Paul Lieberstein Wrote His Space Comedy From a Place of Joy
The renowned writer of 'The Office' took a completely different approach to his creation process with 'Middlespace,' an anti-sci-fi comedy about a burned-out spaceship captain.
November 19, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Katie O'Connor: Hi, listeners. It's Audible Editor Katie O'Connor, and today I'm thrilled to be speaking with writer, producer, director, and actor Paul Lieberstein. Paul's Audible Original, Middlespace, is about a spaceship captain who goes from world's worst boss to potential savior of the universe after unwittingly ignoring a distress call. Middlespace is immersive, hysterical, and I'm so excited to be talking about it today. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Lieberstein: Thank you.
KO: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Middlespace?
PL: So, I was at a play festival in 2007 that was just a group of friends. It plays every year. It was my wife's group of friends. I had just started dating her, joined, and I kind of tagged along. They were having fun, and I wanted to put something up. I didn't know what it was, but I just started writing little snippets of dialogue on an envelope, and I basically wrote the first seven pages on a, like, regular letter-sized envelope, not in order at all, and I just thought, "This is a fun character." And it was so silly and it was received really well, as everything was in this friends' festival.
But still I took it, and I kept thinking about it. And so I would get stuck on my professional writing, and I found myself coming back to this character and just writing a few more pages to get the joy of writing back, you know, and just feeling like I was having fun. And then, all of sudden, you know, I kind of looked down and there were about 80 pages there and I was like, "Uh, this is something. Not sure what to do with it, but it's something."
"I did this differently than I've ever done any other project."
KO: Wow, I love that it stayed with you for so long. I mean, the captain, who is played by Will Forte, is kind of someone you can't get rid of, and listeners will understand once they've enjoyed Middlespace. And this is not your first time writing about a somewhat incompetent boss.
PL: It sure isn't.
KO: What draws you to that type of character as a creator and why do you think audiences enjoy them so much?
PL: I always assume authority has it wrong. That is just who I am as a person. They have to kind of prove their case, and so that kind of creeps into all of my writing, and I'm just attracted to that. And then also just more consciously I've always really found it absurd and false how in film and TV, characters care so much about what they're doing, especially, like, cops or authority characters, you know? That's just been almost this rule I've heard from executives, like, "Well, they have to be good at their jobs." I've seen just, you know, countless cops up at night caring so much about solving a case, where I would guess that cops are generally interested in solving their case on company time, you know, with breaks.
And then I've always felt this about sci-fi, too, about captains of the spaceship so willing to put their life on the line every week. And if I imagine the future, taking human nature and just continuing it along, I imagine the captains will put their lives on the line mostly zero days of their careers and they'll have a strong union that protects them from going into dangerous situations.
KO: That also seems in line with the captain's vision, or mission I should say. I loved that in his perfect world, his mission was just to enjoy life and enjoy his job and enjoy space, and the people around him said, "Well, is that our mission? No."
PL: Couldn't possibly be. That's his mission. Yeah.
KO: It's a nice utopia though that we're all just here to enjoy our days.
So the setting is obviously space, and it allowed for a wonderful, immersive, and engaging listening experience, and I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about your vision for it, because the sound effects were spectacular.
PL: Thanks. I've always liked science fiction. I've kind of always been a comedy fan first. So I've called this internally, which is basically just I guess in my own mind, "anti-sci-fi," and I kind of approached everything that way.
So I worked with a sound engineer at first. It was a much more traditional kind of bed of sounds, and I kept noting it, and it was tough for him to get and finally he said, "Can you just describe the room?" I said, "Okay. I think there's a trash can over there that he keeps throwing stuff into but he misses most of the time. There’s probably some carpeting, some old carpeting that needs repair and they haven't done anything. There's a microwave oven in the bridge and some desks and some mostly chairs on wheels but maybe a folding chair, you know?" And everywhere that there was, like, these classic tropes of sci-fi, I tried to undercut it with what I thought might actually happen.
KO: You really did. As you're listening, it feels like you're there in the bridge with them in smaller moments, in the hair salon, at the restaurant, and it was done so seamlessly. It really only enhanced the experience as opposed to making you feel like, "Oh, I am sort of looking down on something that's happening." I felt more like I was in it, so kudos to you for getting those visuals right for the sound engineer.
PL: Thank you.
KO: I'm curious about your writing process. This audiobook has so much great humor, and I imagine that with comedy you want to test your jokes out first, possibly not like the captain does at a funeral, but still, ahead of time. Do you have someone that you bounce ideas off of or do you like to draft in a vacuum?
PL: I did this differently than I've ever done any other project. It's had its own process, and it was driven solely by joy, which, oddly enough, I've never, like, followed that before, but I didn't really try stuff out on anyone. I sat there and would only write to tickle myself and just try to be amused and have fun writing. I had a rule that if I wasn't enjoying the scene, if I wasn't having fun writing it, people wouldn't have fun listening to it. A lot of times I had no idea where the scene was going. I would just write line by line, just whatever I thought surprised me and let it go where it goes. I had a basic grand idea for the whole thing, but very basic, and I let myself write out of order too, which I seldom do on my other projects.
KO: That's amazing. So freeing. Can you talk a little bit about the differences—I mean, obviously, you did this on your own, you sort of were following your own muses here—a little bit about the differences between writing something like this and writing for television?
PL: Yeah, let's just contrast it with The Office. It would be, come up with an idea and instantly bounce it off other writers. Thousands of ideas that I thought were fun were not pursued, just because that's the way that kind of conversation goes. We would carefully craft the show before anything was written. So, every episode we really knew not just the end, not just the basic direction of each act or anything, but the ins and outs of every scene, and jokes within the scene, which were pitched on by a group. So, when you went off to write it, you were really crafting something from a lot of work that's been done. And there was also new work that was added, but it was just a much, much different experience.
You also kind of had an obligation to bring something back that was within the realm of what you were sent out with. Even if I was sending it out myself, it was all discussed, so I couldn't, while I was writing The Office, sit down with an episode, discover that, oh, this could really go in a completely different direction and let myself go there and come up with a new ending and add new characters or locations. But I could here, and it really was freeing. It was like a vacation.
KO: Yeah. That's great. Speaking of The Office. I read that you were cast as Toby Flenderson somewhat against your will, and really as a way for you and the other writers on The Office to help sharpen your craft by understanding a bit more about how actors work. And with Middlespace you, once again, pulled double duty, or really triple duty, as director, writer, and actor in it. Did taking on performative roles in Middlespace help with your writing at all, or even with the directing?
"I had a rule that if I wasn't enjoying the scene, if I wasn't having fun writing it, people wouldn't have fun listening to it."
PL: Well, no, because that was the last step in terms of acting, but the process did work, I think, throughout the larger career. I am definitely a different writer now that I act. Although I always feel that I, even as a writer, I was trying to perform it in my head and make it feel realistic, but I think that I go further now and I think about the experience of acting the lines. It catches me from doing too much exposition or maybe even any. And I really get very strict about not having any of these filler lines that just set scenes or just try to give the audience information. I think that's from being an actor, too, where that's just so distasteful, and you don't know what you're doing, and “there isn't a world where I would actually say this, so now I have a lot of work to do to try to justify this.” So I work very hard to take that out of the writing.
KO: Yeah, and keep everything tighter I'm sure, and I'm sure the actors that work with you appreciate that too.
PL: I hope so.
KO: There are so many wonderful actors and comedians on this Audible Original, as we mentioned, Will Forte as the captain, who is just spectacular. I mean, the way that he did some of these interior monologues or even just, you know, as the captain's speaking not realizing other people can hear him while he speaks.
PL: Will Forte was amazing, and I shouldn't have been impressed, because I already know that he's amazing, but I was. Watching him work, watching him dig out every single little bit of comedy in every line and go back and work for it and work for it, was so impressive, and I was so grateful to have him.
KO: He was great. I was cracking up driving, listening to him say, "What would happen if you combined the color yellow with the emotion red?" It was great. You have John Malkovich as the narrator, Rainn Wilson pulling double duty as the vice admiral and Fabo Tochev, you have Wyatt Cenac as the first mate, Cheri Oteri as the captain's love interest, Carr. I mean, the list goes on and on. Can you tell me about the casting process?
PL: It was delightful. Again, I'm going to keep saying this, but every part of this process has just been so delightful. There's such a process in casting on most of my projects. So many levels of people who have to weigh in and be consulted. Some of it's contractual approval, some of it's just making sure everyone's okay. Here, I just made a list and called them.
KO: That's great.
PL: And it was, it was great.
KO: As director were you giving them notes beforehand or were you just like, ah, you guys just do your thing?
PL: I always let them do their thing first. I always want every actor to do that. There's rare instances where I want to get in front of an actor and limit them before they even try. I have a version in my head, a very specific version in my head of how it's supposed to sound, but if I start there, then that's the best it can be, but if I let them do their thing first, it can be better than what I'm actually imagining.
KO: That's great. That feels like it's such a generous and collaborative way to create something like this. There's a lot of trust that's happening back and forth between you all.
PL: Yeah, I think everyone had a really nice time. It was fun. It was a fun recording.
KO: Were you all together doing the different—?
PL: No. No one was together, and I can't believe that it came out sounding so naturalistic. I think one of the best things I did was hire Chris Smith, who played Gunnery, and he read with everybody, and he was great. We recorded Will first and he became a mimic of Will, but he could with every character, and he mimicked pacing, so everybody read with him and it made it possible to have this uniform tone.
"I am definitely a different writer now that I act."
KO: Yeah. Wow. I can't believe they all weren't, you know, forget even on-screen, like, in the same room together. That's amazing. That's really impressive.
So, as I said in the intro, you're a real multihyphenate, and I was curious if, outside of writing, is there one of your talents that you feel most drawn to?
PL: Not most drawn. I guess I feel the pull when I'm acting. It's really fun, and I just want to do it more, but I act so infrequently because the process of being an actor and auditioning is full time. It wouldn't allow for anything else, and I can't do that. I do love writing first; it's so engaging all the time. But I've really come to think about directing a lot. I'll do it while I'm watching other shows and I'll redirect them, and some shows I become infuriated because I feel like the directing is ruining it, and I could see the good show there that needed to be brought out by someone who knew what they were doing. I don't know. I've come to feel very immersed in each of these disciplines while I'm doing it.
KO: That's great.
PL: I love it, I love it, yeah.
KO: Could you tell us what you're working on now?
PL: Yeah, I'm working on a movie that I'm going to shoot in early next year.
KO: That's exciting.
PL: Yeah, it's about a kind of remote workplace, and it's pretty fun. I'm also adapting a Richard Russo novel from the '90s called Straight Man—
KO: Oh cool.
PL: —as a series which will star Bob Odenkirk and be on AMC.
PL: But that's what's in the works.
KO: Just a few minor things that you have going on.
KO: Nothing too, too busy, and hopefully perhaps a Middlespace 2.
PL: That would be fun.
KO: With a time-traveling Gunnery.
PL: The time travel actually came—I didn't even plan it, but I killed him off and then wanted him back.
KO: That's great. That's great. I love that the choice wasn't let me un-kill him. It was like, oh, let's just keep him dead and figure out how we can bring him back.
PL: Keep him dead, yeah, brought him back, yeah.
KO: Thank you for your time today.
PL: Sure. My pleasure.
KO: This is such a highlight for me. I'm a huge fan.
PL: Thank you. Thanks.