Embrace Failure to Find Success: Jon Daly & Gil Ozeri on Becoming Comedy Performer-Writers
Here's how a background in improv set the course for two of today's most exciting comedic filmmakers.
The Upright Citizens Brigade is responsible for the introduction of many talented artists to the world. Of course, UCB founding member Amy Poehler is perhaps the most well-known of the improvised comedy school's alumni, but over the years, the group has launched careers for the likes of Donald Glover, Nick Kroll, Kate McKinnon, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Adam McKay and more.
The common theme in this thread? These figures aren't just comedians, they're creators. Donald Glover has the critically acclaimed Atlanta, Ansari struck it big with Master of None, and let's not even get started with the myriad of insane projects McKay has birthed unto the world. The same can now be said for both Jon Daly and Gil Ozeri, whose short film Men premiered on Super Deluxe last week. Both Daly and Ozeri credit UCB for the start of their creative careers.
"Keep making stuff, constantly make stuff until you find out who you are, and then know that who you are changes all the time, so you have to keep finding who are."
Daly is perhaps best known for his sketch work on The Kroll Show, but it seems like his presence is felt in some capacity in almost every worthwhile comedy these days, with bit roles in everything from BoJack Horseman and Family Guy to Bob's Burgers and Key and Peele. One of his more recent roles was in Janicza Bravo's Sundance hit Lemon.
Gil Ozeri broke out as a writer for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and is newer to the scene, but is clearly one of the most exciting, up-and-coming comedians out there. For anyone who is in on the joke, his Snapchat stories are legendary. Never has anyone taken advantage of the medium like Ozeri has, often unleashing complex, multi-layered odysseys of self-destruction and discovery.
Men is just as uncomfortably hilarious and disturbing as you may expect if you're familiar with the pair's body of work. The short, about the downfall of a couple of salesmen at a Men's Warehouse-esque suit store, was produced by two of the most cutting-edge production companies out there, A24 and Super Deluxe. You can watch the whole thing and then read our interview with the creators below.
NFS: Can you talk a little about how you got started?
Jon Daly: I moved to New York to be an actor and discovered UCB theater and just started improvising and eventually writing sketch shows there. UCB was everything for me personally. It was where I put up all my shows and my social scene. Their training, allowing me to go out and fail on stage for 10 years, was the best way for me to become a performer-writer.
NFS: When could you really tell that this was something you could do as a career? Plenty of people enter UCB and end up spending hundreds of dollars just to never really get anywhere. What was the point where you were like, "Oh this is actually going to turn into something for me"?
Daly: It's about a couple of things. Definitely the support of your peers, you feel supported, like part of a team and then push each other to be better. Things like that are just as important as getting jobs. You get work and keep doing it. You're always reproving to yourself that you're doing it.
NFS: When you find collaborators, that seems to be a big part of it. People that are less into the competitive scene but more interested in creating something. Speaking of collaborators, what was your path like Gil?
Gil Ozeri: Sort of similar to Jon's. I did not pursue it in college. I really didn't think of art as anything I would be able to pursue as a career. I didn't have any direction. I didn't want to do computer science, which is what I majored in college. When I moved to Manhattan after I graduated from college, I worked at this bar as a bartender. One of the cocktail waitresses told me about UCB. I went and took classes and started to perform there just like Jon. It was basically like, "Whoa, I found something I love to do."
It was a place where you were able to hone your voice. Where you were able to find out who you are and also be with so many talented people. Because you get to watch those improvisers, you're learning taste, you're learning what is good and what is not good. That was another really helpful thing about UCB. You learn what you like and what you don't like, and what you can do and what you're good at. Basically, what you should be pursuing. Coming up through UCB was everything.
NFS: From an outside perspective, I feel like you guys must have such an easier time developing actual fleshed out characters than a lot of screenwriters because it's something that you’ve just practiced again and again for years.
Daly: We were blessed to be able to go on stage with new characters, fail and then just kind of keep doing it. Keep coming up with characters, keep trying them out. Keep honing them and making them more defined and more specific. Keep embarrassing ourselves at late night shows in New York that were, often times, pretty well attended.
There's a real culture of live theater, obviously, in New York, that's extended to UCB and the stand-up scene as well. People would come to these shows every week. It was this magic time of being able to go on stage in this incredibly low-stakes way and create. Everybody was writing. We were all bouncing off each other. We saw how people did stuff, sat at a bar and made fun of them for three hours. That blows your mind apart. You go, "I've done nothing thus far. I need to get my shit together and get something going.” You’re encouraging each other to take risks.
Ozeri: I was going to add, some of things that UCB teaches in improv are following your fear, not being afraid to go to dark places, and empathizing with a certain character that you're playing, that you might not get as a screenwriter. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it's sort of what improv does. It allows you to get a character on its feet. You're also exploring and heightening what that character would do and where you go with that character.
Also, just like Jon said, specificity is everything. Specifics and filling out an improv scene are so important. Not just to the place, but the relationship and the character. All those things contribute to helping us writing stuff and developing characters. We put these characters up at UCB before we shot the film. We did them at shows and that really helped us a lot.
"Know where there could be an alternative reading on something or an alternative line that would serve the script better. You want to get those out there while you're shooting. "
NFS: How much of the short was improvised, and how much was scripted?
Daly: It was heavily scripted. On set, we would do what we wrote in the script and then throw it out and definitely do a lot of improvisation on the next take.
Ozeri: Jon and I would have writing sessions and we would talk as the characters. Things were improvised before they went to the script.
Daly: We were putting it up on stage as well and learning to improvise as those characters. We would take an audience member up on stage and fit them for a suit. So we would literally put a suit on them, measure their bodies, and in the process ruthlessly make fun of them. That helped us define the depth to which these guys will stoop.
NFS: That sounds absolutely terrifying. How do you write a script with those improvisation breaks in mind? Do you structure it while you're writing it, or does it happen completely on set as you said earlier?
Ozeri: Yeah, we can envision those improv breaks happening. Once you have the story plotted out there are small pockets of places. For example, at the restaurant when we're ordering, we know there might be a moment there to inhabit the characters and freewheel it from there. You can write as much as you want, but there's just some stuff that's going to come out in the moment that you can't anticipate.
Daly: In breaking down the script for yourself, know where those pockets of leeway are. Know where there could be an alternative reading on something or an alternative line that would serve the script better. You want to get those out there while you're shooting. Then there's the element of complete on-set riffing, which is how we do a lot of stuff.
NFS: What opportunities does the short film medium provide you with, in an artistic sense, that sketch comedy on a stage doesn't allow you do?
Daly: It's film, so it's everything that film provides. It's mood and lighting and shifting focus.
Ozeri: I would also say a huge one is grounding. When you think of sketch comedy, a lot of times you're thinking of something super heightened and blown out in the moment. We're shooting a short film, you want to build up to an emotional moment. You want to take your time. Just the fact that you're approaching it as a film, it's just going to ground it on its feet. All these characters, while they can be larger than life at times, they are grounded by the mood and tone that Bill set. That's Bill Benz, the director.
NFS: How active were you guys in those behind the scenes, or behind the camera decisions that the director would make?
Daly: Obviously, the discussions with the director and the DP varied. The mood we wanted to strike with it and the grounded reality we wanted to bring these intense characters from, dictated everything for everyone, so you have this umbrella of the vision of where you want to go with it. Beneath that, you're collaborating.
I feel once you find people who are the same page and just want to create with you, all the decisions are based on that: the umbrella of the script and the mood. We wanted to create this dingy world for these guys to spring forth from, and I think the crew was just excited about making that world with us.
Ozeri: I would say you had jumping off points like, "Oh, maybe it should look as good as a Scorsese film might look." Then Bill and Barry, they just drove that tone home.
"Don't make bullshit."
NFS: How did A24 and Super Deluxe get involved in this project?
Daly: Inman Young and Erin Owens from A24 were both instrumental in producing Kroll Show and my Adult Swim special. Then they became A24, so we already had a relationship with them and we also love Robbie Nondon, who is an executive at A24. He's an old friend from New York. It was a very family affair type of thing.
Ozeri: Jon and I had separately talked to Super Deluxe anyway. We figured it might be a good project for them, just in terms of what they've done. We went to Super Deluxe first. After that, that's when we went to A24 to get a production company.
Daly: Yeah, Super Deluxe has been excellent in all of this in letting us make whatever we wanted to make, and really supporting our vision. It's been a delight to work with them.
Ozeri: We were lucky, definitely.
NFS: My last question for you guys is something I like to ask everyone I get a chance to interview. If you had any advice for aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?
Ozeri: I would say find your voice. Try to keep honing who you are. Get up and fail until that happens. Keep making stuff, constantly make stuff until you find out who you are, and then know that who you are changes all the time, so you have to keep finding who are. You can only do that by constantly making things. Make art basically.
Daly: Don't make bullshit. Take acting classes if you can, so you know what the people that you're working with are going through and doing, and it will make you better I feel.
Also, be really good and don't do that, or whatever. Do your thing. I'm open to whatever you need to do.