by Hannah Chusid
I’m sitting at my desk at around noon on a Friday morning, Skyping with comedian Christian Finnegan. He has been featured on Comedy Central and on the show Are We There Yet?.
Hannah Chusid: Here I am sitting with Christian Finnegan on Skype. How are you?
Christian Finnegan: Just swell, thanks…just smashing. Just one moment of bliss after another.
HC: It’s great because we actually do have a mutual friend [my college professor], Stephen Gardner.
CF: Oh yeah, that’s right. I know him as “Cheeky” of course. He’s sort of like Dudley Moore and Arthur—only more drunk. That’s not true—he’s your teacher. He’s a very upstanding, very professional, educator of the young minds.
HC: Yes he is. He’s one of my favorite teachers. He taught me how to paint superiorly!…So we have some questions…Where did you grow up?
CF: I grew up in Massachussets about 45 minutes outside of Boston in a town called Akton, MA. It was just typical, New England crap suburb.
HC: Were you near the T?
CF: No, I was too far out. I would have to take the commuter rail and then go into the T. Like the end of the T was about half an hour away from my house.
HC: Did you do a lot of comedy in Boston?
CF: I never did. I have no connection to the Boston comedy scene at all. I have only even performed there a couple of times. I went college in New York. I didn’t start doing stand-up until after I graduated college, so even though 1 out of every 4 comedians seem to be from the Boston area, I have zero connections. I always feel bad whenever I run into another Boston comic ‘cause they’re always like “Oh—The Comedy Studio!” and they talk about “The Connection”, and I know nothing about it. I performed a couple of times there, but I’m a New York comic from the get-go.
HC: What’s your favorite club in New York?
CF: That’s a hard question. I mean, The [Comic] Strip I will always have a lot of affection for. First off it’s been around forever, and you know that there’s going to be a crowd every night and they run things relatively on time which is always a nice thing. If your set is at 8:15 then maybe it’ll be at 8:20, but it’s not going to be like 40 minutes later. I like the managers there…I don’t know, of the New York clubs that’s probably the one—but you know it’s hard to say because they’re all fun and weird in their own way. I mean I loved Comix before it closed. Comix, which closed a couple years ago, a few times I got to headline there. When that room was packed, it was one of the best rooms in the country. They would seat over 300 people in the room, but it felt really intimate which is a hard thing to capture—to get a lot of butts in seats but to not feel like a cavern. Comedy sort of demands intimacy, and sometimes when I’ll go on the road, I notice these clubs which are beautiful architecturally, but the ceilings are 80 feet high. It just feels like you’re in a banquet hall or something.
HC: Yeah. Like The Stand was really great. I remember going there and it was very intimate.
CF: Yeah obviously it just opened. I walked in there and I was all like “Oh, this could be great!”. Tiny little room, but it feels very intimate. It feels like a classic, New York club vibe, where you can really get into it with people. You don’t feel like you have to be like waving your arms to reach the back row. You could really just talk like a normal person and have a conversation with people. And I think a lot of times that’s where a lot of the great writing happens, because most comedians, they’ll spend time writing at home. But a lot of the actual writing gets done on stage when you try things and you see what works and see what doesn’t. Sometimes you start just kinda riffing a crowd member that turns a 3 minute bit into a 5 minute bit. A lot of times that’s not possible at a club that’s really huge. That’s only really possible when there’s 50-75 people in the room.
HC: Because you feel more of their energy.
CF: Yeah. You feel more their energy, and I feel like it’s more of a conversation, even though you’re the only one talking—hopefully. It feels more like a conversation as opposed to a presentation, which in a club it almost feels like “Alright, I’m going to do a show for you now”, whereas in a little club it feels like “Hey guys, let’s talk about this”, which is more fun, I think. Obviously, when you’re doing big clubs, things are going right for you. In terms of what’s just more fun, doing small rooms is definitely more fun.
HC: Have you tried improv?
CF: When I first started doing stand-up, I took Level 1 at UCB. This is back when the original members of the UCB were teachers. It was just the 4: Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Vesser, and Matt Walsh. Now, I was in a sketch group at the time, and then when it came around time for Level 2, I didn’t have enough money to do it. I was doing sketch, and I wish I stuck with it longer. I think at the end of the day, stand-up was where I was destined to end up, but I think that if I did improv a little bit longer, I would’ve acquired crowd work skills a little easier. I think it’s really good for getting out of your head being able to exist for the moment and having fun on stage as opposed to sticking to a script. So, I wish I have done it longer, but I do have a teensy bit of experience.
HC: So, you studied acting, right?
CF: I started as an actor when I went to college and then halfway through I switched over to creating and directing. By the time I graduated,that was pretty much that. I was interning at The Village Voice, and kind of like journalism and not feature-writing-type stuff. And after college I worked for publishing for a few years, and then I really missed performing, but I hated the idea of just being a pure actor and waiting around for people to give you work. So, stand-up was a combination of the two where it’s like you’re performing, but your own stuff. It’s just you, just do you it. There’s no insulting, there’s no debate, there’s not collaboration (unless you want it). If you succeed, it’s on you. If you fail, it’s on you. There’s something very appealing about that. It’s very light on its feet.
HC: Right. Where did you go to school?
CF: New York University.
HC: Ahh, NYU. Tisch School of the Arts, right?
CF: Yes, the degree dare not speak its name. Nobody ever likes to admit they went to NYU.
HC: I mean it is a great school though.
CF: It’s a great school. I will say, in all honesty, was not as great when I went there. People seem to be impressed when I say it now. It didn’t feel like that. Not that it ever was a bad school, but the standards of admission I think are higher now than when I got in there. It didn’t seem as prestigious at the time as people seem to think of it now. One of the main reasons I went to NYU ‘cause it was in New York, it was downtown, and I really just wanted to be in New York. That’s why when people go to NYU, they just tend to say “Oh I just take classes”. Nobody admits they enroll as a full-time student because that would undercut their “cool” persona they create around themselves.
HC: Who were your comedy idols?
CF: Patrick Milligan…Who are my comedy idols? That’s a good question…It feels so exhaustingly lame to say Louis CK at this point just because it’s one of those things I’m now angry when I hear people talk about how great he is. Not because he isn’t, but just because it entered that echo chamber of “I don’t know anyone in stand-up but people say Louis CK is great so I’ll say he’s great too”. He is one of my heroes and Chapelle as well.
HC: Weren’t you on Chapelle’s Show?
CF: I was. I was in the “Mad Real World’ sketch—many, many eons ago. I spent over 15 years doing stuff and that’s still the thing that people talk about the most, which is great and totally flattering to me to be remembered for anything. But he’s a favorite of mine from way before Chapelle’s Show. I think my freshman year of college, we had like a dorm field trip to The Boston Comedy Club, which doesn’t exist anymore. And at the time, I hated stand-up. I hated it with a passion. I think some level it’s because I secretly wanted to do it but I really just loathed the idea of stand-up comedy. I sat in the audience and person after person was terrible, like “this guy sucks…”. And then one kid, who looked like he was about 12 years old, who cracked me up, and years later, I realized that was Dave Chapelle. He’s maybe a year—2 years old than I am, but looked like 12 years old at the time. It was kind of neat to realize that. Like that guy who I thought was hilarious—just an open mic-er, doing nothing. Now is thought of as being great. It’s nice when you kind of feel like the cream does rise because so often it doesn’t really feel like the case.
HC: Yeah, it’s really hard to break into stand-up if anything.
CF: Yeah, everything is hard in its own way. I think it’s even harder now for a personality type like a Dave Chapelle—those quiet guys—’cause you know, from my limited experiences talking to him, he’s not the kind of guy who’s constantly life-of-the-party/everybody-has-to-pay-attention-to-me all the time. He kinda just wants to be a normal dude when he’s off stage. He’s very shy and I feel like that personality type has an even harder time in stand-up now when everything is now “How many Twitter followers do you have?” or “Let me promote myself up the ass all day” and “Have I told you about me lately? ME ME ME!” A Chapelle or a Mitch Hedberg type would cut through the white noise now. It kind of bums me out sometimes when I go to an alternative comedy show, which is where I started, and I still kind of think of it as sort of my main home. I’ll see like a really kind of quiet, self-into comic, and I’m like “Man, you’re gonna get eaten alive”, unless you’re willing to brag about yourself constantly. It gets really hard to get anyone to pay attention.
HC: How do you think clubs in NYC differentiate than any other cities?
CF: There’s the concentration of comics, first of all. There’s so many comedians that I think its the quality that tends to be better. The proficiency level tends to better, simply because it has to be. And when I say “proficiency level”, I don’t necessarily mean that they’re funnier or less funny, but in terms of looking and sounding like a professional comedian. Like being able to perform in front of an audience of tourists and strangers, there are more comics like that in New York than another city. And there’s something to be said for a city like Boston or San Francisco that has kind of a smaller scene, where there’s not as much industry hype or whatever. They kind of create this sort of weirder comedy scene. New York has a larger degree of pros. I’m not necessarily saying that they’re funnier, but they’re able to sort of fulfill the responsibilities of being a professional comedian better than other cities. LA, obviously has that. But in LA, you have a different problem—SO many celebrities that it’s really hard to be a young nobody in LA because you’re competing with all the comedians who are so good in New York that now they have TV shows and live out in LA and dominate the clubs out there. Also I think the fact that there’s so many different kinds of people in New York. There’s so many different industries that are centered here, whereas LA, it’s entertainment and that’s pretty much it. If you’re not in the entertainment industry, you probably want to be. In New York, obviously, you have entertainment, you have publishing, you have fashion, you have finance, you have the UN—so many things are centered here, that you get a much richer mix of people, and I think that helps you learn how to perform for anybody. A lot of times when I go out on the road, and maybe I’m working with a comedian who is from LA, if they’re not particularly seasoned, it’s a lot of stuff about living in LA, or it’s a lot of stuff that is very kind of funny for people who are 25 years old in the acting business. But, if you gear a guy in Pittsburgh, who works in a shoe store, who doesn’t give a shit. I don’t care about your witty take-down of Breaking Bad. They might be really funny, but they don’t know how to perform for civilians.
HC: So that’s why the audiences differentiate in different cities—like the environment.
CF: There are a ton of really incredibly proficient comedians who live in places—St. Louis, Cincinatti—all over the country, but a lot of times, those guys, all they perform for are civilians. They don’t perform for other comedians as much. All they become is professional, and it becomes too tradesman as opposed to artists. When doing comedy, have a trade, and have an art. It’s half being a bricklayer, and it’s half being a painter. I think the best comedians are the ones who are able to do both, where they’re doing something really innovative to make them think, but they’re also doing work like “I will make you laugh.” It’s not enough just to have something interesting to say, but it’s also punchlines, you need to know pacing, and things like that.
HC: Do you have any good heckler stories?
CF: Well, yeah. There was a club once where a guy tried to storm the stage to get me, and had to be dragged out by 5 waiters and managers. He was screaming “I’ve seen people die!” the whole time. He just returned from Iraq, and obviously had some issues to work out, and he kept yelling “I’m fighting for your freedom of speech!” and I wasn’t even talking about politics. This was early in my comedy career, and I think I was talking about the game Monopoly. And I bet he was thinking “You smell like one of those panty-ass Liberals”, which is true. And he just kept yelling “I’m fighting for your freedom of speech!” When somebody’s yelling stuff out, it hasn’t always been official to engage them, because a lot of the times, it’s just what they want, and then it just becomes a can of worms and you can’t get out of it. The entire audience doesn’t care, they just want to hear what you’re doing. But, you kind of have to show that. They say a snake can smell fear. If the audience feels that you’re not confident, and in control of the situation, it doesn’t matter how good your jokes are. You really have to look like you’re captain of the ship or else on a cellular level, people will start to lose faith in you. And so even though obviously this guy is a veteran, he’s dealing with some stuff that I can’t even imagine, I don’t really want to humiliate the dude, but it’s gotta stop. You start making fun of the guy, and it gets laughs and stuff, of course that rages him further, and then he grabbed onto the railing so they were trying to pull him out, like he is holding on with both hands. The whole thing probably took about 4 minutes to get him out of the room, which in stage time, is an eternity. 15 minutes into a 45 minute set. So, then there’s that awkward moment of “Okay, who’s dating?” Know what I mean? Like how do you transition back into material? That was probably one of the better heckler stories. It happened in Alabama, which bums me out. I hate when clichés turn out to be true. Something that isn’t sort of renowned for being Southern douche-villem but it did actually happen in Birmingham.
HC: Oh my god…Well that is all the time we have. Thank you so much!
CF: My pleasure!