Finding Laughter in the Ordinary with Baskets’ Jonathan Krisel

The unpredictable ‘Baskets’ is back for a second season and we chat with co-creator Jonathan Krisel about Chip’s journey this year

Few shows are as ambitious and so firmly rooted in what they are as FX’s Baskets. The Zach Galifianakis-driven vehicle operates as if it truly doesn’t care whether it makes you laugh or not. Yes, this quirky underbelly that Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel, and Louis CK have created is funny—in fact, it’s hilarious—but it’s also a series that’s much more interested in offering you glimpses of a sympathetic, struggling artist – its protagonist, Chip Baskets.

While the first season of Baskets threw you into the surreal world of clowning (specifically in the rodeo sense), its sophomore season embraces its eccentric characters and continues to frame them in new, challenging lights. We rode the rails with the series co-creator and executive producer, Jonathan Krisel, about the struggles that Chip faces this year, the show’s unusual sense of humor, and whether the world still needs clowns.

DEN OF GEEK: There are a lot of different directions that you could have started this season on. Did you seriously consider any other approaches before going ahead with Chip riding the rails?

JONATHAN KRISEL: Yes! Lots of different directions were approached, but we wanted to honor the final moments of last season where Chip gets on that train. The train also plays an important role in the clown mythology in terms of the tramp, Charlie Chaplin. It seemed like a world that needed to be explored. You know, we weren’t going to do the whole season on the train, but for us to show him getting on it last year meant that we had to stay on there for some span of time. We wanted to honor our choices. 

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That being said, I also knew that I wanted to start with Mom—because we do leave her for a while. Once we crafted the whole season—this is a big Christine season and even though it is the “Chip Baskets Show,” it still heavily features the Baskets as a family. So we wanted to see where she was at. In her world, she controls everything, even her out of control family. On her wall are all the photos of her family, which don’t move around and are all perfectly in order. Christine can have control over her photo album, but in reality, everyone is falling apart. This season her goal is to bring her family to that happy, relaxed place that she can share with everybody. That’s why her relationship with Chip is so tough because he’s always screwing up.

Once Chip returns there is also plenty of new drama to unpack. There are decisions that Chip makes that have ramifications that are felt through the rest of the season. It causes him to realize that he’s made a mistake and that he needs to get his shit together. He gets involved with some people that are the furthest iteration of what he could become and it makes him realize what he doesn’t want to become his story.

It’s so interesting you say that because you definitely see Chip being so desperate for some sort of community and then when he gets it with those travelers, he realizes it’s actually the last thing that he wants. Did you think it was necessary to have Chip figure these things out with some makeshift family before returning home and working things out with his real one?

Yeah, exactly. When Chip finds this new family for himself, it of course has its own set of problems. Everything in life does. He clashes with this girl, Trinity, who is basically the Chip Baskets of the group before he comes along. She’s temperamental and not sure where she fits in as an artist. She has similar issues and she storms out of their group just like Chip storms out of his own family. It helps Chip gain perspective and put everything together. All families are difficult, so why set up shop with this one instead of his real one? It comes down to you in the end and how you can’t be hiding from yourself. 

You mentioned Martha earlier and I think it’s kind of tragic that she’s the only one that’s worried about Chip during his disappearance at the start of the season. What do you think Chip’s grown to represent for her?

She’s only known him for a short amount of time, so when Dale and Christine get hurt by him, there’s a history there. That hasn’t happened with Martha yet so of course she’s going to be concerned about where he is. She isn’t at all judgmental about him. She’s not a part of his family—she’s an outsider—so she’s coming from a totally different place. She’s willing to give him the longest rope out of anyone that he knows. She’s just interested. It’s fun for her to be around this trainwreck of a person. I’ve been around crazy, unstable actors—no one on this show—but it’s kind of fun to be a Martha-type to them. To just be there and watch. If they’re truly talented it’s fun to embrace their insanity and help these people and I think that’s how Martha looks at Chip. She thinks he’s a true artist and wants to encourage that. 

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With Chip being away, it forces Dale and Christine to spend more time together without a buffer. How does their relationship get more complicated this season?

Dale has always presented himself as the opposite of Chip. He has a job, he’s taking care of a family…and in sibling rivalry he knew that by playing this role he would be their mom’s favorite. But once Chip is out of the picture he’s like, “I don’t want that.” There’s nothing there for him to keep up the charade of being that guy. He says a lot during this season, “I want to be an artist,” and attempting to live the crazy life that Chip does. Over the course of the season Dale does try out some new irrational behaviors because his whole life—going to college, being the breadwinner—it’s been forced on him and not what he wanted. Now he’s trying to live Chip’s “quirky” lifestyle and be a single guy—he’s terrible at it, but he’s trying. He thinks he wants the sexiness of it but it wreaks too much havoc on his life. He’s a serial monogamist. He literally can’t get through his first conversation with Martha before setting up ground rules and all sorts of nonsense. The uncertainty of dating is something he can’t handle. Chip, on the other hand, can roll with it. 

You mentioned that this is a really big season for Christine. I love the episode at the Ronald Reagan Library that sees her going out on a date with Ken. It’s just so endearing and sweet. What do you look to say in a Christine Baskets story?

In that case, we really just started with the situation of, “Oh my God, my child is going to jail,” which is obviously a horrible scenario. All of Christine’s friends at home are well-adjusted and can’t relate to that experience, so when you meet someone else that does, you immediately bond because you know that they’re not judging you. Sometimes you can open up to a stranger that way just because you’re on such a similar path. It allows an openness of Christine that is such a relief for her. It’s just so refreshing to see those sorts of stories and I love telling them.

I think you do such a good job at building a mounting sense of fear in the show—especially the season’s first episode. Is it important for you to tow that line with danger and see how far you can take everything?

I try to make all emotions feel genuine, whether it’s being silly, sad, or whatever. So it’s a weird tone to sort of achieve. I look at a show like Roseanne, that’s super influential on me. It’s very funny, very real, with real problems. That was a big influence, and i don’t know if you see that all the time in the network world. Everything else was snarky and high concept while Roseanne was just a normal family. They’re not special in any way. So we try or that tone of authenticity while also throwing some slapstick in, too. It can be hard to manage all of that and it can lead to jokes being sacrificed in order to heighten emotions and make these characters feel real. Like Martha—you care about her and want her to be okay. There’s some amazing Martha stuff in the middle of the season. 

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On the opposite side of that, one of my favorite scenes from the premiere is that whole Chip vs. the Can montage. How do moments like this come to be? Are they scripted? Are you playing around a lot while filming and just seeing what works? It’s the perfect distillation of Galifianakis and his brand of comedy.

For me that was more of trying to invoke those Chaplin homages and almost making a silent movie. We wanted to try and do a lot of stuff with no dialogue in that first one. Zach is also a physical comedy master and we wanted to honor that side of him. I’m not a big “scripted comedy” person necessarily. I’m open for wherever comedy can be found. It doesn’t always have to be rapid-fire jokes. Zach can just take a can and make something out of that. 

Chip has the line in the premiere, “I don’t think clowns are needed so much since the world has become co clownish.” That’s a really poignant line. Do you think Chip truly believes this? Has his perspective on clowning changed at all?

Yeah, I think so, but it’s also a very low moment for the character. That’s really a Zach line. He is the guy from Between Two Ferns. He did that with Barack Obama and he is sort of a part of the political conversation and has opinions on it. The world is not looking for respected people. It’s looking for reality show, larger than life personalities. It’s a weird circus. There are fools at the helm, so it’s a bit of a meta statement that also works for the character. You know Chip is a weird, introspective guy that I think he’d clue in that the world is full of buffoons. 

It seems like there’s a degree of PTSD going on with Chip this season and the murder that he witnesses. Does this event continue to dig into and effect Chip through the course of the season?

Yes, for sure. Some of those characters might come back, too. I think those guys are a clear example of what Chip’s life could become. They’re a cautionary tale for him. They make him realize that he needs to stop making his life so hard for himself. He learns that he’s a difficult person, but he doesn’t need to be. In your twenties you might want to be radical and change the world, but in your thirties you might just want to be happy and ground yourself. I think that’s a cool idea that he embraces a little bit. 

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Finally, is there a specific scene or episode from this season of Baskets that you’re particularly excited for people to see?

What really makes me laugh is—the fifth episode is just Christine Baskets shopping at Costco. It’s just the funniest thing. She’s at the sample station and making conversation that’s very inconsequential but it’s SO funny. The stuff I love is just those incredibly mundane conversations. They’re all so real and Louie can take those moments and push them over the top. It’s so good! On Portlandia, all the stuff we do with Kumail talking about cell phone bills is my favorite stuff. Just the other day I was at the car dealership dealing with something. The car dealership is such an absurd place and I was just laughing at the situation I was in. It basically turned into that sketch. Those moments are what I try to put in everything that I make. Reality is so funny.

There’s that scene, but then we also have a big episode with Chip and Dale together. Just Zach with Zach. It’s a really amazing, complicated to shoot, episode. What he does with those two characters is just so different and it’s nuts to see him improvising against himself. It turned out really cool and I’m super proud of that one.

Baskets’ second season is currently airing on Thursdays at 10pm on FX