INTERVIEW with JOSH CAGAN  
Jan. 15, 2009
 
Josh Cagan is blessed with one of the sharpest and fastest wits I’ve ever encountered.  I’m talking Oscar Wilde staccato-like wit. Cagan’s possessed with a post-modern drollness, he’s P.G. Wodehouse in t-shirt and jeans, minus the air of snootiness.  Just follow him on Twitter and you’ll see what I mean.  Cagan was a story editor and writer for the MTV show UNDERGRADS.  He then broke into Hollywood as a screenwriter with back-to-back spec script sales: WILL which sold to Revolution and GOTTA DANCE to MGM.   WILL eventually turned into BANDSLAM and moved over to Walden Media.  That film is now completed and slated for a 2009 release.  As a member of the comedy writing group, The Job Factory, Cagan has sold 3 projects:  SUPER MOVIE (Revolution), UNCOACHABLE and SNOBS VS. SLOBS (Disney).  Then he set up MAN THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE at New Line, and somewhere in between was able to squeeze in a pilot for NBC called FADED STARS.
 

 

JOSH, LET ME START OFF BY SAYING THAT YOU'RE ONE OF MY FAVORITE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD TO TALK TO. THANKS FOR DOING THIS.

Thanks, Mike! I’ve got a great feeling about this interview. As long as you don’t try to neg me with the first question, this is going to go swimmingly.

 

THE FIRST TIME I MET YOU WAS AT A POKER TOURNAMENT IN THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS. IF MEMORY SERVES ME CORRECTLY, YOU DIDN'T DO THAT WELL.

Why, you…

Well, memory serves you wrong, Chairman Kaga. I actually walked away with about 200 bucks thanks to an astonishing convergence of luck and happenstance. The SECOND time I played, I actually walked away wearing a barrel.

 

AND SINCE THEN, I HAVEN'T SEEN YOU BACK AT THE POKER TABLE. WHAT HAPPENED? IS THIS LIKE BJORN BORG WHO LOST TO MCENROE IN THAT 1991 U.S. OPEN MATCH, AND DIDN'T RETURN TO TENNIS BECAUSE HE WAS NEVER THE SAME AFTER THAT?

Is tennis the game where you can’t use your hands?

 

THANKS FOR STEPPING ON MY ANALOGY. SO WHERE ARE YOU FROM AND WHERE'D YOU GO TO SCHOOL?

I am from West Hartford, Ct. I studied playwriting for 7 years, 4 at Boston University, and 3 at Rutgers University. I recommend this course of study if you want to spend the better part of a decade intoxicated and pasty. It’s also a great way to cure yourself of giving a crap about theater.

 

SO THEN WHAT WAS THAT FIRST MOMENT THAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A WRITER?

I was a terrible student throughout most of my public school career. I was so uninterested in homework that by the time I was 15, my mom policed the hallway outside of my room, where I wrote my assignments on our TRS-80. As long as she heard typing, she knew I was doing homework. So I started writing short stories, sketches and monologues. So don’t do your homework, kids. Also, everything under the sink tastes great.

 

WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR INFLUENCES?

Charles Schultz, Chuck Jones, and Jim Henson. Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Wes Anderson and Robert Altman. Joel Hodgson and Groucho Marx. Jack Hill and Ed Wood. Alton Brown and Tony Bourdain. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.

Groucho Marx

But honestly, I’m more of a music nerd than anything else. I’d always rather go to a concert than a movie. I think it’s because you can’t drink beer and scream at a movie. Well, you can, but, you know, not for very long. So on the music end of things, I’m a big fan of Ted Leo and Belle & Sebastian. Oh, and whatever gets above a 7.4 on Pitchfork.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST PAID GIG AS A WRITER?

I got a job at MTV out of grad school as a junior writer in Animation Development. Basically, they had a lot of artists with great ideas and talent for days, but they couldn’t write a script. So I worked on a variety of pilots and a couple of on-air specials. I made $800 a week, and I thought I was Henry Hill. Ah, youth.

 

SPEAKING OF YOUTH, YOU WERE THE STORY EDITOR AND WRITER OF AN MTV SHOW CALLED UNDERGRADS. I'M A POP CULTURE WHORE, YET I'VE NEVER HEARD OF THIS SHOW. HOW DID YOU GET TO WORK ON UNDERGRADS, AND WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO IT?

Give yourself a little credit, Mike. I prefer to think of you as a pop culture $1000-an-hour call girl.

UNDERGRADS happened when I was paired with Pete Williams, who was an honest to god MTV contest winner. Around ’98, MTV had a contest where you could send in an idea for an animated show. Kids sent in Papa Gino’s napkins with stick figures written in pepperoni grease. Pete, 18 at the time, sent in a 5 minute animatic. He won. We turned it into a series, and we got on the air summer of 2001. We were cancelled in the summer of 2001, and we were fired in the late summer of 2001.

Barring all of that, it’s a show I’m proud of, and it still has a tiny, tiny following. It was a Canadian co-production, and as a result, the 13 episodes ran in Canada for about 5 years after it was axed. Very occasionally, I will run into fans of the show. That’s the nice thing about the web. Nothing goes away, ever.

Undergrads

 

YOU'RE ONE OF THOSE RARE CREATURES WHO ACTUALLY BROKE INTO HOLLYWOOD FROM OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES. MORE IMPRESSIVELY, YOU DID SO WITH BACK-TO-BACK SPEC SCRIPT SALES. TELL US ABOUT THE JOURNEY OF THOSE SALES AND HOW THEY EVENTUALLY BROUGHT YOU TO LOS ANGELES.

So in 2001, I was fired from MTV, and I spent the next two years barely keeping my head above water as a writer. I did some kids TV here and there (If you’re a KENNY THE SHARK fan, my episode is “Antiques Roadshark”), and learned that no matter how broke you are, you should never, ever eat salsa from the 99-cent store.

During this time, I started writing WILL, which was inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I had the idea for it in the 90’s, but I was always doing something or another, and didn’t bother to write it. Unencumbered by gainful employment, I finally started working on it in earnest.

It was done mid-2003, and I sent it to Pete Williams. Pete had, along with his brother Paul (not the diminutive 70’s singer), sold a script to Paramount, and was therefore the only person I knew who had any Los Angeles connections whatsoever. And he lived in Toronto.

I asked Pete to send it to his managers, or whatever one does with a spec. To Pete’s credit he didn’t read it, he just passed it along. His managers, Chris Fenton & Walter Hamada, saw something in my no-act-2-having, 79-page script, and helped me develop it into a real live screenplay.

So by late 2003, the real-live-screenplay version of WILL was done, and my managers said, “This is great. It’ll never sell. Write us a Jack Black.” So I came up with “Gotta Dance,” which is about a fat guy who falls down, and (spoiler alert) goes boom.

In March of 2004, they decided to test the waters with WILL, you know, set me up as a new writer, get me in the door with producers and studios…And the damn thing sold. It was just a freak thing. Revolution and another studio got into a teeny-tiny bidding war, and Revolution got it.

Then I went to Los Angeles for the first time ever. During my time there, a publicist friend of mine invited me to her cocktail party, where she introduced me as, “A writer who sold his first screenplay without ever stepping foot in LA!” I could have compiled a coffee-table book that evening, called, “The Encyclopedia of Withering Glances.” So I tend to keep that relatively quiet now.

About a week later, my managers, drunk with power, sent out GOTTA DANCE while I was still in LA. Then that sold to MGM. I wish I could tell you how it happened, but it’s just one of those crazy things. It’s a neat trick, as Daffy Duck said, but I can only do it once. I’m crazy grateful, mostly because my wife doesn’t have to temp anymore. She kind of bankrolled Amalgamated Cagan for two years.

None of this, however, brought me to LA. That took another 4 years. The short answer: I’m stubborn. The Shorter Answer: No cold.

 

WE'RE YOU INVOLVED DURING THE PRODUCTION OF BANDSLAM?

Nope, sadly it shot in Austin during the WGA strike, so had I set foot on the set, I would have been shot as well. I will say that I like Todd Graff a lot as a writer/director (CAMP is a ex-theater-nerd guilty pleasure), and I look forward to seeing the final product.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST HOLLYWOOD PITCH MEETING? WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?

A team of writers I was working with (That later became The Job Factory) brought in to pitch a superhero spoof movie idea to Revolution. We were working with Shawn and Marlon Wayans, and they said they’d do all of the talking. So we all sat down at the giant table with the exec, and the Wayans said, “It’s like Spider-Man, but funny.”

And that was their whole pitch. Then there was silence, and the exec looked confused and angry.

Oh, by the way, there was a Diet Red Bull fridge in the Revolution kitchen. I had a few before the meeting.

So it was just quiet and creepy in the room with the giant table, and nobody was talking. So I talked. I talked and talked and talked. I yelled, I did voices; I acted out the first 20 minutes of the movie in two minutes. Then I sat back down, and immediately tried to figure out the best way to tell my wife I was fired from Hollywood.

But we got the gig. Afterwards, the Wayans said I was like Michigan J. Frog. Quiet, LOUD, quiet. That’s still kind of how I pitch, minus the Diet Red Bull.

 

I KNOW THERE'S NOTHING MORE UNFUNNY THAN TALKING ABOUT COMEDY. BUT I GOTTA ASK YOU, AS A COMEDY WRITER, WHAT MAKES SOMETHING FUNNY? AND HOW DO YOU KNOW IT'S FUNNY WHEN YOU'RE WRITING IT?

I actually love talking about comedy, and in order to talk about comedy, you have to frequently cite sources, bits, gags, etc. So it’s fun and funny to me, and the few people who can bear talking about comedy with me. Anyone who’s ever watched SNL with my wife and I know that we can pick it apart for hours. It’s like our baseball.

That said, I don’t have the precise answer to what makes something funny. But I’ll never forget the first time I realized WHY something was funny. It was a throwaway bit in WARGAMES, where the dad butters his corn with a heavily buttered slice of bread.

The theater busted out laughing. No joke was told, no fat guy fell down and went boom, and no gas was passed. Just a guy buttering his corn with soggy bread. But everyone in the theater had either done that, or knew someone who did it, and everyone laughed in recognition. I liked that. That’s what we’re all chasing. Those moments of shared familiarity.

As far as how I know if something I’m writing is funny…I don’t know. I’m generally in the business amusing myself and a select group of others. Fingers crossed, it’s amusing to everyone else as well.

wargames

 

YOU'RE A MEMBER OF THE NOTORIOUS JOB FACTORY. WHOSE IDEA WAS IT TO START THE JOB FACTORY?

Walter Hamada, my old manager. He’s blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the entertainment business, as well as a cracking sense of humor.

He put together six of his comedy writers, thinking we could churn out scripts like a TV room. It was me, Jonathan Davis, Rob McKittrick, Greg Coolidge, and the writing team of Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson. We did three scripts together, and now we’re on hiatus doing solo projects. We’re like the Wu.

For his troubles, Walt has a cushy job at New Line, where he is rewarded for his continued brilliance far beyond the meager 10% we could give him.

 

WHO IS THE CUTEST MEMBER OF THE JOB FACTORY? THE FUNNIEST? AND THE MOODIEST? AND WHERE CAN I FIND A POSTER OF THE JOB FACTORY TO PUT ON THE WALL OVER MY BED?

We’re all the cutest, we’re all the funniest, we’re all the moodiest, we’re all the DJ and we’re all the rapper. Steve Ditko can say, “A is A” all he wants, but here in the Job Factory, A is A-Z.

I think this would blow up to a lovely poster:

Job Factory

 

YOU'RE MARRIED OT A LOVELY WOMAN. BUT THERE'S NO DENYING THAT YOU'RE A SUCCESSFUL, SEXUALLY EXPLOSIVE SCREENWRITER. HOW DOES YOUR WIFE DEAL WITH ALL OF THOSE LADIES KNOCKING ON YOUR DOOR?

(Josh cocks his head towards the next room.) Hear that? That’s the faint, unmistakable sound of my wife laughing herself stupid over that question. Good times.

 

WHAT IS YOUR CONNECTION TO TWITTER?

I have friends who work at Twitter, and they’re all really great, forward-thinking guys who want to make the world a better place. So it’s a pleasure to use it. If these guys made golf clubs, I’d take up golf, you know? I mostly use Twitter to write shtick-y topical one-liners, something I equate with canning your own vegetables. It’s a skill that, at one point was vital, and is now essentially a pleasant waste of time.

I’m a die-hard Carson fan, and I was inspired by reading that after he left The Tonight Show, he still wrote seven or eight jokes a day. So I write seven or eight jokes a day. On Fridays I let my followers write the jokes. The people who like it really seem to like it, which is a nice bonus. But mostly I’m amusing myself, as usual.

 

AND WHEN DO YOU HAVE TIME TO MAKE LOVE TO YOUR WIFE WHEN YOU TWEET SO MUCH?

Don’t you watch “Till Death?” Married people don’t make love. We’re too busy arguing about the toilet seat, and why I would rather watch the big game than go shopping. Oh, husbands and wives!

 

WILL YOU DRESS UP LIKE SAILOR MOON AT THE NEXT COMIC-CON?

Only if you dress up like Chairman Kaga.

Sailor Moon
Chairman Kaga

 

IT'S A DEAL. CHAIRMAN KAGA IS ONE SUAVE MOTHERFUCKER. NOT MANY MEN CAN SEDUCTIVELY BITE INTO A YELLOW BELL PEPPER AND STILL SEEM HETEROSEXUAL. NOT TOO LONG AGO, I CORNERED YOU AT A BAR AND I ASKED WHAT ABOUT L.A. STILL SURPRISES YOU. YOU WERE AT A LOSS FOR WORDS THEN. I'M GIVING YOU THIS OPPORTUNITY TO TRY AND ANSWER THAT.

I’m continuously surprised that I’m here. But then again, I’m generally surprised to be anywhere.

 

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