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Does Showtime's 'Moonbase 8' Have The Right Stuff?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If a team of astronauts was sent on a daring mission to set up a base on the surface of the moon, I mean, you'd expect NASA would send its best and brightest, right? Well, meet the crew of "Moonbase 8."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOONBASE 8")

JOHN C REILLY: (As Cap) We are members of the National Association of Space Astronauts.

FRED ARMISEN: (As Skip) The what?

REILLY: (As Cap) NASA.

TIM HEIDECKER: (As Rook) It's the North American Space Association, right? Is it...

REILLY: (As Cap) No, no, no. That's not it.

HEIDECKER: (As Rook) I think it's the National Association of...

REILLY: (As Cap) It's not national - nautical - Nautical Astronomy Society of Adventure.

ARMISEN: (As Skip) I don't think it stands for anything. I think it's just a word - NASA.

HEIDECKER: (As Rook) It's NASA.

REILLY: (As Cap) NASA. OK, NASA - we're NASA.

GREENE: It is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, by the way, and those there are the voices of actors John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen and Tim Heidecker, three woefully underqualified astronauts in training living in a kind of low-budget moon base simulation in the Arizona desert. The new Showtime series is called "Moonbase 8," and I asked Tim Heidecker about creating this comedy with John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen.

HEIDECKER: There's something so fun about goofing around with those guys and improvising and just being silly that we all said, how can we do a show together that literally sticks us, you know, into the same room where we can't leave (laughter), you know?

GREENE: Yeah. So they are stuck together on Moonbase 8, where no one leaves the hatch without their spacesuit on. Tim Heidecker says it's inspired by real-life amateur mock space missions.

HEIDECKER: There are these people out there doing these simulations out in the desert or, like, on an island where they're sort of cosplaying the idea of being an astronaut or living on the moon or on Mars. They're literally in, you know, garbage bags and hazmat suits and plastic buckets from Home Depot and stuff. Pretend - it's - the idea of, like, grown adults pretending and really taking it seriously even though it's all kind of fabricated is sort of ripe for comedy for us.

GREENE: Well, I want to talk about kind of the setting for the show. I mean, it's - I just keep looking at everything about Moonbase 8. I mean, it's flimsy.

HEIDECKER: (Laughter).

GREENE: It, like, makes me really nervous that anyone would ever think that you'd be secure on a space mission. I mean, doors don't open.

HEIDECKER: Right.

GREENE: Everything's outdated. They're beige spacesuits. You're using a DustBuster to clean the carpeting. I mean, what was the thinking as you guys kind of set up the set?

HEIDECKER: Well, you know, NASA is a government agency, so you think there'd be some, you know, belt tightening going on. We liked sort of the mundaneness of it all. Like, there's nothing really, like, futuristic about what's going on. It's kind of more bureaucratic.

GREENE: I mean, the mini lunar rover looks like a go-kart of sorts. I mean, I just laugh at John C. Reilly driving around in that thing. He looks like a giant.

HEIDECKER: I think that was the reason John did the show. He got so - he was like a kid in a, you know, a dune buggy store when it came to that rover. He - that was his domain. But he (laughter) - we found that thing and, you know, dressed it up to look like a moon-worthy vehicle. But, yeah, he had fun doing doughnuts with that out there in the desert.

GREENE: Did I hear this right? I mean, you went to Pasadena to the actual Jet Propulsion Laboratory and SpaceX also to research...

HEIDECKER: We did.

GREENE: ...To do the show?

HEIDECKER: Yeah. That felt like, you know, when, in school, you have the field trip, and it feels like you've accomplished something, but you really didn't, you know? It was just sort of a fun exercise, but, you know, it was really incredible. It's - they're literally on the opposite ends of LA. You know, JPL is tucked away in Pasadena, and it's more academic. It does have that sort of bureaucratic vibe to it, really sweet people. You go over to SpaceX and it's, like, full-on tech explosion, super young, excited people running around. They're literally building rockets right about two miles down from LAX Airport. But it did show us that there's two really different cultures in the world of space happening right now, and, yeah - so it was pretty helpful.

GREENE: Tell me about the helpful because I'm actually - I'm always fascinated to hear comedians who, you know, might be doing stand-up or a show that seems so absurd but the level of serious work that has to go into it. I mean, what did you bring back to the show from doing that kind of research?

HEIDECKER: You know, one thing that really struck me, and I was - at JPL, you know, I kind of asked, like, what is the ultimate mission, or what is the ultimate goal that you guys are striving towards? And their answer was just like, oh, it's just pure science. It's pure having a better understanding of the world, of the universe and of how everything works. And I think that influenced us just into making sure that the show never felt too cynical or too - you know, we weren't trying to mock the space program as an idea, that the characters still had this sort of beautiful passion for the mission, for the idea of bigger things and, even though they were comically incompetent and they had, you know, all sorts of fun interpersonal conflicts that create comedy, that there was this sort of slight reverence or appreciation for the idea of exploring the universe.

GREENE: Are you mindful of the role that shows, like, this play for all of us in a moment that, you know, a lot of us are isolated and have been isolated because of a pandemic and the times are so polarized? Like, do you...

HEIDECKER: A little bit.

GREENE: ...Do you think about that?

HEIDECKER: Well, we - it struck us sort of once the pandemic was setting in, and we realized when this show was coming out, you know, the show is essentially about three people stuck in a room together.

GREENE: Quarantined.

HEIDECKER: Quarantine - there's literally an episode called "Quarantine"...

GREENE: It's an episode called "Quarantine," yeah. I thought about that.

HEIDECKER: ...Because one of them gets sick and they have to separate. And, you know, I think also just the subject matter of space travel and stuff is - seems to be percolating back up. There was the story about water on the moon being discovered. And even when we were making it, I think John said - he's like, I think people - in a moment of, like, getting everybody's spirits up - I think people are going to dig this because people like to think about this kind of stuff, you know? It's fun to think about living on the moon or going into space. That stuff hasn't gone away, and it feels like it kind of comes and goes a little bit. But right now, maybe it feels like, you know (laughter) - I think there's a lot of people going, like, I kind of have - there's something in me that might - that's sort of thinking, I got to get out of here. I got to get off this planet.

GREENE: Especially in a pandemic time - I mean, take me somewhere far away. Let me travel again.

HEIDECKER: Yeah, exactly.

GREENE: Tim, a real pleasure talking to you. The show feels like just what we need right now.

HEIDECKER: Thanks, David. I appreciate it.

GREENE: Tim Heidecker stars alongside Fred Armisen and John C. Reilly in the new Showtime series "Moonbase 8." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.