Catching up with David Mirkin

TV Features David Mirkin
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Few know him by name, but David Mirkin has worked on many of televison’s most transgressive shows—frequently at the helm. Of course, until recently television was a relatively anonymous medium, so it makes sense that only comedy nerds and industry insiders realized that the man who created Get a Life and The Edge also ran two of seasons of The Simpsons back when the show was still worth watching and helped out with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show. What anyone watching these shows couldn’t miss, though, was the dark, self-referential and frequently surrealistic tone of so many of Mirkin’s projects, and it’s no surprise that almost everything he’s touched has become a cult classic.

Get a Life, which he co-created with Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, was perhaps television’s first anti-sitcom, ripping apart television tropes and clichéd writing in a way that still feels groundbreaking in an era of Adult Swim and Louie. For the first time ever, Shout! Factory has released the entire series on DVD, so we caught up with Mirkin to talk about this release, why he’s stuck with TV even after transitioning into film, and why he can’t land a pilot.

Paste: Considering how popular Get a Life remains, it’s a surprise it’s taken this long for the entire show to make its way onto DVD. What caused this delay?
Mirkin: Actually, we did release some of it around 1999-2000 with Rhino. It’s because of all the weird music that’s in Get a Life. You know it was one of the first shows that used really popular hits throughout the series—not only the great theme song by R.E.M.[“Stand”] but also “Georgie Girl” and “Pretty Woman” and “Afternoon Delight,” these horrible, horrible songs. They’re tough to clear and they’re expensive to clear and that’s one of the reasons why you’ve never seen the show in syndication, it’s one of the reasons there was no DVD release up to that point, and even at that point we could only put out a total of eight episodes initially in 2000.

They sold very well, and we were going to, with Rhino, put out the entire series. And just as that was starting, Rhino kind of… ceased to exist. It was kind of eaten by Warner Bros. Some of the people from Warner Bros. moved over to Shout! Factory (I mean, actually some of the people from Rhino actually created Shout! Factory), and so they contacted me finally and said, ‘we think that the numbers are in place that we can do Get a Life with all the regular music, all the correct music and all of that,’ and I said great and that’s how it got rolling.

Paste: You did a commentary track for every episode of the show, whereas Chris Elliott doesn’t participate in any of it. How did they approach you about this, and why wasn’t he involved?
Mirkin: At Shout! Factory the producer of the set is Brian Blum, but in the same way as when Garry Shandling did Larry Sanders and when we worked with Rhino, they give you a lot of chance to have input. They’re interested in the input if you’re the executive producer/creator of the show, they want as much as you can do. I’ve been asked so many questions by fans throughout the years about this episode and that episode. There basically hasn’t been an episode that I haven’t been questioned about. And you know I speak to colleges and other places with the Simpsons people and they still ask me about Get a Life, so I figured I really should try and say something about every episode, because there’s questions. And Shout! asked him to do the DVD and for whatever reason—that’s sort of his answer, whatever it is—he didn’t wind up participating. The good news is that he’s still in every frame of the damn show.

Paste: Like a lot of cult shows, Get a Life was on the air very briefly. During that time, it seemed to burn through ideas very quickly, and when it ended, it felt like that was the right place for it to stop. Do you feel like the show would’ve worked as a longer series?
Mirkin: There’s always a great advantage to leaving everybody wanting more. I have said that we had plenty ideas, and we could’ve easily done the magic hundred episodes, there would’ve been no problem doing about five years of it. We had enough sickness within the group, I think, to keep it moving forward. I would have changed the show every season, just like he moves out of the house at the end of the first season. The third season, had we done it, I would’ve had him become a homeless drifter, going from town to town and making everyone’s life just a little bit worse. Everyone he touched, he would’ve screwed up their lives just a bit. And so it would’ve morphed into different things, but I think we could’ve gotten a pretty solid five seasons out of it. We certainly had enough ideas and concepts to take it, and Chris as a performer is so versatile. There are so many attitudes and things you can do with him that I think it would’ve been fine… for that long. I wouldn’t’ have done fifteen years.

Paste: You actually started out with stand-up, and since then have worked in live-action television, animated television and feature films. Which has worked the best for your comedy, and if you could pick anything for your next project, what would you like to work in?
Mirkin: The one part of the business that I haven’t cracked yet is the porn industry, and that’s always been a goal. I’d like to really get more into that more. No, the truth is that they all have their advantages. The great thing about television is it’s so fast and immediate. You have an idea and you can execute it all within a couple of months, at the most. The negative aspects of television: you’re very, very constrained by time and money. So the word “grind”… I mean, you can just say the word grind, but it is such a thing when you’re living it, it is such a grind. It’s a neverending amount of pressure, just going non-stop. Particularly with Get a Life, when I was directing those episodes in addition to being the head writer and the showrunner, I would wake up in the morning at 4 a.m. and get to the set at 5 a.m. and direct until about 7 [p.m.]. And then the writing day would begin, and that would go from about 7 to 2 a.m. Then you’d have four or five hours of sleep and you’d do it again. Of course you didn’t do that consistently, that was just at the peak of everything and you’d be working about seven episodes at once, five to seven episodes at once. And there’s a special kind of writing that you get to do with that, which is it’s over a longer period of time, you get to delve deeper into character, you get to tell stories quickly and see them done.

The most fun to shoot and direct is movies, because you have more time. You’re given more time and more money, you have a much bigger set of trains to play with, you have all the toys and you can really work out interesting shots, and you have luma cranes and there’s CGI fun you can do. So you’re really dealing with the top, with the state of the art when you’re shooting a film. Those advantages have deteriorated over time, as films have become much more time-conscious, but it’s still the longest amount of time that you get and the most money that you get. But film is very, very difficult when you write something to actually see it done. It can take a long time, it can take… like the minimum is a year, though it’s more like two years. The end of the rainbow for film is better, for directing, because you have more time and money, but television is better for immediacy. So you don’t want to say goodbye to either one.

And certainly the worst of them all is stand-up. That’s performing in front of drunks at 12:30 at night and dodging beer bottles. But… you want to do it now and again because it keeps you connected to reality.

Paste: It’s not very clear just from the show credits what role you played with Garry Shandling’s television shows, aside from the directing you did for The Larry Sanders Show. What was your involvement?
Mirkin: Garry and I were good friends, and he asked me to create Larry Sanders with him. I was too busy to do that, and Garry pretty much had the show, he knew exactly what he wanted it to be. I actually recommended the person he did create it with, Dennis Klein, and then what I did was I worked on the first season of Larry Sanders at the same time that I was preparing to do The Edge. And toward the end I was there and I directed.

Paste: What about with The Simpsons? While you stepped down at the end of season six, you’re still credited on many episodes.
Mirkin: When I took over that show, I had to rebuild that staff kind of from the ground up. Everybody was burned out and everybody left, but there were a couple people who I really loved, like George Meyer who I worked with on The Edge as well, and I wanted to keep him around. So I said, “let’s work out a deal where you come in a couple of days a week, that way you won’t be burnt out, and that way you can still contribute to the show.” And that was how I worked on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, I would go in one day a week and would help with the rewrite. And it’s great to have this extra person come in from the outside who’s not all grumpy, who’s not all burnt out, who’s kind of looking at the script for the first time after everyone else has been working on it for a month. So you kind of say, “Let’s do this, here’s some ideas here, here’s some lines here, let me help you with this, let me help you with that.” And that’s what you do. David Boyd used to do that on shows and stuff and there’s a history of having… for lack of a better word it’s having an outside punch-up person that comes in. But it’s more than punch up, it’s story changes and whatever it ends. So I started to do that on The Simpsons, I had Mike Reiss and Al Jean come in a day a week, and George Meyer came in a couple days a week, so when I left The Simpsons I was put in that position, and it was, “ let’s have Dave come back and help with the rewrite process at least once a week.” Sometimes it’s been more than that depending on the need, and I’ve done that ever since I left the show. You show up for at least a day and you do whatever it is you can to help what you see. Some of your ideas are taken, some are not, but you do what you can and it’s a good fun time and they’re nice, smart people to work with.

Paste: Considering how dark and strange a lot of your other work is, how was it that you were so successful at Newheart?
David Mirkin: The truth is I started on Three’s Company, so I was able to write in that style of Three’s Company, where you’re looking at it as a craft and saying “well what does it have to do?” So I actually learned how to really structure in that show, because the characters in Three’s Company couldn’t say anything clever. Everything that was funny about that was in plot machinations, which was a classic French farce. So as stupid as Three’s Company can seem, it was incredibly difficult to structure one of those episodes properly, where all the laughs started coming from plot and they build on top of each other and it kind of escalates. Learning that really taught me, and it’s one of the reasons that I rose to run the Newheart show that quickly, is because I learned so much about structure from Three’s Company, in a difficult, very difficult, intricate structure at that. So it was a great basis to learn.

And Bob, because he’s kind of a loser and things are always happening to him, and he’s never quite winning, it’s still in a way my own kind of philosophy of writing. Which is that the world’s kind of a mess, it’s going to screw you over, but you can still get by. But it’s not like at the end of every episode you’re high-fiving and hugging everyone. So in that way, Bob and I thought very much alike, because there is cynicism there, there is a darkness to it. And by the way, Bob Newhart’s comedy album, along with Bob and Ray’s comedy album, they were some of the first comedy albums I heard when I was five years old. The first comedy albums that I heard. They’re definitely in my head, and their voices, and kind of understanding that way of thinking, happened early on. Bob is always that put upon guy, so it has, it definitely has things that I truly, truly resonate with. But when you’re really getting into what my voice is, it’s much darker than that, so what you’re seeing is a dark vision that’s being held back by the constraints of the network and that kind of television at the time. Like, I would never do an episode of Mary Tyler Moore where she gets run over by a car, it just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be what the people want to see. As much as I may enjoy that moment, it’s not going to fly.

Paste: Unlike the first two films you directed, you’re writing the original script for Losing My Virginity, which is based on the life of Richard Bronson. Was that a conscious choice, and how does that compare with working just a director on your last two films?
David Mirkin: It’s always just about what project that comes along that’s interesting. When I was being offered a lot of films to direct, Romy and Michelle had the right voice for me, it was kind of dark and twisted. And I was able to add little things to the script that made it more personal to me, but the voice of those girls was perfectly coming out of Robin Schiff and didn’t need much.
On Heartbreakers… it was a film that I spent about a year rewriting , so an enormous amount of that movie is my writing. It works out in the writer’s guild that when you’re coming in as a director, it’s not recognized the amount of work that you would do as a writer, but there’s an enormous amount in there. I mean I really like what the original writers had done, but it needed to change quite a bit before I was going to be comfortable taking that in.

Losing My Virginity is actually based on Richard’s memoir, so it’s based on a book. So I’m always interested in anything, to take a voice and if it’s good just go with it like in Romy and Michelle’s or a bigger rewrite as Heartbreakers was, and this thing is taking a memoir and adapting that. And you know, I’m always looking to do my own weird scripts but they can be harder to get the kind of financing they need. I did a pilot, it was actually a time when Fox came to me and said “we’ve really changed our opinion about Get a Life” (and I want to point out that there were Fox executives who loved Get a Life and were great supporters of it). So I wrote and directed a science fiction comedy. Many of the things I do, I also end up directing the pilot as well because it’s the only way of protecting the weird vision, the weird tone. You kind of have to be there, you kind of have to deal with it every minute or it will drift away into something else. You’re trying to communicate with the audience a specific point of view, and particularly in the beginning it takes a lot of direction. So yeah, I always try and do that, and I did that on that pilot which was Jeff of the Universe, but it’s the same thing. Normal network television hasn’t changed that much. We’ve had these great shows [but] that’s all on cable. Regular, network television is still very very suspicious of a dark point of view, a sarcastic point of view, and flexible reality storytelling is still difficult. And quite frankly, it’s not even a slam-dunk on cable. FX definitely does edgey shows, but they don’t particularly break reality. They don’t get psychotic enough.