Andy Daly has spent his career being an ace supporting player, an actor and comedian who habitually elevates everything around him, from the lackluster (MADtv) to the already great (Eastbound & Down). Aside from the cabal of hardcore comedy fans who worship Daly for his excellent 2008 album, Nine Sweaters, and his many memorable appearances on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and TV show, he has mostly resided in “Hey, it’s that guy” territory for the general public. That could change with Review, his long-in-the-works series for Comedy Central. On it, he plays Forrest MacNeil, a man who reviews life experiences—like stealing or getting a divorce—with the sort doddering squareness that has anchored many of his characters. Review is an American adaptation of an Australian series, and it’s been in the works since the spring of 2012, when Comedy Central announced it had acquired the American rights to the show as a vehicle for Daly. Nearly two years later, Review finally debuts tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern. Just before the premiere, The A.V. Club talked to Daly about the long road to Review’s premiere, how Semi-Pro changed his life, and his predilection for suicide.
The A.V. Club: Was Comedy Central looking for a project for you? How’d it work?
Andy Daly: Kent Alterman, who directed Semi-Pro, he was the Comedy Central executive in charge of the Upright Citizens Brigade way back in the day when they had a show on Comedy Central. Then we went and did movies, he produced some great movies, and of course he directed Semi-Pro, and then they put him in charge of Comedy Central. He became president [of content development and original programming] of Comedy Central. I’ve been told one of the first things he said was, “We need to find a show for Andy Daly.” So I think when they saw this thing, he was like, “Well, there you go. That’ll do!” [Laughs.] I loved it.
AVC: It’s surprising to think that the show wasn’t created for you because it seems so built around your persona.
AD: Yeah, well, in some ways we did that. We definitely didn’t just take the Australian character just as he was and put me in that role. One of the very first things we did in developing the pilot was to come up with a new name for the character and just say, “This is a different guy. This is a different show. Who is this guy? What is he doing and why is he doing it?” So, in that sense, it is sort of a vehicle to play into my strength.
AVC: Were there any other changes you made from the Australian version?
AD: Well, it seemed like we would get more legs out of it if we surrounded Forrest with more of a cast of regular characters that are in his life. In the Australian version, he does have a wife, who sort of comes and goes and certainly does not impact his reviews. There are many stand-alone reviews where you wouldn’t know that he’s married—I would say the majority of them. He does have a lawyer who pops up when needed from time to time, and he has some friends that you meet once or twice. We thought that viewers would be able to invest a little more and know what they were getting when they tuned in again if we fleshed out his world a little bit. So we gave him an assistant that he interacts with a lot and an intern and really beefed up that family reality for him. Jessica St. Clair as my wife is a major factor in his life. And then of course, I have a producer, James Urbaniak, who comes along from time to time.
AVC: Is Jessica St. Clair a presence throughout the episodes, because one of his reviews is about getting a divorce.
AD: Yeah, it’s always tricky to know what say, spoiler-wise. [Laughs.] I’ll just say something about the divorce plot, because it ended up being the most important thing about the whole show. In the Australian version, my favorite segment that they do was the divorce segment. When I saw that, I was like, “So that’s what this show is about. This is a show about a guy who says, ‘You can ask me to do anything and I will go and do it because it’s important. Because I can offer unique insights into life experiences because I am uniquely qualified [Laughs.] through my incredible intellect and insight into humanity.’” So whatever it is, he will do it. But of course that’s such a stupid idea [Laughs.] for one guy to take on all of life’s most extreme experiences. Things that people themselves are either too scared or don’t have the means to experience and ask him to do it, they’re going to be extreme events.
To me, it’s not enough to just see him go through something extreme and then return back to normal at the end of it. To me, the funnier thing is to see his life for real get degraded and impacted from review to review. Let’s see the real impact on this guy’s life. So when they did divorce in Australia, he has to find out what’s it like to get a divorce and really divorces his wife and really had a custody hearing. He really does it, and it’s real, and he stays divorced in Australia. So for us, we ended up hanging the season on that because [Laughs.] it’s such a huge thing to do for a TV show. So it doesn’t just end at the end of that; he doesn’t just get divorced and move on. We felt like it was important that it informs the rest of his life from there. Like, he wants to get her back. He divorced her for no reason, except for the TV show. He wants her back and so he’s definitely dealing with that for the rest of the season.
AVC: How much does she know about what he does for a living? Is she aware of the premise for his show? At a certain point, she could be like, “This must be something stupid you’re doing for the show,” and let it go. Did you think about her character like that?
AD: Oh yeah, absolutely. It was something that in various different drafts of various different scripts we went to pains to explain, and at some point said, “You know, it’s not fun to hear a [Laughs.] big, long explanation about all this. Why don’t we allow it to be this serious and allow this to play out?” But we have it all figured out and, in the final episode of the season, some of that is addressed a little more directly. But just to let you know, the logic that we have for it is that she knows, obviously, that he is the focal point of a television show, but he, for scientific purposes—so that none of these reviews are compromised in any way at all—has not told her. Not only does he not tell her what he is reviewing, from review to review, but he has not told her that this is going to be a show in which he is reviewing life experiences. She feels that it’s a documentary about the life of a reviewer. So their family life is being captured by cameras, but she has no idea that any of this is for the show.
AVC: Your comedy gleefully goes into dark places. What kind of limits did you have in that sense? Like working on TV, Comedy Central is pretty lax, but it seems like you could bump up against some constraints.
AD: I don’t recall ever hearing that something was too dark. From time to time, there was the note, “This is a little too sad.” [Laughs.] Because terrible things happen to this guy. I think one thing that Comedy Central really likes about the possibilities of this show is that it’s a world of wish fulfillment for this guy. He gets asked to do exciting things that you and I don’t get to do, and he’s a regular guy who gets to do these things. As we kept finding in our writing room, and possibly it’s my dark sensibility, is that we would send him off on clear wish-fulfillment assignments, like he gets to go to an orgy or sleep with a celebrity or go into space, but it was just too deliciously funny to have terrible things happen. [Laughs.] So a lot of segments are wish fulfillment up to a point, and then nightmare fulfillment after that. But Comedy Central didn’t mind any of that. The only stuff standards-wise—we had a real standards issue with our orgy episode, which you’ll see—that’s episode six. I mean, the emails that we received, the back and forth of emails on that are classic. Classics of the standards-and-practices genre.
AVC: Telling you what you can show and what you can’t show, specifically? That kind of thing?
AD: Yeah. Which body parts can be seen to be thrusting and viscosity of the sound effects.
AVC: The addiction episode has cocaine in it, so you must have a fair amount of leeway.
AD: Yeah, their only standard on cocaine, as a little sort of pro tip, is that it can’t be instructional. So they don’t want to actually see the snorting of the cocaine. You’ll see some strategic camera whips here and there to obscure the actual ingestion of the drug.
AVC: Just in case people aren’t sure.
AD: Yeah, in case they weren’t exactly sure how it gets in the nose.
AVC: You co-wrote the first episode, right?
AD: Yeah, that’s right. Every episode was written pretty much as a collaboration between myself and Jeffrey Blitz and Andy Blitz and Leo Allen and Kevin Dorff and Carol Kolb and Gavin Steckler. [Kolb is a former editor of The Onion —ed.] We just sort of team-wrote every episode, and people would take initial passes at various segments and then we’d hand it off to somebody else and then we’d all sort of gang up on all the pieces. Piece them out together in the room, gang up on them individually and as a group.
AVC: How many episodes are there altogether?
AD: There are nine. We went into production intending to shoot eight, but of course, I had so much fun improvising pieces here and there and coming up with new things on the fly—and probably wrote too much to begin with—so by the time we got into editing, it was pretty apparent that we had more than eight episodes’ [Laughs.] worth of footage. We had to juggle some things around.
AVC: When did you start and when did you wrap?
AD: We wrapped February 15th, 2013, almost exactly a year ago. We had some stop downs around the holidays and stuff like that, but I guess we started in November of 2012.
AVC: You’ve been on a lot of TV shows. How did that experience inform how you wanted to do your own?
AD: I have a favorite way of working that I guess I probably really settled on on Eastbound & Down because it was way that David Gordon Green liked to work and the way that Jody Hill liked to work, which is that you have a script that is really great and really makes you laugh. But the words themselves are not precious. So when you get into a scene, you could shoot it just the way you wrote it, but you could also say, “What’s the story of this scene? Can we tell that story in other words that feel more natural to say right now?” That’s my favorite way of working, and Jeff Blitz was totally on board with that. We often did a pass of the scene as written—not always, but often. Then we’d just say, “Let’s just loosen it up and have more fun with it to make it feel more natural, and to help us to really connect to what’s happening in this scene.” I think you can see that in lots of lots moments throughout the show. It’s not like we’re veering off into wild improv that creates whole new elements of the character, but we are around the edges—interrupting each other, a little bit of cross talk here and there in a way that, I think, feels natural.
AVC: Is it hard to work like that? Because you work hard on the scripts, but then go into a situation where the words aren’t necessarily the end of it.
AD: Not really. I’m not all that interested in specific words and the language of specific words. I’m a little more interested in what happens and in believing it. I guess my main thing is, can I watch it and believe it? So if I’ve written a line in a particular and another actor is saying it in a way that I don’t believe, I would so much prefer to say, “Put it in words that you can make me believe.” Yeah, that’s much more important to me.
AVC: Did you have any premonition when you wrapped last year that it was going to be such a long process to get it onto the air?
AD: No, at the time that we wrapped, I think we had just been given a premiere date of July 2013. I guess what happened is that we started delivering them episodes in our editing process, and they were feeling that they had something really unique on their hands and really wanted to promote it and get it on air, in front of people. But the 2013 promotional budget was looking… that cupboard was looking bare. [Laughs.] They were like, “We need to have a little more money to spend to get the word out about it.” So, it was bittersweet, of course, because I was dying to have people see it as soon as possible. On the other hand, the opportunity to have promos and billboards and subway posters and stuff like that is pretty huge. Because I think people will like it. That’s happening, so that’s good, and it hasn’t been such a long wait. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you turn in all the episodes over the course of last year? Has it been a really long time since you’ve seen them?
AD: Yes and no. We got them very close to finished around about July, and then took a long break off from them. But then over the course of the fall and winter, we’ve been getting back in under the hood and looking at them again and just having the opportunity really do final polishes here and there. Actually, in the last several weeks, we’ve been really getting detailed on sound mixing and all this little special effects stuff like that. I think I have them all fairly well memorized. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there anything you noticed when you came back to them that you hadn’t noticed before? Or anything you wish you’d done different?
AD: Hmm, I don’t know. I mean, I never came to a point where I didn’t feel incredibly close to it. Actually at one point, I was watching an episode and just not laughing and feeling like, “Aww, I gotta do something.” But I took it, it was actually our second episode, I took it to the UCB Theatre in L.A. and just snuck it up at midnight one night in front of whatever audience happened to be there and walked out feeling like, “Okay, everything’s fine. [Laughs.] They totally get the premise.” This audience laughed at things I didn’t even know were going to be laughs, and I just felt like I can relax.
An interesting thing about this show to me is that the premise itself of this guy going out into the world and doing these extreme experiences for the good of humanity is so absurd. You can then, I think, afford to play a lot of the moments in the piece as pretty straight because the reason he’s doing it is so stupid. It was a big question to me as to whether an audience would appreciate the absurdity and the premise and everything else might flow from there. My mind was put to ease on that by screening that episode. I screened episodes one and three as well and had similar experiences.
AVC: You’ve done so much TV. How quickly can you pick up on whether or not something is working?
AD: You mean while we’re shooting it?
AVC: Yeah, like while you’re in the process of it. For instance, when you did your first WTF interview, you talked about working on The Paul Reiser Show. You liked your character quite a bit and there were some good people involved, but you’re like, “Eh, doesn’t seem like something NBC is going to really do.” Do you get those kinds of feelings fairly quickly when you’re in production?
AD: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think that was a case, The Paul Reiser Show, when I first read the pilot, it just didn’t feel like a show that was going to be on NBC, even though there were things about it that I liked. It was just hard for me to picture. That was a real lesson in what do I know [Laughs.], because NBC picked it up. That kind of surprised me. So I guess I try not to think that way and just try to make it as good as I can make it. That’s kind of my approach.
AVC: You mentioned Semi-Pro earlier. You said on your first WTF interview how that film was huge for you. It’s not one of the bigger ones in Will Ferrell’s filmography, but it seems pretty fair to say that it opened doors for you.
AD: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, prior to that, probably the biggest thing I had done was that one episode of The Office, I think. A lot of certain people knew me from Reno 911! and MADtv of course, but to get a part in a big Will Ferrell movie like that, and a big part… It was a part that was written pretty big to attract a name. They wanted to attract a name. They wanted to attract a name to put next to Will Arnett there. But I auditioned for it, I auditioned for Kent, and he knew me from New York sketch days. He was just like, “No, I want Andy Daly.” I think the studio was trying to force all these names on him, and he was like, “No, no, no. Andy Daly.” And the way that I finally got the part was he asked me to come to the table read. To read it at the table read even though a lot of people were not on board with this unknown playing this big part in the movie—and it just went great. The table read just went great and after that, it was like, “Okay, that’s it. Andy Daly can do it.” It was by far the biggest and most legitimate thing that I did, and I think it especially helped me get the part on Eastbound & Down.
AVC: Let’s talk a bit about your new podcast, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project. In a way it’s shocking that it’s taken so long for you to do your own podcast because you’ve been such a regular presence on a lot of them. Had it come up before at all?
AD: No, actually. I’ll tell you how it came about, because it ties into Review. As I was saying, we did the editing, and we’re done with it by about July. Then from that part forward, there were a lot of little tweaking things that had to be done. I’m getting cc’d on these massive email chains about graphics fonts and stuff like that and feeling a little weighed down by it by around the fall. My wife said, “You need a project that’s fun for right now while you’re waiting for Review to premiere. Something that just doesn’t involve lots and lots of details and you aren’t going to be a perfectionist about. [Laughs.] So why don’t you do a podcast?” I was like, “That seems like a lot of work, honestly. I don’t think I will.” But within days of that I got an email from [producer] Matt Gourley saying that he had been asked by Earwolf to produce, to go out and find new podcasts, and he thought of me. We went out to lunch and he’s like, “We’ll make it easy for you.” And I was like, “Well, okay. [Laughs.] That sounds right. You give me the microphone, some gear, and the studio time and work out all the details. Let’s do it.”
AVC: How much is written, and how much is that you’re going to hit certain beats?
AD: Well, that was the thing that my wife did not understand when she was like, “You don’t have to be a perfectionist about it, and you don’t have to worry about every detail.” And it turns out that’s just what I do. [Laughs.] Some episodes have involved more work than others, but the Dalton Wilcox episode I definitely did think about what had happened between Forrest and the vampire [Laughs.], and I wrote almost all of that story about Beck Landry. As I’m listening to it, I can hear the point where I just ran out of time and had to improvise the ending. I ran out of time to write it. Decent preparation went into that, and I think the Chip Gardner episode was similar. Yeah, there was a decent amount of preparation, but as it goes on, some of them are a little bit more shoot-the-breeze style. [Laughs.]
AVC: You do all these characters, and you’re basically doing a new show every week. How do you keep yourself from burning out?
AD: Well, I’m just going to make eight of them, for sure. We’re just doing eight. Yeah, it’s a mini-series. So, eight of my characters are getting their own podcast. I don’t know the next step. Whether each one of those characters will get a second episode, whether there’s other characters that will get pilots, or whether one of these will take off and have more episodes, or nothing. Anything can happen.
AVC: How have you come up with these characters? Particularly when you go on Comedy Bang! Bang!, do you have the character more or less formed when you get there, or do you and Scott Aukerman piece some of it together ahead of time?
AD: It varies, but usually I know who the character is. I know some basic elements of their backstory, I know why they’re here today, and I try to be prepared to have a few specific funny things to say, but we never talk about anything ahead of time, me and Scott or Jason [Mantzoukas] or whoever else is there. We just go, and if I have the opportunity to work in some of the things I came prepared with, I will. But if not, I don’t. Just kind of see what happens.
AVC: There was an episode with Jason, where he and Scott try to have an intervention with you because your characters are always suicidal. It seems like they sprung that on you—had you worked that out ahead of time?
AD: Yeah, they did. Scott and Jason ahead of time, but they did not tell me they were going to do that. [Laughs.] I think they had talked about it a long time. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was totally surprised by that.
AVC: You’ve talked a bit about this before, but why are your characters so prone to suicide?
AD: Well, the first time I was ever on one, I’m pretty sure I did Danny Mahoney, my “life of a party” character, and part of his backstory is that he was despondent about being fired, so he contemplated suicide. When I do it as a bit onstage, that’s just kind of a thing—we get past it and we move on to what he’s up to now. But in the context of the podcast, that was interesting to Scott, so we poked around about it and talked a lot about his heavy coat that he was going to wear into the ocean and all this stuff. [Laughs.] Then the next time I was on, was the German tourist, I’m pretty sure, and he was so upbeat about everything, and then Scott at some point out of nowhere, “Is that a suicide note in front of you?” Just because I think he thought it would be funny for this guy who’s so upbeat and happy about everything to have a suicide note in front of him. So that led down that whole road, and then the third time I was on, Scott said before we started, “It’s funny both of your characters so far have been suicidal.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, I guess that’s true.” I think that’s when I was doing my old man character with Jeff Garlin, and Scott of course injected that he was also suicidal. [Laughs.] Scott injected it into that. From that point forward, sometimes it’s me bringing it up, but mostly [Laughs.] it’s Scott or Jason making the character suicidal, or Scott very clearly prompting me to say it. “So do you have anything planned today?” Or “What are your thoughts about your future?” and stuff like that. And I always know what I’m supposed to say. [Laughs.]
AVC: Podcasts are very much a niche medium, but for comedians they can have such a big impact. Have you felt that personally? Have all these sort of appearances, particularly on Comedy Bang! Bang!, which has such a big following, helped with other sorts of projects?
AD: One of the main reasons that I wanted to do it in addition to just having a fun project to fill the time while I waited for Review to come out, was to time it around the premiere of Review as a way to sort of to get myself out there in front of my fans and let them know about this show that I dearly hope that they watch. So I’m definitely hoping for that. I started doing Scott’s show not when it was on 103.1, but when it was still affiliated with Indie 103.1, and it was like a podcast as part of that radio station. I think I just did it because I knew Scott and he asked me to come and do it, and I didn’t have any clue who, if anybody, was listening to a radio station that had been kicked off the air and was now a podcast. [Laughs.] I don’t think it became apparent to me that people were listening and cared and were paying attention to it until I had probably done four or five of them, and even then it was like a surprise, like hearing from people on Twitter. Most of the people I’ve been hearing from on Twitter have been talking to me about this stuff, and I still actually don’t have much of a sense of what the numbers are, but it’s pretty clear to me that fans of podcasts are the folks who are out there talking to each other online and getting invested and interested in the comedians who pop up on these things a lot. It was not anything I ever planned for. I just kind of stumbled into it because Scott asked me to do things, and I have a hard time saying no.
AVC: Podcasts do attract pretty intense fans. When yours debuted, there was a lot of buzz about it among our readers because people had gotten attached to you via Comedy Bang! Bang!
AD: I wonder if there is something about the audio-only nature of it that somehow makes it more intimate, actually. I don’t know. I have a half-baked theory, I guess, on that. I know Orson Welles has some quote, and I’ll get it wrong I’m sure, but it was something like, “Art is always enhanced by the element it’s missing.” He was saying that radio is greater than television because it doesn’t have the visual, and silent movies are greater than movies with sound because they don’t have the sound. You’re forced to used your mind to fill in more. It’s more active and engaging on the part of the audience if you take something away. Like if you have a play that doesn’t have a set. If it doesn’t have costumes, you’re engaging the audience a little bit more. I wonder if there’s something about that, that helps explain why people can listen to the number of these that they listen to and as closely as they do listen to them and get that invested in them. But I think it’s super cool. But again, it’s nothing I knew was going to happen, and it’s constantly taking me by surprise. In the wake of the Podcast Pilot Project, I read a bunch of comments on Earwolf of stuff. I think I have to stop reading them, because they are so positive it’s making me scared for everything. [Laughs.]