This is the full text of Michael's interview with Maureen Harrison for the UCSC Arts Division
What was it like growing up in Santa Cruz and what did you like to do for fun?
With the exception of a few mass murderers, Santa Cruz in the 70’s and 80’s was an idyllic place to grow up. The idealism of the hippie era was winding down, but there was still an enormous sense of hope and excitement about the future. The university had drawn so many exceptional colorful people to Santa Cruz that even once the first blush of the UCSC dream had faded, I was still surrounded by bright creative people who thought about the world in deep and strange ways. There were human lightning bolts like Tom Lehrer and Charles Selberg. There were professors, proctors and faculty children performing A Child’s Christmas In Wales in the Stevenson dining hall. There was learning, there was playfulness, there was a community, for me, especially around the university. That was a marvelous fecund soup in which to incubate.
The counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s of course had its darker sides as well, even in the garden of Santa Cruz. I had friends who were suffering more than I knew from neglect or abuse born of the narcissism and rejection of responsibility with which their parents were gleefully experimenting. But for me, it was a time and a place of innocence and trust. When I was in elementary school at Westlake on High St., kids from the neighborhood would walk home without the black cloud of fears that follow children everywhere today. Our family didn’t even lock out house when we went out. My friends and I would ride our bikes all over the neighborhood, looking for adventure, exploring a little farther every year until we discovered things like the abandoned Kalkar processing plant in the old quarry between Spring St and Hagar Meadow. That was a great place to climb through ruined ceilings and collapsing walls, trying not to step on the rusty nails hidden in the dusty debris. The main treasures we’d look for in the plant were these little cardboard drums of sulphur that had been left behind. With a dim knowledge of the components of gunpowder, and a bedrock faith in our own safety, we’d stick firecrackers in the drums of sulphur, always hoping in vain for some massive detonation.
By high school, our bikes, now ten-speeds, would carry us all over town. My best friend at that time and I arranged to get PE credit for riding our bikes to the yacht harbor and crewing on a 35-foot sloop that was owned by Mary Duffield, a retired school teacher who taught us how to sail and how to raise money for Unicef and write letters for Amnesty International. Like so much in my time in Santa Cruz, it was beautiful and conscious and vulnerable.
And that’s one of the strangest things about the many years I’ve spent in Los Angeles. There’s a broken part of the guys, in particular, who grew up in Santa Cruz in those days. The problem was how much Santa Cruz got right. We learned to be in touch with our feelings, to be feminists, to default to kindness and cooperation, to be gentle. It was wonderful, but it meant that we all stumbled into the rest of the world uninformed and in some ways unequipped to deal with mainstream American culture. The sexism, violence, brutality, competitiveness and disengagement of Los Angeles was a shock to my system. In some ways, my adult life has been a long inefficient process of learning classic male skills like competition and entitlement and then trying to meaningfully balance them with everything 1970’s Santa Cruz taught me. All without losing my faith in humanity. I’m still startled by what is actually very normal behavior of friends and strangers when it doesn’t match the norms of compassion and openness that got burned into my psyche by all those marvelous people and ideas long ago in the city by the sea.
As a creative person, it’s probably been great for me. That struggle has made me look at myself and my relationship to the world over and over again. It’s also made me feel like something of an outsider, which can be really helpful to creativity. Something irrational has to drive you if you’re going to be an artist; maybe my quixotic quest is to constantly strive to create the beautiful riveting world I imagined adults lived in when I was incubating away in the garden of Santa Cruz. It was a trick played on me by that magical time and place. But it was a beautiful inspiring trick.
Although I didn’t plan it, I think it’s no coincidence I’ve ended up in a profession where I’m surrounded by people who are not only funny and creative, but intellectually brilliant gadflies as well. Because that’s who peopled my childhood at UCSC, the smart, strange, deep and funny denizens of that special place and time.
Your father was such a beloved and well-known professor at UC Santa Cruz...in what ways did he influence you?
In more ways than I can count. And I’m sure in more ways than I’m aware. My dad taught me invaluable lessons about engaging my emotions, about a passion for learning that was 180 degrees from the stuffy professor model so common in popular culture. He was a sybarite who taught me the importance of enjoying life. He acted in and directed plays throughout his career at UCSC. My sister and I were both inculcated with the blazing magic of words and theater from an early age, even appearing in shows our dad directed. She and I last performed together when we staged a two-person play called “Eighty Years In Eight Minutes” for our father’s 80th birthday. My dad also left me feeling like an outsider, seeing the world with a little distance. Balancing that, my mother, who was a doctor at UCSC, helped me see myself as part of the world. The push and pull of those two forces has served me well.
Like with all parents, there were some downsides. Reinforcing some of the lessons of Santa Cruz, my dad also taught me be to be polite, but in some ways he taught me to be too polite. Or rather, he didn’t teach me enough alternate strategies for when politeness didn’t work. And that’s a recipe for anger and bitterness, something my dad struggled with. I still believe politeness is the first thing to try in most situations, but you need fallbacks. Working in Hollywood hasn’t pried me loose from my belief in kindness, but it’s given me lots of practice at developing backup strategies. There are a lot of really good-hearted people working in TV, but there are more than enough ruthless competitive sharks that if you don’t learn to compete, to sell yourself, to watch your back and to pick yourself up when things explode in your face, you won’t get to do the creative things you love.
I honestly think I first was drawn to creativity because I felt hampered by the need to be polite and creativity felt like freedom.
As an aside, it was another culture shock to learn that both my parents’ professions – professor and psychiatrist – were nearly always portrayed negatively in popular entertainment. Even today, psychiatrists and professors are nearly always depicted as fools or monsters. Neither was true of either of my beautiful parents.
In a very touching statement, you mentioned in the Gas Mask article that your dad was gay and knowing that made you have more awareness and empathy than your peers. Can you say a bit more about that and how those qualities manifested in you?
Well before my dad and I ever talked about his sexuality (which didn’t happen explicitly until my twenties), he helped teach me to be compassionate, to empathize with people who were dealing with challenges I wasn’t. His involvement in and deep feelings for the Native American community was always a powerful example of that for me. Here was a group of people struggling for the rights and resources to live in a way that was strange, even mocked by mainstream culture, but my dad saw such importance in that struggle. Not because of the new-agey romanticism that so often gets attached to Native Americans, but because he saw native people as people – flawed, funny, sexy. Human.
I think part of the appeal of native cultures for my dad was that they existed, at least traditionally, completely outside the Judeo-Christian paradigm with its attendant judgments about sexuality, but it was also because he was simply a nice guy. He liked freedom, He liked kindness. He liked gatherings of good friends, he liked beautiful things in the world, he liked perspicacity, grokking things, if I may indulge in a piece of 70’s literary hipsterism. There’s a great Carl Sagan quote that makes me think of how my dad saw the value of knowing things. It goes, “The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very small scale, with the magnificence of the cosmos.” Knowledge for him wasn’t a parsimonious stacking of facts and figures, it was a tool to paint your worldview with the brightest, darkest most interesting colors possible.
I know I’ve drifted from the thrust of your question, but for me it’s tough to separate out the influence of my dad’s sexuality on me, because it’s impossible to extract his sexuality from the rest of him.
Why did you choose to attend UC Santa Cruz? Any fond and/or crazy memories? :)
Our family was kind of coming apart when I was finishing high school, so I don’t think our parents were super-engaged about where my sister and I were going to go to college. UCSC was the only place I applied because it felt familiar and safe. And I knew the values of the school were going to be pretty close to my own.
But I ended up getting a great education there. And having a lot of fun. I adored taking Tom Lehrer’s class in the American musical. My dad had taught that class with him the first year and was still on the audition panel, so he recused himself when my audition came up for review. Doing five staged readings/singings of musicals in one quarter was wonderful, but Tom’s lectures were amazing too. Tom is an intellectual as well as creative genius, and I don’t use that word lightly. To have someone as breathtakingly smart and talented as he is breaking down and also simply valuing the details of a creative form like the American musical was a huge boost to my burgeoning interest in living an artistic life.
I also remember the thrill of studying fencing with the Jedi-like Charles Selberg. I named Old Man Selberg in the Family Guy episode “Viewer Mail 1” after Charles.
And like a lot of slugs from my era, I was deeply charmed by Elf Land, the elaborate system of paths, decorations, giant spiderwebs and fanciful signs that used to exist in the forest up where Colleges Nine and Ten are now. Like Tom Lehrer’s class in musicals, it was an inspiring outpouring of wit, creativity and community, this time celebrating the aesthetics of both UCSC and Tolkien.
How did you get into TV writing?
Pulling clear causal pathways out of the soup of life is always tricky, but here’s at least the rough path that got me from Santa Cruz to this office at Warner Brothers. Shortly after I graduated my mom died. I was really depressed and didn’t want to do anything but stare off into space. Sensing that was a bad idea, I decided to do the last thing I remembered wanting to do, which was move to LA to be an actor. So my girlfriend and I moved to LA together, where I promptly got into a car accident. I was in physical therapy for the next few months, which gave me a chance to watch my friends who were trying to act and decide that was a crazy life to try and pursue. So I got practical, teaching English and working construction to make money while investing the money I got from my mom’s life insurance in a pair of duplexes. I did that for several years before I worked out that all that practicality was killing me. I joined a sketch comedy troupe that a fellow slug, Kelley Gibler, was starting and eventually kind of took it over, writing, acting and directing increasingly bizarre comedy sketches on stages around LA and even one trip back for some college nights at UCSC. Agents started sniffing around and someone asked if we had any TV scripts. So one of the guys that I sometimes wrote with, fellow slug Jim Bernstein, and I decided to start writing TV scripts and trying to break into the business, even though we knew nobody and nothing about how things worked in Hollywood. I’ll spare you the details, but five years and eleven scripts later we had not made much headway, so I started making plans to leave LA. I did not want to be 40 or even 35 still buying lottery tickets at the entertainment industry counter, hoping for some break. But then we got an interview on a sci-fi comedy shot on UPN (remember them?) called “Homeboys In Outer Space”. They had one bottom-tier spot left on staff that was about to go to someone else when the showrunner’s assistant read one of our scripts and told him he should meet with Jim and me. We got to the interview and ended up waiting for him in his office, which gave us a chance to screw around with all the sci-fi books and toys he had on his coffee table. He interviewed us and we got the job, but later he told me he’d been standing in the hall watching us dick around in his office before he came in and that’s when he actually decided to hire us. Barker and Weitzman were writers on that show as well, and they were the ones who recommended us for the job on Family Guy.
It hasn’t always been perfectly smooth sailing, but I’ve been lucky enough to work almost without pause since then.
You have so many artistic interests...describing yourself as a "writer, rocker, photographer"...how do each complement each other in your work? Is there any one medium you like the best?
That description ("writer, rocker, photographer") is a little tongue-in-cheek, striving in part for some alliteration, but I essentially stand by it. I have some degree of skill in and a lot of love for each of those arenas. Music, writing and photography all have such different powers and challenges I really couldn’t pick a favorite that would last for longer than my mood. I do feel that any form of creativity help your brain with all other forms, but I can’t justify that belief. Whatever that cross-pollination is, it probably happens at a nonverbal, even unconscious, level. I do find that being able to switch to another form of art can clear my head when I’m stuck creatively. Although it’s also true that if I stay in one medium for too long the others start to get hard to access. That is my messy unhelpful answer.
Here’s something a little more tangible. I’ve turned my writing into my main source of income, so that has changed my relationship to putting words on paper. There are a lot of rewards, but also a lot of baggage that comes with turning your art into a business. Having all these jobs over the last 20 years has certainly made me write more than I would have and it’s made me get better, at least at this kind of writing. But it’s also made it easy to over-associate writing with money or attention or having structure in my life. Those things are all great, but music and photography (and now music video production) keep me connected to my love of creativity itself, of living a life where art is important just because it’s art, not because it’s part of a fancy Hollywood job. Without that awareness, I would be miserable.
You've written for a many very popular TV shows...Do you have a couple of "behind-the-scenes" anecdotes you can share? Any one particular show your favorite?
There are plenty not fit for public consumption, but here are a couple that won’t get anyone in trouble. A few years ago I was developing a TV project with Keanu Reeves. There was one day where I went to his house in the Hollywood hills, called him through the intercom in the security wall that faced the street and he said he’d be right out. Right then, a tour-of-the-stars’-homes bus pulled up behind me and I heard the weary tour operator say in a monotone, “And there’s Keanu Reeve’s house.” Then pointing at me he said, “And there’s Keanu Reeves.” I turned around and waved at the tourists, as several of them hesitantly raised their cameras. The deadpan tour operator says, “He looks really different from in the movies.” And then he drives off. Three seconds later, Keanu opens the door.
And here’s my favorite story about how ridiculously talented Seth MacFarlane is. When I was on American Dad!, Seth was very focused on Family Guy and he often didn’t read the American Dad! scripts before the table reads (where the actors read the new script out loud in front of a bunch of people, including network and studio executives to see how things play). Seth was shockingly unaware of any popular songs recorded after 1960 so when we put a reference to one in a script the showrunners would always give him a heads up. On this particular day a character Seth was voicing at the table read had to sing a snippet of some song from the 90’s. I was standing next to Mike Barker before the read when he asked Seth if he knew the song and Seth predictably said, “No. Sing it to me.” Mike sang the melody and Seth scribbled a music staff in the margin of his script and quickly wrote out the melody. When we got to that moment in the table read, Seth sight read the music (and the words) off his script without missing a beat.
What inspired you to create "Voices in the Dark"?
At one level, I’m just really proud of these songs and I wanted to share them with people. But I also learned a lot about recording music from making my first album “Blood & Vanity” and I wanted to put those new skills and wisdom to use. One thing I had discovered was how hard it is for people to listen to a full-length album in this era of singles. I love singles, but I also love collections of songs; the context they produce for each other makes them more interesting. And not just when you’re listening to the final product, they influence each other during the recording process as well. So I decided to record a 5-song EP – kind of halfway between a full album and just recording one single after another.
Another drive was that I’m very proud of most of my first record, but some of the songs suffered from being recorded piecemeal over too long a span of time. It’s easy to lose vibe and spirit when you do that. To really focus on capturing the music inside the music, we recorded “Voices In The Dark” faster and with multiple musicians playing at once as much as possible. We also didn’t use a single click track or drum machine. It’s an unusual way to record music these days, but I think we captured a lot of vibe and magic. There’s a big mix of electronica and live instrumentation on the EP, but throughout, I think you can feel the immediacy and impact of human musicians playing with each other.
What's ahead for you careerwise?
After Last Man Standing was cancelled earlier this year, I poured myself into development, which is TV jargon for trying to get your own show on the air. I was getting traction on a couple of ideas at a couple of different production companies, but then I was offered a job on “Mom” on CBS. It meant I had to walk away from my development, which was mildly heartbreaking, but it was too great an opportunity to pass up. It’s a smart, funny, Emmy-winning show co-created by Chuck Lorre, the most successful TV comedy producer in history. He’s also created or co-created “The Big Bang Theory”, “Two And A Half Men”, “Grace Under Fire”, “Cybill”, “Dharma and Greg”, etc. etc. I wanted to work for this man. Plus it stars the amazing Allison Janney and Anna Farris. And what a glorious bonus that the writing staff on “Mom” turned out to be brilliant and kind. There is even another banana slug on staff – Anne Flett-Giordano. It’s a great place and I hope to be here for a while.
I’ve also got a new EP coming out early next year. Where “Voices In The Dark” tends towards the mellow and introspective, the new EP, tentatively titled “The Knife You Gave Me”, definitely tends towards the upbeat. A director friend has already shot a crazy 360-degree video for one of the songs called “Monkeys And Dust”. It’s about Burning Man. I have three other music videos currently in post-production that will be showing up on my new website over the coming months.
Do you think you'll ever come back to live in Santa Cruz?
I’m tempted to just gaze off meaningfully and say, “Go listen to ‘City By The Sea’ ” from “Voices In The Dark”. But a slightly more complete answer is that my wife and I do dream of getting out of the madness of LA, and Santa Cruz is our favorite fantasy of a place to land. We’ve been talking with friends about starting a co-housing community in Santa Cruz. And my wife and I would love to run a performance space in Santa Cruz as well. But I’ve got a few more dreams to chase in Hollywood before I’m totally ready to pull the rip cord. I would like to get my own show on the air. That’s a tough trick to pull off, but I’m sure it would be a mind-blowingly interesting adventure.
Can you tell me a bit about your photography and why you do it?
I’ve always loved how still cameras capture a fragment of time and place. It gives me a feeling of owning that moment. I don’t know exactly why I like that. Taking photographs also gives me this strange but wonderful sense of organization. In the chaos of life and impressions and memories degrading and morphing, a photograph says, “This is what this moment was.” That’s an illusion, obviously; however brilliant, a photograph can’t capture everything true or real about a moment. But it becomes a fascinating shorthand. It’s like opening the box with Schrodinger’s cat and collapsing all of that moment’s possible wave functions into one simple outcome. I find that really gratifying. (But not always -- when I went skydiving on my 30th birthday, I didn’t want them to shoot video of my jump. I didn’t want my vague mosaic of impressions and memories supplanted by whatever was captured on video. And I think it would have been, had I been watching that video all these years instead of just remembering the experience.)
I actually see all creative endeavors as being built around organization, a commitment to a statement of “this is how I feel” or “this is how I see this” or “this is what’s important” or even, “look what I found!” The centrality of organization to art is ironic, given how people usually think of creativity as a wild disruption of some status quo. I think both things are actually true; art generates both complexity, because you’re building a clock, something that moves and works out of raw wood and metal, but also simplicity, because you’re distilling the swirl of existence down into some impactful essence. I see both those things at play with photography, but also songwriting, storytelling, jokes – everything creative I do.
I also find photography to have a balancing effect in my particular creative world. Scripts live in the dimensions of words and visuals. Songs live in words and sound. And both those forms are very dependent on a controlled passage of time. It’s refreshing for me how a photograph, although it shares some visual territory with scripts, is silent, wordless and stops time instead of moving through it.
Photography also helps me explore different parts of myself from the ones that come up when I write scripts. There are very few people in my pictures. I like the resonance of open empty spaces. That’s often serene, but also often wistful or aching. I like silhouettes and reflections because they imply a presence that isn’t fully revealed. All of that means I tend to create photographs that are kind of lonely; peaceful but often with some tension to them. That all speaks to or grows out of parts of me that sometimes turn up in my songs but rarely in my comedy scripts.
Something else that I think is true of all artistic endeavors, but I’m more aware of as an aspect of doing photography, is the phenomenon of unpredictable rewards. You work hard and do everything right you can and still most shots you take aren’t that interesting. But every now and then – bang! – you get something powerful, something that works, maybe in a way you didn’t see coming at all. If that only happened with one in a million photos, you’d quit; but if it happened with one in two photos, you’d get bored. For me, that fact that you can’t predict when those magical shots are going to show up and that they show up just often enough adds to the addictive quality of taking photos. It’s a brain quirk of humans that casinos and video game designers famously take advantage of.
What advice to you have for students at UCSC who want to have a career in the entertainment industry?
The best advice I can give is probably to paraphrase my wife, and say, “Be bold. Be grateful. Don't have an attitude. Be good at what you do. Make friends.” And not just “powerful” friends. Make friends with as many people as you can who are doing what you’re doing.
I’d also add, “Work hard” and “Feed your passion” to the list. And, especially if you find yourself in LA, I’d also advise, “Take action.” This town and the challenges of the industry can be so elusive, the short-term goals so vague, it can be easy to sink into some passive life that isn’t moving you towards your dreams. There’s a reason we have famous tar pits in the middle of the city. So take action. Almost any action that might help. Don’t let the days drift by.
The specific strategies vary depending on what you’re pursuing, but in general, you should contact everyone you know or someone you know knows in the industry and just ask to meet them and get their insight and advice. Even reach out to people with whom you have some tenuous connection, like the same name or school or hometown. And be likable. Whether you’re trying to get a job as an assistant or a producer, people hire people they want to be around.
Once you get a job, it’s vitally important to remember that in addition to whatever your job description is, your real job is to make your boss’s life easier. I’ve seen too many people fall prey to jealousy towards the people who are further up their chosen ladder than they are. That leads to bitterness and indolence. But if you remember that with each rung of success comes new stresses, you can see those stresses as opportunities to make other people’s lives better, which will make your life better. Without becoming intrusive, anticipate your boss’s needs, do a little extra. People will like you, remember you and want to help you. And in this industry where there are thousands of people after every job, we all need people helping us.
I also often tell people to pursue every aspect of the industry for which they have a genuine passion. Even if you do everything right, this town is a casino, not a footrace – the odds are always against you, so if you can put down more than one bet, that increases the chance one of them will pay off. If you love acting and writing and directing, then chase all of those dreams. You have to be organized and disciplined so you don’t just scatter yourself, but it gives you more spins at the roulette wheel.
Maybe most importantly, never forget the value of your art whether or not you’re getting paid for it. If you love to create, fucking keep finding ways to do it. Don’t fall into the trap of defining “good” work as work that is financially successful. This town and this culture are full of people who will try to convince you of that bullshit. It’s exciting and wonderful to get paid for your art, to get that validation and opportunities from the industry, but don’t let that replace your love of the work. And whatever your craft, you should be working on it as you try to become “successful”. So love it, value it, indulge in it. The worst thing that will happen is you’ll have amazing creative adventures, learn about the human experience, have a great time and not make a fortune or become famous. But you’ll be leading a creative life, and that’s really what it’s all about.