BETA Member Drive: Patrick Somerville, Jackie Kashian, Jason Mott

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MacKenzie Davis as Kirsten from HBO's "Station Eleven"
MacKenzie Davis as Kirsten from HBO’s “Station Eleven.” Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max

In this member drive edition of the show, we revisit interviews with showrunner Patrick Somerville, comedian Jackie Kashian and novelist Jason Mott.

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  • Showrunner Patrick Somerville on the poetic pandemic saga, 'Station Eleven'

    In early 2020 as most of the world retreated into quarantine, author Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, “Station Eleven” began popping up on popular reading lists. The author was deemed prophetic in some circles for her story about a Georgian flu that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors’ plight in the aftermath. Others, however, found it a bit “too soon” for COVID-19 reading.

    HBO didn’t feel it was too soon. They optioned the book for a limited series months before an actual pandemic hit the globe and tapped Wisconsin native Patrick Somerville to adapt it for television.

    Somerville had two big pluses heading into this job. One, he was a successful novelist himself. And further, he cut his TV writing teeth with Damon Lindelof (“Lost” and “Watchmen”) on the similarly themed and critically acclaimed HBO series, “The Leftovers,” which dealt with another global “rapture” and its aftermath.

    “The novelist who wrote the novel ‘The Leftovers’ was Tom Perrotta, and very unusually, he was in the writers’ room for seasons two and three after they had exhausted the material that was in the book,” Somerville told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Somerville got a front row seat to watch Lindelof and Perrotta work together to expand Perrotta’s world, but in Lindelof’s domain as a master television storyteller.

    “So, I got to watch for two years what it looked like when a TV writer, who had made 120 whatever episodes of ‘Lost’ with cliffhangers and twists and turns, was in a dialog with a novelist who was protecting and maintaining the spirit of the novel that he had written,” Somerville said.

    In many ways, the nonlinear, multiple timeline, puzzlebox structure of “Station Eleven” echoes that of “The Leftovers,” and Somerville said that isn’t coincidence.

    “I’m not a writer who needs to tell a story out of order. I just happened to learn about it from one of the best and also learn about it again from Emily’s novel,” Somerville said.

    ‘Station Eleven’ needs to be out of time because it’s about memory,” he continued. “It’s about before and after, not just one or the other. So, we needed to tell the story in a way that let the different timelines proceed together.”

    The show and novel follow a small and loosely interconnected group of characters as they navigate the initial outbreak and the “after” as the world as we know it collapses.

    The main protagonist is Kirsten, who at the time of the outbreak is performing in a presentation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Chicago when the lead, Arthur Leander, has a heart attack on stage.

    Leander is the hub character whose orbit connects most of the cast. That includes his estranged wife, Elizabeth, and their son, Tyler; his longtime frenemy, Clark; and his ex-wife Maria, whose titular graphic novel becomes somewhat of a sacred text to both Tyler and Kirsten in the wake of the outbreak.

    When Arthur begins to falter on stage, an audience member, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), is the first and only person to react, rushing the stage. It was here that Somerville makes his first tweak from the novel.

    “In the novel, Jeevan is an EMT in training, and I think his rush to the stage is somewhat motivated by a sense that he’s the guy to help. He might know what to do. And in our version, we decided just to take that piece away,” Somerville said.

    Somerville said it’s the instinct to want to help that was important for Jeevan. So, as Jeevan helps with the backstage commotion of Arthur’s heart attack, he meets and helps to console Kirsten. When her stage “wrangler” fails to show up, Jeevan shepherds Kirsten home. It is during this trip home where he receives the fateful call from his sister, an ER doctor, who gives him a heads’ up that there is a highly contagious and mortal flu outbreak and that he should isolate immediately. Unable to locate Kirsten’s family, Jeevan is faced with an impossible choice — take in a stranger or send her off to her likely demise.

    “It’s the whole show in a lot of ways,” Somerville said. “You find yourself in a position to be morally responsible, even if your heart is saying, ‘Run and go,’ your moral heart is saying, ‘You can’t.’”

    Jeevan ultimately fibs to Kirsten that her parents offered permission for her to stay with him and his brother, Frank, for the night.

    That night turns into a two-year odyssey for Kirsten that ends when she stumbles across and joins a post pandemic Shakespearean troupe called the Traveling Symphony. Kirsten becomes the central player in the troupe and a protective and resourceful leader over the next 18 years.

    While the Traveling Symphony can, as Somerville puts it, “take a second to get used to,” this concept of arts after the apocalypse is what sets “Station Eleven” apart from other apocalyptic literature and film. In fact, their slogan is “Survival is Insufficient,” which Somerville feels can even apply to us all now.

    I think it’s not enough to just survive. You need to laugh, you need your friends, you need your family, you need to be together with people and resetting relationships all the time,” he said.

    While Kirsten retains her Thespian spirit, the years spent in a lawless world have hardened her instincts.

    “Kirsten, in ‘Year Twenty’ is still that same person, but she’s powerful. She’s talented. She’s intelligent, she’s brave, but she’s dangerous,” Somerville said.

    “I think it’s fun in TV when your main character is a dangerous person or when your main character is a person who sometimes loses her temper,” he continued. “Never knowing quite what someone’s going to do makes for a very exciting feeling when you’re watching a story.”

    Kirsten is portrayed throughout the series by “Halt and Catch Fire” star MacKenzie Davis and the young and impressive actor, Matilda Lawler.

    “(MacKenzie) is in the true use of the word, a dynamic human being and performer and gigantic ball of powerful energy, able to play so many different looks,” Somerville said. “Matilda Lawler (is) a young actor who is stunningly talented and confident and able to do all of those things I just said about Mackenzie, and the two of them working together tell the story of a whole life.”

    With such a heavy story, Somerville made an effort to inject shots of humor throughout the series. He said that’s almost necessary when making a prestige drama.

    “I think it’s always a good idea to make fun of your own pretentiousness when you’re trying to make a high-minded TV show,” he said. “It’s quite good to take a step back and roll your eyes at yourself.”

    The Green Bay native also relished the chance to transplant St. John Mandel’s story from Toronto to his beloved Midwest. Somerville pays homage to his alma matter by having Jeevan sport a University of Wisconsin-Madison sweater while quarantining in Somerville’s hometown of Chicago.

    “I think the whole show’s sort of a love letter to the Great Lakes region, and this is where I’m from. This is where I grew up,” he said. “And I just wanted to tell a story set in my home.”

    “Station Eleven” is streaming on HBO Max.

  • Keeping up with the Kashian: Jackie Kashian is still hilarious after all these years

    Comedian Jackie Kashian has been making people laugh for more than 35 years. Her albums have hit No. 1 on Amazon and iTunes and have garnered more than 10 million listens on Spotify and Pandora.

    Kashian’s latest special and companion album, “Stay-Kashian,” has her in fine form, talking about a range of topics including the Rapture, ghosts and her father, Elliot.

    Now a resident of Los Angeles, Kashian was born and raised in South Milwaukee and is the youngest of six kids. So it comes as no surprise that she took her own creative approach when it came time to make her stand-up debut — as a heckler.

    “It’s just an indictment because I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early ’80s, and I had never seen stand-up before and clearly had never been out in public before because during the show, I started heckling the comic,” Kashian told WPR’s “BETA.”

    “And there is genuinely nothing worse than a woman heckler, even if you were a woman comic, because for some reason, the audience is always on their side. So everyone was on my side, and I was eventually yelled at by management. And literally the guy said, ‘Open mic is on Sundays. You have to shut up.’ And I came back three weeks later and did open mic,” she said.

    The comedian she was heckling was Sam Kinison, a Grammy-nominated comic who appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.”

    Even though this happened 37 years ago, Kashian still remembers what she heckled Kinison about.

    “It was just as lame as everyone’s heckling,” she recalled. “He had said that he was from Peoria, Illinois, and his timing was slightly off. And I was monumentally inebriated. And during that pause, I yelled, ‘I’m sorry.’ And then that got a pretty big laugh just because my timing was better than his that very evening.”

    “And then he tried to essentially mop up the floor with me, and then it didn’t work because I wouldn’t shut up anyway,” she continued. “And so he just kept yelling at me and I just kept talking back. And so management had to approach me like three times.”

    With experience as a professional heckler, that must give Kashian an advantage when it comes to shutting up hecklers, right?

    “No. No, it sadly does not,” she said. “It gives me no advantage. And I’ve been doing standup since 1984, right? And I’m still slightly self-conscious when there is a heckler where I’m just like, ‘Oh, well, this poor bastard doesn’t know better.’ And much like myself when I was a goofy dumb-dumb and just yell and stuff. So I have too much sympathy for them half of the time and too much rage the other half of the time. So I’m not actually very good with hecklers. I’m OK. But my favorite clubs kick them out for me.”

    Some of the funniest and most intelligent jokes Kashian tells in her special are about her least favorite people — the end times, Rapture people.

    As she says in “Stay-Kashian”:

    “Here’s the thing. They want it to be the end times. There are people who wish it to be the end times right now because they want to get to the Rapture. Here’s the twist. They’ve decided that they’re going to be horrible people to speed up the end times to get to the Rapture. Let’s unpack. First of all: not the end times, just terrible times. Try to help somebody. Second thing: the Rapture, I don’t know if you know anything about the Rapture. They’re not taking horrible people. Third thing you may not know about the Rapture: not real, not real. Literally a parable to get you to not be a horrible person.”

    And while Kashian has been doing stand-up for more than three decades, her comedic voice has stayed relatively the same.

    “It’s weird how much it hasn’t changed,” she said, referring to her style. “There’s always a comfort level that changes; I know that I’m going to do well, right? I know that. Even if I have a bad night, it’s not going to be a terrible night and I’m going to be able to dig myself out of the hole.”

    “So the only thing that’s really changed in my stand-up is my ability to be aware of what I’m trying to do up there,” she added. “It’s just the learned skill of stand-up.”

    “I talk about the same four things every comic talks about, which is sort of sociopolitical things on television, in the news, in interactions with humanity, my family life. … The same four topics are discussed by absolutely every comic that gets on stage, and you have to make sure that you make it your own.

    Kashian’s style may be the same, but she says the industry itself has changed over the years.

    “When I first started, it was ’84. There was this beginning of this observational kind of standup … sort of a pre-Seinfeld. Leno and Letterman and all those guys with the setup punch,” she said.

    “In the late ’90s, there was this advent of something called alternative comedy, which someone asked me to define at one time in 1999. And I lucked out because my standup has always been an alternative by my definition, because what I think of as alternative comedy is you tell the story of how you came up with the joke and then you tell the punch line” she continued.

    When Kashian isn’t doing stand-up around the country, chances are she’s hosting her two podcasts — “The Dork Forest” and “The Jackie and Laurie Show” which she co-hosts with fellow comedian Laurie Kilmartin — the latter occasionally getting into the culture of harassment and the poor treatment of primarily female comedians.

    “BETA” asked Kashian if she thinks things have improved since the #MeToo movement ramped up in 2006.

    “There have been great strides made, inequality and injustice and all of these things. But because of those strides, the people who don’t want those advances, right? The white supremacists, the misogynists and the people who want to control women and who fear homosexuality or whatever, they have become much more vocal and more in your face,” she said. “There used to be a shame factor if you hated people. And now there’s a lot less people that hate, but the people who do hate are much more vocal.”

    “In the United States, for example, the advantage of being a white person is not as overt as the things that don’t happen to me. It’s not like people are handing me 20s under the table for being a white woman. But I don’t have to deal with a lot of things that Black women have to deal with, or that Black people in general have to deal with. So in the #MeToo situation, I would say that it’s making a lot of more decent people aware of their own advantages, but it’s also making the bad guys go doubling down on it.”

  • Jason Mott on his National Book Award-winning novel, 'Hell of a Book'

    Jason Mott won the National Book Award in fiction for his novel, “Hell of a Book,” in November.

    The novel — his fourth — follows an unnamed Black author who goes on a publicity tour across the country to promote his best-selling novel. The book also tells the story of a young Black boy named Soot who lives in a rural town in the not-too-distant past and a character known as The Kid, who might be imaginary.

    In his online acceptance speech, Mott dedicated the award “to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied. The ones so strange they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and by those around them. The ones who, in spite of this, refuse to outgrow their imagination, refuse to abandon their dreams and refuse to deny, diminish their identity, or their truth, or their loves, unlike so many others.”

    Mott told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” he enjoys stories that break out of the confines of traditional storytelling.

    “Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy a very normal, straight A to B to C kind of storytelling,” he said. “But the ones that always come back to me in my memory are the ones that do things very differently and have these kind of creative flourishes. When I was younger in undergrad writing fiction, I did a lot of really unique, creative, strange stories, and (I) kind of got away from that, and I wanted to go back to that.”

    Fortunately, for Mott, he was not under a book contract at the time wrote “Hell of a Book,” so no one had any great expectations for this novel.

    This novel was just me and the page having fun,” Mott said.

    Mott has said “Hell of a Book” gave him the opportunity to play with language in a way that he hadn’t been able to before. This freedom was a result of not being beholden to a book contract.

    “It was a novel that I wrote for myself and the flourishes and the fun and the silliness, and then also the heaviness and the exactitude of the language and using film noir as a mechanic to tell the story about Black America,” he said. “It finally was just a place where I didn’t care about how the book was going to be reviewed by other people or the people I admire. It was just the book that I wanted to admire for my own reasons, and that helped me write it in the way that I wanted to write it.”

    Charles Yu, who won the 2020 National Book Award for his novel, “Interior Chinatown,” was one of the judges for the 2021 National Book Award. His comments on Mott’s work: “‘Hell of a Book’ more than lives up to its title. Playful, searching, raw, and necessary, this writing, this novel twisted me up and turned me inside out, dazzled me, surprised me, and moved me.”

    Besides the Black author who serves as the narrator, there are also two other very important characters — Soot and The Kid.

    Mott came up with the Soot character when he was just writing about his thoughts and emotions about being Black and some of his memories about growing up.

    “And it was just this hodgepodge of things — some of them real, some of them imagined,” he said. “The Kid just kind of appeared one day, almost as he does in the novel.”

    Mott was revising the scenes with the author because he’d written those scenes already. As he was making some revisions, The Kid suddenly appeared and started talking to the author.

    One of the most powerful storylines in “Hell of a Book” is the tragic police shooting of a young Black boy. The shooting airs repeatedly on the news, so it’s a recurring motif. Mott said these were some of the most difficult scenes to write.

    “Almost every day, there was a report of a new shooting. I set up a Google Alerts at one point to try to keep track of things, and it started flooding my email box,” Mott explained. “And so I wanted to mirror that. Writing those scenes was very difficult because it was forcing me to really face how often this thing happens and the feeling that I kind of have when you hear about these shootings. And they just don’t go away, and you try to ignore them because you become overwhelmed.”

    The narrator is an avid fan of film noir and often speaks in a hard-boiled noir style. Mott admits that he does see a connection between film noir and what it means to be Black in America. He said film noir is detached from reality, and it is a space where language functions in a very specific and unique way.

    “And I think that a lot of that is how America treats Black culture,” he said. “Black culture becomes this commodified thing where were people talk a certain way, and they walk a certain way, and they dance a certain way and all these things. So I think there’s a parallel in that of how film noir is kind of viewed as this one-off genre. And I think that, unfortunately, a lot of Black culture gets viewed as a one-off kind of thing that sits apart from American culture and American identity. So I think there’s some similarity there.”

    Mott also points out that when film noir was at its peak popularity, Black people in the United States didn’t have opportunity to be in those films or have their narratives shared through that genre.

    “So I think that’s where there’s a bit of dissonance and disconnect that I would love to see, which is what actually made the novel fun and interesting for me because it was kind of like the novel was trying to send this message that people don’t think of Black people as connecting with things like film noir or all these genres that we think of as very much Americana,” Mott said. “We don’t often times think of minorities and like Black kids somehow connecting with them. And they are and they do.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Patrick Somerville Guest
  • Jackie Kashian Guest
  • Jason Mott Guest

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