SNL oddball Kyle Mooney works every week with his childhood friend Dave McCary, who’s a director on the long-running show. Together with another longstanding acquaintance, co-writer Kevin Costello, their feature-film debut is the festival darling Brigsby Bear, a low-key and very sweet comedy about a man in his mid-20s (Mooney) who’s reunited with his birth family after having been abducted in the Utah desert by a deranged couple (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) who keep him connected to the rest of the world through a low-budget extremely long-running fake children’s called Brigsby Bear.
While SNL-related films include approximately 10 clunkers for every worthwhile comedy, Brigsby Bear has no antecedent on the show and it’s not a vehicle for its participants to goof off. It’s a quiet treatise on the effects of isolation, the mind-warping culture of fandom, and the resilience of innocence that should by all rights be lost.
Ahead of the film’s release, SF Weekly spoke with Mooney and McCary about pop esoterica, creating the seemingly infinite internal mythology of the show-within-a-film, and how to make Saved by the Bell watchable.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
SF Weekly: You’re a 32-year old playing a 25-year-old manchild.
Kyle Mooney: Some would argue that the 32-year-old version of me is still acting like a 12-year-old anyway, so it didn’t feel like too much of a stretch.
And you guys have been friends for 25 years? 20 years?
KM: We were 10 years old, so 20-plus years?
Dave McCary: We’re going to have a party for our 25th.
KM: I gotta dig out the yearbook.
DM: Get that correct date, if we’re really going to celebrate it?
Did you grow up watching stupid shit on late-night TV? Stuff that’s impossible to find, or late-’90s VHS stuff?
KM: There was a kids show on PBS called Zoom, an older show that they revamped in the d’90s. We’re really into it
DM: We really loved TGIF.
KM: And Saved by the Bell. But I mean, like, I don’t know that we were growing up necessarily into super-obscure things or bizarre public-access. Over time, we got into collecting VHS and internet videos that nobody had seen. I feel like that sort of developed more in college.
In hindsight? Nostalgia for the lost VHS age?
KM: Yes, but I do love a lot of ’80s and ’90s kids entertainment, generally speaking, and I did as a child. I’m the youngest of three boys, I was into everything: Transformers, He-Man, Rainbow Brite. You, not so much.
DM: I was more into sports and WWF, but I found later in life through Kyle who rediscovered stuff in college and got into thrift-store bargain-bin stuff and VHS tapes. I think we both just really gravitate toward anything that’s performed in a stilted way, or just feels disturbing or psychedelic or just dumb. Unintentionally funny things have always been a cool thing to discover.
The Teddy Ruxpin connection is pretty clear, but it also reminded me of Sid and Marty Krofft, one of those things you love as a kid and then you watch as an adult. It’s the worst. Like Saved by the Bell. Have you seen Saved by the Bell in the last few years? It’s unbearably terrible.
KM: We were talking about this. I think, as a kid, I kind of realized that there was a campiness to Saved by the Bell at that age and I still loved it — and it definitely, in some ways, ruined the high-school experience for me, because I thought that’s what t was going to be. And it wasn’t.
The editing is terrible, for instance.
KM: The background acting work is really something to watch.
DM: Go through the entire show and just black out all the main characters and watch the background, it’s so fun.
Like Garfield Minus Garfield. Saved by the Bell Without Zack.
KM: Anytime you catch the actors ad-libbing a bit, they’re like talking over one another and stop themselves — it’s really something to see.
So within the movie, the Brigsby Bear mythos actually seems really fun. You’re making fun of fandom, but lines like “He makes rainbows” are adorable. Did you play a lot coming up with it or was it spontaneous? It doesn’t add up into one coherent whole.
KM: Most of it was scripted and planned, and it was kind of an amalgamation of a ton of references. The thought was, Ted, who’s creating this show, is basically stealing everything from pop culture. So that was really fun for Kevin [Costello], the co-writer, and I, to throw in references to He-Man, or Star Wars jargon.
This is sort of your whole comic approach: mangling words.
KM: Sure, sure, sure, yes. Though I think what Ted is doing is precise.
Well, James Google-searches “How to Make a Movie Show.”
KM: Sure, sure. I guess I was referring to the stuff within the Brigsby jargon.
DM: But it was fun because there are no real rules, so you can come up with a whole planet name on the spot and no one could be like, ‘That’s not the planet!’ ’cause we’re making it up. There were a number of improvised lines that Kyle had that made the final cut, like “Beaches of Enro,” or “Tizzle-Wizzle.” There’s no wrong answer, once you’ve set up the basic rules, and infinite characters can be made up on the spot.
Why did you choose Salt Lake City, or the Utah desert? Was that Tattooine-looking bunker already there?
DM: We built that.
KM: The interior was there.
DM: But all the exterior stuff we built.
KM: Utah made it very easy. We got a tax break there and it just had evertyhign we needed. It had the desert, it had residential suburban community. Also, unbeknownst to us when we committed to going there, it was foreign to almost everybody involved, so it made for a place where we had to interact. We couldn’t drive to one of our houses or anything like that.
I assume you’re both big Star Wars fans?
KM: Myself and Kevin are probably the biggest. Kevin is probably the biggest.
DM: I’m a Mark Hamill fan.
He goes two ways, right? He’s a legitimate actor with a lot of credits to his name. He’ll always be Luke
Skywalker forever, of course, but —
DM: And his voiceover work.
Yeah, the Joker on Batman. Was it easy to get him? Cause that’s a coup, dude.
DM: I think he really liked the script. Even though there’s a risk even signing up for anything with a first-time director and first-tine lead, I think the script was so unique that Kyle and Kevin wrote, and so heartfelt. We got on the phone with [Hamill] and he said he was a little hesitant about being able to make this character sympathetic. He’s like, “I’m a father myself, and I’m like, ‘I can’t imagine my children being abducted and feeling any type of sympathy for the person who abducted them.’ ” But he also understood that that was a really interesting role.
Did you name the character Ted for the Unabomber [Ted Kaczynski]? He seems kind of Unabomber-y.
KM: No, but I feel like at some point, we at least referenced the Unabomber. But no. Almost all the names were true stream-of-conscious, like “Here’s one!”
The part where James doesn’t recognize the Starship Enterprise. That’s for Mark Hamill’s benefit, right?
DM: Those moves aren’t really calculated in that way. Even my film teacher — who moderated a Q&A last night and said such sweet things about the film — she pointed out garbage bins being run over when James runs away and like, and I had made my first film class film in high school had a comedic scene where garbage bings were knocked ove r. But there was no connection. I wasn’t thinking of any homages of any actors or our past.
KM: Some of that stuff was just Kevin’s initial instinct.
DM: Having Mark was so exciting primarily because of how much of a film about nostalgia and fandom.
Everyone’s making The Truman Show comparisons, but instead of one person having a huge unknown fan base, it seems more like, “What if you had your own personal fandom for one, how would that warp you?” James is not ravaged. He’s still sweetly innocent. He’s just kind of muddling through.
KM: In his early life, you’re saying? Yeah, we wanted to create a life he would enjoy.
He might have been a homicidal maniac.
KM: We always operated form like, “If this was a real story, how fascinating would that be?” Also if [Brigsby Bear, the show-within-the-movie] were a real TV show, I’d love to see it.
DM: We were always operating on “How can this feel as realistic, given how surreal of a situation it is, how can we really make it feel like a national news story and make everyone in this person’s world support each scene with as much realism and honesty as possible, as to not make it an over-the-top silly fish-out-of-water broad comedy, and keep our audience on the emotional journey over the comedic journey?”
On SNL, you’re kind of the arty weirdo. I don’t want to pigeonhole you, but are you happy in that niche?
KM: I would rather be the action hero. But for the time being, I’ll live with arty weirdo.
Brigsby Bear is rated PG-13 and opens Friday, Aug. 4.