Gentlemen Broncos, a Celebration of Nerdy Sci-Fi Cheese

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Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

While 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite remains a novelty-shirt money-printing press for Jared and Jerusha Hess, only elite aesthetes followed them into Gentlemen Broncos four years later. The Utah quirkfest stars Michael Angarano as Benjamin Purvis, a homeschooled amateur sci-fi novelist whose work gets stolen by a writer on the decline played by Jemaine Clement. Broncos is full of people whose stars have only grown since 2009: Mike White, Clement, Jennifer Coolidge, and Sam Rockwell all feature. But most audiences didn’t come along for the weird, sometimes Oedipal, somewhat scatological ride.

One devoted fan of the oddball film is Mimi Pond. Pond knows a thing or two about off-kilter storytelling. Her graphic memoirs Over Easy and The Customer Is Always Wrong explored her past as a server in a beloved artsy diner in Oakland. She was also a long-running cartoonist for the L.A. Times and Seventeen. And she’s currently working on a book about the infamous Mitford sisters, who pop up throughout 20th-century history like sinkholes in Florida. Pond is drawn to work as unique and stylized as her own.

She also knows something about the difficulties of sharing your vision with others. Pond wrote the first broadcast episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” A fellow indie-comics artist with Matt Groening, Pond freelanced that script but wasn’t asked to join the Simpsons staff by showrunner Sam Simon. “I was never invited to be on staff, and I never knew why for the longest time. No one ever called me or explained to me or apologized or anything,” she said in 2017. She said she later heard Simon “didn’t want any women around because he was going through a divorce. It had remained a boys’ club for a good long time.”

By Pond’s own admission, she may be too independent for a writers’ room anyway. “You know, my sixth-grade teacher wrote on my report card that I didn’t relate well to my peer group, and I think that’s always been true,” she says. Pond explains why Gentlemen Broncos deserves another watch, what Comic-Con was like in the ’70s, and how her Mitford project ties into the JFK assassination.

What made you want to recommend Gentlemen Broncos to a larger audience?
Well, it’s really unique and unusual, and it’s such a loving tribute to nerds everywhere. It hits all the nerd buttons perfectly, but not in a mean way. It’s a complete celebration of utter cheesiness.

I read that you went to San Diego Comic-Con before it became the giant multimedia spectacle it has become.
Oh, yeah, I grew up with Comic-Cons. I think I maybe went to the second Comic-Con ever, which was at UC San Diego. I met Ray Bradbury. I was like 13 or 14, and I was just like [gasps]. So I was kind of steeped in that atmosphere myself, in a way.

The opening credits of the movie are parodies or tributes to really super-cheesy science-fiction paperback covers from the mid to late ’60s, early ’70s. My brother and my dad were big science-fiction nerds and readers, so that stuff would just be around the house, and I would just look at those covers like you looked at album covers back then. Your choice of images was way more limited than it is now, where all you have to do is go to Google and a zillion pictures are there for your perusing. But back then, you’d look over every square inch of a science-fiction or a fantasy paperback cover or an album cover and try to glean from it every last bit of what was it that was so compelling. That made it cool.

It’s so funny because people would definitely pore over those covers, but more often than not the person who painted the cover hadn’t read the book. They were just given a title.
That’s true!

The opening titles set up how weird the visual language of the film is going to be.
There’s just so much weirdness in that movie. When the main character goes away to science-fiction writing camp, he goes on a school bus, and Halley Feiffer and Héctor Jiménez sit next to him. And she insists that he give her a hand massage. Héctor Jiménez is cooing in her ear from the other side, and it’s just so weird. And you don’t know: Is it sexual? Is it not sexual? There’s a lot of weirdly buried sexuality that I think has got to be solidly Mormon. The whole movie is like, Tell me you’re Mormon without telling me you’re Mormon.

Very true.
And the mother’s modest lingerie line is just screamingly funny. And any movie with Jennifer Coolidge, I mean, come on!

I’m glad that it seems the national conversation is finally cluing in to how great Jennifer Coolidge is now.
Yeah. I was fortunate enough to see her at the Groundlings. She did a night of comedy there of different sketches, and she was just utterly brilliant.

What is it about the Hesses’ work that intrigues you?
They love people’s faces. The way the camera plays across a crowd slowly enough to let you just take in every single face — whether it’s the wrestling audience in Nacho Libre or the people in the audience about to watch this terrible movie that’s been made of this boy’s science-fiction story, they just seem to love people’s faces.

How much do aesthetics matter to you in comedy?
Oh, I think it’s everything. The details are everything — and getting it just right. They’ve gotten it just right with that house, the geodesic-dome house.

It’s not the same thing as wanting it to be pretty. It sounds like it’s more about the uniqueness of the vision and actually paying attention to the details. 
Yeah, it’s very specific. And the specificity is everything.

I think that’s what turns some people off about the movie. Certain specifics just rubbed them the wrong way, maybe?
Maybe people are just uncomfortable with tackiness. I kind of revel in it as long as I don’t have to personally live it myself. I would rather sit and squirm at a movie showing me a bunch of really tacky stuff than ever go to a horror movie and squirm thinking about who’s going to die next.

Do you identify with Purvis’s story of feeling like his work keeps getting taken out of his control? 
Yeah, I think everyone’s had that sensation. Which is why I don’t really participate in Hollywood anymore.

Do you have any advice for would-be creators who are trying to figure out whether it’s worth it to give up that control or not?
I mean, I just kind of took my toys and went home. That’s the great thing about making comics: You’re the sole creator, and you have complete control, and that’s a big difference. When I make comics, I’m the screenwriter, I’m the director, I’m doing the lighting, I’m doing the costumes, I’m the director of photography, I’m doing the craft services — the whole thing.

This movie has so many people who have recently come into great success on TV. Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, and Jemaine Clement all made or starred in critically lauded TV shows.
On top of that, they have Edgar Oliver, who’s the complete weirdo of all weirdos. I hope he gets discovered at some point in the way that they have. He is just such an exquisite creature of unbearable eccentricity. He sounds like an American vampire.

How did you first come to see him?
I heard him on The Moth podcast, and I was enchanted by his voice. I looked him up, and maybe then after that, I followed him on Facebook. I mean, his voice is just, like, American Transylvanian. I don’t know how to put it.

This movie is not afraid to make a bold choice with a voice. Napoleon Dynamite is known for its flat affect, but this movie has a couple of different things going on. You’ve got Edgar doing his American Transylvanian thing, and you’ve got Jemaine kind of doing a Tim Curry?
I think I read an interview where they said that the direction was Michael York and also to make it as pretentious as possible. And I love the fact that he’s painting his own covers and he’s so into Native American stuff, which makes him even more pompous.

I do feel like this movie kind of ended the Hesses’ auteur period, but he’s still working a lot in TV, and she got to do Austenland.
And now they have, I don’t know, how many kids? I don’t how they do it. I’d lose my mind. Part of the reason I actually stopped trying to write for television was that when my son was 3 months old, I got a job working on Designing Women. Linda Bloodworth was off winning the election for Bill Clinton, and they let me bring the baby and the nanny with me. I wasn’t getting any sleep, and I’d never worked on the staff of a TV show before, and I was utterly out of my element and lost. The rest of them, no one had kids. Well, the head writer did, but somehow she had worked something out. The writers would waltz in at ten o’clock, and they’d be there until two in the morning, and I just couldn’t do anything remotely like that.

How is the Mitford project going?
It’s been going well. It’s still only 1940, and I’m already up to about 212 pages. My publisher just told me they were going to publish a graphic-novel memoir that was 900 pages, so I said, “Well, in that case, I don’t feel compelled to stick to the 300 pages you told me to stick to.” Screw that — I’m going tell the story in all its glory with all the many amazing things that the sisters did.

What drew you to them initially?
They were six sisters who grew up in the middle of nowhere with very little in the way of supervision. They were given the usual “Ladies don’t do this, ladies don’t do that,” but really no one told them they couldn’t just go out and do whatever the hell they wanted. They all said what they were going to do when they were like 10 or 12, and they all did that. Jessica said, “I’m saving up my money, and I’m going to run away,” and Unity said, “I’m going to go to Germany and meet Hitler,” and Deborah said, “Well, I’m going to marry a duke.” And they all went and did that.

I was just listening to a book about prestige dramas, and Jessica Mitford’s book The American Way of Death was a huge influence on Six Feet Under.
Oh, yeah! And I actually just saw a video by this L.A. kinda hipster funeral director whose name is Caitlyn Dowdy, who in this video just lays out the case for how much Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death influenced how JFK’s body was handled. It’s boggling. It’s staggering.

Because they’d all just read the book, which came out in 1963. They’d all read it, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with funeral directors. So as a result, it just added immense amounts of fuel to the conspiracy theories that came later.

They’re touchstones for everything major that happened in the 20th century. From fascism to civil rights, they met everyone, and they went everywhere. Jessica Mitford met everyone from Winston Churchill, who was her cousin, to Maya Angelou, who became her best friend. How often does that happen?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Gentlemen Broncos, a Celebration of Nerdy Sci-Fi Cheese