Writing Jokes with Riley Soloner (UCB, Chris Gethard Show)
My friend Jordan, who is very good at bullshitting, told me this: Laughter is an evolutionary trait.
[@RileySoloner on Twitter]
What’s your name and where did you grow up?
My name is Riley Soloner and I grew up in Albany, California.
What’s interesting or uninteresting about Albany?
The origin of Albany is quite interesting. It used to be called Ocean View and it was Berkeley’s garbage dump. In 1908 a group of women grabbed some shotguns and rifles and scared off the garbage wagon drivers. From there, the people came together to turn Ocean View into its own city. A year later they voted to change its name to Albany.
It’s a nice place. I remember it as a safe and friendly place to grow up.
What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?
My mom stayed at home and raised me. Once I was old enough to walk myself home from school, she got a job as a secretary in a San Francisco law office. When she started, she barely knew how to use a computer. Instead of hiring anybody new when someone would leave or die, my mom’s boss would just give my mom more and more responsibilities. She steadily grew into a total badass legal assistant that still finds the time to talk to me on the phone and watch my YouTube videos all day.
My dad can hustle. For many years, my dad worked at Interstellar Propeller. A company that manufactures and sells the “beany” baseball cap with the plastic propeller on top. As you can imagine, his work environment was a bustling factory not unlike Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory or Pee Wee’s Playhouse. It definitely wasn’t a creaky house in Berkeley owned by a banjo playing hippy. My dad has done landscaping, he sold antiques at the Berkeley Flea Market, all kinds of odds and ends.
When he was my age, he was an expert at talking down people suffering from bad trips at Grateful Dead concerts in the medical tent. If anyone knows how that can translate into a career opportunity please contact me.
What was the first bit or joke you performed on stage?
In middle school I started writing absurd, stream of consciousness poems. I read them on stage during the Tornado of Talent at Camp Winnarainbow, the performing arts summer camp led by hippy icon and ice cream flavor Wavy Gravy. They kind of became my calling card. I remember I had one poem about Godzilla. I wrote another about how much I disliked the trail mix snack I was given on a flight.
When and where did you fall into a groove as a performer?
I think the first time I fell into a groove that felt really influential and motivational was when I started making videos for YouTube when I was 18 or 19. In high school, I had a very eye opening video production class. I fell in love with the process of making these small scale, intimate projects. I got a used Macbook Pro as a graduation gift and started making shorts. I developed a very specific ritual for my process: Fold my futon into couch mode, pin a sheet to the wall behind me, set up my macbook on a food tray on top of my laundry hamper, set up my desk lamp behind my macbook on the cardboard box that Rock Band for Xbox came in, and improvise in character until I had something I was confident I could edit together. I would edit in costume so that I could pick up shots right then and there if I needed to.
That was probably the most consistently prolific I have ever been. I was very adamant about making and releasing one video per week. One time I had a week off from my job and so I made five videos. I’m still proud of them and that stretch of time because that was long before I worried about the million of reasons I hold myself back from just throwing down and putting myself out there on a daily basis. Camera quality, lights, writing the perfect bit, whatever. I gained a small and cool following with those very simple videos. Sometimes I watch them and it makes me want to say forget it, I’m making something right now. They’re good natured and raw, they’re funny without overthought. You can see the joy through the low production value. I currently feel “out of the groove” as someone who makes videos at the moment. With these old videos I made in 2007, 2008 there was some “fuck everything else, I have to make something” urgency. It’s creeping up again inside my gut. I’m excited to see what I make next.
What went into creating Vacation Jason and sketch show at UCB?
Vacation Jason started as a character I would do late at night for my friends when I was a counselor at Camp Winnarainbow. It’s good natured and mostly clean comedy, but it’s also antagonistic, like with every joke I’m saying: Look how much fun I’m having, you’re going to hate yourself for laughing at this.
Vacation Jason is a good example of a time I felt “out of a groove” as a performer and did something about it. I was deep into obsessing over my UCB improv classes, trying to be the best, aspiring to get on teams, the usual. When I moved to New York I had planned on steadily making and releasing videos like I had been, but I just hadn’t done it. I wasn’t in love with any idea except maybe just doing Vacation Jason. Instead of making a one-off character video like I had before, I made a bunch of extra short videos as my first “series,” Vacation Jason’s Island Flavors. They’re all pretty low quality, even for me. But it definitely got a ball rolling in terms of putting out something that brought me joy, everything else be damned.
Meanwhile, I was an obsessive fan of The Chris Gethard Show back when it was a monthly stage show at the UCB Theatre. After a year of shows, Chris invited me to host the one year anniversary show. It was at that show that Chris invited me to be a part of the Chris Gethard Show cross country adventure, which was a 12 day road trip from the UCB in New York to the UCB in LA. One of my only pitches for the trip was Vacation Jason and it was immediately rejected. Gethard told me Vacation Jason was so annoying that if I tried to do it on the trip, I may be sent home or knocked out. So that was my lightbulb moment: I wouldn’t just be the fan of the show along for the ride, I would be the villain.
Long story short, I took a chance with this character I love playing and I eventually won over my comedy heroes with the dumbest bit ever. I did the bit in Austin, Texas and ended up performing a double encore for a very rowdy audience. I was even allowed to do the bit at the road trip’s finale show at the UCB in LA.
It took me almost a year to follow through and write the stage version of Vacation Jason’s Island Flavors. I had never written a show to submit to UCB before and it was my baby, so I wanted it to be perfect. I don’t recommend trying to write your perfect dream sketch show right off the bat, because you will panic and give up more times than you will be able to count. But I worked out some bits at great shows like School Night and Gentrify and eventually put together a show I am still very proud of. It’s basically my version of Pee Wee Herman’s old stage show. I tried to do a good job of making it a fun and joyfully stupid variety show in 25 minutes.
Talk about Coconut Berry Lemon Tree. It was mixed really well! What was the inspiration behind the album?
One night after drinking with my improv team, I found myself alone in the Union Square subway station chanting Coconut, Berry, Lemon, Tree to myself over and over. After awhile I thought to myself, “Hey, that sounds like something Vacation Jason would say.” So when it came time to make all of those Vacation Jason videos, one of the first ones I knew I had to write was a promo for his hip hop mixtape, Coconut Berry Lemon Tree. I made the video with absolutely no intention of ever making a real mixtape.
Years later I taught myself enough Garageband to figure out how to compose Island Girl, the song in the Vacation Jason UCB stage show. Then in December of the same year, I was invited to do a bit show called The Brooks Brothers Christmas Clambake at UCB. I was a huge fan of this show, so I really wanted to deliver. I spent the whole week writing and producing the song Christmas on the Beach. After I had those two songs in the bag, it didn’t seem so impossible to actually make Coconut Berry Lemon Tree a reality. I plugged away at making some beats, wrote some lyrics, and asked my super talented friends Phil Augusta Jackson and Patrick Noth to write some guest verses in character. After we had everything written and produced, we recorded everything in one day. Patrick did an incredible job mastering the mix and making it sound nice. I’m really proud of Coconut Berry Lemon Tree. I like that it’s funny for reasons beyond “hey, I’m bad at rapping!” I don’t think I’m an amazing rapper, but I like that the joke is that I’m this character, and that I actually made this thing. And surprisingly, it’s not the worst thing ever! The mere existence of this mixtape was a total joke, and then it became a real thing. That is cool to me.
Who is the funniest person you know?
My seven and 10-year-old nieces are currently in first place. The older one recently got her first iPhone (how crazy is that?) and she is super into directing. It’s very cool to watch them work together on their shows. I recently signed on to be their editor. I don’t know how long I’ll last. They are very specific and demanding.
What’s on your horizon?
Lots of exciting stuff. I recently started my own religion, called Temple of the Milk Spirit. It has been an incredible journey thus far and I can’t wait to see what the milk brings to my life next.
I’ve been writing a lot of sketches that I want to turn into videos. Be on the lookout for some more collaborations between me and the Human Fish himself, David Bluvband. I want them all to look and sound perfect, but I’m getting very tired of waiting for the stars to align so I might just grab my phone like my nieces and just get something done already.
What’s the dumbest superhero name you can think of?
Wine. A superhero named Wine.
Why are jokes funny?
My friend Jordan, who is very good at bullshitting, told me this: laughter is an evolutionary trait. It’s the involuntary response your body makes when your mind discovers a connection between two things it wasn’t aware of before that moment. So to laugh at a joke means you’re delighted by the connection of bits of logic that are new to you. But like I said, Jordan is a really good bullshitter, and I never googled any of this. So I can’t be sure.