Though perhaps best known for his many appearances on vh1’s “Best Week Ever,” Christian Finnegan is a stand-up comedian and a very funny one at that. In late October, Christian Finnegan released his first CD entitled “Two for Flinching.” One of the things I find very interesting about Christian is that he’s attempting a balancing act that stays true to the alternative world while appearing in comedy clubs, looking for ways to make his specific experiences and observations universal and yet unique. I talked to Christian about how comedy waits for nobody, specificity when being dirty and why maybe having a piece of paper to refer to while performing was maybe once a good thing.
One of the things that Kambri (Christian’s wife and publicist) mentioned to me is that you know a town’s level of sophistication through salad dressing? Could you share what the theory is?
My theory about whether a town is a valid place – culturally – is if the restaurant serves balsamic vinaigrette. That for me is what will separate a culturally valid place from a shithole.
It’s all or nothing. There’s no staggers in between?
Listen, I don’t trust people who see shades of grey. (laughs) I’m like our President, I see right and I see wrong.
There’s balsamic vinaigrette and then there’s evil.
Generally, I’ll go to these places and I’ll ask about salad dressings and they’ll say, “Well we have ranch and blue cheese.” I’ll ask if they have anything not goopy and they’ll say, “I think we have creamy Italian.”
So to me balsamic vinaigrette is a hallmark of civilization.
Now this may sound ridiculous and silly, but I over-think this, so what the hell? Do little cues like this tell you what kind of audience you might be facing?
Well it depends, most of the time, these are colleges – college towns… the ones that don’t have balsamic vinaigrette… so in depth on balsamic vinaigrette here. That’s gonna be my tag, my hook – “Christian Finnegan: the balsamic vinaigrette comedian.”
But usually these are college towns (that I’m performing in). And a lot of college towns that are perfect valid and have perfectly intelligent people will be in the middle of nowhere. Not always.
Before I started traveling a lot, I really didn’t know how many colleges were out there and just how wide the pendulum swings from smart college to dumb college. There are a lot of people out there that are in college who I would not trust to park a car. Everybody goes to college now. No matter who you are. No matter what you do.
This is gonna sound so culturally elite. I went to a school and one of the girls who picked me up at the airport was studying horse grooming.
Horse grooming as a college major?
Yeah. A horse trainer tech or something like that.
That’s what apprenticeship programs used to be.
Exactly. You wanted to be a wizard, you met a wizard and learned his craft. You wanted to be a blacksmith; you didn’t have to go to University of Rhode Island to forge steel.
The reason I kind of explored these little cues is that when a comedian talks about reading a crowd and saying that they wanted this kind of material, I’m not really sure I understand what that is.
I kind of see both points of view. I think sometimes, as a comedian, you can fall prey to assuming an audience wants dumber material than maybe they do. That they don’t initially laugh at maybe one of your more obscure references and you just kind of throw in the towel and go all boobies and beer.
Steven Wright, to my mind, is probably the most influential comic of our time. His unique delivery of one-liners can be traced like a family tree to many comedians both directly and indirectly. To me, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a young audience out there who may have never seen him perform stand-up. That’s about the change this Saturday at 9PM with Steven Wright’s first comedy special in 15 years entitled “When the Leaves Blow Away” airs on Comedy Central. (If you haven’t seen it yet, you can see a clip of Steven Wright’s performance here.) I talked to Steven about his style being just him, the logic of jokes and Johnny Carson as someone he never want to be measured against.
It’s funny how many reporters ask you how your style developed. Why do you think so many of them are flummoxed by the way you talk because that’s always your answer: “This is how I talk.”
I think that somehow… I don’t know. They think I’m making it up. I don’t know why though. I’m so used to the question because of so many years of that question. I used to think, “What do they think I’m making up?” Not only I’m making the jokes up I’m making a whole way of talking up too. And I didn’t understand why they ask me.
All I can think of is maybe in their mind because it’s distinct – the style of my voice is distinct that they think that it’s not real. I’m only guessing.
It always sounds like that to me that they assume that is where the humor is coming from. That it is what is making the material funny. Or funnier.
I think that too. I think that they think that. I don’t know if that’s true because I’ve only ever talked this one way my whole life. (laughs)
Part of me thinks by accidentally that is making it work and good. But it might have worked with other voices too. I think that definitely it’s a good match.
But I didn’t decide. That’s just how I wrote jokes. This is just how I speak. There’s no big meeting. There’s no game plan.
Brian Posehn just reissued his comedy album Live in Nerd Rage with Relapse records, an indie metal label, just last week. He was a writer behind many sketches from Mr. Show including ” Titanica” and “The Four Voices” and just co-authored a comic book called “Last Christmas” which features Santa delivering presents and killing mutants in a post-apocalyptic world. I talked with Brian about the intersection of metal and comedy, balancing new material and old and being stalked by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Your album title is interesting because, from everything I have ever seen you in, you seem like a pretty sweet guy. Do you think anger fuels your comedy?
Just that one bit, I think. I don’t think it’s a recurring theme in my act so much. That just felt like a good bit for the album. I was looking for a name for the album and it was kind of already out there – the guy who draws (the comic book) Powers had drawn a crude version of that.
Mike Oeming, right?
Yeah. Oeming had done that in the background of a panel in a Powers issue and it just made me laugh. I was just looking at this fight in the pages, and there I am in the background on this telephone pole that said, “Brian Posehn: Live in Nerd Rage.” So, when I was just trying to think of what to call it, I was just going through all these things from my act like “show a little neck” and all these other catchphrases or potential catchphrases. And that just felt like the best fit. That bit- a lot of people liked when I did it on Comedy Central. Even though it was several years ago, I still get compliments about it because it’s so real that they can identify with it.
What made me curious about it was I heard that you were kind of an angry kid.
Yeah, I was. I wasn’t always an angry kid. I was kind of a sweet kid until people pissed me off so much. I didn’t get it. I remember when people first started to make fun of me. I was like, “Why are you doing this? I’m nice. I’m funny and my mom loves me.” (laughs) I kinda didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it. And then, around high school, I had some pretty bad things happen where I got really mad.
Actually in Junior High, I got sent to the counselor’s office because I’d threatened to kill a kid. I was a smart kid, and I thought, “Here’s a kid who’s messing around with me but I don’t think he wants to take it to the next level.” So I just thought that, if I threatened him with the ultimate level, he would leave me alone. That’s actually the logic I went through. He was a new kid, and there was the kind of prison thing where he thought he had to take out the big nerd – making fun of me. And I wanted him to think I was psycho. We were both kind of doing prison things. I didn’t take my pudding spoon and sharpen it.
But you could have.
Louis C.K. recently debuted his stripped-down sitcom Lucky Louie on HBO. The show while receiving effusive praise in some corners, including this one, it evoked other outlets to sneer at its swearing and sexually frank look at married life. Barbra Walters even decribed the show as “unbelievably vulgar and racist” right before Louis CK appeared on the show. I talked with Louis CK about some of the critical reaction to the show, the broken trust of the laugh track and how “meta” concepts have come to rule comedy.
Is HBO happy with the show?
Definitely. With the ratings trending up and with the show having received a mixed but interesting reaction, we’re definitely waiting for good news. This week, if the ratings go up—that would be really great. But if they go down, we’ve got twelve weeks for people to get acclimated to this show. But because we’ve got lead press reviews that are good and a whole bunch of other shitty ones… we’re still 47% on Metacritic. We’re not bad. (Note: Metacritic users give the show 7 out of 10.) But there’s still people inside the LA Beltway who want the story to be that we’re getting killed, which just ain’t true.
Why would they want to see something like this fail?
Well, ask yourself why these kinds of shows have sucked for so long. All these people have taken part in it. They’ve all participated in it.
For so long, people have been talking about the death of the sitcom…
And yeah, they’ve enjoyed it. They like that. And part of the reason the sitcom is dead is because they don’t like stuff that’s different. They just don’t. They want to be able to identify stuff and say what it is. Everything that is popular in sitcoms has been a mystery to me completely. I’m just not a fan. So I’m really not surprised that I’m running against the grain with these people.
I remember reading an article about Frasier when it was going off the air – a very sad obituary from a TV writer who said that Frasier was such a smart show, and it was for the Mensa set. And he gave an example, where he quoted some line about a woman that Frasier thinks is very mean and he says, “Her idea of tough love is the Spanish Inquisition.” And they thought that was very smart—just because he mentioned something from history.
New York City’s second annual Sketchfest starts this Thursday with three days of performances from the best groups not only in the Big Apple, but across the country. I talked to Alex Zalben about what people can expect from this year’s fest and how to enjoyably endure seeing every show in the festival.
What are some of the newcomers to the festival that you are most excited about introducing to New York?
It’s like you’re asking me to choose one baby over the other… But I’ll try. Cody Rivers show is fantastic. They’ve been performing together for only a short while (relatively speaking), but have blown up on the sketch scene in the past year, and I can see why. Their show walks this incredible line between ridiculously surreal premises that could be mistaken for experimental theater, except for the fact that they each have a clearly defined idea behind them, which brings them into the realm of sketch. Fempyre is a rock duo from LA, and they are hilarious, rocking, and not to be missed. Slow Children at Play are awesome. They’re still in college (at Boston University), but are so polished and funny, we had to take them into the festival. I think their tape made me laugh the hardest out of the over 100 submissions we got. And American Dream from Chicago are excellent, just really well done, solid sketches.
Are there any targets that seem to be common across sketch groups this year? Does anything thematically tie some groups together?
I think that comedy targets are in a little bit of a transition period right now. Two years ago, it was definitely political humor. Last year, people were all abuzz with The Aristocrats about dirty or blue humor. With that faded away, I think something new hasn’t filled that void yet. If I was to guess, I would say that it’s not a target, but an approach that’s on the horizon. The rise of shorter form programming on the web has been an incredible boon to sketch comedy. People don’t want to see 22 minute shows, or ever 15 minute shows. They want three to five minute content. Who has that? Sketch comedy groups. That’s how we structure everything. It’s yet to be seen how it will fall out, but people are catching on very quickly that what they want for their next-gen programming in sketch. Conversely, I think there’s a huge push in the sketch community to embrace the theatrical aspects of comedy. It’s fine and good to stand their and tell jokes, but people are realizing that what makes sketch different is that it’s theater. You have props, characters… Why not take it to the logical extreme, and actually work on blocking, stage presence, pauses, etc. They’re two very different directions people are going in, and I’m excited to see how both go. Also, lots of jokes about bears.
Does the potential for industry attention change the tone of the fest at all?
I think it certainly puts the heat on the performers to put on the best show they can, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all. That being said, there’s a concerted effort on the producers part to not make this an industry supermarket. When we first decided about the festival, we picked and chose pieces from other SketchFests around the country, and what we enjoyed about each of them. The one constant is that they are full of a great, supportive, positive community of people who, more than anything are there to check out as many shows as possible, and laugh and clap whenever they can. So that was our number one priority: making this a great experience for the performers, making sure that all they have to worry about is performing, and we can take care of the rest (getting them into the shows, feeding them, being as prepared technically as possible, etc.) So to that end, we take care of the industry and press behind the scenes, in the same way, and just let the artists deal with the positive fall out.
As one of the four members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Besser has founded a theater, a school and a community that finally made New York a rival to Chicago for improv. He’s since moved to Los Angeles, extending the community and establishing another coast for students and peers to play, where the industry can see much of the best live comedy performed today. However, Matt right now is more concerned with the middle of the country, as he is taking his one-man show about religion, atheism and the fighting Razorbacks “Woo Pig Sooie” across the South for a series of dates in June. We talked about the reaction he hopes his show will spark in the bible belt, as well as some of the politics surrounding it, along with touching on maintaining the integrity of the growing UCB and the sometimes cult of Del Close.
How do you think your Southern performances of “Woo Pig Sooie” will differ from our LA or New York performances? Are you expecting more negative reactions?
If I get negative, that’ll be a lot of fun. (laughs) You saw the show and it’s kind of a dialogue too, I like to talk to the audience a lot. And yeah, in California and New York, kinda preaching to the converted in a way. And I still expect to have liberal audiences, but I also expect because it’s in the bible belt I’ll get more reaction to certain things.
Usually when I do that show, everybody has different lines. Some people will be laughing along, and I’ll start talking about the pope or priests fucking kids up the ass and all of the sudden they’ll be like, “Whoa! Not funny any more!” (laughs) The Jews will be laughing and I’ll make fun of the Sabbath and “Hey, not funny anymore!”
You make that point in the show. Does the dialogue ever get too thick or does that comment defuse things right away?
I encourage it a little bit. If you know my work, I like a little bit of confrontation. I think that’s fun. I’ve only done this in New York, San Francisco and LA, pretty liberal audiences anyway. The only time it really got a reaction was I had a Catholic in the front row who kicked a chair against a chair. I engaged him and said, “What’s your point? There’s a story about priest molestation in the paper every Sunday, how do you feel about that? If there was a story about truck drivers molesting kids in the paper every day, we wouldn’t have trucks anymore. We’d find a different way…”
Eugene Mirman’s recently released second album En Garde, Society! was accompanied by self-generated protests against himself. We talked about Emo Philips (an early comedy hero of Eugene’s), what his act would be like if he had stayed in Russia and including a little failure on each CD.
When I talked to Mike Birbiglia, he described you as the Andy Warhol of Comedy, do you feel like that’s an accurate description?
He said, “Oh, I brought everybody leaves…” That’s very funny. I know exactly what he means. He’s also the Jimmy Carter of Comedy. I’m either the Andy Warhol or the Velvet Underground of Comedy. (Laughs) And I’m talking about Loaded, I mean, their really commercial album. Where they finally got their sound down and broke up.
Also when I was talking to Mike, I told him that his material is equally at home at some place like “Invite Them Up” and at a comedy club. Do you feel the same way about your own material?
What I feel in terms of comedy clubs is that some are great and some are not, but I’d rather just draw my own audience that wants to see me. If I’m in a comedy club, it’s good in a sense that you do get other random people. But if you do it a rock club or a theater, the people who are coming to see it want to see you or someone you’re with or someone with a certain sensibility. Not to see comedy in general.