Director Jason Woliner Talks About Bob Odenkirk and David Cross's New Netflix Show
The man behind the camera for such strange, hilarious shows as Chris Elliott's "Eagleheart" and "Comedy Bang Bang" discusses what it's like to work with his heroes.
For anyone in their 30s, the notion that comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross might get back together to do anything is a big deal. So when news came at the beginning of April that the duo behind the legendary Mr. Show were joining forces again to make a brand new sketch comedy show for Netflix, called With Bob and David, the internet rightfully freaked out.
Mr. Show introduced a generation of comedians and comedy fans to the world of "alternative comedy." Tracking its legacy backwards is kind of like linking the lineage of Greek gods. Tenacious D, The Sarah Silverman Program, Key & Peele, Comedy Bang Bang, everything Tim & Eric have done, and nearly the entire landscape of comedy podcasting all owe a debt to Mr. Show.
The program also left undeniable mark on Jason Woliner, a director who's been behind some of the best and weirdest TV that's aired over the past few years. So it's only fitting that Woliner is now set direct large parts of Odenkirk and Cross's latest endeavor.
One look at Woliner's gut-busting resume and it's clear he's the perfect person for the job. He started as the "non-performing fourth member" of the sketch comedy group Human Giant, handling a majority of the visual aspects during the group's two-season MTV run. Since then, he's directed the mockumentary short series RAAAAAAAANDY based on Aziz Ansari's character from Funny People, the live-action version of SNL's The Ambigiously Gay Duo with Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon, the best episode of Nathan for You ("The Claw of Shame"), two insane Brett Gelman dinner specials for Adult Swim, and most of the brilliant and under-appreciated three-season run of Eagleheart, which may actually be Woliner's finest work to date. The third, and probably final, season of Eagleheart nearly reaches the creative and comedic heights of the original Mr. Showwith its transcendent and gruesome season finale.
I gave Woliner a call the other day to talk about his new gig directing his heroes and his own incredible work.
VICE: It's OK to talk about With Bob and David?
Jason Woliner: Yeah. I'd been working on it in complete secrecy for a month, not even allowed to say it existed. When it came out [earlier this month] that it was happening, we were halfway through shooting the stuff I was doing. It's not a secret anymore.
So, shooting is done?
I directed all but one of the—they call them "pre-tapes." The filmed pieces. It's like Mr. Show, where it's half-filmed, half-live. But it's specifically called With Bob and David. There's all this, "It's not Mr. Show." But people who are fans of Mr. Show will be very happy with this. It's not extremely different from what people want.
How did you get involved?
I don't know. I'd casually known Bob and David for years just by being in the comedy world, and I've done work with other people from the show. Early on my name came up when they'd need someone to direct the filmed stuff. It's kind of like... How old are you?
I'm 33, so it's right in my wheelhouse.
Right. So, Mr. Show, that's the reason I was like, This is what I want to do with my life. You see something at a certain age and [it can] blow your mind in a way that... can't happen once you're past a certain age. Even now I can see something that's amazing and love it and think about it, but it really can't hit you and shape who you are [like it does when you're] in your teens. I feel like everyone our age, for people who like comedy, that was the thing.
We're in this era of reboots now, where these great things from our youth are coming back. New X-Files, new Twin Peaks...
Who knows. But are there other projects to work on that would blow your 14-year-old self's mind?
Honestly, working with these guys would be it. And then working with Chris Elliott [star of Eagleheart] would be the other one. So, I've been crazily fortunate. There's really not many people left. I've hit that sweet spot. For me, this whole thing has been very dreamlike, because I didn't ever think this was something that would exist. There's just a very good vibe to the whole thing. Everyone's so funny, and no one's old-looking yet.
That was such an entryway into this whole world. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and it was like, Oh, here's this whole comedy world that exists, this whole scene.
I was the only kid I knew who stayed up late and watched this stuff on HBO on a Friday night. The internet's changed all that because it's easier to discover your own little subculture. You really had to put in more work back then.
I remember seeking out Eraserhead, spending $50 for a VHS copy from like Russia. Then a month later it was everywhere on DVD for $20. Now, you can stream it from wherever.
It makes things less special. I had this videotape of shorts Sam Raimi made when he was a kid. You had to go somewhere to find it, buy it, ask around, look around, or mail something. Obviously, putting in that legwork you really earned the stuff more. Same thing with music. This has been said to death, but now every record is so accessible. It used to be you hear about something, buy something, and it's yours and you own it. I would put in so much more of an effort to like something. I paid $19 for this CD, so I'll listen to it a few times. Now, I just feel like I give a lot of stuff less of a chance, and connect to stuff less than I would back then.
When you were watching the old Sam Raimi movies, if you didn't like it on the first or second listen, you'd still gave it a few tries.
Things become more rewarding if it does not connect right away. There really isn't that anymore. There's so much more shit. It's like this waterfall. Also, back then, the reason stuff made such an impact on our generation was there wasn't really that much. This was it. Now, if you are into comedy, there's a million sketch shows, there's so much live comedy and improv. People 20 years from now will be less unified on what their thing was, because everyone kind of has their own thing and it's more segmented. I don't know that we'll have that kind of thing again, where everyone our age is like, "Oh, Mr. Show."
I remember when A Special Thing [message board] was a big source for comedy news and show info. At some point, you need filters to make sure the best gets to you. The Best Show with Tom Scharpling is another place, where you're taught what you should listen to.
Tom acts as a filter. I've discovered a lot of stuff I liked through that. That's what I feel like the next step is, some kind of curating system. It hasn't really emerged yet, I don't think. On Twitter there's people I like who post cool things and I discover through that, but it's also a waterfall of garbage.
To get back on track, the next thing I want to talk about are the Brett Gelman dinner specials. Where did that idea come from?
We were at this dinner party with other people we know, and certain people were kind of performing. We were thinking of an actor guy having a dinner party where he wouldn't let anyone else speak. It was originally going to be called Five Courses, Five Voices, and it was just going to be Brett inviting actor friends and celebrities to a dinner party, which they realize was a taping—they didn't know that going in—and he proceeds to do five character pieces. There was a bit of him making them feel trapped, but it wasn't as much of a horror thing. We wrote that script and Adult Swim liked parts of it, but didn't like just watching a guy at the head of the table, not letting anyone else speak. They encouraged us to follow a horror movie thread. Then they said we could do more, so we wrote another one, but they said it was too extreme for it to air. So we wrote the one about his family. Just last week we were told that we can do another one, so we're getting to work on that now.
It's a difficult line, going over the top without becoming incoherent. Do you pull things back if you have to?
We try to keep everything grounded in its own specific logic or reality. We try to avoid doing anything that's just shocking. As extreme as things get, hopefully they're grounded in a way that, on some level, you could see where these characters are coming from. No one's just acting goofy, I would say. We're also—and we got into this trap on Eagleheart, too—we're really afraid of repeating ourselves. We try to change the formula for each one. We're thinking of maybe not doing a scary one because that's what's expected now by anyone who's seen the first two. With a lot of horror or shock or weirder comedy stuff, it's easier to just be fucked up. Hopefully with these, you're actually invested in the story.
That takes me right to the last season of Eagleheart. The ending was one of the most gut-wrenching things I've seen.
Aww. That's really the nicest thing you could say to me. [Laughs] That means so much to me.
Why did you decide to do one long storyline as opposed to standalone episodes?
We had done one-offs and wanted to do something else with it. Season one was a really difficult process. But by the end, we figured out a place where everyone was happier. In the second season, I think we got pretty good at doing these 11-minute stories that spiraled off into different things and came back. We really liked setting these really annoying challenges for us. So, me and Michael Koman and Andrew Weinberg, we were trying to figure out what to do to keep it interesting. We [wanted to make something you] could appreciate not only conceptually, but also actually invest in the story and the characters. We also wanted to make something that was. I love Adult Swim, but you don't see a lot of things on there that are genuinely sad, so we thought that was a fun challenge. [That season is really about] the futility of jokes as a weapon against the world, and what the end of that is. Which is, you know, your severed head in a toilet while a bum shits on your face.
Are you happy with how it ended?
I think [the ending] works. It sweeps you away, and there's a gut punch. But the other thing is, we worked really hard on it. I gave it years of my life, we're so proud of it. But there was something about it preventing it from connecting with other people. I still don't know exactly what it is. I don't even know if it's a cult hit. It's such a strange little show. We only hear from people who are like, "I love your show, I can't get any of my friends to watch it." Something about it seems to turn most people off.
Any talk about a fourth season?
Not currently. Maybe in ten or 20 years there will be another wave of nostalgia. Whoever saw Eagleheart when they were 15, they'll try to make another season.
Follow Rick on Twitter.