Michael McKean seems determined to give the word "journeyman" a good name. A comedy fixture since the early '70s, he's worked constantly, alternating high-profile parts with supporting roles in countless films and TV series. McKean first gained national attention playing Lenny Kosnowski on Laverne & Shirley, working as a team with David L. Lander, with whom he'd collaborated in the past and remains close friends. In fact, by the time Laverne & Shirley made its debut, McKean had already formed most of the friendships and working relationships that would play heavily in his future career, having worked with Harry Shearer and Lander on the satirical radio program The Credibility Gap, roomed with Christopher Guest in college, and, through L&S, befriended both Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall. By the time L&S wound down in 1982, the seeds had already been planted for McKean's next big project, This Is Spinal Tap, the beloved pseudo-documentary of a flagging British heavy-metal band's tour of America, directed by Reiner and starring McKean, Shearer, and Guest. After Tap, many roles followed, including parts in the cable favorite Clue, Christopher Guest's The Big Picture (which McKean also co-wrote), The Brady Bunch Movie, Clint Eastwood's True Crime, and Saturday Night Live. He's also provided voice talent for numerous animated projects, guested on countless TV programs, and hosted Comedy Central's Uncomfortably Close With Michael McKean. McKean's upcoming projects include a new film from Guest (Best In Show, an improvised mockumentary in the Spinal Tap mode concerning dog shows) and Call O' The Glen (a.k.a. Teddy Bears' Picnic), Shearer's feature directorial debut. Currently making appearances as part of Spinal Tap to promote the film's reissue to theaters and video, McKean recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: We're talking on the occasion of Spinal Tap's 16th anniversary. Were you worried at the time that the subject was already too funny as it was?
Michael McKean: You know what's really interesting; we had made this demo feature, and we showed it to some backers, hopefully to get them to put up money for it. We didn't have a studio anymore. The studio we were working for when we made the demo went out of business. We were kind of shopping it around, and people said, "They've got to be more like Kiss. They've got to be more outrageous, with flame-throwers and everything." We would say, "No, no. The thing is they're mediocre. The thing is they're not even interesting." Some people thought we were attacking the least funny part, that we could have been much juicier. Or, at the time we were doing it, people were saying, "Why don't you do it about a punk band? There's nothing more happening than that." That would have been boring.
O: It hadn't parodied itself yet.
MM: Or else it had made itself immune from parody by just being, "Oh, yeah? Well, we already beat you to 'fuck you.' You're lagging now, bitch." That's kind of how we read that. This whole thing really sprang from… Chris had a character, a great cockney guitar-player rocker character, and the two of us roomed together years ago in college and always talked about how great and funny rock 'n' roll was when it had pomposity that didn't pay off. You see it in all forms of music, but there was something about stadium rockers, when the stadium would go away and suddenly they're playing in these little dives. It just struck us as funny. Then, you know the story, Rob did the TV special. We went on as Spinal Tap.
O: This is all three of you at this point, right?
MM: Yes. I had worked with Harry in The Credibility Gap starting in 1970, which was a satirical radio outlet here in L.A. We did it on that, and a little while later, Rob wanted to start his film career in earnest after sort of dabbling as a director. This tape got seen, we made this thing, and eventually it got seen over at Embassy. Embassy at the time was run in part, or at least in title, by Norman Lear, and Norman obviously knew Rob from the All In The Family days. Some connections were made, and we got a movie made that probably wouldn't have gotten green-lit any other way.
O: Rob Reiner has talked about literally taking the demo reel from studio to studio.
MM: He absolutely did, and that's where he got comments like, "Why didn't you make this about a good band?" People who really didn't get it at that level. One guy said, "You know what you need? You need something at the very beginning of the movie like the airplane's fin cutting through the clouds in the beginning of Airplane. That told us it was a comedy." And I said, "Well, that's a great gag, but if we started our movie like that, what's the point of view?" And he said, "It doesn't matter. You just gotta." They were afraid it wasn't enough like a comedy, that there was too much of people stepping on each other's lines and not waiting for jokes and all those things. I'm glad it stayed that way. I'm glad, when we delivered the final 84 minutes or whatever it was, that it still has that feel of something that really happened. We thought that was the funny part.
O: Over the years, I've heard any number of bands proposed as the real Spinal Tap. Who do you think is closest?
MM: Well, there really is no one answer. I heard a rumor that Foghat or Foreigner or Journey… One of those bands. I think maybe Foghat, because I don't think it was anybody as big as Journey where a girlfriend took over management of the band and was using astrology as a guide. This could be completely bullshit. In fact, the longer I think about it, the more likely it is. It just seems too perfect. But we got a lot of stories like that. Carmine Appice, who's this New York drum-legend guy, was in a band—he was the star of the band—and they had a drum riser in a bubble that rose from the middle of the stage hydraulically. And one night it didn't open, and he assumed that that must have inspired us. We didn't hear about it; we just wrote it in because we thought it was funny. That's how it always was. I never like to pin it down. I always thought that the rhythm of the name and the longevity of the band and the number of personnel changes made it closer to Uriah Heep than anything else. Status Quo, same thing. It's that rhythm, two words that are vaguely sort of higher-brow than the music. There's that…
O: With Uriah Heep, it's a Dickens reference, but they're playing the dumbest rock 'n' roll around.
MM: Exactly, and Status Quo being, "Oh, it's fucking Latin, idn't?"
O: Status Quo also had a psychedelic hit.
MM: Oh, yeah. "Pictures Of Matchstick Men." Yes, that was very much inspired by them. I was kind of into it at that time. I'd been on the road with another act: David Lander and I went out as Lenny & The Squigtones. We went on the road and played a lot of cities, and I went to a lot of record stores, listened to a lot of stuff, and collected a lot of stuff and read everything. So I was more a follower of the current stuff than the other guys, but we all noticed that some trends don't go away, because they'll always find an audience. I forgot the point I was going to make, but it was really fabulous.
O: That some styles of music persist despite trends?
MM: Well, yeah, they are the trends. They are when things come back. For example, I was driving today and I heard this very good single that k.d. lang has out. And it's like a Connie Francis song. Talk about retro; this goes back pre-rock 'n' roll.
O: By the same token, after Spinal Tap there have been a lot of mockumentries. Outside of Waiting For Guffman and I'm assuming Christopher Guest's new one—I haven't seen it yet—they've been very poor for the most part. Why do you think that is?
MM: You know what I like? I like the one Chris Rock was in okay.
MM: It was pretty fucking funny, I've got to say. But a lot of it kind of falls short of the mark. Marty Short did things with a documentary feel on this TV show…
O: The new one?
MM: No, his one from the mid-'90s. It wasn't on for very long, but after the show had been taken off, they took a lot of the best sketches that hadn't been seen and put them together in a 90-minute special. SCTV always did that, too. They were always able to do that. Most of their stuff had the TV show as a frame, but they also had a real off-the-cuff thing going.
O: Do you think the problem is that most of them go for easy laughs most of the time?
MM: Well, everybody's going for the easy laugh now, and if they can't think of the easy laugh, they'll go for the vomit. It seems like easy is the way we're going now. It's boring to me, to do the jokes you would have thought of when you were 11, just to know that the audience is there.
O: Getting back to Spinal Tap, you're legally required to appear as Spinal Tap every few years?
MM: You know, if that was the law, we'd fight it every step of the way.
O: To maintain your copyright, right?
MM: Yeah. No, I don't know whether that's true or not. That's not my end of the business. I do know that we still have fun occasionally doing this.
O: Are you ever worried that you'll run out of things for a 70-year-old Spinal Tap to do?
MM: Here's the interesting part: We have another act called The Folksmen, and they're even older than Spinal Tap. They're guys who had their only almost-hit in the early '60s, as part of the "Tom Dooley," Kingston Trio…
O: Folk revival.
MM: Yeah, exactly. Very commercial, had one big hit, and not much since then. Released a bunch of albums, handmade and self-released, or else they went into advertising jingles. We have those guys. And then we have another bunch of guys, another trio, which is like a cowboy swing band. And they're going to be in their 80s. Here's what we're gonna do: We're gonna keep finding funny specimens of washed-up American art. Or English. Who knows? Ukrainian. That's how we're gonna keep busy. Every couple of years or so, and then in between we'll have marriages and day gigs and all those things you like to do.
O: Spinal Tap is legendary for having hours of unused footage. Were you part of the editing process?
MM: We all looked at everything as we were shooting. We all looked at dailies every day. We knew there was stuff we never wanted to see after that day. The first assemblage we saw was probably around 15 minutes of some of the stuff that just happened to… We shot something that would at least work partially together, and that was scary. Then, more and more assemblages. I stopped going to those midway assemblages, and then we all saw the four-and-a-half-hour version, which was amazing. And we saw a lot of stuff we wanted to boot out, storylines that had to go. Some of that stuff resulted in a better movie. The removal of things gave us jokes we didn't know we had.
O: Is there anything you wish would have made the final cut, but didn't?
MM: No. The only things that I really… I remember there were some days when we got to work and it didn't work out. Because we didn't have a script, and we had hired some people thinking they could deliver something, and they couldn't. It only happened a couple of times, and they were people we didn't really know. People who weren't really… Maybe they've become tremendous improvisers since, but at the time they were kind of scared by it, didn't know how to do it. But there were only a couple of those. Those were things I would have wanted to reshoot. I would have loved to have seen outside the bus from time to time. It was such an indoor movie, and I would have loved to have seen something more like… I mean, if you really think about it, the Graceland scene is the only real scene that's not under a roof.
O: That's true. You're driving around in a limo.
MM: Yeah. A limo and all that stuff. That would be the only thing, just to open it up a little bit. Maybe it would be a huge mistake, because there's that kind of claustrophobic feeling about the road that we tried consciously to catch.
O: When did you realize that Spinal Tap had a cult following?
MM: Well, I don't know whether there was a moment when we knew that was the case. I don't know. I guess when there was a theater in Boston which showed the first run of the film for over a year. That sort of tickled us, and we thought, "Oh, my God, it's going to be that kind of movie. A midnight movie. Maybe it'll be something that'll have a little shelf life." That was the term we kept using while we were writing, because we wanted it to stay good and interesting.
O: Have you ever considered recording seriously on your own?
MM: I have a lot of songs that don't really belong anywhere, don't belong in a Tap situation or in other things I've done. I'll always write songs, and I keep thinking I'm writing songs for other people to sing, but I don't really do much about it. I just sit around and play 'em here. That's just the kind of guy I am. I'm not interested in recording anything with me as the main vocalist.
O: How much is your singing voice like David St. Hubbins'?
MM: It's pretty much become identical. I think if someone wanted me to play another rock 'n' roll personality, if I took that part the big chore would be to have another voice and be a totally different kind of singer. Which could be done. If Jane Horrocks can do it [in Little Voice], I can do it, right?
O: When you get recognized, what character do you get recognized as?
MM: These days, mostly David St. Hubbins.
O: Have you aged into that character?
MM: No, not really. I look like somebody else now. I look like somebody I can't quite place. I don't know, because I'm very white and I've gotten bigger. My hair has gotten thinner and I look really happy all the time, which I am. I don't think I've aged into any character; I think it's the other way. Of course, last night we put the wigs on again and I looked in the mirror, and there's this guy, and he's gotten older, too. He needs more eye makeup than I do. I get that most of the time. I also get a lot of Gibby stuff, from Dream On. Not a lot, but when I do it's usually people who have a very specific line that I said. Now, I wrote none of that, and I don't think I wrote more than three or four lines in the whole five years I was doing that show, but they quote the lines back to me like I was so brilliant to make them up. But they do them in a pretty good Australian accent, so that's okay.
O: Did you get recognized more when you were on Saturday Night Live?
MM: Yeah, I did. It was in New York, but it was really at a time when their ratings were way down. I think people who even watched the show didn't watch the whole show and didn't talk about it because it was really not some of the better years.
O: The sense was that you were brought in as a ringer. Were you treated as a ringer?
MM: Uh, no. I can't say so. I thought I was being brought in to play David Spade's dad. They wanted me to do Clinton, and I hated doing Clinton. I don't think I did him well, and I was also following the best Clinton of all, Phil Hartman, so I wasn't happy doing that. I don't think it was a marriage made in heaven. I have an interesting place in SNL history. I'm the oldest person ever to be hired as a regular, and I think I'm the only person who has been guest host, musical guest, and cast member.
O: It was weird,because in those years they had so many funny people—you're funny, and Janeane Garofalo and Chris Elliott are funny—and I'm not sure why the show wasn't funnier.
MM: Well, a lot of it has to do with how happy you are. Chris wasn't happy. Chris didn't like it, and Janeane didn't like it at all. But she always does point out that she had a couple of good shows, a couple of times when they had some good times. Amid the crabbiness, I had fun with everybody. I was pretty crabby myself sometimes. But I think it was kind of just wandering: It didn't know where it was going. The season after that, they got a lot of new people. They're very good, and the writing has generally gotten better. They still try and shove characters down our throats too early and make too much of them. I guess you've got to do that if you're going to keep producing feature films about those characters, but it seems to me that the chore at hand is to put on a really funny 90-minute show on Saturday night. You should be able to do it, but you can't always do it. That's the real dumb bottom line, and it's the truth. They can't all be gems. I thought they made some disastrous mistakes. I thought [Norm] Macdonald was great doing the news. I really did, because he was kind of insane, and that's what Chevy [Chase] had and most of the others did. Dennis [Miller] brought something else to it. He brought, "I'm doing the news and I'm really funny." Whereas Chevy and to some extent Dan [Aykroyd], they had kind of a… They played a part rather than just being, "Is it just me, or is the world going crazy?" And Norm had this other thing, which is, "Well, none of this makes sense to me." And that made me laugh. Anyway, it was an interesting period in my life, and it was a good thing to go to New York. It kind of turned my life in a couple of ways that really needed turning. I was a guy in my mid-40s and just divorced, and maybe I want to move to New York again, and what the hell's going on? "What's happening to my body, Mommy?" [Laughs.]
O: What can you tell me about your first movie, Cracking Up? I haven't seen it, but it kind of looks like a changing-of-the-guard thing, where you have Firesign Theatre people and then you have your friends.
MM: It's something that Neal Israel [writer of Police Academy and director of Bachelor Party] did, and Joe Roth was actually the producer, and we did some Credibility Gap sketches. Credibility Gap was me and Harry and David [Lander] at this time, so we did a couple of sketches, and they cut them into this movie about life after the big earthquake in L.A. It was pretty horrible. I don't think anyone could actually sit through it.
O: It seems like there were a lot of skit movies around that time.
MM: Well, Tunnel Vision was an unexpected hit. Actually, Groove Tube was the first, and then Tunnel Vision was pretty much the same thing. I was cut out of Tunnel Vision. I did something that probably was too weird to even look at. It was just bad. I was kind of a Dick Clark character, but at the time I had this shoulder-length blond hair. I was 27 with shoulder-length blond hair, and they put me in black-face. It must be too shocking to even look at. The joke was, of course, that rock 'n' roll was invented by black people, but here are all these very white people doing it, but here comes this guy. Bad sketch anyway.
O: Black-face doesn't really work too well anymore.
MM: [Laughs.] Well, I wonder why.
O: I think Billy Crystal was the last person to get away with it.
MM: Well, no, Tracey [Ullman] does it. And I think that's a great character. At first, I didn't know whether it was a great idea, but she's real funny. That's kind of the bottom line.
O: If you're happy now, what's making you happy?
MM: I'm married to Annette O'Toole, which was by far the smartest move I've ever made. That's working out extremely well, especially since she's working, which means I don't have to. I've never been in that kind of relationship before. She refuses to make me feel guilty about it. She's doing a show for USA called The Huntress, which is fun to do when it's fun. But she tries to have a good time, and she's a very hard-working actress. She's only been doing it since she was 12, so she's kind of got the hang of it. I've got good kids, too. I've got my boys and her girls, and we really do have great kids.
O: Work-wise, you're everywhere.
MM: I try to stay busy. Since I've been married, I'll get a script and read it and go, "Yeah, okay, they want me to fly here and do this, and they'll pay me this. Hmm… Okay, I'll do that." And Annette will say, "What, are you crazy? This is not good." And it's like I'm just used to taking those gigs because, you know, you get a little extra change and get to go to another city. But she's right: There are certain knee-jerk jobs I just don't take anymore because she won't let me. She says, "No, it's not good enough. You should be doing something better." She's very frank about it, and it's great. It's nice having someone who's in my corner in the long run. And she really thinks I'm good and convinces me that I shouldn't despair.
O: Is there any role you would take back?
MM: No, because most of the films that I didn't have a good time doing didn't get much of a release anyway. It's the weirdest thing, though: You never know. I did a film three years ago, and all the way through it I fought it. I fought with the writer-producer, and the director was just kind of there to do the writer-producer's bidding, and it was one of those political situations. And I didn't have a good time, and the script got worse instead of better. I didn't really make any lasting friendships on this picture. It was one of those things where it was three weeks, and I worked very hard, and it was hot. I thought, "Well, okay, this goes into the history books as just something you don't do." And I thought I was doing good work in it and there were other actors who were doing good work in it, but at the end, I saw a rough cut and said, "Boy, this is bad. They're not going to ever release this." Now, people are coming up to me on the street having seen it on some cable hook-up, and I go, "Oh. Okay." But I never regret anything. The French probably have a phrase for it. [Laughs.] I don't believe in regret. I think it's just a big time-waster, and I could be swimming.