Wet, Hot, American

Michael Showalter in conversation

by by Drew Dickerson

illustration by by Allison Grosso

I first learned of Michael Showalter B’92 during the initial run of Stella, a single-camera television show he put out alongside David Wain and Michael Ian Black. Thirteen year-old me was immediately taken with the anachronistic, Marx Brothers shtick—three schlemiels wandering New York, absurdly and sharply dressed—“ids in suits,” as Showalter would later describe the characters. Yet this sort of smart yet profoundly stupid comedy was cancelled after only one season. Other cult-classic credits to Michael Showalter’s name include The State—a sketch show that ran on MTV from 1993 to 1995— and Wet Hot American Summer (2001), which he co-wrote and starred in.  He emails in 14-point Courier font.

The Independent: I understand your education here at Brown was fairly heavily theory-oriented.  Has this informed your work at all?

Michael Showalter: A lot of the things I’ve done dabble in genre parody. I suppose I think that genre parody is semiotic in a sense. By shining a light on a certain convention or trope I’m trying to deconstruct it, maybe even understand it better, albeit in a funny and silly and not very high-minded way (hopefully). I am always very tuned into what things “mean” in the semiotic sense—especially in the realm of pop culture, whether it’s in social trends like the way people act and what they say or how they say it, or on TV and movies—and then by reflecting it back to an audience, sometimes by just repeating it verbatim, you are kind of revealing it for what it is. I think there’s a semiotic perspective hidden in there somewhere. Not sure. Maybe not. What’s semiotics?

Indy: Your book Mr. Funny Pants was released last year. Do you find that you approach prose differently than you might a sketch or screenplay?

MS: Everything is different. Writing a sketch is very different from writing a screenplay. Sketches don’t require as much real storytelling or narrative attention as a screenplay. Sketches are really just about jokes and premises. Writing a book was very challenging. It was really something I had no experience with at all. It’s cliché to say but I didn’t know what “my voice” was as a long-form prose writer. It took a while to find the right tone. For a while I think I was trying to be “deep” because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a book, or so I thought. Turns out I’m not that deep so I wound up just making lots of lists and talking about my cats. It’s always a work in progress. I’m working on a few new book projects now and I already feeling better going in.

Indy: How does this process change in working with a group?  I’ve also always been sort of curious: what was The State’s process?

MS: We wrote a prolific amount of material, individually and in groups. It was a free for all. Every day at 3PM we’d have a “Pitch Meeting.” We’d all meet in a conference room and pitch our sketches to each other. There was no set order for the pitches, you’d just raise your hand and say, “Okay I’ve got one.” Then you’d read it aloud to the group. If the group liked it they’d laugh and cheer and hoot but if they didn’t like it you’d hear crickets and feel really bad about yourself. Then after a few months of just writing and writing we’d compile all of our material and vote on what we wanted to shoot. The sketches with the most votes would be shot. There’s hundreds of sketches we wrote that never got shot. Most of them for good reason too.

Indy: You now teach at NYU Graduate Film School and both of your parents are professors. How would you characterize your relationship to academia?

MS: My relationship with academia? We’re friends with benefits.

Indy: There’s the rumor now and again that a sequel to Wet Hot American Summer is in the works. Is anything happening on that front?

MS: Yes. It’s actually a prequel. We will all be in our forties playing teenagers that are six months younger than the teenagers we played ten years ago when we were in our thirties playing those same teenagers. The script is almost finished. Hopefully we’ll start shooting soon. The biggest obstacle is getting the cast all together at one time considering most of them are big movie stars now.

Indy: What’s in the future?

MS: Flying cars. Faster internet. Robots with feelings.