April 27, 2007

Christian Finnegan Chats

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Funnyman Christian Finnegan called Daze up the other day to discuss college and comedy, celebrities and Chappelle’s Show. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.
Daze: I’m just curious, how come you don’t go by your given name Fletcher?
Christian Finnegan: [Laughs] I have never been called Fletcher, even when I was a little kid, actually. It’s the kind of thing where my parents wanted to name me after my grandfather, but they didn’t actually like the name. It was just sort of obligation. I think if I had to do it over again, I would have gone by Fletcher because it’s an interesting, weird name, but I think when you’re a kid, you go for the most boring version of your name. Like I wasn’t even called Christian; everybody always called me Chris when I was a kid. And when people called me Fletcher, I would cry. Of course, most things made me cry when I was younger. I was not a particularly manly child.
Daze: What’s your favorite thing about standup?
C.F.: The health benefits of course! I’m joking; there are no benefits of any sort. Probably that you can put your rage and frustration to good use, that when I feel like I’m getting angry about something totally not worth getting angry about, which probably happens about ten times a day, at least I feel like, ‘Okay, well maybe I can do something with this, make something of it, rather then just sit in my cubicle and stew like most people who have jobs.’
Daze: When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
C.F.: Uh, any day now I’m expecting that to happen. I was not one of those people who grew up thinking, ‘I’m going to be a standup comic!’ In fact, I kinda used to really hate standup comedy, probably because I wanted to do it on some level and I hadn’t really admitted that to myself. But it was one of those things where I was acting for a while in college, and then I switched and I went into playwriting, and I didn’t have the discipline to be a writer and wasn’t really interested in being an actor. Standup kind of was a combination of the two, and for whatever reason it was the first thing I did that I didn’t end up quitting.
Daze: What was your time like at NYU?
C.F.: Man, just one moment of drug-fueled sex after another! That’s not true at all. I actually didn’t drink or anything during college. I was very straight-laced. It was great. The thing with NYU is that there are great teachers, there are great classes because you have working professionals in the city, especially when you’re an arts major of some sort. But the school itself, once they cash your check, they really want nothing to do with you. So I didn’t really feel like I went to a traditional college; I felt like I was taking classes.
Daze: Did your playwriting skills help you at all in your standup or any of your comedy writing?
C.F.: Oh absolutely, without a doubt. Many of the tools are very similar, and also in the sense that I joined a sketch group so I wrote comedy sketches, I wrote for a TV show for a while and I’d done some writing on other things. Certainly my playwriting studies absolutely helped me. Then again, so did all the classes that I took in college. I took history academic courses or legal courses or philosophy courses. That’s the good thing about standup comedy: it’s everything forms it, everything from taking a playwriting course to stubbing your toe to toilet paper. Everything you do in your life informs your standup in some way.
Daze: Do you prefer writing or performing, one over the other?
C.F.: That’s a good question. I’d say that writing is definitely harder, in terms of that it takes more out of you. It causes you more frustration, but you get more out of it. I definitely feel more pride in things that I’ve written than things that I’ve acted in or performed in. But there’s a lot of seclusion. I don’t think I’m at the point yet where I could be just a writer. I need to perform. I need to interact with other people. If left to my own devices I would just play PlayStation all day.
Daze: What is the key to comedic acting for you?
C.F.: Boy, I mean if you’re talking about playing another character, obviously acting in a role. It’s funny because I immediately started spouting all the mumbo-jumbo that I was taught in acting classes, but you can’t play comedy. In a way, comedic acting is just like dramatic acting, except the stakes are higher, which sounds weird, but when you’re doing something comedic, you have to play it even more intensely. You don’t want to be, like, winking at people, being like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a joke now! Look at me being funny!’ The funniest thing you can do is to just commit to the lines that you’re given. If you really commit fully, and if the lines are funny as written, then your acting will be funny, if that makes sense.
Daze: Yeah, definitely. What was your experience like doing Chappelle’s Show?
C.F.: I totally won’t bother giving a funny answer. It was great. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with, and that was well before anybody had any inkling how huge that show was going to be. Everybody involved with that in any capacity, everybody from the people who were acting to the caterers to the people who were driving the vans, everybody kinda knew that this was going to be an incredibly funny show. But television and film history is filled with really funny things nobody watched. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this show is so funny! Comedy Central will never air it. It’ll be aired at two in the morning, and it’ll sink like a stone and everybody will say, ‘Man, that show was so good! Why didn’t it last?’ ’ It was sort of like Arrested Development or something like that. But it was a lot of fun and I feel honored to have been involved with something that can really stand the test of time. And I was only involved in a really small way; I was just in that one sketch. People always ask me, ‘Hey, you were in all those Chappelle’s Show sketches!’ No, I was just in the one. It’s just they aired it eight million times so I seem like a regular. But it’s nice to know that when the book gets written 20 years from now about what was going on in comedy in this era, they’ll probably talk about Chappelle’s Show and South Park. Those are probably the two things that had the biggest impact, and it’s cool to think that I had something to do with it.
Daze: How did you get involved with it?
C.F.: I was doing standup around New York and Neal Brennan, who was Dave Chappelle’s writing partner, was also doing some of the same shows as me. He just mentioned one day, he was like, ‘You know, I’m working on this show with Dave. We’re doing this sketch that you might be right for. We’d love to have you come and audition.’ I said, ‘Yeah, okay, whatever.’ I learned never to get excited about anything because for every 20 opportunities you have, maybe one or two of them will pan out. I don’t really get overly enthusiastic about anything anymore, learned that the hard way. But I waited in my audition and I read the scene, and I was like, ‘Oh okay, so when you needed a pathetic, like, wussy to get humiliated in front of millions of people, I was the guy that came to your mind. That’s nice.’ But went around and auditioned and obviously, Neal being friendly with me certainly didn’t hurt, but that’s pretty much how it was. It was pretty straightforward.
Daze: You mentioned South Park before. Do you think that South Park is funnier than, say, Family Guy, in your professional opinion?
C.F.: It’s all a question of personal taste, but I say that just to be nice and polite. But the simple answer is yes, I don’t think there is any comparison whatsoever. I laugh at Family Guy, here and there, but I don’t think Family Guy is important. I don’t think it really matters if that makes any sense. I’m not saying that just because South Park talks about more political, cultural issues; that means it’s better. Lots of things can matter and be really stupid. Like There’s Something About Mary mattered just because it was a very memorable moment; it made an impact, and I think we’ll remember that movie when we look back and look for a good comedy that came out in the ’90s. That will have made a bigger impact than a lot of other comedies. That’s kind of the way I feel about South Park. South Park, 50 years from now, people will be talking about, and I’m not really convinced that that’s true of Family Guy. Sort of like how there were bands out in the ’60s that were selling nearly as many albums as the Beatles, but we don’t talk about them anymore. There wasn’t enough there that people really cared about.
Daze: What do you think is the funniest thing that you’ve seen or heard on TV, movies, anything?
C.F.: Oh good lord. I would have no idea where to start. The Ali G Show, I think is just amazing. Borat was fantastic. The Borat movie was just fantastic, but I think the Borat segments on The Ali G Show were just as funny as the movie. I would actually put Borat up there with South Park and Chappelle’s Show in the things that people will really remember years from now. I see infinity things that make me laugh a day. I have a lot of friends that are so drenched in comedy during the day that they stop laughing at things because they can’t just enjoy things organically anymore. They always have to see the wheels turning. And I always hope to be the kind of person who can laugh at things that are funny and watch my friends perform and laugh at their jokes and not think, ‘Aw man, I wish that was my joke!’ I’d like to be able to continue laughing. That said, there’s just as many times a day that I look at something that makes me disgusted for the state of humanity, but that’s just me. And a lot of those are comedy related as well. [Laughs]
Daze: How is Best Week Ever as a gig for comedians?
C.F.: It’s just fantastic for me. Chappelle’s Show was great. Chappelle’s Show is — nothing can compare to Chappelle’s Show in terms of face recognition or people being acquainted with your face. But at the end of the day, not that many people are going to come see me at a standup club because of Chappelle’s Show. They might, but they’re not necessarily going to pay me a lot of money because they don’t know whether I can do standup. All they know is that one sketch. Whereas I think Best Week Ever, granted we’re not talking about … I don’t spend my whole act talking about Tara Reid. That’s not really what I do onstage so much, but at least on Best Week Ever, people are seeing me tell jokes. And for the most part, 90% of the time, they’re jokes that I wrote. They’re my jokes. So I feel it gives people a better idea of what to expect if they were to come see me do standup.
Daze: Do you get recognized for one over the other, or something else, more often?
C.F.: It used to be for a long time, 75% Chappelle’s Show, 25% Best Week Ever. And over time it balanced out. Now I would say it’s probably 60% Best Week Ever, 40% Chappelle’s Show, just because Chappelle’s Show is starting to recede into the past now. It’s been a while. And Best Week Ever has been on a longer time, so more people are aware of it. It used to be that if a guy would recognize me it was absolutely Chappelle’s Show, and if a woman would recognize me, it was absolutely Best Week Ever, and that muddled over time.
Daze: Is there a lot of pressure on you to be funny all the time, being a professional comedian?
C.F.: There is, and the secret is to just not give in to it. I think that you can tell from this interview that I’m not particularly hilarious right now, and that’s certainly by design. I would not want to be one of those people that has to be “on” all the time. I find those people incredibly tedious.
Daze: Even Borat?
C.F.: When he’s being that character. But I’m sure if you were to hang out with Sasha Baron Cohen, the guy who does Borat, if he’s being himself, he’s not trying to be funny all of the time. Of course when he’s a character, he’s meant to be funny. I’m talking about, and I don’t mean to just insult people, but I mean Robin Williams. When you see him on Conan or Letterman, he just won’t shut up and he’s cracking all these lame jokes and I would much rather be somebody like David Cross or Patton Oswalt or Dave Chappelle! Dave Chappelle doesn’t have to be funny offstage. He talks like a normal person; he has a regular conversation. And when he gets onstage, that’s when he’s funny. That’s the way I would like to be.
Daze: Who, yourself excluded for argument’s sake, is the funniest person you’ve ever met?
C.F.: [Laughs] Don’t worry, not in a million years would I ever claim that. I’m sure that there are comedians who would think that, but they are, without exception, massive douchebags. It’s hard to say because the funniest people that I’ve met are my friends because so much of comedy is about familiarity, and I’m lucky in a sense that they are comedians. And there’s nothing as fun as sitting around a table with a bunch of comedians who all know each other and don’t have anything to prove to each other, just having fun for the sake of having fun. That said, I’m trying to think of people that you would know … Greg Giraldo is a really funny guy to be around. We don’t hang out, but he’s very funny. Nick Kroll is a really funny guy. He used to be on Best Week Ever. He’s just like a really funny dude to hang around. There are so many, I honestly wouldn’t be able to answer that question. I’m sorry.
Daze: Since Greg’s going to be your counterpart in this show, how do you think that that’s going to play out onstage?
C.F.: Greg Giraldo?
Daze: Yup.
C.F.: Is he going to be on the show?
Daze: Yeah, he’s going to be coming to Cornell with you.
C.F.: Oh, okay. I didn’t even know that, because he’s not on all the dates. He’s on a couple, but I didn’t know he was on the Cornell date. I always love playing on the same bill as Greg; I’m a big admirer of his. I find him to be an inspiration. I aspire to be like him in many ways: I find his material to be so densely written, so rich and so, just, honest. He’s able to talk about social issues without seeming like he’s preaching, and I’ve always been a big admirer of his. He’s definitely up there for me.
Daze: Who do you find inspirational as a comedian, like when you started out, who did you want to emulate?
C.F.: It’s funny, one of the things that got be convinced to start doing standup was when I saw the Chris Rock special, Bring the Pain, which was from ten years ago. Certainly, nobody would mistake what I do with Chris Rock. We couldn’t be any more different. But here’s a guy who is talking about things that are obviously important to him, but in a funny way and they’re smart. I just really admire what he was able to put together because a lot of the standup that I had seen when I was younger just felt really cheesy and corny. It was nice to see somebody do it a different way. I was actually inspired by Mike Myers, even though he’s not standup. I thought to be a comedian, you had to be the guy that was just cracking jokes 24 hours a day, and Mike Myers didn’t really seem to be like that. He was a normal, almost dorky guy, but then when he was called on to be funny, he was funny. And okay, that means that somebody like me might be able to do that because I don’t feel like being the guy who’s cracking jokes 24 hours a day.
Daze: Since you’re on Best Week Ever, I can count you as an expert on laughing at celebrities. Who is you favorite celebrity to laugh at and why?
C.F.: There are so many. Some people I’ve just gotten kind of exhausted with. I think for me, I always like insulting, I always like talking about Star Jones.
Daze: [laughs]
C.F.: She’s a particularly loathsome person. Wilmer Valderrama for some reason: whenever I just need to throw in a punch line, I always find he’s like the funniest name to put in there. Any sort of reference to Wilmer Valderrama is a reference worth making. Tara Reid I really find to be a kind of joyful train wreck. I dunno, man! I’m on the KFed bandwagon now. I like KFed.
Daze: Have you ever met anyone that you’ve insulted on national television?
C.F.: I met KFed! I met KFed; we did a little segment for a Best Week Ever show last year, and that was weird. I don’t think he really watched the show or he probably wouldn’t have been in the same room as me, because I’ve said mean things about Kevin in the past. But I also met Screech, right around the same time.
Daze: How is a college crowd different from others?
C.F.: College crowds are more enthusiastic than other comedy club crowds, but they also have more dependency to go off the rails [laughs], because a lot of times that enthusiasm can turn negative. Not necessarily negative, but a lot of times people wind up participating in ways that aren’t helpful. Like not heckling, they’re being cool, but sometimes it can be a little bit like being a lion-tamer. The best shows I’ve ever done and worst shows I’ve ever done have all been in front of college audiences. But the crowds on the tour so far have been really fantastic, and the other comics on the shows are really great. All the shows so far have gone really well; they just keep getting better and better. I got a talent for horseshit.
Daze: [Laughs] I believe you, sort of. What’s up next for you after the tour?
C.F.: After the tour, I’ll be going back and doing a bunch of club dates. I haven’t really been doing any clubs while the tour has been going on. And then I’ve got a couple of other things in the works. I’m hopefully going to be taping a DVD by the end of the year, which I’m excited about. And I have a couple of projects that I’m trying to get off the ground, but nothing’s really set in stone yet. The short answer is who the hell knows, but that’s why I love comedy. That’s why I love what I do, because there’s no real set path. It can be nerve-wracking going to sleep at night and not knowing what you’re going to be doing six months from now, but also what’s exciting about it is you don’t have the feeling of being on a road that you can’t get off of. It’s not like, ‘Okay, I apply for this job, and then I get promoted, and then I get my one-week vacation a year.’ It’s much more up to me. It’s whatever I want it to be, and that’s kind of what a bullshit answer that was, but it is true.
Christian Finnegan will appear with Greg Giraldo and Nick Thune at the Statler next Monday. Visit www.rso.cornell.edu/cupb/ for more information about the show and www.christianfinnegan.com.