Every generation has their own angsty comedies. From Growing Pains to Saved by the Bell to Friends, young people have tuned in to see their brethren deal with life in funnier ways than most people get to live. Who better to do it for millennials than one of the creators of the Generation X sketch comedy show The State and the cult hit Wet Hot American Summer?
Michael Showalter produces the new TBS comedy Search Party with co-creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss. Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) stars as Dory, an aimless 20-something frustrated with her group of friends who’d rather vent about their First World problems than connect with the world around them. When she notices an old friend from college has gone missing, Dory joins the search as a way to find a purpose.
There’s more Wet Hot American Summer coming too. Showalter called while halfway through filming a second season for Netflix. Their prequel series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was such a hit, they are moving ahead with Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later. That’ll be on Netflix in 2017.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: In The Union of The State oral history of The State, your very first quote is “You have to believe that the people you’re working with are funnier than you are.” Is that the case for Search Party?
Michael Showalter: Yes, in a sense. What I love about Sarah-Violet and Charles is that their point of view comedically is so specific and in the best possible way, it’s so idiosyncratic. There’s a sort of a world they create with their writing that is very on display in [their film] Fort Tilden and is really what we wanted to try to harness with Search Party. It’s a sort of misanthropic, jaded, really, really weird, interesting, funny point of view. I’m sort of like a soccer dad. I’m so proud of this show. I just think it’s such a cool, interesting smart show.
RT: As a pioneer in MTV comedy and Generation X, do you sympathize with the millennial generation portrayed on Search Party?
Showalter: Yes and when I was younger, I remember Bret Easton Ellis was just starting to write his books. I think there’s always a jaded young voice, whether it’s going all the way back to the Beatniks and then The Graduate, and there’s always a kind of disaffected story to tell, so in a way, there’s a universality to it. That’s more how I see them. I see them in a continuum of Catcher in the Rye and The Graduate and Less Than Zero and now these guys. I’m sure there’s others in between. So it’s not so specifically to me just a story about modern millennials. It’s a story about being young and trying to figure out who you want to be and how you want to fit into the world. That’s a really long process. Some people do it more gracefully than others. I think Sarah-Violet and Charles have a really specific take on their generation, but that very much speaks to my generation. I’m Gen-X. We have our own specifics but I think there’s a lot of carryover.
RT: Does Search Party also represent something you like to do sometimes, which is melancholy comedy that’s not supposed to be funny?
Showalter: Oh yeah, definitely. These characters are not the happiest group of people. In a certain sense, they’re very privileged, and we’re not trying to make anyone feel sorry for them per se, but they have their struggles. We’re trying to find humor in situations that aren’t necessarily funny.
RT: Television is also dealing with this idea that a 30-minute show isn’t necessarily a comedy. Does cable allow you to play with the tone more?
Showalter: There’s no question that this is an unorthodox show in just the way that you described. The line between comedy and drama is getting less visible and you see it in all kinds of different shows now. I think that’s exciting.
RT: Are there some episodes that lean more heavily funny and some more dramatic?
Showalter: Yeah, there is this dark murder mystery happening as well, and so there are going to be certain episodes that lean more into that, but we always tried to make sure that the show is funny. I think every episode is very funny in its own way.
RT: Is the mystery solved at the end of the first season?
Showalter: There’s definitely a big answer. The audience will get a very big answer at the end of the first season, but it’s an answer that raises a few more questions as well.
RT: What did you learn from doing the first season of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp on Netflix that helps you do the second?
Showalter: Wet Hot American Summer is really like a movie. It’s a four-hour movie. What we learned about it is really just the writing process, the production process, all of the challenges that come with making a movie, in terms of trying to tell a story over eight episodes.
RT: Is Search Party a five-hour film?
Showalter: Search Party is also very serialized. We’re hoping that people will be trying to solve the mystery or guess at what’s going on. It’s a little bit more serialized than Wet Hot. Wet Hot really is a movie divided into eight parts, whereas Search Party is 10 standalone serialized episodes.
RT: “10 Years Later” puts it in the ’90s, in your era. Are there any specific tropes or references you’re looking forward to spoofing?
Showalter: Yeah, it’s a reunion story so the characters are all reuniting after 10 years. There was a whole spate of reunion-type movies in the ’80s [and ’90s] of ensemble 20-something stories. which are a lot of tropes we’re playing with, whether it’s St. Elmo’s Fire or Singles or Reality Bites. Those are some of the inspirations for it.
RT: Does it give you an out if anyone’s not available? You could say, “Oh, they couldn’t make the reunion.”
Showalter: That would give us an out, but luckily we didn’t have that issue. Hopefully everybody will be back this year.
RT: Since it’s a reunion, is it still all set in one day?
RT: Did you already know where the Wet Hot gang was going to be 10 years later?
Showalter: Oh, this is all new. We started just with the premise and just imagined, spent a couple of months just dreaming up scenarios, and trying to figure out what this whole story would be. It was really fun trying to figure it out.
RT: It’ll be fun to see Jai Courtney do comedy. Did Jai do a comedy audition for you?
Showalter: He’s absolutely hysterical. No, we offered him the part. We were fans of his and thought it would be fun to see him do something different.
RT: It says Mark Feuerstein’s character has always been there. Is the idea that we just never saw him, but he was there?
Showalter: Exactly, exactly, exactly. The assumption is that he was there all along, yes.
RT: You directed another movie, The Big Sick. What would you say is the tone of that film in the continuity of all the various things you do?
Showalter: It picks up in that vein of Hello, My Name is Doris, which is to say it’s a really funny movie, but it also has a lot of strong dramatic elements in it. It stars Kumail Nanjiani, who cowrote the film with his wife, Emily Gordon. It was based on a true story and also stars Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, and Holly Hunter. It’s a really funny story with a lot of comedy in it, but it’s also got a lot of heart and deals with a lot of pretty heavy issues. Judd Apatow produced this film with Barry Mendel. I think as you’ve seen Judd Apatow’s career shift in the last couple of years with his work on Love and Girls and his own films, it tries to blend serious subject matter with comedy.
Search Party airs Monday nights at 11 p.m. ET on TBS