On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with writer-performer Cole Escola. They talked about how his comedic videos have evolved over the years, how he turns ideas into sketches, his creative influences, his gay aesthetic, and why he so often appears onstage or in videos wearing nothing but his underwear. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: How do you turn a germ of an idea into a sketch?
Cole Escola: There’s no set formula. One tool that I use a lot is music. If I have a kernel of an idea—it can be something as small as a gesture or a funny way to pronounce a word—to bring out more ideas in that same vein, I’ll listen to music that’s evocative. A lot of the music that I listen to for fun is music that could possibly underscore a play or a movie. I’ll also write things down in a Gmail draft. There are hundreds of emails that I can’t decipher anymore that are like, “Wet couch.”
Are you concerned about performing specific words and getting the language exactly right, or are you a performer who likes to improvise toward an idea?
I’m pretty word-focused.
Sometimes your work feels like you’re improvising, because the performance feels fresh. Also, because it’s so absurd, and the language or the logic shifts, and you think, “He must’ve just made that up,” because it doesn’t make any sense.
There have been times when I’ve been frustrated in trying to get other writing jobs, and people being like, “But can he write?” And I think, “Where do you think these words come from?”
I think that’s a particular challenge with the kind of video work that you’ve done. In the years since you and Jeffery Self launched Jeffery and Cole Casserole, you have gone on to pretty conventional acting success. You were on Difficult People. You are on At Home With Amy Sedaris right now. But you still do these very intimate live and video performances. It’s about you, and your face, and your body, and your very specific aesthetic point of view that I can see how that would obscure the labor that goes into it.
People don’t realize that I can write for other people as well. A lot of performers are really great at writing for themselves, but when it comes to writing a spec script for Modern Family, it’s like, “What?” But I think I’m good at that sort of thing.
On your recent special Help! I’m Stuck! one of the things that is the most technically accomplished is the way you perform against yourself. One of the sketches is a kind of parody of noir film. You are playing a character, and then you’re also playing that character’s assistant, and we get to hear you performing against yourself. How do you do that?
When I’m performing a scene that I am playing all the parts in, I feel it and hear it like a song. I know the emotional arc, I know the journey of the pieces, so I can do them sort of piecemeal.
You’re describing singing a harmony but not being able to hear anyone else’s part or something.
Yeah, I’m so familiar with the melody that I can hear it in my head when I’m harmonizing.
How would you describe your sensibility?
Who are the godparents of your sensibility?
It really is sitcoms.
But it’s funny that you would describe that sensibility as gay, when the sitcom is such a tool of nuclear family convention.
I think that’s where the gay comes into it. It’s like my gay eye picked up that something was off about what I was seeing. And then performing it the way that I see it reflects the absurdity of the sitcom that I’m referencing.
When you describe the aesthetic or the sensibility as gay, I’m curious to hear what that means to you, or how you might explain it, especially to someone who’s not gay.
It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of queer content versus content with a queer sensibility. I don’t have any strong feelings for Love, Simon either way, but just as an example, that’s a gay story for a straight audience. It’s very much through a straight lens, trying to explain, “This is what the gay experience is.” What I’m interested in is the queer shorthand that’s already established through a shared experience of growing up queer and outside.
Why do you often perform undressed?
I started doing it because it was an immediate laugh, an easy laugh. I’ll walk out in my underwear, and people are already paying attention and thinking it’s funny. And also so that I can change quickly. In my live shows, I do a lot of costume changes.