Kevin Shinick Reflects on His Sole Feature Directorial Effort “It’s About Time” (2005), “Disjointed” and “Mad”

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Writer/actor/producer Kevin Shinick is most known for his prominent voice work on the cult TV hit “Robot Chicken” and the cartoon series “Mad” (as in Mad Magazine), which he also created. He began his television career with a leading role on “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” (1996-7), and performed both on and off-Broadway during the 1990s and early 2000s. He has recently written for the well-received but short-lived Kathy Bates Netflix comedy series “Disjointed,” and launched a Disney XD reboot of “Spider-Man.”

But Shinick has seldom been asked about his sole foray into feature film directing: a quirky, low-key romantic 2005 comedy called “It’s About Time,” which he also produced, wrote, edited and starred in. It’s in the vein of “Sliding Doors” or the Bizarro Jerry episode of “Seinfeld,” in which, via a cosmic shift in the universe, a couple of hapless souls start getting their day in the sun–romantically and professionally. Naturally, the reverse situation happens to their once-fortunate friend. Shinick is a sprightly, instantly likable presence throughout, with more than a passing resemblance to bubbly character actor Frank Whaley.

Shot in the early 2000s, the film offers a glimpse of New York City just before it succumbed to full-on yuppie gentrification. There are gags concerning snail-mail and phone number exchange mishaps, which, in today’s iPhone-crazed world, come off as charmingly wistful.  There are lively scenes set at the Museum of Natural History and the Planetarium. And the late Tony Randall, in his last film appearance, gets a few choice wisecracks in. (Shinick applied, post-college, to an internship program run by Randall’s National Actors Theatre, where he landed his first on-stage role in a 1992 production of “The Seagull,” starring Jon Voight. Randall was a mentor to Shinick and the two stayed friends up through Randall’s death in 2004).

The film, despite yielding positive reactions at several festivals around the country–including in Shinick’s native Long Island–never received a distribution deal. Shinick kindly loaned me a DVD, and then we discussed his reflections on the film, as well as his lifelong love of Mad Magazine, his fast-food version of Macbeth (“McBeth–Over 2 Million Slain,” staged at the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival), and what he’d do differently were he to direct another movie.

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Kevin Shinick, left, and Jamie Greenberg behind the scenes at “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” in 1997

Sam Weisberg: I couldn’t find “It’s About Time” anywhere.

Kevin Shinick: We had a really good time doing it. It did really well in the festival circuit, and then I couldn’t really devote the time to find a distributor. I was on to something else, I think “Robot Chicken.” I put a lot of energy into that film. I’m glad I did it. I made some great relationships, it taught me a lot. But then you move on.

SW: What were the biggest challenges in making it?

KS: Mostly financial. I believed in the story and really wanted to do a feature film. I was a fan of Woody Allen. My brother [Scott] and I produced it, we were like, “Let’s do this! OK, how come we’re not moving [faster]? Well, we don’t know what we’re doing, that’s why.” It was one foot in front of the other.

Tony Randall was a good friend of mine. I reached out to him and said, “I’m trying to direct this feature I wrote, would you do a role in it?” And he said, “Send me the script.” And I wish I still had the answering machine message. I played it and it said [doing a spot-on imitation of Randall]: “Kevin, it’s Tony. I like it. I like it a lot.” And once he was on board, I went to other people I knew.

The other challenge was time. I didn’t have any money but I had plenty of time. We shot that over two years. It was rough to say to good friends, “Please don’t dye your hair,” or whatever.

But the biggest thing I learned was, no matter what you wanna do, just ask people. I was so shocked at how many times people were, like, “Yeah, sure.” Tony Randall, friends, crew members. They said yes. I was doing lots of voiceovers, at this huge apartment in SoHo. And I thought, “This is perfect for one of the apartments in my film.” And I said [to the owners], “Would you consider letting me shoot there?” And they were like, “Yeah. Come down on the weekend, we’ll leave you a key.” I was amazed at people’s generosity. This was before Kickstarter.

SW: How did the story get into your head?

KS: I’ve always been interested in time travel, or the concept of time. I was on “Carmen Sandiego” on PBS for a few seasons in the ‘90s, and it played into that [theme]. I remember I was doing a Broadway show, and it seemed I always missed the subway by a second, no matter what time I left the house. [The doors] were closing and I was running and screaming. And then I heard about this thing called Leap Second. The rotation of the Earth changes, every seven years, so they have to adjust the atomic clock slightly. And it dawned on me: what if someone whose life was totally out of sync finally got in sync when this Leap Second happened?

Also, I was living in New York. I loved Manhattan and I always wanted to do a film showing the areas that I loved, in the ‘90s.

SW: What show were you working on when you got the idea?

KS: I think it was a Matthew Broderick play [“Night Must Fall,” 1999]. That’s when I met Seana [Kofoed], who plays my friend Sara in the film. I started writing it around then. After that show, I had down time, I didn’t have a job lined up. I wanted to do a film.

SW: Were there there big changes to the script as you were going? Was there a different ending?

KS: The biggest change, which must have been early on, was [the leap second] was originally just gonna affect my character, and then we shifted to include other characters. That happened while I was writing it. It occurred to me, well, if it’s gonna help some people, then obviously it’s gonna not help certain people. And I thought it’d be interesting if these people were all friends and saw their lives change because of this thing.

SW: What was the best festival response?

KS: The Long Island International Film Expo. It played in my hometown, Merrick. A lot of people came out of the woodwork that I hadn’t seen in years. We won Best First Feature Film. Billy Baldwin was there and gave me my award.

SW: Do you think you’ll direct another feature?

KS: I’d love to, but I think I’d do it differently. I don’t want to do everything. That was the beginning of my career. And obviously now I’d raise funds, not just from friends. I have screenplays they’re shopping around. It’s all about scheduling and timing. I’m always open to new adventures, but it’s all about doing it properly.

SW: What would be the one role you’d hand over to someone else? Would you let someone else write it, or star in it?

KS: I would let someone else star in it. I’d love to write it. Writing and directing is very connected, so I’d like to do those two, but I’d give away almost everything else.

SW: Was it challenging to star in it?

KS: Because it took two years, it wasn’t that challenging. But I did a play right afterwards, that I also directed, it was a success at the [2003] Fringe Festival. I did “Macbeth,” but all with fast food characters. I [paralleled] the rise and fall of Macbeth with the rise and fall of the fast food industry. I used the book “Fast Food Nation” as the spine of all that. We had a great time, but that almost killed me. I was producing it, I was directing it, I had adapted it, and I was starring in it. A lot of the people that helped with the movie also helped with the play. At one point, I started getting a facial tic, I was so stressed.

SW: Which Macbeth character mirrored Ray Kroc?

KS: It wasn’t Ray Kroc, it was the McDonald’s characters. Macbeth was Ronald McDonald. He was a farmer in the opening scene, and there were two other farmers, I think one was Carl Jr., and the government was doing crop-dusting. And when he’s hit in the face by the crop-dusting, he turns white. And then he murders the King, Colonel Sanders. He has blood on his hands and he holds them over his mouth and his lips turn red. So he gradually becomes Ronald McDonald. I really enjoyed it and it got a good response. I think Backstage gave us a good review.

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Shinick in “McBeth—Over 2 Million Slain,” 2003

SW: What did you do professionally, after wrapping the film?

KS: So, I had done the [announcer] voice for Nickelodeon for a while. “Coming up next…Spongebob!” They came to me—I would make them laugh in the booth when I was doing the voice—and they said, “Do you want to write here?” And I said no, because I had so much I wanted to do.

Then I did the film and I did another play, and I was so broke, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. And Nickelodeon came around again! I had no choice but to say yes. And by doing that, it freed me up to do so much more. I had a steady paycheck, I had good connections, they were so supportive there. When I did plays, they came and saw them. They let me go to auditions. I always say, you don’t have to be a starving artist.

Later, I was doing a one-man show. I invited these Broadway producers, and we were discussing where else we could do the show, and literally, as we were leaving, they said, “You don’t know anything about Spider-Man, do you?” And of course I was a fan, I read comic books forever. They said, “We have the theatrical rights to the first feature-length stage show of ‘Spider-Man.’” This was about a decade before Julie Taymor did it. It wasn’t a musical, just a straight play. So I wrote it, and they loved it, and I pitched it to Marvel, they loved it. As a result, we had something that a lot of people don’t know about. It was called “Spider-Man Live!” It played Radio City Music Hall and then it toured the country, like 40 cities. It was a really great experience. And a lot of that happened around the time I took that Nickelodeon gig. Because when you’re not stressed all the time about where money’s coming from, it does free you up to be more creative. So I always tell people, “Go with the door that opens. It doesn’t mean you can’t close that door [eventually], but give everything a shot.”

SW: I wanted to ask how the recent “Spider-Man” cartoon for Disney XD is going.

KS: It was great for me. There was a series called “Ultimate Spider-Man,” it had run its course. And Marvel asked me to pitch a new series. I launched Season 1 [in 2017]. I gave them the full story arc. And then I had the opportunity to jump to “Disjointed” [on Netflix, recently canceled]. I passed the next season of “Spider-Man” off to [consulting producers] Kevin Burke and [Chris] Doc Wyatt, and they’ve done a great job with it. But now that “Disjointed” is over, I was asked to write a video comic book that will bring our animated “Spider-Man” into the “Spidergeddon” storyline of the editorial world, for the first time.

SW: How did you get the writing job on “Disjointed”?

KS: My agent submitted some of my material to David Javerbaum, who created the show with Chuck Lorre. And he liked my stuff and brought me in.

SW: Fans seem very upset that “Disjointed” was canceled. I saw all these forums where people were saying, “Bring it back!” Are there plans to reinstate it?

KS: No, I don’t think so. I honestly think it was a financial thing. I’m just guessing, but it was a joint production between Warner Bros. and Netflix, and Netflix has their own thing going and sometimes they may not need another party. Or maybe the cost was too much. Who knows? There’s so many factors these days. We didn’t stop to think too much about why it didn’t come back. We just moved on to the next thing.

SW: Are you pleased with the overall response?

KS: Oh, God, yeah. We did 20 episodes of that show. We worked really hard on that, so it’s great when you get that feedback from people. Some people watched the pilot and had their comments, and that was that. But there were a lot of people committed to this and loving it. And Kathy [Bates] is so great. I hoped it would continue on mostly for her, because she’s so awesome. But we don’t have to worry about her. She’s on to plenty of other things. [laughs]

SW: Why did the show use the three-camera setup traditionally used on sitcoms?

KS: That was Chuck’s world, with “The Big Bang Theory.” Now he has “Young Sheldon,” which is a single-camera comedy. But that’s the world he knew and that’s kind of what we were going for. The show is called “Disjointed,” but we also wanted to make it feel disjointed. You’re watching a typical sitcom, multi-cam [show] that you could see on CBS, but because you’re on Netflix, you could curse, you don’t have to worry about advertising. We could do whatever we want.

And it’s jarring, at first. A lot of people thought it was a laugh track, but we had an actual live audience. They seemed to love it. It’s the shock of watching what seemed like a wholesome comedy and then there’s some vulgarity or some topics you wouldn’t normally hit on on a normal channel.

SW: Why is that three-cam style falling out of favor?

KS: I don’t know if it is. Everything goes through phases. In some ways, it feels antiquated, in the sense that vaudeville can seem antiquated, but there’s a place for that, too. It goes with the flow of the entertainment business. And everything’s being rebooted. “Roseanne” was rebooted, so we’re going back to that multi-cam setup.

SW: It’s amazing, this ’80s nostalgia. People were missing the ’80s right when I got to school in the late ’90s, and two decades later, people are still missing the ’80s!

KS: It’s so weird, we’re kind of living in a faux-culture. Everything that’s out there existed 20 years ago.

SW: I get the most surprised when there’s a reboot of a movie that didn’t do that well.

KS: I’m more surprised when I see things rebooted that were successful. Because you’ve got tough shoes to fill. Why do that? This goes back a ways, but I remember when Tim Burton remade “Planet of the Apes” [in 2001], and I was thinking, “Don’t remake that, remake ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’!” And essentially, that’s what they did [later] with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” It basically picked up four movies in from the original. They learned their lesson: take the one that everyone doesn’t know that well and flesh it out. And it was successful.

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SW: I wanted to ask about some of your more well-known TV work. Did you have a favorite voice you did on “Robot Chicken”?

KS: The first voice I ever did was myself as Squadron Leader Kevin Shinick on “Carmen Sandiego,” because I’d been the host of that show. We were pitching so many crazy things a day [at “Robot Chicken”] and I wrote a sketch about “Carmen” and someone asked how I remembered that show, and I said “I hosted it!” They created an action figure of me and we animated it. It was a lot of fun to do. So my first voice was playing myself!

SW: Did that lead to “Mad”?

KS: Yeah, “Mad TV” had gone off the air. And Warner Bros. was looking for someone to create the cartoon version. Someone mentioned my name and I met with them and they really liked my take on it. That ran for five seasons, 105 episodes or something. It was a blast. I got to do voices and I wrote with a great staff and I directed. It was all hands on deck. There were so many great celebrities I got to meet. The best part of that show is, everybody you meet is a fan of Mad Magazine. I was a huge fan of it growing up, and I was now working with people like Sergio Aragonés, who did all the drawings in the margins. People at the magazine were actually contributing to our show. Tom Richmond, who is Mad Magazine’s current Mort Drucker, did a lot of the movie and TV parodies for us.

SW: I remember between 7th and 9th Grade, the early ‘90s, I was obsessed with Mad. And I would order the back issues. And I particularly loved the movie parodies. I still quote some of them verbatim.

KS: It’s so great when you have that to unify people. Dopey titles, like instead of “Kojak,” it was “Kojerk.” It’s so stupid but it was so funny.

SW: It would make you want to see things, just to understand what they were making fun of. I was bummed that the FOX show wasn’t really like the magazine.

KS: Absolutely. I thought of it more as a sister show to “Saturday Night Live.” When it started, they tried to have animation in between [sketches], but it was really nothing like [the magazine]. Which is why I was excited to do “Mad.” I really thought our show was the magazine come to life, and it made sense that it would be animated. It had more of a direct lineage.

SW: For a while, I was disappointed, because you read Mad as an impressionable kid, and there’s a certain snark and anarchy to it. They seem like the last people that would put their name on a TV show. But then you get older, and you realize, “Well, maybe they don’t hate these things as much as they seem to”—

KS: Exactly. They’re in the business of parody, so whether they like it or not, they’re gonna act like, “This is crap.” The great thing about them is, they not only crap on everyone out there, they crap on themselves. You know, “This show sucks, even though we’re making it.”

SW: Do you think it brought a new generation of kids to the magazine?

KS: It totally did. When it was running, kids didn’t know there was a magazine attached to it. But it was great to know the guys who had been running Mad and shine a light back onto them. It’s been eclipsed by all these parody shows. We all owe something to Mad. Even “Monty Python.” I was happy to put a spotlight back on them. And their sales went up.

SW: That’s heartwarming, because you never wanna see that magazine in trouble. I remember when they started using ads.

KS: It was in trouble for a while. I have no idea where they are. [NOTE: they relocated last year to parent company DC Entertainment’s headquarters in Burbank, California.]

SW: Did you visit the Mad offices as a kid?

KS: Yes, and also as an adult, when the show ran. You’re never disappointed when you go there.

SW: Finally, tell me more about the new screenplay.

KS: I got a couple of projects I’m working on. It’s going good. Nothing I can talk about now, we’ve got all these NDAs signed. But 2019 will be a big, busy year, if everything moves forward.

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