New York City, New York
Written By: Paul ManiaciPosted: 08/28/2006
I first noticed comedian Paul Scheer on a VH1 program called Best Week Ever where he provides clever commentary on popular culture. After seeing him perform improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre I knew I needed to further explore what makes him so endlessly funny. We sat down at a coffee shop in New York City where he spoke openly about comedy, careers, and the gospel according to musician Andrew W.K.
*This interview contains explicit language.*
CCB: When did you first realize you enjoyed comedy?
PS: I think watching Saturday Night Live at a young age (in middle school) got me really excited about it. My parents divorced so I would come over to my dad’s house on the weekends. He would tape Saturday Night Live and Sunday morning we would watch it. That was the best. Actively telling everyone in my family that I wanted to be the next Eddie Murphy, which would be hard to do because I wasn’t black. Now looking back on the seasons I loved as a kid I realize those were the worst years of the show.
CCB: Was it always a goal of yours to pursue it as a career?
PS: I didn’t think being a comedian was a path that was attainable. I just knew I loved comedy. When I was in high school I saw Chicago City Limits (NYC’s longest running comedy troupe) and decided that’s what I want to do. I took a class there in high school and I loved it. Then when I went to college I figured I had to do something real, so I stopped performing and studied to become a teacher. During my freshman year I really wanted to do something artistic so I went back to Chicago City Limits, took classes, and started interning. I’d get there at five o’clock at night, leave around midnight, and get $25. It was a form of slave labor, but I was psyched. I poured sodas and talked to the cast. When auditions came around I decided to give it a try and I got in as an understudy to the touring company, then after a few shows got boosted up to official touring member.
CCB: That was your first working job in comedy?
PS: (Animated) Yeah, that was amazing. I was doing shows in the city on Monday nights and it was so much fun. When I was doing CCL (Chicago City Limits) there wasn’t much sketch or improv in New York City, just CCL. Admittedly CCL wasn’t that hip, but it was a great place to learn and travel. NYU doesn’t have classes on Friday so I would leave on Thursday afternoons, tour around the country, and come back Monday morning and go to class again. I was leading this alternate life. I had no college friends whatsoever. I would hang out with all these comedy people. Then I found UCB (Upright Citizen’s Brigade) and started taking classes there. I graduated a year early from college because I got so excited about doing improv. I remember the day that I graduated NYU I performed my 1st Harold show (type of improv) ever at UCB.
Now New York City has exploded for sketch and improv, there are a lot more opportunities and that’s really due to the UCB’s influence in the New York comedy scene. The actors at CCL didn’t even have commercial agents because no one was interested in improvisers at that time. Which is mind blowing to me because now it seems every casting director wants improvisers in their auditions, especially commercial ones.
When I started at CCL we had trouble filling half the house but fast forward a few years and now the UCB Theatre is open seven nights a week, with three different shows a night, and they are selling them all out. It’s amazing how people have flocked to it. UCB has much more energy and a creative vibe to me. I think UCB carries this punk rock aesthetic that makes it so exciting people want to tell their friends about it. What Second City (successful comedy troupe) is to Chicago UCB has become to New York.
CCB: Did you face any challenges being so young?
PS: I couldn’t go out and drink with anybody. Half of the experience is doing the show and the other half is going out, drinking, and bullshitting. I never talked about my age so no one really knew how old I was. I would just casually get out of going to bars.
CCB: You started with improv? Was there any point where you were doing standup?
PS: I never did standup. I’ve done bits at standup clubs like Caroline’s, but more character based things. My background is more in improv and sketch comedy.
CCB: Do you have a job title? Are you an improviser, a comedian?
PS: It depends on who I’m talking to. I sometimes keep it under wraps. I guess I’d say I’m an actor or comedian. No one really understands it when you say improviser.
CCB: What did your family and friends say when you told them you were going to be a comedian?
PS: Everyone thinks it’s a passing fad. When is it going to stop? My grandmother used to work at this theater in Sag Harbor and she’s like, “You don’t know what its like to be an actor. I throw out head shots all the time.” My dad was really supportive, shepherded me, and allowed me to follow this career. It shut out all those voices. My mom was behind me but she was suspect. It still is embarrassing at parties when they ask what you do. You don’t want to be that jerk. “I do this and here are the five projects I’m working on!” I won’t be that guy. I’ll downplay it.
CCB: How did you learn about crafting material to get the biggest laughs?
PS: The cool thing about improv and sketch is there is a lot more collaboration. In the standup world it always seems like people are competing against each other. With improv and sketch you need everybody else to make yourself look good. There’s much more camaraderie. In sketch there’s a lot of rehearsal, brainstorming. I just did this show with Adam McKay (former head writer at SNL and director of Anchorman) and Jake Fogelnest, George Bush is a Mother Fucker. It took us about three months to put up the show. We’d come in, pitch ideas and use what we wrote while improvising around it. By the time we got something really good it was tough to assign ownership to an idea because we all put a lot of effort into it.
With improv every time you perform it’s different. You know the rules and you have this trust. Basically you have the tools in your toolbox and when you perform it’s really how you choose to use them. Improv is built on this whole idea of yes-anding. Whatever your partner says you agree to and add to it. Once you know the rules and trust your teammates you can go anywhere. Nine out of ten times when I do ASSSSCAT or Respecto (shows at UCB) I don’t know where it’s going to go but you trust everybody that you are going to have fun. In improv you don’t have anything to fall back on. Sometimes its genius and occasionally it sucks but that happens in everything. It’s not scary anymore. I used to get butterflies every time I was going on but now I really try to challenge myself every time I perform so I can get better.
CCB: Apart from the trust what are you learning? You talked about tools for your toolbox.
PS: There are different schools of thought between short form and long form but the one constant is that everything rests on the idea of yes-anding and specificity. With improv there are no costumes, no set, not even any characters. You create everything as you go. Many people don’t believe that you are improvising, which is a great compliment but also frustrating. We really do go out there without any preconceived notions. I don’t go in my head, “Oh I’ve got this great trucker character,” that I’m going to shoehorn in tonight. It’s never like that. But perhaps you see somebody on the street that you find interesting and hopefully it gets locked into your data bank. Later on when you are performing a show it’s a natural thing to explore that character if it’s suited for the situation.
At UCB you learn the Harold which was created by improv legend Del Close. It’s much different than short form improvisation which is basically what you see on Who’s Line is it Anyway. The Harold takes one suggestion and then the group explores that suggestion through scenes and characters which create a world that then begins to intersect with each other. The Harold is an amazing structure and really mind blowing when you see it done well. When you’ve learned that structure you can break free from it and create your own structure but no matter what you call your new creation it’s all owed to the structure of the Harold.
CCB: Is that what happens at ASSSSCAT?
PS: ASSSSCAT is not a Harold, it’s a form called an Armando (named after improv teacher Armando Diaz), which is a scenic montage based off an improvised monologue.
CCB: It all starts with one idea?
PS: The audience gives a suggestion, someone performs a truthful monologue, and based on that monologue we pull interesting information that inspires our scenes.
CCB: How did you learn about comedy initially? Was it a trial by fire at CCL?
PS: I would hate to watch a tape of myself now when I first started performing. I’d almost hate to watch a tape of myself performing from last Saturday. (Laughs) Performing makes you a better performer. The good thing about improv is that it is disposable. So you don’t have to be held to such high standards as you are when you are doing sketch. An audience will always give you a little more slack when they know you are creating it on the spot.
Since I have been performing, you always are learning… You learn what a good partnership is and what isn’t. You find your voice. What do you do well? In standup that is the same thing. Each standup has a personality in which they see the world. The same goes true for improv, you have to find your stage persona. What can you do that the audience connects with?
With improv you have a little more flexibility to find different roles. It’s finding your legs, trying to be comfortable, and making choices. A lot of times when you first start you find something that really works and there is a tendency to hammer that into the ground. I think the benefit of growing is knowing I can do that well, now let me challenge myself to do something else well. Start building an arsenal where you can do a bunch of different characters, gaining confidence in whatever choice you make will be the right one. If you write one type of sketch well you go, “OK I’m going to write a whole different type of sketch.” You should always be pushing yourself forward.
CCB: How did you end up at UCB in 1998?
PS: I was at CCL and this person over there said you have to see this great improv show called ASSSSCAT. We went to see ASSSSCAT at the Solo Arts Theater which was on a seventh floor walkup of the most rickety building you’ll ever see in your life. It was like a tenement. It was about a twenty seat theater and there were four people in the audience. It was UCB with special guests like Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Andy Richter, all who are huge right now, performing for a crowd of four people. From four people in the audience now there are two shows a night which are both totally sold out.
I was lucky, I got in early. I got in by being a huge fan of those guys, loving their sketch show and improv. They started teaching classes. I got in their first round of classes, their first Harold team, and started doing shows. Then when we opened the theater on 22nd street (The 1st space) I was performing every night of the week because there were not that many people around. Then I started teaching there and now I feel like an elder statesman.
CCB: What makes Respecto Montalban at UCB unique?
PS: I know I’ll sound like a cheese-ball but Respecto is family, the people I talk to all the time, and feel the most comfortable with. That show is unique because we all started together and have all grown individually and as a group. Getting up there is always one of the highlights of my week.
CCB: How does that improv work as opposed to ASSSSCAT?
PS: We do a form called the Evente. We get a suggestion of a life changing event and we see that event and then we go backwards. It’s kind of like Memento (the movie).
CCB: How do you process what you find funny into what happens on stage?
PS: Writing sketches I have a funny idea and I’ll explore that. It’s like standup taking a joke and making it into a sketch. You are walking down the street and this guy is pushing his bicycle for more than three blocks. What’s up with that? Does that make you think of a sketch or a character? With improv it’s much more embedded. If you have an interaction with someone at the drycleaner sometimes that just catches in your head. I find that happening all the time especially at ASSSSCAT. Last week I had a meeting with an industry guy, a network guy. Then on Sunday a scene took place in a network executive’s office and I started to play that guy on stage. I wasn’t cheating. I didn’t go, “Tonight I’m going to play that guy.” It just came naturally. I feel like you are always collecting information as an improviser. People always ask how you become a good improviser. I think as performers engulf as much information as you can from TV, movies, books, and interactions. Try to open your self in every way. The more information you have coming in the more chance you have to use it.
CCB: What would you say is your voice or does it always change?
PS: It depends when I’m doing different things. I definitely have the tendency to play a low status smart person. I feel like I fall into that role as an excitable nerd. Not a nerd like we don’t want to hang out with him, but someone who is around but not quite with it as much as other people. With Best Week Ever my voice is excited pop culture lover. The one thing I like about the way I perform on Best Week Ever is I try not to make fun of anyone outright. I genuinely do like a lot of different stuff. I find good stuff in the worst things. Like that movie Sahara I got behind that. More people are like, “Matt McConaughey is a douche, it's just a bad Indiana Jones movie.” But I was totally behind it.
CCB: How did you get involved with Best Week Ever?
PS: I’d been auditioning for VH1 and they called me in. They were trying to find a project that would be good for me. I had heard about it through the grapevine and lobbied to get in there. I didn’t realize how fierce the competition was at the time. I’ve been doing the show now for a year and a half. VH1 just had their highest rated quarter ever and Best Week Ever was one of their top four rated shows. I owe so much to those guys over at Best Week Ever. They have been so incredibly supportive and the nicest people.
CCB: What is the preparation for a topical show like that apart from staying up to date on current events?
PS: Basically the night before they give you this eight to fifteen page outline. Here are a list of topics and questions. Such as Britney Spears is having a baby and there are ten questions on that. Do you think Britney Spears will be a good mom? What mothering advice would you give Britney Spears? You go in and you know what you are going to talk about. I get it that night, write down stuff, and riff when I’m in there.
CCB: Some of it’s pre-written?
PS: The questions are pre-written and I think a lot of us write our responses beforehand because you have takes on it. You are basically creating a standup comedy set for that next bit. Here are the specifics now go in and make jokes of these ideas. The writers of Best Week Ever are there to craft the piece, to have an angle. So it’s not us randomly talking about things, they have a point of view.
CCB: What is it about performing comedy?
PS: When someone was asked, why they wanted to do comedy they replied, “Because I’m a lonely person and the only time I feel good is when people are laughing at me.” I think there’s some truth to that. You are making your self a clown for everybody else. I think the reason I got into it is because that is what I loved to watch and I love to laugh. When I was a kid it was the best thing, making my own radio shows for no one, which I guess was very Andy Kaufman. You want that approval. With comedy you get it immediately. You know if you are doing a good job right way. There’s instant gratification. I never thought I want to be famous. I love doing comedy. The vantage point of doing it and doing it well is the opportunity to get larger and larger groups.
CCB: Have you been performing since you were little?
PS: My dad picked me up every Friday afternoon from school. I would always make a radio show beforehand that we would play on the way into the city. My dad was great about taking me out to see comedy and showing me different stuff like SCTV (Canadian comedy TV show). I was an only child so I would play out on the front lawn creating elaborate narratives and all other types of craziness. I’d steal jokes from Johnny Carson. I’d tell them at Christmas gatherings trying to get attention that way.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a comedian?
PS: I’m in this really great situation. I just sold this show to HBO. I shot a pilot for TBS. I wrote and am doing this cartoon show for MTV and at the same time I’m doing Best Week Ever. I perform at UCB a bunch as well as auditioning. There may be days with three auditions in a row or sitting at home writing. I always feel I’m pretty busy but I don’t think there is a typical day. I normally go to bed at around three o’clock in the morning and get up around eleven. A typical day would involve always working on some sort of project and performing at night.
CCB: Have any advice for young people interested in becoming comedians?
PS: Start studying comedy, take a class, find your strengths, whether it’s at UCB, Second City or the Groundlings. Once you see the home that suits you find a way to get an internship there, get behind the scenes. You’ll never find people turning you away if you want to work for free or very limited wages. The comedy community to me has been so incredibly inclusive and supportive. I have had so many great opportunities because of the people I’ve met. You get into one place and that opens doors into another. My friend loved comedy so he got a job as an intern on Conan O’Brien. Then while at Conan he met Matt Walsh (member of UCB) who handed him a flyer for UCB. He saw UCB shows, said I love this, and started working and doing shows at UCB which lead to an opportunity to submit for the daily show and he got that job. I think comedy is one of the best professions in entertainment because you can essentially create your own ticket; you don’t have to wait for anybody else to tell you what to do.
CCB: So it’s important when you are young to try and find your niche and then get in there however you can.
PS: Take your time. People are always so quick; I need to do this right away. If you can make every year better than the year before you are on the right path. I’m always afraid of people who explode without doing anything. I’ve been doing this a long time. I feel you learn a lot from experience. Not putting that pressure on your self to be big overnight. If you have to work a day job while you get into comedy, then do it.
CCB: How would you advise about feeling rejected?
PS: Rejection for me is always, oh bummer, and then I move on. It’s a numbers game. You’ll get what’s right for you. I’ve never regretted not getting something I’ve auditioned for. I auditioned for SNL. I was on 8H (SNL stage), whole screen test and everything. If I had gotten it at that age I would not have been ready for it. I was still a little bit of a neophyte. Now I feel like I could handle it, but don’t know if that’s in the cards for me. I think you’ll find rejection some times is a good thing. It seems to happen at the right time, at the right place.
CCB: What types of improvements have you noticed in your comedy since you began?
PS: Everything. Confidence would be the key. I can present myself better. It goes back to the whole idea that you are always growing. Your character work is quicker, your ideas are better. You’re not falling into ruts or traps. The willingness to explore and try new things comes out of the confidence of performing for a bunch of years. I think with comedy there is always a place to go. When you stop growing is when people get unfunny, they lose whatever is interesting about them.
CCB: You can fall into a dead end when you are performing?
PS: In a show if you hit a dead end you have enough support that hopefully they’ll get you out of it before the audience realizes it. In improv in general I’ll feel like I’ve been on a good tear now for the last six months and then hit a plateau where I feel like I’m not growing. Then I’ll challenge myself in a different way like you are going up again in this big mountain climb.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job? Is it trying to manage a hectic schedule?
PS: There is a constant pull where you always want to be doing more even with a full plate. The most difficult part is not having so much control. I can create something, pitch it, or get on a stage, have an audition. At the end of the day I’m not the decision maker that’s going to write myself a check. I’m increasing my chances by writing, producing, and acting. Ultimately the fate of where you go is up to somebody else but that’s one person’s opinion. You can’t put that much stock in other people’s opinions. You have to be confident in yourself and constantly remembering to keep your head above water.
CCB: What has been the coolest thing about the job so far?
PS: You meet so many awesome people. By being on the scene I’ve gotten to perform with people I never thought I’d get a chance to perform with. That’s the most exciting part about this job. Also I think it’s different than most jobs because you can pick who you want to work and collaborate with.
CCB: Are there comedians that you admired growing up that you have been able to meet?
PS: I got to perform with Mike Myers. He performed with Respecto one night and that was amazing. Adam McKay has been great. I’ve worked with Tom Gianas a bunch, who directed all these episodes of Tenacious D on HBO. My ultimate people to meet would be Bill Murray and Steve Martin, those legends. I have not had a chance to perform with those guys.
CCB: What are your career aspirations and do they extend beyond what you are doing now?
PS: I want to continue doing what I am doing on a grander scale. I’m a big believer in if this year is better and if next year is better than this year than you are doing the right thing. I perform live which is great. I act. I’ve done a studio movie. I did a movie that was totally improvised with all my friends. As a producer I’ve been able to bring my ideas to the forefront. I have been able to work on my ideas on a day in and day out basis.
As a writer I’ve been able to write different sorts of shows. I’d like to hopefully get to the point where I have a good list of credits where it becomes easier for me to get things greenlit (made). I feel I am capable but I still have to prove myself a little bit more.
CCB: Is there an ultimate goal?
PS: I’m always reticent to put an ultimate goal on anything because when you achieve that ultimate goal where do you go from there? I’m happy now. I love working with other people. If I can stay at this level that I am at and keep going up there will be no complaints.
CCB: What’s next in your career? There’s the Onion movie, Black Balled:The Bobby Dukes Story…Is this the first paintball movie?
PS: I think it might be the first paintball movie next to William Shatner’s Spplat Attack, which was more of a documentary.
CCB: Sketch Off (show created for TBS with Whoopi Goldberg)
PS: We just shot a pilot for TBS. It’s basically American Idol for sketch comedy. We find the best sketch comedians and we put them in this intense environment. It’s like American Idol meets Saturday Night Live.
PS: A claymation show where we get to see intimate moments of celebrity’s lives. We have scenes like Ashton and Demi on their first date. We improvise the dialogue and there are writers that punch up our conversations and we record it.
CCB: Any other projects?
PS: I just sold this animated show to MTV called Go-Force. It’s GI Joe with an Adult Swim sensibility. They are fighting for freedom even when it’s not necessary. I also just signed a development deal with HBO Independent Productions to write a sitcom that I pitched them, which I am really excited about. Then I’m doing a show for MTV with Jake Fogelnest called Ten Years Later which is based on a child star trying to make a comeback but having a hard go of it.
CCB: How do you find time to do everything?
PS: The benefit of this business is you do have time. The chances that all those things are going to collide at one time are so small. I’ll work on one thing for a little bit and Sketch Off for example is done. We are just waiting to see if they pick it up, same as the Onion movie. The way things happen you have to keep a few things on the burner. Nothing ever moves quickly in this business. What I’ve devised for myself is this ability to work on other things while I’m waiting so I’m never without work.
CCB: Do you feel that you always have to be funny even when you aren’t performing, say when meeting your fans?
PS: I always feel like I’m not giving fans enough.
CCB: On stage?
PS: More when I meet people on the street. I always feel I am very polite. I’ve not had a single bad experience. Best Week Ever fans and UCB fans are the best. I feel as if they want me to be more entertaining. There are always these awkward meetings where they’ll be like, “Are you that guy on that show?” Yeah. “Oh, OK.” And they leave. What could I have done to make that better? I still rack my brain about it. I get a lot of email. I answer all my email. I care about my fans so I want to make sure I am interesting enough for them.
CCB: On your web site paulscheer.com
you review DVD commentaries. Have you seen anyone else doing commentariums?
PS: I noticed it in the Onion. I read an article in one major magazine that had five of the ones that were on my website. I was like motherfucker. I bet they just typed in DVD commentary when they were writing this article and saw my website. That’s odd that all five were ones that I had talked about. I wonder? Now I am going to be writing for Giant magazine and will be doing some commentarium stuff for them.
CCB: What was the basis for your web site?
PS: It started with a one man show I did called Unemployed. The caveat at the end of the show was I don’t have a job but I can take the guess work out of DVD commentaries for you.
CCB: Your web site has a page dedicated to musician Andrew W.K. Is he the answer to all that ails our country?
PS: (Laughs) He should be. That is somebody I got to work with that I love. I begged the people on Best Week Ever to please bring on Andrew W.K. They brought him on and said, “What do you want to do?” So we created a bit and he’s come on twice now. There is somebody that I want to be friendlier with but man I don’t know how to do it. Andrew W.K. is so simple but direct. He’s the best.
CCB: What is it about his music; you talk a little bit about it on your site? Isn’t he actually classically trained?
PS: Yeah, he is. The thing that is so pure about what he does is in the lyrics to his songs. I get wet, party hard, party ‘til you puke, I want fun, make sex. It’s about love, music, and performing. He’s so excited and there’s no bullshit to him. I started turning everybody on to him. I bought into him 100%. I love that he writes motivational things on his website. “Trust in your fellow people and friends are the best.” I think out of anyone I’ve met he’s so excited about life and music as much as about himself and living. How can you not like that?
*Check out Paul's web site: paulscheer.com