If you’ve laughed at a movie or a TV program in the past 10 years—particularly if that movie or TV program has any connection to the UCB Theatre—then you probably know Brian Huskey. Currently seen as a member of People Of Earth’s alien-abduction support group, Huskey has also made appearances on Veep, Bob’s Burgers, Childrens Hospital, and 130-something other projects cataloged by IMDB. Ahead of his new Adult Swim special—the surreal children’s-show parody Mister Neighbor’s House, which premieres Friday, December 2 at midnight—The A.V. Club asked Huskey to tell us what makes him laugh when he’s not making other people laugh.
A Serious Man (2009)
Brian Huskey: The first time I saw that, just Fred Melamed, the way he played it, blew my mind. I don’t know why. The thing that I think is so funny about it is the tension between how ridiculous what he’s proposing is and how overwhelming that proposal is to [Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg], given the stuff that’s happened to him.
It made me realize, in thinking about all these questions, I love frustration. I love seeing people wrestle with frustration and try to keep it together in a socially acceptable way, but almost buzzing at the edges as a result. I’ve actually gotten into arguments with people, like, “That movie is a bummer! That movie is not funny.” But to me it’s so funny. They’re struggling so hard and just getting the shit kicked out of them. It’s really funny to me. I would say it’s really funny because it’s such a human experience in so many different contexts and so many different ways.
The A.V. Club: It’s essentially the Book Of Job as a dark comedy.
BH: Totally. It’s that head-scratcher of a Buddhist sort of maxim: “Life is suffering.” You can take it in the context of, “Oh, my God, that’s damnation. That’s hell on Earth if you’re just going to suffer.” But it’s also a very Zen Buddhist approach to it: There is going to be suffering, so in existing with that, you have to experience the other side of it. I think that’s what’s cool about—in comedy, we get to hold up stuff that might be weird or painful or uncomfortable, and you reframe it and you can laugh at it. You have a safe distance to it.
AVC: The Coens have made many different kinds of comedies over the years. Is this your favorite comedic mode of theirs?
BH: I think so. I really liked Fargo. I loved Barton Fink. I love where they are able to put you in the really uncomfortable place and still there’s some rock-solid comedic scene work that’s done within that world. I think that’s pretty amazing. And I think probably as writers and directors, it’s very satisfying for them. Because they seem like the kind of guys, like, “Oh, this is really serious for a while. What if this weird thing happened?” Because what I’ve heard about their writing process—they hang out with each other and do it. So it’s like this language between two brothers that was turned into this great ability in filmmaking.
But then you have Raising Arizona, so I think they genre-hop a lot, too. I like that they go deep into one kind of stylistic thing. Because that’s such a plasticky movie, Raising Arizona. But I prefer their stuff where it gets a little dark, a little hinky.
BH: I realized in naming a lot of these how many of them are kind of seminal comedy-discovery moments for me. They’re like little mile markers of where I felt, “Oh, my God—so much permission is being granted in what you can do comedically.”
I love how much it heads down this one path and really takes its time. The payoff is not that huge—you know, it’s this M.C. Escher pattern of discovering how that manifests—but, at the same time, it’s so great. I love Dino Stamatopoulos’ stuff. He seems like a guy who’s really inspired by just letting his mind wander, like, “What if this pattern started to happen?” and just seeing where that goes.
But it was tough choosing a Mr. Show sketch that I loved the most, because [the show] is one of those comedy discoveries where I was just, “I didn’t know this was out here—it’s so great!”
AVC: How did you discover it?
BH: It was back in the days of VHS tapes that we swapped around. Somebody gave me a compilation of the first season—it was my friend in Richmond, Virginia. I burned through that, and then luckily I was heading north back to New York one time, and I intentionally stopped in so I could watch the rest of the Mr. Show at their place.
AVC: You mentioned you had some trouble narrowing it down to one Mr. Show sketch. What were some of the runners-up?
BH: Oh, gosh. I can’t remember what it’s called, but there’s a fake commercial where Bob Odenkirk teaches you how to play pool—
AVC: Van Hammersly.
BH: Yeah. So dumb. It’s so dumb. And that’s what I love about it. I love comedy that has a delightfully stupid running bit, because, to me, that’s that excited, giddy feeling you have when you just have an inside joke with your friends and you just do it over and over again until everybody around you gets sick of it but you still love it. This list makes me realize how much that kind of perspective on what’s funny means to me. That feeling of being in the back of a classroom with your friend where you can’t keep it together because you made a dumb fart joke or something. I think that’s such a beautiful experience.
AVC: Speaking of inside jokes: Did Mr. Show feel like a language you shared with the other comedians you came up with? Was finding other people who knew Mr. Show like finding “your people,” so to speak?
BH: Yeah, a little bit. [Mr. Show] owes so much to Monty Python. They owe so much to that kind of unfolding, continuous series of ideas rather than it being like a “sketch, reset, sketch, reset.” So a lot of the people that were Monty Python heads—make sure you have it written down that I said that in a weird way—they were like, “Oh, if you like Monty Python, you’ll like this.”
I will say that my big other development thing was indie rock. I grew up in the South—knowing about these weird alternative bands was also the big point of pride for me. So I think a lot of comedy that has sort of an indie cred to it—like you were saying, you have to be the insider in the club to know about it—appeals to me. And now I think there’s so much of that stuff with the internet. There’s so many tubes in the internet. People are finding out all this different stuff. I have no idea what’s out there.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “The Ministry Of Silly Walks” and “Upper Class Twit Of The Year” (1970)
AVC: That provides a natural segue into the Monty Python sketches that you included on the list. What’s your Monty Python story?
BH: They were doing reruns of [Flying Circus] on PBS when I was in high school. My best friends and I, one of us found it and said, “Have you heard about this Monty Python thing?” And they told me to watch it, and it just blew my mind. The best thing was it was finding something that was so not of the time. It was like 10 or 15 years before—that sounds like not that much time, but when you’re in high school, anything that’s not of that period, it’s like, “Wow, that’s so old!”
I was just talking to a friend of mine—we were on our way from an art museum, to make me seem super intellectual—about how healthy it is to have your brain scrambled. To create that confusion in yourself of “You think you know this style of art or comedy, but here’s something completely different!” To make a bad pun. That was my experience of [Monty Python]. I had no idea people were doing this so long ago. And then you end up being the person who’s quoting it.
AVC: You picked two sketches that are deeply rooted in British culture—one based in U.K. bureaucracy, the other in the class system.
BH: And yet I picked them because they just have that super-stupid quality to them. That dumb bit of John Cleese walking in that way is super funny. And you layer that on top of this—they did a lot of skewering of bureaucracy and existing systems—it’s great how simple that is. You just take something of authority and make it seem stupid, and it’s really funny. I’m not very good at having encyclopedic memory of specific sketches, so trying to think of different Monty Python stuff—I remember the feeling, but I don’t remember specifics. So I looked it up online and tested myself. Within the first 10 seconds, I was laughing out loud. So this one wins. But there are so many, so many. The Spam sketch is huge. A lot of Terry Gilliam stuff—the weird transitions were incredible. I remember I really liked Eric Idle a lot. I really loved all his stuff. Maybe because I’m skinny and he was skinny, so I was like, “There’s hope!”
AVC: Some of my favorite things about “Upper Class Twit Of The Year” are the names of the competitors. It’s so specific.
BH: Yeah. Their wordplay!
I think that’s why Eric Idle would blow my mind. He would do these twisted, Faulknerian sentences that would be so specific and cover so much territory. I’m sure I missed half of the jokes because they do reference so much of their own culture and society. But the poetry of it, the way it sounds—it was a great lesson in alliteration. You’d go from, like, a heavy-handed word to an insulting word with a name at the end of it, and it’s funny. Those guys are terrific—I think they’re going to make it!
Vernon, Florida (1981)
BH: That and this other film, Gates Of Heaven, which is about a family-run pet cemetery. The things I love about those two films, and Vernon, Florida in particular, is that these are real characters, these are real people, and how earnest and vulnerable and specific they are. [Director Errol Morris] wasn’t filming them to be comedic. It’s almost like I laugh out loud at it afterwards. Watching it, it feels like you’re really meeting a fascinating person that you can’t believe you’re talking to. And then later on, when you tell someone about it, you’re like, “This is so funny. This person is so weird and specific.”
But the turkey hunter, in particular, I imagine him telling everybody that fucking story over and over and over, and he’s so into it. He’s so invested in it. Comedically, he’s a character. This movie is a bunch of real-life characters, and the best characters are reflections of real human behavior, you know? Human behavior can be really funny. [Laughs.] Really bonkers. There’s this guy who talks about diamonds and is always reflecting about the surface level of water, and this lady who raises rabbits. And some of them aren’t rabbits, but she insists that they’re rabbits. Really, really crazy. [Laughs.] I highly recommend everyone check those out. They’re great.
AVC: The setting of Vernon, Florida became notorious for the number of residents who’d blown off or amputated their own limbs in order to collect big insurance premiums. Morris originally set out to make a movie about the town called Nub City, but he couldn’t get anyone to go on record, and he was also threatened by numerous potential subjects. So he switched gears and made Vernon, Florida instead.
BH: Whoa! That’s amazing. That’s a whole backstory that I did not know. Because the people he interviewed were very gentle, very naïve—not to sound condescending or something. But that’s interesting that the flipside of that was, “And he was scared for his life.”
That reminds me: Have you ever heard of Sherman’s March? It’s this filmmaker, [Ross McElwee]—he’s actually from my hometown in Charlotte, North Carolina. He made a documentary that retraced Sherman’s march through the South. And while filming it, he had broken up with someone, and he started to make the film about himself, about trying to find someone new and his encounters with women. So he got funding to shoot this one movie and hijacked it and turned it into this other thing. And that movie is another really funny example of real-life experience and his encounters and knowing that he changed the direction and purpose of the film. How open he is to everybody—something about his personal narrative infuses what you’re watching and makes it very funny as well. Whereas, if he had just done a Sherman’s march documentary, nothing funny about it. He went on to do these other very personal documentaries. He started his own style in a way. His next one I think was about when he and his wife were having a baby while his dad was dying. That one’s hilarious! Not really. That one’s kind of depressing.
The Carol Burnett Show, “The Interrogator” (1974)
BH: I don’t think I chose the seminal Carol Burnett sketch, but I will say that Tim Conway was an early, huge influence on me. His packaging of how he looked: very normal man, very everyman. And then he would just play these characters that were so silly, and, again, would have just one kind-of dumb thing that they did over and over again. It’s interesting talking about this. It’s making me realize how much like a baby I am in what I like, what I think is funny. The simplicity of, “I hope you do that again because that is funny—Oh, you did it again!” Super satisfying. The simplest thing can be so powerful in a way. But [Conway] making the other actor laugh by doing that dumb bit—any clip you see of him and Harvey Korman and Harvey Korman is losing it is great.
AVC: So you’re in favor of performers breaking character in something like this?
BH: Not necessarily. Not in a pandering way. I do think people have turned that into their little, “Oh, I’m adorable.” I think that was a real—a genuine power struggle that Harvey Korman always lost. [Laughs.]
AVC: It is very endearing when it happens in “The Interrogator” sketch. Also because there’s a meta-element to that: Technically, this Nazi interrogator is trying to make the other character break down.
BH: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s father used to hang out with Tim Conway and sometimes Harvey Korman. They knew each other in the Midwest in some context. Paul Thomas Anderson’s father worked for some radio station, then they all moved to California. But he said he remembered them hanging out at a pool bar in the afternoon, just getting drunk and coming up with incredibly stupid bits. Literally, Dorf came out of that. [Conway] put some shoes on his knees and just—a bunch of drunk, middle-aged men acting idiotic. That’s great. That’s the best.
AVC: The other thing that impresses me about this sketch is that it’s really long. It’s like 12 minutes long—that’s longer than the average Childrens Hospital episode.
BH: [Laughs.] It’s totally true. I know. It’s crazy. If this episode of Carol Burnett was an hour, a quarter of the show was dedicated to one bit of a man putting on the garb of one of the most horrific monster forces in history and being super stupid about it. It does make me consider what is going to be funny in the time of Trump and if we will be able to undermine it while it’s happening. Because there’s a safe distance that they have playing a Nazi in a sketch with the hand puppet of Hitler on your hand. That comes only from decades of distance from something like that.
AVC: I’m not going to lie: Considering the hate speech and hate crimes that have been committed in the wake of the election, I had a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach while watching “The Interrogator.”
BH: I think it’s healthy to have that confusion, that, “Ah, this is weird, this is two messages at once.” I think that is the purpose and the privilege of comedians: public permission to get up in front of people and do often what is socially unacceptable behavior for entertainment. You’re providing this safe distance where you’re doing something that nobody has the willingness to do, but when you do it, it’s like, “Yep! That’s true. That’s very true.” That’s lofty and heavy-handed, but I do think that’s a big responsibility that we have in doing this stuff. I think The Onion does it in probably the best way. Because you guys are just—you don’t back down a lot of times, which is pretty amazing.
AVC: Not to put you on the spot or anything, but what do you think can actually be done in the moment right now? What can comedians do in the next four years to keep society from falling apart?
BH: It’s a real challenge. I remember during the campaign some Saturday Night Live writers and some monologue writers for maybe Seth Meyers—I can’t remember—they were saying he’s hard to parody because the things he does are so outrageous already, and now they are, like, they’re saddled with this being outrageous and real and, in turn, being very scary. So I don’t know, man. I think it will be doable, but it’s almost what everybody is doing right now: “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.” Wait and see what it’s going to be because nobody knows at all. Ugh. So terrifying. [Laughs.]
AVC: Let’s move on to a lighter topic: a Seth Morris character besieged by personal tragedy and riddled with ludicrous ailments.
BH: Well, there’s a certain amount of friendship nepotism in choosing this that might be like, “You were in a sketch group with him for years,” and he’s one of my best friends. But, that apart, that character is a monster example of how funny specificity can be. Just drilling down into, you know, super-, hyper-specific character perspective and the minutiae of that one guy’s world. And that goes along with the Vernon, Florida thing: This is such a specific person, and their world is so specific and so funny in that. I think it’s brilliant. And Seth is brilliant at that. He’s always been able, in improv and stuff, to pull out a reference to a fringed, you know, burlap saddlebag worn by a ’70s woman who used to work in a bar or whatever. He would do it so much better than I just did. He would pull out these specifics, and it was like, “Well, that’s genius.”
I don’t think there’s much difference between a comedian’s power of observation and a novelist’s power of observation. Looking at something and presenting it back to us, the viewer or the reader, and going, “You’re right! That’s amazing!” There is something amazing about that. But, yeah, his list of ailments is just so funny. So funny. When he goes through all the NPR correspondents. [In Bob Ducca’s voice.] “Derek Fuck.” And that’s just the funny alliterative things—going back to Monty Python and just the word itself. But Seth is always—he’s played variations of people from his life in such great ways. And I’m sure that there’s some version of some man in his life that borrows from this and then gets super exaggerated. That kind of repeats that mantra of “Be specific, be truthful in your character creation or in your comedy.” It’ll have some more punch to it.
AVC: Was Bob Ducca a character he was doing on stage before he was doing it on podcasts and on TV?
BH: Yeah, he just started it as part of his stand-up act. And then he did a couple of one-man shows at UCB with it. And then he did it on Comedy Bang! Bang!, and, you know, subsequently they gave him his own podcast [Affirmation Nation], which I think is great. For him to have his own show. [Laughs.] I’ve done it a couple of times, and it’s just so fun. But when he puts on the carpal tunnel braces and the neck brace and colors his hair and goes all in with, like, the full character package, it’s amazing. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life.
AVC: The lists have such a great internal logic to them, you know. You mentioned the alliteration, but also the rhythms that they start to take on. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to the list of ailments, and I’ll still be taken by surprise by a repeating syllable, or when he follows “Lou Gehrig’s disease” with “Lou Barlow’s disease.”
BH: It’s a great example of A+B=C. He and Rob Corddry and John Ross Bowie and I used to be in a sketch group together, and we used to play this game: “Make up a Guided By Voices song title.” You take some sort of aircraft, and then you take some kind of adjective—I don’t know, like “Fighter Jet Depression”—and that’s your Guided By Voices song. And then you sing it British. That’s a freebie. Listen, guys: If that could become a national trend, get into it. Because it’s very relaxing.