Writing Jokes with Nate Clark (KCRW, UCB)
The absurdity is overwhelming. I hope these circumstances ultimately make our satire even smarter.
[@nateclark on Twitter]
I listen to KCRW almost everyday. What first got you into the voiceover world?
My path to voiceover work came almost by accident. I filmed an SNL-style commercial parody — mocking pharmaceutical commercials — about a drug for people with a fear of spices. (Spices like salt, pepper, cinnamon… you get it.) KCRW decided to post the video on the blog for their show Good Food. I did the voiceover for the video myself, and when the general manager of KCRW learned that I was the one narrating it, she asked me if I would start recording promos for the station. That’s how it began. I found my VO agent while I was in Sunday Company at the Groundlings, and now VO work is a regular part of my life.
What’s one thing you enjoy about working in radio?
I don’t really “work in radio” — I only go to the station once a week for a few hours to record. But my favorite part of recording for KCRW is that I get to be a part of an organization that has a clear commitment to our community. Public radio is such a valuable resource, especially in these days of fake, profit-driven news. Everyone who works at or volunteers for KCRW is there because they believe in the station’s mission. They are a family, and once a week I get to feel like I am a contributing part of that family, too. It’s a positive touchstone for me as I navigate the superficiality of Hollywood.
Where did you grow up?
Mostly in Central Florida, but I spent a lot of time in Eastern Pennsylvania, where my family is from.
How did Quick & Funny Musicals at UCB originate? What’s it about?
Quick & Funny Musicals was originally a series of one-off shows produced by Lindsay Lefler and Kathryn Burns, called Quick & Dirty Musicals. Lindsay and Kat were invited to create a monthly show at UCB, and I auditioned for the company when it was originally formed. I had just left the Sunday Co., and UCB was a welcome change of pace. I’d taken a few classes at UCB, but I didn’t know anyone in the group. Being cast was my first experience performing at UCB, and it has been awesome. We write and perform a new musical every other month. It’s is a ton of work to learn music, dialogue and choreography for a new musical in such a short amount of time, but the cast is phenomenal and I love it.
How does UCB make people better improvisers, writers, etc.?
UCB is great at teaching structured improv. I think that being forced to discover “the game” of a scene is very valuable, especially when writing for television and film. I say this as a relatively new writer — I’ve sold a couple of pilots and I was a member of the Fox Writers Intensive — but the Harold is a de facto blueprint for many of the most successful comedies on television. In short-form improv, the “game” is often created by an external mechanism, i.e. starting every word with the next letter of the alphabet, being part of a “carpool,” “new choice,” etc. The game in a Harold evolves organically, which forces improvisers to listen and collaborate from the very beginning. I believe that’s a more creative way to improvise, and that it informs the process of writing a story with multiple points of view (as opposed to writing character bits).
Do you have any tips for writers or performers looking to join a union?
Honestly, I don’t have any experience with union vouchers, Taft-Hartley, etc. I was a theater actor in NY and joined Actor’s Equity very early on. When I moved to LA, I booked a commercial and was “grandfathered” into SAG.
It will happen for you when it’s supposed to happen. Focus on the work. Joining a union isn’t the goal, just like getting an agent isn’t the goal. Making good work should be the goal. I am definitely a “pro-labor” person, but there is a lot of non-union work happening now. Some of that work is good. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone take advantage of you, and remember that if they are making money, you deserved to make money.
Was there a specific moment when you decided to run for West Hollywood City Council?
I always expected that my career as a performer would lead me into politics someday, but I wasn’t expecting it to hit me last year. All through the primary season I discovered more ways that politics were merging with comedy. Ben Siemon and I recorded a podcast pilot for Earwolf about the election… I started making political rants on YouTube… After Trump won, I recognized that the country is desperate for populist leaders and more direct representation.
I started researching the local government in West Hollywood and I realized that we face the same challenges at the local level that plague the State and Federal government.
So, I decided to run for office. I am learning a lot, and I’m very proud to be a part of the conversation. It’s important for everyone to understand that there are no “qualifications” to be a part of our democratic process — the only requirement is that you are a citizen.
How has Donald Trump’s election changed your perspective?
I’m more skeptical of the news. I’m more aware of systemic sexism and racism. I am frustrated by general voter apathy and the ways in which those in power capitalize on that apathy. And, more than ever, I am compelled to protect those populations who are most vulnerable during a Trump administration.
What’s it like building a city council campaign?
It’s a lot of work, especially without a campaign manager. I am constantly meeting with local officials, interviewing for endorsements, asking people for money, canvassing, designing materials, entering data into mailing lists, filling out FPPC paperwork about the money I raise, etc. It’s a lot, but I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my community, and I am learning a lot about the process.
How might his presidency change political humor?
It’s getting harder to write jokes about all of this. How do you parody something that already feels like a parody? The absurdity is overwhelming. I hope these circumstances ultimately make our satire even smarter.
What makes a joke funny?
Surprise. Personally, I like hearing jokes that force me to reconsider the truth. If you can make me question something I know to be true — even if it’s just my own emotions — then you also have an opportunity to teach me something about the world. I like that, and I try to write jokes that play into that.
What makes a joke unfunny?
A sense of superiority or self-righteousness.