Michael Showalter discusses humor, metahumor, sushi, and, er, metasushi
SFBG So what inspires you?
MICHAEL SHOWALTER You do, you inspire me.
I think about you in the morning. I doodle little pictures of your face and think about you making me a burrito. Sometimes I doodle little pictures of you making me a burrito.
OK, so maybe that isn't exactly how it goes. Although Showalter is a doodle enthusiast, he is only mildly turned on by baby-size burritos. Being the narcissistic Bay Area dweller that I am, I immediately ask Showalter, who's on the phone from his home in New York City, about San Francisco.
"I like San Francisco. I like beat poetry. I like gay people.... I don't like gay beat poets."
So he doesn't read Ginsberg?
"My favorite books are Everybody Poops and the Odyssey. They are actually very similar."
Showalter is a smart guy. He's one of those smart guys who scared the hell out of his parents by going into comedy. His dad, a Yale-educated French lit professor, and his mom, a literary critic, worried that their little brainiac (680 math, 620 verbal) was going down the wrong path. "It's not like this is something you go to grad school for," he says.
I remind him that his buddy Eugene Mirman did design his own comedy major and that he could have done the same.
"I would have designed a doodling major. My thesis would be on doodles."
Instead, Showalter took the smart-guy route and studied semiotics at Brown. This is the mind fuck of all possible majors. Most people who spend their formative years steeped in the philosophy of language become literary theorists or filmmakers. People who spend this much time reading Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes take a long time to recover.
Showalter used sketch comedy as a catalyst for his recuperation. This might explain why his entire body of work is (a) fanatically devoured, quoted, and forever adored by viewers or (b) dismissed as ridiculous and forgotten promptly.
Personally, I can't take anyone who didn't like The State seriously, but Showalter takes it in stride. "I think people that don't like it might not get it," he says. "It's metahumor — a lot of people aren't into metahumor. A friend once told me that it is better to have nine people think your work is number one than a hundred think your work is number nine."
After the Showalter- and David Wain–penned Wet Hot American Summer was released in 2001, some critics gave the boys a very hard time for the scene that involved someone slipping on a banana peel. "The joke was that we made a banana peel joke," explains Showalter.
Still, one has to wonder, how the hell do these guys come up with this stuff? How does the absurdist sketch comedy show Stella get so far out there? Do Michael Ian Black, Wain, and Showalter just sit around a table bouncing ideas off each other?
"Yeah, exactly like that," says Showalter. "It is that cliché situation with guys sitting in a room with a Nerf basketball. Only we don't put it into the net. Ever." All three members of Stella contribute equally to the creative process — "If we all think it's funny, then it's funny," Showalter observes.
Last year's film The Baxter marked a departure from sketch comedy. As the writer, director, and star of the romantic comedy, Showalter admits it wasn't all tweed and roses on the set. "There were problems between the director and the star," he says. "We just didn't get along. I found it difficult to deal with myself."
After his experience writing the film, Showalter joined the faculty of the Peoples Improv Theater. He currently teaches a course on writing comedic screenplays. Yeah, he's a real teacher. He has a syllabus but doesn't use textbooks. Instead, he shows movies to illustrate his points. "I show bad comedies like Annie Hall and good comedies like Porky's."
Showalter plans to continue teaching, possibly adding a sketch comedy class to his schedule. As far as acting goes, he says, "I'm working on a reality show for a major television network. That's all I can say."
The tour is also on his mind. Although stand-up is a pretty new thing for Showalter, he doesn't worry much about people not laughing: "Pretty much everyone who comes to see me already thinks I'm funny, so I don't really get heckled."
Good thing. A heckler at a Showalter show would probably throw canned vegetables on stage. The Blue Collar Comedy tour made a movie. The Comedians of Comedy tour made a TV special. The idea of Showalter, Mirman, and Leo Allen traipsing up and down the West Coast in a van makes me nervous.
Will there be groupies? Drugs? Booze? "It will be like that part with the red snapper in the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods," he deadpans. "Very Zeppelin-esque. I have already said too much. Let's just say it has a lot to do with sushi."
Sure, Showalter gives a good interview, but I don't think I'd let him near me with a fish. SFBG
MICHAEL SHOWALTER WITH EUGENE MIRMAN AND LEO ALLEN
Tues/25, 9 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF