How Michael Showalter Turned Rejection Into a Successful Directing Career
Before he created Wet Hot American Summer and directed The Big Sick, Michael Showalter was another struggling actor who couldn’t catch a break.
When Michael Showalter felt his acting career wasn't progressing the way he wanted it to, he didn't let the frustration burden him. Instead, he changed courses and focused on directing and writing. Not that there was less rejection in those fields, but he realized his passion was there. Along the way, he created roles for himself and learned to use each failure as motivation.
And it has paid off. His most recent success, The Big Sick, was just nominated for two SAG awards: Outstanding Performance by a Cast, and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role (for Holly Hunter). In light of those nominations, the SAG AFTRA Foundation sat down with Showalter to talk about his career trajectory. Watch the full interview here, or read our takeaways below.
Calling it quits can be a solid career move
“I really was never successful as an actor except in things I wrote for myself,” Showalter explains to moderator Jenelle Riley. After auditioning for thousands of sitcoms, Showalter started to realize that he was never going to get the part. There was always some better-looking guy that he would get passed over for!
“So what happened was, as I started to get a little older, the bug or the passion to be an actor, I didn't feel like I had that passion. Not in the way that I saw it in friends of mine or when I would go to see a play or a movie," says Showalter. "There was a need, a desire, to do it that I just didn't have…I started to really feel like I wanted to focus more on writing and directing.”
"It was like a total dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest kind of experience, which was really great but also really excruciating."
Reach for low-hanging fruit, but hold a high standard
One of Showalter’s big breaks, in terms of meeting future collaborators and fine-tuning his comedic edge, came from being not good enough for the "A team". While at NYU for a spell, Showalter wanted to audition for a comedy group called The Sterile Yak. The group was so popular that they would only accept one or two new members each year. Needless to say, Showalter never made it to The Sterile Yak, but instead, bonded with the other people who couldn’t get into the group, who would eventually include Kerri Kenney, Ken Marino, Tom Lennon, Ben Grant, and David Wain—some of whom became collaborators on The State, Showalter's '90s sketch comedy show for MTV.
“The Sterile Yak started a B team, like a junior varsity for all of the like rejects to go into,” describes Showalter. “I actually vividly recall having a conversation on the corner of 8th Street and Broadway with Joe Lo Truglio, who's on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Michael Ian Black. We were becoming friends at this time because we all went to this orientation thing about auditioning for The Sterile Yak. The conversation was like, 'F*ck them! Let's just audition for the junior varsity team because it doesn't exist, so they need bodies."
The director recalls, "We had the most insane passion and drive to do comedy. We were really hard on each other. Really, really hard on each other! From day one, it was like a total dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest kind of experience, that was really great but also really excruciating.”
"Everyone thinks this movie is a piece of shit, but actually it's really good. You can't put that on the poster!"
When you’ve finally caught a break, expect more rejection
When Showalter and David Wain created the first Wet Hot American Summer in 2001, both thought it was going to be huge. They used stars like Janeane Garofalo to leverage a budget of about $2 million, and were accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.
"We went to Sundance with the hopes of selling it for a ton of money to Miramax," recalls Showalter. "At the time we did not know Harvey Weinstein was a monster, we just knew everyone wanted to sell to Miramax. No one bought the movie."
In fact, critics pretty much hated the film. "I remember reading Entertainment Weekly. Owen Gleiberman gave us the one good review," continues Showalter. "Everybody else was like, 'This is the worst piece of shit I've ever seen in my entire life.' The Owen Gleiberman review is actually like 'Everyone thinks this movie is a piece of shit, but that actually it's really good.' You can't put that on the poster! We eventually sold the movie for a tiny fraction of what it cost."
In a stroke of luck or well-deserved but late-coming success, later that year Wet Hot American Summer went on to become a cult hit. It was screened at midnight on college campuses and at events with audiences clad in movie-themed costumes across the country.
"I don't like being punched in the face over and over again."
Never let negative reviews keep you from creating
"It's deflating, and it can make you want to stop doing it," describes Showalter. "It can make you want to give up. I take a big step back because I'm just like, this sucks. I don't like being punched in the face over and over again. There's a crushing disappointment, and, in a way, that's a negative because I'm probably not as happy-go-lucky of a person as I was, but in a way, it drives me forward."
Check out the whole conversation with Showalter for more insight into his other work, like the Stella show and feature film The Baxter, as well as how he reworked the script with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon on The Big Sick.