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Friday, February 25th, 2011

Mr. Funny Pants: Michael Showalter's Would-Be Magnum Opus

When Michael Showalter first sat down to write his debut book, he set out with the high-minded and sincere intention to write an “important memoir” that would change the lives of its readers in profound and significant ways. The modest benchmark he set for himself as a first-time author was to write something comparable to David Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Well…things did not pan out exactly as Showalter first intended, but that doesn’t mean that what he produced instead, the uniquely absurd Mr. Funny Pants, is worse off as a result. In fact, it is due in large part to its quirky navigation of that strange gulf between lofty aspiration and sobering reality that Showalter’s literary introduction is such a hilarious and improbably intimate read.

While Showalter will forever be defined in part by his membership in certain beloved comedic posses, whether it be the youthfully rambunctious The State or the adorably weird Stella, recently his own specific comedic sensibility has come more sharply into focus. In 2005 he ventured off on his own to write, direct, and star in The Baxter, a sweetly sad comedy that follows the life of the guy that the girl in the movies leaves behind for the triumphing hero. What The Baxter suggested and Mr. Funny Pants confirms is that Showalter possesses a very silly brand of humor that is highly attuned to those personality defects of panic, desperation, and insecurity that most of us share but do our best to hide.

After a few frenzied years spent striving toward literary greatness, what Showalter eventually produced was a "novel-length comedic essay on procrastination and insecurity." In less interesting or honest hands this sort of endeavor could have easily come off as merely charming at best or overbearingly pretentious at worst. But what makes it so funny and engaging is that readers truly get the sense that they are privy to the manifestation of Showalter’s authentic personality on paper. As we barrel through his frantic inner-monologue we are left with little doubt that his aspiration to write an earth-shattering memoir was genuine, and that the subsequent effort to explain, postpone, and lament what actually happened instead is hilariously real.

The overall effect gives us the feeling that we’re careening around inside the writer’s brain as he struggles through various bouts of megalomania ("I am too prolific for my own good," Showalter suddenly decides while considering the public’s demand for a lengthy book); self-loathing (he concludes that the way he smiles in his first headshot screams: "I’m a douche bag, please give me job."); obsessive-compulsive needs to complete unnecessary tasks (there is a Post-Preface as well as a Pre-Post-Post-Preface); and blunt honesty (about his adolescence he writes: "I wanted to be popular, and the key to being popular was fitting in. I didn’t have that key").

From start to finish the book hurtles forward unpredictably in both style and content. There is little that Showalter did not choose to include in his furious attempt to stave off having to write word one of his "important memoir." He treats us to everything from obsessively complied lists of "facts" to the dissection of his (terrible) high school poetry to an earnest vignette about his career in show business. Without doing much research one could also safely conclude that Michael Showalter is the only person to ever include a play-by-play analysis of a recently played scrabble game in a collection of autobiographical essays.

By far the most gleefully amusing portions are those in which Showalter depicts himself strutting around puffed up with unearned prestige, convinced that he is the obvious heir to the Eggers literary mantle. On the afternoon that he decides to start working on the book, delusions of grandeur sweep him away. He daydreams about the epic length of his un-begun work (eighteen hundred pages), how falsely modest he will feel when it’s completed ("cautiously optimistic"), and its critical reception (Charlie Rose thinks he's a genius). There’s even a trip to Staples so he can purchase eighteen hundred blank sheets of paper—not to use for printing, of course, but simply so he can admire their heft. Naturally, these sections are also the most relatable. The reluctance to come to terms with the disparity between imagined ability and real life limitations is universal enough that readers might just find the comedian's bizarre reactions to it actually kind of understandable.

What ultimately makes Mr. Funny Pants so funny — and what allows it to hang together so improbably — is Showalter's commitment to baring his weirdness and anxieties completely and full on. By the end of it we truly feel like we’ve been spending time with the author and know him on a personal level. And although we may not always be certain whether we’re laughing along with him or directly at him, we do know for sure that we’re always in his corner, rooting him on.

Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Kelly-Clyne/5410465 Luke Kelly-Clyne

    This is really well done. Stella may have been one of the strangest and most brilliant shows ever. The episode when they become heads of that company….