Comedian Christian Finnegan is serious about music.
When did you develop an interest in comedy?
A long time before I ever considered comedy. I hated standup comedy for a number of years up until I started doing it. I came of age in the 80’s and I thought of that brick wall, mullet, and jacket with pushed up sleeves world. On some level, I think I hated it because I wanted to do it. When I look back on my childhood, I loved comedy. I had Woody Allen and Steve Martin albums. I used to fantasize about hosting SNL. It was never important for me, at a young age, to be a class clown. It was always important to me that the teacher thought I was funny. I would write papers that were funny and a little smarter than I actually was. I was trying to be the Calvin Trillin of the third grade class.
Is school something that you enjoyed?
I never enjoyed it when growing up. I had friends and whatnot, but never felt entirely a part of any group of people. I was a little chunky and not strong emotionally. I was prone to crying fits, which is not good when you’re the biggest kid in class. I went to a performance arts boarding high school, and that I enjoyed more. It was basically prodigies and fuck-ups. There were a lot of Taiwanese cellists and kids whose parents thought, “You don’t do well in school so you must be an artist.”
Can you play any instruments?
I can play one song on four different instruments. I used to play bass for a while and got to the point where I was good enough to be in a shitty band. I love music but it’s never occurred to me to try to pursue it professionally. It’s too special to me to make it a career. I never felt that it was something I was gifted in. I’m much better at appreciating it than I am at doing it.
What sort of aspirations did you have growing up?
I wanted to be in the decathlon when I was very young until I realized that I was a complete spaz with no physical ability whatsoever. Even today I avoid any situation that requires any physical bravado because I could be revealed as a total spaz. I thought I might want to be a teacher. For a long time I joked about wanting to start a religion, which is a grandiose version of what being a comedian is. Just trying to convince people to think like you think.
Would you say that television is something that impacted you a great deal growing up?
Absolutely. I don’t know how you can go into comedy and pretend to be above popular culture, as though that’s not something you aspire to be a part of yourself. I think that, as a comedian, you need to be cognitive of the world around you. None of the people who have achieved what they want to achieve think that they’re above watching television.
Were you a fan of Hanna-Barbara cartoons?
Of course. Not only was I a fan of the cartoons, but I was a fan of the Laugh Olympics, which was like Battle of the Network Stars but for cartoon characters. I love it when they have cross over shows. Like Scooby-Doo meeting up with Grape Ape.
Are you a fan of Adult Swim?
I was a huge Space Ghost fan back when they had new episodes. I was a fan of Brak and Harvey Birdman. I liked Harvey Birdman back when he was just an occasional character on Space Ghost. What I loved about Space Ghost was that it existed in a vacuum. It was the only thing like it on TV. It had a particular comic pacing that I thought was genius. It used the comedic pause better than any show I can think of. The only show I’ve ever seen where there might be twelve seconds of silence and cutting to various expressions on peoples’ faces. I would go as far as saying that that show has influenced me in terms of comedy. I find awkwardness to be the biggest comedic weapon I use most. Either using that feeling of awkwardness or pontificating on what makes things awkward. That show nailed that so well.
Some of the shows on Adult Swim seem too self consciously weird. I know that a lot of people like Aqua Teen, but it seems so, “This will be a hit with the stoners.” It seems very much like it’s made like, “If you loved Space Ghost you’ll love this.” It doesn’t grab me as well.
Did you enjoy the original Space Ghost as well?
I remember watching Space Ghost very clearly, so that may be why I enjoyed the newer one so much.
Did you do any comedy at talent shows?
No. I went to NYU as an acting student. Three semesters in, I switched into playwriting and directing. Up until I graduated college, I was nearly humorless. I stumbled into comedy because it seemed like a nice combination. I wanted to write, but didn’t have the discipline to be a writer, and I liked performing but didn’t want to wait for other people to give me opportunities like an actor does. Comedy was a combination of two things I liked to do, but not too much of either.
When was the first time you decided to perform standup?
As a total aside, I used to work with John Hodgman in publishing before I got into comedy and it’s disturbing how much you sound like him. Exact same speech pattern and voice. He’s a very particular sounding person, and it’s a very weird thing because I keep thinking you’re him.
At the time, my theory was that I could work in publishing during the day and be a brilliant novelist at night. I never wrote anything. I looked around and realized that I was living a life I did not want to be living. I started doing different things every night. I’d go to a play, rock show, poetry reading, or comedy show every night. That’s how I stumbled into the then burgeoning New York alternative comedy scene, which, at the time, was something cool. Not that it’s not now. It’s probably one of those “has it changed or have I changed” situations. At the time, it was a vibrant none club performance comedy scene. In my opinion, most of the great standup exists outside of the club circuit. At the time, there was a scene that encompassed a lot more than just standup. There was sketch and weirdo stuff. That’s where I started in, which is hilarious for anyone that sees me do standup now because by no means am I challenging the conventions of standup. I just go up and try to speak honestly and say things that I think are relatively funny.
What was your early material like?
Some of it was funny, I think. I wasn’t funny. Some of that material I could make funny now. It was one of those situations where you start at eight O’clock and wait for your name to be picked out of a hat. I was there sometimes until four fifteen in the morning. The first time I went up I went up around midnight. It went well because it had been things I was writing my entire life. The second time I went up I ate shit because it was things I had written that week. I went home that first week thinking, “I’m a standup comedian now. I have finally found my true calling.” I got a rude awakening that next week.
Were most of the open mics you did not at comedy clubs?
For years, they wouldn’t let me anywhere near comedy clubs, unless I did one of those awful bringer shows. A lot of young comics go and hang out at the club every night and kiss the managers ass every night. And while they’re kissing ass, my friends and I were doing sets at non-comedy club venues. There were shows every night at bars, theaters, and even Laundromats. You can get a lot more stage time outside of the club world. It’s really easy to get sucked into the bringer show world. It gives you an artificial sense of doing comedy. You bring ten of your friends so you can perform in front of a full audience and they say that that’s how you break into the club. That’s not even close to being true. Why would the club start giving you spots and paying you for them when they can get you to not only perform for free but to also fill their room for them? It ends up creating an awkward relationship with your friends. The first time they’re like, “Yeah, we want to see you do standup.” But it doesn’t get so easy the fourth or fifth time, especially when they’ve been forced to sit through fifteen other bringer show comics.
How many open mics were you going to per week at the time?
I would say that I was doing three or four open mics on a good week. Eventually, I started to do booked shows, which was a big step for me. It’s really easy to get crippled when thinking about the big picture in comedy and you start stressing about how each little thing might be in the right direction of the ultimate goal. I find it better to work in small goals. When I first started comedy, my first goal was to do a show where someone asked me to perform. That happened about six months into doing comedy.
What were you doing to support yourself financially at the time?
I was bartending the first year or so, which is a fun lifestyle. I was an awful bartender. Before that, I was in publishing. When I went to comedy I thought, “I can’t work a nine to five job if I’m a creative guy now.” Bartending was even worse because every night that you’re working is a night that you’re not doing standup. After about a year of that, I went into temping. For most of the years that I had a day job, it was temp work. I also did a few various things on the side. I have a friend that’s a professional clown. I would go to corporate Christmas parties dressed as an elf in pointy rubber shoes and tights. I’d walk around with a Polaroid camera and take pictures of people. Other times, I entertained children at Christmas parties. I was dressed as mascots. One time, I was Woody from Toy Story. Briefly, I was the Tasmanian Devil, until a toddler started screaming in mortal terror.
What are some misconceptions about standup that you’d like to clear up?
There are times when I am the life of the party and other times I’m more boring than an accountant. A lot of people think that comedians are class clowns, but most of my friends were the exact opposite. They were socially awkward or a little repressed. Being a comedian is more anger than the love of laughter. I don’t mean that we’re all hurting on the inside. Our thresh hold for being annoyed is just lower than other people’s. Or maybe we’re more able to identify what it is that’s wrong with a situation. People in comedy can put their finger on it and express it. I’ve always had the ability to be in an awkward situation and be able to say why it’s awkward. “You’re saying this makes me feel like this.” It’s amazing how much comedy depends on awkwardness. It was a real stumbling block for me. Even to this day I dislike people that are on all the time. It’s one of the least likable characteristics of many comedians. It was a very liberating discovery for me that you can be a normal person and get up onstage and tell jokes for a living.
Do you think that your work with Best Week Ever has provided you with a greater understanding of the human psyche?
Sadly, yes. Sure we’re obsessed with pop culture, but we understand that it’s silly. Even though we spend a lot of time talking about it we understand that it’s not high art. A lot of people that you meet that are obsessed with the show don’t make that distinction, which I find strange. It’s mind boggling to me, but some people watch Best Week Ever like it’s the news. Jon Stewart jokes about how people tell him that they watch the Daily Show for news, but at least his show is about the news. Ours is not. And yet I get a lot of college kids telling me, “Best Week Ever is the only news show I watch.” That’s crazy. Although I certainly think people should watch Best Week Ever as often as possible.
How do you deal with being recognized by fans?
I’ve gotten better at it. It’s a hard thing to talk about because I know that two thirds of the people reading this interview will say, “Who would recognize that guy? I don’t even know who he is.” It happens, with a certain amount of frequency. I like the idea of it. I wish I didn’t actually have to be there to be recognized. I’d like to go about my day and then get an e-mail from somebody saying, “I saw you today. Are you that guy?” Then it’s all of the benefits of being recognized, but without the awkward stammering that accompanies them actually approaching me. You have to treat every single person as if they’re the first person to ever come up to you because in their mind they are.
What projects are you currently involved in?
I’m in the process of recording a CD. I definitely want to have that done and out by mid-2006. I want to do a satellite radio show, which would make me insanely happy. I have a couple of TV ideas that I’m trying to sell. I see a hole in the fabric of prime time TV and I think it needs my fat Irish head to fill it up.
Do you enjoy being an adult?
I do. Sometimes it bothers me, not that I’m older, although the whole not recuperating from injuries thing really bummed me out. It bothers me that I’ll never be in my twenties again. Once you get out of college or grad school, that’s your last time to start fresh and have that feeling of newness in your life. Once you’re in your thirties and you’re starting over, it’s probably because you’ve messed up in some capacity. I do like being an adult. It’s a little strange. When I was a kid, I always imagined that at twenty-five I’d be at my coolest and that at thirty-two I’d be who I want to be. And now I am thirty-two and I feel like a man-child. I feel like I’m a loose collection of adult traits mixed in with childhood and college age traits. There are so many things about being an adult that are completely foreign to me. Like anything involving stock or insurance.
Do you partake in any shenanigans when you’re out and about?
My shenanigan days are, sadly, over. The whole idea of going out and trying to get in trouble is not appealing to me anymore. I like sitting at a bar table with my friends drinking and talking. I don’t like to go to clubs or places where people dance on top of tables. My shenanigans are over unless you count sitting in a hotel room in Jackson Ville, Florida playing Splinter Cell on my Playstation at three in the morning shenanigans.
Do you have a special message to leave readers with?
I think that people should consider giving up on their dreams. Certain people should not keep doing what they’re doing. Don’t keep reaching for the stars. A lot of people tell you, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something.” Well, I think you should listen to people occasionally. You have to be more brutal with yourself than the world will be.
What did you think of the film Purple Rain?
I went on a cross-country road trip a couple of years ago and I demanded that we go to Minneapolis so that I could have my picture taken in front of First Avenue, which is the club in Purple Rain. And, at the time, Prince’s short-lived club Glam Slam existed and I went there as well.
What do you think of Prince’s other forays into film?
Parade, which is the soundtrack for Under the Cherry Moon, is one of his most underrated albums, I think. The movie itself is the definition of hubris. It was the Trapped in the Closet of its era. It’s someone trying to make an artistic statement and being incapable of making it. Graffiti Bridge I tried to defend for a little while because I’m such a big Prince fan, but it’s not. I think that Sign O The Times is the best Prince movie in that it best accomplished what it was supposed to be: a nice, but pretentious, concert film.
Have you followed Prince’s career into the present as well?
To a degree. I think that Prince and Woody Allen are very similar in the sense that you have the feeling that in the last fifteen years they’re not trying as hard as they could be. Every recent Woody Allen movie has a few great ideas and a few inspired lines and scenes, but the rest of it feels as though it’s just thrown together. Woody puts out movies too often and Prince puts out albums too often, but you hope that somewhere in there they’ll have a masterpiece script or album that they’re going to spend three years to put out. I feel, to a certain degree, that Woody Allen and Prince are providing diminishing returns. There are always a couple of great songs on the new Prince albums, but the last one that I thought was great through and through was The Love Symbol Album. It had probably six or seven good songs on it. Everything since then has been kind of a joke in my opinion.
Do you have any hope for the forthcoming Prince album?
Not really. He’s already won in my book. Same with Woody Allen. They have nothing to prove to me anymore. Prince has already put out a hundred brilliant songs, twenty-five of which are huge hits. He can put out crappy albums until he’s seventy and to me he’ll still be great. I won’t necessarily buy them, but he’s already done his service.
What is your opinion of Andy Partridge?
I think that Andy Partridge is the most under appreciated musical genius of the last twenty-five years. How’s that for broad sweeping statement?
Do you think that XTC will put out any more albums in the future?
I think that they will. It’s just Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding at this point. Every XTC album is ten Andy Partridge songs and four by Colin Moulding with whatever musicians and programmers they decide to bring in. I wish that people would acknowledge them a bit more as being, I would dare say, as influential as Elvis Costello. They don’t get the credit they deserve. A lot of bands bring them up, but when you read reviews of albums they’re rarely cited as an influence. The danger with XTC is that sometimes it gets a bit too, “Aren’t I so clever.” I love me some XTC.
Are you able to say that you have a favorite Mr. Bungle album?
Yes. I think that the first Mr. Bungle album is superior to the other two. The second one, Disco Volante, is an inspired mess. There are a couple of great tracks on there. Desert Search for Techno Allah is great, but a lot of it is purely unlistenable. It’s the kind of thing that, when you listen to it the first time, makes you think, “This is so neat,” and then you never listen to it again. The third one was surprisingly poppy for a Mr. Bungle album and it made me excited. For a long time, that first album was my very favorite in the world. Faith no More gets a lot of crap for having inspired a lot of shitty music, having been on the forefront of rap-metal. I hear people trash them all the time and blame Faith no More for Limp Bizkit and I don’t think that that’s fair. You don’t blame Nirvana for Bush and you don’t blame Hank Williams for Toby Keith.
Are you a fan of Mike Patton’s other projects?
I am a fan of them in spirit. I think he’s a genius and lives a really cool life. He basically does whatever he wants. He had the ear of the public and said, “Fuck it; I’m going to do what’s fun to make.” I admire that. I think that the Tomahawk albums are really good. His solo recordings for voice are just like Disco Volante in that you’ll listen to them and say, “This is so weird and neat,” and you’ll never listen to it again unless someone that likes music comes over. Then you put it in and ask, “Have you heard this?” and they will go buy it and never listen to it again either.
Are you a fan of Jazz fusion?
I used to listen to a lot of Naked City/ John Zorn stuff, which is why I was so excited when Mr. Bungle came out. He produced it and at the time it was the most super of super groups for me. I find a lot of that Jazz fusion stuff, especially what John Zorn does, a little bit trying. I’ve come to enjoy a well-crafted pop song more than I used to.
John Zorn likes to incorporate noise into his music. What do you think of the noise genre?
I like it as a tool. I don’t like any noise bands. I enjoy it in contrast. That’s why I liked Naked City because they would switch genres quickly and then freak out for forty five seconds and switch to something else. I don’t, in general, like things like The Boredoms. Music like that actually puts me to sleep.
What do you think of grind?
Again, it’s not totally my cup of tea. This is going to sound pretentious to say, but I think that people that say, “I like everything,” are silly. There’s not a genre of music that I’ll acclaim or right off as a whole. Have you heard Rock, Rot, or Rule?
Todd Barry mentioned it.
It’s so funny. Todd Barry is the one that played it for me, originally. It’s this guy that’s written a book called Rock, Rot, or Rule, the ultimate argument settler. The DJ will name a band and then the guy will tell him if it rots, rocks, or rules. The logic behind why someone rocks, rots, or rules is completely absurd. And people call in, enraged, and yell, “How can you say that The Rolling Stones rot and that Bread rules?” It’s very funny.
What have you listened to lately that you’ve gotten excited about?
I’ve really fallen in love with the latest Tegan and Sara album, So Jealous. I think that it’s really fantastic. There’s another album, Summer in Abaddon, by Pinback. It’s amazingly produced. I’ve never heard a quiet album sound so great. It’s subdued, but very tense at the same time. I assumed that with the name Pinback that it would just suck. It sounds like it would be one of those nu-metal bands, like Seether. It’s like that band Clutch, who I enjoy, but the name makes it seem like it would be awful. On the last few months, I’ve been on a serious Iron and Wine kick, and Califone.
Can you recommend any albums that you think are under-appreciated?
There are so many. I don’t want to say any classic, obvious ones. Astral Weeks. For a long time, I hated Brown Eyed Girl with a raging passion that I had written of Van Morrison entirely, but Astral Weeks is a magical album. It always surprises me that it doesn’t get more acclaim. In The Valley of Dying Stars by Superdrag. That’s one of my top five albums of all time. If you’re a fan of power pop, you’ll like it. It’s as though every song is a huge hook. When I listen to that album, I always think that the songs should be in movie soundtracks.
Do you get a chance to see many concerts?
Not as many as I did before I started doing comedy. I used to love going to shows all the time. I’m thirty-two and I’m now the guy that stands with his arms folded. I just want to see the music. I’m not even enthusiastic. If I was in a band, I would hate my guts.
Did you see any concerts this year?
I hate to say this, but I don’t know if I saw one show. The last show I saw was Cursive at The Starland Ballroom.
This year there was a Nine Inch Nails album released.
I think that that was a great album. I was disappointed that it was dismissed in the sense that it was. Trent Reznor is a victim of his own success. It’s hard for him to distinguish himself from the shitty bands that took what he does. I always thought that his genius was that he’s able to take all of that silly Goth, “I’m rotting on the inside,” bullshit and package it with a really catchy pop hook. A lot of those other bands never did that as well. He got away from that for a while. On With Teeth, though, the second single Only is as great and as hooky as any song he’s ever released. And, of course, it made no dent in modern culture.
It was number one on Billboard’s modern rock tracks.
There are so many charts now that I don’t know what it means. It didn’t get enough buzz, though.
I think that that’s because when many people think of Nine Inch Nails they also think of Ministry or Skinny Puppy.
He gets it from both ends. Music history buffs don’t take him seriously because they think of things like Foetus or whoever and people that are young think that he’s old and passé. He doesn’t get his full due. I saw the Bowie Nine Inch Nails tour. David Bowie, probably my biggest hero, and I remember how sad it was to see so many people leave during his set because they were there to scream, “I want to fuck you like an animal.”
Todd Barry does a joke about seeing a three year old in a Dead Kennedys shirt.
I just saw him do that bit last week. I think that it’s very common to dress your kid like that. My feeling is that the kid doesn’t know the difference between a Dead Kennedys T-shirt of a Pokémon T-shirt. So if you want to use your kid as a walking billboard of your fading hipness, I have no problem with it.
This year the album to get the biggest critical praise is Illinois by Sufjan Stevens.
I think that that’s a great album. I’m not as in love with it as I was the week that I got it, but I appreciate what he’s trying to do. I hope that we’re entering a nice age of none irony among good music. Bad music has always lacked irony. I think that to a certain degree that the whole Stephen Malkmus/Pavement mentality is not where indie music is these days and I think that that’s a good thing.
Go to Christianfinnegan.com to sample some of Christians standup and to see when he’s coming to your town.