One of the most exciting things about SuperDeluxe.com is that it’s a means to document a comedian’s unadulterated comedic sensibility. The site’s hands off approach allows the artist to do whatever they want, often leading them to explore subjects and formats that they might otherwise never have discovered. In the case of Jay Johnston, who readers may know from Mr. Show, The Sarah Silverman Program, and Morel Orel, it means exploring his love of physical comedy with Mr.Show/Annoyance Theatre alum and Comedy by the Numbers co-author Eric Hoffman I spoke with Jay about the style that dominated humor during the early 20th century and why it’s been marginalized.
You have a series on Superdeluxe.com called The Snuz Brothers that harkens back to the once popular form of physical comedy. Do you think that style has fallen out of favor?
Oh, of course. It’s horrifically unpopular, it seems. It always shows up here and there in everything. No matter how highbrow something is, there’s always elements of it. Doing straight physical comedy where that’s really the focus of it for myself and Eric Hoffman, as writers and creators, is a fun challenge that this producer of ours, David Augusto, has helped out a great deal with. Being able to actually commit to doing it, sincerely, earnestly, without the tongue in cheek attitude of , “Isn’t this stupid,” is a big thrill. A lot of people say, “Oh, I don’t like that shit. They’re parodying an old-timey film.” Which of course we’re doing, but we like to call it satire because it’s dealing with the two brothers’ relationships. And it’s very much like a Laurel and Hardy thing, which they call retribution comedy with the one-upsmanship of trying to hit each other and punish each other for some horrible wrongdoing that is led by some idiot who is so stupid he’ll fight over anything. That’s their whole thing. It’s just fun to focus on it that way and to do the physical comedy because I think Eric is amazing at it. And I love doing it, but it’s gotten a mixed response because people think it is old timey, but they also respond to it with shock and glee because it’s so silly, getting hit in the nuts 800 times and stuff like that.
And why do you think it is that physical comedy fell out of favor?
Because of the pacing, I believe. I’m not saying it’s totally out of favor because you had Roberto Benigni bringing it back and you had Jim Carrey bring it back for a bit. But we’re trying to enjoy the fun, the silliness, and the absurdity of it. Just the fact that there’s so much orchestration involved in many ways. I don’t know why that’s appealing to me, but I think it’s really clever and fun when you see a physical comedian do something that works for you on an emotional level. A level of like, making fun on societal things like people who are snobs, archetypes like people who are aggressive mean jerks who eventually get their comeuppances. I think it’s in a very simple way that it can be really fun to watch. So, I think it’s because of the pacing and I think that people like things that are more language driven and plot oriented, which I cannot blame them for because it’s not like I don’t like that stuff myself, but I think because it doesn’t have those elements all the time people think it’s silly and they drift away from it after they’re maybe 1 ½ years old.
I think the internet is a perfect medium for physical comedy because it’s so instantaneous.
It is and that’s what’s awesome about it, but I’ll tell you the biggest pisser is the frame rate. I mean, we’re talking about movement and physicality and when your frame rate is not up to normal speed you sometimes get choppy images, which is really the biggest pisser and one of the ironic pain in the apples because I do think the internet is the perfect place for it because of the immediacy and the fact that you can show things on there that may not be on TV. You may actually get a following and have some popularity. That’d be nice.
Since you’re working with Eric Hoffman who wrote Comedy By the Numbers , do you find yourself taking a more analytic approach to the humor in the Snuz Brothers?
Not in the least. I think that the whole Comedy by the Numbers thing is such a tongue in cheek joke. And it was refreshing because Eric is like a professor of comedy in many ways. His take on things is very sharp and always very funny. He can tell you about a corny joke and then you’ll see him do it and he makes it work. He has that talent and that’s very fun to work with. Now, in the Snuz Brothers what we do is we basically talk when we’re writing, we’re just talking about what would be fun to do based on our years of watching silent films and enjoying certain things about them. And he’s got very specific likes and dislikes about some of the Laurel and Hardy stuff that we’ve watched, and so do I. I wouldn’t say it’s an analytic approach, but that’s a hilarious question (laughs) It’s very much that we’re just trying to make each other laugh
You mention that there are aspects of Laurel and Hardy that you don’t like, is it gags that they do that you don’t care for?
Usually my thing is, and I know this may sound ridiculous watching the Snuz Brothers, but my biggest thing is from, a logic or a presentation of the materials that is not too crazy. There are going to be things that are really crazy. But I don’t like to see people really get hurt, of course. Also there are times when a stunt will be way too out of bounds. I don’t really laugh at it any more because it’s not grounded in any reality, not even a hyperreality, not even a reality of clownishness, anything like that. I also don’t like clownish stuff. There’s elements of all that shit in there. And I’m not saying Eric brings that to it, and we argue over that, but we’ve both gotten a sense over the time we’ve done this of what each other goes for. Here’s an example of a really lame one. You have somebody slip on a banana peel, that’s not funny to me. If they slip on a banana peel and instead of slipping backwards they might slip forwards and smash their face and they’re up right away. It’s like a comedy of trying to give the opposite of what you expect. So it’s funny to us again.
I did an interview with Slovin and Allen once and they called that an un-joke. The way they explained it is that they don’t make the joke that you expect them to make. And that adds to the humor of it
Yeah, that’s what’s fun about it, butI hate alienating audiences and one of the tough things about the Snuz Brothers is that we don’t want to make it reference comedy, where it’s too old timey and we’re talking about specific comedians We also don’t want to steal their physicality. We don’t want to steal the style that they shot things in, because a lot of times their jokes were just one little thing. And we like to try occasionally to have a level here or there. (laughs) But they’re kind of hard to see behind the clown shoes and the big noses. But we like to have fun with making fun of the jokes that they used to do, or just trying to update it. So I think I know what you mean by an un-joke as far as taking a left turn that people don’t see coming. And I love to do that, I really do. But the idea that I’m terrified of is alienating the audience. So we spend a lot of time trying to make it feel like you’re along for the ride. Tricks are not being played on you, they’re jokes, you know? It’s been a very difficult process putting those together, even though they’re so short and goofy, because we redo the sound design from the ground up. All the sound effects are just homemade and all the voices are re-dubbed. So doing that has led to a little bit of an over-analyzation of the process in retrospect. Certainly not while we’re doing it, we’re just having fun.
And what inspired you to go from black and white to color?
I would say that would be pressure from SuperDeluxe. They didn’t like the black and white because they thought, “Oh, kids nowadays have never seen a black and white movie!” I was thought, “That’s absolutely retarded.” But one of the things we’re trying to do is to bring the material to a broader audience and also to meet the standards that we want of the pacing, so this time around we decided not to go with black and white because we thought perhaps they might be right, and also they get to say that, so there you go.
When it comes to updating something because you think a younger audience wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, do you have to do that when you’re working on other projects, to alter a joke if you’re making a reference to be a more current reference?
I suppose so, yeah you do, totally. But that’s not really the type of shit I do, I guess. Rarely do I have a reference that even a baby couldn’t get. I’m not a reference person, generally. But I’ve certainly been in writing rooms where that’s happened. When you go “I don’t think anybody know who invented the electric coil.” I don’t even know.
When it comes to working with Eric Hoffman on this particular project, is this the first time you’ve worked in a duo environment since the Skates?
Oh wow, yeah, The Skates. That’s a reference that no one will get (laughs). No, I’ve worked with the producer of the Snuz Brothers, David Augusto, I’ve worked with him forever, since we were in Chicago, and the same with Eric. I’ve partnered with him in writing and stuff like that, and producing on these things. And also this other show which I’d love you to check out. It’s called Life 101 and that’s on SuperDeluxe as well. It’s just little life lessons that are done with a voiceover teaching yourself how to do things.
Oh, back to working with a partner. Yeah, and he and I have worked throughout the years, and so have David and I. And writing on stuff, trying to pitch stuff to Adult Swim, we’re excited about that. We have a couple of shows that are ready to go that we want to pitch around, so that’s kind of cool. So that’s about the end of that answer (laughs).