Episode 13: Mark Roberts
Paul talks with Mark Roberts, former stand-up, playwright and creator of the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly about growing up in a dysfunctional small-town Baptist environment as an overweight kid and the role art plays in finding a way to cope.
July 11, 2011
Mental Illness Happy Hour Episode 13 with Mark Roberts will be up in just a second, but just a couple quick notes. I want to thank from the bottom of my heart Stee Greeve for redesigning the website. Hopefully this will be the first podcast that is up and running on it and hopefully it will be going smoothly. If not, we will work the bugs out when we work the bugs out, but my hat is off to you Stee, thanks so much for your hard work and also thanks to Martin Willis. A quick reminder, go the website MentalPod.com there’s whole bunch of stuff you can do to get involved in this little community I’m trying to grow. And you can always support the show by going to iTunes and giving us a good review because that increases our ranking and that brings more people to the show, which I like! O.k., before we kick it off how about a little quote from one of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle, he says that basically “spirituality has nothing to do with what you believe but everything to do with your state of consciousness”. This he says “in turn determines how you act in the world and interact with others”. So suck on that.
(Intro music plays)
PG: I’m here with longtime friend Mark Roberts. Oh, he took his hat off! Shit! (MR laughs) We’re gonna, we’re gonna get deep. Mark and I have been friends since, uh, ‘87, ‘88? And you’ve known my wife even longer; you’ve known Carla for, since early ‘80’s.
MR: Yeah, I probably met her a couple of years before you.
PG: Yeah, um, Mark is, I knew Mark when he was a stand-up comedian in Chicago. You did The Tonight Show how many, how many times?
MR: I think it was like 8—
MR: in the early ‘90’s
PG: That must be nice; to have done The Tonight Show so many times you don’t know how many times you’ve done it. Fuck you. (PG and MR laugh). Uh, so Mark is a former stand-up comedian, he doesn’t really perform anymore. Uh, he was a sitcom and film actor. He was in the sitcom The Naked Truth which was on for about, I think four seasons, something like that?
PG: Three seasons, and then he— Well, he’s always been a playwright along the way. He would do these one man shows and plays and that got the attention of Chuck Lorre about 6, 7 years ago? How many years ago was it?
MR: uh, Ten
PG: Ten years ago. (MR mumbles something indistinct) Mark, Mark did a two person play called Couples Counseling Killed Katy and uh, and Chuck apparently was smitten with your writing and hired you to be a writer for Two and a Half Men and then you created Mike and Molly which is now doing, doing great. And in your spare time you write these amazing plays that are so dark and so funny. The most recent one is Rantoul and Die? Or is there one since then?
MR: There, there, I mean, that’s not the most recent one, that one was the most recently done. They did it at Victory Gardens in Chicago this, uh, April. This past April they did it there.
PG: Well if you get a chance to see any of Mark’s plays— is there a— you have a Facebook page where people could find out all your plays and all that stuff, right? Or no?
MR: It’s just a personal Facebook page, I don’t have, I don’t, I don’t update it with career stuff. But I actually got a cool thing, I’m gonna actually do next May, I’m gonna do Counseling Killed Katy again with Jessica Tuck.
PG: Oh! Awesome!
PG: Awesome! You gonna do it here in LA?
PG: I look forward to seeing that again. It’s Mark’s plays— I told him one time after seeing Rantoul and Die, I told him ‘You are our generation’s Sam Shepherd’, I know that sounds a little overly dramatic and ass kissy, but I really do feel that when I watch your plays there is a mining of Midwestern rural dysfunction that you do in your plays that is so real and so three dimensional and so funny at the same time. I guess the best place to start would be to talk about what it was like where you were raised. You were raised in… what’s the name it’s…?
MR: Tolono, Illinois
PG: Tolono, which is just South of Champaign, Urbana, Illinois. A little rural town and what was… what was it like growing up?
MR: Well it was a, you know, population 2,500 people.
PG: mm hmm
MR: All white community. You know, literally grew up not, not on the wrong side of the tracks but right next to… we had a railroad track—
PG: You knew the guy who was on the wrong side of the tracks.
MR: I uh… we were… We were right behind… It was right behind our house. And—
PG: If you could get just a little bit closer to the mike. Yeah—
MR: Oh, ok, sorry. So it was a very small town, and, and like, in most very small towns, everybody’s kind of in everybody else’s business which is sort of a… supplies a certain amount of a…I don’t know, I always felt a certain amount of discomfort growing up because I always sensed with my parents that they were a little too hyper aware of what they were doing and how their behavior was being judged and their, the— It’s a judgmental, uh, community I guess is what I’m saying.
PG: Yeah. I think most towns probably are but I guess we don’t have anything to compare it to. But I… I wasn’t raised in a small town, I was raised in the suburbs, so I know what it’s like to have a neighborhood that gossips but I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up in a town where the entire town knows all your stuff. And your family, from what I know, from what we’ve talked about, there was a lot of dysfunction in there. A lot of…Could you talk about that?
MR: Well, you know, I mean my parents, you know, got married very, very young and they both came from— my father came from an even smaller town in Kentucky. He was— he had seven brothers and sisters growing up in the depression, literally, you know, dirt floor cabin. His father was—
PG: Now that just sounds like a good time to me.
MR: Does it?
PG: Yeah, seven people, no money, dirt, Kentucky—
MR: (laughing) very little food—
PG: Shit, you got the making of Dukes of Hazzard right there.
MR: His father was hit by a car and killed when he was very young, leaving his mother with these kids to raise and my dad essentially left home at 16 and headed to Champaign, Urbana, just to try get a job and be able to eat because there was not enough food.
MR: And he met my mom and they got married very, very young, so there was a, you know, without making light of their situation, because I don’t know the ins and outs of it. There was a lot of unhappiness. Always as a kid I always sensed that they were, they were not completely at ease—
MR: Yeah, there was always a certain amount of uh—
PG: Was it a ‘staying together for the kids’ or ‘staying together ‘cause we just don’t really feel like getting a divorce’. Or, did they not feel like their relationship was— I mean, they’re separated now right?
MR: They’re divorced now.
PG: They’re divorced.
MR: My father is remarried. They got divorced after 50 years.
PG: I think that you should always give a relationship a good 50 year trial run.
MR: Give it a good—
PG: How do you know? You’re 48, you may be pulling the trigger a little soon.
MR: So he, yeah he remarried. I don’t know the ins and outs of, I mean I… you know after they divorced I certainly gathered information that I wasn’t aware of growing up and some of it a little bit more unsettling than other information. But they—
PG: Is any of that stuff— Would you be comfortable sharing?
MR: Well, I think there was a certain amount of infidelity on my father’s part. Not a certain amount—
PG: A lot?
MR: Well he was, you know, he was a guy who I think ultimately… As a lot of guys are, I mean I certainly understand the behavior. You substitute conquests with other woman as… Usually because you’re afraid of being intimate with the person that’s most, that’s closest to you. Not to, you know, rationalize that or say it’s a good thing, but… So I think that there was always mistrust between them and some animosity and my mother was always plagued with medical problems so it was just—
PG: Your mother had experienced a tragedy right?
MR: Before I was born a gas furnace blew up, literally, in her face and she was burned severely over half of her body and spent, you know, probably over a year in a burn unit in Chicago.
MR: And so, that left her physically and emotionally scarred and I think she had a hard time dealing with that.
PG: And they were, your parents were together when that happened or no?
MR: Yeah, they were together and my brother was around and my sister and I were not yet born.
PG: Ok, so they already had one kid though.
MR: They already had one kid and this happened when, you know, my mom was in her early twenties when this happened. And I think the scars on her were always amplified in her head and uh, because, you know, you really have to sort of get up there and—
PG: Oh, ok, so she wasn’t somebody that you, you know, you turn around the corner at the grocery store and your heart stops…
MR: No, no, no. You have to— if you got— you know, if you were standing there talking to her you’d be able to look at the difference in skin tone on the— you know, they had to rebuild her jaw. And you know, so there was definitely a different skin color. Her hands are the big tell, because, you know, knuckles were sort of burnt and fused together so there’s some misshapen quality to the bones in her hands.
PG: Wow that must have been so difficult for her to go through, I mean, I can’t even imagine the physical pain of that and then the emotional pain. And then, probably the feeling that ‘my husband might not want to have anything to do with me physically’ on top of that.
MR: I’ve never really had those— I would get dribs and drabs growing up. Certainly any time we were watching television, certainly anything fire related came on, she would generally leave the room. And she didn’t offer up a lot of information about it. But I’m sure it was… I’m quite certain it was very, very traumatic for her. You know, and she…I think her self-esteem was always at a low because of what she felt was a disfigurement.
PG: Right, and so along comes Mark, who is probably a highly sensitive kid. I imagine. Were you on the quiet side or were you outgoing?
MR: You know, I think it started out pretty outgoing. I mean the early home movies that I’ve seen I was always, you know, entertaining people and jumping around. I do remember very clearly where I actually started to use humor as a coping mechanism and that was at the dinner table. Because, the tension between the two of them on opposite sides of the table was always palpable and it was kind of my job, my responsibility in the family to make him laugh. And to uh...
PG: He was— Of the two of them, if somebody were to be in a bad mood more commonly, it would be him?
MR: They switched back and forth on anger. She was, you know, it was an angry household. His was more the seething and then every month an explosion. He would hold it in and hold it in and then something would happen and then, just, an irrational reaction.
PG: Like what? I mean would he, he would scream, he would hit? What would he do?
MR: There was certainly… He would make his point physically. There was certainly one incident in my life that I’ve paid people a lot of money to sit and listen to me talk about over and over again. That I’ve tried to make sense of. And she was just sort of a—
PG: Do you want to talk about it or do I gotta cough up some cash?
MR: Uh, yeah, throw a little money—
PG: Oh, you paid though, you pay for it actually! So I’m gonna let you do it for free! Or do you not wanna talk about it?
MR: No, it’s— There was a— We were moving. We actually moved from Tolona to Champaign/Urbana and so you know, everything is in boxes and everyone is tense and the kids are tense ‘cause you’re moving from friends that you’ve had since you were two. And, my brother, was older, he was probably 18 and I was an adolescent and he was not respectful of my privacy whenever I would be in the bathroom, not that anything was going on. This is a tricky story. Anyway, you know, my brother did something that upset me and I went in to talk to my father about it and was adamantly screaming to try to get him to listen. He wouldn’t even listen to my side of it, and then he just snapped. And it went from spanking to punching to pretty much just beating the crap out of your kid.
PG: And you were how old at this point?
MR: I would have been, probably 14.
PG: What do you remember going through your head when, when it was happening? What did, what did it feel like emotionally and physically?
MR: It happened on a Friday night. I mean physically it was like, ‘oh, I’m getting punched. I’m not getting smacked, I’m not getting spanked, I’m taking punches to the head.’
MR: and hearing my mother in the background saying ‘not in the face!’ was the only sounds I remember hearing. And then the next day, the Saturday for me, it was kinda like one of those things where the world had been reshaped. Where you find out that the way you saw things and the way you thought things were and the sort of safe haven that you had built up in your head did not exist anymore. And he, you know, he was— I couldn’t look at him or speak to him and he was, you know, had tried at a certain point to come up to me and apologize and he clearly knew that it was… what he had done was…how huge it was…
PG: Hmmm. So he did apologize? Or he tried to or he looked like he wanted to but he didn’t?
MR: He came up to me and— No, he did apologize and it was like— ‘Cause he was carrying it around all morning and I was, you know, I was just sitting in a chair…
PG: Were you feeling, what were you feeling? Rage? Did you want to get back at him? Or were you feeling just sadness at ‘there is no safety net and I’m on my own’?
MR: Just total betrayal.
MR: You know, completely… I felt, you know, old. I no longer felt like a kid.
PG: Did it feel like almost, you know that feeling like when you find out there is no Santa Claus?
MR: It’s kinda like that, but with—
PG: Times 100
MR: bruises. (laughter) You know, Santa Claus didn’t come up and beat the shit out of you. I have a cousin that would kinda pimp you out on that one.
PG: So yeah, you’re world, sounds like it really kinda changed when you were 14. So what kinda happened after that? ‘Cause I know you kinda started getting into drugs after high school, like most kids did in the 70’s or probably today. What was your outlet for that, what you were feeling? I know you’ve…One of the other talents you have is drawing. I’ve always been kind of blown away at the sketches and stuff that you, the doodles that you keep in your notebook. It obviously…It had to have started at an early age. What do you remember about that?
MR: Well, ironically the drawing was something that I got from my father. My father’s an incredibly talented guy. I mean, he’s like a really amazing painter and sketcher, taught himself to play the guitar. He’s— Uh, oddly enough I think I’m sort of living the life that he would love to live. But you know, I mean, I started doing plays and things when I was very young because my brother was… My brother was the golden child, you know, he was football hero, basketball hero, and every Friday night was just about my brother’s football games or basketball games. My sister and I were sort of just, you know, supporting characters in the household.
PG: Mmmhmm. ‘On Thursday I get to get punched! That’s my day! That’s my special day!’. (laughter) and you know, let’s— Your mom saying ‘not in the face!’. That to me is almost more painful than your dad hitting you. Here’s a person who isn’t caught in the fury, who isn’t caught in their own— I suppose she is caught in her own sickness, but she doesn’t have that adrenaline, you know, when we get that adrenaline going, we do stuff, we lash out, and sometimes it’s almost like something takes over for us and we’re out of control momentarily. So you can almost understand that. But the person sitting there that has the objective opinion that says ‘not in the face!’. That to me… I don’t know why that makes me more sad than your dad hitting you.
MR: Well, you know, it’s kinda like— You know, I have a— It reminds me very much of like working— Being a part of sometimes a dysfunctional situations where there’s a volatile personality involved. A lot of times when you see the volatile personality go after someone else, there’s almost, there’s almost a…Not a delight, but almost a… To be able to look at it and go ‘well, at least it’s not me’.
PG: Getting picked on or picking on?
MR: Yeah, at least it’s not me that’s getting the shit thrown at them.
PG: Right. Did your dad pick on your mom?
MR: I don’t think there was ever any sort of physical— And I have to tell you, that’s the only time my father was ever really physical with me. I mean he’d get— My mom was the spanker, my mom was the, you know, the one who would, you know, crack me across the mouth. I mean, she was always— And with her I actually got to a point where I would say something that I knew was gonna piss her off just so she could crack me in the mouth.
MR: It was attention. It was also a way of, I think it like controlling the situation. It was like ‘I know exactly what you’re going to do right now and I’m gonna make it happen.
PG: Yeah, I suppose it’s the only lever you had!
MR: It was kinda like, you were, it was like, ‘ok, I’m going to participate in this but I’m gonna have an odd bit of control over it’.
PG: Wow, yeah, I suppose that’s maybe why women are anorexic or bulimic. I’ve heard that they get a feeling of control by controlling their food. That’s one of the things that is, uh…
MR: I guess so, yeah. It gives you some, it gives you some sort of feeling of power and a power over the situation. That was the only time, with my father, that was the only time he ever really went completely ballistic. I mean I would get the occasional, you know, if I did something really bad you’d get the belt. But this was just a guy that was, you know, under a lot of pressure, um… You know, the house we lived in at the time—
PG: A lot of pressure in terms of, just having to support a family? Was he bouncing from job to job?
MR: No, he was always consistent with his work, but it was, you know, I think they… They owned the house in Tolono. I think they, you know…. I remember very clearly it was like, you know we… They were in a pretty good place financially, he was making pretty good money, they owned the house and they decided to go buy a bigger house and kinda put themselves in debt and chased the American dream for the bigger, you know the duplex and you know…
PG: Well fortunately those eras are over.
MR: Yeah, Americans don’t behave that way anymore, they live within their means, and… I’m not sure if that pressure came from him or her, or what the deal was, you know? And part of it too was it felt like they— I do think that they both really wanted to get out of that small town. Because it was, um… You know, and you add the fact, we… you know they, they threw in the going to the Baptist church as part of the potpourri of dysfunction which made it even more sick. You know, I said there was all kind of pressure and tension from a small southern Baptist church, you know that community is just ridiculous…
PG: In what way? Just in terms of its intolerance for viewpoints that differ from their own?
MR: Well it’s, you know it’s… It’s hateful behavior and racism and sexism and every kind of horrible form of behavior under the guise of Jesus, you know, and it added— It’s just such a constrictive environment, you know. But it just added another, you know, multitude of eyeballs on you and your life, you know? I mean, it was such a small town, you couldn’t go to the grocery store without— You know, there was no anonymity, there was no… Everybody knew what was going on, everybody knew who had a drinking problem, and everybody knew everything, you know?
PG: One of the first plays that you did kind of drew on your experience in an autobiographical way and you went back and you staged it at your hometown.
MR: I did the.. I did four of these…Or five of them I went back and did. During my hiatus on Two and a Half Men I went back and did them in this little theater that I started in when I was like 14 and I would do these really personal autobiographical plays. And the first one was called Welcome to Tolono and it was really just a hand grenade to the Baptist church. Funny. It was a funny hand grenade. It was about, you know, a story about these people trying to start an AA meeting in the basement of a Baptist church and all the hypocrisy that went along with that. And it was funny, I ended up making that into a movie and going back there, to Tolono, to film it. And the Baptist church, at that point I had become, you know, one of the most hated people in town, so they were sending out emails the whole time about protesting, ‘don’t support it, don’t sell him any groceries, don’t…’
MR: Yeah, it was pretty weird. I was living in the town. I had rented an apartment above a florist. So I’d get up every morning and walk to the grocery store and half the people were talking to me and half the people weren’t.
PG: Yeah, cause I remember it sold out. I remember you telling me, so it sounds like people—There weren’t many people on the fence about it. They were either behind it or really against it.
MR: Well, the play, yeah, the play ran forever. I mean, and it also took that little theater— I mean they had been in the red, I think for 30 years, and all of a sudden they had like 60 grand in the bank!
MR: Yeah! It was crazy! I mean, they had to change their status with the state of Illinois. It was— But, yeah, it ran forever. We extended it and extended it and the town really embraced it. And I think for a lot of reasons. It wasn’t a, it certainly wasn’t a hateful diatribe against religion or anything. It just sort of subtly made its point which was, you know, if we’re not there for the weakest amongst us, and we turn them away, how can we look at ourselves and how can we say we are doing the work of Christ?
PG: Right. Which is a pretty— If you think about it, not a radical idea. Artistically, it’s a pretty— How somebody could repel against that? If you’re really a Christian, you should embrace that idea.
MR: Yeah, that was the thought. You know, I mean… There was dialogue that essentially said, you know, ‘Jesus is not inside these four walls’ and the idea behind it, which I firmly believe, once you build a building and put human beings in it and start making an organization out of it, it no longer— It’s immediately going to be corrupted.
PG: Yeah, and I would agree. I think a hierarchy is the death of any spiritual endeavor or at least it’s gonna be littered with pitfalls. If there’s any kind of establishment of ‘I know more than you, I’m more important than you’ because spirituality to me is about ‘we’re all the same, we’re all connected, let’s help each other’.
MR: I’m even more radical. I say Christ goes away as soon as there’s a building put up.
MR: I think it’s— I think that any— And I consider myself a somewhat spiritual person, not a religious person, but I think that any time you organize it and do it with more than one person, you’re relationship with God is immediately corrupted.
PG: Do you believe in God?
MR: Probably not.
PG: You believe in Crystal Light?
MR: I believe in… Well, that’s the speech that Kevin Costner had. Boy if I knew that from Bull Durham I’d be so cool right now. You know, I mean I was… I was brought up, I had to go to church three times a week and I mean, I ran away from that as quick as I could and tried to do everything I knew would piss them off.
PG: I think most people who have a bad experience with organized religion… And mine was not, certainly not as bad or as intense as yours, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Because there was a lot of racism in the Parrish that I grew up in and I’d see those same people on Sunday, you know, all dressed up and smiling, you know and—
MR: It’s a club, it’s a weird club more than anything else. You know, I think— Do I believe in God? I think it’s the same question to me as ‘Do I believe in Bigfoot?’ I don’t know. You know, I sat— You probably know this guy, I won’t mention his name, but I remember going to a Christmas dinner one time and this guy that I had known for a while, he was a stand-up comic, started talking about Bigfoot. And really believes in him. He’s one of those guys that goes to the woods where he’s been spotted and he’s got time lapse cameras mounted on trees and he started talking about it really passionately and all I was thinking the whole time was ‘yeah, sure, why not?’ You know? I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s better to just go, ‘maybe, if you do, you clearly feel strongly about it’.
PG: I’ve found that my life is much more interesting if I’m open to things instead of just shutting it out and saying that that couldn’t possibly be true. Because very often there’s very little to risk in being open minded and saying ‘maybe that is possible, maybe there is bigfoot’.
MR: The only risk is vulnerability.
PG: Yes! And let’s talk about that a little bit because that’s something I’m new to, vulnerability. And, I think a lot of comics are afraid of vulnerability. I think in many ways our vulnerability is our reaction to not feeling safe.
MR: It’s pushing away vulnerability.
MR: That’s one of those things that I, that I recognized in myself in doing stand-up and probably the reason I eventually got out of it. Because I remember thinking— You know, I’m such a competitive guy, there was so many things about stand-up that just spoke to the worst parts of my personality. And I also started to feel like ‘I’m looking at the world from such a detached place, I’m not really a part of it and I’m not allowing myself to feel the feelings.’ You know, not everything is funny. And I also think the real comedy, the comedy that touches me, comes out of tragedy. Because comedy in my life has always been something to use to alleviate a lot of pain. And I think that’s probably how it was originally invented. So… But I did feel like as a stand-up, one, it became a constrictive way to write. You have to write in that first person format which I had a lot of things that I wanted to say and I wanted to do but I simply could not do by presenting it as from me to a room full of people. But more than anything else I really started to feel like ‘man, I’m really not letting myself feel things’ cause I’m immediately…something happens and I’m immediately looking for the joke.
PG: A way to be sarcastic about it, or put it down. Especially comedy in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it all had that observational ‘I’m better than everything, I’m cutting everything down’ snarky kind of sarcastic— And sarcasm is the easiest thing to do in the world artistically because you don’t risk anything. You don’t give, you don’t have to reveal any part of yourself and that’s one of the reasons why I think comedy got so bad and so uninteresting, was nobody was taking chances, emotional chances in their comedy. I saw a couple of people that had glimpses of it, Louis Anderson showed a little bit of vulnerability in some of his stand up. Bill Hicks took chances in terms of being vulnerable about whether or not he was popular. In terms of just, ‘I’m gonna do what I want’. You don’t see people talking… Richard Pryor is the best example of somebody who used his vulnerability— There was a poetry to his comedy because you could— His soul came through his comedy. He shared his pain and he never tried to cop an attitude that ‘I’m better than anything else’ it’s more like his attitude to me was ‘here’s how I’m hurting, does this make sense to you?’ and to me that’s missing from a lot of art today, be it movies or stand-up or whatever. Because…I don’t know why! Why do you think that is?
MR: Well, cause I think that, you know, it’s easier to sort of sneer at that. You know, one of the things I wanted when I started developing Mike and Molly was I wanted to do something that had some heart to it. Because I felt like everybody on TV.— I was just watching a room full of people being hateful to each other. One of the things— You and I have talked about this before, but one of the hardest things I have to— Being a stand-up, one of the hardest things for me was hanging around other stand-ups. Cause it was like— You know, I don’t really— except for you and Carla, I haven’t maintained any of those other relationships. And a lot of that or me is that I get in a room with those guys and it was just one-up-manship. It was just ‘lets just see who can say the’—
PG: Darkest, most negative thing.
MR: And it was like ‘ok dude, I get it, I get it.’ Now open up and tell me something real.
PG: What are you afraid of? Those are the conversations that interest me now. Is, ‘What are you afraid of, what scares you?’. It’s ‘what are you in pain about, what’s making you anxious?’.
MR: That’s the total BS of show business. Everybody is a broken toy and everybody’s trying to pretend like they’re not sitting at the nerd table. You know, just because there’s money involved, you know? You throw—
PG: and there’s a desperation underneath it. I don’t care what level you’re at, there is a desperation and a darting of the eyes to see what everybody else is doing to make sure that you’re not being left behind and no matter what you’re doing… Maybe I should just speak for myself! No matter what I’m doing, if I’m not centered and if I’m not really paying attention to the rest of my life outside show business, I fall into that trap of feeling that the world is three steps ahead of me and I’m fucked.
MR: I know! It’s crazy! Like, I can remember being at a really good spot in my career and still adding lies to it to make it sound more important than it was!
PG: Yes! How sick is that?
MR: I know! It’s nuts!
PG: Let’s talk about— You’re in a position now, you created the show Mike and Molly, it’s a hit on TV. and you are in a position that most people dream about. And one of the things that I always say on this podcast is ‘It’s good to have dreams, but when you get into a fantasy that’s one dimensional, you can get into a really kinda fucked area, because if that dream comes true, you’re presented with the other two dimensions of that dream that you hadn’t anticipated.’ And what are some things about your job that you are finding that you don’t like, that you didn’t imagine when you thought about being in show business and having your own sitcom?
MR: Well, you know, I came into this with my eyes pretty wide open. I mean I remember when I was working as an actor, I used to think ‘boy, if I get on a TV. show, my life is just gonna be great. All the problems are gonna be solved. None of the past matters, I won’t be that sad, little, booger-eating, fat kid from Tolona anymore. I’m gonna be a TV. star.’ I remember coming home to that apartment complex we used to live at in North Hollywood, and I was on a TV. show, and I would lay down on my couch and I was still fucking alone and I was still fucking miserable and none of it mattered. And I remember that night how hard that landed on me and tried at that moment to start expanding my life as opposed to just trying to climb. And…
PG: Talk about that, if you would. Specifically, how did you go about expanding your life?
MR: Well, trying to do art that mattered to me. Trying to take the money that I was making doing commercial television and doing it, and putting it into something that was actually me putting something out into the world that felt important to me.
PG: Yeah. So you started doing your one man shows.
MR: One man shows and—
PG: And you and I did a sketch thing together with John Riggi and David Wendelman that was one of the more fun ventures I’ve ever been a part of. I didn’t do really any of the writing of it but I got to benefit from you and John. People may know John Riggi as one of the writers of 30 Rock. It was this sketch show and it was— I knew you guys were great writers at the time but I don’t think I really understood the scope of how cool it was to be in sketch show being written by these two great guys. We had so much fucking fun doing that show together.
MR: It was a blast.
PG: We would rehearse together and we’d go to Sizzler and we’d all get horrible gas and you’d clear the room out with your horrible gas. And, but what I remember about that, and I really cherish moments like this in my career, is when I look around and say ‘this is why I got into show business because this is fucking fun. I’m doing things that make me laugh and I’m with people that are taking chances and are doing things that make them laugh. We’re not doing’— We didn’t do that show to try to get a TV. show, or maybe you did but I felt like we did that show because we thought ‘this is funny to us’. And people loved that show. We took it to the Aspen Comedy Festival and it actually got a manager out of that. I’m sorry I went off on that little tangent. But that to me is proof that when you expand, when you make the attempt to expand your life, when you try to follow your passion, so much good comes from it. And not only to you, but to other people. If you hadn’t made that decision to expand your life, my life would have been different! Would have been better, so fuck you! (laughter)
MR: Oh yeah, always gotta go for the easy laugh, don’t you.
PG: So, you started doing things that meant more to you. You did the sketch show, you did one man plays. When did you realize that you wanted to write plays that mined that kinda ‘Childhood in Tolona’ stuff?
MR: Well, I went— A couple of things. There was a key moment, where I had gone back to my dad’s retirement party years ago and there were a lot of people from our Baptist church that were there. People that I hadn’t seen for years and years, and I had just got done doing The Tonight Show and I had done a couple of jokes— I think it was maybe my next to last Tonight Show. I had done a couple of jokes that were—
PG: Was this The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Jay Leno?
MR: Jay Leno. And it was— A couple of the jokes were religious based. One of them was— There was a character in the bible by the name of Onan. Now, for those of you who—
PG: I remember this joke!
MR: Onan was the inventor of masturbation. Can you imagine the royalty checks that guy must get? And I was—
PG: And then you had a tag, ‘I think I personally’—
MR: I think I put one of his kids through college. You know, it’s like, of course. And they— So I had just been on the show like a couple of nights before and so I’m in Illinois in this little, you know, rec room at a church where they’re throwing my dad a retirement party and I went down and sat down with this group of people that I knew as a kid. And they immediately started laying into me. There was no grace about it, there was no humor about it. It was ‘How dare you! How dare you do this, how dare you do that?’ and somebody even piped in with the stereotypical, stupid statement of ‘Mr. Red Skelton never had to work—‘
PG: Oh no!
MR: Yeah, somebody actually—
MR: Anytime you get a little blue they gotta bring Red Skelton into the fucking picture.
PG: I wish pictures of him fucking a baby would surface.
MR: With clown makeup on!
MR: You don’t think he was insane? I mean, just go to one of his art showings sometime, it’s the same face. Anyway, it’s— And I remember at the time, I even said to them, I mean I was a little taken aback, and I said to them ‘I gotta say, I flew 2,000 miles to be here for my dad and you guys laying this on me doesn’t seem very Christian to me’ and I got up and walked away. And I was very upset by it, one, cause it was like ‘what are you doing? C’mon, why are you doing this?’. It was an event there for my father and they had to make a thing out of it. And you know they’re all—
PG: And then your play, the grenade at the Baptist church happened after that, right?
PG: Yeah. Do you think that moment—?
MR: That’s the reason I wrote that play. I went home and started taking notes. Essentially I just got a journal and just started writing down these diatribes and then I started writing this play. And I sat on it for a really long time because I wasn’t anywhere near like, ‘oh, I’m going to be a playwright now’.
PG: ‘But I have this thing inside me that needs to come out’. In fact, in one of the playbills for your last play you talked about giving birth to a play or— It was almost like a Bukowski thing where this beer shit slid out of me.
MR. It was ‘I gave birth to this gnarling, snapping turtle’. Yeah, that was Rantoul and Die and I wrote that— I was— Theresa and I had been married for eight months and decided, you know, to throw a hand grenade into the best thing that had ever happened to me. And I wrote that mid-life crisis play along with it. And it was literally like the lifeline that kept me from just going into darkest, deepest despair.
PG: Have you ever been suicidal?
MR: Well, you know, when I was a kid, very early on— Because I had absolutely no idea— My early twenties were rough, they were really, really dark. And I had bouts of depression and certainly entertained those thoughts and…
PG: How many times in your life do you think you’ve thought about suicide?
MR: 6,342. Most of my twenties I was pretty— I felt kinda trapped. I was trying to get out of a small town and work in a field that didn’t even exist there. So there wasn’t— And there wasn’t a lot of support. I mean, my parents thought I was insane. They kinda disowned me for years ‘cause I had this path that just seemed ridiculous to them. And it wasn’t until I started making money and being on television that they—
PG: Put their stamp of approval on it.
MR: Yeah, which makes that relationship tentative at best, because you know, it’s, it’s…
PG: You wish they would have been there before the money was rolling in.
MR: Like when parents are supposed to be there. Like when normal people support their children, when they’re struggling. Not when they’ve taken some unnecessary bullets in the world because they had to go at it by themselves. But at the same time I don’t— My brother and sister are both sort of… you know, they’re hobbled human beings, they’re not self-sufficient and—
PG: Your sister has struggled with addiction, correct?
MR: Yeah, my sister has had a lot of drug problems and my brother is just sort of… My brother went from being like this golden child football hero to— He hit his early twenties— which is I guess when we all hit it— And I was able to get out of it, I mean that’s the thing about stand-up comedy, I mean it was literally a lifeline. It was a way of saying things that were on my mind and people were paying me to do it.
PG: Yeah, that’s what I’ve found. Because I was incredibly hostile. I had a lot of hostility in me, I should say. But I was a fairly polite person but comedy was a way for me to let that hostility out in a way that was socially acceptable. Because I could say things that were really dark and really angry, but you’re allowed to do that in a comedy club. I remember… I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, but since we’re talking about how art can sometimes save us. When my dad had tried to kill himself, I think it was in ’92, I remember the next morning after I had found out, because he’d done it out of town. I always ask my relatives, ‘you’re gonna do it, please do it out of town’. And I remember going to get my hair cut the next day and waiting for the barber to finish with the guy in front of me and I had paper with me and I wrote.. It was right around Christmas time, and I wrote a Christmas poem. And it’s basically… and you can find it on YouTube and it’s basically saying ‘Oh yeah, Christmas is fun and twinkly lights? (raspberry noise), here’s what I think about it’ and I remember consciously thinking ‘this is how you are dealing with the fact that your father just tried to kill himself.’ But it worked! Because I remember walking back, because I had almost finished the poem in literally 20 minutes, it had just flowed out of me, and I remember walking back and thinking ‘there’s always a bright side to everything, if we have a way of mining it’. Obviously, do I wish my dad hadn’t tried to kill himself? Yes, but at least I got a bit out of it! I mean that sounds awful but—
MR: Well, it’s not even so much as a bit as you figured out a way to cope with it and a way to sort of separate yourself from it and that’s healthy! You know, I mean as much as I feel like humor, a lot of times people use it to block out those things, in other ways it shines a light on it and puts it out into the world so it’s not as scary and not as dark. And if there’s an added bonus of someone else laughing at it or being affected by it, that is a good thing.
PG: In fact, you know what maybe I’ll do at the end of this episode maybe I’ll put the Christmas poem on there for people to hear. So let’s fast forward now to Mike and Molly because I know there are people that are going to want to know the ins and outs of that. How did the idea for Mike and Molly come to you?
MR: I was working on a couple of different things—
PG: And you struggled with your weight, which is no— There’s no secret, you’ve probably even talked about it on stage haven’t you?
MR: Yeah, I mean I’ve struggled with my weight since I was a kid. I remember, in fact, I told my wife the other night, I can actually remember the time I first realized I have a problem with food. It was in Cub Scouts and you know how you always bring a— Somebody— You would always take turn bringing treats for the Cub Scout meetings, cookies or whatever. I can remember we had out treats and everybody else was in the other room moving on to an activity, I’m still honking down some Ding Dongs, by myself, hiding. And I can remember—
PG: Already shame and secrecy attached to it.
MR: Shame! Shame eating in a Cub Scout uniform.
PG: (laughing) That probably is a sexual turn-on to some guy in Germany.
MR: (laughing) Den mother walks in: ‘I’m working on my titty badge!’
PG: So you had this past that you drew on to create Mike and Molly which I would imagine, having written the plays and finding that if you mined this material, that it can be really— You can get a lot out of it. So was that kind of in your mind, creating Mike and Molly? Thinking ‘I know this situation, I’ll be able to find a three dimensionality to it that will give it some—‘
MR: Well I hadn’t really thought about it. I really just wanted to do something that brought real people back on TV. And I always did feel that comedy can’t exist without tragedy and struggle. And so I didn’t know, that was sort of like something that came in later in the game. I had been working on a relationship comedy, I was interested in doing something where— To see relationship starting from the very beginning. And I had written something that was this long, crazy thing that was just two cops sitting in a car who had this sort of husband and wife relationship. And I kept going into, you know— I had this deal with Warner Brothers and Chuck had attached himself as a producer and was godfathering it with me, so I would go in and run these ideas by him and he would just go ‘yeah, run with that for a little while’. And so I don’t know that it was the weight issues that— I mean it was something that I could immediately relate to and immediately, you know, I didn’t feel like I was writing for a character I didn’t understand.
PG: Right. I think that’s one of the things that makes the show successful, is there’s an authenticity to their struggle with their weight that can’t help but come through when the person writing it has lived it.
MR: And continue to. You know, I still struggle with my weight all the time.
PG: Let’s talk about that a little bit.
MR: I’m tubby! (laughter)
PG: What are the— Describe a common successful day with your weight issue and then describe a common unsuccessful day with your weight issue.
MR: You know, I don’t really— It’s not even an issue for me anymore. I pretty much, you know, I know not to overdo it anymore, I know—
PG: When was the last time you overdid it and what did you do?
MR: I don’t, you know, I don’t do it like that. I mean, when I was a kid, I’d eat and entire loaf of bread with bologna. It was the only thing in my life that I had control over. And I had, no control but control. I could control what I put in my mouth which never stopped. When I hit a certain age I had started losing weight and you know, it’s just kinda like my whole life has been a series of ‘ok, now I’m going to deal with that. Where has my addictive personality put that now? Ok I’ll deal with that’. It’s been everything, it’s been food, drugs, sex, cigarettes—
PG: The whack-a-mole.
MR: The whack-a-mole, everything. The older I get the more I feel like I’m able to go ‘no, I’m not going to go let that get out of control’.
PG: Tell the story about your first date with your wife. Wasn’t that your first date? It was a New Year’s Eve? Was it early on in your relationship?
MR: Which one?
PG: Where you had too much sugar, and then you went back—
MR: No, that was where I had New Year’s Eve with you! We came over here, Theresa and I came over and had New Year’s Eve with you and Carla and you had that—
PG: Oh, that’s right!
MR: you had that cake that was covered in, it was like caramel, it was like—
PG: Yes, It was crack. It was crack.
MR: cake, cake soaked in caramel—
PG: Yeah, and you ate too much. And one of the things that you do when you have too much sugar, is you’re the funnest fuckin’ guy in the world to be around when you’re on the way up on that rocket ship—
MR: For 18 minutes—
PG: for 18 minutes and then get the fuck out before he starts coming down, cause you just—
MR: I bottom out, I bottom out and it gets dark.
PG: It gets dark
MR: No, so the car ride home was kind of ok. We had a lot of laughs here—
PG: And how long had you been going out with her at that point?
MR: It was our first New Year’s Eve together.
PG: Ok so it was early on in the relationship.
MR: It was really early on. So we go back to my house and I bottomed out. I put on, and I’m not exaggerating, I put a Charles Bukowski CD on of him just giving a poetry reading drunk and it was— And she’s like standing in the kitchen looking at me and I’m like sitting on the couch snarling ‘nothin' matters, another shitty year!’. And she still talks about it, she’s still like ‘I can’t believe you did that to me’. I’m like ‘sugar, baby’. People who know me well enough, know— Like you and Carla used to give me Cadbury eggs, just to watch.
PG: Just to watch.
MR: Yeah, it was like a big, fat bear that would make you giggle and then scare ya! (laughter)
PG: Oh my God. You know what I would like you to do is, describe parts of your job that somebody out there dreaming ‘if I could create a sitcom, my life would be perfect, I wouldn’t have any problems’. What are some things that they aren’t picturing?
MR: Well, if you’re a writer, and writers— What you’re not picturing is the personality of a writer is usually sullen and anti-social.
PG: And negative.
MR: And fairly negative. And to function in the world of a sitcom you have to have a social aspect to your personality. You have to deal with people and develop—
PG: Because the show is not written by one or two people. It’s written, a lot of times, in a room of people and those people are together eight to—
MR: Ten months out of the year we sit in room and—
PG: Eight hour, minimum 8 hour days.
MR: Right, not to mention the fact that you have to deal with the network, you have to deal with the studio, you have to deal with the actors, you have to deal with everybody.
PG: And you’re also dealing with people’s creativity which is really intimate, it’s almost like it’s your cock sometime when you, when you show a joke to somebody, it’s your baby, it’s a part of you—
MR: Your cock is your baby? (laughing)
PG: That’s right. I put one of those little hats on it and I pull it out. (laughing)
MR: (laughing) One of those little hats!
PG: And I give it a little pacifier. You know the hat I’m thinking of? When you look in the carriage?
MR: A bonnet!
PG: A bonnet! That’s the word I’m looking for!
MR: Well, part of it is you hope that you surround yourself with people that you trust and are good. And the first year is always the hardest. I’m learning— I’d never done it before so I was learning a new job. So I made a lot of mistakes and—
PG: Like what?
MR: You know, a writer has a tendency to hold on, think his way is the only way and you can’t do 24 episodes of television by thinking your way is the only way. You have to open yourself up to the ideas and thoughts of others and for me going in for the second season, that to me is my big mantra, is ‘Let go, let go of as much as you can’. And let other people start to carry buckets of water because you can’t do it on your own. Nor do I want to, because I want to have some quality of life too. But it’s a lot of—
PG: Was the quality of your life being degraded by— In what ways was it affecting your life in a negative way?
MR: First year of a show is just so much, you know. One, I had just come off of Two and a Half Men. I literally went from the last season I worked on that to the pilot of Mike and Molly and then immediately started working. I had no break for two years. So I was really tired and I was also learning a new job, hiring a complete crew, staff, and trying to get something that hadn’t existed up and running. And trying to do it halfway decently. So, you just make a lot of mistakes. You’re tired, you snap at people, you say stupid things. Humility and bravado really are— It’s like you have to be confident enough to go ‘that’s the way we’re going’ because at the end of the day in that room full of people, you listen to all the ideas and then you’re the one they’re looking at to go ‘which way are we going?’ and you gotta go ‘that’s the way we’re going’. And be willing to go ‘nah, that didn’t work, I was wrong’. So it’s, you know, you have to let go of a lot of those fears, and fear is a killer of anything creative and I’ve seen it— Other people have tried to use it as a tool and you really can’t. And I battle with that myself but it’s— You have to have enough confidence—
PG: Fear by instilling fear in other people, or fear in yourself that you’re not going to be good enough?
MR: Well, I think it all starts out with fear in yourself that you’re not going to be good enough but it’s too heavy to carry around so you gotta put it off on somebody else’s shoulders.
PG: Right. Do you ever catch yourself trying to put that off on somebody else’s shoulders?
MR: I try to. It’s hard and Hollywood is a fear based world. Because half of the people working in television, their jobs are completely unnecessary. And usually don’t do anything but dilute—
PG: Pretend they know what they’re talking about.
MR: Pretend they know what they’re talking about and dilute or ruin the product. It’s a ridiculous system. I mean the system itself is ridiculous and you know, to try to negotiate those waters and at least look at yourself in the mirror and go ‘yeah, I feel ok with that. I’m not breaking new ground but I feel like I’m making something that I can watch and not throw up’. It’s hard, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. I just always wanted to be a writer and when I was head writer on Two and a Half Men it was somebody else’s show, it was somebody else’s vision. I’d paint a wall, they didn’t like it, I’d repaint it!
PG: Well, I know people watching this are probably going to say ‘Why aren’t you asking him about Charlie Sheen!’ I’m assuming—
MR: Wait a minute, are people watching this?
PG: Did I say watching this?
MR: Yeah (laughing)
PG: (laughing) People listening to this are probably thinking—
MR: ‘Cause I better put my pants back on! (laughter) And you better stop cupping my balls! (laughter)
PG: I remember you saying that— What do you have to say about— Do you have anything to say about what it was like working with Charlie or anything about what’s happening with that?
MR: Nah, I really don’t. It’s not my world anymore.
PG: Ok, I just wanted to get that out—
MR: I’ll give you the show business answer. He was always very nice to me. And that’s the absolute truth too.
PG: Ok, good. And so anything else about being the show runner that people might not imagine when they have this kinda pie in the sky thing about how show business doesn’t have any kind of negative side to it.
MR: You know, it’s just a lot of hard work. You know, I spoke— I did this talk a couple of nights ago at Cal State Long Beach for their film and theater and playwriting class—
PG: That must have been fun.
MR: It was really a good time. I’ve done it a couple of times and it’s a lot of fun. And I, you know the thing I said to them is if you’re entering this business because you want to be rich or you want to be famous, do something else. If you’re not walking into it because you genuinely want to tell stories or you have something you want to say… I just try to maintain that I want to continue to be a better writer and try to do work that I can be proud of and not concern myself with all the bells and whistles. Provide for my family, take care of my wife, and try to be a good person. Prioritize that and be thankful for the fact that I have a good job that I helped to create for myself. And if you can focus on that and really embrace your real life at the end of the day. A lot of these guys that you see that are just miserable and acting out and stuff, it’s because they don’t have a strong foundation of what’s important, which is, you know—
PG: People that you love. And—
MR: People that you love.
PG: And something outside your work that brings you—
MR: Your work needs to facilitate your real life. Not the other way around you know? And it took a long time to learn that. You remember the days of stand-up in Chicago, we were a competitive bunch of mother-fuckers. You know, everybody was just ‘who’s doing what? Who’s got what going on?’—
PG: But it was even less competitive than it is when you move out to LA. Because then somebody in the industry might be in the audience and it becomes even more cutthroat. I actually found there to be quite a bit of comradery in Chicago compared to out here.
MR: There was a community spirit there. I mean everybody, it seemed like everybody to a certain way was rooting for each other. Where it started to get ugly is where they started having comedy contests and—
PG: I always hated those.
MR: you know, all that stuff. Cause that’s what we needed, is to add a level of competition to it. Remember moving out here and— I was thinking about this the other day, sitting in my apartment and like really worried about what Bud Freedman thought about me. ‘Does Bud like me? I hope Bud likes me’ and if somebody would tell ya ‘yeah, Bud really likes you’, ‘really?’ Like that would get you through the day. (laughing) Fuck Bud!
PG: I have a Bud Freedman story that I think sums up what show business is in a nutshell. I had just moved here, I’d been here about a year and a half— And Bud Freedman is, an owner or one of the owners of The Improvisation which is a comedy club in the center of Hollywood where a lot of people used to get discovered. I don’t know if it’s as important of a comedy club anymore, but, Bud was the guy that would decide whether or not you got stage time or be on his show Evening at the Improv which used to be one of the cable comedy shows. And so, comics wanted Bud to like you were saying, Bud to like them and to notice them. And I came off stage one night— I had gotten a set at The Improv which was a big deal because all these comedians move out to LA and there’s only so much stage time at The Improv and The Comedy Store so you’re all fighting to try to get good spots, hope that somebody that has a show is watching you in the audience. And I had a good show, which was rare, and I get off stage and Bud came up on stage and said, apparently he had asked somebody what my name was, because he said “Ladies and gentlemen, that was Paul Gilmartin, look for him coming up on Evening at the Improv”. And that was his way of saying that ‘I like this guy, I’m giving him my seal of approval, you’re gonna do my TV. show’. And the next night I came by and I’m walking to go into the showroom and he stops me and says “excuse me, do you have a ticket?”.
MR: Oh man…
PG: That to me—
MR: That’s show business.
PG: Show business. And if I— I was just getting to the point where I could find that funny, you know? Getting to that point in my career where I’d had enough people blowing smoke up my ass and then being let down by it that I could begin to distance myself and not believe everything that somebody said. But that quick up and that quick down, if you let that define how you feel about yourself, you are going to jump off the Hollywood sign at some point. I believe.
MR: You gotta go through it to learn it though.
PG: You do.
MR: And you really do. That’s the thing, you can’t tell somebody else that. But you learn it pretty quickly if you’re smart, you know. It’s— Yeah, there were a lot of those, sitting in that little one bedroom apartment ‘can I get onstage tonight?’, just waiting for somebody else to validate you.
PG: Well, dude I’m so glad you could come in and do this. I know your schedule’s super busy and good luck on the next season of Mike and Molly. It should be exciting, you know Melissa’s getting a lot of notoriety from Bridesmaids. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard she’s really funny.
MR: Yeah, I haven’t seen it either. We’ve been away, out of the country. So I need to go see it, I’ve heard great things. But she’s hilarious.
PG: Yeah, she’s super talented and so is Billy and everybody over there, so. Good luck with everything and thank you for doing this and opening up and being honest about all that stuff.
PG: (closing epilogue) I was going to put the Christmas poem here at the end of this show but I feel like the show’s long enough and it just kinda feels self-indulgent, so at some point I’ll put the poem up on the website and you can go and get it there and I want to thank you guys for listening and remember if you’re out there and you’re stuck, there is hope. You’re not alone! (closing music plays)