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Interview: Michael Showalter

By vouchey in Miscellaneous on Sep 2, 2005 1:30PM

Michael Showalter
Michael Showalter, widely known for the absurdist comedy of The State comedy group, Stella on Comedy Central, and 2001's Wet Hot American Summer, is hitting theaters nationwide next weekend with an equally silly, but charming, romantic comedy, The Baxter. Showalter's newest effort takes the perspective of the guy who gets dumped for the lead in romance movies -- think Bill Pullman in Sleepless In Seattle. Showalter's a popular guy, and Chicagoist is running a "The Baxter" giveaway next week. So we decided to build on Gothamist's recent interview and take the opportunity to ask Showalter some deep, personal questions.

Chicagoist: Ever been to Chicago?

Michael Showalter: I have indeed quite a few times in fact. I was just there, like the week before last.

C: So, why is Chicago the greatest city on Earth?

MS: You mean next to New York.

C: You’re from Princeton, New Jersey, live in Brooklyn now, but you do a lot of work in LA. West Coast, East Coast? Which one are you?

MS: Oh, I’m so East Coast. It’s in my blood. Although I’m in LA right now and I’m enjoying myself. I’m thinking I might spend a little bit more time there than I have in the past.

C: So you’ve had a long, hard climb to the top. Any good “Behind the Music” kind of stories along the way? Like a drug fueled car crash?

MS: Sure.

C: So let’s hear it.

MS: You just said it. I had a drug-fueled car crash. It was Sudafed. A fender bender. Stuck in traffic on the Manhattan Bridge.

C: What was the worst job you worked as you clawed your way to the top?

MS: I think it’s funny that you keep insisting that I’ve been to the top. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

On my ascent to the top of the mountain…nothing really great. I sold cross country skis at Eastern Mountain Sports. Which is interesting because I don’t know anything about cross country skiing. My job was to convince people which equipment to buy and why to buy it. The word I learned was “tamber”.

C: What is that?

MS: I still don’t know. It’s a cross country skiing term that I used at any time I could.

C: You’re part of a growing cadre of former “Daily Show” correspondents with movies. Why has “Daily Show” become such a common launching pad for talent?

MS: I don’t really think of myself as being part of that group. I did “Daily Show” – I guess it’s on some press release that’s getting sent out. I did “Daily Show” back when Craig Kilborne was the host, and I didn’t do it for very long. But I just think that it’s a really funny platform for great straight men.

C: Do you characterize your work as “offbeat”?

MS: I suppose so. I’m trying to just be funny. And hope what I’m doing appeals to as many people as possible. I suppose I look at things a little bit askew. My point of view leans a little bit to the offbeat.

C: Your humor is clearly different from a lot of stuff that is out there. And The State, Stella, and now Baxter –

MS: And “Wet Hot”

C: – are all really dry humor.

MS: Is that what you call it? Dry?

C: I dunno. What do you call it?

MS: Um. I have no idea. It’s just my sensibility. I guess it is dry. I don’t know. I guess there’s some subtly there. I’ve heard “absurd”, “silly”, those are the two words I’ve heard and used.

C: Are you consciously turning out a consistent product?

MS: You mean am I sitting down and going like, “I want this to be part of this larger thing?”

C: Yeah.

MS: Um, no. I think my voice is strong and I also think its not just the comedy, it’s the production around it. It’s the music choices, it’s the production design, the way things look. I am proud though that there is a kind of consistency to it. There is a kind of a through-line – a collection of work that you can compare and look at it. Growth and all that stuff.

C: The characters are somewhat sympathetic and identify with the underdog. Why is this funny?

MS: Um. I guess it’s like that Homer Simpson line, “It’s funny because it’s true.” I think a lot of the humor I try to do is funny to me because it’s true for whatever reason. There’s any number of reasons it could be true…You know, I should have a better answer. I don’t really sit down and try to write comedy for per se. It just comes out that way. I guess if I was trying to write drama it would be quite different, so I must be trying to write comedy.

I guess it’s just funny the way people talk and the things they say and sometimes I find people that are very unlikable funny because of the things they say certain kinds of things. It’s kind of like Ricky Gervaise’s character in “The Office”. I find every word that comes out of his mouth beautifully funny, and he’s quite an awful guy. We like him, but he’s kind of a jerk. It’s funny because he’s doing it so well.

C: What is your most recent non-entertainment job?

MS: It’s been a really long time. I was a librarian at the Firestone library at Princeton University in 1992.

C: You do a lot of comedy with ties. Do underdogs wear ties?

MS: Sometimes. Yeah, it’s kind of funny that Stella and The Baxter are both wearing suits most of the time. I think that could be partly because of my Episcopalian upbringing. I just sort of like to be dressed up. I don’t like nudity.

C: Episcopalians wear suits a lot?

MS: Episcopalians aren’t big on showing skin. It’s rude and a Puritan thing.

C: In the press notes you say you wanted The Baxter to be a romantic comedy reminiscent of the 40’s. Why?

MS: Those movies have kind of a style to them. The whole well-made Hollywood concept of these storylines – where everything fits in perfectly – almost like a play. There’s something nostalgic and sweet about them. There was not profanity and no gross-out humor. They were fun and silly and sweet. At a time when the kind of movies that were being made [today] in comedy – and I’ve certainly done this too – were big, bawdy, gross-out stuff. I wanted to do something different.

C: You’ve said in other interviews that this movie is not autobiographical, so then where did all the material come from?

MS: My imagination!

It’s not “Lord Of The Rings” or anything. I just played off archetypes and I played off conventions. A lot of this movie is about romantic comedy, so lot of what’s in the movie is riffing off of what happens in other romantic comedies. Things like the guy getting left at the altar, and the big beach, and the quaint dinner with the families and the clinking glasses. Stuff like that. It’s all playing with the conventions of the romantic comedy.

C: Did you have an a-ha moment that inspired this movie?

MS: Kind of. I was looking for something to write a movie, thinking about subject matter, The idea of this character, when it came to me, I was like, “Wow. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already.” So, there was that moment: “What about a movie about the wrong guy? Hasn’t that been done already? And it hadn’t.”

C: The Baxter focuses on the character you’re supposed to forget about in the romance movie. Sort of like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for romantic movies.

MS: Yes!

C: Are there some other characters with deep back stories we’re forgetting? Like maybe the Jawas in Star Wars?

MS: You mean, is there another movie like this for me to do?

C: Yeah.

MS: Yes. There’s millions. Just in the romantic comedy genre alone you could do a movie about the buddy. The best friend with the beard and the Cubs hat. Always giving bad advice.

C: Did you say “Cubs hat” because I’m from Chicago? Or is it always a Cubs hat?

MS: Always a Cubs hat.

C: Because he’s the bigger loser?

MS: I guess so. I mean I’m realizing now that you are from Chicago. But they always wear Cubs hats. I think there’s something about being a Cubs fan. It wouldn’t be as interesting if he was wearing a Mariners hat. There’s something about the Cubs.

It’s basically if you’re a Cubs fan, you’re loyal. Because you certainly can’t be a Cubs fan because you’re on some kind of bandwagon.

C: Is The Baxter a good movie for someone to take their Baxter to before they dump them?

MS: Wow. Probably because at least it has a happy ending. They could dump their Baxter after the movie but they could tell their Baxter that there’s still hope. There’s a silver lining on the cloud.

C: Is there anyone named Baxter that you’ve offended with this movie?

MS: Not yet. Not to my knowledge. I did meet a guy named Baxter. But he seemed grateful.

C: Thanks for your time. Good luck with the movie!

MS: Thanks a lot I really appreciate it.

Check out Chicagoist next week for our The Baxter giveaway. Starting Monday, you can sign up to win one of three movie prize packs just in time for the film's release on September 9th.