“Drinks With” is an interview series started in 2009 by Skip and Timshel Matheny, currently songwriters in the band Roman Candle. The interviews are almost always done in person and typically discuss the creative process.
Skip Matheny met with Kevin Nealon recently at backstage at Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville, Tenn. He has recently released a new DVD/CD called Kevin Nealon: Whelmed…But Not Overly.
What’s your favorite drink?
It’s probably decaf coffee—with one creamer. I can’t have caffeine because it just makes me too jittery. But it never affected my sleeping, actually. I was always able to sleep with regular coffee, but it just makes my heart speed up too much.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in St. Louis; I lived there for three weeks and then my father graduated from St. Louis University, so we all got in the car and split. I don’t really remember much. I grew up in Connecticut most of my life and then four years in Germany. My father worked for a helicopter company, so we went over there.
What kind of path did you take from being a kid in Connecticut to doing your first stand-up? Was New York the first place you went to start?
What happened was, I always wanted to be a singer/songwriter kind of guy like a James Taylor or Crosby, Stills and Nash type of thing; I went to a lot of coffee houses and used to watch all those guys, but I never had the nerve to get up and do it because singing seems so personal and intimate to me. It was too revealing. But comedy seemed to come a little easier because I liked memorizing the jokes in the back of Parade magazine. There was a section called “My Favorite Jokes” by various comics and I would tell them at our little neighborhood parties when I was like 16 or 17, personalize them like they had happened to me. And then I started going to some of the comedy clubs in New York City just to check them out. I would never get up because the audiences were just too tough and the comics, like Richard Belzer and those kinds of guys, were usually kind of tough comics, you know, in New York. So I figured I’d go out to California. So I went to California and started hitting all of the open mic nights and started writing and trying to find my own style.
When you were first starting out, how did you go about coming up with your own bits? Has the way that you write material changed much over the years?
Well, when I was very young I didn’t really write my own material. I just memorized other peoples’ jokes. Established comics, like Stanley Myron Handelman and people like that. And then, for every comic, you develop your own style after a while. You get up on stage and you start off by emulating somebody. For me, I liked Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and Albert Brooks. So I had a conglomerate of those three. And then you start finding your own style, your own voice after a while the more you get up. And the best advice I ever got from a comic was “get up [on stage] as much as you can. And just be original.”
From a creative standpoint, how different is approaching stand-up, compared to approaching comedic acting in a film or TV setting?
Yeah, this [stand-up] is my own store. You know what I mean? When I’m acting I’m usually working at somebody else’s store. This one I set all the prices and I sell what I want to sell [laughs]. And then I take full responsibility. So it’s a lot more control, and it’s sometimes a lot more gratifying. At the most, immediately gratifying [more so] than acting.
With the acting you do, how often do you get the chance to do stand-up currently?
I get a chance to do stand-up as much as I want. I try not to be gone all the time though. I have a 6-year-old. So I like to be home with my family. When I’m home in Los Angeles I get up maybe once a week at a local club. Every Tuesday night at the Laugh Factory I do a thing called New Material Night. I host that, and I encourage comics to come in and try new material, like seven minutes of new ideas. I welcome the audience, try some new material of my own, maybe seven to 10 minutes—and explain what the evening will consist of. I usually have about six comics or so. They each come up and try seven minutes of new material—doesn’t have to be fleshed out—but just something to get on stage, like a workshop—and then I come on stage and chat with each while we sit on director’s chairs. The goal is to try to come up with new material in this manner as well. We usually elaborate on the topics they tried in their stand-up. Because as a comic you want to keep turning your material over and you want to stay fresh. If you keep hitting the same markets, you want the same people to come back and see your new material. So it remains special.
Is writing in that live setting a different world from writing in a more practiced environment, say for example a windowless writers’ room somewhere, at SNL or wherever? Are you using the same type of spontaneity?
It is mostly a great experience for comics, as well as myself, to have a venue solely dedicated to new material. The audience enjoys it, and they are part of the workshop. They are excited to be in on the ground floor of a joke or bit. It is a great rush to come up with a joke that gets a good response from the audience. It’s gold!
When you are doing an hour of stand-up, how much are you carrying, prepared in your mind, and how much do you leave up to the moment for improvisation?
I’m totally prepared with an act, but I shift it around sometimes. If I’m doing two shows in one night I might pick and choose different material and put this in here, that there, maybe not do this hunk in this set. And then I also, my favorite, though, is to go off the script and try to come up with new material and improvise and get on some kind of train of thought. That’s the goal for me.
Does the size of the crowd or the room matter much to how much you feel like you can improvise?
It doesn’t matter either way. I especially like smaller crowds because that way you feel like you’re more in the living room and you can kind of like, you know, just be a little more thoughtful and maybe get some feedback and not feel that pressure of a huge audience.
Who was the first genuinely funny person you were aware of, whether it was someone in your family, or someone in a movie or on TV?
Oh wow. Let me think. Oh wait a minute [holds up his ringing phone, showing country singer Clint Black is calling]. Sorry, let me take this for a second, he’s trying to get in…
Yeah, wow. I used to love watching Jerry Lewis movies; I liked that. Bill Cosby records made me laugh a lot. Our Gang, Little Rascals. Probably Jerry Lewis. That was when I first discovered comedy. I used to like practical jokes, those fake martini glasses or the fake puke. I loved doing that kind of stuff.