Michael Showalter was born in 1970 and grew up in the Garden State. He attended NYU and Brown Universities for college. While at NYU he became involved in the sketch troupe, The State which began a long writing career with David Wain and Michael Ian Black. Showalter has acted in numerous television shows including The State, Stella, and The Daily Show. He co-wrote and starred in the film Wet Hot American Summer and wrote/directed/starred in The Baxter. Michael teaches screenwriting in New York, continues to perform in stand up and sketch shows, and is acting/co-writing/co-producing the new show Michael and Michael Have Issues for Comedy Central.
HYLTON: Did you always hope to work as an actor?
SHOWALTER: I never really had any desire to be an actor. I saw an improv group when I was in high school, visiting my sister, and thought I’d like to do improvisational comedy when I left college. I didn’t think much past that. So for me it was less about acting, as it was being part of a collaborative comedic experience. And then I went to college and ended up doing sketch, as opposed to improv. And then it, sort of, took its own course. I then discovered that I liked to write and liked all of the different aspects of creating something. I liked writing the script, shooting it, editing it, working with people… the whole thing.
HYLTON: I read you went to NYU and then transferred to Brown. So, the State had already been formed by that point?
SHOWALTER: They were called The New Group then. My freshman year of college was at NYU and then I transferred to Brown. The New Group was never really a college group. We met that way but we really considered ourselves a pre-professional union. I would come into the City in the weekends and they would stick me in a sketch or something like that. And over the course of time, during our four years at NYU, some guys graduated before the others and a couple people took long times away. So there was a lot of discontinuity anyway. So it wasn’t hard to be commuting. And then when I graduated from Brown, we all got together in New York and put together a show that was the best of the stuff we had done over the four years at NYU. Then we found ourselves working at MTV and things sort of took their own course.
HYLTON: So when you were at Brown and still working at The New Group, how were you able to work with them when you were just coming back over the weekends?
SHOWALTER: They would literally just stick me in a sketch. I wasn’t really writing for the Group at that time. But the Group wasn’t really so consistent then. Three of the members graduated earlier than everyone else and Michael Black and Ben Garant took a whole year off. So I really only missed one year, which was my sophmore year. And I was back on the weekends. So I’d write a sketch from where I was and also David Wain went to Brown. He took a semester at Brown. So David and I would write material and send it to the Group.
I was also in an improv group up at Brown and performed in a lot of plays there as well.
HYLTON: Were you a theater major?
SHOWALTER: No, I was a semiotics major. It’s basically the language of symbols. The vocabulary of cinema is semiotic by nature. So, when you see in a film a guy wearing a white cowboy hat, what does that tell you?
HYLTON: That he is a good guy.
SHOWALTER: Yeah, it’s “What do things mean.” Why is something funny?
HYLTON: I’ve seen you do stand up many times and I’ve noticed you use your own drawings in your comedy. Some people say that in every artist there is another artist. I wonder if visual arts would be the other artist you see within yourself or if there is another medium you’d gravitate towards?
SHOWALTER: Maybe drawing. I’ve always doodled and drawn pictures. To me they are not separate. It’s all part of one idea, which is a point of view maybe. So the drawings that I make and characters I write occupy the same world. But I guess to me it’s all part of one thing.
HYLTON: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about The Baxter and how you ended up getting the film produced. As I understand it you were both in the director and the writer chair for that production.
SHOWALTER: It happened before Stella, the TV show, right after Wet Hot American Summer. I spent some time in Los Angeles taking meetings and trying to get things set up. I think I felt like the kind of comedies that were being made or people wanted (and on some level Wet Hot American Summer was one of these,) were sort of sophmoric gross out comedies, which were all the rage. I felt that I wanted to try and write something that was as far away from that as humanly possible. It was going to be something more quite and traditional. So that’s where The Baxter came from. It was, sort of, to clense my mind from all of the doodo jokes of the last couple of years.
HYLTON: And how did you end up getting it produced?
SHOWALTER: I originally tried to sell it in Hollywood. And people liked it a lot. It got a lot of good response and everything. But I think it was deemed too small by the studios. So I came back to New York, having not done anything with it. And it made its way into the hands of the people at IFC, and they loved it. And what was amazing was the contrast from L.A. Here I was in New York, at a good Film Company, and very shortly it was financed and they wanted me to direct it. It was a dream come true.
HYLTON: They got it.
SHOWALTER: They totally got it. And one thing I learned was, I don’t know that sensibility-wise it was in line with the Hollywood sensibility. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the Hollywood sensibility. But I really thought I had written a Hollywood movie. But I hadn’t.
HYLTON: Have you attempted, or is there a desire on your part, to write a Hollywood movie at this point?
SHOWALTER: Not specifically. There’s a desire to write a movie that could be made at a studio and be seen by a lot of people. But I don’t know that I could write a movie with a studio in mind. I could write a movie that they would like, but it would only be by accident.
HYLTON: I understand you do some teaching. I wonder what advice you give your students when they’re done with their course and about to start out on their own paths.
SHOWALTER: I have several mantras. The main piece of advice I would give is “Work hard and be humble, especially when you’re starting out.” There’s no better peice of advice for anyone who has a desire to be in any industry than to work hard. But you must be humble and understand that things don’t happen overnight. And that’s my second piece of advice. You have to know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. These are “Michael Showalter’s golden nuggets of wisdom.” And my third golden nugget of wisdom is “The journey is the reward. It’s not where you’re going, it’s how you got there.” Now, I sound like I’m making a joke but I’m not. I actually can’t give actors advice, because I don’t consider myself an actor. I have great respect for them. I am in awe of them. But I don’t see myself as an actor.
I think frequently people want to get where they’re going so badly that they skip over the important things. Something good has to happen organically. And then when you are done you’ve experienced the entire journey and you will have been present for every moment of it. This is getting into the writing feature screenplay issues largely. Writing a screenplay isn’t easy. But people assume that it is because of Final Draft. Final Draft is the enemy of the screenwriter, because you can write and print out your pages and it looks like you have a screenplay. But it’s not that easy. It shouldn’t be that easy. If it’s that easy then I think you’re doing something wrong.
HYLTON: Do you use any particular guidebook, like Syd Field’s or something along those lines?
SHOWALTER: I am a huge fan of very, very classic structure. I love the formula of something and the trick is to make it so the audience does not notice that structure. You don’t want the audience to notice how much work went into something. It’s like architectural. The writing part is the blueprint and you’re making sure that all of the plumbing works. And when you’re done, no one notices all of those elements. It feels very effortless, but it wasn’t. So I love a really good story, so to that extent I definately absorb Syd Field and Robert McKee and I think what they’re saying is correct. And one thing I tell my students is not to poo poo those screenwriting books because, as silly as they might seem, are very useful.
HYLTON: How do you feel that your teaching experience has informed or changed your writing?
SHOWALTER: Ironically, I think it’s changed my writing in the sense that when I came into it I was really rather dogmatic towards the structure and I think I’ve learned from my students to be less that way. I found value in being more experimental and not being locked into the thought that things have to happen any one certain way. There are millions of ways to write. And if anything I try to encourage them to just find their way, your way, one’s way. How do I write? What’s my process?