Mitch Rouse [Interview]


Today’s interview subject is a man who can be considered one of the founding fathers of modern day hilarity. He has been involved with so many amazing projects as both a writer, director, actor, and more. Just over 20 years ago, he was a co-founder of the brilliant sketch comedy series Exit 57 that appeared in the pre-South Park days of Comedy Central, and then helped bring the legendary series Strangers with Candy into the post-South Park era of our beloved Comedy Central. With the help of a few of his friends from the world of sketch that you may have heard of before, Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris, and Stephen Colbert, he was a crucial member in bringing the hilarity to the world of television in the mid to late 90’s. And folks, his career was only getting started.

In fact, in 2004 alone, Mitch Rouse brought us two amazing films that will forever live in my movie memory. We are going to get into those in the questions below, but I just had to take a moment to point out that much like some of the other fine writers and funny people we have showcased here at Trainwreck’d Society, Mr. Rouse is one of the greats. He has made a fine living by being hilarious, which is a worthy accomplishment in itself. Mitch has some amazing stories to tell, and we are so happy that he was kind enough to share them with us today. So Ladies and Gentlemen, please enjoy some great words from the legendary Mitch Rouse!

What is your story, Sir? When does a kid growing up in Tennessee decide he wants to move out of town and become a master of improvisation? Had you always aspired to write and act? Or was it sort of on a whim? Basically, what made you want to become a part of the world you are in now?

I had no idea the world that I’m in even existed. I’m the youngest of 3. We were blessed with really cool parents that encouraged us to “follow your happiness”. If we heard a different drummer, they told us to turn it up. Loud. I knew my folks loved me and they made it very clear that if shit ever got crazy, out in the world, I always had a place to go home to.

When I was a kid my dad built a little recording studio out in the garage. My brother and sister and I, would sit out there listening to my dad sing and play his guitar. At times he would pretend to be a radio DJ or local news reporter, and he’d interview us like we were huge Hollywood stars that had flown into town for a big movie premiere or some big charity event. Some nights my mom would come out there with dinner. And the 5 of us would eat, sing songs and just hang out together. It was great. – And they were always taking us to see live shows too. Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Floyd Cramer, David Cassidy, Boots Randolph. We even saw Elvis and Steve Martin live.

My dad turned me on to Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Woody Allen, Ray Stevens, and Saturday Night Live.

I have A.D.D. and I’m dyslexic, so the business side of going to school? No thank you. I’ll just have a salad and a nice piece of fish. I liked the social aspect of it – but yeah. No.

Making people laugh made the school days go faster and made some of my teachers go easier on me. Key word here is “some”. I had one chronically tense, highly reactive teacher call me out in front of the entire class, during one of my impromptu “matinees.” She said: “Mr. Rouse there is no job that will pay you to goof off.” She was wrong.

The clouds parted for me one day when I was in high school, in detention with a guy named Richard. He said:

“Rouse for the kind of trouble you get into, you should go to Second City.”

“What kind of trouble do I get into?”

“You don’t go around breaking stuff, picking fights, or stealing shit. You’re not an ass-hole or disrespectful to teachers. You just like attention and making people laugh.”

“What’s Second City?”

“It’s a theatre. A comedy theatre. It’s where Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray got their start.”

Insert angels singing here.

Those guys were my heroes. From that moment on my focus was to find out exactly what and where Second City was, and figure out how was I going to get there.

Specifically in the world of film and television, when was the first time you can remember seeing your name appear in credits for a project you were involved in, no matter how small the role? Do you remember where you were when you first saw it?

I actually found Second City and I was performing there in Chicago, the first time I saw my name in credits. It was a TV movie called In The Shadow Of A Killer starring Scott Bakula. A New York police detective is ostracized by his fellow officers when he opposes the death penalty for an accused cop killer.

Yeah Ron, that’s right. You heard me. A cop that stood for something. He wore the badge, he didn’t hide behind it. Part-time flatfoot, full-time dreamer.

I played the cop that got killed. It took place in the 70’s. I remember Bakula chasing after the bad guys, in his orange bell bottom jumpsuit and packing heat in his ankle holster. Hell yeah. Side Note: Scott Bakula is one of the nicest coolest guys ever. We shot in a prison in Chicago. I think it was the Stateville “roundhouse” Prison, which was still being used at the time. The warden gave Bakula a tour, and he was cool enough to invite me to go along.

That place was creepy with a capital “scary.” Filled to the brim with top shelf douche bags like Richard Speck. “Hi, I’m a mass murderer. Is there a hospital around here? I’m looking for a nurse.” And I think John Wayne Gacy was executed there.

In 2004 you released the film Employee of the Month which you wrote and directed, which I feel is one of those films that will continue to be appreciated for decades to come because of its originality and wonderfully written perspective of a life lived strangely. And I’m always wanting to get into the writer’s head and ask the simple question: Where did this story come from? What made you decide that this was a story you wanted to breath life into?

Where did Employee come from? Ron, I wish I had some big amazing horribly graphic story for you, one that had me fighting back tears because it was so painful to tell. One of those stories that as I re-tell it, I can’t help but re- live it. My hands start to sweat… my voice begins to tremble. And you, being the gracious host that you are; You offer me some water, but I don’t hear you. You get spooked. You lock eyes with Marty, your sister’s kid, as he works the tape deck that’s recording my story – or better yet “capturing” this nightmare, as it escapes from my mouth, in a voice that no one recognizes including myself…

Yeah, I wish I had that story to tell, but I don’t.

I was driving to an audition in a really bad rain storm listening to Green Day. After about 45 minutes of yelling and negotiating my way through the obstacle course of “shitty drivers” I decided no audition was worth this. So I pulled over to wait for the rain to stop. I was sitting there with Green Day and I thought “Wow, you sure don’t plan a shitty day like today.” – Then I thought, but what if you did? What would it look like? And why would you do it? I pulled out a notebook and started writing. A year later it premiered at Sundance.

2004 was a big year for you! That same year the commercially successful Seth Green fronted comedy Without A Paddle was released, which features the GREATEST use of an R. Kelly song the world will ever know, by the way. So, how did you become involved in this project? And when you look back on it all of these years later, what are your thoughts on the final product?

First let me say, I love the film Deliverance. John Boorman’s backwoods, feel good masterpiece. For me parts of it are like home movies.

Okay, so I had a movie pitch about 4 college best friends. One night as they’re playing poker, drinking beer and watching their favorite movie Deliverance – they start referring to each other as the characters from the film – Ed, Lewis, Bobby and Drew. With spring break coming up, they make a pact to take the same canoe trip that Burt Reynolds and his buddies took in the movie. They load up their jeep, rent canoes, drive up into the woods, and blah, blah, blah, river canoe, banjo-banjo, toothless mountain men, blah, blah, blah, you got a pretty mouth, comedy ensues, and Bob’s your uncle.

We went to Paramount and pitched it to Donald De Line and Wendy Japhet. They liked it but wanted something younger and more mainstream. We talked story lines, tone, and character stuff. We took off, came back a week later with a new pitch. They liked it and that’s it. That’s basically how we ended up writing the script for Without A Paddle.

I watched it like a week ago with my son Strummer, he’s 8. He loved it. He really loved the 2 tree-hugger girls that lived up in the trees. And looking back on it now I’m like “Burt Reynolds is in a movie I wrote. Saying words that I typed on my computer.” Burt was one of my childhood heroes. After the movie came out, we had dinner together in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. That was a huge moment for me. Sitting in a iconic place like that and listening to “The Bandit” telling Hollywood stories. It was one of life’s perfect moments.

And of course, I couldn’t do a Mitch Rouse interview without bringing up that you brought to life one of the greatest pieces of comedy genius to ever grace the screen, the cult classic program Strangers with Candy. The following and love for this show is definitely well deserved, because it is just that damn funny and smart and brilliant. How did the idea to adapt Florrie Fisher’s story for the recently flourishing Comedy Central come to life? What made you and 3 more of the greatest minds of comedy decide that this was something the world needed?

After EXIT 57 we all went different ways. I was in LA doing auditions and stuff. Colbert was doing The Daily Show I think. Dinello was writing copy for VH1 or something like that. Amy was making cheese balls and selling them to a local grocery store. CUT TO:

I woke up one day wanting to “get the band back together” – I just wasn’t sure what we would do. I always loved the sappy over-dramatic tragedies played out in Afterschool Specials. I thought it might be cool to do like “MTV’s Afterschool Special” I told Amy I thought it was time for us to do our next thing – I explained my rough idea and that was basically the seed that grew into Strangers.

We (Rouse, Colbert, and Dinello) went to the Museum Of Television in NYC which is a big library of every TV show and Movie you can think of. When you check something out, you can’t leave with it, you had to watch it there at the library and then return it. One thing you gotta remember; These weren’t DVDs or even VHS. We were watching the big 3 quarter inch tapes in the top loader decks. And anything over an hour equaled 2 tapes. Part One & Part Two.

We tripped up on the Scott Baio Adolescent Goldmine which included The Boy Who Drank Too Much, All The Kids Do It, The Truth About Alex, and Run Don’t Walk. And yes, they’re all exactly what you think they are except for Run Don’t Walk. (Teenage girl. Paralyzed. Car accident. In denial and a wheelchair at the same time. She changes when she meets a boy in the same situation.) See? Not what I expected.

The 3 of us sat and watched all of’em ending with Stoned. Baio is a high school track star. Mister popular. Ladies love him. Teachers adore him. He’s kicking ass and taking names until… Oops he starts smoking pot. Then of course his grades drop, everyone thinks he’s a bad news loser and he’s kicked off the track team or swim team, I can’t remember which, until he cleans up his act.

On TAPE #1 we watch Chachi’s life go from everything is fucking fantastic, to oops smokes pot, entire life spirals out of control and turns to shit.

Now we know once we pop in TAPE #2 Baio is going to see the light, learn his lesson, and do a complete 180 to full redemption and probably a first place gold medal. Lesson learned thank you and good night.

Right then that we decided “fuck tape #2” full redemption can kiss our ass. On our show the characters won’t see the errors of their ways and if they do they don’t give a shit. Their lives will go from kind of great to awful, to shitty, to all is lost, to bottom of the barrel, to closing credits.

Boom. Okay that’s the show. Amy and I went to MTV, and pitched Strangers to a friend of mine that worked there. She loved it, but told us MTV would never go for show like that. So we went to Comedy Central and TA-DAAA!

Strangers With Candy was a combination of: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Florrie Fisher: The Trip Back, Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, and Scott Baio’s catalogue of Afterschool Specials – all rolled up together.

Wow, really long answer to that question.

I need to take it back a bit further to a very specific project you appeared in that I feel is one of the most understated films of all time, the wrongfully categorized “rom com” known as Truth About Cats and Dogs. For my own personal nostalgic purposes, and my childhood crush on Janeane Garafalo, I have to ask, do you have any fond memories of working on this film, or was it just another gig you hardly remember?

Janeane was always getting/giving her friends small roles in the movies she was doing. She called and asked; and I said of course. My role was this; Janeane and Uma Thurman are sitting in a coffee shop. A bee starts buzzing around them. Uma starts to freak. I’m at the next table, I hop up and save the day by swatting at the bee in the most over the top way while trying to be cool.

ODD FACT: I had a stunt double, dressed and ready for me, if I needed it. Still not sure why.

Janeane Garofalo is one of the greatest, sweetest, funniest, people I’ve ever met. I would do just about anything for that girl.

After all of these years in the world of comedic acting, writing, and directing, what would say is the key factor that keeps you in the business? Could you even imagine yourself doing anything else? If so, what would you do?

I truly, fully love 97% of this business. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve been extremely fortunate to get to do what I do, and even more fortunate when it comes to some of the people I’ve gotten to work with. I get hired to sit in front of my computer and write what I think is funny. I get to perform on stage with the funniest people I know, and they’re my friends. I get hired to act in front of a camera. I get hired to create and direct projects. These are the things I dreamed about my when I was a kid.

So what is next for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

What’s next? I’m directing a film I wrote with my buddy Chris Nelson. He’s a Special FX make-up guy and he’s good. He’s really good. He’s “Hey look, I won an OSCAR” good. He’s also hilarious. The script A Baby Shower In San Dimas is about a teenage girl. Paralyzed. Car accident. In denial and a wheelchair at the same time. She changes when she meets a boy in the same situation. We’re talking to Scott Baio. – No we’re not. That’s Run, Don’t Walk.

I was lying.

Baby Shower In San Dimas is about Kate and Norman. They’re crazy in love. To avoid the clichés of marriage & romantic comedies, they’ve agreed they don’t need a piece paper to validate their commitment to each other.

Norman’s up for a big job in NYC. If he gets it, they move away from L.A., family, & Kate’s best friend Steph. Norman wakes up in a panic remembering his sister’s obligatory Baby Shower. After a hot dog, 2 beers and some intense road rage… They arrive to the huge house for the Baby Shower. A ridiculously beautiful hostess invites them in for cake & an extremely graphic birthing video.

I’m also in the process of selling a pilot I created with my good friend David Pasquesi. It’s about a privately owned prison. It’s called Merkin Penal. It’s like HBO’s OZ… but even funnier.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

The last thing that made me smile? That’s tough coz I’m smiling 80% of the time. But if pressed I’d say my kids. They’re always trying to make me laugh. Whether I end up laughing or not, they still get me smiling.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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