Too often, people define themselves by their differences rather than by their similarities. They cut themselves off from others based on religion, politics, race, taste in music, geography, whatever. You name it, and likely someone has used it as a means to see others as less than they are. Less cool, less interesting, less righteous, and less American, even less of a person. While it doesn’t have to lead to dehumanization or reductionism, the propensity for differentiation results in alienation for many. It certainly makes it difficult to start up a conversation, even if it’s just chitchat, with someone who seems so very different from you.
Luckily, there’s countless common ground between all people. Simply by being in the same place as another in the same time, there is something to discuss. Where are you? What’s happening in the world? What are you doing at the place you are at? Maybe the person is reading a book. Perhaps Larry Doyle’s I Love You, Beth Cooper. “That guy used to write for The Simpsons,” you might say. Or, “Oh, that book won the Thurber Prize for American Humor.” Although, the Thurber Prize might be too esoteric of an award to mention, albeit still a great achievement. You could discuss elements of the book’s plot which concerns the many misadventures that befall protagonist Denis Cooverman after he declares his love for popular girl Beth Cooper in his graduation speech. Or you could mention that it’s going to be a movie soon staring Paul Rust. “Paul Rust?” the reader might ask. “Yeah,” you’ll reply. “He’s this really funny improviser/comedian/writer guy from LA. He’s going to be in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards too. I actually once saw him doing a stage show in NYC where he played a cardboard saxophone to Glen Frey’s “You Belong To The City.” And then you can do an air sax in such a way that indicates that you don’t actually know how to play the saxophone.
But that’s assuming a lot. What you could do is make a joke of some sort. And your shared experience, insight, and/or laughter will bring you closer together, to see more of yourself in the other. And maybe then you can chat. That’s something Paul Rust could certainly relate to.
Ben Kharakh: I saw that you are starring in the adaptation of Larry Doyle’s I Love You, Beth Cooper, which is exciting.
Paul Rust: Yeah, that was really exciting. The thing that most excited me about it was that it was directed by Chris Columbus who I was just a big fan of growing up. He wrote Gremlins and The Goonies! And he made Home Alone, which was the movie that, as a child, made me think, “I want to be like Macaulay Culkin.” So the opportunity just to meet with him at the initial audition was exciting for me, let alone acting in one of his movies.
BK: How would you compare yourself to the character of Denis Cooverman, the film’s protagonist?
PR: I think the character of Denis Cooverman and I are similar in that we both get in trouble by being overly earnest, and I think we’re different in that we’re… Maybe there’s no difference at all.
BK: In the book, Denis is a bit of a nerd.
BK: Would you use this term to describe yourself as well?
PR: Models are asked, “Were you this beautiful back when you were in high school?” And their response is always, always, always, “No I was such an ugly duckling. I was completely not beautiful. I was sort of a nerd.” So in this situation — you asking me if I was nerdy — I want to say that in high school I was a model. But I don’t know. I went to a really small school and was in small class. I only had like 40 people in my class. And so you could be nerdy, but people still think you’re funny and nerdy. I probably fell more on the nerd side, sure. And me defending myself right then and there was an obvious sign that I was a nerd.
BK: What were you like in school then, growing up?
PR: I was a studious student. I definitely worried about my homework and grades. It was very important for me to graduate with good grades, so I was valedictorian of my class, but at the same time I was sort of a goof-off and made a lot of jokes and was desperate for the love and affection of my classmates. I did theater and speech, ran cross-country… Again, since I went to a small school, you could be in every activity. It was sort of like Saved by the Bell in the Midwest.
BK: What sorts of things would you do to get laughs from people?
PR: I actually remember my first joke that I told in a classroom and I remember getting laughs about. This was in kindergarten. The teacher was doing roll call, and when it came time to say my name, Paul Rust, I went under my desk. So she was saying different people’s names, “Brian Dirkson.” “Here.” “Katie Schiltz.” “Here.” “Paul Rust.” And then, under the desk, I went, “Not here,” which got a huge laugh. The next day, kids were telling me to do it again, but I had the good taste not to repeat a joke. It went out there once and found its audience. I don’t need to pander for it, okay guys?
BK: Do you happen to remember the first time you were exposed to things that made you laugh?
PR: Yeah, I was just thinking about it today actually. Certainly I laughed at stuff, but the first thing that I remember that I went nuts over was that scene in The Jerk where Steve Martin is reading a wet Dear John letter. All the text is smeared, so he slurs and mumbles the words. I was losing my shit there, so imagine how much more shit was lost when he runs out after her naked and puts a dog in front of him on both sides to cover himself. I was wheezing. My eyes were watering and I couldn’t breath, I was laughing so hard at this. I was about six years old. I think that was the first image I remember just tickling me so much.
BK: Were you exposed to a lot of comedy growing up? Did your parents, for example, bring it into the house?
PR: My parents were both funny. As a family, we gathered around Cheers and National Lampoon movies. We gathered around to watch Spies Like Us. I could tell I wanted more comedy. To my parents’ credit, they totally fed that appetite and recognized that I was really interested in it. I loved You Can’t Do That On Television, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and Saturday Night Live. And then, as you’re getting older, you realize that there has to be something more than this, so you find stuff like The State on MTV, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I found Mr. Show. So for me, the bookends were The Jerk and Mr. Show. Those were big deals to me. I wanted to create; I was interested in filming and stuff, and telling stories, but never specifically just focusing on comedy until I saw Mr. Show.
BK: And then, in a great turn of events, you got to work with Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter, who wrote for and appeared in Mr. Show, on The Right Now Show.
PR: Yeah, Scott and BJ asked me to be a writer and a cast member on the Fox pilot originally. I knew them just because they were the reason I was doing anything. They were the first two guys to really support myself and my writing and performing partner, Neil Campbell. They really just encouraged us and mentored us our first couple of years in Los Angeles, and introduced us to our representation, and gave us our first writing job. It was a big deal. We got real excited about it and worked on it for a year and a half.
BK: I guess it was not picked up.
PR: No, we wrote for about a couple months, and then we shot it and put it together. I think it was great. I know a lot of people who thought it was great, but I guess the fat cats making the decisions didn’t think it was great. So they decided not to pick it up and it never ended up on air.
BK: You had mentioned that a time came where you decided you wanted to work in comedy, but what aspirations did you have before that?
PR: To entertain was my interest, and comedy was an instrument of entertainment, but in my mind, there were always many instruments in the orchestra of entertainment. I could make people cry, be a cartoonist, a filmmaker, maybe draw theme parks. Basically, I wanted to be Walt Disney, which is somewhat embarrassing to think about now. It wasn’t until high school that I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, and it was in college where I made the decision that it was comedy that I’d focus on.
BK: What is it that attracted you so much to humor?
PR: I was just reading about the psychology of humor. You get all of this information thrown at you in the set-up, just a mess of logic. And then the punch-line comes and it takes all of the confusion we’re presented with and breathes clarity into it. And that’s what we want out of life. We want to take all of this information that we can’t comprehend and get a moment of clarity where it all makes sense. I like that. Humor is a way of making order and delight out of disorder. That’s what I’m looking for in life.
BK: Does humor help you make sense of the world?
PR: Yeah, even in just the way it points out nonsense. It doesn’t necessarily need to be made sense of, but it’s nice when someone recognizes something as being nonsensical.
BK: Humor can also bring people closer together. When you watch Louis C.K., for example, he says a lot of stuff that a lot of people are able to relate to, making them say, “That’s me up there.” What’s an example of that that you have?
PR: Well, you’re going to think that just because you brought Louis C.K. up in that question that that’s who I’m thinking of, but for the last few years, I’ve been holding onto those types of experiences, and one of them is with Louis C.K.. It was at The Waterhill last fall or last winter maybe, and there was a moment I was sitting in the audience and he was doing his act, and…this is going to sound so lame, but there was a moment of transcendence where he was articulating all these things that I couldn’t articulate for myself and saying it not only articulately, but humorously. He was making me laugh at it. And there was a moment of “this is beyond comedy now.” This isn’t just stand-up comedy, this is now art. Like I said — sounds lame, but I started crying. I was laughing and then I went to crying because it was such a moment of identification and articulation. It was great.
BK: You had said it was around high school that you decided that you were going to start pursuing it in some way. What did you start doing in high school to make comedy your career and such?
PR: Well, there were speech competitions in high school, so I’d been doing sort of one-person improv. I had to be comedic because I don’t think anybody would want to watch a fella improvise drama. Well, maybe in an “I gotta get a load of this shit” sort of way. Other than that, I think you only want to watch comedic one-person improv acts. So I was doing that in high school, and when I got a part in the spring plays and stuff, it would be trying to make it as goofy as possible as opposed to trying to bring a tear to anyone’s eye. And I made a few videos.
Then, when I was in college, I’d do this open-mic sketch show called No Shame Theater. It was actually an open-mic theater show in that you could do any sort of scene you wanted — including dramatic — but most of them were comedy sketches. I’d do that every Friday night at 11:00. It was the best thing a 19-year-old interested in comedy could have, kind of like getting to write for the Harvard Lampoon or something. You just have a forum to experiment and mature and progress. Kurt Cobain talked about what he admired in The Beatles is that they went from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1963 to “Sgt. Pepper’s” by ‘67, and in a very watered-down version of that, I think you could say the same about what people were doing at No Shame. If you wrote once a week, you could go from the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” of the comedy sketches in week one, and then by week four, the comedy sketch version of “Sgt. Pepper’s.”
BK: Did you also write plays in college?
PR: Yeah, I wrote two full-length plays. One was The Garbys, which was about a family of county fair performers who got in a car wreck. They’re dysfunctional and their lives fall apart after the accident. And then I wrote another one called Bubblegum Brigade, which is about these three guys who you think, at the beginning of the show, are twelve-year-old boys putting on a show, but then, by the end of the show, you realize they’re actually forty-year-old men dressed up as twelve-year-old boys. You’ve been witnessing this horrific thing — a thing you thought was a cute sort of Clubhouse and the Gang type of show, but it’s this really weird and wrong thing. So those were two full-length plays. I also wrote a bunch of short, ten-minute plays, some of them tackling deep social issues that we needed to address.
BK: What sort of issues?
PR: No, I’m kidding. If you ever see a college student put on a ten-minute play, it’ll probably be one of those, “Hey, man, I’m daring to speak the truth,” sort of pieces. But I didn’t write any of those.
BK: What drew you to sketch and plays rather than stories?
PR: Probably because I started making jokes and trying to be a funny as a way to ingratiate myself with other people. You want to be liked so you’re funny, and that’s a means to access the group. Whether I was conscious of it or not, that pattern was set up in my mind when I started doing comedy. When I was making jokes growing up, it wasn’t a selfish “take me, take me, take me” sort of thing. It was much more communal. There was a shared sense of communal joy between everyone. So when I started doing comedy, I was much more focused on communal joy and working and connecting with other people on insights, observations, and laughs. It’s very cool when you work with people collaboratively and you realize that you had a similar experience or observation that brings you closer together as you write and perform something.
BK: Well, people will certainly be brought together to see you in I Love You, Beth Cooper. Did you finish that before or after that Variety article came out about you?
PR: I had just wrapped I Love You, Beth Cooper, and I think that’s probably what got me on the list was that I had that credit with me. So yeah, I had done I Love You, Beth Cooper and it was near ready. So that probably caught their attention and was just letting people be aware of who I am before this movie comes out. Because, honestly, I am more than a nobody in the industry or in the eye of the public. Why on Earth would they have an idea what I’m from or what I’m about? And so they kind of have to push me.
BK: Well, they will certainly know more about you after they read this Q & A.
PR: They’ll be like, “So many pretentious answers. We need to hire this boy.”