Exclusive: Mystery Team ‘s Donald Glover

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Unless you were already a fan of their popular sketches on YouTube, you probably hadn’t heard of Derrick Comedy before Mystery Team exploded at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, before hitting other festivals and Comic-Con, converting many new fans to Derrick’s distinctive brand of comedy. Contrary to first impressions, Derrick Comedy isn’t a person but a comedy group, the brainchild of five individuals: actor/writers Donald Glover, D. C. Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, director Dan Eckman and producer Meggie McFadden.

Their debut feature film plays on the classic kid detective stories of old, but in this case, the Mystery Team have all passed puberty and they’re not quite as cute as they used to be as kids. Glover plays Jason Rogers, the team’s “Master of Disguise,” Pierson is Duncan Wheeler the “Boy Genius,” and Dierkes is Charlie Day, the “Strongest Kid in Town,” and their latest case involving the murder of a little girl’s parents might be over their heads, but it also might finally allow them to finally be taken seriously as detectives in their home base of Oakdale. You can get a really good sampling of the type of irreverent humor at work by checking out the trailer and the hilarious recent short “The Case of the Haunted Hotel” over on the group’s website.

Last week, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the ever-affable Donald Glover, who also stars in one of NBC’s breakout comedies of the season “Community” on which he plays Troy, a high school football hero trying to create an identity for himself while attending community college.

If you want to know more about Derrick Comedy, Donald, Mystery Team and what to expect from his character on “Community,” read on!

ComingSoon.net: I hadn’t really heard of Derrick Comedy until I first saw the trailer for “Mystery Team” shortly before Sundance. Was “Mystery Team” something you had been doing before or was it something you created specifically for the movie?
Don Glover: It was just for the movie. We had done a few sketches and we’re not a really character-based sketch group, but we had saved all our money from the YouTube revenue, but I always wanted to do an Encyclopedia Brown movie, I really did. I wrote an outline for it and it just was never gonna come to be, like the rights were all tied up for Encyclopedia Brown, but I brought it to the guys. I was like, “I really like this idea. Maybe we can do something like this for our bigger project.” Everybody just jumped on it, everybody really loved it. It kind of had the inherent things that all Derrick sketches have, which is just people who are refusing to live in any reality other than their own. That’s the core of a lot of Derrick’s sketches and I think that’s what attracted us to this idea immediately.

CS: Did you guys ever do live shows as well, or was it just the shorts you did for YouTube?
Glover: Absolutely. We were a live group mostly, like that’s all we were for a long time. We were doing improv, and it just so happened we had these transitions into things, this other sketch group called Hammerkatz, and we had all these sketches looked over and Dan Eckman, the director who’s also in Derrick, started filming them and we had them and we were like, “Well, we don’t know where to put them.” We would’ve shown them anywhere. We were showing them at UCB (the Upright Citizen’s Brigade) for a while, then YouTube came out, we were like, “Let’s put it on this YouTube thing except we can’t afford the bandwidth.” Then YouTube got big. It came out of nowhere.

CS: Even though you guys come from improv, the movie seems very scripted, so did you just build what you normally do into the script, work on stuff and then write it out?
Glover: Actually, we wrote it entirely in the only way we know how. A lot of our sketches are kind of not improvy, but we will understand the beats, so we never really have to write them out, because we will be talking together and we’ll understand the beats of the sketch and what people are gonna say and how things are gonna go. So they never really have to be written out, but with the movie, I had just gotten hired to write for “30 Rock.” So we basically ran the movie like the writers room of “30 Rock.” Basically we all had things written that was a first draft, we all came in and we put it together. So there was hardly any improv involved on set. Like we didn’t really have the time. I had to be back at “30 Rock” six weeks later so we had no time for improv.

CS: How did Dan and Meggie fit into the live shows, because I assume they don’t really perform, right? Were they just involved with the writing?
Glover: Well, as we started doing more and more… we were doing live stuff and it was just the three: me, DC and Dominic, and whenever we had like a sketch or a transition that needed to be filmed, Dan would do it. But that was about it and Meggie would sometimes produce our live shows and would help get the things that we needed. The more we started making stuff that needed to be filmed, Meg became like, the head of organizing, because she’s just the most organized person in the world. To deal with four boys like she does, it’s just amazing. Meg’s the organizer and Dan just has an eye for the type of comedy that we’re doing, and they just played more and more of a central role the more we started doing films, because we realized when we do a live show, we’d have maybe 80 people come. So we’d do that once a week, so that’d be like 300 people a month. But if you put a sketch online on YouTube, you get like 10,000 in a day. So it just made sense to start doing more sketches online and we just moved away from doing them live.

CS: Had you guys ever thought about doing a TV show or anything? A lot of the bigger comedy groups got discovered from doing their own TV shows. Was going the YouTube route just an alternative to doing a TV show?
Glover: It was. We had an idea that we’re still kind of working on, that we actually sold to Comedy Central a long time ago, but they ended up not making it. We really loved that idea, but we were faced with that we really wanted to make the next move as far as, what’s the next big thing for Derrick? We were like, “Well, we can make a television show. We can start from scratch.” We were all kind of heartbroken about the one we really loved wasn’t being made. “Or, we can try and make a movie,” which seemed impossible, but we talked it out and just figured out a way to do it. We wanted to do a television show, and we still do talk about it, but movies seem to be something we really enjoy doing and taking it in that direction.

CS: How did it work out expanding what you normally do into a more long form thing? Usually movies are a director’s medium, but did you guys work closely with Dan even through the editing phase or did you just let him do his thing once it was all filmed?
Glover: Most everything in Derrick, someone takes the lead on something and then everybody has a say. Like, basically he edited the whole thing and we would see it and if there was something really jarring, the rest of us were like, “That doesn’t feel right,” then we’d usually come up with alternatives so that’s basically how it is. I wrote the score for the movie, and it was the same thing where people were like, “That feels weird.” I’d be like, “Let me go ahead and try something else.”

CS: Since you were kind of the lead on this one, having come up with the original idea, did you have more say on what jokes got used or not really?
Glover: No, not at all. It’s weird, we always say whenever we get into arguments, “This isn’t a democracy.” It’s not like someone’s out-voted or anything, but in a weird way it’s just that we have to come to a consensus. Usually, when we fight or we argue about an idea that we’re passionate about, we’ll come to a decision that both parties loved more than both of the ideas that they had before, which I think is the best thing to have with people you’re working with, like to come out of an argument with something better than what both of you had is really beautiful, it’s really amazing. I don’t think that happens with a lot of people. Whenever somebody disagrees with something, it’s just like, we have to keep talking about this until something comes of it and usually something great will come of it.

CS: Do Dan or Meggie jump in and act as Kissinger when you don’t agree on something and you have to move forward and make a decision so things get done?
Glover: Meggie. (Laughs) Meggie is the one… Meggie was on set and like all she did was, “Dan, we don’t have the time. Dan, we don’t have the time.” It’s funny when they’re together, but yeah, Meggie kept us all in line, like all the way from making sure the budget wasn’t going over, making sure that we had film and making sure the crew was happy all the way down to doing the sheets at the house we were all staying at. She keeps us in line and made sure we kept moving no matter what.

CS: How did you work geographically? I know Dan and Meggie are in New Hampshire where you shot the movie. Did you guys all come together again every couple of months to write stuff?
Glover: I got the job on “Community” and since “Mystery Team” was coming out in a couple months, we all decided all the work we need to start doing is kinda in L.A. so we all moved to Los Angeles. We all lived together for a couple of months and now we’re all in Los Angeles living in different places.

CS: So you’re all together now. I was wondering about that. When I first heard of this and saw the trailer, I didn’t get a California vibe whatsoever.
Glover: Oh no, this is way darker. (Laughs) If anything we’re all New Yorkers. We all love the New York scene and that’s our thing. We just moved out to L.A. not too long ago.

CS: The movie’s R-rated, but except for a couple sex things and kids swearing, it doesn’t really seem like the normal R-rated comedy. Is that just because of the tone of the characters or do you just not like taking things too far?
Glover: A lot of people would be like, “Wow, you went really far.” Like if you watch our sketches, especially the one “Spelling Bee,” we use the word “n*gger f*ggot” (Laughs) and people freak out. We never want to go there just because we want to go there. I think that was a problem we always kinda had with a lotta comedies that were coming out. It seemed like boobs and farts and poop and stuff like that were there just because it was like, “Oh, guys want to see poop.” It’s like, “No, the point of it is to make you laugh, not just shock value that you can point to it.” We like to do stuff that’s outlandish and crazy and insane, but we’re not the type of group to be like, “Oh, this fart joke’s here because fart jokes need to be there.” It’s like, “No, that fart joke’s there because it was appropriate at the time.” If a fart joke can ever be appropriate. (Laughs)

CS: I’ve talked to some of the guys from Broken Lizard and The State, and while there are certainly rivalries in play, there’s also quite a bit of influence between various comedy groups. Do you have any groups that influenced you back when Derrick was starting out?
Glover: I think the group or rather the show that had a big influence on us was “Mr. Show.” We had kind of straight-up jacked that format for a while. We were doing those one-minute interstitials where sketches didn’t really end. I know DC was really into Monty Python and I really liked “The Holy Grail” when I was little. “SNL” we were always big fans. “Mr. Show” and “The Kids in the Hall” I guess are our biggest influences as far as sketches were concerned. Just like those strange kinds of ideas that play themselves out.

CS: Did the “Community” thing come out of “Mystery Team?” or did it come out of writing “30 Rock” and the connections you made there? How did that come about?
Glover: It definitely came out of “Mystery Team.” There’s a direct link actually, because they were having free screenings of the movie in New York and L.A. and I wasn’t even able to make it to the L.A. one because I was writing for “30 Rock.” The Russo brothers came out and saw “Mystery Team” because they had heard about it at Sundance, and they came out and saw it and I guess they liked me and asked me to audition for “Community” and I got it. It was great.

CS: When you went to school, did you go more for writing or acting? You seem comfortable with both at this point. Was it going to always be a combination of the two things?
Glover: I went to a performing arts high school and I was writing there, and then I went to college for writing, but in high school, I ended up playing a lot of my own parts because I was like, “Oh, I know what I need. When I wrote that, I knew what I wanted to do.” So I ended up doing that a lot and it just kind of came natural at the end. It was like, “Oh, if I could write it.” I always kinda felt like, “Who’s gonna write this movie? I just have this part and see me in this part.” So the more you’re able to do it yourself, the better, I’ve felt.

CS: I’ve heard a lot from producers and directors that they want their actors to know how to write, because that’s the only way to get anywhere in the business, by being able to write your own parts.
Glover: Writing with Tina Fey, you kind of learn like, “Oh, she’s the whole package.” That’s where the industry is going. They’re not gonna want to hire teams all the time. They’re gonna want somebody who can handle themselves. Tina Fey is like a machine. She’s always on. She’s always funny, very smart, writes all of her own stuff, produces, acts in it. It’s like, “Okay, why would you hire someone who just writes or just acts?” You have to combine them and find the right person for that person. It’s way better to get somebody who can do all that stuff. I think it felt like that’s the way things are going, that’s the way entertainment is kinda going. Derrick is kinda that. We made some Clearasil commercials about a year or two ago, and the whole reason they hired us was because they’re like, “Oh, you guys can edit it, act in it, produce it, do all this stuff.” We just ran it like a production agency and it was simple, it was easy. We just came to them with a product rather than them having to get directors and producers and where are we going to get these actors and where are we going to get the scripts? It was all-in-one.

CS: Very cool. Have you been able to do any writing for “Community” yet? Is that something they want you to get involved in?
Glover: There was some talk about it before and I really would love to, but as of this year, probably not just because I really want to focus on doing the best job I can, but I would love to write for that show, it’s like really fun. I know all the characters really well now and that would be like a dream.

CS: The stuff you and Dan do at the end of each show, did they actually write that for you or did you guys come up with some of that on your own?
Glover: Some of them are written and others are improv. The only one that I can really think of that was improv’d entirely was the Halloween episode one where we’re sitting down and I’m talking about being a gingerbread man and wanting to eat myself. That one is entirely improv’d, but most of these are ideas. Some of the ideas come from things that we’ve done on set, like the “La Biblioteca” one came from, we were hanging out at this TV Guide thing and started rapping. Then Dan saw that and was like, “Oh, that would make a funny thing at the end,” and it just worked. They’re all written by the writing staff and stuff like that except for a few.

CS: Are there any more episodes coming up where we get to learn a little more about Troy’s backstory?
Glover: Yes, I think it’s the third one after we get back from the Christmas episode. There’s a big Troy storyline where we find out a little bit more about not only Troy, but I think if you watched it the right way, it’s me. (Laughs) So, it’s a pretty intense one and it has to do with a new class that I’m taking, so yeah, definitely watch out for that.

CS: Have you guys talked about what Derrick wants to do when you’re on the break from “Community” next spring?
Glover: We want another movie. We want to have a bigger project. We have ideas for “Mystery Team 2,” but we think it’s better probably if we work on something different before we dive into that, but we definitely want to make another movie.

Mystery Team is now playing in New York at the Quad Cinema, plus it opens in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the Guild Cinema on Friday and in Chicago on February 4. If you want the movie to play in your city, town or village, make sure to get over to the movie’s Demand It site and, you guessed it, demand it.