seeking Woman, IFC’s Portlandia and FX’s Baskets, a show that was the first project under FX Productions’ overall deal with Louis C.K. and his production company, Pig Newton.
Zach Galifianakis, it turns out, had an idea for a TV series and cold-called Krisel.
Now as executive producer, the story of down-and-out classically trained French clown Chip Baskets — who must downsize his dreams and work as a Bakersfield rodeo clown — has captured a solid audience that covers a wide demographic.
Everyone seems to love Baskets and the characters, including Louie Anderson who plays the unlikely matriarch in the series.
Krisel is insanely busy as a director and executive producer on the three aforementioned TV shows, cutting his teeth earlier in his career on Adult Swim, Saturday Night Live, and Kroll Show.
Not to mention that it was recently announced he will direct the pilot for Ghosted, a supernatural comedy series from Adam Scott and Craig Robinson for Fox.
Monsters and Critics spoke to Krisel about Baskets’ overall premise, casting the characters including Anderson and Martha Kelly, and how the series excels on doting on the little things in life.
His poignant TV-film hybrid approach to telling a simple story with co-creators Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. is a resounding success and poised for a memorable Season 3.
Monsters and Critics: Baskets is a beautiful and working presentation of completely absurd moments and mundane realism of family life existing together. Can you talk about that?
Jonathan Krisel: That was my goal. In my own family, where nothing is that exciting, there’s still so much drama that ensues from “Who’s hosting Thanksgiving?”, or somebody’s birthday…just these tiny little things. In your own family there are the king and the queen, and these big stories that you have to figure out.
From the outside perspective, they can seem like nothing. So the goal of the show was [that] we’ve got some larger than life characters in there, but just tell those little stories of little tiny feelings.
This is a sensitive family, [and] a lot of families [are] like this. In the world of your own family, someone sending you a mother’s day card is huge!
But if it didn’t come, it would be terrible. Literally, it’s just a piece of paper but…it’s the little tiny things.
Baskets is an elevated show where we can be as dramatic and poetic and cinematic [as we can] to showcase this. That was my goal.
M&C: When you watch Louie Anderson as Christine, especially this last season, does it get emotional for you?
JK: Oh my god, yes! Someone just texted me from the last episode [Yard Sale] where Louie as Christine is in the bank and she gets her check and they texted me and said, “Were you guys all crying on set when that happened?” and I said, “Yes, we were.”
Louie takes it to the next level, beyond what’s written on the page, and makes it so warm and genuine and funny and sweet… it’s such a crazy thing to watch because this is a man playing the most believable woman. The most believable and genuine mom.
It’s really cool. It goes way beyond when he starts adding the words and adding his “momisms” and it really comes to life.
M&C: Louie’s books and standup were fueled by his childhood, the relationship he had with his parents. Was he the immediate choice for you to cast as Christine based on his stand-up?
JK: Definitely not. But once…because initially, we were thinking it would be a woman to play the role.
We reached out to a few people, but then as the voice of the character became more clear, then that stand-up [background] and his voice had come into play.
It was Louis C.K. who…he probably knew more about what you are talking about — early on, his comedy albums and a lot of his stand-up [material] around his mother and dad. His cartoon show is also about his family.
So he has a lot of experience thinking about his own family, making jokes about his own family, so it’s definitely inside of him. He’s kind of an expert on moms and dads at this point.
M&C: With people at the zenith of their careers like Zach and Louie, as a writer/creator do you present these characters in broad strokes and then stay out of their way while they add to it?
JK: Early on, when Zach said he wanted to do a show I knew I wanted to do a family melodrama.
I had seen everything that Zach had done up to that point and what I like and enjoyed about some of his work was the dramatic passion he would bring to every role. That was funny to me.
Also, he does slapstick and really funny one-liners. So how do we combine all that? Plus, he’s a good dramatic actor in movies.
He has his brother character, usually — Seth Galifianakis is what he calls it — he has those kind of characters, but he had never done a Chip [Baskets] type of character, a really sullen guy.
If you know Between Two Ferns, he does a kind of mean-spirited guy who is the host of that web series.
I would say definitely once Louie [Anderson] was involved…the first scene that we did with Louie we had a basic scene, but we explored it.
We weren’t sure we had seen what Christine was going to be like. The first scene we tried a lot of things, he [Louie] brought a lot of his mom to it and it was definitely…we did a pilot and when you do a pilot you get to step back and go “What was that?”
What I saw in that pilot was I that loved his mom.
Initially, it was…I didn’t know what it [Baskets] was going to be initially, and then this really is the process…a mom and her son…and I think what happened is that by Season 2, we really got into “How can we push the buttons of her son, the mom and him [Chip] going to jail…putting them really in each other’s faces and allowing a lot of the drama to come out of their relationship and her relationship with her other sons?” And maybe her own romantic relationship and all these different things.
It takes some time to just figure out who these people are and how you can utilize them comedically against each other, and with each other.
Then Martha [Martha Kelly] also really emerged as part of the family and part of Chip’s world. He has a couple of friends and he’s trying to figure it out.
That Martha character is so dry and so funny, I just love her. Trying to figure out how to use her…there’s that kind of comedy character, who kind of exists just for jokes and stuff like that.
But she’s deeper than that, but we didn’t want to go too deep into her as a tragic person like everybody else.
Obviously we see that she’s not living up to her potential, but she’s fine with that and we didn’t want to overcomplicate it and make her change and come out of her shell.
I wanted to keep her right where she is, in her shell. And she’s so great.
The three of them are really the core and, you know, writing the scenes, you think, “Ooh Martha and Christine? Having them together?”
You know it’s [the scene] is going to be great because they’re excited to pair up and play off each other.
It’s these fun little tennis matches that you’re setting up, it’s fun for the actors too.
These guys get to play with each other in a great way, that I think everyone looks forward to and sometimes the story splinters them all apart and they’re interacting with different people, but how can we get them back together?
Family dinners…you can’t beat those kinds of scenes. They’re just all there together, it’s really fun.
M&C: Martha is becoming the daughter and best friend Christine needed. Can you talk about the liberation of Christine and the Yard Sale episode setting the tone for Season 3?
JK: Yes, exactly. Because my goal for this season was that it was the liberation of Christine, good way of putting that.
She talks about it throughout the season: “I have these boys and I don’t know what I’m going to do and I kept thinking once they were gone”…then they never left.
But at a certain point and with her mother passing away — I think that’s true for a lot of people of having your own mother around, you sort of feel a sense of loyalty.
But once that person is gone, the one overseeing your every move and judging it, then you are a little more open and she’s [Christine] ready to have her moment.
The goal was for this season, could this be the Lost in Translation movie of Christine Baskets’ life?
Normally those scenes are reserved for a waif sort of model-type person, oh so beautiful and just sort of roaming around thinking about things in a beautiful setting with cool music.
I like those movies and things, but I like Christine’s inner life, it’s very complex.
She is who she is. She’s struggling with her weight, she’s got this family that’s sort of barely getting off the ground and she thinks it’s all her fault, but she does go on this little journey, she flies to Denver and she tries new things, makes new friends and gets a boost of confidence. What will she do now?
[Perhaps] Season 3 and the season finale, she sees through the whole course of this and thinks maybe a family business is a way she can take care of everyone, protect everyone and provide for everyone.
Of course, we know it will be a disaster. I mean, we hope it won’t be…but her family is not the most reliable bunch.
She has great intentions and brings everybody in, keeping them close, but her novel pursuit might push the buttons of the family too hard. Just the way her mother passing away and giving her freedom…she now has an eagle eye on her boys and it’s really hard to work under those circumstances.
Especially creatively for Chip. Because he’s going to be a clown and now she’s his boss. It’s great. I can’t wait to write this next season.
M&C: A much more optimistic Season 3? Where are you taking the Baskets clan, Mr. Krisel?
JK: [Laughs] I don’t know where I’m taking them, but I think we do want to get it…like as you say it is going to be more upbeat.
And I think that is part of it, it could be a little too heavy at times, and I don’t want to lose that, I think it’s part of the show.
This season, there were more happy endings, there are few very sad ones, but there are happy ones too, so I think about that too.
I think about how the season can’t be too dark, the goal is we want to make people laugh and these are super funny people who just happen to be really good at doing dark dramatic things too.
So I think Dale came alive this season too. He’s a hard character because he’s so funny, but he’s like on the verge of being from a different show, but we need him because he is so funny and horrible.
M&C: Dale has the best lines…
JK: Yes. Zach says this is the most fun character for him because he can access things.
I think our goal is to make him and his craziness come from a real place. He’s separated from his wife, and he’s going out on a limb and trying to meet [her]…you can see every time why he circles back to his own house and tries to make dinner for his family, he’s very manic about it.
Because he knows he messed up in life and is trying to pretend like hopefully they won’t notice.
When his daughter was in jeopardy [in the Yard Sale episode] he’s kind of willing to do whatever it takes. He tries to play it cool, but he’s not that cool.
Also, we did a lot of Chip and Dale scenes this year, interacting with each other, so when you’re writing about the family and these two brothers, it’s so complicated to shoot because Zach is playing both roles.
But I think looking back at the season and now that it’s finished, I love that stuff! It was really successful.
It showcases how amazing Zach really is, he’s playing two different roles and he’s improvising as two different characters. He’s actually making genuine emotional scenes.
But when you have to think about that, he’s doing it to nothing! Acting with nothing. He’s patient, and he’s calm and letting the emotional stuff ring out and he’s not rushing it.
We have long, long takes of the two of them together just talking it out, and he does it all. It’s all him figuring out, listening to the other character who’s not really there, and making it work.
It’s a feat! It’s like a magic trick, he’s doing such a great job.
Even though they’re [Chip and Dale] complicated to shoot, I am going to go more into it.
I think it’s fun for him and seeing those two sides of him in those characters is so cool together. They make for great scenes, the two of them.
M&C: Will Ken factor in Season 3 or is his arc finished?
JK: I don’t know, I mean I haven’t even really thought about it honestly. I like [Alex Morris’s] Ken, he’s a great character so I assume he will be back a little bit.
I’m going to try and bring back some characters from Season 1 too.
I think with the potential of the family running the rodeo, there was a lot of rodeo in Season 1 and some colorful characters that I think will be rehired and come back into it.
M&C: Even Penelope, you gave her some humanity in Season 2…
JK: She was very polarizing to people, they really hated her because she was so mean.
In the pilot, she was so cruel, but we worked every subsequent episode to gradually show you why [she was], or sort of soften it.
Yes there’s a way, you can see she knows she made some mistakes and she feels bad.
And we did have the episode where you see she genuinely does like him [Chip] and it’s kind of her own angsty teenager-ness with her own father…yeah I think she could be redeemed. Because I like her! [Laughs].
What would bring her back? Who knows. It could happen. Probably not.