The most challenging films about the stand-up world, including Chicago-based filmmaker Ned Crowley’s Middle Man, dwell, sometimes unbearably, in despair. The viciousness of the comedy format is easily accessible, as most contemporary stand-up is fueled by aggression. Even the parlance is violent: to perform well is to “kill,” to fail is to “bomb.”
Middle Man (which screens as part of the Chicago International Film Festival) is a bloody comment on the stand-up scene and selling one’s soul for a taste of fame. Following his mother’s death, a middle-aged accountant (Jim O’Heir, Parks and Recreation) drives from Peoria, Illinois, to Las Vegas in the hope of becoming a famous stand-up comedian. Along the way, he picks up a devilish hitchhiker (Andrew J. West) who lures him into murdering a heckler after an open mike in Lamb Bone, Nevada. Bizarrely, homicide seems to make the aspiring comedian’s material funnier. And the more people he kills, the more his audience laughs.
The film’s title derives from the name for the comedian at a stand-up show who is sandwiched between the (most often) young and optimistic opener and the headliner. The middle man, or middler, typically lacks the opener’s naiveté and the headliner’s star power. He or she is, more often than not, middling, and knows it—resulting in a more caustic, sometimes hostile, comedic style.
Crowley understands that person, and that lifestyle, better than most. The chief creative officer at the McgarryBowen advertising agency in the Loop started out as a comedian at the Players Theatre and Second City in the late 1980s and 1990s. His contemporaries included Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, and Matt Walsh, who went on to cofound the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City; as well as O’Heir, whom Crowley met through the Chicago comedy scene in 1987.
Over coffee at Atomix Cafe, Crowley and I discussed the pitfalls of a life in comedy, making a labor of love on a shoestring budget, and how his long-standing friendship with O’Heir inspired his directorial debut.
Leah Pickett: Tell me a little about yourself. What brought you to Chicago?
Ned Crowley: I grew up in Massachusetts, south of Boston, and moved to Chicago right after college because I got a job at an advertising agency. I had an art background and a business degree, and I was hired for the business side of things. So while I was doing that, I got into sketch comedy at Second City, which I’d done a little of in college.
I never thought of myself as a writer until I came to Chicago. I didn’t write anything. I saw myself more as an artist. I liked to draw cartoons. And then somebody said, ‘You’re a writer.’ Somebody from work came up to me after one of my comedy shows and said, ‘You’re in the wrong end of the business. You should be on the creative side.’ It was liberating.
What was the impetus for writing and directing Middle Man?
When I started writing this, it was a project for all of my actor friends at the time, and Jim [O’Heir] was definitely the guy. And then it went into mothballs for a while; I didn’t really think about doing it myself. Then about a year and a half ago, we pulled it out, and I was like, ‘You know what, now might be a good time. I’ll take time off of work, and let’s go do it, because I’m tired of trying to get other people to do it.’ And I thought maybe we could figure out a way to make something that looked like we spent a ton of money without having to spend a ton of money. So, we decided it would have to be pretty dialogue-heavy, because we didn’t have a lot of money to do an action picture.
The film takes place in this little town about 100 miles outside of Vegas, this hellish trap of a town. I had two producers—who were the reason we got this film made, Bill Fortney and Roger Petrusson, and who I’d worked with commercially. And I kept talking to them and saying, ‘We’re going to find this little town that’s exactly what we need, in Nevada somewhere. And then we’ll just bring everybody there and we’ll shoot it.’ Well, when we worked the numbers out, it was impossible to do that. So we realized we had to shoot it right outside of LA.
All of the desert sequences were shot in Palmdale, California, though we did go to Vegas for the end sequence. In fact, a lot of films have been shot [in Palmdale]. The church in Kill Bill is near there. And we found one set called the Four Aces, and it had a combination of a gas station, a motel, and a diner. So, we were able to group a lot of the shooting around there, and also shoot the surrounding desert.
Were you influenced by other films or television shows? I got a Lynchian vibe from some of the characters and scenes.
I love David Lynch. There are a couple of moments in the film [that are] inspired by him. I haven’t seen Blue Velvet in years, but I remember when I first saw it, there’s this scene that’s so creepy. It’s when Kyle MacLachlan finds two guys in a room, and one’s sitting in a chair, dead, and the other’s standing, and he’s dead. And it just had this weird-ass vibe. And I’m like, ‘If I can capture that, at the end of the film, that’d be cool.’ So I tried to do that, but without being derivative.
It’s funny, some reviews of the film have said it’s got a Breaking Bad vibe, even though I wrote the original screenplay ten years ago. And a lot of other people have said it has a Coen Brothers vibe, with the attention to dialogue and making even a small character feel like a big character—which I did try to do.
Middle Man begins with a quote attributed to the silent-film actor and comedian Fatty Arbuckle: “No price is too high to pay for a good laugh.” Arbuckle was accused and ultimately acquitted of the rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe, who died in his hotel room under mysterious circumstances. Was Arbuckle’s story the basis of this film?
It was, in a way. When I was doing comedy in Chicago, I was in a group called White Noise, and there was another group that we hung out with at the time too. There were two kind of competing comedy groups; and a good friend of mine, Matt Walsh, who’s on Veep now, was in the other one. And we always used to get together and have parties and stuff and joke about old comedians, doing impressions of Jerry Lewis and others. I’m not sure if we were making fun of them, or loved them, or a little bit of both. So there was a lot of that I wanted to tap into.
Also I saw Dean Martin in a restaurant, years ago, just before he died, and it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. He was all alone, and it was crushing. Because you have this idea of who people are, and then you find out the reality of it. So the Fatty Arbuckle story just fascinated me, because it was never really proven [that he raped and murdered Rappe] but it was what people thought. And it’s also the culmination of this whole story [in Middle Man], about making decisions in life.
But I’ll tell you this: The quote was like a gift from God at the end of this whole thing. I didn’t find it until toward the end of editing this movie. I was looking for something heavy, something to start the film off with and set the dark tone, and I thought maybe I should check and see if there were any quotes from Fatty Arbuckle that I could use. And I saw this, and was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s a gift. That’s the opening of the movie.’
The tone of the movie is interesting to me, too, because it changes slightly with each act—from dry, quirky comedy in act one to elements of a spaghetti western in act two to horror in act three.
Oh, yes, a lot of thought went into that. I definitely knew I wanted to strike this really deadpan tone—to have a lot of sharp dialogue and not stop for any laughs. To not go for the laugh, to try and play it straight. I knew I wanted to strike this balance of starting off a little light and then slowly sinking into dread throughout the film. And that can be hard for buyers, because they can’t put the film into a block. They can’t pigeonhole it. And so when we were testing the film, we were told, ‘You need to pull all of the comedy out, and make it a horror film,’ and ‘You need to change the ending.” And I said no, because this was the right balance for what we were trying to do.
I’m Catholic, so I always think there’s a subtext to everything in life. That’s what I like about so many of the Coen brothers’ films, like A Serious Man; I loved how it had an ambiguous ending. So with Middle Man, I wanted other people to be able bring their own ideas to the story. It could be about choices, it could be about good and evil. It is whatever you bring to it.
It used to be very hard for me to make decisions in life. I used to feel trapped, dangling between what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, not really knowing. And so, if anything, I tried to put that into the story, about this guy who is literally trapped in a town . . .
Like limbo, which is very close to the actual name of the town, Lamb Bone. Because I think a lot of people feel stuck, or are trying to get to another, better place.
Absolutely. I also feel like another big theme of Middle Man is that fame corrupts, especially when a person equates fame with love. Have you found that to be true?
I think anything that you really get lost in thinking you want over what is important corrupts, and can corrupt you. And I’m in a position where I can sit back and pontificate about it, but a lot of people don ‘t have the same opportunities, so they chase what they want, and I get that. But I’ve said this to Jim—Jim is the same guy he is today as he was 30 years ago. We all knew Jim was going to be famous, but the question was, ‘What will Jim become when he does become famous?’ And we’ve had other friends who’ve done it, who’ve gone off and become famous, or become incredibly wealthy, and it is interesting to see what happens to those people. But Jim’s an example of someone who didn’t change. When I sit down for a poker game with Jim and my other friends, I think, ‘He’s no different than the rest of us’ [chuckles]. You gotta keep your friends, because they keep you grounded.
I’m wondering if you feel the same way about this. It’s hard for me to go to comedy shows sometimes, particularly stand-up shows, because I get secondhand embarrassment. I absorb what the stand-up is feeling as they’re bombing, and it’s horrible. And I can feel the crowd getting annoyed, and the stand-up responding to that. It can get ugly.
Oh yeah. Those shows are full contact now. They weren’t that way back in the day. You might have had a heckler. But now it’s more participatory, with the comedians having contact with the audience.
I never go to comedy [shows now]. And I grew up doing that. I spent my first ten years here in Chicago doing it, and it was the best ten years of my life. Every Friday night, Jim or someone else would pick me up from work—I would mooch off them, because I didn’t have a car—and we’d go do our show, eight o’clock, Friday night at the Roxy, which was a comedy club on Fullerton near Ashland. We’d go there, do our show, and liquor up afterward. It was as close to a little rock band that we had, and I loved it. But I haven’t been to Second City in forever.
I do give a lot of credit to guys like Matt Walsh, who are still doing that. I directed his last show, with him and Amy [Poehler] before they left Chicago to go to New York. I like to think I can take great claim to fame for all of my friends in Chicago who become famous [laughs].
You should go see the film Don’t Think Twice. It was kind of hard to watch, because it was like my group. It really tapped into the spirit of it.
What was it like to be making sketch comedy in Chicago back then?
With my group, White Noise, we went through training outside of Second City, at the Players Workshop. We all met there, the six of us. We wrote our own sketch comedy and self-directed our first show. Our second show had interactive film and video—we’d go off onstage and show up on film—and it was a musical, a more cohesive kind of sketch-comedy show.
One of our most famous shows was a vehicle for Jim called Stumpy’s Gang, and it was a horror-comedy. It involved blood and puppets and Jim played this psychotic janitor. It was awesome. We ran that for a year, and then we went to midnight shows and ran it for another year, and then we did a proper play after that. And then Jim and my other writing partner Pat [Cannon] said ‘We’re going to make a go of it in LA,’ and we moved Stumpy’s Gang out there, and that’s where everything started for Jim.
I used to be onstage in my 20s; I would never do that now. But I think Chicago is a great place to start out. For us, we didn’t think twice. If we wrote something, it went up onstage. If you want to write, if you want to act, you can get stuff done here. It’s harder on the coasts to do the same thing that we were doing here.
Still, when those guys moved out of town, I had to tap back into the mentality of, ‘Yes, I can do this.’ I began writing on the side, and eventually turned to writing screenplays. But it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I tapped back into my White Noise mentality of, ‘I can just make this happen.’ And that’s how Middle Man happened.
Middle Man screens as part of the Chicago International Film Festival, Tue 10/18, 8:30 PM; Fri 10/21, 9:30 PM; and Sat 10/22, 12:30 PM.