|Interview by Lauren Berkley|
Even if you don't recognize the names Arie Kaplan and Jonathan Blitt, I bet you have either read, seen, or even played much of their work.
Kaplan began at MAD Magazine before moving on to scripting comics and video games. Blitt has worked for various MTV shows, as well as doing stints on Weeds, MADTV, and The George Lopez Show.
Together, this comedy dynamic duo bring a unique brand of humor to the current season of World's Dumbest on TruTV, as well as having launched a new web series called “The Real Male Escorts of Manhattan.”
I sat down with them last week to discuss what it takes to “make it” in comedy show business, who they hope to work with, the real world realities of male escortry, and...”man bands”?!
How did you both get started in the business? Were you always funny?
Jonathan Blitt: I got started in the business, I guess, at a very young age. My dad was a Yiddish theater actor. He would go on the road with his Yiddish theater company and we would go with him and occasionally, I would play an extra kid on the stage, but that's not when it really started; I didn't really have an interest in it, I don't think. I think, professionally, I moved to New York and kinda started studying theater, which I really enjoyed.
For television, though, my first job was when I was working for a production assistant for this commercial company and I had to go do a run at IKEA, and it just so happened I was wearing khaki pants and a blue button-down which kinda matched the uniform that they wore at an IKEA, and this couple came over and asked, “Do you work here?” And I was like, “...Yeah!” I messed with them for awhile and I just broke down crying using my Method acting skills and I walked out of there thinking, “Wow, this would be a great idea for a television show!”
A year later, I sold that concept to an internet company and it was a show called “Wreak Havoc” and that kind of opened the door to television for me.
Arie Kaplan: I went to NYU and studied playwriting and screenwriting there, and while I was there, I also interned at MAD Magazine, which I was a big fan of as a kid.
When I graduated, I had a sketch comedy troupe and a lot of the stuff I was writing, you know, sometimes there were things when other people in the troupe would go, “Oh, that would be good for MAD [Magazine]!”
So, I thought, “Ok, maybe I should try pitching them some stuff,” and I did and shortly after that, I started getting into the magazine quite a lot as a writer, and that kind of weirdly led to a lot of other things and a lot of other media. I was writing a lot of plays and working as an assistant to a film producer at the same time I was starting to write for MAD.
My boss and his friends would often attend the shows and that led to some TV work – Cartoon Network and places like that – and basically what happened was a lot of the plays I was writing were science-fiction comedies, and even though I was writing them for live actors, a lot of them translated really well to animation, weirdly enough, which doesn't often happen with live theater.
So, the Cartoon Network stuff led to me getting in contact with a couple of editors from DC Comics, because they were doing some Cartoon Network-licensed titles at the time, so I started writing for those – writing scripts for the Ben10 comics and the Looney Tunes comics and things like that.
Then, I just started writing a lot of other comics and graphic novels and characters like Speed Racer and Superman and Archie & Friends and Bart Simpson, things like that. While I was doing that, I was also doing a lot of script doctoring work, mostly for animation – a few different animated features, a few different companies and studios – and sort of juggling that with the comics and graphic novels and it just seemed like, “I wonder what I can do with this?”, so I started branching out in as many different areas that I could.
I had heard that a lot of comic book writers were branching out into video games and I had written this Speed Racer miniseries called Speed Racer: Chronicles of the Racer, that had done really well and was sort of responsible for my comics career, to a large extent, getting that off the ground. I showed it to a video game producer for Legacy Interactive who I met at San Diego Comic-Con a few years ago, and it led to me writing a lot of different scripts, stories, and dialogue for a lot of different video games, including the “House, MD” video game, which was to be this 5-episode series; it was like an episodic game.
Weirdly enough, I carved out a niche writing for a lot of video games that were based on TV shows. One was called “Law & Order Legacies” which was based on Law & Order and things like that. While I was doing that, I was still writing stuff for TV, mostly animation, but a lot of it was stuff that utilized my joke-writing skills, you know, and even the stuff for the House game did. Even though House is a drama, the character of Dr. Gregory House [actor Hugh Laurie] has a lot of put-downs and insults and that's kind of why they thought of me for it, mostly for my work at MAD Magazine, oddly enough. Again, even though it's this really dark, disturbing drama, they really wanted to have all these Gregory House-style insults, so I wrote tons and tons of those, in addition to creating the medical mysteries and things like that for the game.
And even when I was writing “Law & Order Legacies,” the Lenny Briscoe character [played by the late Jerry Orbach] would often have these quips, so that was another reason Telltale Games thought of me for that. I met a writer named Paul Smith last year at San Diego Comic-Con and he forwarded my information to the folks who run Meetinghouse Productions and that's how I ended up here writing for World's Dumbest and meeting Jonathan Blitt.
Wow, so Arie, you kind of had a backdoor entry into comics and video games. Most people strive for that, but you sorta fell into it.
AK: It was really weird. I just didn't know how to go about doing all this and some of it sorta of fell into my lap in a weird way, where I was just like, “How do people even get into comics? How does this even happen?” Then, I just sort of met some of the right people and I was like, “Well, I've written for this other media that's similar that's also an adaptation based on animation stuff, maybe I can write comics based on these animated characters,” and they were, like, “Sure!”
And now, both of your career paths have led you to World's Dumbest.
JB: The show has been on for about 15 seasons. I was just brought on for this 15th season. Before that, I was working on MTV. I did 87 episodes of a show called Boiling Points. I was a writer and on-air on that show. I did another show for MTV called Totally Clueless. I've been on the show Weeds, I've appeared on The George Lopez Show and MADTV as an actor, as well.
Video clip shows have been around for ages. What drew you both to World's Dumbest?
JB: All the writers on the show are great; they're inspiring and challenging. But also having the opportunity to work with a handful of different comics who all have really different voices is really kind of appealing to me, and also being able to write sketches around the clips. And you know, all these clips really help you get an insight into humanity.
I'm sorta fascinated by people who are sort of desperate for fame, and you really get to see that first-hand with all the clips that kind of come our way.
AK: For me, having watched the show and really enjoying and admiring the show and the sketches and the different cast members' takes on the clips, it's different than a lot of the writing I've been doing for stand-up comics or for MAD or for any of the other TV shows I've written for like that. This just sounds like so much fun to do and something slightly different, but certainly in my wheelhouse.
What advice would you give to those who want to be not just or not necessarily comedians but comedy writers?
JB: I think you really need to find your own voice. You need to treat it like a marathon and just always be in the process of writing.
When I moved to New York, I started as an actor and no one was really writing anything with me, so I took the initiative and started writing and had readings of my sketches and my plays, and then I actually went out and produced them. So, I think as a writer, it's not only important to write, but also to get your work off the page – to a one-act play or to a sketch group – you know, just to get your work out there and see it come to life and I think that's kind of inspiring and helpful, as a writer.
AK: Yeah, I'd agree. It's really only half the process, writing it. As Jonathan said, seeing it on its feet and actually going through that process, seeing how people react to it, and what it needs to get better is such a good part of it.
Otherwise, it just sits in your drawer, and you delude yourself into thinking, “Oh, this is perfect as it is.”
JB: I think when I started, you know, video cameras were crazy expensive and editing wasn't as accessible and there was no internet, really, so I think today, young writers, have so much technology at their fingertips to help their work come to life and really take it off the page.
So, do you think with the internet and more and more people being both social media- and technically-savvy, it's easier to break into the business?
JB: No, it's still just as difficult, but I think you have a lot more freedom as a creator to get stuff off the page. It is the hardest business ever and I think the young writers and performers need to be aware of that and to stick with it.
AK: Rather than it being easier, I think now it's even more competitive, because it's been sort of democratized in this way where everyone thinks they can do it, you know what I mean? Everyone's trying to get into the act.
Who are some of your favorite people to work with?
JB: On Weeds, I got to work with a guy name Matt Salsberg and a woman by the name of Jenji Kohan who created the show; that was pretty cool. George Lopez was a very cool person to work with, as well; I did a bunch of sketches on his show. I appeared on MADTV awhile ago and I did a sketch with Bobby Lee and kind of breaking him in the midst of the sketch was kinda funny.
I worked as Tom Selleck's masseuse on season 3 of Magnum P.I., so that was exciting, you know, to get him loose before any shoots and stuff, so that was kinda cool.
Wow...I was not expecting that answer.
JB: No, that was a joke.
AK: I didn't want to interrupt him.
Arie, what about you? Who have you enjoyed working with?
AK: There are a lot of different people. I've written a number of these Bart Simpson comics and it's really interesting, because it's Matt Groening's comic book company – Bongo Comics – and that's always fun, because first of all, you get to work with all these incredible cartoonists, like Phil Ortiz, who used to be an animator on The Simpsons and the guys that work there, like Nathan Kane and his predecessor Bill Morrison, respectively, the new and old creative director of Bongo. Those guys are a lot of fun to work with.
At MAD, there are a lot of people there that I just grew up really admiring, like cartoonists and editors. Joe Raiola is sort of a comedy mentor to me. He's been my editor there for years. Drew Friedman who's a really great cartoonist who's illustrated a number of my pieces there.
The folks at Telltale Games. Folks there like Ryan Kaufman and Dave Grossman are great to work with and then the people at Legacy Interactive. There's a show called Code Name: Kids Next Door and that was a fun show to work on. The list is endless; I know I'm leaving a lot of people out, but those are some of the highlights.
JB: One highlight for me was when I did MADTV, Michael Hitchcock [from the Christopher Guest films] directed a sketch I was in, so that was a kind of pretty cool experience, especially as a fan of his work.
Who would you like to work with, but haven't yet?
JB: I'd like to work with Paula Deen, but not anymore.
AK: Why? What's happened to her in the past week or so that changed your mind about that?
JB: I'd like to play guitar with Trey Anastasio for, like, an hour. That'd be pretty cool. I like Will Ferrell a lot. I think that would be pretty cool to work with him or even Danny McBride.
AK: Judd Apatow and the whole Apatow crew. A lot of folks like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel...I really empathize with them to probably a pretty absurd degree. Like, the character Jason Segel played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is pretty bizarrely similar to me after a break-up that happened a long time ago, where I even did write a puppet stage play. It wasn't a musical and it wasn't about Dracula, but it was about martians and I did direct puppets for it, so I think those folks would be pretty amazing to work with. I think Joss Whedon's pretty incredible. Amy Sherman-Palladino is pretty incredible. I pretty much watch whatever those two people do. Robert Smigel seems like he'd be fun to work with.
How did you come up with “Real Male Escorts of Manhattan”?
JB: I was living in Los Angeles and I discovered this actual male escort service online and it was hilarious. I thought it'd be kind of great to poke fun at that world and frame it in this kind of faux-reality show, à la Real Housewives, so I was kicking the idea around in L.A. and then when I got back to New York and started working at Meetinghouse.
Meetinghouse has something called “Office Hours” where they try and encourage you to come up with ideas and try and make things using the in-house resources, so I put the treatment up on “Office Hours” and then Arie kind of gravitated to it and we collaborated on the first episode.
Have you guys seen the reality show Gigolos on Showtime?
JB: It's all fake, first of all. Like, all the women actually get paid to appear on the show. I was definitely inspired by that show, for sure.
So...did you ever actually call that online male escort agency? You know, for research?
JB: It's possible I did call. [laughs] It's possible that I used someone who tried to get a job there. I think the whole world of male escortry is a myth, because women don't need to pay for sex, so this particular escort service that will remain unnamed was basically a big scam.
They would suck in these narcissistic guys, have them pay thousands of dollars for headshots and photographs to put on the website and they would never get called. It's genius. I know somebody who did kind of get roped into that, so that's where it kind of inspired me to fuse that escort service into that faux-reality show.
AK: That fueled a lot of the writing in the first episode, I think, for Jonathan and I, because we had a lot of conversations early on back and forth about how real this stuff is IN real life and that sort of propelled the idea that they would have this low scheme to try and get publicity and to try and get more work as escorts.
Honestly, I don't even think Jonathan and I have talked about this, [to Jonathan] so feel free to step in, but one of the things I realized that really drew me to working on it is that I just felt like I really felt for the characters in this weird way. On some level, it really is about redemption and these characters trying to create something for themselves in this very American kind of way; sort of build themselves up from nothing.
JB: It plays on the idea of the sort of desperation for fame and the reality show they want to be on: Four narcissistic idiots who think they are God's gift to women and who are totally unaware of themselves.
AK: I feel like there's an exception to that, though. The character of Steve (comedian Mike Trainor) had a little self-awareness.
JB: I don't think any of them have any self-awareness.
AK: Well, I feel like there's a hierarchy of stupidity, of sorts, among these four. Of the four of them, when they're all doing something stupid, the only one to call them on it is Steve. So, where he's kind of this naïve rube and the others take advantage of that and he's not very worldly, he does have a little more common sense, I feel.
AK: Barely. Barely, but it's something, you know what I mean? It's just a little spark that comes out at times. And also what's weird about that is I realized, and I know this probably wasn't intentional, because I know you're not a comics fan or anything, Jonathan, but it was in your original proposal that he would have this sort of double life – that Steve would.
But it is this sort of secret identity, and I kind of realized that very recently, and I was thinking, “He really is living this kind of double life. It's like a pathetic superhero.”
What are the future plans for “Real Male Escorts”? Any chance it would springboard into a Comedy Central or a short Adult Swim series like Children's Hospital or NTSF:SD:SUV?
JB: I think it depends on what kind of traction this first episode gets. Working with the resources that we had, we just went and did it right before World's Dumbest started.
AK: We really just tried to get it in under the wire. “What can we reasonably do that wouldn't be overly-ambitious but would still be funny and impressive and interesting?”
We just talked about it back and forth and I wrote this book on pop music awhile back and I've been sort of unhealthily obsessed with bubble gum pop and the whole boy band phenomenon – God, that sounds terrible – and it just sort of was like, “Well, why don't they try and be, like, a “man band”? Like a boy band, but way too old? Wouldn't it be funny if we wrote a bad pop song?” We don't want to trot it out every episode. It just wouldn't make any sense, plot-wise.
Here, it's a really stupid, desperate attempt at a tactic to draw up publicity, but it just wouldn't...they're male escorts, they're not pop stars, you know? That being said, if at some point in the series run, the story organically lends itself to doing another song then we'll write one and Jonathan will wear a mesh tank top or something. But ONLY if it warrants it.
JB: It was a really, really fun collaboration.
What other projects are coming down the pike for you both?
JB: Right now, World's Dumbest, and a few other shows in development.
AK: For me, World's Dumbest. I've been here just slightly longer than Jonathan. I also have a kids' graphic novel out now which couldn't be more the polar opposite from “Real Male Escorts” – I don't know if it's a yin and yang kind of thing – and it's called The New Kid from Planet Glorf and it's out from Stone Arch Books and it's super-adorable and very squeaky clean, so I don't know if it's a way of exorcising myself, but...that tends to be the case. One of the projects I'll do will be incredibly kid-friendly and squeaky clean and the other one will be SO NOT.
I got another video game that I worked on the story and dialogue for and it's out now from Legacy International and it's called “Disaster Hero” and it's a kids' educational game about surviving disasters.
JB: I'm gonna actually be on the second-to-last episode of Intervention, which I'm pretty excited about. Everyone thought I was addicted to crystal meth, but I wasn't, and I kind of reveal at the end that it was all kind of a joke.