LOUSY CARTER Interview: Bob Byington and David Krumholtz on the State of Comedy

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LOUSY CARTER Interview: Bob Byington and David Krumholtz on the State of Comedy

[Managing Editor's note: In advance of the Locarno Film Festival last month, the production company behind Lousy Carter signed an Interim Agreement, approved by SAG-AFTRA, which permits members to participate in promotional activities. (Read more about the strike.)]

ScreenAnarchy met with Austin filmmaker Bob Byington and the leading actor of his latest film Lousy Carter, David Krumholtz (Oppenheimer), during the Locarno Film Festival last month. The interview has been lightly edited. 

ScreenAnarchy: I was surprised that you mentioned that the script originated based on the pandemic. Because when I saw the film, the first thing that popped into my mind that it was written by somebody in midlife crisis.

Bob Byington: Well, I'm almost in post-midlife crisis. I envy people having a midlife crisis because they're younger than I am. And I truly mean that. I'm not making a joke.

But I think the idea of a midlife crisis dovetails with the pandemic too, because there's a dire quality and I believe that selecting the character that we did and selecting the themes of the film, it coalescence. Are you in a midlife crisis kind of area [to David Krumholtz]?

David Krumholtz: Yeah. I found myself playing bongos and singing in two Grateful Dead cover bands in New Jersey. If that's not a midlife crisis or a manifestation of my midlife crisis, I don't know what is. And then Bob gave me a job to be Lousy Carter. So the timing was perfect for me.

What is your perspective on U.S. indie filmmaking? Ted Hope has a masterclass on the topic, and despite his name, the situation sounds hopeless.

Bob Byington: People who are motivated to get work done, get the work done. There's a story that I'm extremely fond of where Tom Noonan was talking to John Cassavetes about money and seeming to idealize how Cassavetes was able to get things made. 

And Cassavetes said, 'I think you have a really fundamental misunderstanding of what's going on. I'm going to get the movie made. I don't think about ... are things bleak or ... is it easy.' All he's thinking about is, 'I'm going to get the movie made.' I think that's the best policy.

David, you are working in indie films as well as mainstream and commercial fare. How do you see the situation?

David Krumholtz: My perspective is a little more tainted. It's tainted by having made a few films like Lousy Carter, not thematically or content-wise, but as the lead of the film, a few good small independent films. And I don't think it's hopeless.

I think that whenever you systemize something as precious as an independent film, you kind of ruin it. And I do think that now it's so much less about the quality of the independent film as it is about what agency gets behind the film, how behind the film they are, how they market the film, what festivals the film gets into.

You know, Sundance, for instance, chooses a lot of slow, tiny-budget, independent films with no celebrity involvement, but those films get completely swallowed up by eight to 10 indie films that star celebrities and that have marketing budgets. And so what does it matter?

Bob's perspective is different than I understand. He's concerned with getting the film made. As someone who has made a few of these films now as the lead, I'm more concerned with getting the film seen because some of my best work, some of my hardest work, has never been seen.

Bob Byington: I need to think more about getting them seen than I do. In fairness. And I'm not very good at it. I want to make them. I don't want to think about them getting seen. And that's a problem I see.

There is a lot of talk about how comedy has changed in recent years, that it is a completely different landscape now.

Bob Byington: I'm aware of that. And if you watch a stand-up routine of a comedian who was performing, say, 15 years ago, it's obviously very different. And I'm certainly nostalgic for an era where you can say anything. But I also think there are opportunities for comedy.

One of my favorite scenes in Lousy Carter is where we play with the idea of what he can and can't say. And I think if you stay motivated and if you stay flexible, there're opportunities for comedy. But I don't know, David's much funnier than I am. Do you [David] feel limited by the idea of what you can and can't say?

David Krumholtz: Yes, I do. However, this idea that there's no line in comedy is more of a sort of esoteric principle than actual applied truth. There is a line in comedy and it's important to understand where that is. However, comedy is everyone's.

It's like when I go see a drama or a horror movie, right? I know what scares me, but I don't go around scaring the shit out of people. That's what the movie is for. When I go see a drama, I may see a story that I have nothing to do with that I totally don't relate to, and I find solace in seeing other people suffer.

But with comedy, everybody thinks they're funny. Even the humorless people of the world think they're brilliant. So it's the it's the most heavily scrutinized genre of film by total laymen and people who are stupid.

So I love the fact that it's lively and it's controversial and it's worthwhile. It's evolving, and I also just believe now's not the time to make certain jokes but that time will return. I don't think comedy's going away. I just think people aren't in the mood to laugh at some of the tropes that have been well established. 

You know, much of what Hollywood makes is haphazardly and also purposely derivative of great stuff that has come already. And that's very true of comedy.

I think it´s more about finding fresh voices and to me, I mean nothing's funny if it's not extremely irreverent. So playing it safe in comedy is, I think, the mistake that a lot of studios have made the last few years and hopefully movies like this will encourage more irreverence.

You noted that Steven Soderbergh's SCHIZOPOLIS was a big influence on LOUSY CARTER.

Bob Byington: Oh yeah, that's a huge movie for me and I watched it again just before I wrote Lousy Carter.

LOUSY CARTER falls into the category of dark comedies, and the benchmark for them usually are films by Todd Solondz. Your film also appears to be near the work Bobcat Goldthwait does. Would you consider yourself to be part of this stream?

Bob Byington: I would not consider them inspiration or influence. I respect them and admire them, but they are not. But there's something about Soderberg and the way he made Schizopholis that was very fundamental to me and very appealing and very funny. And it just struck a chord with me.

Like why don't I try to simplify and make it as basic as I can, the way these characters communicate with one another and have them say what's simply on their minds to one another,  rather than any other sort of artifice or construct. To the degree that the film succeeds, it succeeds when it's doing that. I mean, Lousy is written as a character to be relatively unsympathetic. So we're asking the actor to bring something to the table.

That´s strange because he is the most sympathetic character.

Bob Byington: Because he's pathetic. I remember watching Badlands when I was a young man, and realizing that Martin Sheen was a killer. But we liked him and wanted good things for him because Sheen was so charismatic. It was like a kind of a light went on for me as a young person where I'm like if you're going to have your character saying things that aren't necessarily nice, then hire a likeable actor. And that's what we do. You're likeable actor, right?

David Krumholtz: Mmhmm.

Do you follow American comedy?

Bob Byington: I certainly used to gravitate more toward comedians than I do today. Although there are comedians, and I'm not going to name any names, that I miss. I miss when comedians could say more than they seem to be able to say today.

I hesitate to say this too but I when I look at Lousy Carter, I'll just go and say it, I wish Lousy Carter was more offensive. The things that disappoint me about the film have more to do with it pulling punches and I would love to make something without any punches pulled.

David, could you make it more offensive?

David Krumholtz: Could I make Lousy Carter more offensive? Yeah, that would be no problem.

Bob Byington: Easy. We have some material on the cutting room floor.

David Krumholtz: You know, for me, my blinders are up to everything. I don't watch anything. Not entirely true. I do watch a few things out of curiosity.

Bob Byington: This just makes you sound that you are saying, 'I'm better.'

David Krumholtz: I am.

Bob Byington: So just say that.

David Krumholtz: I am a massive comedy snob. So bad comedy or comedy I don't deem to be good makes me violently upset.

How do you know it's not good when you haven't seen it?

David Krumholtz: You got me.

Bob Byington: That should just be the last line of the piece and really make him look like a major asshole.

There is great chemistry between David and Martin Starr and their odd bromance. You knew this would happen?

Bob Byington: I knew I wanted to pair those two because I assumed they would have great chemistry on screen. And they're friends in real life. I was very excited to put them in a movie together.

David Krumholtz: My relationship with Martin in real life is: I cannot be around that man without having fits of laughter. He even doesn't need to say anything funny. I just find him incredibly funny. And I think the feeling's mutual. So we have a compatible dynamic.

And was there a lot of improvisation with Martin?

David Krumholtz: Not with Martin and I. Most of that was written succinctly. But to capture some dynamic that Martin and I have, I think.

Bob Byington: David will improvise and then he'll tell you that he's giving you gold. And he's giving you unusable material. So you have to fight him a little bit, but then he'll improvise and be great.

David Krumholtz: I know when I'm good. I know when I'm bad.

Bob Byington: You kept telling me that “leave it to the damn Japanese” was a great improvised line, and that's the worst improv I've ever heard in my life. Do you remember that?

David Krumholtz: Didn't you write that? t

I feel like Dick Anthony has become a running joke. Is it the case or it's just coincidence?

Bob Byington: I was writing this script, Dick Anthony did not exist. I talked to a friend of mine, he said you should have a character named Dick Anthony. And in the next scene, I put Dick Anthony in the movie.

David Krumholtz: Is Dick Anthony someone?

Bob Byington: Have you seen the film?

David Krumholtz: Yes. But I'm saying, is Dick Anthony someone now who's gained some sort of attention? Like is there a real Dick Anthony that people are talking about? No, I misunderstood.

Bob Byington: It's also based on the idea of moving out of a high school environment into college and wanting to have a new identity, which is a very interesting idea to me. Not one that I personally tried to execute or dealt with, but someone close to me, I knew them in high school. and then watched them recreate themselves in college, including a new name. And that was always something I wanted to put in.

David Krumholtz: You're talking about yourself. Your name isn't Bob Byington, too.

Bob Byington: And I'm not going to say who it was. 

What I found amusing that you have Andrew Bujalski in the cast, the godfather of mumblecore.

Bob Byington: He is the godfather of mumblecore.

How did the collaboration arise?

Bob Byington: Well, he just lives in Austin and we're friends. I just think he's a very funny actor. I just knew I wanted him in the film. We actually brought him and Macon Blair in together to try to determine where they were going to be in the movie. It was clear that Macon was going to play Dick Anthony almost right away. Andrew is a phenomenal actor.

There was a mention at the press conference about LOUSY CARTER being verbose. But you do not see your film as a sort of mumblecore.

Bob Byington: No. I got thrown in that [group] because I was working with Justin Rice, a huge mumblecore figure. And when I put him as the lead in Harmony and Me, suddenly it was a mumblecore film, which it isn't.

But Andrew made an excellent point when he said -- because Andrew's not that thrilled by mumblecore either -- “Look, I mean, if it it makes someone interested in seeing the film, fantastic.  Whatever you can use to get someone to see the film, great”. So, I don't necessarily resent the fact that it was labeled mumblecore because it made more people see it.

David Krumholtz: Honestly, that kind of labeling of indie films I think is harmful. I don't know what mumblecore is, to be honest with you, even with your description of it. And I don't care.

You say the labeling is bad for the comedy but comedy is quite a big notion. You have dramedies, tragicomedies, traumedies…

Bob Byington: Traumedies?

Like trauma and comedy…

Bob Byington: I like that. I've never heard that.

David Krumholtz: I'm of the opinion that there is one funny. There's only one kind of funny.

So you would consider Bob's films in the same category as JACKASS production?

David Krumholtz: To some extent, yeah. About human frailties. Yeah, absolutely.

Bob Byington: The first Jackass is far superior to the other films. So I don't know if you should lump them all together.

I mean in terms of comedy.

David Krumholtz: The idea being human frailty, is funny. Watch me get shot out of a cannon into a brick wall. I'm going to be in pain. You're laughing at the fact that the person was willing to put himself in pain. It's the same exact theme as Lousy Carter.

Bob Byington: I think it's a little bit of an overreach.

David Krumholtz: I disagree.

Bob Byington: David's very smart about comedy.

David Krumholtz: There's only one funny. But it's a massive thing.

The ending, which we won't spoil, was a bit surprising. I mean I was expecting that to happen but in a less dramatic manner.

Bob Byington: We see the funeral photo at the beginning and then at the end, you know, we think it was a mistake. But I always knew this was going to happen.

I find the ending as a bit of a hyperbole, so I wondered whether it was intentional or whether there is a different notion behind it.

Bob Byington: I don't know. That's a good question.

But it's not a political statement, right?

Bob Byington: No.

You did not find it too far, David?

David Krumholtz: No, it parallels The Great Gatsby.

Bob Byington: That was accidental.

But the film has a tone, a certain style, and then you are going off the chart.

David Krumholtz: We had discussions about that because I reacted similarly. It surprised me, but I think the manner in which the manner in which Bob handles it, is actually still quite funny.  And stays within the tone. Anything can happen, right?

Bob Byington: I'm certainly dismayed by the fact that what´s happening in America which is relayed in the scene. I mean that's crazy. And that's partly why it is in the movie. Is that it's un-fucking-believable, obviously, that our kind of culture is totally absurd and in the worst way imaginable. It doesn't make any sense.

The film enjoyed its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival. 

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Bob ByingtonDavid KrumholtzLocarno Film FestivalLousy Carter

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