How Oh, Hello Turned Broadway On Its Comedic Head

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How <i>Oh, Hello</i> Turned Broadway On Its Comedic Head

Before Oh, Hello rang the doorbell on the Great White Way, Comedy Central’s pipeline to Broadway was non-existent. Broadway may have borrowed from novels, from movies, from all manner of forms to feed new plays and musicals, but content originating on Comedy Central seemed somehow the least likely to ever make it to theatre’s most illustrious doorstep. But with “Oh, Hello” from the sketch series Kroll Show that all changed. Of all the characters Nick Kroll and his comedian friends developed during the show’s three seasons, the cantankerous George St. Geegland (John Mulaney) and Gil Faizon (Kroll)—Upper West Side roommates for 40 years and failed creatives—seemed most naturally poised to tread the boards, even if their arrival took some time.

For Kroll and Mulaney, who took their sketch characters and launched an off-Broadway run at Cherry Lane Theatre in late 2015 before embarking on a national tour, ending up with a limited engagement at the Lyceum Theatre has been nothing short of a surprise. Comedy and the theatre go hand-in-hand, but Oh, Hello’s brand of humor diverges from what Broadway typically offers. There’s a touch of stand-up, followed by moments that draw upon sketch and improv, and finally a nightly interview with either a celebrity guest or an unwitting audience member where fans of the original sketch will get to see George and Gil’s “prahnk” show “Too Much Tuna” come alive. “The show is a hybrid of a lot of different things,” Kroll admits.

Each element could easily make for a mess—something many a sketch looking to become a movie or something similar has faced—but Kroll and Mulaney succeed and on Broadway no less. Oh, Hello masterfully harkens back to theatrical comedy duo Nichols and May while lovingly (and titteringly) pushing what it means to do comedy on Broadway in a more modern, and in some instances puerile, direction. “We wrote it like a Vaudeville show,” Kroll explains. “You’ve got a suitcase full of jokes and you get onstage and you write on your feet.” Oh, Hello blends scripted play with improv, building in moments where the longtime friends (who are themselves playing longtime friends) can riff off one another. “There are parts of it people have told us it’s like the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello,” Kroll adds. “You’ve got an asshole and a child, and if you look at a lot of classic duos that’s what that act is.”

Classic duos may emanate that element, but within the asshole-child dichotomy also exists a co-dependent marriage of sorts. Mulaney knows exactly the type. A friend showed Oh, Hello’s original Cherry Lane production program to her daughter and got an interesting reaction that has stuck with him ever since. “Gil looks like Gil, he’s making a weird little turtle smile, and I have this big open mouthed laugh,” he explains. “And the little girl looked at it and she went, ‘Oh it’s a mommy and a daddy.’ Our friend said, ‘Well, who’s the mommy and who’s the daddy?’ She pointed to Gil and said ‘That’s the daddy’ and then she pointed to me and said, ‘And that’s the mommy, and that lady is sad.’ That’s very, very interesting. In very stereotypical, broad terms, you’d think George is the abusive husband, but I like that a 2-year-old thought he was the sad wife.”

Beyond learning more about George and Gil’s relationship, theatregoers have gotten disturbing glimpses into each character as a character. George’s simmering anger toward the opposite sex has played out in not one but three matrimonial murders, and Gil has strange—if completely expected—interspecies relationships with raccoons. In short, he likes to fuck them. “We can’t just come in without a love story,” Mulaney quips. Kroll and Mulaney built out their characters’ backstories in a way that paid homage to Broadway and its distinguished past without losing flavor for the kind of comedy that landed them there in the first place. Gil’s raccoon love leads him to meet and woo park denizen Lisa. Mulaney chuckles at the mere mention of her name. “In terms of fucking raccoons, that was a big surprise to me too,” he says. “But I love it, and it makes total sense. Gil would definitely own a raccoon, so that he fell for Lisa was no shock for me. I do have a mental image of them. It’s very sweet, though.” If that feels out of place on Broadway, it’s acerbically fitting. In fact, it may have even been Broadway’s fault. “I know there was mention of [Gil’s] love of raccoons before, but I believe it developed on Broadway because of three improvised pockets that could go anywhere,” Mulaney says. Off-Broadway and other theatrical instances may seem ripe for that kind of flexibility, but seeing Oh, Hello performed on Broadway as an ever-changing experience shifts what theatregoers have come to expect from its particular cultural cachet. They could attend three shows in a row and get three very different plays. theatre’s live nature produces any number of alterations, but there’s an organic sense that Kroll and Mulaney’s improvisational background bring something larger to the table. “That is a spark, and each night onstage we continue to improvise and find these different elements of it,” Kroll says. “This relationship develops.”

But for two actors who come from sketch, performing the same role night after night—even with improvisational pockets built in—seems like it would push their own limits. “It’s not ever exhaustion,” Mulaney says. “A kind of psychosis develops, where you’re doing two shows a day, two days in a row, and around Sunday afternoon you’re like, ‘I have said this sentence so many times.’” Even still, as a stand-up comedian who performs material on the road, he understands the repetitiveness. If anything, it’s the improv and their friendship that helps keep everything sharp. “It’s not just this improvised free-for-all, it has to work as a structured story as well,” Kroll says. “But what I will say is we’ve subverted that a bit by making neither of us have to play the straight man all the time. We successfully alternate. The joke is king. We both will set the other one up for the joke that comes out, and even within that we’ve almost gotten rid of set-ups entirely. Almost every line is a joke.”

In taking their quirky characters to Broadway, Kroll and Mulaney haven’t reinvented the wheel; instead, they’ve introduced a comedic resurgence by reminding audiences that Broadway may mean critically acclaimed plays (both comedic and dramatic) alongside sumptuous musicals, but there’s room for different as well. “I don’t know,” Kroll says about whether Oh, Hello has changed Broadway and made it possible for unusual stories and formats to make their way there. “I hope what it does is show (and I think it does on some level because we’ve succeeded) Broadway what the possibilities are for different kinds of shows.” Mulaney isn’t so quick to see things change, even while he hopes their production opens doors. “I love Broadway” he says. “I hope it changes Broadway only in that other people who might not have thought, ‘Oh the comedy I do could be on a stage,’ should totally try it. Come on. I mean, we’re totally having sex with raccoons and people are okay with it.”

Amanda Wicks tends to write about comedy, music and whiskey for Paste. She’s also published with Pitchfork, The Bluegrass Situation, Consequence of Sound and more. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.