Most people will remember Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, the poor child trying to put up with his dysfunctional family over the holidays in the 1983 classic A Christmas Story, but in the years since then, he’s gone from being a former child star to being a true Hollywood power player, producing movies for long-time friends Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn.
It was his friendship with the latter that got him on board their latest venture Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show, a documentary that followed his buddy’s 30 shows in 30 Nights trek across the country to bring comedy to the masses in remote places like Lubbock, Texas and South Bend, Indiana. The shows featured Comedy Store vets John Caparulo, Ahmed Ahmed, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Maniscalco, along with Vaughn and his movie pals Justin Long, Jon Favreau, Dwight Yoakam and Keir O’Donnell.
As usual, Peter Billingsley was in the thick of it, both as a guest and as the film’s executive producer, and he recently talked with ComingSoon.net about this ambitious project and a few other things on his plate, including Favreau’s next movie Iron Man. You may have heard something about that one.
ComingSoon.net: I went into this movie thinking it would be a comedy concert movie like we’ve seen before, but there’s a lot of interesting things caught on tape like the Hurricane Katrina side-trip. Who had the idea to do this in the first place and have the foresight to film it all? Peter Billingsley: It really came from the mind of Vince Vaughn, like lots of big ideas that he had. He’s such a great host, and he has the great ability to be able to inspire a lot of people around him. Really, we were finishing up “The Break Up,” we were producing that in Chicago and he’d done a couple of one-off charity shows. We’ve known these comics for a long time. In fact, I met Ahmed with Vince on the “After School Special” that I met Vince on. Ahmed was an extra in that. We’ve been friends since then, Ahmed was a comic, and then Vince would do a couple charity shows that he would host and have these comedians out, and just try to raise some money for a good cause. As we were doing “The Beak Up,” we did another one of those in Chicago, and he really thought, “Geez, wouldn’t it be fun to go out and maybe do a real tour with this.” And “30 Days and 30 Nights” had a nice ring to it. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into at the time. It’s a pretty ambitious schedule, and we thought, “Hey, let’s film it and we’ll do a movie on it” and knowing these comics, they’re very real comics and there’s a humanity to them. Their comedy doesn’t come at other people’s expense. Sometimes people try to make you laugh by trying to put down a group or other people. These guys really have real things going on in their lives, so we said, “Hey, let’s try to cross-cut the comedy” so going into, we knew, “Let’s just be really open. We’re going to photograph everything, we’ll see what happens, and let’s find the stories behind these guys’ comedy.” That was really the mission statement going in. Now of course, we didn’t know that Rita and Katrina would intervene and that these different things would happen on the road and you really don’t know what will happen, so it kind of became a snapshot of life at that time.
CS: I wasn’t aware of the charity shows, but I’m not sure how many of you had been on a tour before this, but it’s a pretty insane idea trying to do that. Billingsley: It was completely insane. In fact, we rant into some other acts on the road, and they were like, “You guys are crazy! What are you doing? You haven’t taken a day off?” and we were like, “No, man” and we were tired and delirious and bleary-eyed, but pushing it through and having a great time. There’s something kind of exhilarating about being on stage. I think if we had it to do all over again, we would not do thirty days and thirty nights. It’s just a little bit ambitious but it did have a nice ring to it.
CS: That wasn’t inspired by the Josh Hartnett sex comedy with everyone giving up sex for the whole tour, was it? Billingsley: No, no, nooooo… it was not like a Lent thing.
CS: You’ve known and worked with Vince for so long, so when he comes up with these ideas, as the producer, do you have to be the practical one, the voice of reason, since you have to do a lot of booking and planning? Billingsley: Well, there was an incredible amount of footwork, really done by Victoria Vaughn and John Isbell, who are our Executive Producers. It was just so ambitious to think of, but Vince has this ability to have this enthusiasm, these big ideas, and it’s pretty contagious, and he can kind of convince you all that you can do it. It’s pretty amazing, it’s like the more you do, the more you can do, and it really was kind of crazy. I think the whole tour, honest to God, was planned and put together in four weeks, from its moment of inception to when we were on the road was like literally a month later, and that’s booking 30 venues and having all these buses, and lining up all the efforts for the filming. It was really a pretty ambitious process, and then once we went, we just all kind of threw caution to the wind. We said, “We’re going to give access to these cameras and we’re just going to do it.” And we just went.
CS: And then things changed on the road as they always do. Billingsley: Things do, and in this kind of documentary format. We’ve made a lot of movies obviously that have scripts and you work on those scripts and you elevate with actors and there’s improv involved and lots of things, but you kind of have a road map of the story that you’re telling. In this documentary format, you really don’t, so we’d meet every night, I’m talking about myself, Ari (Sandel, the director) and Vince, would get together. Ari would let us know what he shot all day, what are the stories he was tracking, what things might be going on in an upcoming city, things we might want to cover there, when are we going to bring the families in, and you just try to stay on top of it, and you follow multiple things at once. And on top of that, we still had to produce a live show every night, and that was really the emphasis of it, was making sure we gave a great show to the audiences, and particularly because we were in places that don’t normally get comedy shows or really any kind of major live entertainment. That was also important to us, was to go through cities on this tour that don’t generally have an opportunity to see this type of a show.
CS: Obviously, there was the plan to make this movie the whole time, having Ari on the road with you and working on it while on the road, and it wasn’t something done as an afterthought using footage shot. Billingsley: Definitely, yeah, and there’s no doubt that it kind of evolves on the road, but we had this notion going into it, and again, it was like, “Let’s just be honest. We’re not here to make fun of each other. It’s not reality TV. We’re going to show it and then we’re going to protect each other.” Obviously, our goal was not to make anyone look bad, and a very human story erupted and especially with these comics, where their comedy comes from a very open and human point of view, where they’re dealing with things that they’ve had to deal with in their lives, but trying to do it in a funny way.
CS: I know that you and Vince knew the comics beforehand, but how did you guys choose the four to take on the road? Did you sit down and do interviews with them to see which ones would make an interesting movie? Billingsley: No, you know, we’d really known them. Sebastian and Bret we had known. They’d been a part of a couple of these charity events before, so had Ahmed obviously, and Cap, we had known from the Comedy Store and was just a really funny guy, so it was not like a long interview process or really any interview process at all. They were just guys that we knew that we thought were really funny and really felt that they whole country would love. They’ve certainly toured in their own right, they all perform at the Comedy Store, but when Vince Vaughn is coming to town, obviously we were playing a lot larger venues and Vince is able to pack in a lot of people. In fact, in Phoenix, we were close to 3,000 people at one venue. So this was a big change for them to go to that size venue, and we knew that they were ready, and they’re just so funny, they’re just such funny guys.
CS: Usually, when you see a stand-up comic, you don’t normally know much about them beyond what they put off on stage, but I found it interesting that as the movie went on, you get to know more about the guys from the interviews and off-stage personalities, and their material becomes funnier. Did you know these guys’ stories beforehand or did you learn about them while on tour, just as we do? Billingsley: We definitely found out more, but I think for a lot of comedians, and especially the type that are putting things out about themselves, and not trying to make fun of others. You know that there really is something behind there, because to be that genuine and obviously coming from a real place. Fortunately, these guys gave us a lot of access to them. They were open and we got to meet these families, and you get the whole other perspective from the families as to how they grew up, if it was Cap using curse words since he was 4, and all that stuff that you really learn about them that makes perfect sense once you actually get to know them. I think it’s fun in a way that you have these guys that are not known to the public, but by the end of the movie, you really feel like you know them.
CS: Did each of the comics do different sets on the tour? How did the shows evolve over the course of the 30 shows? They must have had material written but obviously, stuff happened on the road that must have become part of their acts. Billingsley: They do, and they’re comics, so they’re constantly aware of things, so their acts would change a little bit, and I think if they went through different parts of the country, they would try out different material, some stuff they thought would work better in the South, as opposed to the Southwest. This stuff will work once you go up to the Midwest, and for us, there was a variety show around it, so we had a lot of special guests and acts like Dwight Yoakam and Jon Favreau and Justin Long and Kier O’Donnell and myself, who would get up and do sketches with Vince. Even those kind of evolved Vince would do karaoke sometimes or read a scene from “Swingers” and play with the audience, so each show was really different, and that’s what was fun for us. As we went into a city, we could figure it out and map out, depending which special guest was there, we’d throw dodgeballs at Justin Long, so it was really fun and it was more like that Rat Pack feel where moments before the show, sometimes you’d go, “Why don’t you come out and we’ll try this?” “I don’t know if that’s going to work” “Well, we’ll try it, come on!” And then just the enthusiasm of the crowd gets contagious. Really, every show went great.
CS: I appreciated you rolling out the “After School Special” because I hadn’t seen that in a long time. Billingsley: That was fun. That was kind of a humiliating thing, but you know what I say? Thank God truly for that “After School Special” about steroids in 1989, I met Vince and we meet Ahmed, so in a weird way, if it wasn’t that kind of silly little “After School Special,” this whole thing would never have come about.
CS: And a lot of people never did steroids because of that special. Billingsley: I’d like to hope so. Not based on the size of my body or anything, that convinced people not to do it, but yeah, I hope I have kept some kids off it.
CS: Obviously, you had tons of material after you finished this tour, so did you and Vince spend a lot of time with Ari figuring out what exactly you wanted to use? Billingsley: Absolutely. A lot of the producers and Ari, there was really sort of a committee in the editing room, because we’d all been through the experience and had really seen it on different levels and really had to shape this thing. It took a long time. There was north of 600 hours of footage that we had comprised and just so many stories and multiple events, and a lot of compelling and engaging stuff but it’s ultimately what movie do you want to tell? Without a script, we really started by cutting each city that we went through and cut a module of all the events that happened there, and that itself, winds up being like a six-hour cut. Shave it down, shave it down, shave it down until you get to that that place where you begin to see the movie and then you continue to shape it. But it was really a pretty fun experience, because so much of the writing in a way of the screenplay of the movie is done in the edit room, so you gather all that you can and we didn’t go back and reshoot everything. We got what we got in those thirty days and then we moved on, moved to the edit room and we put it all together.
CS: I talk to a lot of documentary filmmakers, and 600 hours is a lot, even more than most documentaries from established filmmakers. Billingsley: It really is, and that’s based on 30 days, we had three cameras, we shot every show in its entirety, and then during the day, we had two cameras that would interview the comics every day, always before and after they came and went on stage. We would give them an event to do in the city that day, so it was just an insane amount of footage.
CS: So with that in mindand obviously there’s still a lot of work and planning for the DVDbut do you have any plans to include any full unedited shows or sets for people to see? Billingsley: I think so. We certainly have a lot of stuff and we shot everything. The DVD will have a lot more. It will start getting into a lot of the sketches and the variety show aspect of things that we’ll delve a little bit deeper into. And then there’s some behind-the-scenes, a lot of outtakes. I think if we really kept digging through, there’s a lot of DVDs, we can probably put out with this stuff, because there’s just so much footage. And these guys are so funny, too. It’s like you’re only seeing a handful of their jokes in this movie, but there’s just so much more there.
CS: What’s next in this vein? If the movie finds an audience, do you try to do more shows and tour some more with this idea? Billingsley: We’ve certainly thought about it, yeah, we did 6,000 miles and 30 cities and this country is a large place and there’s a lot of places we didn’t have a chance to get to that we really really wanted to, so we’ve certainly talked about it. I don’t think 30 days and 30 nights again. I think we’d take a couple nights off for sure.
CS: There should definitely be more interest in these comics after this movie I’d assume in some of the places they haven’t played. Billingsley: I really hope so, and I hope that it gives these guys a chance to get some national attention. They’re incredibly funny and they’re all worthy, worthy guys. It was that kind of thing that we knew going into it that they were funny, and they just needed a shot to get propelled out to the national stage.
CS: You’ve been working with Vince and Jon as a producer for some time, and this is a different type of movie. Do those guys just come to you with whatever they want to do and you’re on board to produce no matter what it is? Billingsley: It’s kind of worked out that way. It’s been fun. Really, Vince and I had wanted to work together a long time. We’d been friends and the first thing we really had a chance to do was “Made” and that was a movie that was Jon’s first film that he directed. I’ve made some films with Jon and produced his show “Dinner for Five” and then have done some stuff with Vince and now Vince started a company with Universal Pictures and so I folded into there, and Jon’s doing some stuff with us, so I think it’s all going to continue to evolve, but this was really a nice way to bring everybody in from the group. Really, everyone in this film is connected to Vince on a certain level of friendship from Dwight and Justin, Kier was in “Wedding Crashers” and “Break-Up” and now this. I’ve obviously known him for a long time, Favreau has, Ahmed, the comedians. This was really sort of a band of friends, and even Ari the director, I gave him his first job in Hollywood as a P.A. on a television show almost ten years ago.
CS: “Iron Man” is obviously a different thing for you guys, first of all dealing with Marvel Studios and known characters, so how have you been involved with that? Billingsley: I’m an Executive Producer on the film and have been involved since the get. It was the next film that Jon moved onto, so I moved on with him, and it’s been an incredible experience. The film’s really good, and we’re kind of in that stage now where the cut’s just starting to lock up and we’re doing tons of visual effects. There’s over a thousand visual effects shots in the movie, and it’s really really exciting. We have an amazing cast.
CS: Looking forward to it, having talked to Jon and a bunch of the cast over the course of the last few years. Billingsley: Thanks man. It’s a pretty big film and it takes a long time to make, but I think audiences are going to be really, really happy.
CS: Will this new deal Marvel made with the Writers Union something that will help you guys or are you way beyond that point? Billingsley: They’re their own studio. We’re past that point, so fortunately, the strike hasn’t really affected us because we shot the film quite some time ago. I’m happy that a lot of these companies are now doing it ’cause it will hopefully bring a resolution to it and everybody can get back to work.
CS: You also have a movie with Vince called “Four Christmases” which is a throwback to your own Christmas days. Billingsley: Yes. (laughs) I guess I’m the Christmas guy now. Yeah, it’s a really funny movie with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon that will be out in November of this year. Again, it was just an opportunity to collaborate with Vince again and a chance to come in and help out on that film.
CS: I hope you’ll get to do a cameo in that one. Billingsley: I do, actually.
CS: I’m sure you still get asked a lot about “Christmas Story” even though it was 25 years ago. Billingsley: Oh, definitely. It’s just one of those movies that sort of goes on and on and on. I did a little cameo in “Elf” for Jon, I didn’t take credit for it. I was one of the elves up in the North Pole, so it’s fun to do these little things, so I’m slowly getting back into acting.
CS: Are you surprised by the longevity of that movie and how it’s spawned so many well known catch phrases? Billingsley: It is pretty crazy. You just never know with these movies. Obviously, you pour your guts into ’em and I think “Christmas Story” at the time, we were just trying to make a great film, and you never know quite how they’re going to turn out, and you certainly can’t anticipate a level of success like that. I’m thrilled and proud to have been a part of it for sure.