Nobody Knew the Trauma Behind Paul Scheer’s Goofy Persona

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout

With his delightfully silly roles on shows like The League, Veep, and The Good Place, comedian Paul Scheer has always projected a sense of unencumbered fun. That’s partly why, as he explains in both his new memoir Joyful Recollections of Trauma and on this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, he was so hesitant to divulge the very real pain that dominated much of his childhood.

Scheer talks about how comedy helped rescue him from the violently abusive household in which he was raised and has continued to be an essential part of his life as he raises children of his own. He also tells some unbelievable stories about his bizarre run-ins with celebrities like Christopher Walken and Bill Cosby, describes the unique experience of improvising opposite Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and explains how he was able to emotionally move past four unsuccessful auditions for Saturday Night Live.

The stories that Scheer tells about growing up in Joyful Recollections of Trauma are anecdotes that he has been telling “in a very happy way” for years. But at a certain point, he realized that many of them are “incredibly traumatic to everybody else hearing them.”

“For the most part, I like to keep a part of myself private,” he says. “So I sat down and started to put these stories together, and realized that I’m ignoring this large part of my life. And why am I doing that? Why am I not going there? Because I realized if I’m going to write a book, I have to go deeper. I have to tell the full story. And is there a way that I can tell the things that people want to hear me talk about, these funny stories, these stories that they’ve never heard, but also put a much larger context on it?”

As he lays out in excruciating detail in the book, Scheer “came from this very abusive household with a stepfather who was incredibly violent.” Growing up, comedy was a “chance to escape” the horrors happening in his house. “These were the people I could escape with,” he says. “I wanted to be in the TV.”

Scheer’s obsession with pop culture as a way out of his everyday trauma is a through-line of the book. While other boys his age were trying to get their hands on Playboy magazines, he tells me he would sneak profane Eddie Murphy stand-up bits long before he was old enough to understand what they meant.

Nothing loomed larger for Scheer in the entertainment world than Saturday Night Live. Born in 1976, just a few months after the show’s first season premiered, he writes that he dreamed of being part of the cast since he was 12 years old. And as an early member of New York’s premier improv theater the Upright Citizens Brigade, he got the first of what would end up being several chances to audition for the show in 2001.

That year, Scheer auditioned alongside Kevin Hart and his UCB mentor Amy Poehler. Of those three, only Poehler made the cut, but Scheer’s dream didn’t die there. “I auditioned for SNL four times. I only wrote about the first one in the book,” he tells me. “And I didn’t get it, every single time.”

Chris Parnell Is the Only Person to Be Fired from ‘SNL’ Twice, and He’s OK With That

Even getting to audition was “truly a dream come true,” he says, and he still firmly believes that if he had ended up in the cast, he never would have been able to create his own (short-lived yet influential) sketch series, Human Giant, for MTV with Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, and Jason Woliner.

“I would never switch Human Giant for being on SNL,” he adds, saying it was worth it “just to be able to have that control of your own destiny and do something that felt like it was mine.”

But all of that being said, Scheer clearly still feels the pang of that fourth rejection. “The thing that killed me about the last time I was rejected from the show,” he says, is that not only did he audition on his birthday, but he was asked to come back to spend the whole day and night at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for the show that Saturday. Then, he was taken in a limo to the after party, where he really let himself believe it was finally happening for him.

“It was awesome,” Scheer recalls. “I felt like, oh my God, I got this. And people are coming up to me at the after party and they’re like, ‘You got it, you got the show.’ And then as I’m basking in, ‘All right, life is about to change,’ one of the producers put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you didn’t get the gig.’”

That producer then pointed out the comedian who would be joining SNL instead—Scheer graciously declines to name the cast member, but does say they had an “interesting run” on the show—and who was already cozied up at Lorne Michaels’ table.

Scheer is generally able to find the silver lining in his many traumatic life experiences, but even he has to admit that one hurt.

Listen to the episode now and follow The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts to be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Wednesday.

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