Photo: Joan Marcus

Nick Kroll and John Mulaney have played Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland for more than a decade, inhabiting the crotchety Upper West Side gray hairs on stage, online, and on television. In 2015, Gil (a struggling actor) and George (a disgraced professor of literature) received their big break when Oh, Hello, Live! opened off-Broadway in 2015, followed by a national tour. Currently, they can be seen on Broadway eight times a week, taking audiences on a journey that involves friendship, raccoon-fucking, and, you guessed it, a shit-ton of their beloved dish: tuna fish.

In the great tradition of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oh, Hello involves a play within a play. And, in the great tradition of Gil and George, there’s an installment of Too Much Tuna, their prank show that involves serving an unsuspecting guest—often a celebrity—a heaping mound of the mushy diner staple. But how does all that tuna get wrangled each night? The A.V. Club got on the phone with director Alex Timbers to get some fishy details.

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The A.V. Club: How much real tuna is involved in the performance each night?

Alex Timbers: Three pounds. From Zabar’s. [A press representative for the show told us that they’ve since ditched the fancy fish for a homemade salad of canned tuna with breadcrumbs—ed.]

AVC: Did you ever think, “Let’s maybe not use real tuna for this?”

AT: I think the props designer when we went to Broadway was shocked that we were going to be using real tuna, but it was very important to Nick and John and so he happily took direction from them.

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AVC: You did do it off-Broadway as well?

AT: Yeah, we used real tuna there, and then Nick and John on the national tour also used real tuna.

AVC: Why were they so insistent that the tuna had to be real?

AT: People like to play with the tuna, sometimes. Some people eat the tuna, some people roll it up into a ball. Also, the sort of disgusting texture and smell, I think, adds something to the experience.

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AVC: Do you think if you’re in the first row you might get some of the tuna smell? I couldn’t smell it from my seat in the orchestra.

AT: That’s a good question. I’m not sure if the audience can smell it but the special guest each show definitely can.

AVC: How did you first get involved with the project? Did you know Nick and John before starting on the play?

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AT: About five years ago, I directed two shows on Broadway, one was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the other was The Pee-wee Herman Show. They both had an alternative comedy bent to them. From that, Nick and I had a meeting just to talk. Our worlds didn’t overlap a lot, so we didn’t really stay in touch. And then last October—exactly a year ago—I got an email from Nick that he and John were looking to put on the stage show with two of their characters from Kroll Show and could I help at all. And they were doing it [off-Broadway] at the Cherry Lane and they had been performing it at UCB, just sort of testing it out. I worked on it for a little bit downtown and it was a great experience. I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic the audience was for it. It was just extraordinary. It felt like you were at a rock concert, which was just unusual for shows at Cherry Lane, which are usually intimate plays about big ideas, you know. And then Nick and John, just as people, are incredibly kind, inventive, funny collaborators. It was just a really positive experience. Based on that and some of the critical feedback they got, a couple of Broadway producers came down and checked it out and felt optimistic about its potential to grow into an uptown show.

AVC: How do you approach translating it to Broadway? What did you change?

AT: The show changed a lot, actually, which is risky when you get positive critical feedback. I’ve worked on other shows where the sense is like, “Well, don’t change it too much,” you know? But on this one, Nick and John—beyond being amazing performers—are also writers, and wanted to keep improving upon the show, particularly the play within a play. I think the writing just got funnier and funnier. And the rhythms of it and the logic of it also just really strengthened as well. In terms of the physical production, that changed quite a lot, too. We were working on someone else’s set downtown and we had a wonderful set designer who kind of augmented it—but we were on Colin Quinn’s set. So none of the scenery that quotes other Broadway shows, or the big nightmare effect existed downtown. All of it’s new to Broadway.

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Nick Kroll and John Mulaney in Oh, Hello (Photo: Joan Marcus)

AVC: So there are three tuna figures on stage: the actual hunk of tuna that the guest is presented with for the prank show; Tony Tuna, who’s a smaller puppet; and this gigantic scrim-like thing. How did you and Nick and John conceive of the different forms of tuna that would show up on stage?

AT: Well, I think it all started with the tuna sandwich, and then, on the road, gearing up for New York, Nick and John had the idea of having a tuna puppet, which became Tony Tuna, and their friend Cammi Upton designed that and did a great job. I mean, the texture of it is really foul. It’s got this great sort of liquid, kind of plastic, texture to it that takes light really nicely. So we had that downtown and it was really useful and sort of operated in a slightly different way. But then when I was thinking about what we could do in terms of what production values of Broadway might be able to add to the show, I had this thought that it would be really cool if we had a coup de théâtre. What would be Gil and George’s coup de théâtre? What would they want? And then I was like, an amazing, enormous tuna puppet that was like 30 by 40 feet would be pretty incredible. So I called up Basil Twist, who is one of the premier puppeteers and puppet designers in North America, and he worked on The Pee-wee Herman Show with me. And I pitched him on the idea of what I was talking about. And he got really excited immediately and started sketching out his idea, and I think it’s a real highlight of the show.

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AVC: It’s perhaps the most too much tuna that you could possibly have.

AT: Yeah, it’s definitely too much tuna, for sure.

AVC: But then you have the actual sandwich, which is actual tuna. What becomes of that?

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AT: That’s a great question. I’m not sure. I don’t really know. This is a hole in my knowledge. I’m not sure if they’d want to donate it to someone afterwards because it does sit up in the stage lights and often it’s manipulated by Nick and John and sometimes the special guest on stage. I would be a little worried about what state it’s in by the time it gets offstage. [Apparently they do throw it away.—ed.]

AVC: When I saw it, Alex Brightman was the guest, and he didn’t engage with the tuna in any sort of physical way. Do you have any examples of people really getting into and engaging with the tuna?

AT: When Bill Hader was on it [in Los Angeles], he ate some of the tuna and then baby-birded it into Nick’s mouth.

AVC: Do Nick and John participate in wrangling the guests? Do you have a celebrity guest every single night? How do you keep that up for a Broadway run?

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AT: There’s often a celebrity guest. A lot of these people are people that Nick and John are excited about and think would be good guests. But we’ve had one or two performances so far where we’ve actually brought up audience members and that’s equally as fun. The thing about the guests is that they aren’t really prepped that much as to what’s about to happen, so that’s part of the fun of it.

AVC: When you’re not bringing up a celebrity, is there a hot seat?

AT: No, it doesn’t quite work like that. I think it’s based on who Nick and John think would be a good guest.

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AVC: There were a couple moments where Nick and John were breaking a little bit, which only added to the hilarity. Is that something that happens a lot?

AT: So much of the show is improvisation, and I think that Nick and John kind of catch each other at times, surprise each other. I think that really makes it a fun, sort of live, unique experience. The other thing that’s kind of cool about this show is that there’s kind of a meta-narrative—Gil and George are friends, but Nick and John are longtime friends as well. So there’s something very sweet and touching about the friendship that you see—that that extends beyond the footlights, you know?

AVC: When you’re collaborating are you just spending a lot of time with Gil and George rather than Nick and John?

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AT: You know, a lot of the rehearsals are Nick and John in character, obviously, and that’s partly what makes it so much fun. They know these characters like the back of their hand at this point, and so I definitely think there’s a dual rehearsal process. There’s the Nick and John rehearsal process, and then there’s Gil and George. Nick and John are much more collaborative then Gil and George.