Originally from Phoenix Arizona, writer and comedian DC Pierson has come a long way from acting and performing at Mountain Pointe High School. After college, he got his start at NYU where he joined the sketch group Hammerkatz NYU. Three other alumni from the group, Donald Glover, Dominic Dierkes, and Dan Eckman alongside DC, went on to form Derrick Comedy. Their first movie, Mystery Team (currently streaming on Hulu), is an oddball satire of The Hardy Boys in which three former “kid” detectives refuse to give up their identity, even as teenagers. Once they are hit with their first “real” case, they are introduced to the adult world, where they encounter sex and drugs while still sticking to their signature drink of chocolate milk.
In addition to his work as a comedian, DC has written two young adult novels: The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To and Crap Kingdom. The first focuses on two teenage outcasts, one of whom never has to sleep, while the other centers around a teenager who finds out he is “the chosen one” of a magical kingdom made entirely of trash. DC’s prose shifts between the two novels, as The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To has an unstructured flow similar to that of Junot Diaz, whereas Crap Kingdom has the more traditional heroic style of a young adult story. Both novels have a dry humor and may be the most accurate portrayals of teenage boys in literature.
Sitting down with DC, at the 101 Cafe in LA, he explained how improv has had an impact on his writing, who his favorite writers are, and how he learned to rap:
High Voltage: How do you feel that improv has had an impact on your writing? What parts of improv have you pulled into your writing?
DC Pierson: That’s a really good question. Improv – as you’re often asked to do it on a commercial, TV, or movie set – is really just making up funny lines on your feet, distinct from comedic improv (as taught by the Upright Citizens Brigade [aka UCB]) which teaches how to react and build a scene with your scene partner spontaneously in the moment. Improv is more like hey, you’re supposed to say credit or debit and then she says something and then you just do like a funny outline. It’s not about building something with another person. But it does have a great deal to do with prose writing and fiction. You are kind of improvising with yourself as you write.
In improv, we learn about the concept of “if/then” statements, so saying if this is true, then what else is true. If we’ve established that everyone in this world has mushrooms for hands, then what else is true? When you’re writing, you’re kind of doing that. There’s no scene partner, it’s just you. So you’re creating and establishing things and then you’re going, “OK, if this thing I’ve established, perhaps arbitrarily, perhaps by design, is true, then what else is true?” and sort of building outward from there and then surprising yourself, the way you would hopefully surprise an audience. It’s like crystalized improv. You’re improvising with yourself there on the page and then you can go back and revise, that initial thing can be a lot like improv.
HV: In your novel, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, the sentences are typically run-on and in list form, similar to some of Junot Diaz’s writing. Why did you choose to have (Darren) speak in such a way?
DC: I’m very flattered by the comparison to [Junot] Diaz as he’s a big influence on me. Part of that is as you have experienced so far, that’s the way I think. It was a bunch of things in that book couldn’t be autobiographical because they’re about zombies and cyborgs and shit. There were definitely elements of the main character that I was pulling from my own life and that tendency is partially from myself and then I think also, too, I was trying to illustrate a character who is uncomfortable or self-conscious about themselves in the way that teenage boys can be. It’s not a particularly period or exclamation point filled age to be at. When you’re sixteen, it’s more of a comma and conjunction and parenthesis age. I was trying to capture that as well.
HV: The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To takes place in Phoenix, where you are from. Are parts of the book autobiographical?
DC: Most of the details of his life or family situation are very different from my own. The general setting and school atmosphere, a lot of that stuff is kind of autobiographical. Mostly the setting, imagining OK, like if this character were in the suburb I grew up in, what would that be like? My high school experience was very different from his. He’s pretty much a loner and I was a huge theater kid. And I think when I set out to write it, I was like “What would be the most interesting character to put into this situation?” And the answer was not some kid who’s like super involved with theater and doing four plays all the time. It was this kid who’s a little bit closer to where I was at in elementary or middle school or who maybe I still felt like a little bit on the inside. I made that decision very consciously. And then as I was writing it, it was time for this love interest to enter the picture, for whatever reason it made sense for her to be a theater kid and closer to myself in that way. That very naturally felt like—how would he look at kids like that, basically as like aliens landing. Which is also the experience for a lot of people of romantic relationships entering your life at that age—it’s a little like “woah, this thing is like first contact.” It’s like this thing is coming down and changing everything.
HV: In Crap Kingdom, you essentially satirize “hero” stories such as Harry Potter. Why did you want to satirize this genre?
DC: Good question — I always liked them, particularly when I was a kid. There’s one that I read when I was in elementary school that I still can’t to this day find. I don’t remember what it was called and I haven’t been able to track it down. So I try to mention it whenever I can in case anybody that reads this is like “I remember that and it’s called this,” because I can’t find it. It was this perfectly weirdly, magical, not coincidental, hardcover children’s book, like chapter book that was in my second grade classroom. It at one point had a dust jacket on it, but didn’t have that anymore. It was red and had a weird seal on the cover. And a particularly cool turn in the book was it was about some siblings and they learned how to, basically how you would see a Magic Eye photo, like how they got into their magical world was to look at stuff and unfocus their eyes and let it go blurry. I remember there was a bush with red berries on it and they would unfocus their eyes and when things would come back into focus, they would be in this magical world, which I always thought was really cool and you know, that’s the experience everybody wants to have when they are young, like I’m just a normal kid and then are whisked into this magical place where I’m really special. I just got really into the idea of what if that happened to you, but the place in which you were special was really, really shitty. What does that say about you? It ended up developing into a story about valuing what you have because there’s a kid who has a thing and then he gets it taken away from him and he’s like “wait, no! I messed up and I want it back” once he sees somebody else with it. And that resonated with me and I assume that’s a universal experience that probably young adult readers would want. I just like the conventions of those type of stories. It was fun to build a fantasy world where the main thing wasn’t, like I don’t know, magical trees or creatures or whatever. Where it was everything is made of garbage from our world. But they don’t know that it is, so they like it.
HV: You currently perform in a nearly sold out improv show at UCB called “Shitty Jobs,” in which you perform improv based off an audience member’s shitty job. What is the shittiest job you have ever had?
DC: I can’t immediately think of the one I liked the least, I feel like a lot of jobs you have them and you hate them so much. I worked at a grocery store when I was in high school and thought it was drudgery. But when I was leaving to go to college and I wasn’t going to do it anymore, you can get fond of the weirdest things. At the time, I really didn’t like it in a high school boy kind of way. But in retrospect, it was like “oh man, I have never been able to sit and think more than I did at that grocery store job when I was in high school.” Or just push carts around the lot and try to memorize rap lyrics in my head. [I had] a job when I was right out of school and trying to make some money that I thought was going to be terrible. It was a one day gig where some company, I don’t even remember what they were promoting whether it was a furniture sale or whatever, basically some flash marketing company had been hired to spread the word about some sale a store was having or some cell phone deal, like a deal on your cell phone bill. And they got hired to get people to flyer in an interesting way. I got there on the day and they were like “Ok, it is going to be a hundred bucks for the day and you are going to dress up in these mascot outfits.” I thought this was going to be terrible, it’s going to be hot. We were going to be going around the city in this mascot costumes trying to flyer, this is going to be the worst. I put on the mascot outfit and I trudged out there just like, “this is a terrible job I’m having in my early twenties.”
I was just thinking about this the other day, it was so fun! It was awesome. What you realize is that if I’m just a person walking down the street in New York, particularly trying to hand someone a flyer, they’re going to be like “Ugh, no.” But if I’m a non-descript, not even Mickey Mouse or anything, but an off brand mascot like a rabbit, people were stoked. They were like, “Oh look a big bunny! This is hilarious.” And immediately I remember seeing through the mask and their faces just light up. People of all races, creeds and colors and ages everywhere liked it. I was shocked by how different it was from what I expected. And I was thinking the other day, I was walking in the Hollywood Hills, and I don’t live up there and sometimes feel out of place, like a weird super rich person will be driving by and I just immediately get self conscious because I’m like I’m not rich and they’ll know I don’t belong. Some guy came out around the corner and I had also just come out of therapy, so maybe this is why I was in this mindset, but rather than sort of shrink like I normally would, I just waved to the guy. And I remember feeling that’s how I felt when I was in the bunny suit, like “my presence is a gift here, everyone’s happy to see me”… even though they have no reason to. I was realizing this week, I think I want to feel all the time like I did when I was wearing the bunny suit. Or I should try to because there is no reason why anyone would automatically hate me. That was a job I expected to be shitty that ultimately was great.
HV: Nice! Any plans to return to the podcast Gilmore Guys?
DC: *laughs* They asked me to do one a few months ago. I feel like I established this pattern with my first couple appearances where my girlfriend had seen Gilmore Girls (and really liked it) and I had always meant to watch it and we watched a bunch in a short period of time. So then I was learned and able to converse about the show. Then I did it a second time, and we had lapsed. I hadn’t kept up with it. So the episode was 18 or 25 episodes after the one I had originally done, and I was like, oh my gosh I have to cram. So I ended up cramming and not quite fitting in all of the episodes. They had asked me again to do it a couple months ago and I would love to because I love those guys. And seriously, the fans of that podcast were like the nicest fans ever, everyone was so receptive and nice and I think they appreciated how much homework I had done for the first one. And I didn’t feel like I was realistically going to be able to do all that for like a third appearance, so I had to turn them down. I was also real busy with other stuff. So I’d potentially like to come back, but I don’t know if the timing will work out, but maybe when the new episodes come out.
HV: Do you have a favorite Derrick Comedy Sketch, and any plans to reunite with them?
DC: Great question! I would say my favorite Derrick sketch is probably New Bike. I liked it because it felt like we were evolving beyond traditional “premise, premise, premise” sketch structure and into a little bit weirder territory. I liked that we had a firm grounding in the premise stuff, but as we went along, it was fun to break out of that. I liked how it played with genre.
As far as reunite, no immediate plans. I still work with Dan [Eckman] and Meggie [McFadden], they’re my screenwriting partners. We are trying to develop various TV and movie projects. So I still see those guys everyday and I feel very in touch with that collaboration in that way. As far as the five of us, we’d love to someday. I imagine we’ll probably come around for something, I have no idea what it is or when. It’s cool, we’re all in no rush. When we do a thing, and it’s the right thing, it will just be really fun. I did another reunion type show with another sketch group that Derrick actually came out of called Hammerkatz and we did a show at UCB here in LA last year. It was the first time we’d all worked together in almost seven years. That was really neat. It was the kind of thing where obviously you don’t want to wait forever, but whenever it happens, it will be something to look forward to.
HV: You have actually rapped a bit on Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s album). Where did you learn to rap?
DC: I was self-taught, not classically educated. That was kind of a fun, cool thing that just came out of Donald’s and my friendship. We were in college and doing sketch stuff. We were both big hip-hop fans. He was at the time, in addition to all the other stuff he was doing, making beats in his dorm room, which we always thought was cool because it was the same dorm where Def Jam was founded. I always thought that was a neat bit of history that we were very aware of at the time. He was going to do this song where he was going to sample Yo La Tengo, and he knew I liked Yo La Tengo and he knew I liked to rap, so he was like “Do you want to get on this?” I thought that was really cool, but I don’t really know exactly how to do that but this would be fun to try. I really enjoyed it. I liked the whole process, writing and recording. It was totally fun. I never got to be in a garage band, so it was the closest thing. He had me do a few more over the years and I ended up on the last track on his first official release, Camp, I wrote a spoken word piece. And then in the final album, Questlove actually did the drums. The Roots were the first rap album I ever bought, so I felt like it was such a cool thing as a fan. It sort of just emerged from him asking me to do it. I really enjoyed it and it was something that I’d like to do more of at some point but it can kind of only ever be a hobby.
HV: Who are some of your favorite authors and comedians?
DC: I am going to feel like I am leaving people out inevitably. Comedy wise, there are probably no big surprises on the list: like Mystery Science Theater 3000, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show with Bob and David were my big sketch influences. Also weird shows like Sifl and Olly, which was a sock puppet show on MTV. Just kind of like weird shows that you felt like you were the only person in the world that had that same sense of humor. As far as writers: Diaz, Amy Hempel (her short stories were super duper influential on me). I recently just read a collection of short stories by Richard Yates that I really like. He wrote Revolutionary Road, totally like depressed, post-war, New York, Mad Men type stuff, sort of suburban ennui type stuff and I really really enjoyed them. J.D. Salinger for sure, too. I always really loved Salinger. I remember when I was in college, having a creative writing class, and this girl had written a story involving a person having their dead sibling’s soccer cleats. I remember as a compliment I was like “oh, it kind of reminds me of Catcher in the Rye,” like when he has his dead brother’s baseball glove and she scoffed and other people in the class gave me dirty looks, and I realized like “Oh, is it not cool to like J.D. Salinger anymore?” I guess it just is certain influences become so ubiquitous that people like to act “over” them, but I always just really liked J.D. Salinger an awful lot, and I guess that shows. It’s OK to like J.D. Salinger is what I’m saying.
HV: What’s next for you?
DC: I’m developing some stuff with Dan and Meggie. We have an animated TV project we are excited about and a feature project that we’re really excited about. We are just trying to get something out in the world because we really like working together and we’re just really excited about these ideas we have. So hoping for something big in that area, fingers crossed.
SIDE NOTE: For those of you just discovering the many facets of DC Pierson, he was also Aaron (the Apple Store employee) in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.