To say the Coen brothers’ shaggy dog story The Big Lebowski has gained a cult following since its release in 1998 would be a bowling alley-sized understatement. The twisting tale of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski and a bewildering array of supporting characters has spawned a philosophy, a lifestyle, and even a serious-not-serious religion. Add to that list of offshoots Lebowski Fest, a celebration of all things Dude, Walter, and Donny that began in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002, and includes a screening of the film, live music, costumes, bowling, and new shit that continues to come to light to this day.

Before Lebowski Fest returns to Milwaukee this weekend (click here for a complete itinerary), we talked to UW-Oshkosh professor and Lebowski superfan Paul Niesen about dressing as The Dude, not dressing as Walter, teaching the film in his class, and abiding his cat.

Milwaukee Record: When did you first encounter The Big Lebowski?

Paul Niesen: I saw The Big Lebowski on opening weekend and I thought it was pretty funny and pretty weird. I laughed maybe only, oh, three dozen times. And that’s not all that many times when you consider how funny the movie is once you keep watching it.

MR: And when did you first start attending the fest?

PN: I came in through the back door. I picked up the book I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski that was put out by two of the guys [Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt] who came up with the fest down in Louisville about 15 years ago. I know I must have heard about Lebowski Fest, but I was in no position to attend in those days as a father of two young boys. I got the book thinking it was a book about the film, and it sat there on the coffee table for weeks. It turned out it was all about this fest. And so then I found the online Lebowski Fest forum, which was great for me because it was about writing one’s observations about the movie, which I then watched and watched and watched again and found out how cool everything was in the film. The fest people had a “Speed of Sound” tour in 2009, which was a bus tour where they did a little bit of something in lots of cities. Chicago was mine. Then I just started going as often as I could once I became free father-wise.

MR: Did you always dress as The Dude? I thought I read you initally thought about dressing as Walter.

PN: No, no, no. I walked into my first Lebowski Fest event wearing a Ray Nitschke 66 jersey, so I guess that’s about as Walter as I was. I had a goatee and was growing my hair long, but I looked silly. I did walk through the Best Dude Contest the next night, though. I didn’t care if I won or not, I just wanted to participate.

But before that even happened, I wondered, “Should I be a Walter or a Dude?” And I thought, “You know what? I’m going with The Dude. It’s the healthier choice.” To be Walter all night, to take on that persona, would be exhausting. I can kind of feel like The Dude all the time if I want to, and only I kind of know. It’s so much more mellow.

MR: You teach film at UW-Oshkosh and have used The Big Lebowski in your curriculum. How did that come about?

PN: I was teaching a film course on the films of California. We were watching Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. I said to myself, “You know, this reminds me of that movie I just picked up at the video store for my own personal collection.” And so I brought [Lebowski] in the next week. This was in the spring of 2000. I think I might be the first person to show The Big Lebowski in an academic setting.

MR: And what was your academic take on it?

PN: Enjoy, really. It was toward the end of the semester. [Laughs] We looked at a lot of similarities, particularly in the detection fiction aspect. A lot of detective fiction, both the written and the cinematic adaptations, take place in southern L.A. We also looked at the philosophical aspects, which the movie is just drenched in.

MR: And those philosophical aspects appeal to you?

PN: I’m aware of all the “Dude” behaviors. A friend of mine, Oliver Benjamin, created this religion called Dudeism. It’s comfortable. I don’t take it particularly seriously, although I am an ordained Dudeist priest, as anybody who’s got five minutes and the inclination and a laptop. It all boils down to basically, “Be a decent person.”

Oh, are we being recorded right now?

MR: Yes, I should have mentioned that up front.

PN: So you won’t be hearing my voice at all?

MR: No.

PN: Okay, that’s cool. Well, I’m going to see if I can get my cat into the basement, because he’s driving me nuts.

MR: Okay.

PN: Well, he’s not interested in that. He’s running away. So where were we?

MR: The quasi-religion that has sprung up around the film.

PN: It’s one of those things, I guess. A lot of people like to be part of a thing. It’s probably more than just posting memes on Facebook, though that’s what it seems to be a lot of these days. I’ve seen enough of that, really. I enjoy using the lines from the film.

MR: And what about the whole “abiding” aspect of the Lebowski philosophy?

PN: Right now, as far as “abiding,” well, I’m abiding this cat is what I’m doing… [wrangles with cat] Okay, now I’m free of the cat.

So “abiding.” What does that word mean? I was at this seminar once at UW-Oshkosh that the philosophy department put on. One of the just-on-the-verge-of-retiring professors said something that meant a lot to me. “It isn’t so much ‘The Dude abides,’ but ‘The Dude adjusts.'”

Think about it. Throughout this movie, The Dude, who is cool and takes life as it is, and is above all a decent human being, he has a life crisis. Sure, because of a case of mistaken identity, he’s put in a situation involving a woman whose life may be in jeopardy, though of course it turns out she kidnapped herself. But it leads to one of the biggest, and certainly in my life, the biggest landmark in change one can have here on Earth in human form, and that is to reproduce. He makes a little Lebowski. And so The Dude adjust throughout the entire movie to all of this stuff that is not part of his daily routine. He is challenged throughout, and he is anything but calm throughout most of the film. He’s running around all over town with his buddy Walter, who is anti-help for staying calm. And so the idea of “The Dude adjusts” works real well.

Sometimes the “abides” thing seems like “We’re going to go to Lebowski Fest and abide!” Well, I hope that you don’t have too much that you have to abide! I hope you have a good time instead of having to put up with stuff.

So the philosophy is, for me, abiding-slash-adjusting and dealing with what comes up. It’s my little prayer: “Please God, help me to be less of an asshole.” I think those are good words for everybody.