A native of Atlanta, GA, Joe Saunders is set to become the next great comedy writer. Currently writing for the IFC oddball sketch show, Comedy Bang! Bang! Saunders wrote for the 2015 Emmys as well as written sketches for websites Funny or Die and College Humor. Saunders first began his career at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where he is a member of the UCB sketch house team, “Oh, Brother!” Today, he lives in what he describes as the “cute, hipster” neighborhood of Los Feliz and has learned that Los Angeles does not have endless pool parties, as he once thought.
Saunders gave us a sneak peek of what will happen on season five of Comedy Bang! Bang!, what it’s like to write for the Emmy’s, and what his first sketches were like:
High Voltage: Can you tell us a little bit about what will happen on Comedy Bang! Bang! season five?
Joe Saunders: Season five starts in early June. It’s pretty much like the other seasons of Comedy Bang! Bang! but now we have Weird Al as the band leader. He replaced Kid Cudi as the new band leader. Weird Al is great. He’s so funny. He had been on the show a few times as a guest, but it’s cool to see him and Scott [Aukerman] co-host. They’ve been friends a long time, so they have a rapport. Besides that…what else is going to happen on “Comedy Bang Bang”…it’s another crazy season. We are doing a sketch that we have been talking about for a long time. There is a sequel to a previous episode – but I won’t reveal which episode it is (laughs). Kevin Bacon is the guest for the season premiere, The Lonely Island guys come up in an episode promoting their movie, and they’re super funny. They will be on an episode with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. I think they’re some of the funniest interviews we’ve ever done. Kristen Schaal is on an episode this season. We have so many guests! It’s funny, people who you would think, like musicians, where you’re not really sure how they’re going to fit into the comedy world are usually the most game to do weird stuff and have fun and enjoy it. But there have also been a few weird musicians, too (laughs).
HV: What is one of the biggest challenges writing for Comedy Bang! Bang!?
JS: A challenge/plus of writing for the show – that we’ve talked about in the writers room – is that the show can fit any comedic idea. If I had an idea for like, say, a funny comedy movie, I could purpose that into a Comedy Bang! Bang! episode, whether the entire episode was like that or if it was just like a sketch. That’s a great thing about the show – is that we can take any interest or subject matter and make it into a Comedy Bang! Bang! episode. But it’s also a challenge because it can be daunting to figure out what to make the episodes about. That’s one of the biggest challenges. I think with other shows where you’re kind of regimented about the kind of episodes you do it can be a bit easier, but with this we have 1,000 different ways to do this and we don’t know which way works, so we have to try out like 10 different ones (chuckles).
HV: Do you have a favorite part of an episode you have written for Comedy Bang! Bang!?
JS: There is an episode in the fifth season that I’m really proud of that I wrote a bit of. My favorite thing, though, that I have written for Comedy Bang! Bang! is when I submitted to write for the show, I included a sketch where Reggie joins the X-Men, but instead of mutants, they’re musicians. It’s a world where musicians are treated differently. I pitched that when I was trying to get hired. Then when I got hired, I pitched it again and they picked up the pitch. It was the first big thing I wrote for the show. I was really happy with how it turned out. I have always been a really big comic book fan, so I knew a lot about the X-Men. It turned out really silly and crazy (giggles). They had people in X-Men costumes. That was really exciting to see. It was cool to go from something I was just brainstorming to try to get on the show to actually see it get made.
HV: Do you and the writers of Comedy Bang! Bang! have a specific way of brainstorming and coming up with new ideas for the show?
JS: Not really. We’ll do pitch sessions. Everyone will have an ongoing list of sketches. We will have pitch meetings where we all go around the table and everyone says ideas and we add to them. Neil Campbell, who’s the head writer, and Scott Aukerman will weigh in and give their take on it. The only kind of weird ritual we do is we play this game–and we’ve only done it a few times–where someone will go off in a room for 10 seconds and come up with a title of sketch. They come back in and say the title of the sketch, and everyone has to pitch what the sketch would be. It usually ends up with song titles. I don’t know if anything resulted from that. But it’s a fun way to get the juices flowing. There might be a sketch (that I think) is in the next season that I wrote called, “You made your bed now lie in it” and I think that might have come from that. It’s a game show where people make beds. It’s coming up with a title and coming up with what would be the literal interpretation of that (giggles). Other than that, it’s pretty free-flowing. It’s a blast to work on.
HV: What was it like to write for the 2015 Emmy Awards?
JS: That was very fun and similar to Comedy Bang! Bang!. It was the same staff. Scott Aukerman and Andy Samberg brought on the writing staff of the show. We took a break in the middle of season five to spend five weeks writing at the Emmys. It was really cool. We would go to Andy Samberg’s office and pitch and write sketches. He would have his laptop out, and we would all sit around and write sketches. He wanted us to think of big, crazy ideas. It was really fun. Andy – I had never met him before – he’s really smart and super funny. He always wanted to do the funniest idea, which I thought was cool. He just wanted the show to be as funny as possible.
We got to go to the awards. We were sitting off stage in our tuxedos and dresses: it was very fancy (laughs). Then we went to the Governor’s Ball, which is a big, fancy dinner. Andrea Bocelli was singing when we walked in. They had great food. As we walked around I think people wondered who we were (laughs). Then we went to a party that Andy hosted, which was fun. It was a weird, Hollywood kind of thing (laughs).
HV: You are originally from Atlanta and went to UNC Chapel Hill. How was the transition of moving to LA?
JS: It was a little bit of a change. Hmm…it’s a good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I don’t think they’re quite as different as I imagined it would be. It wasn’t quite as big of a culture shock as I thought it would be, based on my previous notions of Los Angeles. Atlanta and LA are similar in odd ways. They’re both spread out – there’s no central area. They both have a downtown, but downtown isn’t really the central part of the city. I was always used to living in a place like that. The weirder part is how the film and TV industry works in such a weird and interesting way. That took a bit for me to wrap my head around. I think LA is a fairly normal place, once you find your place and your friends. It’s just like anywhere else.
HV: I think you’re the first person I’ve ever met who has called LA “Normal”.
JS: (laughs) Maybe I’ve just gone super LA I’m Mr. LA now! I’m the weirdo now (laughs). I go home and everyone thinks I’m weird.
HV: You mentioned that you had your own ideas of LA before you came here. What were some of those ideas? What did you expect LA to be like?
JS: Oh, just whatever was in movies that I had seen. I thought that LA had a constant pool party in Beverly Hills that was always going on (laughs). That would be the lifestyle. I think I came out expecting that every street would look like it was in Bel-Air. But it’s not really like that. I live in a cute part of town: I live in Los Feliz. I think it’s like a hipster, nice part of town, but it’s a lot more low-key than Bel-Air of Westwood. Not to bring up Woody Allen, but I always think of that scene in either Annie Hall or Manhattan where his friend is driving him around LA and they’re in a convertible, and Woody Allen is reacting to LA as a crazy place. That was my preconceived notion. I will be honest, I was ready for the pool parties. I had my swimsuit! (laughs) No, I didn’t want to do the pool parties. I sunburn so quickly.
HV: You have actually taught sketch at UCB. Have you ever had to read or address any truly strange sketches?
JS: Constantly. When you’re first getting started writing sketch comedy, which most sketch students haven’t done before, they’re trying to learn the basics so you always have to deal with people who have strong opinions about comedy, or are trying to emulate their comedy heroes. You will have someone who is a big Sarah Silverman fan and they’re trying to make the same kind of joke that Sarah Silverman would make, and they’re not able to do it as easily. That’s always a thing to deal with. But I think any time you teach any sort of comedy class or improv, that’s an issue you have to deal with. In my first sketch class, I wrote really bad sketches where the teacher was like what is this about? What is your opinion of this subject matter? And I really didn’t know. (laughs). I was just trying to be weird and funny.
HV: What advice would you have for aspiring sketch writers?
JS: A career path clicked in my mind when I started taking classes and became involved with shows at UCB. I think if you want to write comedy, you need to find your place where you can do that. A place like UCB, which is all about amateurs and giving people a chance, let me learn from others who were at my same level and above me. I also worked as writer’s assistant on a T.V. show. I learned a lot doing that. But that was such a huge leap – I was surrounded by people who had been professional TV writers for decades, in some cases. I didn’t have a lot in common with them. Meeting people who were at my same level helped me make connections and make friends, and become better at what I was doing. They helped me to become the comedy writer that I am today.