The workplace as a comedy setting is industry standard. In fact, if you include “police station” or “hospital” in your definition of a workplace, then virtually every scripted show on television is set at a workplace. The workplace is generally depicted as a kind of second family in comedies — a place full of friends, frenemies, acquaintances, and potential love interests. The co-workers are a community, the workplace a setting for various hijinks.
If that depiction doesn’t ring true to your experience, you’ll love Comedy Central’s new show Corporate, in which the company is actively evil, supervisors can’t be trusted, and the workers are all cynical backstabbers and/or actively suicidal. Corporate, which released its first four episodes online in advance of the TV premiere January 17th, is a little like the anti-Workaholics or The Office, or a more overtly anti-capitalist Office Space. The main characters, Matt and Jake (played by creators Matt Ingbretson and Weisman), are friends, sort of. Their relationship is more of a shared trauma, a prison bond, than true friendship, and they haven’t developed ways to keep work from killing their soul like Jim and Pam or the Workaholics boys. The bigger question is whether this turn is a reflection of the times (has work actually gotten worse or has it always sucked?) or simply one of comedy’s periodic attempts at greater authenticity.
Not that Corporate feels like a screed. It’s hard to get away with preaching in a comedy, and Corporate doesn’t, poking fun at those with simplistic “answers” as much as it does the bosses (as in one memorable bit from an early episode involving a Banksy-esque street artist who turns out to be not quite what he seems). In comedy, the only question that really matters is “Is it funny?” And, at least judging by the first episodes, Corporate is.
Playing Jake and Matt’s boss at Hampton-Deville is the show’s only familiar face: Lance Reddick, best known as Cedric Daniels for The Wire. I spoke to Jake Weisman over the phone this week, about what it was like casting a prestige TV’s staple, and all the terrible jobs and decisions that inspired him on his way to creating the concept of Corporate.
Being that it’s a show about corporate sadness, you’re sort of begging to be asked about your worst corporate jobs, so that’s what I’m going to ask you first.
You know what’s funny is, it is about corporate sadness, but I also think it’s mainly just about jobs. Corporate is the hook and there is a political aspect to working with a corporation that’s bad, but even working in the film industry when I first moved out to LA is a very similar thing. Shit flows downhill, everywhere. I mean I’ve worked in a chandelier store, it’s the same feeling basically. There’s no good option for a job, everything is hell. Where you’re just like, “I would rather die than be at this job that pays all of my bills.”
But specifically, I did have one job where I was an assistant to a director and he was an older guy and he was a real asshole. One day he came and put his fake teeth on my desk and told me to call a dentist. It was a real power move.
Yeah he, like his teeth fell out and he put it on my desk, on a napkin and he’s like, “Call a dentist.”
But Matt worked a bunch of corporate jobs in entertainment and he sort of came up with the general idea for the idea of a show at a corporation. Most of the jobs I had were dumb little jobs that were under the umbrella of a corporation but in general just led me to thoughts of suicide.
I mean isn’t Hollywood just where the corporate world sends all their worst assholes to try to become producers and hang out with actresses and stuff?
Yeah for sure, and also one of the things we’re trying to get out with the show is that everything is a corporate job. Corporations have won. Even Uproxx to some degree, I’m sure, is corporate. No matter what the job, there’s like seven people in the world who are making all the money.
So you came out to LA to work on productions. Where did you come from and how early on was that in your life?
I’m from New York and I went to school in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt, and then I wanted to be an English major, but halfway through college I realized that fiction is way harder, it was way too hard for me to achieve well. So I took a random film class and I was like “Oh this is fun and less meaningful. So I will do that instead.”
And I started being obsessed with film and I had a cousin in the film industry so I just drove out here and got production assistant jobs kind of on a whim. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. But I was just working a bunch of different PA jobs, and then sort of had a personal assistant job to that director I was telling you about. And started working in post-production, and started failing upwards. Then when I was 26 I hated my life so much because I wasn’t really writing and that’s when I found comedy and started doing open mics all the time. And then from there, I was like, oh comedy is a great vessel to say what you want, to think, to create what you want to create. I never thought that I was necessarily funny until I started doing comedy. And then I realized comedy has an inherent structure to it. I started making sketches, and started doing standup and that led to pitching TV shows and all that stuff. But yeah I was just working all these horrible jobs like Office PA, Set PA, all sorts of different things. All those jobs are terrible.
What was the dumbest thing that you had to do as a set PA?
I worked on Clerks 2 and I had to clean up Jason Mewes’ room because he trashed it and it was down in Orange County and they would just party all the time. He turned his room into, like, a two-year-old’s room, like a two-year-old who does a lot of drugs. That was the dumbest thing ever. I had to clean up Jason Mewes’ drug-infected room. That was a f*cking nightmare. I feel like there was more stuff. Holy shit. Terrible job.
As far as PA gigs that doesn’t sound like the worst. I had to put cones on the gopher holes out in a desert once because someone in the production was concerned that someone was going to fall and twist an ankle. So I was just walking around a desert putting cones on holes.
That job is just so hard and the people who do that have such incredible stamina. What was bad was getting five hours sleep for a year straight. Just like what am I doing? I’m just standing around saying, “Can you guys be quiet please? Guys? Guys, we’re shooting. Rolling.” The fact that that was the only lexicon that I used for years of my life is probably the worst part of it.
So going back to the corporate thing. Have you had corporate gigs as a stand-up?
I have had one corporate gig. I’m a little bit foul-mouthed as a stand-up so I couldn’t really do many corporate gigs, but Airbnb had one corporate gig where they hired six different comedians to do 15 minutes each in a parking lot and then nobody came. So I had to do 15 minutes with no cursing to nobody in a parking lot. I actually had to perform it in order to get paid. So I just stood in a parking lot to the other comedians that were there and just did 15 minutes of jokes and they sent me a check and it did not help Airbnb at all. It was actually a dream. I would love to speak to nobody and they just send me money.
Corporate kind of feels like the anti-Workaholics — like that show was about friendship and having all these fun hijinks with your coworkers, and this one’s like sort of about rat-f*cking each other. How much of that do you think is your guys’ comedic sensibility and how much of that is a reflection of the time period?
I think it’s two separate things, I think that our comedic sensibility is much more about darkness and honesty than whimsy. Like there’s a silliness but to me what’s always funny about life is the fact that we’re dying and we’re all sad and we have like five minutes to be alive and we spend it wanting to kill ourselves. That’s to me the crux of all comedy, the fact that nothing matters but everything hurts so bad and then it’s over right when we finally learn the big lesson about life. I think that’s funnier than anything about farts. I think it’s funnier than anything about anything.
And to me every job I’ve ever been at has always been hell. So in terms of reaction to what’s going on now, it was a reaction to the other office comedies. Most office comedies, like The Office, even if they’re funny, they portray the office as like a goofy place. Like a slapsticky haven for weird characters. And it’s like, every job I’ve ever been at is the worst experience of my life. All I’m thinking about is why am I here? When can I get home? So we just felt like we should actually portray work life as it actually feels to be a worker. I think comedy that I really like is when it’s played as a really intense drama that’s silly.
It’s weird that other than Office Space, there aren’t many things that are overtly about how much work sucks.
I think there’s this feeling that since work sucks, executives feel like nobody wants to go home from their job that sucks and then watch something about how their lives are bad. I guess that’s the theory. But my feeling is, it’s the catharsis. It’s like if you’re working all day and you hate your life to come home and watch something where someone understands you, it’s like oh yeah, I’m in pain too. You can at least feel a little better about your life. But also, I just think darkness is funnier than lightness. I love movies like Airplane! very much, but I just… When something is dark or brutal I just think that’s what I’m naturally into. I’ve always felt that way. I laugh when horrible things happen. That’s just my reaction to the world, I’m broken inside. I don’t really have a choice in the matter.
It seems like it would be a very cathartic writers’ room, where everybody gets to tell their worst thing that happened to them at their old jobs.
I remember some writers were like “I really want to write for this show because I had this job for three years that was such a nightmare and if I could write for this show I could at least get something out of it.” The idea that it wasn’t a waste. So when you do write, in a way, that’s an attempt at catharsis. It can feel like years that you felt you wasted, you’re actually now getting paid for. And that’s a beautiful thing. Like honestly, I got an English degree which was the biggest mistake of my life until I started writing TV and now it’s justified. Like the only reason I’m happy I got an English degree is because now I can justify getting it.
When I was doing the same kind of PA jobs you were I discovered writing because I slowly realized that being able to spell and put together a sentence, it was much easier to prove that you were valuable that way than it was walking around putting cones on rocks.
I feel like you guys are going to become like the doctor who everybody corners at the party to show their weird rash. It’s going to be like that but with everybody’s work horror stories.
I think that’s true but I do hope to see a bevy of rashes.
I’m a bit of a rash head.
So it seems like you guys are using stock photo imagery as an aesthetic reference for the show, can you tell me about that?
That goes to sort of our feeling about, when you work for a corporation you work inside a capitalist system. The whole game is turning the people who work in it into stock figures. It’s a dehumanization. That’s what the show’s kind of about, like how everyone’s dehumanized. And stock figures are sort of the best way to explain that. I’ve always laughed at stock figures because it’s like an attempt at reality that you know is fake, but they are real people. That is basically what all of corporate America is about. All advertisement, all marketing, every corporate job is trying to depersonalize everyone.
Tell me about casting Lance Reddick.
Well I mean Lance Reddick is just one of the most talented actors ever. I saw The Wire and have always loved him. He’s so unbelievably intense in a way that I just don’t know how he accesses it. But then there was some Funny or Die video about toys that he was in and we happened to see it and he was super intense and super funny and we just thought if we could have him play it straight we could give him the craziest jokes ever and he could just say it in the most intense way. I can’t think of anything funnier to do. And working with him is sort of like a fantasy that came true. Nobody else can achieve that level of intensity. He went to like Yale Drama School and to give him jokes about his penis… there’s nothing better.
I don’t know what more you could want out of life, other than to see really intense people say really silly shit. He had never really been put in a comedy besides one sketch for Key and Peele and we just felt like we’re sitting on a gold mine here. And the fact that he said yes was one of the best moments of our life. I don’t even think he totally understood the pilot at first. But then when he saw the pilot he was like “Oh this is great.” And he is also an activist and really cares about left-wing causes, so I think he enjoys being part of the show for several reasons.
He’s totally like your Danny DeVito in It’s Always Sunny, he’s perfect. Did you worry at all about making the face of the evil corporation the black guy?
You know you obviously think about it… But my issue with the portrayal of CEOs, I mean most CEOs in America are white. Of the Fortune 500 I think like five are black. I could be wrong but it’s a very small amount. But I do think that representation is important and I … you could say he’s evil but you could also say he is a genius. And he’s rich and he’s savvy and he is killing it. So I think there’s no reason that has to be a white person, and he is just such a phenomenal actor. I think it’s time that anyone can be portrayed as evil.
Really, Lance is such an unbelievable actor and we’re not trying to necessarily make any statement about his race as CEO. He’s just an amazing actor and if people draw things out of that in a positive way, great. But really it’s more from the perspective of there’s no reason why a black person can not be a CEO.
Do you worry about expectations for comedy? Like it feels like there’s this trend now where we assume all comedy is this subversive act, or it’s all truth-telling. And this show does feel subversive but do you worry about being positioned as like the anti-capitalist resistance show and then feeling like you can’t make craft beer jokes anymore?
I never had a show come out so I don’t necessarily know what it’s like to create something then have it go out of your control.
I don’t think we’re trying to make overt political statements, we’re just trying to be smart about it. And show kind of what’s happening or how we feel about what’s happening, but let people make their own decisions. I’m not interested in topical political comedy. I’m more interested in making statements, making philosophical statements and letting people feel how they feel and decide on that. I would hope to not be positioned specifically as political or anti-capitalist with the TV we’re making. I think it lessens how good the product is and it makes it feel a little [specific to] 2017 or 2018.
The old network notes cliché is “give it more heart!” And this show, I’m pretty sure you have like “soulless” in the short episode description. Did you have to fight people wanting to make the characters more likable or people wanting it to be more friendship-y and happy?
Some of the episodes later in the season have a little more about friendship or a little more heart. And I think there is maybe a potential sort of criticism about it can be a little cold or depressing. Here is my feeling: Yes I think that you can make something that you think is brilliant, you can make something that you think is hilarious, but in the end a lot of people just want to see people that are friends talk to each other. And they want to see people have a crush on someone and kiss them. That’s kind of what people enjoy. You come back for the characters because you like the characters.
I think that there’s a relatability to our show but I think in a pretty different way and hopefully, people are into that. And then over time they’ll feel like they know the characters more and more. It’s just not based in the same sort of tropes of friendships that I think most narratives are.
I mean, if I have to see one more f*cking montage where the three or four main characters walk somewhere that’s regular but it’s set to like ’90s hip-hop and it’s in slow motion, I’m gonna kill myself.