Comedians Eugene Mirman, Michael Showalter, and Leo Allen are being hauled around the U.S. at the moment, doing shows in various cities and bringing their absurdist comedy to every town they hit. Eugene has had his plate full lately by just completing "The Comedians of Comedy Tour" with fellow comics Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Brian Posehn, finishing up his latest CD "En Garde, Society!," staging protests against himself, and now performing in the aforementioned tour. Eugene was born in Russia, but came to America when he was four and a half, providing plenty of fodder for jokes. He began making short films while working at a web-based company, and soon decided to leave the glory of the internet to act upon his dreams of stand-up. He now hosts a show called "Invite Them Up" at Rafifi's in New York City, and his often absurdist views and use of PowerPoint and short films has made him a favorite among many.
Michael Showalter is no stranger to a full plate. Showalter formed a comedy troupe in college which came to be known as "The State." The State began to star on an improvised sketch show called "You Wrote It, You Watch It", and was soon asked by MTV to write and star in a show named after their troupe. After the show's end, Showalter and two State alumni, David Wain and Michael Ian Black, formed the troupe "Stella." Stella began performing and showing their short films in New York City, and soon became a hit all around town. Stella then wrote and stared in the cult-hit film Wet Hot American Summer in 2001, and by 2005 they had landed a show, "Stella", on Comedy Central. Most recently, Showalter has directed, wrote, and stared in his latest film, The Baxter. All this and Showalter is still looking for different areas to explore, including perhaps producing an upcoming sketch show.
Leo Allen is best known for being one half of the comedy duo "Slovin and Allen," performing alongside comedian Eric Slovin. The two met while doing their separate comedy acts and decided to combine forces to create an act that seems to cross vaudeville with the humor of a Looney Tunes episode. Leo still enjoys performing by himself and is also currently writing for "Saturday Night Live."
These comedians are some of the top in the field of a new genre known as "alternative comedy." This genre does it's best to describe the Power Point presentations, short films, letters, and even phone conversations employed by these comics to cause hearty laughs from an attentive crowd. Their style is outside of mainstream and therefore they must look to non-mainstream venues to perform. This leaves rock clubs, filled with college students, as a new sanctuary for comedy. From the rise of the ashes of the death of stand-up in the 80s, it truly is a Comedy Renaissance, and it truly is one hell of a rebirth.
I was lucky enough to be able to meet with Showalter and Mirman when they came to perform at the Philly rock club, The Trocadero. In this two part interview, I talk to the comics about this idea of "alternative" comedy, how they fell in love with laughter, and go on to discuss writing, the audience, and, oddly enough, math. And now, the Showalter conversation:
Andrew Porter What's one of the first jokes that you remember telling? Not necessarily in front of an audience, but just in general life?
Michael Showalter The one I told tonight.
AP The one about ZZ Top? (Note: The joke was about ZZ Top's song " Legs " where, when Showalter was in high school, he changed the lyrics from "She's got legs, she knows how to use them" to "She's got legs, she knows how to walk.")
AP And was that to your friends that you told that too?
AP Did they really like it a lot or what?
MS We all thought it was pretty funny.
AP When do you think you really fell in love with comedy?
MS There were a couple of big moments for me. One was for me when I saw Animal House and I saw John Belushi. The other was when I was in middle school, I went to visit my sister in college and I saw their improv group. I knew then that I wanted to do comedy when I got in to college. Probably the two bigger moments for me.
AP What did you want to be growing up?
MS I really didn't know. I knew I wanted to do something involving film" .TV. I didn't know if I wanted to be a writer or an actor or what. I really didn't know.
AP And do you enjoy being an adult now?
MS An adult?
MS I do actually. I actually enjoy being in my thirties a lot more than I enjoyed being in my twenties.
AP What were some of the goals for yourself when you first started out doing comedy?
MS To make a movie. I've accomplished a lot of my goals, and that's not to say that I think that I'm "huge" or anything, but I wanted to make my mark and I wanted to make" .. I mean, my major goals have been accomplished. To do "Stella", "The State", Wet Hot American Summer, and The Baxter. That's sort of the quadruple threat, and I'm kind of now trying to figure out what my new goals are, so I'm trying a lot of different stuff. I'm teaching. I'm writing new stuff. I'm touring. I'm just trying out all kinds of different stuff to see what it is that I want to do next.
AP You're teaching at "The People's Improv Theater", right?
AP What exactly does your class touch on?
MS I'm teaching a comedy screenwriting class.
AP What do you think is one of the toughest parts about screenwriting?
MS Screenwriting is a really, really, really hard thing to do. It's a lot of fun, but it's a very creative and long process. To me, you know, they say that screenwriting is a marathon. To write a movie takes years. To write a good movie it can take years.
AP And how do you think that your sense of humor has evolved from when you started doing comedy until now?
MS I think I've gotten a lot better at trusting my own instincts and just trying to be true to myself. Not to try to do what I think the audience wants as much as what I find funny, and to try to trust that the audience will come with me on that journey.
AP So, you find it much more crucial that you can laugh at your jokes" ?
MS Yeah. I have to think it's funny. I have to find it funny.
AP No matter what the audience thinks?
MS No matter what the audience thinks. And I hope the audience thinks it's funny. If the audience doesn't think it's funny, I probably won't do the joke for very long. But, I'm always definitely trying to make myself laugh first.
AP Did you bomb a lot when you first started out?
MS Not really "bomb," because I'm confident. But, I've told billions of jokes that no one thought were funny. I'm constantly having that experience.
AP It seems like a lot of people take for granted what comedians do and they find that it must be pretty simple for comedians to make people laugh, and, in actuality, it's an incredibly difficult job at times. Did you come into the job thinking that it might be pretty easy or did you know what you were getting yourself into?
MS I knew that I wanted to work hard at it. I didn't know" . No. I didn't think that it would be easy. I knew it was always something I wanted to work hard at. I've always known comedy wasn't easy. I've always known that. Without having tried it myself, I've always known that the great comedians are working hard at it Monty Python and Steve Martin. And, I never looked at their work as a kid and went "that's easy. I could do that."
AP You've also listed that you like Woody Allen too.
AP How often do you look back at these people in your mind when writing comedy?
MS All the time.
AP Do you think "what would they do" or do you just think" " ?
MS I don't think "what would they do," but I'm constantly going over their work, looking for inspiration. Yeah! I do think "what would they do." I definitely do" yeah. "What would they do" and "what wouldn't they do" too.
AP What do you think about the term "alternative comedy"? Do you think it actually means much?
MS To me it does. Yeah. It's definitely not mainstream comedy.
AP Do you think it sums up what you do pretty well?
MS Umm. No. Not really. But, I don't have an issue with it either. If people want to use that word, I'm fine with it.
AP It seems like a lot more comedians are using these rock venues to do comedy. Do you think it's just because comedy clubs are getting stale or that they have a bad image or what?
MS I think that for me comedy and music are very similar and it's the same kind of thing. I don't want to go to a comedy club to hear comedy. I want to hear it in a rock club. I want to hear it in a music venue. It's more of that kind of an experience for me. It shouldn't be polite. It should be a rock and roll kind of vibe.
AP Do you think that rock clubs at some point may take up doing an open mike?
MS I hope not. Maybe! I dunno'. You know what? I have no clue. Yeah. Maybe. That could be cool.
AP Where do you think are some of the best places for people starting out doing comedy?
MS Anywhere. Anywhere. It's not really about the place. I mean, in terms of cities, New York, Chicago, LA. All the big cities. But, as far as where to do it? Anywhere. If you've got something funny to do, just do it.
AP You told Gothamist, I think it was, back in 2005 that you had another idea that you were working on. Something that you were really passionate about and were trying to write, but it was going to take you some time to write. Are you still working on that?
MS Actually, right now I'm not working on it. I'm just kinda' doing other stuff right now. I may also be doing a TV show that I'm going to produce, so I'm not actually going to be on it. That's also something I'm kind of into, but I don't want to say too much about it. It's sketch comedy related, which is sort of a return for me. I do have this thing and I am working on it, but I'm not putting pressure on myself to do another movie just yet.
AP If there is something that you could change in the world of stand up, what would you do? Is there anything?
AP -Who are your favorite comics right now that aren't too well known?
MS There is varietyshac.com. That's four girls that call themselves "The Shac." They do "Shac Shorts." They're Andrea Rosen, Chelsea Peretti, Heather Lawless, Shonali Bhowmik. Eugene's really great. Um, Jackie Kline I think is really funny. Kristin Shawl. There's these guys I saw in San Francisco called "Boomtime." They're a sketch group which was really funny.
AP I know you got the sketch show "The State" just out of college. What did it feel like to be able to have that show while all your peers are looking for jobs and you're getting money doing what you wanted to do?
MS I sort of took it for granted. To me I was just like "well, yeah. Of course that's what I'm doing." I didn't know that it was special. Now I know. I have much respect. But at the time it was just like "this is what we were doing." A lot of my friends were having some success at a young age too, so we weren't the only ones.
AP So it wasn't nerve wrecking at all to take on that responsibility?
MS Actually no, because we were young and naïve, and we didn't give a shit.
AP What all do you think you learned from that experience?
MS I learned a lot about comedy from the other guys that I worked with. I learned a lot about discipline, hard work and just doing it [comedy] that way.
AP One final question. Tangent is to co-secant as hyperbolic sine is too" " " ?