When not plying his skills as an acclaimed playwright, Bill Corbett has been known to manipulate a gold robot and walk around, pasty-faced, with his brain in a glass dish.
Okay, so the pasty-facedness of the previous statement actually applies to the character of The Observer that Bill played for 3 seasons during Mystery Science Theater 3000’s run on the Sci-Fi Channel. As if that weren’t enough, in addition to his writing duties for the series (and his roll as the pasty-faced Observer – BOY was he pasty!), he also took over from Trace Beaulieu as the voice and puppeteer of Crow T. Robot.
His post-MST life has seen him continue to write plays, but he’s also re-teamed with fellow Satellite of Love refugees Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy as the B-movie quipping Film Crew, plus he’s been a frequent guest-riffer on Mike Nelson & Legend Films’ RiffTrax commentaries (you can check out their full catalog here).
Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, I was able to communicate via telephone with Bill, who was firmly entrenched in his Midwestern stronghold.
QUICK STOP: So, did you get a chance to look at some of our other interview disasters?
BILL CORBETT: I did, yeah. Wow. What were you thinking? They’re very nice and they’re very thorough.
QS: Hopefully nothing was enough to scare you off of this…
CORBETT: No, it’s just more… you know, I get worried that my life is just not as interesting as these dudes.
QS: Yeah, but the good thing is that most of what you tell me could be lies and I’d never know the difference.
QS: So, about your time in the RAF…
CORBETT: Damn Gerries! We have them on the run!
QS: We go back as far as we can… It’s either we start with that, or I can just ask you – Pinter, Miller, Simon and you, cage match, who wins?
CORBETT: (laughs) I think Pinter does. He’s an angry old limey at this point. He’s loaded for bear.
QS: Is that who you pick as your tag team partner?
CORBETT: Who are the other choices?
QS: Miller and Simon.
CORBETT: Miller and Simon. Well, Miller’s dead, so he might be a little tough, but I guess I could throw Miller at somebody. Simon, I don’t know. He married Marsha Mason at one point, so he might be pretty used to rumbling.
QS: The calluses alone should mean that he’d be able to stay in the fight for much longer than you expect.
CORBETT: Swinging Arthur Miller at us, yeah.
QS: You never really thought about this. This could happen.
CORBETT: Thank God I do interviews so I can think of the right hypotheticals for my life! (laughing)
QS: If there really were literary cage matches, imagine who it might bring to literature? You might finally capture the youth that have been disenchanted by reading.
CORBETT: I do think that WWE wrestler Mankind…
QS: Mick Foley…
CORBETT: Mick Foley is now a respected New York Times’ bestseller. He’s writing tender paeans to childhood.
QS: Having read both of his books, they’re actually remarkably well written – to give the man some kind of props…
CORBETT: Well, I live in a state where the governor was one of those guys, so I believe anything at this point.
QS: In Minnesota, anything could happen. You could have an ex-SNL pundit as your senator…
CORBETT: It’s quite amazing.
QS: And don’t forget that’ll make the state film Stuart Saves his Family.
CORBETT: I tell you, we’re the new California here. It’s where crackpot ideas get a dry run.
QS: Well, you have to have some kind of California in the middle, don’t you?
CORBETT: It’s true.
QS: I think there’s a per state rule, you can only have a buffer of three or four states before you have to hit an oddball.
CORBETT: Yeah, that’s true, and the Dakotas aren’t going to pick up the challenge anytime soon.
QS: Really, it’s for eccentrics who don’t like the coasts.
CORBETT: Well, this state will tell you that we have more coastline than California. It’s an actual bragging point, I think, of the tourist board. If you actually just took all the lakes and stretched them out like a big rubber band into a line…
QS: Yeah, but for a landlocked area of the country, that strikes me as the equivalent of a fat man saying he’s big boned.
CORBETT: Yeah, I think that’s dead on. The lakes are wonderful, but…
QS: It’s not the coast.
CORBETT: No, come now.
QS: It’s not the Riviera of the Midwest.
CORBETT: Where are you?
QS: I’m in North Carolina, on the coast.
CORBETT: An actual coast.
QS: One with an ocean. Not just something where they say, “Well, it has the same systems and waves as an ocean…”
CORBETT: Well, water meets land at some point.
QS: Yeah, “We have the world’s largest miniature ocean.”
CORBETT: Parceled out in ten thousand little droplets.
QS: Isn’t the Midwest where the euphemism was born?
CORBETT: What euphemism?
QS: Just euphemisms in general.
CORBETT: Yeah, probably. Wow, that’s heavy.
QS: What brought a native of New York, Brooklyn if I remember correctly…
QS: … to the Midwest?
CORBETT: Well, in 1990 I came out here after grad school. I was invited to do a playwriting fellowship out here through a place called the Playwright Center – which makes sense for a playwriting fellowship. It’s a place that kind of gave out money and grants to writers if they would basically hang around for a year and teach a few classes. I had no better offer since. And I was sort of aware of it as a place that had kind of launched August Wilson, the playwright. But I’d never been to the Midwest before. I really only planned on staying a year.
QS: At that time, how did you view the idea of the Midwest, as a New Yorker?
CORBETT: My idea of the Midwest was Ohio. And I thought, “Well, it’s all kind of… it was a bit of New York snobbery – or idiocy, depending on your point of view – where I really thought, “Oh, you can get anywhere in the Midwest from a couple of miles away.” And Ohio, because my parents had moved out there to Columbus some years before, even though I didn’t go with them, so that to me was the Midwest. There was a vast, vast expanse beyond that and below that and above that.
QS: So it’s not just WKRP.
CORBETT: No. (laughs) I was curious. I was aware of Minneapolis as a great cultural scene… a music scene, like The Replacements and Prince, of course, and all that. And I knew that it had some great theater here. The Guthrie theater, famously one of the best and biggest theaters in the country. And a bunch of other stuff. So I was anxious to spend a year out here, but we’re a little over a year now.
QS: It’s stretched a bit longer than you thought…
CORBETT: Quite a bit. For the first couple of years I was sort of doing double citizenship between New York and here. But I just kept getting work here an I kept enjoying it. The winters are the classic thing that people complain about here, but I don’t even mind that. Until February. I like a little bit of bracing cold and some seasons, but it just goes on too darn long.
QS: You would think that you would miss some of the cultural aspects of New York.
CORBETT: Yeah, I do, but I have to say I lived there until I was 26 years old. I get back there enough and I usually tend to cram a lot of my little cultural joneses in one trip. These days I’m missing it because my wife and I have a young kid and another on the way, so I’m anticipating that the traveling isn’t going to be as frequent.
QS: Not unless they start wondering who their dad is.
CORBETT: Right, right.
QS: “Who is that guy?” As your wife puts them to bed with RiffTrax playing in their ears.
CORBETT: Oh, that would make them so twisted.
QS: It’s better than seeing half the work you did on MST…
CORBETT: That’s true. “That guy with the white, hideous…”
QS: “That ghostly demon is my dad.”
CORBETT: “God help you.”
QS: You’ve left them quite a legacy.
CORBETT: I know.
QS: At least with the new project, with the Film Crew, they’ll be able to at least know your face…
QS: Unadorned by makeup…
CORBETT: Hopefully they’ll concentrate more on RiffTrax…
QS: Oh no, they’ll get exposed to the rest. That’s what classmates are for. How early did you begin to get a sense that writing was a creative expression that you gravitated towards?
CORBETT: Pretty early, I guess. I had a couple of good teachers along the way in grade school. I remember one who had us writing little skits and things, and they were really a blast to do. I would actually do the homework, which was kind of a minor miracle. I remember one thing he had us do was write a skit involving dialects. He was teaching us regional dialects. All these little kids in Brooklyn trying to put on Southern accents. He would give us creative writing topics. I realized I liked it then, and I never stopped liking it.
QS: What would be the first piece of writing that you can actively remember?
CORBETT: Gosh, let me think. It was probably a total rip off of something else, because I think it’s only last year that I finally started writing anything remotely original that wasn’t influenced heavily…
QS: Usually writers don’t admit that until they’re in their 60s or 70s.
CORBETT: Yeah. The first piece of writing was probably a skit in Mr. Scotto’s class where I think I had Archie Bunker meeting some southern guy, little TV brained kid that I was, and that was the extent of it. And they could barely understand each other because of their dialects.
QS: That’s exactly the kind of character that you’d hope a grade school kid would latch onto.
CORBETT: Yes, exactly. A bigoted New Yorker. That was pretty much everybody who lived on my block. The Irish Catholic version of Archie Bunker.
QS: So you were essentially a pint-sized Norman Lear.
QS: But it’s good that you were already thinking of social issues at such a young age.
CORBETT: I don’t know that I was. I just thought he was funny because he called people “meathead” and “dingbat”. That’s all I knew.
QS: Words you use to this day.
CORBETT: Oh yeah.
QS: What kind of writing style developed during that period?
CORBETT: I think all through my young ‘un days, for some reason I gravitated towards dialogue – plays, for lack of a better word. Anything that can be acted out. So I was getting interested in theater and theatricality at the same time. I had written a few plays, and whatever was available.
QS: Did the acting appeal to you as much as the writing?
CORBETT: It did, actually. I was a… I hesitate to call it a serious actor, but for a while I did a fair amount of it. I just think that when it comes down to it I don’t really have the stomach for an actor’s life, for a performer’s life. I love doing things that are handed to me. I deeply detest having to audition and prepare monologues and things like that. Maybe some combination of laziness and who knows what… inferiority complex. Probably laziness, when it comes right down to it. That can explain a lot about me.
QS: How have you reacted to rejection over the years?
CORBETT: I don’t really bristle at it and stamp my feet. It’s more that I shrug and get kind of an Eyeore, “Oh, what’s the point.” And when it comes to acting it’s a real tough road, psychologically. It’s great if you’re doing well for a while. It just feels like you’re on top of the world… So I hear… But boy, even people who’ve had a measure of success… and I know a lot of actors, and some of them are really smart people… and it’s tough. I did a lot of stage acting at school. I acted in the Guthrie Theater Company for a while as just a plain old member of the company doing Shakespeare and everything. It’s a lot of fun if you can get into a company and have a season of four or five plays. I have to say that, beyond just the feeling of powerlessness of getting the jobs, I’m also like a lot of actors – I don’t want to do what I don’t want to do. That’s not an option sometimes. If I don’t like the part or I don’t think it’s fun enough, I just want to walk away – and that’s not the old team spirit.
QS: Not really… Where everyone’s going, “Where’s Bill?”
CORBETT: Yeah… “He’s supposed to come in with a spear, and he’s not here.” No, you’ve got to be a good soldier.
QS: But it’s got to be the best thing in the world to be cast as your understudy.
CORBETT: I actually did some understudy work at the Guthrie when I first got there. I had, at some point, 20 smallish Shakespeare parts that I was supposed to have ready to go. I went up a few times onstage when somebody got sick, and it’s terrifying. It’s the most terrifying thing in the world. And if you can get through it without killing somebody and actually blurting out a line or two, you get such credit from the stage manager. I managed to.
QS: It’s good to know that, with you, death is always an option.
CORBETT: They should know that.
QS: “You never know when Bill’s just gonna lose it…”
CORBETT: The funny part is, at one point I was in Henry IV. I was understudying this very minor character, but he’s a crazy Scotsman who helps attack Henry IV’s army. The fight choreographer gave him an axe and a broad sword, and I had to do this part, because the guy was sick. They run you through the fight choreography at the beginning and they say, “We’ll go at half speed or go at quarter speed.” I was just terrified I was going to take off the choregorapher’s head. And it just looked like I was doing it through Elmer’s glue or something.
QS: You were exaggeratedly cautious…
CORBETT: Yeah. What a warrior!
QS: “Slowly he strikes.”
CORBETT: That’s deliberation!
QS: What would you say has been the acting part that you’ve been most comfortable in, or had the most enjoyment from?
CORBETT: I don’t know. I did a lot of crazy experimental stuff in grad school. I was there for playwriting and screenwriting, but I wound up acting a lot. It was fun to act in them. Whether it was fun to see them or not is a whole other matter.
QS: That’s not your concern.
CORBETT: Right, it’s not my problem, it’s the director’s. Like those old German expressionists. Back in the late 80s or early 90s I just liked being in stuff that was kind of crazy and extreme.
QS: Was it just your experimental nature, or the fact that you’re presenting something that audiences had no idea how to deal with it?
CORBETT: Probably the latter. And I like to try to make it somewhat emotionally coherent for them. But I don’t know, once you’ve done that for a while it loses its sting a little bit. It loses its appeal, to me at least. Then I was more into wanting to make people laugh. It’s really the most satisfying reaction you can get, and actually it’s the most palpable outside of getting a tomato thrown at you. I did some cabaret type stand-up and characters. It’s been done a lot now. Doing lots of character and solo shows. But I had my little flirtation with it.
QS: What was the material that you would present?
CORBETT: One of them was, I worked two summers as a door man on the Upper West Side, and then was promoted to concierge at one point. I did a bunch of characters in the lobby, for example. Because some of the doormen I worked with were really quite fascinating characters. One guy was a soldier of fortune who was just as polite as could be.
QS: Just fell on hard times?
CORBETT: Yeah, (laughs) I guess. Yeah, soldier of not so much fortune. Soldier of minimum wage.
QS: But I guess every mission must be a spectacular adventure for him.
CORBETT: I think he just went on them so he could bend people’s ear in the lobby. He was very polite to the people in the building. And this was a pretty snooty building. Keith Richards lived there, and a bunch of people from the UN, ambassadors, lived there. So he would be very deferential, because you could get pretty good tips at Christmas. Then afterwards he would just say the foulest things about people.
QS: Is he thinking, “Oh, I could snap his neck like a twig…”?
CORBETT: Oh, he wasn’t even thinking it, he was saying it! “I could rig a light bulb so that when he turned it on…”
QS: Did you ever dare him to show you this light bulb?
CORBETT: I should have. He’s probably rotting in a jail right now.
QS: Call him on it. “You’re not a soldier of fortune, you’re a doorman.”
CORBETT: “You’re not even a very good doorman. Your technique is lousy!”
QS: What would be the oddest request you got during this period as a doorman?
CORBETT: I think, as expensive New York apartments went, it was pretty tame.
QS: You never had to dispose of a body.
CORBETT: Oh god no! (laughs) To my great disappointment, no.
QS: Keith never asked you to take delivery of a package…
CORBETT: I never worked there long enough to get anything that smelled like Peruvian marching powder. I would have known, believe me.
QS: Or his father…
CORBETT: I tell you, Keith was a very incoherent man. That may surprise you. I wouldn’t have known what he was saying to me.
QS: Was he at least polite in his incoherence?
CORBETT: Yeah. His wife was very nice. I forget her name…
QS: So does he.
CORBETT: A model… yeah, right! (laughs) Good one, good one. (does Keith) “Yeah that… err… lady over there…” He seemed like he just had his blood transfused every day.
QS: Just sort of gliding through life…
CORBETT: Well, he’s about to hit the big screen in Pirates of the Caribbean.
QS: Yes, his big screen debut as himself…
CORBETT: Keithmania is about it reignite itself.
QS: That’s not the only thing that’s ignited itself.
QS: What period were you working this job? In your early 20s?
CORBETT: The doorman’s job was right before I went to go back to school, which was in the late 80s.
QS: So you were what, 21, 22?
CORBETT: No, mid 20s. I’m 46 now. I’m an old codger.
QS: No, there are people who are far older than you.
CORBETT: (laughs) So I hear. I don’t believe them.
QS: Look at that old man, Kevin.
CORBETT: That’s true. But he’s got a timeless quality. I don’t.
QS: Yes, he does have a timeless quality And the beard.
CORBETT: He has a great beard, that man.
QS: A true midwestern beard. You should envy his beard.
CORBETT: I’ve tried a beard. I had a beard for a while. I usually get a little fringe around the chin.
QS: So nowhere near the lumberjack quality that Kevin has…
CORBETT: No, not lumberjack, it’s more like weak Amish quality. They probably wouldn’t even let me into their club…
QS: So very much an Irish beard…
CORBETT: I guess so. I never thought of it that way.
QS: A nice, wispy, elfin quality to it.
CORBETT: (laughs) Leprechaunian.
QS: Is that a word? It is now.
CORBETT: It is now. It’s yours.
QS: Had you ever acted in one of your own plays?
CORBETT: Yeah, I did quite a bit of that in grad school. I did some kind of off-off-off-Broadway in New York, basically in the Hudson River. I’ve done a little bit here, like the Minnesota Fringe, and a couple of other theaters here in Minneapolis.
QS: Have you ever put something up that you’ve written and thought, just from an actor’s perspective, “I really need to change this…”?
CORBETT: Oh yeah. It’s tough to do both things well at once, and I’m not sure that I have. But that didn’t stop the raging ego! More seriously, I would say that since I’ve gotten a little older and wiser I make sure that if I do that – and I really haven’t done that in a while, and I don’t plan to do that again probably anytime soon – I have to have a director or somebody who can call me on the bullshit. I’ve never really gone out there with a three hour BILL! BILL! BILL!: The Show.
QS: It’d be a great marquee.
CORBETT: Yeah, “Bill Bill Bill what?” I like to work with other actors. It’s just too lonely up there. I did a little bit of standup, the tiniest little bit in New York, and it never really appealed to me. Probably because I wasn’t very good.
QS: When you say a little bit…
CORBETT: I’m talking about a handful of times. I got this bee in my bonnet that I wanted to give it a try when I was really young, like 20 years old, and I tried a few…
QS: So this would be during the early part of the comedy boom.
CORBETT: I guess so. That’s probably why I was suckered into it. Everyone was doing it. And I think more to the point there were a whole bunch of comedy clubs popping up all over the place and they were just rallying people in for open mic nights. I think I had an alright act. I have zero technique, though, and I didn’t know my way around a microphone. The guy who was hosting the first open mic I went to was a tall, stretchy guy, probably like six four or five, and my main first act was battling with the microphone and trying to get it down to my level. I gave up at some point and just sort of stepped on my tippy toes and did my act into it. My friend who was in the audience said the effect was, like, you would hear every fourth or fifth word really loudly and then it would go pretty much silent.
QS: You could have made it your own prop comedy moment.
CORBETT: Yeah, or I could have made it sort of anti-comedy.
QS: Is it something that you felt, if circumstances had been slightly different, you could have made a stronger go at?
CORBETT: I’m guessing if I was interested enough, I’m egotistical enough to believe that if I really went for it I would have gotten better at it. Because I have an okay sense of humor. It’s really more about the nerves and standing up there. I don’t really suffer from stage fright. I don’t have the good sense to. I don’t know whether I would have been a good comedian, but I probably could have chugged along for a while until somebody noticed and told me to go away. I just really didn’t have the interest after those first couple of experiences, I guess. I also tended to write a little too thick. I didn’t really know how to get to the joke, and that’s a very bad thing.
QS: So, essentially, you were presenting plays to them.
CORBETT: Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it. It was all set up and very little punch line. (laughs) Premise, premise, premise, premise, premise, premise, bit!
QS: You could have been the premise guy.
CORBETT: The premise guy!
QS: What has been the worst reaction to criticism you’ve had over the years? What stung you the most?
CORBETT: Let me think… When I first started writing plays and having them produced, it takes a while to get the thick skin you really need if your work is going to be reviewed regularly. I think the first time I got a not-so-good review it just felt like a punch in the solar plexus.
QS: Do you remember that review?
CORBETT: I remember sending it to friends of mine saying basically, “Is this true?” And them basically saying, “Deal with it.” (laughs) “Get over it!”
QS: In retrospect, do you feel the assessment was true of the material at that time?
CORBETT: Yes, it was. And it wasn’t even that unkind. I’ve had much more brutal reviews since then. That’s the way it is with criticism. If you’re going to invest in the good you have to allow for the bad, as well. And it’s probably best to ignore most of any of it and just go along with your work. I’ve gotten a good education from critics over the years, because even though it stings for a second, if you can string it together with past reviews you do sort of sense a pattern. You can write off anybody you want, and if someone is just grinding an axe you think is unfair it’s your right to dismiss it. But I do think that it’s made me a little sharper about storytelling. Because a lot of the times I got the reaction of, “Seems to be wandering as a story. It’s got some good lines and characters but the story goes nowhere.” Eventually that hopefully sinks in.
QS: What would you say is your Achilles heel as a writer?
CORBETT: My Achilles heel as I writer… I think it’s changed over the years. I think at present it’s… hmm. Damn you, sir! Damn you and you making me reflect on myself!
QS: That’s what these things are for…
CORBETT: Yeah, truly. I’d say right now my Achilles heel – which I share with, I think, a lot of writers – is telling a good story… still the toughest thing, without it becoming too much of a cliché. Finding a good spin on something. Because I do feel like there’s a lot of great dialogue writers out there. There’s a lot of funny people. But telling a story with it seeming just a little bit original is a difficult one.
QS: Do you think in this pop culture saturated age it’s harder to avoid clichés?
CORBETT: Yeah, I do. I think it’s hard to avoid clichés. It also depends on the medium. It’s really, really hard to avoid – for stage and film, especially when you’re working with producers or… and I’m not talking about anybody in particular, but the culture of Hollywood is that they are screaming for you to give them clichés. But then they’ll be the first people to say, “That’s a cliché.” “I know! You asked for it!” In theater the problem, to my mind right now, is more that… the way theater is now it’s always on the cusp of irrelevance because it’s hard to produce. Just the economics of it don’t work in this country for reasons that are… smarter people than me are trying to figure out. It seems that theater now leads with theme and topic and usually it’s a political or social something or other. Which I like writing about, but I read more with humor and then a humorous treatment of something that seems kind of sensitive or political or social is not always appreciated.
QS: It seems to be a rarity in theater, comparatively, people writing humorous or just out-and-out comedies for presentation.
CORBETT: You sort of leap across this great chasm and then you have the world of Neil Simon. He’s got real talents, and he was apparently a great wrestler, too. Then you leap into this whole world of lite, L-I-T-E – of Broadway musicals and all that. I don’t cotton much to that, either, although who knows, I might if I gave it a try. So I don’t know, theater’s a tough thing to do in this day and age and it’s why it’s not all I do. Probably if things had been a little more satisfying only with that, say 15 years ago, I’d be doing only that.
QS: It seems it has a similarity to the world of independent film, where it’s very rare that you see an independent comedy. You’ll see a coming of age story or a deadly serious drama, but to have a small, intimate comedy is a rarity.
CORBETT: I think you’re right there. Yeah. Comedy tends to be bigger and splashier and dumber. I am all for that on some level, but I do like to keep myself interested and I like to miniaturize and be a little bit more out on the edge here and there. That’s not where I want to live all the time, necessarily.
QS: Do you think it’s more difficult to write comedy than to be serious?
CORBETT: To me no, it isn’t. But I do think that failing in comedy is just such a more obvious failure. (laughs) It’s a subject of reaction, of course, what’s funny and what isn’t. But boy, in that live experience, if something isn’t getting laughs, that just means it’s not funny and it means you failed, whereas an awed silence sounds a lot like an awed boredom.
QS: Do you think it’s easy to fake drama? Like the fake orgasm of theater?
CORBETT: (laughs) Oh, King Lear! I think it shouldn’t be easy to fake drama, but this is maybe where I’m doing the airing of the grievances here, theatrical grievances. I do think it’s too easy to fake it, in theater, at least in this day and age, if you have an important topic that you kind of corral into your play, or if you have an important scene that you treat. And that’s pretty much my problem with theater right now, at least as it exists in the US. It’s not that interesting to me to see a play about something that I could read an essay about, and probably be better informed.
QS: If you’re sitting in another person’s production, and are bored to tears, do you feel that the uninteresting writing is often passed off as a serious literary exercise that should be taken seriously, and not critiqued as an incomprehensible maudlin mess because of how much leeway is given to dramatic presentations?
CORBETT: If I follow what your saying… that was a long sentence, my friend…
QS: I’ve got a flow chart I can send over to you.
CORBETT: (laughs) But I think I get what you’re saying. Yeah, I have felt that way at times, but lest I just sound like a bitter old pill, I’d say that there’s stuff that knocks me off my feet at times, and there are writers that are so very good that I just know that I’m not capable of doing what they do. Especially when there’s a poetic or lyrical dimension. That’s not my strong suit. That may well be my Achilles heel.
QS: How would you describe a poetical or lyrical dimension to something?
CORBETT: Elevated language, language that takes you… there’s a lot of ways of looking at that. There’s Shakespeare, of course, but there’s also George Bernard Shaw and his elevated, very incredibly clever dialectical style. But even David Mamet and his kind of tough guy, fuck you dialogue actually achieves a kind of poetry there.
QS: Would you say it’s a transcendent point that’s difficult to achieve?
CORBETT: Yeah. I think that’s a real skill, and probably not my strong suit.
QS: What do you feel has come close to that, that you’ve written?
CORBETT: Probably nothing… well, I’m sure nothing most people have ever heard of. I wrote a play called Motorcade that I actually performed in myself a bunch of times. For me and another actor, whoever that other actor happened to be. I just didn’t want to be up there alone. I get lonely! It was about a small town in Ohio that was a steel town that was kind of dying out, and set in the 70s and Gerald Ford was coming through the town. It was kind of a cracked comedy on one level, but I do think as close as I’ve come to a poetic sense here. Even in the story structure being a little more freeform and jazz like. Usually I’m a little more conventional. It was fun. I may do it again.
QS: Would you say that was a more or less difficult piece to write than your average piece?
CORBETT: It was… good question. It felt like it was a challenge at the time, but it was one I really enjoyed. Sometimes you just have to do what you think you’re going to enjoy, and if you stop engaging in it, it starts to feel like you’re grinding a gear. Just stop, because it’s probably not going to be very good.
QS: How often would you say that you’ve abandoned a piece?
CORBETT: Oh, I do it all the time. As I’ve gotten a little more experienced I abandon them earlier because I have a better gut check, I think, about whether this is going anywhere, whether I feel any excitement about it. Especially if something is a play or something that’s just on spec – like, no one is paying me to do it or asking me to do it. You might as well do what excites you and gives you a little bit of joy and is challenging in the right way. Because if not, it’s just drudgery.
QS: Are there any pieces that you’ve abandoned but keep coming back to?
CORBETT: Probably not at this point. There was a pretty conscious clearing out, like, two years ago – I just decided to list all my projects and either consign them to the drawer and give up the ghost on them, or see what else is there. The one or two that I decided to pursue, I’m pursuing.
QS: How big would you say your ghost pile is?
CORBETT: Oh, vast. Most of them are ones that I knew were kind of over a while back. I think they were just kind of journeyman efforts in writing… Learning how to write and just a necessary apprenticeship, even if nobody ever sees it.
QS: What do you think has been the easiest piece for you to write?
CORBETT: I’ve written in a whole bunch of different worlds and genres now. I guess I could say that it’s easy, on some level, to work with Kevin and Mike and write a script with them. Because we just kind of know the feeling that we’re going for, we know the type of humor that we all enjoy. It’s exciting to write thinking that we’re all going to get together and top each other and all that. So there’s a real enjoyment to that. But as far as an individual piece, probably the play that has been most successful is called The Big Slam, which has gotten around the U.S. a lot. It came pretty easy. I was working with a really great director when I did it. She was excellent at guiding me to the best instincts of it.
QS: How do you feel – as a writer and as someone who would perform these widely distributed plays when you were in high school – that your productions are now becoming some of those go-to productions for high schools and students?
CORBETT: I don’t think that’s true of me. I think I have one piece that I wrote with a writing partner called Hate Mail which was a pretty silly piece that I wrote in correspondence with a writer named Kira Obolensky. Mike Nelson actually did the premier of it as an actor. He and Mo Collins, who was a Mad TV person eventually. That has a surprising sort of subsequent life in high schools and colleges and all that. Sometimes I cringe a little, because it’s a little naughty in places and I think, “Hmm, do I want a 16 year old saying that?” Not really! Not if it’s my 16 year old!
QS: It’s your own Vagina Monologues.
CORBETT: (laughs) Bill Corbett’s Vagina Monologues.
QS: That could be lucrative for ya!
CORBETT: I tell ya…”Who even knew that Bill Corbett had a…”
QS: I’m not even gonna touch that…
CORBETT: Please don’t…
QS: But Mike did play the female part…
CORBETT: (laughs) Yes, I’m very big into the world of cross-gender casting…
QS: Looking back, what do you think has been the most difficult thing for you to write that you never felt would work but in the end it turned itself around?
CORBETT: I wrote – and it’s only been produced a few times – a play called The Book of Time. It was a really weird meditative piece that slipped in and out of time, oddly enough, and it was about this old woman who used to be kind of a political lefty in the 30s, and her daughter’s coming to visit her. It was stuff I had no business knowing anything about, and really didn’t. It was kind of a researched piece and it took a while to make the people real and have them be real personalities, and make the slipping out of time structure work a little bit. But in the end I thought it did pretty well. It was sort of a little jewel box piece and just was done in a few theaters here and there. Not the kind of thing that you make a ton of dough on. (laughs) Actors like doing it. That’s sometimes the greatest compliment or feeling is when actors really enjoy doing something.
QS: Are you someone who enjoys working outside their comfort zone?
CORBETT: I don’t know where my comfort zone is at this point. I’d say the answer to that is probably that it’s easy to get bored. I think boredom is just the enemy of creativity. I always like to be stretching myself in one way or another. It’s not always going to a further edge of aesthetic craziness. My most recent… (laughs) experience of the last couple of years have been writing a commercial screenplay, and trying to work within that world and see if I can live with myself, and see if I can survive, keep getting the job back, without feeling like I’m doing something awful.
QS: Have you succeeded in that so far?
CORBETT: So far. I’m going at the end of the week to be on set for a while, to watch them film it. I’ll get back to you after that.
QS: Do you have the fear that, in a year’s time, Mike’s going to call you up and say, “I’m thinking of doing Starship Dave on the next RiffTrax.”
CORBETT: I think it would be great, actually. I really do. I think it would be a whole other level of… it would be like the Russian doll, finding new levels out of it. If I could rank out my own writing it would be just delightful.
QS: Yeah, some kind of meta nesting exercise. Maybe it’s time to do a RiffTrax of one of your plays.
CORBETT: Oh, man. A RiffTrax of one of my plays. I don’t know how that would be done.
QS: Just being you, Mike & Kevin sitting in a theater. Can you imagine such a thing?
CORBETT: That would be kind of fun, actually, except I would pity the poor actors who had to put up with us idiots in the front row. It’s kind of great not to feel precious about old stuff that I’ve written. I don’t know about RiffTrax, but if someone did it I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.
QS: Is there anything you’ve written that you wish would just disappear?
CORBETT: (laughs) Well yeah, a lot of stuff has disappeared, so it took care of itself. Nothing made such a great mark. Luckily it rose to its level of quality and went away.
QS: So that’s the stuff that you pawn off on that other Bill Corbett…
CORBETT: Yes. An impossible man.
QS: When exactly did the connections with the guys at Best Brains start to happen?
CORBETT: It started to happen probably in the mid to early 90s. I just started to become pals with a few of them. I’m trying to think exactly how it happened. I got to know Mike and Bridget (Jones) and Mary Jo (Pehl) first, and I think it was mostly through… there’s kind of a tight theater and comedy scene here in Minneapolis. I was writing comic plays. I was teaching some classes, and Mary Jo took a playwriting class of mine, and so did Paul Chaplain.
QS: What kind of students were they?
CORBETT: They totally brown-nosed me. No, they were great. Boy, but some of the other critters in the class.
QS: Now we have to spend a little time on this class…
CORBETT: It wasn’t at the same time. I didn’t have Mary Jo and Paul in the same class.
QS: The two of them would have been problem students.
CORBETT: They would have been fighting in the back, throwing erasers at each other.
QS: With a class like that, there’s really nowhere to send students like that.
CORBETT: No, (laughs) It’s basically adult ed, so you have to either hit them with a mallet or they have to stay.
QS: Knowing that they paid their money…
CORBETT: Yes, pretty much.
QS: Do you almost get the sense, in teaching a course like that, that you’re half dealing with students and half dealing with customers?
CORBETT: Yes. I’ve had some really great students, and then I’ve had students that really should have been in therapy, not in my class.
QS: Do you think that’s what they were treating the class as?
CORBETT: Yeah, kind of. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were people who had some deep invested need to be a writer. They were finally doing it, and it was just so tremulous. Some of them had their one opus about their life that they’d been saving up, and I’m sad for them, but I was scared to criticize them. Genuinely scared on one level.
QS: Just for fear they would snap?
CORBETT: Yeah. “HOW DARE YOU CRITICIZE MY PAIN!” “I’m just saying that act was a little slow!” “MY FATHER IS YOU!!”
QS: So you didn’t leave anyone huddled in the fetal position in the corner is what you’re saying…
CORBETT: No, that was me huddled in the fetal position. That would have been me. “Make the bad go away!”
QS: For that sort of thing, did you ever feel a difficulty being as intensely critical as you felt you should have been as an instructor to make them better writers?
CORBETT: I don’t see that there’s any point, especially with beginning writers, to being intensely critical. A lot of people just need some gentle encouragement of what they’re doing right, and a very gentle approach to what they might do to improve it. I don’t see the point in the boot camp approach. It usually doesn’t keep people writing. There’s no need for it.
QS: Did you enjoy teaching?
CORBETT: Yeah, I enjoyed teaching, and I still do enjoy it. I haven’t done much in a while. This last fall I did kind of a thing for the Minneapolis children’s theater company here because I like to teach kids. It was semi-volunteer. I got paid a little bit. It mostly gets me out of the room, out of the writing room. I like teaching high school aged kids and college kids a lot. Adults maybe not as much at times, because like I said…
QS: Do you think they have too much baggage?
CORBETT: Too much baggage, yeah. But I do like teaching. I’ve taught college. It’s a little bit of a trap for a writer. I know that’s a cliché, too, because there are plenty of people who do and teach. But I’m a lazy person, so doing and teaching well is sort of out of the question.
QS: At that point, having Mary Jo and Paul in the classes and knowing Mike and Bridget, what was the initial entre into, “Hey, would you like to do some writing for us?”
CORBETT: I think I’m sort of social friends with Bridget and Mike and Mary Jo. My ex-wife, who was a stand-up comedian with some of those guys, was already friends with Bridget and Mike to some degree. So at one point I went with her to a Best Brains party before I even really knew of Mystery Science Theater. It was a couple of years before I worked there, and I was just this guy wandering the hall and wondering what this crazy thing was. I didn’t have cable, I didn’t know about the show. I really didn’t have a clue. But as I got to know those guys a little bit, there was just one point where I watched a Turkey Day marathon with some other friends and I just loved it so much that at one point I worked up the nerve to ask Mike if he needed any help with writing. At that point they actually did. The process was that you were sort of informally auditioning. You would just sort of hang around the writing room and blurt out with them for a while with more established writers.
QS: Do you remember what your first blurt was?
CORBETT: It was probably a fart joke. Comprised about 90% of my work since then, so it stands to reason.
QS: It’s good that you had a hook.
CORBETT: (laughs) Yeah, really! Because no one was taking care of that whole brand of humor.
QS: Until you came along, it was this verboten territory that they feared to tread…
CORBETT: I know… It was all literary references…
QS: And you brought the power of lowbrow…
CORBETT: (laughing) The power of lowbrow! Don’t underestimate me! I really don’t really remember my first comment. I remember the first movie I wrote on was Angel’s Revenge in season six. It was basically about this bunch of hicks who… it was kind of a Charlie’s Angels. Trace was still around and Frank was still around, and I just was kind of writing. I wrote on a few shows at the end of season six, and then season seven was this really stripped down version of MST where… I don’t know the business of it totally, but I think they were just getting through and seeing if they could squeeze out a few more shows with Comedy Central.
QS: Did you feel that change was in the air?
CORBETT: Well, I was never there long enough to know the changes. I was aware that Frank was leaving in the last show, which was disappointing. Frank is just a hilarious character to write for, I mean a hilarious guy. In season seven they just went with a stripped down staff, so I didn’t write for them at all. And I moved to LA at that time and decided to start trying my best in the biz, and then I got a call from Mike at some point asking if I wanted to come and write on season eight. “Well, I’m out in LA and trying to write for TV, but hey – you’re TV, and you’re back in Minneapolis.” So I went back there and then started season eight on Sci-Fi.
QS: What was your initial take on Mike, when you first met him?
CORBETT: Just a very nice, sweet guy. Very funny. Kind of low key. That’s pretty much how he still is… (laughs)
QS: So your first impression of Mike was the impression that you’ve kept to this day.
CORBETT: Yeah. I’ve learned, of course, that he’s incredibly funny, and that his humor has a real dark side to it. For this big all-American looking guy he’s got a real dark side to his humor. But god, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
QS: Yeah, he tends to pass off his dark side onto other people.
CORBETT: Yeah, (laughs) like me.
QS: Assigning those dark side quips to anyone else but him so he can maintain his squeaky-clean reputation.
CORBETT: Hey, I’ll take a bullet for him.
QS: The sixth season was them at the end of a very long, solid, comfortable run…
QS: At least toward the beginning of that, that they were loved and respected by the network.
CORBETT: Oh yeah. Those were, in some ways, the end of the real fat days where I think they had just this incredibly generous contract, if I remember it. I came with the lean years.
QS: Within the room setting, the writing session, what was your impression of… let’s start with Frank. What was your impression of the kinds of things that he would say in the room?
CORBETT: Well, it needs to be said that really… I’m talking like literally three shows toward the end of six that I got to overlap with some of those guys. I never overlapped with Joel until he came back to do his…
QS: His guest appearance…
CORBETT: Yeah. Well, I was pretty star struck, really, because I had seen the show, and to me Trace and Frank were like a classic comedy duo. I was pretty star struck. And they were all such nice guys that eventually I would have gotten over it, I think, if I had worked there a bit longer. But I’m not sure that I ever got over that for Frank and Trace, at least. They were gone by the time I got back.
QS: So your initial impression…
CORBETT: My initial impression was that everybody was pretty goddamn funny. And with Frank, he had… there was something… as I recall, I was aware that he was a fellow New Yorker, even though he was a Manhattan boy, and I was more bridge and tunnel trash. He had kind of a snideness and a sarcasm that I liked. And he was also really game. I remember that somebody wrote a skit for one of those shows at the end of six where he’s playing Auntie McFrank or something, and he was the owner of a bed & breakfast. I hope I’m not making this up.
QS: No, no. He looked very similar to Jonathan Winters.
CORBETT: (laughs) Yes, yes, very much so. And as I recall – and if I’m making this up, I’m sorry Frank, if you ever read this – but I think he just accepted it without batting an eye. It’s like, “Oh sure, I’ll be Auntie McFrank. Sure, that’s what I do.” Whereas someone like me might have gone, “Oh, do I really want to be in a dress?”
QS: This from a guy who wore a nurse’s uniform for half a season.
CORBETT: Yeah, I got over that pretty quick. After you worked at Best Brains for awhile, you realized you had to abandon your vanity. You’re going to have funny stuff put on you…
QS: Whereas Kevin seemed to revel in it.
CORBETT: Well, you didn’t know his private life. Mike and I realized at one point that we actually worked actively to get Kevin in a dress whenever we can in our skits. I think he finally caught on. He’s just a big, burly, barrel-chested guy with a beard. Put him in a cocktail dress.
QS: Though I have to admit, in seeing Mike’s various turns, particularly his turn as Janeway in the final season seven episode, that Mike seemed to enjoy it a little too much…
CORBETT: Boy, I don’t know. That was scary. He had her down pat. A slight Katherine Hepburn quality there. He had it!
QS: That stern intensity.
QS: I think he probably would have wanted to live that life a little bit longer. So what was your impression of… I’ve often heard – and in talking to Trace I’ve also found it to be true – that he seems to be quite soft-spoken, but when he does say something, it tends to be quite a cutting remark.
CORBETT: Well, I begin with t
Quick Stop Entertainment Interviews Bill Corbett
June 22nd, 2007 by torgosPizza · 1 Comment
When not plying his skills as an acclaimed playwright, Bill Corbett has been known to manipulate a gold robot and walk around, pasty-faced, with his brain in a glass dish.