Like roughly half of the comedians on cable, Michael Showalter got his start on MTV's groundbreaking '90s sketch show, The State. More recently, though, the 36-year-old Brooklynite has been making people laugh in more than a few ways: he wrote and starred in the downright hilarious Wet Hot American Summer, was a third of Comedy Central's quirky three-man series, Stella, and wrote, directed and starred in eccentric romantic comedy The Baxter.
Now, the man who's worn almost every hat in comedy is trying something entirely new: solo stand-up. This week, he performs at HBO's US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, so if you have an extra 10 grand lying around, fly out and catch his show. We'll bet you five bucks you won't regret it, you rich bastard.
Is stand-up a departure for you? You come from an improv and sketch background.
Yeah, basically. I finished doing Stella on Comedy Central and also my movie, The Baxter, had just come out, and I was just feeling like I wanted to kind of do something different". So I just started performing a lot doing solo stuff, just giving it a shot, and ended up going out on tour with Eugene Mirman and Leo Allen. I just went on stage and threw everything against the wall, in terms of material, and then just really loved doing it". It's not traditional stand-up comedy. It's very much my point of view, and it's very much an extension of what I've been doing already, but it's just me.
Some of your best-known characters are Coop from Wet Hot American Summer and Elliot from The Baxter. In real life, are you like your characters?
No. I mean, I have elements of those characters-there are parts of me that are like that-but no. I think I'm much less of a nerd than they are.
That's good. It'd be hard to function with that level of nerdiness.
Yeah, I think that they're my inner nerd.
In the past, you've stressed how impressed you were with John Belushi at a young age. How has he influenced your comedy?
I think there was an aura about him that transcended whether or not he was even being funny. There was something deeper there that appealed to me. Take a character like Bluto [from Animal House]. He barely speaks in the whole movie, and he's doing totally lowbrow stuff-you know, the zit, and he's a pervert and getting drunk-but there's this undercurrent of supreme intelligence there, and then also something kind of sad too. And with other comedians whose work I love, I feel like that's consistent. Like John Cleese or Woody Allen or Peter Sellers, it's the same thing. There's kind of a highbrow/lowbrow, and there's a sadness there.
Both Stella and The Baxter took place in Brooklyn. What's so great about Brooklyn?
It's got a very kind of old feeling to it. And by old, I don't mean ancient. It's got a very kind of 1920s, 1930s, old New York quality to it, that's been very preserved". There's a vibe here, or an energy that I feel very well suited towards. It's a little slower and a little bit less crazy than Manhattan. When I finally moved here, I was like, "I can't believe it took me this long." I lived in the city for like 10 years, and I came to a point where I was like, "I don't really like it here anymore." And then I came out to Brooklyn-this was six years ago-and I was like, "Holy shit! I wish I had known." Like so many people, I had just never gone to Brooklyn, and then all of a sudden, I was like, "Holy shit! This place is amazing."
The State has developed a huge cult following and given rise to shows like Reno 911!, among others. Is there a similar sensibility that runs throughout all of those projects?
Oh yeah. Without a doubt. That group of people-the Reno 911! people and the Stella people and other members of the group too-it's very much a sensibility that we taught each other. And so it's a very unique, specific sensibility. I wouldn't know how to describe it, but I do think we're all very much coming from the same place.
You made the romantic comedy, The Baxter. What do you like about romantic comedies that a lot of other guys might be missing?
Well, I don't really like "chick flick" romantic comedies. I'm not into How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but I love John Cusack and Hugh Grant and Woody Allen. Billy Crystal made some good ones, and so did Tom Hanks. There's just a male romantic lead, and I find that persona very appealing. And I also think that the world of a romantic comedy is kind of a fantasy world of urban intellectuals. I just sort of like escaping into that a little bit.
A lot of your work has been successful with a cult following. Are you hung up on finding mainstream success?
I guess it kind of doesn't matter to me. Which is not to say that I wouldn't like to have mainstream success. If that were to happen, that would be great. And I'm certainly not somebody who's trying specifically to not appeal to the mainstream. But it's something that's totally out of my control. So if it happens, that would be great, but I'm not aspiring to it necessarily.
Stella was really unique. What do you think made that not appeal to everyone?
I think that the sensibility was very specific. And if you didn't get it, you really didn't get it. You have to really understand why we think it's funny in order to think it's funny. And if you're watching that show and you don't know what we're doing, or why we're doing it, you could easily just think it's idiotic.
What's next for you?
Michael Ian Black and I are doing another pilot at Comedy Central. It's a Michael Ian Black vehicle, but he and I are co-creating, co-producing and co-writing it together. Then I'm making a comedy record in the spring. Those are kind of the two things that I'm most focused on right now.
Your online bio says that, "After The State I chain-smoked, read Stephen King novels and played chess in Washington Square Park." How long did that last, and did you do all three at the same time?
Not all at the same time, but oftentimes two at the same time. That was a while. That was a good four or five years". I was doing other stuff; there were other things happening in that period, including writing Wet Hot American Summer and doing a bunch of acting jobs, as well as doing Stella in New York, the live show. All that was percolating. From being 25 to 30 in between The State and Wet Hot American Summer, was definitely a lot of chess, chain-smoking and Stephen King.