From a podcast to late-night talk on MTV

New York TimesJanuary 2, 2013 

TV NIKKI SARA ADV30 1

Nikki Glaser, left, and Sara Schaefer, stand-up comedians, during the promotional taping for their upcoming show in the MTV Times Square studio in New York, Dec. 16th, 2012. Glaser and Schaefer's weekly late-night talk show, "Nikki & Sara Live," will premiere on Jan. 29. (Joshua Bright/The New York Times) -- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE DEC. 30, 2012.

JOSHUA BRIGHT — NYT

— Last year the comedians Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer were preparing to record an installment of their weekly podcast, “You Had to Be There,” at Schaefer’s Brooklyn apartment when Glaser got a phone call she had been waiting for.

She had been through several rounds of testing for a talk-show pilot. “It was down to two of us, and I thought it was mine,” Glaser said. “I saw this whole life for myself, where I could afford to buy a computer.”

She took the call outside as Schaefer watched, she recalled. Schaefer said, “I could tell from her body language something was wrong.”

The show was being rethought; the job was off the table. Glaser and Schaefer went ahead with the podcast, but they both cried a little. Then in Schaefer’s kitchen they made a decision: “We’ve got to do this on our own,” Glaser said.

Seventeen months later, the two women were at Market Table in the West Village with the ultimate trappings of stars out in public: two publicists sitting protectively nearby, tapping on their smartphones. No one in the restaurant came looking for autographs, though, because the comedians – Glaser is blond and blue-eyed, with a wide smile; Schaefer is a wry, bespectacled brunette – occupy an odd limbo – well-known on the city comedy scene but invisible to television viewers, at least until their weekly late-night talk show, “Nikki & Sara Live,” premieres Jan. 29 on MTV.

In other words, they made good on their promise.

Schaefer, who worked at “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” for more than two years, had secretly pictured herself as a talk-show host a million times. But she’d tell herself, “They only give it to, like, 10 people, so let’s be realistic.”

Still, they toiled away on a concept that played to their quick-yet-mellow chemistry and pop-culture adoration. Their “You Had to Be There” podcast, which they will continue to make, typically bounces among personal stories, cultural musings and guest interviews; a recent episode included Glaser talking about her high school reunion (“Look at you with your bun, we get it, you’re cute and fun,” she said of an old frenemy) and Schaefer singing a few bars from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Meeting MTV execs

When they landed a meeting with MTV, they timed the release of a video they’d made to the appointment, hoping for an Internet hit. That short, “Justin Timberlake, Make Music Again,” did indeed go viral. Viewed hundreds of thousands of times, the black-and-white video features the two women and other comedian friends pleading dramatically for Timberlake, the musician turned actor, to return to his roots because, among other things, “children are dying – probably.”

It turns out that MTV’s senior vice president for series development, Brent Haynes, was already a fan.

“I stop most podcasts partway through,” he said recently by phone. “I wanted to listen to everything Nikki and Sara said.”

Haynes had been at the network nearly four years, and developing something for late night was on his wish list. MTV hasn’t had a major show in that space since “The Jon Stewart Show” went off the air in 1995.

“I didn’t want to build a show and go find talent,” Haynes said. “Nikki and Sara’s dynamic reminds me of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon on ‘Weekend Update,’ ” he added, referring to the “Saturday Night Live” segment. “It’s a rapport you can’t cast.”

Like Haynes, others crucial to the show’s development found themselves won over by the podcast.

“This is how smart, funny women talk to each other,” said MTV’s programming president, Susanne Daniels, who noted that the pair tested especially well with female audiences. (Schaefer, 34, and Glaser, 28, were thrilled that focus groups guessed them to be in their early 20s, Schaefer said.)

Their head writer, Brian McCann, didn’t expect to be tempted by the job when he went to a meeting about the show.

“My initial reaction was that I didn’t know if I’d be helpful on a show with girls, for girls,” said McCann, who had worked on Conan O’Brien’s various series for 17 years. A few months later, after the MTV meeting, he too cued up an episode of “You Had to Be There.”

“Instantly my brain started seeing a thousand ways to make this combination work for television,” he said.

The show won’t be as personal as the podcast, in which both women talk freely about their lives. Nor will it be as provocative as their stand-up, which tends toward the bawdy. What it will have, though, is a fast-paced format heavy on punch lines and games.

“We know what our audience’s cues are for old-fashioned late night: the couch, the desk, the long chats plugging your stuff,” Haynes said. “We want a show where they can tell a lot of jokes.”

Built on friendship

The show runner, Kim Gamble, a former “Colbert Report” producer, is seeking to build a show around “their relationship, the history they have; they know each other very well.”

That friendship, which started when they met at a party in 2010, grew largely out of a love of pop culture, which will become a major part of the show. Glaser’s current obsessions include Taylor Swift’s album “Red,” while Schaefer can’t say enough about Adam Levine’s turn in “American Horror Story.”

Talking about possible celebrity guests quickly turns them star-struck.

“If Beyonce came on, I would die,” Schaefer said. “I would have to get the crying out before, because I cry when I’m really happy.”

Which means there were also tears the day both women got the call they had been waiting for – the good news that their show was going forward. They weren’t together. Schaefer was waking up in Seattle after a gig. Glaser was in New York, half-dreading the birthday that was 24 hours away, because “I always told my parents, ‘Just give me till I’m 27 to do comedy, to make it,’ ” she said. “And I got the news the day before I turned 28. The timing couldn’t have been better.”

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