Starpulse Q&A: Chit-Chat With the 'TalkShow' Host Spike Feresten
11/9/2007 3:56pm EST
Growing up, Spike Feresten's father gave him an education in comedy, fostering in him a craving for all things funny. Feresten sought humor in school, employing it in his assignments and in his reign as a class clown, thinking up ingenious pranks that he instructed his minions to carry out, managing his flock like the head of a Fortune 500 company. Feresten's wit eventually led him to a career as a television writer, where he worked for Letterman, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Now Spike is in charge of his own show, the hilarious and inspired Talkshow with Spike Feresten. If you haven't watched it yet, now's the time to start because while Saturday Night Live will be in repeats due to the writer's strike, Spike has a whole backlog of new episodes to showcase Saturdays at Midnight.
How are you this morning?
A little sleepy.
Are you usually up this early?
I didn't even get through my first cup of coffee, but, yeah, I'm up at six every morning. I just ate a lot of ice cream yesterday.
Why was that?
My godchild's birthday party.
And did you guys go see Bee Movie to celebrate?
No. I've seen it so many times, I couldn't stomach another viewing of it.
When I saw it yesterday at the end, the audience stood up and clapped.
Were they kids?
Kids and adults.
Wow, that's really nice. That's nice to hear.
What do you think of standing up to clap at the end of a show?
At the end of a show? [laughs] I don't believe I've ever done it. I'm reluctant to stand for anyone, and I'm usually the person who looks around and if other people are standing, I'll stand and be slightly annoyed. But I stand at the end of plays. That's generally when you stand and applaud.
It was interesting. I thought that Adam Flayman looked like you.
[laughs] Yeah! I've heard that.
Was that intentional?
No, I wish. I wish I was in the movie in that way. But it turns out there are lots of geeky looking guys with big rimmed glasses. [laughs] And I'm hearing more and more that I look like all of them. I look like Tina Fey…
Oh, I thought you were going to…
Yeah, I was going to continue but I had nothing else.
I picked up on some social commentary in Bee Movie. You were making a point on consumerism, outsourcing, immigration exploitation, man meddling with nature.
Yeah. I think you may have picked up on something that we may not have been doing, but we were trying to be funny a lot, and frequently, the tone of our jokes looks as if we do care about the larger issues of the day. But I don't. [laughs] We're just trying to make people laugh. And that's a funny thing with that movie. It did have a strong environmental message with the importance of bees, but it's accidental.
How did you feel with the word was getting out when the bees were in danger of just dieing out?
We were secretly very pleased that they were in the news and mirroring a story just like ours. Some of us suspected that Jeffrey Katzenberg was directly behind it and it was all some sort of publicity stunt.
Of all of the different projects that you've been in, which one would you say best reflects your own comedic sensibility?
That would be TalkShow. TalkShow is really an expression of me and what I like to write and what I like to do. It's where I started working on Letterman and writing this type of stuff and what I wanted to get back to. It's just wild, non-sequitur, oddball comedy that occasionally is commenting on what is going on in the world, and I can occasionally express my opinions on it.
You also worked on Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, which is also a very oddball type of program. Did you feel comfortable in that environment as well?
Yeah, I was very attracted to the Space Ghost show because I sensed that there wasn't a lot of supervision from the Cartoon Network, and they were just letting writers do whatever they wanted. And that was a very attractive idea to me and my writing partner, Steve O'Donnell, at the time. It was the most fun. What they did was give you a bunch of interviews with famous people, and you get to write their questions for them and make them look silly, and then what you do around it, you can do pretty much anything you want, and you don't have to explain yourself.
That was also the birthplace of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
[laughs] Yeah, they're doing a great job. I download it off iTunes, all the adult swim stuff, and then I watch it when I'm flying around because I have to fly around a lot. There's nothing better than flying around with a bunch of business men, like flying out on a Tuesday, watching Adult Swim. You feel so wrong looking at these buttoned up guys reading their Wall Street Journals and you're watching Adult Swim on your iTunes.
While you were working on Adult Swim, did you have any show ideas of your own that you wanted to pitch?
No. Do you have an idea?
[laughs] I just wrote two episodes. But I'm really into the Tim and Erik Awesome Show. That's my favorite show right now.
Is TalkShow filmed in the LA area?
TalkShow is filmed in Hollywood. East Hollywood. Not a very nice part of Hollywood, technically Little Armenia. It's not uncommon for us to find used needles on the sidewalk from heroin addicts.
Have you found time to immerse yourself in the Armenian culture?
I have. We take our cameras right off of the lot and frequently go door to door talking to people about various issues. I have met an awful lot of Armenian people and I love them. They have a great sense of humor, they have no idea who I am, and they like to talk.
You mentioned Letterman, and that's where you pretty much started working. Is that late night program something that's influenced you while growing up?
When I was in college I as pretty much directionless. I didn't know what I was going to do, I was in music school. I got caught one night, three years in, throwing light bulbs out of my eighth story window and get kicked out the following Monday. Then about two weeks later I was watching David Letterman. That was the only show I was watching on TV, was Letterman. Then I saw the show at 12:30 and I couldn't believe what they were doing. They were throwing light bulbs off of a tower, and I thought that that guy was getting paid what I got kicked out of the dorms for. I think there's a future for me in network television. I can be a screw up and get paid for it. And that, I find, to be pretty much true. You get paid to goof off. And with this show more than any other show. And you get to do it with a bunch of funny guys, writers, and staff. It's a great show.
So prior to then, had you contemplated a career in comedy?
My dad was a big comedy fan. He parked us in front of Jerry Lewis movies, he gave us George Carlin albums, we started buying Steve Martin albums, he put me in front of Saturday Night Live, he parked me in front of Carson, he introduced me to Jonathan Winters's comedy albums… It went back even further to guys like Ernie Koufax, then, like a lot of kids, I was watching Monty Python on PBS, just hoping to get that one sketch that had the naked lady. I watched a lot of TV comedy growing up, and that was my education and introduction into this whole world so it's only natural that I go into work to pay back the next generation of kids with a little comedy of my own.
Did your desire to see a naked lady in a comedy situation also lead you to see Animal House and Kentucky Fried Movie?
Yes it did. I was bigger fan of Animal House than Kentucky Fried Movie, although I understood what Kentucky Fried Movie meant to that generation, as a precursor to Saturday Night Live.
What were you like in school then?
I was they typical class clown. I found it was pretty easy to goof off and get laughs. I found where I was innovative in high school, instead of writing a paper in English class, I would write a funny Super-8 movie and shoot that, knowing that that was half the amount of work, and my teacher would be so surprised by this admittedly crappy movie about Darwin where I was literally reading from an Encyclopedia and shooting those scenes with my friends and their dogs. I figured out pretty quickly that I could skate by doing stuff like that and enjoyed it a lot more than doing a research paper with quotes and citations and all that crap.
Did humor ever get you in trouble in school?
Frequently. We used to organize these things called Mass Confusion. We had two hallways that intersected like an X, and we would organize Mass Confusions at noon, so after lunch everyone would go to the center of the X and clog it up; it would be Mass Confusion. Kids would start pushing and teachers wouldn't know what to do. That's the things that we like to do. Or taking the big Christmas tree that we had outside and jamming it into the principal's office without him knowing. My goal in high school was to do inspired vandalistic comedy, if vandalistic is a word… It had to be inspired so that when the principal was angry he was at the same time laughing. I found that a very good way to not get expelled. They would kind of chuckle and say, "That's very funny, but now clean it and we won't get in trouble."
What was the closest you ever came to being expelled?
I don't know if I was ever close to it, because I always had my minions doing my work for me. Let's take Mass Confusion. I made sure that I was sitting, facing the English teacher when it happened, because they suspected it was me organizing it. So I would sit in my English class at 11:59, my teacher would tell me I was dismissed. I'd tell her I knew, but I wanted to sit for a moment, that way when the principal asked "Where's Feresten?", the teacher would go "He was sitting right in front of me, I don't think he did it," and that would contribute to the mass confusion at the moment. I liked to write the pranks and write trouble and then have someone else do it. One time I super glued my biology teacher's chair down, so he couldn't pull it out. That time he knew I was the only person that would do that and he immediately sent me down to the office. Many times I was busted for things I didn't do, but many times they had no idea what I did do. I was kind of like the CIA of prankster comedy in high school.
Did you have any other outlets for your creative energy, like clubs or talent shows?
I was in drama club, I believe I was in yearbook, I was in marching band, I had my own rock band and I was in the jazz band. I figured when I was a little kid, like ninth grade when I was getting my books dropped and getting beat up on, that if I was a guitar hero and could get in a band and play Neil Young and the Rolling Stones at these parties, I wouldn't get beat up anymore. And I was right. By the time I made it to the senior year, I was being auctioned off. A date with me was being auctioned off, and believe me, I was a huge nerd at the time, but the girls loved me because I played guitar.
How much did you go for at the auction?
It was actually shut down by my hometown because it was an illegal auction or raffle, I guess. We never applied for licenses or anything so we were ordered to return the money, which we did not. We spent it on a keg of beer and we took it out to the woods and drank.
Did that result in any media attention for you at a young age?
It was a lot of chatter in the school, but it didn't make it into the police report of the town paper, thank God, otherwise my parents would have been a little upset.
Did you have any interest in student government?
No. My derelict friend Scuz, was the one I helped put into class council. It was more important to me to have someone important. You know like when the mob puts a senator in power and quietly back channel support? I was back channeling support from Scuz as class president because I knew I could manipulate the system more if I had him in power.
Did you write his speech and his slogans?
I had a little bit of a following, and I got him on board with that. All I said was I have control over a certain amount of people in the school, and you can get them if you can get me what I need.
It sounds like you were a young evil genius.
[laughs] I still am! It's really all the same stuff. I'm not kidding. When I come to work on TalkShow, it was the same thing. We talk about how to prank, how to talk, how to act on a certain issue. We think up of what would be really fun to do and really funny for people to watch.
After high school, or maybe during, was there a time where you ever performed standup, or sketch comedy on your own?
Not directly. I've never done either. But when I was in my first year of music school in Boston, I really wanted to continue acting because I was acting in my little high school plays. I used to star in the plays. So I went and did Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People in a local Harvard production. I played Morten Kiil Jr. It was a very small part, I think I had about three lines in this dark drama, but every time I did my lines I would get huge laughs, and it was very confusing to me until the end of the run. It was a short run; we only did it for two weeks. Well at the end of the run at the party, I asked someone to please tell me why I would be getting all these laughs at my lines. And everybody said ,"It's your terrible Boston accent." I don't even remember what the lines were, but my accent was so bad that even in these serious moments, it was making people laugh.
Was this around the time you befriended comedian Greg Fitzsimmons?
[laughs] No, it was not. But it was a time where I changed my accent and it came out Canadian, which is why I thought when someone told me that you guys were a Canadian site that I was going to be talking to my Canadian brothers. Do you know Greg Fitzsimmons?
I've interviewed him a few times and he mentioned you in one of the interviews.
Oh really? That's nice.
Yeah, I asked him about the affect that college had on his career in comedy. And he mentioned you because since you left college, it wasn't that much of an effect.
It really wasn't. You know what had the biggest effect on it, for me? The amount of TV I watched when growing up. And the amount of TV I continue to watch. You learn how to do it, and learn what works in a way. You start there and add your own little twist to it.
How's the writer's strike going to affect production on the show?
Being the executive producer, and host as well as a writer, I have to try to figure out a way to strike and protest myself. I'm not sure how to do that. How does one egg them selves? Do you have any idea?
No, but I guess with your background in pranking you would be the expert.
Yeah, I'm going to have to go on one side of the picket line and go "Fuck you Feresten!" and then run back to the other and go "Fuck me? Fuck you!" I really don't know. I think we're all at a loss today. Lets hope that it gets resolved quickly. Because it's not only writers bur it's crew and Pas too, and they're living paycheck to paycheck and they have families and the ripple effect is not a pretty thing.
You've managed to survive to be the longest running talk show on FOX, which is quite a feat with their history. What's your secret?
My secret for being the longest running late night talk show in FOX history is being on at a time, Saturday night at midnight, when the network doesn't know I'm there. They have no idea my show is on the air and that's why it keeps going. Should they find out someday, I think it might all be over. But for the time being, it's smooth sailing.
Have people been sending you unsolicited jokes? My MySpace page is where I interact with a lot with the people. I run my own page and I get to interact with the people. What they ask more than anything is, "Say my name on TV." That's the first thing they ask to which I respond, "Absolutely not." The second thing they ask is why my show so short. Why is it only a half of an hour?
What do you say to that?
I don't really respond to that. I like it when people desire more of you. That's a good thing. You want to leave people wanting more of you and you have to be careful of how you give it to them. People only have a certain appetite for a show and I think we're right where we're supposed to be.
Do you prefer this format, one half hour once a week?
Right now I'm having a lot of fun doing it. We're a show that flies under the radar, with a new host, and a capable cast of writers and production staff. We're having so much fun and the people who are watching it are enjoying it, that compared to some high profile shows, I kind of like this. Having just gone through the Bee Movie publicity machine, I like being there for the people who are watching and for us. Where it goes who knows? But so far people seem to really enjoy it.
I know one of the newer additions to your staff is Andres du Bouchet from New York. And how is it that you got a hold of him?
Well, with Andre, and some of the other writers, we asked for open writing submissions at the beginning of the season. Because we go down in December and don't come back up until August, with the way the schedule is, we lose just about every writer that we have. And a lot of people saw the show in the first season and liked it, so we got about 100 submissions. Some of them from sitcom writers. We picked the best ones, the four or five best ones, and he was one of them. He has a hilarious website. His writing was very strong, and he has a good reputation as being a funny performer in New York, and that's just frosting on the cake for me. We like to put the writers in the show, so all I have to do is go down two doors and say "Hey Andres, want to write something for yourself and get yourself in the show?" And he'll tell me he'll think about it and does it.
Throughout your career have you always seen a lot of live comedy?
The only live comedy I really enjoyed was working on Saturday Night Live, answering phones there. That was a really exciting process and a really exciting show. It still is as far as I'm concerned. Working on the show all week and watching these guys write the show and then having it all come down to the countdown on Saturday night as live television, that's, to me, the best kind of show out there.
What is it that you have in store for the next few episodes of TalkShow? Are you able to divulge anything that to the readers?
To be honest, it's Monday morning and there's a writer's strike. We benefit a little bit from our production schedule, where we've shot a show that's topical every week. We shoot it Thursday and it airs Saturday, and then Thursday night we shoot a show that airs later on as part of FOX's cost cutting production deal. So it airs sometime in the spring or fall, so it looks like we're going to be airing those shows right away because we're not about to shoot anything now. You know really, as far as the readers, I'm just as confused as they might be, but I think it's going to be what we call one of these evergreen shows to air next year. We won't be shooting anything else.
But SNL won't be having any new episodes, so it's an advantage for Spike.
Advantage Spike! But here's the disadvantage: no one knows I'm on the air. Honestly, our main competition is infomercials. The Jessica Simpson zit cream infomercial. That's who I'm trying to take down. But who knows?
Hopefully this interview will pump people up.
Our show is about someday leaving Saturday night and going five nights a week. But I'm very happy doing this half hour a week and learning how to do the job and doing it under the radar before I step out into the big hot spotlight that potentially melts you.
I think that was probably the problem that FOX encountered with Chevy and Keenan Ivory Wayans.
They took a bunch of funny and talented people and put them in front of a show that's very difficult to pull off. It's evidenced by a guy like Chevy Chase, who's a really funny, talented guy, but these shows are really tricky and really hard and in my opinion, and I think FOX is behind me too, what you need is time to grow. Grow the show, and see where it goes. Don't just throw it out into the highway and let it get run over. I think when you throw a new show out there 5 nights a week, people feel resentful that you're on their TV set 5 nights a week and they can't get you off. There you are. There you are again. You kind of want to lead them there. You want them to want you to be on five nights a week and let them grow with you. That's what we're trying to do and who knows where it's going? We just work hard and try to see where it's going.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer