Jason Segel: ‘everyone is afraid of being made fun of, to be told they’re stupid’

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Dispatches from Elsewhere, Jason Segel’s new series on AMC, is absolutely wonderful. I talked about it a little on our podcast coming out Monday. It’s been compared to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and to Amelie, but I think it’s better. I thought Amelie was too twee and Eternal Sunshine didn’t resonate with me, maybe I wasn’t old enough when it came out. Dispatches feels deep, it feels personal, and it’s heartfelt without being at all schmaltzy. The earnestness is genuine. It’s about a group of people who are brought together in a social experiment that’s half game, half life lesson. It’s based on real events from about 12 years ago, as shown in the 2013 documentary The Institute. The characters are all new, with Segel playing a dispassionate computer programmer who falls for Eve Lindley’s character, Simone. Sally Field and Andre from Andre 3,000 are part of their team and the mysterious corporation running the game is headed by Richard E. Grant, who also narrates. Every week you’re asked to take the perspective of another character. I can’t say enough good things about it and it reminds me how much I adored Segel’s The Muppet Movie in 2011. I was less impressed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall but Segel wrote that when he was just 24, as he reminds Rolling Stone in this interview. I’m a fan of his now. Here’s some of what he told Rolling Stone, with much more at the source.

You were originally thinking about developing this as a movie, right?
Yeah, but I kept butting up against a few things. One was the missing girl — that’s fictional, and if you put all your chips on that as a narrative, you’re going to end with a whimper. You see it in the documentary as well. But it’s not about the story the Institute has set up as the backbone for what they’re doing, it’s about who is participating in the thing itself. Who is pulling that flyer and calling that number? Let’s profile four different versions of an existential crisis, and why this experiment might appeal to them. Think about The Wizard of Oz. It’s not about Oz. It’s about: that guy needs a brain, that guy needs a heart, that guy needs courage, she needs to get home.

Once I hit upon that, TV started to make a lot more sense. Because when people see the first four episodes, they’ll see we’re setting up who these people are. Then, for the next six episodes, they have to journey together to find what each of them needs.

So having now made these 10 episodes, what do you feel you’ve learned about who you are as a 40-year-old? What did this artistic check-in tell you about yourself?
[Long pause] I turn in the finale tomorrow, so I’m still in it…I haven’t quite had the distance yet to figure that out. But I can say…it proved that I was still willing to write from my guts. I can still put myself out there and say, “This is what I think is beautiful.” I don’t expect everybody to love this show, or even like it. But I have a strong sense of faith that there are people out there who will really get it, and that it will be meaningful to them as it to me.

It’s a weird mixture of a sort of quirky ‘90s surreality — the Gondry/Burton/Lynch stuff you mentioned earlier — and this almost embarrassing sincerity. You know, “Follow your bliss, be yourself, be nice to people.” And what’s funny is, most people will probably be ok with the former, but feel like they don’t know how to deal with the latter.
Yes! Yes, exactly. The show is unabashedly earnest — there’s no wink-wink irony about it at all. We’re living in a time where everyone is afraid of being made fun of, everyone is afraid that they’re going to be told they’re stupid, and that you should trust no one because someone is trying to take all your shit. “Be on guard” — that’s the underlying message of everything. And I just wanted to do a show that asked, What happens if we let down our guard with one another? What if we could just be more vulnerable with each other? You said the word “embarrassing,” and that’s the scary thing about making anything, really. You are running the risk of embarrassing yourself by saying, “I think this is art.” And that’s usually where the really interesting stuff happens.

The most embarrassing thing you can do when you’re 24…
…is show your dick onscreen! [Laughs] Completely. And the most embarrassing thing I can do as a 40-year-old is show you my heart. This is the 40-year-old version of me baring it all.

[From Rolling Stone]

The Rolling Stone journalist, David Fear, asks about the fact that Simone is played by a transgender actress. The character is trans, but it’s not mentioned by the other characters so far and just becomes part of her backstory. Jason said that he didn’t intend for Simone to be transgender, but that he knew when Eve read for the part that she was perfect for the role. “Simone was not written as a trans character. She made Simone so much richer, more complicated, gave her so much more depth. It changed the whole project.” That’s definitely to his credit.

This just makes me wish that Segel was more prolific. I still haven’t seen Sex Tape, but he only co-wrote that. I’ll watch it this weekend. I have so much time to watch shows now because I’ve been sick for about a week and am self quarantining. I wish my friends were doing the same, but I’ll spare you a diatribe on that. If you’re looking for more shows to watch, check out Pajiba’s recommendations on their site and listen to their podcast. That’s where I heard about Dispatches.

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