Film

UCB’s Connor Ratliff: What I’ve Learned From Pretending to Be George Lucas

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Fake George Lucas thinks we’re all being too hard on real George Lucas.

In the spring of 2014, comic Connor Ratliff hosted his first “George Lucas Talk Show,” that freewheeling monthly midnight UCB East variety extravaganza, if “extravaganza” can be applied to something so charmingly low-rent. Ratliff’s costume is some beard frosting, sidekick Jar Jar Binks (Shaun Diston) looks annoyed to have to be there, and tickets are $5, even for the night last fall when Jon Hamm turned up as a guest.

For all the chat-show staples, the highlight is Ratliff’s warmly prickly Lucas, a man of titanic self-regard who never quite comprehends why the world has turned on him. It’s hilarious, but it’s also somewhat revelatory — it’s comedy that functions as something like criticism. On January 8, at UCB East, Ratliff hosts his first post–Force Awakens Lucas show. We asked the fake Lucas what he’s learned playing the real Lucas — and what the real Lucas might make of the new Star Wars and Ratliff’s own show. Ratliff’s guest: SNL‘s Bobby Moynihan.

Ratliff is also the co-creator of UCB’s monthly smash “The Terry Withers Mysteries.” He contributes to The Chris Gethard Show, performs each Friday in UCB’s “The Stepfathers” and sometimes in “ASSSSCAT,” and is currently developing his Web series I’m Too Fragile for This into a film. Also, his YouTube Christmas special is sweet and baffling.

The Voice caught up with Ratliff via email this week. (Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens, don’t read pieces about The Force Awakens.)

What do you think George Lucas felt watching The Force Awakens?

Oh, it’s gotta be weird for him. Everybody’s been parsing his public statements, and clearly something is holding him back from giving it a full-throated “I love it!” I’d imagine that his feeling, watching Episode VII, might have been something akin to what it felt like for most “original trilogy” fans when they first saw the prequels.

You’ve played Lucas in 22 shows now, which means you’ve spent a lot more time thinking about him in recent years than most adults have. Has anything surprised you about him?

Yeah. I mean, I love George Lucas. I love him. And I started doing this character sort of as a preemptive strike against feeling bad about the prequels. When the Special Editions came out in the late Nineties, I could tell from the new parts that it didn’t bode well for how the new movies would turn out, and I’d been, along with every other Star Wars fan, just waiting for these films to someday be made. And when it dawned on me and my friends that they might not be good, and that maybe Lucas had reached a point of absolute creative control and no one to really tell him if something is a bad idea, I started doing this character.

But when I started doing this show at UCB, I very quickly kind of started getting defensive about him. I mean, Lucas up until the early 1980s is a guy who can almost do no wrong. Almost everything he did was revolutionary: He changed the way movies were made, he changed the way special effects were handled, the way movie soundtracks used popular music. The guy was just a phenomenon. And I totally get why he wanted to be free from the kind of idiot executives who wanted to bury American Graffiti because they didn’t “get” it even when it was testing through the roof with audiences.

But once Lucas gets total creative control, there’s just no denying that the quality of the work suffers. That’s where I was at when I started doing this show. But now I sort of see a kind of beauty even in his failures, because there’s always an ambition to it. Howard the Duck is a terrible film, but the impulse to make it? Very cool. Radioland Murders, the comedy he wrote the story for? Not really funny, but it’s got a cast of topnotch comedy people in it and it was a big, subtle step forward for digital effects.

I think the reason I find the character fun to do is that he is both one of the great artists of the twentieth century and indisputably one of the most successful people of all time, and yet at the same time, he is now kind of renowned for his failures. He has huge failures that were also, financially, wildly successful. Who else has failures that made hundreds of millions of dollars?

Are people too hard on him?

I think it’s undeniable that the prequels tried to be different from the original trilogy, and I think it’s fair to give Lucas credit for that. But I also think it was essential for Episode VII to get things back on track, and maybe that meant it had to be a little more familiar. I mean, the opening line of dialogue is kind of a burn on the prequels — “this will begin to set things right” or words to that effect. The next film is the one where they now, I think, have the freedom to go wherever they want.

As for whether the world has been too hard on Lucas, I think yes and no. He will be fine. Nothing he has done will ruin his legacy of great works. If you make good art, it can’t be ruined by then making bad art, I don’t think.

If he had kept the rights and made the new Star Wars himself, would he have killed Han?

Maybe. I think so. My guess is that Harrison Ford would’ve insisted on it. I get the impression that the reason he’s such a happy warrior promoting this film is that he finally got his way. I don’t think he’d be so cheerful if he was locked down to do two more films. Although I’m kind of hoping we get a Ghost Han. I know that blue-ghost thing is supposed to be just for Jedi, right? But I really don’t care about those kinds of rules when it comes to Star Wars. I’ve never cared as to whether these films strictly made sense that way, as long as they feel right.

Your affection and admiration comes through in your portrayal. You play Lucas as a little vain and somewhat obtuse but also like he’s a man who is fundamentally decent yet weirdly unaware that he’s no longer the center of our culture. Do you think he’s more man than machine? That there’s still good left in him?

I wish he would pony up and start making the little experimental, personal films he’s been threatening to make for decades now. He says he’s gonna make them and not release them. I think he should just upload them to YouTube and not announce it.

People get mad at Lucas for the things he’s done wrong, but for me, he’ll always be the guy who made the movies that really made my childhood. I don’t see the point in being mad at that guy. It makes no sense at all. What if Jim Henson had lived but he never again did anything to top The Muppet Show or the first few Muppet movies? Would we all just be assholes about it?

I mean, admittedly, I’m probably being kind of an asshole even by doing this show. But my hope is that it’s obvious that I wouldn’t be doing this show if George Lucas wasn’t important to me. A regular viewer of the show recently was surprised to find out I don’t really like the prequels, because I do a show every month where I defend them against any and all attacks.

My hope is that if the real George Lucas wandered into UCB East and saw this show, he’d be flattered and maybe only 10 percent horrified by it.

Your other UCB show, “The Terry Withers Mysteries,” is as strange and funny an improv show as I’ve ever seen. You and J.D. Amato created it, but the times I’ve seen it you just introduce the craziness rather than perform. What role do you two play on show nights?

J.D. Amato and I created it as a kind of comedy version of True Detective, and I think someday it will become an actual TV show. People come month after month — it very quickly developed a kind of cult following.

The show is improvised, but we are sort of like the ringmasters backstage, reacting and helping to shape the show as it happens. We will sometimes tell one of the guest cast to enter at a certain moment, and there are certain aspects where we will throw in a light cue or a sound cue to surprise the actors. But we never know what the cast is gonna do, so no matter how much we try to keep them on their toes, we’re usually the ones who end up being the most surprised. When Brian McCann was the killer, we sort of gave him a rundown of some things to avoid, things that previous guest killers had done, and he then went onstage and announced he was guilty of murder and that he was an alien from another planet. We were scrambling in the tech booth to find a UFO sound effect, and he ended up being beamed back to his home planet.

For our Christmas show, we had more than twenty past guests of the show all turn up in the final scene, and it was absolute chaos backstage trying to wrangle a cast of more than thirty people. J.D. and I aren’t onstage after the introduction, but once the show starts, it’s like backstage at The Muppet Show: controlled chaos.

“The George Lucas Talk Show” returns to UCB East on January 8. “The Terry Withers Mysteries” returns to UCB’s Chelsea theater on January 15.