Requiem for the Wiezel
Thought Pauly Shore was a relic of early-’90s pop culture? His new film, Pauly Shore is Dead, might just resurrect hiscareer.
“Do you know any place to get cheap poster tubes?” Pauly Shore asked over the phone from his office in Los Angeles. “We’ve got to send these posters out to theaters, and they’re killing me on prices! You can start out the interview like, ‘Pauly’s squirming on poster tubes.’”
Ten years ago, when Shore was riding on the success of his five-year stint as the host of MTV’s Totally Pauly and his starring roles in comedies like Encino Man and Son in Law, he wouldn’t have given a second thought to the price of shipping posters. Back then, Shore was a staple of 1990s pop culture, flaunting his flamboyant pre-grunge clothing, Southern California slang and libidinous stoner persona “the Wiezel” to the delight of young fans and the irritation of film critics nationwide.
But somewhere along the way, the fickle hearts of the American public turned away from their Wiezel buddy. When the Fox sitcom Pauly tanked after six episodes in 1997, acting opportunities stopped knocking.
Since then, Shore has embarked on a transformation from one-note stoner comic to unemployed actor to writer, director, star and producer of his own film project, the biopic spoof Pauly Shore is Dead. Unable to find studio backing for the film, Shore funded the entire venture himself. From concept to theater booking, he is responsible for every detail of what he hopes will be his comeback vehicle—right down to the poster tubes.
It’s no secret that comedy is the Shore family business. Pauly’s father, stand-up comedian Sammy Shore, opened regularly for Elvis Presley. Pauly’s mother, Mitzi Shore, owns Los Angeles’ famed venue the Comedy Store—where comedians like Robin Williams, David Letterman and Garry Shandling performed regularly at the start of their careers. Pauly spent his childhood surrounded by the frenzied antics of the era’s most popular comedians. “At the time it was normal,” Shore said of his youth, “having Richard Pryor, Richard Belzer, Sam Kinison and Robin Williams partying in my mom’s living room. Then I grew up and started looking at it and thinking, ‘Wait. That shit’s not normal.’ My whole life’s been a two-drink minimum.”
Shore was only 17 years old the first time he tried stand-up in front of an audience. “It was at a place called the Alley Cat Bistro,” he recalled. “My dad took me and got me onstage. I actually did really well the first time, maybe because I figured I was going to eat it. You know, everyone eats it their first time onstage. My material didn’t really get any laughs, but I would have reactions to the material, and those got laughs.”
The experience taught Shore two things: first, that he loved performing comedy; and second, that he garnered the best audience response when he was just being himself. It was this realization that spawned the Wiezel.
Shore insists the Wiezel—his shifty, stony and perpetually horny comedy persona—was not a consciously created character. “[The Wiezel] just happened by accident,” he said. “It was kinda who I was back then in my early 20s. It’s how I acted and how I talked. I’ve always been flamboyant and weird and over-the-top.”
Though Shore felt some ill will from other aspiring comedians because of his familial ties to the scene, he continued to develop his brand of lowbrow stoner comedy with regular stand-up gigs at the Comedy Store and other clubs throughout the late 1980s. “I had to work twice as hard,” Shore explained, “because not only is it hard to be funny onstage, but it’s hard knowing that half the audience are bitter comedians who hate you.”
Shore got his break in 1989 when the head of talent for MTV caught his act at the Comedy Store. He was invited to help host MTV Spring Break at Daytona Beach, Fla., later that year—a gig that spun off into Shore’s own show, Totally Pauly. During the show’s five-year run, Shore hosted videos on MTV, starred in several feature films and toured the world doing stand-up comedy (including several dates at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre).
“I had a really good run,” Shore said. “Whether critics liked my movies or not, it doesn’t really matter. There are a lot of people that did like them. There’s a reason why they work and a reason why they continue to play [on TV]. Highbrow-type people didn’t like them because I was obnoxious and over-the-top and, in their eyes, a bad actor. But I was a spirit, someone that didn’t really care. When you live that way, people are either going to dis you or be into you. There are no excuses.”
Free spirit or no, the Wiezel’s limited shtick eventually wore out its welcome in American pop culture. As Shore says in a voice-over in Pauly Shore is Dead, “My shit is tired. I pegged myself as the Wiezel.” When Shore’s 1996 film Bio-Dome was unanimously panned by critics, he turned to the Fox sitcom that proved to be the last nail in the Wiezel’s coffin.
“No one goes into something thinking it’s going to fail,” Shore said of his work on the show. “I just love to work. I love to wake up in the morning and go to the set. I wasn’t thinking about the repercussions of a failed sitcom. I thought for sure it would be successful, because I was coming from movies to TV, but that wasn’t the case.”
When the show was canceled, Shore attempted a professional about-face. “I fired everyone—agents, managers, all that,” he said. Determined to hire a new team to save his sinking career, he was surprised to find none of Hollywood’s A-list managers would represent him. Reluctantly, he signed on with what he considered to be a B-list team, but he found himself unable to work. “I basically turned down a lot of offers, and I didn’t really do anything,” he said, “because I didn’t want to do anything bad.”
Despite his retreat from the limelight, Shore’s name became a cliché for movie critics discussing bad acting. Shore was even named one of four finalists for Worst Actor of the Century at the 2000 Razzie Awards. (He lost to Sylvester Stallone.)
Frustrated by his fall from Hollywood’s graces, Shore went back to his original love: stand-up comedy. “I developed myself,” he explained. “I became who I am now through being on the road and not being protected. When you’re in the business and you’re, say, John Travolta, you’re protected. You have your agents and managers and publicists and all these people around you. For five years, I wasn’t protected. I was by myself, and I hit the streets.”
Shore also spent this time writing the script for Pauly Shore is Dead. His tribute to the years after he was a movie star, the semi-autobiographical film lampoons the desperation Shore felt after his fall from fame. “I wanted to capture that time,” he said. “It was a very vulnerable time for me, and maybe people wouldn’t think to see me in that way.” Shore channeled his depression into the film, a project that took four-and-a-half years to complete.
In the movie, Shore takes an entirely different route to a comeback: faking his own death. “You look at a celebrity or anyone that dies,” he explained, “and all of the sudden, they’re a genius. I knew I was the butt of a lot of jokes. I knew people were making fun of me, so I thought it would be funny if I actually died in a movie and people like Whoopi Goldberg and Sean Penn said with a straight face, ‘Pauly Shore is a genius.’”
And they do say it. The film features more than 25 cameo appearances by celebrities like Ben Stiller, Snoop Dogg, Adam Sandler and Britney Spears. “I would call these people personally,” Shore said of his celebrity guests. “They understood that I was doing this movie by myself, that I wrote it, directed it, starred in it and produced it—that no one was funding it. When an artist contacts another artist, going around managers and agents and all that shit, people respond. They got the joke.”
Though the film has a tendency to dip into the kind of lowbrow jerk-off humor and gratuitous women-in-bikinis sexism that earned him critical scorn in the 1990s, it’s easily the most creative and ambitious project Shore has ever attempted. And when Shore makes fun of himself, Pauly Shore is Dead is, at turns, hilarious. In the film, Shore suffers a string of ever-increasing indignities in the wake of his failed career. He loses his house to Carrot Top. His girlfriend cheats on him with an actor from Saved by the Bell. He’s forced to score drugs from Corey Feldman, and it only gets worse.
“This is a movie that my fans who just want to laugh at Pauly can enjoy,” Shore said. “But the critics who never liked me will enjoy it, too, because I’m just destroying myself in this thing. I mean, that scene at my mom’s club where I’m parking cars at the Comedy Store—it’s embarrassing! Mopping the floor in prison and having my cellmate mistake me for Adam Sandler?”
This week, Shore begins a three-month tour with Pauly Shore is Dead. He made sure his first stop was Sacramento’s Crest Theatre. “I chose to play the Crest a long time ago. I said, ‘I’m going up there first!’ because I’ve always loved Sacramento, and I’ve always done well up there,” Shore said excitedly. “Every time I do shows there, it’s always wild. It’s always over-the-top. After that, we’re just gonna keep going. We’re booking theaters every day.”
The Wiezel is dead, but—barring a heart attack over the price of poster tubes—Pauly Shore just might survive.