While he’s probably most famous for playing Deputy Travis Junior on “Reno 911“, after interviewing the hilarious and talented Robert Ben Garant, it became clear his true passion is writing. Like many of our favorites here at SO, he started out on “The State“, where he met fellow comedian Thomas Lennon, now his writing partner. Together they wrote and directed “Reno 911”, (the movie and most episodes) “Night at the Museum” (both of them), and “Balls of Fury” (which he also directed, and we totally appreciate his brutal honesty about the experience in the interview). We got a good glimpse into his past as a punk kid growing up in Tennessee and also a look at what’s coming up in the future – a movie about a leprechaun (appropriate as St. Patrick’s Day just came and went) and a project he’s doing that involves staying in a haunted house in Louisiana. But above all, aside from the comedian, actor, producer, and director credits, this guy is a WRITER. Read on for more details on how he deals with rejection, his favorite foods, and what he really thinks about people who like to argue (hint: he’s got a true Optimist ‘tude and doesn’t have time to waste arguing).
Serial Optimist: Hi Ben!! Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us. You are credited as an actor, comedian, writer, director, and producer – can you describe the progression into each of these roles? I know you went to film school – was the end goal to wear all of these hats, or were you originally seeking a specific role and fell into doing the others along the way?
Robert Ben Garant: I thought I’d be an actor when I was in High School. But as The State got going, I realized I was a better writer than I was an actor. Over the years I’ve come to enjoy it a lot more, too. Then on “Viva” I only acted and produced – and I found I really loved it. Acting is something I really do just to protect the stuff I write.
Directing is fun, very challenging. But honestly, “Balls of Fury” was such a miserable experience, it made me not want to direct again. Since then, a lot of folks have come to me with projects to direct… I turned ‘em all down.
But it’s been three years. After directing all those Reno’s, and having time to think about what went right, what went wrong, and what I learned from Balls … I’m ready to hop back in the saddle again.
SO: When you were just starting out as a writer, how did you deal with rejection from studios? Now that you are writing mainstream movies (like Night at the Museum and Balls of Fury), do you feel like you have to write to please the masses or are you still able to control most of what you write?
RBG: Rejection is part of the game. I’ve been pretty dang lucky — Tom’s (Thomas Lennon) and my first few pitches sold. So… it’s easy to not stress. After you get established, rejections aren’t so bad. I usually come away thinking that the person who didn’t buy my script is just flat out wrong, made a mistake, and won’t be making the big piles of cash I just brought to them. If you get rejected early on, don’t take it personally. Put the script up on the shelf, and start a new one. You’re a writer. No one can stop you from writing, just by rejecting your script.
Control? We’re gaining more and more control as we go, but screenwriters don’t get much, unless they direct and produce – which we’re doing more and more of. We did cable for so long because there Tom and I had absolute control… But in features, there’s so much more money involved, so there are a lot more chefs in the kitchen. But as I always say, if you can’t deal with that, you should be writing novels.
SO: Your career early on was doing sketch comedy. How was the transition into working on something full-length like Reno 911? Was Reno pretty much all sketch comedy/improv itself?
RBG: Reno was basically a sketch show, with seven recurring characters (the deputies) and a lot of recurring or one-off guest stars. There was a little plot… but that was mostly to facilitate the funny sketches.
I’m a big movie fan – I watch more movies than I do sketch shows. Most sketch shows suck. So writing movies came kinda easy. There’s a form, a structure, and if you stick to it, screenwriting is mostly just fun.
SO: There are few comedic groups that have stayed together for so long, been successful on personal levels but also still collaborate as a group. The State would have to be at the top of that list. Why do you and Thomas Lennon seem to write together so well (or more often than other members)?
RBG: Tom and I have the same sense of humor and the same work ethic. Not that I don’t have the same sense of humor as other State members, but Tom and mine is more similar than it is with the other guys. And we both write our ass off. All the time. I’m sure other State members do too, I’m sure… But… here’s what I mean. I feel that writing is it’s own reward. I don’t write something so that I can be in the thing I’m writing. Or produce it, or direct it even. That comes second — and I think with a lot of the guys that comes first. I LOVE writing, more than being in movies, or on TV. Tom and I are a good fit.
And we never argue. Honestly, I argued quite a bit with some of the other State members, and I fucking hated it. Made me miserable, and it wastes so much time. One argument is enough to make me want to scrap an idea. It’s easier to write something new, then to stand around arguing about it.
Some of the other State members like arguing. Still do. I say — Life is too short. Arguing over comedy is like arguing with your bride over honeymoon arrangements – it means you shouldn’t be getting married.
SO: Looking back when you were doing just a bunch of crazy, amazing, alternative comedy at NYU with The State, did you ever imagine you all would end up where you are now? It has to be crazy to look back, 20 some odd years ago, and then look at where each of you are now, families, cats, writing big budget Hollywood movies, but still such a force in alternative comedy. Thoughts? Are you looking at your cat real nostalgic-like now? Teary-eyed?
RBG: Well… I’m genuinely surprised that all 11 of us are still alive. There’s that. But my oldest cat, Pikachu, shits on the bathroom rug when I don’t open the door to the porch for him. So… no, no nostalgia there.
SO: What’s coming up for you in 2011 that we should know about? What are you most excited for both in career and personal life (if you want to share)?
RBG: There’s a movie I’m directing, with Tom staring — Wee McGinty — and it looks like it might actually come together. That’d be fun. It’s a leprechaun movie. Next week, I’m pitching a movie based on a comic book, that I probably shouldn’t talk about yet. And I’m writing a movie for Disney, based on a great late 90’s Japanese manga. I’m genuinely very excited for all of these things.
And Tom and my book: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, comes out July 5. It’s everything you need to know to make a billion dollars at the box office, written by two guys who’ve actually done it (not some douche-bag film professor who’s never sold a screenplay.) It’s a good book -– funny, and very helpful, we think. And 100% of our royalties are going to charity.
Personal life… I’m gonna rent this haunted house in Louisiana, and write a horror movie there, that I’ve got 90% outlined. My girlfriend says she’ll come visit, but she won’t actually stay in the house. So… I’m figuring that out. If it’s genuinely haunted, I might buy the place. And no, it’s not Nic Cage’s old place. Different haunted house.
SO: I was totally thinking Nic Cage’s old place, ugh you’re probably going to have to answer that a million times when it comes out..nice to get it out now!
SO: Tell me a little bit about your past. You’re from Tennessee. Do you ever go back? Did you start out doing comedy there or only after you left?
RBG: I don’t get to Tennessee much. My folks retired out to Phoenix, and I don’t really know anyone back in Knoxville anymore. My brother, and his wife and kid live in Roan Mountain TN, I went out to see them last year. That was cool — I miss the mountains a lot. Not the people, so much. I was a punk rock kid when I lived there – green mohawk, ripped up Cramps t-shirt, my used Datson B 210 was covered with sorta anti-Baptist, anti-everything spray paint. I was not well liked. I got called fag a LOT. I got my tires slit three times in the high school parking lot, so I had to stop driving to school.
So… I really don’t have many fond memories of the place. I knew from about 8th grade that I wanted to get the fuck out of Knoxville. I went to NYU cause it was in New York City, and that’s where I wanted to be. I dropped out of NYU, after I’d found The State.
SO: Time for a random question just because I love to talk about food. What’s your favorite restaurant in LA, New York, and Tennessee? Favorite thing to eat?
RBG: LA has the best Mexican food in the world. My girlfriend and I eat Mexican at least once a week, sometimes more.
My favorite place: Casa La Golondrina, on Olvera street. It’s an old family Mexican Place. Olvera street is the original street in LA, that led up to the Mission de Los Angeles. The restaurant is in an 1880’s warehouse. For LA that’s fucking OLD. My favorite dish there is the cochinita pibil – very tender pork stewed in a green sauce. Or the chili relleno. Or the chili colorado. Their margaritas are off the hook. Close second for Mexican: Don Cucos in Glendale, and Mijarres in Pasadena.
NYC: Bistro Burger on Jane and fourth (best hamburger on planet earth) and John’s Pizza on Bleeker (thin crust coal oven pizza. NO SLICES.)
TN: Rendezvous BBQ, in the alley across the street from the Peabody Hotel, in downtown Memphis. Best BBQ in the world (and I don’t give a shit what Texans say on this issue: Tennessee BBQ is better than TX BBQ.)
SO: At this point in your career, is there anything that still makes you nervous?
RBG: Performing live usually makes me nervous, right up until I walk onto the stage. I usually have a pretty queasy stomach.
SO: Are there any scripts you’ve written that you still would really like to see get made but haven’t been able to get the green light on?
RBG: Danny Devito is attached to direct my script about a kinda HEE HAW type of show, set in Nashville, in the 70’s. I’d love to see that go.
And this horror movie that I’m outlining on my “days off.” Ghost movie, about an angry ghost, set in Louisiana. It could be great – I’ve always wanted to write a horror movie.
SO: So how’d I do compared to your other interviews?
RBG: YOU ROCKED MY WORLD.
SO: Thanks so much Ben, you rocked MY world! All the best with the upcoming projects!
SO Note: Check out Ben Garant’s Funny or Die page, and just google him for all kinds of news and updates! Sadly he has no Twitter, I would love to read his tweets!
*Credited photos by Seth Olenick