Michael Showalter, we loved him as Doug in The State and Coop in Wet Hot American Summer, and now he’ll be coming back to both the small and big screens this summer. Stella, a TV version of the popular stage show, will be premiering on Comedy Central on Friday, June 28 and his directorial debut The Baxter will be hitting theaters in August. We spoke to Showalter via phone earlier this week to find out about his latest projects, his comedic upbringing and what he sees for the future.
Occupation: Comedian, Writer/Director
Place of birth: Princeton, NJ
Current Residence: Brooklyn
We thought right around birth would be a good place to start. You grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. Were your parents' professors at the University?
My mom is an English Professor, actually they are both retired now, but my mother taught in the English department at Princeton and my father was a French professor at Rutgers.
Were you one of those kids that performed for your parents and your parents’ friends?
Yeah, although not energetically. I was actually not enormously attention getting in that way. I was more into cartoons. I was interested in drawing pictures and showing my parents the pictures that I drew. Performance came kind of late for me.
How comfortable was your family with your career choice?
I think they were skeptical at first. When you go into something like comedy there is no obvious path that you take. That’s nerve-wracking for a parent to know that you can’t go to grad school for comedy. Your resume won’t help you. So I think they were nervous but at this point things have started to pan out. They’re a little bit more relieved.
Before we jump over your adolescent years, is there anything else we should know?
I don’t think so. There was no satanic ritual abuse or anything like that.
Ok then, let’s move post college to MTV and The State. Was that your first real comedy endeavor?
No. I started doing comedy with the people that were in The State when we were freshmen in college and that was at NYU. We were a comedy group called the New Group. After we graduated from NYU, we changed our name to The State.
After my freshman year at NYU, I transferred to Brown. I stayed doing this New Group thing and was also in the improv group at Brown called imProvidence, which was also something I took seriously. So you can say my comedy career started in college.
What did you like most about The State?
I certainly learned a lot about comedy, and writing style and discipline and the process of creating a sketch. I also made lasting professional collaborations and great friendships.
You also did something called You Wrote It, You Watch It. What was that all about?
When we graduated from NYU there was a show on MTV called You Wrote It, You Watch It Jon Stewart was the host and the premise was basically that they would interview people on the street and have them tell stories and the cast of this show would then make a sketch out of the story. As the New Group we signed on as an autonomous entity and made 30 some odd sketches for that show. Based on those sketches, we got a chance to make a pilot for The State and then went on and made the series.
You sort of took a different route but back then it seemed like Saturday Night Live was the main way to break in…
When I was coming out of college in the late ‘80s basically if you wanted to do sketch comedy you had to go to Chicago and do Second City or go to LA and do the Groundlings. From that you could then hopefully get a job on Saturday Night Live or potentially a writing job with Letterman or something like that, although MTV and Comedy Central were kind of getting started so there were the beginnings of some other outlets for it.
When we started doing our thing, there was basically us, Kids in the Hall had just kind of finished, The Upright Citizens Brigade and Amy Sedaris’ troupe called Exit 57, which had Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. We were all kind of converging on New York at the same time. But the Upright Citizens Brigade and Exit 57 had both come out of Chicago and Second City. I think we really took the path less traveled, which was to be our own thing.
I don’t think there is any one way. Now, you’ve got a million other ways to do it. There are lots of places to perform.
How did you view The State in terms of building your career?
I think for The State our model was Monty Python more than anything else. That was the trajectory that we emulated, which was to not necessarily work your way through a system to then join some larger group but to be the group. To be the end destination was to be in this group The State. We weren’t doing The State in order to get plucked out of The State and be on Saturday Night Live. We were doing The State to maybe have a slot up against SNL or something like that, which never happened of course. I’m a huge SNL fan and always was, certainly all through when I was a kid. John Belushi was my idol, and Bill Murray and Billy Crystal and everybody. I was just a big huge fanatic.
You just brought up a few comedians you like, which old school comedians do you most identify with?
Like the really old school?
Well, I guess John Belushi would be old school.
Growing up my big idols were John Belushi, I’m not sure what about John Belushi I loved so much, but I loved John Belushi. I liked Steve Martin a lot. I liked Tom Hanks’ comedy work. I loved Mork & Mindy. I was a very big sitcom watcher. I loved Three’s Company and Mork & Mindy and Happy Days. Then as I grew older I started to get into David Letterman and that had a big influence on me too. I thought his sensibility was really really really influential in terms of the kind of stunts he would do and the absurdity and silliness. I was also hugely into Monty Python and Benny Hill and a lot of British humor. Peter Sellers.
Now let’s move post The State to Wet Hot American Summer, which you co-wrote and starred in. That must have been fun to work on…
It was a lot of fun. It was sort of like going to summer camp but as a grown-up with all my friends.
How much of the film was scripted?
It was mostly scripted.
In an interview you did with Kittenpants after Wet Hot American Summer, when asked what your next project was, you said you were going to work “on another movie about farting and horny freaks.” You have a new film that you directed, wrote and star in called The Baxter, which comes out this summer. Is that what that film’s about?
Definitely not. Did I really say that?
Are you sure it was me that said that and not David?
No, it was you. Why, that doesn’t sound like something you’d say?
No, that first word isn’t even in my vocabulary.
Ok, well…let’s just talk about what The Baxter is about then.
The Baxter, it’s quite the opposite. I intentionally and with great pleasure wrote something that’s very polite and graceful at times. I really wanted to do something that kind of had the feeling of like an old Frank Capra movie or something - where all of the characters behave themselves. The movie has a very sweet ending. Everybody kind of gets what they want. It’s a romantic comedy. It tells the story of Elliot Sherman who is an accountant who’s the paradigmatic wrong boyfriend, the nice but wrong boyfriend who’s always being left at the alter at the last minute for the more dashing, heroic leading man type. He’s sort of the loveable schnook who is always getting dumped by the girl. This is basically his story. And, The Baxter is a word to describe this guy.
This movie is very very very much a throwback to a kind of a sweet, innocent romantic comedy.
So, none of what you said.
Is it autobiographical?
No, it’s not. But I definitely identify a lot with what my character - The Baxter - what his struggles are. I kind of got the idea for the movie because I am a fan of the genre of romantic comedy. I watched the movie Sleepless in Seattle a lot. I think the Bill Pullman character in that is really a great character. He’s really funny and I love all of his scenes in it. Then about halfway through the movie, she dumps him. Then it becomes about her and Tom Hanks and I didn’t identify as well with Tom Hanks who is just kind of perfect in every way. So it is autobiographical in that I feel like there is something human about this Baxter character who really just wants to be happy but he’s terribly flawed. There are a lot of things about him that are wrong and I think that makes him likeable. Typically in a romantic comedy you have these two main characters that are just perfect. I’m much more rooting for the guy with some problems.
You have worked on sketch comedy and even on a film before, but they are sort of different from this. What was it like to work on this project?
It was very difficult. The first thing is just writing a feature film. This is a true narrative. It has a story that you can follow all the way through and character arches and all that stuff. Even though Wet Hot American Summer has a narrative it’s much more a kind of loose structure that is knitting together a bunch of sketch-type things. The Baxter is a really straight narrative. That was very hard, very challenging to really try and write a conventional story but to also give it life and depth. I had to teach myself how to do that, because there really is no comparison in terms of what it is to write sketch comedy versus what it is to write a narrative film. I don’t think that Wet Hot American Summer was necessarily the best training for that, because that was really just a long sketch.
Did you always want to direct?
Yeah, in the back of my mind it’s always something that I wanted to do. I definitely was excited to have the opportunity with The Baxter.
I would like to do it again.
Film-wise, who are some of your influences?
I love Alfred Hitchcock. For some reason I have absorbed all of his movies, the whole style. Of comedy directors, I like Woody Allen very much and Cameron Crowe. They are probably the two guys whose work I have most closely followed over the years.
Another of your current projects is Stella. You’re working with David Wain and Michael Ian Black to convert the stage show to a TV show for Comedy Central. What’s the format of the show?
It’s half hour long and it’s shot in sort of a film style, no studio audience or anything like that. Every episode is an adventure of some sort with the three guys who are roommates, kind of forces of nature. We wear suits and ties all the time. You don’t really get a chance to learn that much about us. We just kind of find ourselves in strange situations from one episode to the next. There is a kind of an anything can happen vibe to it.
How will it differ from the stage show?
The differences are mostly that we are on film, but it’s the same sensibility. The relationships are similar. We have a lot more flexibility because we are able to shoot wherever we want. We made quite a few short films that are readily available on the internet, which are a much better example of what the series is all about.
We used to show these videos at our stage show, which were basically kind of a 5-minute long adventure that we get into as these characters who are ourselves. And the series is just half hour long episodes of that. Kind of like a Marx Brothers film or a Three Stooges short.
We’ve heard the comparison to the Marx Brothers before. How do you feel about that?
It’s very flattering for one thing, just because I think the Marx Brothers are great. There’s definitely a similarity just in terms of the silliness and there’s not really a lot of back story as to who they are. It’s really just that there are these forces of nature they come into a situation and raise a riot.
You’ve pretty much toured all over with Stella. Does it seem like people get it in other parts of the country?
Yes, it seems like it. We’ve definitely played in venues all over - far and wide. There seems to be a crowd in every city that is interested in it. And they seem to know us from having seen the videos. So people seem to get it. We try to make it something that’s not necessarily related to current issues or anything like that, so it has hopefully something that everyone can get.
How do you think living in New York has informed your humor?
I’ve lived in New York City since the early ’90’s, ever since I graduated from college. It’s a huge part of who I am. My movie The Baxter is very much set in Brooklyn and it’s in many ways about Brooklyn. I think Brooklyn in a sense is a Baxter, if Manhattan is the leading man than Brooklyn is The Baxter. I think it’s the most amazing city in the world and I’m not just saying that.
New York has an amazing personality. There are constantly things happening and there’s constantly life and drama to sink your teeth into.
You’ve been working in comedy for well over a decade. What do you think are some of the trends in world of humor?
The trend that I see in comedy that I have 100% participated in is the kind of gross out humor trend. I would be excited to see things turning more towards actors and to the silly character-driven type of stuff that was being done before that. It seems like the trend in the last 10 years has been to just shock and awe the audience into laughter. I’m hoping we’re moving into more thought out stuff and less just straight out sight gag.
You’ve also been known to DJ a party or two in your day. What kind of music do you play?
I like to think I play a unique blend of something I call deep ‘80s. Deep 80’s is a musician or band that you know but it’s not the first song you know by them or the second it’s more like the third or fourth. So it’s a lot of Elvis Costello, David Bowie, The Police, Joe Jackson, the B-52’s… New wave stuff. Songs that you don’t hear anymore from great bands from that era.
What’s your next project?
I have another script that I’m gonna work on as soon as I have time. I have another idea that I’m very passionate about but I need a good long chunk of time to write it.
How about 5 or 10 years down the road, what do you see yourself doing?
I’d love to keep writing and directing. I think for me it’s writing something and then seeing it through to fruition. I think directing becomes a part of that, so it’s something I want to continue doing. But for me it all starts with the written part of it that’s probably the root of it for me. The screenplay for The Baxter has all the ideas in it, and then it’s exciting to then bring them into being. The thing that I think about the most and the thing that fascinates me the most is the writing.
The Baxter screens Wednesday, June 15 in Rockefeller Center. Michael Showalter will introduce the screening. For more information check out the Rockefeller Center website.