The actor: Chris Elliott, son of famed radio comedian Bob Elliott of Bob And Ray, and four-time Emmy winner as a writer for Late Night With David Letterman. Elliott's Letterman appearances gained him an early notoriety as a goofy comic, and he went on to star in the TV vehicle Get A Life and the film vehicle Cabin Boy before dropping back to smaller roles in a wide variety of comedies, dramas, and animated prime-time shows. He's also recently written two "novels," as he puts it: 2005's The Shroud Of The Thwacker and the new Into Hot Air.
Get A Life (1990-1992)—"Chris Peterson"
Chris Elliott: Probably the most fun I've ever had, actually, acting. Because it was the perfect extension of the stuff that I'd started to do on Late Night With David Letterman, and when I look back on all my work, it was probably the best possible incarnation of Chris Elliott, of me. Of what I can do. I look back on that actually as my finest work. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: You're credited on the IMDB with writing two episodes; how much involvement did you actually have with shaping the show?
CE: Well, I sort of created the show with Adam Resnick, and then David Mirkin came in and ran it, but we didn't do that show in front of an audience, so there was a lot of playing around on the set, and I was in the writers' room breaking stories and stuff every day. So I was pretty involved.
AVC: How did you communicate "This is what the Chris Elliott character should be like" to all the other writers, the people who didn't start out with you like Adam did?
CE: I was lucky on that show, because Late Night had given me a good foundation, and I already seemed to have writers, at least, who were fans of mine. Writers knew of me and knew my style, and Adam's voice is really strong, and it didn't take long for people to get what we wanted to do. I think also that the writers that we had on the show were pretty great: Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk, among others.
AVC: What's Charlie Kaufman like to work with?
CE: [Laughs.] At the time, he was very quiet, you know? He was—if it was like Your Show Of Shows, he would have been—I guess Neil Simon was the one who used to whisper ideas to Mel Brooks? Charlie Kaufman, if he had anybody who would listen to him, he was that. He was very shy and quiet, but always wrote funny stuff.
Cabin Boy (1994)—"Nathanial Mayweather"
CE: Cabin Boy is a flawed movie, and I look back on it with a certain amount of regret in terms of some of the choices that we made, but at the same time, I'm pretty proud of it, and actually happy that it has somewhat of a cult following at this point. The character in that movie, I like. It was basically Freddie Bartholomew from Captains Courageous, and it's sort of funny to watch that movie now, because I start with this sort of pseudo-English accent, and then as the notes came down from the studio, you can actually see the accent starting to diminish throughout the movie. [Laughs.] I think I end with hardly an accent at all. But I'm actually proud of the movie.
AVC: Was it shot linearly, so the accent diminishes scene by scene, or does it vary depending on when a scene was shot?
CE: You know what, I'd actually have to go back and look at it. Somebody else actually pointed that out to me, and it wasn't shot in order, so it's hard to support what I just said, except that maybe that process was already beginning in rehearsals and so forth, of just toning it down. But there are some scenes where it's heavy, and some where it's nonexistent.
AVC: That's another Adam Resnick project. Did you meet on the David Letterman show?
CE: We did—Adam was an intern. He came a couple years after I had been a writer—he was made a writer fairly soon after that. And he's just one of those guys—he grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I grew up in New York City—but as soon as we met, we knew we would have been best friends if we had gone to high school together. We did a lot of stuff on Letterman together, we did a lot of the characters that I do, like Brando and that kind of stuff, on Letterman, and then Get A Life. I think Adam is one of the most brilliant writers out there, actually.
AVC: You just put out a new novel—all the press releases have "novel" in quotes.
CE: Uh-huh. I did that.
AVC: What does "novel" in quotes signify to you?
CE: Well, it's because these books, these "novels," are basically parodies of novels themselves, and they work on a number of levels. They do work as novels, but they're so goofy, and the idea behind them is not just "There's this crazy story," it's that this Chris Elliott persona is actually writing these novels. So for fans who follow my work, it's again a sort of natural extension—it's something I guess back in the '80s, I would have brought on and joked about on Letterman, you know, without actually writing the book itself. Coming out with a fake mock-up of it. But these are the real thing, so the joke is really, "Yeah, it's a funny story, but it's funny also because this guy Chris Elliott is the guy writing them." And then on top of all that, I think it's funny that people are actually buying them.
AVC: Why name the character after yourself? You're trying to make a character separate from you that's "Chris Elliott"?
CE: I feel like I've done that already, that it's the same persona, it's the same character—it's not the guy you're talking to now, it's the character that I developed on Letterman. This guy who goes through life with blinders on, and has this desire to be famous boiling underneath the surface. And that's this guy that I've played in almost everything I've ever done, in characters that weren't named Chris Elliott. But specifically, in these books, it's fun to reference my past career, and to do that, I have to be me.
AVC: How does writing a novel written by the Chris Elliott character compare to writing something like Cabin Boy as a vehicle for the Chris Elliott character?
CE: It sounds kind of corny, but it's liberating, because you don't have anybody telling you "No, you can't be that crazy," or "You've gotta be more likeable here," or "You can't do this or that." It's freeing in that sense, because you can basically just wake up in the morning and stroll down into your office and go. Wherever your imagination takes you that day ends up on the page. There's very little editing in this process as well, but on the downside of that, with me, there's a good deal of insanity that ends up on the page.
There's Something About Mary (1998)—"Dom Woganowski"
CE: A part that I think anybody could have—it was really funny on the page right away. That was one of those scripts that I read and laughed out loud at, which I rarely do, so I'm fairly certain that anyone could have plugged into the part and just done the lines in the script and gotten laughs. I added the facial blemishes, after I met with Peter and Bobby Farrelly, as kind of a running thing, so I guess I feel like I contributed something to it, but with or without the boil on the eyelid, it still was a character just funny on the page. I can't take much credit for that.
AVC: As directors, do they encourage a lot of improvisation or feedback from the actors?
CE: Yeah, they do. Because they work with people like Bill Murray and Ben Stiller and guys that can actually do that kind of thing, so they like that. They also—they'll take a suggestion, if it's good, from someone who's behind the cameras, as well, and they make everybody feel like they're a part of the whole process when they make a movie. I think that's why they end up with good products, because they're sort of grabbing from everywhere, and everybody is contributing.
AVC: What's their directorial collaboration with each other like from an actor's perspective?
CE: I guess there's times when it's kind of good-cop, bad-cop, where Peter is the one who delivers the difficult news, and Bobby is more the praiser who comes to let you know it was great. But in general, there's very little of that from either of them. Bobby is quieter than Peter—Peter will drop his pants at the drop of a dime if he has to. Bobby's a little more subdued. But they work well together, they never argue. At least not in front of the actors. You feel like you're working with one guy.
Kingpin (1996)—"The gambler"
AVC: You also did Kingpin with the Farrellys. It was only a few years between those films, but did you notice any difference in their style as they became more prominent and better-known?
CE: It was almost exactly the same. I just had more to do in Something About Mary. They'd sent me Kingpin, I remember, and they had said that they were thinking of me for the Bill Murray role—they had it out to Bill Murray, but they weren't sure if Bill Murray was going to do it. Then they called and said, "Yeah, Bill Murray's gonna do it." And I said "Oh, that's too bad," and then they wrote this other little part for me in the casino, and called me up and flew me out just to do that scene. They were really hardcore fans of mine, and it was fun to work with them just that night, shooting that scene, but then a lot more fun to have more to do in Something About Mary.
AVC: Was that a role you were really disappointed to miss out on?
CE: The Bill Murray role? Um, not really, only because I haven't—I don't really go after roles to any great degree. I was back doing David Letterman when they were doing Kingpin, and I was happy doing that. Yeah, it would have been nice to have that role, but at the same time, I wasn't relying on acting to put bread on the table, so it wasn't like I missed out on anything great. It was more like "Oh, I won't see the Farrellys, I'll only be shooting one night, and that's too bad."
Late Night With David Letterman (1982-1985)—"Various characters"
CE: That was really fun, because it was all about making Dave laugh; it wasn't really about making the audience laugh. It was all about coming out there and making sure Dave found whatever you were doing funny. There were plenty of times that I would come out and not necessarily get huge laughs, but Dave would laugh, and I knew that piece worked. And in the end, I think that the audience that was watching Late Night early on, they were seeing things that hadn't been done on TV before, and it was all new, so whether or not it was uproariously funny, I think I at least got points for doing different stuff.
Lianna (1983)—"Lighting Assistant"
CE: [Laughs.] I don't think I have ever talked about that movie. Wow. That is random, for sure. I think I was like 17 or 18 when I did that. Maybe a little older. It came out in '83, but it was shot before that. It was before I was at Letterman. I had done summer stock up in New Hampshire at the Eastern Slope Playhouse, and that's where John Sayles—he shot Return Of The Secaucus 7 up there, and that whole group—David Strathairn and all those people worked at the same theater that I apprenticed at. I had met Sayles there, and he just called me and asked me if I wanted to do this little part in that movie, and it was—that's my first movie role. I haven't seen it since it was done, so I can't really comment on it, except for I had a head of hair and no beard at the time. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you remember about being on a movie set for the first time?
CE: Well, it was a low-budget movie, and even then, I knew, "This isn't really the way it is on regular movie sets." I guess just having grown up with my dad in the business and being on movies like Cold Turkey, which he did out in Iowa—it was a huge film, that kind of thing—so I knew it was kind of somewhere between a home movie and what would be called nowadays an independent film. But it was still a little nerve-wracking and a little—you're finally up to bat, and you have to show that you've got something. I don't remember there being anything in that role that I could really bite into, other than the fact that the character looked like me.
AVC: Was it any easier knowing that he had cast you in the role personally because he liked your work?
CE: Oh yeah. Yeah. I haven't really auditioned much in my career. I've been lucky in terms of the feature work; it's mostly been people that have been fans of mine that have called and said "We have this part, do you want to do it?" That kind of thing. And that's sort of still the way it is right now—I don't really go after features too much. But doing Lianna was—at that age, you're trying to get as much on your résumé as possible, so I was really happy to have a film on my résumé. And I knew all those people, so it was more like I was being invited into his group of players, but already sort of having hung out with them up in New Hampshire. So it wasn't that awkward a feeling for me.
CE: Wow. This is really random. Really, really random. The director called Letterman, had seen me on the show, said he was a huge fan, and asked me to be in it, and I said sure. It was down in North Carolina where we shot that. Paula Poundstone was in it. It was kind of a parody of Star Wars, long before Spaceballs. It's another movie that I have not seen, but I remember at the time thinking that it was funny. It was kind of low-budget, but Paula Poundstone had some heat on her at the moment, and I was a fan of hers—I think she had actually done Letterman before she got that, so I sort of felt like, "Oh, this is the next step, then, for me." And then from there I went on to Inside Adam Swift. [Laughs.]
Inside Adam Swift (1985)—"Mr. Spooner"
CE: That was another kind of very low-budget movie that was never released, with an actor named Raphael Sbarge. It was like a teen movie. A coming-of-age story.
AVC: It looks like it was released on VHS as My Man Adam.
CE: Was it really? Wow. Wow.
AVC: Can you recall the first film you were really excited about being in, because you felt it was going to be really terrific?
CE: [Laughs.] I guess it was Something About Mary. Just because it was so funny on the page. Even while you were shooting that movie, you knew that every scene you were in was funny. I shouldn't say that—I guess Groundhog Day came before that. I probably felt the same about that movie. At least while I was shooting it, I was thinking, "Oh yeah, this is gonna be a big, funny movie." It wasn't like Something About Mary, which made me laugh hysterically on the page—at least, not my character. Imagining Bill Murray doing his stuff made me laugh, but when we were shooting, I knew, "Okay, yeah, this is gonna be a good, funny movie."
AVC: You said you don't audition much—can you think of a role you went out and auditioned for, something you really wanted?
CE: I went out and auditioned for The Abyss.
The Abyss (1989)—"Bendix"
CE: I did end up in The Abyss, but I didn't get the part I auditioned for. That was during the 1988 writers' strike, maybe? Maybe there was another one after that, I can't remember. But it was during a writers' strike that I went out and read for the role Todd Graff got, the guy with the little white rat that he carries around on his shoulder. James Cameron liked me and we talked a lot, and then I heard I didn't get the part, and a few weeks later, I got invited down to North Carolina, and he was literally writing my role on legal paper while I was on the set. Handing it to me and saying, "Okay, you're gonna say this, that, and that thing." And I had a great time doing that movie, actually. He was really great to me.
AVC: That's twice that you didn't get a part and a director wrote a role especially for you, to make sure you ended up in his movie. Does that kind of thing happen to you often?
CE: I guess so. I think part of it, back in the early '80s, was because of Dave more than anything else, because of Late Night. There were a lot of casting people looking for who was hip out there, and what was the next hippest thing, and Late Night definitely was, and having an element of that in a movie, I think, added to whoever's movie. I know I got cast in Manhunter, Michael Mann's movie, because… There's no real reason for me to be in that movie other than the fact that it was, like, the height of my appearances on Letterman. I think I'd done a Cinemax comedy experiment, an article on me in People magazine, that kind of thing.
CE: That was more difficult for me, in a way, just because I felt totally out of place there. I was cast through a casting agent who'd seen some article on me, and had told Michael Mann, "Oh yeah, it would be cool to have him in this movie," I guess. So I knew right from the start, "Oh, I really shouldn't be in this." The Abyss, I could put a little bit of my attitude from Letterman into the character. In Manhunter, I was supposed to be an FBI forensic investigator. And I don't know, I was 23 or 24 at the time, with a giant beard and long, stringy blonde hair—I just didn't look the part. I remember when the movie premièred, I appear in the scene where everybody's putting together the final information that leads to this killer, and the camera panned the table and cut to me, and there was this big blast of laughter from the audience that broke the whole tension of that scene. I can only imagine that Michael Mann was not happy about that.
CE: It was an unhappy experience only in my performance—I wasn't happy with my performance in it. I'm not crazy about my voice on its own, doing anything. I've done a number of King Of The Hills because I'm friends with Paul Lieberstein, who runs the show, but I'd done a pilot with Larry Charles before Dilbert, and then he called and asked if I'd do Dogbert. I said sure, but I don't like the sound of my voice, and I'm not entirely sure why. I haven't figured that out yet, because I come from a radio family—in essence, my dad made his career in radio, and he has a great voice, but… My theory is that I'm not comfortable isolating one part of whatever it is I do. And my voice, without me moving around and mugging and adding whatever I add to it, I get uncomfortable. I thought it was a fairly lackluster performance.
AVC: Really? I loved your Dogbert.
CE: You know, this is all my perception. A lot of what I am telling you goes against what people tell me on the street, when they come up to me and tell me, "You were great in this, that, or the other thing." Some times I just walk away baffled about my own feelings. I've come to realize I have my own take on what it is I do. But a lot of people have come up to me and told me that they liked my Dogbert character.
AVC: Are there other aspects of yourself or your career where you feel like your perception differs from the general public perception?
CE: Yeah. I think overall, completely. Part of that is my own invention—the persona we are talking about is a guy that's fairly self-centered and is pretty much out to win the world, and who cares, mostly, just about himself. Yeah. I don't think that's me. People are always surprised that I'm not bouncing off the walls and that I'm not goofy, and crazy, and that sort of thing. But I think it's clear that I have created this other person, this alter ego. That's not unusual. It's certainly what Laurel and Hardy did, what the Marx brothers did, what Pee-wee Herman did. Even though I don't wear a goofy costume or have a goofy name, I'm still a completely different character.
New York Stories (1989)—"Robber"
CE: Okay, here's the New York Stories story. I got offered that part from Fred Roos, to play a robber in the Coppola one of the three little short films. And I was joking with Adam Resnick the day before the shoot, about me shooting this. And we were joking that Coppola wasn't going to know who I was, that he was going to call me "the guy with the beard." So I show up to shoot, and we don't shoot because there is something wrong with the camera. I don't know what the problem is, but I am there for, like, seven hours. And we haven't yet shot my scene. And it's late at night, and it gets into the early hours of the morning. I'm exhausted—I've worked all day at Letterman. So they yell "Action," and we shoot this wide scene. And Coppola says "Okay, that was great. Now, the guy with the beard, you come in a little earlier next time." And, I've go to say, I was just so mad at that point, at 4 in the morning, to not have the guy even know who I was, that I tried the next day to get out of the film, and tried to leave. But they had already got me on film so it was too late. I had to stay and go back and shoot the next night. That was my Coppola experience.
AVC: Who have been your favorite people to work with? Not just in terms of "he's a cool guy and I want to be in his films," but in terms of people who work best with you as directors?
CE: Adam Resnick, without a doubt, both as a writer and as a director, and as a friend to goof around with. You get a lot of inspiration out of goofing around, and a lot of ideas come out that way. So I would say it would be him before anyone else. And then looking back in terms of the movies, again, I've been a bit lucky, because most people have let me do what I want to do. When I was on the set, Keenen Wayans was great with me. He let me create a whole character for one of those Scary Movies, which isn't really what you do in those movies. You basically execute sight gags one after another. But he let me go off and play and improvise quite a bit, and do whatever I wanted. So I kind of think, with all of the movies, he would be up there, and so were the Farrellys.
Snow Day (2000)—"Roger"
CE: Kind of a favor-slash-business choice, financially. I knew someone at Nickelodeon who called me and said there was this role, and asked if I would be interested in doing it, so I did it. At the time, my kids were of the age that they were watching Nickelodeon, and would enjoy that kind of movie, and I thought "Well, I haven't really done a kids' movie yet." I guess I justified it that way.
AVC: Your next project is Thomas Kinkade's Home For Christmas. Can you say anything about that?
CE: It's about Thomas Kinkade, Painter Of Light, about his early days and how he learned to paint light. I play a guy in the small town that he grew up in, the head of the tourist department, who pays him to paint a mural on a wall in the town, to inspire the town. It's a little bit like a kids' movie, a little similar to Snow Day. I haven't seen it. But it's kind of a comedy-drama-type thing. It's totally G-rated. Peter O'Toole is in it, and Marcia Gay Harden. I'm not sure if it's coming out this holiday season or next holiday season. I think it's coming out next year.
AVC: What else do you have coming up?
AVC: Are you actually out on the line?
CE: I was today, yeah.
AVC: What was that like?
CE: It's kind of fun. It's nice to see some writers I haven't seen for a while, and to hang with the Late Show writers, who I really like a lot. It was fun, in that it was raining and cold. It felt good. But I was about to start to do more things back on Letterman again, and it was starting to turn into more or less a regular thing, with me coming back and doing stuff with Gerry Mulligan, and doing some running characters. Dave was having fun with me coming back. When the strike is over, I'll probably go back and do some more of that.