David Koechner talks improv, exploiting yourself to build great characters, and comedy by way of poly-sci

David Koechner talks improv, exploiting yourself to build great characters, and comedy by way of poly-sci (photo)

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When it comes to comedy, there are all sorts of approaches – not to the material, mind you, but the motivation to do it at all. Some performers are idealists, always in search of an elusive, perfect punchline; others enjoy the nuts and bolts of assembling a routine or a joke that functions on one level and seven others at the same time. For David Koechner, comedy is a simultaneous celebration of personal expression, and a practical way to pay the bills; after abandoning an early career in political science, the “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Final Destination 5” costar found his calling in improvisational comedy, and later, more straightforward acting and stand-up.

IFC caught up with Koechner to talk about his eclectic, constantly expanding career, whose evolution is a byproduct both of his own creative impulses and larger familial obligations. But either way, it’s what he loves, even when his convictions tell him to challenge the things that he doesn’t – not only in his material, but others’ routines, and comedy in general.

How did you get started in comedy? Were you always a class clown or what brought you to it, both personally and professionally?

I would say it’s probably an accurate description that claims many of us, the class clown thing. I grew up in a small town in Missouri with [a population of] 2000 people, went to Catholic grade school, and I’m one of six kids. That’s probably explanation enough right there, right? So yeah, by the time I was in second or third grade, I started realizing that I had a proclivity for making people laugh, and every kid is looking for power, and that’s a power base right there.

I think you just have to follow your, I hate to say gift because that seems nearly arrogant, so proclivity to make people laugh, and that’s where your power base is, so I continued down that road. I mean, looking back on it, it was pure attention, but you could also get along with everybody if you could make people laugh. So yeah, I was probably the class clown, and then what else happened? I was a poly-sci major in college because coming from a very small town, I had no role models, no one to model myself after because I never knew anyone who was an actor.

I think I went into poly-sci because I knew there was a stage, plus I thought I wanted to help people, and I realized in poly-sci that if you want to be a politician you’re either born into it, or you’ve got an amazing brain, which those are rare – and I don’t have one (laughs). So I visited a friend of mine in Chicago and I went to Second City and I noticed they taught classes. I realized, on my God, this is the way to do it – you come here, you learn, and that’s how you go on from there. But I’ve always enjoyed comedy and comedy performers, from the Marx brothers to Abbott and Costello to the original “Saturday Night Live” cast to “Monty Python.” I moved to Chicago and started taking classes with Del Close at the Improv Olympic while simultaneously taking classes at Second City, and then I would get all kinds of stage work and classes in Chicago, and then I would eventually get hired by Second City and from there I got hired onto “Saturday Night Live,” and from there, everything else.

You mentioned several people that you liked or who inspired you, but were there any comedians or performers whose style you emulated as you were developing your own?

I would probably say Lou Costello was my favorite as a kid. I don’t know if that was a style thing, but he was my favorite.

Second City is obviously well-known for being a great destination for improvisational comedy. Was there a point either concurrently or instead of improv comedy that you were interested in doing stand-up?

No, I enjoyed the group aspect of it. You know, looking back on it you kind of know why you go to it, because you’re there with someone else – you’re not going to fail alone. Although you do or you don’t in groups, but I guess there’s more comfort, you might say. But I do stand-up now, and I wish I’d done it always. I wish I’d done them simultaneously, stand-up and improv. There used to be a prejudice with improvisers against stand-ups because they looked at them as selfish on the stage, but that’s not the case; they had to be quicker.

The major difference is in improvisation, you have to have a developed relationship with the person on stage immediately, right? So I guess I’m more drawn to that because it’s more of an actor’s art, or I guess more inclined for an actor because for an actor, what’s interesting is what kind of relationship you have on stage. And I don’t mean lawyer-client, I mean, how you’re affecting each other on stage. It’s more theatrical, is the shorter way to say it, huh?

Having studied poly-sci before turning to comedy, how much did your sort of pre-comedy experiences find their way into your comedy material? Did you just realize that wasn’t your calling and decide to go in a different direction, or did you start out doing stuff like political comedy?

Oh no, I never did political comedy. I’ve always been politically conscious, but I never did political comedy. On “The Naked Trucker and T-Bone Show,” we would have references to Noam Chomsky, so that’s about as political as it got, just trying to heighten awareness perhaps of a other person or set of ideals. But I think the only real link would be that improvisation is democratic comedy, right, because you’ve got to work together.

Absolutely. Through all of your education and training, how formalized did you process become in terms of developing a character, either in an improvisational setting or once you started playing roles in films like “Anchorman”?

I’d say that’s where it started with the improvisational training, because that’s what you would do – if you can give a character a really strong point of view on stage, you can just sing, because we sometimes are encumbered by our own personal shortcomings, like you choose not to be naked and raw on stage, which would be awesome. Because what you want to have is an honest reaction to anything happening on stage. But what you can also do is play a character, and so I certainly had a lot of fun doing that. That was probably one of my strengths, creating characters who were improvisational.

Would you say your stand-up routine evolved out of your improvisational work?

Actually, it came completely from that. A lot of my stand-up is doing characters that I used to do on stage, like Naked Trucker and T-Bone or a guy I call Jokey, or this other character named Roy. So I do a lot of characters in my stand-up, and I also tell a lot of stories. So a play is a story, so that’s how it’s affected in that regard.

Was there something in particular that instigated your decision to start doing stand-up in addition to all of the other comedy projects you were working on?

Well, in improv you can’t make any money, and I’ve got a wife and five kids. So it’s twofold: A, I’d never done it so I wanted to, and B, its economically viable. I used to go down and do shows for free on Saturday nights doing improvisation, and my wife was like, where are you going? You have five kids – you’re not going to go out to an improv show where it costs you thirty dollars because you’ve got to pay for drinks and parking. But this way I get everything that I want – I get to go out and perform live, because I love that, and it’s an economic resource.

How much do you pay attention to the refinement of a joke – the nuances, delivery, even specific words that might make something funnier? Do you think about that consciously, or do you just stay in the moment?

Well, improvisation is all spontaneous and in the moment. You don’t write, you just react – and that’s what you’re supposed to do in acting too. But in stand-up, you do have to refine the joke, work on it, work on it, work on it. Now, the lazy part of me allows the improviser to find it, which is not the best of course, but you can find new material, even improvising on stuff you’ve already written, plus, you’ve got a certain stage muscle that’s just strong enough where if anything new comes up, it doesn’t throw you. You can invite it in and play with it.

Do you see the characters you play in films or on stage, or even as a stand-up, as similar to yourself? Or are they completely separate entities that are figments of your imagination?

Well, I think they all have to be part of you in some way. Usually it’s part of your ego in some way, or part of your insecurity, which is the same as your ego, I guess, but you’re exploiting a feeling inside you, I guess. That’s the least articulate way of expressing it (laughs). But I would say it has to be a part of you to ring true.

Is there a part of you that you specifically keep out of the spotlight or your characters, whether it’s something you choose to keep private, or it’s just something you don’t utilize very much in your comedy work?

I’m sure people around me would wish that were the case, but I always like to have fun. I’m not always on, but I don’t mind if a joke seems to be laying there picking it up and saying, there it is! But it’s an interesting question. Can you boil that down for me?

Sure. Where do you draw the line between yourself and the characters you play?

I don’t really keep any of it to myself. I mean, I tell some deeply personal stuff on stage, even in my stand-up; I talk about how my wife and I had our children. My wife lost her uterus when our first son was born, and we had to go through surrogacy and all of the rest of it to have the other ones, so I talk about that, and it’s as personal as it gets. But I don’t go so far as to talk about – if I feel like I hold back anything, it’s something that would exploit my family, which would be bad. If there’s a weakness that my wife or my kids had, I certainly wouldn’t expose or explore that. And I stay away from anything mean – I don’t do anything mean, and that’s just me. I have no judgment against it, but it’s just not something I do.

Is there ever too far in comedy?

Yeah. But what is it? I don’t know. There’s too far in one room or another. You know, in some rooms you can do stuff that’s all politically left or all politically right, and everybody would love it, but there has to be the right sensibility in the room. Personally, is there any line? Yeah, Do I have to announce it? No. The line for me is I don’t allow things in my life – I don’t allow racism or homophobia or misogyny, so that to me, if someone’s doing that on stage, I’ll call them out. I’ve done it before.

What about when you’re watching something like “Borat,” where the character’s ignorance actually satirizes racism or prejudice?

Oh, I meant being racist, or being misogynist, or being homophobic in an act. Dealing with those subjects, you must, I feel, right, to try and illuminate all of us, humanity. So if it’s done for a purpose, I have no problem with it at all. But if it’s done just for meanness or ignorance – I guess a better way to say it is anything done in ignorance, anything that’s presented to further glorify and destroy through stereotype, or reinforce an ignorant idea is something I don’t like. Anything that’s the opposite of that, I would embrace.

What’s your favorite David Koechner character? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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