Creating a comedy 'happening': A talk with David Koechner 

click to enlarge koechner_head_shot_4.jpg

David Koechner is so much identified with the boorish chauvinists he's played in a couple recent hit series — Todd Packer on The Office, Champ Kind in the Anchorman films — that it seems appropriate, essential even, for him to insist that he's absolutely nothing like them in real life. Where Packer is misogynistic, homophobic and just awful, Koechner (pronounced keck-ner) sincerely apologizes for calling 20 minutes late and asserts that he's "pro-woman," a feminist even. He's the kind of guy who tries to create a "happening" during his stand-up shows, who wants to take the audience on a journey. Whose rambling tall tales — filled with vaguely disreputable characters drawn from a lifetime of observing outsiders and picking up on their mannerisms and patter — have a round-the-campfire feel. Born in the small town of Tipton, Missouri and educated at Chicago's Second City, Koechner's also been seen on TV as a cast member on Saturday Night Live (1995-96) and as part of the musical comedy act The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, which began as a live show at Los Angeles alt-comedy mecca Largo before Comedy Central picked it up for a season.

NUVO: So you've been doing stand-up for about four years?

David Koechner: That's right, but I've done live for about 25 years because I've done improv and sketch and character pieces. So to me the only difference is it's just you. And you might argue that's a huge difference, but it isn't for me.

NUVO: Why isn't it?

Koechner: Because it's all about performance for me. You're performing a solo piece or you're performing with other people. But your relationship is solely with the audience, not with your partner on stage. You're building that relationship — and as opposed to a situation where they're only passively watching, now you're actually having a direct conversation with the audience the entire time, which can be a richer experience.

NUVO: Do you do "crowd work" or is it more a matter of adjusting your stories to the room?

Koechner: Crowd work is not my thing. Typically that level of audience engagement is insult humor. And nothing against it: That's fantastic when you're great at it. But I would say that I encircle the audience in a group experience, if you will. That would be my crowd work, that we're going to have this unique experience tonight, usually one of a kind. My show is tight and loose at the same time. I allow for a happening, if that doesn't sound too corny, so we can all experience something together. If the mood is there, I'll go out in the crowd and play. But I have my set act, like anybody else. There's jokes, there's stories — and I bring along a buddy of mine with a guitar, and I end the show with three songs. One of them is the dirtiest song ever written.

NUVO: How do you develop your characters? Are they based on real people, composites...

Koechner: Yes, both of those things. Some of them are real people, some are composites, some are just born of a physicality you'll see in another person. You'll get their physical mannerisms and then something else will come out. A whole character will be born from just that type of thing.

click to enlarge Koechner as Gerald "T-Bones" Tibbon with Dave "Gruber" Allen as the Naked Trucker.
  • Koechner as Gerald "T-Bones" Tibbon with Dave "Gruber" Allen as the Naked Trucker.

NUVO: Can you give me an example of a real person who gave birth to a character?

Koechner: The character Gerald Tibbons was based on this guy who used to come through my hometown. He was a roofer and a bit of a drifter. His name was Four Way George. No one knew his real last name — it certainly wasn't George — but he used to hang out at the four-way stop in the town I grew up in, Tipton. He just had a dangerous edge to him, and I remember the local police officer trying to run the guy out of town. It's the classic thing: "Hey stranger, keep moving." The guy was in town roofing in farms around the area, right? He had a job. He never caused any trouble. He didn't even drink, actually. But he had big bushy red hair and he was just rangy, and I think that presented this air of being up to no good. And I remember when the cops were hassling him, he told me that if they came up to him with their guns, that's okay because he's got "razors in his pocket. Razors!" I thought, that's no defense against a gun. He's just going to lose! Throwing stars would make sense but not razors. He was an interesting guy.

NUVO: Todd Packer may be the only totally unsympathetic character on The Office.

Koechner: Of course, there's no redemption for Packer. There are people we know like that in our lives and that's why it's so much fun to play a guy like that. I'm nothing like Todd Packer in real life, other than that I'm breathing and I'm a male.

NUVO: Having said that, do you think there's a reason why you're good at playing that type of part?

Koechner: Probably because they're so much fun because you never act like that in real life. So the opportunity to completely unleash that kind of behavior is a complete joy and freedom. I don't know why I've been asked to do it more than once because certainly Champ Kind is that kind of character too. They're both misogynist; they're both raging, dangerous alcoholics; they're mildly racist and jingoistic. I don't know if I have a stronger proclivity toward playing those guys over someone else, but it certainly has worked out. To me they're satirical characters. You could argue that because we show these people in this light, you go, thank God, I'm not like that. And by having that character represent a certain tactlessness or horror of life, you're saying, we're all agreeing we won't tolerate this.

click to enlarge Koechner as Todd Packer on The Office.
  • Koechner as Todd Packer on The Office.

NUVO: You've worked quite a bit with both Steve Carell and Will Ferrell. How would you describe their approach to improv and comedy?

Koechner: Well, it's clear that their comedy chops are of the highest order. Will Ferrell was one of the greatest players on Saturday Night Live in the history of the show. Steve Carell was one of the greatest sketch players at Second City in their history. We used to say at Second City that any scene that Steve Carell is in is just amazing. As far as Will goes, there's something about him that people just absolutely go nuts for. His commitment, his attention to detail, his complete freedom, plus the intelligence there.

NUVO: They're both so successful — and they have completely different styles.

Koechner: I'd agree with that. Will tends to wear these emotions on the outside of his uniform and is trying to figure out life, and Steve is more of a precision bomber or gunner.

NUVO: You worked with Carell at Second City in Chicago.

Koechner: I was there at a remarkable time when we had all of these people playing together on different stages and in different theaters. I was there with Adam McKay. Brian Stack, Kevin Dorff and Brian McCann from Conan. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, Rachel Dratch. Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, Chris Farley, Mike Myers. You don't know at the time that these people are going to be affecting the future of comedy, but you know everyone is really good and how great it is to play with good people. You just assume that's the way it will always be. You don't know until you look back and think, my God, what an amazing confluence of talent happened to be there when I was there.

NUVO: Do you have any sense of how that came about?

Koechner: I don't. Chicago certainly draws people who want to do comedy — sketch comedy and improvisation. You could do a Freakonomics-style paradigm for why it worked, why those people were drawn to Chicago at that time. It could be because we grew up watching SCTV and Saturday Night Live and knew that those people started studying at Second City in Chicago. That could be part of it. All I can say is that for me, a lot of my heroes on Saturday Night Live were from Chicago.

click to enlarge Koechner taught improv to Andy Richter at Chicago's ImprovComedy before they worked together in the sketch group Comedy Underground (seen here in 1991).
  • Koechner taught improv to Andy Richter at Chicago's ImprovComedy before they worked together in the sketch group Comedy Underground (seen here in 1991).

NUVO: It seems like a lot of that energy has moved to L.A., which has a thriving comedy scene that you've been a part of for some time.

Koechner: There's such an amazing group of comedians out here all the time now, and there's so many rooms to get up and play in. New York has its own scene. I'm sure Chicago does as well. But L.A.'s standup scene is really hot right now in my estimation. And everybody is really warm and friendly. There's no cutthroat to it because there's plenty of room. There's a thousand ways to skin the cat now. It's not like you're starving for stage time. I've always been of the thought that if you can't get on stage, it's not because people are forcing you off. If you're good, people want you to do their show.

NUVO: What do you look for in a comedian?

Koechner: A smart point of view. What you'd think anybody would dig: originality. Someone who takes you down roads you had no idea they were heading to. When you think I couldn't have gotten there by myself without you leading me. Anyone who finds fresh territory in your mind.

NUVO: And by extension, I suppose that's your goal on stage.

Koechner: Right. What's the most freedom I can give myself and give to the audience so I can bring us to a place that none of us have ever been before.

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Scott Shoger

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Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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