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Reprinted with permission from j, the Jewish journal of northern California. Visit www.Jewishsf.com.
Michael Showalter is the rare comic who doesn't crack a single joke in the course of a half-hour interview.
Then again, how many comedians majored in semiotics at Brown University?
Showalter is a founding member of the sketch-comedy trio Stella, currently expanding its following with a new half-hour show of the same name on Comedy Central after years of live performance.
The talented Brooklynite also slips into theaters this month with The Baxter, which he wrote, directed and stars in. A sly throwback to a gentler era, the deadpan romantic comedy simultaneously embraces and mocks the genre's fundamental premise of two people clearly meant for each other spending 90 minutes stumbling, bumbling and pursuing other partners before falling into each other's arms.
"This movie, though ultimately light and funny and sweet, intended only to entertain, is rooted in a semiotic concept, which is that movies have taught us to see a man sneeze and immediately recognize that as a weakness," Showalter explains in a recent interview at a San Francisco hotel.
With his untucked plaid shirt, faded jeans and white gym shoes, Showalter may not look like an intellectual, but the offspring of two college professors can talk the talk.
"It becomes its own language," he continues. "You could call it shorthand, but it's got too much impact. It starts as a shortcut and it becomes ingrained to the point where you need to undo it to get a different point across. The Baxter, if you would ever care to look at it that way, is playing with all of those different conventions that are so ingrained with us. So I took that [semiotics] major very seriously, even though I funneled it into comedy."
Showalter's mother, who is Jewish, was disowned by her family for marrying an Episcopalian. It wasn't until late in Showalter's childhood that the family reconciled and he met his Jewish relatives.
"My young, uninformed perception was, 'These are such amazing people, why did it take so long?'" he recalls.
Many of Showalter's friends in Princeton, N.J., where he grew up, were Jewish, so he attended countless bar and bat mitzvahs. He also went to a summer camp that catered mostly to Jewish kids, an experience he drew on to write the screenplay for Wet Hot American Summer.
The Baxter doesn't contain more than a couple Jewish jokes, but Showalter readily admits that it owes a lot to a certain Jewish humorist. "Woody Allen would be the strongest reference, just in terms of his love of New York City and his love of the romantic comedy."
Showalter, whose knowledge of Jewish comedy is comprehensive, includes Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Jon Stewart in the tent.
"It seems to me that the one thing about Jewish humor that's consistent is that it's self-deprecating," he says. "That is the one constant: Jewish humor is always willing to be at the expense of the one making the joke."
That's also the basis of "Stella"--whose three members are all Jewish--although it may not be self-evident on first viewing.
"'Stella' is vaudeville," Showalter declares. "It's essentially the Marx Brothers mold. We are three guys, forces of nature, total idiots thrust into society and we get into constant misadventures."