Cole Escola Wrote and Will Star In a Play About Mary Todd Lincoln
The beloved actor and writer builds rich interior lives for the wacko characters they take on, including America’s spookiest First Lady
Welcome to Gawker’s How to Be Funny week, a celebration of people and things who are making us laugh and teaching us how to laugh more.
Cole Escola wears many hats, in the sense of being a writer, producer, and actor, but more importantly they wear many wigs, often alternating hairpieces between frames, playing multiple characters in the same scene. Escola’s particular gift is rooted in a melancholy observation of human nature, always offering bleak realism to absurd characters like soul-searching Donna in their failed “NBC pilot” Pee Pee Manor or seething neighbor Chassie Tucker on At Home With Amy Sedaris. They are, in my opinion, one of the funniest people alive.
Escola opened up to Gawker about childhood icons (including a neighbor woman named Sally with a metal plate in her head with late-in-life homophobic tendencies), shooting a 1970s-inspired Western on a soundstage in Greenpoint, and their forthcoming play about Mary Todd Lincoln, in which Escola stars as Mary herself. The wig budget on that thing is going to be out of control.
You do such rich, specific character work. Is there a figure from your childhood, like a great aunt or a babysitter or someone from a commercial who you remember thinking like, They're wild. I want to learn to be just like them?
Oh, yeah. Everyone that I grew up with. My grandma. This woman, Sally, who had given me rides to church every Sunday. My teachers.
What was Sally’s deal?
Sally was an English teacher. She was my mom's English teacher. And then she was in a car accident and had a metal plate or something in her head, and she was not able to teach anymore. But she was like, the most upbeat, happy person I think I'll ever meet. And then my family stopped going to church, but I really wanted to keep going because I liked the attention of the older people at church. So she would come pick me up every Sunday and give me a ride.
So Sally would take you to church without the rest of your family? Just for some solo time riffing off each other in the car?
Correct. Loved it. Loved being around her, trying to impress her, wanting her to like me. She used to walk dogs, and so there was always dog hair everywhere.
She sounds like an Amy Sedaris character.
She’s absolutely someone that Amy would’ve concocted or grew up around.
I bet Sally loved you, right?
I think so. Although I did hear that when I had this sketch show on LOGO 12 years ago, there was a little blurb about it in my local hometown newspaper. And Sally reached out to my mom to be like, “Tell Cole congratulations. I won’t be watching.”
Because of the LOGO of it all?
Yeah, gay. So, you know…
Did Sally not know that you, as a young person, would identify as a member of the LGBTQIA community?
What's funny is like, that's what the older people loved about me, that I was a little gay kid. But for some reason, that just didn't translate.
I have to imagine that when you have a wig on, that in some ways you may be channeling characters like Sally from your youth?
Yes. And also my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s and early on, before it got really bad, it would manifest in her retelling the same stories over and over again. Which I loved. I just loved hearing how the story would change, or new details. I was just obsessed with her.
When did you realize you were funny? Did Sally or Grandma let you know?
No, I never wanted to be funny or entertain them. I want them to just idolize me and respect me. I was always very precocious and serious. In middle school I started trying to be funny, and it was really bad, and people thought I wasn’t funny and didn’t like me. And then once I got to high school, I’d failed enough at being funny that something clicked. And I was funny.
Is there anything specifically funny about being a child of Oregon?
There’s nothing funny about it.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve done or witnessed this week?
I was with Amy Sedaris yesterday and I watched her put on pantyhose, and that was really funny. It was for a photoshoot for a fundraiser. They paid hair and makeup people for her so she was like, “Hey Cole, do you want to get in on this. It’s free hair and makeup.”
My week won’t get any funnier than that.
Sometimes your characters are very pure of heart, even Donna in Pee Pee Manor who may be harboring a sinister secret of sorts. A lot of other times, your characters like Chassie Tucker from At Home with Amy Sedaris and your character Matt on Difficult People are barely concealing rage. Which is more fun to play?
Oh, I have to play both. I love both. When I’m playing someone who is concealing rage, I’d rather be playing someone hopeful. Or if I’m playing someone hopeful, I’m like, “Well, this is boring. I’d rather be concealing rage.”
Do you think catchphrases are funny?
I think repetition is funny. So by process of elimination, yes.
Do you have one?
Not yet. That’s my catchphrase. “Not yet!”
That’s killer. “Not yet!”
Would you be upset if you had a character that reached such a level of cult status that people were yelling a catchphrase at you on the street?
No. Although I don’t want to be famous anymore. I guess in my twenties I did, but now I don’t. That seems scary to me now, to have to worry about staying famous and then have everyone in your business.
Is there anything funny about being famous?
What’s funny is thinking you’re famous and not actually being famous. Like being at a cafe and seeing someone stare at you and being like Ugh, they recognize me. And they come up to you like, “I’m so sorry but your tag is sticking out.”
Do you have any tips for people looking to engage in parody artistry or write a comedic song? It’s a pretty thin line between funny and not funny.
No. You gotta be born with it.
Have you ever tread the boards doing open mics and stand-up?
Until recently, I used to do stand up shows and stuff, where I would do a little bit of stand-up but also some character work. And it was just like, humiliating for me, I think, pretty boring and or embarrassing for audiences to have to watch. So I don't do it anymore.
A lot of what you do seems to live specifically online or is created for an online audience.
Yes. Or if I do one of my own solo shows, then I'm setting the rules, and I feel like people that are coming want to see me. They’re not going to a comedy show expecting comedy and then getting me like, against their will.
There’s something really conversational about stand-up. And then when you do a character it just changes the tone. All of a sudden there’s a fourth wall. It’s a weird adjustment and I don’t like doing it. Also, I don’t really enjoy performing live anymore. The best case scenario is that it goes well, and then all I feel is relief. I don’t even feel great or excited or exhilarated. I’m just like Oh, thank god they didn’t hate it. Even if I’m just doing 10 minutes on someone else’s show I obsess over it and panic over it for two days leading up to it.
What about television? Do you have the same anxiety?
Yes, but the money is so good. It’s so much better that I don’t care. And you just do it once and it’s over and there’s no audience. But acting is really hard and I don’t like doing unless I really like the process, like Search Party or At Home With Amy Sedaris, where it feels like I’m just collaborating with friends.
Is there someone famous who you’d love to embody or play? Someone whose life you’d like to take on and exploit for comedic purposes?
Well, I’m doing a play about Mary Todd Lincoln next fall.
Yeah, I wrote a play.
Are you playing Mary Todd?
Yes, I’m playing Mary Todd.
Holy shit. This is going to be incredible.
It’s an extended performance piece sketch type of thing, but it’s a play. It’s a play. It’s a play!
Is it a series of vignettes about her life?
It’s a narrative play about her life. It takes place right around Lincoln’s assassination.
This is remarkable news. Can you give me some plot? Does she go on a journey? Is she meeting someone new? What’s the conflict?
We get to see what her dreams are. That’s all I’ll say because I don’t want to give away the plot.
Does she have a love interest other than Abraham Lincoln?
You gotta get a ticket to find out.
Is Abraham Lincoln in it?
Yes. As a character. Not the person – he’s dead.
Is that your main project you’ve got going on?
I’m shooting a fake pilot for a seventies Western in a few weeks just to put out online for free. It’s called Our Home Out West.
Where are you filming it?
At a soundstage in Greenpoint. I play multiple characters, but mainly the saloon/brothel owner Fifi.
I can’t even imagine how a Western is shot on a soundstage in Greenpoint.
It’s going to look more like a high school play.
Did you watch a bunch of seventies Westerns to prepare?
Over lockdown, I watched a lot of The Waltons which isn’t technically a Western – it’s set in the Depression – but it’s got the same sort of folksy Southern narrative.
I just watched Rancho Deluxe and I love the color scheme.
Yes. It’s going to be a lot of browns and oranges and reds.
Any other tips on how to be funny?
I don’t think I’m an expert.
Not true. This is so fun for me.
I know how to be annoying. And I know how to be sad. So if that makes you funny, then just be annoying and sad, and the whole world will laugh.
Do you believe in the old maxim that comedy is tragedy plus time?
I think we’ve gotten rid of the time. It’s just tragedy now. Tragedy is comedy. Full stop.