Keeping Busy with Life Hacker Brooke Van Poppelen

Brooke Van Poppelen wears a lot of hats. Not that she has a big head or anything but she does a lot of work. This New York based comedian performs at live shows, does standup, produced MTV’s Girl Code, co-created a web series (Seeing Other People) and also hosts the truTV series Hack My Life. Poppelen hoisted her comedy petard in Chicago where she trained and performed with Chicago IO, Second City and The Playground Theater. Does she really need an introduction? No, you should know her already. Also, if you search her name on Google Images, she comes up under "feet" which is a weird thing we didn't get a chance to discuss.

Hack My Life is back for a second season so I chatted with Poppelen -- after her recent trip to Hawaii -- about the production process of the series, her comedy upbringing and her aspirations to be a television writer.

Are you still in Hawaii?

No, we got home yesterday afternoon.

How was it?

I’ve never been to Kauai and it’s just like I can’t believe it’s America. I mean it is and it isn’t. Yeah, I’m figuring out when I can get back [there] as soon as possible. It’s awesome.

You should just live there; it’d be easier that way.

Don’t encourage me! Because I’m literally like “If I can get like enough employment going so that I can work remotely, why the hell not live there for a month or so?

Do they have a big comedy scene in Hawii?

They don’t. They just started the Maui Comedy Festivallike a year ago or something. I was actually going to see if I can get booked on that. I think it happens in the fall. And so I think they fly you out to Maui which is awesome. I’d go back. The reason why you’d want to stay for a long time is that it’s an 11 hour flight from New York and it’s such a haul to get out there so it’s kind of like “may as well stay put.”

I know one comedian – Jonah Ray – from Nerdist, he’s from Hawaii but I don’t know if he does anything there at all.

Oh I had no idea that’s where he’s from! Yeah, it’s interesting there was like this little local bar in Kauai called Tahiti Nui which was in Decedents if you’ve ever seen that movie.

Yeah.

And they’re a big hub for live music. It just seems like a place to do a weird comedy night once a week if I went there and started. [laughs] I don’t know. It’d just be fun to be in Hawaii and talk the most shit about – I’ve got a million other things I’d rather do now than comedy when I’m in Hawaii. [laughs].

You could tour over there at some point! I know you were with New York UCB at some point. Maybe you can tell them “hey, why don’t you go to Hawaii once? It’ll be great!”

Oh, I’m not a part of that theater at all but I’ll just tell them “yeah you guys should go to Hawaii!” Since I told that, can I come?

Well who have you performed with? Chicago IO? Second City?

Yeah Second City and IO.I perform at UCB but I’m not one of their teammates. I don’t take their classes; I just train in Chicago. The UCB theater hosts a lot of stand ups but I’m not one of the ones to claim as their own. I’m not a house stand up.

So what do you do in Chicago?

I guess at this point, it was a couple of years ago but I did my improv and sketch start. I got my start there. I trained through the Second City Conservatory and IO classes and the Playground Theater. I probably did like a year and a half or two years of all that and then started doing standup on my own too. Chicago is like the source where I wanted to just try and learn skills. At the time, I was from the Detroit area and now, funnily enough, there’s like a really great burgeoning comedy and improve scene there. But there just wasn’t anything in the early 2000’s so I was very adamant about that in my life in Chicago.

Are you a writer and actor or do you find yourself synonymous with just one of those?

I’m a standup comedian, I do small tours and I’ve been on television as a standup. I perform and do work in L.A. and comedy festivals and all that but I’m also a writer, and also an actress and also a host. I’m also a television producer. [laughs]

You wear a thousand hats. You just named all of your jobs and it’s amazing; that’s really great. I heard you write on Nikki & Sara Live and you also did Girl Code, is that correct?

Yeah! I produced seasons one and two of Girl Code, gosh, I guess that would’ve been almost three years ago.

What were your duties as producer? What’d you do?

We do all the preproduction where we come up with all the topics that are going to be part of the show for every season. And we, as like the writers and comedians, brainstorm around them so that we can flush out every possible hilarious point and question that we then whittle down into interview questions for the talent. The reason you do that is so that you’re asking them questions in a way that will create kind of a story arc so that there’s a point for why we’re talking about a topic.

Oh okay.

So that’s why there’s a lot of introduction that goes into it even if the cast’s own words and own experiences, it’s really – I think that’s why a lot of these other talking head shows…I don’t want to say go long but maybe [think] “what’s the point of that?” This is very driven and storytelling oriented. So really, really, really talking about the topics in advance with a group of people makes your preproduction really, really tight so that you are guiding them really, really well. And it still takes forever because we’ll all try to have fun. We’d shoot a lot of the episodes in town and a lot of the people were my friends. And then I’d cut together the episodes with editors which is crazy. It’s really hard and was an awesome skill to learn.

So how was the production of [Girl Code] versus the production of your newest show, Hack My Life?

Well I don’t have to do shit [laughs]. It’s a whole different ball of wax. I like both ends of it – don’t get me wrong – this has its own level of stress. I remember the first day we get going and you’re in front of the camera like “Yeah, yeah this is cool. This is great!” and then you realize it is a huge, huge production. So many people on set can make the show happen and every time you mess up, they have to reset. And like kind of having that moment where you feel that pressure where you’re like “Why are you all looking at me?!” “It’s because you’re the talent, idiot!” [laughs]. “You’re the host of the show.” It was for real. I got over it really quick. But it was one of those moments where I’m like “all these people are here for me and Kevin? This is wild.”

Is there a set script you need to follow or do you get a chance to branch out on an outline and kind of improvise?

Yeah there’s always an outline because it would be utter chaos if there wasn’t. There are a lot of steps that we have to explain pretty fast. We have to learn how to do [the hacks] then we have to learn how to explain them to the audience and then there’s room for us to banter and have fun while we’re doing it but it’s tough. It’s like learning how to blend actual lines you have to deliver but then knowing when it’s time to loosen up and then make your own jokes.

There’s just information that has to come across. You can’t just wing it. When you think about it, there’s just a bunch of step by step and science behind the stuff. So it usually ends up being told in voice over and post production but it’s really funny when they try and make you do it while we’re shooting lines. They’re like “This is going to be V.O.’d. Stop it.”

[laughs] You and [Kevin] Pereira seem to have really good chemistry because I’ve seen him on a bunch of G4 stuff and then you are just a natural because maybe standup comedy helps out with that but you guys seem to carry the show with a good sense of rhythm and bounciness. And you seem pretty comfortable no matter what the situation is.

He’s a very journeyed host and I think it was really to my benefit because everyone held me to his…there was a standard I was being held to which is frightening but also really helpful. I feel like it gave me a very quick learning curve because I’m working with someone who’s just awesome. And also I think all the live performance, improv, and standup background helped me match that energy but there’s just shit that he is – sorry I keep swearing – but there is some stuff he is so good where I’m like man…you know? He knows the fucking lines five nights a week! He’s just so quick with his standup – standup meaning like he can look at the script and deliver. It’s just really impressive stuff to watch and I hope I picked up some really good…I hope his skills rubbed off on me. If he didn’t know what he’d been doing either, it might have been a completely different show. But I think it’s really, really good he’s coming in as a total vet and then I was able to compliment that.

So how is the show shot since you said a lot of it is in voiceover or it’s just you guys talking to each other or doing the actual hacking of life and everything like popcorn and all that stuff. How is the show done?

Live. Everything real time. They try and get as much as possible out of our mouths live just so they have it. You always shoot things really, really fast so some of it feels ad nauseam. Way, way more than you need. You go back and so little of it fits in – the thing you had to say a million times. And all the sudden the show becomes a voice recording session. It’s not abnormal. They try to get everything out of you when you’re together on camera. We’re trying things for the first time so it’s a very authentic reaction. We don’t know what we’re doing until we get the stuff that day.

Oh wow. That’s insane. Do they teach it to you or are you on your own to learn it for a hour and then you come in blazing?

The producers on the show have a really big job in that they write and research but then they also have to be the people [whose] homework in advance is bringing it to us. There’s a whole crew who works on this show and they all test it before they bring it to us. So they know whether it works, whether it sort of works, or whether it’s a total fail which we try and represent all those things on the show. But there’s a whole research team.

Our whole art department…they have to buy so much unbelievable – you wouldn’t believe the stuff that comes on set. It is a huge job trying this stuff out. And you have to have multiples of everything because if we break it or ruin it – you know what I’m saying? You have to have, like, two shirts. If you try it a bunch of times and you mess it up, you have to get a new one again. And so it’s a hard job, I think. But the producers are awesome.

After you do Hack My Life, and after you do some standup and live shows, you have this web series, Seeing Other People, you worked on. It was really well produced. You wrote on that, right?

Yeah yeah! I created it and the episodes with my good friend Giulia [Rozzi]. We wanted a vehicle for us to just do something for ourselves because, as much as it is really cool to host or write for Girl Code we just wanted to make sure we were featuring what we love to do. It’s just a personal thing where you’re like “This is my [production] and this is me on camera” and vice versa.

The whole advent of the web series has been such a great way that [getting] something small out there circulating is a way to show someone in a TV pitch room “Hey this is the small version of what this looks like. Here’s a whole script for a 30 minute television pilot. But check out our web series so it can be an idea of where to go.” It’s just such a labor of love to do it. We’re trying to get season two underway ASAP but it’s been really tough with our schedule. And also the fact we have to pay for it ourselves.

[laughs] Yeah season two was a big question of mine because I watched the first few episodes of the first season and then the last episode to see where everything was going to end up. It’s really well produced; I like everything about it. It actually came out to be something different than I originally thought it was going to be when I was going into the first episode. And that’s nice to have something refreshing to come out from unknown people.

Definitely. But [episodes] three, four and five are definitely my favorite. One and two were our first days of shooting – I’m not taking anything away from our series – but you can tell in episode three we’ve been working together for a little bit and we got out of my apartment. You don’t have any budget so episodes one and two – everything is in my apartment and we’re just cheating things to look like different homes. By episode three, we got more locations but five, we really got some storylines going. Once you get a chance, check them out.

Three, four, and five are the best examples of what we’re capable of and how funny the show can be. It’s amazing to feel ownership of something you’ve worked on. Now we’re on season two and know exactly how to do it really well since we’ve all been working together. It’d be cool if someone wanted to give us a budget and have [the show] live on a network website and to try and shop it. It’s hard when you’re waiting around for others to give you money, you’re just like “I can get this done on my own."

I think for season two, I know you guys are going to do well and everything. So with all this in the back of your head; with working on TV, and then doing standup and also doing the live shows and hosting and producing and all this stuff what have you learned for your first actual TV show that you created, that you wrote, that you produced? What can you take from all this that can make that show prospers?

All I can say is it’s no small undertaking when you suddenly find yourself being the creator and executive producer of your own idea. I do think there’s a learning curve no matter what, especially when you’re in charge. I would just pat myself on the back in the sense that I’m glad I’ve worn all these hats because you have to do that when you have your own show.

I used to feel insecure that I’m like not booking on standup enough but the truth is – I realized a couple of years ago – I want to work on television. Yes I can do standup; yes I can have that as a skill. But the truth is I want to be a television writer because I’m a creator and I’m all these things. I think of [these jobs] getting me really prepped to be that person. And I think it’s all that teamwork too. You don’t do it alone. That’s the main thing is you go into it with good management and a good team and good producers. It’s good. I’m so happy about the relationships I’ve cultivated over the past couple of years.

Follow Brooke on Twitter and Tumblr.
Hack My Life is currently airing season two on truTV on Tuesday nights at 9 PM.