This article is an extended version of an interview conducted by Los Angeles-based freelance writer Aaron Smith with David Mirkin that first appeared in the spring 2009 edition of Vistas magazine, the university publication that preceded LMU Magazine.—The Editor.
When did you know you wanted to make a living in comedy?
I grew up writing and recording stuff and putting on shows in my basement — rather psychotically, now that I look back. My father was a computer engineer in the ’50s, and he worked on some of the very first computers. So, technology always fascinated me.
I went to Drexel University, in Philadelphia, aspiring — as so many comedy writers initially do — to be an electrical engineer. By the time I left Drexel, I knew how much I hated being an electrical engineer, and I realized that death was better than that. Working in the summers, I learned that happiness was more important than any kind of guarantee of income, so I took an enormous chance on show business, which had no guarantee of success.
So that’s what brought me to LMU. I studied which schools had great film equipment that I could use to continue making films that I had been making back East. That’s what attracted me to the school.
Did you hit the comedy clubs as much as the books?
I had always been funny, but it wasn’t until right at the end of my time at LMU that I started to do stand-up comedy. I became aware of comedy clubs like the Comedy Store and the Improv and — very fortunately— I became a regular at the Comedy Store after my first performance. Had I failed, I don’t think I would have had the nerve to go back.
My opening joke— which stayed with me for a very long time and is an insight into the way I write— was, “Is it just me or has everybody been coughing up blood lately?”
Stand-up was a way of earning money, but it wasn’t a lifestyle that I particularly coveted. It involved enormous amounts of travel, and often sharing rooms with other comedians. You didn’t necessarily want to wake up next to Bobcat Goldthwait. Not a pleasant thing.
But it was much easier to break in that way than to get my first scripts read. That was a process that took years. I had pitched “Three’s Company” several times over a couple years and finally got to pitch it at a level high enough where they actually bought a script from me, and I was immediately put on staff. The show had a classic French farce structure, and the characters were so stupid they could never say anything clever, which forced you to put all the cleverness into the plot, a much more difficult thing to do. The plot had to get all the laughs. That taught me a lot about structure and has served me well throughout the rest of my career.
What was the funniest thing about being at LMU?
The guy who signed out the wonderful film equipment — he hated to give it to you and he would do anything he could to not give you the equipment. His goal, it seemed, was to keep the equipment in the equipment room. You had to figure out a way to get it from him.
What’s the best thing you worked on that wasn’t a commercial success? Why?
Everything I’ve done has been wildly successful. No. I did a show called “Get A Life,” which was a psychotic comedy starring Chris Elliot as a person who is losing contact with reality. And the show itself had a flexible reality. In fact, “The Simpsons” took quite a bit from “Get A Life.” The main character was often killed at the end of an episode. It was the first TV job for Charlie Kaufman [executive producer and writer for “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”], and his writing really fit. That show has a great cult following to this day.
In pilot land, I did a show called “Death of the Universe,” which was a comedy/science fiction/fantasy show about a character in a dead-end corporate advertising job who gets pulled through various time holes to be a reluctant hero. He doesn’t want to do this — he’s kind of a wimp — but he has been chosen for some unknown reason to fight various evildoers throughout various multidimensional universes. And then he returns and he still has a report due at his job.
That never went past the pilot stage. It’s hard to do comedy/science fiction/fantasy. The networks have an enormous aversion to that, but “Death of the Universe” was great fun. And I speak at various colleges — not so often at LMU, because, very cleverly, they don’t ask me — and I play scenes from that show, and it gets a great response. It exists on that level.
What’s your process for writing comedy? What’s the sweat/inspiration ratio?
The main process is to procrastinate until you get into a huge depression of anxiety and panic, and then that really aids the creative process, especially if you’re writing odd, dark, twisted things. It all comes together in this great heaping ball of anxiety and death. The truth is, the subconscious is doing an enormous amount of the work as you’re walking around, or even taking a nap — or so I claim. And then as the time gets shorter, your adrenaline starts to go and it all spews out. That would be the poetic way to put it.
Is the writing process something you enjoy?
It’s not a pleasant experience. It’s a very solitary experience that requires a lot of silence and downtime and space. When you’re very young and you’re living in an apartment and you don’t have money or many things, it’s easier to create that space and quiet because you can’t afford to do anything else. When you get a bit older and have some success, then there are cars and things in the house are breaking down and, heaven forbid, you have a family. It’s harder to find the time for the creativity to come.
Everyone’s best work is generally done before they’re very successful. Entropy comes for you. It’s usually in the form of money and women and cars and houses. It can be a lot more fun to play with those toys than to stare at a blank piece of paper. You really have to have an increased amount of discipline as you become more successful.
Is there anything that is off-limits in comedy?
‘Anything that people laugh at can be called funny, but there is a matter of taste. There is comedy out there that is exactly like the kind of humor I saw in high school, which is very easy and sometimes mean-spirited. Anyone can do that, you don’t have to hire a professional — it’s all around you when you’re in high school. Even though it can get laughs, it’s a very low form. The idea is to elevate it to an intelligent level that is illuminating, even if it seems dark.
On “The Simpsons,” I always made sure that nothing ever worked out for the family, and that they were completely screwed. But the point was that that’s OK. That’s the way life is, and you can laugh at it. I think it’s a much nastier message to have problems solved in 23 minutes because then people are left in their own homes, saying, “I must be a moron, because I can’t solve my problems in 23 minutes.”
What makes you laugh these days?
“The Flight of Conchords” is absolutely brilliant. Steve Coogan did a show called “I’m Alan Partridge” that was stunning. “The Daily Show” is a fantastic source of great comedy. An American television show that is also funny in a twisted, nightmarish way is “Mad Men.”
What isn’t funny to you?
You can get into very dark areas as long as you’re illuminating them and there’s a reason behind it. I do an enormous amount of jokes about death, which is about as intense as you can get, but if they’re done right they’re still funny, because the joke is on all of us.
What’s your favorite moment from “The Simpsons”?
It’s very hard to pick one moment — it’s like picking your favorite child. There is an episode where Homer goes into space —because of my love of Stanley Kubrick and his “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Homer eats potato chips in zero gravity, and he gets into a synchronous orbit with a potato chip. It becomes a parody of the docking sequence in the movie. It’s a great combination of music and visual expression — camera angle, camera movement and character. NASA uses that episode in training. I have pictures of astronauts watching the DVD floating in space.
Who has influenced you, personally and professionally?
I’m influenced by a lot of people. When I really got serious about writing, Woody Allen was an enormous influence and icon. James Brooks, who created “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” influenced me. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick influenced me visually and in terms of developing a dark sense of humor. Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” is the movie that made me want to be a director. The wicked, dark twist that I have in a lot of my stuff is due to Monty Python.
Lots of comedians seem to be “wounded” people. Is there a lot of truth to that?
For the most part, yes, but in a great way. That’s true of all great artists, or at least any artist who has ever touched me. You can have someone who’s overly sensitive and doesn’t have an interesting life, and they’re not going to be interesting. And you can have someone who has terrible things happen to them, but they’re not sensitive enough to realize it. And then there’s the perfect storm, which is the over-sensitive idiot who has horrible things happen to them, and they get out of the fetal position — at least for some amount of time — and escape it by externalizing it. It happens in music and it can happen in comedy. That escape is the art. Comedy does not come out of a whacky, fun childhood.
I’ve been blessed to meet almost all of my heroes, and they all are nutty people with challenging backgrounds, which they’ve channeled in a wonderful way. They gave me examples of how to deal with my own thoughts and feelings. They saved my life. Realizing that was like a beacon, telling me, “This is a way,” and it’s also information that eases your burden because it’s connecting with you.
I always hope that something I’ve written or done has, in any small way, helped someone else get through difficult times. Because that’s what comedy and music were to me. They were life-saving.