The week before the Academy Awards ceremony can be a hectic time in Hollywood, a mad rush of events. One day before Sunday’s Oscars show, comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney will be hosting the Film Independent Spirit Awards for the second year in a row. Taking place during the afternoon in a large tent near the beach in Santa Monica, the Spirit Awards are an unusual mix of Oscars precursor and something else.
This year’s nominees do include plenty of Oscar contenders, including “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Call Me By Your Name.” Yet there is also space to recognize less heralded titles such as “The Rider,” “Beach Rats,” “Columbus,” “Beatriz At Dinner” and “Good Time” along with categories such as best first feature and best first screenplay, the John Cassavetes Award (for films made for under $500,000) and this year’s inaugural Bonnie Award (named after Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo, the first female pilot to fly for a major U.S. airline), given to a mid-career female director.
On a conference call earlier this week, Mulaney was at home in Los Angeles, while Kroll was in a parking lot, having just dropped off his laundry because his washing machine broke. “I brought my laundry to a new place,” Kroll said, “and I’m honestly very concerned about what’s going to happen with my clothes. That’s my major concern right now.” He answered questions all the same.
Last year, your style was a mix of somehow feeling very precise and also deceptively loose. How would the two of you describe your chemistry and the way you like to work together?
Nick Kroll: I would describe it maybe as Jim Carrey would, which is tectonic plates rubbing up against each other and creating an earthquake of comedy.
John Mulaney: I think we really like to work out the jokes we feel best about, get them as precise as possible and then we have a level of just comedy attention deficit, where we can’t do it the same way twice. Which I think always makes it fun for us. It’s definitely fun for me to watch whatever Nick does.
How do you describe the tone of your work together? It’s not exactly ironic, but there is some sense of distance even when the delivery is almost too sincere. Can you describe what that is?
Kroll: Well, I think, John and I both unabashedly love show business and love these kinds of award shows and things like it, but I think also simultaneously as comedians we can’t help but dissect what they are and the sort of bizarre tropes that live inside of them. So I think that we both genuinely love this kind of stuff and also genuinely love making fun of it. I don’t think either one of us have ever tried to figure out how to vocalize it. John, does that make sense?
Mulaney: It does. I’m afraid to articulate it, lest I forget how to do it.
Kroll: We did a bit at the Tonys last year after hosting the Spirit Awards and we were like, “Well, what can we do?” And John found this clip of Howard Cosell introducing Frank Sinatra at Madison Square Garden in the ’70s. And I think both of us loved both the genuine pageantry with which Howard Cosell introduced Frank Sinatra while simultaneously finding humor in the grandiosity of it.
Mulaney: It was everything at once. Genuinely celebrating both the good and the bad.
What do you like about award shows? Mostly people complain about them, but then they still show up or still watch.
Mulaney: As much as I admit I roll my eyes at award shows, they’re nice. At the end of the day, it’s nice to give out awards. It’s like a graduation. You wouldn’t be like, “What do you need a graduation for? You have the diploma, just file out of school silently.” It’s fun.
Kroll: People bemoan them and it’s totally understandable, it’s fully self-congratulatory and sort of inside of an echo chamber, but also it is really fun to reconnect with people that you know who you don’t get to see because you’re doing other jobs, or meeting or seeing people whose work you’ve respected or has inspired you for many years. And that’s kind of cool. Or the idea that people have worked incredibly hard and passionately on something and that they get to be rewarded for that is neat. While simultaneously being a truly empty, pointless experience that can make people who have done amazing work and are being celebrated for it and don’t win feel like losers once you don’t win. To me that is a super interesting, bizarre paradox of an experience.
And while there is some overlap, the nominees are not all Oscar movies either, there are lesser-known films like “The Rider” or “Good Time” recognized in major categories.
Mulaney: I also really like that the Spirit Awards include the Cassavetes Award, honors first-time filmmakers, and the temptation to go more mainstream has not affected it. It roots out a lot of new films, new filmmakers, gives cool awards like the Bonnie Award out and it’s just really trying to celebrate lots of filmmakers
Kroll: While simultaneously recognizing that a movie like “Get Out,” a true independent film that Jordan [Peele] worked on for a long time, had such a major cultural impact. It’s really cool. I think where the Oscars — and this is a shot I’m taking directly at the Oscars — I think the Oscars have really had to consciously figure out how to become a more diverse, inclusive tent. The Spirit Awards are an inherently and literally more inclusive tent.
Mulaney: It’s a bigger tent that’s easier to get into. You really can sneak into these awards.
You are two straight white men about to host an award show at a moment of real upheaval in Hollywood. Does that make you anxious at all?
Kroll: Well, I would say we actually add a ton of diversity to the award show circuit because neither of us are network late-night talk show hosts. So in a way we’ve made this thing very diverse.
But with very serious issues of sexual harassment and assault, gender inequality and representational disparity on everyone’s minds, is there anything that’s off-limits, that simply isn’t something to joke about?
Kroll: It’s a crazy time and it has been for a while, and I think we are very, very aware of that. Our goal is just to be funny and be good hosts and address that stuff when we think we have an interesting, funny take on it. I think that’s what we’re setting out to do.
Mulaney: We want to do jokes that we feel good about and that we think people will like and also that we can stand by.
Kroll: I think that’s why we have a great writers room that has different voices in it and why we go out and run the jokes throughout the week and see what people respond to, what people cringe at, what people are thrilled to hear. I don’t think John and I ever want to make jokes that bum people out, but we also want to do jokes that are cathartic and surprising for people to hear.
‘2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards’
When: 2 and 10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)