Whether you were binging Search Party’s freshman season or not, it’s likely that you’re aware of comedic juggernaut Michael Showalter.
His strong voice and taste for the absurd developed on comedy cult hits from yesteryear like MTV’s sketch series The State and Comedy Central’s Stella. It’s his passion for silliness that would in turn push Showalter into both writing and performing for comedic institutions like Childrens Hospital and Wet Hot American Summer, which is turning into a powerhouse franchise. Even in the film world, Showalter has made contributions like the ultra-funny They Came Together and the more dramatic, Hello, My Name is Doris.
In a lot of ways though, Search Party feels like it might be Showalter’s most complex project to date. The series effortlessly juggles tone while it effectively weaves an impressive mystery that plays with some of the most layered, disaffected characters you’ll encounter this year.
With Search Party’s first season recently wrapping up, I got the great joy of speaking with co-creator and executive producer Michael Showalter about the show’s ambitious scope, the brilliant cast on display, what inspires him as a writer, and how Search Party is like a wet log.
DEN OF GEEK: First off, when starting the series, how much of the mystery had you figured out right from the beginning?
MICHAEL SHOWALTER: Not very much. We wrote the pilot and shot the pilot with only a very vague idea of where everything would go if we got a series. And then, even most of what we did think was going to end up happening ending up changing anyway. We really created and figured it all out once the show had already been picked up for a series, post-pilot.
What’s the working relationship like between you and your co-creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss? What do you guys bring out in each other for this project?
Well I met them at NYU grad film school where they were students and I was on the faculty. They took my writing class.
And then when they came out to LA after they had graduated, I hired them to work on my show, Wet Hot American Summer [First Day of Camp]. I had already kind of become friends with them socially prior to that. Comedically, we all kind of cross over. Their work is a little more—I tend to be very silly and meta—they’re much more grounded, but also their characters are quite exaggerated in their own way as well. And then generationally, they’re very much coming from a millennial perspective and my generation is Generation X, but I was also doing comedy in my early twenties and kind of understand what it’s like to write from a generational point of view.
I think they bring a certain kind of edginess and there’s a sort of sophistication to what they write. Then I try to push things further than where their instincts might take them. I’m sort of always looking to always push them as far as they can go and then they further filter that through their voice and point of view.
Was Alia Shawkat who you originally had in mind for this role?
We wrote it without anyone in mind and then when we were actually getting ready to shoot the pilot, we started thinking about actors that might be right for it, which is when we came up with Alia. As soon as we met with her we felt like, “This is everything. This is exactly who this character is.” It was perfect.
I really love that the series isn’t shy about going to some dark places as the season moves along. Was it always the plan to explore those dark areas, or did you stumble into the tone and get progressively darker accordingly?
No, that was always the intention. We went into this thinking that the tone of the show should be a sort of dark comedy that has a genuinely creepy touch to it. So we always wanted to blend those two genres. And the influences for it—we all have our different reference points—but for me it was like David Lynch and some of the Coen Bros, like Fargo and Blood Simple. Works that have humor, but are also incredibly tight, noir-ish driven stories.
Well let’s talk about this then, I’m a big fan of awkward dinner party films or episodes of TV shows and I noticed that you’re credited for the episode when you guys dip into that territory. Are you a big fan of that trope, or did it just sort of happen organically?
More of the latter, but I do love an awkward dinner party. It was like, once we keyed in on the idea that this is a dinner party gone wrong, then we started talking about the tropes and other reference points that we could make. All the implications of this and having fun with it all, but the original impetus for it was just, “What should the next episode be?” And they’re inviting Gavin over for dinner, so it just made sense.
Obviously you’ve got a lot of experience in the comedy genre, but are you a big fan of mystery, too? Do you have a favorite mystery story or mystery writer?
Yeah, I grew up loving Stephen King. When I was in high school and college, I loved, loved, loved him. I also read all the crazy page-turners and best-sellers, like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Michael Crichton, John Grisham… And then just in terms of movies, ironically since I’ve done so much comedy, most of my favorite movies of all time are more thriller-type movies; Hitchcock, the Coen Bros, noir movies. Those are the films that really stick with me over the years. So even though I haven’t worked in this genre before, I’ve got about a million different reference points for it in my brain.
Okay, well since we’re talking about film now, I think that They Came Together is one of the funniest scripts ever. Do you have other feature ideas, or would you prefer for your next one to be something that’s more dramatic and like a thriller?
Well I wrote and directed a film called, Hello, My Name is Doris, which delves into more dramatic territory than anything else I’ve done. They Came Together and Wet Hot American Summer are both kind of spoof films and very much what I like to do, but I’m also—with Doris, Search Party, and another film that I’ve just finished directing—playing in that dramedy area. I would love to keep mixing things up though.
I think John Reynolds is such a revelation in this show and it’s going to open a lot of people’s eye towards how great he is. What’s your take on his character though because in a lot of ways I think he even goes through a bigger journey than Dory does.
First off, John Reynolds is completely amazing. Brilliantly funny, but then also just a great, nuanced, and unique actor. Yeah, I mean Drew is sort of the “wrong place, wrong time” sort of character. He really wouldn’t even be in this world at all if he wasn’t truly in love with Dory. He wants that relationship. He fell in love with her and doesn’t want to lose her, so he basically is willing to stay in this hipster universe that she runs in which isn’t really organic at all to him.
When we first meet Drew, he’s kind of wimpy, annoying, and mansplaining to Dory, but he becomes a very romantic, heroic character, and we get to figure that out over the course of the show. John has just been doing brilliant work at hitting all of those angles. Then, without giving anything away, Drew ends up paying a hefty price for being just the most innocent person through all of this.
You go pretty far with John Early’s Elliot in terms of likability. Do you ever worry about pushing characters too far and not being able to recover from actions?
Yeah, that’s what you’re always sort of talking about when writing; finding that balance of how far is too far? Will the audience go there with you? Luckily, all of our actors are so charming that they kind of end up winning you over.
But you are, you’re trying to play with that balance where you make these characters awful, but you also want to root for them along the way. And give them good qualities!
Even though Elliot is selfish, narcissistic, and all sorts of other things, but he’s also kind of a great friend, a fun guy to have around, and he’s weirdly there for Dory. In that last episode, he kind of takes over the situation in a way that the other characters aren’t capable of.
You pop up for a minute in Search Party but have also been a part of shows like Super Fun Night where you’re just part of the writers’ room. At this point in your career, do you have a preference towards acting in the things that you’re writing, or simply writing, directing, and staying behind the scenes?
I mean, the thing that gets me up in the morning that I truly genuinely care about is the writing and directing. I enjoy acting. Doing something with Search Party is great for me because I get to work with all of these great people, but I don’t have a desire to go be on a random show. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that it would really take away from the other things that I do love, like writing, directing, producing.
After finishing season one, what sort of ambitions or goals are you thinking about for Search Party’s second season? How would you like to keep pushing things?
What’s fun about how we did Search Party is learning what fans liked about the show. We learn a lot about what we’re doing from hearing responses from the audience. It’s just a conversation that needs to happen regarding what people are saying about the show and how we can synthesize that with what we want to do, so that’s the first thing. And then, if you’ve seen the show you know that there are some pretty big questions that need to be answered. Our characters are in quite the pickle. And so we need to see how they’re going to respond to the situation that they’re in.
I think the tone of the show and the basic kind of game that we’re playing is how we all see it continuing. I always think of New York City as the backdrop for this, but if you turn over a wet log, there’s all sorts of stuff creeping and crawling underneath it. That’s basically what Search Party is about.
Lastly, is there a certain moment from Search Party that you’re the most proud of? Something that you think came especially well together, some character beat, or anything?
When we wrote the show, the first decision that was made was how it was going to end. In a lot of ways, the whole show is a prelude to the last episode. I mean, the whole show is about how the show ends. At least for me! For me, the ending is that moment that in a really fun and surprising way encapsulates the entire show. Then after seeing the last episode, I think you have to re-think the whole show. I like that we achieve that.
And I think the performances throughout are obviously wonderful. The writing is amazing. Charles and Sarah-Violet’s direction is incredible. But the symmetry of where Dory is when the show first starts—when she sees that missing poster on the telephone pole—and then if you think of the very last image of the season, which also has Dory looking at something, I think that juxtaposition is really powerful. When you’re telling a story, that’s what you do it for, for those high impact moments. So that’s what I’m really proud of.
Search Party’s entire first season is currently available on TBS VOD through your television provider.