Kelly Alto

The Good, the Bad and the Godawful: Paul Scheer Takes on the Movies (in Podcast Form)

Kelly Alto
The Good, the Bad and the Godawful: Paul Scheer Takes on the Movies (in Podcast Form)

Wherever you get your podcasts, there’s no shortage of movie shows. But Paul Scheer may be the only man with one podcast dedicated to the very worst movies, and another exploring the very best.

Thanks to a 20-year career in front of the camera in a variety of roles, comic Paul Scheer—who’s also a writer and director—has become a familiar face in film and TV, with roles in The League, Fresh Off the Boat and most recently Amazon's Black Monday. In the podcast world however, he’s best known not just as the host of the cult comedy show How Did This Get Made?—now in its ninth year, and bringing its live tour to Berkeley this week—but also for Unspooled, his podcast examining whether the classics still deserve their acclaim in 2019.

A show which Scheer says is “based on an energy of loving movies” despite their dubious quality, How Did This Get Made (HDTGM) has dissected the very worst of Hollywood’s output for comic effect since 2011. Hosted by Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas, what started as an exploration of how movies as dreadful as Battlefield Earth or Speed 2: Cruise Control actually get produced evolved into a hybrid of comedic conversation and affectionate criticism of the enjoyably ludicrous, with special guests like Charlize Theron and raucous sold-out live shows.

(Since the show’s early days, for example, Parks and Recreation actor Adam Scott has returned for every single Fast and the Furious live taping, a recurring role that increasingly styles him as a kind of sincere Professor Emeritus of Vin Diesel movies.)

Laughing that it’s “a very lofty answer,” Scheer attributes part of the popularity of the HDGTM live shows to how they physically connect thousands of fans around one (terrible) movie. “We're in a world where everything kind of goes so quickly, and you're so isolated by your own opinions,” says Scheer. “It feels like this kind of electric moment.”

And it’s true: In a landscape where fans are more likely to congregate over something good, an HDTGM live show will be the first and only time thousands of people have gathered to marvel at how a movie like Drop Dead Fred ever got made. (The chosen movie for the sold-out Berkeley show, by the way: 1986’s Friday the 13th Part VI. “My dream,” Scheer says, “would be to come out to that audience that night and see everybody in hockey masks.”)

HDTGM began by warmly skewering legitimately atrocious movies (Jennifer Lopez’s Gigli, Nic Cage’s Wicker Man remake), but soon transitioned to encompass enjoyably overblown blockbusters like The Meg. Scheer’s reasoning for this is that genuinely bad movies are often no actual fun to watch. As franchises like the Fast and the Furious strain for increasingly crazy heights in an effort to outdo themselves with each passing year, ridiculously enjoyable blockbusters can start to feel like ridiculously bad movies in how they elicit the same kind of giddy “confusion and confoundment.”

In the soup of an internet culture where lowbrow rubs along with highbrow, and semi-ironic veneration of a bad movie is just as likely to hit your feed as praise for something genuinely acclaimed, no wonder the lines get blurred!

One of the central jokes of HDGTM is how the show lavishes the same attention to detail on gloriously bad movies that you’d normally reserve for the very best ones. This, of course, is where Scheer’s other movie podcast Unspooled comes in, birthed in 2018 out of another impulse that unites many film fans: The Canon.

Movie fans are notorious list-makers, especially when it comes to the idea of The Canon, and it was Scheer’s own realization that he’d never seen many of the films on the American Film Institute (AFI)’s Top 100 Movies list that spurred him to invite film critic Amy Nicholson to get together and take them on in podcast form.

As Scheer sees it, “I'm basically hosting this book club where we're watching movies once a week.” He casts himself as the audience representative—even film fans feel like they haven’t seen enough of the so-called classics.

Coupled with Nicholson’s unpretentious critical style, the fact that Unspooled stemmed from Scheer’s own desire to address the gaps in his knowledge lends the show its tone of warm, enthusiastic inclusiveness. He says he wants Unspooled to feel like “fun film school”—and in contrast to his other podcast’s veneration of the so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure popcorn experience, Unspooled’s clear-eyed take on the classics can act as a balm for those who might feel like ‘bad’ film fans for sometimes preferring to watch Commando on a Saturday night over Citizen Kane.

If HDTGM is where bad movies go to get the affectionate ribbing they deserve, Unspooled is where film’s sacred cows receive the critical re-appraisal they may well need. Elements in these movies that are difficult, troubling or problematic by today’s standards—The Deer Hunter’s racial politics, transphobia in The Silence of the Lambs—aren’t glossed over, but instead unraveled thoughtfully and expertly, thanks in large part of Nicholson’s deep knowledge of her field. (“I just love the way her mind thinks,” says Scheer of his cohost.)

Whether knowingly or not, film fans can often strain for ‘insider status’ when discussing the movie business, in the industry jargon we adopt or that illusory accessibility we feel toward our favorite filmmakers makers and stars. Yet Scheer occupies the rare position of being a movie commentator who actually is an industry insider himself.

As an actor, writer and director, he’s frequently bracingly honest about the rigors of the business on both his podcasts—not least when mentioning in asides the movies he unsuccessfully auditioned for. And in a head-spinningly meta piece of casting, Scheer and HDGTM co-hosts Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael all appeared in The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s 2018 movie about the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult film The Room—frequently “hailed” as one of the worst movies ever made.

For a guy who now hosts two movie podcasts, Scheer says he never saw himself becoming a de facto film critic. He started his comedy career in the world of improvisation—inspired in part, he says, by a childhood love of talk radio. In contrast to the acting, writing and editing he does elsewhere, Scheer says he’s parlaying some of improv’s freeing ephemerality into his podcasting. Taping conversational podcasts like HDTGM and Unspooled, he says, is “the closest I can get to doing improv—without doing improv.”

Fittingly for the host of one hit show about badly-received movies, and another based on re-evaluating a critical canon, Scheer’s a believer in the value of not pleasing everyone, especially in a podcast industry where “there's always going to be someone out there doing what you're doing.” He paraphrases a recent conversation he had with filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn: “If everyone likes it, there’s a problem with it.”

Ultimately, the only thing a creator really has control over, Scheer says, “is your own voice… and not everyone's going to like it.”