Comedian Cole Escola has a lot of wigs. “I have maybe 30 or 35 — they live in doughnut boxes because they’re the right size,” he says.
Escola has deployed a hefty portion of those wigs for his one-man show, “Help! I’m Stuck!,” which comes to the 9:30 Club on March 1. He’s a master of the quirky character, donning those hairpieces to portray such creations as Jessup Collins, an extremely tanned “lifestyle guru” sendup, Rep. Elaine Grayson, a distracted politician attempting to cover up a scheduling error and the Goblin Commuter of Hoboken, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Escola, 32, has been honing his sketch-comedy style for about a decade, beginning with YouTube videos he made with fellow comedian Jeffery Self. That led to a cult-hit series on Logo TV, “Jeffery & Cole Casserole,” and roles on shows including “Difficult People” and “Mozart in the Jungle,” as well as plenty of stage performances. Along the way, he developed the sketches and characters that make up “Help! I’m Stuck!”
We spoke to the comedian in advance of his D.C. show, for which he’ll be making his first trip to Washington, he says, “that’s not protest related.”
Q: What's the process for creating one of your characters? Are you deep-diving into their personality, trying to figure out who these people are, or is it more improvisational?
A: I would say it’s more improvisational. But all of the characters are a part of me in some way, or they represent certain aspects of myself that I’m otherwise too scared to get in touch with. They’re an exaggerated expression. And then some are based on people that I know or influenced me as I was growing up. But they’re still in me.
I have this character called the Goblin Commuter of Hoboken. She works on Wall Street and she’s a goblin. She sort of represents the way I feel about myself in romantic situations or in professional situations, where I feel like this hideous goblin. That’s sort of my post-psychoanalysis of it. But when I first created it, I thought of the title — “the Goblin Commuter of Hoboken” — and I just thought it sounded really funny.
Q: You were one of the early examples of a successful YouTube comic, putting yourself out there via self-produced sketch videos and eventually getting a TV deal out of it.
A: It demonstrated that you don’t need to be in the mainstream to have a career or a following, or to be able to make work. There are people who have millions of subscribers on YouTube and can sell out huge theaters, but my mom has never heard their names before. And you probably won’t see them on TV shows. And they don’t really need that — they have it figured out.
I wasn’t really performing before I was making YouTube videos with my friend Jeffery Self. Then the response that we got from those videos was what encouraged me and made me think I could do this as a career.
Q: Do you think it's much different from when you started?
A: I feel like it is a different place now. People have figured out how to monetize it. The equipment and the sound and the video is all like 4K, HD. YouTube videos look like unaired HBO pilots sometimes. Whereas when Jeffery and I were making them — and you can still watch them now — the sound is terrible, and it looks like it was filmed underwater because the picture quality is so bad. . . . And not just the way people can monetize their videos with ads — people have figured out sponsored content, merchandising, branding. We started before people were really doing that. We didn’t have a lot of examples to go off of, but it was fun — I know that. When we first started, it was so just so new and so novel. The idea that I could go over to Jeffery’s apartment at 11 a.m. and by 3:30 p.m. we could have a video up, and already getting positive feedback.
Q: You've spoken before about your upbringing, growing up extremely poor in a trailer in Oregon, with your father suffering from PTSD from Vietnam. How do you think those tough circumstances influenced your career path to becoming a comic and the style of comedy you've grown into?
A: It affected my career path in that I didn’t have a safety net. It wasn’t like, “Well, if this doesn’t work out I can go back home.” Just because, as much as she would love to, my mom can’t support more than herself. I would say that helped keep me in the game.
And then in terms of style, I guess there was a bitterness, an anger borne from that upbringing that fueled me at first. Which I have a lot less of now. But I do think that it gave me a little bit of a drive in the beginning. I do a character called Jennifer Convertibles, like the furniture store. And she is like a film-noir, chip-on-her-shoulder, strong, angry person who built herself up from nothing. I’m making it sound more artistic and intentional than it really is. In playing Jennifer Convertibles, it’s also just an excuse for me to be a Katharine Hepburn or an Ida Lupino or a Joan Crawford type. Which is my favorite genre of movie and acting. It’s only sort of afterward that I can be like, “Oh, I can see where that came from.”
Q: How did you develop "Help! I'm Stuck!"?
A: I started maybe four or five years ago. I hadn’t done stand-up or any sketch or improv training. I was just dying to perform, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had tried doing cabaret shows, but I don’t really enjoy singing that much, and I don’t think people really enjoy watching me sing.
So I just started doing this show every month where I would write all this material, and usually end up writing until the night before. And I couldn’t expect someone else to learn those lines. That’s where I came up with the idea of just putting someone backstage with a script, and then I just would pretend to be talking to them. “Acting,” I guess you’d call it. Then I started doing that every month, writing a whole new hour of material. . . . This show is the culmination of that . . . a “Best Of.”
Q: Do you have a goal for your comedy, something you want the audience to be thinking about when they leave?
A: Yeah, I want them to like me. I just want everyone to laugh and have a great time. The show is stuff that I find funny, so if other people find it funny, too, then it makes me feel less lonely and hopefully makes them feel less lonely, too.
Cole Escola March 1 at 6 p.m. (doors) at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. 930.com.