The Front Page: Lee Abbott - Politics, Parents and Pot
Lee Abbott’s resume bears testament to his versatility. Not only has he worked as an editor, director, actor, writer and producer, but he’s done so in a variety of contexts and mediums. He’s shown up on the big and the small screen, in shorts as well as in a feature-length. The majority of his work falls under the comedy genre, but he also has credentials in reality and sports television, and he directed, co-wrote and acted in the dramatic short Rain.
PopMatters: How did Totally Baked first come together?
Lee Abbott: It first came together because of (Narrator/executive-producer) Craig Shoemaker’s kid. Craig was in his house singing Steve Miller: “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker,” and his little six-year-old goes (in little kid’s voice), “Daddy, what’s a toker?” (Laughs) That’s literally how it happened. Because then he was like all embarrassed, like he didn’t know how to answer, like, “Uhhhhh…” and he was like, well, why? You know? He’s even sober, so, ‘Why do I not want to – why would I say a beer’s a beer or a cigarette’s a cigarette but I won’t say that a joint is a joint?’ You know?
LA: That’s kind of where it came from. For me it came together because I was trying to work with Lampoon on some other stuff, and then they put us together. They said, “You know what? We think you guys would be good together.”
PM: You’ve directed shorts before, but this will be your directorial-debut as far as a feature-length goes. Did the experience pretty much go as you expected?
LA: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things where it’s my first feature, but I’ve been directing for 15 years. You know? So, I’ve been doing television and music videos and commercials, you know, and short films and reality TV and a little of everything, but this was my first feature; but I’ve been directing for quite some time. So, you know, I mean, if anything it was a shorter process than doing a series. But, it was a blast. It was really fun to be able to just kind of like lock into one topic for an extended period of time instead of having to jump from project to project.
PM: Speaking of the “topic”: There have been several so-called pot-based comedies in the past. Of course all the Cheech and Chong movies first come to mind, but more recently there have been movies like Half Baked, How High, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, among others.
PM: However it seems as if this movie not only aims to make the audience laugh, but also to make them think and to possibly help foster serious discussion on the issue of drug prohibition.
PM: And I was wondering, first of all if you thought that was a fair assessment, and if so, if you think that juxtaposition is going to be a difficult thing for a comedy to successfully achieve.
LA: Well I think it’s a very fair assessment, and in fact when I was asked to do the project I said that that was the only way I would be interested in doing it. Because, I mean, how can you reinvent Cheech and Chong? I mean, like, how can you try to – they’ve done it and it’s gorgeous and it is what it is, you know? And there’s a lot of really, really funny marijuana movies out there and just, kind of like, you know, pot subculture movies, and they’re all a lot of fun…But I think, in much more of a vein of Bill Maher or George Carlin is what we were aiming for. Because I don’t think it’s a problem at all to put serious thought and discussion with comedy.
LA: I mean, Will Rogers said, “You get them laughing and then that’s when you stick in the knife.” You know? And I really believe in that. I think shows like The Daily Show are where our best political commentary is able to come from. It’s kind of like in a straight political environment – you watch CNN and Crossfire and things like that, it looks like two opposing camps just kind of being snide to each other and just kind of yelling at each other. Or, it seems like, you know, whatever administration, especially the current administration, is in power, they’re able to, you know, loophole their way out of anything. You know? It’s like they have an excuse for everything and they make it sound polished and great, it’s like, but, not really talking about the big white elephant in the room. You know? Like what’s the obvious thing, you know? It’s like…it’s like they come up with what their hypothesis is, or what they want to prove, and then they go find the information to fill up that, versus following the information to its own organic conclusion. So, again, you watch Bill Maher, and you laugh your ass off and you’re left thinking about, ‘Yeah – what he said – Yeah, why is that?’ You know? Same thing with The Daily Show, they do commentary on something and you go, “Yeah. Hey, yeah, why is that?!” So I think that’s what we were trying to say. Because, you know, I grew up in Southern California and to me, you know, marijuana is no different than beer. You know?
LA: I mean, either one can be abused and either one can be harmless. And I think it’s an adult’s choice to choose. And also on the medical marijuana issue, I think that is a really, very important one; I have a friend who is HIV positive and the medication he has to take makes him ill. You know, makes him nauseous, and so the marijuana helps him to eat. So the whole hypocrisy of the pharmaceutical companies, the current administration, the “War on Drugs” all that stuff over pot is such a joke. It’s ridiculous and I don’t think anyone of our generation, whether you’re a pot smoker or not, believes that it really should be as heinous of an offense as heroin (laughs). You know?
LA: So, the whole idea was to have a lot of fun, to laugh our ass off about some things and to draw some, just kind of, logical conclusions to (what would happen) if we followed out the propaganda the way that it’s been spit out to us.
PM: Right. So, then, because of that fundamental difference with the film, do you expect it to be at all controversial?
LA: I hope so. I hope it’s controversial. You know I think the other thing about it, aside from being controversial, is I think that the more right-leaning people are going to say, “How dare you even mention this?” And, “I hope my kids don’t see this.” And somebody with a more left-bend or something might say, “I hope my kids do see it.” Because it does say – it also says in the movie that it’s not a hundred percent great. There are interviews with real people who have gone through marijuana rehab, you know? And it’s basically saying, “This is about the level of alcohol.” And we can talk about it that way and be responsible, but to stick our heads in the sand and to say that it either doesn’t exist or it’s only evil is a joke. You know? And/or: what’s wrong with somebody, you know, coming home at the end of the day in their own house and lighting up a joint and chillin’ out? You know? So, I hope it is controversial. I hope it does stir – stir debate. You know? I mean, my own folks are, ya know, Republican Bush supporters. You know what I mean? And they’re not exactly thinking it’s all that great that their son is in a pot movie. But – I mean because they’re embarrassed to like show their friends, they’re like (in stuffy voice), “Oh, God, we can’t tell our friends to go see our son’s movie.” (Laughs) But it’s like, why not? Why not? And that’s my response to them. And it’s funny when I talk to them about, you know, my friend who’s (HIV) positive that needs it, even they have to go, “You’re right, why is medical marijuana illegal?” And they go, “Yeah, that’s wrong. That’s just plain wrong.” So I think it’s good. I think when people get upset and it gets controversial it opens them up to then maybe learn something. If you don’t rock the boat at all then people don’t learn, you know?
LA: And also just the whole PC thing, if you, if you all tip-toe around everything all the time then you lose a lot of great comedy and you lose a lot of great life. You know? Just afraid that you’re going to piss somebody off.
PM: Right. Well, it’s funny you say that, too, because my parents are also very much the right-wing type, and they were asking me just recently what I was working on. So I was running down the list and when I mentioned that I was going to be doing this interview suddenly the room got quiet and the topic changed real quick.
LA: (Laughs) Exactly. But I mean, like what would they say if you were interviewing, you know, one of the Coors brothers? Or if you were saying, “I’m interviewing someone in big tobacco.” You know? And it’s like, I don’t smoke cigarettes but they’re legal, and (just) because they’re legal doesn’t make me want to smoke them. I mean, that’s – that’s one of the most ridiculous arguments of all: that if it’s legal then everybody’s gonna start doing it. It’s like, no, cigarettes are legal. You know, so, I think – I hope it is controversial, because then it gets people to actually talk about it versus just accepting, ya know, kind of a…formulaic “truth.” And I think it’s also good because – like especially from the hippie generation that is grown up now that was much more of when pot was, you know, even down to, you know, either completely legal or a misdemeanor, or nothing, when the laws were different. It’s like, where did they go? Why don’t they support it anymore? They all smoked it; they all made it through the phase okay. You know?
PM: Yeah, that’s a very good point.
LA: And people are – I think, what I really hope about this movie, is that because of the funniness of it, because of the bawdiness, then the younger generation is gonna like it. Because of its rebellious nature the younger generation’s gonna like it. You know, your college-aged kid. I think also because of its political nature – I’ve shown it to people who are in their fifties and sixties and they laugh their butt off, but it’s like they’re laughing at different things. So I’m curious to see it in a big room with twenty-year-olds and fifty-year-olds, because I think what you’re gonna have is different pockets of the room laughing at different times.
PM: Another way in which the film seems to stand out is in its unique structure: being told through documentary-style interviews, interconnected vignettes and with performances by standup comedians.
PM: And I was wondering what made you want to craft the movie in that way.
LA: Umm, the short answer joke is that it’s a stoner’s (short) attention span (laughs). But the real reason is, umm, I think it’s just much – it’s just contemporary media. I think we had great movies, such as, like, (The) Kentucky Fried Movie as a blueprint, where you’ve got multiple sketches, you know? And, you know, where we’ve got things like Real Sex on HBO, where they’ve got the “man-on-the-street” interview give weight and context to the other stuff being talked about. When you do the man-on-the-street stuff it puts context, and the documentary base, on the scripted stuff. (It) gives it a point-of-view. And then the same thing about the standup comics was that, you know, again going back to George Carlin, that’s where political satire can really have power. So the standup and the man-on-the-street are to give context to just the wacky humor and the sketches, you know? So it isn’t just pure farce. ‘Cause if it’s pure farce then it can be written off as such. If there’s some reality injected into it then, you know, it gives it more weight. And it’s funny (laughs).
PM: The film is currently listed as being in post-production. So I was wondering how the work was coming and when you expect it to hit theatres.
LA: Well the final work is done. The picture’s been locked and the picture has been done actually for a couple months now.
LA: So right now it’s really in marketing, versus in post-production. And that is completely up to Lampoon and Craig Shoemaker. It’s up to what they all want to do. Umm, we kind of surprised Lampoon, in that we did exactly what we said we would and they approved all the scripts and it basically landed on them smarter (laughs) then they thought we were going to be able to pull off. And their current marketing has been much more in the realm of, umm, straight to DVD, T&A movies and (with) this one there’s very serious discussion about going to theatrical release, and how to market the thing and all that, and so it’s kind of – it’s a good thing, ya know, because it kind of shook even the company up. We were trying to take Lampoon back to their earlier days of the magazine when they were much more political satire, and their earlier movies and stuff like that, versus where they’ve been (lately). It’s kind of a re-branding thing. And that was a lot of what Craig wanted to do, and what I wanted to do, was to take them back to their roots. So right now it’s just – it’s in marketing. They’re figuring out what to do.