The Brian Stack Interview
If you wanted to know my thoughts on American Idol, what kind of art I hold onto in obsolete formats, or what I thought of the show Gigolos, well, now you have the links. Also, I interviewed Michael Showalter about his new book over at EMusic.
I had more fun putting up today's interview than usual because I got to watch some fantastic comedy clips and laugh out loud alone in my kitchen, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. If you've been a viewer of any of the Conan O'Brien shows over the years, then you'd likely recognize today's interviewee from any number of the show's sketches, typically the ones that are the funniest and oddest, like this racist, sexist singing ghost. Before writing for and appearing on the Conan shows, he did improv with the Ark at the University of Wisconsin before moving on to Second City for several years before heading to New York to lend his talents to Conan's writing team. He's been nominated for multiple Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program and won in 2007.
What's your favorite part of the Conan writing/production/rehearsal/taping cycle?
While I've always loved kicking ideas around with the other writers, and while rehearsals can often be very loose and fun, I think my favorite part of the show has always been performing in front of the live studio audience, especially when I'm doing a character I like a lot. I also always like watching rehearsals when there's a great band on the show.
Have you ever given stand-up a shot? Do you think there's much in terms of personality difference between sketch, stand-up and improv guys?
I've never actually tried stand-up myself, but I salute the courage of anyone who has, and I've loved watching my favorite stand-ups over the years. I've just never felt comfortable talking directly to the audience as myself. I much prefer going on-stage as some kind of character, or at least being part of an ensemble. Even at a recent "Conan Writers Night" at the Improvisation here in LA, all the other writers did stand-up and I did an improv bit with one of our other writers, Andres DuBouchet. I had a great time doing it, and luckily it seemed to fit in fine with the stand-up material the other writers were doing. As far as personality differences between sketch, stand-up, and improv guys, I haven't noticed much of a difference. We're all slightly damaged. Some of us just work in groups.
How often do you work with your wife these days on comedy material? Do you bounce much Conan stuff off her?
I've often run ideas by Miriam to see what she thinks, and her feedback has always helped me a lot, but we haven't actually written much together since our days at Second City in Chicago years ago when our cast would write the shows together. Most of the work Miriam and I have done with each other since then has been in improv shows like ASSSSCAT at UCB in New York, or bits at "Late Night" that she appeared in. Miriam has always been primarily a performer, but she's always had lots of funny ideas.
Have you created any characters who didn't make it on-air that you think America would embrace, if just given a chance?
I can't remember any un-aired characters of mine that I thought America was really missing out on, but there was one ridiculous character I thought up that was originally considered "too stupid even for us", but managed to squeak onto the show at the last second. It was a "Rejected X-Men" character called Shoeverine, who looked just like Wolverine but had shoes for hands. I'm glad that character made it on despite its stupidity since I've heard from several people over the years, mostly other comedy writers, how much they liked it. Another character that barely made it on the air at "Late Night" was Jon Glaser as the Reverend Otis K. Dribbles, a guy in a red hound-dog mask and clerical robes bouncing basketballs to "Sweet Georgia Brown". It had all us writers literally crying with laughter, but the studio audience greeted it with confused silence. Luckily, Conan's reaction to the silence got a big laugh, so Rev. Dribbles stayed in the show.
When you first started at "Late Night," were there any big and sudden lessons you had to learn abruptly about writing for TV (either in terms of the creative process or just what is/isn't welcome on network TV), or was it a pretty easy, friendly adjustment?
I felt very comfortable at the show right from the start. In many ways, working at "Late Night" felt like an extension of what I'd been doing in Chicago's improv community, partly because some of the people at "Late Night" like Andy Richter, Tommy Blacha, Kevin Dorff, and Brian McCann had come out of that community themselves. Conan also has an improv background, so the show had a very experimental, collaborative feel that felt very familiar to me. It also helped that, as corny as it sounds, all the people at the show from the crew to the band to the office staff were so nice and fun to work with, and many of them are still at the show.
Is there anything that's unspoken taboo comedy-wise at Conan, either because it's a topic that isn't considered that funny, or has been done to death?
Sometimes, the subject of racism feels a little taboo, even when you're actually making fun of racists. I got away with it sometimes when doing my "Ghost Crooner" character, probably because the guy was from the 30's and had been murdered even back then for his inexcusable views. Also, since the crooner was often singing hateful things about the Irish, I'm sure it helped that Conan and I are pretty obviously Irish ourselves. As for topics that seem "done to death", that issue does come up quite often, particularly with pop culture topics like Charlie Sheen's recent meltdown. I'm sure we've occasionally pushed some topics longer than we should have, but Conan usually has very good instincts about when to drop something. Not being a real fan of celebrity-related humor, I'm always more than happy to move on.
How do you keep track of your ideas? Are you a notebook-in-the-pocket kind of guy?
I do sometimes carry around a notebook, but my friends, family, and co-workers often make fun of me for writing things on my hand. These days, I also try to keep track of ideas on a computer, but even then I'm usually transcribing the ideas onto the computer from my scribble-filled palms.
How much tinkering do you do with your characters, or do they come fully-formed? I'm wondering, for instance, if you knew right away what kind of voice was right for Joe Galliano.
In the case of Galliano, I just looked him up on YouTube and tried to do an impression of what his equally insufferable jackass brother might sound like. Other characters I've done have developed in various different ways. Some never really changed much from the first time I did them, but others evolved a bit more. The Interrupter, for example, was originally brought out just to briefly interrupt a New Characters piece, but when Michael Koman and I began writing full sketches about the Interrupter, he grew into a much more developed character who seemed gleefully okay with his horrible, friendless existence.
Speaking of Joe, what have been some of your favorite costumes that you've worn for the show?
Our brilliant wardrobe department led by Scott Cronick deserves all the credit for those insane hats that my Joe Galliano character wore. Some of the other costumed bits I've enjoyed doing for the show over the years include Hannigan the Traveling Salesman, the SlipNutz, and Frankenstein. I also really enjoyed doing a one-time-only bit as a guy who looked like Edgar Allen Poe and was trying to brick Conan into the studio for revenge like in "The Cask of Amontillado". The guy worked at the Tell-Tale Taco, Manhattan's "only Poe-themed Mexican restaurant". Again, infinitely stupid, but we liked it.
Who are some of your favorite comic characters (past or present) created by other performers/writers? (Go as big or small as you like)
There have been so many "Conan" characters I've loved over the years that other people created. In addition to some of the more famous ones like Robert Smigel's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog or Dino Stamatopoulos' Tomari the Ostrich, I also love many lesser known characters that most people don't even remember, such as Jabba the Foxworthy, which was basically Jabba the Hut with a Jeff Foxworthy mustache, telling Foxworthy-type jokes that ended with "...you just might be a Hut." Maybe you had to be there, but if you were there and you were me, you'd have loved it. I think that was Michael Koman's idea. There are countless other "Conan" characters and characters from other shows that I've loved over the years. Too many to mention really.
I like that you enjoy looking back on old "Late Night," "Conan" or "Tonight Show" sketches (at least on your Facebook wall.) Are there many that you look back on that you feel didn't age that well?
First of all, I'm grateful to the kind souls who've posted some of those old sketches of ours on YouTube. I don't even know how to do that. I'm sure there are plenty of our old sketches that wouldn't really hold up today, particularly if they were very topical. Since much of our "Late Night" stuff wasn't topical, though, I've been happy to see how well some of it holds up years later, especially some of our old fake satellite TV channels.
You're a Midwest guy who became famous through his work on the coasts. Which town has your most favorite to live in?
First of all, thanks for referring to me as "famous" despite the fact that most people have absolutely no idea who the hell I am. I'm about as famous as my mailman. Of course, my mailman is Corbin Bernsen. As far as my favorite town I've lived in, I guess I'd have to go with New York. Chicago will always be home to me since I grew up there and did most of my early comedy work there, and I'll always love that city, but living and working in New York for 12 years was really a great experience, particularly the first several years when we lived in Manhattan. I like LA more than I thought I would, though, partly because the weather's so beautiful, but mostly because so many of my old friends live out here now. It often feels like Chicago-West to me.
Do family members or new friends ask you to be funny on-command? Typically, what do you produce at this request?
I've been lucky enough to not have family and friends expect or request that kind of thing from me very often. Most of them seem to sense that I'd probably panic and run out into traffic.
What TV shows do you watch regularly?
There are quite a few comedy shows I love and watch regularly, but these days I often find myself gravitating even more to dramatic shows like "Breaking Bad", "Mad Men", "Justified", or to documentary stuff like "American Experience", "Frontline" or the History Channel. I also love "CBS News Sunday Morning". It always lowers my pulse, even though I drink strong coffee while watching it.
What's the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
Lots of things make me laugh out loud, but the last thing I clearly remember making me laugh out loud was when my 8-year old daughter Colette laid a bunch of her drawings on the coffee table, asked me for a bowl, a small piece of paper, a pen, and some tape, and then put a little bowl next to her drawings that said "Tips".
What makes your kids laugh?
They love silly stuff like "Spongebob", which Miriam and I might love even more than they do. We also just showed them "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" for the first time and they were falling off the couch laughing. Being 13 and 8, they also love some of the tween-oriented shows like "iCarly".
How's your puppy doing?
Darby's doing great, thanks. He can usually be found jumping up on the kitchen counter for leftover pizza, or chewing our socks into shreds. Golden Retriever puppies get away with murder. Literally. Darby has killed several drifters.
How does it feel to be the 279thth person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I feel nearly as honored as the 278th, and slightly more honored than the 280th. I assume that will be Corbin Bernsen.