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.
And at the same time, you certainly get a vibe sometimes. And a lot of it has to do with what kind of school it is, what kind of venue it is – that makes a huge difference sometimes – what time the show is. There are a lot of things that go into it. If you’re doing a freshman orientation week show, that’s going to be very different than a show that takes place the week before finals. It’s going to be a very different vibe.
When you put the two of them together, I get it. One’s more wide-eyed and hopeful and the other is I’m getting out of here and I just want to party.
That’s exactly it. Spring Fling week, generally speaking, you can’t be dirty enough for them.
But I don’t think of myself… It’s funny – because I always think of myself as a relatively clean comedian until I actually listen to my set. Even in jokes that have nothing to do with sex, there’s something in there that’s not appropriate. Every time I have to prepare for a TV set, I’m amazed at how many things that I have to change.
It’s funny because I think of you as a cleaner comedian too, but then I listened to the last track on your CD, and I was scandalized. The amount of detail you go into in describing the sex that created this birthday girl…
To me if you’re going to be dirty, I find it’s always better to be really specific. Anybody can talk about jerking off last night. It’s another thing to say “I jerked off last night and wiped myself off with a Winger T-Shirt.”
I was in a sketch group years ago with a couple of guys. And one of the sketches that we were doing was about overhearing a guy overhearing his two roommates talk about having sex with his girlfriend. Something very highbrow. And we were talking about the sketch, and they were like “he should find out his roommates were having sex with his girlfriend” and my big contribution to the sketch was, “No, he should find out that his roommates fingered his girlfriend.” because that is so much more awful and disgusting.
And it’s putting that picture in your mind. It’s kind of like radio.
Exactly. It’s so specific that it forces you to imagine it. And that’s the way I like to think about being dirty.
But I was amazed when I was going through my CD, because somehow in a joke about car alarms I managed to work in “stabbing yourself in the dick hole.” Why those two things go together and why maybe I’d be further along in my career if I did not put them together…
But you have to be who you are…
You’re right. At a certain point, you can try to analyze what you do and branch out and do things differently. At the end of the day, you are who you are. And I just have to accept that I’m never going to be Otto & George and I’m never going to be Bill Cosby.
But as Patton Oswalt says, there’s room for everybody.
I absolutely agree. I’m at this point in my “career” – and please, if you have extra big quotation marks use them. Use the largest font quotation marks you can. I’m just getting to a point where I can really be who I am on stage.
To sound totally premeditated, I’m going round and I’m doing a lot of clubs and I’m doing a lot of colleges. And I need to do reasonably well. I’m trying to create a name and a fan-base for myself. And of course it is all me, but there is some stuff that I sometimes don’t do in certain areas because I just know it’s not going to go well. But I long for the day – and I think every comedian’s dream is someday wherever you perform, you know that every single person has come out to see you. And not because they have free tickets.
I was just talking about this in some ways with Steven Wright. He hasn’t done a stand-up special in a while and there’s a young audience out there who doesn’t know him. And in some ways he has to earn his bonifides again. So once you get it, it’s something that you have to maintain.
I totally relate to that. It’s even true in the microcosm in that comedy will not wait for you. If you decide to take a hiatus, that’s great. But you will lose grasp of things. I have friends who have quit comedy for six months and then when they come back, they expect to pick up where they left off. Well no, because people don’t save a seat for you at the comedy table. There’s constantly people coming up and taking that attention away. I’m not even talking about in the public arena. I’m talking about at the local shithole bar you perform at on Tuesday night.
I have friends who drifted away from stand-up, and there’s always new people – some of them are funny and some of them aren’t. But you have to be out there all the time. And you can’t necessarily get a little frustrated because you’ve been away, that you have to work on it [gaining an audience].
You pride yourself on trying to be as universal as possible, focusing on personal experiences that are common to everybody. But personal experience is so much broader now. I’ve been playing with fonts for 15 years now, but I’m not sure I’d think that they’re common enough to make jokes about them. How do you know when a bit is not just you?
Sometimes you just have to try it and find out. And sometimes you’d be surprised. You’ll think, “Nobody’s going to give a crap.” And you’ll be surprised that people will grab onto it. And other times, you’ll have something that you’ll just be sure – I’ll write out bits in my dumb little Moleskine [notebook] and I’ll be “this is a winner. This is my new a-list. I have just written out my Conan set.” And you’ll try it out and you’ll get nothing. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t jive.
And to be honest, certain crowds, certain areas are more prone to… I recorded my CD in Washington D.C. The Washington D.C. crowds are a bit more apt to laugh at a font joke than a crowd in, say, Jacksonville. And I don’t mean to single out Jacksonville, even though I will. It’s a shitty town. (laughs) That’s just a simple fact. In Washington, D.C. it’s a much more professional crowd. Every single person in there does or has worked in an office environment and they’re going to get that shit.
They’re cube jockeys. They’ve had to pad a term paper out in 14pt. type.
Exactly. They’re all computer savvy.
When you have a new joke and you’re on the road, does that mean you have to hold it until you’re in the right place?
I personally… and this again is addressing the fact that I’m not at the point in my career where I can be completely indulgent. I came up in the “alternative comedy” realm and over time I’ve sort of drifted out of it. I have one foot in it and one foot in the mainstream comedy club world. And that’s kind of the way I like it.
I do believe that if you’re getting paid to perform that you have a responsibility to put on a good show. And that doesn’t mean you have to pander. You don’t have to become a juggler if you’re not a juggler. But I do believe you should work at the height of your ability if you’re getting paid. Especially if you’re getting paid well. If people are coming out to see you then you have a responsibility to do the best that you can.
And sometimes when you have new material it’s not about trying to the best that you can. It’s about trying to make do and see what works and stuff like that. You have to do some of that as well. I just haven’t gotten to the point in my career where I feel comfortable trying a whole lot of new shit on the road. I certainly have newer stuff. I’m constantly turning stuff over. But generally New York – doing the bar shows, doing the clubs to a certain degree but more doing the alternative shows – is where I work on stuff and try and add it into my set. I figure if I do a joke once or twice in New York at some bar and I feel like it has something, then I trust it enough to put into the road set. It doesn’t have to be forged completely, but I just need to feel like it’s gotta little sea legs under it.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve been traveling so much over the past year or so. I’m looking forward to traveling a little less so I can work out more of my new stuff.
You mentioned how you have your foot in both the mainstream and alternative comedy worlds. I asked this of Mike Birbiglia too… do you feel like there is much of a gap between the two anymore?
More than you would think, honestly. People like Mike – the really good comics – Bill Burr, Greg Giraldo – their talent is undeniable. I’m talking people who are at it now. Who are in the scene now. They’re talent is undeniable, in that Bill will destroy at some one-nighter club in Jersey, and he’ll kill at Rififi because he’s just so good that regardless of what sort of cultural bias you might have, you’re won over.
I did one show at UCB, I think it was Aziz’s [Ansari] show at UCB. And it was filled with all the UCB kids. And Giraldo went up there and was doing mainstream, topical… very stand-upy, what you would think of as classical stand-up comedy. In other words, not the kind of thing that they’re predisposed to appreciating. For better or for worse. I’m not saying that they’re wrong for that. It’s just not necessarily what they want to hear. They don’t want to hear you sound like a stand-up. But he won them over because he’s so good.
So ideally I don’t think there should be as much of a gap as there is. But there still is. There is with me. There’s some stuff that I think is funny that I know places like UCB and Rififi and Liam’s [McEneaney] “Tell Your Friends” - those are the only places I can do them. Because it’s not worth it. It’s not worth trying to explaining to a crowd in Richmond, Virginia what YouTube is to try and do a YouTube bit.
Although I think you could do a YouTube bit now.
You’re right. That’s not the perfect example.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to beat your example up there.
But you know what I’m saying. Let’s say I want to do a dissection about what sucks about Dead-Frog. (Laughs) I could do that at Rififi probably.
You probably could do that at Rififi and you’d probably be right.
There is a joy in doing in-jokes, in doing cultural in-jokes. We’re all in the general frame of mind. I can’t do a joke about douchebag emo kids at the Richmond Funny Bone. I can’t do it.
To me, as an audience member, I enjoy the inclusive nature of laughter. But the exclusive nature - if I’m the only one laughing, I enjoy that sometimes. I know it’s not good for the comedians but I love it.
It’s a big internal battle I have. Because I do believe in trying to make personal experience universal. And trying to talk about things that are real and specific that everyone can appreciate. At the same time, I am a fan of the completely obscure reference which is why I love Patton (Oswalt) so much. He just mentioned “Upstairs at Eric’s” by Yaz. That’s the stuff I gravitate to that I enjoy watching. I find that as time has gone by, my rules for what kind of comedy I want to do seem to get more and more honed down. I’ve never thought of myself as a sort of comedy fascist like that, I just find that there are certain rules that I try to implement in what I do.
There’s times when a comedian writes a joke that doesn’t fit themselves – who they are. And I was thinking of that when I heard about an alternative cover for your CD, which is your lady angry at you while you both stand in front of the World Trade Center with the title “How Is This My Fault.” And when I heard that, I thought it was a funny bit, but I didn’t think it was you.
It’s not. And even it was, it’s certainly not Comedy Central Records. (laughs)
When I was younger, I was a huge Prince fan. I remember hearing that Prince has written “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Lenny Kravitz wrote “Justify My Love.” And I remember thinking, “Why would you sell a song that you know was going to be a big hit?” Obviously Prince knew that “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a very well-constructed pop song and certainly came out at a time that he wasn’t doing anything that anybody gave a shit about. I was surprised. But now I understand that a little bit more. Not that I’m an artist of that stature.
But sometimes you write something and you say, “this is just not for me.” A lot of the stuff that I think is the funniest in the world, I wouldn’t do on stage because it’s just not me. My first encounter with this is when you first start out doing comedy, you’re just doing jokes. What’s funny. I still like doing that. But a lot of it is, this is a joke for the blog, this is a joke for my act.
Part of it is just a worldview thing. You can either be the guy who puts out the absurdities of the world and have general frustrations about why is the way it is and why are you the way you are or you can be the guy who’s kind of dumb and says things that aren’t true. But you can’t go back and forth from one to the other.
Early Steve Martin was that kind of guy. His whole thing was: “I’m saying something that we all know is stupid and untrue but I’m saying it with complete conviction.” You can’t go from being that guy to being Dennis Miller in the next minute. You can’t do that.
As I keep doing comedy, I’m trying to lie less. And that means everything. And sure I fall into it, “Oh, I went to the carnival yesterday…” because I have a funny joke about tilt-a-whirls I want to do. Making up some imaginary scenario. I try to avoid that. I’m trying to be more specific and truthful about what I say on stage.
It’s that illusion of stand-up, that I just came out of the audience to talk on stage because I had something I had to talk about. But now people can give a buy to that.
It’s the equivalent to the fourth wall in theater. The actors are acting like that there isn’t an audience sitting in front of them and I’m going to buy into that.
But it even gets broader that that to me because you see so many comedians, especially these days, who will just create these absurd situations and you know they didn’t actually happen. Sometimes it’s meant to be ridiculous, “Oh I went up this homeless guy and he took a poo in my shoe.” Did he really? I don’t believe that.
But when it’s meant to be absurd it doesn’t bother me as much. But when comedians will set up these imaginary straw men and then knock them down, I hate that. I’d rather somebody exaggerate and pontificate on something that actually happened and get absurd with the way they describe how it felt than just creating some imaginary situation about some wacky person that they talked with.
You’ve said that you hated stand-up when you were growing up.
You grew up during the ubiquitous part of the boom years. And we’re kind of a boom now. Do you see any part of what you used to hate sneaking back into stand-up?
I absolutely do. There is a sort of drink the Kool-Aid aspect to comedy right now. And I worry someday people are going to wake up from the fog and say, “Wait a minute, what are we laughing at here?” And you worry about what’s going to happen to comedy in general if that happens.
When I hated comedy, I didn’t understand any of the things people were talking about; it didn’t describe anything I thought or felt. I loved comedy when I was a little kid. I had Woody Allen albums and I knew “Eddie Murphy: Delirious” and “Bill Cosby: Himself” word for word. Those were the things that made an impression on me.
As a became in high school and college, but specifically when I fancied myself very intellectual, pretentious young man – read Ibsen, wear black turtlenecks and thought I was a poet-warrior.
I know exactly what you mean. I went through the same phase.
And that was about the time of the boom with the pastel T-shirt with the bright-colored blazer over it and the sleeves pushed up and the cascading mullet over the back of the collar. And a lot of that was the function of cable TV and they had all this airtime and had had no programming for it. And stand-up was a very cheap thing to air at the time. So a lot of people were on cable doing stand-up that didn’t need to be.
Sorry to interrupt, but the funny thing I find about that now is that if you change the sentence to the web, you probably could be describing right now. YouTube has a comedian channel. There’s mySpace. I can think of five broadband comedy initiatives, besides Comedy Central’s Motherload, that are launching or have launched.
You’re absolutely right. Because it is a very inexpensive cheap way (to get programming) and, of course, comedians, we’re all so desperate for exposure that we’re all just willing to agree to the most egregious terms. It’s like the Wild West.
But when that boom in the 80s happened, there was this blithe way of describing life that I just didn’t buy. I don’t know what you’re talking about right now. I don’t anybody who feels the way you feel about things.
And I think if the existence of alternative comedy in the early 90s, if it did one thing, it brought comedy back to the place where it was talking in the way that people actually acknowledge. This is a human- being talking, this is not some robot spouting out surface slickness. This is somebody who is talking about things that I find funny in my real life that seems organic.
The whole thing about comedians bringing notebooks up on stage, I don’t know if the first wave of 90s alternative comics – Janeane Garofalo and David Cross and all those guys – I don’t know if they put a lot of thought into this. I got in a long argument with Greg Giraldo about this, about bringing notes up on stage. I always felt that for those early people who were going up against the “evening at the improv” comedians and all those hacky club comics that the whole notebook thing was a subtle way of communicating to the audience that what I’m saying is more important than the manner in which I’m saying it.
That’s a very interesting point. I never really thought of it that way. Because when I see it, I have that gut-level reaction of “Oh, they don’t give a shit about this.” But you’re right, that it could have been a strange signifier of authenticity.
And it was in the boom that just so much emphasis on performance and so little emphasis on ideas. And granted, this is a very revolutionary idea I’m talking about for 1992. I think when people do it now, it’s pretentious and lazy and ridiculous. (laugh) I do. But I do believe at the time it was an f-u to the way people thought of stand-up comedy. “No, I’m not going to get up here and be really slick and stay on the surface. I’m up here to talk about things and I’m going to make it very obvious I am up here to talk about things that I’ve thought about and written down.”
“What do your purchases say about you?” – it’s one of those concepts that when I saw it I got angry. I know a good idea and I see it and it makes me mad I didn’t think of it. So why haven’t you beaten that into the ground yet?
It’s funny. I love to do it so much. And that’s an example of something I wish I could work more into my comedy. It started as something I did on my blog years ago – “What your favorite album says about you.” I’d actually bring a clipboard. And I would have all these things. And somebody would suggest something and I’d be “Oh, I have that here” and I’d look for an appropriate comment. And it got to the point that I could do it off the top of my head. And I enjoy doing that, it’s a lot of fun. That’s not something I can work in at a club where people don’t know me. And also, you have to do in a room where people have general knowledge about music. You can’t do it at a Saturday early show where everybody is in their 50’s. They’re not going to laugh about a joke about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. That’s not really in their arena.
But I do want to do something more solid with it. And I have these plans. When I’m writing those—that is as close as I come to feeling like I’m working at the top of my intelligence and the most specific I get. That bit allows me to be really specific.
What I love about it so much is that what’s important to so many people are the things we read, and do and see. That’s who we are now in some ways. And it acknowledges and satirizes that in such a great way.
I saw your Comedy Central Presents special live. And after you were done, the host brought you back out and made a big deal about how you were Chad from the Mad Real World sketch on Chappelle’s Show. And then you mimed blowing your brains out. Did you kinda get why Chappelle left?
Absolutely. It’s so pretentious for me to even imply that my tiddlywinks bullshit level of notoriety…
I did. So don’t worry. (laughs)
You’re allowed to do that shit. I’m not. I do understand it. It’s died down a lot and most of me is glad, and part of me is, “oh shit, is it over?” People yelling, “You stabbed my dad” and “I had sex with Katie too.” And it’s really difficult if you’re up there to actually try and do material.
For somebody who’s just wadded into stand-up… I heard, Steve-O was going into stand-up. And I’m sure he’ll be glad for people to yell out crap or want him to staple his nutsack to his leg, because that ten more minutes he just killed. If you’re a stand-up first and you have material you want to do, it can be really frustrating. And so, I was on one fucking sketch and… Dave, certainly two years ago, was one of the ten most talked about people in the whole world including politicians. How can you be funny in that situation? How can you possibly work on material when people won’t shut the fuck up?
It’s not up to me to address all the racial things that he was dealing with at the time. But I can certainly see why the whole hero-worship thing… it’s not real. It’s not comedy. I can see him wanting to pop that balloon.
One of the things you’ve mentioned before is how awkwardness is one of your better comedy tools.
Some might say it’s my only comedy tool.
But you’re in shape now. And you’re married to the lovely, attractive lady. And the career is going well. Do you feel as awkward these days?
Well I am in shape. But I have a lot of excess fat guy skin so that makes me feel awkward. And also my marriage is going really badly. (laughs)
I will cop to the fact that I worry sometimes about people not believing me when I describe certain scenarios or things that bother me. Maybe I don’t identify in people’s minds as the kind of person I think I am.
I’m a very over-thinking person. I labor over situations and what I said and what I should have said, who I pretend to be as opposed to who I really am and how phony everybody else is and how phony I am. And when someone imagines (that), they have Woody Allen in their mind. They’ve had dumbed-down Hollywood typecasting fed to them for so long, that if you think a certain way that you should look a certain way to match.
One of the reasons why I ask is that comedians sometimes love to embrace their fucked-upness. It’s a piece of bullshit.
It’s something I juggle with a lot. Because I do have those feelings, then I also have that feeling that that’s just bullshit. And then I also have a third feeling that that feeling that it’s just bullshit is bullshit. (laughs)
Oh, the Russian nesting doll that your brain is…
Mobius strip. I do fear that that’s the case sometimes. And I do think that, generally, comedy doesn’t come from a place of comfort. I’m not saying you have to be miserable.
I don’t necessarily feel healthier than I was five years ago in terms of internally or externally. I still feel like the same person. And if somebody says, “Oh, he’s married now and his wife is attractive and things like that. What does he have to complain about?” Well, I have plenty of things.