Inside Adam Resnick’s Proudest and Most Embarrassing Projects
Nearly three decades into his career as a professional comedy writer, Adam Resnick has been responsible for more than his fair share of cult hit movies and TV shows, but this year sees him diving into a completely new frontier altogether: the literary world.
Resnick’s first job was as part of David Letterman’s prolific mid-’80s writing staff, where he met Chris Elliott and started a long, fruitful partnership that led to the two of them creating cult hits like Get a Life and Cabin Boy together, both initially maligned by critics but eventually beloved by a loyal group of fans and the generation of comedy writers that followed. A few weeks back, Resnick released his first book, a collection of funny, honest, dark short stories from his life called Will Not Attend (read Splitsider’s review here). Will Not Attend is Resnick’s most personal work yet and also one of the funniest things he’s ever written, allowing him to write directly to his audience after spending the last several years creating a litany of unsold pilots and movies that were mangled by the studios. I recently had the chance to talk to Adam Resnick about the process of writing his first book, why he always measures Get a Life against The Simpsons, and selling out.
What made you decide to write a memoir?
I think it came out of the frustration of having written TV shows and movies over the years that either didn’t get made or came out badly. I was proud of a lot of the writing I did for some those things, but that writing will never get read. It either dies as a script that’s not produced, or gets reinterpreted into another product that I’m not happy with. After a while you ask yourself, what’s the point? I’ve always felt I was just a writer, so wasting all that hard work…it really started to wear on me.
As far as a memoir, I knew that would be easier to sell to a publisher than fiction, and I also knew it would be challenging. I’d never written about myself before. Never wanted to. I hate talking about myself. I find it really embarrassing. But with the book, I quickly and naturally fell into a tone that was both personal and satisfying. It happened by not overthinking it. I just wrote in my voice. There were no thoughts or worries about its transformation into another product. And it turned out to be the most creatively satisfying thing I’ve done as a writer. I’m sorry, I need a tissue.
So you don’t feel good about your work on Letterman, say?
No, that’s different. Letterman is a big exception. All I can say about working for Dave in the eighties is that it was the least depressed period of my life. In fact, I was actually happy during those Late Night years. I was a kid and I had no aspirations higher than working on that show. There was nothing higher. I was incredibly lucky to be there. But a lot of the stuff between Dave and the book, I have mixed feelings about — if not outright embarrassment. I think my complete lack of interest in how show business works — and how to work it — hurt me a lot over the years. I was never big on things like networking or strategizing or making new friends. As it turns out – whether it’s based on bullshit or not — that stuff comes in handy when you want to do something. Who knew? I need a fucking mentor, is what I need.
What about Get a Life?
I think we did some good things on that show. It was definitely different and unlike anything else on television at the time. Chris was the glue – the show was all him. Even if an episode was uneven, his performance was always surprising and hilarious. I’m probably the worst judge of things I’ve worked on because I’m really hard on myself. All I see are the flaws. I’m just fucked in the head that way. And I never go back and watch stuff, so I haven’t seen a Get a Life episode since we were making them. But there’s no doubt there’s a uniqueness to that show and it has a lot of fans, so we must have done something right. But in my pathetic brain, I’ll always just land on something like – Is Get a Life as good as The Simpsons? And of course it’s not. So therefore, in Adamland, it has no merit. If it’s not great, it doesn’t count.
Well, James L. Brooks negotiated for the Simpsons writers to have complete creative control. That’s one of the most writer-driven shows in the history of television. It’s not fair to compare your show to theirs just ’cause you were on the same network at the same time.
Yes, but you’re thinking rationally. No, I know what you’re saying. But great shows like The Simpsons had their act down pretty quickly. Great talent, great writers, a system for producing the show. At Get a Life, it felt like we were always flying by the seat of our pants – and not enjoying much attention either. There wasn’t a feeling the show had any sort of fan base. I didn’t get a sense of that until a year or so after it went off the air. And the network never liked it; there were always fights. So morale was pretty low at times. It would’ve been nice to have at least a glimmer of hope, but it always felt like we had one foot out the door. And I think that affected the overall quality and potential of the show.
Going back to the book, what were some of the challenges of moving from TV and movies to writing prose? Did you have experience writing print before?
The biggest challenge was the money. [Laughs.] But I couldn’t worry about that. I had to write the book. There was no controlling it. I had to finally just write. Whenever I write a script, or specifically a screenplay, I always feel like I’m writing a book. There are specs I’ve written that I’d love to reverse engineer into novels. And I might do that one day. But again, I only have that intense feeling when I’m writing something I’m 100% creatively into – and those are almost exclusively specs. I love writing screenplays. It’s a great format for me. But then there’s that pesky business of trying to get it made. Or watching it fall apart.
Writing the book, were you worried about the reaction from any family members or other people depicted in the book?
Yeah, I had lots of worry. I was especially concerned about embarrassing my parents, but they were really supportive after they read it. My mom gave me the best compliment: she said, “It sounds just like you.” My brothers, a few of them anyway, were cool about it. I changed their names in the book because I didn’t want to take any chances. And, believe it or not, I backed off on some of those stories and left out the really horrific stuff. [Laughs.] There are some things I just couldn’t write about as long as the parties involved were alive. But don’t get me wrong, I didn’t get off scot-free. There are some people I wrote about that are very angry with me right now. Justifiably so, I guess. You know, you write this shit and you say to yourself at the time, “Oh, it’ll be okay. I changed their name. It’s not that bad.”
Were there stories you left on the cutting room floor?
Yeah, there’s one story I wanted to write, but it was just too dark for the book. It was about a landscaper I worked for for a few summers when I was like, 14 through 16. His name was Red. Just a nice old guy, but a real character. He also worked as a night clerk at a motel in Harrisburg. On the truck, it was usually me, him, and a revolving assortment of petty drug offenders on work release. He used them because they were cheap. For the most part, they were fun to be around. They made the day go faster. They’d sit in the truck and make pot pipes out of soda cans and tell great stories; hilarious stories sometimes. Red smoked pot too, which I thought was odd for one of those World War II type guys.
Anyway, he worked nights at this motel, and one of those guys ended up robbing him and killing him. And it was an especially brutal murder. Really fucked me up at the time. I started to write a story about those days on the truck, and it brought back a lot of memories. Lots of funny stories and incidents and great characters. The murder, of course, would be the last section. I wanted to write about it and try to convey exactly how I felt at the time. I didn’t know how I’d make it work, but I decided I’d just deal with it when I got there. When I finally did get there, there was way no way to deal with it. It was just too strong and horrible. There are several chapters in the book that don’t end happily necessarily, but they work within the overall tone of things. This was just too much and too awful. And it felt cheap. No matter how I tried to rework it, it felt like a shock ending. And there was no way I could write about those summers – which was all funny, rich stuff – without writing about the murder. Not for this book, anyway. It didn’t fit.
I also contemplated writing about another old man who lived a couple of houses down from my grandmother and almost molested me. But, similar problem.
On a slightly lighter note, let’s go back for a moment to the movies you said you were embarrassed by. With those, did you just write a draft and then it was taken out of your hands?
No, it’s not that they were taken out of my hands necessarily. These things erode in so many different ways. Cabin Boy, for instance, was written for Tim Burton to direct. He was a fan of Chris’s and set up a meeting because he wanted to do another Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure-type movie after he finished the second Batman. He wanted to do a small comedy again and he wanted Chris to star in it. So, Chris brought me in. We’d been writing together for a long time, and it was really nice of him to include me. We hashed out Cabin Boy with Tim, based on Chris’s really funny idea of doing a wacky version of Captains Courageous — with him playing the Freddie Bartholomew character. We fleshed it out and then I went off to write the script. When I finished it, Tim and all his producers loved it. Went nuts, in fact. Everything was going along smoothly, and then, at the last minute, Tim pulled out. Somewhere along the line, in a moment of wrong-headed generosity, he said, “You should direct this, Adam. This is more you and Chris. This is your stuff.”
I was stunned he was dropping out. My immediate reaction was, “I don’t know how to direct a fucking movie.” I said no. But then all the chatter started, “Don’t worry, Adam, we’ll surround you with good people” and my agents: “You can’t turn this down. Do you know how many people would kill for this chance?” And after I while, I fell for it. I got sucked in. Even though I knew if I was going to direct my first movie, it wouldn’t be anything like Cabin Boy. That script was completely written for Tim’s sensibility. It had Chris’s and my stamp on it, but it’s nothing we would’ve done on our own. The other funny – or tragic – thing about it was, the script never changed when I came on as director. We were making a movie that was scripted for a much larger budget – a Tim Burton budget. Not Batman size, but still, not peanuts. Of course, we didn’t get that money; we got a tiny fraction of it. Which makes perfect business sense, but nobody ever told us to rework the fucking script. So the tacky look of the movie, which a lot of people like now, was just a reflection of what we had to work with. It was like the Little Rascals putting on a show in the alley. We tried to make lemonade out of lemons. Or maybe it was more like piss at the time.
How do you and Chris feel about Cabin Boy all these years later?
A lot better. We’ve grown fonder of it over time. It’s kind of unique; it’s its own little strange thing. And there are people out there who really like it. Still, it’s hard to be completely objective about that one.
What about Death to Smoochy and Lucky Numbers?
[Groans.] I’m so tired of hearing myself talk about Cabin Boy and those other movies. It comes up a lot because I’m on this book tour, so naturally people ask, but I just hear the same shit coming out of my mouth. Complaints, explanations, bitching, excuses. I realize I don’t have a ton of projects to talk about, but I don’t know how to put a fresh spin on this shit anymore. [Laughs.] I wish there was a one-liner, as they call it in LA. I wrote a couple of scripts that turned into movies that I didn’t love and didn’t do well. Those movies belong to the directors. If anyone is lonely or pathetic enough to want to read my first drafts, they’re probably online somewhere. Okay, that was a three-liner.
Let’s go back to TV. You went to SNL with Chris after Cabin Boy, right?
Briefly, and not as a full-time writer. It was an odd season. All the big cast members like Adam Sandler and Chris Farley were doing movies and pretty much packing their bags. I remember there were a lot of new cast members, including Chris Elliott. It was a large cast and something just wasn’t clicking. But SNL deserves to have an occasional off year. It’s such a complicated show to run. When you think about all the talent that’s come out of that place, and all the money it’s generated for so many people over the years…they should be throwing a parade for Lorne everyday.
Did you get anything on the air?
Not much and nothing great. But I really wasn’t there that long. I was like a consultant writer or something. And I never did any of that all-nighter stuff. The only thing that’s gonna make me stay up all night is a stomach virus. SNL was very different from the Letterman environment. It’s a whole different sensibility and feeling there. A different way of working. We were just a bunch of squares at Letterman. [Laughs.] SNL was a little too hip for me.
Can you talk a little about The High Life, the HBO series you created after that? I feel like I haven’t heard much about it.
I really liked that show. I did that one with David Letterman. He was the executive producer. Another strange one, though — shot in black and white, took place in the 1950s, a cast of unknown but really amazing New York theater actors. It was kind of a surreal take on Amos ‘n’ Andy, but with dumb white guys. Smells like money, right? We only did one season — eight episodes — and I was just getting the kinks out, but they didn’t bring it back. There’s a lot about that show I’m really proud of. It felt like a bit of a redemptive moment, post-Cabin Boy.
Will it ever be released on DVD?
I doubt it. When I say hardly anyone saw The High Life when it aired, I’m literally telling you, maybe seventy people saw that show. I remember hearing from someone that George Clooney really liked The High Life. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s pathetic that writers cling to little things like that. [Laughs.] Anyway, maybe George can pull some strings.
What are you working on next?
I’m still trying to figure that out. The book’s kept me pretty busy. Cable’s made it exciting again to create something for television, so I’m definitely thinking about that. And there are a couple of feature things I’m starting to work on. As tough and impossible as it seems, I still hold out hope I can find the right people to collaborate with and I definitely want to write another book. I think that’s the big change for me. I have this other outlet now — maybe the thing I love to do most.
Write the book for yourself and sell out on the other stuff.
[Laughs.] Believe me, I’ve tried to sell out — tried to write big mainstream comedies on spec, hoping for a big payday to subsidize my other shit. But my heart was never in it, and it showed. It’s not a good sign if you’re wincing as you type. You have to have some kind of creative enthusiasm.
Do you think you’ll be able to find a middle ground between something mainstream and your voice?
Well, I’ve never set out to write something, thinking, “This can’t be mainstream. It’s got to be different and inaccessible.” I just try to write things that excite me. And my voice is my voice. But you do have to balance that with the realities of making an income and making money for whoever’s paying you. I think I’m getting better at the middle ground, and I think there’s a larger audience these days for dark comedy or dramedies or whatever. I’m really inspired by a lot of things I see on cable and there are some great, smaller movies being made. It’s harder than ever, but it still happens. The key to creative satisfaction in showbiz is very simple: keep your overhead low and stop whining.