The transition from sketch comedy—let alone the web-based variety—to feature films isn’t always pretty, but with the new Mystery Team, New York’s Derrick Comedy seems likely to succeed where others have failed. The NYU troupe’s story about a group of naïve 18-year-old former “kid detectives” suddenly caught up in a double homicide has two all-too-rare commodities for sketch-based films: characters worth caring about and a story that’s more than just a loose assemblage of vignettes. After warm receptions at both Sundance and Comic-Con, Derrick Comedy readies Mystery Team for a national run this October with a theatrical première at the Alamo Drafthouse tonight (a second Friday show has just been added), accompanied by a live appearance and two new sketches filmed expressly for Austin. Unfortunately, production on these meant that The A.V. Club couldn’t speak with the entire group as scheduled, but DC Pierson—who plays “Duncan, the boy genius”—gamely filled in, even pretending to be his fellow troupe members when it came time for individual questions.
The A.V. Club: Why did you decide to take a risk on all new characters instead of just playing it safe and doing Bro Rape: The Movie?
DC Pierson: When you’re a sketch group going into film, the biggest criticism you get is, “Oh, you’re just gonna stretch a sketch over 90 minutes?” We didn’t want to fall victim to that. We recognize that a sketch is very different from a feature film. You need a story, characters you care about—and a sketch doesn’t have those things, by design. Mystery Team had characters that we immediately gave a shit about, and we figured that if we executed it right, other people would too.
AVC: Did the rocky transition of other sketch teams to film—like Whitest Kids U Know’s Miss March—weigh on you at all?
DCP: Whitest Kids are friends of ours, and when we were starting to make this, Miss March hadn’t really come out. We all thought there was a lot to like about it, but when we saw the critical reception, we were turned off by how quickly people were like, “This is why sketch groups shouldn’t do movies.” But at the time we were making [Mystery Team], we didn’t have any forebears in terms of sketch comedy groups of our generation making an independent feature film. We just had the time and budget blocked out, and we really needed to make it happen. Just in terms of our own career, we had this one go at it.
AVC: Before you went independent, did you pitch it to studios?
DC: Actually, more than two years ago we came out to L.A. with this other script that we pitched around. But people weren’t all that into it—and at the time we weren’t that disappointed, and that probably should have told us something. So we went back to New York and decided to do something independently. Donald [Glover, castmate] had always wanted to do an Encyclopedia Brown-type movie, so he brought in the idea of kid detectives—these G-rated characters in an R-rated world—and we very quickly came up with the skeleton of Mystery Team. In that first meeting, there were lines and jokes that ended up in the final film. We had this initial burst of excitement, and it still hasn’t ended. We’re still really excited about these characters. We just filmed a new short with them for Comic-Con, and we were like, “We would happily do 20 more of these.”
AVC: Derrick Comedy doesn’t have a lot of recurring characters, so was this a first for you?
DCP: Yeah, totally. We, as a sketch group, aren’t terribly interested in going back to the well and having recurring characters. We’re also not interested in doing topical or political stuff, because it’s not evergreen. Something will happen, and then by the end of the week, 50,000 people have made Internet videos parodying it, and it’s instantly dated. We just felt these characters were rich enough to sustain a feature film—and ideally short films and other ancillary stuff.
AVC: Mystery Team is also completely devoid of pop-culture references. Was that a conscious decision?
DC: Yeah, the characters themselves exist in this weird vacuum. They’re modern-day 18-year-old kids, so they’re definitely surrounded by others who are into pop culture. But they’ve built this weird, 1950s Americana bubble around themselves—they’ve managed to avoid any pop culture that would penetrate that. So it didn’t make sense for them to acknowledge pop culture. We look at this movie as an homage to those 1980s, Steven Spielberg, Amblin movies about “adventures in suburbia”—and at the same time, we didn’t want it to be a winking reference to those things. We wanted to pay homage to the spirit of them, rather than being, like, “Look, a DeLorean!” References like that don’t get you a lot. We’d rather have an original joke than a clever Miami Vice allusion.
AVC: There does seem to be a lack of irony in your comedy.
DCP: Yeah, we obviously grew up in this modern age, and we ourselves are very cynical and ironically detached. We can’t feel feelings, and we talk entirely in Simpsons lines, just like everybody else. But what we really find funny is characters who believe their bullshit, against all evidence to the contrary. For those people to be ironic, detached, record-store employees doesn’t make sense.
AVC: Did each actor develop their character independently?
DCP: We didn’t all personally develop them, but as all five us were writing the story, we developed characters that played to our strengths.
AVC: So you see yourself as a genius?
DCP: [Laughs.] Well, that’s the thing. He’s not a boy genius. He’s just a know-it-all. It felt very close to how I am and how I was as a kid. Where you were told, “Oh, you read better than everybody else.” And suddenly you go, “I must be Mozart!” You think of yourself as talented and gifted, but no, it’s just that you don’t have as many friends, therefore you have more time to read.
AVC: Here’s where I had individual questions.
DCP: Oh, awesome. I’ll do these.
AVC: Dan, how did your work with the Blue Man Group inform this shoot?
DCP: [As Dan Eckman.] I’ve always been passionate about shooting and cutting things to music, and I trained for that with Blue Man Group. On Mystery Team, I was working very closely with Donald to compose the score and cutting things to create a mood, so that experience definitely helped. Also, it was good training for shooting three bodies in a frame and throwing marshmallows at each other.
AVC: Meggie, as the only female and the producer who has to handle the business end, do you feel like you play the mom?
DCP: [As Meggie McFadden.] There’s definitely that feeling a little bit, but I’m just far and away the most responsible person. Anytime I leave for more than two days, I come back and the two apartments that we share look like Vietnam. If I didn’t think about organization, who else would? But I hope other people in the group would say my creative input is as important as my production input.
AVC: Dominic, you have a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. How did that factor into playing Charlie?
DCP: [As Dominic Dierkes.] I actually went and did jiu-jitsu while we were filming and didn’t tell anyone, and I ended up getting a huge wound on my face, so they had to do a lot of makeup every day to cover that up. It just added to my general tough-guy mystique.
AVC: Donald, not only did you come up with the idea, but you also had the most lines, the most screen time, and you did the score. Why so selfish?
DCP: [As Glover.] Honestly, I’m doing my best to be modest, but I’m looking to replace the rest of Derrick with people who look and speak exactly like me. So if there’s anyone out there like that, if you could send in headshots and résumés, that’d be great. My idea for the next film is that we’re still in our characters, but it’s all just me. Like Eddie Murphy in Norbit.