Author and ad guy Mark St. Amant explains why writer/director/producer Jason Woliner is one of Hollywood’s good guys, and talks to Jason about chillaxing, bro-be-ques, and selling poison to children.
Under normal circumstances our “Man-to-Man” interviewee, Jason Woliner, might be easy to overlook. Not just because he happens to be a smaller guy — I’m barely 5’9” and I sometimes felt like Dikembe Mutombo beside him, minus the finger wag and Cookie Monster voice — but because his ego is just as diminutive. Which, if you have even a cursory knowledge of Hollywood, isn’t exactly a common trait in most directors/writers/producers, let alone ones as in-demand as Jason is lately.
I first met Woliner in 2009, when I was at Boulder advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We’d just created and sold a television campaign to Microsoft and were starting our director search. Since the commercials were heavy comedy-dialogue and partially animated, we talked to several big name directors in that space, including the incomparable Mike Judge. But when the dust settled it was this Woliner kid—I say “kid” because he was only twenty-nine at the time—who’d recently signed with a great LA production company (Caviar) and was building his commercial reel, who really blew us away. Real smart. Tireless motor. Super funny in that refreshingly rare “not-trying-too-hard-to-be-funny” kinda way. And hugely collaborative and enthusiastic (or so it seemed, at least; you never know what forked-tongue devil talk directors will spew to land a gig). He seemed to be the whole package. But it wasn’t until after we officially awarded him the job and flew to LA for casting and pre-production, and I finally met him in person, that I knew we’d made the right call.
For starters, unlike many directors who need to instantly establish their big swingin’ dicks from minute one—yes, even the ladies—Jason greets you with a polite nod, a small, almost deferential bow, and an honest handshake. This, combined with the fact that he wears a conservative, throwback suit and tie on shoot days, immediately makes you think either (1) he’s just fucking with you, softening you up by making you think he actually is pleased to meet/see you, and will soon turn out to be the laziest director and most vile human being you’ve ever encountered, or (2) he’s a shy immigrant who doesn’t speak English and, per his temporary work visa, has to be nice to everyone lest he be deported back to some dismal, Baltic state and his old job at the asbestos-filled-cabbage factory. Thankfully, he’s neither.
And then there’s “Eagleheart.” If there was any buyer’s remorse lingering from choosing Jason over, say, Judge, it evaporated the instant he said two simple words: “Chris” and “Elliott.” During a break on our first day of casting, I asked him what else he was working on. He casually mentioned a show for the Adult Swim network starring Elliott as a “Walker, Texas Ranger”-type character. (Side note: even as we spoke, even though Jason had several other projects either brewing or green-lighted with the likes of Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller, he wasn’t all braggy about them. Me? I would have been strutting around LA wearing a neon yellow, silk boxing robe with “I have deals with Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller!!” stitched on the back.) Now, I’ve always considered Chris Elliott one of our generation’s undisputed geniuses, from his classic Letterman appearances to his wildly funny satirical novels like “Daddy’s Boy” through the (erroneously maligned, in my mind) “Get a Life,” and more. So hearing that Jason (along with Conan O’Brien’s production company, Conaco) would soon bring Elliott back to the small screen – as a low rent Chuck Norris character paired with two of my other favorite, under-the-radar comic actors, Brett Gelman and Maria Thayer – made me giggle like a wee schoolgirl. And I almost hugged Woliner on the spot. But I didn’t. We’d just met and that would have been inappropriate. And he probably wouldn’t have stayed in touch with me enough over the past few years to end up answering the “Man-to-Man” questions down below. But still…
Despite his relatively young age, calling Jason’s success “overnight” isn’t accurate. Born in the Bronx in 1980, he’s been in entertainment since he was four, his big break coming courtesy of his father, Alan, who recruited him into a father/son magician team. (If you were on the metro New York children’s birthday party circuit circa ‘84 – and who wasn’t? – you’d have seen him performing with his dad, whose stage name was “Amazing Alan The Magical Rabbit,” which isn’t creepy at all in retrospect.) As a child actor, he appeared in dozens of commercials for everything from Apple Jacks cereal to Burger King to Teddy Ruxpin, the talking bear who, Jason told me off the record, was both racist and wildly moody due to heroin use and sex addiction.* (*This is a lie. But it’s not wholly inconceivable, is it? That bear had some dark secrets.) He had a recurring role on PBS’s “Shining Time Station” and performed alongside Judd Hirsch, Tony Shalhoub and Jason Biggs in “Conversations with My Father” on Broadway. And, perhaps most famously, he played the role of “Bratty Kid” in the legendary “Weekend at Bernie’s” and, reportedly, once punched brat packer Andrew McCarthy square in the testicles for stealing a Snack Pack chocolate pudding from his trailer.* (*Also untrue. Not that Andrew McCarthy isn’t the type of guy who’d steal your pudding. He totally would.)
But it wasn’t until dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College to pursue directing – Hey, kids, Jason Woliner says: DON’T STAY IN SCHOOL! – that he hit his stride. He teamed up with Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer to form the sketch comedy troupe “Human Giant,” which ran for two seasons on MTV. He’s gone on to write, produce and/or direct projects for HBO (“Funny or Die Presents”), Comedy Central (“Jon Benjamin Has a Van”), Saturday Night Live (the live-action version of Robert Smigel’s “Ambiguously Gay Duo” starring Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Jimmy Fallon, and Jon Hamm). And he’s directed several episodes of NBC’s “Parks & Recreation.” And he paired with Ansari to create the mockumentary “RAAAAAAAANDY,” based on Aziz’s character in the Adam Sandler film, “Funny People,” leading to a three-picture deal with Apatow and Universal. And he’s also writing/directing Ben Stiller’s latest project, “Billy Glimmer: Entertainer of the Century.” And the second season premiere of “Eagleheart” airs on Adult Swim, tonight at midnight. (Wired magazine called the show “as freaky as it is funny.” The LA Times said “That it’s a violent comedy does not make it a comedy ‘about’ violence; it’s just violent, because violence is funny now.” And the Good Men Magazine’s Mark St. Amant writes, “If you don’t watch it, you’re not only missing a weirdly, violently hilarious show, you’re also missing a human soul.”)
And…and…and. Okay, Jason’s clearly busy. And, okay, I know I’ve been gushing. (Hey, I never claimed to be a “journalist” with “unbiased, objective opinions” and what you’d call “actual writing talent.”) But bottom line, while I’ve only shot with him a few times and exchanged a handful of emails since 2009 – and for all I know, he may have thrill-killed a drifter at an I-90 rest stop just south of Buffalo circa 2004 — I always come to the same conclusion: Jason Woliner is just a truly decent person (a good man?) who proves that, yes, it is possible to be both madly envious of and truly happy for someone’s success. But the gutters of Hollywood Boulevard are littered with the carcasses of mere “decent people.” So one can only assume that his writing/directing/producing chops and work ethic have also played just a wee little role in his ever-growing IMDB profile, all of which will make it increasingly difficult to overlook Jason from now on.
Mark: What two words describe your dad? How are you most like or unlike him? (And please tell me he didn’t make you wear a rabbit outfit during your magic act.)
Jason: “Best” and “Dad”. My dad was a big influence on my sense of humor and general outlook. Plus he got me interested when I was really young in things like sideshows and banned 40’s cartoons and Kraftwerk. Great dad. Cool, young dad. I didn’t wear the bunny suit.
M: What’s a typical day for you, and how, besides metric tons of cocaine, do you keep your passion for comedy flowing at such productive levels?
J: It varies. Sometimes I’ll be shooting or editing for many hours straight. Other times I live much like a retiree. Right now we’re finishing Eagleheart, so it’s been a lot of sound mixing and coloring sessions and last-minute editing tweaks and trying to figure out how to get new people to find the show.
M: You’re clearly not a one-man show. What do you look for in collaborators?
J: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of people that I really admire. I’ve never gone out looking for collaborators or anything – I think people with similar tastes seem to find each other.
M: What’s the worst decision you’ve ever made – personally, professionally (not counting this interview), or both — and how have you learned from it?
J: I have no regrets! But also no memory. So probably, too many to name. Often I will remember anything I have ever said aloud and react with horror + complete disgust! I regret every decision I’ve ever made, in the last forty-five minutes.
M: What are the differences between the film/TV and the commercial production processes, and what do you love (or hate) most about either?
J: I try to make everything I work on as good as I’m capable of making it. For the commercials I’ve gotten to direct, it’s a bit more clear that I’m hired to do a very specific job. SELL POISON TO CHILDREN!!!!!
M: Meh. Children are overrated, anyway. What advice would you give the teenage Jason that you now know about life?
J: Don’t worry too much. Everything pretty much gets sorted out.
M: What is the your most cherished ritual as a guy?
J: Typical guys stuff: Beer-B-Ques, Dunking Ballz in Hoopz, Dunking Chipz in Guacz, Beer-B-Brews, Bro-B-Ques, chillaxing, Phillaxing (that’s chillaxing with guys named Phil), curing beer infections with antiguyotics. You know.
M: Small world. I have an Uncle Phil. Who is the best man you know, and why?
J: I do love my Dad. Also I am a great admirer of Tom Scharpling. My friend Rob Diener is also a good man. Eric Notarnicola is a personal hero.
M: How has the business of writing/directing/producing changed since you arrived in LA?
J: It seems like it’s generally gotten more difficult for people to find money for things in the past few years. There are brilliant, established filmmakers unable to get projects off the ground. Scary! I’ve been really lucky so far that anyone has been paying me to come up with things that make me and my friends laugh and then shoot them and put them out into the world. Hopefully that will continue.
M: Speaking of your friends: You, Aziz, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer enter an MMA Octagon. Only one victor emerges alive and covered in blood. Who is it and why?
J: Huebel. He is a warrior.
M: Surprising. I figured Scheer would play dead, then blind someone with a handful of sand and kick them. So what, in your mind, defines a good man?
J: One who is considerate and not shitty? I guess? I never think in terms of “a good man”. Or “man”. I think of a “man” as like, Don Draper or something. Me and my friends are goofs. Am I part of the problem? What is this crazy website?? I’m trying my best. I hate shaving.
M. ‘Eagleheart’ Season II premieres tonight at midnight on Adult Swim. How did you first get involved, and was it Conan O’Brien or Chris Monsanto that made it impossible to resist?
J. I was hired to direct the pilot, which was a completely different show with a different premise, characters, etc. Then myself and the two guys who conceived of the show, Michael Koman and Andrew Weinberg, threw the whole thing out and came up with what became Eagleheart. I am glad we did. I hope people enjoy it.
Mark St. Amant is an author (Committed, Just Kick It), award-winning advertising creative director and occasional ‘Good Men’ contributor. He lives in Boulder, CO. Electronically stalk him at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Peter Serafinowicz