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Photo by Matt Licari
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Photo by Matt Licari
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Sara Schaefer with Nikki Glaser (left) at the taping of You Had to Be There's third episode. Photo by Laura Hardy Boyd
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Photo by Matt Licari
It's a rainy Thursday night in Carrboro, N.C., and comedian Sara Schaefer is struggling. The audience isn't laughing.
That's not entirely accurate — there's occasional tittering, but rarely are they laughing together, and when your audience consists of eight people spread out in a space that normally holds 85, with a support girder situated directly in front of the stage, well, it's not an ideal atmosphere for stand-up comedy.
The June 21 show is the ninth stop on a 14-date, Kickstarter-funded stand-up tour taking Schaefer and her boyfriend of three years, fellow comedian Scott Moran, all the way from Spokane, Wash., to Charleston, S.C. To pull in donations — Schaefer wound up exceeding her $2,500 goal, collecting $4,437 from 80 backers — she offered a variety of rewards, including crocheted potholders made by her.
A week earlier, when the news broke that Nikki & Sara Live, her TV talk show with fellow comedian Nikki Glaser, had been picked up by MTV for a Jan. 29 debut, Schaefer had performed for an enthusiastic hometown audience at Gallery 5 in downtown Richmond. A few months before that, a March 2 writeup on Glaser and Schaefer in the New York Times had heaped praise on their popular comedy podcast, You Had to Be There. Schaefer calls that appearance in the Times "a dream of mine."
But now she's experiencing every comedian's nightmare.
An extended riff on the financial crisis that references Schaefer 's $30,000 in credit-card debt scores her first big laughs of the night. "I love credit cards," she says. "They're like time machines that bring you money from the future that you will totally have someday." When a bit about Justin Bieber falls flat, Schaefer rolls with it. "Not all of these are for everybody," she jokes. "Most of them are just for me."
But then, midway through her set, whether it's the late arrival of more audience members or the result of Schaefer refusing to give up on her material, the laughs start coming. By the end, while it would be a stretch to call the evening a triumph, it's definitely a hard-fought draw. As she finishes up onstage, Schaefer mentions that she'll be selling tour T-shirts and potholders after the show: "$30,000 in credit-card debt, guys. One potholder at a time."
Growing up in Midlothian, Schaefer would sometimes set up her stuffed animals as an audience and perform for them: dancing, singing and delivering the occasional speech. She also recruited her sisters, Ross and Cristy, and her brother, Jay, for plays they would put on for their parents.
"Sara would pick the wardrobe … She would do a little set design, draw background pictures. She would actually make the admission tickets," says her father, Bill Schaefer. Given that early interest, he says, his daughter's career is hardly a shock, though he wouldn't have predicted its current form. "Comedy really came as a bit of a surprise to us," he says.
To hear Schaefer tell it, comedy chose her. She always wound up with the comedic roles in school plays, as when Midlothian Middle School teacher Drina Kay cast her as Hildegard von Fishbeck, a "European" camp counselor with a German accent who served as comic relief in Krazy Kamp. "I remember being very upset because I didn't get the lead, but Mrs. Kay told me that playing comedy was much more difficult than acting straight in drama," Schaefer says. "I took that to heart."
The immediate gratification of comedy also helped. "You know you're doing good if you get the laugh, and I got addicted to that," she says.
Her father notes that a sense of humor is something his daughter shares with her mother, Billie, who died in 2007 after a battle with cancer. "My wife, she set the standard. She was an incredibly funny person who loved to laugh, who loved to hear laughter and be a part of laughter."
After a year at Midlothian High School, Schaefer was accepted to the Governor's School for Government and International Studies (now Maggie Walker), where she participated in an improv group as part of her drama class.
So naturally, when she arrived at William & Mary in 1996, she auditioned for Improvisational Theatre (aka IT), an improv group she'd seen perform during a campus visit. Though she didn't make the cut, she did get a callback, which members explained was rare for a freshman. "A lot of them had said, ‘If you try out next year, you're going to get in.' I was a little too young to understand that you maybe shouldn't take that literally."
The night after her callback audition as a sophomore, Schaefer lay awake in her dorm room, waiting to be roused from her bed and showered with beer — the traditional initiation for IT's new members.
"Every noise outside, I thought, "It's them!' " she remembers. But once the sun started to rise, the truth became clear: No one was coming. She called her parents, weeping uncontrollably.
"I was really glad she was on the first floor because I was afraid she would jump," her father recalls.
"That was such a huge rejection," Schaefer says. "It felt like your first crush."
She soon attended a large gathering of fellow IT rejects hoping to form a sketch-comedy group. Schaefer initially decided to pass, but after seeing the resulting troupe perform about a month later, she wanted in.
"So then I had to audition for that group," she says, laughing, "but I got in.
"It ended up being way better for me than the improv group," says Schaefer of her time in 7th Grade Sketch Comedy. "We could be dirty, we made fun of the school. We didn't care."
Schaefer moved to New York City in 2001, nabbing a financial analyst job at a securities law firm on the top floor of an office building in Midtown. She needed the steady income, but it was not her ideal work situation. "Every day going up that elevator, the closer I got to the top, I felt nauseous," she says.
At night, she pursued stand-up comedy. Initially too afraid to just talk, Schaefer wrote a song about her cubicle at the law firm. "It was very, very niche office humor," she says. "But people liked it." In 2004, she started Sara Schaefer Is Obsessed With You, a biweekly talk show performed live at a theater. Along with regular guests, every show featured someone who had appeared on Law & Order. "I didn't think I could get celebrities, so I was like, ‘I'll find an actor who played a dead body on Law & Order because there are so many in New York.' "
The show's high concept was that Schaefer was hosting from a cubicle at her job, to the point that she'd get imagined work calls during the show. In all other respects, it was the real deal — she had a set, she had three writers (two of whom now work for The Daily Show), and despite her fear that she'd be unable to get celebrities, she booked a fair number of future luminaries, from writer Jonathan Ames to comedian Kristen Schaal.
Unfortunately, the show's popularity didn't translate to making a living at comedy. "I lost so much money," Schaefer says.
In one of its seemingly endless attempts to reinvent itself, the former Internet giant in 2006 hired Schaefer to host The DL, an Internet TV show featuring Schaefer's comedy and her interviews with musicians such as Pete Townshend, Aimee Mann and the late Amy Winehouse. The job paid well enough that Schaefer was able to leave the law firm.
At the same time, she was coming home to Midlothian every few weeks to be with her mother as she battled the cancer that would eventually take her life. "On the one hand, it was terrible because my mom suffered a lot over a long period of time," Schaefer says. "On the other hand, I had time to talk to her with the knowledge of knowing that she wouldn't be around much longer.
"I was able to figure out some things about myself and life and what I wanted with her. Those words, I think about them a lot, and they help me make decisions."
In a monumental example of poor timing, The DL was canceled after only a year, just two weeks after Schaefer returned to work following her mother's death. Looking back, she's grateful for the opportunity the show gave her, even if not many people watched. "We made so much stuff, something like 300 videos in a year," she says. "I really learned how to interview then, and to be on camera."
Schaefer had to get a job at another law firm, but six months later, she got a full-time gig as a blogger for the online arm of VH1's Best Week Ever. "I learned how to put words down that were funny to read," she says. "That was a new thing."
Then she read a July 21, 2008, article in the New York Times noting that Jimmy Fallon, the new host of NBC's talk-show franchise Late Night, would produce a Web series before officially taking the reins. "I just sat up straight in my chair and was like, ‘How do I get that job? That is my job!' " Schaefer says.
She got hired on New Year's Eve 2008, a few months before Fallon's broadcast debut in March 2009. "It was just magical," Schaefer says of the job that earned her two Emmys for Creative Achievement in Interactive Media. "Especially the first year, it was like camp." Given Fallon's early emphasis on the Web, she had a lot of contact with her boss, for whom she has nothing but praise. (In one of those "show business is a small world" coincidences, she'd had Fallon as a guest on The DL. )
Schaefer made it onscreen a few times at Late Night — her father would set his alarm to wake up and watch whenever she was on camera — but by this point she was putting a lot of effort into honing her stand-up while also hoping to become a writer on the show. "I was like, ‘I'm never going to be a talk-show host. I can see, to get that, you had to have gotten SNL when you were 23,' " recalls Schaefer. A stand-up career or a writing job on a talk show seemed like decent consolation prizes.
But her attempts to join the writing staff at Late Night never came to fruition. "It's like that at any job," she says, adding that she has nothing but love for her former workplace. "You hit your head on the ceiling, and then you've got to go somewhere else to get past that."
Schaefer went to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in May 2011, writing questions for the syndicated game show. Some of her peers were puzzled by the move, but the shift gave her the luxury of time. "You can't make a step into something else when you're that busy," she says of her job at Late Night, which involved 10- to 12-hour workdays, posting while the show aired and several hours of weekend duties. At Millionaire, Schaefer remembers being struck by the fact that she was leaving work while it was still light outside.
By that time, she and Nikki Glaser had already been doing their podcast for a few months. A year later, they had a deal for a talk show on MTV.
It's not normally like this," says Schaefer, clutching her laptop as she straightens up her living room. Then she pauses. "I'm being Southern, I guess." Among the small group of people milling around her kitchen on this late August evening is comedian Joe DeRosa, tonight's guest for the 79th episode of You Had to Be There. From the beginning, Schaefer's basement apartment in Brooklyn has been the podcast's home base, and it's a perfect setting for the show, which sounds like nothing so much as a relaxed conversation among friends, albeit pals who punctuate their talk with frequent punchlines.
Eventually the participants take their places — Glaser and Schaefer sit side-by-side on a couch, and DeRosa settles into a chair next to them — to wait for the podcast's production assistant, Andrew Koller, who's running late thanks to some subway trouble. The small talk eventually winds its way around to the explosion in the number of comedy podcasts. "I think the comedy community is getting podcast fatigue," says Glaser.
If so, then You Had to Be There is at least partly to blame. Along with podcasting juggernauts like Marc Maron's WTF (now being adapted into a TV show for IFC) and Scott Aukerman's Comedy Bang! Bang! (which recently finished up the first season of its TV incarnation, also on IFC), You Had to Be There has shown that producing the Internet equivalent of a radio show for free can serve as an effective calling card in the comedy world.
Not that Schaefer and Glaser knew any of that when they launched You Had to Be There, which had its genesis at a crowded birthday party in New York City's East Village in late 2010. The two, who had briefly met once before that, immediately hit it off, thanks to a shared love of Justin Timberlake.
"Our banter was good right out of the gate," Glaser remembers. "The second that she expressed interest in starting a podcast, which was probably less than five minutes into our first conversation, I was totally down."
On Jan. 6, 2011, You Had to Be There debuted, with comedian Rachel Feinstein and musician Tanner Walle as guests. Schaefer had the idea to tape the podcast in front of a small audience. "It keeps people interested and keeps us from getting boring or too self-indulgent," she says.
Over the next two years, the podcast would develop, but two things were clear from the first few episodes: 1) Very little was off-limits as a topic of conversation — their sex lives, Schaefer's 2009 divorce (she married her college boyfriend; it didn't work out), their career struggles, you name it; and 2) Schaefer and Glaser had something special together.
"I compare it to meeting ‘the one' in your romantic life," Schaefer says. "If that hadn't been there, I don't know if anything else would have worked."
The pair's next step grew out of a professional disappointment for Glaser, who was up for a co-hosting job on a syndicated talk show with Kevin Smith, the director of Clerks. Just before the taping of You Had to Be There' s 26th episode, she received the news that the show was going with a different format — there was no job. "Afterward, she was like, ‘Do you want to pitch a TV show with me?' " Schaefer says.
The two decided to make a video, to see if they could work together as writers. After a day of scripting, a day of shooting and about $400 in production expenses, they wound up with "Justin Timberlake, Make Music Again," a hilariously profane mock PSA pleading with Timberlake to return to his music career.
Schaefer suggested that they wait to post it until a week before they were scheduled to pitch a talk show to MTV. "Working on the Internet as long as I did, I think I know when something is going to go viral," she says.
The video was posted to YouTube on Sept. 6, 2011, scoring more than 60,000 views in its first day, including a screening by one very important viewer.
"When we went into the pitch, they were like, ‘Oh, my God, we loved your video! Did Justin see it?' " Schaefer says, "And we were like, ‘Yeah, he tweeted it.' It was perfect."
They shot a pilot in January 2012, turned it in to MTV, and finally got an answer in March. "Their decision back was, ‘We love it, kids love it, but we want to change a couple things and see what it's like before we commit,' " Schaefer says.
In late May, Schaefer, who was in Seattle on her stand-up tour, got an email from MTV asking her to join a conference call in five minutes. "Nikki and I were both on the call talking to each other before anyone else was, and we were like, ‘Omigod, omigod, omigod!' "
MTV wanted their show.
Even now that production is in full swing, Schaefer still can't believe that Nikki & Sara Live is real. "What if I died and this is just my version of heaven?"
Talking in early December from her office at MTV, Schaefer, 34, is buzzing about the details of putting Nikki & Sara Live together. "I think we did a really good job of putting our staff together," she says. (One particularly noteworthy hire is head writer Brian McCann, a 17-year veteran of Conan O'Brien's late-night shows.) "We have a lot of really funny ideas already on the docket to shoot."
Scheduled for Tuesday nights at 11 p.m., the half-hour talk show will air live from the Times Square studio where MTV used to produce Total Request Live, the Carson Daly-hosted music- video countdown.
"That was something MTV decided without telling us," a laughing Schaefer says of the decision to go live, though she understands the move. "I think networks are trying to find ways to have shows where you're tuning in to see them because it's topical and it's new, as opposed to a narrative that you just want to watch in marathon form."
"It plays directly into their strengths," says show runner Kim Gamble, an executive producer on the program with Schaefer and Glaser. Gamble, who's worked on shows such as The Colbert Repor t and Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn in the past, notes that as experienced stand-up comedians, her stars are used to performing live.
Of course, there's a difference in magnitude between performing stand-up in a club and headlining such a high-profile enterprise. "It feels like a huge responsibility," Schaefer says. "MTV is very excited about this show, which is awesome, but it also feels like there's a lot of pressure on us."
Not that they aren't enjoying themselves.
"I keep getting texts from my family randomly like, ‘Does this mean you're going to meet Lady Gaga?' " Schaefer says. But she's focused on the more tangible benefits of hosting a show from Times Square. "Does this mean we're going to get to go to New Year's but be inside and have a bathroom?"
The plan is to roll out a Web series leading up to the show, echoing a strategy used by Schaefer's former employer. "I learned not just what it's like to put on a TV show, but what it's like to put on a talk show," she says of her time at Late Night. Schaefer, who has a development deal with MTV to create other programs for the network, also can't help but look ahead a little bit, at projects that a higher profile from a (hopefully) successful show might help bring to fruition. She and Moran would like to start their own production company in the next couple of years. "We want to be able to do things on our own for our friends, with our friends, and build a little empire of our own."
With a nod to the legacy of her mother, who for many years ran Pennies for Heaven, a nonprofit serving Richmond's homeless, Schaefer would also love to headline a benefit for Hilliard House, the Richmond charity serving homeless mothers and their children that's headed by her younger sister, Ross Altenbaugh. "When I start daydreaming really big," Schaefer adds, "I really would love to do something with my little sister, saying to her, ‘What's your dream charity?' I would love to get to the point where I had enough money to say to her, ‘OK, go start it.' "
For now, though, Schaefer is focused on Nikki & Sara Live. "The show is the priority," she says. "I've really scaled back on everything — stand-up, everything."
One thing that's continuing is You Had to Be There, the podcast that started it all, though it's taping at MTV's offices. "It was enough of imposing on Sara for two years, with us coming to her house and making it dirty," says Glaser, who adds that taping the podcast at their workplace makes it easier to fit it into their ramped-up schedules.
When Nikki & Sara Live premieres on Jan. 29, Schaefer's father plans to be a studio guest, even though he's a few years past the demographic his daughter's aiming for. "She said she would put me way in the back with the old people," he says, laughing. "So when the camera pans out into the audience, they'll see nothing but young faces."
Speaking of important guests, the actor/musician who brought Glaser and Schaefer together at that birthday party, the guy whose public appreciation of their YouTube video may have helped them land a TV show, what if he decided to stop by Nikki & Sara Live ?
"If Justin Timberlake did come on the show, I'll just be so excited that this is my life, I'll start crying," Schaefer says. "So hopefully I can pull it together."