Interview: Comedian Michael Showalter


Michael Showalter’s playing a Barack Rock Fundraiser. But it’s not an endorsement. “My sister was a speechwriter in the Clinton White House,” he says. “So why don’t you pick up that ball and run with it.”

Michael Showalter arrived on the comedy scene with the mid-’90s hit MTV comedy sketch show The State, in which he played the hilariously pissy teenager Doug. Besides hosting The Michael Showalter Showalter on, teaching screenwriting at NYU’s Graduate School of Film, and working on dozens of other projects, he’s been on the road with Michael Ian Black, also formerly of The State, in support of his new comedy album Sandwiches & Cats. The two will perform Saturday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and at the Barack Rock fundraiser on February 4 at the Bowery Ballroom with their sketch-comedy troupe Stella.

Recently he talked to the Voice about his choice for president, the Writers’ Guild strike, and what he has in common with Albert Einstein.

VV: You wrote about your tour with Michael Ian Black on your blog. It sounds like it’s been rough–you lost your luggage, your wallet, your paycheck from a show.
MS: Yes, I constantly lose things. It’s the story of my life, so it was nothing new really. And the shows were very good and I enjoyed myself, but I’m incapable of not losing things so that part of it was bad.

VV: Why are you always losing stuff?
MS: I’m absentminded. It’s a common affliction for people who are as brilliant as I am. You know, Albert Einstein was famously absent-minded. Doogie Howser, who was a young genius fictional character, but he was known to be quite absent-minded.

VV: Don’t people say Einstein had Asperger’s?
MS: Oh yeah I think I might have that. My dad says he has it. So I think I might have it.

VV: On Saturday night, will you and Michael Ian Black be performing together?
MS: No, I do a set and he does a set, but we do sometimes wind up on stage together at certain points, just goofing around. But largely we’re doing separate standup.

VV: Which do you like better: sketch comedy or standup?
MS: Right now I’m enjoying standup because a lot of it’s unscripted. With sketch it’s really 100 percent scripted. There’s improvisation and the process of getting to a final draft, but the kind of sketch comedy I do is heavily scripted. For some people, standup is scripted too, but not for me. I’ve been improvising more and more as I go forward. I go on stage, and I’ll have a couple of things I want to talk about and then just kind of let it go–just kind of open up my mind and start to excavate the ruby- and diamond-encrusted treasures hidden inside.

VV: On your comedy album Sandwiches & Cats, you read a poem called “The Apartment” that you wrote for your high school literary magazine. (A line from the poem goes: “There is a man next door who reads the comics/His idea of a hero is a hand job and a beer.”) Do you still feel embarrassed when you read it on stage?
MS: No, I don’t. Because it’s so absurd and so over-the-top that it’s almost impossible to be embarrassed by. It’s just so over the top. And I was 17 years old. I think the embarrassment goes away at the point you admit how stupid it is. But it’s really cringe-y. And I’m not even reading the whole poem. There’s two or three more pages of it that I don’t read that are worse. I’m only reading excerpts.

VV: Do you feel you’re betraying your teenage self in any way by turning it into a comedy act?
MS: No, if anything, I’m giving my teenage self its comeuppance.

VV: Also on the album, a woman brings two cats to your show and you kick her out. And afterwards, you say, “I hate being a comedian. No one takes us seriously.” Is that something that actually bothers you a little?
MS: Well, I don’t think people take comedians seriously. But that’s part of being a comedian. And there are elements of being a comedian that I don’t like. I think that a comedian–and maybe I’m wrong–is somewhat stigmatized. But there are obviously some really great comedians and comedians occupy an important place in society, and ultimately that’s all I want to do is to contribute to society. But I think a lot of times people don’t think that being a comedian is, like, a real job.

VV: If there were anything else you could be, what would you want to be?
MS: I’m actually a teacher. I teach at NYU. So I’m doing the other thing that I would be. But if there was something I could do that I’m not skilled at on any level, I think it would be fun to be one of the campaign managers in an election like George Stephanopoulos.

VV: Why?
MS: Because it seems kind of exciting and topical and, I don’t know, it seems like an exciting job. [He breaks into character] So and so said this. Right away we need to respond! Or you get calls at four o’ clock in the morning. And they’re like, This is what happened. We need to respond! And then you’re responding–and before you know it, you’re just responding.

VV: Your sketch troupe Stella is going to be hosting the Barack Rock fundraiser. What do you like about Obama?
MS: I’m still an undecided voter. Stella has agreed to host this benefit, but this is not a personal endorsement. I’m still weighing.

VV: Is there someone you’re leaning toward?
MS: It’s probably unpopular for your publication to say this. But, right now, I’m really liking what Mike Huckabee has to say.

VV: No, you’re not.

MS: No. Look, look, do you want me to be totally honest? I think I would be best described as a conservative Democrat, so run with that ball in terms of where my vote goes.

VV: And your mom, Elaine Showalter, is a leading feminist literary critic.
MS: And my sister was a speechwriter in the Clinton White House. So why don’t you pick up that ball and run with it. But in all honesty, and this really is true, I’m an undecided voter. Until I cast my ballot, I’m not going to decide who I want to vote for. But I think I know who I’m going to vote for. But I’m not going to tell you who it is.

. . .

VV: Do you go out and see comedy a lot in the city?
MS: No. I’m not that into it. I don’t know. I like to go see more serious things like documentaries and horror movies.

VV: The Writers Guild of America strike is still going. Has this affected you?
MS: Yeah, there are quite a few projects I have that had to be put on hold. But luckily I’ve been touring. And in terms of employment I’m fine. But I was doing several projects at Comedy Central that had to be put on hold.

VV: You’re working on a movie version of The State. How is that coming along?
MS: Well, that was one of the projects that was affected by the strike. In spirit we’re very excited about it, but in actuality we’re not working on it because we’re on strike.

VV: What will it be about?
MS: The history of the United States of America.

VV: Will you bring back your character Doug?
MS: Maybe. Probably.

VV: Back to the album, you have some jokes on there about Restless Leg Syndrome. Do you ever feel that you’re offending an audience member?
MS: Sometimes.

VV: Is that awkward?
MS: I feel bad. Like the other day I was doing a show and there were people taking pictures. And I was joking and said, Please don’t take a picture. I have epilepsy and the flash photography will give me a grand mal seizure. And I heard a couple of groans. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if someone in the audience has epilepsy. And didn’t think that was funny.’ And I felt bad. But I think grand mal seizure is a funny word.

As for people who have Restless Leg Syndrome, I hope that they can laugh at themselves. I don’t doubt that it’s real for them. But I hope that they can laugh at themselves. Furthermore, the medication for Restless Leg Syndrome apparently also increases your desire to gamble and have sex. I actually think I might have Restless Leg Syndrome.

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