Last week, Netflix belatedly gifted its more amorous “Netflix and chill” viewers the ultimate Christmas present — Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. A spiritual sequel of sorts to The Lonely Island’s mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the faux variety program gives a platform to the titular crooner’s “Jack Sparrow” characterization of himself: an obsessed cinephile whose dedication to the craft of lovemaking is surpassed only by his sultry songs. Yet as self-deprecating as this parody is, Bolton’s performance remains remarkable throughout.
Much of this has to do with the star’s willingness to make fun of his career — something the Grammy-winner hasn’t always been too keen on. However, co-directors Akiva Schaffer (The Lonely Island) and Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang! Bang!), deserve just as much credit. This isn’t the first project Schaffer and Aukerman have worked on together. They first teamed up as writers for the 2009 MTV Movie Awards, hosted by Schaffer’s fellow Lonely Island-er Andy Samberg.
“We worked on the 2009 MTV Movie Awards, a few Comedy Bang! Bang! episodes, and the Emmys,” Schaffer says of his collaborator. “Scott was head writer and wrote all of Andy Samberg’s stuff. He put together the writers’ room and saw it through, too. So after me and Michael came up with just the basic idea — basically the title of the thing — I didn’t think I could handle it alone.”
“I’ve always had an interest in directing and the cinema,” says Aukerman, to which his co-director responds “oh boy.” Asked about how and when Schaffer reached out to him, the former Comedy Bang! Bang! host offers the first of many silly answers: “Now, cut to — as they say in the ‘biz’ — Akiva Schaffer, 30s, scruffy, and with a wry sensibility. He falls to one knee, pleading. He says, ‘Scott, I can’t do it without you. I tried man, but I can’t do this. This is too much for me to handle. Please save me!’ I accept and the rest is Netflix history.”
“That should have been the first couple of minutes, seeing how it all came together from behind the scenes,” says Schaffer when asked why Aukerman’s humorous account wasn’t included. After all, the impromptu sketch did involve his going down on bended knee. It would have fit right in among Bolton’s romantic escapades. “More movies should start with how they came together,” adds Aukerman. “They should start with a 10-minute documentary about how the movie came about. Then I’d be invested.”
When interviewing Schaffer and Aukerman together on a conference call, it quickly becomes apparent that they just don’t stop. Then again, whether you’re a journalist, a comic, or a lovelorn figure still searching for a long-lost valentine, discussing Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special with its directors is anything but straightforward. It’s a free lesson in improvisation, promotion, and how to chat with someone whose phone line is handicapped by a two-second delay.
“I really enjoy that you’re hearing everything Drew and I are saying approximately two seconds later than we’re saying it. I can hear the echo,” Aukerman laughs. “I definitely am,” Schaffer confirms. “It sounds normal to me, but when you guys start talking, I can tell there’s some sort of delay happening since I keep talking over you both. Comedy is timing, so it’s fun to have a phone that’s two seconds behind.”
Interruption notwithstanding, the pair quickly returns to the topic at hand. “I didn’t really get down on my knees, necessarily,” says Schaffer. “I remember you being on your knees for some reason,” Aukerman retorts, adding: “Wait a minute, are you just short?” It’s difficult not to assume the writers’ room simply wasn’t an expanded version of their conversation — especially when Schaffer jokes about turning on a recorder, talking for 10 hours, and reducing it all down to a single hour to produce the script. “But first, of course, we had to smoke some of that sweet ganj. Which, as you know, no comedy can get made without smoking,” Aukerman chimes in. “We’re pretty demented as it comes,” Schaffer agrees, “but with a little bit of the ‘wacky tobacky’ in us we get pretty sick and twisted.”
When it comes to the business of comedy, however, neither is shy about getting serious. The highs, the lows, the occasional boring interludes — nothing is left out. “This was a much faster process. I had lunch with Bolton in August, and the idea came to us. Then I called Scott that afternoon,” recalls Schaffer. “We pitched it in September, telling each place we called up, ‘If you’re interested in this you have to say yes by the end of the week so we can start a writers’ room on Monday.’ So we wrote a little bit in September and October, shot in November, edited in December and finished in January. I would say it was the exact right amount of time, though there was no leeway. Even if we’d started earlier, we probably wouldn’t have had that much more time due to the budget. We would have had to cushion it a bit then, but there was no cushion on this.”
“It’s serious work,” Aukerman explains. “A lot of people don’t know that when you’re making comedy, you’ve got to hunker down and cut the jokes. That’s what it’s all about. A lot of times you come out of it and realize you cut too many jokes, so then you go back in and add better ones, but that’s part of the process. Comedy seems effortless. It’s like, ‘ha ha ha ha’ — string a bunch of those together and you have laughter. But what’s behind it? I think that’s what we’re really interested in people seeing when they watch this special — the process and the hard work that goes into it. Sometimes it’s not fun, but it’s always funny, and that’s what we strive for.”
Between bits of seriousness, the directing duo can’t help diving right back into their endless riffs. “This is really dark stuff. You’re really seeing behind the curtain of Scott’s mania,” notes Schaffer. “It’s a sickness. I mean, he regurgitated that. Everything he’s saying is very true, for this special especially.”
Not to be outdone, Aukerman continues with a similar line when asked whether or not improvisation was encouraged, and what his first experience working with Bolton was like. “It’s a little like doing a Coen brothers movie. We try to make sure the actors use every pause and every ‘um’ and every ellipsis we put into the script, so it’s a lot like that. Other than Michael. Michael never received a script. All of his reactions are real-time reactions to what is happening. He would say, ‘Why aren’t I getting a script?’ and we’d say, ‘Acting is reacting.’ Actually, working with Michael was a lot like that video of the dog in A Dog’s Purpose being pushed into the river. That’s what working with Michael was like. He’s frightened, he doesn’t want to go, and he almost drowns, but what comes out of it is a modern masterpiece.”
“It’s A Bolton’s Purpose,” Schaffer adds. With a surprised laugh, Aukerman agrees. “That should be the subtitle of the special,” he says. “I love that. A Bolton’s Purpose.”
Obviously Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special is not the same as A Dog’s Purpose (whose filmmakers were cleared of any wrongdoing following an investigation into the infamous viral video). And just as obvious is that Aukerman and Schaffer weren’t being completely honest about what their process with Bolton was like. (Having watched the special several times, the singer is never pushed into a raging torrent of water.) After 20 minutes chatting with the pair, however, it became abundantly clear that the interview afforded them the opportunity to add more jokes to the buzz surrounding the special.
Or as Aukerman concluded before signing off, “Michael will corroborate everything we talked about on the special, so there’s no need to fact check it with him.”
Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.