June 15th, 2015
I was trying to find the right label for Mitch. He deserves something better than “Comic Classic,” but that’s at least close. He’s in the new blockbuster comedy, “Spy,” with Melissa McCarthy where he plays a crazed flight attendant (or pilot?). It opened at #1 at the box office a couple weeks ago. I’ve known him for over a decade and have cast him in 5 of my short films. He’s so talented. He’s so funny. And he’s such a wonderful guy to work with. In honor of all the amazing work Mitch has done, I’m doing this two part feature — first some background on his career and my work with him in this post, then an interview with him in the next post.
MITCH SAVES THE PLANET. A – “The No Seafood Grille 2050” (2004), B – “Shared Visions Evolution Debate” (2006), C, D – “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” (2008), E – “Dick Tooley, Creationist” (2009), “Death to Lionfish PSA” (2010).
COMIC GENIUS (GONE AWRY)
That’s a pretty cliched label. Mitch Silpa is just so hard to label. He’s so original.
He’s been a member of the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater for over a decade. In the early days of Youtube, he played the magician David Blaine with the lamest of costuming efforts (a wig, a baseball cap and a drawn on mustache). He and two other Groundlings actors Mikey Day and Michael Naughton, made a short video at a time when the idea of “viral videos” was still emerging. Within a few weeks their video had millions of views — way more than any videos by the real David Blaine (today it has 39 million views). By the end of the year it was in the Top Ten most watched Youtube videos ever. It became so popular they were flown to France by a production company who filmed them in three sequels.
He’s followed that with a ton of hilarious short films, the greatest of which (in my opinion) are “Identity Theft” where he plays the utterly dorky and brilliant Officer Picko (“that’s a little … or a lot”) and the pitch perfect “Exeter” where he plays Randy, a guy who was previously gay but underwent the Exeter reprogramming routine and is no longer gay … much. “Exeter” had it’s world premiere alongside our movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” at the 2008 Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
I first began seeing Mitch in the main stage shows of The Groundlings in Hollywood. In 2002 I started my Shifting Baselines collaboration with Jeremy Rowley (the gifted veteran Groundling who you can see in this classic short film on dating) who eventually helped recruit about 20 of the Groundlings actors to appear in my short films for ocean conservation and science. I also included them in our stand up comedy contest, and eventually in my feature film, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” Mitch was one of the co-stars of “Sizzle.”
Of course all of my projects have been for minimal pay with wacky concepts. This is the part where the Groundlings have been incredibly good sports. It’s one thing to make a comic film where the only goal is to be funny, but it’s a very different pursuit when there are two goals — to be funny AND say something substantive about an issue such as saving the oceans, or the stupidity of anti-evolutionists, or the poor communications skills of scientists. Retaining the message tends to come at the expense of humor. It ain’t easy.
So here’s the background on each of the 5 films in which I have cast the wonderful and talented Mitch Silpa.
MY FILMS WITH MITCH
A) THE NO SEAFOOD GRILLE 2050 – A prime example of the “not that funny” factor was our first film together — the 90 second piece titled, “The No Seafood Grille, 2050.” To the Groundlings, the film was only lightly funny, if that. But to the target audience — such as the 1,000 attendees at a Sustainable Seafood Summit where it was shown in 2005 — the film brought the roof down. It’s all about being relatable and “on message.” A seafood restaurant with no seafood is not that relatable to comic actors, but to sustainable seafood folks it is drop dead funny. That’s just how it works.
B) THE EVOLUTION-INTELLIGENT DESIGN DEBATE – For my feature film, “Flock of Dodos,” I came up with the idea of staging a comic debate between “Dr. Girr” the world’s angriest evolutionist (played brilliantly by Groundling Hugh Davidson — and I’m serious, if you’ve ever known any bitter, arrogant academics, he nails it) versus “Dr. Sheehee” the world’s slimiest intelligent designer (played equally well by Groundling Tim Brennan, so cocky, so full of crap). Mitch was the innocent moderator, trying to get them to get along. Sadly and painfully, my concept ended up being a bust. I thought their performaces were perfect and in the original cut of “Flock of Dodos” I had them inter-cut throughout the movie — we kept coming back to the debate about once every ten minutes.
Unfortunately at our test screening with 40 friends at Raleigh Studios the only comment that came up with just about every single person present was, “get rid of the comic debate.” It really bummed me out because I thought it was the best thing in the whole movie. But everyone truly hated it. Which was an interesting mismatch in audience and content. I was making the film for science people who were tired of the basic evolution debate and I felt would enjoy the comic relief, but my test audience was non-science people who knew nothing of the basic evolution debate — they were non-science Hollywood folks. I think their feeling was “If we want comedy, we’ll go to a comedy show — we’re here for the science controversy.” So with a sad heart I chopped out the debate entirely, though we did include it in the DVD extras.
C and D) SIZZLE, A GLOBAL WARMING COMEDY. This was the biggest project I did with Mitch — a mockumentary where he co-starred along with fellow Groundling veteran Brian Clark as the gay couple Mitch and Brian (such original names!) who were funding my lame attempt at making a documentary about global warming. Mitch turned in the very best moment of the entire movie in the scene pictured in C above when he says to me, “We’re very worried and upset about global warming, but … we just don’t know WHY we’re worried and upset.” That’s probably the best line I’ve ever written and directed in anything. It was based on all the brainless Hollywood events I have attended over the years, going all the way back to 1990, where you get these Hollywood people fired up about an issue, but when you start asking them about the issue you begin to realize they have no earthly idea of the details or how it works — they just know they are upset. I still love that line — it speaks of so much in our society. Mitch delivered it perfectly, and you can see it in the trailer for Sizzle..
E) DICK TOOLEY, CREATIONIST – In November of 2009 former child actor and creationism activist Kirk Cameron announced he was reprinting Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, reworked into the language of creationists. For who knows what reason other than fun, I scrambled my crew and recruited Mitch to play his supposed buddy Dick Tooley telling about his new product, The Kirk Cameron Action Kit, to go with the copies of “Origin of Species.” We shot the whole thing in our office on green screen in one afternoon, then posted it on Funny or Die where it scored 27,000 views and still has a FUNNY rating of about 80%.
F) DEATH TO LIONFISH PSA – Last, but not least, to help out my Shifting Baselines co-founder Dr. Steven Miller in the Florida Keys, we pulled together a 60 second public service announcement in which I had Mitch reprise his role as a cranky waiter, this time in a tropical restaurant where the only fish they serve are lionfish because (as has become true in some parts of the Caribbean) that’s all that’s left for fish after the introduced lionfish have eaten up everything else. For a couple years they showed this PSA before movies in the movie theaters of the Florida Keys. It’s five years later, the lionfish are still a huge problem in the Caribbean, and the Death to Lionfish campaign continues. His co-stars were also Groundlings, Andrew Friedman and Edi Patterson (who also made a cameo in “Sizzle” and co-stars with Mitch in their long-running improv show, “Mitch and Edi Making Love”).
DID MITCH SAVE THE PLANET?
Some days I feel twinges of guilt for all the idiocy I’ve subjected these great Groundlings actors to, but then first, I think of how many audiences in the science and environmental communities have viewed these films (we did over 200 screenings of Sizzle to audiences of upwards of 1000 people everywhere from M.I.T. to the Smithsonian Institution to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — A LOT of scientists have seen the movie, including plenty who hated it, yay!). And then I walk around the lobby of the Groundlings Theater and look at the photos of all their most famous skits and I realize yikes, the craziness I’ve forced them into is nothing compared to what they normally do.
Also, I’m about to publish my third and most important book in September. My work with the Groundlings has been my training ground for learning how story structure works. These silly films have been an essential part of my education which will hopefully eventually benefit lots of others through the book.
And while I don’t think Mitch alone has managed to save the planet, the fact is we accomplished a lot with the Shifting Baselines Media Project. When I launched it in 2002 there were essentially zero mentions of the term “shifting baselines” on the entire internet. It had only been coined in 1995. The purpose of our project was to help promote and propagate the term. Which we did.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much we did to propel it, but if you talk with Daniel Pauly, the legendary fisheries biologist who coined the term and was the co-star of our Hollywood Ocean Night where we premiered the No Seafood Grille film, he will assure you that the campaign played a major role. The fact is today you will find hundreds, probably thousands, of websites talking about shifting baselines as well as a detailed wikipedia page that explains the term and mentions the importance of our campaign in “broadening” the use of the term.
Mitch’s performances were a significant part of the effort to broaden all of the science and environmental content I’ve sought to convey. So let’s hear it for humor. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said, the public only listens to voices that they “trust and like.” Humor is a fundamental part of creating a voice that will be liked. There’s nothing worse in the entire cosmos than a humorless preaching environmentalist. We did our part to offset that for the oceans. To this day there are a lot of people who, when they hear this very important conservation term “shifting baselines” first think about our media campaign, and thanks to the Groundlings, they smile. The fine work of Mitch Silpa contributed a lot to that accomplishment.