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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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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