On a not-so-long ago Thursday night, about a third of the way into the taping of Michael Showalter’s debut comedy album at Union Hall in Park Slope, the 37-year-old comedian-writer-director noticed a strange sound coming from the first row. Meowing. Mewing, to be precise, which turned out to be coming from two three-week-old kittens a woman had brought with her to the show. In the great spirit of show-must-go-on-ship, Mr. Showalter immediately dropped his original topic (the endless joys of DVR) and happily spent the next 10 minutes discussing the absurdity of bringing cats to a live comedy show and recording. He closed his escalating rant—which included giving the woman the options of either leaving with or killing the animals—by explaining, “This is why I’m really insulted. Would you do that if this wasn’t a fucking comedy show? If this was fucking the Long Day’s Journey Into Night would you bring kittens and sit in the front row? But nooooo, it’s a fucking court jester! He’s here to make us laugh. We can bring anything to his show. We’ll bring cats, we’ll bring a fucking farting moose, it doesn’t matter. He’s a comedian. We’ll just shit all over him because he’s a comedian, he’s a worthless human being. I fucking hate it. I hate being a comedian, no one takes us seriously, that’s why.” He paused, and continued calmly. “So, I just thought of a good name for my record … CATS.” The audience hooted and gave him a round of enthusiastic applause.
The album, Sandwiches and Cats, a mix of his live performances and sketches (and a throwback to earlier comedy album days of yore), has just been released. The incident with the cats is included. A week after recording that show, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the backyard of an Atlantic Avenue coffee shop around the corner from his apartment, Mr. Showalter laughed about KittenGate. “I was pretty mystified,” he said (for the record, he loves cats). “But I do love interacting with the audience and having them participate because usually I find that’s when the funniest things happen. Stand-up is so much that way, it’s different from a video or a movie or a TV show.”
Doing stand-up is a relatively new phase of Mr. Showalter’s career, which goes back to the early 1990’s and his days on MTV’s sketch comedy The State (it aired from 1993 to 1995). Mr. Showalter had known some of The State’s members since he attended N.Y.U., and stayed involved even after transferring to Brown, where he studied semiotics. Since then he’s written screenplays, directed one of them, had another culty TV hit with Stella (co-starring Michael Ian Black and David Wain), and popped up here and there as an actor (often in a friend’s material, like in last summer’s The Ten, directed by Mr. Wain). He also hosts his own show on Collegehumor.com, The Michael Showalter Showalter, and recently guest-blogged for Entertainment Weekly.
“I’ve only been doing it [stand-up] the last year and a half,” he said. “It was something in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do. I feel like I can see there’s so much to it, there’s so much more to it than me. It’s not just about clapping and jokes—I really feel like the more I do it, in front of audiences, I like the chemistry. It brings out the jokes—it brings something out of me.”
THE CROWD AT Union Hall, which has a large upstairs bar filled with plush couches and stuffed bookshelves, was a mix of consciously casual young Brooklynites. The girls wore flowered skirts with Converse sneakers and were accompanied by bearded dudes in baggy jeans. Waiting for Mr. Showalter to take the stage, one guy with blond dreadlocks said to his date (with a weird misplaced pomposity), “Showalter has been in everything.” (Mr. Showalter later said that the crowd, which looked to be in their mid to late 20s, was older than usual). Mr. Showalter is relaxed onstage. He’s good-looking, tall, with a thick head of dark hair and a steady gaze. He gives off the air of someone you might and could know—when he casually mentioned his girlfriend, a bespectacled girl in the audience smacked the shoulder of her friend and mouthed, “That sucks.”
In his act, Mr. Showalter tears through observational humor (just why did Starbucks insist on stocking Akeelah and the Bee?) and takes self-deprecation to new levels by reading aloud and mocking a poem that he wrote in high school (it starts off dramatically, “There is a whore in my apartment building/ Her room smells like dirty sex”—Mr. Showalter was quick to add that he was a virgin at the time), or going through a particularly bad review, line by line, that The New York Times gave to Stella.
Mr. Showalter later allowed that stand-up could be a form of catharsis for him, because past criticism has indeed stung. “For me personally, it’s very hard,” he said. “I’ve never done a project where across the board the reviews were favorable. It can be excruciating. But, I can either brood about this or make a joke about it.”
In 2005, he wrote, directed, and starred in The Baxter, a quirky romantic comedy that co-starred Michelle Williams, Elizabeth Banks and Justin Theroux. He described the film’s reviews as medium to negative. “I had a really hard time with that one particularly because I was alone—I wrote, directed and was in it.” But, he said, “one thing about The Baxter in spite it not becoming a huge success or not getting rave reviews was that it was an amazing personal accomplishment. I did it and I liked that. That gave me a lot of peace. … Some fire was put out in a good way.”