Cole Escola on Amy Sedaris, DIY, Broken Ecosystems, and Their Great New Special

Cole Escola on Amy Sedaris, DIY, Broken Ecosystems, and Their Great New Special

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter; paid subscribers also get a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist featuring music I've been listening to lately along with criticism around it. And, for the holidays, I'm running a sale on monthly subscriptions—$1.50/month for the first six months, a 50% discount. Grab it here.

I've been a fan of the very funny and very talented Cole Escola for a while now, both pre-and-post them getting kicked off Twitter for impersonating Bill DeBlasio (I should've asked about that, oh well). They have a new holiday-themed special, Our Home Out West, that they completely funded and put into production themselves—and if you're familiar with their comedic approach, there is a lot to recognize and love in what's going on here, which is a bizarro take on Michael Landon-core (think The Waltons, Little House on the Prarie, et al.) with a surprising amount of heart and warmth and plenty of guest stars (Conner O'Malley, a nearly unrecognizable Amy Sedaris, Macy Rodman) to match.

I approach everything I do on this newsletter with honesty, so I think it's worth saying that this was a bit of a tough interview at points. It took Cole and I a bit to get on the same wavelength, which I don't hold against them in the slightest; the requirement for creatives to be constantly "on" in the promo cycle is kind of inherently insane, we spoke right around the holidays which is a good time to catch anyone feeling terrible about anything or everything, and the bottom line is that "doing it yourself" can also feel as defeating as it is empowering, with more highs and lows than a rollercoaster that can't stop killing its riders.

Anyway, I'm disclosing all of this because I think it's quite obvious from reading this conversation that it had its challenges—but I think it was also rewarding and reaffirming, and (shameless "please pay me for a subscription if you enjoy this interview" cup-rattle moment) it's a testament to the fact that I've been doing this for 16 years that I was able to eventually steer things in the right direction when it comes to engaging conversation. Read on, it's a good convo:

How is your holiday time going?
Ugh, fine. You just gotta get through it.

At this point, what do you associate the holidays with most?
Dread? Something to be gotten through.

Do you have any specific coping mechanisms when it comes to getting through it?
No. There's no easy way. The only way out is through. [Laughs]

I really liked this special a lot. Talk me through how it came together. One of the things I really liked about it is how intimate and handmade it felt. It's nice to see something that looks like it was put together by actual people.
Yeah, that was mostly budget, but also intentional. With the music, I didn't want any synths or keyboards. Even if it just meant that all we had was guitars and maracas, I would not have synths. I just wanted everything to be real. That said, there a couple of small cues that have synth that I allowed. The snow was practical. Even the horse's tail is a wig that someone stood behind the flat, two-dimensional horse moved just to make it look like the tail is moving.

Tell me about the story you tell in this special. It's very specific stylistically, and it's very funny, but it's also heartwarming. That's a tough balance to strike.
I was just really inspired by The Waltons and this British miniseries Lark Rise to Candleford. I don't know. I had the idea, and I wanted to make it. It's hard to describe the process objectively, because from where I sit, I had an idea, I wanted to do it, and I did it, and that's all.

Something I want to zoom in on more specifically is your character work. The breadth of who you portray, and how—it's one thing to be funny, and another to be able to act and be funny, and I think you're really good at pulling off the latter. Were there any characters that spoke to you specifically?
Honestly, all of them. Because I wrote it, I only wrote things I wanted to do. Some of them are variations on characters I've done before. The preacher is like this character I used to do called "The Old Show Queen." The innkeeper woman is someone who I've always wanted to play—like Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz. Not the Wicked Witch—specifically Miss Gulch. She inspired that character. Fifi was, at first, modeled after Mae West a bit, and a little bit of Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious or Dusty Rides Again, but at some point—I don't know when I made this switch, I think I did it subconsciously—she became more noble, like Maureen O'Hara.

You worked with Amy Sedaris again on this. I grew up watching Strangers With Candy and still rewatch it constantly, and I feel like there's a kinship between your comedy and hers. Talk to me about working with her over the years, as well as what you might see as parallels between the two of you.
I just worship and adore her. She said that she loves playing old people, and she really wanted to play an old woman. We've had conversations before where people cast her as things that don', in cartoons, we'll both get to asked to do voices, but they want us to do normal voices. That's not fun. I want to do a fun, cartoon voice. So I was just really excited to make one of her dreams come true, and to have her play this old woman. She was obsessed with the wig, and she's obsessed with the fact that a lot of people I show it to don't recognize that it's her.

It's crazy, I forgot she was in it until the credits rolled.
I'd show it to people saying, "Amy's in this," and afterwards I'd mention her cameo again and they'd go, "Wait, who'd Amy play?" She's thrilled people don't recognize her. That's her dream. She's a legend, she's a hero, all those corny things.

Do you have a favorite Strangers With Candy episode?
You can't beat glint. [Laughs] I know it's just the first one, but mostly I just think of lines all the time. "Hobo camp...hobo camp?" "Shelly for President." Every once in a while, lines just pop into my head. [Does Jerri Blank voice] There was this one time...

At one point you owned more than 35 wigs. How many wigs do you own now?
I don't really own that many anymore. I got rid of most of them because they were taking up so much space, and I don't really use them anymore. But there were a lot of wigs made for Our Home Out West, and the wig maker, Greg Lennon, just went so above and beyond. He created wigs for non-speaking characters that we didn't even ask for, and he created completely new wigs for every Fifi look.

You mentioned voice acting before, which is something I wanted to talk to you about. You've done quite a bit of it, and I feel like your performance style IRL is so distinctive that voice acting probably uses different creative muscles for you.
I don't think about it differently. Maybe I should.

Is there anything you prefer about voice acting?
Just the obvious—that it's so much easier. You can wear whatever you're wearing, be in a booth for an hour, and leave. I don't really enjoy acting that much, and I think that, as much as I can—and it's not like people are begging me to do things—but I'll probably do a lot less.

Why is that?
It gives me so much anxiety. I also don't feel that...unless I've written the part or it's something that I completely "get" deep down in my core, I don't really enjoy doing it, and then I don't do a good job, in my opinion. It doesn't completely click with me. I feel like actors—real actors—are able to take anything and make it work. That's their job. I can't do that. It has to be really, really right for me, or else I don't want to do it and I do a bad job.

Is this something that you've felt throughout your career, or something that intensified at a certain point?
I'm just now realizing it. It's always been true, but I didn't know how to articulate it. I felt like, "I should be able to say these lines." But I don't think they're that funny, and I think you can tell that I don't think they're funny.

Tell me more about the breadth of your experience in working in the TV and movie sphere—Hollywood stuff. Did that contribute to how you feel about acting in the current moment?
I feel so tinfoil hat hippie hack, but...any art that's created to provide passive income for people that have nothing to do with the creation of the art, that's not gonna be good. It's interesting, because I just put out Our Home Out West, and I also announced this play that I'm going to do next year. Our Home Out West, I completely self-funded after years of being in other peoples' writers rooms and acting in other peoples' things—some that I really enjoyed, by the way. It wasn't all miserable. Also, script deals that get noted to death, and having to compromise, I was like, "If I don't use this money to..." I basically felt disgusting for just making that money and not doing anything with it.

So I put way more than I could afford to Our Home Out West, and I don't regret it for a second, because it was so satisfying and gratifying. I completely self-produced it and put it out for free with no intention of making any money on it, and because there's no one making money off of it, there's no way to make money off of it, it doesn't get platformed in the way that my play has producers behind it. Because those producers have a financial stake in it, there's a PR team hired, and...I was just on the Approval Matrix on New York magazine today for this play that no one's even seen yet, and it's all just PR. But that gives the illusion of something being successful, and it also suggests that if you don't have those things, you're not successful.

I'm just really aware right now that I put the same amount of care and work into Our Home Out West, and I think it's as good if not—well, it's equally good as the play, but the play is getting way more press because of money.

I do feel like that's been a generational mindfuck for our age cohort. We were sold this idea that you could do creative work in a major space and it will be fulfilling and interesting, but everything degraded so much over the last 15 years that that's no longer the case.
Yeah. If you have people making money off of it who have nothing to do with the creation off of it, how does that not taint the process somehow? I'm included in this. You have to be really proactive about finding art that's not just fed to you—and I don't do a good job of that. I go to the places we all go to, and I let myself be brainwashed by media. "Oh, she's on Hot Ones, now she's doing an ASMR video for W, now she's on Fallon, this must be a real movie! I'm not on Hot Ones, I'm not doing an ASMR video, I'm not on Fallon, I guess my art isn't real."

I mean, that's why I do this newsletter. I don't make much money off of it, but it's much more fulfilling to do work like this for myself and for a specific audience, instead of writing stuff for publications where I don't know if anyone is even actually reading it.
Absolutely. And I also don't want to be bitter and jaded. You're doing this newsletter, it's possible—it's just hard to break out of the brainwashing of, "What? Sign up for a newsletter? No way!" But you can make anything you want. You need resources, but...just sell your soul to some writers' rooms for a few years, and instead of putting down a down payment on a studio in Sunset Park, or a car, burn it all on a short film.

I'm gonna point out something I noticed in the last half hour, which is that things got more hopeful in this discussion when we started talking more about doing art—doing things—for one's own sake. What might that look like for you in the future?
I don't know yet. It's hard to think about it because I just put out Our Home Out West, and now I have to go do this play even though I want to hide in a cave for a year. Before Our Home Out West, it had been three years since I put something out for myself on my own. It just reminded me that this feels really right, and is important to me. It felt so good to have made it, and to have people respond to it in such a positive way.

I am looking forward to what I'm gonna do next that's challenging or ups the stakes. Our Home Out West upped the stakes because I wanted it to have a real production value and show that I'm capable with resources. It's interesting, I thought that the more sentimental stuff was stuff I wanted to cut—that I would want it to be more about the stupid jokes—but it turns out the opposite was true. So it felt very vulnerable and scary to make something that I cared about. I'm excited to see what my version of that is next.

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Jamie Larson