Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Michael McKean first came to prominence in the early 1970s as part of the comedy group The Credibility Gap, along with fellow members David L. Lander and Harry Shearer. Although McKean and Lander found fame together as Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley, Shearer and McKean would also find pop-culture immortality—along with Christopher Guest—in This Is Spinal Tap. Beyond these signature roles, McKean has maintained a steady career as a character actor in roles both comedic (Clue) and dramatic (D.A.R.Y.L.), and he can currently be found working alongside Guest once again, this time as part of the cast of HBO’s Family Tree.
Family Tree (2013-present)—“Keith Chadwick”
The A.V. Club: This is decidedly not your first time working with Mr. Guest.
Michael McKean: No, it’s not even my first time bullshitting my way through an English accent for Chris Guest. [Laughs.] Yeah, Chris and I have known each other since 1967, and we’ve done a lot of stuff together. We started writing songs together immediately. We have a handful of songs that nobody has ever heard and probably will never hear. But we just kind of hit it off right away.
It was strange, because when Chris was first talking about this and said that he and Jim Piddock were developing this idea, I knew he had wanted to do something about discovering unknown parts of your family, which he did himself and which I’ve seen him go through. He’s talked to me about discovering things about his own family that were surprising and lovely and awful and strange. It’s been a pet project of his, and I think he and Jim really focused it nicely to this transatlantic mare’s nest of a family history. And I play a guy who doesn’t really care about that stuff.
Being a Beefeater, Keith’s life was steeped in history going back a thousand years, and he’s one of those guys who could tell you, could list by memory all of the instruments of torture that are in the Tower of London, could tell you the actual circumference of the huge projection of Henry VIII’s armor. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a picture of this, but Henry VIII’s armor has got… it was the invention of public relations. There’s room for about fifty sets of genitals of an average-size man. [Laughs.] But, anyway, Keith could probably tell you all of that stuff, so it was fun learning a little bit about that history. And he’s obsessive about a football club, but I know nothing about British football. I love watching rugby, but I just don’t know enough to watch soccer. Anyway, I just think he’s a guy who has his passions.
And his comfort food is this terrible vein of British sitcoms, the stuff that was too shitty to bring over here. Because we’ve got enough shitty shows of our own! But, you know, I have that. If I really want to feel better, there are certain things I can watch: Laurel and Hardy, Arrested Development, the Little Rascals… oh, and The Time Machine. The 1960 version. And there are other things that aren’t that good but still make me feel great. There’s a Cary Grant movie called Mr. Lucky that’s really kind of mediocre, and Annette [O’Toole, McKean’s wife] had never seen it, so I showed it to her. I grew up with that movie, I’ve watched it a hundred times and love it so much, but here’s this person just coming to it, and she’s loving Cary Grant, of course, but saying, “Boy, the rest of this movie doesn’t make any sense at all!” And I didn’t notice! I was just having such a great time. So I understand that attribute in Keith.
And I also understand a man who was very lonely for a long time. His wife left him very early on, and he was in London with Nina Conti’s character, Bea, who is just clearly a crackpot, albeit a wonderful crackpot, and he really spent a lot of time by himself. I think those shows were kind of his friends. Of course, now I think he’s found someone, in the lovely Lisa Palfrey—who plays my wife—who’s a genius. She’s such a wonk of an actress. I mean, she did so much research. She learned a lot of phrases in Moldavian. She’s just kind of remarkable. And hysterically funny. I had a lovely time doing that show.
AVC: How was it having Chris O’Dowd playing your son?
MM: Great. Amazing. One of those cases where, in the first five seconds, you know that this is no problem. I was already a fan, anyway, from The IT Crowd. And Bridesmaids, too. But I really loved The IT Crowd.
AVC: On the flip side of the equation, it was probably rather intimidating for him to be acting alongside David St. Hubbins while being directed by Nigel Tufnel.
MM: [Laughs.] But you know what? I didn’t feel that at all. We got there on the first day, it’s 7 in the morning or something, and we all kind of bunched up in the trailer just to keep us from the foggy, foggy dew, and it was like we all belonged there. Everybody was terrific. It was just great. And Chris… you know, Chris Guest is a conductor. He’s a conductor of kind of a jazz orchestra. He wants you to go wherever you want to go, but he also knows how to keep time, and he knows when you need more of something or less of something. And that’s how he does it.
The T.V. Show (1979) / Likely Stories, Vol. 1 (1981)—various characters
AVC: You mentioned that you and Chris Guest first met in ’67, but when did you first work together on camera?
MM: It was in late 1978. We shot a pilot for a series that Rob Reiner and some other people had created. Harry Shearer was signed on as a producer, Tommy Leopold and Chris were writers. The idea was a guy sitting at home, watching his TV with a remote, and just clicking through every possible kind of TV. So every episode would be a broadcast day, seeing different channels and programs. It was kind of a wonderful show. It was called The T.V. Show.
Chris and I had always done music together. He was actually in the touring band of Lenny and the Squigtones—playing Mr. Nigel Tufnel, as a matter of fact—and then he went off to do The Long Riders, for which he grew a beard, so he wasn’t actively available. So we went out on a couple of other dates as Lenny and the Squigtones and did a couple of gigs with [W.G.] Snuffy Walden, who’s a wonderful player and composer. He’s become Mr. TV Theme. [Laughs.]
We also did a pilot for a cable show called Likely Stories, and in that pilot episode, we wanted to do these English musician characters that we’d done forever. Chris really had more of a bead on it, because he’s much better at dialect than me, but we did a little improv with it, shot it, and then Chris went back off to the Long Riders business, and I cut it with the help of Penny Spheeris. She probably doesn’t even remember this. She was cutting something else, I guess the first Decline Of Western Civilization, and she said, “Oh, well, you do this and this and this,” because I’d never really done that before, so I kind of cut it together, and it went on the pilot. The pilot really worked, I thought, but they ended up doing another pilot, which I had nothing to do with.
Anyway, long story short—too late!—the first thing we really shot together was the Spinal Tap segment for The T.V. Show in ’78, with me and Chris and Harry as the three front guys, as it is now, but on keyboards was Mr. Loudon Wainwright III, and on drums, the original Stumpy Joe, which was Russ Kunkel, a great American drummer. You look his credits up, and you’ll be there all day.
Economic Love-In (1973)—himself
AVC: In trying to find your own first appearance on film, it seems by most reports to have been on something called Economic Love-In, when you were still part of The Credibility Gap.
MM: Yes, that’s true. It was for KCET, which is a public station here. Channel 28. They did a show about the economic price freeze, something that seems so kind of steampunk now. [Laughs.] People think, “Oh, my God, a price freeze? Jesus Christ, look what we’ve been through in the last 40 years!” But, yeah, it was some sketches and one song, and it was… kind of okay. We wrote them, we did them. It was me and Harry and David [L. Lander] at this point. Had Richard Beebe already left the act? No, I guess he hadn’t yet. But, anyway, there were a couple of funny things. It was something like a two-and-a-half hour show, so we were just a couple of little pops in it. A number of years later, we wanted to get hold of it and look at it, and they said, “Oh, no, no, we erased that. Immediately.” We were like, “Oh, okay, fine.” Did you know that they erased a number of seasons of the Dudley Moore and Peter Cook show [Not Only…But Also] at the BBC? Imagine that. How fucking heartbreaking is that? I mean, I don’t put ourselves in that class, certainly not with that particular program, but just think about what’s been erased.
Short Circuit 2 (1988)—“Fred Ritter”
MM: That was kind of an okay gig. It was a little far from home to [commute], so I was there for a good long time. We were in Toronto, and I like Toronto very much. It’s a very nice walking city. And I like that there’s kind of an atmosphere of, “Hey, you want something to do and you don’t have any money? How about this?” You go wandering around town, and you’ll find something posted somewhere, and it’ll be like, “Free movie tonight!” It’s, like, a retirement home. [Laughs.] When I went there, I was 40 years old, and I felt like the youngest guy in the room. It was fabulous. We watched free Kurosawa movies. It was awesome.
So I liked that about Toronto, and I had a great time with Fisher Stevens, most of which was fairly innocent. It got a little weird. I was very married and didn’t go roving with him, but, you know, Fisher’s a healthy male. [Laughs.] No, Fisher’s an awesome guy. A great American character and a real boy. And a really good teacher, too. He directs and produces movies now, he wins Oscars, but he could be a great teacher, because he’s got a real understanding of what people do. A lovely man.
The X-Files (1998-2002) / The Lone Gunmen (2001)—“Morris Fletcher”
MM: Yeah! Well, that was kind of great, really. I’d become an X-Files fan when I was doing Saturday Night Live because the show was on Friday nights to begin with, which is when the last-ditch rehearsals for SNL take place. What that means is that you get there at, I don’t know, probably 6:30 p.m., and they just work you until they decide to let you go home, which usually isn’t until about 3 a.m. And if they don’t get to your stuff right away, too bad, you have to be there. So I was there in my dressing room, and, you know, if other people weren’t doing anything, we’d hang out. I liked everybody on the show, but sometimes it was just me, sitting on my ass in my dressing room, watching The X-Files. [Laughs.]
I think The X-Files was a very important moment in TV history. Shows like thirtysomething had already proven that you could make a really good-looking show every week, but they were shot in health clubs and parking lots and in homes. The X-Files was the first time when they said, “We can make a really big-budget, good-looking show where the special effects are fucking amazing and draw you in like it’s that kind of movie every week.” That’s what they really did. They kicked it all up, and from then on you couldn’t have special effects like you had in the original Star Trek or… Logan’s Run. I mean, look at Logan’s Run now, and you’re like, “Uh, okay, whatever.” But they really kicked it upstairs with The X-Files. And the scripts were really interesting, and the casting was so great, so off-brand. It was just a wonderful show. So when they called… actually, I think I had to say “no” the first time, but I’m glad I did, because it meant that I said “yes” when Morris Fletcher came along.
It was four weeks, very intense. By that I mean long hours, but it was also really goofy fun. Everybody’s a little bit nuts on that show. A lot of it was shot out in the desert, out in Lancaster and Antelope Valley at what’s called the High Desert. A lot of all-night shoots. And around 2 a.m., things get a little weird and a little goofy. Which is as it should be. I had a great time on that show.
AVC: Did David Duchovny give you any tips on how to play Fox Mulder on “Dreamland”?
MM: No, but we did have that big mirror dance, which we rehearsed every day for the first six or seven shooting days, and then we shot it. We’d practice that, because it had to be precise. It wasn’t like Groucho and Harpo [in Duck Soup], because that was really two guys, one of whom was trying to fool the other into believing that he was a mirror reflection. This was a real mirror reflection. I really was what he saw in the mirror, so there couldn’t be any jokes or any cheats. It had to be perfect. We really worked hard on that. We had a choreographer who’d come in and help us nail down stuff. I think we had kind of a count track or some kind of a click track that was helping us through, at least in the rehearsal. As far as the rest of it, it’s just, hey, America sees what this guy really looks like, but everyone else sees Fox. It’s crazy.
There’s one great shot that they set up: It’s when we enter the Little A’Le’Inn, the old bar that we go to where some action takes place, and we did it with the real actors rather than any cutaways, so… I think I walk in, the camera tracks with me, and then they’re behind me seeing David in what I’m wearing, and then they make another pass. We did it without any cuts, so I would run around behind the camera crew and then be at the next spot where you need to really see me. It was a very clever shot by the late Kim Manners, who was a great TV director and a really great cheerleader kind of guy. He was one of those guys who’d say, “Okay, it’s 2:30, the sun comes up at 5:15, we’ve gotta get 25 setups… let’s really kick it in the ass, guys. Let’s do this!” It was impossible, but everyone kind of believed enough that we got most of them. He was a great guy.
Saturday Night Live (1994-1995)—cast member
MM: Well, here’s my takeaway from it: I made friends with some people whom I’m still friendly with—I don’t see them a ton, but when I do, it’s always very nice—and they paid me a pretty good salary to work in my hometown. It was at a time in my life where I was kind of newly divorced, and I was seeing someone, but she wasn’t around a lot, and I was in New York by myself a lot of the time. It was an interesting time to be on my own, so that was all good. But the thing is, the time to do SNL is when you’re 27 and hungry. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Not literally hungry, although that helps, but hungry as in ready for it. But I was 45, and I largely… well, I wouldn’t say I didn’t give a shit, but I’d stopped trying to predict the future. I mean, shit happens in so many different ways, and corners are turned, and you can’t plan. You turn 45, and you go, “Yeah, that’s for sure,” but the only thing that’s for sure is that nothing’s for sure. So it was kind of an interesting time, but I wasn’t exactly the ideal guy.
I was brought in because Phil Hartman was leaving, and they needed that adult guy. Phil was, I guess, about my age, maybe a year or two younger. And it was not a marriage made in heaven exactly, but as far as writing goes, I was in 26 shows, and I got about 20 sketches on the air. About five of them were ones I wrote myself, and the others were working with Rob Schneider and [David] Mandel. I wrote a lot of stuff with [Mandel], who was great. And Franken. Al Franken and I wrote some stuff together. I’d known him since 1975. So, I got some stuff on, surprisingly enough, and I remember getting a left-handed compliment from Lorne [Michaels]. Well, no, it was an actual compliment. I did a sketch that was about Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray doing kind of a wrestling match with monologues, and it really worked out great. I played Spalding, and Adam Sandler played Eric. And after it was on, it did pretty well, and Lorne said, “You know, that’s never going to be anyone’s favorite sketch on Saturday Night Live, but it’s a very good sketch.” So I thought, “Yeah, okay, I’ll take that.”
There were a couple of others as well. There was one that I wrote with Sarah Jessica Parker in mind, which was the two of us doing kind of a Front Page thing. We pitched it, and she really liked it, but they didn’t put it on that show. So I did it again later with Courteney Cox, and it was fun. So, I got some stuff on. I’m not complaining. It was a very interesting time in my life.
Clue (1985)—“Mr. Green”
MM: Funnily enough, I’m working again with [director] Jonathan Lynn right now. He has adapted Yes, Prime Minister for the stage, and it’s been running in London for several years, so we’re trying it out at the Geffen [Playhouse] here in Los Angeles. We’re in rehearsals right now and having a wonderful time.
Interestingly, when I think of Clue, I think of reading the script in a waiting room when my wife was six months pregnant with our second child. I remember starting to read that, taking it out of the envelope and looking at it and going, “Clue: The Movie? Really? Okay, all right…” And I see [John] Landis’s name on it, as well as Jonathan Lynn’s, who I didn’t know, and I went, “Well, let’s see.” I thought, “Oh, my God, this’ll be really cool!” I loved the idea that there would be a multiple choice of [an] ending, which did and didn’t work in the end when it was released, but its heart was in the right place. And the lines were funny. So I went in, and Jonathan was an admirer of This Is Spinal Tap, which was nice, and he thought I’d be good, and… I don’t think I even read! I didn’t read a lick of it. We just met, and they offered me the part. I was like, “Yeah, man!”
And then I started hearing about the other people who were going to be in it, and I thought, “Oh, this is getting good!” Marty Mull, who I did not know at that time, who I just thought was amazing. I’d met him a couple of times, but I didn’t know him very well. And then Miss Scarlet, oh, my God, little Lesley Ann Warren, who I saw on Broadway when she was 18 years old. Chris Lloyd, who’s just insane. And Colleen Camp, who I’d just worked with in D.A.R.Y.L. So it was some old home week there. But then you had Eileen Brennan and Madeline Kahn, who were just two of the funniest women who ever drew breath. And Tim Curry? C’mon. It was just a fabulous show.
D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)—“Andy Richardson”
MM: I could’ve come up with “Andy,” but “Richardson” would’ve given me pause. [Laughs.] That was very nice. Gretchen Rennell, who was the casting person, had tried to put me in a couple of movies because she had always liked my work. I think there was a TV show that she was casting where I was there for a while and was almost in it, and she just saw me do it a lot of times. Anyway, she said, “I think you could be good in this,” so I went and met [director] Simon Wincer, and I may have read for him. I don’t remember that too well. I may have auditioned for him, as such, but it seemed like a nice fit, and it’s a sweet movie. I had a lonely time, though. I was in Orlando for five weeks. In fact, that second child I mentioned a moment ago was on his way. It was kind of an interesting time, D.A.R.Y.L. and Clue back to back.
Star Trek: Voyager (1996)—“The Clown”
MM: Oh, yes: the clown who is fear. I have a very hip T-shirt—I actually wore out my first, but I have a second that I’m keeping fresh—and it just has this kind of swirly, Daliesque eye on it, and it says, “Fear the Clown.” [Laughs.] That’s what we gave out for that show. Yeah, that was really fun. I’d never done a Star Trek before, and I did the whole two-and-a-half-hour makeup thing, which was… okay. Michael Westmore did [the makeup]. The aliens who are coming in just for the week, they call them Guest Foreheads, because that’s usually what they go to work on. But I got measured for this strange outfit that I’m wearing in it, this onesie that, if you look very closely at it, it’s kind of crenulated. It’s got deep wrinkles in it, and that’s because it was supposed to be brain matter. I didn’t think anybody was going to get that, but, yeah, sure, okay. It looked cool. And it wasn’t terribly hot. Although they shoot very long days on that; a couple of days it was over 12 hours, so it was a little tedious. They had to keep touching up the makeup, and I’m very ticklish around the lips, so that drove me crazy. But it was a fun thing, and I think I turned out good. It’s kind of a cool one.
Used Cars (1980)—“Eddie Winslow”
MM: Oh, man, 1941. Well, that’s just me and David Lander on the set, on a soundstage. We knew Steven [Spielberg] because he’d just struck up a friendship with Penny Marshall. Over sushi, I think. That’s when everyone was discovering sushi, so there was a sushi bar they used to go to. Anyway, Steven was buddies with Penny, so he wanted to put Penny in 1941, and he was a big fan of our stuff, me and David, and thought we were funny, so he put us in. But, you know, we couldn’t really use the characters of Lenny and Squiggy. We would’ve been fine using them, but at the time, the matter of who owned those characters was in question, even though they didn’t exist before we were [on Laverne & Shirley], and everybody knew it. We wound up retaining the rights, but at that point, it was up in the air, so we couldn’t really use those characters. We didn’t really have much to do. We’re really just a sight gag, just kind of there for a second.
But we spent two days on a soundstage firing a howitzer or whatever that thing is called—an antiaircraft gun—indoors. I mean, it was the loudest thing I will ever hear. Hopefully! It was overwhelming. And great. But there was a lot of smoke. There was a certain kind of smoke that they wanted to use so that it would hang in the air like fog, but it’s an oil-based smoke, and although it looks great, everybody who breathes it has diarrhea for several days afterwards. I came in the next day, and I’m like, “Uh, did anybody else get…” “Uh, yeah, we did.” And one of the assistant directors, I forget who it was, but she said, “How do you think I’m keeping my girlish figure?” [Laughs.] The Diarrhea Diet? Is that really an option? But it was interesting. It was an interesting time. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more in the movie, but there’s just so much in that movie already. A lot of it is kind of fun, but… do you know about John’s fall?
Belushi falls off the wing of the plane in the movie. When he comes pulling up in the plane and encounters Warren Oates and those people, he gets out of the cockpit and falls off of the wing and onto his head. And it’s really him doing it. He really fell. And they had to stop shooting for, like, several days. But I, uh, actually saw him at a music club one of the days he was out. He said [Does an impression of a slurring Belushi.] “I’m not shooting right now ’cause I fell. And I, uh, think I might’ve broken my neck.” [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t think you broke your neck, John. I think he was fancying himself like Buster Keaton, who actually did break his neck but didn’t know about it till, like, 15 years later. But, anyway, he was fine. He came back and shot the rest of that scene and everything else.
It’s kind of an overstuffed movie, really. But when it shows up on cable, I find myself watching parts of it, and, you know, there’s some really funny performances in there. Ned Beatty’s really funny. And Robert Stack is really funny as General Stilwell. And Warren Oates is just one of the greatest actors that was ever on film, but he’s really funny in it. He could’ve been a great comic actor along with all the nasty stuff he’s known for.
AVC: Is the Robert Zemeckis connection how you and David also ended up in Used Cars together?
MM: Yeah, pretty much. [Laughs.] They just wanted us to play these two guys. They were originally written as brothers, and they were going to have two guys who looked alike, and it was going to be a real Frick and Frack thing. I don’t know who approached who, but Spielberg was an [executive producer] on Used Cars as well. That was actually my first location shoot, the first time I went out of town for a week or whatever it was. We were in Arizona, in Phoenix and in Tempe, which is actually where we did most of the shooting. I thought it was kind of cool. It was kind of all right. I really had a nice time, and I just liked everybody very much. Frank McRae was great. Do you know who that is? Do you know if he’s still with us? If he is, I don’t think he works much anymore.
AVC: He’s 71, but still around.
MM: Oh, great. Wonderful man, and a terrific actor. And Gerrit Graham I had known before, and Jack Warden, who was a fabulous actor, a real funny man and a wonderful guy. Yeah, it was a cool date.
Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983)—“Leonard ‘Lenny’ Kosnowski”
MM: David Lander and I met in September of 1965. We were both students at Carnegie Tech, as it was then known. Before the Mellon money came in. [Laughs.] And we just immediately hit it off. He was a New Yorker, he’d lived in the Bronx, I lived in Long Island, and we’d both seen a lot of plays and all this stuff. My father was the “as told to” part of Rudy Vallée’s autobiography, called My Time Is Your Time. David, meanwhile, worshipped at the altar of How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying. He wanted to be Robert Morse. All of us have wanted to be Robert Morse for minutes on end. He’s an amazing American musical-theater treasure, and also he’s kind of cool on Mad Men. He’s just a wonderful guy. And David just worshipped him, had a collage on his wall in his apartment of Bobby Morse in How To Succeed stuff.
We hit it off right away, just started chatting, and we both started doing these dumb assholes who went to our respective high schools. He had a couple of specimens, I had a couple of specimens, and they were very similar. And we just found each other’s rhythm with that stuff, and we started doing them all the time, along with a lot of other stuff. David was kind of a 24-hour performance artist at that point, and he fancied himself kind of like a talk-show host, and we were all on his show. It was called The Malt Shop, because “The Malt Shop” was the nickname for his dorm room over in Boss Hall, across the way from mine in McGill Hall. So it was just kind of ongoing. He was the host, and he’d just kind of pull you over, give you a character or a name, and he’d pull you into his show. It was just really fun. We were all into improvising, anyway, because we were learning jump improvisation in class, and we all just kind of dug that whole idea.
Out of that area is where Lenny and Ant’ny came. That was his original name: Ant’ny. Or that’s how it was pronounced, anyway. [Laughs.] Squiggy was actually another character in their world who was more of a muscle guy. But it was a cool name, so when we got hired by Garry Marshall… Penny wanted us to be on Laverne & Shirley, and she said, “You guys could write on the show,” with “you guys” in this case meaning myself, David, and Harry Shearer. At the time we were The Credibility Gap, and we were kind of looking for ways to survive while still keeping that going. So we said, “Yeah! We’ll do that!” So we became writers on the show, and Penny said, “Look for a place to maybe get your characters in there.” So we wrote ourselves into the first episode… and every other episode. [Laughs.] And the characters scored, so it was a good thing. We did it for seven years. Eight seasons.
I’m hardly in the last season at all, because I had made a genius deal where I said, “Yeah, I’ll do nine out of the 13,” or however many there were, “unless my movie goes. If we actually get This Is Spinal Tap going, if that happens, then it’s over.” And Garry said yes. So I signed to nine for the season, but with the proviso that I might pull out altogether, which is what I did. But they were great about it. And the last season was a mess, anyway. Penny was only in, like, 13 of them. Cindy [Williams] was not there at all. She was having a baby, and then she was having a big legal hassle and all this shit. I was not interested then, and I’m not interested now. Not because I don’t care about the people involved, because I do, but because I don’t give a shit about anybody else’s legal problems. [Laughs.]
AVC: Whose idea was it to do an actual Lenny and the Squigtones album?
MM: Well, we thought it might be a good thing, and we were writing songs. Then we had a little demo, and there was a guy who was helping us shop it around. They brought it to Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records, and they wanted to do a live album, but I didn’t like that idea. I wanted to do just, like, a garage album, where you could have dialogue in between the songs. In other words, it was like the band rehearsing in a garage, and the songs would be episodes in that rehearsal. That was my concept, anyway. But Neil Bogart said, “No, we’re looking for what the Blues Brothers had.” The Blues Brothers had a live album that sold a lot of records, so that’s what he wanted to do. So we did this thing at the Roxy, and it was… all right. You know, it was kind of a mess, but we fixed it up a bit, patched it up a little bit, put it out… and it didn’t do anything. But we did do live gigs, and after about the first three or four gigs, they got really good. We played at a club, I believe it was in Pittsburgh, and it was a really small room, and they sold about an extra 50 tickets, so there was no room to do anything but sweat and play. [Laughs.] People were literally sitting on the equipment because there were no more seats. But we played a great fucking show. We kept looking at each other, going, “Where is this coming from?” But, you know, it really was turning into reality that fantasy that we all have when we pick up an electric guitar for the first time: Someday you’re going to be playing in a place like the Cavern Club, it’s going to be too hot and sweaty to move or do anything else other than play and have a good time.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)—“David St. Hubbins”
AVC: You mentioned that Nigel Tufnel was part of the Lenny and the Squigtones touring band, and Spinal Tap appeared on the pilot for The T.V. Show, but how did the band make the jump into a feature film?
MM: Well, Rob Reiner was looking for something to do as a first feature. He was going to get out of TV to make movies. And everyone had a good time doing the Spinal Tap segment on the T.V. Show pilot, so we just started talking about, “Well, why don’t we do a feature that’s a rock ’n’ roll documentary on this band, and they’re not very good, and nothing good happens to them?” [Laughs.] That was kind of the premise, and we thought that could be very fun. So we started talking about it, and there was a writers’ strike—or maybe it was a Screen Actors Guild strike—during the time we started writing a screenplay. Then we decided, “No, it’d be more fun if we improvised.” So we improvised this thing, doing a 20-minute version of it that was kind of a pilot or a demo to give the timbre of the thing, with a couple of the gags and a couple of the songs, and then… nothing happened.
Once we had gotten the thing finished, there was not much interest, but then we started hawking it around, and Marble Arch, which was Sir Lew Grade’s American outfit, wanted to do it. They looked at the demo, and they said, “Well, that’s pretty good! Unfortunately, we’re going out of business, because we just released The Legend Of The Lone Ranger and Raise The Titanic!” [Laughs.] This is true. They were released on two consecutive weekends, and they just put them out of business, they were such disasters. So we didn’t have a company. We shopped it around a little bit more, and MGM said “maybe,” and then said “maybe not.” But then Rob had a conversation with… It was with Norman Lear, I guess, who he had known since All In The Family. Norman had a company called Embassy Pictures, and they were mostly a releasing company, but they were also starting to make features, and they’d had, like, one big hit. Eddie And The Cruisers had done very well for them, and then they had some other stuff that did and didn’t work. Anyway, Embassy said, “Yeah, let’s make a feature!”
It was very low-budget, but we made it for them and brought it out. We prepped it for about a year and a half, maybe more, because we were working on it in between other things we were still doing. The main thing we wanted to do was build a history of the band that everyone could know, so that when we talked about the old times, we would all be on the same page. We made a very, very deep background thing for the band, with all these names and all these different drummers and all these different people who’d left the band: keyboard players, female backup singers, everything, really. Big gigs, famous two-hour guitar solos, all this stuff that we just kind of put in the hopper. Then we planned the tour, took a big map of the U.S., and mapped a tour out. Literally mapped it out. “This happens here, this happens here, this has to happen here because we want ‘Stonehenge’ to happen down here, so we have to find the girl who does the design for it here.” So we just mapped the thing out, and then we took off. We shot for five weeks, and then Rob cut the thing for, like, nine months. He kept working on it, because it was, like, four and a half hours long! [Laughs.] So he kept chipping away, killing our darlings, which you’ve got to do sometimes. But what we wound up with is… it’s a pretty good movie.
AVC: Even with the three of you plotting out the history of the band in such great detail, those talk-show appearances that you did in-character must’ve been like taking a master’s class in improv.
MM: Especially the first one, The Joe Franklin Show, because Joe did not know. He thought we were legit. And we brought with us the complete “(Listen To The) Flower People” and “Gimme Some Money” videos and showed those. So we were pretty convincing. But the saddest thing… well, I should say that I got to know Joe a little bit, and he’s great, but at the time this was done, it was in the world’s tiniest studio, on Broadway at 42nd Street, up on the ninth floor or something. A little bitty broom closet of a studio. And at one point, after he said, “We’re going away for a commercial for Canada Dry,” or something, Joe stands up, and we’re all just kind of nodding and chatting, and I see that his pants had been completely ripped down the front of one leg and had been stitched by, I can only presume, the guy who did the stuff on Karloff’s neck. I mean, it was really that blatant of a bad stitch. It just broke my little heart. And yet it was great. [Laughs.]
Joe was pretty cool, though. I’ve met him a few times since then, and he’s said, “Oh, I knew, I knew.” I’m like, “Okay, if you say so. You’re Joe Franklin, you know more about anything than anybody.” When I was a kid, if you were out sick from school, you got to watch The Joe Franklin Show, because he was on at, like, 11 in the morning or something for two hours, and he would show old comedy two-reelers. Not so much silent stuff, because everybody said that was tune-out material, nobody wanted to watch silent stuff, but Charley Chase and things like that. It was great. It was really, really cool. And he really knew all about that stuff, because he knew those guys. He’s got to be, like, 90 years old now. But he’s still around, bless his heart.
Mr. Show With Bob And David (1998)—“Professor Peens”
MM: [Cackles.] I love those guys. That’s still the high-water mark for sketch comedy on TV, I think. That’s not to deny SCTV their place, but that was slightly different. As far as freeform, transformative stuff, I think Bob and David are way up there. Really remarkable guys. And it was fun. They just said, “Yeah, this is like the guy in The Paper Chase,” so I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll just do my John Houseman impression, then.” And they said, “Good,” so that’s what I did. It was fun. I just saw it again recently, actually. Those shows are just killer. Are you familiar with the show?
AVC: Absolutely. In fact, your episode [“Life Is Precious And God And The Bible”] is one of my favorites because of the lifeboat sketch.
MM: Oh, yeah, the lifeboat sketch! “Before I die, I’m gonna fuck me a fish.” [Laughs.] Pretty great. But the one that kills me, and I don’t even know why, is the one where the guy comes back from Mount Everest and keeps knocking over his mother’s thimble collection. Like, five times in a row. It just gets funnier every time I see it, and I just don’t understand why! It’s just a heartbreaking reset to do every time they do it. It’s, like, five hundred thimbles! But it’s an amazing sketch. I’m just a big fan of those guys.
Little Nicky (2000)—“Chief of Police”
MM: Adam says, “You wanna come do this?” I said, “Yeah, you bet!” That’s all there is to it. I got to shoot in Grand Central Station, and I got to pull Rhys Ifans out of my nose. No one else can make that statement: “I did a film where I pulled a six-foot-five Welsh actor out of my nose.” [Laughs.] No one else. So I had a lovely time. But it was the first of Adam’s movies that didn’t do very well. I said to him, “You know what? You’ve got me in it, but you don’t have [Steve] Buscemi in it. I think you’ve got to keep casting Steve.” But I did have a very nice time.
Happy Endings (2012-2013)—“Big Dave Rose”
MM: Oh, yeah! A very cool show. I mean, kind of nasty, but innocent about it. There’s actually something very British about it. They get very dirty, but they do it so smiley and so chirpy that it’s fine. And the cast is good. They’re all really good comic actors, their timing is great, and they’re beautiful. It’s a trifecta. Hopefully, they’ll be back. Who knows? I understand it’s still a possibility. I only did a couple of ’em, but I had a lovely time. When I got hurt last year, when I got hit by a car, I got home from the hospital, done with rehab and everything, and there on my doorstep was this amazing basket of great stuff to eat from the cast and the producers of that show. I mean, that was a show where I came in as a day player and did a week or whatever, but they’re just awfully nice people and a lot of fun to be with. I’ll tell you, I wanna know what it is that Damon Wayans Sr., is taking to make him look like he’s the same age as his son. Because it pisses me off. [Laughs.] I’ve known Damon since we did Earth Girls Are Easy, when he was actually young. But he looks the same now. And it makes me very angry.
Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)—“Woody”
MM: That was fun. Julien Temple was the director, who’d done the Sex Pistols movie [The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle] and Absolute Beginners, a movie I’d really admired. I came in to read for a different part, the part that Charlie Rocket wound up playing, and I said, “Yeah, this sounds interesting.” He said, “You’re it! You’re my Ted!” So then I heard that he had cast Charlie Rocket, and he called me in again and said, “No, no, no! You’re my Woody!” I said, “Oh, okay!” [Laughs.] It was a little better fit, I thought, and I did have a lot of fun doing that.
[Jeff] Goldblum was a lot of fun to work with. I didn’t know him terribly well. We had a lot of mutual friends, though, so I’d encounter him a lot of times over at Ed Begley’s house and stuff. Also at those encounters, I’d see Annette O’Toole, but I’d only say a couple of words to her at the time, because we didn’t know each other terribly well. But that was her crowd: Ed and Bruno Kirby and Jeff, Sean Penn, all these people who knew each other from acting class. Peggy Feury was this woman who taught a lot of really good actors in L.A. But I look back at that, and I think, “Gee, there we were, I was there with my wife at the time, she was there with Bruno, we said, ‘Hi,’ and then it only took about 20 years or so for us to get together.” [Laughs.]
A Mighty Wind (2003)—“Jerry Palter,” songwriter
MM: Speaking of my wife, she’s just gotten home with my lunch…
AVC: In that case, let’s wrap up by talking about how you came to collaborate with her on the soundtrack of A Mighty Wind, which earned you both an Academy Award nomination for Best Song.
MM: Yeah! Well, it kind of happened by accident after 9/11. I had been writing stuff for the movie, some new Folksmen songs and just some general tunes, and Annette was shooting the second or maybe the third episode of Smallville in Vancouver. Since there were no planes, she couldn’t get home by plane, so she got a rental car and drove home, because she had what she thought was about five days off. Up there, they just kept shooting. They’re like, “We’re not Americans, okay?” [Laughs.] So she comes down, we’re all kind of trying to deal with the new reality that we have, and then they called and said, “Nah, we need you back.”
So we both get in the car. I said, “Look, I’ll go up there with you. I don’t want to be without you right now. Everything’s going to be fine here, don’t worry about it.” So we drove back to Vancouver, and on the way, she said, “I have a tune running through my head. I’m not sure if I’m making it up or if it’s an old tune. What is it?” And she does this tune for me. I said, “I don’t know that song, but it’s really catchy. Let’s develop it!” We developed it, and in order to kind of remember the rhythm of it, à la “Scrambled Eggs,” which was the original title of [The Beatles’] “Yesterday,” the mnemonic we used was “Potato’s In The Paddy Wagon.” That’s how the rhythm went. But then we just liked the sound of that so much that we said, “Well, let’s see if we can build a lyric where it would make sense to say, ‘Potato’s in the paddy wagon.’” And she said, “Well, I think Potato should be a girl’s name.” I said, “Okay, why?” So then we had the line about Mama falling in the potato cellar, the baby’s born down there, so they call her Potato. [Laughs.] Then she falls in love, and she ends up in the paddy wagon. That’s all you need to know!
So we wrote that song and played it for Chris, and he thought it was great. He thought it’d be a lot of fun for The Main Street Singers. Then he said, “You guys wanna take a crack at this love song for Mitch and Mickey? It’s kind of a centerpiece of their relationship, and there’s this kiss. They kiss during this song. So something romantic like that.” So we took the kiss idea, and we wrote “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow,” and we had a lot of fun writing that. We also wrote a backup song, in case it was too straight. Because there’s not a lot of jokes in “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow.” We wanted to write something that really sounded like it could’ve been written by Stephen Foster or at least somebody who wanted to write like Stephen Foster. So we wrote a backup song called “Closer Than Tomorrow,” which was kind of more in the “Leaving On A Jet Plane” style of folk ballad. It’s a pretty good song.
So we played “Closer Than Tomorrow” for Chris, and then we played “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow” for him, and he said, “Nah, I’m not sure, there’s not a lot of… it’s not a funny song. It might seem a little too straight.” But Jamie [Lee Curtis] was there, Chris’s wife, and she said, “Oh, no. No, no, this is it. This is what you want to do.” [Laughs.] And it’s not like he went, “Yes, my love,” but he really started considering it. Sometimes a person can play the straight man, but sometimes a song can play the straight man to a situation, and it worked out really well. Chris used it beautifully. And, of course, Jesus, Gene [Levy] and Catherine [O’Hara] are both just so amazing in that movie. I mean, everybody’s really good in that film, but those two… that’s just astounding. Hilarious and heartbreaking. Gene’s character is a seriously damaged guy, and there’s nothing really funny about that, but by the same token, he’s a funny actor, and he finds the humor in that kind of terrible desolation. Then, as you said, it went on to get the Best Original Song nomination, too, so… pretty cool.