Michael Showalter on Making the Publishing World More Comical, One Chapter at a Time
Writer/director/comedian Michael Showalter, who charmed audiences with wildly successful sketch comedy shows The State and Stella and the cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer, has thrown his hat into another ring—authoring a comedic memoir. He sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about the process of transferring his unique brand of humor into a book about writing a book.
The co-writer of Wet Hot American Summer and creative force behind wildly successful sketch comedy shows The State and Stella is dipping his three-striped sneakers into a new medium: author.
Michael Showalter’s first book, Mr. Funny Pants, utilizes lists, sketches, stories and illustrations to form a resulting narrative reminiscent of works by Steve Martin, George Carlin and Woody Allen. Hilarious and, at times, poignant, the comedic memoir offers a glimpse into the past events, creative process and unique comedic mind that has made Showalter a beloved voice among fans of his stand-up comedy, acting, writing and directing.
We sat down with Showalter to discuss his premiere foray into authoring a book, his comic idols and his various thoughts on “spotty prose.”
You’ve forged a successful career as a writer and actor for sketch comedy shows The State and Stella, along with co-writing the feature film Wet Hot American Summer—what prompted you to change mediums and write a book?
It’s just another project—I think everyone wants to write a book. All comedians want to write a book. I think it’s another way of doing comedy. It’s another challenge.
How did you land on the title, Mr. Funny Pants, and not the alternatives you outlined in the book? I personally love, Everybody Poops Genius Pieces.
(Laughs) That would’ve been a good name for the book. The reason I didn’t want to call it, Everybody Poops Genius Pieces is because I didn’t want people to buy it and think, “Oh—this is going to be a parody of other books.” I had suggested other titles and they weren’t approving any of them, so completely out of frustration I said, like, as a joke, “OK—why don’t we call it ‘Mr. Funny Pants’?” And they were like, “Great—we love that.” So now that’s the name of my book!
Mr. Funny Pants consists of vignettes as opposed to one long flowing narrative—did you write the book in order or did you and your editor rearrange the chapters after completion?
I definitely did not write it in order. We figured out what the chapters were and what the order was way after the fact. The rearranging process was not that bad actually.
After looking over the book and rearranging it, did you find some deeper meaning for certain moments in your life—especially some of the struggles you detail like talking to Hollywood executives or dealing with adolescence or your parents—did you come to any new conclusions?
I think all of those types of things definitely help you kind of move on from them, it’s kind of is an opportunity to just say, “OK—been there, done that.” It’s cathartic.
In your Book Proposal, Part 2 chapter, you mention that you briefly considered hiring your funnier and more disciplined friends to write the book for you. Which friends did you have in mind?
I think when I wrote that I was thinking of my friends Jessi Klein and Michael Ian Black but, really, basically all of my friends.
You cite Jonathan Lethem in a list of fellow Brooklyn-based authors—have you read his recent comments on the borough? He actually moved to Southern California not long ago, and said of Brooklyn, among other things, “It’s not the best place to write. The mental traffic level is very high… Brooklyn is repulsive with novelists, it’s cancerous with novelists…that can sometimes be too much when you need to also be inside yourself, exploring your own meandering feelings.” What are your thoughts on Lethem’s stance?
Wow! Well, I don’t consider myself a novelist, but—ironically—it was his idea that the book be about writing a book. We are acquainted, and I ran into him and I was talking to him and he suggested that—I told him I’d never written a book before and he was very helpful. But I totally get it—I mean, I think if I were him I might feel the same way, because—I wouldn’t say that about comedians, I wouldn’t be like, “Brooklyn is overflowing with sketch comedians—it’s disgusting!” That’s not what Brooklyn’s known for. But I think that—if I was a musician living in Williamsburg and I’d been there for a while and then all of a sudden every other musician in the world moved in to Williamsburg, I might get out of Williamsburg. I think he probably doesn’t like being associated with the scene and doesn’t like feeling that he’s not anonymous. He wants his anonymity back. I think it’s great that he said that! I think he’s just stirring the soup.
Mr. Funny Pants is very much a decomposition of the writing process. There are many chapters that could serve as a script for your sketch comedy shows Stella or The State, such as the Television Commercial Proposal for an Online University, Bad Advice to Guys for When They Take a Lady Out on a Date, and A Neverending Sketch. The list goes on. How and why did you find yourself defaulting to this type of writing while working on your book?
I mean, ultimately there had to be stuff in the book (laughs). A lot of it is just everything but the kitchen sink. Conceptually, Steve Martin or early Woody Allen—those are my comic idols and their first books were sort of like that—just sort of odds and ends, just something where you could flip to any page and read. In terms of the scripts, the Neverending Sketch was one that I wrote specifically for the book and I don’t know why I thought it was worthy of a book, I just sort of thought it was funny. And then the Online University was something that I had written before but thought it would be good for the book because it just seemed to sort of fit in with some of the other stuff I was doing.
There are some very useful chapters regarding how to sell a Hollywood screenplay. Does this knowledge stem from your experience shopping Wet Hot American Summer to execs?
Well, one stemmed from my experience of having already made Wet Hot American Summer and then going to Hollywood afterwards to try to make another movie. So it was like an experience there of them saying, “We love Wet Hot American Summer” and us telling them, “Well, that’s great—we have another idea—it’s just as crazy.” And then them going, “Well, we’d rather you write American Pie. We love Wet Hot American Summer but can you do American Pie?” For some people—not for everybody—but for me it did feel frustrating.
You devote a chapter to reviews of your book that you haven’t written yet. Now that it’s been published, can you give me a review of your book that you’ve finally written?
(Laughs) I’ll go with “Spotty prose.” I’ll stick with what I’ve got in the book—now that it’s done, I’ll say, “Spotty prose.”
Aside from your outlined forays into forthcoming books about toads and frogs, do you think there’s a dating primer, cookbook or Scrabble how-to guide in your future? You certainly dole out some very interesting advice on those subjects in Mr. Funny Pants.
Oh maybe! I actually am writing another book. It’s sort of another creative (or uncreative) nonfiction. And so I am already working on another book of a sort of similar format. I’m doing it with the same people, but it’ll probably be a few years before it comes out.
Is your fear of being stuck in IKEA based, in any part, on the Red Hook, Brooklyn location?
Yes! I literally feel like I’m in an existential movie running around trying to find the exit.
It really is like being stuck in one of those lazy river tube adventures in a water park, going around in circles.
Yes, totally. But with meatballs.