When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I was going to be a corporate lawyer. When I Googled lawyers, they made the most money, and it seemed like a very respectable career and people would think I was very smart and knowledgeable. I liked to read, and making logical arguments seemed sort of within my grasp. And also my dad loved this show called The Practice with Dylan McDermott. So I was going to go to Harvard Law School.
How did you decide to attend University of California, Santa Barbara?
Because I was going for law school, I did some research and learned that they don't care so much about where you go so long as your GPA is stellar and your LSAT scores are stellar. So I thought I would save money and applied to all the UCs and a couple of the best California State schools. The two "best" schools that I got into were UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego, and I visited them and Santa Barbara was just unbelievable. I instantly thought, "Well, this is where I should go," and I have no regrets about that. I really loved my time at Santa Barbara.
The unique thing about Santa Barbara, and the reason that it has such a reputation for being a party school, is that the vast, vast majority of students live adjacent to campus in this unincorporated township called Isla Vista, which is basically a 10 block by 10 block beach town of 15,000 students. It is a utopia of sorts (maybe it’s some people’s nightmare), but what it taught me is the value of community and what the opposite of loneliness looks like. Every single day, as I was biking or skating back from campus, I would pass six friends out on their front lawns playing beer pong or tanning or studying, and by the time I got home, I'd have four invites to hang out.
When college ended and we started our regular lives in regular society, and the way that we've set up living separately from each other, the difference in loneliness was astounding. And it just showed me that there is no substitute for being physically near the ones you love. It was odd because that was definitely not the lesson that I expected to learn from Santa Barbara.
How did you choose your major?
I had two majors. One was very traditionally pre-lawish, political science, which I’ve always been interested in politics. And then I started taking Russian classes, because I have a Ukrainian background and I wanted to learn the grammar and how to write. I studied a semester in Moscow, and that turned into a second major. It's funny because if I was actually in politics now, I think having those two degrees would be very valuable.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I kept on that law school vision in college, and I spent a summer interning for a Stanford law professor. I did a lot of LSAT prep and I graduated summa cum laude with the grades I needed to apply to Harvard Law School. When I was prepping for the LSAT, I just took every practice test that I could find and was getting 99th percentile scores. And then I finally took the LSAT and I think I got a 92nd percentile score, which is fine but it's not Harvard quality. And it really gutted me, because I had worked so hard.
Then when you apply to law school, there is a common question that I think pretty much every law school asks which is simply, “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” And I realized that my answer had not really changed from when I was 16, which is that I wanted to be rich, respected, and thought of as very smart. And then I realized that these reasons had nothing to do with the actual work of lawyering, and it was sort of a bizarre, grueling path to get money and attention. So I had this crisis where I thought, "Well, this isn't right," and I started binge-watching every possible commencement address and graduation speech giving advice to young people. And the thing that I kept gravitating toward was comedy, which I've always loved but I was terrified of.
I did like a couple of standup sets in college. And I had a "Dear Igor" column like "Dear Abby" in my college newspaper. That was the first time that I had done something publicly comedic, and it went well but I'd never really allowed myself to give it a shot. And I had this vision of myself in my 50s, coming home from work late at night, sitting on the edge of the bed and turning the TV on, and seeing some late-night talk show and thinking, "Wow, I never went for it." So I decided that I would move to LA with the idea that I would become a writer's assistant at Family Guy, because Family Guy would be a good place to learn jokes.
I didn't know anyone. And there is no application process to become a writer's assistant. It's not on LinkedIn or Monster.com. There's a “chicken and the egg” issue in entertainment, which is that you need experience to get hired, but you can't get experience without getting hired. The way around that issue is to know that you want to do entertainment when you're in college, and then you do internships all four years, so then people know you and you have an entry-level job waiting for you when you're done. Of course, I didn't do that, so no one hired me and I took a job as a market research analyst.
My job basically entailed double-checking Excel spreadsheets to make sure the math was correct, and going through online surveys making sure there were no bugs, calling people for follow-up answers, and eventually, if you work really hard for years, then you can be promoted and you can design market research surveys for Forbes 500 corporations. Man, I did not do well in that job. But it gave me a salary and it gave me the opportunity to start taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, which was founded by Amy Poehler and three other less famous but great comedians, and that got me into the comedy community.
I also started doing stand-up, going to open mics when I got to LA. That, I think, is the hardest thing to do entertainment-wise, because it is grim. It is going alone to open mics at either cafes with people reading in them, or bars when the sun is still up, and there are two people inside, and waiting for an hour or more to do three to five minutes max in front of other comedians who are looking at their notes. And you do that for a while.
Stand-ups are by nature individualists, I think, but improv, by definition, is a group dynamic, and you need to support each other in order to succeed. In meeting these improvisors, I thought, "Wow, these people are so nice and so fun,” and what I wanted was to find a group of people who cared about comedy as much as I did and wanted to just joke around all the time. We would have these improv potluck parties with 40 of us in someone’s living room, performing for each other, and I thought it was just the bee’s knees and I couldn't believe that I got to be a part of it. Maybe that sounds lame, but some of these people are probably going to be on Saturday Night Live in a couple of years, so it’ll be cool to tell these stories then.
Comedy is one of the few skills that can only be worked on in front of other people. I will never know if something is funny until it hits someone else. It was also an opportunity to get over the fear and to get our reps in because that's the only way to do it. It was also integral to building relationships that later turn into jobs, because in entertainment, the way you get hired is by somebody saying, "I just saw Igor at that potluck, and he did that funny scene. He would be great for this."
So I'm working in market research, and I'm doing these classes. And then I heard that a production company that makes some shows that I really like was hiring unpaid office interns, which is like the entry level of entry level. I had a little bit of money saved up, and I quit my job that day, and they were mad at me because apparently, office jobs like when you give them at least two weeks or something, I don't know. I start working in the production office of this company, and I thought this was going to be my way in and I was thrilled.
My day-to-day was stapling, collating, and making coffee. And something that I didn't realize is that, they shoot the show in one place and then they have the administrative production office in a different place, so the only people that I was interacting with were a couple of accountants and a second-level producer. I started getting a little twitchy because I quit my job for this unpaid job. So I start nudging them asking, "Can I have some more responsibility?” And they were like, "No."
I finally got switched to being a set intern, and I thought, "This is great. I'm going to be able to meet the people that make the show and the writers are there and I'm going to meet them and it's going to be awesome." But a set intern is the lowest on the totem pole. I was placed outside of set, and my job was to make sure that no one wandered in to set. Sometimes I was posted on a different floor to make sure that no one pushed the elevator button.
So I was in the building, but again, I got twitchy and I started feeling like I wasn’t making any relationships and I wasn’t getting any experience. So I started getting a little, some would say out of line, and I started wandering into what's called video village, where the director and the writer and the executive producer sit, looking at the monitors when a scene is being shot. I started standing behind them, not very close but just close enough to where I could almost overhear what they were saying, because that to me was the most interesting place. I wanted to be there so badly. But I can't tell you how inappropriate it is for someone to do that. It's just not okay.
That space, video village, no one is allowed to go there. And what it led to was me being essentially fired. I had a brief conversation with a very impatient and annoyed line producer who said, "Look, the way things work is you get hired to do a job and for you, that was being an office intern. You do that job until the person above you gets promoted and then you get their job, and you stick around long enough and then you can be in the places where you want to be. That is how it works." I asked her to give me another chance, and she said no. That did not feel good. That spun me out as you can imagine, because I thought, "Oh my God, I'm never going to work in Hollywood."
It was such a shock and it pissed me off and I thought, "That's crazy and I don't want to participate in that." And that's what led me and some friends to start a sketch video group. And over the years, that led to opportunities to be hired to write a web series, and that led to writing and producing videos for Lionsgate to promote their film Dear White People, which has now become a TV show, which led to me developing a relationship with the creator of that, who then hired me to be an actor on that show which led to lots of jobs. That came from the experience of working with a group to make our own videos, developing producing skills and writing skills and acting-quickly skills and shoestring-budget skills. And then that opportunity ending gave me space to start helping a friend with a book that he had coming out.
This friend, Joel Stein, and his wife, Cassandra, I would count both of them as mentors. Joel was the humor columnist for Time magazine for 20 years, and that was the only thing that we subscribed to when I was growing up. Every week, his column was my favorite. When I was college, I found his email through too much Googling and I sent him a cold email and asked if I could interview him. He responded the same day and said, "If you're in LA, you can come over and I'll be playing with my son, and we can do the interview in person.” So I lied and said that I was in LA when of course, I was in Santa Barbara. I got there like four hours early and he was lovely, and it was incredible meeting him.
The other part of it is, I think it's so important to treat with respect and be curious about the wives and husbands and partners of famous people, because the reason that this relationship grew over the years and turned into true friendship is because of Cassandra. Joel and I were talking about career stuff, and she was just coming home and she was curious about what we were talking about, and I involved her in the conversation and didn’t ignore her, which happens all the time.
So fast forward to I've just gotten fired, and Joel had written his first book and he needed help with marketing and website stuff, and Cassandra said, "Why don't you ask Igor?" So I assisted him, and then later on, one of their friends who is one of the top TV comedy writers needed an assistant. And he didn’t post it on Craigslist; he posted it on his personal Facebook. They sent me a screenshot and recommended me and I got that job.
I assisted him for three years, and I got to learn a lot. It was basically the job that I had been looking for when I moved to LA. My boss, Dan, was the showrunner for a season of the show Last Man on Earth, so I got to be in video village with him. And he wrote a movie with Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg, and I got to go to these meetings and take notes in Seth Rogen's office and see how they developed an idea. And I got to go to pitches with them and see them practice a pitch. And I got to go to premiere after-parties where I got to see all my comedy heroes.
When I stopped that assistant job with Dan, and I started putting effort into growing my social media. I saw Instagram as less of a place to post photos for my friends to see, and instead as a place to post comedy videos that I had made, like a resume really. My followers grew by a factor of 10, and that led to a job as a cast member on a sketch show on the Internet with this company called Fullscreen. That was the first time that I was a cast member on this long-running thing, acting professionally every week, and it was really fun. But they ran out of money after a year. And then something happened in my brain where I didn't really know why I was doing it.
I sort of forgot what it was about making random comedy videos that I liked and that was of value to people. A lot of the videos that people liked were really, really dumb. It was me dancing like an idiot in public places. And I just started feeling like a bit of a monkey or something. At that point, I wasn't with a group and that show had ended, so I went on a beautiful unemployment. Thank you, the government. And, I guess, thank you, all of you, for paying into it. And me too.
Right now, what I’m doing for work is I have a friend who was on an improv team with me for five years, and he has become famous for being the voice of one of the characters in this video game Overwatch, which is one of the most popular video games in the world. So every once in a while, he's invited to these Comic-Cons around the world and I go with him, help him out at the booth when people come and get autographs, and we travel around together.
I'm surrounded by supportive, loving people including him, who say, "We love you and we want you to make stuff and when will you be making stuff?" And I don't know. You’ve found me today and in these months in a place of searching and also a bit of a withdrawal from social media. I don't like the effect that it has on me, and I don't like that most of the things that seem to rise to massive popularity come from a fight or a crisis or hypersexuality. I do know that what I love is making other people feel better about themselves and empowered and more able, and I just think it's ironic that I can't do that for myself currently.
There is a writer/thinker/marketer that I love named Seth Godin, and he talks about seeing what you do as giving a gift. I understand that intellectually, but I don't really understand that in my heart yet. It would be nice to treat creating things, whether it’s something written or a video or a talk, as a gift, where it's not really about how it's received.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think we tell ourselves stories, and if you are going to tell yourself a story, aim for the more hopeful one, the one where whatever you're scared about is more likely to turn out in your favor. Because we don't know which one is true, so you might as well go with the one that ends with you saying, "Wow, I did it."
In this last year or two of this kind of challenge for me, part of the pain of it was detaching my sense of self from my career. I felt completely one with my career - I am a comedian. And when that wasn't going anywhere, the pain was unbearable and I had to start prying those two pieces apart. Now I see myself as a person who sometimes does comedy, and it's really helpful because I feel so much better equipped to take care of myself whether things are going well or poorly in my career. And I no longer think that the answer to the problems of my life is a perfect career.