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Christian Finnegan has toured nationally as a stand-up comic, released the album Two For Flinching, appeared on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, and turned up in the Chappelle’s Show sketch “Mad Real World” as Chad, the doomed white roommate. Even so, he’d be the first to admit that he’s most likely to be recognized as a talking-head commentator from VH1’s Best Week Ever and MSNBC’s Countdown With Keith Olbermann. But Finnegan hopes that will change now that he’s released his first one-hour Comedy Central special, “Au Contraire!” Taped during a live gig in Philadelphia, “Au Contraire!” finds Finnegan foregoing celebrity snark in favor of 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 recently spoke with Finnegan about finding his own comic niche, what he owes to Whitney Houston, and why he’ll never be comfortable as “the dude who talks pop culture.”
The A.V. Club: Did you have any apprehensions about taping your first comedy special?
Christian Finnegan: Of course. Growing up as a comedian, the first thing you dream of is having your own album, but even more than that, I always wanted that hour special on cable. I grew up in the era of Bill Cosby: Himself, Eddie Murphy: Delirious, Carlin On Campus. To me, that was what made you a stand-up comedian. Of course, the world is different now. There’s a glut of comedians with specials, so it’s just not possible to make an impact the way Bill Cosby: Himself did. It’s like, The Beatles were amazing, but it also helped that not many bands were putting out albums then. So while I don’t think this will ever measure up to those other specials, it’s a good first step toward being the sort of comedian I’d like to be someday.
AVC: What sort is that?
CF: Better. I’d like to think I’m a little more memorable or specific now. People laugh at me in a way they wouldn’t laugh at another comedian, rather than being like, “Okay, who’s the next joke-slinger? Give me some jokes so I may laugh and go about my day!”
AVC: Where do you see yourself fitting into the current comedy scene?
CF: 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 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 to 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?”
AVC: 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.
AVC: 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 healthcare 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.
AVC: There’s a theory that says most comedy comes from a very dark place. Do you subscribe to that?
CF: I certainly do believe that a lot of comedy comes from awkwardness and embarrassment—pointing out the ways things are uncomfortable. Definitely the stuff that interests me. I don’t necessarily think that comedy comes from a dark place, like you have to be a strung-out heroin addict. But I don’t think it comes from happiness, that’s for sure. It comes from frustration and suppressed rage, and wishing the world were different.
AVC: When did you first know you could make a living from comedy?
CF: I knew early on that I had no choice but to make it as a comedian, because I am not particularly gifted with a lot of marketable skills. Unless I really want to spend the rest of my life temping, or teaching drama to third-graders, I don’t have a lot of other options—which is freeing, in a way. I never have to say, “Well, I could always go back to law school.”
AVC: You mention in your act that you once played Danny in Grease. Whatever happened to those ambitions?
CF: [Laughs.] My abject hatred of actors and the acting world. I went to college as an actor, and halfway through, I switched to playwriting and directing. Then I spent a couple years working in publishing, doing some freelance journalism for The Village Voice and Musician magazine. I thought my life was going to be as a writer, but then I realized I missed performing, so I got into comedy. It was a nice combination of things I was sort of good at. I was a pretty good writer and a decent actor, but I didn’t really like acting, and I didn’t have the discipline to be a writer.
AVC: 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 videogames that need my attention. Something’s gotta give. If the right opportunity came along, maybe, but I’m more focused on trying to create a TV show where I can be myself, rather than playing a wacky neighbor. Although, I would gladly play a wacky neighbor of any sort. Please call me.
AVC: How did your role as a guest commentator 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. So they started bringing me on to talk about the lighter side of politics, like, “Hey, what’s with Michelle Obama’s arms?”
AVC: How does it feel to be a tool of the liberal elite?
CF: Pretty good. I sleep very well at night. Sure, there are times when they’re a little more strident or polemical than is necessary or even helpful. I do believe in nuanced discussion. The only time I have a problem with the quote-unquote “liberal media” is when I feel like they’re making things less complicated than they really are. A lot of these issues, even things like the Bush administration and torture and stuff, they’re not black and white. I probably agree with Rachel Maddow and Keith 99.99 percent of the time, but I can see the other side. Not that they can’t, but sometimes I wish it were a little more nuanced. I do enjoy making fun of smug liberals and ironic hipsters and how much better they think they are than the quote-unquote “rednecks.” Anybody can go to some rock club and talk about Rush Limbaugh being an idiot, but can you get up there and, you know, say something more controversial? I’m just babbling at this point. Can you put in brackets, “Interview descends into mumbling”?
AVC: Do you find it a blessing or a curse 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 me from Chappelle’s Show, they’re not coming to see me in a club. They’re just like, “You were on TV!” They don’t care. I 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 I 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 a 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. You have to be at peace with not knowing what the fuck next year is going to be like.
AVC: What do you think next year will be like?
CF: Not a clue. I’m far too old to be the next big thing. I’ll never be an enfant terrible. But I could also be working the cash register at Quizno’s. One can never tell.