Doing Dirty Work with Mary Lynn Rajskub
By Dan Casey on May 21, 2012
Everyone loves to make a mess, but no one stops to think about how they get cleaned up. It’s not like after every gruesome murder on Dexter the crime scene is cursed to remain a human Jackson Pollock painting. Cleaning up human remains and crime scenes is a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Unfortunately, Mike Rowe was busy, so the lamentable task falls to the “bioremediation engineers” at the heart of RIDES’ new web series Dirty Work. Starring Mary Lynn Rajskub, Hank Harris, and Jamie Clayton, Dirty Work is an interactive web series about the grislier side of making each month’s rent. Somewhere between a pop-up video and a Choose Your Own Adventure book, the series provides scores of awesome bonus content in the form of phone calls, text messages, e-mails and videos. I had the chance to catch up with Mary Lynn Rajskub to talk about her turn as spitfire corpse cleaner Roxy, getting into comedy and if she has the guts to, well, clean guts.
Nerdist: First of all, happy belated Mother’s Day!
Mary Lynn Rajskub: Oh my gosh, aren’t you so sweet? Thank you very much. Did you call your mother?
N: I did indeed. I’m a good son.
N: Congratulations, by the way, on Dirty Work. I saw the first episode and was quite impressed. The series reminds me of pop-up videos mixed with a video game or a choose your own adventure book. What is it about the show that excites you?
MLR: Yeah, I’m really proud of it. I’m really happy to be a part of it. It’s so good, just on all levels. I was really skeptical of all of the extra stuff because I liked the story and the characters so much. I was like, “Oh, can’t this just be a regular show?” Not that I didn’t trust they wouldn’t pull it off, but I was really excited to see the final product and it really works.
N: How did you get involved with the project?
MLR: My Hollywood agent called me in for it. Well, I guess it was in the breakdowns that they were looking for a “Mary Lynn Rajskub-type” and my agent was like, “Why don’t you try Mary Lynn Rajskub?” When I read the script, it was so exciting, but it was also like, “Wait, what’s going on?” because there was all this extra stuff in it, so it was difficult to read. I had to keep flipping back and forth, but from the humor and the characters I thought that it could be really, really good, so I was totally into it.
N: Yeah, I can imagine the script would be difficult to get a handle on. The extra stuff never felt intrusive though; they felt like cool bonus features that really enhanced the viewing experience.
MLR: Yeah, we were filming it and, when you’re filming something, you’re just like this little unit, you’re all together. You’re really into the story because you’re there for hours and hours, and I think we were all secretly thinking, “We don’t want anything to pop up on the screen! That’s not cool!” When – who’s calling me? Oh, my dentist is calling on the other line, but you know what? I’m going to ignore him.
N: We’re honored to be placed above dental hygiene. You were saying?
MLR: Yeah, I think they did such a good job. Usually, when a project is done, there’s the post-production, which is a whole other job, but this one had a third whole other job, which is the added stuff and the designers did such a good job of making it non-intrusive. It’s pretty cool.
N: Do you think interactive entertainment like this will become more commonplace or is Dirty Work really going out on a limb here by charting untested waters?
MLR: I don’t know. I will say that my husband might be the perfect audience member for Dirty Work. He didn’t watch it when it premiered; he watched it about a week later, and when he finally sat down to watch it, he clicked on everything as it was happening. I heard the opposite from some people, who didn’t want to click on everything. He was so into it; he even liked the cell phone callbacks. I think he was enjoying the show and the characters so much, so that helped. But it’s really weird because, like I keep saying, it’s so much work to write all that extra stuff that I think people when they create things like this, the whole thinking behind it is brand new. I think it’ll happen, but it’s going to happen slowly because people aren’t used to having to write in this extra depth to the story. I don’t really know; what do you think?
N: Well, I was like your husband in that I clicked on everything as it was happening. It prompted me and I was inclined to just give into it. I think you have a good point in that it’s something that’s really new, so people might not be as accustomed to the “active viewing” it requires.
MLR: I think it makes sense to try and make more things like this because you talk to people all the time – just last night, I did a live comedy show, and people are like, “Oh my god, the whole online thing.” Yes, there’s word-of-mouth, but if you can’t click on something to find out where the show is, where the parking is, a place where you can comment on the show… my friend was just saying last night – someone I knew in the ’90s who ran comedy rooms – that they have to get videos up, they have to get an online presence. You’re kind of missing the boat when you don’t do that. I’m saying that as someone who’s a bit of a purist; I like reading books, I like long-playing record albums, I like live shows. It’s interesting because I think it’s going to get to the point where everything’s working on all these different levels. It already kind of is there in some ways.
N: How many episodes do you folks have planned? Including the pilot, it looks like there’s three coming down the pipeline.
MLR: I’ve heard they’re developing like 10 more scripts, but I think everyone’s waiting to see if it can succeed and get enough viewers to warrant putting money into doing it again. I’d love to do more. It was a really satisfying, fun experience. I’ve been working a lot on a lot of different things. I’m kind of lucky to always be working, but this is the first time where I got to play a main character who’s sort of dark and funny and got to move the plot along. It was super fun to me, so I’d really like to do more.
N: The show had some pretty talented improv actors in its ranks and on the crew. How much did you guys improvise on set, or did you stick to the script?
MLR: I think when you watch it, it’s weird because it was written very funny and very natural, but there was a lot of improvising as well. I don’t want to say half-and-half, but that’s another thing – I just love this project so much – it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, we’re being funny now” and hit you over the head. It’s that kind of comedy where sometimes I’m giggling and sometimes I’m like, “That was really weird.” I’m enjoying the characters and it’s that sort of meld where everything was naturalistic to begin with, so we’re just adding on top of that. It wasn’t like we were improvising whole scenes; we were already in character, so we just went deeper, adding to the funny, already written scenes.
MLR: Since having a child, no. Throughout my twenties, I think I was just attracted to more weird shit, you know? Now I’m totally a wuss. I like the happy ending, I like staying home at nights, I like soft blankets. I was kind of nervous just going on to the set because, in theory, this is really funny and interesting to me. I don’t want to say all the gore was funny and it was a lot of work to shoot it – it was gross, for sure – but… I like it, you know? It shows this whole cool alternate reality. You can see these people who are up all night doing this job. I get it. If I had this crappy job and I got paid two or three times what minimum wage was with little bonuses to be left alone, this counter-culture feeling… it was kind of fun. The way that it looks? It’s sort of beautiful, the way it was shot. I guess I really like this project. [laughs] I’m just going on and on.
N: Well, that’s important that you like what you’re doing. You mentioned “soft blankets,” which is interesting because I understand you’re running something of an amateur bed & breakfast. What’s the going rate to take a nap at the Rajskub residence?
MLR: [laughs] It depends on who you are. There’s a sliding scale – if you’re an a-hole, the price is gonna go up, but if you’re Mark Malkoff – he’s like a kid; my 3-year-old loved him. He’s like, “Don’t leave, Mark!” He can stay over any time.
N: You began your career as a performance artist then segued into comedy, doing stand-up and sketch and turns on shows like Larry Sanders and Mr. Show. Now, after a brief comic hiatus due to a powerhouse turn on 24, it seems like you’re diving back into the comedy pool. How did you get involved in comedy?
MLR: I think I was way too self-conscious and interior to ever think about being funny when I was younger. I always did acting, so that’s where the art thing came from because it was more of an interior way to make art. I slowly started doing performance art; when you learn all your basic stuff, the curriculum is really weird, like dressing in a body sock going down a flight of stairs. Mine became very much performer-audience-oriented to the point where I didn’t really know why I was doing it. People were laughing and I didn’t know why they were doing it. In San Francisco, I was going to all these open mic poetry nights and the cast of people, just characters, weird people from the street, people in the bar, would go up and read their poetry, which was just fascinating to me. Then, all these comedians started coming to these open mic poetry nights because it gave them a chance to do stuff they couldn’t do in the comedy clubs and that just blew my mind because I was seeing people like Patton Oswalt and Ron Lynch, all these people that were so savvy to their own personas and how they talked and thought – I really liked that self-expression. If I could get people to laugh instead of just feeling uncomfortable, that was just a big bonus.
N: What is your writing process like when it comes to stand-up? When can we expect a Mary Lynn Rajskub comedy album?
MLR: Yeah, I’m working on it. For the first time, I’m working on more of a “club act,” I guess. I’ve tended towards not doing the same thing twice, being really off the cuff to the point of never really writing anything down. The writing sort of happens on stage. Now, I’m working the act angle a little bit, so I know where all the pauses are because it gets pretty exhausting to not know each time. I figured I owed it to myself to put it down on paper and perform it. Hopefully, that compilation will be coming in the next few months… if I don’t get too busy working on Dirty Work.
N: Who are some of your favorite working comics?
MLR: I’ve been kind of out of it in terms of going to the clubs; a lot of people I knew were from the ’90s, but recently I did T.J. Miller’s Comedy Central show, Mash Up, and there were tons of people on there who were really cool and really funny. This guy Brad Harris was there, Brandon Johnson, there’s a girl named Christian Sherm who’s hilarious. I’m doing a monthly show at the Laugh Factory now, so I’m getting to learn all these newer comedians. I’ll keep you posted as I learn everyone’s names. [pause] Oh! Hannibal Buress.
N: Can we expect another season of Dicki?
MLR: It’s been way too long. We were gonna make more and for some reason it never came together. My Damn Channel was doing a bunch of stuff with YouTube, then I went off and did a sitcom for nine weeks, so it kept getting pushed back. I love Dicki, though, and I totally want to do more.
N: My favorite description of you I’ve encountered so far has been “erstwhile 24 bacon-saver.” Any word on the 24 movie? We heard rumors that Chloe would be involved.
MLR: You know, I’m really excited about the possibility and I’ve heard that rumor as well, but I have yet to see anything of an actual substantive movement on that. I’ll let you know when I hear anything.
N: One last question. Apart from Dirty Work, what other projects are you excited about that you can share with us?
MLR: Between Dirty Work and the comedy stuff, it’s keeping me pretty busy. I’m just focusing on that comedic character and we’ll see what happens. I’m trying to be home with my family. I’m just trying to do it all.