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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker, and Fred Armisen on sculpture, The Beatles, and the moon

John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker, and Fred Armisen on sculpture, The Beatles, and the moon

Photo: A24 Films/Showtime

At the rate we Earthlings are going in terms of global warming, it seems pretty likely that we’re going to need another planet to live on at some point in the not-too-distant future. It’s something scientists and space programs like NASA have long been considering and working toward with programs like Biosphere 2. While the people inside these self-contained domes are doing important work, from an outsider’s perspective, it can seem pretty silly. (Just ask Pauly Shore.)

Tim Heidecker, Fred Armisen, and John C. Reilly definitely get the cosmic joke of it all. The three created and star in Moonbase 8, a new A24-driven series on Showtime launching November 8. Respectively playing Earth-bound astronaut hopefuls Rook, Skip, and Cap, the three capture both the big dreams of those hoping to walk in Neil Armstrong’s tracks and the casual ineptitude of those who may not ever actually make the trip. (As the show’s press materials suggest, it’s not Moonbase 1 or 2 or 3 for a reason.)

The A.V. Club sat down with the trio for a Zoom chat about the show, which quickly disintegrated into a ramshackle but hilarious discussion about visiting Easter Island, the value of sculpture versus photography, and the best Beatles song of all time. Portions of that chat are in the videos embedded below, along with a transcript of the whole affair.

The A.V. Club: You guys are all credited as writers on the show, along with Jonathan Krisel. What was the genesis for Moonbase 8, and how did you hammer out the beats? 

Tim Heidecker: I was up in Portland doing the Portland sketch comedy show I cannot recall the name that Fred was a part of. Ugh, what the hell was it?

John C. Reilly: Portlandia?

TH: Yeah. Fred and I were just having a blast between takes just laughing and doing stupid bits. I was texting with John saying, “I’m up in Portland with Fred and God, it’s so fun, and John’s like, “I love Fred. And I’ve been trying to do something with him for years.” That kind of spurred this text chain between the three of us about, “If we had a show, what would the show be?” What could we do that could capture the sense of humor we have and what could put us in a room together, literally—or a dome together. So that started the conversation and it was really coming from this really organic place. We just love being together. We love making each other laugh.

John kind of tapped into this idea of these places where people go to simulate certain experiences, or going to Antarctica to be isolated—just the idea of isolation, really.

JCR: The crazy thing about this whole program is that it’s very necessary. You can’t go to Mars and figure out how to live on Mars once you get there. So as silly and make believe as it seems, there are people doing it in Utah and Hawaii, and there are four different countries putting lunar programs together. We just love the balance of the seriousness and the nobility of a space program with really inept, flawed people. You know, when those two things bump together.

And it really was like Tim just said: It was an excuse for the three of us to hang out. When John Krisel came into the mix, he was someone that we’ve all three worked with before. So it kind of felt like planning like a great party. Get all of our favorite people there and do all the stuff we love.

TH: But we wanted to make something that had quality to it and felt that you wasn’t just a joke. We liked that there are some stakes and it felt like you knew who these people were. We could have done Tim, John, and Fred hanging out, making each other laugh for the Internet or something, but we wanted this to feel like a good-looking show that people would care about.

JCR: And then there’s the comedy aspect of it. One of the one of the things we were really relying on John Krisel for too was to have a sophisticated visual look to the show. That’s one of the great, delicious things about space movies: How austere and beautiful the imagery can be, all high contrast whites and blacks and all that. So that was another thing that got us all excited about doing it.

AVC: Fred, where did your character Dr. Henai Jr. come from? How do you think he landed in this program and what did his ex-NASA employee dad lay on him that put him on this path?

Fred Armisen: It was a little easier to come up with the other characters and with their characteristics were. Somewhere in there, we had this idea that his [Dr. Hanai’s] dad is a famous someone who worked for NASA.

I always think there’s something funny about “the family name.” I don’t know what it is. Just like “I’m carrying on the family name. I’m doing what my family did. I’m an Ahmanson. I’m a doctor. I’m a Hanai,” especially as a sort of defense as to why you chose your vocation. I liked the idea of family lineage being a motivator.

JCR: “Regardless of all of the information presented, I have an identity.”

FA: “Somehow my genetics are supposed to dictate what this is.” So it just came from there.

Also, it felt a little more scientific. We needed one of the characters to have more of a real scientific background that wasn’t just education.

AVC: You also needed one of the characters to seem like he belonged there, or deserved to be there, versus Tim’s character, who just wants to minister about God on the moon.

FA: Yeah, this one had more of a beneficial purpose to it.

TH: Yeah. And Fred is so great. Fred is very funny in a lot of ways, and one of the ways he’s really funny is in a very droll, sarcastic, like, “I’m not buying your bullshit” character and that dynamic needs to exist between these three guys. John’s definitely the dreamer and “we never say never” and “we’re going to beat the odds.” There has to be a voice of reason, even within the unreasonableness among the three.

AVC: [Heidecker’s character] Rook may be a little too naive about what’s going on at home. There’s a picture you use in the show of him with his wife, and they’re surrounded by about 15 kids, and it makes me laugh every time. 

JCR: Why would somebody with that many kids choose to be away for an indefinite amount of time?

TH: That’s sort of almost a joke. Like, “Get me out of here! I’ll go the moon to get away from 12 little kids here.” I think that’s the first time in the show you go, “oh, this show can be very absurd and silly” just by showing that picture of that many children.

AVC: And, as referenced in the show, [Reilly’s character] Cap should probably never go back to where he’s from Hawaii.

JCR: If he does go back, he’ll be arrested immediately. He’s got a lot of enemies on Oahu.

He’s a flawed character, but as flawed and as dumb as these guys are—and they do big mistakes over and over—I feel like they’re really relatable to all of us. At a certain moment in life, maybe many moments in life, we’re not capable of the thing we’re being asked to do know, especially just starting a new job or whatever. Everyone feels they’re an imposter. “What am I doing?I don’t know how to do this,” but you try anyway and you persevere.

In some ways, Cap is an embodiment of that American ideal of “Well, I might be a flawed person, but you know what? I’ve got willpower and I’m going to try to just push this forward.” That is what those original astronaut guys were like. There were no guarantees about anything. They were making it up as they went along. All they had was their chutzpah.

AVC: There’s also some argument that, say we inevitably destroy this planet and everyone has to move to whatever planet we take over. If that happens, not everyone is gonna be a rocket scientist. We’ll have to figure out everyone’s role, not just the geniuses.

JCR: Even now. Most people that are astronauts are not rocket scientists. They’re not pilots. There are other types of scientists there. They’ve moved the job of astronauts to the places they’re going as opposed to the transit to get there.

I think that’s another unconscious appeal of the show is that all of us, somewhere in our subconscious, have the feeling that maybe it’s time to get out of this hotel. Maybe our future is not indefinite here on Earth. Maybe I should be thinking about a Plan B..

TH: It’s in our DNA to survive, and that’s what we’ve been doing since life existed. So obviously survival is going to, at some point, require leaving planet Earth because this is all temporary.

This is really kind of esoteric, but even in the comedy we do, there is this desire to talk about this idea of moving the species off Earth.

JCR: It’s funny. People have been dreaming of this long before we had the anywhere near the technology to to enact it. You know, remember that Neil Young song [Sings.] “Dreamin’ of a silver spaceship…” Taking people away from the dying earth wasn’t really in the cards then. But it is now.

AVC: Would you guys go to the moon and with what limitations or stipulations? Like, “I’d have to be able to bring my family” or “I’d have to be able to come back.” 

JCR: I would go if it was a very slow trip. I don’t think I can handle the G forces. When I look at those astronaut training things where they put them in a centrifugal device and they spin them around… I could not do that. But if it was like a blimp type situation that just slowly got you there, I could probably do that.

Also, if there was a farm up there and we could actually eat food that was similar to the food you might have at home, I’d consider it for a little while with those stipulations.

FA: I think I would do it if 200,000 people had already gone. You know that it’s really routine then. There’s even a guy there who’s bored who’s like [Sounds bored.] “Yay! Okay, you get on here and you sit on here and up we go. Yeah, don’t worry about it. It’ll be a bit of a shock when we land.” I like the feeling of something that’s been done a lot so that it’s almost boring.

TH: I would be worried that you’d get up there and be like, “Oh, man. This is awesome… but… yep.” It’s like when you go to the Grand Canyon. It’s like, “Awesome! But now I’ve seen it and now I’m going to go to the hotel and watch TV.”

FA: Yeah. And then you have to try to make your way back.

TH: We have maybe an idea for another season where we do go to the moon and it’s like what you said. It’s boring, and it’s like “all this for this? I’m doing the same stuff I was doing back on Earth.”

JCR: And they all have identity crises because they put so much stock into getting there.

FA: I was working in Chile last January. One trip you could do there is that you can go to Easter Island. It’s part of Chile. It was so far away that it’s like a regular flight. It’s little island in the middle of the ocean and you go there just to see the statues. Everyone kind of entertained it like, “Well, should we go?” And you just end up going, “Well, once you get there and you look at it… ?” It’s an ignorant thing to say, I know, but what happens in that full day of just…

TH: [Laughs.] Like, you could see really good pictures of it. You can see 4K video.

FA: I’m kind of okay with that.

TH: How long is the flight? Is it over a couple of hours?

FA: I think it’s four hours, which is a lot. I think it’s a lot to go to the middle of the ocean and just sit at a hotel and think “Yeah. I saw statues today.” “Yeah. Yeah, I did too.” “All right. Well, we’re on our way back now.”

TH: It’s like a joke I did earlier this year when they were talking about all the statues coming down. You know, like Christopher Columbus. I said, “Yeah, they used to have statues so you could see what those people looked like, but now you can just look online.” What’s the point of having a statue of Christopher Columbus?

FA: This is going to sound like stand up, but what’s the point of statues anyway? Does anyone really love statues? Let’s be honest here. I’ve never been like [Gasps.] “Oh my god!”

JCR: But the Michaelangelo!

TH: But once you develop photography and videography and all that, you don’t need that anymore!

JCR: C’mon guys. I just have to stand up for the artists of the world right here. One of the magical things that human beings can do is reproduce images of themselves.

TH: They do, with [Mimes taking photo.]

AVC: There is something about that marble statue of the woman with the veil over her face.  

FA: Those are impressive, yes. Those are impressive as a craft.

TH: I’m not criticizing the talent that goes into making sculpture. Believe me. I think it’s incredibly important work.

FA: To your point, when there’s cloth in marble, that’s very impressive.

TH: You would be so surprised how easy it is to do that. It looks hard, but it’s really very easy.

JCR: Tim did his own Pietà. It’s in the back, and it’s pretty good.

TH: It’s actually really easy. I can teach you guys in 10 minutes.

FA: I went to Italy, and I went to Florence. I went and looked at all those statues, and I booed. I was the only person booing in the museum. “Boo boo boo.”

JCR: They can’t hear you, the statues. Were you just booing the museum staff?

TH: That’s not very nice. Certainly not something I’d want to bring up in an interview.

AVC: What’s the best Beatles song?

JCR: [sings] “Wait ’til I come back to your side…”

TH: Incorrect.

JCR: [sings] “…We’ll forget the tears you cried.”

FA: Honestly, “It’s All Too Much” always moves me in the present tense. I listen to it, and I don’t think, “Oh, I remember that song.” I hear, “It’s all too much” and I’m actively into the song all the way through. It’s insane.

JCR: Isn’t that a George Harrison song?

FA: Yeah. God, it’s so good.

TH: I would never pick one, but I did have to do this before, and one of the ones I picked was “The Ballad Of John And Yoko,” because it’s not The Beatles. It’s John and Paul making that together, and it’s sort of about the end of the relationship of John and Paul, even though it’s not really expressed literally. It’s really about this new chapter that’s about to happen in his life or is starting to happen.

It’s also just an unbelievably catchy tune and a great sounding record because, ultimately as much as I love George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the dynamic between [John Lennon and Paul McCartney] was the heart and soul of that group.

JCR: Having listened to every Beatles album, the only one that I never got burnt out on and I’m still not burnt out on is The White Album. There’s something about the explorations…

TH: [interjects] Too many novelty songs on that record.

FA: No, I love it. That’s my favorite of their albums. Also, “Dear Prudence” is on The White Album.

TH: Love it! But I don’t want to hear “Piggies.” I don’t want to hear “Wild Honey Pie.”

JCR: What!

TH: I don’t want to hear “Honey Pie”!

FA: No, you need it. You need all those things. It’s like a sketch show. It balances all that stuff out. You don’t want it to all be like hits and hits.

TH: Listen: We’re not giving The A.V. Club “Fred, Tim, and John’s Beatles Podcast.” Don’t fall into this trap, Fred.

FA: Wait, can we ask you what your favorite Beatle song is of all time?

AVC: My knee-jerk reaction is “Well, maybe it’s ‘Yesterday’,” but then I think “Oh, I don’t want to say ‘Yesterday,’ because that’s too obvious.”

FA: It’s tricky, because you want to try to be cool. You don’t want to say what everyone else does.

TH: “In My Life” is pretty epically great.

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.