Mr. Beaks Talks Season Two Of EAGLEHEART With Chris Elliott, Jason Woliner, Michael Koman And Andrew Weinberg!
The second season of EAGLEHEART kicks off this Thursday on Adult Swim with an expertly-crafted eleven-minute treatise on vengeance, predestination and decorative cakes. It's the kind of unabashed absurdity we've come to expect from a show starring Chris Elliott, but there's a structural refinement that's unusual for the Adult Swim format. It's not just about cramming as many gags as possible into its truncated runtime; EAGLEHEART's writers are attempting to tell a fully coherent story that's more than the sum of its jokes.
Judging from the premiere and two future episodes (all of which were screened last Tuesday at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles), EAGLEHEART is hitting a groove reminiscent of the way PARKS & RECREATION figured itself out in season two. Elliott and the show's creative core - writers Michael Koman, Andrew Weinberg and Jason Woliner (who also directs most of the episodes) - have clearly realized that the show needs to be more than a parody of tough-guy cop procedurals, and so they've opted to emphasize the bizarre personal travails of U.S. Marshal Chris Monsanto and his fellow officers, Brett (Brett Gelman) and Susie (Maria Thayer). One episode finds Monsanto running off with a bar band to a chain nightclub in Orlando to unlock the mystery of the blues; another centers on Brett attempting to raise as a child a mass of indigestible matter removed from his stomach; and perhaps the best I've seen yet features Susie repeatedly transforming herself into a primitive man (think William Hurt in ALTERED STATES) in order to better fit in at the male-dominated marshals service. Trust me, it all makes an alarming amount of sense.
Elliott is very much an elder statesman of this brand of comedy, having become a cult hero for his offbeat antics on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, the classic sitcom GET A LIFE and the massively underrated CABIN BOY. Those groundbreaking efforts obviously helped pave the way for LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN, on which Koman and Weinberg were staff writers for close to a decade (they also contributed to O'Brien's tragically short-lived TONIGHT SHOW run). Combine Woliner's involvement with the sketch comedy troupe HUMAN GIANT, and you've got three decades worth of bugfuck powering EAGLEHEART. Refined bugfuck. Focused bugfuck.
I recently sat down with the EAGLEHEART brain trust to discuss their approach to the second season, and how they applied what they've learned from their previous shows. I was especially interested in getting Elliott's thoughts as to how working with Adult Swim compares to his brief run battling the FOX network on GET A LIFE (which is finally headed to DVD thanks to Shout! Factory). And, as it must, CABIN BOY came up. These guys were a blast to interview.
Mr. Beaks: The creative freedom Adult Swim allows you is unprecedented. You all have worked in some capacity with major networks, and you know what it is to deal with standards and practices. But the tradeoff for this freedom is the fifteen minute window. Is that acceptable?
Jason Woliner: We actually like the fifteen-minute format. We kind of wrote this show to that. I don't know if any of us would want to do this exact kind of show at a normal length, so I don't think there's that much push-and-pull between that. What we found is that, if they like you, you have the freedom to do whatever. There's still standards and practices, but we've obviously been able to get away with a lot of crazy cartoon violence. We love it.
Michael Koman: The show still has a rating. There are still limits. But they're pretty good about letting us have body parts flying around.
Chris Elliott: What are their limits? Have you ever been told "You can't do that"?
Woliner: When we started doing it, we were like, "How over the top can it get?" And the legal department sent us a clip from DARKPLACE, where a guy just explodes. But it's obviously a dummy exploding. If someone gets shot and they start crying like it's real, they don't want you to do that. But if they get shot and they burst like a balloon full of blood, that's much more palatable to them. The more cartoony it is, they can say, "This isn't realistic violence." Every single time we submit an episode, we get a list of every shot that's a problem. They won't usually say no; they usually say, "We have to go up the chain to get it approved." Basically, when there's something really in contention, whether it's violent or sexual, they have to go to Mike Lazzo, the head of Adult Swim, and if he's okay with it, they're okay with it.
Koman: They just have timecode, and it's like every thirty-eight seconds of the show, they'll say, "At this point, you cannot show excessive blood or gore."
Elliott: Why? Because it's too much?
Koman: Yeah. If there's a person being shot, because we like to have juicy blood splatters... you're not supposed to do too much of it.
Andrew Weinberg: But the S&P people, that's their job: to protect the network from lawsuits or whatever. They don't care if the show is funny or not; they just don't want to get in trouble because the network got fined. It is funny, though. There's an episode this year that's all about Chris shooting people and creating these blood splatters. And they were like, "When Chris shoots this guy and creates a blood splatter, we shouldn't see a blood splatter." And it's like, "Well, you know that the entire episode is about that, so I don't really know how we get around it."
Woliner: Just because they're the Adult Swim legal department doesn't mean they're a bunch of twenty-one-year-old hipsters in Atlanta. They're just lawyers. But what I've found everywhere I've worked that's been up against this is if they like your show, you have a much better shot. And if they don't like you, they'll be sticklers. We still can't do a lot of sexual stuff. It's basic cable rules: you can imply sex, but you can't show thrusting and humping.
Beaks: Really? I remember there was a sketch years ago on LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN where Max Weinberg was fucking himself.
Weinberg: "Max on Max."
Koman: Greg Cohen wrote that.
Beaks: He was definitely thrusting. That's what made it so funny.
Elliott: It's amazing that that kind of stuff can get by. I never understood that. I did CONAN tonight, and I was going to do this bit where I drink Jack Daniels while I'm out there. They said I couldn't do that; you can't see me drinking. So we had to make it Jack Daniels Barbecue Sauce that I was drinking. That was okay. So you can show the humping and all of that, but I couldn't take a swig out of a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Koman: I'll tell you this: Max Weinberg didn't know that that was what they were shooting [on "Max on Max].
Elliott: Was he playing the drums at the time?
Koman: No. It was just a sketch where he was being very romantic, and at the end of the night they just shot it like he's on top of himself. They shot him against a green screen and had him humping on top. Then they were like, "Okay, now get on the bottom of the bed." And then he realized what they were shooting. So if you look at it, he's really pissed when he's laying on the bottom. He's not moving at all.
Elliott: So the scene where I'm humping a tree in EAGLEHEART, did that make it in?
Woliner: We had to be very careful the way we edited that stuff.
Elliott: That's too bad. That was some of my best work.
Beaks: (Laughs) Chris, how does this compare to when you were doing GET A LIFE?
Elliott: It's similar in a lot of respects, especially with having the same sensibility with these guys that I had with Adam Resnick on that show. The fifteen minutes changes it a little, and working for Adult Swim changes it. On GET A LIFE, we were constantly battling what we were doing with the network, and they were constantly wanting the show to be a more realistic sitcom with me sharing real moments with my mom and dad. I haven't felt that on this show at all. If anything, I love the fifteen minute format, but sometimes I wish I could have a little more air so I could have just a moment to be more funny. But a lot of the humor in EAGLEHEART comes out of how quickly things move.
Woliner: That's the one downside. We have Chris and Brett and Maria, and they're so funny together. But there's just not much breathing room to find jokes on set or to take time with things. When you edit it down, it winds up being eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. It winds up getting so tight. We try not to edit it so that it just blows past you; there are actual jokes and you enjoy the story. It's not just relentless. But there isn't that much room to stretch out.
Weinberg: Sometimes you have to sacrifice an emotional arc for Chris. That's one thing that's the exact opposite of what you describe at GET A LIFE. No one at Adult Swim is interested in Chris Monsanto showing different emotions.
Koman: A lot of these episodes, there would be a one-minute-longer cut of it that was very hard to give up.
Woliner: We just have to cut jokes for time that we would've kept in otherwise.
Elliott: Structurally, though, it is kind of similar to GET A LIFE in the sense that the whole marshal aspect of the show is kind of what we hang the surreal plot on. In GET A LIFE, I was supposed to be a newspaper boy still living at home with his mom and dad, but ultimately I would come down and say what the episode was going to be. I'd start the show by saying, "I'm going to be a male model for the next twenty minutes." Structurally, [EAGLEHEART] is a little similar: we start in the marshal's office, and some case comes up and it has to be solved. But then it goes off on all of these different right turns and tangents, and you realize this isn't a cop show. It's just this bizarre, surreal thing.
Woliner: I think the biggest thing that we owe to GET A LIFE is that when we write these things, we try to let them go places that make us laugh and that we haven't seen before. For a network sitcom, what Chris and Adam Resnick were doing, with Spewy or the submarine episode, you would turn it on and never know what was going to happen. We try to bring that same vibe to this show.
Koman: We always try to make it really clear that we're never trying to make a parody. I think a lot of people would describe the show that way, and that's frustrating. To us, it always seemed like if you could start the show where this is their job, they're marshals... and we don't really know anything about what marshals do.
Beaks: And you don't want to know, right?
Koman: We don't.
Elliott: Though I think we've hit on it a few times.
Woliner: Yeah, we might've accidentally gotten something right.
Beaks: But this isn't Michael Mann.
Elliott: We do no research whatsoever.
Woliner: Some people have said that this is an idiot version of JUSTIFIED, which sounds great but I don't think any of us have actually seen JUSTIFIED.
Elliott: A producer of that came up to me in a restaurant, and said, "I know what you guys are doing over there!" He'd seen a picture of me with a cowboy hat. I was like, "Yep, we're gonna get you!"
Beaks: You guys should watch it. It's a great show.
(Cross talk as they all agree that they have heard this and would like to watch the show, thus extinguishing any possibility of a JUSTIFIED/EAGLEHEART feud. For now.)
Beaks: I think it's interesting that all of you have been at the vanguard of comedy at some point, whether it's with Letterman, Conan, GET A LIFE or HUMAN GIANT. Do you feel that mainstream comedy has finally caught up to what it is you do?
Koman: It's weird because I always felt like when LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN was on and early Conan... they were so experimental, yet they were network shows. In a lot of ways, I feel like comedy on television has become more mainstream. Most late night shows aren't like that now.
Weinberg: The thing that made it interesting at LATE NIGHT is that you were taking money from General Electric and wasting an hour of NBC's time with this nonsense that you'd come up with. That's what made it really fun. If it was lower stakes, you wouldn't feel like you were getting away with something or making a mockery.
Koman: What feels new about something like [EAGLEHEART] is that they put enough money into the show to make it look really good. We have an amazing camera crew and really good equipment. So you can make something that's as dumb as the things we've made, but make it look as good as an episode of MAD MEN.
Beaks: But in terms of absurdist comedy attempting to break into the mainstream, Chris, I think back to GET A LIFE, where you had upstarts like Bob Odenkirk and Charlie Kaufman on the staff. At the time, could you sense that they were struggling to fit in?
Elliott: I think for any writer on GET A LIFE it was a hard thing for them to try to fit into, if only because Adam Resnick and myself had this thing that we had done at Letterman. And David Mirkin, who was the executive producer and writer and director on it... to his credit he shared that with us. When I talked to outside writers, I think they were always trying to write like us or try to write the way that we saw things. I think it was hard for all of them. But everybody was great. Everybody had fun coming up with weird shit in those rooms and playing around with it. But I was really more interested in myself than anything else. (Everyone laughs) I wasn't looking at Charlie Kaufman going, "Oh, you're going to be brilliant one day."
Beaks: So there was never a moment in the room where he came up with something that made you say, "Oh, shit! This guy's good!"
Elliott: There were lots of moments like that, where I just told him to get out of the room because he was stupid. (Laughter) No, I don't know if anyone can see that in anybody. Certainly not under those circumstances, where we're writing at two in the morning. It was always that way on [GET A LIFE]. And I was shooting and then going into the writers room at the end of the day, so I was pretty tired.
Woliner: But there are definitely those shows like GET A LIFE and THE DANA CARVEY SHOW, where you just look at the roster of writers and everyone there was genius. And even if they contributed different things on different shows, I think people who have the same sensibility just kind of wind up together and working on each other's things.
Elliott: I think these guys would've ended up writing on GET A LIFE. If you guys were just starting to write at that point, I think you would've gravitated there. I've always thought that if I was around when my dad [Bob Elliott] was doing his radio show that I would've gravitated to him. And they probably would've hired me.
Woliner: Yeah, but that's because he's your dad. He would've put in a good word.
Elliott: I don't go in for the nepotism thing. I wouldn't have told him that he was my dad. (Laughter) Maybe after he gave me the job.
Koman: When I was in college I found this book of Bob and Ray sketches in the library. And in the same way that Charlie Kaufman wrote on GET A LIFE, Kurt Vonnegut wanted to write for Bob and Ray. He pitched them. He tried to get a job there.
Elliott: Conan came in for GET A LIFE.
Koman: Conan also applied to Letterman.
Woliner: And Charlie Kaufman sent a packet to MR. SHOW and didn't get hired.
Beaks: Did you guys have a show that you really wanted to get on, but didn't get hired?
Weinberg: This is my second job in show business. I did Conan for nine-and-a-half years, and now this.
Koman: I tried to get a job on TV FUNHOUSE before I wrote on Conan.
Beaks: The Comedy Central show?
Koman: Yeah. That was my favorite show at the time. Actually, it might've been before it went on the air, but I was a fan of the TV FUNHOUSE sketches [on SNL].
Beaks: Speaking of peculiar comedic genius, have you seen Brett Gelman's full "1,000 Cats"?
Woliner: I directed it!
Koman: But have you seen the unedited footage?
Woliner: I have! We shot it maybe eight or nine times that day because we only had two cameras and wanted to make it feel like thirty. I destroyed him that day.
Elliott: He's really sweating in some scenes.
Beaks: I've seen the FUNNY OR DIE version, but I've heard that's cut down from a much longer performance.
Woliner: It's not "much longer". That's a little apocryphal. Brett was doing that show at UCB in New York, and I just loved it. It was my favorite thing. And we knew the people doing that FUNNY OR DIE TV show, so I said to him at a bar one night that we need to do "1,000 Cats" for the show. We asked them, and they said yes. We shot in the Orpheum Theatre downtown [in L.A.], and I think we only cut out a few cats. The original was, like, twenty-four minutes, and what's remaining is seventeen minutes. We wrote a few new things for it, and we put him on wires; we tried to make it really grand and big. Then HBO saw it, and while I think that's a show where they had total creative freedom, [HBO] said "We hate this. We don't want to show this." They tried to get us to cut it down, and we were really fighting for it. Then Andrew Steele, who produced it, showed it to Will Ferrell. He really liked it, and personally emailed them and said, "Let these guys leave it as long and dumb as it is."
Beaks: That was a good night on my Twitter feed. Some loved it, and others were like, "This shit is still fucking on!?!?"
Woliner: Seeing how angry people got... I mean, people loved it, but people also got really fucking angry watching it.
Weinberg: When the joke is that something keeps going on and on, if you try to make it shorter it defeats the whole purpose of it.
Woliner: Laughing) I don't even know what the joke of "1,000 Cats" is.
Beaks: One last thing on EAGLEHEART, I'm told there are a number of interesting guest roles this season.
Woliner: There's only a few, and they're very special when they come in. We don't have a lot of cameos on this show. We usually just hire weird dramatic actors who pop up in different TV shows and movies. But there are a few big cameos. Our producer Conan O'Brien does a spot. Ben Stiller is in an episode. And Dean Norris from BREAKING BAD is in one.
(I get the last question prompt from the publicist.)
Beaks: Okay, I guess I've got to go for it.
Elliott: Uh-oh. Here comes the gotcha question!
Beaks: While I'm very excited for the GET A LIFE set that's coming out, I honestly believe that CABIN BOY deserves the Criterion treatment.
Elliott: Oh, that's really nice.
Woliner: Do you know anyone there?
Beaks: Not really, but I can certainly ask.
Elliott: I just don't think Touchstone or Disney would want to have it out there.
Beaks: Is that why we've yet to see a Blu-ray or a decent Special Edition DVD?
Elliott: I don't know. To be honest, I've never made much of an attempt to do anything with it. I think Adam and I talked sometime doing a big silver anniversary release. And then of course we're talking about a sequel. But other than that...
Beaks: Have you talked to Russ Tamblyn about coming back as Chocki?
Elliott: Yeah, I want to get Russ back in shape. I don't want a fat Chocki.
Beaks: How do you feel about the film now? I remember how rough the reception was when it first came out, but it's acquired a very devoted cult following.
Elliott: It has, but it was vilified when it came out. It came and went very quickly - and so did my career for a while. The phone just really stopped ringing. It was actually the first time in my career where I had that experience.
Beaks: Did you feel at the time that you shouldn't have made the movie.
Elliott: Yeah. I stood by the film, and I still think it's a funny movie; I thought it was funny when we made it. But I was so ignorant, I thought "Well, if this movie fails, I'll just do another one." I was just new to the business, and I didn't realize that it doesn't work that way. When a movie comes out and it does not do well, you don't just get handed another one. And we were handed everything on that movie. We had Tim Burton's name, me starring in it and Adam directing it. It was like "That's your shot." But we never looked at it that way. We thought we were making something funny, but we never looked at like "We've got to make sure this appeals to more than my fan base."
Beaks: But if you'd tried to broaden the appeal, you would've lost what's special about the film.
Elliott: Obviously. Definitely. And that's why it still has a following now. I think if we'd tried to make it more commercial or appeal to a broader audience, it would've gone the way of BIO-DOME.
Woliner: "It's pure, unlike BIO-DOME." (Laughter)
EAGLEHEART premieres Thursday night/Friday morning at midnight on April 12th/13th. Don't miss it. And be sure to write your local congressman about CABIN BOY's enshrinement in the Criterion Collection, or risk the wrath of Chocki.
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April 10, 2012, 7:30 p.m. CST
by Stifler's Mom
And GET A LIFE is the Bible of subversive TV comedy.
April 10, 2012, 7:42 p.m. CST
Unfortunately, we're not there yet.
April 10, 2012, 7:51 p.m. CST
by John C. Croker
The entire Get a Life series on DVD. Not just two volumes of random episodes. No being cheap and leaving out the licensed songs either like the USA channel did for the reruns. Also Cabin Boy on blu-ray and remastered in 3D.
April 10, 2012, 7:54 p.m. CST
by John C. Croker
Eagleheart getting a DVD release of season 1 but no blu-ray? If you've got an HD DVR you already have better looking episodes than you can find on retail shelves.
April 10, 2012, 8:02 p.m. CST
Love that movie. I loved last season of Eagleheart as well. Looking forward to more. DEATHPUNCH!
April 10, 2012, 8:38 p.m. CST
Yes, yes it was. So says the guy under the seats.
April 10, 2012, 8:42 p.m. CST
Okay, which movie is that from and who said it?
April 10, 2012, 9:10 p.m. CST
by Tigger Tales
The season 2 episodes are amazing, and there is a lot of great character development, but let's not overlook the sweetness that is season 1 -- the six episodes are untouchable, and at times even CHARMING, and nothing tops the climax of the first season finale, you know, that episode that features the anthem "I fell into the Pit"
April 11, 2012, 3:42 a.m. CST
I still say that to people to this day. And they still look at me just as stragely as they ever did, before slowly backing away...
April 11, 2012, 3:56 a.m. CST
After Pawn Stars
April 11, 2012, 8 a.m. CST
I still feel bad about getting my hand in one of his shots :( <P> Sorry Chris. I was the douche trying to protect the Camera man.
April 11, 2012, 9:11 a.m. CST
April 11, 2012, 11:03 a.m. CST
it felt like he danced right into my soul.
April 11, 2012, 11:47 a.m. CST
That's my computer's startup sound.
April 11, 2012, 4:59 p.m. CST
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