Heated arguments about the installation of a left turn lane. Problems with setting the security questions on a government e-mail account. These are the small fires that rage in the chests of municipal employees in a mid-sized Northeastern town, and they drive the plot for a series of sketches by Small Men, a duo of Upright Citizens Brigade veterans Neil Casey and Will Hines. We caught up with Hines to learn more about quiet desperation and tiny victories in the world of angry neighbors, petty tyrants, and true believers.
City Paper: First of all, can I just say that I love that your e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org? You must have been an early adopter.
Will Hines: I'm 40, so when I got my first e-mail address, it was at a company in '93, and they just did first initial and last name, and it worked out to "whines." And I felt like that was the universe making a pretty good joke that I should keep it going as long as I could.
CP: I read that you spent three years working for small-town newspapers. Where were you when you did this, and what's the craziest thing you saw happen at a municipal government meeting?
WH: I worked in Ridgefield, Conn., which is a 20,000-person town in a very tony, posh part of Connecticut. I covered the zoning board, which is land use, and the craziest thing I saw was a woman who wanted to build a second home on her property. All of the neighbors signed a petition to try to stop her, so she took Polaroids of all the illegal businesses they were running in their homes and publicly exposed all of them at a meeting and threatened to pursue getting all those things shut down unless they backed off their petition — which they did. It was super dramatic, and also just super heady and angry. Like, they were all neighbors, and they just hated each other so much, and she had just gone through a divorce and was basically out of money and just pissed off at the world. It was awesome.
CP: I cover local government here in Charleston, and it's amazing how riled up people can get talking about zoning variances and skateboarding bans. Why do you think that is?
WH: I mean, this is very much what inspired me and Neil to write the show. The reason they get riled up is that it's their lives. Outwardly, it's very funny because there's people being passionate about what seem like mundane issues of property and law, but when you're up close, these are the things that affect their everyday lives. If the government takes two feet of your property to put a sidewalk, that's super-personal, and someone's gonna get riled up. If someone is not gonna be allowed to put up a mailbox where they want to put their mailbox, that matters to them more than what Obama says about healthcare in California. So we're all animals, and we're very protective of our territory.
CP: I think you're spot on. And I think that's part of what makes a show like Parks and Rec, the intensity of those hyper-local conflicts. Do you think there's something inherently funny about municipal government?
WH: Yes, funny and surprising, I suppose. People giving a shit, people sharing a lot about the small matters of their lives, is funny and good material for a stage show, because it's passionate and silly at the same time. Also, I think Neil and I, since we do a lot of comedy, we both deal with people being aloof and sarcastic a lot, ourselves included, and we wanted to write a show about people who are painfully earnest at all times, kind of as an antidote to the sarcasm we live in. We wanted to write a show of people who care about things, instead of a show of people who are above it.
CP: What does it mean for your characters to be "small men"?
WH: "Small men" means either that they are petty and territorial or that they are super-concerned with the small details of their lives. We have two actors who are mad that beer commercials aren't masculine anymore. There's two zoning officials arguing about a traffic light. A father and his coworker arguing whether his son's band is a waste of time. Big feelings about small issues is what we're trying to go for.
CP: Have you gotten any feedback from people who work in city government, positive or negative?
WH: Yes, one city official from Yonkers liked the show so much that he came up afterward and suggested other civic issues we should mention in a sketch. He was like, "I can't believe you guys aren't talking about curb cuts," meaning how much the city lets you have entries into a road. It just seemed like such a specific thing. And we did add in a line about curb cuts. Anybody who works for a city, we'll give them free tickets to our shows. Only four people have taken me up on this, so I'm not worried about getting scammed. Just get in touch with me, and I'll verify it. Anybody who gets in touch with me who works for the city, I'll get into the show.