Michael Showalter is the kind of guy you know all about — or you’ve never heard of him.
The Jewish actor-writer-comedian has written and starred in a slew of sleeper cult hits since the 1990s: the MTV sketch comedy show “The State,” the 2001 parody film “Wet Hot American Summer” and the Comedy Central series “Stella” and “Michael and Michael Have Issues,” to name a few.
He also had bit parts in a random assortment of popular cultural markers, shows such as “Law & Order,” “Reno 911” and even “Sex and the City.”
His next big career move is something almost entirely different, save for the funny lines — a stream-of-consciousness style comedic book, “Mr. Funny Pants.” It’s one part memoir, one part bathroom reader. In no particular order, there are chapters on sandwiches, Bea Arthur, frogs, girls with boyfriends, selling screenplays, the reality of relationships, Scrabble, sweaters, cats and the audition process.
Instead of being a straightforward or linear story, the book was written so that readers can flip to any page or chapter
and still enjoy, Showalter says via telephone from the New York City apartment he shares with his new wife (they were married in January).
Showalter, 40, just started a book tour that includes a stop at the JCC of San Francisco on March 6. During that appearance, he’ll read from the book, discuss life and answer audience questions.
While Showalter says his fans are usually very nice and keep a respectable distance (he claims this is because he’s “standoffish”), people do tend to be passionate about one particular project of his or another.
“The one that people are the most ‘it changed my life’ about is ‘Wet Hot American Summer,’ ” he says.
Because of the film’s cult status, fans have been clamoring for a 10-year reunion sequel, which is alluded to at the end of the film. “We want to make it [and] it’s been discussed many times,” Showalter says. “Optimistically, I’ll say yes. It’s just not yet in the works.”
The film — which starred Showalter, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper, Michael Ian Black and Amy Poehler — is set in a fictional camp on the last day of summer. It includes a few scattered Jewish references. When asked to pray, a group of campers bow their heads and begin reciting “Baruch atah Adonai …”
In another memorable scene, Showalter’s character expresses his devotion to another counselor by saying, “I love the way you laugh and I love the way your hair smells and I love it that sometimes for no reason you’re late for shul.”
Turns out, the film isn’t technically set at a Jewish summer camp, though it is based on the real-life camp experiences of Showalter and his frequent creative partner David Wain. Growing up in Princeton, N.J., Showalter went to sleep-away camp from third grade through seventh grade at Camp Mohawk in the Berkshires.
“I loved every minute of it,” he says. “It wasn’t all about being Jewish, it just so happened that everybody there was Jewish.”
Showalter was raised by his Episcopalian father and Jewish mother, but says that being Jewish is a big part of his cultural identity.
“It’s just my history. It’s who I am,” he explains. “My cousins were all Jewish so I regularly attended bar and bat mitzvahs, and I was always going to Jewish functions at the Jewish center in Princeton.”
After graduating high school, Showalter moved to New York to study at New York University — where he joined a sketch comedy group that would later become “The State” — then transferred to Brown University. He did some stand-up comedy, got a few acting gigs and kept auditioning for meatier roles.
In “Mr. Funny Pants” Showalter begins a chapter about the horrific audition process with an anecdote about the classic actor headshot — his first still hangs above his parents’ breakfast table. He writes, “Every time I visit home, I beg my mother to remove the picture, but she refuses. ‘You’re so handsome in it,’ she says.”
In the same chapter, he describes what it was like for him at an audition in Los Angeles in 1996: “The character is described as ‘twenty-something, smart, funny, David Schwimmer-type.’ I go to the audition and sit in a room filled with twenty other ‘mes.’ We are all carbon copies of each other … wearing pressed jeans and running our fingers through our thick ‘sitcom hair.’ ”
Luckily for him and his fans, Showalter has found ways to break the mold of traditional TV actor. Along with the original and irreverent films and shows he’s written and starred in, he also put out a stand-up CD in 2007 on JDub Records called “Sandwiches & Cats.”
And now there’s his new gig as a published author — something he plans to do a lot more of. He’s already writing his next book.
“The things that I didn’t feel I could talk about with enough perspective, I didn’t put in the book — the things I didn’t quite know how to be honest about right now,” he says. “That’s something I’d like to approach in the next go-around.”
Michael Showalter reads from “Mr. Funny Pants” at 7 p.m. March 6 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$15. Information: www.jccsf.org.
“Mr. Funny Pants” by Michael Showalter (288 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $24.99)