"It was just as normal as taco Tuesday": Why comedian Paul Scheer finally faced his childhood trauma

The actor talks about writing "Joyful Recollections of Trauma" and watching bad movies for "How Did This Get Made?"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 3, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Paul Scheer visits the IMDb Portrait Studio at SXSW 2024 on March 10, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb)
Paul Scheer visits the IMDb Portrait Studio at SXSW 2024 on March 10, 2024 in Austin, Texas. (Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb)

You don’t spend a career performing and over a decade cohosting a podcast called “How Did This Get Made?” and not learn a few things about how a creative project can go terribly, hilariously wrong. But Paul Scheer still believes that “No one sets out to make a bad movie.” During our recent “Salon Talks” conversation, the actor, director and first time memoirist revealed that “I've worked on so many different things, and I'll tell you, you don't know until it's out. I've been on sets that are weird, and the product turns out really good. Very rarely do you know in the moment.”

Scheer also opened up about his new book, “Joyful Recollections of Trauma,” a candid reminiscence about his early days in the New York improv scene, his marriage to fellow actor June Diane Raphael, his recent ADHD diagnosis — and the years of abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of his stepfather. "It took me a long time to even say those words, 'I was abused,'" Scheer revealed.

But becoming a father himself, making peace with his past and relying on his tight-knit community of fellow actors and comics helped pave the path to open up about his darkest moments — as well as the most embarrassing, outrageous and yes, joyful. And reflecting on his beloved podcast and our era of great bad cinema, he said,  "The truth is, when you make a movie for everyone, it's for no one. And when it's for no one, it's perfect for 'How Did This Get Made?'" Watch my "Salon Talks" with Scheer here on YouTube.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

We know you from literally hundreds of roles, including "The League," "Veep," "Fresh Off the Boat," "Black Monday," "30 Rock."

It's so interesting. "30 Rock" is one of those shows that I did very early on in my career, and the success of that show has cemented me as part of that culture, which I love. I couldn't be more excited to be associated with that show. It is amazing when people are like, "'30 Rock'?" It's one of the few appearances that really stick in people's heads.

And of course, the podcasts "How Did This Get Made?" and "Unspooled."

I have a small Etsy shop and also occasionally will sell things on eBay. I got it going on. You want to change your tires? Bring it to my house. I'll do it.
Surprisingly, this man has also been diagnosed with ADHD.
Yes. As an adult. There's nothing more shocking to be someone in your 40s and find out that you have this thing that can account for a majority of ways that you've acted your entire life. It really was like finding the Rosetta Stone of my life.

I have followed your career for ages, thinking, "He's doing two podcasts, He's doing all these different roles. He's doing live shows. He's writing a book. This is a guy who's spinning a lot of plates." So when you introduce [the diagnosis] very late in the book, and say, "I've not talked about this," how did you not know? And what has changed for you?
That chapter I write about that diagnosis was something I was really wrestling with putting in. I know that when people write memoirs, they feel like they have to give a nugget, share something. There was something about that that was still fresh to me, and I was a little nervous to share it because I'm still processing it on some level.

"There's a part of me that I was always keeping a little bit secret. It was really because of my family."

The way I found out about it was through Twitter, which is hilarious. I got into a war of words about my LA Clippers, and one of the people I was fighting with was like, "You're hyper-focusing. You have ADHD. I do, too. You should check that out." Of course I was like, "I don't have ADHD. That's ridiculous. You made a comment, and I'm just continuing to batter you with reasons why you're wrong."

I told my wife. I said, "Somebody said I have ADHD." My wife was like, "Yeah, of course you do." It was this shock to me. She was so unfazed by it. But I started to look online, and especially on Twitter, where I started to see everybody's stories, and it actually helped me get some help. So one of the reasons why I left it in the book, even though I was nervous about it, was because I think when people do share their experiences, talk about it, it does open an avenue of conversation with yourself.

It really pushed me down a path that I would never have gone down before. That was something that was hard to share because I feel like it's something I'm slightly embarrassed by. Now that I'm actually treating it and taking care of it, I'm still the same me that I am, that I was before it, but I just feel like a horse with blinders. They say, "Oh, you don't don't want to wear blinders because you want to see everything." But I want the blinders so I can actually just focus on what's ahead. That has really helped me just stay a lot more on track.
Did it help you in writing this book?

Absolutely. Writing a book requires so much focus. I can't just sit down and pop out 5,000 words. I have to really sit in it. It's almost like different states of meditation. You start to lower deeper and deeper into it. It's hard to, I think, tell a cohesive story, to find connections, to really be in something without having that kind of intense focus. I know people who take ADD medication just to write, which is a nice fun side effect for me because I'm now on it and I was writing. I'm not doing it on the side, but people are like, "Oh, I've got to finish this script. I got to take ADD medicine," which is a crazy thing. But yeah, especially in the editing process, which was really, really hard for this book.

Let's talk about the book. You open up in a way that was refreshing and resonant to me about abuse and about trauma. These are things that your family has not talked about. You say, "We move on." What was it that made you say, "It's time for me to talk about it in this way"?
Frank McCourt said that if he didn't tell these stories, he'd be screaming until the grave. I realized as I became a parent, that there's a part of me that I was always keeping a little bit secret, and I was wondering why. It was really because of my family. "We don't talk about this. We keep that quiet." I was protecting my family. In a weird way I was not embracing a part of my life that made me who I was. It kind of felt disingenuous.

When I became a father, I recontextualized my childhood in a completely different way. I saw myself through my kids, which brought up anger, which brought up resentment, but also gave me tremendous empathy for my parents, for myself. There was something about having kids, being in therapy for a long period of time. I've done all this work, I have these kids, why am I still not sharing this part of me? What am I afraid of? What am I afraid it says? There was a moment where I was like, "I just have to write this." I didn't even know I was going to write this. The original intent was, I'll tell funny stories from my childhood and I'll tie it all together. Maybe there'll be a fun chapter in there about the movies I think are crazy, or it was going to be a little bit more pop culture-focused.

I think, actually, people wanted that. So instead of just trying to sell a book first, I wrote, and what came out naturally and organically was this story. When I met with Harper's to pitch it, they really responded to that. That's how I knew to go with them, because I think other people might have just wanted me to do more of a light book. It really was, for me, something that I felt came very organically. I didn't have this intention to do it, but once I started writing, I couldn't stop.
One of the phrases you use is you don't know how abnormal your upbringing is because it's normalized while you're in it. You talk about violence, abuse against you and against your mom. And your grandmother saying things like, "Well, if there's no broken bones, it's not abuse." Did you have a light bulb moment, an experience where you said, "Oh, this is not normal?"
As a kid no. It was just part of my life. I can talk about all these instances here very cavalierly because, in a way, while I was suffering physical abuse and sometimes verbal abuse, it was just as normal as taco Tuesday or something like that. It was just a part of our family life. It took me a long time to even say those words, "I was abused." I could say, "I had a stepdad that was mean. I had these experiences." But that word, abuse, is tricky. A lot of people I've talked to in talking about this book have a hard time saying that word because I think it victimizes you in a way, but it also feels like, "Wait, is it worthy of abuse? Am I on the level? Because I know people who've had it worse, too."

For me, it's been a process of slowly unraveling and allowing myself to really sit in those moments. Some of the first sessions I had in therapy were about exploring anger, which I didn't think I had, and I did. I just had shut it off. I was angry, and my response to that was like a light switch. I just never turned it on.

Then it was also embracing sadness. That was really hard, to allow myself to sit and be like, "It's OK to feel bad for myself, to mourn, because I wasn't allowed to do that in the moment." It's a process. I feel like, even in writing this book, there is an element of catharsis in seeing it all together because all these things are kind of disparate in my head. Even when I went to go write these stories, I saw the connective tissue at the end.

Not to sound too lofty about it, but it feels to me like I was like an artist sculpting marble. I had an idea, but as I was in there I was like, "I'm starting to see things that I didn't even see because it's all in one spot."
When you talk about the anger, you say in the book, "My stepdad was the Hulk, and then I was the Hulk. I was a bully. I was angry. I manifested it this way before I could get to the part where then I shut it off." It makes me think of some of the roles you've done where you're so out there and it's very physical. Sometimes you play the heavy, you play the bad guy, you're the creepy guy. Is there something about those kinds of roles that you think maybe that's a way of confronting that side of your experience?
I think when you know yourself, and I'm still on a journey of discovery always, when you start to understand parts of your personality, you can tap into them. I can be the angry person when it's called for. I can be the very naive person when it's called for.

"Every one of my characters has an element of me."

Somebody said to me, "Paul, why are you going to therapy? It's going to make you not funny." I was like, "Well, no." 

I think that when you do any work on yourself, when you try to be better, you start to learn about yourself. As a comedian, as an actor, those are really great tools if I can see a side of myself that I can isolate. Every one of my characters has an element of me in it. It's like a rainbow. I just may be blue in one thing. I may just be red in another. That, to me, subconsciously has always been there.

You start out from being this only child making up movies in your head. Now I look at your career and you are part of this repertory, this huge circle of actors. To me, it's always anyone who was on "Burning Love." It feels like that this is about found family.
Absolutely. I wrote this chapter in the book about starting at UCB. Upright Citizens Brigade started here in New York City. Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler. When I first saw them, they kind of blew my mind. They were amazing improvisers and comedians, and I think many people that were my same age felt the same way. We started taking classes and performing together. We built this theater and did all these shows. Little did I know that we were building this community, this true family that extends from 1999 to 2024. These are people I worked with time and time again.

I think at a point in my life I was looking for that support. My parents love me. I have a great relationship with my parents, but there are parts of my life where I felt unsupported. I really think that finding that group . . . it's like, "Oh, that's my family."

To your point, "Burning Love," we did that for no money. We shot in this house. The reason why we did it was because we are all gluttons for good ideas. And that's everything that I ever have done in my life. I can call a friend and be like, "Can you come and do this?" It's not about the pay, it's about, "I know you can do this great." That's a beautiful part of our world, is that we just want to play together on a certain level, and we will support and get each other's back. The outpouring that I've had just from my friends in writing this book, when I can call in favors, they call in favors. I love that community. There's a part of me that feels that these people are my ride or die people. We're lucky when we can find those people. I didn't have that in high school or college. I had friends, but these are my people. This is my family.

When you talk about your family, one of the things that really hits hard in this book is you talk about this idea of forgiveness and how distinct that is from making peace with something. What to you is that distinction about being able to say, "I don't have to call it forgiveness?"
We all have to do work on ourselves. I've gotten to a point where I'm like, "What can someone else give me that I can't give myself?" I really learned as a very important thing with my parents, which was I have to meet them where they are. When I started to lean into that, that was really fulfilling to me because I didn't expect more of them.

Sometimes we all fall into those traps, where it's like sometimes people will only be capable of what they are capable of giving. If you expect more, you're only setting them up to fail. So once I started to just embrace that my parents had this, then it was like, "Well, if they're not going to give me what I need, how do I find that? And what do I need? What do I need to fill it up?"

I think part of it is empathy. It's trying to see yourself in their shoes. Part of it is also just, when you respect somebody's boundaries or you respect somebody's abilities and what they are capable of, you can actually see how they're trying to do the best they can. I was very true in saying, "I don't need anything from anybody because I can take care of myself." I think that's part of being an only child, but also part of it is like, "Well, no. I've surrounded myself with people who can fill those voids, those people that can help me in those moments." I have a wife, I have amazing friends. Maybe what I can't get from my parents on certain things I find there instead.
Talking about this amazing group that you've surrounded yourself with, "How Did This Get Made?" is my favorite podcast that's not about murders. It feels like we're in a golden age of movies that we're all looking around and going, "How did this get made?" We are in peak "How did this get made?" era.

"The truth is, when you make a movie for everyone, it's for no one."

"Beekeeper." One of the best movies ever made but it's so insane, too. I think we're in
a weird zone where we're in a death of the way that we used to consume media.
A lot of people's reaction to that is, "Well, then we need to make the biggest, most accessible thing because that will hopefully get everyone into the theater."

But the truth is, when you make a movie for everyone, it's for no one. And when it's for no one, it's perfect for "How Did This Get Made?" Because then we're having something that's trying to appeal to kids and extreme sports and grandparents. It feels claustrophobic. It feels like you had a good script and there's a million Post-it notes on it. It's like, "Oh, make sure that they chug a Mountain Dew. Then make sure that it's also romantic. Then also, let's add some tragedy here." You're getting whiplash from the responses. So yes, I am loving it. From the birth of "Cats" in the pandemic, the movie version of the musical, we have been getting some real gems.

Because you were also you have an IMDb page as long as my arm, surely you must have your own experiences where you have gotten a script or you have been on a set and thought, "How is this getting made?"
Well, what's different about it is no one sets out to make a bad movie. I've worked on so many different things, and I'll tell you, you don't know until it's out, because it can go in many different respects.
Not even in the middle?

I think there's an element where things could be going terribly. I would recommend anyone to watch "Hearts of Darkness." It's a documentary that Coppola's wife made during the making of "Apocalypse Now." That movie looked like it was going to be an utter s**tshow, and it becomes one of the classics of cinema. So there is this element where, well, maybe they're going to pull it out. I've worked with actors that can't get two lines out. Then you look at them at editing and you're like, "What the . . . ?" I've literally watched someone get Emmy performances for not being able to string two sentences together. So there's a beauty in the post-production process.

There is this element with movies that magic can happen. So to your question, I've been on sets that are weird and the product turns out really good. I've been on sets that are angry and people don't like each other. Then you go off and do things and people are like, "Oh my gosh, we had the best time." Very rarely do you know in the moment, but sometimes you'll look at something and, yeah, you'll be like, "Oh, wow. OK."

"I watch a lot of movies that are tough to get through."

I remember I was on the set of "Piranha 3DD," the sequel to "Piranha 3D." The title was already there but it was interesting. I was like, "Oh, I'm excited to do this because my character gets to come back, even though I was killed in the first movie," which is interesting how they pulled that off. But it was like, "I've got a chance to work with Ving Rhames. I would love to spend a day with Ving Rhames." One day in North Carolina with Ving Rhames was the best experience. So sometimes as an actor you're like, "I just want to take the experience. Why not?" And you just try to do your best.

One actor said something to me, so interesting. He's been in a lot of great movies and a lot of not-so-great movies, and I was having a heart-to-heart with him about that process. He said, "I'm only responsible to do my job. If I can do my job well, I can try to make the script better but I can't make the movie better." Sometimes you have to let it go out of control, but there are some things definitely on that IMDb page where I'm like, "Ooh."

It's hard because people go, "Why don't you do your movies on 'How Did This Get Made?'" I'm like, "Well, because they are my family, they are my friends." It's even hard for me to talk badly about "Piranha 3DD" because I do have a connection with those people. I'm like, "They meant nice. It was a good time. We had a nice time." Maybe they feel that way about something I've made. So it's tricky. But I know that my litmus is all off because I just watched "Madame Web" and I was like, "Not bad." Not great, but not bad. I watch a lot of movies that are tough to get through. It doesn't make sense, but it's watchable.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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