A LITTLE UNDER 10 years ago, Michael Showalter realized the time had come to give up on his Hollywood dreams and start taking whatever work he could find to pay the bills. He’s the star and co-creator of the 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, and a key member of the groundbreaking Nineties sketch-comedy group the State, but work had been very scarce in recent years, and his wife was about to give birth to twins. He wound up taking a midlevel job in the writing room of Rebel Wilson’s ABC sitcom Super Fun Night, despite being ludicrously overqualified. “Some of the other writers were like, ‘Why are you here?’” Showalter recalls. “‘What are you doing?’”
Super Fun Night was yanked from the airwaves after just 17 episodes, but it was the start of a near-miraculous second act for Showalter that has led him to his role today as one of the busiest writer-producer-directors in the industry. Over the past six years, Showalter co-created the TBS mystery sitcom Search Party; directed multiple episodes of Hulu’s drama The Dropout, about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, and Apple+’s dark comedy The Shrink Next Door, starring Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd; and worked on everything from light comedies like Grace and Frankie and I Love That for You to the crime-drama series In the Dark. He also made the move to feature directing, helming the Kumail Nanjiani romantic comedies The Big Sick and The Lovebirds, the quirky Sally Field vehicle Hello, My Name Is Doris, and the Tammy Faye Baker biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
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His latest movie, Spoiler Alert, centers around a TV reporter, played by Jim Parsons, whose husband dies of cancer at a young age. While some of Showalter’s past work has blended drama with comedy, virtually nothing in this film plays for laughs — it’s a tear-jerker. That may surprise some longtime fans, but Parsons says the transition makes perfect sense.
“The more time I’ve been able to spend with Michael,” he says, “the more I realized that his comedy comes from being such a sensitive person and really feeling all of the intricacies of what it is to be alive.”
Creating earnest, adult projects like Spoiler Alert was the last thing on Showalter’s mind when he arrived at NYU in the late Eighties. Growing up in New Jersey near Princeton University, where his father taught 18th-century French literature, his own tastes skewed toward National Lampoon, MAD magazine, and fantastically silly movies like Airplane!, The Jerk, and Young Frankenstein. He was accepted into NYU’s sketch-comedy troupe the New Group (later dubbed the State) alongside future stars Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, Ken Marino, David Wain, and Kerri Kenney-Silver.
MTV gave the State their own show in 1994, and kept it on the air for four mini seasons across a year and a half. Showalter emerged as one of the breakout stars due to his doofus-teenager character Doug, and Doug’s catchphrase “I’m outta heeeerrre,” but the pay was lousy even by the standards of a basic-cable show, about $350 a week. The cast all lived in tiny apartments with roommates, and filed for unemployment between sessions. “I was broke,” says Showalter. “But it didn’t matter because I was young. We figured it would eventually pay off.”
The State ended in 1995, when the group made the disastrous decision to depart MTV for CBS, which canceled the show after a single episode. Several members of the 11-person troupe moved to L.A. and eventually started projects like Reno 911 and Children’s Hospital, but Showalter stuck around New York and formed the three-man comedy group Stella alongside Wain and Black. They had a regular gig in the basement nightclub the Fez and created hysterical, microbudget videos that went as viral as possible in the days before YouTube, but money was still tight. “I was semifamous. People would be like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re that person from that thing!’ ” Showalter says. “And I’d think to myself, ‘I just need a job. I desperately need a job.’”
He briefly got one at the turn of the millennium when he and Wain scrounged together enough cash to shoot a movie they co-wrote, about their childhood summer-camp experiences. Showalter took the lead role of Gerald “Coop” Cooperberg, a counselor hopelessly in love with another staff member. Rudd, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni, Amy Poehler, Janeane Garofalo, Molly Shannon, and a completely unknown 25-year-old actor without a single film credit named Bradley Cooper rounded out the cast.
Wet Hot American Summer was ripped by critics, but today is a cult classic that regularly brings costumed fans to midnight screenings — not that Showalter found any real way to capitalize on that. “It didn’t help me one bit that college kids were dressing up as characters from my movie,” he says. “I still needed a job.”
He took a big swing in 2005, when he wrote, directed, and starred in The Baxter, a rom-com parody centered around a sad sap who’s perpetually dumped in favor of someone more charismatic. It was another box-office bomb — and this one had no afterlife.
So began an extremely frustrating period for Showalter, where Comedy Central picked up two of his shows — 2005’s Stella and 2009’s Michael & Michael Have Issues — and canceled both after a handful of episodes. They simply couldn’t compete on a network that was scoring giant hits like Chappelle’s Show and The Daily Show.
“It was devastating,” says Showalter. “I was like, ‘Should I have gone to business school? What am I doing wrong? What am I not getting?’”
The failures forced Showalter to do some uncomfortable soul-searching. “I thought I stood for something that was counterculture-ish and subversive,” he says. “But as I got older, my priorities started to change. I was married, having kids. I wanted to have a life, but ego gets in the way. I felt like, ‘How can I just take a job?’ I thought I was this alternative-comedy person with a reputation to uphold.”
Once he moved to Los Angeles and took the job with Super Fun Night, however, everything changed. “It was this surrender,” he says. “I felt this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And then all of a sudden, things started to move real fast.”
One day, he bumped into a producer who knew he’d written a screenplay about an eccentric woman in her sixties who becomes infatuated with a much younger man. The producer asked what the status was, and when Showalter revealed that it wasn’t in development, she offered to produce it for a mere $250,000.
Showalter was ecstatic. He sent the script to Sally Field’s agent in the hopes she’d consider taking the title role. It felt like an enormous long shot. Luckily, while Field had never heard of Showalter and had never seen any of his prior projects, her sons Sam and Peter were big fans. She took a meeting — and ended up taken by him.
“He was so unbelievably honest,” Field says. “He didn’t try to hide the fact that he was excited that we were meeting, and that he was somewhat nervous about making his first real film. I also just loved the possibilities of the movie, the blend of comedy, really high physical comedy, and pathos and drama. It’s a hard web to weave, and I just felt from having coffee with him, how honest he is and how collaborative he is, that I wanted to risk it.”
Field’s participation led producers to bump the budget to a solid million dollars — just enough for Showalter to make the movie that was in his mind and not have it look cheap. “I honestly consider it one of the most creative, energizing projects of my life,” says Field. “We worked so fast. I don’t know how often we even did two takes. It gave me a big hit of that ‘I’m so glad this is what I do’ kind of feeling.”
At the SXSW Festival, Hello, My Name Is Doris won the Audience Award. It was then picked up by Roadside Attractions and rolled out in theaters across the country, earning rave reviews and racking up around $15 million.
Not long after, Nanjiani — who had a bit role in Doris — sent Showalter the script he’d co-written with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, for The Big Sick, which tracks the complications that arise in their budding relationship after she had to be placed in a medically-induced coma. Judd Apatow was producing, and they wanted Showalter to direct.
This time around, the film grossed $56 million on a $5 million budget. Many critics named The Big Sick one of the best movies of 2017, and it was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Doors closed to Showalter for three decades were suddenly thrown wide open. TBS picked up Search Party, which ultimately ran for 50 episodes across five seasons (the last on HBO Max). He reunited with Nanjiani for The Lovebirds, and then teamed up with Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield for The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
His newest project, Spoiler Alert, is Showalter’s biggest departure yet. An adaptation of the book Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, by television writer Michael Ausiello, it tells the tragic real-life story of Ausiello’s husband’s battle with a rare form of terminal cancer. Parsons, who also co-produced the movie, worried Showalter wouldn’t want to tackle another film set around illness. But Showalter loved the book, and relished the chance to tell a story with almost no comedic elements whatsoever. The hospital scenes are so devastating that critics at a Manhattan screening room were reduced to sobbing messes by the end.
“Michael is following his own heart and his own desires,” says Parsons. “It’s leading him to a really beautiful place where he’s sweeping up a lot of other creative people in his wake and giving them opportunities to do things that others haven’t given them. Working with him changed my life.”
Chastain echoed that sentiment earlier this year, when she won a Best Actress Academy Award for Tammy Faye. At the podium, she thanked Showalter for creating “a space that inspired creativity and love and courage.”
Speaking by Zoom from Atlanta, where he’s filming The Idea of You with Anne Hathaway, Showalter goes silent at the mention of Chastain’s Oscar moment, then puts his head down in his arms. About 30 long seconds pass before it becomes clear he’s quietly sobbing to himself. “I’m not normally given the opportunity to reflect on these kinds of things,” he finally says, still fighting tears. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
His plans for the future are unclear beyond a couple of projects he’s not ready to talk about, though he says he’s open to a State reunion and a chance to revisit the Wet Hot American Summer universe. “I’ve always just wanted to work,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was a prolific doodler. I’d fill up book after book of doodles. I feel like that’s what I’m doing now. I have this desire to just doodle and keep going and going and going.”
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