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The Rumpus Interview with Derek Waters

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To my mind, Derek Waters is a man on the verge of needing no introduction.

But for now, I should inform you that the Baltimore-bred actor, writer, and producer has been making waves in the world of comedy. Waters has been featured in the Farrelly Brothers film Hall Pass, was central to a series of Bob Odenkirk-produced shorts with Simon Helberg (naturally titled “Derek and Simon”), and has been a regular at Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. Now, he is awaiting new episodes of his wildly popular Internet series Drunk History, to air on Comedy Central beginning next week. The show pairs intoxicated people recounting an historical event, with known actors playing the stories out exactly as they are described by their drunken tellers.

Waters has also visited the San Francisco International Film Festival each of the last three years, twice to present new work while live and onstage, and once with the sleeper hit, feature-length documentary he produced, Only the Young. He took time to talk with me while on his recent visit to San Francisco in April. In return, I brought him to a truly terrible and confusing brunch spot that will remain nameless. The menu consisted of a sort of Japanese-ish/American South-y, breakfast-like something, extra-hip waiters, and a clientele that included extra-tight jeans and indoor sunglasses-wearing.

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Derek Waters: What is this? What are vadouvan nuts?

The Rumpus: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on here, but let’s share some biscuits and gravy?

Waters: Yeah. This is making me nervous. Maybe it’s good, though.

Rumpus: Let me ask you some questions. How’d you get into comedy and when did you think you could do it for a living?

Waters: When I was young, I wanted to be a baseball player. I played second base. I’m left-handed and hit left-handed, but I throw with my right, which is good for second base. I thought I was great. My parents said I was great. And, my little league coach said that. But, I didn’t make it onto my high school team. So, it’s, Oh, maybe I’m not good. I was also all the while making movies with my friends in the neighborhood. The neighborhood idiots.

Drunk History Michael CeraI remember seeing the movie Home Alone. I was really confused. A kid can be in the movies? That was the first time I had registered the idea that a kid could be in movies as work. I thought, I want to do that. So, I took an acting class. I was about twelve. I was a real nervous kid, and I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t really believe it for a while. Still, I kept making videos. It wasn’t until my junior year when one of my best friends, Jeff Truelove, said, “Hey man, it’s now or never. We should audition for one of the plays here.” So, I did. And I got involved in theatre.

Chris Farley was a big motivator, too, because I loved him so much. And, when he died, it sort of made me feel like I had to do comedy. I just said, “I have to do this.” I was eighteen.

Rumpus: Did you know him?

Waters: No. I just would watch him. I would get the TV Guide when it came out on Thursdays, and I would check all of the late-night listings, just to see if Farley would be on some late-night show. I still have every Chris Farley interview taped off the VCR.

Rumpus: But when did it dawn on you—not that you love comedy, but that you really can work in it for a living?

Waters: It still hasn’t. I still don’t know. I’m still hoping I can. Right now I am. But I don’t know how long that will last. You know, I had a hope, but I never really thought that I would be able to professionally do this. I went to Second City in Toronto. I was there only six months, because I was an illegal alien. And I came back to Baltimore and was working for my dad, counting wheel weights for his tire company, the Waters Company. Then, I moved to California when I was twenty. I worked at Tower Video.

Rumpus: Just stocking stuff?

Waters: Yeah. And working the register. I’ll never forget this: a guy comes in, and he wants a movie. I’m not sure which movie. It might have been Paris Blues. And I said, “Who’s in it?” because it didn’t come up on the computer. And he named like three or four actors. The only one I recognized was Sidney Poitier. So, I type Sidney Poitier into the computer, but it wouldn’t show anything, because I kept spelling Poitier wrong. So, I say, “How do you spell it?” And this guy is helping me spell it, and we didn’t have any [copies]. So, he’s like, “Thank you.” And my boss comes up to me and goes, “Why the fuck did you just have Sidney Poitier spell his name for you?” I tried to play it off a little: “I thought it would be funny.” But I didn’t realize it was Poitier. It wasn’t that I didn’t know who he was. It’s just that a) I had never really seen anyone famous; and b) why was he asking for his own movie?

I told my mom, and she says, “Derek! You have to understand what he’s done for that city, for that industry!” And I say, “I know what he’s done, mom.” And, for a week, I had to hear from her about every Sidney Poitier movie.

Rumpus: But why was he asking about his own movie?

Waters: That kind of stuff happened there. He probably just had never seen it on the shelf or was thinking about it or something. So, he’s looking. I remember one time I was working and someone puts their hand on my shoulder as I was putting movies away, and a voice goes, “Yo, you got American Pie?”

Rumpus: Come on.

Waters: Haha. “You got American Pie?”—Stallone! I am responsible for giving Stallone American Pie. I was very excited. And, I’m very proud of that. “Yo. You got American Pie?” I only do impressions when doing interviews that are transcribed. That way it’s, “Oh yeah, Derek did such a great impression!” I also remember he [Sylvester Stallone] pointed to a movie with a picture of Tara Reid on the cover, and says, “What other movies is she in?”

Rumpus: Would you say that the way you work—as a writer/producer/performer—is unusual? From my outsider’s view, it seems that most people find a single niche—as a standup, a writer, an actor, a producer, etc.—and more or less go with one of those.

Waters: When I was growing up my hero was Bo Jackson. He was amazing at football, baseball and everything else. You couldn’t say, “That’s what Bo Jackson does!” And I don’t want to be labeled—“Oh, that’s what you do.” I want to be able to do all of this stuff. So, I like that. Now it’s sounding like I’m saying I’m the Bo Jackson of comedy. But, you know what I mean. I just want to be able to do more than one thing. I should say, though, I love stand-up, but I could never really say that I do stand-up. I love comedy, and I like being funny. But, I don’t like being forced to be funny.

Drunk History Will FerrellAnd, working in these various positions, it’s maybe not so common now, but I think it will become more common. It seems like this is the way things are going with media. After Arrested Development comes out on Netflix, if it’s successful, it will change the way people think about producing content and getting it out there. It will be more realistic for people to make their own content and not rely on shitty networks to get their stuff out there. I am hoping that the landscape for comedy will become more diverse. But the people in comedy will have to be more diverse too, knowing more roles—writing, producing, acting. And the ideal is that it would lead to better stuff being available, because people will be able to work on things they really know and believe in. Instead of some millionaire with some shitty idea, just paying a bunch of people to work on his stupid project.

Rumpus: Working on something you love and believe in sounds like what you’re already doing. But, I am wondering, is it actually fun to try to work with someone who is inebriated?

Waters: That’s why I drink with them. I’m not as drunk as they are. But, if I don’t drink, it feels like I am putting a camera in front of them and saying, “Dance monkey, dance!” But if we’re doing it together, it makes them more comfortable, and it makes me more tolerant to what’s going on with them.

It’s mostly really fun, but the shoots take so long, the last two hours are really not that fun. There’s yelling: “Can you complete that sentence? Just tell us what happens next and at the end!” “But, I haven’t told you the beginning!” “Yes, you have! You have told the beginning eighty times!”

Rumpus: How do you get the A-list talent to do the recreations?

Waters: Mostly they are people we already know. We sometimes send a script to a casting agent. But what’s great about this is that there’s so little money, and it just takes one day, that we can only get people to do it because they thinks it’s funny or cool. No one does it for money or anything like that. It’s not worth it.

Rumpus: And you’re getting these stars to lip-sync. It seems like the most difficult part there.

Waters: We loop the lines, so it’s just playing over and over, and they can get the cadence down, hearing it over and over. And then once they get it down, they can change their performance. It’s cool, because it releases the actors from this part of their work, where they don’t have to worry about how they deliver their line. Some actors like to say the lines out loud, and some actors like to just move their lips without talking.

Rumpus: Who’s turned you down?

Waters: A bunch of people.

Rumpus: Like who?

Waters: I’m not gonna say their names. They said no. Also, who knows if it’s really them who said no. Maybe it’s their people who said no. On the other side, we sometimes get people saying, “So and so is interested in doing this.” Really? Is he interested or are you interested? It’s sometimes some agent trying to get their dramatic client to do some comedy.

Rumpus: So you’ve carved out a space for yourself to work on things that you really know and love. Is that “success”? Or, how do you know when or if you are successful?

Waters: You never know what will happen. But, you know when you’re doing something right and when you’re doing something wrong. As long as you feel like you’re doing something right, and you’re getting rewarded, then you’re successful. But, if you’re judging it on, Well, if I had that, I’d be successful—that doesn’t work. I think doing what you love is success. Pretty cheesy. But it’s true.

The more difficult question for me is, do you remain successful for what you had done? I don’t know. I think success is in your own eyes. But, I don’t really want to ever feel like I’ve achieved success. Because then I’d be spoiled. I want to feel like I need to keep doing more. Maybe I get “content,” “settled,” and “success” confused. I never want to settle, but I would love to be content.

Rumpus: Earlier, you were sort of talking about how more people will be able to have a voice through the Internet. But the Internet is already there. And I suppose that’s the double-edged nature of it: people already have access, but there’s so much noise. Doesn’t there need to be marketing to find the good stuff?

Waters: Yeah, there’s a bunch of garbage out there. But marketing isn’t the answer. I mean, take Spike TV. I know that channel exists, but I’m not going to it.

Rumpus: When I look at how things are going on the Internet with entertainment, I feel like there’s this pressure on performers to make this personal connection—to make it seem to their fans that they know them on a personal level. Or is that just something I am projecting?

Waters: I don’t know. I’m not sure what to say about that, because I don’t think that way—that people know me or should know me. No one has to do that, open their lives up to the public.

Rumpus: I was thinking of it more as a burden. That part of the deal now is that you must make people feel a personal connection.

Waters: I don’t think so. I think that part’s a choice, whether or not to open up personally on Twitter or whatever. But what’s not a choice is the reaction of people thinking that they know them when they don’t. That just happens.

Drunk History Crispin GloverThat’s one of the biggest problems with the Internet: people thinking they know something or are participating in or experiencing something when they aren’t. Or, how people think they are staying in touch with their friends by “liking” their pictures. Just because you “liked” my picture, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call me and ask me how I’m doing. You know what’s funny? If you ever owe someone a call, and it’s something you’re trying to avoid, notice how many times they “like” your photos until you call them back. It’s an alarm, and people abuse that. They know you can see that. They know you’ll see their name.

Rumpus: So where is media headed?

Waters: I don’t know.

Rumpus: But act like you do for a little bit.

Waters: Yeah, well, I’ll tell ya…

Rumpus: I feel like you’re going to make a joke. I can’t tell if you’re going to be serious.

Waters: Listen, I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. I think there’s gonna be three networks, and then the rest will be Internet-based, and Amazon is gonna be huge and one of the networks. This is so serious. Ha. But really, you see it happening right now. You can see the shifts.

And, currently, with any video you see online, like with YouTube, you gotta watch an ad, and that’s gotta stop. And I think it’ll stop by…the shitty network shows they put out will just have the ads in the shows. The characters will be eating Cheetos or whatever.

And these outlets will move in a positive direction for artists, but not the non-creative types. It’s going to eliminate a lot of people who only look at the money. That’s what will happen. But I’m no psychic, Sean.

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Featured image of Derek Waters © by Tommy Lau, courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival.


Sean Uyehara is a programmer with the San Francisco Film Society. He watches movies for a living, and still sometimes complains about things. More from this author →