Satire, Spoof And Sympathy: Michael Showalter’s America
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‘I think comedians see themselves as people among people.’ – Michael Showalter
Is it a coincidence that the film that perhaps most accurately captures, and subverts, the on-the-cusp innocence of the new Millennium features a giant object literally hurtling from space towards earth to destroy all the decent Americans who live there? Admittedly, Armageddon, a no less era-defining film, shares DNA with David Wain and Michael Showalter’s cult spoof masterpiece Wet Hot American Summer in this regard (and in laugh ratio as well – thanks ‘space dementia’). Mere months after Wain and Showalter’s at-the-time critical dud landed in cinemas, the United States (and by proxy, everyone else) would have arguably the single largest widespread cultural moment of innocence lost in decades on September 11, 2001. In this respect, the one-sheet poster of WHAS takes on an eerie new meaning – a gang of young, American Graffiti-style caricatured teens racing down a highway as the satellite of the film’s climax comes hurtling through the sky, unnoticed, behind them.
Michael Showalter’s comedy career, from his early days on MTV’s The State, through numerous unproduced or long-lost comedy projects, up to his new film The Big Sick, has always walked a fascinating line between cynicism and empathy, happy-go-lucky and gleefully dark. Though Showalter himself, a master comedian, fascinating performer and gifted improviser, might encourage one not to take his films entirely too seriously, it is increasingly apparent, perhaps more so than many of his peers in American screen comedy, that Showalter’s ability to subtly take the pulse of a constantly changing and evolving nation is second to none. It is a strength that has become stronger and more well-defined the further into his career and more confident behind the camera he becomes.
Wet Hot American Summer is undoubtedly, by this writer’s standards, a modern American comedy classic. Arguably the strongest straight spoof of the 21st Century, the film manages massive laughs, genuine, surprising moments of humanity and a fascinating glimpse into the way a certain part of America was thought of and interpreted in the new century. There is no mistaking the joy of the film, which revels in the somewhat goofy, over-the-top, never less than loving patriotism of grand American institutions (like summer camp) even in its nonsensical or unremittingly dark subplots and generally flawed characters. Even more than the good-ol’ Americana of the setting, Showalter - who stars in and co-wrote the film – demonstrates his ability to capture hot-button topics in ways that feel fresh and unpretentious, most notably in a romantic subplot between a young Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black that broke onscreen taboos long before Brokeback Mountain swept through cinemas.
Showalter as a comedian seems to understand the constant struggle between the idealism of fundamental American beliefs and the dark realities that lie beneath. The best example of this is the first season of Search Party, which is perhaps the most openly nihilistic work to which Showalter has put his name. TBS’ Brooklyn-set sorta-mystery, which Showalter co-created, retains his characteristic empathy for even less-than-perfect characters (of which there are many), no less so than Alia Shawkat’s Dory, a lost, frighteningly relatable reflection of the dark-side of Millennial life. After an acquaintance of hers goes missing, Dory seeks her out, following threads that seem to create an enormous overarching conspiracy about the sinister nature of her disappearance. Without spoiling the ultimate resolution, the show’s Nancy Drew-style arc quickly takes some stunningly dark turns, ultimately purposefully undercutting and devaluing the mystery at its centre in a way that reflects an aching bitterness in the social climate in which it was made. Like WHAS, this destined to be cult-classic premiered shortly before another earth-shaking cultural moment for America – the election of Donald Trump.
Constantly paired with this interpretation is Showalter’s willingness to explore and ability to celebrate stigmatized or largely underrepresented minority groups. This year’s The Big Sick is a major vehicle for star Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American around whom the film is based loosely. Nanjiani has chosen in his collaborator a comedian with a heartening, positive take on the many ways minorities contribute to and make America great. His earlier project, delightful SXSW premiere Hello, My Name Is Doris, captures through a lovely, surprisingly powerful Sally Field performance the many ways in which the ever-expanding gap in ideologies between generations can be crossed and overcome. The film, about a woman in the early stages of old age who falls for a much younger co-worker (Max Greenfield), celebrates the strengths and weaknesses of its multiple age groups, and provides a suddenly relevant window through which the voices of older generations who perhaps have felt undervalued or unheard in this increasingly connected world can speak through. A gentle, kindhearted film, Showalter’s assured direction bypasses excessive preachiness to allow for an overwhelming empathy and willingness to listen to its older characters. As the world seems to continue to become more divided, Showalter’s work re-emphasises a desire to connect and celebrate the differences that make patchwork societies work.
More than ten years after Wet Hot American Summer, Showalter and Wain returned to their film with the majority of its now-incredible cast for Netflix series First Day of Camp. The series, while not reaching the sublime heights of its namesake, contains a great many inspired moments, among which the arguable beginning of the Chris Pine-aissance (it’s a thing). In it, Showalter manages to capture that same mix of satire, spoof and sympathy that made the original so great, while skewering no less than the system around which the show was made – including the platform it was made on. In an inspired choice, Showalter himself returned alongside his cast (the central gag being all the characters are playing vastly younger versions of themselves), in a dual role – as his character and as Ronald Reagan. Perhaps here we can see Showalter – never one to shy away from gloriously showy bit-parts – folding himself into his career-long exploration of America the Beautiful, gleefully deconstructing one of its beloved sons. At its core, Michael Showalter’s comedy reflects what it is to be an analyzer and observer of his society, a person among people.
Above all though, the guy is fucking funny. Enjoy a personal favourite: