Ian Karmel doesn't know who he is anymore
The funniest person from Beaverton took dating advice from Barack Obama, got engaged and won an Emmy. He's also dropped 180 pounds and is in search of a bully.
PORTLAND — It’s past 11 p.m. on the rooftop of Revolution Hall, the temperature hasn’t dropped much from the day’s 100-degree high and Ian Karmel isn’t breaking a sweat.
Maybe that’s just another change in a life recently full of them.
See, things are pretty good these days for Beaverton’s funniest export. He’s now co-head writer of The Late Late Show with James Corden, a place he started working at in 2015. He’s won an Emmy, sells out stand-up sets like this and has raised his profile to a point where Barack Obama recently gave him him dating advice on-air.
That seemingly worked — Karmel is recently engaged.
The problem is, he says to begin this August shows with the Portland skyline serving as his backdrop, he’s in need of a bully. That’s what happens when you drop 180 pounds and can suddenly fit into, well, anything.
“As someone who went to the mall for the first time being able to buy whatever at age 36, I made insane decisions that I wish bullies would have been there to stop,” he says to a crowd that’s engaged from the first joke, even as the once 10 p.m. show pushed to 10:30 and then 11 because of heat. “I bought a pair of pants that are just covered in palm trees. They’re just covered in palm trees. And there should have been a bully there to be like, ‘More like Hawaii Five-No,’ and then I wouldn’t have bought them.
“Those pants, I can’t pull off, I don’t know who can, but I would assume you need to have a Latin Grammy to do it, and I don’t.”
He does have a podcast though, and a rising profile thanks to a versatile set of skills honed here in Oregon before his career took off in Hollywood. He did his first stand-up set at the Clinton Street Theatre more than a decade ago, developed his improv skills locally and got reps on live TV as an occasional Blazers panelist on Comcast.
Karmel recently spoke with The I-5 Corridor about his journey from the suburbs to late night.
What do you remember from Westview High School? I’ve seen a photo of you in full football pads out there from your time there.
I think atypically to most stand-up comedians — or at least the stereotype of stand-up comedians — I really enjoyed high school. I was on the football team. I was kind of friends with just about everybody. My year of football, we had jocks on the team but they weren’t really the good players. Like, I was in AP classes with the starting quarterback who was also the starting safety. Coach Evans was a philosophy and science teacher who had every episode of the Simpsons on VHS. So we weren’t great at football. I think we won like four or five games, but it was really fun.
I liked the suburbs, too. Now I rep Portland really hard but I always rep Beaverton, too. I just enjoyed it man. It was walking to the 7-Eleven, getting a Slurpee and driving around listening to Blink-182. It was a great time.
I read a quote from you that talked about living in the suburbs and how that “boredom” led to your creativity.
Boredom is crucial to being creative — at least for me. I spent a lot of time just thinking or reading or just being alone and being bored. It would force you to sort of entertain yourself and read and seek things out. There are certainly very creative people who came from insanely tense situations where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of boredom, but yeah, time alone — time that you spend with your mind — at least helped me quite a bit. That sort of suburban boredom of there not being anything to do and there not being a bustling city right outside your door that doesn’t involve taking like three busses and the MAX, it was good for me. It forced me to go inward rather than outward.
I know you have an improv background. Did that come before you started writing?
Improv, stand-up and then into TV writing. I started doing improv in Portland like, God, what am I now? 36? So probably 13 years ago. I started at Portland State University. It was the first time I ever did it. It was the first time I really had any artistic inclinations at all. I always enjoyed creative writing and stuff like that in high school, but we needed arts credits at PSU and my uncle Scott Parker taught theatre and improv at PSU. So I just figured I’d take my uncle’s class because it would be an easy art credit while I’m getting my political science degree so I can go to law school.
So I took it, and like five minutes into class it clicked in a way that nothing had ever clicked before, in a way that felt like magic that I hope everyone gets to experience at some point.
It’s like, I hadn’t known my whole life I’ve been gathering the ingredients to make a Beef Wellington, then all of a sudden I had a Beef Wellington. And it was like, “Oh shit, this all came together!” I loved it. I had no inclination it could be a career, but I was also young enough and just didn’t give enough of a fuck about that sort of thing that I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
And it snowballed from there.
I took that class, then I took Improv II, then I started TAing improv, then I started taking other theatre classes and then dropped out of college a year and a half later and moved down to L.A. and started taking Groundlings classes.
How confident are you in yourself when you make that move?
It was weird. I knew that I was the funniest person in my improv classes, which isn’t always saying much, but I felt good about it. Then we started groups outside of class and I was the funniest person in those shows and I could always get a big laugh. So I was both extremely nervous and extremely confident.
You have to go down and audition for the Groundlings, so me and my mom flew down to L.A., I went in and auditioned and then I remember it was like a full day or two until I found out. I could barely eat, which for me was quite a feat.
But then I got in.
I was nervous and excited, but it was just really cool to be surrounded by people who wanted to do this as badly as I did, which was always the challenge doing it in Portland. You’re a psychopath if you want to be a professional improv person and just live in Portland. Well, you’re not a psychopath, but it’s not going to become your career. You can’t expect other people to be as serious as you are.
You did come back up here for a little bit though didn’t you?
I took the first two Groundlings classes and I passed both of them, but then there was a year wait to get to Level 3, which was the writing workshop. And I was like, I can’t just be down here for a year with no creative outlet and working at PF Changs. You can’t just start your own Improv group in L.A. and start putting on shows. Maybe you can, but I didn’t know how to do that. So I planned on moving back to Portland, finishing my degree and then moving back down when the writing lab opened up. But when I moved back up to Portland, I was in an improv group and I kind of found that I wanted to work harder at improv than anyone else I could find. I wanted to practice three days a week and they wanted to rehearse one night a week. Eventually someone asked if I did stand-up and I lied and said I did, and they booked me for a show at the Clinton Street Theatre. And I had a month. So it was like, “Oh shit, I have a month, let’s start writing some stand-up.” So I wrote and did that show and it was the first time I ever did stand-up. And it actually went really well.
Do you think that set still holds up?
I think it was good for a first time. I had some George W. Bush jokes and some jokes about the NPR hold music.
NPR, they don’t have commercials but they do just have 30 seconds of trumpet music for no reason.
Stuff like that. In Portland that crushed.
This was the Wild West era, there wasn’t really an established comedy scene in Portland at the time. It was like me and four other people who also weren’t good at stand-up comedy, put on by somebody who had no business booking shows. It was just this weird confluence of events.
So I did stand-up twice, and then didn’t do it again for like another year or so because I was just doing improv so heavily. But I just started getting more and more frustrated with how people weren’t taking improv seriously, so I found some open mic nights, then I entered the Portland amateur comedy contest and won that within a year of doing standup. That was really cool for me. Then I just never went back to L.A. until I was like 28, when I moved down there to work on Chelsea Lately.
I just never went back to the Groundlings.
How did you get involved with the Blazers during all of this?
When Helium Comedy Club opened up they wanted to do a cross promotional thing where they could send some of their comedians to be on Talkin Ball, and I loved basketball. There were three or four of us comedians who went on at different times, but maybe it was clear I liked basketball more than the other comedians who were just like, “Oh yeah, I remember Michael Jordan.” And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember when Robert Pack used to come off the bench for the Blazers in 1992.’
And that just started going really well. I got along really well with Dwight Jaynes, who was the curmudgeon sports reporter who was always on the show. God, at the time, when I started Talkin Ball it was a pretty crazy cast. I was on there, Chris Haynes, who is now like a national guy in the business, was on there. Ben Golliver was on the show all the time and now I think he works for the Washington Post. Dwight Jaynes. Jerome Kersey — may he rest in peace — was on there all the time. Abby Chin, who went on to work for the Celtics doing their TV stuff, was on there.
It was just a crazy cast and great for me on a number of levels.
One: I love basketball and I got to spend time more around the Blazers and be ingratiated with the organization a little bit.
Two: It gave me reps on television. Live television. I got to be on TV maybe 40 times a season for an hour trying to be funny in a context where there was no live crowd. So I just had to make three other people laugh and that was my only hope. It was just good reps. It was good practice. I got to be on TV with very low risk over and over and over again, so by the time they asked me to come be on Chelsea Lately, which was my first national job, I had been on TV a bunch, so I wasn’t afraid when the cameras started rolling. I wasn’t having panic attacks or anything like that. It was just huge for me.
And again, I got to do stuff with the Blazers. I had a Karmel’s Corner where I did sports jokes once a week and they put it on their YouTube. I went to Autzen and Reser and just walked around the tailgates. I really got a lot of TV practice working with Comcast. That was really good for me.
So at that time, you’re doing regular stand-up. You’re on TV. Were you like, “Man, this is great. I’m doing what I want to do while living in Portland.” Or did you view it as a stepping stone toward getting you back to LA?
I knew it was a stepping stone the whole time. I love Portland. I still love Portland. I loved doing TV there and I loved everything with Comcast. But I knew my ceiling there was — I don’t want to say low ceiling — but for what I wanted to do I wanted to bet on myself a little bit. I wanted to roll the dice. I think I could have been really happy having my own show and all that in Portland, but I wanted to do stand-up all over the country. I wanted to do stand-up on TV. I wanted to see what that was like. Ironically, I’ve become a writer and I do a lot more stuff behind the scenes now, but at the time I really loved performing and I wanted to be in front of the camera on a bigger scale. I was in my mid-to-late 20s, so it was time to roll dice because if it didn’t work I’d have the rest of my life to figure that out.
On The Late Late Show, you can really start to see the blending of the writing and performing background with a lot of your on-camera bits. It just seems like it pays off to be rounded like that.
My theory in comedy right now is that there’s a few people who can do one thing and they’re amazing at it and that’s what they do. But I don’t think you have one big break anymore. I don’t know to what extent that was ever true, but when people used to talk about stand-up comedy, it would be like if you got Carson and you killed it, then you’d have a sitcom the next day.
But now, I think you have to build your big break out of so many different things. You’re going to have a podcast, and then maybe you do a late night set here, and then you do a little TV writing, then you do an appearance on this show and that show and then maybe you get to write a book.
I think you really have to piece everything together and make it bigger piece by piece like that. I think there’s a million little things that you have to thwack together to make it appear like this is your big break now. And for me, I have the most fun doing a bunch of different things. But I also think that’s the only way I could have done it. I don’t know, I just think that anyone who wants to get into stand-up comedy, or comedy in general, should just do a bunch of things well because you never know which one is going to let you enter the building. You never know what’s going to be the door handle to try, or the window to open, that’s going to let you inside. Because once you’re inside, it’s easier to do the other shit. One hand washes the other eventually, but you have to be willing to try a lot of stuff.
Conan has long shaped my comedic sensibilities. What was it like going on his show the first time?
That was amazing. For me, that was the late night show. I grew up watching Letterman and Leno with my mom, but for me Conan always had the funniest sketches and everything like that. The coolest moment of the whole thing is when you’re out there and you get going — and he had a big crowd with bleachers that went up forever like you’re at the Roman Colosseum — then you tell a joke, and you hear Conan and Andy laugh in real life, it’s not like them laughing on TV but it’s behind you and it’s real and it’s like, oh shit, I just made Conan O’Brien laugh at one of my jokes. And then you’re just floating from there on. Then he comes over, shakes your hand, stands next to you and it’s just a fucking dream. I’m so glad I got to do it two times and I’m so grateful for it, especially now that the show has come to an end. That will always be something I treasure.
— Tyson Alger