When one thinks of Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man series, a lot of things come to mind: Coffee. Men. A general over abundance of things. After the successful month-long run of Wheeler’s opera based on the strip, the words “high art” also spring to mind. In fact, one wonders how the American theater and the frumpy quasi-hero ever survived for so long without each other.
We resisted launching into the subject for an entire third of an interview, but this time, it’s no holds-barred—well, just as soon as we get all of that boring old stuff about good, old-fashioned Hollywood racism out of the way.
Tell me a bit about your brushups with Hollywood. When did those occur?
I think like ’98 or 2000. They approached me and it got to the point where we were writing a pilot. It went pretty far. Comedy Central was pretty interested. They optioned it. I went down to LA a few times to work on it, and they had writers involved and stuff. It’s just that I never thought it was very good [laughs]. To me it never really reflected what I thought was interesting about the characters.
Was it actually you who halted the production?
At first it was. That’s how they suck you in. They say that they want you involved at every stage. Of course you can’t get writing credit, because it has to be Canadian, so they can get the subsidies. Slowly, when you start having objections, like, “these jokes about Jewish people liking money—that’s borderline racist—“
Wait—is that an actual example?! Tell me that’s an exaggeration.
No, no. There was all of this real weird stuff, like the sexy secretary, and he’d always come in and make these flirty jokes and then she would be dumb and unknowing, but still sexy. And then there was the Jewish guy and they’d make these Jewish jokes. And I was like, “this is sexist.” And they would say, “oh no, everyone thinks it’s really funny. Everyone likes it.”
Was it ironic, like in the South Park sense?
No, I don’t think so. It was kind of 50s humor. It was really awful.
It was like a vaudeville show, or something…
It was [laughs]. It was horrible, and it got so bad at one point that I asked my lawyer how I could stop it, because they weren’t listening to me. And my lawyer said, “well, they’ve really invested a lot of money in this, and what you need to do now is divorce yourself emotionally from the project [laughs].” So I did, but thankfully it died. Comedy Central knew enough to think that it was not funny, as well.
What’s the story about the Too Much Coffee Man opera? Why an opera?
There’s a composer, a family friend of ours, and he approached me, probably five years ago, saying, “let’s do this opera.” I said “no” for maybe a year or two, but I would see if for dinner every so often, for a year or two, and finally I had a dream, where I saw Too Much Coffee Man singing, and I thought, ‘why am I fighting this? Why don’t I just go with it?” So I did. I started writing it, and I pulled in a friend of mine, this guy, Damian Wilcox, who does comics and poetry, to help me with rhymes and stuff. The three of us worked on it, for a few years, on and off. It was just sort of a lark. We’d get the MIDI files of his music. He really understood the jokes that I was trying to tell, and the music really reflected the timing really well. And then someone in Texas had heard that I had it, and it was about ¾ done. He said, “we can put it on, here in Texas.” At the time I was dating this ballerina, and I met the guy from Texas. We were all in New York, and life was really coming together. My opera was being produced, I was dating a ballerina, my bills were getting payed, I had just been picked up by another couple of newspapers, I was in New York! Everything just seemed great. That was January. In February, the place where they were going to put on the opera burned down. The ballerina dumped me. And then I got dropped by two newspapers, and I thought that I needed to just stay home for a month. Thinking that it was going to be produced, however, made the three of us finish it. We had been stuck at the ¾ point for a while, and thinking that these people were really going to do it made us step forward and hustle an ending. Then I’d finally decided that I’d been depressed to long, so on Valentine’s Day, a friend of mine was having an art show and I forced myself to go to it. It was in this little bar called The Art Bar, and I thought it was going to be this little dive bar, but as I was walking toward it down Broadway, the neighborhood was getting fancier and fancier, and it was right near where the ballet performs, and sure enough, it was actually the bar where the ballet performed, so there were posters of this girl that I’d dated, all around. It was just hell, so I started drinking, and got locked into a conversation with an accountant. It was just awful. But that night I met the executive director for that theater space, PCPA, and I was just drunk enough to say, “well, I just wrote an opera.” She said, “well, send it over.” The next day, since we had just finished it, a week before, I was able to send her the stuff. And then she wrote back saying that she was really amazed that it was actually really good. A lot of people, when they meet her, they tell her that they have this or that project, but she said that this really worked. It was funny and the music was good, and she couldn’t believe it. So that’s when I really started pushing, designing the sets and costumes, and finding ways to finance it, because she said that they would co-sponsor it. I realized that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She hooked me up with people who knew what they were doing, and it was downtown, in the best performance space in Portland, really. So I just pushed really hard to make it happen. It was an incredible amount of work. I had no idea.
How long did it run for?
It ran for just about a month. We sold out just about every performance, and we would have run longer, but they’d committed the hall for another performance already.
So there may be a repeat performance, at some point?
We’re talking about it. I really want to write a sequel. It’s about an hour long, so for me, it runs a bit short, and I want to lengthen it, and bring back the characters for some new stuff.
Did you consider touring with it?
That is a whole other can of worms. That’s like the difference between building an airplane and having an airplane company. I would have no idea how to begin to orchestrate all of the people to get that done. That’s someone else’s career. If I get approached by somebody, the same way that she as a producer approached me, saying they wanted to tour my piece, I’d be interested. But you need more than one hour. You need a two or three hour piece to do something like that.
[Concluded in Part Three.]