Though Mike O’Brien was a cast member on Saturday Night Live for a year, he wrote on the show for much longer, spending time mostly off-camera creating hilarious pre-taped pieces like “Monster Pals” and “Grow A Guy.” Now, he’s cut himself loose from the show’s Rockefeller Plaza studios and headed west to L.A., where he’s working on new projects, including his record Tasty Radio. A comedy LP that pulls its style from comedy classics like Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You! and Nichols And May’s Improvisations To Music, Tasty Radio isn’t just a live set put to tape. Instead, it’s a concept LP built around sketches that could be on the radio, some of which contain common through-lines and characters. Think of it like an episode of Mr. Show instead of as a short set on Conan.
Considering O’Brien’s slightly wry comedic tastes and having listened to Tasty Radio, The A.V. Club asked the comedian to talk about some of his favorite off-kilter bits. He runs us through a pretty comprehensive list below, touching on everything from Chris Farley to Bob Newhart. Even the most seasoned comedy nerds should find something new to dive into headfirst.
Mike O’Brien: First off, let me say that that’s the only video I could find of it and it’s definitely not the best quality video but you can hear and see it well enough to know that it’s hilarious.
That was the first live sketch show I ever saw, and it was a matter of days after moving to Chicago in 1999 to intern at Second City. [Rachel] Dratch had done one year at SNL and Tina [Fey] was probably being hired right then. They both headed there a couple weeks later to be a writer and cast member on SNL.
I didn’t know anything about them and they did a show every Tuesday night for that whole summer at Second City e.t.c. People were like, “you should definitely see that, it’s closing soon,” and so I went to the closing night and it just blew my mind. They were both so confident and silly and smart, and you can see it in the opening bit. They “let” Dratch do a one-woman show with the understanding that Tina could do a one-woman show at the same time. And Dratch’s is this very snobby historical biography about an actual woman, and Tina’s is a takeoff on The Vagina Monologues that’s going on simultaneously.
The A.V. Club: So you were interning at Second City but you’d never seen a sketch show? What made you want to work there?
MO: [Chris] Farley, mostly. I was obsessed with him in college, and I knew he’d come from there. Both my sisters lived in Chicago and I think they’d gone and said it was cool, and I was mostly procrastinating, I thought, for just a year in Chicago before I moved to L.A. to try to put my film degree to use. I thought, “Well, while I’m killing a year before I make the big move, I’ll just move a little ways from Michigan to Chicago.” The only entertainment industry I knew of in Chicago—and this is not totally inaccurate—was Second City.
AVC: Well, they also shoot commercials here.
MO: That’s true. I auditioned for them.
Then I ended up living there for nine years and am a big fan, so that was not a dis. I still have the 312 area code.
AVC: In the notes you sent before we talked, you said you still have the Dratch And Fey program laminated.
MO: Yes, I’ve got it right here in my L.A. apartment. It’s made several moves. But yeah, I loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s definitely one I would’ve gone to more if I hadn’t just caught the closing night, but I had the program laminated. I was going to show that to Tina once when she was hosting but I ended up not doing that.
It was amazing. I can remember half the sketches from the actual show still. There was one where they were scientists who figured out the three most pleasing words to hear in a song, and then they wrote the most pleasing song ever using those words a lot. They were something like “gorgeous,” “sailboat,” and “sunset.” They just kept weaving those together in different ways. The whole thing was just so smart and well-written, and I was coming from seeing one or two live stand-up shows and that was about it. I grew up kind of in the boondocks in Michigan, and went to live music a lot growing up but didn’t know about going to live comedy as an option, really.
MO: I don’t even know the origin of this, by the way. I don’t know if he was on SNL already. He must’ve been but it must’ve been early on or something.
AVC: It seems like it’s from a Tom Arnold special, and they do lead-off saying something like “SNL’s Chris Farley!”
MO: He played Tom Arnold in his first season, I think, and I wonder if there was some reaching out, and they kind of became buddies. I don’t know the background to it but they must have told him—“We’re going to put some hidden cameras around you. Go be funny with people at a mall.” And it sounds easier than it is. It’s really hard and he’s so funny. It’s also just surreal to see him doing Tommy Boy moves on mall walkers who don’t know who he is at all. So, yeah, I love that one.
AVC: It had to have been early in his career, judging by how little the people in the mall seem to care about him.
MO: The only way he gets a reaction is by his ability to become insanely loud very quickly.
AVC: You said that it’s hard to be spontaneously funny like that. Do you know from experience?
MO: Yeah. At times, my high school group of friends’ entertainment was some amount of, “Hey Mike, go talk to those people,” and sometimes I would do prank calls. They’d be like, “Call this person and call this person,” and we had a lot of fun with it. I don’t think there was any amazing comedy coming out of it, but it’s fun and it’s hard to be real funny that way.
I remember one of the recurring crank calls was that I’d call someone that I was one degree away from, so I’d call someone and say, “Hey, I know Jason Crandell. You know him as well,” and the other person would be like, “Yeah, I know him really well.” But me and the person didn’t know each other, and I’d say, “Hey this is a shot in the dark, but do you lift ever? Do you ever want to lift or have a spotter?” They’d just have to politely decline, because they knew the person we had in common. I don’t really know what the comedy statement there was, but it made us laugh. It was about how polite they would be like, “Yeah, no, I don’t know, I don’t really want to do that…”
MO: They have an amazing, aggressive thing, but I don’t feel like they were ever too mean. They probably crossed some lines that you wouldn’t want to cross, though. Nathan For You and Andy Kaufman and millions of other examples are like this, and there’s always this line that you’re trying not to cross. We had a thing in the Second City show I was in where me and my friend Shelly had a proposal happen. It was like it was really happening that night. We broke out of character and did a wedding proposal that she said no to, and then we’d go back into the scene and everything.
Lying to civilians is tricky comedy, and Jerky Boys just didn’t seem to care about whether they were doing that in a mean way. But it’s so funny, and they really are fast about adjusting on their feet to different things. In this clip, it’s clear he has no idea what they’re asking about with the requirements. He just keeps saying, “Yeah, I got all that shit” or whatever.
I got mad one time when I was writing at SNL because we played this for someone who hadn’t grown up with it, and he was like, “It’s nothing, it’s just a guy yelling in a weird voice to a person who is on the other end trying to be nice.” And I was like, “It’s so much more than that!” But I can’t tell how much is nostalgia because it got to me at a young age and blew my mind.
AVC: At least when you’re on the phone, you can hide a little bit. With Nathan For You or some of the live stuff Hannibal Buress did on Why? With Hannibal Buress, you’re right there in someone’s face fucking with them.
MO: Right. Yes. You’re going to their turf and everything, like on The Daily Show.
My friend and I—we didn’t end up editing it together but we went and shot for two days at the Gathering Of The Juggalos, the Insane Clown Posse music festival, and you really feel like it’s an away game, you know? Your boldness goes down a little bit when you’re outnumbered by thousands and you know that deep down you’re kind of making fun of them. All of a sudden you’re like, “Maybe we’re making fun of but we’re also kind of showing some plus sides…” You just feel this lack of—well, I at least felt a lack of wanting to burn them anymore, especially once you’re really among them for a day or two. We were in the most southern tip of Illinois, with no cities or anything for hours.
AVC: It makes you think, “Am I really better than them?”
MO: I think the nice thing about the Jerky Boys is that they weren’t making any big promises. I don’t like it when a joke is about lying or saying they won the lottery or something. He’s just saying, “I’m going to start working for you whether you like it or not,” and then of course he never does show up to the place, so it’s just a weird call they got where they were like, “Is that guy going to come down because he thinks he works for us? The guy who kept saying he works on race cars?”
AVC: Your new record is modeled on some of the stuff that came out of the same era as the Jerky Boys. It’s more sketches than stand-up, and there are some through-lines. What made you want to do that?
MO: Being a big fan of the Adam Sandler albums in the ’90s, and then later on when I was in my 20s I found out about Nichols And May. Those classic sketch comedy albums that are so great, they’re in a running order and there are clearly choices made like “we’ll do this joke here and that one there,” as opposed to just an hour set that was recorded and put on there. That’s also cool in its own way, by the way.
This is the lamest way to say it, but since we make live videos and stuff, this had that feel to it of writing it, performing it, having some improv happen, and then going into post and editing it and almost starting to make a whole new thing by the time you edit it. It had this fun kind of sketch comedy control that you can have when you’re editing things as opposed to just a recording of a live show, which has its own cool energy because it’s live and you can tell and you hear mistakes and everything, but we were trying to do a polished album, like Nichols And May or Sandler.
AVC: Why this Nichols And May bit?
MO: Well, for one thing I wondered if people had seen it. I also wanted to just put all their sketch albums but hopefully people go download those as well.
This is one where if you don’t know them you actually get to see their faces and everything, and I think the joke that they’re doing is completely true and relevant with entertainment today, so I thought people would get a kick out of how old it is. It’s 55 years old give or take, yet that burn would work just as well at the 2015 Emmys. And they’re so committed and so funny, with how peppy he is, and there’s never a wink to the fact that it’s a bad award to win, and then it’s got just some of their great writing in it. One of the lines I love—I’m not going to get it quite right but I think he says, “I wouldn’t have been able to do this unless I took every studio note I was ever given and said yes to it.” That sounds like a nice thing but is really a burn.
I like that you can see them. There are a couple others on YouTube where you can see their acting and everything, and because I spend enough hours listening and imagining them, it’s fun once in awhile to put a face to it.
AVC: This Newhart bit is another that people might not know.
MO: I think that was a thing that blew me away about these is I laughed genuine laughs the first time I heard them in the 2000. There are times where it’s cool and important to look back at old comedy and say, “Ah yes, that is what they thought was funny, okay.” And you take some notes and stuff, but this is not like homework. You’re like, “This is genuinely so funny.” It takes you two seconds to get past the format being black and white or audio only, and then you’re like, “these are just great.” This is a hilarious, well-written, well-performed skit that could exist today, and I think that’s the same with Newhart and a lot of his stuff.
I don’t think he’s credited with inventing it but he certainly made the one-sided phone conversation famous. We would talk about it at SNL, what to do with the offscreen person. It’ll just happen halfway through a lot of sketches. Say there’s a talk show, usually with Kenan [Thompson], and he’s saying what’s coming up, then he’ll have a full conversation off camera with an imagined producer. He’ll say, “Up next we’ve got a guy who has a dog that does some tricks… Oh, he doesn’t? Oh, it did?! The whole leg?” You slowly get a story through one half of a conversation. That technique is still used every week in some comedy thing, and I think it was considered a new and revolutionary way of telling a story in Newhart’s time. It’s really funny.
AVC: You said in your notes that you used to perform the other half of this conversation live? How did that work?
MO: I used to be Sir Walter Raleigh in the tobacco one. If you think about the premise of that, this guy keeps sending him gifts and then Newhart or whoever he’s playing is receiving the gifts and just laughing about how bad they are. Part of it was that I was just playing this earnest guy who was on the other end of the call, and I would be so confused at what I imagined was Newhart having a full dinner party of people laughing, because you can also hear the live audience laughing, and so it becomes this guy who sends turkeys and tobacco to his friend, and that guy gets a whole dinner party of people together, calls him, and makes fun of the gifts.
I did that a handful of times in Chicago where I would play the Bob Newhart track over the speakers and then speak in the spaces.
AVC: Norm MacDonald is doing old-style jokes in this Saget roast, but then he pretty much turns the format on its head.
MO: I think he’s got such a great glimmer in his eye and so you know that more than one joke is happening every second. He’s just a little mischievous, and one of the reasons I love his roast format is—well, I don’t know. It might be the Chicago improv background or something, but roasts generally feel un-fun to watch, at least for me. They don’t get the most famous people, they’re all like down on their luck a little bit, and then they rip on each other for being down on their luck. And they’re long and it’s such a painful thing to watch for so many hours, so when Norm comes in and seems like he’s making fun of old-timey jokes, it’s obviously a good rip on roasts in general. He’s just going up and saying these things that could be cruel normally. They’re about someone’s height and weight and career failures, and he makes them all about the corny turns of phrase and stuff. Like how Cloris Leachman can’t get over a hill because her car isn’t very good. That’s the best burn ever.
AVC: That kind of relates to what you were talking about with the Jerky Boys earlier. You like barbs, but you don’t like making fun of people.
MO: Uncomfortable is great, as is the comedian as the butt of the joke, but whenever it becomes about being mean to someone who you brought into this scenario and they’re just trying to be a nice person and getting through their day, then it’s less fun to watch.
It was always tricky—in Chicago improv there’d be a lot of bringing people on stage or talking to them in their seat, and you’d say, “Who here just recently bought a new phone” or something, and you’d start talking to them about it, and then if you’d start ripping on them, which is so easy to do because they’re often a few drinks in or they stumble on a word because they’re nervous, and the crowd will reward you for it initially, but not for long. No one’s consciously breaking it down like this, but they were happy to just pay money to sit and enjoy your show, but now you’ve brought them into the show and then beat them up for helping you out and talking to you when you asked. So it’s tricky.
AVC: If they wanted to be abused they could go to Ed Debevic’s or something.
MO: Maybe some people do love that, like everyone who goes to a Don Rickles show. He is awesome and all that, but for some reason, only Rickles can go full mean with no awkwardness.
AVC: Speaking of Second City, you have Stephnie Weir’s Psychic on here, which is another Second City Mainstage show.
MO: That was the first Mainstage show I saw. It was the night after I saw Dratch And Fey and it was called “The Psychopath Not Taken.” It was in ’99, and they had an amazing show. It was T.J. Jagodowski and Kevin Dorff and Tami Sagher and all these people who were fantastic in it, but the Stephnie Weir character at the beginning of Act 2 was probably my favorite because it did have this audience interaction element that I actually saw a ton over the years after that and grew to appreciate even more in hindsight because she’s so quick. She’s changing little things on her feet.
I would go in when I was working the box office and watch this every night. I probably saw her do this 50 times or something, and it would change a little every night, but then there’d be things she knew she could come back to.
It’s just a flat-out hilarious bit about a psychic who’s always wrong but who finds a way to always turn it around and become right before she moves on to the next person. She’s one of these great improvisers who is embodying her character head to toe, and you can watch her hands and lower jaw. Everything is locked into this character in a great way, but in her mind she can still be flexible and change the script and make up new things, while still being really present to the audience members she’s talking to. It’s a really great bit.
Mr. Show, “The Audition”
MO: One person at Second City had HBO and he taped all the Mr. Shows he could, so he had two VHS tapes full of 10 hours or so of episodes, and we would just say, “Can I borrow the Mr. Shows for a week?” and then we’d all get together socially and watch them.
There were two people in the box office with me at the time and I spent a lot of long days with this guy Lance Barber who was a real good guy and he would always sing “Y’all Are Brutalizing Me.” We were just performing and singing the sketches from Mr. Show at all times. We were fully obsessed.
As far as “The Audition,” I feel like that’s the “Freebird” of Mr. Show or something. The people who know Mr. Show already know all of the sketches inside and out, and for the ones who don’t, this will be a good one for them to see how great they are. It reminds me of “Who’s On First” in just how simple and perfect it is, especially as it goes on. It’s perfect. It’s the best. All he’s doing is saying “Can I use this chair” and then it just repeats, but somehow you never get bored; it gets more and more uncomfortable. It’s so funny.
AVC: It’s always so interesting to hear what someone’s favorite Mr. Show sketch is, or what they liked the best about The State. It really teaches you who they are as a person.
MO: And I think it changes over the years. I can’t remember what my original ones were with Mr. Show. I mean, I thought “The Audition” was fine, but at that time I’d never been on an audition and I hadn’t analyzed sketch comedy writing for 15 years or whatever. Now it’s just seems like I’m watching it with the zeros and ones as well, and then that starts to stand out as the perfect sketch. The other ones I might’ve just liked because they had funnier wigs and were running around outside and stuff, you know?
AVC: Are you excited for the return?
MO: I can’t wait. I think it’s going to be great. They can’t use the name, but it’s going to be great.
AVC: You have Fred Armisen playing two different SNL characters on here. What about those performances strikes you?
MO: I didn’t have a DVR before I moved to New York, so I hadn’t seen much SNL before being hired by SNL, so I kind of played catch-up when I got there. I was also in Chicago in the club scene and probably had a little chip on my shoulder about doing the real art, and SNL being a more mainstream thing that I liked when I was younger. So it was very humbling to get there and be like, “Wow, some of this stuff is funnier than anything I’ve ever seen in my life.” Especially with the senior cast there at that time, they were extremely talented and really good at writing for themselves and each other and the Wednesday table reads were eye-opening to me. I remember becoming a genuine fan. I was friends with them, but I became a genuine fan of the characters, too, and we would get really excited when we saw that Rodger Brush was up that week.
Nicholas Fehn was a clip that I actually sent around, because I only overlapped with one or two of those, but I was so excited when they happened. And to see him doing these from a couple feet away—Fred is another one like Stephnie that’s so in the character that you can’t even see him in his eyes anymore, if that makes sense. I became obsessed with a lot of different Fred characters and moves, but for some reason those two stood out to me as my favorites.
AVC: It’s cliché to say something is comedy for comedians, but there aren’t Rodger Brush T-shirts or anything. How did something like this—something that’s not easy and hilarious—make it on the show?
MO: This is more of an inside comedy type room thing, but if the Wednesday laughs are loud, it can almost ride that onto the air. That doesn’t happen often, though, because then you’ve got that 8 o’clock Saturday dress rehearsal audience that we’re listening to, and a lot of things we were all dying laughing at on Wednesday will just play silent to them. Rodger Brush would kill so hard on Wednesdays, and then they would play fine, I guess, on Saturdays. I wasn’t really paying attention to the laughs on those videos, but I think you’re right. There aren’t a lot of T-shirts made or an applause break when he appears, but it was good enough that the Wednesday huge reaction was enough for Lorne [Michaels] to possibly say, “Well, I don’t care if it’s the next cowbell, it makes us all laugh so much that if there’s a spot for it, we’re going to do it.” And I think that’s also more common with a person who’s been there longer, like Fred, especially because I think he was writing those with a guy named James Anderson that has been there a while as well and is a real staff favorite. He’s one of the funniest writers I’ve ever met.
AVC: This one isn’t online, but it’s from SNL, right?
MO: Yeah, that’s an end-of-of-the-night SNL sketch in some like 1995-ish Buscemi episode. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be online, because it definitely sounds like stock music behind it, and sometimes that’s the reason it’s blocked from the internet.
AVC: But SNL writers have access to everything that’s ever aired or run in dress, right?
MO: Exactly. So we would just watch it over and over again. It should be on the internet, too. I don’t know.
It’s not going to do well in description because it’s really simple but that’s what gets you. It’s probably only two or three minutes and Ferrell is just breaking down a big rig semi truck and all of its advantages. He just goes through what the seats are made of, all the track lighting, and it’s a ton of terminology that I’ve never heard before. Buscemi is standing next to him, and they both have big belt buckles and cowboy western shirts on and stuff, and they’re standing in front of a framed photo of a semi. Buscemi stands next to him just kind of proudly nodding and mouthing along to some words, but he never speaks the whole sketch, and there’s a great moment at the end where Ferrell is winding down and he’s never even acknowledged Buscemi the whole time, but he says, “so anyway, I’m Jim Halsey, this here is so-and-so”—he says Buscemi’s name and his posture gets real perfect and he gives a proud look, and then Ferrell wraps up and the sketch is done and the host never spoke.
I thought, along with being just a hilarious sketch, that it was a cool thing to me that a host would be excited about a sketch where he literally doesn’t speak. And you can’t stop looking at Buscemi the whole time. He’s just one of those guys. He’s so into this commercial and so proud of what seems like this more alpha guy in this company that they’re working in. It’s great.
AVC: That seems like a ballsy move, to take that script to Buscemi.
MO: I think most hosts would have trouble with that. And rightfully so—they’ll ask the question, “What am I doing that’s funny in this?” And it’s usually important to give a response to that that’s clearly very funny. And to say, “you’re nodding, and you’re very enthused to be there” doesn’t sound funny. But it’s so funny. I can’t breathe by the end when I’m staring at him. And you get the feeling of a full character, too, from a guy who does nothing. He stands still, smiling and nodding, and never speaks.
Buscemi did come back and host while I was there, and I remember him sitting down on my couch in my office. I praised all of his career moves, one by one, and he said “Thanks a lot, what do you want me to do? I’m up for anything.” So that’s a great energy to have.
MO: When I was getting into Nichols And May, I also got a Woody Allen record that was called The Nightclub Years, 1964-68, and this was my favorite track from that album. I just liked that stand-up—especially that long ago—could be fake storytelling. It sounds like he’s going to tell a real story about how he went hunting one time, and then you realize the whole thing is just a series of constructed parts of a joke, and it becomes this complex, 12-part joke where everything ties up in a bow by the end. And it’s so hilarious, so funny.
It was also really cool to find out that he’d been a stand-up. I’d only known him as the director and performer in his movies, which, I loved the early ones, and then to hear this and to be like, “Wow, this is genuinely funny?” I hadn’t heard it in five or 10 years when I tracked it down for this list, and was laughing so hard, again. There were three tiny little things in there that I’d forgotten. There are versions you can find online where you can see him, because there’s video of it as well, but I like the version that’s just audio, especially because there’s one word different from the regular version. In this, he says, “and especially on Saturdays.” Which is a joke that’ll make sense when you listen to it. But that ending, “especially on Saturdays,” isn’t in the other one, if you want to really nerd out about this.
AVC: So here’s the big question. Now that you know what we all know about Woody Allen, allegedly, how has that changed your view of this bit? Or Bill Cosby’s bits, for that matter.
MO: I thought about putting Bill Cosby on this list, and I’ve seen a lot of comedians in the last year who have listed him as one of their top five influences, and I think that’s still what you’d do if he was. He doesn’t happen to be that for me but for a lot of people who are all stand-up comedy all the time, he is, and they’re saying, “That’s what he was to me. When I heard his album when I was 15, he influenced me, so he’s in my top five influences,” and then there might be a separate list for all-time favorites, people on and off stage or something, and he might not make that. But that was enough for me to not even go into it, because I felt like our discussion would have to become all about that now, because that’s all I think about now when I hear his comedy. I liked some of his stand-up, but I’ll say it was always a little slow for me.
AVC: I think the question is really, “Can bad people make good things?” Is it possible to still really adore Annie Hall?
MO: Exactly. Is that stuff still good? I mean, this bit about killing a moose is, I think, objectively good comedy, but I’m talking about it from a time when I first heard it and it struck me in this way that we’ve spoken about already, so that all is still true. But then it’s a different discussion about, “how are these people as humans,” and then it gets more complicated.
But it’s also a funny thing with Woody Allen because he still makes a movie every year, I think, and I have friends who are actors. I was talking to one who got to meet him and was really over-analyzing whether he messed it up and if he might not end up being cast in a movie, and so in that way I’d say it’s a little like stepping back to being a Chicago improviser where we’re doing amazing work every night and SNL is mainstream and I would never work there unless they offered it to me and then I would get on a plane as fast as I could. So there’s something about your high horse that can then be challenged in certain situations. I wonder how many people are turning down a Woody Allen casting opportunity out of some moral stand about him as a person? I’d guess not many? I don’t know.
AVC: Speaking of planes, Brian Regan making funny flying jokes is another thing you put on your list…
MO: Nice segue.
AVC: We’re down to two clips, so I had to get there somehow.
Brian Regan is one of those comics’ comics. He’s not huge, per se, but comedians love him.
MO: His style certainly isn’t extremely subversive, like he’s not intentionally alienating all the audience except the three comedians in the back. But maybe that’s because he’s never had a sitcom that made him a household name. I don’t know. I was just reading up on him when I was looking for my favorite of his clips, and I think he’s about to do or already did a full Radio City show. So he’s not that obscure, but some of his contemporaries are household names because they had a sitcom built around their comedy.
I just love him, and he’s someone that I think is interesting related to how we’ve been talking about visuals versus audio only. He’s just as funny audio-only, which doesn’t really make sense because so much of the joke is how he’s hunched over and making the faces that he makes, but maybe I know that so well that I can fill that in when I’m listening to him.
His stand-up elements are all really great, and I love this one because it’s so recent and it’s just 10 jokes about airplanes and how delays are annoying. And you’re like, “how did you do that?” It’s like a magic trick that he had me doubled over laughing about that. Fifteen years ago I was being a fake stand-up comedian talking about airplanes because it was so cliché and dumb, and he just goes right at it. There’s no making fun of stand-up about it. He’s just doing stand-up about airplane delays being annoying, and I challenge anyone to click on the clip and not crack up at that seemingly fully played-out topic.
MO: The reaction crowd shots in this are so funny, and it’s just such a vitriolic reaction of wrestling fans to homosexuality. Plus, there’s no better concept than, “What if an American and a Middle East person were in love?” Like, there’s something so simple and beautiful but it’s so funny to see these people screaming. And then they start throwing metal chairs at them and stuff.
I heard this second-hand but I believe there’s a quote from [Cohen] somewhere where he says this was his final out-in-the-field piece where he’s in character and messing with people, at least for years, because they barely got out of there, I think. There were obviously a couple thousand dudes ready to beat them up for the sake of America.
AVC: There’s also the issue with his cover. Would people figure out he’s Sacha Baron Cohen now?
MO: That’s true. I think he did less of the Ali G interviews because of everyone knowing, and I believe it. Again, having been to the Gathering Of The Juggalos and not having enraged the whole festival—if I had done that, there’s a real fear. You could actually die when a mob decides that you’re the embodiment of everything they’re afraid of in the world.
AVC: It’s amazing that we haven’t heard about some comedian getting the shit beat out of him for some incognito bit.
MO: It’s amazing that no comedian has died doing that. “So we’re doing a bit, but I can kind of see why the person got that mad and they killed him. And that’s how John Smith’s comedy career ended.” “Oh, okay.”
AVC: Has weird comedy always been something you’ve been drawn to?
MO: Yeah. I think weird and uncomfortable has always been a fascination for me, and my favorite stuff to laugh about, but I’d say the shift in how I look at it changed when I became a full-time improv student who was teaching classes in it and talking and thinking about comedy all day every day in Chicago. It went from just, “Oh, this Jerky Boys thing is funny, have you heard this, yeah it’s funny, he acts like a dummy and that’s it,” to, “notice the initiation line and how he heightens off that by line three and then…” I was making it into math in my 20s as I was studying it, and that may have ruined it for me. I don’t watch almost any comedy now, but I also loved having a passion for it. I was like, “what if I took the amount of effort I was forced to put into things like history and science in school and dove into comedy that way,” and I think a lot of comedians have a phase where they suddenly do this, and I worked much harder on that than I did in any class. Almost all my waking hours were spent thinking about and analyzing this stuff, so there was a very heavy period of also trying to see everything that had been done in every era. You’d say, “Oh, gosh, Bob Newhart. I know he had those TV shows that my parents liked but I want to everything he’s done. What did he do before that to get those shows?” And you end up tripping over really great stuff. That change happened somewhere in my mid-20s when I went from “an improv class would be fun while I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life” to “this is all I care about and think about,” and I quit my day job, literally.