Q&A: Chewing the Fat with Christian Finnegan
Fans of Chappelle’s Show and Best Week Ever will recognize Christian Finnegan — if not by name, by face. The comedian played the “crazy” white roommate on the Chappelle’s Show parody skit “The Mad Real World,” and always has a clever quip about celebrities on Best Week Ever. Finnegan is at the Laff Stop tonight to make you laugh even more with his stand up. Last week Assistant Night & Day Editor Dusti Rhodes spoke with him on the phone about dropping pounds, comedy clubs and why people become comedians.
Dusti Rhodes: So I’ve read interviews with you and some others where other comedians talk about you and I noticed a couple referred to your good looks. Is it hard being a comedian who people refer to as good looking? Like, they imply that one of the reasons people like you is because you’re good looking?
Christian Finnegan: I’m sorry, are you referring to me? Well, thank you. Feel free to print how good-looking I am as many times as you want. In fact, feel free to just post a picture of Robert Redford instead of me. You know, there’s really no – I’m trying to get my head around this – and there’s really no answer to that question that won’t make me sound like a douchebag.
I’m thinking: okay – no, that’ll make me sound like an asshole. No, will definitely sound like an asshole there. I would say that who you are on stage definitely comes into play whether you’re tall, whether you’re short, whether you’re fat, whether your skinny, those are all things that definitely define who you are as a comedian. You don’t have an instrument to play; you don’t have the sound effects – unless you’re Michael Winslow. You pretty much are selling yourself. So, your physicality definitely comes into play, sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s negative. I used to be a bit heavier; I lost a lot of weight a couple years ago and that definitely changed how people took me on stage. I’m not saying it made it harder, necessarily, but I definitely felt like I had to change what I did slightly because I felt like some of the jokes I used to say when I was heavier just came across as smarmy. I have all my fingers and toes and for that …
Because you didn’t eat them off when you were fat?
No, no. As tempting, as delicious and pudgy and soft-like as they were …
So you talk about being heavy – did that help you prepare for feedback as a comedian, both on and off stage? You know, like you have the advantage of a quick wit because you were used to getting made fun of?
I would definitely say, this is probably overstating things, there are two kinds of people who get into comedy. There are people who kind of just need to be the center of attention cause they’re entertainers first and foremost. They just want people laughing at them. The kind of kid who gets in the middle of the room and starts dancing for the family and stuff like that. And then there’s another kind who are only in comedy because they have some deep scores to settle. I’m the latter, I would say. My whole comedy career is basically just me trying to get back at five or six kids I grew up with. Yeah, I was sort of the fat kid who cried a lot. I was the kid who would, if push came to shove, if you wanted to prove yourself, if you had some sort of Napoleon complex, I was the kid who you could make cry and feel better about yourself. And so that definitely has been something that has stuck with me. A lot of comedians, they tend to obsess about things that other people would just let go of eventually. If you look at a show like Seinfeld, so much of that show was about obsessing over all little moments that any normal person would just move on with their day. That’s a lot of what comedy is, I think. Just really over thinking something. Having this experience and being like that was uncomfortable, why was that uncomfortable? What should I have done? And so much of that is taking things from childhood and taking them way too personally and just obsessing over them way too much.
You said you used to make jokes about being overweight and now you don’t. And I read an interview where you said you liked comedians who told jokes that sounded like jokes they would tell. Can you explain that a little more and also explain how and if you try to do that?
I’m trying to figure out what I meant when I said that. It could have been one of two things. I think you believe, when you’ve been doing it for a long time, you start to get a bit of an appreciation for who you are on stage and what really feels like the “you” joke. I don’t know how that would look in print.
What if I put it in quotations?
Huge, bold quotation marks.
I mean, I just remember and I might have used this anecdote in whatever you were reading, but I remember when I was a kid hearing that Prince had written “Nothing Compares To You” and I remember thinking “Why wouldn’t he just record that song? Why would he give it to somebody else?” but now that I’m older I can understand that sometimes you come up with a joke and you’re like “Wow, that’s really funny” but it just doesn’t fit in with what I do. I really like comedians that have a point of view, that have a real sort of world view. You know, you don’t have to be fascist about it, you don’t have to – not everything that comes out of your mouth, you know, you don’t have to be up there doing a manifesto. But I just think that you can’t sort of be wacky Steven Martin one moment and sort of trenchant Louis Black the next, you know? It doesn’t hold together well, and so I really like comedians who know who they are, and I think Greg Giraldo is a great example of that, but so is Emo Phillips. I mean everybody is different, everybody had their own – there are many paths to the waterfall, Dusti.
Laughs. Are you turned off by that kind of comedy where people are just sort of onstage ranting? Do you think there are ways where you can make certain things work, kind of like that “what’s the deal with” comedy?
I think that there are a thousand different kinds of great comedy. Just like there are a thousand great kinds of music. It’s very frustrating to me and for a lot of comedians that comedy gets lumped in with the idea that comedy is comedy, well no, not really. Because music isn’t music, you know? You might want to watch Black Sabbath and I might want to watch Dixie Chicks – probably not but it’s possible. And that’s not to say that one of them is bad and one of them is good. You might be in the mood for Black Sabbath one day and for Otis Redding the next, but there’s this weird idea in comedy that you can throw any bunch of comedians together and it will all be an enjoyable evening, you know? It gets frustrating sometimes that people don’t – I’m off on a tangent here – I think you sort of get what I mean though. There are different kinds of comedy and you can have one guy who’s doing very observational comedy, the quote-unquote “what’s the deal” comedy, and be brilliant at it and have somebody who does basically the same thing and make you want to put a shotgun in your mouth. I would certainly not claim that there is any kind of comedy that is off limits or that is verboten. I personally, right now, where I’m at I enjoy comedians who have something to say, who I feel like – I know as myself I made the transition a few years ago that I was going to try and stop making jokes on stage and pretending like I cared what I was talking about and instead try to talk about what I cared about and make that funny. Does that make sense?
There certainly a school of comedy thought, and sometimes I do this as a exercise just when I’m feeling blocked or I’m not feeling very creative, I’ll just say, “Okay, salt shakers. What’s funny about salt shakers?” You know and every once in a while you stumble upon a really great joke that way.
Because you really care about salt shakers?
Yes, probably not. I would say, much rather, what am I actually thinking about?
You said when you started off there was this kind of making-fun-of-yourself style, but do you think that kind of style is taking a cheap shot because it’s really easy to just stand on stage and ridicule yourself?
Well, it depends on how it’s being done. I think that people respond to it because there’s something that’s universal that I think when you make fun of yourself, if you’re doing it well, I think the audience has a universal camaraderie with you because they have those feelings about themselves as well. I think it’s a very human, sort of, impulse to laugh at somebody making fun of themselves because we all hate ourselves to varying degrees. Anybody worth talking to hates themself on some level. If you don’t hate yourself a least little then you’re not looking hard enough.
So, I noticed you do a lot of sketch comedy as well. Is that like a balance for you? Would you rather do just one or the other or do you like doing both?
Well, I mean doing sketch – I used to be in a sketch comedy group and it was so much fun. One of the guys I was in sketch with I actually still work with, like he’s my writing partner and we’re working on a screenplay and things like that. And the collaboration is really fun, but I will say that doing standup – it’s easy to work and there’s not as much time scheduling. One of the greatest things about stand up comedy is that it’s so mercenary. You don’t need anybody. You don’t need to rely on anybody, you don’t need anybody’s okay to do it. Even if you are just a beginner you can always to an open mike and do it whereas like a lot of my friends who are actors and sketch comedians they don’t get to do it that often because they’re so busy trying to get opportunities to do it. Once I kind of got into doing standup, that’s kind of the bulk, really of what I do. Just because it’s the most proactive.
I read that when you were younger you actually hated standup, so what finally brought you to the mike?
I think on some level I probably hated it because I secretly wanted to do it. But also it was kind of a timing thing that I came of age in like the real dark days of standup. I was a standup fanatic when I was a kid, I had stand up albums you know Steve Martin, Woody Allen, I had Bill Cosby Himself memorized, but once I started to get older, you know I was a child of the alternarock, early grunge movement* and please, I hate that I even said that because the irony will not come through.
I’ll denote it like “add irony.”
Well, you know what I mean? I went to college. I was a playwriting student. I wore black turtlenecks, I had thick glasses, I read important novels – I was a major douchebag and comedy just seemed so frivolous. But also the comedy at the time, some of it was just so corny like the guy with the slight mullet, wearing the sort of black t-shirt and bright yellow sport coat with the sleeves pushed up and the acid washed jeans and nobody was talking about anything real it was all just so slick. I just remember thinking to myself; I would walk by Boston Comedy Club, which is in Greenwich Village in New York, I would walk by when I was in college and you would hear the guy outside going “live comedy, ladies and gentlemen. Live comedy.” And I would think to myself “what sort of pathetic loser would ever be a part of that” and it turns out I was that sort of pathetic loser. I mean it’s something that I struggle with to this day and I think comedy is a better place now then it was then but then still there are a lot of people out there in every city who don’t go to comedy clubs because of the reputation that they have and I don’t blame them.
I wrote a story a couple months ago about comedy in Houston because it used to be such a rich thing here and now it’s almost impossible to pull somebody out to the clubs for a free open mike.
It’s really hard and also there is a whole generation of people my age and six or seven years younger who just were turned off by the vibe. They’re people who think they’re going to go to a comedy club and it’s all going to be “oh, you’re fat. You’re Latino. You’re this.” A lot of it’s just corny and awful and insulting to someone’s intelligence. There are a lot of people out there who love comedy and don’t go to standup clubs. They watch The Daily Show, they have every Mr. Show DVD, they love Patton Oswalt and people like that but the idea of going to a comedy club is just gross to them.
It’s interesting because I’ve talked to people about The Daily Show or Mr. Showand say you know those guys started off doing standup and people are just like “Really?” Like they don’t believe it. Do you think, though, that there is a sort of resurgence going on because of Comedy Central bringing more attention to good standup? And comedians who were part of that “bad comedy” generation that are now out there creating comedy that is more intelligent?
No, yeah, yeah. They absolutely are and a lot of comedians that I really respect tour the rock clubs and small theaters and stuff and I do some of that as well but I also want one foot in the kind of real standup world. My goal is to get to a point where I can lure those people out to a comedy club who wouldn’t go otherwise. I want a room of people out there who are there to see me. I mean, that’s what every comedian wants. As opposed to a group of people who are there because it’s Kim’s birthday. Not that you shouldn’t come to Kim’s birthday, please come out by all means.
But it’s interesting because it seems like every time I interview a comedian that do rock clubs I’ll ask if it’s a movement away from comedy clubs and they’re always like “no, I still want to play comedy clubs.” Sometimes that surprises me, because I remember I’ve seen some of the best comedians at the worst shows in a comedy club.
I know. You’re 100 percent right. What it takes often times to quote-unquote “kill” in a comedy club is the opposite of what it would take to make somebody actually remember you and to take what you say and think about it the next day. That’s actually one of the reasons why I love playing the Laff Stop and I’m not full of shit about this, it’s one of my favorite place in the country to play because I have a time there and, of course, people want to have a good time but they listen to what you’re saying. The club has trained they’re audience really well to actually listen to comedians. I never thought in a million years that that would be the case. I find that that I can actually go further out on a limb in Houston then a lot of other clubs, so I always look forward to going back there. But, you’re right, a lot of it is the clients and club’s part, too. That if a club manager, if they don’t hear people laughing every four seconds then they get worried, they don’t realize that okay maybe that sort of quirky, off-beat comedian was a little different then what you’re used to because he wasn’t just making boobs and beers jokes for 45 minutes but all those people in the audience are probably going to come to see that guy next time. As opposed to some guy who might kill by just pushing the sort of familiar buttons and everybody just says okay that’s cool and they all never remember one moment of that.
What are some comedians out there that you think “really have it going on”? Laughs.
Oh, Gosh. (Laughs. ) Going on? You’re getting a little crazy, Dusti, I’m not going to lie to you. Uh. Well, I mean a lot of them are very obvious: Louis C.K. is just doing amazing things right now. I want to be him when I grow up. Greg Giraldo I’ve always been a huge fan of, Bill Burr is just a force of nature. Who else? I mean, Sarah Silverman couldn’t be any polar opposite to the kinds of things that I do on stage or whatever, but I just so enjoy watching her. Then there are a lot of people around New York that I’m a huge fan of people like Laurie Kilmartin. There’s thousands, at any level of comedy there’s people who I admire there are the people who are selling out arenas – your Chris Rocks and Dave Chappelles – that I find massive inspiration from and then there are people who, literally, when I’m on Tuesdays in New York when I go play some club and there’s nine people in the audience and there’s some kid up there that’s been doing it for six months and you can kind of see that fire in his belly and it gets you kind of excited again and you’re like “Yeah, this is great what we’re doing.”
Do you know how you’re faring on the Comedy Central Standoff?
To perfectly honest about this I have no part in that, I want no part of it. It’s nothing against Comedy Central it’s just that, they do this thing where they take all their half-hours and they put them up there and have people vote on them as a way to have people go online and get Web site hits.
It kind of destroys what comedy is, like saying this is the best kind of comedy. You know, like when people compare British humor with American humor – the whole Saturday Night Live vs. Monty Python – debate. It’ just like their two different things, one doesn’t have to be better because they’re com…
Completely different, yeah. You know, you might like chocolate; I might like caramel it doesn’t matter. But also there is a main reason that I’m kind of not paying attention much because it’s the same special of mine they were making me make people vote for last year. So it just doesn’t feel right for me to be heaping e-mails upon my mailing list to get them to vote for something that I asked them to vote for last year and so honestly, if that makes me look bad because I don’t get into the Top 20, well I can survive. Part of it is because I happen to know that some of the people that are near the top of the list are using software to get repeated votes. If I had something new, hopefully in the late spring, early summer I’m going to be filming a DVD which I’m excited about, that’s actually a lot of the material I’m actually going to be working about next weekend is going to be for that. So, for a lot of people who have come out to the Laff Stop before, most of the stuff I’m going to be working on next weekend is different. But if that was already done then maybe I’d be willing to pimp that a little harder but I’m not going to try to con people into voting for something that they’re like “Wait, I’ve already seen then four times.”
Finnegan performs at the Laff Stop, 526 Waugh at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. tonight. For information, call 713-524-2333 or visit www.laffstop.com. $20-$25.