There exists a specific kind of comedy that I tend to enjoy above all others: the kind that involves not just performers, but incorporates real-life oddballs into the work. Comedy is just weirder with real people, because their existence doesn’t rest on believability. And thus better, because this is a medium that relies upon surprise above all.
It’s the kind of comedy Nathan Fielder has been perfecting for years, a kind of scripted and pastiched crowd work, on his shows Nathan For You and later The Rehearsal. An arguably lesser-known purveyor of the art form is Jason Woliner, who directed three episodes of Nathan For You, as well as Borat Subsequent Movie Film, among many other offbeat projects near and dear to my heart (anyone else remember Eagleheart?).
Woliner is back this year with another even-harder-to-define project and new personal obsession of mine, Paul T. Goldman, whose first episode premiered on Peacock on January 1st. As Woliner explains in the show’s preamble, “In 2012, a man named Paul T. Goldman tweeted at me.”
This man, Paul T. Goldman (pictured), had written a screenplay and a self-published book about how he’d gotten caught up in a sort of catfishing scheme. He’d meticulously documented his ex-wife’s “shocking betrayal” that he says had precipitated his personal transformation “from wimp to warrior.”
Woliner was intrigued; by Goldman’s persistence, his self-belief, and his uncanny blend of affable and off-putting. Woliner spent the next decade shooting the man’s screenplay, casting Paul as Paul, all while chronicling the shooting behind the scenes, and attempting to fact-check the entire story. The resulting show is this blend of all three — the show written and starring Paul, with Paul breaking the fourth wall, and Woliner trying to track down all the real characters described in the book to hear their takes on what happened.
Anchoring the whole thing is Paul himself (who, spoiler alert, may not actually even be named Goldman), a uniquely American brand of starry-eyed dreamer. Who, much like protagonists of American Movie and many of Nathan Fielder’s Craigslist heroes, has a lifestyle he imagines for himself that nothing will deter him from obtaining. Whether Paul is repellent or magnetic, hero or villain, delusional or aspirational, is something you may spend an entire season trying to work out. I still don’t know the answer (I also haven’t finished the show), but I do know he’s hilarious.
At the risk of explaining the joke, I got the chance to pick Jason Woliner’s brain about the whole thing (without revealing any spoilers!) this week.
What was the initial spark for this project and how did it evolve over the time that you were doing it?
As it says in the show, Paul tweeted at me in 2012. He said he had an incredible story. He had written a screenplay and asked for my help filming it, and I saw that he had tweeted the same thing to hundreds of other people. But I clicked on his website, I watched a video with him, I read his book, and really just became obsessed with his voice. I quietly observed him for a while, making sure he wasn’t crazy or dangerous, and then ultimately reached out to him and went and met with him, interviewed him with just me and two or three friends. From that, it slowly built. It was just a process of years of trying to find the money.
It was a movie at first, it became a show. It got bigger, streaming emerged and at the very early stages I was thinking maybe just option his book, and because it was the idea of this goofy nebbishy guy on a mission to take down what he perceived to be this international crime ring. I thought that was a funny premise, and the more I got to know Paul, the more it became clear that Paul was the story and that Paul was the most interesting thing about this.
What I eventually landed on was this format that developed pretty organically. I was hoping that he would be up for starring as himself. Then after we had auditions of some other actors to play Paul in LA, Paul wound up just suggesting, “Well, maybe I can try it.” That’s how it went: the whole time I was really trying to let him steer the process to really just figure out how to, basically, take a camera inside of this guy’s mind.
He was always on board with the idea that you were going to shoot this as the fictionalized thing that he had envisioned, but also mix it with documentary and behind-the-scenes?
He suggested it. I had wanted to do that and I was trying to figure out how to propose that to him. Then he just suggested it. He referenced House of Cards, he’s like, “What if I do a House of Cards where I just start talking to the camera?”
One of the things that’s funny about him is, like you said, he is this nebbishy, nerdy guy, but then as soon as he’s in a situation where he’s doing these scenes that he wrote, he seems really comfortable being the auteur and trying to direct it all. Was that something that he was always like, or did that grow as the project went along?
That definitely emerged as the project went along. In the first episode, which is mostly footage from a pilot we shot about five years ago in 2017, he was really taking my lead and it was a process of just constantly deferring to him. “How was it? How did it happen? How do you want to tell this story? What should she be wearing? What should you be wearing? What should this character look like and sound like?”
Then gradually he became more empowered and understood that I really wanted him to steer the process and I felt like that would give us the most interesting end product. By the end, you can see in the show he was extremely empowered.
It felt like the line when you guys were promoting Borat 2 was that the people involved weren’t doing interviews and wouldn’t talk about “how the sausage was made.” What makes you more willing to… explain the joke this time around, I guess?
Well on Borat, that’s Sacha’s movie and I was coming in to help him figure it out, basically. There are a lot of processes by which they cast real people and certain elements that they really protect in that crew. I would always want to respect that, in case he ever wanted to do something like that again. They don’t want that stuff out there about exactly how they pull it off. It’s a magic trick.
On this one, I always wanted to be completely upfront and open about the process. The show in large part becomes, as you’ve seen, about the process of making this show. It’s all about how he’s telling his story and I felt like we had to be open about everything. I can’t think of anything in it that’s cheated or fake, even the idea that I didn’t want to be in it. I spent years not wanting to be in this show until I had no choice, and that is true. I don’t like being on camera.
Like you say, you’re making the show that’s about Paul and his perception of himself and his past. But part of that is that he has beliefs and allegations about certain people, mostly his ex-wife. When you were making this, how many lawyers are involved and how careful do you have to be with all that stuff?
Extremely careful. Yeah, this is inherently a documentary project in that it is about real people and their lives. It’s not fiction and it’s about characters inspired and based on real people. The names are changed, but we had to be really careful about what we were alleging or really just mostly be clear when we’re sharing an allegation of Paul’s that was not proven in court, to be clear that we, me the filmmaker, the show is not saying this happened. I’m saying this is Paul’s version. This is Paul’s story of what happened and we’re still working on the sixth episode but it does answer a lot of questions about what really happened.
Obviously his lines for the parts where he’s having to imagine the dialogue for these dramatizations are some of the best things in the show. Did you have a favorite line of Paul’s that he wrote for any of these episodes?
Oh my God, geez. I loved every line that he wrote.
(One interesting character in Paul T. Goldman is Paul’s first wife (not to be confused with his second wife, the alleged scam artist whom the show is about). His first wife and the mother of his child is a former “mail-order bride” from the Ukraine turned doctor who, in Paul’s telling, sort of ditched him for a career. Interestingly, she shows up in the show as a willing participant.)
Tell me a little bit about Paul’s first wife. It feels like he is turning her into this simplistic character. And yet she’ll be watching him and she seems hesitant to contradict him. Can you explain their dynamic at all?
Well, the interesting thing about that is in the book he’s not extremely kind to her and the subtext was very clear. She came to America, they’d just met and she wanted to be a doctor, and she is a doctor. It is dark in the book, but what happened in the show is exactly what happened in real life. We were shooting these auditions and he was like, “Well, she’s doing her residency at Cedars,” which was down the street from where we were shooting and he’s like, “Should I call her up?” I was like, “Yes.” There are a lot of things like that in the show, just miraculous things that would happen organically where two people suddenly found themselves reenacting their breakup from a decade earlier or something like that.
I was surprised meeting her how much she liked Paul. That was a recurring theme is that you read the book and there’s a way to look at this story that’s very dark and very unpleasant. Then you meet people who actually know him, and they love him. They co-parented Johnny [Paul’s son] together, but they have a lovely friendship. That was something that really surprised me, that it wasn’t acrimonious. She’s just so warm and wonderful, Delina.
She’s a mail-order bride that became a doctor, you’d think she wouldn’t want to be involved in this crazy show that her ex-husband’s making.
That was one of the interesting things: reading his story, you just get a picture of just all this anger and revenge and resentment, and then meeting her and meeting him, it kept revealing more complexity and nuance to it.
How did you get so many legitimately famous actors to be in Paul’s reenactment show? Was it part of the joke that the actors get progressively more famous as the show goes along?
That was part of the idea, absolutely. As his story gets bigger, more cinematic, I wanted more recognizable actors to be part of it. But also, we got so many amazing actors in this show. Melinda McGraw is an actor who I’ve admired for years, who’s in so many of my favorite things. Larry Sanders and Mad Men and Seinfeld, just this incredible actor who’s so versatile and she’s incredible in this show. I’m in awe of what she does. Then we wanted some guest stars who were more recognizable as the show went on.
What I would do is I would write them a letter, we’d send it to their agent because we had shot a pilot in 2017. I had footage I could send them of what the show would be like, so it made it much easier than trying to describe this. “Well, it’s going to be the real guy in scenes that he wrote from his screenplay based on his book, and we’re going to be breaking the fourth wall and shooting behind the scenes. There’s going to be cameras rolling the whole time...”
I would send them a letter, I would send them a few minutes of the pilots, they got an idea of how the show would work, and then I would zoom with them and it was important for me that no one felt like, especially coming off of the Borat movie, that people didn’t think it was a prank or that I was pulling one over on them or making them look bad. I wanted to make sure everyone had a good experience.
At the same time, I was honest. Like, “Yeah, there’s going to be awkward moments on set.” A lot of this process is shooting these scenes and seeing what they reveal about Paul, what’s fascinating, what’s funny, what’s sad, what’s unsettling. The actors loved it. It’s so rare to have a show that’s experimental, I think it was a fun acting exercise for them.
A lot of your projects have this quality, they’re elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque things. You’re manipulating fact and fiction and there are real people reacting, but also actors reacting. Then I was reading that you have a background doing magic. Do you think that that plays into the way that you do comedy at all?
I was just thinking about this. I never thought so. Yeah, so, my dad was a kid’s birthday party magician from when I was four years old. He had a hobby when he was a teenager. He was in a magic club and we grew up in the Bronx and long story short, we got robbed. My parents were both public school teachers. To make ends meet, my dad started doing these magic shows and I became his assistant. I was the plant in the audience. He would call on me, I would go up and show him up and do these magic tricks.
But something that dawned on me literally last week when I was talking to my wife about this and she was talking about seeing magic growing up and the idea of someone being able to do something magical. I realized, and I’d thought about it before, that magic never was real for me. It was always a trick. From my earliest memories, I would know the mechanics behind them. So it’s always impressive, it’s a skill, but it was never like, “Oh, this person is a wizard that can do something amazing.”
The rabbit that would come out of the hat at a kid’s party was my pet rabbit. So I always knew where it was hiding and how it worked. I never thought of that before, that other people would ever, even if they were younger, see magic and think it’s some miraculous thing. In terms of just approaching something from the end result and the mechanics to get to it, I wonder if that maybe influenced how I think of things.