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Stooges in Space (Almost)

Three icons from this current generation of comedy—John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker, and Fred Armisen—have teamed up for ‘Moonbase 8,’ about a group of wannabe astronauts trying to get NASA’s attention. In conversation, the trio explain how they ended up trapped in isolation together.

Harrison Freeman

The mission began with a group text. John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen, and Tim Heidecker knew they wanted to do something, they just didn’t know what yet. But then their conversation kept coming back to the idea of the three of them being trapped in a room together. And that led Reilly to suggest that they should play astronauts preparing for a trip to space.

“We quickly went to YouTube and found lots of real-life examples of this going on right now, where there are people living in domes and weird cellophane tents and going out in hazmat suits and trying to simulate the experience of being on another planet,” Heidecker says. “And it was really quick for us to see how funny that was gonna be.”

And thus, Moonbase 8 was born. In the half-hour comedy, which premieres on Showtime on November 8, a team of wannabe spacemen run a remote desert facility in hopes that NASA will select them for a lunar voyage. Unsurprisingly, the crew isn’t composed of rugged Chuck Yeager types: Reilly plays a washed-up helicopter pilot from Hawaii, Armisen plays a scientist trying to escape his far more accomplished father’s shadow, and Heidecker plays an evangelical father of 12 children who wants to spread the gospel on the moon.

Cocreated by the project’s three stars and Portlandia executive producer Jonathan Krisel, the series is both unabashedly silly and unexpectedly resonant. The show’s premise demanded extended isolation well before COVID-19 did. There’s even an episode in which the wannabe astronauts have to quarantine after a flu outbreak.

But at the center of everything is the trio. What the show is actually about matters less than the fact that it’s built on three of the world’s best comedic actors being stuck with each other in close quarters. Their characters’ claustrophobia, boredom, and longing for the outside world naturally leads to exhaustion—but also a ton of laughs.

I’ll start with an easy question: What was the genesis of the show?

Fred Armisen: Tim and I were doing an episode of Portlandia together, and then Tim just got me into the idea of working on something separate from that. Just because we were laughing so much. John I’ve known forever, too. First it was, “Hey, we should do something together.” And then it just kept going and going. And then we wanted to work with Jon Krisel, who was one of the writers on the show as well. Usually Tim tells this story but I just thought I was gonna do my version.

Tim Heidecker: I liked hearing it from your perspective.

John C. Reilly: Yeah.

I’ve been describing the show as The Right Stuff with normal dudes. What was your inspiration for the subject matter?

Heidecker: Going back to, “How can we be together? And how can we be funny together?” The idea of being in the same room made a lot of sense to us. What would require us to all be in the same room? That kind of led to these simulations. People pretending—basically cosplaying—to be astronauts. There really was something very fundamentally silly about it.

Armisen: There’s also something really funny about whenever you see astronauts doing little experiments and stuff. I secretly never believe it. And I’m always like, “What are you really doing?” That’s my own ignorance. But I’m just saying. They just always make me laugh. This is important. This plant.

Heidecker: Seeing Fred in a laboratory. Well, it’s just gonna work.

What does Jon Krisel bring to the table? He’s sort of the fourth man of this team.

Reilly: He’s someone who’s been intimately involved with us creatively for a long, long time.

Heidecker: He was the first guy we ever hired on the first thing we ever did.

Reilly: Tim & Eric and then the Check It Out! show, Jon worked on that. And of course Portlandia. So we were already in a place of deep trust with him.

Armisen: You take for granted how things are visually. He really cares but also doesn’t overdo it. You can see it, when you watch Moonbase 8; even the way the moonbase itself looks. I don’t think it’s easy to get there. There’s something about that aesthetic. The second thing is …

After Heidecker starts to talk, Armisen accidentally interrupts him.

Armisen: I’ll make it real quick, I’ll make it real quick. He’s really good about editing out ideas. He’s like, “We can’t do all this stuff. Let’s just keep it simple and go with this idea.” We were all trying to throw out all these days. I’m so sorry I interrupted. I talked too much already, Tim.

Reilly: No! Don’t apologize. I already feel bad. Like, I’ve been gabbing, gabbing, gabbing this whole time.

Heidecker: It’s good.

Armisen: I feel awful.

Heidecker: Hey, you support each other. The only other thing I’ll say about Krisel is I tend to go maybe too weird and too conceptual. For what I do, it works. But he’s really good at structure and storytelling, and he’s also a fan of comedy and he’s a fan of ours. He thinks we’re funny. It takes the pressure off of us to be the responsible ones and we can be loose and have fun and play. He’s good about sort of being the dad.

Reilly: We can like, horse around and just make each other laugh for three hours. But then Krisel is the one like, “OK, now we need to distill this into an actual, actionable plan.”

All images via Showtime

Do you have a favorite astronaut character?

Heidecker: I’m a Star Trek fan. I’m much more of a Star Trek fan than a Star Wars fan. It’s so classic and kind of funny, their relationships. Like the last scene in Star Trek 2 where Spock is dying and they have this really beautiful scene with him and William Shatner. It’s very emotional. Those scenes and those stories are very much in my DNA.

Reilly: I’m a huge space movie fan in general. 2001 is one of my favorites. I’m gonna say Harrison Ford in the Star Wars movies. Because that was the first time I ever saw, in a space movie, someone who is just a regular human being. It’s not just some unknowable technical universe that you have to be some scientist to understand. It’s like, “The spark plug’s wrong, just hit it!” The way they fix that ship and the practicality of them. They just seem like real people. He did, anyway—the other one was a big furry monster.

Armisen: I thought that about the characters in the first Alien movie, that they seemed very human.

Heidecker: Yeah.

Armisen: There were some scenes where they’re even laughing. They’re joking around a little.

Heidecker: They’re, like, smoking.

Reilly: So much smoking on that ship.

Armisen: Oh yeah! I forgot about that.

We’re a sports site. Just seeing Travis Kelce pop up in an episode was fucking hilarious.

Reilly: You’re welcome, sports world. He won a Super Bowl after we shot it.

Heidecker: His rate would’ve skyrocketed if we asked him afterward.

Reilly: The original idea was Gronkowski, actually.

Heidecker: He’s hard to pin down.

Kelce seemed to have good comic timing. Did that take you by surprise?

Reilly: When Gronkowski said no we were like, “We’re gonna make Gronkowski regret this! We’re gonna get the kid who’s nipping at his heels!” And guess what, our little Travis Kelce went right ahead of Mr. Gronkowski and won the Super Bowl. Thank you.

Heidecker: I didn’t know you had so much personal pride in the situation.

Reilly: You know, putting Kelce in there seems at first [like], “How absurd. Why would you put a famous football player in the TV show as himself?” But when you think about what NASA was doing with the Challenger program, putting a teacher in space. They want people that are gonna make it on the front of a Corn Flakes box. That’s where it’s going now. The piloting of the spaceships themselves is done by computer. You’re looking for people that are gonna broaden the program.

Has it been odd to look back at the show in quarantine? I got to the flu episode and I was like, “Holy shit!”

Reilly: One of the worst medical examinations ever filmed.

Heidecker: Just dumb luck. We got lucky. Well, we’re not lucky to be living through the disastrous year that this has been, but somehow we had made this show and intersected with real life in this very unusual way.

How isolating was it? Where did you guys film?

Reilly: We shot interiors in an area called Sylmar, outside of L.A. You have this 50-mile rule when you work in L.A. with crew: If you get farther than 50 miles away then you have to put the crew up overnight, and it becomes a lot more costly. So it’s within that 50-mile zone. The interiors were shot in a soundstage in Sylmar. And the exteriors were shot just to the north of there in Simi Valley in this quarry.

Heidecker: An active sand quarry.

Reilly: We were in this kind of man-made crater.

Heidecker: It was very weird. Credit to Krisel, again. If you turn the camera one way you would really lose the illusion we created there.

Did you guys come up with Quiz Lord, the board game on the show? Did you make that up?

Armisen: Who thought of it? Who thought of Quiz Lord?

Heidecker: I think that’s me.

Reilly: It’s a horrible game! If you don’t know the answer you have to keep trying.

Heidecker: I think it’s the greatest joke. That’s one of the rules. What a shitty game.

Reilly: We started by talking about them being stuck with one game. I forget what the original game was. Something like the 1985 version of Trivial Pursuit.

Heidecker: Oh, that’s right.

Reilly: That’s all we have. That’s the only game we can play. Then it sort of morphed from there into a more awful game.

Heidecker: With role-playing. I watched that scene the other day and it’s really funny how familiar we are with this insane game.

Reilly: It’s so complicated.

Heidecker: That’s so stressful.

Armisen: Games in general are so stressful. Why do we do it?

I used to play Taboo in college. That started fights.

Armisen: Oh yeah.

Reilly: I know Taboo, sure.

All three of you are very musically inclined. I’m curious, why do you think music is a great vessel for comedy?

Armisen: I think because so much great music is done in a group. When you come together in this organic way to create something, I think it really resembles that. For us anyway, it translated into doing comedy.

Reilly: We all love to goof around and talk about music a lot with each other. It’s one of the frequent subjects of our text chain, which continues to this day. Maybe through osmosis this led into the show itself. In between setups, I brought my Beatles songbook and a couple guitars and we all would sit around and play songs and make each other laugh. That was a part of our working day.

What kind of music do you guys talk about?

Armisen: Our common bond seems to be the Beatles.

Heidecker: Ever heard of them?

I love that line in the show, John, when you quote a Rolling Stones song…

Heidecker: Just like the Beatles said, “You can’t always get what you want, but all you need is love.”

The opening sequence with you guys posing and putting your hands on each others’ shoulders is one of the funniest things on the show. It reminds me of the Step Brothers poster.

Armisen: It’s one of the first things that we shot.

Reilly: We were getting our costumes dialed in and they were like, “We need to take some stills. But since we’re gonna take stills anyway, and you’re all dressed, and we’re gonna film it too and maybe this could be an opening.” We didn’t know it was going to be an opening sequence, I don’t think.

Heidecker: It was definitely a first-day-of-school feeling. Like we were all showing up at the set and seeing the pretty-much finished interiors, which had been a very challenging work in progress up to that point. Our production designer moved mountains and made this thing happen. You go, “Well how do you actually do this dome? How is this actually going to happen?”

Reilly: We come up with these ideas in the writers’ room. “Yeah it’ll be like a urine recycling machine! Go and make us that!”

Heidecker: We had all been off and doing different things, and this was like, “Wow, this is Day 1. We’re doing this show together that we’ve been talking about for a while now.”

Reilly: To me anyway, when I watch it, it has that feel of “we’re embarking on a great mission.” Because we actually were embarking on the mission of making this show.

The turtlenecks you’re wearing give it more gravitas.

Heidecker: Yeah.

This might be obvious, but why did you decide to include a rival Tesla moonbase in the show?

Reilly: You can’t talk about space right now without talking about SpaceX. They’re the leaders of the field right now, I’d say.

Heidecker: We were lucky, I think, that between making the show and now there’s been no absolute meltdown crisis in that world, from the SpaceX perspective. It still feels right. It’s probably the only thing in the show that taps into actual life on Earth right now, you know? In a real, literal way.

Reilly: We’re playing guys who have low self-esteem in one way or another. They all have chips on their shoulders for one reason or another. And so the natural contrast to something like that is the sexier program: SpaceX. They have Street Taco Tuesday and they wear these super comfortable outfits that are ergonomically perfect. It was a way for us to see “the grass is greener.” And also to gently poke fun at how hip SpaceX is.

Because we visited SpaceX and [the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. And it is like night and day, the vibe in the two places. JPL is so academic, deliberate, and science, and plodding research people. And SpaceX looks like the scramble scene before the last Star Wars battle.

Heidecker: Rockets being welded.

Reilly: Just people moving around and young people getting ready! And literally building spaceships in front of you!

What are some things you weren’t able to explore in Season 1 that you’d still like to?

Heidecker: I like the Michael Caine move in Jaws: The Revenge, where you’re like, “This season takes place in the Bahamas.”

Armisen: You mean a location that they enjoy shooting in?

Heidecker: Yeah.

Armisen: I love that.

Heidecker: It’s the only way.

Armisen: They meet in Paris.

Reilly: They all get berets.

Armisen: They’ll be at this café in Paris. That’s where the first three episodes are.

Reilly: I want to see these guys on an actual rocket. I want to see how they’re gonna react when the real moment comes that they’ve been dreaming of for so long. And then I want to see them fail at that, too.

One thing I loved was the way you guys showed the passing of time. Tim, your character first references his wife, then it’s like, “Oh, my ex-wife.” If you guys were actually on a mission like that, what would you miss the most?

Reilly: We all just lived through this mission. We’re still in it. Honestly, what I started to miss the most, even while making the show, was just being able to be outside without anything on me, in a nice cool breeze without dust in my face. Just the basic human joys of living on planet Earth. Which I also felt being trapped in the house all these months. You just start to miss human touch and you miss rain.

Armisen: And seeing strangers, seeing other people, seeing old friends. It’s so limited.

Heidecker: Last week, you know Hinterhof in Highland Park? It’s this German beer garden. But it’s vegan. It’s really good. So it’s all outdoors, and so they finally said, “We’re opening up and people can go sit outside.” And me and a group of friends go, “OK, Sunday night we’re gonna go out and actually have a nice dinner.” We get there and there’s eight of us, and they’re like, “We can only do six. We can’t put tables together.” It was still so restrictive. And it was just, like, heartbreaking. Like, “Ohhhhh.”

Reilly: Did you do four and four?

Heidecker: No. We couldn’t sit anywhere near each other.

Armisen: I like that story. You deserved it.

Heidecker: I deserved it. I yelled at the guy. “You motherfucker!”

Reilly: “You seat us now!”

Heidecker: I want to go back to normalcy without any conditions.

Reilly: Who knew that we would so cherish the mundane things in life? Just the simple things we took for granted suddenly seem like these precious things.

Heidecker: I just want to get my ass kicked in the park. I used to go to the park and just harass people and then get my ass kicked.

Armisen: You miss it?

Heidecker: I miss a good old ass-kicking.

Reilly: Now no one even wants to touch you while they’re kicking your ass.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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