The actor: David Koechner, a veteran of improvisational comedy well before he raised his profile by joining the cast of Saturday Night Live at the ripe old age of 33. Koechner only spent a year at SNL, but has stayed plenty busy since, taking small comic parts on TV and appearing in five or six movies a year. He’s also been keeping his improv tools sharp, both on the Los Angeles comedy scene and as half (with Dave “Gruber” Allen) of the musical duo The Naked Trucker & T-Bones. Koechner can currently be seen in the comedy Tenure (now on DVD), in which he plays a Bigfoot-obsessed college professor who tries to help his buddy Luke Wilson beat out a rival for a tenured faculty position.
Tenure (2009)—“Jay Hadley”
David Koechner: I remember sitting in a tree as the sun set, with the branch dangerously tented. Would not have been my choice, but apparently they liked the background, and didn’t ask us, “How about that tree, guys?” [Laughs.] We shot for about 28 days in and around Philadelphia. I was the second lead in that picture, after Luke Wilson. I’ve worked with Luke twice now, and it’s been good getting to know him. And this thing wasn’t a straight-ahead comedy, so that was certainly interesting. And the beard! I loved that beard. It’s not often you get an excuse to grow an unruly red-and-gray thing from your face. I kept it full-bore for maybe a month or two, and was able to work one more time with it. I did a small role in a movie called A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, so it was appropriate. The beard played.
The A.V. Club: Does your wife have any rules about how long you can keep a beard?
DK: She does not, but my kids do. They want me to shave after a couple of days. Growing a beard in your own home wouldn’t be fun without the opinions of others.
Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy/Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie (2004)—“Champ Kind”
DK: Glorious. With Anchorman, the thing I loved the most was that we all understood that something special was coming together while we were shooting, almost to the point where we didn’t want to break it up. I remember having conversations with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd and all of us opining “Wow, this feels pretty good.” And not wanting to overstate it, almost as if we’d jinx it. I mean look, you think every movie’s gonna work, right? You think every movie has great potential. But that one in particular, it felt like, man, every cylinder was poppin’. We shot enough for two movies, you know. There’s a second feature too.
AVC: As a comic actor with an improv background, do you like to work with the same people as much as you can? Is it a matter of trust?
DK: It’s more chemistry. And shared experience is certainly part of it. And an understanding of the tone you’re engaged in. It’s kind of like a pickup basketball game, where once you get on the court, even if you haven’t played together before, you can see, “Okay, he gets it.” Or “She gets it.” You’re kind of leading each other.
AVC: When you work with actors who don’t have the same training in improvisation as you, do you offer advice?
DK: It’s dangerous for one actor to advise another one, especially when you’re not in charge. [Laughs.] If they ask for it, away from the set, I would be willing to talk about it. But on the set, I’m never gonna tell another person, “Here’s what I think you should do.” That’s a discussion they should only have with the writers, producers, and directors.
Hannah Montana (2008-10)—“Uncle Earl”
DK: My daughter was a fan of the show, and I had met a makeup artist whose wife worked on it, and he said, “Hey, if you ever want to go see a taping, I can get you tickets.” But I waited a year to take him up on it, and by then he said, “You know what? The show’s become so popular that I can’t get you tickets anymore. But you can make a set visit on a Thursday instead of on the tape day, Friday.” And I was delighted, because a tape day would take like five hours, but if I just visited when they were doing pre-tapes, I could be out of this whole thing rather quickly. So I went down there with my daughter and her friend, got an autograph from Ms. Cyrus, who was delightful by the way, and then one of the producers came up and said, “Hey, would you do our show? We’ve been trying to get in touch with you for a year!” That was the first I’d heard about it. I said “I’d love to do it.”
My only recollections? Fat suit! Also, it was interesting to take my kids to school, and suddenly there were all these little girls who’d look at me and do a double-take, right? Their jaws dropped just a tiny little bit. [Laughs.] “Is that…?”
Monk (2007-08)—“Cousin Joey”
DK: A friend wrote one of the episodes and asked me to do it, so I did. Then with the 100th episode, there was a reprise with past villains, so I did it a second time.
AVC: On Hannah Montana, you were an uncle, and on Monk, you were a cousin.
DK: I can’t wait until I get to be “patriarch.”
Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006)—“Donnie”
DK: Yeah. [Pause.] It was my manager’s movie, and he asked me to do it. [Pause.] So I did.
AVC: And that’s all you want to say about that one?
DK: Not the highlight of my career. But they’re all nice people. I was more than apprehensive, and still regretful that I played a character called Donnie The Retard. I think that probably could’ve been… done without. But I was paid well. What’s next?
Snakes On A Plane (2006)—“Rick”
DK: Delightful. Love it. I got to work with Sam Jackson, which was a delight. And I got to be in a movie called Snakes On A Plane. C’mon! And I got to die. I got to be a hero first, and then die. Those are really fun roles for actors.
AVC: When you’re handed a script with “Snakes On A Plane” written on the cover page, does that script go right to the top of the pile?
DK: [Laughs.] I don’t know that I saw a script before I signed on, frankly. It all came together rather quickly. I got a phone call, and I don’t think I got a script until I showed up. All I had to hear was “Snakes On A Plane” and “Sam Jackson,” and that was enough for me.
The Office (2005-10)—“Todd Packer”
DK: Y’know, I’ve only been on The Office six times, but oftentimes in interviews, I’ll be referred to as “David Koechner from The Office,” which I think is remarkable. It speaks to the impact that show has, that it’s one of my lead credits. One time I was at the airport with my wife and our four children, and we were clamoring down the terminal. We’d bought food for all of us, but we didn’t have enough chairs. And this man stood up and said, “Here, you can have my chair. You know, you don’t seem at all like the guy you play on The Office.” [Laughs.] I took that as a compliment.
I will say that the show is a ton of fun, and playing Packer is like splashing around naked in a warm tub of bathwater. I had been a fan of the UK series before they even went into production on the American version. I knew Finchy. The deplorable Finchy. That’s a lot of fun that I get to emulate, or mirror, or characterize, or however you want to state it, one of the original players. It’s an honor.
Wag The Dog (1997)—“Director”
Saturday Night Live (1995-96)—various
DK: Wag The Dog was my first film role. I think I had three scenes, but it took three weeks. But I only shot like one day every week. My first scene on my first day was with Dustin Hoffman. It was a walk-and-talk scene, with Steadicam, and I remember we started the scene and one of my lines got jumped, and I didn’t know what to do. I was somewhat flabbergasted. But that’s the way moviemaking goes; no one says like, “Okay, are you ready?” They assume you’re ready when they say “Action!”
AVC: Was it nerve-racking to get so flummoxed next to Dustin Hoffman?
DK: Not really, because right before then, I’d been on Saturday Night Live, so I was used to being around celebrities in high-pressure situations.
AVC: Do you ever miss that pressure of SNL?
DK: Clearly you’ve never been to my house. [Laughs.] Do I miss it? Sure, it was thrilling. It gets the adrenaline going. It’s a lot of fun. But I still can do live comedy whenever I want, and the thrill now is in pursuing the next job, or writing. There’s plenty to do.