Talking to Vernon Chatman About ‘Wonder Showzen,’ His Standup Beginnings, and His New Book ‘Mindsploitation’
If there’s a comedy equivalent of Rick Rubin, it’s Vernon Chatman.
Just as Rubin has become known for producing some of the music industry’s most seminal albums, Chatman has become known as a go-to behind-the-scenes guy for some of television’s most critically-acclaimed comedies. The list of shows he’s written for and produced includes The Chris Rock Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Louie, and South Park. He’s also a founding member of PFFR, the production company behind Adult Swim’s Delocated and the hilariously demented Xavier: Renegade Angel, as well as MTV’s Wonder Showzen, which he co-created.
As gonzo as some of his PFFR shows are, they are nothing compared to Chatman’s personal projects, including his new book, Mindsploitation: Asinine Assignments for the Online Homework Cheating Industry. The book is a collection of real essays and other assignments Chatman hired/exploited several online essay-writing companies to pen for him, including a slogan for a 16-foot party chicken nugget and an essay ranking the Top 8 major races (Asian, Latin, European, Native, Eastern European, Black African, East Australian, and Other) in order from greatest to worst.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Chatman about his hysterical new book, his standup roots, and why he doesn’t think he can ever do Wonder Showzen again.
In the foreword to your book, Louis C.K. says that you’re the kind of guy who has an idea but you’ll actually do it, which I thought was interesting because, yeah, we all have ideas but then they often just sit in the back of our heads and we’re like, “That would have been funny but whatever…” I’m wondering when you get an idea, like something for Mindsploitation or your other projects, do you obsess over it? Do you need to see it come to fruition?
I mean that from Louie is a backhanded way of saying, “It’s such a stupid idea, no one would ever follow up on it.” But yeah, I think you gotta be… You gotta have a lot of special… points of insanity to actually do the dumb ideas you come up with one moment. One fleeting moment. But yeah, it does become a thing. You get into some idea, and it becomes this challenge to try to manipulate people into accidentally making something hilarious. Trying to find new tactics of like, “How do I trick people into inadvertent comedy?” Because it’s just so funny! I’m disarmed when people are not umm, trying to be funny?
And so it’s just certain formats where I go, “Oh, wow. That’s a whole world where you can get people to be trying really hard, and earnestly, grappling with absurdity, and getting deeper and deeper in.” And so it just became this thing I did just screwing around and kept trying different angles at. It actually grew out of this other thing that I did, which was this movie-kinda thing that I made called, Final Flesh.
I found out that there are porn companies online that will do custom-made whatever-your-fetish-is movies. So you can just have some weird thing about… yellow panties on your head and they’ll wear yellow panties and you’ll say, “Kevin” and they’ll juggle, whatever. You know, kinda sick shit people are into, but it’s all sexual. And they’ll do anything and they’re porn anyway; they’re already putting stuff up their ass, like they’ll do my crazy shit and it won’t be that weird. But how do you out-weird the person whose job it is to wake up, get a cup of coffee, and put something up your ass on camera?
It became such a great way of writing a bunch of crazy shit that, upon execution, just takes on a certain magic because the people actually executing it are thinking that it’s totally for this very distinct, intimate, crazy purpose of arousing somebody! [Laughs.] So, there’s a certain form of sincerity and earnestness in that job of fulfilling somebody’s weird, fantasy-fetish-thing. And so I just wrote a bunch of crazy scenes that weren’t really sexual; I put in just enough sex that it was… that they could buy it.
Yeah, it’s gotta seem real.
I made four of them and cut them into this crazy movie…And while I was making that project basically I was Googling, “custom”, like I was trying to find these companies because there are not a ton of ’em. And I wanted to get the bad ones and the ones that were not so savvy. Anyways, I was googling, “custom-made,” “custom-stuff,” and what came up was actually the Google Ads that were like, “Custom Essays – You want your custom essays?” And I was like, “What is this?” And that’s how I found out that there’s all these websites that will do your homework for you. There were ads saying, “Don’t trust the cheap companies! A lot of these companies, they’re not native English speakers. They can’t write very well.” So I immediately sought out the cheapest, shittiest ones – the ones that were clearly done in Pakistan, tons of typos on their websites [Laughs.] – and started sending. At first I wanted one of the essay-writing companies to write me a movie, a play or something. So I sent them out and I spent hundreds of dollars trying to get people to write these crazy scripts. Like I told them one script had to change the texture of the universe and make the air catch on fire.
But they were all terrible; they were not funny. They weren’t funny or accidentally funny; they were just bad. They were just boring and terrible and bad. And annoying. But then I thought maybe I could just get them to write one-page essays. And so I just started from there. The first one I wrote was actually the first one in the book, which was, “Write a eulogy for my grandma.”
That’s a classic. I liked the touch they added about how she used to hit you with a wooden spoon.
Yeah! And then they just throw in these details; they’re just trying to do their job. I don’t know where that comes from! Psychologically, they wanted to hit me with a wooden spoon? … But whatever. That was what was fun about it. And suddenly… you start building this narrative. And for me the fun was tricking people into this absurd world and then just getting them deeper and deeper until someone gives up.
Like you said, a lot of these were terrible, and you could see all the spelling mistakes and everything. But was there anything that surprised you? Like, “Wait a second, this guy, I gave him a pretty difficult assignment and he wrote something that’s semi-plausible?” Or did you read anything that made you think the writer might have a bit of talent?
Yeah, there were a couple. I mean, I asked these people to write crazy stories. I asked them to write a story-within-a-story-within-a-story about a story from the perspective of a story. It was this post-modern thing of stories that swallows itself like, twelve times. And I just tell them they had to write it in the 51st person.
And they ended up turning in this thing that was, like, just amazing that they sat down and they truly tried to write some sort of post-modern, weird, reflexive thing. And, I don’t know, I mean that one was less funny for the actual words and more for the concept that they sincerely took a go at it. And there were a couple where just their kind-of blind enthusiasm for a stupid idea was a little bit thrilling. [Laughs.] Things like, “The Slunk.” I asked a guy to write a press release or something for this new pet, a cross between a slug and a skunk. And he wrote it with such vigor and chipper eagerness. But it was nuts! He threw in these crazy details.
Did you ever get the sense that any of these people knew that this was a gag? Or did you feel like most of them were doing it completely in earnest?
Of the ones where I felt like they might have sensed it, like where they were sort-of being cheeky, I wouldn’t use…Basically, if I had any sense that they were trying to be funny, I’d just throw it away. There’s a bunch that I threw away. I just sought out the companies that were really cheap and really um… just, not very together.
And you weren’t trying to make any particular point with this project? This was just something to entertain yourself essentially, right?
Oh, no! No, I was trying to change the conversation in this country and I think I did it.
You did it!
[Laughs.] Yeah, no. It’s just not fun to try to make a point. It was just having fun. There is this element of how disconnected you are and that you’re getting these assignments from someone across the world whose life you don’t know. And there’s this whole moral component because they think they’re helping you cheat, so I don’t know who the bigger asshole is: the person writing the essay? Me, who’s making them write stupid things? The imaginary person in my head who hires these companies and really does it, and the person who they think I am, which is somebody who’d rather pay $10 dollars a page than do their homework and is probably going to coast through life? I would occasionally imagine the assholes who actually keep these companies in business and the ones that do well.
I like that philosophical question: who is the bigger asshole here? It’s a good quandary.
Yeah, exactly. I’ll take the heat on this one, I’ll say it’s me, which makes me the bigger man. So I win. They’re the asshole.
Do you feel like these personal projects that you do, like Mindsploitation and Final Flesh, are the best representation of what you find funny? Of your own sense of humor?
Yeah, I don’t know, these are creative outlets. These are just different little outlets and exhausts panels. I don’t know, I mean, they make me laugh, and I certainly do love the Woody Allen kind of books of just total nonsense. I started reading those in junior high or something, although, when you read them later, the scenes that I thought were nonsense when I was in 7th grade were actually, like, high-minded references. I thought they were all non-sequiturs. [Laughs.] But like, Cruel Shoes, the Steve Martin book. And also those Letters books, you know, the Letters from a Nut [by “Ted L. Nancy” a.k.a. Barry Marder] and The Lazlo Letters [by “Lazlo Toth” a.k.a. Don Novello] and The Timewaster Letters [by Robert Popper.] But I do love the kind-of, just ridiculous, just utter silliness. Vapid, vapid silliness. Ecstatic stupidity. [Laughs.]
So that’s kind of fun. But they’re different things. Final Flesh is partially funny because it’s creepy as hell. It’s very tense. If you watch it with a crowd, like… I’ve watched Final Flesh a couple times with a crowd and it gets bigger laughs than anything that I’ve ever shown to a crowd because people are so uncomfortable they’re desperate to laugh and joke. There’s this genuine creep factor. You’re creeped out by who’s the real person who made this? Who’s the person they think made this? What are these people’s lives? What are they thinking? There’s just so much going on. The kind of creepiness Mindsploitation doesn’t have ’cause you can only achieve it when you’re actually dealing with real situations. But yeah, I don’t think I have one particular style that I like. I think I do love things that are totally insane and then arc towards a narrative. Or some kind of story because that gets you deeper.
I brought that up only because I read in another interview you did – and you kind of touched on this earlier – where you said there’s nothing more grotesque than comedy that’s trying to be funny. Could you elaborate a little more on that?
Yeah, you see people sweating for the laughs and really working at it, desperate for it… it just stresses you out to see people trying; you want it to be a thing that happens, not a thing that people are trying to get from you, trying to get these laughs from you and wring them out of you, and everything. There is something refreshing about things that you can appreciate on several levels, you know? You watch Troll 2 and all your standard expectations just have to go away and shut down. You just have to take it for what it is because it’s not operating on its own rules, and there’s a thrill from that. Like listening to jazz and you’re like, “They don’t know the rules of music so it’s so pure and honest.”
So it’s just those things that are not contrived and all… It’s really just that they’re not contrived. As much. But the thing that I’m doing is contriving situations where people are not contriving to make you laugh. Hopefully, there are things that are funny on purpose and things that are funny accidentally. I’m trying to get a little bit of both.
I wanted to ask about your standup career. I know you started out doing standup. Were you any good? What made you stop?
It was like that Steve Martin scene in the stadium. I couldn’t hear the laughter anymore.
It was cheers in the stadiums and the amphitheaters.
You had enough? It was lonely at the top?
It was. Yeah, I peaked early; two open mics and I was in amphitheaters. I peaked so quick I never even hit the stage at that amphitheater. I was just working in the back, in the ticket booth.
That’s quite a rise.
Yeah, no, I just… I think, I did standup for a year and then I started getting writing jobs. The thing about standup comedy is obviously, you have to be a good standup. And hundreds of random drunk people are the ultimate arbiters of quality. You have to surrender to that idea. And I enjoy that, and I accept that; it’s totally true. Like, just random assholes are right. No matter what their reaction is, it’s right.
So your job is, no matter who they are, to make them laugh. I thought standup was the ultimate freedom, but I realized when I started making things that you have so many more options… You have music, you have actors, you have costumes, you have props, you have cutting and cheating the shots, you just have an infinite amount of control. You can do anything. And that’s the thing. I was like, “Oh wow! There’s more control in this AND you don’t have to worry about these drunk assholes?” … And so I got a taste of that. And I realized, as soon as I started writing on shows and making my own shows, I was actually producing more than I would from doing standup. So, all those things. And, this is obviously a long, roundabout way of saying I wasn’t good enough and I got kicked off… I got kicked out of comedy… I got kicked out of standup.
Well, how long did you do it for?
I started in college. I started my first year in college and I did it basically up until I started getting writing jobs which was in… ’98? And then I did Conan’s show a couple times, I did a few Comedy Central things and then writing just took over. And making stuff. But I love it, I think it’s great.
Who knows? If you would have done it longer you might have been pretty awesome.
I mean, I did it for long enough where I should have been awesome but, truly, it’s rare. It’s a rare person that can get great at standup in less than, like, twenty years.
You’ve written on some of the most acclaimed TV comedies. Did writing come pretty easy to you?
Yeah, it’s just fun. It’s just what I like to do. It’s one of those things where I would do it for free and I would pay to do it but then they also pay you. So, it’s just fun.
Were you the kind of kid who was writing stories and stuff when you were growing up?
Yeah. But just a lot of stupid shit and I would do prank calls and I would make all my homework assignments just really nonsense and all that kinda stuff. And then I just got lucky with jobs and meeting the right people at the right time and all that.
What was your first break? What was your first TV job?
The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, your favorite show on television.
It was a daily talk show, hosted by Keenen. I knew nothing, and I’m glad because there was a lot of stuff I just didn’t know. I wouldn’t go and have that job now, but I got to do so much; we started a show from scratch. I just learned a whole lot. There are also parts of me that died, that will never come back, but I learned a lot. And from that I met people who were working on The Chris Rock Show and I started working on Chris Rock and started working on Conan and South Park and got my own stuff. It was really fun and I’ve worked with great people. That’s where I met Jon Glaser.
Oh, really? On Keenen?
Yeah. And he doesn’t want that out there. He couldn’t take it; he left eventually. I don’t want to say, “He couldn’t take it.” I just want to say, “He left.” [Laughs.]
I also wanted to ask about Wonder Showzen. Is there any possibility we’d ever see that again? With entertainment these days, it seems the decision-makers are like, “Well people liked that, why don’t we just do that again?” It seems like nothing’s dead anymore; you can always revive something.
Yeah, that’s true; you gotta talk to the right people. But I don’t know, that was an exhausting show. And I’ll tell you this, this is what I’ll tell you about Wonder Showzen: The last thing that we shot, the very last thing that we shot for the second season, was in the park with “Clarence”, the blue puppet, and I was doing the puppet, and we were tormenting people with it, and this guy was chasing us around, threatening to kill us and going, “I don’t wanna go back to Rikers! You’re gonna make me go back to Rikers!” and chasing us around. And we went into the street, hailed a cab, and we jumped in the cab and said, “Just drive.” It was like a movie, “Just drive.” And the cab just took off. And I was like, “I’m done with this.” To do that show, specifically to do that bit, I had to be such an asshole to people. [Laughs.] And that stopped being fun. I mean, it was fun. It didn’t stop being fun; if I did it for one more minute, it wouldn’t be fun. But every second was fun.
It was a genius show. Even beyond the uncomfortableness and tormenting people, it was still amazing.
Thanks. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was this thing where we could bend any idea we had to fit into that show.
And did I read that you’re bringing The Heart, She Holler back? That’s got another season?
Yes, it’s coming back. We’re in production planning The Heart, She Holler right now. Supposed to come out. but, I mean, I don’t know what’s official so I shouldn’t say anything ’cause I don’t know when they announce it or if you can say things. But it’s definitely soon. Relatively soon.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.