Back before MarsOne got completely debunked, the most promising aspect of it was clearly the reality show. An Endemol-produced series, about four colonists living out the rest of their lives in a rudimentary outpost further than any group of humans has ever lived from the rest of civilization, could quickly become an interminable, existential nightmare, but with the right cast, it could also make for a sweetly absurd comedy. It’s a time-tested formula: here we are in this wacky situation, but ultimately we still have to learn how to get along just like anyone else.
The mission may have tumbled into ignominy, but we still have Other Space, executive producer Paul Feig’s sci-fi comedy, now available to stream on Yahoo Screen. Set in the year 2105, it follows the often mundane, occasionally surreal, frequently life-threatening adventures of the crew of a small exploratory space mission. It’s been a long-term labor of love for the director of Bridesmaids and The Heat; with an elevator pitch as immediately evident as it is daunting: “It’s The Office … in space!”
Our would-be hero is Stewart Lipinski, played with Michael Cera-esque throttle-ability by Karan Soni (previously seen on the short-lived Amazon show Betas). He's been named captain of a routine exploratory mission into outer space, much to the chagrin of his sister Karen (Bess Rous) and childhood best friend Michael (Eugene Cordero) who serve as his second and third in command, respectively. Of course, the mission does not stay routine for very long, and minutes after takeoff, the ship is transported into a neighboring universe, with no way of getting home and a stockpile of fudge as their only rations.
I spent the first episode of Other Space taking in its low-rent sets and effects and occasionally absurd sci-fi dialogue, trying to figure out how much of it was an insincere goof, until it dawned on me that it's just like any Paul Feig script, from Freaks and Geeks to his work on the earthbound Office — a bunch of sensitive weirdos with varying dissatisfaction about how their lives turned out, masking their insecurities the best ways they know how. In space.
It's also a highly specific and personal project, and a far cry from the megaplex-ready Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy and the all-consuming buzz of his all-female Ghostbusters reboot, currently slated for 2016. I spoke to Feig over the phone about the dangers of passion projects and high concepts, and his deep and abiding love of funny women.
Emily Yoshida: So Other Space has been in the works for a while, right? I was Googling around and found you talking about it in this old profile of you in The New York Times, back in 2008.
Paul Feig: You know what, I just found that the other day, and I was like, "Oh my god, I forgot I talked about it." This has been a real pet project of mine for a long time, and I'm usually the guy who throws out passion projects. I think passion projects are dangerous, because as your career moves forward, sometimes you go back to a place that you've [since moved] beyond. But this was [a project] that just always, always stuck with me, and I'm like, "God, I just want to make that show. I know what that show is, I think it's funny."
And I'm just a sci-fi geek — and I have been my whole life — and there's been such a dearth of sci-fi comedy unless you look to England, where they have Red Dwarf, and Hyperdrive, and those things. We haven't had much here. When I was growing up, there was a show called Quark that was on for like eight episodes, that my best friend and I thought was the funniest show ever. And so, yeah, when I came up with this idea back eight years ago, or however long it was, I was really excited about it. But it was kind of before The Office, and I wanted to do it single cam, and NBC didn't quite want to do single cam. So I tried to write it [as a multi-camera sitcom], but it just didn't feel right, so it all kind of fell apart.
But then the problem is once it falls apart, they still own it. And so, just every year, I'd always get on the phone with my lawyer and my agent, and then finally, when I was in post production of The Heat, it reverted back to me. And in a Kismet-ian world, that was right when Yahoo contacted my agent and said they wanted to put real money into a couple of shows. And so I was like, "Oh my god, I can actually maybe get this made."
Yeah, so I'm thrilled. I didn't want to do sci-fi comedy that made fun of sci-fi. A lot of sci-fi comedy is parody.
Yeah, you kind of have to invent a language for how an American sci-fi comedy show looks. How did that evolve from when you first kind of conceptualized the show?
The difference was that I created it originally in the pre-Office world. I think it was working on The Office that really made me go, "Oh, that's the perfect way to shoot this show." And what's funny is, [in the fourth episode] you find out why the show looks that way. Because I wanted to justify it, I didn't want the conceit to be that there's a documentary crew floating around with people in space. So I'm very happy with how we explain it.
And yeah, it's just getting the tone right and getting the right cast, but then never treating them too silly. You can have ridiculous things happen, but they're reacting the way that normal humans would. And we got this great cast, who brought so much of their own personalities in a very realistic way to bear. I just feel it works so well.
The cast is definitely one of the most pleasant surprises of the show. I read the profile of [casting director] Alison Jones in The New Yorker, and it was so interesting to see her side of developing a show, especially casting unknowns and casting female unknowns. What is it for you that really makes a comic actor stand out, especially female leads?
Well, across the board, regardless of gender, it's about who comes in with a unique voice, with a charisma that you can't pinpoint, and just with a deep bench of talent, so you go, "Wow, I'm going to feed off that person as much as they're going to feed off [the material]." That's how we did Freaks and Geeks. You see a lot of actors, and when you go with Alison, you know everyone you see is great. It's just, are they great for this role, and do they have anything that just pops up through the roof? And then one person will come and they just blow everyone else out of the water. And so that's kind of what I look for, regardless of male or female.
I mean as far as women go, I just love funny women. There's kind of two classes of funny women: ones [who are] very good at delivering a joke and being funny, and then there's this other tier of women — the Melissas and the Kristens and Amy Poehlers and Tina Feys, the list goes on and — that I just fall out hysterically laughing [at]. And it doesn't matter if they're a man or a woman, that’s just a funny person. They're not trying to be someone they're not, and they're not trying to act like a guy; they're just funny. And I think funny people... I think there's a comedy DNA that people have. Like Chris Farley. That man existed on this planet to be funny. He couldn't not be funny. Everything he did was hysterical, and I just feel that way about all these hilarious women.
I can't help but kind of think about Bridesmaids and The Heat and the Ghostbusters reboot on a continuum with Freaks and Geeks. Character-wise, whether it's people that don't look like movie stars or whether it's just a whole ensemble of female comedians, you’re doing something that's a little bit against the grain of what mainstream comedy is doing.
Yeah, I mean, for me, it's just a meritocracy. The funniest, best people win the day, and I don't care what they look like. When we did Freaks, it was like, we're not going to bring in a bunch of models who put glasses on and call them nerds; we want to throw the doors open wide. What ends up happening is that you still get beautiful people who are great, but it's just because you said, "We have no constraints on that, we don't care about that."
But then as far as women go, it's selfish in a way for me, because I've just always been more comfortable hanging with women. I grew up in a family of eight kids, six of them were girls, and they were all my best friends, and we always just had fun making each other laugh. And there's just something about the comedy of women that I relate to more than the comedy of most guys, because guy comedy, in general, tends to be a little more aggressive. And now I just kind of have a more feminine take on the world, I think. Plus, there's so many guys who do that guy comedy so well, and I love that stuff. I really like watching it. But I don't have a good voice for it. It's not what I do. I've tried in the past, to develop a project like that, but I always sounded like somebody pretending to know what guys sound like.
A lot of the comedy in Other Space comes from that sort of tension — you're working in this genre where you're used to these sort of straight-faced, logical, masculine types, especially in the more old-school shows you’re riffing on. But then the characters end up being kind of moody and just want to talk about their feelings.
I love it. On Other Space, everybody is sensitive, everybody's overly sensitive, which makes me laugh, because that's how life is. Everybody's a mess.
"Streaming is the greatest thing that ever happened to television, ever ever ever."
I can’t imagine back when you originally conceived of the show you saw it airing on a streaming service owned by Yahoo. Is there anything that’s easier about doing a sitcom in the TV landscape of 2015, or would you have rather done it back then on NBC?
No, I'm really happy that it happened now, as bummed as I was that it didn't happen back then. I think it's way better that we're not on a network, I think it's way better that we're in a situation that we can put out all [of the] episodes at the same time, that we're in this time of binge-watching. To me, binge-watching saved television. Also, binge-watching allows you to serialize television. It was just verboten forever on the networks, for a very good reason, because if somebody didn't watch an episode of your show from the first episode, and they would try to jump in on the third, they were screwed because they couldn't catch up. Now it doesn't matter, because people will just go back and go, "Okay, I've just got to catch up." And that's just literally changed everything; that is the greatest thing that ever happened to television, ever ever ever, because we're allowed to tell stories now that are in a way sometimes like giant movies that we chop up. And in Other Space we have this [season-long] arc, but at the same time [the episodes] kind of stand alone. You just want something to propel people into the next episode, other than the fact that they like the show.
It was a great touch casting Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Had you always envisioned them as part of the show?
Well, I'm a super fan of MST; I was from the minute it came on. I had a lot of friends who knew Joel and knew those guys, and through them I eventually got to know Joel and then through Joel, Trace. I was really close with Joel for a long time, and then when I did Freaks and Geeks I had Joel come on as the guy who runs the disco clothing store.
Trace came on as one of the teachers in the school. So then I had a great relationship with them and always remained friends with them. When I originally wrote the [Other Space] script, way back then, I definitely had written it [for them], especially for Trace to be the voice of the robot, because Crow T. Robot is one of my favorite things. And then when this got picked up, I didn't know if he wanted to do it, but he said yes, and then when I asked Joel, he said yes, too, and I couldn't believe it. I really didn't think I could get those guys to go back in outer space.
The show also seems like a little bit of an ode to MST, just because of the set, the low-fi-ness, shall we say, of the visual design. There’s that sense of playfulness.
It's very close to the Satellite of Love.
"That is the danger of high concept — a concept gets old very quickly."
There’s kind of a spotty history of high concept sitcoms throughout the years. For some reason the one I always remember, and nobody else ever does, was this show about pilgrims I think on NBC in the '90s called Thanks.
Yes, there was. Was it NBC or was it Fox? No, I totally remember this.
Okay, thank you, nobody ever believes this existed. But with Other Space, definitely a part of me was expecting this high concept, wink-y thing. And somehow that sort of falls away after the first episode, and then you just kind of accept that these people are in space in this kind of goofy-looking spaceship, and move on. Was that something you were aware of trying to overcome?
As crazy as all the situations get, it has to be about the characters. You have to care about those characters, even if they're extreme. That was really important to me, because that is the danger of high concept, that it's all about the concept and so it doesn't have any heart, and a concept gets old very quickly. It's all about the moments within that concept. And that's why I like putting very relatable characters, as opposed to a bunch of superheroes, in there, because then you're [thinking], "Oh god, if my friends and I just got caught in space we would be doing exactly that. We would be arguing about stupid shit." I think it's all relatable, in a way.