Comedy Interview: David Koechner
The veteran actor and comedian returns to Columbus for a three-night engagement at the Columbus Funny Bone starting Thursday night
“I’m in Atlanta shooting Stan Against Evil,” David Koechner shares as we begin an early morning phone conversation a few days ago. “It’s an IFC production, and my good friend Dana Gould created the show and actually wrote this episode. And my other good friend Rob Cohen is directing this week. But it’s got Janet Varney in the show, as well, and John C. McGinley.”
We talk for about a half-an-hour in a brief window of downtime before he returns to the set to film. He’d just finished a weekend stint at Gotham in New York, and as soon as his obligations with Stan… are complete, he’ll be on a plane to Columbus for a three-night engagement at the Funny Bone. He’s perpetually and, as he insists, fortuitously, busy.
His acting portfolio is astonishingly diverse and layered, and keeping track of myriad of film, television, voice-over, and stand-up comedy stints in which he appears on the regular is a daunting task at best. But you can’t blame his industry colleagues for desiring Koechner’s indefatigable gusto. Without a doubt, he’s of one of the hardest working and versatile character actors and comedians in the business.
Last week, he and Oscar winner Jim Rash (Community, Mike Tyson Mysteries) made their box office debut as the protagonists of Dan Mirvish’s indie vehicle Bernard and Huey, based on the work of cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer (a project Koechner and I discussed when it was still in pre-production the last time he was in town two years ago). The film focuses on the relationship between two friends — whom Koechner laughingly refers to as ‘stone aged characters’ — who suddenly find themselves back in each other’s lives after a 25 year hiatus, and the unearthing of their individual complications and flaws as a result of their unexpected reunion. The cinematic shades Mirvish uses to illuminate his lead characters are compelling, as is watching both Koechner and Rash stretch themselves in their roles among a stellar cast that includes Mae Whitman, Bellamy Young, Eka Darville, and veteran actor Richard Kind.
“You know, it’s always great to work in independent film,” Koechner says of his experience working on the project. “Because although it has its challenges, you’re always going to get an interesting cast, which we certainly did. One of the major pluses. And you’re working with material that’s not necessarily mainstream and can be a little more challenging, so those are the up-sides, surely, of doing a picture like that. And when it all comes together, you’re very happy because you don’t always know what you’re going to get, you know? Because the budgets are low and there are a lot of limits, so if it turns out, you’re like, ‘well, alright! Well done everybody!'”
Koechner’s television work also continues to thrive, recently wrapping work on the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts after playing series regular Carl “Tush” Tushinski for two seasons. On July 11, truTV will premiere Bobcat Goldthwait’s brainchild Misfits and Monsters, a comedy anthology series that will feature Koechner, Melissa Joan Hart, Michael Ian Black, Dave Foley, Seth Green, Danny Pudi, and a host of other actors and comedians that will revolve between the show’s unique weekly story lines.
I was really sorry to see Superior Donuts get cancelled. I thought the cast was quite excellent and a lot of fun to watch. I ask this with a tremendous amount of respect because I know how much the show meant to you and your fellow actors, but how do you contend with having the fate of your creative work rest in someone else’s hands? I work a rather predictable nine-to-five job, so the potential for flux doesn’t exist in quite the same way. But it has to be difficult when you don’t get to decide whether or not a project exists from one moment to the next.
“Well, you know, I’m like you, too — I’ve always worked. So I just keep working. I’ve not been unemployed since I was seven. I used to work for my dad in his manufacturing plant when I was seven years old, so for me work is always available, you know? It’s another reason I do stand-up — I can create a job. So that’s available to me. You’ve got to diversify your options, your talent portfolio, if you will. Again, I’m very fortunate in that I always have other means of acting work. And, yeah, it hurts like hell because the cast was so good. Genuinely. The greatest loss is not being able to hang out with those people week-to-week. Great people. Plus, it shot ten minutes from my house. But in this business, you have to have this forward-thinking attitude of, ‘Well, there’s going to be more.’
You can’t focus on the past, unless they’re past wins. But you don’t focus on past losses. You go, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ It hurts, but there’s no up-side in dwelling on it. And I started seeing it coming, you know? They developed four other ethnic shows at CBS, and I was delighted thinking, ‘Well, finally! We’re going to have a partner show! We’re going to have an hour block!’ And then when I saw they were slowly picking up those new shows they developed, I kind of felt the writing was on the wall when there was no talk, when there was no walk. I was like, ‘Oh, great.’ So it wasn’t a real shock or surprise, which is too bad, because I think this year we were really gonna turn a corner in terms of what was possible.”
And I’ve always found that frustrating as a viewer. There have been multiple times when I’ll commit to caring about a show and its characters, only to have it disappear without notice when I feel like it was just finally starting to hit its stride.
“Right! It’s usually season two where they go, ‘Oh, well this is gonna stick around? Now I’ll invest.’ Yes. Yes, that’s what I’d kind of noticed, that people had heard of it but hadn’t invested their time, because that’s worth something. I’m kind of puzzled. Part of me wants answers, but there aren’t going to be any. And so you just move on. So I’ve got two other projects I’ve been hired for, you know, but I kind of wish I just had one because I always have two or three. Because I do voice-overs as well on F is for Family, American Dad, King Julian, and Captain Underpants, and a bunch of different ones. So there’s always work, but it is tough when the one that’s so fun and so rewarding is taken from you, It sucks.”
I want to talk about your work with your charity organization, The Big Slick. I was reading just the other day that you raised two million dollars this year alone.
“This year? Yes, 2.1!”
That’s really phenomenal. And so it’s you and this outstanding, loving cast of your friends and colleagues who come together to help families in need, which is just fantastic. Tell me a little about how that’s evolved over the years.
“It was certainly always more casual than all that. It started…just the first few with Rob Riggle, Jason Sudeikis, and Paul Rudd getting friends together for a poker tournament in Kansas City. And they’d hoped to raise a little bit of money, and they wanted to raise fifty [thousand], and they raised a hundred. It exceeded their expectations and that just kept happening. My third year, [Eric] Stonestreet and I came on as full hosts. I’d been a guest, and anytime they needed someone to get on a microphone and yap on it, they would just give it to me [laughs], ‘Here, Koechner! Talk now!’ So I’ve known all those guys for a long time, and I’m regional as well and so is Stonestreet, so it was a natural fit for us to come on as hosts. It is a benefit for Children’s Mercy Hospital, and I believe our designation if for pediatric cancer research. It has made a difference and that is really what’s most rewarding and humbling and humbling at the same time. Humbling in that it has to exist, and rewarding in that we do make a difference. But the other thing is that it’s a fun way to showcase Kansas City to a bunch of our celebrity friends that may have never gone through [it], and they find out what a wonderful town it is.
Anyone who comes says, ‘Wow! This is the best charity weekend I’ve ever participated in!’ It’s also just a fun weekend, you know? We play softball at Kauffman Stadium, right on the field. We visit the kids in the morning and then we hang out in the dugout suite, which is a lot of fun, and then you get a different perspective on the game because you’re right there on the field, basically. And then we go visit the kids again on Saturday morning, and then we go to a bowling extravaganza. People can bowl with the celebrities, which is a lot of fun. Then, we go take a quick rest and then we do this big show at the Midland Theatre, and it’s a show/auction/debauch, so that’s a lot of fun, too.And I tell you what, you really feel the outpouring of love from the entire town, people will come up to you say, ‘Thank you for all that you’re doing.’ By and large, everybody [there] is touched by Children’s Mercy Hospital at some point in their lives. Either they have a child they’ve had to take over there, or they have a friend, neighbor or loved one who’s been touched by [them]. It’s really incredible.
We’re coming up on the tenth year of Big Slick, which is my larger charity, but there’s a smaller one I work with called Children of the Night. A few years ago, I was in a movie called Priceless, which really opened my eyes to the horrors of human trafficking. Because, you know, you kind of hear about it, but then when I did some research you almost want to throw up and your heart breaks in half. I have three daughters and so I started working with that organization.”
Another project I want to call attention to is this short film you were involved in a few years ago, The Parker Tribe, that’s now on Amazon. And it’s a really wonderful little piece of cinema.
“That was another independent project, which was very intriguing. The way it came to me was this woman approached me, who happened to be Tina Fey’s early acting coach — something like that, anyway, they had a connection. And I think Tina had said to her, ‘Why don’t you ask Dave Koechner to do it?’ So I read the script, and by the time I got through the first two pages I was bawling because it’s such a heart-wrenching story. So, I was in. And [director] Jane Baker is an absolutely wonderful person, she’s a force of nature, and she got it done. And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m down!’ But it was all about, ‘Do I have time?’ because it was shot in Maine, I believe, and I had to leave my family for a week-and-a-half, and I think I flew myself up there [laughs]. It was super low-budget, so the fact that it eventually found a platform was really fantastic.”
I love that you show up in those unexpected places, especially in indie projects. It must give you some interesting opportunities to grow, but it must give audiences a chance to see your work as an actor from different perspectives as well.
“Yeah, that’s quite necessary [laughs], because it’s really centered on two horrible characters that I’ve played — that’s what people know me for, right? It’s Champ Kind and Todd Packer. So if I can inject any sweetness into any other role, that’s certainly necessary for my rounding. But also in that regard of doing all of these little projects, you get to work with a lot of different actors. So that makes you better. You get to work with a lot of different directors from across varying levels of experience, and who knows where they’re going to wind up? So that’s fun and makes you better. Challenges make you better. So that to me is what it’s all about, and this year I’ve worked with tons of different actors, whether on my show or on other little projects. Last year it was Jim Rash, like you said, and the year before on The Parker Tribe it was with a bunch of newbies. And also with Paula, who I’ve known forever but had never been able to share a screen with.
Those are the rewards, and I did three or four little independents last year, and those slowly start to come out, right? Sometimes you just work for a couple of days because it’s a friend, and other times you take a larger role. But independent cinema, there’s no ego, you leave your ego at the door and go do your service.”
This current stand-up tour is called Symphony of Chaos. I can guess what parts of your life comprise the ‘chaos’ component, but what makes it symphonic?
“Well, I don’t even know if I did this part last time or if I was maybe just starting with it. But, anyway, I live in a house with seven people and three dogs. I mean, that pretty much defines it. That’s what my life is, the navigating of and negotiating that. And then, it’s the people around you, like your neighbors. And you don’t realize that when you buy your house, your neighbors come with it, you know? Or the stresses they’ve seen throughout their lives, from the auctioneer who’s having a mental breakdown, to a carny who insists on giving you his philosophy on life. And, you know, just all the other stuff that happens at home. It just sometimes feels like my life is chaos, and I can remember one time standing in my home and I had some work to do. We had a guest house that used to be my office, but then my son got to be six-foot-four, and I was like, ‘Okay, you’re not living in the house anymore. You’re going to live in the guest house.’ It delighted him, but I’ve got this other man living in the house and we needed the room.
I remember standing there one day…and I think we had some house cleaners come over, and it was summer and my kids were all there, and I had literally nowhere I could go. I’m standing there with my papers and I had to work, and there was no place in the house I could go and get anything done! I was just like, ‘Oh my God! What has happened?’ So that’s the day when I got an office.”
You operate from a place of tremendous gratitude. You always lift up your co-workers and the people who have given you opportunities, you give back generously to your community, and in every interaction we’ve shared, you’ve been incredibly kind. How do you pause to take it all in and keep perspective when you’re always engaged with your work obligations and family and whatever else life throws at you?
“I guess it’s conversations like this where you’ve seen a broad swath of what I’ve done and you appreciate it, and that means a lot. And then you do a comedy show and people show up and laugh, and that means a lot. You hope that can be in the category of service, you know, in that if I made somebody laugh it helped make their day better, right? And then I selfishly get the reward, too. But, yeah, my wife and I are going to be married twenty years this year. It went fast, but it went slow. My youngest is seven now, and I have to remind myself, ‘You’ve gotta watch out, now, because she’s almost grown up.’ Yes, she’s still a little girl because she’s our littlest, but next year’s second grade. And the twins are now twelve, and Margot’s sixteen and Charlie’s nineteen and they’re going out at night. And I’m thinking, ‘I want to put a chip in your arm!’ you know? [laughs] You appreciate that you’re still together and still in love, and looking forward to more.”
David Koechner will headline five shows at the Columbus Funny Bone, 145 Easton Town Center, Thursday, June 14 through Saturday, June 16. Tickets are $20 (plus taxes and fees), and are available here. More information about David’s upcoming projects, videos, and tour dates can be found on his website.