A few months ago Michael Showalter was sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco, where he was promoting his romantic comedy The Baxter, when he had the kind of career moment that befalls all first-time directors. "I switched on the TV and there were Ebert and the other guy [Ebert & Roeper] talking about my film," Showalter recalled in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. The critics gave the movie two thumbs down, noting that Showalter, who wrote, starred in, and directed the film, was miscast in the lead. "It was a very surreal moment," Showalter said. "On the one hand, it's devastating to have that said about you. But the flip side is I've made a movie that they're talking about."
Ebert and Roeper aren't the only ones talking about the thirty-five-year-old Showalter, who got his start on MTV's 1990s sketch comedy show The State. Over the past few months, he has been the subject of a flurry of media coverage as he's premiered comedy projects on both the big and small screens. The Baxter opened at the end of August, and in June, Comedy Central began airing Stella, an unconventional sitcom based on Showalter's comedy trio of the same name. Both projects co-star Showalter's longtime friends and collaborators Michael Ian Black and David Wain, and both projects share an old-fashioned sensibility that stands apart in today's shock comedy culture.
The Baxter tells the story of Elliot Sherman, a straight-laced CPA who goes looking for love after being left at the altar. He's the quintessential nice guy who always gets dumped, a romantic-comedy paradigm that Showalter has dubbed the baxter. But this nice guy finishes first. "I wanted to do something that had the feel of an old Frank Capra movie, where all of the characters behave themselves and everybody gets what they want," Showalter said on the New York blog gothamist.com.
Stella also pays homage to classic comedy styles - critics have compared the trio to the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges - but it riffs on them in absurdly modern ways. Showalter, Black, and Wain play roommates who always dress in suits and ties. They look like junior partners in a law firm but act like twelve-year-olds who don't know what to do with themselves once school's out. There's a sense that anything can and will happen with these boy-men.
The same could be said of Showalter's brand of comedy. It's cerebral, silly, and unpredictable, and if the critics don't always get it, so be it. After the Ebert & Roeper episode, Showalter used The Baxter's Web site to reflect on the merits of the critics' thumbs-up, thumbs-down rating system:
"It's sort of like communist Russia on that show, with so few options," he wrote. "The beauty of America is all of the options we have. I heard that in Russia they wait in line for days just to buy a pair of jeans. I lost my train of thought."