Of course I’ve cried around Baron Vaughn, technically. When he’s in DC this weekend for The Bentzen Ball I plan on crying again. This time it will be, in theory, from laughing too hard but I wouldn’t put it past me to cry for any number of reasons. I’m a bit of a cryer, but Baron is a bit of an easy person to cry to. And by that I mean he’s got a good heart which always makes for great comedy. Grab your tickets to his show this Friday at the Kennedy Center. Grab some tissues too. You never know.
Brightest Young Things: You’re coming to our comedy festival this week which you of course are aware of because you’re an adult, and I’m very excited. I don’t know if this is a weird way to start, and feel free to say so, but your episode of The Mental Illness Happy Hour was one of the first episodes I ever listened to and it was deeply moving. I realize you’re a comic but my introduction to you was something really beautiful that made me cry. I cry a lot. I just want to say thank you. I get to interview a lot of comics and a great deal of them have been on that podcast and I think it’s really important. I’m always really excited to tell someone I listened to them.
Baron Vaughn: That’s amazing and thank you for the compliment. I was surprised by my own appearance on that podcast. It happened at a really good time in my life. I was processing a lot of different things and kind of looking over a lot of things and rethinking my childhood. It’s hard to do because you always…do you know Harold Pinter?
BYT: No, but I’m also terrible with names, great with faces.
BV: He’s dead so he’s the man without a face. He’s a British playwright and is one of my favorite writers. Harold was very obsessed with when memory becomes mythology, that at some point you change your memory to fit who you believe you are.
BYT: Oh, to fit your narrative?
BV: Yes, exactly, to fit your narrative. You’re the hero of your own story. So it’s interesting for historical revisionism to happen. I had let go of my own story from my own childhood and whatever anger I had and I began to see it from a very different place. It’s really easy to be like “This thing happened to me! Look what they did to me or are doing to me.” These are such powerful ideas and it’s so easy to hold onto them forever. When I let go of those ideas it was easier to see my childhood from my own point of view and from my mom’s point of view. I was at the beginning of that stage when I did that podcast.
BYT: I call that the “They Did Their Best Moment,” which is really hard to wrap your mind around.
BV: Oh yeah because what is their best? According to who? TV shows? Movies?
BYT: It doesn’t feel like the best.
BV: That’s the thing, if someone is doing their best and they’re still hurting you then what have they been through?
BYT: It’s that old saying “Hurt people, hurt people.” Boy let me tell you something, you’re a comic and THIS is comedy!
BV: It all comes from this.
BYT: I’m trying to find a solid way to dig my way out of this psychological bunker but I always like to promote that podcast because I think it’s immensely helpful for anyone, for everyone.
BV: For anyone who has feelings, anyone who’s alive.
BYT: For any non-robots out there…that’s a nice segue because I can dip right into this Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot. Where are you on that? I got so pumped because I used to watch that show when I was a wee babe.
BV: We are basically done with production.
BYT: I didn’t realize you were nearly done. I hadn’t heard much since the big announcement.
BV: Netflix is very protective with their information and we have NO idea when it’s coming out or how they’re going to release it. We are basically finished with production.
BYT: If it’s anything like the original…because I’m not sure how faithful this reboot is going to be.
BV: What are the official rules on a reboot vs a remake?
BYT: I think a reboot is when you keep the same characters but it’s not the same story and a remake is basically sticking with the original, with some minor changes. So Vince Vaughn’s Psycho is a remake, shot-for-shot in fact, but the Colin Farrell Total Recall film is a reboot…and I hated it. Though I did like his Fright Night reboot. It’s pretty clear how old I am with these references. Oh, that’s another thing…I was happy to discover how old you are because I chat with a lot of folks in their 20’s and there’s nothing wrong with that but we’re both in our mid-30’s and can discuss how our bodies are falling apart.
BV: I just got diagnosed with tendonitis which is such an insulting diagnosis. Just point to my shoulder and say “old.”
BYT: I have bad knees. That’s the oldest old person thing you can have.
BV: All those things they said as a kid like “Don’t slouch,” is true. Now I have tendonitis.
BYT: Listen, you’re doing great. We’re doing great. Back to MST3K, is there a movie you can think of that would be worthy of an MST3K run-through?
BV: There are a bunch of different movies I feel that way about. However, there is a debate because as you may know after MST3K ended there have been things like Cinematic Titanic that are the children and the grandchildren of this way of dissecting movies and making fun of them and in a way celebrating the absurdity of those movies as well. There are certain movies that sort of fit into the MST3K paradigm which is hidden gems, these weird horror/sci-fi/fantasy movies. Recently I watched a movie that I thought was perfect. It doesn’t fit the criteria of Mystery Science Theater 3000, that being said I think Batman Returns is right for riffs. I love it but it’s the ultimate Tim Burton movie. There is so much that happens that’s crazy and there are a ton of things to riff.
BYT: Batman Returns is the one with Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito. I JUST watched it the other day and was cackling when she dies (not cool) and goes home to dramatically make her Cat Woman costume.
BV: Also, Christopher Walken is insane in it. They have this great guy who plays Christopher Walken’s son who does this amazing Christopher Walken impersonation.
BYT: Honestly, that guy is probably a local comic because local comics love doing Christopher Walken impressions.
BV: Stop doing Christopher Walken impressions.
BYT: And you’re about to lose all your best Thanks Obama’s as well.
BV: Ha ha ha ha “I can’t do Christopher Walken impressions anymore, thanks Obama.”
BYT: You just had an album that came out a few weeks ago, the artwork is pretty amazing. It’s really great, and the title, Blaxistential Crisis, is fantastic. How did you land on that? I constantly joke around about how something would be a good name for a comedy album or a band or God forbid an improv troupe (kidding I love improv). Your album’s artwork is gorgeous. I would frame it.
BV: First of all, thank you. The album artwork is by a friend of mine who is a brilliant artist named Sara Pocock. We’ve been friends for a couple of years and she worked with me on the animation. I believe she’s still working over at BuzzFeed. Basically I made her listen to funk music for a good month, a nonstop stream of George Clinton. I was talking about the art from…if you look at the art from George Clinton albums there are two or three artists he worked with…I made her listen to my album too so all the images are from jokes I made. I wanted it to look like the thoughts that are coming out of my brain which is what comedy is anyway.
BYT: She did a fabulous job. It also vaguely reminded me of film posters from the 70’s and 80’s when they went through that brief illustration-only period where there was a bit of everything from the film on the poster itself. I kind of miss those days. If you look at Big Trouble in Little China for example.
BV: Are you talking about Drew Struzan?
BV: Have you seen the documentary about him? There’s a documentary specifically about his artwork and how he defines an era of movie posters and it all started with Star Wars. He also did Back to the Future.
BYT: Baron, that’s my favorite movie. I have a BTTF tattoo.
BV: Oh beautiful. Those posters were designed by him and they were really works of art that told stories about the story you were about to see. So yeah, all those things were considered by me and Sara. And the title was something I said in a joke I thought would not only be a good title for the album but a good concept to explore, writing-wise. When you’re a young comedian the first thing you want to do is get a laugh.
BYT: They’re a little bit cheaper in the beginning. I don’t think you realize it at the time.
BV: No, you don’t, but as you go on you realize “Okay I know how to get laughs but am I saying things I want to say? Am I writing jokes that I like?” You get to a point that is that so you move on…now can you get laughs at the places you want for the reasons you want? Every laugh is not equal. They come from different places. That’s sort of the challenge I go towards, making sure the laughs are for the reasons I want. It becomes a back and forth dance with the audience. The audience is your first collaborator with the material. If that makes sense.
BYT: Yes, and when I used to do comedy more I used to feel resentful towards the audience because I didn’t want the audience to dictate my comedy all the time.
BV: It’s interesting that you use the word dictate because the audience is not your boss. They are your collaborators and when you collaborate with someone you don’t have to listen to everything they think or say. Sometimes you’re not getting the laughs you want or at the place you want but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. It means you haven’t explored it enough. I’ll get laughs in the places I don’t want them and that makes me realize the direction I want to go in. I don’t mean to get too deep into comedy here.
BYT: That’s more than fine. Comedy is not just for comics. Fans of comedy really enjoy this too. When you’re a fan of comedy you have a right to understand it and speak about it with knowledge. You don’t have to do something to understand it.
BV: I remember reading in a comedy book very long ago when I first started, a person said there’s a difference between a sense of humor and a sense of funny. A sense of humor is knowing what makes you laugh and a sense of funny is knowing what makes other people laugh. The journey of comedy, in a sense, is negotiating those two worlds.
BYT: I can’t let you go without asking you about Grace and Frankie. God, it’s just so lovely and funny. I don’t want to make discussing Grace and Frankie be you telling me about working with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. I really just want to ask you about working with Ethan Embry because I love Empire Records.
BV: First of all I love Empire Records and That Thing You Do and all the movies he did from that era. He hates when I bring that up.
BYT: Why don’t you ask him about that ill-fated John Hughes movie, oh God what was it…with Ed O’Neill when he was the shitty, bratty kid.
BV: Oh man, oh God.
BYT: Dutch! It was Dutch. I love that movie! I might be the only one.
BV: Dutch was very good. I forgot he was the kid in it because he looks so different.
BYT: Please talk about the entire Grace and Frankie experience. We can’t just discuss Ethan Embry.
BV: It’s been a really great experience. What can I say? I’m working with a lot of legends who are brilliant who are people I’ve looked up to from a very young age. Lily Tomlin…I used to watch reruns of Laugh-In and she was always my favorite part. She’s this very unique talent and the way she does things has been a very big influence on me. Being around her has been great, how she treats people, how she handles herself, how she goes about interpreting her character or deciding how the comedy should work. It’s the same with Jane as well as Sam and Martin. It’s like…it’s really confidence-boosting to feel I’m holding my own with these heavy-hitters.
BYT: I would have been EXTREMELY nervous.
BV: Everyone has been really kind, accepting and helpful. That’s how I know I’m doing a good job, everyone is treating me like their peer. Of course I was intimidated. I’d look at the call sheet and be like “Oh my God I have a scene with Jane Fonda tomorrow?”
BYT: I can only imagine, I mean…Martin Sheen!
BV: Martin and Sam are both big personalities. They are like me in the sense that they start singing out of nowhere, all the time.
BYT: I love that. Do you have a go-to song?
BV: Last season when I was on set…for some reason I had The Battle Hymn of the Republic in my head but I didn’t know all the words. It was one of those songs you had to learn when you were younger. It wasn’t as important for people raised in the 80’s and 90’s as it was to people raised in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s so when I started singing “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” Jane heard me singing it and started singing the rest of it. Suddenly everyone on set everyone was singing. That’s just something I can keep in my heart forever.