Rare is the moment when we catch the seminal moments in the careers of comedians and entertainers in general when things perhaps started in their favor. And with the breaking news that the movie Smashed, after its showing at the Sundance Film Festival, has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for $1 million, that might be exactly what we’re witnessing for the film’s co-writer– comedian, actress and writer Susan Burke.
Some call it “that one break” while others stay cautious about their optimism because of past experience. For Burke, — Smashed — is the first film she wrote; and the progress of the project is a great snapshot of the varied roads that comedy can take a person down, up, and around. Coming up through the stand-up scene in LA, being a part of the hilarious sketch group Birds of Prey, Burke laid out the path for us in this interview (which took place well before the film premiered at Sundance) that she’s walked in comedy.
With all that’s happening to you right now, how are you feeling now about your comedy?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. It weird because the film I wrote, Smashed, it started out as a comedy. That was our intention and, as we were writing, “Oh, this is going to be a dark comedy,” and now it’s not a comedy. It’s a drama, I think. There are funny parts to it and, as a writer, those are my favorite things. My favorite movies are serious but have funny parts. I’m really happy about that, but it’s kind of weird because all I’ve done is comedy and now I’m starting to do stuff that isn’t comedy at all.
You say it’s not a comedy, but is it in the vein of some of the episodes of Season 2 of Louie where people debate, “Is this even comedy?”
Maybe. I mean, some Louie episodes are depressing, but great and I think I don’t want to compare it to anything yet.
I asked about how you feel about your comedy because this seems like that break that, a few years from now, you might say, “This happened and everything blew up.”
I hope so because I think I’ve had a couple falls, things that I thought were my break or I thought, “Oh! So this happened and now I’m going to be really successful.”
I feel like I’ve been around long enough and sort of watched people get successful that should get successful and watch people get successful that shouldn’t get successful and I would really like it if I got to write and perform and not have to work a day job for awhile.
Walk us through the process of getting the film made. How did it get made and how did you end up getting such an amazing cast with Aaron Paul, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally?
Well, James and I started writing it a couple of years ago. James is my friend and he doesn’t do comedy. He’s a more dramatic writer and he’s written a lot of things. He wrote and directed a movie in 2006 called Off the Black that went to Sundance. It’s a really good movie.
We became friends and he asked if I wanted to co-write this with him. He kind of had this idea about a couple struggling with alcoholism and he didn’t know how to go about it. He wanted to bring out the humor in it. He knew that I knew about comedy and alcoholism, then he asked me to write it with him. Then, we wrote it and it was like the best and easiest writing process ever. Then, different people read it. The people that produced it, Super Crispy Entertainment, they got it and decided to work on it.
They just read it and fell in love with the project?
There was plenty of rewrites and notes. There always are.
You said that James came to you because you knew about both comedy and alcoholism. How much of Smashed is grounded in your life in the past like your one-woman storytelling show Smoke. Worry. Fuck.?
It’s not autobiographical in any way, but there are experiences in the movie that really happened to me and that’s something that I want to be really careful to let people know that this isn’t my story, then people find out, “You were never married. You weren’t a teacher,” and it be like the book A Million Little Pieces, that book that turned out to be fake. It’s not about my life, but I do think a lot of stuff that deals with alcoholism deals with it from a “Lifetime-y” cheesy point of view and it’s either very pro-this or anti-this and we wanted sort of a neutral take on it and how it really is.
That’s often times the best way to go about touchy subjects like alcoholism. With that in mind, I wanted to ask you how much honesty do you think, I wouldn’t say valid, but is acceptable in comedy or should be mined?
Personally, I usually like comedy that is silly and not necessarily honest. I don’t like feeling like I’m a comedian’s therapist sitting in the audience. I never want to make people feel that way. The one person show [Smoke. Worry. Fuck.] that I did was really honest and I wanted to tell that part of my life because I’ve never really told it in comedy, but I’ve never really felt comfortable getting up on stage and airing dirty laundry and it makes me really uncomfortable when people talk about other people.
I try to make sure I don’t use people’s names or say “Oh, so-and-so…” especially since comedy is such a small world and chances are that that person is there or knows someone that’s there, so I try to not… unless it’s a positive thing, you know? I think it’s really un-classy to talk about ex’s or whatever. I mean I had an ex write a blog about me and I got hate mail from kids.
That’s an interesting discrepancy that are plenty of people that disagree with you and just go right ahead with being completely honest. I would say that there’s validity on both sides as there are comedians who are honest, but it’s terrible and not funny, however there are lot that make it hilarious because they’re so open with how messed up it is.
I think if you’re good at it, then that’s what you should do, if you’re comfortable doing it. I don’t think there should be any rules to comedy other than if it’s funny; it’s comedy. If it’s not, maybe it’s something else. I’m always open to that. Maybe it’s not comedy; it’s interesting. When people are like, “You have to be honest.” No, you don’t. There’s a lot of shit that’s really funny that isn’t honest.
So, how did Smashed go from being a comedy to drama?
Well, it was never a balls out crazy comedy. We wanted to tell an honest story and we knew there would be dramatic parts in it and that it would be mostly dramatic, but to have a funny take on it. I think with the performances, it just came out more serious than it would. It’s better than I thought it would be, too.
Even with the draft that you guys had, did you both still read it as a comedy– and then when it was filmed it became a drama?
It’s kind of up to the viewer, really. My favorite stuff is Alexander Payne. All of his stuff is really funny and really serious like his first movie, Citizen Ruth, is about a crazy person and about crazy shit and really serious issues, but it’s also hilarious and all of his stuff is like that. Election is more a straight comedy… and The Descendants is a crazy sad movie.
Sideways, for how funny it is, has very serious moments where my little sister fell asleep.
I think that’s how people are. If it’s only comedy or only drama, it’s the worst to be stuck in a really dramatic movie with no breaks, but also, I find it hard to be around 100 percent comedy all the time.
It’s the best somewhere in the middle.
Most people who are comedians, I think, have had something happen to them, and not to play into a stereotype like “sad clown” or something, that are different than people who don’t want to go into comedy. Their perspective is to turn things to humor. That could mean bad stuff has happened or life was just boring and you just tried to make it funny, you know? I think that there should be comedy in everything, but when it’s all comedy, it’s like “Shut up, dude.”
Yep. So often, a laugh every seven seconds is sought after, but some of the greatest comedic moments come from building up tension and then there’s this dramatic shift, which is what makes those stories in Smoke. Worry. Fuck. so great.
There are plenty of comedy purists that would argue that you’re wasting time, but I think that it’s good to have both comedic paces mixed in.
I want to do more serious stuff because that’s life, you know? And now that I’m a happier person in my life, I want do more serious stuff whereas more as depressed person, I kind of needed comedy more and now I don’t need as much.
That’s definitely a revelation.
I still need comedy.
If this hits big, do you think you’ll go into screenwriting and have stand-up and sketch on the backburner for a while?
I don’t know. I mean I’m writing more stuff now. I kind of think, just realistically, for me, that I’m probably more a writer than a performer in the long run that just when I’m 60, I can still write. And if I wanted to have kids and stuff, I wouldn’t be wanting to do stand-up. Obviously, there are moms who do stand-up and they’re amazing, and I’m not saying that I’m pregnant. I think it’d be sort of an easier life and I really like performing and I really like acting too. Stand-up and sketch has been more for fun for me anyway but maybe I just tell myself that because I haven’t been super successful in it. I’ve gotten to do cool stuff and open for cool people, but I’ve never been…
…a breakout star?
Yeah and I think my stand-up really isn’t “breakout star” stand-up, you know? I mean, it’s great. It’s the best stand-up there is, but…
I think that’s sometimes the attitude you have to have in comedy. Even self-deprecating people, they have to think in the back of their mind, “I may hate myself, but I’m better than these people.”
That’s the thing. I love doing comedy, but I know I don’t love doing comedy as much as some people do. I think I used to love it as much those people do, but I see people that are like 20-30 years into doing stand-up and I admire them greatly, but that’s just probably not me.
And that’s completely fine. It’s a grueling process.
But then, there’s that instant, thing too. I don’t know if I ever could not perform stuff. I mean, who knows? I really like doing monologues and more serious stuff like my one-person show, but it’s kind of fun to just go up and fuck around. So, I probably will always do some of that.
Good. I’m glad.
And that sounds really presumptuous like, “Oh, this is my 10 year plan…”
If Smashed is a hit, and as other comedians who became famous for one thing and then pursued something completely different struggle with, would you change your stand-up and sketch?
My boyfriend pointed out the other day that “You just got into Sundance and you talk about poop all the time,” and I think that sometimes, I’ve gotten messages from people like, “I just started following you on Twitter and then it’s just a bunch of weird jokes and stuff.” People will always not get stuff and you can do one thing and do another thing too.
With the avenues of distribution, now, or the way people watch your stuff whether you’ve written it and other people perform it or you do it yourself, do you think that such a disconnect won’t be a problem?
I don’t think so. I don’t say or do anything that’s really offensive or anything or too different. One thing that I’m worried about because of Smashed and that one person show like I don’t want people to think, “That’s Susan Burke. She always talks about alcoholism,” and Smashed is mostly a relationship story and that’s an element to it, when actually, I hardly ever talk about that.
Yeah, you want to be known for shitting on trust fund kids (Susan Burke has a really funny joke making fun of trust fund kids, prehistoric times, prostitution, and Brooklyn).
I guess I’ll ask you one last thing–
Wait. Let me ask you this. You mentioned you do research for interviews. I’m curious. What is out there about me? Nothing, right?
I know you personally and I’ve been to your shows and was even able to cleverly reference a joke of yours. That’s been the research. Years of it. Thus, I didn’t Google your name.
Well, [I ask because] there’s a lot of negative stuff about me because I’ve gotten death threats for doing Bjork blogs. I have these videos like three years ago and I got one death threat. And I shouldn’t be blowing this out of proportion, but I did these Bjork videos and every now and then I got an e-mail that said, “I’m gonna kill you, you stupid bitch and slit your throat for making fun of Bjork,” which is the weirdest.. and I had to call the FBI and read it to them.
It says, “I’m going to kill you, you stupid bitch, cut you into a million pieces for making fun of Bjork,” and the lady at the FBI started laughing. There are hardcore Bjork fans and on the YouTube ones, there are all these negative comments that are just like “I hate this bitch. She should die.” Really weird stuff. I guess nothing else I’ve done has been as polarizing, but I feel like people on the Internet are mean.
Thankfully, you’re here and you didn’t get killed. With all that in mind and all you’ve been through, did you see yourself getting here now?
It’s weird. Yes and no. I’ve always had a confidence that something is going to work out and I know that I’m good at stuff, but I’ve had dumb stuff where I’ve been fired by agents and managers and I’ve thought that I booked something and I didn’t and I’ve turned down something where then later I was like, “That was the dumbest thing I could have possibly done.”
When I was six months into comedy, I remember, right away, I got to do Comedy Death Ray (one of LA’s best live comedy shows) and stuff I was just like, “Wow, I guess I’m just going to be a comedian.” Then I saw all these people that I started out with get really big and was just like, “Oh, OK.” Then, I got resentful, “When the fuck is my turn?”
I think everything, and this sounds cheesy, but I think that things happen as they’re supposed to, you know? I mean, there are always going to be shitty people getting famous or whatever for being really shitty. I think that my goal is never to be famous. My goal is, whether it’s comedy or writing or film or books, I just want to put something good out there.
That’s all you can do. If you want to get famous, rob a bank.
Or make a sex tape.
I would like only the people that I think are cool to know who I am and no one else be interested.