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Chad VanGaalen on doing stupid human tricks for David Letterman

(Photo by Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS)

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Chad VanGaalen is a talented musician and award-winning filmmaker/visual artist based in Calgary, Alberta (his latest album, Shrink Dust, came out last year on both Flemish Eye and Sub Pop Records). On February 27, 2002, prior to becoming somewhat indie-rock famous, VanGaalen and his pal Mark Feddes appeared as participants on the popular Late Show With David Letterman segment “Stupid Human Tricks.” VanGaalen talked to The A.V. Club about how he ended up on Letterman, being around Cher, and stealing green-room food.


The A.V. Club: How did you develop your stupid human trick with Mark Feddes?

Chad VanGaalen: Feddes and I were at a birthday party and we were just kind of monkey men anyways. He jumped on my back and someone was there who was videotaping the party at that exact moment and managed to catch it. We were trying to see how many times Mark could crawl around me and people were freaking out. It was just full-on hoser moves.


AVC: You’re 6’6” and Mark is, what?

CV: I think Mark is like 6’3” or 6’4”. He looks really small but like, Letterman’s fucking huge, man. I think Mark looks short just because he’s next to me but he’s definitely a big dude. Anyway, my friend videotaped it. I think we’d just finished college and I was like, 21 or something like that. But he secretly sent it into “Stupid Human Tricks” and I got a phone call from Mark saying, “Get yourself ready because I’m gonna come pick you up and we’re gonna go to the airport and go to New York City to audition for ‘Stupid Human Tricks,’” and I was like, what the fuck? I thought he was just joking, so I kinda laughed and hung up and thought he was just prank-phoning me. Then he showed up the next morning with two tickets.


AVC: So you find yourselves heading to New York City. Were your travel and accommodations covered in any way?

CV: Yeah. We were pretty excited about it because it was all-inclusive. They hooked us up with a hotel right in Manhattan, right across from the Ed Sullivan Theater, so we were right in the middle of it there. I’d never been to New York so I was really excited to just go bum around there. We got them to extend our tickets by like five days so we just got to hang. They didn’t give us hotels for all five days but our tickets were set up so we could come back whenever we wanted to come back.


AVC: They flew you in, but you still had to audition?

CV: Yeah, I didn’t know that that’s how they did it, but you have to prove to them that you can do it in front of a live audience. Like people videotaping crazy shit in their homes—who knows if their cat is going to be able to distend its anus in front of a live studio audience? You don’t know that.


AVC: Okay, so you get to New York and then what?

CV: We went pretty early in the morning for the audition and we got to hang out with all the dudes that were there. There were some people that were really hoping to make a life out of it, it seemed. There was one guy… he was seeing how many chopsticks he could jam in the cracks of his face. It wasn’t a very good trick, but he was really excited about our trick. He was like, “Aw man, you guys can do the circuit! What you do is you do Ricki Lake, Geraldo, Ellen…” He just started listing off all this shit and saying how we could do this, as like a show.


AVC: That’s weird. There’s some kind of talent-show subculture.

CV: Yeah, we were really surprised by the words that were coming out of his mouth at the time. Because we were just like, “We’re gonna steal all of these burritos and cookies right now and fill up our knapsacks and go spend the $500 that they just gave us.”


AVC: You got paid?

CV: Yeah, I think we got $500 each, which was more money than we had in our bank accounts at the time, between the two of us. They treated us like gold; it was wicked.


AVC: So you went in for the audition and then you were on the show later that same day?

CV: Yeah, we showed up pretty early in the morning to do the audition. Then there was a break when they were deciding how all the stuff was going to go down. Then they came back and told everybody the cut and we taped it right around then, in the middle of the day. Everything is taped in the day, which is also strange. We were tripping out that it wasn’t at night. Like, “What? What the fuck is going on?”


AVC: Who did you first interact with when you got to the Ed Sullivan Theater in the morning?


CV: I don’t remember his name but some kind of nice, spiffy dressed guy who was our wrangler. He wrangled “Stupid Human Tricks” people and showed us around and took us down to the green room and fed us snacks.

AVC: What’d you get to see?

CV: He showed us around the basement and into the theater and where’d we be performing. There was a hallway with just people’s photographs—just crazy shit like Ed Sullivan with the Beatles and super rad memorabilia from the past. Old banana peels. We didn’t, like, brush shoulders with Cher, but she was in and out of the same vicinity as us the whole time.


AVC: She was also on the show that night?

CV: Yeah, she was the musical guest and that was really trippy. There were television monitors everywhere, so you could see what was going on onstage in the green room. So we got to see her practice her song like three or four times. People running up with mini juice boxes of apple juice and then she’d just take like one sip. Then her band would fuck up a tiny little part and she’d be like, “RUN IT FROM THE TOP!” She’d freak out. I think Dave had offended her in the past. There was a thing between those two.

AVC: So you have the audition, and then they feed you. Was there a dress rehearsal?


CV: We did sort of a rehearsal in the sense of, “You’re gonna come out here; Dave will be here.” But we didn’t have to do the trick again until the show, after we’d made the cut.

AVC: Did they give you any particular instructions or advice about your actual segment?


CV: Well, yeah. I had shaved my friend Cam’s beard off right before we left. He has an insanely glorious beard—like, five hairs poke out of one pore. I glued it onto a piece of cardboard so I could wear his beard during the show. There were all these things I wanted to do. I had “solar power” and “wind power” written on my arms that they made me wash off. They were like, “Leave the comedy to Dave. That’s not funny stuff.” I was like, “It’s my friend’s beard and it smells like soup and it’s pretty funny.” So I thought they were wrong about that. Yeah, they were pretty strict about what we did.

AVC: I’m not sure that they were wrong.

CV: Well, I dunno man. You should see this beard. I still have it, hanging on my wall.


AVC: So their basic instructions for you were “Settle down.”

CV: Yeah, kinda. We were pretty excited and I think they were worried that we’d fuck something up or weren’t taking it seriously enough, which is super crazy. I dunno.

AVC: When was the very first time you interacted with David Letterman?

CV: On the show, as it was being taped.

AVC: And were you told not to talk to him in a particular way? Did they say, “Hey, you with the soup-smelling beard and the magic markers. Stay away from Cher”?


CV: No.

AVC: Were you a fan of Letterman’s or the show beforehand?

CV: I’d say I wasn’t a huge fan, but I was a pretty big fan. I’d watched a lot of David Letterman for sure. As far as who I watched as a late-show host, it was definitely Letterman.


AVC: Were you nervous at all about pulling this trick off? Had it ever failed before?

CV: It had never failed before, but we had gotten pretty drunk the evening before and tried to do the trick just out of the blue and Mark ended up throwing my back out. He weighed pretty close to 180 pounds at the time, so my back was all fucked up, and he’d been massaging my back all afternoon to get me rolling again.


AVC: When you guys do the trick on the show, you’re grimacing the entire time. Was the performance painful?

CV: No, I don’t remember that. I think it felt pretty good. We were kinda going for it. We probably could’ve gone for about like 10 more.


AVC: Yeah, Dave has to stop you.

CV: Well yeah, he was telling us to stop but then, every time he’d go over my shoulder, Mark was like, “Let’s do another one, VanGaalen. Let’s do another one.” I think our plan was to just keep on doing it until they turned stuff off.


AVC: Is it a tiring trick for you, as the apparatus?

CV: Yeah, for sure, because I gotta pull him up. I don’t know if I could do it anymore. I think it’s like a German soccer warm-up regime, is what I’ve heard people call it. I think all Germans are supposed to be doing it for at least a couple of hours every morning.


AVC: So, on the German version of Letterman, this wouldn’t have even been a trick.

CV: No, they would’ve just been like, “Stop doing your fucking exercises in front of me, man. That’s disgusting.”


AVC: You look kind of like a skater stoner on the show that day.

CV: Yeah, well, I’m still a skater stoner so…

AVC: Did you have to clear your wardrobe with them at all?

CV: I think they just wanted us as we were. I was wearing my thrift store lion shirt and my hat. I was wearing my lucky hat. I wasn’t doing myself too many favors that day.


AVC: Most people would likely be shy being on TV and interacting with Letterman. You strolled out, shook his hand and said, “What’s up, Dave?” What was going through your head in that moment?

CV: I dunno, I was just kind of young and stupid. I don’t really know if I’d be that intimidated by Dave Letterman even now. I don’t really go into shock around celebrity. I was nervous to pull the trick off because I really didn’t want to fuck the trick up, to tell you the truth. But yeah, I was pumped to be there. Letterman’s fucking cool, man; he seems like a pretty chill guy.


AVC: Dave seems very amused by you. When he says, “You guys are going for the gold, aren’t you?”, is there some backstory to that?

CV: That’s because [Canada] had just won the gold the night before. I think it was U.S. versus Canada in men’s hockey and there was a lot of hype about it.


AVC: He barely had to say anything because he could just give you these funny looks and that got big laughs. It seems like he knew he had something fun to work with with you two.

CV: Right, yeah. I mean, I think he knew we were hosers from Canada so he could play that angle pretty easily.


AVC: During the segment, Letterman is asking you about art school and then the camera keeps panning to Mark’s scuffed up shoes and pant leg for some reason. There seemed to be like a pin in his pants or something? And people kept laughing at that. Do you know what that was about?

CV: I think they were pretty weirded out by Mark’s hobo gear. It’s funny because Mark was dressed up for that for sure. “I’m gonna tuck my shirt in, I’m gonna look presentable, I’m gonna wear men’s shoes.” But yeah, in our circles of friends, we were all pretty disheveled at that time.


AVC: They do that camera pan down to his feet and legs and that gets a laugh. Then you did something off-camera that also gets a laugh.

CV: I could see the side television and what the camera was shooting so I knew people were laughing at Mark’s shoes. So I was just like, “Mark, check it out dude, they’re laughing at your shoes.”


AVC: Then Paul Shaffer joins you for musical accompaniment.

CV: Right, yeah, Shaffer rips on his Triton. Some sweet licks.

AVC: It works really well with the trick.

CV: It was kinda like clown music, right.

AVC: So, you finish the trick and Dave stops you and thanks you. Then they do an instant replay. You leave the stage and Dave makes these jokes about losing their liquor license, Cher doing your trick at parties, and how you didn’t seem like the kinds of folks who’d do that kind of thing. Did you hear any of that?


CV: No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember hearing it. I just remember being satisfied that we totally ripped it.


AVC: What happened when you left the stage?

CV: We got paid. I think they gave us our checks. And then we made a mission back down to the green room. Mark was like, “Oh man, there’s at least 25 veggie burritos down there that could keep us going for the next five days, easy.” So we made it down there and just filled up our backpacks with food. They were delicious, gourmet burritos.


We were outta there pretty quickly. There were a bunch of people hanging out afterwards but we just wanted to run around. At the time, we were like Frisbee freestyle maniacs so we just wanted to go find a park and go crazy, ripping on some Frisbee after that.

AVC: The “Stupid Human Tricks” participant after you says that you guys and your trick made her feel weird.


CV: Right, yeah. That girl was crazy, man. The girl that could play her nose; she was a piece of work, holy shit.

AVC: How so?

CV: Just like an entitled, sort of bored rich kid. She seemed just like, “Yeah, whatever.” She wasn’t really into anything.


AVC: But she was a little kid. It seems like she was 13 or something.

CV: Yeah, but I was just like, “C’mon man, this is super fun.” Her parents were having more fun than she was.

AVC: Wasn’t she the one who posted this on YouTube?

CV: Probably, yeah. I was kinda bummed out, to tell you the truth, that it actually made it onto the internet. I mean, I guess everything makes it on to the internet but I thought it was my little secret from the world. But yeah, I remember when it made it on and people were like, “What?”


I think Stereogum found the clip at one point and were just like “WTF Chad VanGaalen Check It Out” and that was the first time that I realized it was on the internet because people were emailing me being like, “What the fuck?”

AVC: So after Letterman, you guys also did this trick for Steve Harvey?

CV: Yeah, we went and did it on Steve Harvey’s Big Time Challenge in L.A. after that; they phoned us and asked us to go do it too. They were like, “Yeah, we’ll fly you out to L.A. for free,” so we’re like “Fucking A, man.” They paid us like two grand or something crazy, but that guy ended up just being a crazy jerk.


AVC: Who, Steve Harvey?

CV: Yeah, he was making fun of people for being fat and it wasn’t even really comedy. It was just super sad. So we just left. We went back to our hotel and they started freaking out.


AVC: You left? Was he making fun of you directly?

CV: No, well, we ended up getting really, really, really drunk on green-room wine and watching him belittle a guy doing a trick on the show about his weight. We were like, “What the fuck are we doing? Let’s get the fuck out of here. They already paid us.” So we just left.


There was a super-nice talent coordinator or whatever you’d call her. She was from Halifax and really loved us because we were Canadian. So, she was taking care of us really well and phoned us to say, “If there’s anything we can do to get you guys to come back, we’re sorry, it’d really make the show…” By that time, we’d broken into the mini-fridge with the spring from a Bic pen. So we’d gotten into the liquor there as well and were pretty sauced.

AVC: You broke into the fridge?

CV: We broke into that mini-fridge, yeah, because at that point, our friends had driven out from another part of L.A. We were in Glendale, which is kind of like a suburb of L.A.; it’s where the Apollo Theater is, where we were doing Steve Harvey’s Big Time Challenge show. So we ended up going back and doing the performance, but we had all of these unreasonable requests. We were like, “We want marijuana; we want more money; we want a limousine to come pick us up,” and they were totally like, “Yeah, we can do that.” We showed up and they had pre-rolled us a whole bunch of joints in a Ziploc and they paid us $500 more. And then we went on and I decided to crawl around Mark at the last second because they started making allusions to us being a gay couple. It wasn’t even flying with us at all. We were just like, “Yeah, so we’re gay.” It just wasn’t comedy at that point. They’d be like, “So what do you guys do?” and we’d say, “We’re landscape painters and we drive out to the mountains and do oil paintings of the mountains and stuff and fish.” And everyone was like, “Yeah!” and then they got sad because they wished they were us. So then I tried crawling around Mark and we ended up just falling all over the place and the trick failed miserably but it was kind of awesome at the same time.


AVC: It’s interesting that you almost had a small industry going on because of this stupid trick. You’d just finished art school, but had you started making music publicly yet?

CV: No, I had just started. I was always tinkering around with stuff but nothing serious at the time. I was doing animations and drawing like crazy, but I wasn’t imagining that I’d be performing music for people, that’s for sure.


AVC: Did you guys being on Letterman have a huge impact in Calgary? I imagine your friends thought it was cool, but did it make the papers or anything?

CV: Our friends lost their fucking minds, man. We were like heroes; it was awesome. There was a big gathering at the Ship & Anchor here the night it was airing and people lost their shit for sure. It wasn’t like all of Calgary was there cheering for me but all my friends were losing their minds.


AVC: Have you ever done this trick again after Steve Harvey?

CV: I think we were kind of forced to do it a couple of times by people who were just like, “Do that trick, man.”


AVC: Like, at parties?

CV: Yeah, or just like showing up some place and it’d be like, “No way dude. It’s those guys.” The next day, we were still wandering around Manhattan and people were just like, “No fucking way, Chad and Mark! You guys rock!” Yeah, it was super positive, man. It was amazing.


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