Fans of Michael Showalter will recognize him from his work on the much heralded sketch comedy show from the 90s, The State, and most recently with his comedy trio, STELLA, which had a ten episode run on Comedy Central in 2005. Alongside his film work in The Baxter and Wet Hot American Summer, Showalter’s credits are impressive and quite robust. On November 13th, 2007 Showalter will also add stand-up comedian to his resume, as JDUB Records will release his first ever comedy album, Sandwiches & Cats. I was fortunate enough to get Mike to sit down for a Q & A about stand up comedy, his upcoming album/fall tour, and the greatest tragedy ever to take place on American soil. The following interview took place over the phone on September 11th, 2007.
Where were you on 9/11?
Michael Showalter: I was in Brooklyn.
Are you doing anything special today, like a sad barbeque or something?
No, no I'm not. Does that make me a bad person?
I dunno. I just think for anyone that was actually in New York City for 9/11, let alone the residents like yourself, it just seems like it would have a much deeper impact to have actually experienced it from within. Is that how you feel or this just another day for you?
Gee, um? I mean, it's not just another day. But, I'm not big on, like- I don't make a big day out of it. But that's not because I'm callous, I just, ya know? That's just not really my nature. I'm not like a birthday party guy either.
You seem like a fairly upbeat guy from what I've seen in the public eye. Do you remember what you did on 9/11 after the planes hit?
Yeah, I was in Brooklyn, and went out to the Promenade, which was about as close as we could get to what was going on. And just like everybody else just kind of watched TV for two weeks. Y'know, went down to ground zero as much as I could, and kind of cheered people on and stuff, but I couldn't get- I wasn't able to help out or anything. I remember the whole period very well.
Were you working on STELLA at the time?
Uh no, we were; that was right after Wet Hot American Summer. So Wet Hot… actually came out like, on September 3. Wet Hot American Summer was in the theatres. It was being released at the same time.
So in a way the terrorists also attacked the release of your film?
Yeah, although that thought never once crossed my mind. But yeah, you could say that.
Yeah when they told me to call you on 9/11, I was like, “Isn't everyone in the city going to be doing something?”
I don't think so. Are you from New York?
I'm actually from Baja California. I'm calling you from Calexico right now.
Oh. Okay yeah, I actually think most New Yorkers don't really; I think maybe for New Yorkers it is more just another day. Because everyday is a reminder if you're in New York. So it isn't like you don't think about it for a whole year, and then on September 11th you think about it. When you're in New York you're aware of it all the time. Also my neighborhood in Brooklyn, is like where the biggest population of Middle Eastern people live. I live in the section of Brooklyn that has the largest population of Muslims and Islamic temples. This is where the Yemeni and Syrian population is most prevalent, in my neighborhood.
And you were living there back in 2001?
Wow, what was that like? Being neighbors with all of these Muslims in Brooklyn, that probably had nothing at all to do with the 9/11 attacks?
Well you never know. You never know. But it was very intense. There was a lot of CIA surveillance, or FBI guys all over the place. The Muslim population in New York city was and still is heavily monitored by the FBI. So you would regularly see men in black running around.
After 9/11 did you feel like moving to Los Angeles or somewhere else?
No. No, in fact I'm someone that goes towards the smoke. So I actually felt like more than ever I wasn't going to want to leave New York.
When's the last time you got into a fist fight?
I play poker and tempers tend to flare. But not ever really a fist fight.
How long have you been involved in live comedy?
Since 1988, so almost twenty years.
How old are you this year?
When you go out and perform stand up, do you ever get many hecklers?
I have had that when I'm hosting a music festival or something, when they're not there to see me. Like I've done a couple of college shows where I'm emcing a couple of bands or something like that. And there's always a couple of drunk people in the audience that just want to hear music, and that's fine. But when I've done shows and it's just me, I have yet to have a true heckling experience, where like the audience is against me.
Something on your album that was really cool but weird was the way you went off on the lady who brought her cats to the show. Can you shed a little more light on that?
Did you listen to the record?
Did you enjoy it?
Yeah of course. I've been a fan since The State and STELLA, so yeah I liked it.
You did enjoy it?
But not really?
Well, I'm kinda wondering what the enhanced content is? I just got the advance screener.
What was on the advance? The record right?
Yeah, intro through track seventeen, And then it says, “The Final CD will include the enhanced content.”
But did you enjoy one through seventeen?
You can tell me if you didn't.
I did, and what I was curious about was why you went off so bad on the lady with the cat? Was it that distracting or-
She brought a cat to my show.
So you didn't know and you'd never seen her at any of your stand up shows around New York before that?
No not all. There is nothing fake about that. None, no idea who she was.
Did anyone approach you after the show and tell you anything? Like, “Damn Michael, you really went off on that lady with the cat.” Or was everyone loving it?
Everyone was loving it. Including the woman.
Did you talk to her afterwards?
Yeah, they hung around. They brought their cat, and they let me pet their cat.
Did you find out why she brought her cat?
I don't know, I don't know? Stupidity?
And she sat right in the front row?
Right in the front. Feet on the stage.
Yeah there were two.
Oh man, I don't think you got that part across on the album?
I wanted to put that part on my record because it's sort of a window into my neurosis. Because I just kept going and going and going. And it was longer than that.
We cut like six minutes out of it.
Since you were recording you probably had a set plan for what you wanted to do, right?
Oh yeah, I didn't do most of it. I ended up doing ninety percent cat material that show.
Is there like a picture of the cat or a cat credit in the album's artwork?
I'll probably do something like that yeah.
Yeah man, the record is fun. I dig it. I like how it's a live comedy album then it switches up into studio tracks, but then all of a sudden, you started going off on this lady with a cat in the front row? It was weird to listen to that. I couldn't tell if it was a skit or if this was just some crazy lady with a cat at a comedy show?
I wanted the comedy record to have a bunch of twists and turns, so that it wasn't just a live recording of just me doing stand up. So that it has spontaneous moments in it, it has studio stuff, it has just me doing material. I wanted there to be a variety of stuff on it.
I liked that you tracked the CD individually so someone can slap a track off this CD onto a mixtape should they have the desire to.
Yeah the songs are kind of catchy.
Do you know what the “enhanced content” on the album will be?
I think it's like maybe some visual stuff?
Like a video?
Have you filmed any videos yet for this release?
No, but I want to. I intend to.
I think the adventure journalism one would be a perfect fit.
Yeah, I like that one a lot. It's a very popular form of non fiction. People go on adventures and then write books about it.
So how long has this stand up comedy album been brewing around in your head?
Basically like a year. I really only started doing stand up in earnest a year ago. A year and a half ago.
How come it never occurred to you to try stand up sooner? Did you just not have the desire to?
I just hadn't gotten there yet. It just wasn't what I was doing. I was doing STELLA, and when I stopped doing STELLA and started doing stand up is when I started thinking about doing a stand up record. So I was doing STELLA, and whatever I'm doing is what I'm focused on doing. So when we were doing STELLA, that was what I was focused on. And then in the last year and a half, now that I've started doing a lot more stand up and touring and stuff is when I started going, “I would love to get some of this down on a recording.”
What's cool is that when you were performing before you were either part of a large ensemble like The State, or with STELLA you were part of a trio. With stand up though, you're out there onstage by yourself. And with your face and name recognition it just seems like you could've been doing stand up all along in between projects and whatnot?
Well it had, I just didn't have time. I was doing other stuff.
Will STELLA ever come back in another form?
Sure, there's no immediate plans for that, but we haven't like disbanded or anything. And so I'm sure that when we're all not doing anything at the same time, we'll come back and do another tour; make another show or something? I think it's very much in the back of all our minds to do that.
How did you get hooked up with JDUB Records?
Well, I hosted a show for them. And I just like them a lot, and was looking for an indie label to do this record with. We actually kind of at the same time said hey; I sort of said to them, “Would you guys ever be interested in doing a comedy record?” And they were like, “We were just about to ask you that?” So it was a pretty easy kind of thing of just; I like them a lot, they're good guys. And I wanted to make a comedy record.
What exactly does JDUB stand for?
I don't know? I honestly don't know.
JDUB does have some affiliation with the Jewish community though, correct?
Yes it does.
And you'll be their first comedy album?
Yes. I said to them, “You know, I'm not gonna be like, a Jewish comedian.” And they were like we know that. That's fine. Because I'm only half Jewish. I'm not that Jewish. To be perfectly honest, I'm really not that Jewish and they know that. So it's really more that they're just a really good indie record label. They take themselves very seriously, and they work hard and I think they have good taste. The fact that there's a Jewish connection doesn't bother me. And I am kind of Jewish. I think they just wanted to make a comedy record?
Yeah, you're comedy never had a really “Goyum” or “Bubby” vibe about it.
I don't look at them as the Jewish Record label. I know that's kind of what they are. They're just cool young guys, who I think have some sort of Jewish thing going. When we got into this I was like, “Look I'm not going to do like Jew-y material, that's not what this is about.” And they were like, “We know.” So it really hasn't been an issue at all. It hasn't really come up. I think in they're mind, they're just signing someone to make a record for them.
So are you going to take this material out on the road, or are you still mainly gigging around New York?
I'm going to be touring starting in October. I'm going to be touring for like October, November, and December.
Are you going to do clubs, and are you doing any two-drink minimums on this tour?
I'll do clubs. I'm going to be on tour with Michael Black and we'll be doing clubs.
So just two guys? You got a warm up for the tour?
No, just me and Mike. We each do close to an hour. It's fun. We've been doing it a lot and it's a really fun show. We've already kind of done all around the country, so now we're going back around a second time.
Do you have any plans to do a year end show in New York City this December?
Yeah, we're gonna do I think a big show at Irving Plaza in December.
Did you already tape your Comedy Central Half Hour Special?
How did that go?
That was great. It was really great. We did this show called My First Time. And it's basically just a stand up show. It's something that I host and it's a show that I created with Michael Buck. Basically it's comedians talking about the first time they did stand up comedy. It's just sort of awkward stories of people bombing. And it's fun. It's fun to hear people kinda talking about what their fist jokes were, and how they got started and what it was like, and how it went.
So is this going to a show on Comedy Central or was this your Half Hour Special?
It was a Half Hour Special that will hopefully be a show on Comedy Central.
Oh okay! So this wasn't a Comedy Central Presents… thing?
Well, it was but it was sort of- we did the show with Comedy Central presents but the idea is to hopefully do it as a pilot.
That's fucking rad. So since you're talking about the genesis of all these comics careers, let me ask you, what was the first joke you ever told on stage?
Yeah my first joke was, “I feel there's some awkward tension in the room so I thought I'd break the ice by telling a joke.”
With regards to writing jokes for a stand up, how important is it to you to not touch upon topics that have been done before?
Well if I know someone has already told the joke I would never do it. If I'm thinking of a joke, and it's like, “Oh yeah, someone did that joke.” then I wont do that joke.
Even if you feel that your take or your version is much funnier?
Umm? Probably? I mean it depends. It really depends. I'm not aware enough of what other people's jokes are to ever really have that problem. So I wouldn't be surprised to find out that a lot of people tell the same jokes. So in a sense, if I know for a fact that someone else has done the same joke, then I won't do it. If I have not heard of someone else doing the joke and no one tells me that someone else did the joke, I'll do the joke. And then at any point if someone says, “Yes that joke's already been done,” then maybe I'll stop doing the joke. I would never knowingly tell somebody else's joke. Let's put it this way: it is very important to me to be original. It's very important to me to have my work viewed as unique and original. So it's totally against my own personal ethics about comedy.
With regards to your live performance, do you have a desire to break into the traditional comedy clubs with a two drink minimum?
You don't like that world at all?
It's not that I don't like it, it's just; it's just… uhh?
A turn off?
I guess it's not really for me. But I have a lot of respect for guys that do it. But it's not for me. Honestly, I don't personally enjoy going to comedy clubs myself.
It feels sort of like… umm?
A puppy mill?
Yeah. it sort of like a comedy factory or something. It's like a bar but for comedy. Like, “Let's go to the bar that has comedy on tap.” I'm sort of more into comedy as more of an individual thing. So it's like, “Let's go to the place and see comedy.” I dunno? Pre-comedy club, there was just “club.” And on any given night there might be music or comedy or poetry or whatever? I don't see myself as a stand up comedian per se? And so I guess I don't feel that comfortable in a comedy club? But I have nothing against it. Nothing. And I've performed in them enough, that it's gone great, fine. Like it's totally cool, it's just I really like doing these alternative venues and alternative shows. It's just more comfortable.
So what else are you working on right now besides your stand up?
I'm doing a lot of different project right now. Obviously finished those two pilots for Comedy Central, kinda waiting to see what's happening with that. And then just writing, always writing.
What do you have planned for the rest of the day?
I teach a class, a screenwriting class at The People's Improv Theatre Co. And so I have to prepare my class.
Any promising students this semester?
I haven't met them yet, this is going to be my first class.
Oh Christ, wow.
Yeah. This is going to be my first class of this semester, I mean I've done the class before.
How long have you been teaching?
About a year.
Does Michael Showalter have a message for the children?
“Stay in school?” That was just the first thing that came to mind.
07 The Gothic Theatre Englewood CO
09 Neumos Seattle WA
10 Aladdin Theater Portland OR
12 The Fillmore San Francisco CA
13 Ivar Theatre Hollywood CA
14 The Courtyard House of Blues Las Vegas NV
15 House of Blues San Diego CA
24 Roxy Theatre Atlanta GA
26 The Social Orlando FL
29 Somerville Theatre Somerville MA
30 The Fillmore at Theatre of Living Arts Philadelphia