Kyle Mooney would probably fail to impress at a party, but he’ll have you laughing while in line at the bathroom. He might riff on bad roommates, privileged metal heads, and his own awkwardness. Mooney has steadily built a reputation for his takes on all-too-familiar characters that wouldn’t feel out of place outside your local mall. He first rose to fame online with the Los Angeles-based comedy group Good Neighbor and later joined Saturday Night Live in 2013. Since then, his geeky taste and relatably ill-at-ease demeanor have made him a rising star on the late-night program.
As the writer and lead actor of Brigsby Bear, Mooney continues to push his humor about awkwardness but with an eye toward the sentimental. Filtered through a nostalgic lens, it centers on naïve James Pope (Mooney), who grew up isolated from the world, and with little more than lo-fi videotapes of the namesake children’s show. After a dramatic rupture with the world of his childhood, he’s forced to not only adjust to a life he didn’t even know existed, but also come to terms with the one that he’s lost. Determined to do his passion for Brigsby the bear justice, James embarks on a heartwarming quest that pays equal tribute to outmoded technology and the joys of nerdiness.
I joined Mooney at his hotel earlier this week to talk about nostalgia, VHS collecting, and getting trolled by Donald Trump.
Did you find it difficult making the jump to a feature film?
Yes and no. I’m working with the people I’ve worked with for the past decade so there’s a level of comfort. I think the tough thing, in theory, was building a character that the audience wants to see for a longer period of time, which I guess is pretty broad. You know, building an arc and not just trying to make each scene, like, its own sketch, to make the funniest scene, but to think in the long term from beginning to end and think how the character builds.
Character work seems to be one of your strong suits. What went into making James? He’s different than a lot of characters you’ve done before.
The same things that go into any other character that I would think about or construct, which is maybe pulling from my own life and nuances of persons I see or interact with walking around, or persons we went to middle or high school with. With this one it was kind of specific because I spent two years writing the movie with our friend Kevin [Costello], so I kind of got to develop the character over that course of time, while we were writing it. And that was nice for me, because by the time we got to shooting, I had pretty much done most of the work just through riffing when we were coming up with scenes. The tricky thing or the thing to think about with James was that we wanted the performance to be as honest and as earnest as possible, so sometimes I had to dial back on what my comedic instincts might tell me to do.
There’s a lot of love in this character. Do you see yourself in him at all?
Absolutely, oh yeah. I’m obsessive, and I’m an incredibly nostalgic person to this day. I was a nostalgic person as a child for things that existed years before. It’s, like, I was a nostalgic seven-year-old because I had older brothers and all their figurines were handed down to me and it already had a strong connection to me. I think I certainly identify with some of the outsiderness of James. You know, walking into a party and not knowing what to do or how to interact with people.
You bring up nostalgia and nostalgia is interesting because it’s bittersweet. On the one hand, you love looking back, and on the other it’s gone.
Yeah, it’s never the same.
How did you try and translate that experience into the movie?
We tried to do, within the Brigsby universe, within the movie, we tried to do our best version of what that show would be. I have a big VHS collection of kids’ movies and TV shows from the ’80s and ’90s, and we just tried to replicate them as much as we could, while making it this new thing that hadn’t existed. That’s kind of one thing I love. I don’t know exactly, this is somewhat of an abstract thought, but I go to these thrift stores and buy these videos and you’ll see some kids shows, something like a Christian kids video, or something like that. I’ll have never seen it, and yet there’s a weird familiarity to it. And it does something for me nostalgically, though I never experienced it. I don’t know if it’s the colors or the way it was shot, or just the fact that so many things made in a similar time just shared different elements and aspects. We just tried to do justice to that period of TV and film.
I think it’s also interesting that you mention watching something old for the first and it feeling familiar, because James goes through that a little. He discovers for the first time plot devices or good-versus-evil themes.
He’s the original fan of Brigsby bear, you know what I mean? So in a weird way, he’s dissecting it in a way that nobody else seemingly ever has and is kind of coming up with what art or narrative is or what critique is or something.
Can you go into more detail about the VHS collection you have? What sort of stuff do you like to put in it?
Like I said, it’s a lot of children’s stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. I particularly like things that were produced with a low budget, most likely and probably for a localized community, maybe something that didn’t make it’s way out of…
Exactly, Dubuque. Cleveland, I don’t know. Maybe there are only, like, 200 copies of it. But I love that stuff and I love it for a lot of reasons. One reason is just because it feels like there’s so much love that goes into the production of these videos and they’re truly doing their best. It almost feels like they’re trying to fool a child into thinking that it’s very professional. There’s so much charm to that and the efforts to try and be a Jim Henson without having the means to be a Jim Henson. So it’s a lot of stuff like that. That’s probably the stuff I love the most. And then I’ll buy videos based on covers that I remember from going to the video store as a kid because it will evoke something inside of me. I really love the stuff that won’t ever be on DVD and won’t be streamable and in theory there might be only, like, 50 people who ever saw it.