08 May 2014

A Thrilling Conversation About Comedy with Ben Acker and Craig Cackowski

What follows is an interview I conducted on Saturday, April 26 with Ben Acker and Craig Cackowski. This transcript was submitted to, but to my surprise and great disappointment rejected by, the movie website to which I contribute. I feel strongly that fans of The Thrilling Adventure Hour deserve to at least read these insights into the relationships that Mr. Acker and Mr. Cackowski have with films that influence their work, their thoughts on comedies, and the elements that make a comedy work. With permission, I have published the piece here as intended.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour recently celebrated its ninth anniversary. The show featured at this year’s C2E2 convention in Chicago, where a special live performance was given on Saturday, April 26. I sat down for a conversation about comedy with show co-creator and writer Ben Acker, and one of the stars of its core ensemble, Craig Cackowski. Both are veterans in the field, and each takes seriously the business of being funny.
TRAVIS: One of the things I noticed in the "Odd Couple” episode is that very clearly, Mr. [James] Urbaniak was channeling Walter Matthau, especially in the tossing spaghetti (“Now it’s against the wall!”) bit. I’m not familiar with Neil Simon’s play, so I don’t know if that’s in the stage version or not, but I guess the first question is, how conscientious are you guys about raiding movies for references and moments like that in the show?
BEN ACKER: We are diligently borrowing iconic moments from movies and subverting them. Often, just up to the very thin line between straight-up plagiarism and straight-up not-plagiarism. [laughs] And it’s parody, so… “Steal from the best”, I believe is the expression, “and give to the worst”. [laughs]
TRAVIS: There’s an interview I heard with Chet Atkins once, and he was talking about how over decades of trading guitar licks and learning from, and teaching new ones, his philosophy was “Well, I borrow stuff, but I forget where I got it.”
ACKER: Sure. That happens.
CRAIG CACKOWSKI: Everything’s out there in the ether, and you just kind of distill it somehow and sometimes it’s hard to know where it came from, but if you go back and think about it a little more, it’s like, ‘Oh, it must have come from there’.
ACKER: The question was, how do I write the show? I went to Syracuse University, and there’s a giant mural of Sacco and Vanzetti on campus, so that became our “Odd Couple”.
Back of my head, Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: Right, so how do you go from two Italian anarchists to Matthau and [Jack] Lemmon?
ACKER: I’ll tell you how. We heard – it was James – [to Cackowski] was it James, do you remember, who played Lemmon, or Matthau? I think Jim played –
CACKOWSKI: Who was he playing? It was [John] DiMaggio, right? DiMaggio was Matthau and Urbaniak was Lemmon, yeah.
ACKER: It came from hearing DiMaggio’s Matthau. Like, on the Kevin Pollak chat show.
TRAVIS [remembering]: Urbaniak was Matthau.
ACKER: Okay. They both have each voice. But hearing the one do the one and then the other saying, “Can you do the other?” and “Yes”, alright, and who’s a famous pair from history we can make “The Odd Couple”? And Sacco and Vinzetti seemed like a ridiculous pair to make. So that was simpatico. Which leads to that pasta on the wall. That was the play, the movie; totally not the TV show. I think. [To Cackowski] You’ve seen every episode.
CACKOWSKI: Oh, of course.
ACKER: If you ever get the chance to interview James Urbaniak, he has added lyrics to The Odd Couple theme, and it is worth hearing. [humming of Neal Hefti’s iconic theme; laughter]
TRAVIS: I re-watched the movie last February, and I think I had the theme song stuck in my head for, like, nine months, so thanks for putting that back in.
ACKER: You won’t get it out until Christmas now. Just listen to “Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie. It’ll knock anything out of your head.

Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker, Left Side of My Head. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: That leads to one of the next questions, which is, there are various styles of comedy, and from what I can tell from listening to the show, you guys skew toward the more educated style of comedy. I mean, Sacco and Vinzetti are not the guys that are being referenced in Comedy Central stand-up specials. So, how do you – what are these influences that bring you to that end of the spectrum? And specifically, since I’m writing for a movie website, which films in particular might have led you down that path?
ACKER: Yeah, we like to put smart and dumb right next to each other, you know? But The Hudsucker Proxy was a big influence for me. I saw that when I was in high school and that was like the first movie I remember where I was like, “I want to make movies like that.” Which, funny enough, it turns out I’m trafficking in the same substances.
You know, all the comedy comes from character, or most of it. That’s our angle. So, yeah, The Hudsucker Proxy is one that… It’s “-ish”, you know? It’s pastiche-y of the old stuff without necessarily being it.
CACKOWSKI: Well, it’s kind of throwback to a film of that era, but it’s also uniquely Coen brothers.
ACKER: Right.
CACKOWSKI: It couldn’t be made by anyone else.
ACKER: Yeah.
CACKOWSKI: So there’s a modern sensibility that goes into –
ACKER: Yeah, and [mocking] “There’s a modern sensibility that goes into…” Thank you for my talking point, Craig! [laughs, continues to mock] “There’s a modern sensibility to pastiches of older things”. Like, we love, you know, His Girl Friday. We love, obviously, the Thin Man movies. Well, not obvious to you. There’s a segment that Craig is not necessarily in all the time. [Referencing that I had only had time to listen to the episodes featuring Cackowski prior to the interview.]
TRAVIS: Well, I have ESP, so it was obvious to me.
ACKER: [laughs] There’s some things that are just low-hanging fruit, so clearly we were going to say the Thin Man movies. We do a piece that involves a drunk couple solving ghost problems and mysteries. So those fast-talking, old-timers…love those.
CACKOWSKI: I think we have a smart audience, in our live shows in L.A., and our podcast listeners, and they have a high standard. It seems like you guys write to that.
ACKER: Yeah, I mean, that’s a Second City influence: write from the top of your intelligence. Also, the show is clean. We don’t swear.
TRAVIS: That was something else that I noticed. When you say you’re putting smart next to dumb, in the few episodes I was able to listen to, it felt like very highbrow comedy to me, and that’s something that I’ve found to be terribly rare just in general, but to be honest, especially in film these days.
ACKER: It may be silly instead of dumb, I guess. That’s a nicer word to say. [laughter]
TRAVIS: Irreverent.
ACKER: Yeah. With the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright movies, there’s the genre they put them in, but there’s also the characters at the core.
TRAVIS, to CACKOWSKI: That brings me to a question specific to Col. Tick-Tock. I was wondering: is there a reason that that is the character, in the whole podcast that I saw, that was the one that you had done? I didn’t see that you had done any other characters.
CACKOWSKI: That’s my lead character, and I pop up as support characters in a lot of the other pieces.
TRAVIS: Okay. Is there a reason that you’re doing the time travel fix-it guy?
CACKOWSKI: Talk to the casting office! [laughs, gestures to ACKER]
ACKER: The reason was –
TRAVIS [to CACKOWSKI]: I was wondering whether there was something that drew you specifically to it, but if there is a reason that they said, “Hey, you’re the guy!” then yeah, sure.
CACKOWSKI [to ACKER]: How did I get that part?
ACKER: The way it worked is that the show has three segments, and the first one was [“Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars”], with Marc Evan Jackson and Mark Gagliardi, some heavy hitters in the show, and then the last one is called “Beyond Belief”, and Craig Cackowski is a real heavy-hitter in the show. And every time we had a middle segment, it was like, “This is Craig’s lead thing”. We wanted to spotlight on Craig, and not one of the worst members of our troupe. [laughs] Right? Like, “Get him out on the front!”
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] I think the original idea for Col. Tick-Tock was just that he was the most prototypically British character.
ACKER: And grander.
CACKOWSKI: There wasn’t a lot of substance beyond that.
TRAVIS: I felt a certain Fry & Laurie [vibe] to that, especially with the performance of Queen Victoria.
CACKOWSKI: Right.
ACKER: The original concept was a thirty second narrative, sandwiched between a two-minute and a seven-minute theme song.
CACKOWSKI: [laughing] The longest theme song ever!
ACKER: A really quick episode, yeah. As we grew to doing the podcast, it was much more satisfying to write an episode for. Also, in the intervening time, we discovered Doctor Who, and we were already unwittingly doing, but didn’t know. So it turns out, that’s real neat. It feels like tonight’s episode, the one that we’re doing in the live show tonight, addresses the Doctor Who connection more overtly than any one that we’ve done before.
CACKOWSKI: That should get a ton of laughs.
ACKER: I would think so.
CACKOWSKI: Although, we did have Karen –
ACKER: We did have Karen Gillan as a guest before and – have you listened to that episode?
TRAVIS: I didn’t get that far, I’m afraid.
ACKER: Ah. Yeah, she was fantastic. But that was definitely a nod to Doctor Who and the parallels. [laughter]

My Right Hand, Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: One of the things that I was noticing was that you were talking about the “low-hanging fruit”, and obviously if you’re dealing with anything time travel: Back to the Future. And yet, even through the stuff that I listened to, there was no –

ACKER: We have a Back to the Future episode in “Amelia Earhart[, Fearless Flyer]”, which is another time travel bit on the show.

TRAVIS: - and so, first of all, I was going to ask how much patience does it take to withhold from going to that early on in the series?

CACKOWSKI: That’s more American than we like to play with Tick-Tock.

ACKER: Oh! On the topic of Tick-Tock’s Britishness: Apparently, we diligently do not do research on ideas before we put them onto the show, and just as enthusiastically, we haven’t done research into British stuff, aside from watching movies and TV. Recently on Twitter, English people have been talking about how much we – our terrible use of British slang just completely knocks them out of the show. Like, they’re not in. [laughter]

CACKOWSKI: It tickles me how much they –
ACKER: Sure. They can’t listen to Col. Tick-Tock: “I am from England and I cannot hear it.” [laughter] It drives them crazy.
CACKOWSKI: It’s like blackface to them, almost, it’s so offensive.
TRAVIS: That reminds me what Simon Pegg said about watching Star Trek and the only character he hated was Scotty, because James Doohan’s voice just did not have any authenticity to him whatsoever.
ACKER: Right. Somebody’s exaggerated idea of what a Scotsman would be, yeah.
TRAVIS: I want to stick with Back to the Future because there is a sort of debate amongst the members of this site [Flickchart], because we assign a filter tag to anything that’s applicable, so that it shows up on those charts. Well, it’s listed as a comedy. And of course, because it’s so wildly popular, it’s often ranked the #1 comedy of all-time, according to the data. Now, this is controversial because Back to the Future is not straightforward comedy. I describe it as a sci-fi movie with a sense of humor, and I was wondering how you guys, being in the comedy business, would see that side of –
CACKOWSKI: We’re resolving the debate once and for all! [laughs]
TRAVIS: Well, you don’t have to resolve the debate, but use it as a microcosm to comment on those gray areas where a movie isn’t necessarily thought of – the Simon Pegg stuff, you know?
CACKOWSKI: Isn’t that a romcom? [laughs]
ACKER: Back to the Future is a romcom? Where he has to learn that he shouldn’t sleep with his mother? [laughs]
TRAVIS: Which is really hard when it’s a young Lea Thompson.
ACKER: Like a Broadcast News-style romcom, where ultimately, the characters have to, through their relationships – the romantic relationships that they’re in – through the body of the film, realize “It’s not this one. That’s not the right one for me.” That’s not who those characters –
TRAVIS: That’s not the guy she’s supposed to procreate with.
CACKOWSKI: I’d consider it a funny sci-fi film. That’s where I stand.
ACKER: You know what? I’m gonna say…it’s a comedy. Comedy’s more important than the sci-fi in it.
CACKOWSKI: Okay.
TRAVIS: So the sci-fi is the vehicle for the comedy?
ACKER: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely right.
CACKOWSKI: I’m never going to work with you again, man. [laughter]
ACKER: [laughing] This is the interview that caused the end of the Thrilling Adventure Hour! [To Travis:] No, it’s not you. This has been a long time coming. [To Cackowski:] I’ve got no respect for you. [laughter] But I just want to say, all the things you were saying about Back to the Future and how it’s a top-grossing movie, “Is it this?” “Is it that?” It’s like Ghostbusters, which is, you know, a better movie.
CACKOWSKI: You think Ghostbusters is better than Back to the Future?
ACKER: Honestly, yes.
TRAVIS: Well, is Ghostbusters a horror movie?
CACKOWSKI: No. That is a comedy. Ghostbusters is a comedy.
TRAVIS: I ask because it shows up there [meaning the horror chart]. Shaun of the Dead shows up high on the comedy and on the horror charts, and fans of both genres balk at that.
CACKOWSKI: Right. It’s a zomromcom!
ACKER: [laughing] A zomromcom?
TRAVIS: Edgar Wright said that, and that was the greatest tag line ever. I remember going to see it with friends, and we walked in and said -- we laughed at it on the marquee on the way in, but on the way out it was like, “Yeah, that is the best summary of what we just watched.”
ACKER: I went to a screening the night before it opened. It was my friend’s birthday and he brought us to this thing and Edgar Wright and the cast and Simon Pegg were there, promoting this thing, and they talked about how obviously Romero, obviously comedy stuff, but the Four Weddings and a Funeral director [Mike Newell] was just as big of an influence on them making it.
Ben Acker, Me taking notes, Side of Craig Cackowski's Head. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: Really? Huh.
ACKER: Yeah, that was part of what they were trying to do, was make sure it stands as a romance.
CACKOWSKI: They wanted the relationships to be believable, and zombies as a metaphor for growth –
ACKER: Yeah.
CACKOWSKI: If you don’t get invested in the relationships between the characters, then the jokes wear thin after awhile.
ACKER: Yeah.

TRAVIS: I don’t have a background in professional writing but, obviously, you do, so one of the questions that I’ve noticed comes up at every actor question and answer session is, “What have you ever ad libbed?” As a writer, I want to know your thoughts on why is there that fascination audiences have with whether or not an actor was able to subvert all the hard work that went into that screenplay, and [to CACKOWSKI] maybe you’re the better one to answer that?
CACKOWSKI: Well, I’m trained in improv and I’m an improv teacher. But I’m also a trained actor. I’m a theater major and went on and I’ve been doing and teaching improv for twenty years and –we do, occasionally, in the live shows, usually just from a mistake, when someone misses the line.

TRAVIS: I caught that in the “Odd Couple” episode, as a matter of fact. No, it was “The Wilde Party”.
[ACKER laughs]
TRAVIS: It was…they had a hard time spitting out…what was the word? It was like four syllables, like “inconceivably” or something like that.
ACKER: Might have been DiMaggio, wasn’t it?
TRAVIS: Very clearly, that prompted an ad lib –
CACKOWSKI: Yes. We will occasionally riff when there’s a mistake, but the script that these guys write is so tight that it needs to be honored. And I don’t believe in improv for improv’s sake, or just to fuck around, you know?
ACKER: I think audiences want to know about it because the actors are who they revere and to see the actor’s creativity is sport for their fandom or their appreciation. And also, improv suggests this being-in-the-moment and capturing something unique and special, so to see a favorite moment and get it validated that extra inch of “And that was right there, they didn’t plan it” or “It was cosmic”, that gives value to this moment that they like.
CACKOWSKI: You can find those compilations on YouTube, of “these were all lines that were improvised”. Iconic lines from movies that were improvised, like “You talkin’ to me?” “There’s no place like home.” “Top of the world, ma.”
ACKER: [laughing] Was that improvised?
CACKOWSKI:  [laughing] As much as “There’s no place like home” was, for the purpose of this bit I was trying to get off the ground. [laughter] “Play it again, Sam.” “Rosebud.” [laughter]
TRAVIS: Orson Welles just winged it on that one.
CACKOWSKI: [in character as Welles] “I still haven’t come up with a name for that sled yet. Uh…Rosebud. Fizzy Chimichanga.”
ACKER: “We’ll find it in editing.”
CACKOWSKI: “I’ll just say a bunch of stuff.”
ACKER: [laughs] He’s directing himself.
CACKOWSKI: [still in character as Welles] “Cosgrove. Sleddy. Sleddy Sleddy Sled Sled.”  [laughter]
ACKER: [repeating] “Sleddy Sleddy Sled Sled.” [laughs]
CACKOWSKI: Sleddy! [laughter]
TRAVIS: My personal thought has been that people like the idea of subversion in general. There’s the defiance of not being slavishly adhering to what has been imposed on them by the –
ACKER: I like the idea of a script imposed on them. [laughs]
CACKOWSKI: But even “You talkin’ to me”, like it was just Scorsese decided to put it in the movie. He could have left it on the floor, so you know, it was something DeNiro came up with in the moment, but Scorsese recognized the genius of it and decided to leave it in.
TRAVIS: Which is why he’s Scorsese.
CACKOWSKI: That’s why he’s Scorsese. Well, that’s how he’s Scorsese.

WorkJuice Players. Publicity photo by Elizabeth Sisson for Ladykiller.
TRAVIS: We’ve got just a few minutes here, so –
ACKER: Sleddy Sleddy Sled Sled.
TRAVIS: - what are some films that make you laugh, that you’ve seen them a dozen times and they still make you laugh?
CACKOWSKI: For me, This Is Spinal Tap, and that’s a movie that’s all improvised.
ACKER: Is it? Now who’s naïve?
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] Raising Arizona. That’s probably the funniest Coen brothers movie.
ACKER: According to Craig.
CACKOWSKI: According to me. [laughter] For old-timey, I’d go My Man Godfrey –
ACKER: His Girl Friday.
CACKOWSKI: You know what one of the funniest movies is, and here’s another one where it’s a genre-bender. It’s thought of as a musical, but Singin’ in the Rain is one of the funniest movies of all time.
ACKER: Preach.
TRAVIS: That’s one of my friend’s favorite movies of all-time.
CACKOWSKI: It’s brilliant. It’s got a lot of laugh out loud moments in it, and I would say the comedy might even trump the musical in it.

TRAVIS: And what about movies that absolutely made you bust a gut the first time, but then on a second viewing, fell flat for you – and I’m not necessarily asking you to call out any movie here – but how do you feel about those? Is the fact that it was successful that first time tainted by the fact that it didn’t hold up, or do you just throw out the fact that it didn’t hold up and just enjoy the fact that it got you the first time?
ACKER: [thinking] I don’t have a movie in mind.
CACKOWSKI: You know, I haven’t seen This Is the End a second time yet, and I’m guessing that that’s one that might not hold up for me.
ACKER: Which one is that?
CACKOWSKI: The movie that came out last year with James Franco and Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, where they were all playing themselves.
ACKER: I think Temple of Doom didn’t hold up a second time.
CACKOWSKI: As a laugh out loud movie? [laughs]
ACKER: Wait, was this laugh out loud movies, or just movies that don’t hold up?
TRAVIS: I will fight you.
ACKER: [mock-Trailer Guy voice] “The funniest movie I’ve ever seen…” Oh! Return of the Jedi. [laughter] Not as good the second time, when you realize it could have been a Wookiee planet. You go, “Oh, they were pandering to four-year-old me and it worked!” [laughter] So it’s a little bit of their fault, but a little bit of my fault.
CACKOWSKI: You know, I’m such a snob about comedy that usually if a movie makes me laugh, it always makes me laugh.
ACKER: That can make sense.
CACKOWSKI: But as somebody who does, and thinks about, comedy a lot, I don’t go to a lot of big-budget comedies because I think they pander a lot.
TRAVIS: Very clearly different from the sensibility that I perceive through what I’ve listened to.
CACKOWSKI: Yeah.
ACKER: [To Cackowski] Now, you have lists of top movies. Like, you keep Hornby-esque lists of –
CACKOWSKI: I am a movie list guy.
ACKER: What are your hundred favorite movies?
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] Do we have time for a hundred?
TRAVIS: That’s up to Ms. Davis.
ACKER: You know what, just go real fast.
CACKOWSKI: GodfatherSchindler’s ListBrazilCitizen Kane –
ACKER: You’re building to Wonderful Life.
CACKOWSKI:  - It’s a Wonderful Life –
ACKER: These are your #100-95.
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] No.
TRAVIS: Where is Lawrence of Arabia?
CACKOWSKI: Lawrence of Arabia? That’d be in my second hundred.
TRAVIS: I will fight you, too.
CACKOWSKI: [laughs]
ACKER: Going to be a lot of fighting here.
CACKOWSKI: Top 200 means I think it’s incredible. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of movies. Number 200 is pretty good.
ACKER: He doesn’t take it seriously. [laughter]
Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker, Me. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: And last question, because we are in Chicago.
ACKER: Yes.
TRAVIS: Favorite movie set in Chicago? Could be comedy, could be something else. Could be The Untouchables, could be The Sting –
CACKOWSKI: Ooh, High Fidelity is a great one.
ACKER: Uh…well, Ferris Bueller. Wait. Was Perfect Strangers a movie?
CACKOWSKI: [laughs]
TRAVIS: It should have been. Or, I guess, still could be.
ACKER: Yeah, Balki goes back. [laughter]
CACKOWSKI: Perfect Strangers: The Movie, Balki goes back?
ACKER: Oh! But that wouldn’t be set in Chicago so much as in Mypos. [laughter]
CACKOWSKI: That’s right. His home was in Mypos.
ACKER: It opens with a dance of sadness and closes with a dance of joy. We’re writing this movie, you guys!
CACKOWSKI: Oh, you know way more about Perfect Strangers than I do.
TRAVIS: I want a story credit on this. You get the screenplay, I want a “story by”.
ACKER: “Based on a Question by…” [laughter]
TRAVIS: Well, gentlemen, it has been terrific chatting with you. Thank you for your time.
ACKER: Thanks so much.
TRAVIS: I really appreciate it. And I have no idea how to turn this thing off, so it might record until the end of the day.
ACKER: Great!
The next live performance of the Thrilling Adventure Hour will be Saturday, May 10, at Town Hall in New York city. Tickets are on sale now. A special live crossover show with Welcome to Night Vale will be performed later this summer at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
My thanks to Ben Acker and Craig Cackowski for their generous time, and for not fighting me.
Thanks also to Danielle Davis at Ladykiller for facilitating the interview, and to Ronnie Ashley for his able assistance.

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