Friday, May 22, 2009

Christian Finnegan is having the... well, you know.

Acton native Christian Finnegan is best known for four-year stint lampooning pop culture on VH1's Best Week Ever. But his new special, Au Contraire!, shows who he really is as a stand-up comedian, which is to say, on the bubble between personal and observational comedy. He can talk about his father-in-law, in prision for attempted murder, or about his old purple gym shorts, or how awful he thinks Chihuahuas are as dogs, with the same measure of lightness.

Since he's coming to The Gas tonight at Great Scott with Anderson Comedy, Ken Reid, Chris Coxen, James Laurence, and Laura Burns, it was a good time to catch up with Finnegan. We spoke last week by phone.

How has the reaction to the special been?

You know, it’s been great. I don’t know if it wasn’t good if I would know. I haven’t gotten any hate mail yet, which is oddly a tiny bit disappointing. I thought I made a concerted effort to offend at least a few different groups of people. But to date, no one has burned me in effigy.

Who are you most disappointed at not hearing from?

Well, there are a couple of Catholic jokes in there. I was hoping to maybe get that William Donahue jerkwad on my case, that guy from the Catholic League. He is just the worst person in the world. But unfortunately, no attention from them yet. Chihuahua owners might possibly take to the streets. I do talk a lot about my wife’s father who is in jail for attempted murder, so I’m hoping it doesn’t get back to him.

That seemed like a bit of a calculated risk on your part.

Well, I’m lucky in a couple of ways. One, I have a few years before it’s an issue, before he’ll be back. And even then, he’s stuck in Texas, unless he violates the conditions of his parole. Secondly, I don’t address this in the special, but he’s also deaf. He would have to see a transcript.

So not quite as brave as it may seem at first glance.

Well, I don’t really get into the deafness thing because I find it’s too much, too much info. It’s a big enough sort of a conversation stopper, even in terms of a stand-up show, for me to talk about him being in jail for attempted murder. To also bring up that he’s a deaf-mute is just too… much information and it stops being a comedy show, and it starts being more just people asking me questions that I have to answer.

I know people are always curious about this sort of thing, but do you think of any sort of personal fallout you might have, just from the family, for saying things like this onstage, much less saying them on a nationally broadcast special?

I certainly got permission from my wife. And my wife is actually writing a book about her crazy life, she’s writing a book for Random House right now, a memoir, so she certainly is not shy about sharing the intimate details of her life. Neither of us are. I think that’s one of the reasons we get along so well, is we’re not shy about exposing the worms underneath the rock.

But I was sensitive about it at first, with regards to my wife’s mother, but she’s fine with it. She loves it. She’s come see me probably five times and had a great time. I don’t really talk about him personally. I’m not really discussing him as a human being, it’s more that one little personality quirk. [laughs]

It’s a weird fine line I guess, because it’s attempted murder and not…
You’re right. It would be a little stranger if he had succeeded, but at the end of the day, it’s the life I’m leading. And at a certain point, that’s what I want to talk about. I suppose that I could spend the rest of my life saying, “Okay, what’s funny about salt shakers?” and that would be fine. A lot of comedians do that. A lot of my comedy is observational, but not the entirety of it. The stuff that really gets me excited is the stuff that has some sort of personal aspect to it. Some of the best comedy involves someone potentially being offended or hurt in some way.

Are people surprised to find that your comedy isn’t really isn’t what it is on Best Week Ever? It’s safe to say that’s where most people know you from.

It’s certainly informed my comedy, maybe as a juvenile thing, but I kind of refuse to do pop culture material in my set because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself, to use the easy word. I don’t want to get locked into that too firmly. I enjoy that kind of stuff. I really like deconstructing pop culture more than I do, like, doing pop culture zingers. Of course, I learned how to write those doing Best Week Ever over, I think about four years. But it’s not really what fascinates me.

I’m working on a bit now that’s not on the DVD, that really deconstructs how uncool Fonzie really was, when you really watch enough Happy Days, just what a pathetic, sad figure he really is. That’s not the same as going, “Hey, what’s up with Lindsay Lohan’s vagina?” It’s a slightly different take on it.

But I don’t really enjoy doing topical humor onstage. First of all, it requires way too much context. When you see on Best Week Ever, there’s always a voiceover set-up. Here’s what happened, now here’s the joke. And I just find that sort of in-jokey, like, “Oh, we all know about Adam Lambert, don’t we?” Well, no. Not necessarily.

Do you think this special is a way for you to transition away from being known for Best Week Ever? IS that any part of the equation?

That would be great if that were to happen, but make no mistake, you’re lucky to be recognized for anything. There’s a lot of white noise, and if people like what you do – I don’t feel the need to disown myself from Best Week Ever. I actually think a lot of the stuff we did on Best Week Ever was really smart and funny. Even the stuff when we were talking about dumb things, I think they gave us a lot of leeway to make smart jokes about those dumb things.

And I got away with saying things on that show that were much more bizarre and idiosyncratic than I might be able to get away with on a Friday night late show in Dayton. There’s jokes we did on Best Week Ever that are among the just I am most proud of ever having written. They might not all be stand-up jokes, some jokes just don’t work in a stand-up context, in the same way that some jokes that work onstage wouldn’t necessarily work on a clip show.

But I don’t feel the need to bury that part of my quote unquote career, but it’s not necessarily all I want to do, and it’s not really a full representative of who I want to be as a live performer, that’s for sure. And so I do look at the DVD as a way to make people see me more as a live performer who has things to say that are not pop-culture related. That is important to me.

The special is an interesting mix because it’s storytelling, but not necessarily in a straight, narrative sense, and it’s observational material and not necessarily in that sense of, “Hey, isn’t breathing weird?”

Right. That’s kind of what I was alluding to before. I do a lot of observationalist material, but it generally starts from an idea, or it generally starts from an opinion that may or may not be funny on its face, but it doesn’t necessarily start with kind of random, “Hey, here’s a chair, what’s a joke I could say about a chair?” Well that’s not really interesting to me. There’s a line I say at the beginning of the special, where I say, “It’s a night of awkward personal revelations hypocritical assaults on your character,” which really does encompass probably seventy-five percent of the special, and even more so the DVD, which is a third longer.

And a lot of stuff that is on the DVD is definitely that awkward personal revelations stuff. There’s a long segment where I talk about the experience of buying my wife a sex toy. It’s not observational in the strictest sense, but it’s observational in the sense that it is a weird experience, going into a sex shop. I’m sort of rambling slightly. But you’re right, it’s not like, “I could do a joke about anything.” It all kind of comes from me.

A long time ago, I stopped trying to write jokes just to write jokes. What I’m trying to do now is to take things that I actually think and make them funny, as opposed to come up with things that are funny and pretend I really care about them. Which is what I feel like a lot of what I did in the first maybe ten years of doing stand-up, is, I would come up with a joke just kind of in conversation, or, “oh that’s a really funny angle,” and I’ll try to imbue it with a lot of passion that maybe wasn’t real.

Where did that come from? Did you have particular models for your comedy when you first started?

It takes a while to find your voice, as ridiculous a phrase as that is. I think it’s kind of like when you’re a painter – and I realize there’s never been a non-pretentious sentence that started with something like that, there’s no way to not sound like an asshole when you say, “But when you’re a painter” – but you want to become an artist. You want to become a cartoonist. You want to draw for a living. You start by learning how to draw. You draw the bowl of fruit, you draw the nude model, you learn how to represent what’s in your head, or what you’re able to see, and that’s the way it has to start.

Most comedians don’t come out of the womb fully formed with their own angle and their own persona and things like that. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with just being funny for a few years and getting laughs. But then the goal becomes to be funny in your own way. How can I be funny in a way that people will remember me? Because I see a lot of comedians go up, and they’re hilarious, and they kill every night, and people walk our of the theater or the comedy club and they’ll say, “Eh, that was fun. What a fun birthday party for Kim,” and they will never remember who that person was.

It’s tempting to kill all the time. It really is. And I think if you’ve been doing comedy for ten years and you’re headlining clubs, you know what you need to do in order to kill most of the time, barring some sort of drunken incident or something like that. But that’s not the goal, at least not to me. That’s not the end. The end, for me, is to kill in a way that only I could. And that’s not something that happens every night. There are moments where you really feel you tapped into it, these people understand what I’m trying to do, and sure, maybe you’re only really getting half the audience. The other half are enjoying themselves, but they’re just out because it’s Kim’s birthday or whatever. But half the people really get what you’re trying to do, and those are the people who are going to become your fans. Not just come out because they got free tickets.

How close are you to doing what you want to be doing? There’s that tendency, I guess, if you want to grow, that you’re always setting the goalposts back a little bit.

I feel like I’m maybe halfway there. But I’m completely open to the idea that what I want might radically change. Right now, I’m really getting into the idea of doing something more narrative, less observational. Either something narrative in terms of being autobiographical, or narrative in terms of having a thesis and setting out to prove it over an hour. Either going in a John Leguizamo way – although people don’t think of him as a comedian, which is bizarre, because that’s how he became famous, is basically doing one-man, autobiographic stand-up shows. Or going in a Bill Maher way where you really have [things] you want to address. But I like the idea of being more theatrical with what I want to do.

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