The Accidental Comedy Career of Tommy Wiseau
Tommy Wiseau, writer, director, and star of The Room, ComedyNerd’s #6 comedy of the past 50 years, has at least one quality that sets him apart from all of the other funny filmmakers on that list: He never set out to become a comedy star.
Young Tommy, in whatever mystery land he grew up in, never wanted to be Will Ferrell or Bill Murray. He dreamed of becoming a pouting actor who emoted his moods all over the carpet, a guy like his hero, James Dean. To prove the point, when he made The Room, he cribbed several lines of dialogue from Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause, including his iconic “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”
But when Wiseau unleashed The Room on the world, its reaction was either tragic or serendipitous, depending on your point of view. Audiences decided they couldn’t get enough of Wiseau’s opus, although it wasn’t embraced as the serious melodrama he had intended. The film was so overflowing with excruciating dialogue, monstrous plot holes, and amateurish acting that moviegoers found it hilarious. “Let’s go see it again and again” hilarious.
Wiseau had a choice in how he would react to the audience’s unanticipated response. He could collapse in utter despair at becoming the object of ridicule. Or he could embrace the film’s success, claiming he’d intended to create a “black comedy” all along.
He made the right choice.
We won’t use this space to detail a history of The Room, mysteriously financed to the tune of $6 million and based on Wiseau’s 540-page still-unseen novel. (How has no one published this?)
Instead, let’s focus on how The Room created Tommy Wiseau, global comedy icon. In a journey full of happy accidents, Wiseau scheduled initial screenings for midnight, a time usually reserved for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other camp classics that inspire moviegoers to squeeze into fishnet stockings and shout at the screen. Soon, those midnight showings became virtually required. If you were confused about The Room being a comedy before, it was no longer in doubt.
As The Room became a irony-fueled phenomenon, Wiseau took part in the fun, showing up for audience Q&As, signing autographs, and selling official Tommy Wiseau merch. (He designed the boxer shorts himself - buy two now and get one free!) The screenings developed their own complementary comedy, with audiences tossing footballs and chucking plastic cutlery at the film’s myriad pictures of spoons. If you ever get the chance to go, friendly Roomsters have provided how-to instructions for in-person screenings. Don’t forget your red dress!
So Tommy Wiseau was a hit -- but not in any way that he intended. So what does a dude in his position do next?
Tommy the Comedian
The answer, of course, was to become a funny guy--on purpose this time. As the film grew beyond a cult following, the unbearable cringe of Wiseau developed new fans like Tim and Eric, who signed up Tommy for an Adult Swim appearance.
That appearance went so well that the duo agreed to collaborate with Wiseau on an actual, intentional comedy. Tommy was their favorite customer--but not for long.
“We tried to produce his sitcom, The Neighbors," Heidecker told GQ. “And we couldn't get it to work. We couldn't get it to happen.”
The problem, according to Tim and Eric, was that Wiseau wanted help, and a lot of it. But the Awesome Show, Great Job guys knew that comedy help was exactly what Wiseau didn’t need. “We wanted him to do what he does in a vacuum without any assistance from professionals,” explained Tim. “We wanted him to make the show without being influenced by anybody that's ever made a show before.”
Translation: What made The Room funny was a guy with no writing, directing, or acting experience trying to write, direct and act. Tim and Eric stepping in would make it funny in a Tim and Eric way. But they wanted something funny in a Tommy Wiseau way. And, Eric says, “he refused to budge.”
That’s not the way Wiseau saw it. He told Gawker that the situation was actually reversed -- the comics were too involved and demanded a "Tim & Eric Present…" credit in the title. Jealousy also played a role, according to Wiseau. Tim and Eric were supposedly furious that Tommy commanded a bigger crowd in London.
Believe who you want, but Wiseau did make The Neighbors on his own, an attempt at a sitcom that Gawker described as “The Office meets Three’s Company meets a meat cleaver meets a lobotomy.” We know, it sounds amazing. But the actual plot is a little less straightforward--it’s fair to say it’s about people who live in an apartment complex and hard to pin down further than that. It actually aired a few episodes on Hulu in 2015.
Wiseau plays two roles in The Neighbors -- series hero and apartment manager Charlie, as well as Ricky Rick, a creepy blonde in a high school letterman’s jacket. In keeping with Wiseau’s legend, the man with the ambiguous birth date seems to keep aging in reverse. Both of his characters are surrounded by overacting tenants, including several women in bikinis.
You’ve probably never heard of The Neighbors and there are a couple of reasons why. One is a disastrous publicity tour that included interviews like the one where he called a writer from AV Club a prick. The bigger reason, of course, is the one that Tim and Eric feared -- when Tommy Wiseau tries to be funny, he’s not funny at all. What was “so bad it’s good” is now just … really bad.
The accidental comedian hasn’t given up, however. He continues to work with his Room co-star Greg Sestero on projects like the Sestero-scripted Best F(r)riends, a two-part “comedy thriller” that came and went with little fanfare. It’s got an audience rating of 64% on Rotten Tomatoes so … maybe it’s OK?
We’re holding out more hope for Wiseau’s next directing effort, his first for the big screen since The Room. It’s a horror-thriller blockbuster called Big Shark, once again written by Sestero. Frankly, this one had us at Tommy’s “Water. Look at that.”
Coming soon? Hard to say -- the trailer dropped in 2019 and Tommy hasn't tweeted about it since 2020. Maybe the pandemic slowed it down? But based on the trailer, it seems that Big Shark has a chance to be Wiseau’s next great comedy. The reason? He isn’t setting out to make one.
For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:
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Top image: TPW Films/Wiseau Films