You could be forgiven for thinking Christian Finnegan is a professional talking head. Although he’s toured nationally, released the album Two For Flinching, and appeared on shows like Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, even Finnegan is the first to admit that more people are likely to recognize him from his commentator roles on VH1’s Best Week Ever and MSNBC’s Countdown With Keith Olbermann than as a stand-up comedian. (That is, unless they recognize him as “Chad,” the doomed white roommate from the Chappelle’s Show sketch, “Mad Real World.”)
But Finnegan’s first one-hour special for Comedy Central, Au Contraire!, taped during a live gig here in Philly, finds Finnegan foregoing celebrity snark for honest, self-deprecating stories about closer-to-home things, like the burdens of his very Irish name and being intimidated by his father-in-law, who’s currently in prison for attempted murder. The A.V. Club spoke with Finnegan—who appears at Helium Wednesday through Sunday—about finding his own comic niche, what he owes to Whitney Houston, and why he’ll never be comfortable being “the dude who talks pop culture.”
Decider: Where do you see yourself fitting into the current comedy scene?
Christian Finnegan: I’ve always prided myself on being able to perform in the “alt-comedy” zone, but also being able to do comedy for people who aren’t media-saturated, and maybe don’t have the latest Dan Deacon album. I probably won’t be the most popular guy at Zanies in Nashville, and I’ll never be the coolest dude at Largo, but I like that I can swim in both of those waters. Yuck. Did I just say that?
There are people that inspire me—like Louis C.K., who’s a great model for anyone trying be specific without being overly exclusive. The things he says are incredibly personal, but they’re not designed to make the audience feel stupid, the way I feel like a lot of “I’m so smart” comedy comes off. Claiming to be influenced by Louis C.K. is a lot like saying, “I like beer,” but it’s true. I also like comedians like Doug Stanhope. He has his intellectual ducks in a row, and he’s actually saying something that’s not just, “What’s up with salt shakers?”
D: You’re known as a pop-culture and political commentator, but your act mostly steers clear of those things. Is that something you consciously avoid?
CF: It is. It’s my genius plan of avoiding any career momentum whatsoever. Definitely the pop-culture thing is something I’ve avoided in my act. It’s just too transitory and ephemeral. It’s like cotton candy, making a dumb fucking Octomom joke. It’s funny this week, but it ages badly.
I do love throwing in obscure pop-culture references because I am a trivia person—which is how I got into Best Week Ever in the first place, because I was known among comedy people in New York for knowing a lot of trivia. I won a car on a game show once for knowing ’80s music videos. It was on a short-lived VH1 show, actually, before I was involved with them as quote-unquote “talent.” It was called Name That Video. The final round was where you had to name like 10 videos in 60 seconds, and I think—in fact, I know, who am I kidding with “I think?”—the final video was “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, a song I’ve never liked but now I have a real fondness for.
D: It got you a car. That’s more than it’s done for most people.
CF: [Laughs.] Yes, it got me out of crippling debt with MasterCard, so I will always be thankful to Whitney Houston. So yeah, I enjoy spicing up my comedy with bizarre references that maybe not everybody’s going to get, but I don’t want them to be things that would bring an audience to a complete halt. I don’t want to make, like, an Upstairs At Eric’s reference.
And as far as political humor, it just requires so much exposition to set it up. I do think I’m headed in that direction. Not in terms of like, “Did you guys hear about this health care vote?” But I want to talk about what it means to be a good person in the world we live in, and what it means to live a life that’s relevant and that you don’t have to be ashamed of. But it doesn’t mean I’m ending my set with a call to contact your congressman.
D: A lot of comedians view stand-up as a stepping-stone to movies and sitcoms. Do you?
CF: I find that really loathsome. It infuriates me. I don’t encounter it as much now that I’m performing more with other working comics, but when I was first starting at those “new talent showcases,” I would see all these people who were obviously actors just trying to get an agent. And I know a lot of comedians now who, when they get that break, stand-up goes by the wayside, and they’re just interested in being movie stars. That’s fine, but it’s not what I want at all.
There’s something so awesome about being able to get up in front of a microphone and do exactly what you want.Stand-up is as close as you’re ever going to get to being 100 percent in control of a situation artistically, and I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to keep doing that. There’s also only so many hours in the day, and I only have so much energy. And I have friends, and a wife I love, and video games that need my attention. Something’s gotta give.
D: How did your role on Countdown With Keith Olbermann come about?
CF: It all came from Best Week Ever. Paul F. Tompkins was on there before me, and I guess they went down the list of the other nine people and all of them were busy, so they decided to give me a shot. The first couple of times I went on, it was all Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, so it was a pretty simple transition—although you can be a little bit wordier and nerdier on Countdown, obviously. Then I let them know that I would love to talk about other things, because I’ve always been very conscious that it would be really easy to brand yourself as “the dude who talks pop culture”—which I enjoy, but I don’t want to be that guy. That’s probably had a negative effect on my career. I’d probably have a million other things going on if I really embraced that pop culture mantle the way someone like Kathy Griffin has. But for me, it would feel like I was ignoring three-quarters of my personality.
D: So does it bug you that Best Week Ever is what you’re most recognized for?
CF: Collectively, I’d say Best Week Ever is what I’m most recognized for, but honestly, the one thing I still get the most is Chappelle’s Show. It’s probably Best Week Ever 60 percent, Chappelle’s Show 30 percent, and Countdown 10 percent—but those 10 percent are the ones you really want. The people who recognize you from Chappelle’s Show, they’re not coming to see you in a club. They’re just like, “You were on TV!” They don’t care. You could be from Survivor. It’s literally, “I have watched you on a television.” To a certain degree that’s true for Best Week Ever, too. They may like what you do, but really, they’re just pop culture fans. A lot of them really do read In Touch and Us Weekly without any irony, and they don’t understand that the people who do Best Week Ever actually hate all that stuff, and that a lot of it comes from a serious loathing of celebrity journalism.
But it would be ridiculous for me to complain about people recognizing me. If 10 years from now people even remembered Best Week Ever, that would be nice, but I hope for my own sake there will be something else that people will recognize me for. That’s what this special is—the first step toward people thinking of me as a comedian first and pop-culture commenter second. It’s enraging when you read a review and it’s like, “This former Best Week Ever funnyman decided to try stand-up comedy.” Are you fucking kidding me? How do you think I got that job in the first place? Do you think I applied at the pop-culture factory?
But whatever. I’m very excited about where I’m going. You have to trust that things are gonna work out. If you want a safe career path that makes sense, you wouldn’t get into comedy in the first place.