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Choose Your Own Adventure: An Interview with DC Pierson of DERRICK

DC Pierson

If you fancy yourself a storyteller, chances are you specialize in a certain type of storytelling, for this is the Age of Specialization and storytelling has not been spared from its wrath. You could be any number of different types of specialist: A novelist, a poet, a blogger; an actor, a screenwriter, a director;  a sketch comedian, a stand-up comic, an improviser. Or you could be DC Pierson and specialize in all of them. Because why not, right?

If you already know DC you were probably introduced through YouTube, where he and his cohorts from DERRICK Comedy – DC, Donald Glover, Dominic Dierkes, Dan Eckman, and Meggie McFadden – have struck gold to the tune of more than 50 million viewings of their online videos. In the next year the rest of the world will become aware of him as well, thanks to the upcoming release of DERRICK’S self-produced first feature film, Mystery Team, which DC co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in, and the publication of his first novel, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To, early in 2010.

Sketch comedian, filmmaker, and novelist would make for a pretty full plate if that was all he loaded it with, but DC selects from the entire buffet. That claim from the first paragraph was not hyperbolic: He actually does all those things. And more. Hell, he even raps a little!

At his website, Ham Fisted Theatrics, DC showcases much of his work in short stories, poetry, and music and currently is in the middle of a highly-praised daily series chronicling his first 100 days in LA, having recently moved there with the rest of DERRICK. The series showcases his knack for finding the hidden wisdom and subdermally-located nuances and peculiarities in simple daily activities. Anyone can tell the story of what happened. It takes a masterful storyteller to convey what was happening while it happened. DC has an ability to vividly, genuinely, and comically relate that neutral stimuli.

In many ways DC Pierson has become the consummate storyteller, but no way more than in his ability to let the story choose its own medium of telling. I asked him about this and his answer will serve as the theme of the piece:

I don’t think your creation is meant to be a conglomeration of everything that interests you shoved into the first place they’ll fit. You might have an idea and think there’s a poem there. Or maybe there’s a little bit more to it and you can imagine a short story. Maybe a whole world is revealed and you write a novel. Or it feels visual and should be represented as a movie. Maybe it’s a rap lyric or a sketch idea or stand-up joke. Having the willingness to work in different media means nothing gets lost, nor do you ever have to shoe-horn anything into the wrong situation. A good idea doesn’t work if you have to force it.

Without further ado, let’s swap stories with DC Pierson!

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GROWING UP DC: THE FORMATIVE YEARS

I was that quintessential indoor kid. I really, really was. I got a bike when I was whatever age you get a bike, and my dad taught me how to ride it. I had the training wheels and everything, and that was fine. I stuck with it. Then he took the training wheels off and I rode it down the block and back around. No problems. Then I put the thing in the garage, closed the door, and never rode my bike again. And, summarily, I forgot how to ride a bike, which you’re not supposed to be able to do.

Your block and the world of the kids on your block are supposed to be this microcosm that you grow up in. You don’t get to select those friends; you just play with the kids on your block. That seemed like such an unknown quantity to me. Staying inside was so much more controllable. It’s not that I didn’t like playing with other kids, because I did, when I would find other freakazoids at school that I got along with. Like my childhood best friend, Trevor. He was into the same nerdy stuff I was and we would spend most of our time being weird together. But as far as my block went, I don’t know, I was just sort of terrified of it. So when kids would come to the door asking if I wanted to come out and play I would tell them that my mom said I had to stay inside, even though that was not the case. And then they would go away and my mom would ask who was at the door and I’d be like, “Don’t worry about it.” Of course she would’ve wanted me to go outside and play, but I was so much more comfortable reading my books and drawing my pictures, in my own world having a blast.

EXCERPT FROM THE BLOG: LEAVING NEW YORK

A lot of friends, when tolerating a fast, discursive, hugely whiny thought of mine about leaving New York recently, have responded “You can always come back.” Which is totally true. And I honestly can’t wait to come back. I know people who are just moving here now, in the summer, and I am so jealous that they get to move a mattress up eight flights of stairs in Bushwick and then go downstairs that night, covered in dried sweat and buzzed from exhaustion and post-moving beers and think, “Well, I’m here now.” You can move to New York any number of times but you can only move there for the first time once, and if you are just having that experience now, or you are planning to soon, or considering it as a vague-someday-thing, I’m jealous. And if you’re thinking about it, do it. I don’t worry about that being bad advice because the people who move here are going to move here and the people that aren’t, aren’t. (More snobbish predestination talk from somebody who’s only lived here five and a half years and is awfully fucking anxious about whether or not he can be said to be a “New Yorker” and is very worried that the most that can be said about him is that for a time he “lived in New York.”)

THOUGHTS ON TIMELESSNESS, TIMELINESS, & TECHNOLOGY

We have no way of knowing what’s going to be canonized or selected as “the thing” until way down the road, so we shouldn’t shoot for that. You shouldn’t try to last forever. But by the same token, I don’t think you should bat for being timely, either. The reason DERRICK never did a Bush/Cheney sketch is because while it might’ve been funny a year ago, now it just seems like old hat. Anything that seems cool and of-the-moment is only a moment from seeming uncool. There’s nothing lamer than the thing that seemed really current a week ago.

When I was in college I got very into mp3 blogs, because they were constantly putting out new songs that these up-and-coming bands had just cut in their garage, and it was really cool being on the ground floor of the “next big thing.” But I exhausted of it very quickly, as did a lot of people, because these bands that were so pure and untouched and amazing based on their four songs couldn’t stand up to that hype, nor should they ever be expected to. They weren’t ready for primetime, they only had four songs! So then, two weeks later, we would reject them just as passionately as we had believed in them two weeks before. There’s something really sucky about that unforgiving accelerated hype cycle, whereas had this band been given three years to write songs and learn to play live they might’ve been able to create something more rich and potentially timeless. But on the other hand, that same technology that forced us to consume them too quickly is what allowed us to consume them at all. This is the technology of the times, even if it does seem really paper-thin right now. Eventually this will all seem nostalgic.

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THE MOVIE: MYSTERY TEAM

Was it always the plan to make the movie independently?

DC: Mystery Team, yes. We brought a different script out to LA that we were sort of excited about, but not that excited about and pitched it around a bit while developing the idea. Nobody wanted to make it, so we were like, “Oh, that’s a bummer.” But we weren’t too bummed out that no one wanted to make it, and that probably should’ve told us something. I guess it did, because we didn’t end up making that movie. But what the experience of pitching told us most was that no one was going to let us make a “DERRICK movie”, whatever that might be, so if we wanted to do that we would have to make it ourselves.

What were the benefits to making it yourselves?

DC: It meant there could be no one with a controlling interest breathing down our necks saying so-and-so needs to be played by Zac Efron and these bad songs need to be in there. And no one could make us cut it down and sell it to TNT. It’s great that someone wanted to distribute the movie theatrically, but it was also great that if we didn’t get the right deal, we could always throw the movie in the back of our car and take it from town to town if we wanted. Or we could sell the DVD on our website. Or run it on Video OnDemand. Getting a theatrical deal that you’re really happy with is NOT a likely thing. It did end up working out and we’re in a situation that we’re really happy with, but that’s because we only had to obey the dictates of our own tastes and conscience.

Was there fear that in this global economy it was the wrong time to take on such an epic pursuit?

DC: Far from it. It’s a great time to take risks. I was reading this interview with Steven Soderbergh about making the film Che and then doing a road show for it. It’s this incredibly non-commercial four and a half hour movie and he was talking about how during times like this the practical thing is to be a little crazy. People are looking at the recession like it only makes sense to tighten your belt and play it safe right now, where as the lesson to be learned is that playing it safe doesn’t work. Because everyone was playing it safe. This is only the end result of people’s best thinking and safest choices in the past. I couldn’t agree more. The conventional thing presently is to be unconventional.

What was the writing process like knowing that you would then have to produce the film yourselves?

DC: From the start we wrote around things we knew we could accomplish. You don’t want to write this pie in the sky script and then have to tamp it down. It was important to write it as manageable as possible, because even that’s going to end up being unmanageable when you’re filming. And we needed the script really tight because there wasn’t going to be much room for error or playing around on set. The first few drafts were largely about making sure the mystery tracked. No one is going to watch this movie and think it’s the greatest mystery of all time, but hopefully when held up to the harsh light of day it will come across as a really funny movie with a mystery that basically holds up. Once it felt like that was working and the beats of the story were in order, we went back and did joke polishing. We did maybe 13 or 14 joke polishes of the whole movie, always trying to beat those last jokes. We would literally sit there for two to three hours sometimes on one joke, and kind of pitch off of each other. You’d just be sitting there in a prone position talking to yourself, trying to work out a joke. It’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t look like any work.

So how were you able to manage on set?

DC: It’s largely a credit to Dan and Meggie that we pulled it off. Dan, because a director’s job is to mediate between the vision in his head, the execution of the script, and then what you actually have to work with on the day of, which is not always everything you need. It’s a behemoth even when you have a big budget, let alone when everything has to be cheap, if not free. And it’s a credit to Meggie, as the producer, because the sheer number of different things she had to handle was baffling. A lot of people wonder what a producer does on a movie? The answer is a producer does FUCKING EVERYTHING. The producer has to worry about all the legal shit, making sure people are where they need to be when they need to be there, that they’re getting paid, that all these union contracts are being followed. The list is infinite. And Meggie executed it flawlessly.

Did your internet video background prepare you for the endeavor or was it a whole different ballgame?

DC: There’s some natural progression. We always tried really hard to make the videos look like short movies as opposed to internet videos. Dan took the time to plan out the shots and execute them to best serve the ideas and jokes we were trying to get across. As a result we would get these comments like, “This looks really great. What camera did you use?” What they were really asking is how we made something look that good or be directed that well. Dan did have a pretty nice camera, but it’s not about that, it’s about how you use it.

Did you encounter a lot of naysayers throughout the process?

DC: Not naysayers necessarily. There was a general feeling amongst the people we told that it was really cool we were making a movie, but they’d believe it when they saw it. And then once we completed the movie, it was really cool that we’d made it, but they’d believe it when they saw it in theaters. And even now that it’s coming out in theaters, they’ll believe it when it’s a success.

So people don’t believe you can make a movie until you make it, and then they believe that everyone can do it, right?

DC: The truth is, anybody can make a movie. You just have to be willing to work really hard on more levels and in more facets than you could ever imagine. It’s about getting up early and working really hard, which people don’t want to think about, because getting up early and working really hard sucks. That’s the thing: People want to think somebody hands you the opportunity to make a movie. They don’t want to think about all the effort put into the various processes that go into making a movie before you ever start making it. People don’t want to think about those parts.

Hard work is clearly necessary, but talent has to be a pretty big factor, no?

DC: I don’t think it’s about your talent. Or at least I wouldn’t want to. David Mamet has this thing about, would you like to think that you are just preternaturally gifted and all these things that you have just came to you? Or would you like to think that it’s about working really hard? I choose hard work, because that can be controlled. Talent, not so much.

It seems to be a common conception that, for all a person’s talents or hard work, you need connections in order to make it in “the business.” Has that been your experience?

DC: There are different ways to look at that. Having connections isn’t just about having a family member in the industry. It can also mean that if you keep doing the things that you love to do as best and as constantly as you can, along the way you’re going to meet people. Maybe they can’t do anything for you now because they’re just coming up alongside you, but eventually you both might be in positions, thanks to your hard work, where you can help each other out. And not as a form of nepotism, but because it’s easier to work with people you like and trust.

What has stood out to you about the response at screenings?

DC: The thing we’ve really enjoyed is that people seem refreshed by being asked to give a little bit of a shit. Mystery Team is a comedy first, but we also wanted to invest the story and characters with heart; not heart in the sense of emotional manipulation or forced feeling; just people laying their messy emotions on the table and expecting you to respond to them. That’s what is really cool about the reaction to the Apatow comedies the past few years. Knocked Up is my step-mom’s favorite movie. It’s also one of my favorite movies, and a lot of my generation really responded it. But my step-mom would never in a million years like what she considered to be a dick and fart comedy for people in college. If you look at a lot of film and TV comedy, there’s so much ironic detachment to it. Like, here’s an 80′s dance sequence and a wink and a smile. There seems to be this notion that to make a funny movie you can never ask the audience to care on any level. We think our movie is funnier because you invest in it.

This seems to be a common theme in a lot of your endeavors. What is it exactly about ironic detachment that rubs you the wrong way?

DC: Irony is such a dangerous k-hole and smarter people than me have written about how it can’t be criticized because it’s already set itself up in opposition to itself before you can criticize it. There are David Foster Wallace essays that put it better than I ever could. It just seems you never get to enjoy anything if you’re constantly analyzing how much and in what way you’re enjoying it. The people and the artists I’ve really responded to are the ones who aren’t saying, “Isn’t it funny that this is me and my thing?” They’re saying, “This is me and my thing.” I just think doing what you do and liking what you like, without apologizing for it, is pretty damn cool.

So what’s next for the pretty damn cool Mystery Team?

DC: We just made this short film that premiered at Comic-Con and is now on the internet and we would love to make like ten thousand more of those because we’re still excited about the idea and love the characters so much. But we don’t know if the movie is going to be a success or not. It opens in select cities starting this month and then nationwide in October. We hope the theatrical release goes about the same as every other stage, which is very serendipitously, in the sense that things haven’t turned out exactly the way we expected, but at the end of the day things have really worked out for this movie.

And how about you? What’s next for DC Pierson in “the biz?”

DC: I went to school for dramatic writing and I would still love to write for television or work on independent screenwriting. I’ve had the opportunity to act some small parts in a couple movies recently and it’s been a blast. I would gladly do more of that.

Acting on other movies must be like a vacation now, huh?

DC: Total vacation. I love being “talent” on other sets. You get to be a hero for VERY little reason, because all you’re doing is goofing around on camera for a few minutes. Not to minimize it, but at the end of the day that’s kind of what it is. You’re just expected to come in and do your little thing, maybe you’re improvising and you try to crack the crew up, then you go home. And you get paid for it, which is NUTS.

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LOVE OF MUSIC: RAP

mc DJ – Steampunk (DC Pierson Freestyle)


I started listening to rap music in a very dilettantish way: I think The Roots was the first group I liked, because there was this apologist thing, like “They play real instruments so it’s more music than other rap.” And I listened to stuff like Nelly, because it’s what was on the radio. But then I heard Notorious B.I.G and that was it, I was hooked. Biggie was a virtuoso in terms of lyricism and I dug the way his songs were really hard and dark and fucked up, but the thing that appealed to me most was the whole mythology he created for himself. He was like, “I’m a fat black guy with a cockeye and I’m going to be a sex symbol to you. You’re going to love me.” And it became true! That was so unbelievably cool to me. And NO ONE in rock n’ roll was like that at the time. At one point they were: Led Zeppelin was on-stage announcing that they were Gods. But all of that was gone from contemporary rock music. Especially in the current indie rock, where it was like, “I’m a skinny white guy with glasses. Sorry I’m up here.” Hip hop wasn’t like that. Rappers took that rocker ideal and made it their own. Which is why it should come as no shock that hip hop has gone through this love affair with rock star imagery the past few years, the result of which is a lot of shitty fashion in rap music, but that’s another thing altogether.

LOVE OF MUSIC: JASON ANDERSON

One of my favorite musicians of the past couple years is this guy named Jason Anderson who writes a lot of songs about being in cars with girls. Many of his songs are very clearly ripped directly from his own life, but the way he puts it makes you go back and look at moments from your own life and say, “I’ve experienced stuff like that.”  There’s one particular song where he’s talking about being in a car with a girl driving to the beach “and the radio played Usher.” And he isn’t saying that the radio was playing Usher and isn’t that ironic and hilarious. He’s just saying that the radio played Usher. And it was probably a pretty good song, just not the perfect one. And I really like that, because I’ve very rarely been in a car with a girl where the radio played the perfect song, but I’ve definitely been in a car with a girl when the radio played Usher. It wasn’t the perfect song for that moment, but it’s still the song that was playing IN that moment.

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THE NOVEL: THE BOY WHO COULDN’T SLEEP AND NEVER HAD TO

The novel is being described as ET meets Superbad, which I find funny because neither is a novel. How would you describe it?

DC: ET meets Superbad sounds cool because Superbad is really good and I fucking love ET more than anything in the world. I’m not sure that’s what I wrote, but I’ll take it. I’ve had the idea in some version since high school. It’s a coming of age story that turns into a sci-fi adventure about a weird, nerdy high school kid that forms a bond with an even weirder kid who it turns out has no biological need for sleep. There’s a whole lot more to this boy who doesn’t sleep and the story is about these two kids and that development. It starts in a mundane high school setting and then I layered science fiction on top of it, which is hopefully where the cool contrast comes from.

Did you sell it and then write it or vice versa?

DC: It was done and in good shape before I ever even thought about showing it to anyone. I wrote it to write it, with the idea of getting it published, but I was never angling for that by any stretch of the imagination. I only told three or four people that I was even working on it. It was nice that no one had to know except me and my laptop. And showing the finished book is a lot more satisfying than pitching the idea or showing a summary or work-in-progress.

You are very protective of your creations, holding onto them until they are totally ready for public consumption. Why is that important to you?

DC: You can get into this place, especially with social networking, where you’re talking about what you’re doing a lot. I’m always worried that getting too much feedback as you’re doing it can dissuade you from going crazy in your own little world. If I’ve learned anything from doing the book and movie it’s that this is not the way it’s typically done. A lot of the process seems built around this notion that you’re almost wasting your time if you don’t just have an idea and then sell it around. Be it in publishing with a book proposal or in movies with a pitch you then get paid to develop. There seems to be an institutional prejudice against the idea of completing something and then showing it. DERRICK, as a group, doesn’t subscribe to that idea. We’re not into letting people in on the process. We are very much about finishing it and then showing it to you.

What sort of books do you enjoy?

DC: The things I respond to the most are kind of genre-colliding rather than in their own column. My favorite sci-fi author is this guy Neal Stephenson who wrote Snow Crash and this three book series The Baroque Cycle, which is this huge, six or seven thousand page cycle about pirates and the creation of modern economics. He sort of effortlessly synthesizes a lot of time periods and styles and isn’t afraid to try on a bunch of different hats; isn’t afraid to cram a bunch of different stuff together and never lets himself get pigeon-holed by any one genre. And then I also like musician biographies a lot. I have to stop myself from reading too many music-related books, because it’s all I’ll read if I let myself. Since I want to be a novelist I know I should be consuming novels all the time, but when it comes down to reading some other guy’s first novel or a biography of Joe Strummer, I’m probably going to choose Joe Strummer.

What’s the plan for the book’s release?

DC: It’s coming out in 2010 through Vintage/Anchor. I haven’t thought too much about publicizing it yet, just because we’ve been so in the trenches on Mystery Team. I would like to do something that resembles a book tour, but it probably won’t be paid for by my publisher, God love ‘em. I ran it by them and they were like, “Yeah, that doesn’t work anymore.” Which was sort of a bummer. The publishing industry, like most industries right now, is trying to figure out how to use technology instead of letting it use them; trying to find ways to reach young people. But I’d really like to do something where I get to actually go and meet the people who are interested in the book. Things like web marketing and internet word-of-mouth and low-cost advertising are nice, but I think there is something so irreplaceable about being there in the flesh, present in people’s lives. It’s really un-fuck-with-able.

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GROWING UP DC: THE TEENAGE YEARS

The big dilemma for me growing up was that I thought I was hilarious and the other kids didn’t. I was into what I thought was smart, funny stuff like Monty Python and other kids thought I was weird and kind of creepy. They weren’t that into me. But I kept going with it and being that way and eventually there was a conversion. Eventually they came around to thinking I was funny. Or maybe I just started expressing myself in a way that was not entirely creepy to other people. Probably some combination thereof.

Middle school was kind of miserable, just because middle school is miserable for anybody. A friend of mine was saying that if you were happy in middle school, you’re damaged. There’s something wrong with you and you’re not equipped for adult life. So I hated middle school because you’re supposed to or you’re messed up.

High school was much better. I was in this program called Theatre Company and was really happy within that context. It was essentially public school Drama Club, but an extremely unique version. We performed six mainstage shows a year and tons of student-directed one act plays. And it wasn’t a situation where theatre kids were only liked in theatre and outcasts to the rest of the school. My friends and I weren’t cool, we were just accepted for what we were: Those funny kids who make all those plays. The other kids wouldn’t come see our plays, but they thought it was hilarious in English class when we made fun of the teacher.

EXCERPT FROM THE BLOG: 100 DAYS IN LA

Lying in bed on Tuesday night I for some reason think of a phase I went through in high school where I had a thing against “nice people.” I was fond of saying that I would rather someone be interesting than “nice.” What a douchebag! What a position of privilege! Kindness has a hard enough time in this world without people attacking it for being unsexy. Man it was great to have so little of substance going on that you had time for cool-sounding but essentially retarded opinions on human relations like that. If you are an adult and you still have time for half-baked reality-show-sound-byte “I’m the type of person where…” proclamations to make you sound callous and cool and unique, if you have time to subscribe to them in any way or form or fashion, I think you are not done yet and somebody should put you back in the Oven Of Personality. If your central tenet is not some variation on Let’s Try To Make Life Sane And Safe For Love And Fun And Not Be Jerks To Each Other, then I don’t know what you’re after and I don’t really want to.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Since I’ve been writing the first 100 Days in LA the thing that keeps coming up when I get positive feedback is something to the effect of, “You take this little experience that I’ve had before and you look at it in this different way,” and I really appreciate that, because if I had to sit down and choose one central theme to try and get across it’s that I really believe we need to start expecting more out of our lives, and that begins by looking at these things we do on a daily basis with a sense of adventure and dignity.

So much of our lives are these standardized, controlled experiences that are planned out and imbued with technology, and there’s this great feeling amongst people that they lack control and never get to do anything interesting. And I don’t think that’s okay. But I don’t think we should all go live in the woods or come up with a different way to wear shoes, either. It’s really just about coming up with a different way to look at things. We have lives that are so rich with opportunities and materials and choices, we don’t have to feel a lack of control; our lives deserve to be treated with a sense of dignity. And the fact that every one of us isn’t doing something completely, utterly original is a real tragedy.

Too many people have this attitude that they aren’t smart enough, or talented enough, or they don’t know what they want out of life. “I’m not one of those people.” You are one of those people. Choose to be one of those people. If we start to view our mundane everyday lives as adventures, then we start to think we might actually deserve real adventures.  We can look at life like something we have to get through that’s depressing for how unlike the movies it is, or we can view it as adventure practice.

Thanks, DC, you tell one hell of a story.

My name is Ben and I interviewed him.

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This has been the third in my series of interviews featuring comedians with unique styles. My goal is to find the soul of what an artist or group does best, then mold the interview to best reflect that. In doing so, hopefully, I can offer a glimpse of the creative process. You can read the previous two interviews here.

August 18, 2009 Posted by | Interviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

   

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