Vera Drew Discusses The People’s Joker and the Death of Adult Swim

Comedy Features vera drew
Vera Drew Discusses The People’s Joker and the Death of Adult Swim

The People’s Joker, the acclaimed autobiographical movie from comedian and filmmaker Vera Drew, has had an infamously rocky road to theaters since it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. That’ll happen when you use intellectual property like The Joker and Batman without approval from Warner Bros. Fortunately Drew’s surreal and surprisingly moving mixed media allegory for her transition is finally showing on screens throughout the country, marking a milestone for trans cinema while also just being really hilarious—and one of the few comedies to get a theatrical release so far this year. If it’s playing near you, you need to go see it.

Drew’s a comedy vet, starting at Second City in her teens, and building a resume filled with some of the funniest shows of the last decade. She’s been an editor or digital image tech on Nathan for You, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, among others. Most notably, she’s had a long relationship with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, with credits on Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories and the brilliant Check It Out! With Steve Brule. In 2020, she was an executive producer (and effectively the show-runner, as she told us) on Tim and Eric’s short-lived sitcom parody Beef House. She was also nominated for an Emmy for her editing on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America

Drew’s sharp comic eye and editing skills are on display throughout The People’s Joker. Its one-of-a-kind aesthetic relies on a kaleidoscope of physical and digital media; one scene might use models as a backdrop with Drew and her fellow actors green-screened over it, while the next might be fully animated. The movie’s villains, Batman and Saturday Night Love overseer Lorne Michaels, both appear exclusively as CGI; the Batcave, meanwhile, looks like assets from a PlayStation game. Drew creates this constantly fluctuating world that represents her own developing understanding of her identity and acceptance of her queerness, paralleling that all with the struggles of becoming a professional in comedy. 

If you pay any amount of attention to film or pop culture websites like Paste, you’ve almost definitely seen at least one interview with Drew over the last few weeks. I don’t know if anybody has talked to the press more this month than she has. It’s not a surprise to see so many features and bios, though: The People’s Joker is such a daring, hilarious, and fascinating film that any site worth a damn understandably wants to interview its creator. And since schedules lined up to make us the very last website on the internet to interview her about it (at least it feels that way), we knew we couldn’t just run through the typical questions directors get asked when they’re promoting a movie. We read through a dozen or so of Drew’s recent interviews to make sure we didn’t ask her something she’s already answered countless times, to find threads to follow up on, and to see if there’s anything we want to know that she hasn’t already answered. In the process we wound up talking about Joel Schumacher, Grant Morrison, and the long, slow death of Adult Swim.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity and concision. 

Paste: I think most people would have a really hard time putting so much of themselves out there in the open like you do with The People’s Joker. How worried were you about that when you started? And how did you realize you had to be this open for the film to work?

Vera Drew: I don’t think I was [worried] ever. I kind of like almost naively was never really considering that aspect of it. You know, it really was a movie that I think I was making for myself and like specifically for 13 year old me, that just kind of being the target demographic that I was keeping in mind the entire time. I really just allowed myself to be as honest as I wanted to be. There were definitely things along the way that I was, like, a little bit nervous about like, oversharing, or how certain things might be interpreted once people see it, but so much of making this was really just about understanding myself. I don’t make art to be understood, I make it to learn more about myself. And this was just that. Its, like, purest form. Now it’s a little intense. It makes press days and stuff a little intense, just how personal the movie is, and then talking about it with people after the fact when it’s, like, a lot of things that I really could only express and understand by making the film itself. Having conversations about it is a little intense, but it’s also been cool. I’m thankful I was that honest, just because so, so many people resonated with the film and what we’re saying with it.

Paste: You mention making art. I think a lot of people in the comedy world wouldn’t necessarily think of comedy as art. It obviously is, or can be, art. In the past when you were working on like, Adult Swim stuff, did you approach it as art as well as just trying to make people laugh?

Vera Drew: Definitely I think what drew me to the Adult Swim world was, you know… I’d been doing comedy at a very young age. Like I started when I was a child. I started doing comedy when I was literally 13 at Chicago Second City. So it was always this very kind of pure base of expression for me. I was very much like a theatre queer but, like, improv and sketch comedy theater. And when Adult Swim stuff started airing, what was so cool and appealing to me about it was just like, oh, this just feels like art for art’s sake. I was really getting into, like, Kenneth Anger and experimental film in general when I was in film school, and that was around the time that I discovered Tim and Eric, Tim and Eric Awesome Show. And I just remember seeing stuff on there and being like, yeah, this is super lowbrow, but the aesthetic is just so stylized and intense and abstract and artistic in this way that I had never seen comedy be like before. So it was instantly a world that I wanted to get into. And thankfully I got into it, like, pretty much immediately after graduating college and I worked as an editor with Tim and Eric for years and then a lot of other amazing people. And I think the thing that I realized coming into that was just how normal a lot of these people were, and how not like stinky artist vibes they were, and that was maybe a little jarring at first when I came in there especially coming from—like,  film school for me was just a stoned blur at this point. But it was cool, because I think it was still coming from that same place of just like, yeah, these are just like, shy, quiet, artistic weirdos who just want to make crazy, beautiful, trippy stuff.

Paste: It’s good you came around when you did. Before the 2000s there really weren’t many outlets for this kind of comedy. No Adult Swim, not a lot of major improv theaters, you couldn’t easily put video on the internet. The great flowering of alternative comedy, or whatever you want to call it, and all the different avenues you could do it in didn’t really happen until, like, the ‘00s.

Vera Drew: I feel very lucky because—I mean, I think I’m very talented too. But like, it’s not even like you’re at the right place at the right time. I just think, whenever anybody is kind of making this kind of stuff, that are drawn to the kind of stuff that I’m drawn to—even just forget what I like to make, but to make anything—I think you always do have to find these alternative paths, and I think that was what was so cool about coming into Abso Lutely Productions when I did. Like, being a fucking closeted, Andy Warhol’s Factory obsessed person, and being like, oh my god, there’s a comedy incubator here where all these cool people are coming in and out. And I really don’t take it for granted. Even tonight [April 12, 2024],  we’re premiering in L.A. tonight and Tim Heidecker is doing the Q&A. I’m still starstruck just because of how fortunate I feel to be a part of that whole thing.

Paste: So I read a lot of recent interviews with you to prepare for this call, and in one of them you talked about gender essentialism in comedy, and the interviewer didn’t really pick up on that thread. Do you think it’s any easier for non-cis comics today than it was, say, 10 years ago, or have the Joe Rogans and the “anti-woke” crowd polluted the scene so much that it’s as bad or even worse than it used to be?

Vera Drew: What I’ve think I’ve noticed, at least because I don’t really perform anymore—I might get back into it just because The People’s Joker really made me fall back in love with acting in a way that I was not prepared for, it was really the part of the process I was dreading the most, but then while doing it, I realized I clearly missed being on stage. But, um, what I’ve been noticing, just as somebody who watches stuff, it feels like there’s a lot more visibility for trans people. Like there’s so many trans comedians now. And that almost feels like a direct response to that sort of Joe Rogan shit. I think that’s kind of what The People’s Joker was for me, just on that level of, like, “oh my god, like, how much more can I hear about how sensitive I am and how woke I am.” My girlfriend and I are catching up on Curb Your Enthusiasm right now. And there’s an episode where Larry has a friend whose kid identifies as a cat, which I guess is theoretically a transphobic joke, but it really was kind of funny. I had this very strange response to it where I was just like, “Yeah, I mean, like, maybe that happens because, like, when I was a kid, I’m sure I would have had weeks where I was pretending I was a cat,” but it was also like this pretty edgy kind of transphobic joke. I didn’t die from hearing it. And I enjoyed the episode. I don’t know, I think everybody in the queer community who makes art and makes comedy just reached this point of Jokerfication where it’s like, “I’m just gonna fucking go out there and do it.” And I’m so glad that so many young trans comedians have such opportunities that I really don’t think I had. I really had to, like, make my own kind of freak show to get stage time.

Paste: Yeah. And, I mean, talking about that Curb joke, I think you can tell if there’s malice behind a joke. And I don’t know, I haven’t seen that episode, but I feel like if anything Larry David mostly just has malice towards himself, and not whatever he’s, you know, talking about or dealing with. 

Vera Drew: And that’s the problem with the sort of—like, the comedy that is just straight up transphobic or… Oh my god, I saw this fucking video the other day of like Katt Williams talking about how the “transgender thing” is Luciferian, or like, it’s satanic or whatever. And I fucking love that. That dude is so crazy and outspoken. And just the fact that he can say stuff like that and trip over his dick in that way, when he literally comes from a Christian fundamentalist family. It’s like, all that kind of comedy. And like the threatened men who do comedy, and there’s women now that I’ve seen, transphobic female comics and shit. It really is always coming from a place of… I don’t even know if it’s malice. I think a lot of it is just not really understanding what the trans experience is, and kind of just existing in an echo chamber. But I also really do think that much of the time it’s just them being exposed to transness. This is forcing them to confront something in themselves. I don’t like that argument all the time, because it kind of turns it back on the community and makes it sound like it’s our fault that these people are transphobic. But I really do think there’s something to it. I mean, like Trace Lysette said with Dave Chappelle, it’s like, he clearly got rejected by a trans woman or something to be that fixated on it. It’s coming from this place of personal, passionate hate, and it’s just fucking stupid and exhausting. And yeah, I think that’s what I like about Curb, and stuff. Like, it’s the joke—even if it is kind of punching down, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a show about a white billionaire who doesn’t understand how the world works because of that, and that in and of itself is kind of like propaganda that I could stand, in a way.

Vera Drew in The People's Joker

Paste: The People’s Joker is dedicated to Joel Schumacher. Obviously the first of his Batman movies is a major influence on the film. When I was a kid, getting into movies and starting to notice the people who made them, I thought Schumacher was this great, respected director because of all the movies he made that I knew. Then I grew up and realized critics actually don’t really like him. How did you feel learning about the way the world views Joel Schumacher? And also, how do you feel about his non-Batman work?

Vera Drew: He should be respected in the same way that Scorsese is respected. He’s just so prolific. I feel like so much of the stuff I like, as I’ve grown up, it’s been this process of going like “oh, that’s like cringe” or “oh, like, people don’t like that.” When I moved to L.A. I was really into Rob Zombie as a director and I was surrounded by all these like comedy boys who were like “Rob Zombie sucks.” I had to hide so much of my tastes. Well, again, the cool comedy circles that I was rolling in. But it’s been nice because it seems like Joel is kind of getting a little bit of love. People, at least on film Twitter, are starting to recognize his brilliance and I certainly feel a lot less alone in that struggle. I fucking love his movies. Like, Batman is obviously there as my entryway into Batman, but I think Falling Down is like a Joker movie. We just watched 8mm for the first time, with Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix, and I fucking really love that one too because it was just so well made but like a B movie. I think that’s what Joel Schumacher was so brilliant at doing, taking these crazy, like operatic stories and like grounding them in a genre, but they’re just so dense and so weird… I’m not really doing the best job describing it. Like, it’s just such a vibe. Like, why isn’t there a “Schumacheresque”? You know, there’s Lynchesque and Kubrickesque, like, Schumacheresque is such a thing to me and he clearly influenced so much of music and pop culture. I feel like a lot of the art that trans people and queer people were making, like, 10 years ago, like on internet spaces, were just like Joel Schumacher stuff. I think the whole reason every queer person I know has like, those Philips Hue lights that you can turn purple in your house is just because we all loved Joel Schumacher.

Paste: I think part of it is his work doesn’t have a defining genre. Like he made pretty much every type of movie over his career and he was like a really prolific studio guy, you know? I don’t know, I haven’t seen too many of his movies in a long time. I don’t know how much of a stylistic through line there is through them, like I don’t know how many people could watch St. Elmo’s Fire and Falling Down back to back and be like, “Yeah, I can tell the same guy made this.”

Vera Drew: Absolutely could. I mean, like watching Lost Boys. It’s like, oh I see why a stupid fucking studio executive watched this and though this guy should make a Batman movie because it’s got the same aesthetic. I noticed too, with the way gender is portrayed in stuff like The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin, like that is a movie that is almost just about being queer, without fully being queer. I mean, it’s set in suburbia, there’s a housewife and Charles Grodin plays a Charles Grodin character in it, and it’s so straight in this way. But it just oozes color and he leans into high femme and high butch in this way that I really feel throughout all of his work. And I don’t know, I think that’s why a movie like Falling Down doesn’t really work for a lot of people. It’s a fucked up movie about white male rage. And it’s also like a Looney Tunes cartoon as it’s happening. Like, it’s insane, with crazy sound effects, but I love that kind of filmmaking. He just does whatever he wants. So beautiful.

Paste: Right? So speaking of people who worked with Batman, you also draw from Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, namely the super-sanity concept. Morrison also gave us some of the first trans and genderqueer characters in mainstream comics, like Rebus from Doom Patrol and Fanny in The Invisibles. How valuable was that to you when you were growing up?

Vera Drew: I discovered it way too late to be honest. Like I don’t think I read The Invisibles til college. With Fanny specifically it was just like, “oh shit”—reading that book is just one of the many “oh shits” in my life. In a way I’m glad it came to me at the time it did because I had already seen The Matrix, of course, and that was a movie that was very important to me less from a gender perspective, but just like identity and conformity. I think it kind of pulled me out of this very small, Midwestern way of thinking, and then like, here’s The Invisibles! It was like The Matrix but a lot gayer, or a lot more overtly gay and queer. I’m glad it came to me when it did because I don’t think my gender journey could have started until after I moved out of my house. I just grew up in such a conservative small town. But that pull towards comics was there long before I got to Grant Morrison’s work. I was into R. Crumb… I read Batman exclusively, that was the only superhero comic I would read. I was really into, like, outsider stuff. Finally getting art that was just overtly queer. And I love how they write—I love how Grant writes—Batman and Joker’s relationship. When I first read the Arkham Asylum book, I didn’t realize that they had originally planned on making like Joker basically a crossdresser in that. I had no idea until relatively recently that that was the case. But I feel that so deeply through the pages. That’s what Grant’s so amazing at, they still really do work in this subtext space, like when they’re getting notes from Warner Brothers like, “don’t do this,” but they’re able to find ways to just have it burst through the surface. That book, it’s just the best version of The Joker ever written. Yeah, it’s really cool. I got to meet Grant this year very briefly. And yeah, hopefully they see my movie soon. I know they want to. They were a huge influence on it. 

Paste: Did you ever get to meet Joel Schumacher before he passed away? 

Vera Drew: No, sadly. And that breaks my heart. I’d started working on this before he died. And he’s just like one of those people that like, there are those artists where I feel like I know them just because of how much I’ve watched junket interviews and behind-the-scenes over the years, and he’s one where when he died, I really felt like it was a gay grandpa who died thing. And I do think he would have just fucking loved this movie so much.

Vera Drew, animated, with friends

Paste: So Saturday Night Live is ridiculed throughout the movie, for good reason. If they came calling, would you pick up the phone?

Vera Drew: I do in the movie. So I don’t know. At this point, it feels so unlikely that they will, I honestly was even kind of kicking myself the other day, because, like, working on one of these next scripts, there’s a character in it that I really would like to offer to somebody who has been on SNL. And I was like, wow, that might be a bridge that I burned. Because everybody who has come from that world is really respectful of Lorne [Michaels], which I totally understand. But yeah, if they wanted me to host I would do it. But my only demand would be that I don’t have to pull all nighters with them. Because I think that’s the most ridiculous. The most ridiculous thing to me in the world is that all of those people stay up all night, every week. Like, it’s no wonder so many of them die young. That’s not an effective way to make art. It also explains why the show is so uneven because nobody should be writing jokes at 3 a.m. Just like with pizza on your stomach and surrounded by a bunch of Colin Josts.

Paste: I like to see my friends do well, but like, how does it feel when your friends in comedy get hired by SNL

Vera Drew:  It’s funny, because if I was starting out, and SNL asked me to do anything for them, I would gladly take their minimum wage TV job, like in a heartbeat. So when Sarah [Sherman] got hired, and I’ve known some of the writers on there too… like, my DP from The People’s Joker literally shot some digital shorts one of the seasons. There’s always been overlap. I mean, Bob Odenkirk was a writer on SNL and he’s in my movie. I don’t necessarily respect it as an institution but that’s just because I don’t really respect any institution. But at the same time, I’m like, “get that money.” Get that notoriety, and I just hope that the people who go in there can make it a little bit more ethical in some way, just creatively, because I think the content itself in the last 20 years has just skewed so pro corporate, so fucking bipartisan, just bullshit, and it’s gross. It’s just so gross. Like, I don’t think SNL is the worst thing that we have in America, but it’s just part of the fear industrial complex of just keeping everybody scared, and everybody really respectful of rich people. So yeah, whenever my friends get in there, I’m like, “Hey, maybe try to try to, you know, change it from within.” But I don’t know if that ever really works in those kinds of systems.

Paste: And it’s so weird that it’s still the biggest thing in comedy. I mean, it’s 50 years old, or whatever. And every week, the most popular comedy piece we run is our review of SNL. People just always want to read about that show. 

Okay, last question. In one interview, I think with Westside Today, you talk about Natural Born Killers being kind of the endpoint of that ‘80s, ‘90s MTV style, and that you kind of hope that People’s Joker could serve the same role for Adult Swim, I Think You Should Leave-style comedy. I live in Atlanta. I know Adult Swim is basically dying, like so much of the former Turner empire here in town. Do you think there’s anything at all left to mind from that Adult Swim style? Or is it just played out to the point where you don’t really think there’s much there still?

Vera Drew: I think with the aesthetic that a lot of people associate with Adult Swim, there’s room for it to grow and evolve. I feel like The People’s Joker is a perfect example of that. Or a movie like Hundreds of Beavers, or fuck, even We’re All Going to the World’s Fair to some extent. There’s some of that in the DNA of that movie. But yeah, as an institution, I don’t really know. I mean, there will always be you little pockets of cool punk or pop-punk art that will always find a place in the mainstream one way or another, like the way Adult Swim [did], but I definitely think the era that I came up in has been over for a very long time. I really do. Like, I think the fact that… you know, I wrote, directed, and produced on a Tim and Eric show, right before the pandemic, called Beef House. It’s the best fucking show they ever made. Like, it literally is, and I mean, I’m biased because, like, I worked on it, and kind of show ran it, but like at the same time, it’s like, fucking, we dropped it and it just disappeared. Like nobody—we can’t even find it online anymore. It’s like lost media now. So yeah, I think it’s done, but I think people should keep doing, you know, VHS art and fucking stupid dad jokes and I think Rick and Morty should be canceled. There we go. Yeah.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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