The unedited Michael Showalter interview

November 26th, 2008

My journalism goals, upon getting into the biz: Go on tour with an up-and-coming band, fall in love with Kate Hudson, become a golden god with Billy Crudup and solicit advice from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Translation: I wanted to hang out with and interview entertainers.  

I got word that Stella, a New York City based comedy troupe was coming to Columbia, Mo., where I went to school. I pitched the story to my editor and lined up the interview with the troupe, among my favorite comedians working today. I watched the “Wet Hot American Summer” director’s commentary (a movie the members of Stella starred in, wrote and/or directed); I cribbed laundry lists of interview questions. I was nervous as hell.

Michael Showalter and David Wain, two thirds of Stella, must have sensed my fear. I had no idea most “celeb” interviews last 20 minutes, no idea what was supposed to happen. Showalter and Wain made fun of me for more than 45 minutes.

In other words, it was my best interview ever. I can’t remember a time when I’d laughed so hard during a phone call. I met them backstage before the show; they were incredibly gracious (and funny).

Stella went on hiatus after a failed Comedy Central show (which didn’t capture the magic of what makes these guys so funny). David Wain went and made another movie, “Role Models,” Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black put together another Comedy Central pilot. But Stella’s back, on tour and coming to D.C. on Tuesday. I jumped at the chance to interview one (or more) of these guys again.

Showalter agreed to speak with me on a few hours notice. I wasn’t prepared, again, but this time for a different reason: Showalter was serious (mostly).

I guess it was like sleeping with the girl you lost your virginity to, a bunch of years later. There’d been other girls, other experiences. You can’t recreate that first time magic, but it’s still nice. 

Here you are:
Josh: I’ve been familiar with your work and I’ve been a fan for many years and I’m taking my boss to your show in DC. She is totally unfamiliar with anything Stella, anything The State, anything Wet Hot American Summer. What would you say to her, sort of to prepare herself for the experience?
Michael Showalter: I would say, first and foremost, low expectations. It’s always good to have low expectations because you could always go up from that. I would say these guys are really funny, kind of weird. They wear suits and it’s of like stand up comedy, but not really and it’s sort of like sketch comedy, but not really. It’s sort of in between. You don’t seem really satisfied with that.
J: No, I actually interviewed you before
M: Was I a jerk?
J: Maybe for years ago? It was actually the first interview I ever did with anyone marginally anything.
M: Yeah.
J: And you kinda made fun of me for like 45 minutes and it was pretty awesome. 
M: What did I say?
J: You know, I don’t even remember. I was like “What did you guys study in college?” 
M: What was it for?
J: It was for the Columbia Missourian. You guys came out to Columbia, Mo. to do a show.
M: It wasn’t a radio interview, was it?
J: No, it was print.
M: Well, I was going to say I did think that your voice did sound very familiar.
J: Right on.
M: I think your boss- how old is your boss?

J: She’s my age. 27.
M: Oh, so she’ll love it. She’ll love it. I thought she was like in her 80s or something.
J: Do you have any fans in their 80s?
M: No. No, absolutely not. But maybe, I don’t know. We’re like a comedy trio. We’re like, you know, the three stooges or something. We’re like the hipster three stooges. That’s what you should tell her. Tell her we’re like the hipster three stooges.
J: Stella has been on hiatus for a little while? You had the show.
M: We had the show, nobody watched it, the show got cancelled and I think we all felt kind of like it was probably a good time to take a break. We all kind of went off and did different things. Michael Black and I did a lot of touring together, doing stand-up and David Wain did movies. Mike and I also made a TV show at Comedy Central that hopefully will get picked up for a series.
J: It’s something like “Mike and Mike have Issues” or something?
M: Yeah.
J: What is that?
M: Mike and I play ourselves.
J: The Stella versions of yourselves or different versions?
M: Not Stella versions of ourselves. We play more our real selves. We have a TV show called “Issues” and a lot of the show is Mike and I sort of, Spy vs. Spy like, competing with each other and one-upping each other behind the scenes of this TV show that we’re making.
J: And Comedy Central’s considering it?
M: We’re just waiting, we’re all crossing our fingers. We’ve shot the pilot and we’re all hoping it goes to series now. No big developments to report.
J: So anyways, we were talking about why get Stella back together?
M: I don’t think we ever felt like we didn’t want to do it anymore. But I think after the TV show it seemed like a good time to take a break from it. I think sometime maybe about a year ago the three of us started talking that if we had some time we would do a tour. I think at a certain point, over the summer, it was decided we would do it right around now.
J: Is it new material? Is it the classic stuff?
M: It’s about 80 percent of it is new material. There’s maybe one or two sketches that you’ve seen before. I’m not even sure about that. Almost the whole show is new. There’s a new video. It’s kind of more of the same. The show is a little bit, a little bit aged, a little bit more grown-up, maybe.
J: What do you mean?
M: No dildos this time. It’s a little bit less X-Rated and it’s more just R-Rated. We’re getting old and our sensibilities are changing.
J: How so?
M: I just think we like trying to make jokes out of subjects that aren’t necessarily just sex and poo. I mean, there’s always room for sex and poo. But we’re branching out, finally. We’ll be talking about Christmas, we’ll be talking about fast food. Stuff like that. Really important stuff. We’re also going to be talking about botany and horticulture. You might want to write that down.
J: OK. Writing it down.
M: Botany and horticulture.
J: Yeah.
M: I hope you wrote that down.
J: I did.  One thing I sort of-
M: You think I’m joking but I’m not. We are really going to be talking about botany and horticulture.
J: I believe you, man. I wrote it down.
M: Okay, stop attacking me. Stop attacking me.
J: I’m not attacking you dude. One thing that I sort of noticed-
M: Why are you attacking me? Keep going. Sorry. Sorry.
J: One thing I’ve sort of noticed is you have (Internet show) “The Michael Showalter Showalter” and David Wain has (Internet show) “Wainy Days” and you sort of have these College Humor videos. What extent do they expand the Stella universe? Are they something else entirely?
M: I think people know about those videos. It probably generates a little bit of interest, but more than that, I don’t know. I don’t own a computer, myself. I’m still living in the dark ages in terms of technology. I’m not plugged into — that’s not true. I love my computer.
J: You have the Web videos, you actually put out a comedy album last year?
M: I put out a comedy album, I blog on the Huffington Post, I write political blogs for the Huffington Post. I’m all over the Internet. Without a computer. I do it all telepathically.
J: What kind of stuff are you working on right now?
M: I’m on the phone, sorry. I’m sorry. What’s that?
J: Are you on the streets right now?
M: Yes.
J: In New York?
M: Yes. I just got accosted.
J: By who? A fan?
M: No, no. By a panhandler.
J: Do you get recognized a lot, or that was just a panhandler who wanted money?
M: That was just a panhandler who wanted money.
J: Do you get recognized a lot?
M: Not really. Not in New York. No, I don’t. Maybe I do. If I do I wouldn’t no because no one says anything. So no, I don’t. I also wear a disguise, so it’s unlikely that anyone would recognize me.
J: What’s your disguise?
M: I have a very large, like Grizzly Adams beard and then I have a stove, like an Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hat.
J: You walk around like Abraham Lincoln and Grizzly Adams.
M: Yes. A combo. And then I wear a cloak. So no one would recognize me.
J: Other than the Stella tour, what else are you working on right now?
M: I’m writing a book called “Mr. Funnypants.” It’s about me and my attempts to write a book.
J: So it’s like essays or a memoir?
M: It’s a memoir. That’s it. It’s called “Mr. Funnypants” and it’s a memoir about me trying to write a memoir.
J: Are you doing any more movies?
M: Ummm… trying to think. No, those are the big ones. The tour and the book. And the TV show, hopefully, will get picked up.
J: I read somewhere a possibility, and you probably get asked this all the time, but a possibility of a State reunion movie?
M: Yes. A movie, I’m not so sure about. It looked like that was going to happen at one point but then it kind of didn’t materialize. Although it’s still a possibility but we are, there is going to be a full State reunion at the San Francisco sketch comedy festival in January.
J: Have you guys been rehearsing toward that?
M: No, because we all live in so different, we all live nowhere near each other so we can’t. We’re all going to show up on Friday and put something together real fast. The show’s on Saturday night. We’re going to have one day to put the show together. But we do actually have a lot of material, old and new. And I could definitely see, somewhere down the line we would make a movie together.
J: How involved are you with Wain’s projects and Michael Ian Black’s projects outside of Stella?
M: Like what?
J: Wain had the… “Role Models” just came out which I’m actually seeing tonight. Do you call each other up and be like “Hey, I need help with a joke?” Or do sort of do your own things and then you get together and do Stella? I’m wondering how involved in each other’s creative process you are?
M: It sort of varies from project to project. Certainly on “Role Models” not at all. While David was making “Role Models” Mike and I were making our TV show. We were on totally different coasts and everything like that. I think for the most part when we work separately we work separately and when we work together we work together is kind of how it’s been working lately. Having worked together so much, when you are working separately, it’s an opportunity to, you know, not work with the other guys.
J: You teach at NYU as well?
M: I teach at NYU graduate film school.
J: Is it like a serious deconstruction of writing, like comedy?
M: No, you mean like am I like a real teacher?
J: Yeah.
M: I am a real teacher. Yeah. I teach the thesis screenwriting class at NYU. You know, it’s a serious class. And the students, a lot of them are international students so they have no idea who I am. Not that they would anyway. But I mean to the extent that they would potentially know who I am, they don’t. They’re all working, they’re all young filmmakers working on all sorts of different types of film and most of them are, some of them are making comedies, but a lot of them aren’t.
J: You co-wrote “Wet Hot American Summer” and you wrote “The Baxter,” correct?
M: Right.
J: And any—
M: So ummm… you mean how is it possible that I’m teaching screenwriting at NYU considering I’ve only made two movies?
J: No, well, that’s two more movies more than most people I’ve ever spoken with.
M: That’s very true.
J: It seems to me that they’re just straight up comedies.
M: They are. But writing a comedy, writing any movie, writing a, now we’re going to get into what we talk about in my class.
J: Go ahead.
M: Writing a comedy isn’t really any different than writing a drama. They’re very similar. The execution of a screenplay is sort of the same, whatever the genre you’re working in. So the way you tell your story might be different from one way to another. The process of writing a screenplay and some of the basic concepts around narrative and stuff like that, dramatic action and stuff are the same with a comedy as they are with a drama. The situations and the dialog are different but from a purely writing standpoint it’s all the same. In fact, a lot of people think writing comedy is harder, because it’s far less subjective.
J: Would you ever consider writing a serious movie?
M: Yeah, definitely. “The Baxter” is far less comedic than “Wet Hot American Summer.” And if I were to write another film I’d imagine it’d be even less. I think for me, the middle ground that I’m always looking for is something that’s funny but also has a dramatic component to it and has some aspect of making you think about something in different ways. That would be my goal. Whether I achieve it is something different. I’m interested in writing a movie that is both serious and funny.
J: What kind of advice would you have for your students or even aspiring filmmakers?
M: You mean for writing or making a movie?
J: For writing. What sort of nuggets of wisdom do you impart on your students?
M: Are you interested in writing a screenplay?
J: Of course.
M: Are you working on one?
J: Yeah.
M: How’s it going?
J: Pretty well, I hope.
M: Are you done?
J: Just about to be. Next week.
M: Oh, so you don’t need any advice. No, I’m joking. My nuggets of wisdom tend to involve loving the process, which is to say that when you write, when we write, we tend to want to be finished before we’ve even started. So I try to encourage students to enjoy the process of getting to the end and not to think about what the end will look like. To put it in a much more concise way, the journey is the reward. Because I think when people write screenplays they often times want to be finished really fast. But screenplays aren’t easy to write. You have to love working on it. You have to love the fact that it could take a while. Do you think that that’s good advice?
J: I think that that’s great advice.
M: I’m a very good teacher. I should be winning awards for it.
J: But you’re not?
M: Not yet.
J: Just as an aside, do you have much interaction with any of the underclassmen, or not really?
M: No. They’re totally separate.
J: A friend of mine is—
M: I only teach at the graduate school.
J: How do you manage time for all of this? The Web stuff, the blogging, the writing the book, the teaching?
M: I find that the busier I am the more I am actually able to do and the less busy I am the less I am able to do anything.
J: What are some of your biggest distractions?
M: Scrabble. Napping. When I’m working hard on something, when I’m passionate about something, when I’m excited about it, then I find that I have more time to do all the other things that I’m doing too. My mind is awake. When I’m stuck or procrastinating it’s impossible for me to even make my own bed.
J: You probably get asked this a lot too, but on the topic of “Wet Hot American Summer,” which when I say “Michael Showalter” and people say “who” and I’m like “the dude from ‘Wet Hot American Summer,” they know exactly who you are and what the movie is. It seems to have taken on like a cult status. Why do you think that is? It wasn’t successful in theaters, but it went on to achieve a second life on its own.
M: I guess… I don’t really know. I guess… the people who liked the movie would probably be able to answer that better than me. I really don’t know. It has a kind of cool cast and a very sort—it’s a movie that feels different than a lot of other movies. But I don’t know. I couldn’t account for that. Why do you think it is?
J: I think a lot, personally, just with my group of friends, I think people look back on their summer camp days and “Meatballs” didn’t really do it for us because it was kind of cheese, but “Wet Hot American Summer” was sort of like, sort of self-aware cheese. It was very aware of itself, but it also felt more true. That’s just my two-cent answer.
M: Uh huh. I love it.
J: Sweet.
M: I’ve got two cents for you right here.
J: But not for the panhandler.
M: I’ll give it to you at the show.
J: All right. Sounds good. Hey man, thanks a lot. I really appreciate talking to you.
M: Thank you. Take care.
With Eugene Mirman
8 p.m.
6th and I Historic Synagogue
600 I St. NW
Washington, D.C.

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