A comedian cursed

Pub date January 21, 2014
WriterEmma Silvers

For those of us who’ve been following Michael Showalter since he was but a flop-haired 20-something on MTV’s The State — where he gave us, among other absurdist treasures, Doug, a rebellious teenager whose cool dad gave him frustratingly little to rebel against — there is no Showalter project too silly, too cranky, too obscure to love. Whether it was Stella, Michael and Michael Have Issues, or, say, the training montage from Wet Hot American Summer that burrowed its way weirdly into your heart, there’s something about the comedian that’s eminently, endearingly watchable.

Ahead of his appearances Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at SF Sketchfest, we caught up with Showalter as he took a break in the writers’ room of the Rebel Wilson TV show Super Fun Night (he’s a producer) to talk cats, comedy, and what makes him feel like a loser.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: You have several projects going on right now, but the first thing I need to ask about is a male-centric cat ownership guidebook you published last October: Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too. How many cats do you have?

Michael Showalter: Right now I’m living in LA, and we have four indoor cats here. And then at our place in Brooklyn, there’s a small posse of cats that live in my backyard, that are now being taken care of by the people subletting our place. At any given moment there are between three and six cats back there…so using the law of averages, I’ll say I have seven.

SFBG: Why did the world need a book about how to be a male cat lady?

MS: Basically, I really took to heart the saying “Write what you know.” I looked around me and said “What do you know?” As I was saying that I probably had two cats on my lap. My next book is going to be about drinking coffee.

SFBG: Since it’s premiering at Sundance this week, what can you tell us about They Came Together (in theaters Jan. 24) , the Paul Rudd-Amy Poehler rom-com you made with your usual partner-in-crime David Wain? Do you think it will appease the hordes of Wet Hot American Summer fans who are hungry for a sequel — or prequel, as has been discussed?

MS: I’d say it’s a parody/homage to the romantic comedies of the ’80s and ’90s that myself and David Wain sort of grew up on and loved. It’s a combination send-up/love letter, based in New York. Obviously it’s got a great cast…and yeah, it’s very similar in a lot of ways [to Wet Hot]. It has a lot of the same sensibility to it, the reference points, the sense of humor.

SFBG: Because I have to ask anyway: Is there still a Wet Hot prequel in the works?

MS: Yeah. We’re figuring it out. But I’ve been instructed by David Wain not to talk about it, because we want it to be shrouded in mystery. Like the new Star Wars movie.

SFBG: Fair. Shall we talk about your podcast with Michael Ian Black? How is that kind of writing different from screenwriting or, say, cat books?

MS: Topics! Topics is actually all improvised. Basically the two of us are in character as two guys who take themselves very seriously and think very highly of their own opinions. The main thing with Topics is we try not to tell jokes — we’re just being these characters who are really, really serious about what they’re talking about, but they don’t actually know anything. We just start out with a topic and we improvise for half an hour. [Ed. note — December brought us such topics as “Regret,” “The Middle East,” and “Paranormal Activity.” It’s excellent.]

SFBG: There are some of us for whom The State is still the gold standard in sketch comedy. Do you think it would work on TV right now? There hasn’t really been anything like it since.

MS: You know, I think we were very much a product of our generation. It was Kids in the Hall and The State and the Upright Citizens Brigade…and I think at that time, sketch comedy was still a kind of theatrical thing; it hadn’t yet become so video-based. I don’t know if sketch in that traditional sense is still as viable. But I’m sure another great sketch show will come along, figure out the next thing.

SFBG: As for Sketchfest — of the events you’re scheduled to perform in, I’m most excited about the Uptown Showdown debate on breakfast vs. dinner. Can you say what side you’re on?

MS: (Sighs deeply.) OK, which do you think will win, should win?  

SFBG: I would say breakfast, hands down.  

MS: Yeah. So I am on dinner. I did not choose to be on dinner; dinner was given to me. Here’s the thing: This will be my fourth time competing in Uptown Showdown. The first time was cats vs. dogs. I was on cats, and we lost to dogs. The second time was Christmas vs. Hanukkah. I was on Christmas, and we lost to Hanukkah. The third time, last year, we did the ’80s vs. the ’90s, and I was on the ’80s, and we lost to the ’90s. So this year — dinner vs. breakfast — I already know I’m going to lose, and I’m livid about it. I’m not even joking. I could read you my emails back and forth with [the organizers] where they’re asking me to do this and I’m saying I don’t like it — here, I’ll pull it up. I wrote, “I’m sick and tired of losing at this.” I’m not being facetious. It’s making me feel bad about myself. Like a loser. It really pisses me off.

SFBG: How did this happen, exactly? Who gets to choose? 

MS: Here, let me find this email: “David Wain prefers that his team defend breakfast as the superior meal.” Sure. What’s the point? I know we’ll lose. I have the Uptown Showdown curse.  

SFBG: You sound pretty defeatist about this. Are you even going to prepare?  

MS: Oh, yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. When it’s game time, I’ll come to do battle.  

Uptown Showdown: Breakfast vs. Dinner  
Sat/1, 10pm, $30
Marines Memorial Theatre  
609 Sutter, SF