MEET NEIL MAHONEY, EDITOR OF
KEY & PEELE, PORTLANDIA
& DRUNK HISTORY
Interview by Mike O'Donnell
If you're even remotely into modern comedy, you've seen the work of WNW Member Neil Mahoney. Neil, based in Los Angeles, has worked as an Editor on an amazing range of broadcast and internet shows like Key & Peele, Portlandia, Drunk History, The Life And Times of Tim, and Between Two Ferns. In our interview below, Neil talks about his approach to editing, but we first kick things off with his creative background. "I grew up in a sleepy vacation town in Massachusetts like the one in JAWS. Crazy stimulating during summer months but left us year-round kids starving the rest of the year. We made spy movie parody videos, skateboard 'sponsor me' tapes and overall mischief to fill out the rest of the year." It's clear that Neil developed a discipline, resourcefulness, and sense of humor early on that has kept him afloat then and now, and enabled him to build an impressive career.
Neil also discusses the importance of building an ever-growing community of lasting connections that have opened priceless opportunities, what he sees as his role as an editor, and how he imparts his particular style. "The key to my sensibility for comedy is to deliver a believable world, just as you would in a drama, so that when the comedic elements are introduced, they seem even more absurd." We also asked Neil what's next. "I'm wrapping up an Amazon series that I can't really talk about that's really nuts, especially in the editing. But after that, I'm going to try and go outside and get some fresh air.
Tell us about your creative background. Who is Neil Mahoney and how did he get here?
My name is Neil Daniel Mahoney and I grew up in a sleepy vacation town in Massachusetts like the one in JAWS. Crazy stimulating during summer months but left us year-round kids starving the rest of the year. We made spy movie parody videos, skateboard "sponsor me" tapes and overall mischief to fill out the rest of the year. Eventually, whenever there was a big assignment at school, I would ask if I could make a video instead.
Then I went to college, maybe I shouldn't have, but I received some book-learning to tug around while trying to make a living via humor. I interned with a music video house, and with the production company that made Mr. Show and Tenacious D, which I held in very high regard. Through that, I forged a lot of the relationships that have been keeping me employed on really fun projects.
What were some of the challenges of getting started as an editor? And how did you end up working on the likes of Drunk History, Key & Peele, and The Life and Times of Tim?
I never intended to be an editor, although I really enjoyed watching the process, and piecing together the logic and decision making while observing guys like Steve Welch and Dean Holland and later, Peter Atencio. I wanted to be a writer and see my career now as an extension of that: protecting the writers' vision while hiding mistakes made along the way and accentuating the contributions of the production crew. Eventually, I hit the point where it was impossible to pitch networks as an unknown writer without a "presentation" reel. So I learned to edit because editors were the only people I couldn't convince to work for free.
I enjoyed editing some web series I'd produced which lead to a job at FUNNY OR DIE which was like grad school. Getting to work beside so many funny new people and super experienced SNL folks like Andrew Steele was a real gift. When I decided to leave to try and get traditional TV kinda work, Life and Times of Tim was my second interview. It was a bizarre technical process but an amazing crew of writers and producers and cast. I think BJ Porter made a big push for me to get that job. I owe him a lot.
I worked on Drunk History because Naomi Odenkirk introduced me to Derek Waters, and I produced and edited a series called Derek and Simon with him and Simon Helberg and we all got along, so when Drunk History hit, he knew we would be like-minded. Same basic story for Key And Peele; Peter Atencio, the director and co-EP, had made a web series with Jonah Ray and myself called The Freeloader's Guide To Easy Living which I co-wrote and produced, but mostly breathed over Peter's shoulder and got free editing lessons. I was initially brought on to just cut the improvised live audience pieces for K&P but eventually got to cut whole shows.
I wanted to be a writer and see my career now as an extension of that: protecting the writers' vision while hiding mistakes made along the way and accentuating the contributions of the production crew... I learned to edit because editors were the only people I couldn't convince to work for free.
What do you see as the most important part of your job as an editor? Can you give our readers a glimpse into the process? Is comedy, really, all in the timing, like they say?
It's really about protecting the process that's lead to the footage being put in your hands. My basic rule of thumb/order of operations is to first make sure the script and story is being conveyed, then make sure the best work by the actors shines [including ad libs, improvising], then look at the contributions of the director and what style they want to present the first two in. And finally if all of those things are clicking, throw some editing cherries on top. Timing is of course important, but that's very much up to the performers more than someone in my position. I have a little bit of leeway to adjust the timing of performances, but only in rare occasions do you want the editing to draw attention to itself as comedy.
Do you feel a lot of pressure to help the mood and jokes land for the famously funny (& powerful!!!) comedy people?
Of course. The most stress I have been under is editing stand-up comedy because, for a network like Comedy Central, you are under very tight time constraints for act-breaks and overall show length. We often had to tighten and kind of re-write people's performances to fit in those limits and it feels very invasive. You really want to do your best to honor their intentions and create an honest portrayal of their stage act.
The most stress I have been under is editing stand-up comedy because, for a network like Comedy Central, you are under very tight time constraints for act-breaks and overall show length. We often had to tighten and kind of re-write people's performances to fit in those limits and it feels very invasive.
You’ve worked as an editor on comedic masterpieces like Key and Peele and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. Have you worked on dramatic projects as well, and does your approach change with genres?
I've done a few films and series that weren't straight comedies, and I really enjoyed that process. Without the pressure of trying to deliver laughs every thirty seconds, you are freed to deliver something more visually interesting, if that helps the story and the pacing. That being said, the key to my sensibility for comedy is to deliver a believable world, just as you would in a drama, so that when the comedic elements are introduced, they seem even more absurd.
What comedic films, shows, or sketches showcase some first-class editing? Do you always pay attention to the editing when watching movies or shows?
I try to ignore the editing of shows, and just enjoy them. If the editing is apparent, it's probably not very good. That's why I can't enjoy any reality shows, because it's so blatantly emotionally manipulative, and meant to create misleading expectations. I honestly have been into Ice Hockey lately, because there's no artifice to it, it's just happening live and at the end, there's a winner and a loser and the drama was all genuine.
As for scripted shows, I think Veep has some great editing because it's just so fast paced. I also think Last Man on Earth on Fox, and Detroiters on Comedy Central has excellent pacing. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, Baskets and Better Call Saul are really luxurious in long takes and visually interesting.
Who are some of your biggest creative idols and influences? And have you been able to meet or work with any? If so, who surprised or surpassed your expectations?
I've been really lucky in that I came to Los Angeles with a goal to work with Mr. Show and that whole class of writers and performers and I've worked with almost all of them. I worked on an episode of Portlandia last year that featured Mitch Hurwitz and watching the dailies of his scene was so crazily impressive of how fast he was on his feet, and so insanely funny. Maria Bamford was a huge thrill too because her genius is only surpassed by her generosity and real concern for others.
What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
Working on Key and Peele was pretty much the first time anyone in my family had heard of something that I'd done, so that's up there. I was proud to be nominated for an Emmy for the last season alongside Nick Monsour and Rich LaBrie, in no small part because somewhere my name will be next to theirs forever and I think they're both really great editors.
Biggest career failure?
That's the best thing about working in Post Production; you aren't really done until the thing you're doing is as good as it can be. There are some projects I've directed or edited that could have been more successful, but I can't call that a failure. They were all fun to make. Maybe that I turned down an opportunity to direct a pilot because I had concert tickets that weekend, and now that show is in its third season. That was pretty dumb of me.
What’s next for you?
Not sure! I'm wrapping up an Amazon series that I can't really talk about that's really nuts, especially in the editing. But after that, I'm going to try and go outside and get some fresh air.
If you weren’t an editor, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I'd like to try writing, like on a show that has writers-rooms. I like that kind of collaboration and have a fun time preoccupying myself with structure and enjoy re-writing.
What do you do when Not Working?
I just took a trip to Sweden, so I think I'll try and travel a lot more when I've got time. I tend to pick up little projects like restoring a piece of furniture or other little home art projects to relax.
When editing with clients in the room, and they ask for an alternate take of something and while you're trying to pull alternates up the same take plays again, and the client says "Oh yeah, that's much better" is too frequent, and too embarrassing.
What cultural and creative venues do you frequent in Los Angeles?
Largo at the Coronet is my favorite place to see live performances in LA. It's a theater that has loads of history and is really generous to its little family of regular performers, so I like to support that. Cinefamily has a lot of revival screenings and other weird video art nights that are fun. There seems to be a new craft fair every weekend so I enjoy snooping around those, as I have a lot of crafty friends who make cool stuff.
Do you thrive off of being part of a creative community or are you more in your element as a lone wolf?
I like the communal environment when generating ideas, but when I'm sitting down to cut I prefer to be alone. When editing with clients in the room, and they ask for an alternate take of something and while you're trying to pull alternates up the same take plays again, and the client says "Oh yeah, that's much better" is too frequent, and too embarrassing.
Any album, film, television or book recommendations for your fellow WNW members?
I really enjoyed Cuplicated on Vioobu.com this weekend. I'm a big fan of deep set-ups and really committing to a bit like that. The "Craig Healy" character was something they came up with almost ten years ago at Funny or Die. I'm reading a book of critical essays on the show Deadwood but it's kind of terrible.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Not really! It's been difficult to talk about myself this much. Thanks for your interest in my life.