Life is full of unexpected potholes, and the same can be said for the wild world of writing. I conducted this interview with Ben Garant a while ago that was supposed to go online sometime in mid to late February, but a series of events delayed the interview’s publication.
The first event was my move from my hometown to a different part of MA. While moving, the program that I used to record the interview, GrandCentral, went under a major server change and went out of service for an extended period of time. Long story short, I couldn’t access the audio from my interview with Ben for much longer than expected. While I put the interview on hold, my writing schedule filled up with other projects and things became hectic at work.
My goal was to get this interview up in time to be of some help to the Writer’s Guild of America during their strike. Ben played an active and vocal role and was more than willing to speak at length about his feelings on the strike. February 12th marked the last day of the Writer’s Guild of America strike. I am very happy for Ben and the rest of the Guild, but wish I could have helped give them more of a voice. My apologies go out to Ben and the WGA for not getting this article up in a timelier manner. I’m still very proud of the interview and think it’s a great read, but I wish that the combination of external factors and a hectic schedule hadn’t had such an impact on it’s being published.
Since the end of The State, Ben Garant has shown a gift for both script writing and improv comedy. He has penned blockbusters like Night at the Museum with writing partner Tom Lennon while simultaneously being a jack of all trades for the hit comedy show Reno 911! In my ninth interview with The State, Ben and I cover a lot of new ground and go in depth about the creation and creative process of Reno 911! Ben also talks about some State skits he was responsible for writing, Todd Holoubek and his ability to play a hilarious victim, and Michael Patrick Jann playing the role of Jesus. Thank you to Ben Garant and the other eight State members who have brought my dream of interviewing the entire cast so very close to becoming a reality.
DJ Sorce-1: Would you be willing to talk about the strike a little bit before we get into anything else? You must be kind of sick of talking about it.
Ben Garant: Not at all. Any chance we have to get our side out there is good. The major media is mostly owned by Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone, so they don’t publish our side that much. That’s why writers are taking such advantage of blogs and YouTube. The mainstream news is reporting a very one sided version of the strike.
DJ Sorce-1: There have been some interesting situations developing with Leno, Letterman, John Stewart, and Steven Colbert going back on air. Leno went on air and people were saying he did it without the Writers Guild’s permission. He claimed that he thought he had their blessing. Do these situations become uncomfortable as a member of the union? I’m sure on the one hand you want to let these guys to do their shows, but you also expect them to back you and support you.
Ben Garant: It’s rough because they’re all Writers Guild. It’s not that they’re just doing something that undermines their staff. They have great personalities, but it’s their writing staff that makes them big. John Stewarts writing staff has won Emmy after Emmy after Emmy. And those are his writers that win that. But John Stewart and Steven Colbert are Guild. They’re scabbing. They’re working in direct violation of the Guild for whatever reason.
I think maybe they believe they’re doing the right thing by getting the message out there and going back on air. Letterman had his own situation because he owned his own production company. That doesn’t happen very often anymore. He was able to make a separate deal with the guild and they found a good compromise. He’s working with his Guild writers. But with everybody else, the network said, “Jump” and they said, “Yes sir boss.” They’re working despite the fact that they are Writers Guild and they are on strike. That’s pretty discouraging.
It’s also interesting that Tom Cruise’s company UA made its own separate deal with the Guild. Now UA can make movies. If anything is going to break this strike and make the company’s give, it’s that. If they see other companies making deals with the Guild that allows them to produce, suddenly people will realize they’ll get left behind unless they make a deal with the Guild. I think that might give us more ammunition than anything we’ve had so far. Rupert Murdoch has said he’s willing to let the strike go for twelve months before he gives anything. He’s not going to give us a dime for any internet residuals. I’m really proud of David Letterman and his organization and what they did. I hope other shows follow suit. I think people have to stick by their guns and stay true to their principles and we’re starting to find out what people’s principles really are.
DJ Sorce-1: I was reading your MySpace and checking out the demands that the Guild is making. What you’re asking for seems so reasonable. It’s frustrating that the creators of art that millions of people enjoy aren’t being compensated for very difficult work. Scriptwriting is no easy feat and it’s unbelievable how big media companies treat the people that make them their money.
Ben Garant: Yeah. These days the networks create the shows. Now if you sell a show to Fox, you don’t own any of it. You have to go through 20th Productions and they own 100% of it. You’re not creating shows with creative people who came up through being writers or something like that; you’re creating shows with people who came up from corporate. They don’t have any creative background at all. That’s why shows are developed by focus groups, test audiences, and stuff like that.
Shows in the 90’s didn’t used to happen that way. Seinfeld, Cheers, and Friends were created by creative people and brought to a network. Every single thing you see on TV or hear on the radio is owned by six fucking companies. The people making creative decisions are thirty levels away from creative. They’re just money people. Show business is always about money…in reality that’s what it is.
But people making decisions now have never met anyone who is a writer, director, or producer. People in TV make decisions that make sense on the bottom line, but televisions just sucks now. It’s ten times worse than it was ten years ago. Ratings are down and it’s just horrible. That’s why cable companies are starting to get a little bit of a foothold. They can actually create something without giant mega corporation’s money.
Rupert Murdoch is a strike buster. That’s how he made his money, by busting up unions. He doesn’t give a shit how good something is. It’s not based on how good it is; it’s based on how much money it makes. You can produce a pretty shitty movie, but if you’ve got the muscle, the movie can make a lot of money. You can make a network lineup that’s all celebrities dancing with each other. None of the people on the show are actors so they’re not getting residuals. The show doesn’t have writers that they have to pay residuals to. You can make a fortune.
If these companies can control the internet and it’s not unionized, in their minds it’s like a brave new frontier. They’ll own movies and the entertainment median of the future. We’re up against the richest mother fuckers on the planet earth so it’s an interesting time. We’re all keeping our spirits up and hoping for the best, but who knows what’s going to happen. It’s been a long weird couple of months. I just want it to be over so I can start writing again.
DJ Sorce-1: Are you using this time as inspiration or are you just putting writing aside for a bit?
Ben Garant: I’ve been getting a lot of reading in for a change. Tom and I had a movie that we were working on for Fox that we shelved. It’s very difficult to do that when you have something that you want to make. Both of us made a pact that we’re not even going to think about it so now it’s on a shelf half started and unfinished. I recently traveled the country. I drove across and visited relatives in Tennessee and Phoenix. I spent a week in New Orleans with some friends there. Since I’ve been back I’ve been doing the picket lines. I’m trying to not write anything for hire, and I’m sticking to that.
DJ Sorce-1: I was more asking if you’re drawing inspiration from this experience for future projects.
Ben Garant: I have an idea for a movie that I’m outlining. But for the first month, Tom and I tried to be very active in the strike. It turned into kind of a full time job, which was strange. But I haven’t really been writing. I’ve been actively trying not to, which is difficult.
DJ Sorce-1: Let’s talk about The State for a bit. I love the Burger World skit where you’re the boss and you’re screaming at Todd for no good reason. Do you remember who wrote that skit?
Ben Garant: Yeah, I wrote that one. We used to have an office right by Central Park. I used to walk around Central Park and write sketches. Good sketches just kind of come to you. You don’t really think about them, they just sort of happen. I have no idea what inspired that. I like that one, and screaming at people is fun.
DJ Sorce-1: There’s something so funny about the play on the fast food environment. A lot of times in a fast food place if the people are pissed they look sad or defeated more than angry. It was a nice play on what it’s usually like when you go into a burger joint.
Ben Garant: Thanks man. Yeah, I’m really glad we got a chance to do that one.
DJ Sorce-1: Another skit that you were in that I love is where you lead the family prayer at the dinner table that turns into a prayer for your son’s death. The victim in this one is also Todd. Eventually the pope, the three wise men, and a bunch of religious figures come in to joint the prayer. That shit had me dying it was so funny.
Ben Garant: Yeah…he looks great as a victim. Nobody looks sadder than he does. He doesn’t fight back, he just looks sad, and it’s great. That skit is a weird one. At the time I was thinking, “Will people get this?” I was worried that people would think it was just an anti religion joke and that they wouldn’t understand it. I was happy the group got behind me with that one, because it was a little strange. Michael Patrick Jann as Jesus was just awesome. I was also worried that the network would say, “You can’t have Jesus praying for a kid to die.” We had a pretty relaxed set of rules. You couldn’t point guns at people or refer to drugs, but having Jesus saying he wanted a kid to die was totally ok (Laughs).
DJ Sorce-1: Was anyone in the group religious at all, because it was a constant source of humor for The State?
Ben Garant: I think oddly enough Kevin was the most religious one in the group. We never really talked about it. I think a lot of us were raised religious, and I know I was. To me, anything that people take super seriously is fun to be goofy about. It’s almost that simple.
DJ Sorce-1: Of all the movies you’ve written, which one is your favorite?
Ben Garant: I think Reno 911! Miami is a blast. When you watch stuff that you’ve written, there’s always stuff that you’re proud of and stuff that makes you cringe. We had to watch all of The State stuff again to do commentary tracks for the new DVD that’s coming out. There’s stuff in it that I think is great, and then there is stuff that really makes me cringe. But a lot of The State stuff still cracked me up which actually kind of surprised me.
I had to watch the Reno movie recently with relatives and I’m very happy with how it came out. I think it’s very true to the show. When we did the publicity tour we drove across country and saw it with audiences in 17 different cities. It’s just a fun movie to watch with a bunch of people. I think that’s the best movie that I’ve had a part of. I really liked that movie.
It’s really fun because of the way it’s structured with guest actors coming in and doing their thing. We get to work with really fun people and that’s my favorite part of it. People come in and bring their own character and shtick. It’s never boring. It really keeps you on your toes. We laugh all day. It’s a lot of work, but every day is a struggle to not laugh on camera. That’s a good job. It beats digging ditches.
DJ Sorce-1: Kerri talked a bit about how the show is 100% improve. That must be really freeing as an actor.
Ben Garant: Yeah, dialogue is never written. We leave it up to the actors. It’s great because you never get bored. The cast seems very awake because it’s often their first time hearing the material so their reactions are real.
DJ Sorce-1: Is it difficult to go from Reno to somewhere else where you have to follow a more regimented script?
Ben Garant: It’s not difficult to go between scripted and improv for me because I think both of them are really fun. If a script is good, you don’t need to improv. You just do the script. With Reno, Tom, Kerri, and I are the total bosses. We edit, we hire everybody, and everybody in the cast is there because we like them and want to work with them. Everybody is there to have a really good time. They’ve heard of the show and they want to do it.
It’s weird when you’re thrust into other environments where people have their own agendas. They aren’t thinking about the final product. On Reno, it’s such great group vibe. Everybody is so supportive of each other. The more that I work outside of the Reno environment, the more I realize it’s a really unusual environment. When you go to most sets people have little grudges that go back and forth and there are some big egos. It’s crazy to me. People on the sets of comedy usually aren’t having that much fun. I think that’s why we like Reno so much, and I think that’s why we liked The State. Despite some arguments, everybody was there to have fun.
DJ Sorce-1: That’s bizarre that comedy sets aren’t very fun. If you really love comedy, you should get some enjoyment out of it. What has been your general experience with working with actors outside of The State?
Ben Garant: I have to say, people are mostly really great. I’ve been very surprised. When I was with The State I assumed doing anything other than working with my college buddies would be horrible. But the real assholes I’ve met in this industry, I would say I can count on one hand. Most people are very fun and decent.
DJ Sorce-1: Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of Reno 911! and how it was created by you and Tom?
Ben Garant: It was really out of necessity. Tom, Terri and I had a sketch show deal at Fox. It was for a half hour life sketch show. We had to do a table read for it and when we did the table read you could tell it wasn’t gonna go. We did a read of some really funny sketches and you could feel the executives being hesitant. They weren’t ever going to let the show go to air and we were kind of fucked. We were supposed to turn in the pilot within a month and a half. We had spent a third of our budget already renting studio space and stuff, so there wasn’t a ton we could do. Tom came up with the idea. He said, “What if we did a sketch show and shot it just like Cops? It’ll be all handheld, mostly exteriors, and we improv it.”
We really didn’t know what we were doing. When we first got the entire cast together, we gave nametags to everyone and didn’t really explain to them what their characters should be. We realized the show would need some kind of element to hold all the different segments together. So decided to interview everybody and ask them 15 questions about their respective characters and people’s characters just sort of formed on camera. We didn’t warn them we were going to ask them these questions and we didn’t give them to them in advance. That was it. It happened really easily. People automatically developed these weird love triangles and stuff like that all on their own. It really happened very organically…much more organically than anything I’ve ever been a part of.
DJ Sorce-1: You can really feel the chemistry on the show. You get the sense that people are always on the same page.
Ben Garant: Most of the time that’s very true.
DJ Sorce-1: What was the initial reaction from Fox when they first saw the pilot?
Ben Garant: Audiences loved it and it tested really well. The pilot had a lot of gay humor in it and the network was really uncomfortable with that stuff. I think if we had tamed that down, we would have made it on Fox, which would have been horrible. The show would have never worked on Fox. It wouldn’t have developed the way it did on Comedy Central. We never could have gotten as risqué and talked about race and other controversial topics. Audiences loved it and the younger executives loved it, but I think the gay stuff made the network not want to touch it.
DJ Sorce-1: But that worked to your benefit?
Ben Garant: Comedy Central is the network for it. They let us get away with what we need to be able to get away with. Their bread and butter has always been doing stuff that no other network could. That’s where they always make their marks, so it’s been a good place for us.
DJ Sorce-1: Did you ever anticipate that the show would be as successful as it is?
Ben Garant: I don’t know. The three of us had just come off of Viva Variety. I love Viva Variety and think it’s a great show, but we always knew that it wasn’t for everyone. It’s a very weird show and you need to know about European televisions to get some of the jokes. It’s definitely not everybody’s sensibility. Then we did Reno, which is the same sensibility put into the world of Cops. We thought to ourselves, “This might actually work. It’s not crazy esoteric, it’s very physical, and it might work.” I’m glad that five years later were still doing it. It’s really fun to make jokes for. I’m glad that it’s still trucking along and I hope it continues to.
DJ Sorce-1: How do you think the strike will affect the show?
Ben Garant: We have another season that begins airing January 16th. We finished shooting in March and finished editing in June. We’re at the end of our contractual five seasons, so I don’t know. We’re all having quite a good time. Whether or not the network still wants us to do more and wants to pay us well is up to the network. Tom, Terry and I want to do it. It’s a lot of fun.
I like writing movies too, but in movies you are really the lowest rung of the totem pole. They say jump and you say how high. They say, “Mr. Stiller doesn’t like that scene and even though you love that scene, you have to throw it out and write another one.” That’s part of the gig. It’s what you do and it’s what being a writer is. But doing Reno is a refreshing change of pace from that. With Reno, everything on the screen is our fault, our decision, and our execution. We get to either do it right or fuck it up…but there’s nobody else fucking it up for us. It’s a good way to be. I want to keep doing it as long as Comedy Central will have us.
DJ Sorce-1: Tom explained scriptwriting as a system to me and said that once you’re in it you want to ride the wave and not mess it up. Do you ever have the desire to venture out and do scripts that are totally your own and more offbeat?
Ben Garant: Yeah, I’ve written a couple of those. When people see my name on a script they expect it to be like Reno or Night at the Museum. I’ve written three scripts that are not like the other comedies that we do. But we’ve been so busy between Reno and features that I can’t really peruse anything. I can write a script, but when it comes time to get it done, I haven’t really had a week off to peruse it. I have to choose if I’m going to do Reno or one of my own screenplays. It’s kind of an easy choice.
The movie business will kick us out soon enough without us walking away from it. It’s such a fickle business. A stiff breeze will happen and our phone will stop ringing and we’ll stop getting work. To walk away before the industry kicks us out would be crazy. I’m going to keep doing the Lennon/Garant comedies. We’re doing movies that are much weirder and Renoish, and we’re also doing movies that are more like The Pacifier and Night at the Museum. We’re branching out in both directions at once.
It’s plenty to do. If I wasn’t doing Reno, I’d probably get antsy to do something else. When you’re writing dinosaur jokes at night and getting hit in the balls by Nick Swardsan by day, it’s a lot. And it’s a good mix. I have my own scripts that have my own sensibility, but I think I’ll save those for my retirement years. Knowing Hollywood, my retirement years may be next fall.
DJ Sorce-1: It sounds like such a confidence killing experience.
Ben Garant: The first couple of years as a writer in Hollywood you’re like, “Oh my god, is this really what it’s like. It must get more relaxed at some point.” No, it doesn’t. You’re a writer. You’re like a contractor. Everybody else is the boss but you. You get used to it. You can either accept it or not. I think Tom and I have just gotten used to the face that it is what it is.
DJ Sorce-1: Can you talk about some comedic influences that have been big in your life?
Ben Garant: Growing up my older brothers were the ones who brought Monty Python into the house. I have older brothers who are seven and eight years older than me. They had Holy Grail on VHS tape in like ’78. So I’d say Python is the big one.
They also had Cheech and Chong’s comedy albums Sleeping Beauty and The Wedding Albums, which are little skit albums. I think a lot of that type of humor is my sensibility. Those albums are so loose, far out, and interesting. The State started out doing black box theatre in New York. It’s very much like comedy albums style sketches. You can be weird and esoteric.
I was also a big fan of The Young Ones. I liked how they went back and forth between really silly Monty Python style humor and extreme violence. They were like a mix between The Sex Pistols and The Three Stooges. They would just do stuff like hit each other in the face with boards. It’s a great show. It stars Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson who started out as a standup duo. They put together The Young Ones based on characters from their standup act.
It’s really funny and entertaining. It’s about a punk, a poser, a hippy, and a player who’s only like 4 1” who are all college students that never go to college. It’s. They live in a house together and fight. They just punch each other in the face. And the fights are always over who’s going to do laundry that week or clean the apartment. It’s really random. Sometimes the camera will zoom in on something like a box of matches and the box of matches will have a conversation.
DJ Sorce-1: The State had a talking sandwich in a skit and Wet Hot American Summer had a talking can of vegetables, so I could see you naming that show as an influence.
Ben Garant: The Young Ones does tons of that sort of stuff. For no reason ghosts will walk through the room and have a scene. It’s just so surreal. But it’s still done like a sitcom. At the end they face another college in a celebrity quiz show. The plot is like a sitcom, but the sensibility is completely bizarre.
DJ Sorce-1: How about influential movies besides Python?
Ben Garant: I’d say a lot of John Landis movies. The Jerk was the first rated R movie that I saw in the theatre. If you look at The Jerk it’s very much like The State’s sense of humor. It’s the greatest, stupidest movie in the world. My older brothers would take me to Animal House and Caddyshack. Those were part of the early SNL movies that have scenes with punch lines. If The State ever had done a movie, hopefully it would have felt like one of those ensemble comedies that John Landis did.
DJ Sorce-1: Have any positives come out of the strike?
Ben Garant: I used to have a low opinion of the Writers Guild itself. It’s amazing how many rules they have that they never enforce. People ask you to do free work all the time as a writer. You get paid for turning in a script but instead of paying you they’ll often say, “You know, before we show this to Ben Stiller, we should really fix it up a little bit. So do this, this, this, and this.” After three weeks work, you’ll turn it again and they’ll say “It’s so close, but…” and you end up having to do more work on the script for free.
We work for free all the time. They never ask Steven Spielberg to direct a scene for free. They’ll never tell Ben Stiller, “Just come in one day for free. It’ll really make the movie really good.” It’s just part of the job as a writer that you work for free all the fucking time. The industry thinks of writer as very dispensable. You’ll get replaced if you don’t do that shit for free. The fact that all the way up to the corporate top there unwilling to give us even a tiny percentage of movies that get played on the internet….let’s face it, that’s the future. Already they’ve closed every DVD store in my neighborhood. The fact that their response is, “Fuck you guys, we don’t need you” is surprisingly abusive.” I had what I thought was a very realistic sense of how low the corporations thought writers were…the fact that they think they don’t need writers at all surprises me.
I’m encouraged by my fellow writers. I’ve met more writers on the picket lines than I ever have in my whole life. People are strong. People are tightening their belts, carpooling, and swapping DVDs instead of renting them. Writers are strong, which also surprised me. I’m impressed and gladdened by that.
To learn more about Ben check out his IMDB profile and his MySpace page.