Inside Dan Soder and Michelle Wolf’s New Comedy Central Web Series, ‘Used People’
Used People, the quiet revelation of a web series from Dan Soder and Michelle Wolf, is simple enough. The two star as salespersons at a used car lot; Dan’s a bit of a slacker, Michelle’s more than a bit neurotic. They’ve got terrible exes, awful coworkers, and the kind of chemistry that’s carried shows like Broad City and Portlandia from the small screen to the slightly bigger screen. The show’s three episodes are funny in a Clerks-y sort of way — spare plots, wide-ranging banter — and somehow the first collaboration between Soder and Wolf, who are practically institutions in the New York standup scene. It makes you wonder how many other unexpected pairings have a golden web series waiting to blossom. I recently spoke to the duo about Used People, day jobs, and how they know when the work is good.
So. Used People. Can you tell me how this project came together?
Michelle Wolf: Dan and I have been friends for years. We have the same agent and one day she texted me, “Do you want to write something with Dan?” And I was like, “Of course!” And then Dan and I were like, “We should write something together.”
Dan Soder: Yeah.
That’s pretty straightforward.
Dan: We kinda wanted to write something that was not really sitcommy but just funny. We wanted to try to find the funniest thing to write. Because Michelle and I, in real life, are very opposite people. She’s super into fitness and gets mad if she ever falls asleep. And I’m a pothead–
Michelle: Dan’s a pothead who’s — he’s like a cat. He’s a little bit like a cat.
Dan: An overweight cat who’s fed too much by an elderly lady. That’s probably my spirit animal.
Michelle: You give Dan a pool of light and he’ll fall asleep in it immediately.
Dan: But Michelle’s tense all the time, like a wet cat. We really are so different, it made sense to base these characters off ourselves. But we’re also very good friends, so writing this was probably the easiest part. We just have very similar styles and senses of humor. When we had it written, we took it to Comedy Central and Comedy Central was like, “Yeah, let’s make these episodes.” I think we wrote five scripts and they said, “Let’s make three.”
Michelle: We wanted a place where we could have a ton of characters, access to people coming in — customers, whatever it happened to be — and where we could build a world, essentially. Something we hadn’t seen before, which is always the hardest part.
I assume you guys met doing standup?
Dan: Yeah, we met on the standup scene.
Michelle: I feel like the first time we bonded — I don’t remember what our exact joke was, but it was something about Kanye West not wearing pants.
Dan: Yeah, we bonded about how whenever Kanye says crazy stuff, you have to imagine he’s just wearing a t-shirt. Kanye West makes much more sense if you think everything he says, he’s saying while wearing a t-shirt and no pants.
I’m on board with that.
Michelle: Like he only ever gets half dressed.
In terms of the world you wanted to build — have either of you ever worked in a used car lot?
Dan: Noooo. I think we picked this because we were like, “What job would scare us most?”
Michelle: Yeah, the whole setting of it is our worst fear. Like if Dan and I had to move back to our respective hometowns and just gave up. Which I think is a constant underlying fear of anyone who does what we do.
What kind of things did you do to make money before comedy panned out?
Dan: Oh man. I think my jobs were a lot of stuff you wouldn’t get drug tested for. I was a waiter, I loaded trucks at Bed Bath & Beyond, I worked at a fishing cannery in Alaska when I was nineteen. With all my jobs you’d think I was either a felon or I was trying to evade a family. People don’t know me as “Dan” in other cities — “Oh, you mean Colin? That guy left years ago!”
Michelle: My jobs were all sort of, If The Dad Left And I Had To Support The Entire Family things. I worked at a computational biochemistry research lab, I worked on Wall Street, I was preparing to go to med school or get a Ph.D.
What’d you do on Wall Street?
Michelle: I worked at Bear Stearns while it was collapsing and then I worked at JP Morgan. At both of those I worked in private client services — mutual funds and separately managed accounts. If you even ask me today what a separately managed account is, I could sort of give you a description but I still don’t 100% know. I think that’s why the banking industry is bad. They kept promoting me! They kept promoting me and I had never once taken a business class. I tried to learn as much as I could — I got my Series 7, my Series 63, all that stuff — but they kept promoting me and I kept being like, “Stop it! I don’t want more responsibility! I don’t want to handle this much money!”
Dan: It’s almost like they wanted to fail.
Michelle: For four years every day I wore a skirt to work. I was a business lady.
Do you ever look back and think “Ah yes, I learned skills that are still relevant to my life today,” or is it all nonsense now?
Michelle: I actually did. Not so much on the finance side, but more about how to handle people. I learned how to talk in a way that I would get what I want, you know?
Oh! How do you do that? What’s the secret?
Michelle: I remember very clearly — it has nothing to do with finance but I remember when I started, as an assistant, I was supposed to get cupcakes for a lady’s baby shower. So I ordered these cupcakes and then the women’s mother-in-law died, or something like that, and we had to cancel the baby shower. They weren’t going to give us a refund on the cupcakes, so I went to my boss and I was like, “I can’t get them to give us a refund,” and she goes, “Come in here. I’ll show you how to do it.” And she talked to them in a way that was like, “Well, we do a lot of business with you, and if you’re not going to be able to give us a refund then I’m not going to be able use you again.” And she went on and on about how bad it was going to be for them — in a way that wasn’t bitchy, but logical. It was stern and logical in a way where they were just, “Okay, we understand.”
Dan: She did verbal martial arts. It’s like if a martial arts guy grabs someone’s arm and bends it, and you’re like, “That looks like it hurts.”
Michelle: That’s exactly what she did. And it was the same thing talking to clients, money managers or whatever it was. You just learned how to talk to people.
Have you been watching Dan play a finance guy in Billions?
Michelle: I actually haven’t seen a single episode!
Dan: Michelle can’t go back to that world. It’s the same way I can’t watch 2 Broke Girls, ‘cause I used to wait tables.
Michelle: Seriously, I could not watch Wolf of Wall Street. And while I was watching The Big Short, I nearly had a panic attack. My life was so stressful in a way where I felt like I didn’t have any control over it. I was constantly getting yelled at and having to yell at people. I hated it. It was awful.
Dan: Like I said, scared wet cat.
How’s that set of anxieties compare to performing for an audience that might hate you?
Michelle: It doesn’t really — I hated what I was doing at the bank and I love what I’m doing now. It’s all part of the territory.
Dan: Yeah, the sucky parts of this job are better than the best parts of the other job.
Grand philosophical question for you guys: I recently interviewed this producer who said he thinks comedy is getting shorter as a medium while drama is getting longer, which partly is why we’re seeing so many new web series and other short form offerings — people can consume their comedy in short bursts, as they please. You’ve both worked in shorter and longer forms; what’s your take?
Michelle: I agree and disagree.
Dan: I agree and disagree with that too. I think there’s so many options that people want comedy in shorter doses until they find what they like. And then they’re willing to go longer with it. So I think the important part of Used People is it’s just Michelle and I putting out what we’d call the Costco scene. We want people to have three of these and then be like, “Oh, I want the big package. I want the fuckin’ Kirkland family size version of Used People, not just the one in a little plastic cup.” I think standup’s the same — people want to watch three to five minutes of a guy, and if they like him, maybe they’ll watch a half hour. So I think maybe there is something to that statement.
Michelle: I also think part of the problem is people that are very good at three-minute things will get a deal to develop something longer, and they don’t know how to do it. So then that’s not successful because they haven’t developed the muscle needed to write longer form stuff.
Another grand philosophical question: while Dan and I were waiting for the conference call to start, he was telling me about this feud he’s having with a guy on Twitter…
Dan: It’s not even a feud, the guy’s just trolling me.
He was telling me about this guy who’s trolling him on Twitter, and I’m curious: how much does social media play into your work and your lives?
Michelle: I use it as a tool to communicate jokes or ideas. I don’t respond to people — I only respond to my friends. I feel like as soon as you engage, you’ve already lost. If you have to defend a joke, you’ve already lost. There’s no one you’re gonna convince. I’d rather just be like, “Ah, fuck you, I’m gonna move on to my next joke.” I mean, I want to fight that person…
Dan: This guy’s just such a crazy person. It’s like you forget you have the option of just not talking. But I also think that I have just such a weird temper that I’m like, “Oh, I’m gonna fight this person. I want to best this person in 140 characters.”
Michelle: Dan fighting this person is Dan fighting twelve people from his past.
Dan: Yeah, I’m basically taking on a gang of ghosts. It’s just so silly, the guy just said a crazy thing and I reacted to a crazy thing! And Michelle’s right, I made a mistake by even asking what he was talking about. And, by the way, two people that I don’t follow were like, “You read my tweet and then you went on the radio and you reworked the joke.” Do you know how many jokes I have in my act that I just scrapped because I didn’t want to rework them?! That’s how lazy I am. So I guess it’s a compliment that he thinks I work hard.
Michelle: That’s an intense amount of work — you’d have to search Twitter to find something on the topic you’re talking about, and then to rework it so it’s slightly different? At that point you might as well just read it word for word.
Dan: You might as well just steal that shit and say it. At least have some panache. But yeah, to answer the question, Twitter does affect our lives. Because sometimes you can be at a comedy club and you’ll check Twitter and somebody’ll say, “You suck!” And then you’ll be like, “Well, now I feel bad. Now I just feel bad as a person.”
Michelle: But sometimes they’re like, “You’re great!” And you’re like, “I don’t believe you.”
Dan: Yeah. I’ve never read Twitter and been like, “Guys! This guy in Ohio says I’m pretty funny!”
Michelle: I’m just like, “Yeah, they don’t know the real story yet.”
How do you know when to trust someone who says you’re great, or that a thing you’ve made is good and deserves to exist?
Dan: I don’t think we ever really agree with anyone on that.
Michelle: Yeah, I think part of what makes us good at what we do is that even if someone we love and respect says, “That was really good,” we’ll be like, “Thanks,” but at least in my head I’ll be thinking it could be better. And even if I believe that it was great, well, now I’m onto the next thing.