October 11, 2014

STRANGER: Michael Hitchcock
LOCATION: Taste on Melrose, 8454 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, California
THEME: Lunch with a character actor and writer

Share a leisurely lunch with Michael Hitchcock and you’ll walk away with a handful of words to describe him: Charming. Thoughtful. Amusing. Intelligent. Friendly.

But there are two words he might pick: character actor.

“Absolutely,” he said when I asked him whether that’s a fair description. “I usually play the annoying person who gets his comeuppance at some point. I’m always learning a lesson. It’s a good thing. Honestly, I’d rather play the bad guy than the good guy.”

One of his most memorable roles was in Best In Show, playing one half of a yuppie couple whose lives revolve around trying to get their Weimaraner to win a major dog show. But Michael is recognizable from roles in other Christopher Guest movies including Waiting For Guffman and For Your Consideration. Other acting roles include a host of film and television credits, ranging from TV shows such as United States of Tara to big-budget spectacles like Super 8 and hit comedies including Bridesmaids.

He’s keen to add to the extensive resume with more acting in the future — but first he needs to finish his ongoing assignment as a staff writer for Glee, the show set in the fictional McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, where students tackle their problems by bursting into song. Michael’s work is divided between acting and writing, and the latter has been his recent focus.

“I want to do more acting once Glee is over, but if another writing opportunity came up that fit, I  would do it,” he said during our meal one sunny Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles.

We met at Taste on Melrose, which serves American comfort food with an upscale twist: items like Eggs Benedict with pork belly, and a Waygu beefburger. It’s not a huge restaurant and indoors seemed a little cramped for space. So it was a relief that the waitress showed the two of us to a table on the porch, far enough from the street that the noise of the ever-present LA traffic wasn’t a distraction.

“I looked at the menu before I came here, I love some of this stuff,” said Michael as we reviewed the offerings. He said he was planning his lunch order based off his evening plans, as he knew he’d be having a salad with friends at dinner, ahead of a screening of the movie St. Vincent starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. “An easy night,” he said, and all the more important for him given the long hours he’s putting in on Glee.

The Fox show is now in its sixth and final season, with a tentative end to production sometime in February. As that date approaches, Michael is busy writing episodes that will wrap up the students’ and teachers’ stories. And he’s sad to see the end to what has been a years-long job.

Michael was a fan of Glee since its premiere, and won a guest role in season one as Dalton Rumba, director of the Haverbrook School for the Deaf’s show choir. That’s how he got to know the show’s creators Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk.

Michael stayed in touch with them, and after Murphy started work on American Horror Story, they needed more writers to help out with the Glee workload. “I had taken some time off from writing, so I thought I’d pop back in again. I’ve been there ever since,” he said.

In his fourth year writing for the show, he’s a long way from the trepidation of his first day. There were several new writers and they sat in a room, all sharing one of their deepest, darkest secrets. It’s an unsettling idea, but apparently helped the writers bond quickly. “Once we all knew something really humiliating about each other, it helped get us in that frame of mind,” he said. A boon when writing about the highs and — more often — lows of school life.

The set of McKinley High is on a sound stage in Southern California but seems very real, according to Michael. Walking the corridors brings back memories of childhood humiliations. “I remember one time in high school. I was super skinny and short. Some kid picked me up, threw me against the locker and said, ‘Tell me you’re a piece of shit!’ And so I said I was a piece of shit, and he said, ‘Damn right’ and moved on. I didn’t know him so part of me wasn’t bothered that much, but it was still humiliating. And so you take that kind of hurt and try to bring it into the show,” he said.

Dealing with those school memories is also what got Michael hooked on the show as a viewer. He was watching the pilot episode, in particular a scene in which scheming diva Rachel Berry (played by Lea Michele) is walking the hallway. Then, out of nowhere, a jock throws a slushy in her face. “I burst out crying! It was so unexpected. I thought I didn’t really like this little operator, then all of a sudden I saw her pain. I’m a fan of anybody who can strike a chord with me emotionally.”

Over the years working for Glee he’s developed friendships with many of the crew and cast, including the high school students who are actually played by actors in their 20s. He said he’s closest with Jane Lynch, whose malevolent cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester stalks McKinley High trying to bring down the glee club. They’ve worked together on several Christopher Guest movies, and they get the chance to bond during the downtime on Glee.

“I think they’re all incredible workers and can’t always say that about other people I’ve worked with. We’ve all ended up pretty good friends, and I hope to work with any of them again,” he said.

Performing and writing Glee is a team effort, he said, which made it particularly hard on the cast and crew when Cory Monteith — who played quarterback Finn Hudson — died from a drug overdose in July 2013. “It was terrible, just incredibly terrible,” said Michael, his eyes moistening slightly. “We’ll never get over it, though enough time has passed where people can talk about it and not burst into tears.”

Indeed, Michael didn’t cry at the table and instead smiled as he reminisced about his former coworker and friend. “He was so cool. Everyone loved him. I was working on United States of Tara near where Glee is shot, and he’d come visit me and we’d just talk.”

“Another time he threw an end-of-season party at a house he was renting and paid for a deck to be built, just so there would be enough space for people to stand. He was just that type of guy,” Michael said.

“The thing with Cory was that it just drove home again that good people, really good people, can become addicted to chemical substances. It doesn’t make you a bad person but very bad things can happen,” he added.

The death also prompted outpourings of grief from the show’s fans, many of whom interact with Michael via his Twitter account. “The fans are very passionate and not afraid to hold back their opinions, and I find it endearing,” he said.

“But sometimes the younger fans forget the characters are fictional, and they want happy endings now for everybody,” Michael added, sipping on an iced tea. “But life isn’t like that. I wish I could tell them to message me in 10 years and they’ll understand more. You don’t want to watch a show where everything’s perfect all the time, it would be very boring.”

He’s had a couple of negative interactions on Twitter — one in the form of someone who threatened to insert a rake in his posterior, except in coarser terms — and those have horrified him momentarily. But overall he enjoys the ability to talk with the show’s fans.

That’s one of the reasons he remains grateful for his work on Glee, and said it’ll be bittersweet when it ends. Yet it’ll suddenly open up the possibility to choose between his two loves of writing and acting again. They’re parallel tracks he’s followed most of his life.

Michael, 56, grew up in Defiance, Ohio, and later in the Chicago area. He credits the Midwest upbringing with his approach to comedy. What amuses him is the darkness behind the smile, the outgoing politeness of the flyover states that might hide bizarre stories.

Those tales could be eerie, such as the judge living down the street who hanged himself from an apple tree. Or they might hint at a past full of scandal, like when one of Michael’s grandmothers fought with the other more pious grandmother and said, “You weren’t always so religious.”

Michael said, “I remember thinking, wow, there’s a dark back-story there.”

He also credits his parents with developing his sense of humor. “My dad was loud and told jokes, my mom was more the quiet type but had her own humor. She was the nicest lady in the world, but one time she was at the grocery store and had taken 13 items into a 12-item line. Someone pointed that out, so she slowly put them all back in her cart and pretended to limp to another line and act like she was horribly crippled. That was pretty funny.”

Growing up near Chicago also meant that the Hitchcock family would frequently visit the Second City improvisational comedy group. Michael thought they were hilarious and developed an interest in comedy writing. He also acted from an early age, writing and performing in high school shows and doing community theater, which is the setting for Guest’s Waiting For Guffman.

The movie takes digs at the larger-than-life personalities on the town theater circuit, but Michael has fond memories of it. “People make fun of community theater but some of the best teachers I had were volunteer people and were very good at what they did,” he said. “Although they’re all theater people, so they could be a little eccentric.”

How eccentric? “One woman who directed me, I had to hold her hand when she had shingles. I had played Jesus in Godspell and I think she thought I had magical powers.”

Armed with the offbeat experiences of his Midwest childhood, he went to Northwestern University as a TV and film major, with a minor in English. To build up his industry resume, he worked in Chicago television, including stints at the Bozo the Clown show and a local CBS affiliate. And then he moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA.

“I hated LA when I first moved here,” he said. Home was a small apartment in a bad part of town, and he was depressed not knowing many people in the sprawling city. “The very beginning was not my cup of tea at all,” Michael said. “To make any big city more palatable, I think you have to find your family, your people. And for me, I found it at The Groundlings.”

Founded in 1974 in Los Angeles, the Groundlings is an improv sketch group.

People Michael had met in the city suggested he take some classes with the group. “So I did, and it was fun,” and he kept it up with evening classes, working regular jobs during the day. He credits his “great” teachers for building an atmosphere that was “almost like a little family.”

Learning improv comedy with the Groundlings starts with basic exercises, such as teaching performers to agree with other. The worst thing someone can do in an improvised scene is to say “no” and shut down whatever flight of fancy the other performer was trying to get off the ground. “So you learn to agree with what others are saying, to add information to that, who we are, what we are doing, where are we. They just keep drilling that into you until it becomes second nature.”

It’s tempting to say “no” to bad ideas for an improv sketch but more important to run with them, he said. “A lot of times in your mind you might think this is a terrible idea. But you learn more from your mistakes than your triumphs. There’s a lot of stumbling and falling and getting back up.”

“Improvisation is a very good tool for writers

Improvisation benefited Michael’s acting skills and also his writing. “It’s a very good tool for writers because it’s writing on your feet. In a very short amount of time you are telling a story. A good improv will have a beginning, middle, and end. You have to get rid of a lot of the fat that you would have to do as a writer as well. It can be very nerve-wracking at times.”

Those nerves disheartened him at times. “There were month-long stretches where I was just dreading it, or something went wrong and I’d obsess over it. But then there were times I loved it. So it was a little bit of both,” he said. And he persisted until he won a slot as a Groundlings cast member.

The group performs a range of shows, including all-improv comedy on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and mostly sketch comedy on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday nights are traditionally reserved for the newer cast members, and Michael said that’s where representatives from Saturday Night Live find some of that show’s talent. “Casting directors love to go there and see fresh faces,” he said.

The Groundlings’ home is on Melrose Avenue, a roughly 10-minute drive from Taste on Melrose. Michael is now an alum of the group, but occasionally performs with them. If he’d been meeting me straight after a show, our restaurant couldn’t have had a better location.

It also couldn’t have had a better menu for Saturday lunch. The menu consists of tasty, filling dishes, all served by pleasant waitstaff. The place was crowded when I arrived, so reservations are a must.

Michael had ordered the penne cecca: huge chunks of chicken on a bed of brown rice pasta, with basil, garlic, spinach, tomatoes, cheese and pomodor sauce. He spoke highly of the meal, and was amazed at the size of the massive chunks of chicken.

I went for a grilled cheese sandwich, with short ribs wedged in among the melted cheddar. The bread was perfectly crisp without being burnt, and the cheese gooey and warm without being runny. The short ribs were so meaty and flavorful they could have been braised for days, and made a great take on a protein for a grilled cheese sandwich.

While we ate, Michael told me he credits the Groundlings as a big part of his career starting off, bolstered by his college studies and work experience.

It was while performing at the improv group one Thursday night that director Christopher Guest was in the audience. He asked to meet with Michael, and told him he was working on Waiting For Guffman, a fake documentary comedy about the fictional small town of Blaine, Missouri, staging a musical to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial.

“Christopher and I shared stories about growing up in the suburbs and the ‘types’ of community theater. There was the woman who was the royalty, who was in every show. There was the one who never got in it. That’s the character I ended up playing in Waiting For Guffman.”

“It’s a magical job

Michael said the first Guest movie he was in remains his favorite because it was such a new experience. Filming on location near Austin, Texas, he said that the set was unique in that the director banned agents, managers and the like from watching. Usually they are on set, observing their clients and sometimes offering unsolicited advice or cautioning their clients against saying or doing something that the director — or even the actor — wants to try. There was nothing like that on Waiting For Guffman. “It’s wonderful not to have to worry about that,”  Michael said.

Instead, the Guest movies are known among the recurring cast members as unique places to work where the actors get heavily involved in shaping their characters, from their wardrobes to their backstory. “It’s a magical job, as I’m sure Jim Piddock told you,” Michael said, harking back to my dinner interview in 2008 with Jim, another familiar face in the Guest movies.

Best In Show, about various couples competing in a dog show, was the follow-up to Waiting For Guffman. Michael said he had a lot of fun on the shoot, and enjoyed working with Parker Posey as his on-screen wife Meg Swan. The high-strung, fashion-conscious Swans were prone to argumentative outbursts, and he said that conflict bled ever-so-slightly into their off-screen life. “Parker and I get along famously, but with comedy, you do get into your character a bit in your daily life.”

Guest’s next movie was A Mighty Wind, a fake documentary comedy about folk music. Next in the series was For Your Consideration, which dropped the documentary style. Michael’s had roles in all of them. Is another Guest movie on the way? “Not at the moment, but I hope soon,” Michael said.

Michael’s work with the Groundlings and on Waiting For Guffman helped him gain more visibility, and from there his career has built into his present-day juggling between writing and acting for a wide range of projects.

His on-stage work includes performances with other comedians in improv shows, including a visit in 2013 to my adopted hometown of Washington, D.C. for the Bentzen Ball comedy festival. Shows like that offer the chance to have a fun weekend laughing with friends, Michael said. The only downside is the performers don’t really get to experience the towns that they’re visiting.

Michael joked the comedy world is akin to the streets of 1950s New York in West Side Story. Two of the main style of comedy, improv and stand-up, are “sort of like the Sharks and the Jets.” Michael is friends with a lot of improv comedians, whith the stand-ups are the other gang. “They have their own world,” he said. Michael tried stand-up once or twice, but enjoys the flexibility and team-work of improv.

Michael doesn’t just perform in the United States. He’s also traveled with other Groundlings members including Kathy Griffin on tours of U.S. military bases overseas, including Kuwait and Iraq. He said that each time visiting Iraq was “scary,” being transported in Black Hawk helicopters and staying on a base within earshot of missiles being fired into the grounds.

“But it’s the strangest thing — as frightening as it was over there, I laughed so much. Part of it was that I was so worried about putting on a good show for the soldiers. I’m only there for a week. The soldiers are there all the time, and I have so much respect for what they do every day,” he said.

Back in the States, Michael continues to write in addition to his work on Glee. He’s working on a pilot script for a comedy show on Fox, though he couldn’t disclose more.

He remains eager to do more acting once the Glee stint ends, as he’ll have a new-found liberty to take on roles that might require him to be out of town or on set for weeks at a time. That’s not something he can do while writing Glee, which he described as a full-time job.

“I would like to have another film or two made that I wrote, I’d like to do some more challenging acting roles. And at some point I want to teach. Those are my goals,” he said.

The interest in teaching comes from a desire to “give back” and educate others on how to do improv. Makes sense for a man who has made his career out of making others laugh. Yet during lunch, I got the sense Michael is not an over-the-top presence. He’s quietly spoken. He pauses between questions to give thoughtful answers. He has a warm smile that he flashes now and then. And he leans in when talking, focusing on the conversation. He’s far from a manic comedian bouncing around the table.

“I think my friends would say I’m funny in my private life. I like to play practical jokes,” he said. “But I can also be the quiet one at the party. I’m not the crazy guy. Some people might be surprised that I’m kind of quiet, but that might be the writer side of me, studying people.”

When he’s not writing or acting, Michael likes to hike, watch movies, see comedy shows, or just hang out with friends. “Pretty boring,” he said with a smile and a shrug.

After attacking our meals as best we could, we wrapped up lunch with cups of coffee.

In between sips, Michael switched onto broader topics, including the changing world of television. The likes of Netflix and other streaming-video providers producing their own shows is something he welcomes, seeing them as high-quality productions that might provide an incentive for the more traditional networks to step up their game. “It’s a fascinating time,” he said.

However, the instant gratification of being able to binge-watch a series like Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black has its downsides, he noted. People leaking “spoilers” that reveal key plot and character points ahead of an episode airing remains a concern, particularly for a popular show like Glee. “The die-hard fans will try to read everything they can but that spoils the whole ride.”

On the flip-side, he suggested that the “strange new world” of being able to see an entire series at once might make people more cautious about revealing spoilers, as they’ll be more aware that their friends haven’t caught up to where they are with a show.

“I’m just going to write what people might like

While the television industry evolves, Michael said that Los Angeles physically has improved in looks but not changed for the most part. The film industry advances with new technological changes, and the sector will always be looking for the younger, prettier new stars. But Michael doesn’t closely monitor the likes of Variety to keep up on trends.

“People always want to make it younger and younger, so ageism absolutely exists,” he said. But then he name-checked stars like Bill Murray as proof that there’s life for comedians at any age, albeit perhaps easier for male comics.

“I think the women have it a lot harder than the men,” Michael said. “For them it’s often based on looks, that’s why you see so many horrific facelifts in this town. And you see it in some of the men too. That’s the sad part about LA. But I understand it. There are very few actors who can age gracefully in front of the camera, so people are trying to fight time.”

Michael however tries to avoid letting any trends influence his work. “I think you could get too analytical and too nervous that you couldn’t leave the house. I’m just going to write what people might like, and if they don’t, I’ll just go sell shoes or something,” he said.

Based off his 57,000-plus followers on Twitter and reviewers’ praise for his work on Glee and in other television shows and movies, I don’t think he has anything to worry about — other than forgetting to bring a Tide pen with him to mop up any dining accidents.

As we got up from the table, he joked about how he’s a messy eater. “I’m very proud of making it through the meal without spilling on myself,” he said with glee.

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