Michael Showalter: The accidental comedian?

By | February 22, 2011 at 9:47 pm | No comments | Features | Tags: , , , , ,

Michael ShowalterWhen I was 17, it was a very good year. George W. Bush hadn’t yet had the opportunity to drive the country into massive collapse, and a friend of my brother’s introduced me to a wonderfully affecting offbeat comedy called Wet Hot American Summer – a film I loved and connected with so brazenly, not even the gifting of its poster from an evil ex could soil my adoration.

Ten years and the heaving death throes of the American planetary superpower later, and that film’s writer and star, Michael Showalter, has again taken the wit and the words and formed them into an engaging and cohesive gospel. With the release of his first book, Mr. Funny Pants – a comic memoir that winds through the personal and thoroughly abstract subconscious corners of both author and audience – Showalter continues to prove his gift for milking hilarity from the awkward exchanges that comprise an everyday routine.

Naturally, a career that includes membership in the much-lauded sketch troupe The State, a number of various television and film projects, and an unquestionable dominance over the feline-related comedy niche market is hard to quibble with. It would seem as though his life has been leading up to the inevitable publication of narrative, too, as he comes from a highly literate and Ivy-league educated clan: his mother, Elaine Showalter, is a renowned feminist literary critic whose work has been published frequently. If anything, the translation of Showalter’s oddball worldview into page-turning prose acts as a natural extension on his previous contributions to the comedy realm, and stands as resilient testament to why I would probably call him my favorite working comedian. (Favorite deceased: Chris Farley.)

That said, I confess that I spent the last several hours before our conversation nursing frightening fantasies of our exchange rapidly disintegrating into something like an episode of The Chris Farley Show. (“Remember… remember that time you were in Stella? That was AWESOME!”) But these fears, much like Showalter’s own self-professed insecurities, quickly proved unfounded, as we delved deep into funny and affable discussion of his internal monologue, our cats, and why he’ll always be a theater kid at heart. Take note, fans of the funny, and heed me when I say that hanging on to that poster was the right decision.


First of all, this is extremely important: I keep hearing rumors that Wet Hot American Summer is going to be turned into a musical, kind of like a Hairspray-update sort of thing? Can that be substantiated at all?

Well, what can I say? There’s definitely been discussions of that. We actually have written some songs, but because of our schedules and our lives, right now it’s sort of on pause. But yes, I think long term, it’s something we’d like to do.

Let’s talk about your book a little bit, specifically the genesis of it. How long has this project been in the works, and how closely do you think the final product resembles your original idea?
I think like a couple of years. Like, two or three years? I mean my original vision of it was that I would write like, you know, a memoir that would change people’s lives. And the result is closer to something you might read on an airplane, or in a bathroom. So I’d say that I fell short of my goal of writing a profound memoir. But I give myself a big ‘A’ for effort.

Are you proud of how it turned out? I mean, I really liked it, you definitely should be.
Um, yeah, I mean, there’s – not even specific to the book, but in general – whenever I’m serious with anything I sort of um, kick it to the side, like an orphan, and can’t think internally about what I wish I had done differently or what I’d like to do differently in the future. I think that for what [the book] is…for what it is, I think it’s good. It reminds me, in a good way, of a lot of books I read when I was in high school, when I started reading like, you know, Steve Martin’s, Woody Allen’s humor books, where it was just sort of odds and ends and kind of just sort of trying to [write] a funny book to pick up and read and get a strong feeling for someone’s comedic sensibilities: the kind of book that makes you smile.

As I was reading it, I kind of noticed that the first third seemed to be devoted to a lot of silly and abstract themes, and as it moved into the second third it got a little more auto-biographical and personal, and then the last third sort of went back to the silly. Was this a conscious decision on your part, to structure it that way?
Yeah, I mean the first third is sort of about trying to write the book. The first third is sort of like, you know, a little bit of meditating on what kind of book I’d like to write, and then, how am I gonna do that? And then the second third is sort of, as you said, it’s actually going a little deeper into some actual autobiography, a lot of stuff about my childhood. And then, the last third, I sort of thought of it as like the back of the magazine, where it’s just like….random stuff? [Laughs]. Just sort of random odds and ends. So I think the last third of the book was just kind of all the loose ends.



Gotcha. Was it at all cathartic for you to write?
Yes, in a sense, I mean, I think that I touched on things that I’d like to expand on, maybe. It was cathartic in that way, it was sort of like, putting some things down on paper and through doing that, kind of actually seeing what – in writing about some of this stuff and actually trying to learn a little bit about what the things that actually are important to me and interesting to me are. I think I went into it thinking that other things would be the things I liked writing about, and so, coming out of it, I sort of got a clearer sense of what actually is interesting to me.

Do you have an example of that, specifically?
Well, there’s some stuff in it about, like, being in plays. My early experiences of being an actor. Like when I was in Oliver, or in The Crucible, and things like that. And you know, when I was growing up, if you’d asked me what would my career be, I’d never in a million years have said I’d be a comedian.

Why not?
[Laughs] Why not? Because I don’t know. If you talk to other people from The State, I think a lot of people will tell you this: that we weren’t comedy nerds. Some of us were, but a lot of us weren’t necessarily comedy nerds. I mean I loved comedy, but I was more of like a theater kid. And, a lot of the people from The State were theater kids, and in a weird way, what I learned in writing the book, although again I don’t know if you’d ever glean this from reading the book, is that I’m still a theater kid. That’s really who I am.

And so, moving forward from here, there’s a lot more that I have, that I’d like to say about theater and live performance and plays and stuff. That there was sort of a moment in my life where – and I’m happy about it, I have no regrets about it – but where I sort of got lost in the shuffle. I mean I know I’m a good actor, and it’s not about wanting to be an actor or anything, but I think I just sort of realized in a lot of ways I’m still kind of trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. [Laughs].

Do you see yourself taking any radically different path from what you’ve already pursued?
No, definitely not. No, not a radically different path, but understanding this, it’s sort of hard to articulate. No, definitely not a radically different path, but maybe understanding more clearly what my own comedic point of view is, and embracing that.

That’s important.
It’s VERY important.

Yes, especially if you work in comedy, I’d say. Very important.
I would think so! Or say so. That’s a really astute observation.

I know it’s 10 am, but would you like to drink to that?
Absolutely! I have a cup of coffee in my hand. And it’s half coffee and half Irish whiskey. I don’t even know if that’s a real… I dunno what that is. I actually don’t drink.

Oh, really? Not at all?
No, I’m a teetotaler. I used to drink, copiously. Those days are gone. See, you don’t get a lot of that in the book. That’s sort of part of it, is that I could’ve written that story. You know, I could have written, like, the story of waking up on the bathroom floor with vomit and blood. And I started writing that, but it just wasn’t very funny.

Since you sort of have this grand literary tradition in your background, and actually in college I studied some of your mother’s work too…
You did? Where did you go to school?

Elizabethtown College, it’s in Pennsylvania.
Very nice! Lovely.

That being said, I’m curious to know what kind of academic curriculum you’d like to see your book taught in, if any? Just, hypothetically.
Wow, that is a genuinely good question. Um…. Stupid Shit 101?

That’s a genuinely good answer.
[Laughs].

Not long ago, Michael Ian Black’s book, My Custom Van, was adapted into a stage show. Would you like something similar to happen with your book, and if it did, how would you see a project like that unfolding?
Well, I actually have some ideas of my own that I would actually adapt it myself, into something of a one-man show. I’m going on this book tour, in March. I’m gonna be sort of performing a lot of the material that I touch on in the book, so I wanna kind of see what it’s like, up on its feet? And then, in the back of my mind, in the spring, in April and May, I’d like to start actually developing, you know, developing a kind of a one hour show loosely based on some of the stuff that’s in the book. And I don’t think it would be called Mr. Funny Pants. But maybe it would, I don’t know.

Do you have any other ideas for a title?
I did have an idea for a title, just yesterday I was thinking of it. Uh…oh, darn it. I literally just had a title yesterday and now I’ve already forgotten it! If I can think of it I’ll tell you, but, right now, no.

Okay. No worries, just curious. So, shifting gears a little here to kind of your overall comedy style. One thing that’s always kind of struck me as interesting about it is that it’s always very stream of consciousness? Is that reflective of some sort of inner monologue that’s constantly running through your head?
Probably. I mean, part of it is just a lack of discipline, let’s be honest. But I think yeah. I mean, I am genuinely obsessive compulsive. Yeah, I think if what you’re talking about is that to an extent it’s like, I’m in my own head, a lot of the time. Sort of like, I’ll say something and then that gets me off on another topic. Or I’ll comment on what I said, which then springboards into something else. Part of that too is just trying to be – and I say this in quotes… there’s no reason why it would be in quotes – you know, just trying to be “honest.” And so, sometimes it’s like I’m editing as I write. I’m editing myself as a writer, or performer.

Yeah, that’s interesting what you said, that you strive for honesty. Not to say that your work’s not honest, but when I was reading your book, I kind of felt like there were some parts where I wasn’t really sure whether to take it seriously or not, because you sort of set this like, very sarcastic, I’m-doing-a-character sort of tone, do you agree with that or not?
Say that again.

Oh, I don’t know, I was kind of just thinking out loud, I–
No, say it again!

Oh–
I wanna hear it!

Alright, I just think it’s interesting that you said you strive for honesty, which is not to say that your work isn’t honest, but as I was reading the book especially I noticed that there was, like I said, that first third, there was a distance from the personal, and then you kind of got more into it in the second third, so you managed to find a balance between completely sarcastic and aloofness in your comedy and the personal.
Well, i’m never intentionally aloof, but I think I was trying in that first third to be honest about the fact that I – and maybe it comes across – I mean I am being sarcastic, be-cause obviously I’m lying. That being said, the underlying premises are all true. Like, there’s a section in the book where I talk about, you know, if I was gonna write a book, I’d need to read one, too. And obviously I’m being sarcastic, but in a way, I’m not. In fact in a big way I’m not being sarcastic.

You know there’s like, when writing personal stuff, and other people probably have this problem less than me, there’s like this fear of too much information or it’s gonna feel awkwardly personal, [that] kind of thing. Um, or like, “who gives a shit?” And so I think that aloofness, or that sarcasm, is like a defense mechanism. It’s like, I can’t write about this stuff if I don’t sort of… if I’m not at the same time making fun of the fact that I’m writing about it at all. Like, it’s a disclaimer, it’s a big disclaimer. It’s like, “before you tell me you don’t like me, let me just tell you first, I don’t like myself more.”

Is that maybe a way of trying to subconsciously connect with your audience?
Yeah. It’s a way of trying to connect with the audience, but it’s also a way of checking in with myself and saying – and again, this has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve never really written a book. [Laughs]. Obviously, I’ve never written a book before. So any at-tempt to get personal, it’s like, it’s something I want to do, but just don’t have a ton of experience with. So it’s sort of a trial-by-fire process. Most people working in this kind of a medium have had a lot of experience with writing this way; I just haven’t. And so, it’s connecting to an audience but it’s also somehow connecting to myself and saying it’s that dialogue, as you said, inside my mind, I can’t really…

Turn it off?
Yeah. Well, yeah, I mean it’s almost like I’m reading the book and writing it at the same time.

Ah, that’s a good way of putting it. This is something you make mention of in the text, but it’s also kind of a fairly common societal trope in that uh, there’s a lot of humor to be found in the stuff that hurts.
Yeah.

And, as you get older and wiser–and I know that you just got married recently, so congratulations on that–
Thanks.

Do you ever think that you might become like, too…content, or self-actualized, to keep producing that kind of comedy? Is that something you see happening, or are worried about?
Um… nah. I mean that, I think it would be impossible for me to ever be content. It’s just not in my DNA. Self-actualized, I’d love that. And I think, if anything, it would probably allow me to access in a more effective way what that pain is.

Well, I do have one more question for you, and I do need some personal advice. I moved into my house in September and my roommate has two cats, and I have one cat. And, six months later, they still hate each other.
Ahhh…

Your cats aren’t related, are they?
No, no. Actually, I had the same situation, which is that I have two cats and my wife has one cat. And we brought them together, and we had a very different experience, which is that they got along almost right away.

Really?!
Yep, it was pretty unusual, they – my two cats – are just really friendly and they wanted to be friends with hers. And um, there were a couple of days of hissing and stuff, but they’re like peas in a pod. Now, here’s the thing, when you brought them together did you just throw them together?

No. I mean we pretty much tried everything: we did the slow introduction, like through a doorway. And then my roommate got the pheromone plug-ins, which are apparently snake oil, because they don’t seem to work at all. I’m just wondering if you have any insight into what else we could do.
I had another experience many years ago where I had one cat, and one of my roommates had a cat. It took them about six months, before they could like, coexist, without fighting. Where are you at? How many months are you at?

Uh, six, actually, so that’s encouraging.
Oh yeah, yeah–um….I wish I could…I don’t have the answer, cats are weird that way. But I think eventually — and sometimes, too, you just kinda gotta let ‘em fight.

Gotta let ‘em fight?
Sometimes, yeah.

Mhm. Well I think part of the problem is that my roommate’s cats are mother and daughter, and they’re both older, and then my cat is this gigantic Maine Coon beast who likes to charge at them randomly because he’s still a kitten.
Oohhh.

Yeah.
It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.

Thank you, i appreciate that.
I have no idea if that’s true, but…what else am I gonna say?

Exactly. Alright well, that was my last question, do you have anything else you wanna add?
Do you live in Austin?

I do, yes.
Oh, okay. That’s great. Wonderful city.

It is, yeah, I just moved down from Detroit last year and it’s a vast improvement.
Uh, yeah, I would imagine. Not that there’s anything wrong with Detroit…

Yeah, it just needs a facelift.
I take it back, there’s a lot wrong with Detroit. But no, that’s great. That’s great.

Thank you, yeah.
I have nothing else to say, other than I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

For more info, check out michaelshowalter.net. To snag yourself a copy of Mr. Funny Pants, just click the image below. Do it!

About the Author

Emma Kat Richardson

Emma Kat Richardson is a Detroit native who received her BA in professional writing and women and gender studies from Elizabethtown College in 2008. Her journalism and feature writing has been published in Alternative Press, Bitch, Punchline Magazine, Bookslut, and Real Detroit Weekly.