Interview: Michael Showalter

Claire Zulkey

By Claire Zulkey

on 04.08.11 in Interviews

Mr. Funny Pants

Michael Showalter

Michael Showalter has been making the smart-and-silly set laugh for a long time, in various formats. Audiences were first introduced to the lantern-jawed actor with a thick shock of dark hair as a part of The State, the raucous, mid-’90s MTV comedy sketch show (Showalter’s most famous role on the show was Doug, the teenager who constantly rebelled against nothing in particular).

In 2001, most of The State reunited for the summer camp spoof movie Wet Hot American Summer, with Showalter playing the lead. Showalter then appeared with his comedy colleagues David Wain and Michael Ian Black in the Comedy Central shows Stella and Michael and Michael Have Issues, both of which can only loosely be called “sketch comedy,” mostly because both shows proudly eschewed any traditional comedy format. Showalter, who is also a standup comic, is now exploring a new humor format with his debut book Mr. Funnypants, which original began as a traditional memoir but ended up taking a twisted, silly path.

You write a lot about the difficult of writing a book in Mr. Funnypants. What was hardest part of the process?

Gee…I would say the memory stuff, where I’m actually offering real self-disclosure. It’s hard to know, coming from a sketch comedy background, when you are crossing a line into “Is this just a journal entry?” “Is this funny or engaging in any way?” I suppose that that’s the nature of writing in general: that inner critic who says, “This isn’t anything. This is stupid.”

This book originally began as a memoir. What was your model?

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius [by Dave Eggers]. It felt very modern and it was really funny but at the same time really poignant and so I kind of aspire to that. I didn’t have his story, but his writing just felt very funny and honest. Also I read a Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley and The Basketball Diaries [by Jim Carroll], that canon of guys writing about how they became men. I never was gonna tell a story about being in rehab — I haven’t been in rehab — but I just like that form, but it’s not my nature to fake it. At least for this book it really was helpful to write about writing it and see what came of it.

Do you still intend to write a memoir?

Yeah, definitely. I encountered Jonathan Lethem in a coffee shop. We’re acquaintances, and we got to chatting and I told him what I was working on and some of the difficulty of it, and he recommended Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. In the book, Geoff is writing what he wants to be the definitive biography of D.H. Lawrence. The book ended up being more about his failed attempt to write that biography and is just about him and his life. That kind of approach really appealed to me. I am already writing another book for the same publisher and this time it’s a memoir about my life leading up to but not including when I started going comedy. I kind of figured out what part of my story is interesting to me and how I like to talk about it. This next one is going to be much more straightforward personal essays. To my pleasant surprise, people have really responded to that. It gave me a little bit of confidence moving forward and don’t always need to revert to silliness or nonsense.

You tap into the hysteria and vulnerability of childhood a lot in the book and in your stage comedy. What is it about youth that’s so ripe for humor?

Just that I was less jaded when I was younger and so I think a lot of my identity was really formed then. In a sense it’s still very pure for me that at that time of my life, nothing had really happened yet. Everything was this tiny little microcosm and the reality of the world hadn’t hit me yet. The stakes were so high and I like getting back inside that.

What would you do differently on the next book?

Partly just trust myself and not second-guess what I’m doing. That doesn’t get you anywhere, and I learned a lot about, as stupid as this sounds, how to write a book. This has been my experience with everything I’ve ever done. I really learned how to do it by doing it, same thing with a movie and a TV show. You don’t know what it is until you’ve done it.

Were you able to take many skills you’ve acquired writing for sketch and TV and apply them to writing the book?

Yes, in that I think I could draw from knowing what it takes to sit down and write, of actually having an assignment and doing it. A big thing for writers is discipline and just forcing yourself to write. In terms of genre, they’re totally different. In TV or film you’re working with dialogue and action. Those are part of a book, too, but in a book you have the added tool of thought and a lot of what this book is is thought.

Did you show the book to anyone as you were working on it?

I had some friends who were reading it as I was writing it, just so they could say, “This isn’t crap.” Mostly what you want to know is, “Is this anything?” But I didn’t have a collaborator per se, just people who would read it for me.

How did you choose the placement of the pieces?

That was mostly my editor, honestly. The book is sort of in four chunks: First is the satire of a book, then the anxiety of writing a book, then real memoir, then the end is a grab bag of silliness and goofiness.

In the book you joke about working with your editor. How was the editorial process for you?

We’re good buddies. He’s great and it was a great relationship. What was nice about it was that he encouraged me to be me and to be honest, but also funny. The struggle was trying to find the balance of when you’re talking about yourself, how do you be funny? That was hard for me, as weird as it sounds. He was helpful in encouraging me to stay light and funny.

How long did it take you to record the audiobook?

Three days.

That sounds like a marathon session!

It was!

Was there anything unexpectedly difficult about it?

Just that you start losing your voice. It was really fun. The book is written very conversationally, very much in my actual speaking voice.

Were there many parts that you found funnier when read aloud than on the page?

Yes, and the opposite. There are a lot of parts that are really funny, and there are parts where I go “Oh you know, if I had had the chance to perform this stuff, I probably could have edited it.” Some things go on too long or don’t go on enough. These are things you learn from hearing it out loud and gauging it a reaction that I missed in the writing of it.

Do you listen to audiobooks?

I have, but not lately. I mostly read. If I have to go on a long drive I’ll get an audiobook. The last one that I did was Runaway Jury by John Grisham.

What are some of your favorite humor books?

I read David Cross’s book and Mike Birbiglia’s, Michael Ian Black’s, and I like David Sedaris, Sarah Silverman, and Sarah Vowell.

Is Tina Fey mad at you for stealing the word “pants” for your book title before she got to publish hers?

Is that true, is she mad at me? I don’t think I stole it. I didn’t know that her book was going to be similarly titled. I haven’t heard from her. Anyway, “pants” is a funny word.

We have one thing in common in that we’ve both been turned down for pet adoption. There are several bittersweet moments like that in your book. How did you know how much of that to include?

I didn’t know, and actually one of the things I would take away from the experience is that I think I could have done more. This book is half total-silly humor book, half sincere memoir. I think moving forward, I would divide them into one that’s 100 percent silliness and another that’s 100 percent sincere. I like bittersweet. That’s part of what I look for when I’m reading something, is to laugh or to be moved. I don’t look for things to always be funny. I was dipping my toe in the water and I’d say, moving forward, I would dip my leg in.

How was the tour? What did you read?

It was great. I went everywhere and the turnout was great. The audiences were good and I sold a lot of books and I tried out new material. I basically read anything and everything: I’d ask the audience to throw out page numbers, so I was reading something different every time.

Who or what’s been making you laugh lately?

Wow…my constant daily source of laughter is my cats. They are a never-ending vessel of silliness and humor. I think I’ll go with that. Everything they do I find funny.