Kevin Nealon

Kevin Nealon, Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, pictured in 2007, walking a Beverly Hills red carpet for a “Larry Sanders Show” DVD release.

I interviewed Kevin Nealon on the phone in 2009, two days after he performed at the Melrose Improv. He used to live two houses down the road from me, and I hand-delivered his mail once because it ended up in my mailbox. I knocked on his glass door a little too aggressively and I guess he thought I was some crazy fan. No, just your crazy neighbor. Anyway, he’s promoting his new DVD Now Hear Me Out.

I saw you at the Melrose Improv the other night before and after your gig, and you seemed cool as a cucumber. Are these gigs like a day at the office for you — assuming you’ve worked in an office and know what i’m talking about? 

I have worked in an office before! It depends on the situation. If I’ve been doing it a lot, I’m pretty cucumberish. But if I haven’t done it for a while, I have to get more in the zone and kinda steady myself for it. But these days, it’s a pretty casual thing for me. 

How old is this routine that you did? 

Some of it from the other night was brand new, all the stuff I did on my special. It’s kind of a mishmash. I’m trying to replace all the old material now with new material. Every Tuesday night, I do a show at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood and I host it. It’s just new-material night. I’ve done so much stuff from that. I’ll do like 10 minutes up front and then I’ll have eight semi-comics come up and they’ll do seven minutes and I interview each one afterwards and it’s an opportunity for all of us to come up with new material 

What was some of the new stuff the other night? 

Ummm, the food poisoning bit, getting up to go to the bathroom was new. The auto-erotic asphyxiation! I have to look at my set list, but quite a few new things, and there were some things I forgot to do. 

You were talking about the bathroom thing the other day on Twitter, so it’s like you’re testing stuff on Twitter first? 

Yeah. That’s exactly what I use Twitter for. For me, it’s a good place to try one-liners here and there, and then that begins the start of a hunk. Depending on how many people retweet it, I’ll know if it’s good or not. 

I liked your tweet when you wondered if the gas was crappier in the crappier parts of town 

A lot of people responded to that one. That’s really what I was thinking because I was driving home one night, and it was not a great part of town and I was really low on gas. And I was wondering if I should stop, or risk it and go to a better area!

When you’re marketing the DVD and promoting your shows, do you use MySpace and Facebook and things like that to get the word out… 

Yeah, yeah. I’m working with Salient Media. They co-produced the DVD with me, and they’re really locked into how to advertise on the Internet and things like that, and they’re really savvy on all that, so I’m learning a lot. With my Twitter, I have quite a few followers. I don’t like to abuse them too much either promoting stuff. I do a little bit of that but then try to keep it amusing. 

What is the writing process for your standup? 

It’s all different things really. You could be having conversations with a friend, or I could be talking to you today and I would think of something funny. It may not be funny. It could be an area, which is where you start. You start with an area and then you try to flesh it out as much as possible. In fact, Garry Shandling’s a friend of mine and he constantly reminds me that I have not milked my areas as much as I can. It’s kinda like a hit-and-run, what I do. I could be making hunks out of these pieces. I could be reading something in a paper. One joke I did the other night was about the (female) sprinter who they determined had internal male organs. I was talking to a friend, and was like, “How do they know if somebody has internal male organs?” And I thought well maybe when she gets aroused her posture improves significantly. So I thought that was funny, so I added that. And then from that I’ll try to do a whole bit on posture. 

Who are the other comics you hang out with? 

Well, my son’s 2-1/2, he’s a comic. Sarah Silverman, she’s a friend. I used to hang out with a lot more until I got married and had a kid. Now I spend a lot of time at home. In fact the only time I can rest now is when I go to work! I have a lot of writer friends, David Mirkin from The Simpsons. I have a lot of friends who are comics, but lately I haven’t been hanging out that much with him. 

Do you find that marriage and babies give you so much more new material, but then have to be wary because it’s such an obvious area? 

Yeah. The trick is to try to come up with a routine or material that’s unlike anybody else has come up — baby or family material from Bill Cosby all the way to Jerry Seinfeld. That’s the tough part. But you can do a thing on pacifiers, say, but it’s your own unique twist. Even though other people have talked about pacifiers, say, you have to have your own little unique and original twist on it. 

Do you come up with something that’s so incredibly hilarious but then worry that Bill Cosby said the same thing 25 years ago? 

Yeah, you do wonder sometimes if that’s the case. Sometimes very rarely someone will say, “Hey man, I did that joke.” But to me that’s only happened maybe once or twice in my whole career. But I will see other comics doing my material, well-respected established comedians, and I’ll be thinking, Well, maybe they either came up with it on their own, or they inadvertently saw me do it, like, a year ago, and then thought they came up with it. If it’s inadvertent, I don’t call it stealing, but there are a lot of comics out there that have issues with people. 

On your Twitter page, you called the Emmys the “30 Rock Awards.” What’s your take on how Weeds should have done? 

It’s a difficult category to put Weeds in, in the comedy. I don’t see it as a comedy. When the season finale ends with the young son smashing a woman’s head with a croquet mallet it’s kinda hard to call that a comedy. I think it’s a drama with a comedy release. But it’s hard to put that show in with The Office and 30 Rock, which are obvious comedies. But as they say, it’s nice to be recognized and noticed at least. But I don’t suspect it will ever win in the comedy category. 

Where do you fit in, in the comedy pantheon? 

When I started, all I wanted to do was standup comedy. That was my forte. That was my dream, to be a standup comedian. And then I got into acting, and Saturday Night Live came along, and I kinda focused more on sketch comedy and characters. I continued to do standup. I never stopped doing standup, but I was never able to give it that full blast, like a Dane Cook would or a Russell Peters. For me, I felt that a lot of people didn’t know I did standup comedy, even though I did it on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on Letterman, and I worked all the clubs around the country for years, and I still do. One of the reasons I did the DVD special is to kind of be included in that group. To make it available, I think, more to the audience. 

How many standup shows do you do a year? 

I probably do maybe 150 a year … I would say 75 percent of that (is on the road).

Do you see yourself maintaining that pace? 

No, I think it over and I just wanna stay home more and watch my son grow up and be with my wife. Standup really is a young man’s game, a single young man’s game! Even when I was younger, when I wasn’t single, it was hard to be on the road because you go through relationships because your girlfriend kinda got tired of you being gone. You really have to be ambitious and have that drive to really become well known and successful as a standup. 

Do you still have that ambition and drive? 

I do still have it, but my ambition and drive to be with my son and wife is at least as strong or maybe stronger. 

Is the DVD special almost like a swan song? 

It’s not a swan song, because I’m already writing another one. It’s more of a way for me to get my standup out there in the world so that when I do go out on the road I don’t have to stay for 3 or 4 days and get in a day early to do radio. My comedy will be more known, and I can do bigger venues and then just be gone for one night. Then I come home and then I can go out again 2 weeks later or 3 weeks later. 

It’s a promotional tool? 

Yeah, I think so. 

Is the economy affecting bookings? 

I haven’t really noticed too much of an effect at this point. It’s affected the corporate world where there aren’t as many corporate gigs where, say, IBM brings you or Microsoft to do a night. Those are great gigs. You go in that day, you do it that night. Sometimes you can go home that night. And the money’s really good, and they take good care of you. Those have been a little less, but they’re kinda coming back now. But as far as the clubs and colleges you don’t really see a difference. 

How has your own style progressed? 

I think I heard somebody, I think it was Mel Brooks, tell a comedian that you just keep on doing what you do, and those waves go out like radio waves, will reach your audience and it will bring them in, instead of trying to cater to an audience that’s not yours where you’re not doing what you are best at, what you really do. If anything’s changed for me it’s my energy. I used to be a lot more laidback on stage, and I guess from watching a lot of successful comics these days I see where energy is good. I used to be more along the lines of a Mitch Hedberg or a Steven Wright. A friend of mine came to see me when I taped the special, and he goes, “Wow! You’ve become much more energetic on stage.” To some people, it seems like I’m still laidback. 

Are you tense on stage, or more focused than you have been? 

I think so. If I were a heavyweight fighter I would be ready for my biggest fight right now! 

Whose career trajectory would you like to emulate the most? 

The three people that influenced me the most before I got into standup were Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and Albert Brooks. I think those three had great careers. I liked Andy Kaufman because he was absurd and unpredictable. So I think I’ve probably got a combination of three of those people — silly, unpredictable and then the third, Albert Brooks, being neurotic. 

Steve Martin hasn’t done standup in 30 years. he turned his back on that world where you’ve obviously kept up at it 

Yeah, he has. Again, he was single and hungry and ambitious and he ran the whole gamut of it, and had his fill of it, and he couldn’t really go much higher or be any more successful as a standup than he was. I admire his decision to go into films. He had a successful career at that, as a writer, and plays and music. It’s very inspiring.

 When you see the massive success of Dane Cook, do you feel wistful or maybe even a little jealous?

I don’t think it’s jealousy. I think it’s curiosity. I’m happy for him. I was just looking through L.A. Weekly the other day, and I saw a full-page spread for Russell Peters who I didn’t hear of 8 years ago, and now he’s doing a world tour, selling out the big theaters. It’s interesting to dissect how you get to that point. For me, maybe if I had just concentrated on standup like Dane Cook or Russell Peters or whomever else, I could have gotten to that point in my early 30’s or whatever. And I’m not saying it’s not possible to do that now, because look at George Lopez. He started off as a standup, and then he had his show and did some films. But primarily he just kept pummeling that standup arena. 

What advice would you give to the young comics? 

When comics ask, I say, Just try to find out your point of view of life, what your style is. When everybody starts to emulate somebody, whether it’s Letterman or Steve Martin or Richard Pryor — I don’t even know who it is nowadays, I’m sure it’s Dane Cook and Russell Peters — but be original. Really be original and unique, because there’s so many comics out there now. You don’t want to blend into another comic on Comedy Central that people don’t remember. You’ve gotta write a lot. That’s why I’m doing this new standup night every Tuesday. You really have to kinda tend to your garden. You can’t keep doing the same act over and over again. 

From these comedy nights, are you seeing young talent blossoming out there?

There’s a lot of great young comics coming on, and there’s also some established comics. Like last week I had Dane Cook on, and he did a bit and I interviewed him afterwards. We had Ron White who most people know from the Blue Collar Tour, and just a lot of other good comics and also writers. It’s really fun. They come off stage and they feel exhilarated, they feel like they’ve really made some milestones and not just with the material but being brave enough to be on stage and not get a laugh every 15 seconds which is very, very uncomfortable for a comic. 

When was the last time you were in an uncomfortable situation, not getting the laughs you thought you should be getting? 

For me, when I’m doing a new-material night it’s not uncomfortable because I know it’s new material and the audience knows it. But some of the other comics who aren’t used to doing that, it’s uncomfortable. But for me, I think maybe I did an evening at the Improv which used to do a show on A&E or something like that, maybe 20 years ago. And they had to stop the show before I came on. I was the last comic, and it was really hot. The air conditioning broke and the audience was uncomfortable, and I get on and there’s just very few laughs, and it was very uncomfortable! 

 Was there anything that didn’t quite work the other night? 

 Yeah there was a few jokes that I was hoping more for, but I don’t rule them out because I’m still fleshing out those areas, y’know … The Melrose Improv has a lot of memories for me because that’s where I started. I was a bartender there for 2 years, and I just used to live there. I grew up in Connecticut, and when I had friends from Connecticut come out to visit me in the first couple of years, I didn’t know where else to send them, because I basically either was at home sleeping or doing part-time jobs somewhere, and then I was at the Improv every night, either just hanging out, or working behind the bar or doing standup. To be on stage the other night, I hadn’t been there in a long time, it really brought back some great memories. The room has changed a little, but that same view from that stage, with the same exit sign on the right, the back wall, the entrance. For me, just being on that stage where so many comics that I admire like Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams and Steve Martin — everybody that’s been on that stage. I had a lot of things going through my head that night, because I spent so much time on that stage, honing an act and coming up with material and trying things, and faltering and failing and also succeeding. 

 It was a homecoming of sorts? 

It was. They got a good audience in there, and it was full. It felt good. The only thing different was there wasn’t any smoke in the room! 

And you get off the stage, pumped up and amped? 

Yeah, yeah. It’s kinda like when you finish a run. You walk out through the doors, go up to the bar, it’s like you’re finished with your run. You’re kinda catching your breath, cooling down a little bit. 

And I guess that’s a potential problem for young comics. they hit the coke or the juice and the dark side takes over? 

 Yeah, or they hit another club. They go to another comedy club and do the same act. 


  1. 2009 Dean Goodman. All rights reserved.


Dean Goodman