The Lost Roles Interview with Paul Scheer

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Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, I interviewed Paul Scheer, star of The League and star/creator of Human Giant and NTSF:SD:SUV::. I recently rang up Scheer to chat about some of the parts and projects he’s missed out on, including the Eddie Murphy movie he was fired from, only to be rehired and cut out of the final film, an American Idol-esque show for sketch comedians that Whoopi Goldberg produced, and the first-ever TV show aimed at cats.

Event Staff (unfilmed movie)

Rob Huebel and I wrote this movie called Event Staff, which took place at the world’s largest concert, a Bonnaroo or Coachella kind of event. We originally wrote this for me, Rob, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry. That’s a movie that is over at Fox, but when we wrote it for them, they were only in the business of making huge big budget movies, and we wanted to do this small comedy thing that was basically about a bunch of guys who have to find the owner of the festival’s lost son among this giant crowd of people.

Who would your character have been in that?

Rob Corddry was a former rock star, Rob Huebel was a disavowed cop, I was a journalist who wrote for a website like Pitchfork but was fired, and Helms was a disgraced medic. When you write these kinds of movies, they get caught in this development hell. That script is sitting there, but because that studio owns it, they don’t make small movies. It just kind of sits there until we can get it free.

Saturday Night Live (early 2000s)

I auditioned for Saturday Night Live, way back in the day… It was the first time Lorne Michaels had ever come to UCB to see a showcase. I’m one of the people that he pulled to audition. I think I was the only person that, as a matter of fact, he pulled that year from UCB to audition and that was really super fun. It’s as daunting as they say, but everyone was incredibly nice to me. The dumbest thing I did in that audition was I did impressions. I did Jeff Goldblum returning a shirt, just dumb characters that I thought were really good at the time, but I look back and they’re a little cringeworthy. My favorite thing I did in that SNL audition was I did a panda bear in first class. It was just basically me as a panda bear, trying to order something in first class. It was like a two-line audition.

And then, they brought me back the following year. The following year was interesting because it was a different style of audition, which was they had everybody improvise with each other. We basically all met up. I didn’t know anybody else besides Jack McBrayer. We improvised a Harold in front of Lorne Michaels and everybody else. That was interesting because it was a bunch of people all competing for the same job, trying to prove that they’re funny but also it was really cool because everyone respected the space. You would think it would have been a little more competitive. But that also was the year that Fred Armisen said “no,” he wasn’t gonna do that if he didn’t have an improv background. He just did Fericito, and he was the one who ultimately got hired.

It just seems like such a crazy thing to have people performing together who are all competing for a job that huge.

That was the crazy thing. It was people from UCB, it was people from Second City, there’s people from iO, so everyone’s understanding of how to do a Harold was really different. You know, the UCB form is very different from the way the Improv Olympic does it, and Second City people don’t really improvise doing the Harold. It was a bizarre group… I just remember me and Jack McBrayer just had a bond, like, “Okay, we’ll try to do our scenes together and at least, we’ll try to support each other and be there.” But everyone was really good. It was really a fun show. I look back on it, not bad. It was more the nerves of just going onstage and doing a Harold with people you’ve never met before who don’t have the same training as you.

I finally was brought in a final time to SNL on my birthday, and I came and met with Lorne Michaels, who’s awesome and everything that you want it to be when meeting [him]. Lorne’s like seven hours behind. Like I literally got to 30 Rock, and they were like, “Oh, Lorne’s running about six hours late.” And I was like, “Oh well, I’ll just go home and then I’ll come back in six hours.” “Ah, you should wait.” I was like, “Okay.” And so, I just waited for these hours to pass, and then I finally got to meet him and we just chatted for a while. Ultimately, obviously, it did not work out, but it was really fun. To hang around SNL was a really fun time.

Was that the year Rob Riggle got on, or was this prior to that?

No, I think this was before Rob Riggle. The first year I auditioned was the year that Amy [Poehler] and Seth [Myers] got on. The second year, it was Fred who got on and maybe somebody else. That following year, I know who they hired, and I think it was basically I interviewed with Lorne Michaels, and I definitely played up that I wanted to do more performing [rather] than straight writing, and he hired Liz Cackowski and John Lutz [as writers]. If I did that, I would never have gotten to do Human Giant though.

My final meeting was the first time I ever really met Lorne Michaels. He came up to me in my audition when I was onstage at 8H and he was really nice to me, but when I sat one-on-one with him in that room, he basically told me everything about the show. And you know, I think there’s a certain aura where you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m sitting here talking to Lorne Michaels. This is crazy.” Every childhood dream you’ve ever had, just sitting there having this one-on-one conversation with him. You know, I would answer when spoken to. At the end of the meeting, he said, “Do you have any questions for me?” And I said, “No.” And then he said, “Really? 30 years in TV and you don’t have a question for me?” It was a totally terrible response. I should have had a question. I think that answer cost me the job at SNL, but I basically just said, “If I had my druthers, I would keep you here all night.” And he said, “Of course, of course.” “All right, well, thank you very much.” So, that was my experience with Lorne Michaels.

Talk Show (Comedy Central pilot circa 2002)

I did a Comedy Central pilot with Jake Fogelnest called Talk Show, where I played J. Montgomery Scott the 65-year-old sidekick to Jake’s host. We started doing the show at UCB NY and it got really popular, we had huge guests like Tenacious D, Adam Goldberg, Natasha Lyonne, Spike Jonze, David Krumholtz, Amy Poehler, the cast of Wet Hot American Summer. We started hosting really big events around NYC and eventually Broadway Video decide they wanted to produce a stage version of the show as a “pilot” but it was ultimately rejected.

Sketch Off (2005 TBS pilot)

I developed an American Idol-esque show for sketch comedy. I pitched it to Whoopi Goldberg’s company. They really got onboard, and then we sold it to TBS and we shot a pilot. Now, my involvement with Whoopi was one of the craziest things. I only had talked to her once on the phone. That was it. She was very much behind the project, according to everyone around her, but the only time I talked to her on the phone, and she was lovely, she said like, “The only thing I wanna do is, if you’re funny, you’re funny. We’re not gonna change you. We’re not gonna make people dye their hair. We’re not gonna make a bald guy have hair. Look, if you’re a fat guy, we’re gonna get you a sandwich.” I will always remember that, “If you’re a fat guy, we’ll get you a sandwich.” She was just into—the people that we cast, we just let them be who they are and not try to change them. And in the pilot that we shot actually had Donald Glover in it.  We did a mini-version of it live on stage. Curtis Gwinn and John Gemberling were in it.

Make My Day (unaired 2003 WB series)

I actually did another reality show for the WB called Make My Day. That was based on a British reality show. It was a prank show, but it was a positive prank show. We would basically go into somebody’s life. We had to do all this research, and you’d have their friends help you out. Then you would create this day was a giant prank but the prank was a really positive one.  So, it’s like a guy who always wanted to be a recording artist, and he would get to go to a recording studio and then give some notes to people. We did one episode where a guy loved James Bond, so we gave him a James Bond-style day. So, we shot 12 episodes for WB before it became the CW. That was an expensive show. We shot it in New York. We had speedboats, helicopters. We handed it off to the WB, who were like, “Yeah, we don’t do positive prank shows. We’ve got this cool show coming out where we do a prank version of American Idol where like the worst people continue to go on and they’re like, ‘You’re the worst!’”  It was a really gut-wrenching show. So, we shot 12 episodes, edited 12 episodes, and it never aired. Just never would air. It just sat on a shelf until this day. It was hosted by DeRay Davis, who you’ve seen in tons of movies now. We had great people on that show. The people who came on and did guest spots were cool. We had like Colin Quinn, Kid from Kid ’n Play, Mario Lopez.

Mario Lopez, the funny thing about him was all the actors knew about it obviously because they’re hired to come give this person a great day. This one girl loved Saved by the Bell, so Mario Lopez and her went together to do something and then he disappeared with the girl for over three hours. No one knew where he went with this girl. He like went off the grid and we had no one to find him and then all of the sudden he pops back up on the grid again. “Yeah, we just had some coffee, just chilled out and talked.” It was the craziest thing, for like three hours, all of us… I was on that show a couple times. I did this dumb bit called “Star Fishing.” I was on these double-decker red tour buses. I’d basically have a giant fishing line, and I’d toss out the fishing line into the streets of Manhattan and then I’d reel in stars. We set it up so I reeled in five kind-of-big stars on the street. It was this ridiculous tour bus with a huge picture of me on the side, driving around Manhattan for the day.

What was the reaction from people when you were reeling people in with a fishing pole from a tour bus?

The bus was full of people that were hired actors. Only one person wasn’t in on it. It was fun to always connect with that person and watch them. They would just be, “What the fuck is going on?” They would just be confused. Also, that was the one with Mario Lopez, where I’d be like “Hey everybody, it’s Mario Lopez! Let’s reel him in!” And I would throw out a fishing line. That was the same bit that [the woman being pranked] was really confused about. I guess, it’s a bold move to say we’re just gonna drive around New York City, and if I see a celebrity, I’m gonna get them to get on our bus and give them an interview. It’s like, watching her get more and more mindboggled, like “What? What is going on? This is absolutely nuts?”

Unaired Human Giant sketches

We shot a sketch with Kristen Schaal called “Religious Abortion Doctor.” It was a dumb idea that we really wanted to shoot. Basically, I played an abortion doctor, who had no problem giving abortions, but I was also really religious. So, I would always be blessing her, “Lord, please guide my hand to take out this baby.” It was a crazy, crazy scene that we shot. I remember when we edited it together, MTV was like, “No. No way. That is the most offensive idea that we have ever seen executed.” They were so upset by this idea of this religious abortion doctor. But we were like, “It’s not bad. It’s a very Catholic person giving abortions.”

Another Human Giant sketch that we shot, we shot it twice, and we couldn’t figure it out. We had a bunch of different consultants come in on the show and writers and they would pitch ideas. We really liked Ian Roberts, who is now one of the showrunners at Key & Peele. He had this idea for a sketch called “Ant Man,” which was a parody of Grizzly Man, about a guy following ants. I say it now, and you understand why it probably didn’t work. But we tried so hard to execute it. It was the only sketch in Human Giant history where I, in the middle of shooting this sketch, was like, “I really don’t have an angle on this character. Aziz, do you wanna do this sketch?” And then, Aziz did the sketch. We both did half of the sketch before we gave up on it. We’re like, “I don’t know what to do.” It’s a funny idea in pitching it, but we could never execute it to like a three-minute thing. So, that’s like a sketch that we have that is half-shot, and both of us were like, “Nah, we don’t have anything for this.”

Did Ant Man meet the same fate as Grizzly Man? Was he like swarmed by ants?

Yeah, I think he had a whole meltdown because he accidentally stepped on a bunch of ants. I know part of it devolved into he was a guy who worked in a local park, and he spent most of his time just busting people who were jerking off in bushes or something. Some of the details are hazy, but that was the one sketch that we could never crack.

We also had a great sketch that I loved. I don’t know why we never finished it. I think we didn’t have enough money to finish it, but it was this sketch we had with Doug Benson, where Doug Benson was at the mall and he orders Dippin’ Dots. [He’s] at a mall food court, and I appear from the future, and I’m wearing like the two ties like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. And I’m like, “Oh hello, friend, why don’t you try some ice cream from the future, Dippin’ Dots.” And I really sell him on how amazing the future is and how amazing this ice cream is, and then a second later, Huebel comes forward, and he’s all bloodied and bandaged and looks like one of those Terminator 2 freedom fighters. He talks about how Dippin’ Dots is the downfall of the world and everyone has been killed [when] the Dippin’ Dots became sentient. It’s this war for this snack food.

Meow TV (2003 Oxygen series)

I did Meow TV, which was television for cats, by cats, sponsored by Meow Mix. It’s basically as dumb as it sounds. It was a show that you were supposed to put your cat in front of the TV and the cat would watch. So, we were doing like comedy pieces for cats. As I think about it now, I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe I agreed to do that.” It was hosted by Annabelle Gurwitch. She was surrounded by cats. I did a couple pieces on that. I did the “Cat Home Shopping Network,” where I was actually selling real cat toys. I also did “Cat Puppet Theater,” which was hand puppets with cats, telling these terrible morality plays. And then there was literally a section of the show where it was a bouncing ball on the screen, and the cat, I guess, would just be interested in watching that show.

Meet Dave (2008)

Human Giant, we were about to do our 24-hour marathon. It was one of the coolest things. We got to host MTV for 24 hours, do whatever we want, play whatever show we wanted, book whatever guests we wanted. It was great because we booked guests from The Wire. We had on Mastodon, a band who would never play on MTV the way it was currently being done. We got to do so much cool stuff. We only had seven days to prep for the entire show. We were told a week out we have this opportunity. So, we were furiously writing and trying to fill 24 hours of material. It was really tough. Before that had come up, I had booked this movie, Starship Dave. That’s what the original title of it was. What Starship Dave was about Eddie Murphy was a spaceship and inside Eddie Murphy were little people, one of them being Eddie Murphy. They were coming to this planet to search for salt because their planet was dying of salt. Then, all of the sudden, I got a phone call in the middle of that [Human Giant] writing week, “Hey, your part’s shooting this week. They moved it up.” I was like, “Hey, I’m doing this 24-hour marathon.” I explained it to them and they were like, “Well, we can’t move it. Do you wanna do it?” And I was like, “I gotta do it. I have to. Eddie Murphy is my hero. I’ve gotta be in an Eddie Murphy movie.  Yes, 100%. Yes.”

I went to L.A., and … I get to set. I play the character of Lieutenant Buttocks, and Lieutenant Buttocks is living in Eddie Murphy’s butt. I have a great line in it, which was, “Sir, we have a gas leak. It was silent but not deadly.” A hilarious line. I get my line down, I get all ready. I get to set. It’s a green chair in the middle of nothing, you know, and I get on the chair. It’s all gonna be CGI’d. I’m doing the scene and the director is like… I can tell something was wrong. I’ve been on enough sets, and I’ve never had this reaction to anything. He’s putting his hand through his hair, just pacing around, not happy at all. I’m getting really nervous, I’m starting to get, like, flop sweat. I don’t know how I can change my delivery of this line. I was like, “Sir, we have a gas leak. It was silent but not deadly.” “More military.” “Sir, we have a gas leak. It was silent but not deadly.” He’s yelling at me these instructions. I’m like, How can I be fucking up this line? I’m not even acting with anybody. I’m all by myself on a soundstage with a camera. I’m just literally saying a line. I’m not even tripping on it. And then the director walks off set, like totally walks off set. I’m like, “Oh no, what’s going on? What’s going on?”

The AD comes by and says, “Hey we just had some camera problems. Can you go back to your trailer for a second?” I knew they were lying to me… I get back to my trailer, and then there’s a knock on my door. This kinda older producer is like “Hey man. Well, this is the hardest part of the job. We’re gonna recast your part.” And I was like, “What?” And he’s like, “Yeah, it has nothing to do with you. It’s just the way things go. Sorry, kid.” And I was like, “Okay.” And he was like, “If you want to stay around and be an extra, you can totally be an extra.” And I was like, “No, I’m gonna go back to my work and do my show.” And he’s like, “Before you leave, can you give me your smock?” I was wearing a smock that just had a big picture of a butt on it. I gave him my smock, and he left. I’m signing out and I’m leaving, and I look into the soundstage where they’re filming the movie, and I see they’ve replaced me with the guy who does sound playback on the movie, like not even an actor, just a dude who works the sound. No offense to anybody who works the sound, it’s just like, “Wow, that’s the guy who took over my part.”

I’m leaving and I get to the parking lot, and these two other people are coming in, “Hey man, where are you going?” I said, “Oh, I’m leaving. I was fired.” They go, “No, you weren’t fired, man. Here’s the deal, we need to talk to you.” They bring me back to my trailer, and my trailer, I was using that term very loosely. It was basically this long closet. So, when there’s these two guys in there, I’m literally standing over the toilet bowl, and they’re both sitting on this small little couch and they’re pitching me this, “Look, you weren’t fired man. Brian, the director, thought you’re too skinny. If you’re playing Lieutenant Buttocks, you’ve gotta be a big fat dude. So, we’ll write you a new part right now. How about you’re Lieutenant Kneecap?” I was like, “Okay, yeah. Lieutenant Kneecap. Sure.” He was like, “At the end of the movie, you eat this giant hot dog and you say, ‘Sure beats protein squares.’” I’m like, “Yeah, sure.”  He says, “Does that sound good?  Does that sound good, Lieutenant Kneecap?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess. Sure. It’s fine.” So, I go back on set and it’s the final scene of the movie, and Eddie Murphy’s like, “Yeah, we found it. Hot dogs have enough salt for our planet. That’s it.” And I have this giant hot dog, like taller than me, on my lap. They give me this beef jerky to put in my mouth, and I go, “Sure beats protein squares.” And I guess that would be a huge laugh line that goes in the final part of the movie. So, I shot it, and it was fine and everything was good.

The following week, I got a text from my friend who’s also in the movie. He’s like, “Hey man, are you here?” And I go, “No, why? What do you mean?”  “Oh, we’re reshooting the whole ending.” So, they reshot the whole ending. I think you can see my shoulder in the final scene of Meet Dave now. I’m credited in the credits, but I don’t appear anywhere in it.

Fox Alien Sitcom

Right when we were about to sign a deal to do Human Giant, I auditioned for this Fox pilot. It was produced by Imagine, this company at that point that was doing Arrested Development. Ron Howard’s company. It was like this improvised alien sitcom. It was kind of a new version of Mork & Mindy, but… they’re two dudes. It was one of my first times auditioning in L.A. I had just moved out here. I was like, “Oh man, this is going really good. It’s the final auditions, and I get the part.  I also know that if I take this thing, I can’t do Human Giant. I’m like, “I don’t know what to do. I’m really conflicted.”

I find out in the final audition, they’re like, “Okay, so we’ve gotta fit you for an apparatus for your head.” I was like, “What do you mean an apparatus?” The only image I can picture is like Megamind from that DreamWorks movie. They wanted to put like a giant bald brain sac head on me, to be the alien in this thing. I was like, “Oh, I would have to wear that every week?” I was gonna have this giant big bulbous forehead on the show. I was like, “I think I’m gonna do Human Giant.” They were like, “Human Giant will always be there. This show is gonna be the biggest show of all-time. Everyone wants to see it.” They kept on selling it as if it was a companion piece to Arrested Development. “The same people behind Arrested Development are gonna do this.” They were not similar at all, not even one bit. So, I turned down the big-head alien pilot to do Human Giant.

Catch Paul Scheer in the latest season of NTSF:SD:SUV::, airing Thursday nights (technically Friday mornings) at 12:15 am.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles. 

The Lost Roles Interview with Paul Scheer