Cabin Boy director Adam Resnick talks about his book, his outlook, and failure

Cabin Boy director Adam Resnick talks about his book, his outlook, and failure

Adam Resnick has a singular comedic voice, but it comes at a high cost: The product of his hard-earned labor is not necessarily a sure thing with audiences. Resnick’s sensibility—dark, tortured, surreal, half a bubble off plumb—does not appeal to the widest range of comedic denominators. And while Resnick’s name is well regarded within the industry—Bob Odenkirk, Charlie Kaufman, and Jon Stewart have publicly stated their respect—little is known about who Resnick actually is, where he comes from, or even what he looks like.

Until very recently, Resnick’s Wikipedia page featured a photo of a handsome, middle-aged, goateed man wearing an Indianapolis Colts baseball hat. This is not Adam Resnick, but rather someone else—perhaps another Adam Resnick—and how it ended up on the comedy writer’s page is anybody’s guess. But Resnick will not be adding his own photo any time soon. This is the way that he wants it. Resnick is not a comedy writer who tweets, has a Facebook page, or appears on talk shows to chat about cute run-ins with celebrities. He’s an old-fashioned writer. He stays in his office and writes.

It’s difficult to get to the bottom of what’s real and what’s not when it comes to Resnick’s background, but the following can be verified: In the mid-1980s, Resnick attended NYU’s film program but quit just five credits short of graduation in order to work as an intern—and then writer—on Late Night With David Letterman, a show at the height of its power. There, Resnick befriended Chris Elliott, and the two conspired to create some of the most bizarre, off-kilter televised comedy of the late ’80s and early ’90s: Elliott as Marlon Brando; Elliott as Skylark, the Chris Elliott impersonator; Elliott as anyone, really. Resnick left Late Night in 1990 to co-create the Fox sitcom Get A Life, and then, in 1994, he wrote and directed the big-screen bomb Cabin Boy. He spent a year writing and producing The Larry Sanders Show and then brought two additional movies to the big screen: 2000’s Lucky Numbers and 2002’s Death To Smoochy.

And then what, exactly? Where did Resnick go, what did Resnick write? It’s all a bit murky. What’s less murky is the fact that Resnick’s early work influenced a generation of comedy writers who praise him for being ahead of his time, with a distinct outlook that has now become commonplace. One only has to look at Arrested Development, Eastbound & Down, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to see exactly what they mean.

And then, earlier this month, seemingly from out of nowhere, came Resnick’s first book, a hilarious memoir called Will Not Attend: Lively Stories Of Detachment And Isolation. A more accurate title would be difficult to create. The book begins with a story about an 8-year-old Resnick stumbling on a photograph of a woman sucking off a horse—all this while at an Easter party. From there, things get worse for young Adam: an altercation with a born-again carnival fat man, a potential near-death experience after finding a blade in a fast-food milkshake, and—perhaps most horrifying—a quick stint selling life insurance in rural Pennsylvania.

Guest contributor Mike Sacks—a Vanity Fair staffer whose latest book, Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers, will be released June 24—sat down with Resnick at an Upper West Side Manhattan diner (called appropriately, or inappropriately, Utopia), and over a plate of eggs, turkey bacon (“extra-well-done, please”), and a large iced tea, heard tales of Resnick’s “miserable” childhood in rural Pennsylvania, the frustrations of having to work within a Hollywood system not designed for idiosyncratic sensibilities, and the joy he felt at being able to write, for the first time, “whatever I wanted, in whatever way I wanted, without any thought of turning it into another product.”

The A.V. Club: Your name and work are very well regarded in the comedy world, and yet your IMDB page is surprisingly sparse.

Adam Resnick: Well, I’m glad it feels that way. [Laughs.] My IMDB page, which I haven’t glanced at in a long time, must look pretty horrific. A couple of good things, some monumentally bad things, and then long gaps between projects. The gaps are easy to explain—I was too paralyzed to write after the failures. And I didn’t know what to write. You feel damaged. For long periods—years—I just holed up here in New York, far away from the action, and made few attempts to help myself. For me—and this is neurosis, depression, or whatever—those failures defined who I became. Deep down I knew I wasn’t that writer, but it didn’t matter. I’m just weak, I guess. You can only get up off the mat so many times. If I saw an IMDB page like mine, I’d just think, “This guy’s a fucking hack.”

AVC: You’re not shy about discussing projects that didn’t live up to your expectations. Would you mind talking about your shows and movies that you’ve been critical? Let’s start with Cabin Boy.

AR: I feel like I’ve talked about this a lot, but look, I’ve had a lot of bad luck and I’ve also made bad choices. Cabin Boy was a Tim Burton thing. He loved Chris [Elliott] and wanted to do another Pee-wee’s Big Adventure-type comedy. Chris, who’s my best friend, brought me along in 1993 to brainstorm with Tim, and the idea was we’d write it and Tim would direct. So Chris, Tim, and I came up with this Cabin Boy idea, based on Chris’ very funny notion of doing a classic sea adventure like [the 1937 MGM movie] Captains Courageous. We wrote it and gave it to Tim, who loved the script. We were ready to go, but at the last minute Tim pulled out and suggested I direct it. I said no, because I felt I wasn’t ready. Other than some remotes and things at Letterman, I had no real directing experience—and, more importantly, if I were going to direct my first movie, Cabin Boy would be the last sort of thing I’d come up with. It was written for Tim’s sensibility. But everyone started pushing, saying it would be the mistake of a lifetime to pass up the opportunity, and, ultimately, I came to believe that.

After Cabin Boy, I never wanted to direct again. That’s probably one the worst things that came out of the whole thing for me—being scared off of something and never giving it another chance. Both Chris and I were damaged in so many ways after that movie. I know that for a long time I just kind of gave up. I didn’t have the strength to endure that level of failure and embarrassment. I felt so ashamed.

AVC: Why ashamed? Doesn’t every writer and director receive bad reviews at some point?

AR: Not like this. Chris and I will go to our graves unable to understand why so much hatred and attention was showered on us. Cabin Boy literally seemed to piss people off—this silly movie that should’ve just been dismissed and allowed to disappear like so many other crappy little comedies. To even dismiss it would take too much energy. We were such tiny targets, but it felt like the whole world was out to kill us. I’ll never understand it.

AVC: How deep did this shame run?

AR: More than I could ever describe. And for longer than you could imagine. How much of it was based on reality or on how I perceived things, I don’t know. I didn’t believe in things like therapy and antidepressants back then. That was for whiny dorks or people who fucked dogs.

AVC: How do you feel all these years later, now that Cabin Boy is considered a cool movie with a loyal cult following?

AR: Better. But I think that mostly has to do with the passage of time. As it turns out, it’s not as awful as I was made to believe. Then again, it’s no masterpiece.

AVC: Years later, you wrote two other highly regarded scripts—Lucky Numbers and Death To Smoochy—but you’ve said in interviews that you weren’t happy with how those films came out.

AR: With those two, it’s a different story. It’s the old crybaby writer’s bitch-fest: “The script was better!” I liked Smoochy more than the other one, but it just didn’t turn out the way I pictured. The performances were really funny, though—Edward Norton was great—and some of it works for me. But, again, I just wrote it. It was the director’s movie. To be fair, I should probably watch it again. Sometimes you look at these things differently after enough time passes.

Anyway, if you’re selling a pitch or a script, you know what you’re getting into—you’re giving it up for the money. And a lot of times directors elevate a script and make a better movie out of it. It happens both ways. Unless a writer has the opportunity and the talent to direct his own material—or have a true collaboration with the director—it’s always going to be a crapshoot.

AVC: How do you feel about Get A Life?

AR: I’m happy there seems to be a small but enthusiastic cult of Get A Life fans. Believe it or not, there’s even a smaller but no less enthusiastic cult of Cabin Boy fans. But for Chris and me, the process of working on Get A Life wasn’t much fun. I think going from our happy protective shell at Letterman and working at Rockefeller Center to some shithole studio lot in Hollywood was a real shock to our systems. L.A. in general—the heat, the architecture, the fact that almost everyone seemed to be in show business—it really depressed me. I’m an East Coaster. Also, when we were doing Get A Life, there was no real sense of a fan base. All that came after. For me, it always felt like we were making the show for nobody, so that tends to take the fun out of things. But there are a few good memories, too. We had our laughs. We did some good work on that series, created some things that maybe were a little unique at the time. Some of it was uneven, but maybe that’s part of the charm. I’m proud of it; I just can’t watch it.

AVC: Can you see Get A Life’s influence on subsequent shows such as Eastbound & Down and Curb Your Enthusiasm?

AR: No, not really. It’s almost impossible to forensically trace how one thing connects to another over time. It’s usually subconscious. Unless you’re blatantly ripping something off, we’re all drawing from various sources, whether we realize it or not. Clearly people such as David Letterman and Woody Allen have been hugely absorbed into the culture, but those are rare, iconic examples. As far as Get A Life, I think Chris Elliott specifically has influenced a lot of comedic actors today. His take on the arrogant idiot—which he created on Late Night back in the ’80s—was completely original and unique, and it’s been widely borrowed from. I see it all the time.

AVC: Quite a few young comedy writers and directors, including Eagleheart writer and director Jason Woliner, have talked about how much your work means to them.

AR: Are you just the sweetest thing, or what? I hear that very, very occasionally, and it’s flattering, but so hard to believe. If it were true to any great extent, I’d be filthy rich and driving a DeLorean. I think when someone says that, what they mean is that there’s a small kernel of something you’ve done that enjoys a place on their… cob of inspiration. [Laughs.] Wow. Jesus Christ. Cut that. No, keep it in. It might provide some sort of clue for the police psychologist when I disappear one day.

AVC: Did your unhappy experiences with Hollywood—in which you felt a loss of control over your work—influence your decision to write your book?

AR: Yeah, completely. But it took so long to muster up the balls. I’ll talk myself out of doing something a thousand different ways.

AVC: There are advantages and disadvantages to writing in any medium. What were some of the disadvantages of writing a book?

AR: Literally none. Other than the fact that there’s not a lot of dough in the book business unless you’re a celebrity or a big-time author. But I didn’t write it for the money.

AVC: Why did you write it?

AR: Essentially to do what I’d never done before—just write. There’s very little that I’ve written for film or television that came close to what I intended, or reflected what I really wanted to do creatively. After a while you realize—what’s the fucking point? No one’s ever going to read the original draft of one of my screenplays, or read scripts I’ve written that didn’t get produced. Such a waste of creative energy.

AVC: Was this experience more rewarding than writing for Hollywood?

AR: Other than working for Dave Letterman, this was definitely the most personally rewarding thing I’ve ever done. There’s always been a part of me that told myself, “You’re just a writer. That’s all you are.” So it felt right to finally work on something that wasn’t meant to be turned into another product. It was one of those “Why did I wait this long?” moments. I still hold out hope that one day I’ll write a movie or TV show that turns out well. But this book, for me, was the creative bull’s-eye I’d been looking for. There’s no erosion process. No matter what people think of it, it’s all mine.

AVC: The childhood you depict in the memoir isn’t one necessarily found in a sitcom—except for, perhaps, in a Get A Life episode. It’s evident that your childhood was frightening, lonely, and unpleasant.

AR: Actually, there were times in the book I felt I was sugarcoating it a bit. It was a rough house. I was miserable. Six boys, each of us nuts in his own way. There was lot of bad energy. Everyone fighting all the time. One brother stole from everyone, another one taped everybody’s phone calls. I had the misfortune of being the middle, sensitive brother, the neurotic worrier, the one not interested in sports and things like that. Looking back, I clearly suffered from depression and probably some mild learning disabilities. Not to a paralyzing degree, but it came pretty close at times. In the 1970s, especially in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—and particularly in my house—no one talked about things like that. It wasn’t exactly an ideal environment for a sad, sensitive kid. Now I can look back and find some humor in it, but there was nothing funny about it at the time.

AVC: Do you feel that your childhood played a role in your becoming a comedy writer?

AR: That’s the old cliché, right? I would say it definitely gave me a certain perspective on things, but I never considered myself a comedy writer—goofball credits to the contrary. I was never comedy-obsessed, even as a teenager. I watched a lot of movies and television, and I either liked something or I didn’t—whether it was a drama, a comedy, or whatever. Not once did I ever think anything remotely like, “I want to be a comedy writer.” After working on Letterman, I sort of got sucked into it. Which makes complete sense. For me, writing in a comedic voice feels somewhat easy and natural. I don’t know why.

My worldview and how I process things mostly comes from my father. I think I genetically inherited his way of thinking—for better or worse. He’s an incredibly dark, cynical, funny guy—but never intentionally. He’s never said anything to be funny or get a laugh. He’s completely unaware. When I was growing up, he was an imposing figure. Strong, athletic, no-nonsense. You didn’t fuck around or be a wise guy in his presence. There was nothing schticky or Jew-y about my father. But man, he’d toss out shit that could be so strange and brilliantly funny—usually when he was pissed off about something. I’ve never met another human being who thinks or talks like Merv. He’s impossible to categorize. He’s an entire book by himself.

AVC: Can you give some examples?

AR: I wouldn’t even know where to start. My dad had this strange thing about napkins; he’d get really pissed off if he didn’t have enough. He liked lots of napkins, so he’d always be yelling out to my mom things like, “Joyce! Would it kill you to give me some fucking napkins, please?” Even though there’d already be three or four right in front of him—more than an adequate number of napkins for the average person.

So one night I was sitting at the table, and out came the familiar, “Joyce! For Christ’s sake, can I get some fucking napkins?” And my mom races in with more napkins and then goes back to whatever she was doing. Seen it a thousand times. But this time, my dad just sat there silently for a moment, shaking his head, and then looks at me and says soberly, “You know, I think your mother was a napkin in another life.” [Laughs.] Implying that, since she was a napkin in a previous life, she sympathizes with them, and therefore doles them out frugally. Having been a napkin herself once, she knows what they go through—wiping off slop from someone’s face and then getting balled up and tossed away. Makes perfect sense why she’d be uncomfortable dispensing too many. There’s a beautiful logic to it.

AVC: Your father really does come off as quite a character in the book.

AR: And that’s exactly what he is—a character. He’s not a guy telling jokes. So in some way, getting back to what you were asking earlier, I never saw myself as being funny growing up. I think I just was kind of funny—as in “funny” with quotes around it. A character.

AVC: Speaking of characters, let’s talk about a few you and Chris Elliott created on Late Night in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To begin with: Marlon Brando.

AR: That came out of Chris goofing around the office, doing an—in retrospect, factually insane—impersonation of Brando. At the time, if someone in comedy did a Brando impersonation, it was always The Godfather. But Chris focused on Brando being crazy, a guy who was almost childlike. When we started writing those pieces, we kept making him more silly and juvenile, in a kind of endearing way. Like a sweet, dim-witted child. I don’t think people liked that character as much as we did. That one clearly felt like we were amusing ourselves, more than anything.

AVC: How about Skylark, the Chris Elliott impersonator?

AR: That was for the shows [Late Night] did in Vegas [in May 1987]. Chris in a wig and glitter, playing it a little homoerotically. Easy peasy. Like everything Chris did on Late Night, it worked because he was playing off Dave. It was Dave’s uncomfortable reaction that made it so funny. They were a funny team—the bemused guy trying to converse with a freak.

AVC: How about Chris as Morton Downey Jr.?

AR: Another example of the funny dynamic between Chris and Dave is in those pieces. Chris stalking around, doing his Morton Downey thing, screaming at Dave, calling him a “Russkie” and threatening to have the whole show shipped back to Russia, and Dave just smiling and leaning back in his chair, like he’s let this guy out of his cage for a few minutes to get a little exercise. Then he’d say something like, “Okay, Chris, maybe it’s time we wrap this up.” And Chris would drop character and respond, “I’m almost done, Dave, just give me a minute.”

AVC: Getting back to your book, I can’t remember the last time I read a memoir containing an anecdote about an 8-year-old discovering a photograph of a woman blowing a horse. Especially while at an Easter party. It was adorable.

AR: Thank you. Yes, that was an early incident in my young life that made me recede even further into myself. By the way, I briefly considered writing a chapter about the time I was almost molested by the nice old man who lived down the street from my grandmother—the one who made little wooden cars and airplanes for the lucky youngsters who’d pay him a visit, but, oddly, I could find nothing poetic or humorous about it. If my older brother, who was around 9 at the time, hadn’t been there to get me out, that deal would’ve closed. But, hey, let’s not obsess over what might’ve been. Let’s talk about Get A Life some more!

AVC: When you wrote your memoir, were there any pet peeves you tried to avoid? For instance, quite a few memoirs contain stories that end with the participant “learning” something “valuable” about themselves.

AR: I really didn’t think about anything like that. I haven’t read a lot of memoirs, so I didn’t have strong opinions going into it. I knew I wanted it to be a nonlinear mix of stories from my life. In that sense, it’s like a David Sedaris collection, I guess. But I didn’t overthink it too much. I just wrote it in a way that felt right to me. And, almost immediately, a loose theme emerged—that I’m out of my mind. The earliest and best compliment I received about the book was from my mom, who said, “It sounds just like you.”

AVC: You didn’t write about your career in the book.

AR: I would never write about that stuff. If I’m asked questions about it, like in an interview, I’ll talk about it, but the machinations of the entertainment business, or how they relate to me, is the last thing that interests me as a writer. Actually, there is one chapter in the book—a short one—that kind of brushes up against it for a moment, but then it’s gone.

AVC: So you don’t you feel that part of a comedy writer’s job is to talk about his or her work, and to spread the word to fans who might find it of interest?

AR: No, I don’t think that’s the duty of any writer. Anyway, I’m a fringe character. There’s not a huge demand to learn more about me or my oeuvre. I pop out of my hole every few years and barf up a Cabin Boy anecdote, and that seems to satisfy the few people who are interested. And I’d never refuse talking to someone who’s nice enough to ask me about something I’ve done. But to write about it, I just have no interest in that.

AVC: What’s next for you? Movies, TV, books?

AR: All of it, and everything else. When I jump out of bed in the morning I just want to swallow the world whole. And after that moment passes, I go back to sleep.

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