Paul Scheer seems to be at a high point in his career. His credits touch on some of the best comedy of the last decade. A small highlight reel includes Human Giant, NTSF:SD:SUV, Childrens Hospital, The League, VEEP, Fresh Off The Boat, and Big Mouth on TV alone. Then there’s his presence behind the scenes as a writer, producer, and director, as well as an Indy movie mainstay. And all of that is before you even get into his two hit movie podcasts How Did This Get Made? and Unspooled — and his second season turn as wild man Keith Shankar in the upcoming return of Showtime’s Black Monday.
It’s always a bit of a crapshoot when you’re talking to someone working as much as Scheer does. There’s often a hard out after 15 minutes or so. Scheer immediately dispelled that when we jumped on a call, while he was legit on a break from recording voice-over for a new project. As soon as we started chatting, he made it clear we had all the time we needed to talk about his podcasts, our mutual love of movies good and bad, and his very meme-able Black Monday character Keith Shankar.
You know, Unspooled is really this weird passion project that I’ve had. I was out one night and I saw a list of the AFI’s Top 100 movies. I realized I’m a big movie buff, but I had never really seen at least 40 or 50 percent of these films, and I wanted to watch them. I thought, maybe a lot of people out there were experiencing the same feeling and hadn’t seen these films either. I thought it would be a fun podcast to do. It would be like almost a book club podcast where you learn about things. It’d be a little bit like a simple film school.
I was wracking my brain for who to do the show with. The first person that came to my mind was Amy Nicholson because I’d done some really fun things with her in the past. She hosted a show called The Canon. I’m a fan of her on NPR. I love her reviews. I was just like, maybe she would be great because she’s somebody who’s uniquely interesting. She’s funny. She’s incredibly opinionated, but not in a way that’s off-putting. You may not agree with her opinions, but she’s not snobbish about her opinions. I felt like that was a great fit.
I approached her and asked, “What do you think about doing this?” She was really excited about it. It turned out, she hadn’t seen a handful, probably five or six, of the films on the list. It was just a fun project to start with her.
It feels like this started from a place of pure love of film overall.
It really just started with me wanting to learn a little bit more about film. I obviously watch a lot of bad movies, but I feel like there’s so much to be learned. I think there’s a world in which the past is getting so disposable that we rarely look backward anymore. That, to me, was part of the appeal of the show. It was finding these things that you wouldn’t normally go to. Look, if it’s Ready or Not or Nashville, I’m probably going to watch Ready or Not. I want to watch that hide-and-seek horror movie. I feel like we often tune out the past. But, I wanted to do Unspooled in a fun way that didn’t make it stuffy, or feel like you needed to have a film degree to enjoy it.
I think that plays into one of my favorite episodes, The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s such an obscure film, and it’s so hard to find. But I’m hoping with what you’re doing it makes it a little more accessible. Have you found that Unspooled is making some almost forgotten gems a little more current?
It’s funny to see what people gravitate towards, especially in the downloads of the show. Obviously, we have a really high, strong listenership, and it spikes on certain films. Sad to say, it spikes the most whenever we do something that is a little bit more popular, so your E.T.s, and your Raiders, and your Godfathers — we just did a Parasite episode — or anytime we talk about the year’s movies.
But then, there are these movies that really invigorate our audience. It’s something like, “I’d never even heard this title!” That movie, The Best Year’s of Our Lives, was intriguing on that level. It was like, “Wait, what could be on the list that I don’t even know, that’s not even in popular culture?” That was a really interesting one that I think got people very excited. It felt like we all found it at the same time.
I guess the elephant in the room is that the AFI 100 list is, of course, finite. I’m wondering what do you and Amy see on the horizon once you get to number 100?
Well, that’s something that Amy and I have been talking about since day one. We knew that the list was going to run out. We are definitely going to continue past 100. In what form the show continues, I’m not exactly sure. I think it might become a little bit more open-ended at points because I think what we’ve found is a fun balance where we can pull in a bunch of different things. So, I like the show when we can be talking about Sound of Music one week, Repo Man the next week, and Parasite the week after that. I think we want to continue to play in that world. I don’t know what that will be, yet.
Luckily, our title is good in a way that we didn’t tie ourselves down with an “AFI” name, or anything like that. We’re unspooling a film reel. So, that’ll allow us to look at anything we want for a couple of episodes; look at Kurosawa, and then maybe look at John Hughes, and then maybe look at something like Birds of Prey, if needed.
I would like something that feels like it has a little bit of a round-robin nature to it. I think that the fans have enjoyed this experience and a lot of our conversations branch out to other things. People have responded a lot to our roundup shows about the year’s movies or the decade’s movies. I think we can approach things the same way. Whatever it will be, it will definitely be Amy and me talking about movies. It just may not be as rigid as the AFI list.
Right. It’s interesting because with Unspooled, as you said, it can kind of be anything. Whereas, with How Did This Get Made? you have a strict guideline of watching bad movies. Do you feel like there has already been some overlap between the shows?
Absolutely. I think one of the closest episodes to How Did It Get Made? that we did on Unspooled was Forrest Gump. It’s a movie that, while impressive on some things, it’s very — I hate to use this term, but — “Okay, Boomer.” It didn’t age well.
Watching M*A*S*H, I was also thinking, “This movie doesn’t age well.” It’s hard because we’re talking on How Did This Get Made? about movies with vampires and time travel and bodies splicing and all this sort of stuff. There are some really cheesy things. Things that you smack your head at and accept as being great. But, it’s not always that. I think Amy and I definitely came down hard on Shawshank, and that movie is beloved. So, it’s always in the eye of the beholder.
I think always with the AFI list, there’s going to be a level of quality. But … there’s always going to be a Forrest Gump that I can rip apart, and I don’t think it belongs on the list. It’s a well-made, well-acted, well-directed film. Then, on the other hand, one of the things I talk about a lot on Unspooled is the movies that we loved on How Did This Get Made? Whether it’s the Fast and Furious movies or even some Marvel movies, we have to start asking if there’s room for something like that on an Unspooled list? Is there room for Tommy Wiseau’s The Room on the AFI list?
That’s a bold shot to call.
I made this case to Amy. When you make something that’s so uniquely bad, that it transcends as the worst, yet it’s still watchable and it has a cult following, doesn’t that also deserve to be on the AFI list? I also believe, at this point in our lives, if you don’t put a movie like a Marvel movie on that list, you’re not really respecting American film. These are movies that are part of the makeup of America: Good, bad, and indifferent.
So, there’s something about that. Where is The Matrix on the AFI list? Why can’t we have more fun? There’s only a handful of horror on the AFI list, and horror is such an American institution. I mean, obviously every culture has its own great horror, but I think we don’t represent our horror enough. We don’t represent our comedy enough. I think those are two genres that make some of our best films.
Put John Hughes on the AFI list!
I fully agree.
How do you skip John Hughes?
That’s bonkers. Do you feel like this is a generational thing? It was 2007 when the list was last voted on? If you look at the people who were voting on that list, they’re coming from the ’70s new wave who watched movies in the ’50s. I mean, you still see The Searchers on there because that film was so important for that generation. But, now, there’s a whole new group of people who, as you and I did, grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. We grew up with John Hughes, and we can’t believe that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles isn’t on a great American film list, or Back to the Future or …
Yes, Back to the Future! It’s amazing. You’re right. We talk about this a lot with culture all the time. The Oscars, I think, got it right this year. To a degree. What they awarded their awards to was very innovative. But, we have to open up our eyes, and we have to take in a bigger, broader swath of things and represent more people. Someone made a point online basically asking if the Oscars should start a male and female director category. We’re in this culture where we’re not making room for things. We’re letting certain, I think, groups determine what are worthy of awards, or who is worthy of awards. And I think that you’re right, this list is a list that I don’t think is voted on by the people that are making films in 2000. Is Ari Aster adding to this list? Is Jordan Peele voting on this list?
I think there’s something about being lazy about this list, too. Before I watched The Searchers, if you asked me, “Should The Searchers be on that list?” I’d be, “Of course, it’s John Ford!” It feels like no one’s really gone back and re-watching these movies. Same thing with M*A*S*H. Like, “Oh, should M*A*S*H be on the list?” Again, I’d have said, “Of course, it should be on the list! It’s a cultural touchstone!” But now, I’d argue that M*A*S*H the TV show is more of a cultural touchstone. It’s sort of this grandfathered in thing of, “Well, yes, of course, it is.” Have we watched it though? Have we tipped the wheels on this? I almost feel like you should only be voting if you watched these movies in the last five or ten years. I think Meryl Streep made a whole point that she doesn’t vote at the Oscars unless she’s seen all the films.
We live in a culture where we just glance over everything. So yes, to answer your question, I think culturally we’re moving away from lists like this because I think that the voices are getting more and more varied. The list doesn’t have many black filmmakers on it. It has no female directors on it, which is confounding. It’s from AFI, and it’s 2020. A list from 2007 hasn’t been updated yet? If I have a list of America’s best 100 movies, and there are no female directors on it, I’m making a new list, immediately.
Let’s start representing viewpoints, and cultures, and people. I want to see different faces than just a white guy falling for a mysterious woman and trying to figure out if she’s evil or not. We have plenty of those. Let’s find some diversity. That’s not just saying, “diversity for diversity’s sake.” It’s more, let’s break the mold. I think it’s important. I think it’s also important, the same way, to keep a movie by Billy Wilder on the list. I’m not saying get rid of all the old stuff. It’s just, like, do we need four different film noirs? Do we need five Vietnam movies on the list?
No. This list should have one Vietnam movie. It should have maybe one Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro pairing. We don’t need two. I don’t think Raging Bull is worthy of that list. I think it’s an amazing film — and Scorsese makes amazing films — but I don’t know if that needs to be on the list, especially as high as it is.
I feel you. I also feel like in the next generation, if they vote now, Clint Eastwood’s going to push out John Ford. Then, Coen Brothers are going to push out Clint Eastwood and so on as we grow. Let’s shift a bit to How Did This Get Made? Has that become a bit of a break for you now? Or is there a parallel in how you watch prestige and bad movies?
You know, I treat them both oddly the same. But I feel like I have to look at things in a more serious way. Whereas with How Did This Get Made?, I’m coming to the films the same way, but just looking for … I’m trying to think of how to say it in the frankest way.
You’re just looking for different things?
Yeah, I’m looking for different things. I’ll tell you, yes, it’s very much enjoyable. A good bad movie is so much fun to watch, as much as a great movie is.
Sitting back to watch The Godfather for three hours is just as fun to me as watching Prelude to a Kiss. That’s part of the fun I have as a filmgoer. I’m not snooty. Put John Wick next to Sophie’s Choice. I’m down. I’m like, “If it’s good, it’s good.”
What I think is funny is that How Did This Get Made? is much more of a litmus test for what was acceptable at a certain period of time, and how quickly it ages. To me, How Did This Get Made? has the feeling of eating old junk food. Sometimes, it’s like a Twinkie. And it’s like, “Oh, that Twinkie is still good. It’s not good for me, but it’s still delicious.” Then, other times it’s like you get an old piece of bubblegum from an old package of Top Deck baseball cards and you’re like, “Oh … this did not age well.” That’s the fun of it. Some of the movies have that flexibility, and some don’t, and you never know which way it’ll hit. Obviously, culturally, the How Did This Get Made? movies never really age that well, especially with the stereotypes, and things like that. Then sometimes, you’ll see something and you’re like, “Oh my God! This movie’s like 40 years ahead of its time!”
Since you covered so many ’80s movies in How Did This Get Made?, we’re you able to pull any inspiration when you started working on the very ’80s dude (Keith Shankar) on Black Monday?
You know, it’s interesting to go back to the ’80s. I was trying to figure out what are the cultural touchstones that don’t necessarily feel like they are the ones that you’ve seen a million times in, like, The Wedding Singer or any other classic ’80s redo. Surprisingly, a lot of the stuff that I thought of and pulled from are from ’80s movies where they’re not trying to recapture the ’80s but instead they are in the ’80s. The two things I really used were both my knowledge of that era of film because we actually talk a lot about pop culture on the show and I watched a lot of documentaries about stock workers in the ’80s. Documentary films were a little bit different then. They were not as produced, not as Netflix buzzy. They’re a lot rawer.
Are there any documentaries that have really stood out for you from the era?
Especially in season two, the documentary Cocaine Cowboys was one that I was really looking at. The way that the show starts in season two, we’re out of the world that we’re in during season one. The beginning of season two takes place in Miami, New York, and D.C. The main characters don’t even really meet up together, fully, until episode six. That makes the show a lot of fun because we got to all run on different levels.
My character, Keith, has fled New York. He’s left his wife, not legally. He just left her high and dry, probably sending her a box of chocolates with money in it. She doesn’t even know where it’s coming from. He’s in Miami, living with Don [Cheadle] in a seedy hotel. He’s in this cocaine business, right now. He’s on the run, and there’s a whole different vibe going on. Unfortunately, a few things conspire that gets him back to New York, and one of the fun things for me was figuring out how does Keith comes back to New York now, as a gay man.
What does season two look like for Keith in New York? That was a really interesting challenge to ask, “How does he need to exist in a world where he’s not going to be accepted? But, how can he be accepted, on his own terms?”
💰 @SHOBlackMonday just dropped a Season 2 trailer and premiere date 💰
— TV Guide (@TVGuide) January 13, 2020
You and Don Cheadle really gets to evolve in this next season. Plus, Cheadle is wearing a crazy wig throughout. And your character is already spawning great blissed-out memes of you rollerskating in Miami.
Right. I love it. What I love about the show — and I loved about this from the very beginning — is that the show has confluences. What I love about my favorite dramas on television is that there are effects of the character’s actions. Better Call Saul is so good because the characters morph and change, they don’t just go back to their square one. You don’t often see that in comedies.
I think Fleabag is a beautiful example of that, of how a character’s growing and changing, and how these decisions affect other decisions. I think we’re getting into that more and more in comedy. That’s what I love about the show. The show adds those dramatic elements where you make a choice, and then you have to live by it. We killed a man at the end of last season. Keith was outed. There are so many things going on, and we have to deal with it. So yeah, part of the fun for me is going, “All right, now this is true, and now this is true.” There’s always so much forward momentum.
What I love about this show versus my other experiences on other shows I’ve done is just that every week something happens that molds this character slightly differently. So, at the end of this season, I’m like, “Oh, fuck! He’s gotten himself in another situation, again.” For me, it’s really fun to continually play a character like that.
I’ve heard you lost quite a bit of weight for this season as well.
I did. The idea was the second season we’re going to open up in Miami. It’s going to be a couple of months later. Keith is going to be fully out and living his life that he’s always wanted to live in Miami. Part of that is that he’s also running this small drug-dealing group of rollerbladers dealing coke.
Number one, I wanted to learn how to rollerblade. But, number two, I knew I need to look different. There’s no way that if I’m being truthful to the character, that I did not change. I’m going to be tan. I’m going to be in shape. I’m not going to just be the old Keith. So, no one directed me. It wasn’t like they Kevin Feige put me on a “Marvel diet.” It was me just going, “I need to make this character real.” I think it looks so much better if I look like I am living that life.
I took it upon myself and just started losing all this weight, working out, and training as a rollerskater and eventual rollerblader. It’s was great. It was super fun. Now, it’s just become part of my life.
Well, congratulations, man. It’s always tough with those sorts of things, no matter the motivation.
I will tell you, it’s unfair because it’s not any motivation many other people will have. But knowing you’re going to be on television almost naked, that motivation trumps everything I’ve ever had.
Season 2 of ‘Black Monday’ drops Sunday, March 15 at 10 pm EST with back-to-back episodes. Check out the trailer below.