The David Koechner Guide To Achieving Modest, Lasting Success As A Working Comedic Actor, Eventually
The comedian's breakout role in Anchorman came a decade after one season on SNL. Now with the sequel finally in theaters (maybe you heard?) and his own throwback variety show in the works, he reflects on how he's overcome setbacks and stayed in the game.
On a bright, cool morning in early December, David Koechner emerges into the cavernous living room of his San Fernando Valley home in a white T-shirt and jeans, already 20 minutes behind schedule. The 51-year-old comedian and actor is likely best known as sportscaster Champ Kind (catchphrase: "Whammy!") in the 2004 comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and he is one day away from embarking on a relentless two-week promotional tour for the film's relentlessly promoted sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The tour will take him first to Connecticut, where he will shoot a series of segments in character for ESPN's SportsCenter, and then to New York for the film's premiere, a series of TV talk shows (The Daily Show, Katie Couric, etc.), and an appearance on Saturday Night Live — the show that gave Koechner his first big break in showbiz, and his first big letdown. And this is just the second half of the campaign; Koechner has already spent a week in Australia. He's only been home for a few days.
With so much on his plate, it takes me a while to understand that the heightened go-go-go energy with which Koechner shakes my hand, strides into his kitchen, cracks some eggs into a frying pan, and flings the shells into the sink behind him while barely breaking eye contact with me is not because his life is singularly frenzied right now. He's pretty much always like this. You would have to be when you're the father of five kids aged 3 to 14 and your wife is in the middle of getting her masters degree in spiritual psychology.
"We're both from the Midwest, we're both from large families of six children," Koechner says of himself and his wife Leigh, as he slams a rather large knife into a block of cold leftover lasagna he then scatters into the eggs. "Chaos is not foreign to us."
Koechner's entire home could be described as an exercise in well-managed pandemonium. Four dry-erase calendars hang on the kitchen wall keeping track of the family's schedules: one for dad, one for mom, one for the kids, and one for the following month. Children's artwork and family portraits claim pretty much the rest of the wall space in the kitchen, as well as the dining room and living room — all of which are clean and yet unmistakably care-worn over the 10 years the family has lived there. The large TV in the living room remains tuned to a Nickelodeon cartoon even though Koechner's youngest daughter has long stopped watching it and turned her attention to Koechner's assistant, the one in charge of maintaining all those calendars. But while some Hollywood types would shy away from admitting an assistant is even there, Koechner leans in close to my recorder after I ask him how he and his wife are able to make their lives work.
"I know it's going to sound awful," he says. "but it's because I care, and because we want happiness, and to ensure happiness, you hire people sometimes to make sure that everyone's happy and taken care of."
Keeping a family machine this unwieldy running well in modern Los Angeles is no simple feat. Koechner has reliably stolen scenes in a handful of successful movies (Paul, Get Smart, Thank You for Smoking), and he's appeared on several TV shows (The Office, Pushing Daisies, Monk). But while the SNL alumnus' face is currently plastered everywhere to remind people that Anchorman 2 really does exist as a major motion picture, Koechner would be the first to tell you he is far from a movie star. He has had to adapt to whatever opportunities have come his way. "Hannah Montana to Piranha 3DD, that's some fucking range!" he says with a belly laugh. "Look, man, I've got five kids. We have a life. People think once you do one movie, you're set for life. What are you, crazy? I guess you could be if you had a great contract on the first Star Wars."
Koechner turns back to his breakfast, which is almost ready. He scowls a bit. "I was going to have fruit," he says, "because I'm trying to make sure I fit into the suits I got for all these [press] events." He recalls the time a good buddy told him that after you turn 50, staying in shape becomes exponentially more difficult. "I mean, it's like Alice in Wonderland, right? You must run twice as fast to remain exactly where you are. So that's what I'm doing."
Welcome to the life of a working actor. This is what Koechner has learned along the way.
Just do what you're told.
When Koechner arrived at Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1995, fresh from making his bones at Second City and Improv Olympic in Chicago, the show was in true reboot mode. Only five performers had lasted from the previous season (Norm Macdonald, Mark McKinney, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon, and David Spade), and Koechner had been brought in by SNL guru Lorne Michaels as part of a brand-new class of performers including Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond, and Nancy Walls.
Over the course of that season, Koechner certainly made his mark as a performer, especially with his character Gerald "T-Bones" Tibbins, a doof with a too-tight polyester shirt and bad comb-over who is wilier than you may expect. "Everyone thinks Gerald is a slow-thinking drifter," says Koechner, "where in actuality he could quote Chaucer and Shakespeare and Chomsky." T-Bones was the featured character of Koechner's favorite sketch on SNL that season, with T-Bones the trigger-happy executioner of Christopher Walken's prisoner. "I think that sketch is about as good as it's going to get," says Koechner. "It's got a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's so rare. And it works! There are jokes all the way through. Pop pop pop pop pop. I mean, it's arrogance on my part, but I'd hold up that sketch against pretty much anything."
But when Koechner was approached about building a regular talk show sketch around T-Bones, he balked. "In retrospect, [it] would have worked," he says. "But from my mind, I'm like, 'That's what's wrong with the show. Everything's a talk show! C'mon, folks, let's do original scenes!'" He laughs. "Guess who they didn't want to hear it from?"
At the end of the season, Koechner's contract was not renewed.
Koechner points to Don Ohlmeyer, at the time the head of NBC's West Coast division, as the culprit for his early exit from SNL. "Lorne wanted to keep me," he says. "It was the first time they had competition in late night. MadTV started that year, Howard Stern had a late-night show on television. So the ratings dropped, which gave West Coast NBC some power over Lorne, which hadn't happened in years. So they wanted changes; myself and Nancy Walls were it."
But Koechner thinks his own arrogance didn't help his case, either. He confesses that he had only planned to stick around for three years on the show anyway. "I was thinking, Well, I don't know where the thing's going to go," he says. "The ratings weren't great, and I really thought we were going to have the dubious distinction of being the last cast of Saturday Night Live. That's negative thinking, which doesn't help anything … I was [acting] more ego-based of 'I'm going to do what I want to do.' You have a job. You're supposed to do what they tell you to do!"
You never know where a chance meeting will lead.
It is perhaps too easy to point to the moment Koechner left SNL and compare his subsequent career trajectory to Will Ferrell's. "I know," says Koechner with mock solemnity. "I feel bad for him, I guess, because he's so much better than me." He chuckles. "You're probably in the 1% of people who actually know that Will and I started at the same time. People forget that I was on Saturday Night Live. Will was on for seven years. I was there for one."
Koechner is plainly uninterested in playing the Hollywood game of What if? "Things happen for a reason," he says. "If I'd stayed there, who knows? I moved out to L.A. Met my wife within six months. Started taking acting classes, which I probably wouldn't have done. Did that for two years. Kept auditioning. Had a couple of holding deals with different networks and different studios. So I was working."
One of those jobs, the 1999 indie film Dill Scallion, brought Koechner back into the orbit of comedian, writer, and actor Dave "Gruber" Allen (Freaks and Geeks). They'd first met when Allen was doing a two-week stint guest writing at SNL, which happened to be when Koechner did his T-Bones sketch with Christopher Walken. After shooting the film together, Allen invited Koechner to do five minutes as T-Bones on his ongoing late-night stage show at the L.A. club Largo, The Naked Trucker Show. Much like T-Bones, Allen's Naked Trucker — i.e., Allen, naked on stage with just an acoustic guitar protecting his modesty — was a knowing subversion of the audience's expectation that a naked trucker is just an ignorant redneck. "There was just a perfect fluency between the Naked Trucker and T-Bones," says Koechner. "The next time I did it, I did 10 minutes. And the next time, I did 15 minutes. After, like, 20 minutes, I said, 'Dave, why don't I just stay up there the whole time?'"
The newly christened The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, largely a mix of songs and banter between Allen and Koechner, was a genuine hit, becoming a must-see among showbiz industry types. "It was one of the best things I've ever participated in," says Koechner. "I probably don't even know how much work I got off that show. Everyone used to come." Eventually, the duo signed a series deal with Comedy Central. And that's when things began to go south.
Don't just do what you're told.
"I thought, well, these people are from [the] network should know what they're talking about," says Koechner of the Comedy Central deal for The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show. "But they didn't! The show was a compromise. We weren't a sketch show, [but] they'd had success with Dave Chappelle in that format. So we had to do what we did as a sketch show, which made no sense." Still, as they taped over the fall of 2006, the live audiences seemed to groove to the modified version of the show, and Koechner began to think perhaps they were onto something. Then the marketing team stepped in.
"We told them from the beginning, never call this 'redneck comedy,'" says Koechner. "They'd had a show called Blue Collar Comedy. That's not this. It's ironic. You think it is [redneck comedy], but it's not." To Koechner, the show was a great companion for the The Daily Show's audience, who were keen for comedy that subverted expectations. So when he saw what the marketing team had come up with, he hit the roof.
"Not Blue Collar Comedy," he says, getting genuinely angry for the first and only time in our interview. "'Roadhouse comedy.' What the fuck does that mean? Do you think anyone [watching] The Daily Show is going to watch 'roadhouse' comedy? Your Blue Collar fans watch the show and are like, 'What the fuck is this?' Net loss for everybody. So that's how that went. Ratings started decent, and they just continued to slide." After eight episodes, the show was canceled. And this time, Koechner couldn't help but ask, "What if?"
"Looking back," he says, "that's when I should have said, 'No. We're going to do it this way or we're just not going to do it.'"
Prepare for disappointment.
A perfect example of a middling box-office performer exploding into popularity on home video, 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy also helped vault Koechner's career to a new plane. "I was getting jobs right and left," says Koechner. In 2005 alone, Koechner appeared in six feature films, and he has worked steadily ever since.
But within that success, he has also experienced many pitfalls of the working actor. Development deals at networks have come to naught. He was recast in a major feature film role even though his agents had already negotiated the contract. Koechner even mentions offhand that film directors like Jay Roach and the Farrelly brothers sniffed around a possible Naked Trucker and T-Bones movie, to no avail.
And then there's Anchorman 2. One of the most commonly used gags from the film's marketing campaign is when the film's four newsmen — Ferrell's Ron Burgundy, Koechner's Champ Kind, Paul Rudd's Brian Fontana, and Steve Carell's Brick Tamland — mistake a gay man for a vampire. The scene is supposed to have special resonance for Champ; as fans of the first film know, the character is a closeted gay man with a powerful unrequited crush on Ron. Those feelings bubble up again in Anchorman 2, but as those who have already seen the film can attest, the gay/vampire scene from all those trailers and TV ads is nowhere to be seen in the finished film.
It happens. Marketing teams will occasionally use footage that works well for an ad that the filmmakers later decide doesn't work for the overall film. But it is just the tip of iceberg of what was cut out of Anchorman 2.
"There are 230 jokes that didn't make this film," says Koechner. "One of my favorite things didn't even make the cut — there's a song called 'Gay for a Day,' and every one of us has a verse of what we would do if we were gay for a day. So there's a big musical number, and in the middle of it we meet this guy who is gay, and then there's another musical number that starts inside the big musical number, and then it goes back out to a big musical song-and-dance number. It's fucking fabulous. And it didn't make the film. There's even talk — and I don't know if I'm speaking out of school — of possibly re-releasing an R-rated version of the movie later, which is going to have all the new scenes, all the new jokes, alternative jokes for scenes that you've already seen."
Watching Anchorman 2, it's hard not to notice how little Koechner is in it, especially in the second half after Ron brings his news team together again to join a brand new 24-hour cable news network. But Koechner insists it does not bother him. "With an ego, you always want more," he says. "But ultimately it's not about me. I'm just going to play the instrument I'm given. I'm going to beat my drum. I'm just going to play rhythm. We're all vying for the same goal, make every scene the best it can be. It's about this movie."
Enjoy the perks of the job.
Rather than fixate on the size of his role in Anchorman 2, Koechner would much rather delight in the many opportunities it's providing him. When he did get to appear on the Dec. 7 episode of SNL, he re-created the aggressively weird Bill Brasky sketch he and Ferrell first started doing in the 1995–96 season.
"I love Brasky," he tells me two weeks later on the phone. "That's such a crazy sketch. Will commented that he was watching people's reaction, because we were right there in front of the whole audience. Some people were laughing hysterically, and some people had blank stares, like, 'What is happening?'"
But even that pales in comparison to the fact that Koechner flew in his 12-year-old daughter to New York just so she could meet the musical guest that week, One Direction. "She must have 271 posters of One Direction," he says. "Her favorite is Zayn. I get these quizzes often. 'Who's my favorite, Dad? Do you know all of their names?'"
But rather than just a standard photo op, Koechner was able to bring his daughter into Ferrell's tiny dressing room to watch him, Ferrell, Carell, and Rudd (the show's host) rehearsing singing the Anchorman ditty "Afternoon Delight" with the One Direction lads. "I was so happy that she got to witness a process like that," he says. "All five guys [in the group] are against the wall, so she's just able to keep looking back and forth at them … Every time they performed [on stage], I took her on the floor to watch One Direction do their thing. That was amazing. I love show business, and that's just another reason to love it."
Keep busy, and keep happy.
When Koechner was starting out in Los Angeles of the late 1990s, a hot show at a local comedy club was all you needed to generate some career-building buzz. Today, you need a hot Twitter feed, and viral Vine or Instagram videos, and a YouTube channel, and you need to keep tending to each one, always. "It's changing rapidly," he says. "You've got to be in it or it will pass you by. There are people who are getting deals off of Vine now. C'mon! … It's all just so much. Plus, creating television. Shooting movies. Trying to come up with a bunch of different avenues. You've got to get a lot of irons in the fire."
Koechner's latest iron in the fire is a primetime variety series pilot he's developing for NBC. "I would say it would harken back hopefully to your classic variety shows that ran in primetime that were successful, whether it was Carol Burnett or Jackie Gleason or the Smothers Brothers or Laugh-In," he says. "Our charge is to be inclusive, so hopefully it's something that the entire family can join, whether it's dad and the kids and grandma, and even the teenager may pretend to not watch but can't help it. That's what my hope is."
But when Koechner gets to stoke his own creative fires without anyone else calling the shots, he can at least explore the more emotionally complicated areas that interest him the most — like Roy, an overweight gay man obliviously unlucky in love Koechner plays on his YouTube channel. "What I love in characters is pathos — and if you can, bathos is all the better," he says with a laugh. "Here's how we bond: We find the common sadness in all of us and go, 'Yes. Me. Too.' And because we can both recognize that we're sad and we're here, we're going to survive. In comedy, we're looking for those pieces perhaps that are broken and recognizable. That's how I kind of think about it."
"Part of the comic's experience as far as I'm concerned is controlling people around you, in a way," he continues. "Because that's probably a way of controlling your [own] life. If I can make you laugh, I did that. Good for me. I controlled another human! At the same time, that makes me feel good. Because I gave you a laugh. What greater joy is there than that?"