Kevin Nixon

I KNOW FOR SURE that many different types of species are operating hyper-advanced aerodynamic platforms, and they’re visiting Earth, coming and going like taxis. As to who these operators are, I don’t know. Are they interdimensional, inter-realm, interplanetary?

I’VE HAD FOUR vivid sightings of craft that were not jets, helicopters, or planes.

I WAS ON MY MOTORCYCLE about eight o’clock at night, and I saw a red beacon flying over the high-tension power lines. There was no sound. It stops right above my motorcycle and shines a light on me. I look up, totally delighted. And the light winks off, and this thing drifts off over the field again.

MY DAD WAS an absolute absurdist. He would go to a grocery store, grab a roll of paper towels, and whip them over to the next aisle to hear the reaction. “Oh, whoa, whoa!” He was wonderful.

I WAS VERY MOUTHY in class all the way through high school because I knew I could get laughs. I was not a good student, but I was an entertaining one.

My parents enrolled me in the St Pius X minor preparatory seminary for boys, which was a priest school in Ottawa. So I went there from grade 9, 10, 11, and I was asked to leave, dismissed in a letter saying, “We believe your son is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood.”

A LITTLE UNDER HALF THE YEAR, I’m at the farm in Ontario. It’s where the family settled in 1826.

WE HAD A FAMILY MEDIUM, and frequent séances took place in the old farmhouse in the 1930s and ’40s, usually on a Sunday morning. The big black Chryslers, Packards, Cadillacs, and Lincolns would come in with the big bosomy matrons and their tiny, skinny little husbands. They’d sit around the table and my great-grandfather Samuel would host.

I WAS STUDYING criminology at Carleton University and expecting that I would go into the corrections service, having worked a summer as a Clerk 5 in the Penitentiary Service of Canada doing inmate catalogues.

I WROTE A MANUAL for deploying weapons in riots for the commissioner. And I thought, “Well, it's an interesting profession.”

BUT I HAD MET A WOMAN named Valri Bromfield in high school, and she said, “You’re not going to be a prison guard. You’re coming with me to Toronto.” And she dragged me off with our audition tape that we’d made on cable TV in Ottawa. It got the attention of Lorne Michaels.

I HAD A PRETTY GOOD LIFE going in Toronto. We were running an after-hours booze can, selling liquor and beer and wine illegally over the counter and making a massive 80 per cent markup. I bought a Harley. I bought a car.

I HAD AN ORIGINAL 1971 Ontario provincial police Harley motorcycle that had been in the display team of the Golden Riders. It went around the world with these stunt riders from the provincial police. Paid USD1,200 for it. And I kept that for a long time.

I RODE THAT BIKE up and down the thruway from the farm to SNL, the entire four years I was on the show. I never flew or took a train or a bus. I never commuted to New York on anything but that bike. Seven hours. Rain or shine. That was my ride.

IT WASN’T SO MUCH my public exposure that I felt in that first year of SNL. It was Chevy’s. I didn’t get much recognition, but Chevy did. I used to walk down the street with him and they were calling his name out, “Hey, Chevy Chase!”

I SAW HOW Chevy was exposed and thought to myself, I don’t want that.

I TRIED COCAINE a couple of times. I didn’t like what it did. It made me speedy. It didn’t help me creatively. But there were others who liked it a lot more.

I STARTED TO PLAY harmonica when I went up north as a road surveyor and tundra-crawler mechanic for the federal Department of Public Works, a job my father got me through pure nepotism. I played the harp up there around the campfire. I kept it up enough so when Blues Brothers came along, I was modestly proficient on it, and still am today.

MY MOTHER USED TO type my essays up when I was in college. Sometimes they were unfinished and I’d say, “It’s ok. They’ll accept this.” And she’d say, “No, you have to round this out. You’ve got to ride home on a third act or a conclusion here. I’m not letting you go until you compose that.”

MY STYLE IS basically all black. Black jeans, black shirt, black jacket, black tie, black hat. Sometimes I’ll go with a white shirt. I really don’t care about clothes. I prefer just to have a rack of black stuff to put on every morning that’s clean.

YOU CAN NEVER SPEND enough time with your children. You can never listen to them enough, give them enough focus and attention. Accept their advice and their criticism. You can never do that enough.

IF THEY’RE COMING after you and saying, “Dad, you were a little profane today” or “Dad, don’t smoke cannabis in the house”“You know, Dad, you’re driving a little too fast,” instead of being defensive, I’ve learnt to back off the throttle, take the smoke outside. Just listen to them. And cut back on the profanity if I can.

WRITING IS HARD. Alone, it’s arduous. With a partner, you can play back and forth. So I prefer to work with a partner.

I'VE WRITTEN EIGHT SCREENPLAYS that got produced. And every one of them, at some point I'd be stopped cold. Where am I going to go next? So usually, I would just go to sleep and dream on it and get up in the morning and I go, “Well, I got a solution to go forward. It may not be the best one, but it's a solution.”

OK, I’VE BEEN sentenced to death. They’re saying, “Well, Dan, this is your last meal. What would you like?” Oh, jeez, Warden, thanks. Well, let me see. I will have a T-bone steak with green peas, Yorkshire pudding and gravy, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts with maple syrup, button-cap mushrooms, preceded by a lemon-zest Caesar salad.

AFTER THAT, I’D LIKE to move on to a Black Forest chocolate cake, all washed down with a fine Brane-Cantenac Margaux. I would like a cigar. [And a helicopter.]

This year, Aykroyd appeared in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, the fifth film in the series he helped launch as a cowriter and costar of the 1984 original.

Originally published on Esquire US

Kate Elliott

Having started in comedy with his group Dutch West, Sam Reich was later hired as director of original content at CollegeHumor, an Internet comedy company. Responsible for boosting the content team, Reich produced shows for TV and online that include Adam Ruins Everything; Rhett and Link’s Buddy System and Badman starring Pete Holmes.

In 2018, CollegeHumor launched a subscription-based streaming platform called Dropout. According to Reich, who was CollegeHumor’s chief creative officer at the time, this was in response to the “difficulty in receiving advertising dollars on traditional media platforms for mature content”.

Then, the bottom dropped out. In 2020, CollegeHumor’s parent company InterActiveCorp (IAC) withdrew funding, which laid off all but seven employees. Still able to see the potential, Reich bought CollegeHumor. With the newly-minted title of CEO, Reich placed more focus on unscripted productions like Um, Actually, Dimension 20 and Game Changer; rebranded CollegeHumor to Dropout; and rode out the pandemic and SAG-AFTRA strike. At the tail-end of 2023, Reich announced that Dropout subscriptions had grown to a point where it was profitable enough to go into profit-sharing with its employees.

On the wave of a new season of shows, we talk to Sam Reich about Dropout, puzzles and the joys and trials of Game Changer.

SAM REICH: I can't believe it's 1:30 in the morning over there. I can't guarantee you're not dreaming up this interview.

ESQUIRE SINGAPORE: [laughs] Oh no, not again. Do you guys work from home?

SR: We do for the most part. We have a studio space and there are a couple of people who come in for post-production. For the most part, we just come in for shoots and the full-time staff works from home.

ESQ: Let's get this interview started. Sam... where are you from?

SR: [laughs] The fact that this joke has travelled internationally is really annoying.

Where is Sam Reich from?

ESQ: But are you surprised that Dropout is known outside of the United States?

SR: Are you kidding? I’m super surprised. And flattered. We went to the Edinburgh Fringe [last year] for the first time and had an amazing time. I was shocked by how many Scots knew about Dropout. It’s really cool to see our work getting out there.

ESQ: What’s the ratio of American subscribers versus the rest of the world?

SR: It’s predominantly US. I want to say... something like 60 per cent US. And then, there’s the second tier, which would be English-speaking countries. So, a fair portion of Europe, Australia, Canada... we’re popular in Germany for some reason. That ranks high on the list. Germany and India. I think that English is spoken in enough places now, for better or worse, that we have more international fans than I could ever imagine.

Kate Elliott

ESQ: You’ve mentioned before that you were hesitant to be in front of the camera. But you dropped out of school to be an actor.

SR: Yeah, originally I got into this business to be an actor... a dramatic actor. I took an acting class where the teacher said that I should act based on the first impression I gave when I walked into a room. For instance, Sam is short so he should do comedy. And that was the beginning of my comedy career.

I found a lot of warmth in comedy but not a whole lot of work in show business. It’s just really hard to make a living at this. The farther I stepped away from acting, the more money I made. I became a director, then a producer and then an executive... by the time, I became an executive, I worried that casting myself in things would be an abuse of power. I wanted to put myself in a position where I was supporting the careers of other people, who wanted to do what I wanted to do originally. It wasn’t until Game Changer came along. This was a show that no one really wanted to make. I kinda pitched it and got a lukewarm response. No one could wrap their heads around the idea and no one wanted to host it. I said, all right, I’ll take this particular bullet and now I am a gameshow host-CEO, which is a hyphenate I don’t think I share with a lot of people.

ESQ: The title will look great on your LinkedIn profile.

SR: [laughs] Exactly. It’d be a good business card where it says CEO on one side and gameshow host on the other.

ESQ: We discovered Dropout by chance with a Breaking News episode on YouTube—"True Facts About Grant Anthony O’Brien"—where embarrassing facts about Grant (a Dropout writer and performer) were revealed. And that led me down a rabbit hole of other Dropout content and I decided to buy a [Dropout] subscription.

"Is that Slenderman?"

SR: I love hearing about people's different entry points into Dropout. Game Changer and Dimension 20 are usually the popular ones.

ESQ: You’re also a presence on your social media. It’s a little endearing... that someone of your bearing is doing TikTok and [Instagram] Reels.

SR: [laughs] Yeah, I get made fun of for this a lot. Just before signing on to this call, I posted another sketch that I made in my spare time on Instagram. I didn’t have time to do TikTok but I’ll go back and upload to it afterwards. I think I’m one of the few people who loves what’s happening to comedy, thanks to platforms like this. I love how democratic they are. By the way, the House just passed [a bill] to ban TikTok in the US this morning; I’m very sceptical that that will happen.

Anyway, my interpretation of what happened is that TikTok was the first platform that you leaned into this idea of discoverability. So, what you were presented with, first and foremost on the platform, was people you didn’t know. Then given its rise in popularity, Instagram followed suit and created Reels; YouTube followed suit and created YouTube Shorts... TikTok created an opportunity to get seen. That hasn’t existed in our space for a long time. It’s really hard to find an audience doing this, it’s really hard. So, I love it and I want to participate in it. Even though... [laughs] the other day, one of my cast members/writers asked me, so what are you getting out of this financially? The answer is, less than nothing. I’m wasting money doing this. Money and time.

Kate Elliott

ESQ: You’re one of the rare exceptions as an independent streaming subscription platform to crawl out of a hole and find success. Do you have any advice for people trying to do what you do? Or were your circumstances akin to a perfect storm that will never happen again?

SR: If somebody wants to become a CEO/gameshow host of a niche subscription platform, I probably can offer a lot of advice. I think how we’ve ended up here is pretty niche and unique, and lucky, in terms of breaking into the business in general. This, at least, holds true in the United States. I don’t know whether it’s the same over [in Singapore] but it is still very hard and very privileged [that I get to] do this for a living.

I think that our industry has—that is the same in so many other industries—a kind of hollowing out of the middle class that’s occurred, where it’s just harder for folks to float to the top. It’s a system that right now, especially with all the consolidation we’re seeing, is rewarding people who are already at the top way more than it’s providing an avenue for younger and aspirational folks. On the other hand, the Internet has afforded young and hungry entrepreneurial creators better opportunities than ever before. So, if I was just starting, I’d focus on how I get attention online.

ESQ: How different are you from your Game Changer host persona? Is that the real you on camera?

SR: I mean, it is. You know, I think that there’s a very nuanced distinction between Sam on stage and Sam in real life. I do think when I’m in presenter mode, and then I break because one of my players does something funny and I laugh, that’s sort of a quick jump from one Sam to the other. But I was raised on Monty Python and there’s something about comedy in a suit that’s always resonated with me. I love stuff that’s formal and a little surreal. There are a few episodes of Game Changer that require me to be a little bit more of a “straight man”. For those episodes, I do try to unnerve my players with my common confidence, my stoic-ness. In this last episode of Game Changer, I say, Sam says “Don’t flinch” and a body falls from the ceiling... I have to play that straight or the joke doesn’t land. But inside I’m giddy all the time. [laughs]


ESQ: One of your more famous catchphrases is "I've been here the whole time". It's something that you utter at the start of every Game Changer episode. Is there more to the statement?

SR: You know, there's a very pragmatic reason I say that. The original reason is because as the other players take the stage, I'm announcing the show as well and you wouldn't normally know that the announcer and the host were the same person. So, when the camera cuts to me, I'd say, "I've been here the whole time" as a sort of welcome.

But it has taken on a kind of a different quality as the show's gone on. I've introduced the idea of my great-grandfather magician counterpart, Samuel Dalton [from the "Escape the Green Room" episode], who exists somewhere deep in the lore of Game Changer. There's a Loki, god of mischief, quality to the phrase, "I've been here the whole time". I'm always watching. So I embrace it, even though it's not what I meant.

ESQ: But as the seasons go on—and I wish longevity for the show—is it getting harder to come up with themes for the show? Because one of the factors for Game Changer is, you know, the element of surprise.

SR: You’ve just encapsulated the stress of the show. Every season we back ourselves further and further into a corner where it’s harder to be original. And for a show called Game Changer, that’s the pressure. How do we keep reinventing the wheel? And every season we have to step a little further outside the box to find ideas that feel like they’re going to surprise, not only the cast but, also the audience of the show. And, by the way, remain true to, what I feel is, the show’s character.

Kate Elliott

ESQ: And what is that?

SR: For instance, I’m not super inclined to leave the set altogether. There’s more and more reason to do so [as demonstrated in] our two-part season finale, where we leave the studio for a completely different location. But it’s almost like when someone gives you a cardboard box and you have to put something wildly different in that cardboard box every episode but the box doesn’t change its shape so how do you do that? Every season we say, how are we going to top the next season? And every season we say, that’s next season’s problem.

ESQ: I can't wait to see the new season and what you have in the years to come. And also how you're going to get yourself out of the corner you painted yourself into.

SR: [laughs] You and me both. I think this next episode of Game Changer—the one that airs in two weeks—is a good one. And the one that airs two weeks from now is also one of my favourites we've ever done.

ESQ: It sounds like every episode that's coming out is the best one you've ever done.

SR: [laughs] The one coming out that I'm excited about is called "Bingo". You'll know when you see it.

ESQ: I’d assume the writing room for Game Changer is small.

SR: It’s small. Really small. It’s myself; my creative writing partner and head of development, Paul Robalino; it’s a writer whom I love and trust a lot, Ryan Creamer; it’s our head of production, Kyle Rohrbach, and my production designer, Chloe Badner. Recently, we brought in my director and editor, Sam Geer, early into that process.

Except for Ryan, the people who work on Game Changer lead departments on the show. That conversation is more of a production. It’s one part creative and another part logistical. I want those meetings to be practical. What’s the point of having a room full of creative folks if the moment I present my ideas to production we can’t do them?

What I did this past season is that I have 10 folks that I go out to for pitches. Then I take those pitches to the group. With them, we mull the pitches over; beat them up; cut ideas in half; sew two ideas together... that’s how we write a season. As the seasons wear on, I lean less and less on comedians and more and more on game designers. Now, the folks pitching the ideas are those with backgrounds in escape rooms and interactive experiences. I find their backgrounds are better suited to where the show is going.

ESQ: You're also a magician.

SR: Sure. But an aspiring one.

ESQ: Was magic something you took up during the pandemic or when you were young?

SR: It's funny, I was just reviewing some home VHS footage from when I was two and three years old and it was my first ever magic show. I've been into magic for almost my whole life. My school assignment was to create a coat of arms for myself. We had to come up with a sort of a [motto]; mine was "Imagination. Illusion. Humour. Art." I was seven at the time, just to give you a sense of how long this kind of stuff has been in my DNA.

During the pandemic, I found a magician offering lessons—Jason Ladanye on TikTok—and I started two years of training and some sleight of hand with him. It was really fun and really humbling because you learn fast that the stuff is not at all easy. It takes years and years to get good at. Jason is one of the best there is.

ESQ: What's your forte? Cards? Coins?

SR: Cards. I love the elegance of a simple Bicycle deck and this notion of portable magic, you know? Magic that you can take with you. Magic that you can do with someone else's deck of cards. Mentalism is interesting to me. I find it very intimidating and big stage magic like David Copperfield's kind of magic, I've no interest in at all.

ESQ: There's this weird crossroad with magic and humour that magicians often get made fun of by comedians. Do you get to perform for your peers?

SR: I do and people ask, for sure. I also think because they run in the same circle of performers, you'd be surprised about how little I get made fun of for magic as a hobby. It's like all of us here on the east side of Los Angeles are nerds and geeks. You have to be a particular kind of person to love and learn that kind of stuff.

I think it was Teller from Penn and Teller, who said, "Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect." And that's how I feel towards Game Changer, where we put so much effort into creating the fun and surprises of it.

Do you know the Dimension 20 e-art puzzle in "Escape the Green Room"? Took me hours to figure that out. But the whole time, I was just thinking, oh, they'll love this. It's like a little gift for your friends.

ESQ: By the way, I loved that episode because I thought it was going to be a normal escape room. But then you added lore to it. There’s a storyline. I was like, Oh my God, he went that extra mile.

SR: Yeah. It’s pretty high. My creative partner on that episode was Tommy Honton an escape room designer and I learnt a lot from him. Tommy has a terrific escape room here in Los Angeles called Stash House and he told me that the most exciting escape rooms are the ones with background. So, that’s where the seed started.

And then he said, the biggest advantage we have going into this episode, is that it only needs to happen once. As opposed to a traditional escape room, which you can reset over and over again. At that point, it became, Oh, we can put breakables in the room. A breakable clock, a breakable guitar and then it all started to fall into place.

"You didn't count on ingenuity, did you, motherfucker?"

ESQ: It just shows the kind of mind to conjure up themes for Game Changer. It's almost akin to a supervillain's mindset where they set up elaborate death traps and schemes.

SR: If you go back and watch season one of the show, we were still figuring out its identity. [We only figured it out] until season four. If you were to describe the show as a cocktail, it's one part improv comedy; one part British panel show; one part prank; one part magic trick and one part avant-garde art project.

Part of this for me is education. As I'm out in the real world, I'm doing escape rooms or playing social deduction games or seeing theatre. I'm taking notes, Oh that's a really interesting fact. I bet that could be incorporated into the show at some point.

ESQ: What are you watching and reading? Do you even have time for that?

SR: I do. I read a lot of fiction. My favourite book last year was Sea of Tranquility. It's this perfect little time travel book. I watch a lot of mystery. I've been watching The Tourist on Netflix. It's awesome. Amazing performances, an engrossing mystery. The show manages to spin three plates at the same time. It's really good.

I'm also watching shows at the Magic Castle. I'm playing games... I've started playing Blood on the Clock Tower. Again, awesome. I've been seeing a lot of theatre shows again like last year's Fringe. Now that was instructive because people were putting up shows that I'd never considered. It blew my mind. I went to a show called Temping, where only one person can be in the room at a time. You sit in a cubicle and there's a computer in front of you. The "show" centred around the e-mails and the phone calls that you were getting as you temped for this actuary office. Totally outside-the-box stuff... that gets me so excited.

ESQ: Would you like to bring Game Changer to the Fringe?

SR: I would love to if I can convince my business partners that there's any good business reason to do that. And—spoiler alert—there isn't. It would be pure joy if I could. We're toying around with more live stuff in general.

ESQ: Do you watch Taskmaster?

SR: Of course, I do. Alex Horne (creator of Taskmaster) is actually a new buddy of mine. It's funny, I was afraid to watch Taskmaster because it was during the pandemic season of Game Changer and folks started telling me that I should watch it as the shows have so much in common. I didn't want to watch it because I was afraid to derive too much inspiration from it. I didn't want people to feel like I was ripping it off.

But I watched a few episodes, got totally hooked and now I've watched every single one of them.

ESQ: Can we talk about the pandemic? I know, it’s a period that many would want to forget-

SR: It’s still happening.

ESQ: I’d always thought that the pandemic started in 2020 and I realised that it’s called COVID-19... so it started a year earlier. We saw the smoke but we didn’t think the fire would reach us. Your Game Changer season set during the pandemic was amazing. The ingenuity that came out from doing episodes with everybody remotely working from their homes. Did you just want to pause the series during the pandemic or did you feel like doing something...?

SR: We needed to do something. We had a season of Game Changer and a season of Dimension 20 in the can but the clock was ticking and [these episodes] were going to run out and we needed to produce content. We’ve signed a deal with IAC to take over [Dropout] two days before lockdown in Los Angeles and we needed to satisfy these subscribers. In a way, coming up with that season was [brought to a bear] but, in another way, I’m a firm believer that restrictions help assist with creativity.

It’s easier to write poetry that rhymes than poetry that doesn’t. So, the restriction helps. We did episodes that we would have never done in the studio. Not nearly as many people have watched the remote seasons, I get it. Even when I go back to watch the stuff that was filmed over Zoom. It’s... triggering. Thank god, we’re not doing this any more but I am proud of it. There are a few of those episodes that are some of my favourites.


ESQ: You managed to get people like Tony Hawk and Giancarlo Esposito to guest on that season.

SR: That was a really rare situation insofar as no one had anything to do during the pandemic [laughs]. We have some higher-profile guests on next season's Make Some Noise, which is a short-form improv show that I'm excited about. Our experience has been that once people get a flavour of working with us, they will be excited to work with us again. Case in point, the drag queens from [Dimension 20's "Dungeons and Drag Queens" episodes] have been back a bunch. Paul F Tompkins recently started to play with us and he's been back a bunch. It's really fun to have the family expand in that way.

ESQ: You’ve cultivated a nurturing workspace. Your staff and performers look like they genuinely like one another. More family than workmates. In Singapore, it’s rare to see that sort of camaraderie in the workplace, let alone a CEO of a company putting his employees’ welfare before profits.

SR: I can’t take sole credit for this. This new version of the company meant that we could, sort of, start over. And we think long and hard about the kind of people that we want to work with at every level. Especially in a corporate environment, where there are many invisible powers, where [at Dropout,] it’s just us and that’s humbling. And I think that’s something people respond to; they are watching people who make that stuff.

There isn’t some sort of mysterious force behind us or the people who own the company that aren’t us... we are it. When you boil it down that way, we’re just human beings trying to make something and trying to get other people excited to make something with us. To do that, we need to show them—not only kindness and respect—but also reverence for their talent. And talent is really what powers the platform. The reason why Dropout is successful—and you can point to a lot of things like “the organic marketing strategy is clever” or “we’re making good decisions about finances” or “the P&L is well balanced... but the real reason why Dropout is successful is that someone comes out on stage and does something amazing. And for that to happen, you better respect it and have reverence for it.

I think it could be—and maybe it’s a little cynical of me—that in our industry, there are a lot of folks who get into content creation, they aren’t creatives. When you have too many people who get into our business from non-creative positions, meaning they were promoted through [fields that] aren’t like writing, directing, acting, etcetera. They don’t have quite enough respect for what it actually takes to make the product. I think that’s maybe the biggest difference in terms of our company’s DNA or how it’s set up: all of us at a high level are creative folks and we care deeply about other creative folks.

ESQ: We wanna keep to the theme of our discussion and incorporate a puzzle within this interview. Maybe readers who have come this far can figure out how to finish the rest of this url ( _ _-_ _ _ _-_ _ _ _-_ _ _-_ _ _ _ _-_ _ _ _ ) and win a prize.

SR: Wow, very cool. You’ve permission to rewrite my responses [to fit the puzzle].

Sam Reich met his wife, Elaine Carroll, at summer camp in 2000. They remain the best thing about relationships in the entertainment industry.

ESQ: Is there any point in Game Changer that you’d want to be a contestant instead of being a host?

SR: You know, truthfully, no. I know fans are so eager to see it happen. I’m nervous for whoever has to host instead of me. But I’m the show’s quality controller. If you take me out of that part of the creative process, it just wouldn’t be very hard for that episode to live up to the others. Forgive me if that statement is a little bit self-aggrandising but I feel so badly for the person who has to take on the stress of trying to come up with a Game Changer episode instead of me. It’s hard at this point. It is hard to come up with this stuff so I wouldn’t necessarily wish it on them.

ESQ: Hypothetically, if you could have someone to fill in as host, who'd it be?

SR: Folks have talked about who'd take on that mantle. Most specifically Brennan [Lee Mulligan]. A lot of people on Reddit want me to play in an episode and have my wife, Elaine, host it. But never say never. Maybe one day.

ESQ: I feel that the closest thing to you being a participant and getting pranked is on Breaking News.

SR: Breaking News has become where Grant [O’Brien] and the cast get their revenge on me. The next season of Breaking News, there are no less than three episodes targeting me. It is [starts laughing] wild. What they will do, I left to their own devices.

"Brennan, please tell me we met when you were a writer for Um, Actually."
"We met
five years before that."

ESQ: One last question, how has your wife, Elaine [Carroll] contributed to the Sam Reich of today?

SR: This is an amazing question that I’m so glad I got the opportunity to answer. So, thank you. Being in a loving secure relationship for as long as I have has allowed me to focus on work and creative output in a way that’s extremely privileged. Elaine is unbelievably supportive and our relationship is so profoundly uncomplicated compared to what I often see in the world.

Because we live in a [time] of dating apps and the huge amount of choices they bring, I can’t recommend enough for falling in love and marrying young. [laughs] I think it allowed us to start building a life early, which contributed hugely to what I’ve managed to do now in my 30s—I’ll be 40 this year—yeah... it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Game Changer, other originals and more are streaming at Dropout

For the longest time Bassem Youssef was motivated by revenge. Not exactly of the arch kind—there were no cunning plans or dastardly schemes—this vengeance was career motivation, plain and simple. The way he looked at it, if he could succeed as an Egyptian stand-up comedian in the US—after everything he’d been through—he would prove everybody wrong. There was only one problem: He wasn’t actually very good.

“I started five or six years ago and, like anything new that you try, in the beginning you’re not good. So, yeah, I sucked big-time,” confirms Youssef via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “The problem was that I had come from a point of high expectations, especially from an Arab audience who had seen me on Al Bernameg. Many people would come to my show and be disappointed. I got it—I was disappointed too. I was in my mid-40s competing with kids in their 20s doing shitty open mics and stand-up comedy clubs. To be honest, it was a little bit humiliating.”

The move to stand up was meant to be Youssef’s big pivot. Well, his second one if you count the initial transition from cardiac surgeon to TV show host in 2011 (and you really should). But in 2014 he had cancelled Al Bernameg—his groundbreaking Egyptian show that dared take a satirical sideswipe at the country’s elite—as the pressure had simply become too great. The show had been a staggering success, regularly attracting 30 million viewers across a three-season run, but the country’s Mohamed Morsi-ran government was fragile in ego. In March 2013 a warrant was issued for Youssef’s arrest, claiming he had ‘insulted Islam’ as well as the current president. Four months later Morsi was deposed by military coup, but Youssef believed that his own fate was written, too. In 2014, for the safety of his family, he left Egypt for good.

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When it came to stand up, Youssef got better. “Bit by bit things improved,” he says. “I became more comfortable with the material, and the nuance of doing the show in English.” But while the Arab audience was where his fame lay, there was a time when he refused to perform in Arabic at all. That choice feels like it stems from somewhere raw. Perhaps a subconscious kickback to the treatment he received on leaving his homeland.

“What happened to me in Egypt, when I quit for the safety of my family,” he explains. “I didn’t want to do it anymore because it was just too much pressure. But I was called a coward, a sell-out. The epitome of love [from the people] had turned into the depths of hate.”

But of course you can only deny self for so long, and eventually Youssef began performing in Arabic again. Now he tours two shows at the same time, one in English, one in Arabic. “It was hard to begin with,” he admits. “A couple of times they [the Arabic shows] didn’t go so well, but eventually I found my voice. But they are totally different, the Arabic show has nothing to do with the English one. Doing this is difficult.”

There’s a tension that often lies beneath the surface of the best comedians. A dark that fuels the light. You sense it in Youssef, too—and not just because he’s under the weather today and with a big show at the weekend. The experience with Al Bernameg almost broke him, being labelled the ‘Voice of The Arab Spring’ could do that for you. You still feel that a big part of him wants to speak out on issues surrounding the Middle East—his actions tell you that—but he hates it too. The pressure, the expectation. That kind of weight can be debilitating.

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On October 18, 2023, Youssef was interviewed about the Israel-Gaza war on Piers Morgan: Uncensored. It would have seismic results.

“The producers at Piers Morgan: Uncensored had actually approached me to discuss [the situation in Gaza] twice, but at that moment it just felt like any comment would have been career suicide,” he says wearily. Youssef had appeared on the show some months earlier, speaking out on the Afrocentrism row that surrounded the Netflix docu-drama Queen Cleopatra, and had put in a typically indefatigable performance.

“But at that point it just seemed impossible to speak out against the narrative that was being told [on Palestine]. That changed when I saw Ben Shapiro’s comments going out on his show. I got very upset. When the producers called me a third time I said ‘yes’.”

The interview currently sits with 21 million views on YouTube (the most-watched Piers Morgan: Uncensored episode of all-time) and saw Youssef engage with a typically satirical approach, exaggerating all the points made before him. It was a tactical strategy that took guts.

This is how the conversation with his wife, Hala—herself half-Palestinian—went prior to his appearance on the show.

Bassem: “Hey, I’m going on the Piers Morgan show tomorrow to talk about Palestine.”
Hala: “Are you sure—what are you going to say?”
Bassem: “I don’t know.”
Hala: “Good luck.”

And then after the show (after he had joked how Hala, as Palestinian, was indeed ‘difficult to kill’)…

Hala: “Don’t do a second one.”
Bassem: “I’ll just do one more.”
Hala: “OK, do what you want.”

“This is why our marriage works,” he smiles. “We give each other the space to be ourselves.”

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Youssef’s strategy was something approaching shock and awe. A first, slightly-over-the-top exaggerated first interview that would lead to something deeper; a face-to-face with Morgan which duly came on October 31.

“To be honest, the whole thing really felt like a lose-lose situation to me,” he admits. “I thought, ‘If I do well I could lose my whole career, and if I do badly I could be cancelled by my own people’. But I took a chance. For the first interview I wanted to make a splash. But for the second I worked with some amazing people around the world to educate myself further on the situation. There were so many nuances we don’t know, even though we’re Arabs.

"The first [interview] was sensation, the second was education. This approach was risky from beginning to end and I can’t sit here and say that I planned it all. I could have lost everything; but I got lucky. If you look at the videos, the first is on 21 million views while the second has 11 million, but the second has more clips being cut from it, and has been viewed far more.”

The fallout from the interviews has been mixed. “It’s been mostly positive from my people,” he says. “I’ve actually been selling-out shows because people saw it. But I’ve had to tell them that one has nothing to do with the other. On the negative side, I lost a couple of jobs in Hollywood. Movie roles that got cancelled, I’m still working out whether I want to make a fuss about that yet. On a personal level, people have been extremely nice. Although I did have a couple of incidents where some comedians I had worked with were a little nasty about me. I didn’t respond. Why give them any fuel?”

There were also other issues at play here. Since leaving Egypt in 2014, Youssef had made LA his home and is now officially a US citizen—something that he remains positive about the situation. “I haven’t really worried about my position here,” he says. “I’m an American citizen and I do believe in this country. Of course, like anywhere, there are problems. But I would rather live here than any other country. I think that the people growing up in the US can make positive changes. I still believe in the idea of America.”

“I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve a cause in some way.” BASSEM YOUSSEF

Inevitably, since the interview, there has been the inclination to push Youssef to the forefront of the conversation when it comes to Palestine. And to an extent, he has continued to highlight the plight of the people. Things like Instagram live check-ins with Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza, for example, show his desire to do something. But there’s a level of unease you see on his face when he discusses it. The shadow of that Al Bernameg pressure creeping back into his life.

“I’m not exactly sure what I will do next. It would really be up to people like Motaz—he has to figure out that risk,” he says before trailing off… “I don’t know if it’s even helpful.”

There’s a real internal struggle at play here. In our social media age, any perceived missteps are publicly called out. And the pressure heaped on high profile accounts can be unbearable for anyone. For Youssef it’s a frustration.

“I don’t like doom scrolling or posting. If you look at my feed I don’t really put ho­rrific images there. Because, at the end of the day—and this is a problem with Arabs especially—we just want to be doom, doom, doom [mimics scrolling on a phone] and then we cry with each other. I’m not saying that people should stop doing this, maybe it is effective.

"But from my point of view, if people started unfollowing me because of that then it doesn’t matter what I’m posting, because it’s not going to be seen. I want to continue working, to become more successful, more vocal, so I will be invited and asked to talk at higher profile shows and opportunities… Piers Morgan, Joe Rogan… suddenly your message can reach a lot more people. But right now I have people cursing me, and judging me if I post about my upcoming shows. ‘You didn’t post about Gaza today’. But they forget that this is my livelihood.”

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So the internal conflict continues. The desire to simply be himself, a comedian, and not have the pressures of a people, versus the knowledge that sometimes he cannot remain silent.

“I do what I do because you feel it’s the right thing,” he says. But then it comes: ‘you are our voice’. Basically you are putting all your expectations on a human being and, at a certain point, maybe they won’t be able to speak up. Maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re afraid. But people are so frustrated by politicians that they come to comedians, actors, footballers. There is a weight on us because people follow our work. But really, we don’t have the solution.

“At a certain point you start to become erased for it, too. For the cause. You’re suddenly responsible for talking only about this subject. I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve the cause in some way. Maybe I will do it again. This is life. Life is variable.”

The variable of Youssef’s life has certainly been evident since leaving Egypt; from Netflix documentaries to appearing twice last month in the UAE at COP28, to working his way up to become a successful—as he puts it—‘mid-level’ comedian in the US. But that profile has suddenly gone stratospheric. It’s an uneasy career boost, in all honesty. But he has too many years on the clock to take it all too seriously.

“Before Piers’ show I was doing well. I was filling theatres, shows in Europe, the Middle East, which is great, a good life. Then that show catapults you to a totally different level. But you remain humble. You don’t take this world too seriously. It’s better to enjoy what you have right now, and not to get too hung up about your achievements. Nothing stays forever.”

The sheer exhaustion felt by Bassem Youssef when he left Egypt for the safety of himself and his family over a show that would, anywhere else in the world, have presumably seen him honoured. How do you come back from that? The frustratingly simple answer is: with time. But the years only attach a band aid, they don’t erase. If you’re lucky, however, those scars can take you someplace else.

On November 17, 2023, Bassem Youssef’s stand-up show sold out the Sydney Opera House. Nine years, pretty much, to the day that he had left his homeland. It was a groundbreaking experience that followed a wildly popular extended tour of Australia. In those moments, when we actually get what we dream about, we’re often drawn into introspection and reflection. But when you ask Youssef if he misses Egypt you get a quick-fire “no.” Almost as if he’s trying to say the word before anything else slips out (although he does caveat it with Red Sea beaches and Egyptian mangoes). As for the haters, well those nine years have brought perspective.

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“I’ve been on a lot of rollercoasters,” he says before quickly adding the word “emotional” to ensure we don’t think he’s been obsessing over theme parks all this time. “I think when I left Egypt there was a lot of bitterness and a lot of anger. I felt that I was treated unfairly, that I had done something spectacular for the Egyptian media and was punished for it. So, you want to succeed to show the people back home who doubted you, who celebrated your failure, that you’ve still got it. But you know what I found when I did it? Nothing. When you get to that good place, you really don’t care anymore.”

At the Sydney Opera House Youssef had once again done his research. He had spoken to the Arab community and was sad to hear that they felt the Palestinian flag was becoming synonymous with terrorism. Determined to do something special in their honour, he promptly learned a traditional Dabke dance; something to perform on the night at the end of his show. And so, he duly danced with Palestinian dancers in a rare moment of hope. “It was a way of humanising Arabs,” he explains, before pausing. “Maybe if they see some of our culture (before they steal it) they might actually respect us as humans and, hopefully, allow us to live.”

And there you have the complex realities of Bassem Youssef wrapped up in just a few lines. The funny and the fundamental, the gag with a sting in its tail, his art and identity combined. It’s an internal struggle that you feel could play out for some time. Ultimately, the man from Cairo might not want to be a hero. The truth is that he looks set to play the role for the foreseeable future.

STYLING BY Laura Jane Brown
SET DESIGN BY Yehia Bedier
H&MU BY Kasia Domanska

Originally published on Esquire Middle East

Caro Scarimbolo/NBC//NBC Universal

About three years ago, the sketch group Please Don't Destroy—which consists of Martin Herlihy, Ben Marshall, and John Higgins—was backstage at a claustrophobic New York City comedy venue, ready to perform. Covid-19 precautions just lifted, and people were finally going outside to see comedy again. At some point, the trio learns some thrilling, if anxiety-rattling info: Lorne Michaels is in the crowd. Back then, the guys were just NYU comedy graduates and popular TikTok creators. Not only was Lorne Michaels in the audience, but he was about to see them open with a batshit idea they’d never even tried before.

“We had these three 70-year-old men walking out who kind of looked like us, and they were our future selves,” Ben Marshall tells me over Zoom, sitting in the same little room where they write and film their sketches. John Higgins adds, "The guy who played future Ben was maybe 91 years old." After the show, the Saturday Night Live! producer came backstage. “He was wearing an N-95 mask, and he spoke so quietly that I could barely hear him,” Marshall recalls. “You would just laugh after whatever he said because you weren’t sure if it was a joke. Then he said, ‘I’m sure we’ll be seeing you guys soon.’” Michaels then turned around and walked out of the room. “It was scary.”

Of course, "seeing you guys soon" meant "you're hired." Now, Please Don't Destroy is entering its third season working under Michaels, populating Saturday Night Live! with increasingly surreal sketches. But yeah—that night was pretty weird. “If you ask him about it, I’m sure that he wasn’t trying to be weird,” Higgins says. “He was just trying to be nice, like, ‘See you guys soon!’ But for us, it was such a big deal that we were like, ‘What do you mean?!’” The comedians are also releasing their debut film, Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain, exclusively on Peacock. With the SAG-AFTRA strike finally over, they’re thrilled to talk about it. “I feel like the article should just be called, ‘Download Peacock,’” Higgins jokes.

Below, Higgins, Marshall, and Herlihy open up about about making of Foggy Mountain, casting Conan O’Brien as Marshall's dad, and their earliest comedy shows (one of which may or may not have involved a cow costume).

Anne Marie Fox / Universal Pictures//NBC Universal

ESQUIRE: Has reaching a certain level of fame set in yet, or do you still leave the stage after talking to Seth Meyers and go, "Boys, this is insane?"

JOHN HIGGINS: It never gets more normal. We were just on Seth Meyers and we’re told, "Oh, Jimmy [Fallon] has an idea for you guys to rush the monologue. So, while we’re doing Seth Myers, in the back of my head I’m like, "We have to go back downstairs to go do Jimmy?!"

MARTIN HERLIHY: What kinda helps is that we’re working all the time. So, there’s very little time to feel insane.

Have you gained any wisdom since you were college freshmen?

HIGGINS: It would be really sad if we hadn’t.

BEN MARSHALL: When you start doing comedy, you have all these weird rules in your head where you decide you can or can’t do certain things because they’re not cool or smart, or funny. But as you become more comfortable with yourself over time, those things just fade away. Like, our first show was just 10-15 minutes of medieval music playing with John on stage in a cow costume and Martin milking him.

HERLIHY: We look back on some of the earlier shows and just think, What the hell were we thinking? We were like, That’s genius. Just make sure right off the top that they get a bad taste in their mouth.

I’ve heard a lot about this show: Please Don’t Destroy My Farm. It’s your origin story as a comedy trio. Martin plays a farmer, Ben is an angry businessman and John is a cow who doesn’t talk. I heard that John once asked you both if he could talk next time.

HIGGINS: Finally, somebody’s asking! I wouldn’t think that it was going to be awkward, but when they were like, ‘I don’t know, man,’ then it got awkward. I was like, "Fuck, what?"

HERLIHY: I barely knew John at the time, and I really liked the bit of John not talking. It was working, but it was so insane. I was like, "I feel like the best thing we got going for us is that John doesn’t talk."

MARSHALL: We all have very different memories of this event. I thought we were at John’s parents’ apartment, and we were also talking about whether or not we wanted to keep doing shows with the title of "Please Don’t Destroy My X," or just do sketches. So, we were talking around it, in my memory, like, "Well, it’s nice that it’s eventised in that way." I will say, we talk about those first shows all the time as if they’re the worst shit in the world, but I do think—for our first shows ever—they’re pretty funny.

How did it come to be that many of your SNL digital shorts see the host coming to your writing room to do a sketch with you?

MARSHALL: When we were brought on as writers, we were told that we might be doing videos, but after a bit, we thought that we just had to do it. Once they see that it works, maybe they would start letting us do it. Let’s just not tell anybody, get a couple of cameras, and just do a short thing. So, we made that "Hard Seltzer" video as our first.

HERLIHY: It was also production constraints. It was easy to just shoot in our office and we knew when people weren’t going to be here. But we had done so many apartment Tik-Toks that we weren’t going in blind. We knew what to do.

MARSHALL: It’s like a little sitcom we do. Every sitcom has a living room, and ours is the office. Sometimes it’ll even start here and then we’ll go somewhere crazy.

HIGGINS: Rami [Malek] was the first host to do it with us. We just pitch them an idea and if they say yes, we’re like "Great." But in the beginning, we didn’t know if anyone would do it. Rami doing it really set it all off.

Who surprised you the most out of the hosts you’ve worked with so far?

HIGGINS: It happens a lot with dramatic actors. So, whenever they’re even slightly funny it’s like, What the hell? Rami was super funny.

MARSHALL: Brendan Gleeson. Hilarious, amazing guy. Loved him so much. Bad Bunny was so funny.

"Our first show was just 10-15 minutes of John on stage in a cow costume and Martin milking him."

You guys make a lot of jokes about each other’s appearances. Are there ever any when you’ve thought, Guys, that one hurt a little bit?

MARSHALL: I remember one time when we were about to start pitching a joke where someone would be making fun of me, and then like 10 people chimed in all at once and I was like "OK, whoa! Maybe I’ll just write it myself."

HERLIHY: Usually, it’s not our mode of writing. When we know that we need something like that and someone else comes up with it instead of us, we’re like, Oh, thank God.

What was the hardest part about making your first film?

MARSHALL: Editing was probably the hardest. We’re so used to having total say in all our edits and being extremely involved. It was hard to relinquish a little control. We were working here in New York, and it was being edited in Los Angeles. We were still involved. It was just logistically pretty crazy. Also, improv was very difficult to edit. So much of the process is just endless piles of unusable improv. Just hours and days.

HERLIHY: So much of the funniest shit was like a minute and a half of improvising that wasn’t usable. Even if there was one killer thing, we would still have to cut it. We were just so obsessed with making every scene as funny as possible.

Did any bits of improv make it into the film?

MARSHALL: X Mayo is one of the funniest improvers I’ve ever seen in my life. So many of her jokes were pitched on set or just done in the moment. The songs in the tent—where John and Meg are earnestly singing at each other—were both improvised.

Conan O’Brien stars as Ben’s dad in the Please Don’t Destroy film.
Anne Marie Fox / Universal Pictures//Universal

When the Internet became obsessed with the nepo baby stuff, did you guys ever think, Look, no one even brings this up unless we’re on Jimmy Fallon? [Editor's note: Higgins's father is Steve Higgins, The Tonight Show's announcer, and Herlihy is the son of former SNL writer Tim Herlihy.]

HIGGINS: Yeah. it was weird but we understood it.

HERLIHY: We’re also three white guys who went to NYU, so we’re not out here pretending like we had the hardest time getting our foot in the door. But I think the work speaks for itself.

Was getting Conan O’Brien to play Ben’s father an inside joke just to get Ben a famous SNL dad as well?

HIGGINS: What’s really funny is that I didn’t think about that at all. It wasn’t until I was watching the movie that I thought, Oh yeah, in this one Ben has a dad who is famous.

MARSHALL: Yeah, it’s funny that it wasn’t a larger conversation.

HIGGINS: We were just like, "Who should play Ben’s red-haired father? Conan O’Brien."

MARSHALL: We also think it’s really funny when guys are obsessed with their dad. Just always vying for their approval. That’s where that came from. Not us, though. We all have great relationships with our dads. [Laughs.]

I feel like a lot of people don’t know that this is Conan’s first substantial role, playing a character in a film that isn’t himself.

MARSHALL: His character’s name is Farley, for some reason.

HIGGINS: I don’t think anyone in the movie even says it.

HERLIHY: I was just calling him “Sir,” which worked for both the character and how intimidated I was.

What would it take to become the fourth member of Please Don’t Destroy? Is there some sort of blood oath, or do I need to find a secret treasure?

HIGGINS: Just show up with two and a half million dollars and you’re good.