Satellite News - 20 Questions For Paul Schersten


 

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SPECIAL FEATURE

Chaplin. Schersten. We know his real last name, but do we really know the enigma that is Paul? Nope. But maybe, just maybe, we can all learn a little bit more about him. Satellite News is proud to present our latest "20 Questions" with Paul Schersten.

A word of warning: As you'll see below, don't EVER misspell Paul's name!



Q: So, what can you tell us about Mr. Paul Shersten? We've read that you were born and raised near Chicago and received a Masters degree from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Is this correct? What other notable events happened in your life?
A: It's spelled "Schersten." When I was a lad, my dad told us kids it was originally "Hjersten" but got changed, based on a notion that "Schersten" would be easier to spell or pronounce or something. Although it's not, in my opinion. (Both my sister and I remember dad telling us this, but now he claims he has no idea what we're talking about. So I guess it was supposed to be a secret.)

I was born and raised near Chicago, yes. In the far northwest suburbs. At the time it wasn't rich or poor, it was just a little town. From the age of nine I would take the train down to the South Side and sit in with blues bands, unfortunately playing the baritone horn as I did in the school band. I once sold my soul to the devil so I could play guitar like Buddy Guy, so when you think about it I should make use of that talent a little more than I do.

I was a suburban kid, but the whole region - the whole vast Chicagoland, as they call it - was the realm of Mayor Daley. Chicago politics was a constant presence in life. By the fourth grew grade I knew how to spell and pronounce names like Vrdolyak. Everybody knew who the police commissioner was, who the few North Side liberal opposition aldermen were, and so on. I would read Mike Royko in the Daily News and get outraged and think of Daley as evil. What I didn't know was how that kind of style would soon disappear from the land. Not self-conscious. Based on local political connections. Most of all, completely oblivious to the media. I consider it one of the tragedies of my life to have been alive and somewhat aware in a time of pure form and raw energy, in many areas, especially music and politics, and then up until recently everything seemed to be getting blander and blander.

Things are not so bland right now, of course.

I do have a Masters degree. To quote a friend regarding a degree from the Institute: "It's not nothing, but it feels like it."

That's actually not quite true. What you learn in any public affairs school is microeconomics. Once you learn it you can't get away from it.

Let's see, other notable events in my life. I was raised Lutheran, I broke my arm when I was in high school, and I am burdened by an intense dislike of traffic engineers.

Q: You were working in public service and eventually started doing stand up. Are there any memorable anecdotes connected with that phase of your life? And what made you decide to go into comedy?
A: Mostly what I remember are all the guys who'd do the same basic set, time after time after time, hardly ever getting great laughs, hardly ever trying anything new. Like one comedian, a local airport security guy, sort of rumpled and sad-looking. He'd deliver a not-so-great joke, and then say in his mumbled delivery: "Kinda weird." No matter the reaction to the joke; it was his tag line, his identifier. "Kinda weird." Barely audible Every few weeks at an open stage there'd be a crowd that would decide spontaneously that this emotionless fellow was brilliant, beyond anything they'd seen. You could sense them waiting with gleeful anticipation for the next "Kinda weird." They knew it would come at some point!

I'm sure he had more and better material in him, if he wanted to write. He just didn't.

My approach was different. I'd pretty often write a few minutes of stuff during the afternoon, go up, do it, and then if I'd ever do it again it wouldn't go quite as well. That is the challenge of stand-up - doing the same material many times in a way that it seems to be coming off the top of your head. I liked writing, though. It was just kind of a kick to see if you could come up with something that would make an audience laugh.

One time I delivered a line, I don't remember what, just offered my little funny line out into the darkness, and got no response except for one female voice that said - "What?"

I also did a little improv, by the way. I'm sorry.

Q: How did you get hired at BBI? Had you watched or heard of the show before you were hired? If so, what did you think?
A: I knew about it; I hadn't ever watched it; I knew Mike worked for it so assumed it had some value. One day Mike just approached me and said "I'd like to talk to you about Best Brains." Using the same tone of voice as someone saying "I'd like to talk to you about your insurance needs."

I was the first new writer they brought in. It was in many ways a fairly intense situation. The show was just getting that critical mass of notoriety.

Joel once told me that he and Mike were intrigued by me because they saw me host an open stage that was horrendous from start to finish. Joel said he admired how I never gave up. (I actually think I did give up, but it must have not come across, just like nothing else was coming across that night.)

By the way, when I first hired in 1991 I was told it was because they were soon to be working on a movie and they needed writers to work on the TV show. So then the movie happened almost right away, 4 years later, and we all worked on it.

Q: What were your first impressions when you began working for the series?
A: I thought: oh, so this is what it means to write funny. Because in stand-up, see, you don't really have to write funny. It's 80% attitude, with your average stand-up. It felt like I'd gone from Elizabethton (in the Instructional League) up to AAA in one week.

Q: From the fourth season on, you began to make occasional appearances on the show. Which character was the most fun to perform and why?
A: Actually, the character I enjoyed playing was that bearded guy from the SciFi years - what was his name? Was he in a carnival movie or something? I can't believe I don't remember his name or the movie. The guy who just kind of grunted. I'm a good grunter. I can put a lot of meaning into a grunt. I remember him (that is, me) manning the phones at a public TV fundraising thing Pearl put together.

(Satellite News note: That's Ortega from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.)

Incidentally, it may not be that surprising that I can't remember some of these details. I think it was pretty common for us to be not able to remember the most recent movie we'd done, without a minute's hard thinking. I always assumed it was a kind of protection mechanism - like our minds ejected the movies as soon as they were allowed to.

Q: Which character was perhaps not so fun, and why?
A: All the characters were pretty fun. I had a little bit of a hard time with my particular Observer role, because I was trying to come up with some kind of fey ethereal thing, and I think I was just trying too hard to sound ethereal. When you think about it, ethereal is something that is most convincing when it's unforced. Is there even such a thing as awkward, strained ethereal? If there is, that's what I achieved.

During the Mexican Christmas movie, the one with the confused spirituality, there was a sketch at the end where I played Pitch, down in Deep 13, and Kevin played Santa Claus. He showed up in order to defeat evil in the form of me; he accomplished this by lifting me onto his shoulders and twirling me around. After a couple takes of that I tried to get up to walk off the set and started staggering around like Otis from Mayberry. Funny? I suppose, if you weren't me.


Q: Did you ever get any mail or other reactions to your performances? If so, give us some memorable examples.
A: A woman once wrote me seeking a connection based on fishing for northern pike. I think I'd written something in the book about "big jacks," which are large northern pike. Her letter was somewhat suggestive - at least I thought it was - and in retrospect perhaps she'd misunderstood the whole big jack concept. Maybe she wasn't talking about fishing at all if you know what I mean! Maybe she was talking about hiking or something.

It was always a little dangerous to get into a direct thing with fans. You didn't really know what was going on when there'd be a letter that seemed a touch too needy and covetous. Of course, Joel and then Mike got way, way more communications than I ever did like that.

Of course there was the constant stream of requests to meet with other slim-hipped young men while wearing my red Pitch tights. But that's only to be expected.

Q: Our sense is that probably your closest collaborator on the show was Mary Jo Pehl. Was this just a matter of circumstances, or did you actively seek to write together? Why do you think it is that you two worked so well with each other?
A: Mary Jo and I worked well together? Did she say that? What else did she say? Do you think she likes me?

Sometimes we'd just be put together out of circumstance. Like there was a time period when we'd review the movie scripts together while sketch shooting was going on - sketch shooting that didn't involve us, that is. That actually got to be a problem sometimes - if we wrote sketches that involved everybody, there'd be less time spent going over the movie lines. And as we all know, for as much as we loved the sketches, and spent much time on them, that was not the generally-shared perspective of fans.

As for Mary Jo - we're very alike in many ways. That led to good writing and it also led to mayhem upon occasion.

Q: You also worked closely with Joel Hodgson. What was he like to work with, and why did you two make such good writing partners?
A: We got into a routine where I'd go over Joel's sketch lines with him. That in itself would sometimes lead to good lines. Plus, Joel saw me as a protégé or something, and I saw Joel as a guy paying me money to watch movies. So I was naturally drawn to him.

Q: You guys had so many opportunities to deal with both the East Coast (Comedy Central) or West Coast (Universal/Gramercy) branches of the weasel family. Any particularly memorable tales of stupidity you can relate in dealing with "the suits"?
A: Basically, everybody is just trying to do their jobs. I think most things that emerge from that world, you can at least sort of see what people were trying to accomplish.

Let me reformulate that a little bit. The non-celebrity types, the non- executives, like the PR people, even the people we had working on our movie with us - they the were the ones just doing their jobs. Some of them were a little too glib for my tastes, but that was the world they were in; and a lot of them were really good people. Like there was a woman named Karen Reynolds at the SciFi channel; last I heard she was with Nickelodeon. Just a superb human being.

Some of the studio executives, though - a different story.

During the SciFi years, the studio would send us to these events called "Up Fronts" that are staged for the benefit of ad agencies. They happen a couple times a year, in a few spots around the country; Chicago, LA, New York, Detroit. (I don't know why Detroit. You'd think Chicago would cover Detroit. Maybe it's the auto industry ad execs? I'll bet that's it.) All the networks, broadcast and cable, trot out their "stars" and their new shows and tout their programming. That is, they tout from the point of view of advertisers: they boast of the desirability of their demographic, and of the unprecedented shrewdness with which they have assembled programming that will deliver the best advertising bang ever.

Sitting at round tables picking at lunch were groups of cynical lower-down ad agency employees who didn't believe a word of it. To them, it was just free food, another day of lying and a chance - if they were real lucky - to meet Paul Chaplin.

Anyway, there was some silver-haired rake who ran the USA network, and I remember how he reeked of confidence and grace one day as his voice sank to a confidential whisper to communicate one of the greatest moves he'd ever seen any network make: USA had acquired the rights to the image of the dead Bruce Lee. Meaning they could take his images from his old movies and use them in new productions.

So you had a real nice mix of greed, soullessness, insane faith in technology, disrespect for the audience not to mention for Bruce Lee - you could go on and on.

Fortunately, that same day I was introduced as one of the stars destined to lead USA and SciFi into global preeminence. So you know they had only the vaguest idea of what the hell they were doing.

Q: Did the experience of critically dissecting more than 100 movies change you in any way? You know, did it make you more cynical, change your view of Hollywood, anything like that? Tell us about it.
A: The movies themselves didn't me more cynical. I would be an odd sort of person if my dreams of a nobler humanity were shattered by the fact that Danger: Death Ray! wasn't a very good movie.

One of the main things I came away with was this: it is really, really hard to make a good movie. That is, even though we weren't expecting these films to be good, I suspect that at least some people behind them in most cases were trying very hard to do something worthwhile. And it's remarkably easy to lose control of anything, even something as simple as a sketch. So it's very hard to keep control of a whole movie.

I can imagine the point when Coleman Francis would begin to suspect that Red Zone Cuba wasn't going that well. He'd lie to himself, I assume, and tell himself it would all work out; but I'll bet he got really frustrated with his actors.

(You may have heard me say this before, and I may be alone in this opinion: but when anybody asks me about good episodes, I always point them to Coleman Francis's Skydivers. That one has many funny stretches in it. There's a long scene with the main murderer woman out for a boat ride with her thin-faced helper that is as funny a scene as we ever did. Woman: "What's the matter, are you chicken?" Thin-faced dull-witted guy, as voiced by Crow: "Hm.. am I a chickenů. Well, I do ingest gravel to help with digestionů")

Another thing about movies: Getting a feature actually made is perhaps the single most difficult thing there is. As I'm sure people know, there are hundreds of movie dreams born every day that never get to any kind of stage of being real. And yet - there are so many movies that do get made! Sometimes I wonder if the majority of the US population isn't somehow employed in the making and the almost-making of movies.

Q: From what we've heard, the whole experience of making MST3K: The Movie was a strange one. Is there one particularly notable memory that comes to mind when you think of the movie experience?
A: Mary Jo and I spent almost all of that time back at the home base, writing the episode guide. So for me personally, the movie was a very relaxing time of watching our shows again and trying to figure out how to approach the episode descriptions. It was very valuable, for both of us I think. Mary Jo writes some hilarious stuff these days, as you know if you ever read some of her Ironminds pieces.

We're all very word-based, by the way. All of us on the show loved words.

I did go over to the movie studio some days. There was a catering truck with great food, and a guy in charge of that who was identified as being a drinker. Don't know if it was true; by nature our crowd was very into identifying things like that. I suppose that's related to how our jobs were based on the sad need to find something to latch onto in movies which inherently offered very little of any sort, good or bad.

By the way, I've always believed that the movie we did for the first live show - World Without End - was a better movie for us. We couldn't get it. This Island Earth was actually hard to write for.

Q: You were there at both conventions, met a lot of fans, patiently signed autographs till your arm was falling off...what was your impression of the fans you met?
A: Let's see. I liked everybody, except there was this one guy who kind of creeped me out.

Seriously, there were far fewer of the odd, grasping fan-boys than you might expect. Most of the people at the conventions seemed very nice, and it inspired me to think that a jerk like me could play any part in inspiring all these happy faces, filled with joy. Needless to say, I certainly resolved to hide my true self from them - no need to disappoint!

I've always been haunted by the memory of this one woman who came through the line at the first convention, and suddenly lunged at me and kissed me. This was at the first convention, I think. Then at the party that night - if memory serves, this was at a hotel on the 494 strip, in the southern Minneapolis suburbs - she followed me around the pool all night. I kept looking back and there she'd be. It didn't seem to matter that I was walking around with Paula, my sweetie. Eventually I gave a little nod to Jim and his thugs took over.

Hey - maybe that was the "big jack" lady! I should call her.

Q: Looking back on your experience with MST3K, can you tell us about any particular moment that gives you a sense of pride or satisfaction?
A: Well sure. There was the time I got the printer un-jammed, for example. The most amazing moment I personally recall was the very first live show at the Uptown in Minneapolis, the moment when the lights went down, the mirror ball started casting its magic, and the MST music started. The place went nuts. It was like "The Giants win the pennant!!" or something. The glee was like that.

It's actually a hard question to answer. We sort of had a little code of not talking about our own little triumphs - good lines, good sketches, that sort of thing.

The truth is our best moments were almost always the result of some sort of collaboration. Someone might come up with the start of a line, and an addition might makes it funny. Or a deletion. Or a slight change in a word. The way a line was read. I remember a sketch I penned after jamming where Joel and the boys had a "porcarina" - I think this was an invention exchange - it was a musical instrument made from a pig, meant to play the incidental music for "Green Acres." Joel said - "Don't worry, we didn't use a real pig," or something like that. Then Crow said - "We didn't?" In my mind, I had Crow saying that as a quiet, disappointed aside. But Trace read it with complete outrage - "We didn't!?" - and it was a lot funnier that way. Not trying in the slightest to hide his disappointment at having not killed a pig - that's Crow.

Anytime the show popped out a real, real good line, or sketch, or scene, it felt real nice to be part of a long tradition. More than this show, I mean; just the tradition of good old American comedies. Nobody does 'em like we do, except the British and a bunch of others, but still, we do them well, don't we?

Q: Since the show ended you've been involved in a number of projects. One we heard a little about is a movement to clean up baseball? Can you tell us more about it?
A: I'm actually not doing too much with that anymore; it was something I was doing a little more with right before the show ended. That was a period, back in 1998 and 1999, when it was not yet common knowledge that the economics of baseball is completely absurd. (People who don't care about this should go to the next question, or to the bathroom until we're done.) It's always been somewhat wacky, of course, but starting right after the 1994 strike, it quickly became obvious - talking in a statistical sense here - that only the high-income teams had much of a chance to win. The income spread was just getting to be too much. And people didn't really realize it yet. They were letting Bud Selig trot around the country using the word "renaissance" in relation to the state of the game. That really got to me; I'm very protective of the word renaissance. So I got together with a few friends of mine, and basically all I wanted to do was get writing going that would get the word out about this. We weren't that well-organized, of course, and none of us really wanted to do an "organization," but we wrote some things - letters, long-winded screeds. Of course, very quickly the word did get around about the problem. Nothing's been solved, but at least everybody except the players' union now accepts that there is a problem.

As for the Twins' fate - I'll just say that Bud Selig's intellectual dishonesty knows no bounds. I'm working on something about that right now, in fact.

Q: You've probably been the most prolific of any of the former BBI staffers as a freelance writer. Any suggestions for your fellow freelancers out there?
A: Have confidence that you know how to write. Keep contacting people.

Q: Unless you've moved quietly, the last we heard you were still based in the Midwest. Any thoughts of moving to L.A. to get more writing gigs?
A: I don't think I'll ever live in LA. I really like living in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I like having things empty out as you go north. Never say never, though. Also, never say "we need more comedic talent like Adam Sandler."

Q: Any projects or other things upcoming you'd like to plug?
A: We all spent a lot of time in the TBH (Timmy Big Hands) thing not making money; so for me 2001 was mostly about money. I've been writing in the non-comedic sense since about April, on a couple projects.

I've also been trying to sort out this whole new reality thing, this whole political comedy idea now. That's where I want to focus - it's actually the reason I made the switch in lives way back when. You might know I had a little essay on All Things Considered back in March; they seemed to like it and all. (If you're interested:
http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/20010315.atc.08.rmm ) I was periodically working with a producer there during the summer, straightening out what they wanted from me (nothing too overtly political, as it turned out; offbeat social commentary at most) when the idiots did their thing in NY and DC; so I've been retrenching on that whole angle. What do I believe? Almost everything I thought was a big deal started seeming less so. Which is probably good, they probably weren't that important anyway. But I'll have some things to tell you in a month or so if you're interested.

Q: What's your dream? Where do you wanna be in five years?
A: To paraphrase M. Haggard: I hope I'll be down on some blue bayou, with a bamboo cane stuck in the sand. Except in my case it won't be a bayou. It'll be a walleye-northern-bass-muskie lake up around here. And while I may have a bamboo cane stuck in what passes for sand in these parts, I won't be fishing with it. I'll have a genuine Sears reel and everything.

Q: Are you ready for some FOOTBALL?
A: Is football ready for me? Why is that question never asked?


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