This interview first appeared online on Gothamist.com on August 16th, 2006
Hard N Phirm is comedians Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman. In this interview they discuss patriotic dinosaurs, My Dinner with Andre, and Cop Rock.
How have the college shows been going?
CH: We’ve only done a handful of them. We did NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) in February. We did about five colleges in the spring and they got progressively better. Colleges think that comedy is this thing that you can just put anywhere and comedy will happen. They tried to put us in the student union at the top of a stairway in this open atrium. There wasn’t any place to sit and we talked them into moving us into this conference room where you couldn’t dim the lights, so it felt like we were lecturing. That was the first show and it got progressively better. You never know what you’re going to get with college because you don’t know how much they’ll promote it.
MP: It really depends on how they go about it. Sometimes you’ll show up and they’ll have an eight by ten picture up on some wall. “That’s the promotion.”
CH: “I don’t know why nobody showed up.”
MP: Unless you’re somebody like, “Oh my God! Carrot Top is coming to our school!” People don’t know where to put the name Hard N Phirm. “Hard N Phirm will be here. Doing what?”
CH: It also depends where on campus you’re performing. If you’re in a building on campus that kids don’t normally go to at night, that’s not good.
MP: But if you’re performing in the dorms it’s great because you get foot traffic. Every school has its party night and we’ve done a couple schools where they’ve been like, “Well, there’d be more people here but it’s Thursday and Thursday’s the night everybody drinks and goes down to Stewie’s Bar.”
CH: Or the movie Nell is playing and everyone went to see that.
In terms of how the material’s been going over, have there been any surprises?
CH: Kids still like filth.
MP: Unless they already know you, it’s tough to spring irony on them. Sometimes there’s not a very clear, “This is when you laugh.” Our stuff doesn’t have any rim shots or, “Tada, that was the joke!” It’s more of a, “Do you get it? Do you see what we’re doing with this?” Some of it is more conceptual. We’re not surprised when sometimes they’re like, “Are they serious? What’s the deal?”
CH: We have a satirical patriotic song called American Dinosaur. It’s written from the point of view of the guys who think that anything that’s touched American soil has to be for America. They’re reasoning is that since dinosaurs walked on this particular bed of Earth, they must have sacrificed themselves for America. It’s a Toby Keith rah-rah America song about Dinosaurs. And sometimes kids are like, “Why is this about Dinosaurs?” And it’s hard to say, “Well, from a certain point of view this is a ridiculous thing.” Sometimes they’re not willing to make that leap because they just want to identify really quickly with something that they already know.
MP: As most people do. They want to be able to fit things into a category and if they can’t and it takes that extra second to go, “What’s going on?” it can throw off your comedy timing.
Are there visuals that you bring with you?
CH: We make films and slide shows that go along with half of the stuff that we do. Mike has a background in visual effects. He worked on CSI: Miami, movies, and other television shows. We love making videos and we try to incorporate that as much as we can. We have our own screen and a DVD projector and sometimes, if don’t hear back as to whether they have all the right facilities we’ll show up with this giant suitcase of multimedia stuff and they’ll be like, “We’ve got all that stuff.”
MP: That’s the price you pay for having video props.
When you perform at colleges, is it just you or is there an opening act?
MP: Just us, so far. We’ve only done five so far but have fifteen coming up.
CH: The opening act is the anticipation of whether or not people are going to be there.
MP: The opening act is literally the act of us opening the door and walking in.
How’s the new album been coming along?
MP: We haven’t actually started recording any of it yet. We’re focusing on the live show, but all the stuff from the live show will be on the album. We have seven or eight of the twelve or eleven songs that we’d like to have.
CH: For the first album, we didn’t plan to make an actual album until five songs were done. The way we did it is that we’d write a song and then spend the time recording and engineering it, which Mike does in his apartment. We recorded everything there. It took so much time to write a song, test it live, go through the process of recording it, adding all of the instrumentation. This time around we decided that we shouldn’t break the momentum and that it would take too long for us to do it that way. We’re going to have them done and then record them.
About a year ago, in an interview you said, “Ultimately, we’d like to pitch a Hard N Phirm show.” Have there been any developments in that arena?
CH: Actually, we’re about to close a deal with Film Roman, the company that’s the animation house for The Simpsons, Family Guy, and lots of other stuff. It’s stuck in lawyer land right now. It’s in the stage right now where, “Well, on page five paragraph four subsection three an ‘of’ is used and we need a ‘therefore’.” That’s basically hammered out. We’ve been pitching other ideas here and there as well.
Have you thought of doing a musical?
MP: Everything we’ve talked about has had, to some degree, a musical aspect to it. But we haven’t talked about a stage musical.
CH: I know that when Mike was working on CSI he had wanted to do a musical version of CSI.
MP: Kind of like Cop Rock. Like Newsies, but more murderous.
CH: If Newsies were an intense cop drama.
And, Chris, what’s the status of your Rob ZoMPie produced comedy album Blood Pudding?
CH: I completely put that on hold. I had started getting stuff together for it and got so excited about the stuff that we were doing as Hard N Phirm that I had put it on the backburner. I sort of stopped doing solo stand up for about a year so we could get Hard N Phirm up and running. Now that it is, Mike and I have both started doing our own solo stand up again. The Hard N Phirm voice has developed far enough away from our own personal voices onstage that we can focus on that. I will probably start talking to Rob about that soon and seeing if he still wants to do it after all this time. I’m asseMPling all new material right now. I’m sick of all the old stuff. If I had just done it when we talked about doing it, I’d at least have a stand up album under my belt but I was like, “I’ll put this off. I’d rather write songs right now.”
MP: It wouldn’t have been very good, dude. To be honest.
CH: We’ve done a bunch of shows with those guys. We met them at BuMPershoot in 2004. Over the past couple of years we’ve performed with them in the Vancouver Comedy festival and became friends with them. They’re super nice guys and we tend to hang out when they’re in town. We haven’t been to their neck of the woods yet in Wellington, New Zealand.
Might there one day be some sort of Hard N Phirm Flight of the Conchords collaboration?
MP: That’d be awesome. We did cover Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House when they did Comedy Death Ray.
CH: We’ve talked about doing that, but they’re not in LA all that often. And when they are, it’s for short bursts of time. They’re busy working on their HBO pilot right now.
Why is it the I-Tunes version of Horses and Grasses called The Gelding Cut?
CH: We got a phone call from a prominent director who wanted to use one of our songs in a movie and asked if we could pull a particular song off of digital distribution so it could be used in the film. The way that I-Tunes works is that you can’t pull off a track at a time, so we had to pull the whole album off and resubmit it. We took a couple of the shorter sketches off too.
MP: We figured that if you’re on I-Tunes, spending ninety-nine cents on a ten second intro song would be kind of a bummer.
Chris, I was reading your thoughts on the first alternative comedian.
CH: I had said that if it was going to be in the twentieth century that it would be Tom Lehrer . He was writing songs in the 1940′s about racism, religion, wars, and pot. The stuff was pretty progressive and I assume it was fairly alternative to the mainstream. Especially considering that his albums became popular because they were these underground things that were passed around. Alternative comedy is one of those things that’s difficult to talk about because a lot of comics who would be technically labeled as alternative comics don’t like that term.
MP: Victor Borge hated it.
CH: It also doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s more of a convenient label now, like alternative music.
MP: It’s its own genre. If it’s alternative to anything it’s alternative to club comedy, which also isn’t entirely true because most of the comics we perform with go on the road just like we do.
CH: I think it’s for more advanced comedy watchers. It’s the difference between a lower and upper division class in college. If you don’t see a lot of comedy and then walk into a club, you’re probably a lower division comedy watcher. You’re not really trained to make a lot of leaps in terms of how many levels of irony are being presented to you. In a Comedy Death Ray type situation, the references are nerdier and you can get away with more experimental stuff because people are ready for it. What do you think, Ben?
I thought that alternative comedy came about when the comedy boom was starting to spiral downward, when comedy was all over television and there were too many venues but not enough quality comedy to fill them with. People with an interest in doing good comedy started going to non-comedy places like The Luna Lounge and The Holy City Zoo.
CH: They had also abandoned set ups and punch lines for a more raMPling style delivery. I remeMPer seeing Uncabaret in 92 or 93 and seeing Dana Gould, Blaine Capatch, Taylor Negron, Greg Behrendt, and all of these amazing comics who were reading stuff out of their notebooks.
MP: Uncabaret still goes on. Even that is alternative to alternative comedy shows. If you go to a UCB show or M-Bar, it’s still full of joke jokes. There’s still stuff that’s not necessarily true and it’s written with punch lines and stuff like that. At Uncabaret is story telling. It’s like reading from your journal.
How do you feel about Horses and Grasses being available on file trading networks?
MP: We’re just happy it gets out there. We produced and made the album ourselves and agreed that we weren’t going to make money off the album. It was just the first example of our work. We would prefer that people buy it, but if they pass it around we’re just as happy that someone thought it’d be good enough to pass around. “You think our work is good enough to steal. That’s cool.”
Were there any other artists you were considering of doing a medley of the same way you did with Rodeohead ?
CH: That stemmed from the word Rodeohead. Listening to Radiohead and thinking, “You know what’d be funny? A band that does bluegrass style Radiohead songs.” We’ve had requests now to do other things like, “Oh, you should do that same thing with REM.”
MP: Rodeohead was just as inspired by Weird Al as much as it was by Radiohead. The idea of doing a medley of songs in a different genre. We’ve done a medley or two early on when we were back in college.
Musical comedy often has a negative connotation. For example, I had seen a show where a comic said he was going to do a musical parody and his set up was, “A lot of bands today like to make old songs and make them gay,” which is a flawed premise to begin with. He went on to say, “Everyone knows the song My Sha-ro-na, but now they sing it as My Sca-ro-tum.” And that was it.
MP: That just sounds bad. I think even as recent as ten or eight years ago, musical comedy had a really bad name attached to it and there were probably thousands of My Scrotums. It’s usually a play on words or, “Well, this word sounds like that one and now I have a song.” There’s the danger of someone getting the joke early on, not liking the joke, and now you’re screwed because there are four minutes left.
CH: Which is a long time.
MP: If you’re going to do three examples of situations with you and your scrotum and the audience doesn’t like it after the first one they’re stuck for two minutes. If you did a duMP joke like that in stand up then you can just move on immiediatly.
CH: Tenacious D broke down a lot of those walls and showed that musical comedy didn’t have to be jokey. It could be funny without being like, “Here’s a song about retards at the bank.” It could be weird and funny and not have fifty jokes crammed into a minute song.
MP: And, you know, a white guy with an acoustic guitar is not that edgy. Not the freshest thing. People have heard it. We get that sometimes from people. “Musical act?” We’ve made a conscious effort to try to infuse a little bit more comedy into what we’re doing. When we were writing Horses and Grasses and something got to jokey we’d run in the other direction. What we ended up with was an album that was weird and funny from certain points of view, but if you’re at a comedy club some of the songs just won’t work. They’re too abstract.
How long were you performing stand up before you noticed some sort of difference?
MP: For me, it changed after I was more comfortable after having done a lot of shows. In the beginning you’re trying, your nervous, and just being onstage is a trip. As opposed to going up and thinking, “It’s just another stage and just another show,” and you’re more focused on the content and understand the dynamics of working the crowd. I’m not saying I totally understand it now, I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between being comfortable onstage and the stage being an obstacle itself.
CH: I feel like jokes come from two different sides of my brain and the jokes that come from the side of my brain where I think, “This is going to be hilarious,” and I’m really trying to be funny don’t work. Jokes that come from the other side of the brain, which is a more organic place where I’m not really trying to quote unquote write comedy, work better. There’s way more words in my jokes than need to be there. It’s a constant struggle of trying to pare it down to its simplest elements.
What are some things or events that have shaped your comedic sensibilities?
MP: I was very influenced, in the beginning, by watching Jay Leno when he’d fill in for Carson on The Tonight Show. His old act. And Weird Al. I liked British comedy. There was a guy named Ben Elton . He’s a good writer and I learned a bit of how to make a point while still being funny from him.
CH: Steve Martin was my first major comedy influence. I had all of his records and got to see him do stand up in Vegas when I was a kid. My whole childhood was all about comedy. I was a big Python fan, loved the Muppets’ Show, Savage Steve Holland’s movie, like Better Off Dead.
MP: Your influences are much cooler than mine. No offense, Jay Leno.
CH: It’s just the stuff that I had. Fletch was a big impact on me when I was a kid. Caddy Shack, Ghostbusters. I used to tape every stand up comedy show I could. I was a huge Emo Phillips fan. Stephen Wright, of course. And only recently I discovered I was heavily influenced by Tom Lehrer without realizing it because he wrote a bunch of Electric Company songs, which I was unaware of. Like the LY song and The Silent E song.
What sort of creative outlets did you have growing up?
MP: Anyone that would listen. I’d memorize Jay Leno’s opening monologues. I remeMPer that, specifically in Driver’s Ed class, there was a girl that expected me and would ask, “What was last night’s?”
CH: And please make sure that your readers understand that he’s not talking about Jay Leno now. He’s talking about Jay Leno in the 80′s. I didn’t have any outlets until college. I went to an all boys’ Catholic high school and was president of the Latin club. Did you do music growing up?
CH: It wasn’t until I went to UCLA and Mike and I met. There was a stand up comedy club there where a group of us would meet, help each other write material, and then perform three times a year.
MP: I had a four track set up. I had a piano. I’d record little two track ridiculous songs and distribute them to my friends. I’d make cassingles.
CH: I did Steve Martin’s bits for my mom’s friends when I was a little kid. I guess the only other outlet I had was outgoing messages on my answering machine.
MP: Me too, actually.
CH: I was thinking, “This is my big chance!” But not a lot of people called me. I used to write my own name in the bathroom with my phone nuMPer for people to call me.
You were a fan of Dungeons and Dragons at the time, right, Chris?
CH: I played D&D when I was growing up. I played recently with a group of other comics. Patton, Posehn, and Capatch. We played for a year and, this is the honest to God truth, our DM got a girlfriend and, this is not a joke, he left the group and we didn’t play for a long time. The rest of those guys started up again, but I didn’t have time and didn’t do it.
Did you ever play, Mike?
MP: I had some friends that had D&D books and I may have played for a week, but I never really understood it. I think I was turned off by the, “Plus six math.” Not plus six math, that’s what I needed. A plus six math so I could follow.
CH: Math and fantasy.
MP: I couldn’t follow it.
CH: Also, I’m a couple years older than Mike so he missed the D&D craze of the late 80′s.
What do you think of LARPING(Live Action Role Playing)?
MP: Like in the bedroom? What do you mean?
There’s footage of it on Youtube where someone’s dressed up like a wizard and some how they got a midget- I’m not sure if he was their friend or not- and the wizard’s going, “Lightning bolt, lighting bolt,” and throwing actual lightening bolts at each other.
MP: Actual lightening bolts?
Well, not actual. Made out of wood.
CH: Which was made from what was left over from all the friends that they had to make out of wood. I think that’s great. I don’t see it as any different from a renaissance fair or a civil war reenactment. They should probably go outside.
MP: They’d have to go outside if they were casting wooden lightening bolts.
CH: Well, they could do that sitting at a table. I know I had a bullwhip when I was a kid and played Indiana Jones. That’s no different.
MP: The difference was that you were a kid.
CH: Are these adults?
MP: These are adults.
CH: I still have the bullwhip.
MP: And you also have Wolverine claws.
CH: And I also have Wolverine claws. What do I think about that? I think it’s great that they’re committed to it. We’ve put on some ridiculous outfits in the name of comedy but not in the name of serious RPG. If it’s fun, fuck it.
What would you recommend to someone interested in moving to LA to pursue a career in comedy?
CH: I would say that LA is not the best place to start doing comedy.
MP: LA is a good place to go to once you have an actual comedy act to show. There’s not a lot of working out space.
CH: Three things about LA. Like Mike said, there’s not a lot of places to work stuff out. Also, the jokes that go over in LA are not necessarily applicable to the rest of comedy. There’s a lot of jokes that do well in LA that won’t do well on the road. It’s difficult to explain, but there are just jokes that’ll work here and not other places. Thirdly, you may not want to develop in front of the entertainment industry and be in the situation where someone happens to see you before you’re ready to be seen and they go, “Well, that guy isn’t that funny,” when all that comic needed was more time to develop. If you want to start out and develop as a stand up, New York is a better place to go. And then tour just to get the experience.
MP: Also, it’s often the same crowd in LA. The general populous goes out to one of five places.
CH: But that’s only if you want to be a comic. Also, there are a lot of people that come to LA who don’t want to go on the road and be touring comics. They just want to develop material so that they can pitch a show.
What do you like to do after a performance?
CH: Yeah, we normally eat after a show. We tend to not eat before a show because you tend to get tired and weighed down. We agonize over things that didn’t work and shake each other’s hands on things that did.
MP: Doesn’t that seem like something you’d say if you were a seasoned comic? “Look, kid, the bloods either going to be in your stomach or your head. Where’s it gonna be? Don’t eat.” We go through the set list and, if there’s twenty good things, we’ll shake each other’s hands twenty times.
CH: I don’t drink, so there’s not really a lot of hanging out I want to do after a show. Unless I want to specifically talk to other comics on the show. I tend to bail out after I’m done, get food, or go home.
MP: The most important thing is to stay until the end of the show.
CH: Fuck that. I got episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to watch.
What’s your opinion on Last Comic Standing?
CH: It bums me out. The reality aspect of it is basically their way of saying, “Let’s take all the fun out of stand up.” It exposes comics for being insecure. I don’t think it portrays comedy in a good light. NuMPer one, because of the jokes that work on that show, and nuMPer two, for having people compete like that and have to sit in a booth and have people say, “I think I’m funnier than dot dot dot.”
MP: I love it!
CH: You don’t love it.
And what’s your opinion on this whole Snakes on a Plane phenomena?
MP: I think that it’s fantastic. I feel like it was a great demonstration of democracy that a studio would say, “We’re not going to call this movie Snakes on a Plane,” and that Samuel L. Jackson said, “I signed up for a movie called Snakes on a Plane. I’m going to be in a movie called mother fuckin’ Snakes on a Plane.” And the Internet community got together and said, “You’re God damn right! We want a movie called Snakes on a Plane.” And the studio said, “You get Snakes on a Plane.” I also like how Samuel L. Jackson understands Samuel L. Jackson enough to become a caricature of Samuel L. Jackson.
CH: I don’t know if it’s necessarily good for writers because I know they took a lot of suggestions off blogs. In that sense, the movie was like a Linux platform. It was a completely open source movie. It might not be good for writers if studios start going, “You know what? We’ll just start taking ideas from blogs. And then we won’t have to pay people.”
MP: I like the absurd aspect of it. The movie might suck.
CH: It already doesn’t matter because it’s going to make a ton of money. And when it makes money it’ll make a sequel. It’ll be suckalicious. And the next one will be Sharks in a Car. Lions on a Train.
MP: You want it to be Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but it won’t be attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s going to be Anaconda.
CH: I think it’ll be suckalicious. It’s going to be so unbelievably bad that it’ll be awesome.
Do you have any recommendations of movies so bad that they’re great?
CH: I enjoyed the animated Transformers movie. And Tron.
MP: That’s a slippery slop because I consider Tron to be just an awesome movie. So it’s not a guilty pleasure, it’s pure pleasure.
Are you looking forward to the live action Transformers movie?
CH: Michael Bay’s Transformers.
MP: I hope it’s cool. I hope they don’t make the mistake of thinking that we care what the story is. Everyone knows we just want to hear cool sound effects and see robots turn into things. As much transforming as possible crammed into ninety-four minutes or how ever long it’s going to be.
CH: I hope it answers the one question I’ve always had about Transformers, which is if you’re sitting inside the car and it turns into a dude what part of his body are you in.
MP: If you were in Optimus Prime’s chest you’d be in the cab of the truck.
CH: Interesting. If you were crammed into his asshole you’d be ripped to shreds by grinding gears.
MP: You’d end up inside the muffler.
CH: Do you think Transformer’s bodies mirror the intake and outtake of a car. His mouth doesn’t end up being the gas tank, does it?
MP: There’s so many problems with an alien robot planet that modeled everything developed man that I’m going to go out on a liMP and say that for the transforming robot movie you’re going to have to suspend your disbelief.
CH: I’m always fascinated by movies like that. Like if you’re watching Interview with the Vampire and someone goes, “They would never do that!” and you have to go, “There’s no Vampires either.”
Have you seen Cars?
CH: No. Was it good?
I didn’t think so. There were no people in the movie but all the cars have handles for some reason. It was full of stuff like that.
MP: What I saw the other day that was pretty bad was Over the Hedge. And then I saw it again on the plane ride here, but I didn’t fork over the five bucks for the headset and without sound it was a good movie. These animated movies have stuff like, “We’ve got Gary Shandling as the voice of a turtle!” But he sounds like Gary Shandling. He sounds like a dude. This turtle’s vocal cords are very small and it wouldn’t sound like that.
CH: It sounds like your mad for science.
MP: I guess. I wish I didn’t know about vocal cords. Then I would have enjoyed the comedy of Over the Hedge.
CH: I’m sure that that was the biggest problem. That turtles don’t have Gary Shandling sized vocal cords.
MP: It’d be funny if to correct that they gave everyone in the movie a big throat.
Are you in favor of movies where the title and premise being the same thing?
MP: I am because I love the point in the movie where they say the title of the movie. Like when Doc Brown says, “We’ve got to get you back to the future.” It’s like the chorus in the movie.
CH: What’s great about that is if the movie sucks, then you can’t get mad about it. They’re laying it out there on the table.
MP: Like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
CH: Seal had this thing, remeMPer Seal? By the way, worst movie of all time: Batman 4. Seal had this whole thing where he doesn’t put his lyrics in his album. He wanted to leave it up to you to figure out what he’s saying. If you interpret something as something like, “Excuse my while I kiss this guy.” Whatever it means to you, that’s the meaning. That seems kind of silly. If you give a movie a title that’s aMPiguous and you can apply your own meaning, you might as well look through the dictionary and pick two words at random and find your own meaning anywhere. I thought the whole idea was that you have this message and have a cool way to look at things and you’re sharing it.
MP: I think it’s getting away from the trend of coming up with a clever name that succinctly represents the underlying tone of the movie. Like -
CH: My Dinner with Andre.
MP: Becoming Emily. What the fuck is that about? I think that because we’re boMParded with so many different choices for things that movies are going to have to say exactly what they are to get people to see them. There’s less and less of a chance that people are going to see some sort of vague title.
One thing you’ve mentioned several times was how people mistake recognition for cleverness. This seems to be a big problem now with stuff like Family Guy or another example.
MP: I don’t know if they’re mistaking it for cleverness. I know people enjoy stuff that they’re familiar with because it’s fun and brings about nostalgia. Chris has a whole routine that’s very funny.
CH: It’s based on the idea that people will say that something existed and people in the audience will laugh.
MP: If you asked them if it was funny or did you have fun thinking about that, what would they say?
CH: Most of them will say that it’s funny because most people think that laughter means funny. Maybe, in a way it’s funny that someone said something that they already knew, but I really feel that that laughter is more of a laughter of connection than it is a laughter of, “That is so challenging, clever, and hilarious.” Because we are limited by how we express being entertained, it’s mistaken as hilarious when someone says, “RemeMPer Slip N Slide?” and then an audience bursts into laughter because they remeMPer slip and slide. That’s one of the things Dane Cook has built his empire on. Just reminding people of shit they already know.
MP: That’s also what Seinfeld did, in a way. He was really good at, “You know that moment where blah blah blah.” He was good at subtle really specific stuff.
CH: But that was also an 80′s formula for comedy. Mention something that people know and take it one step farther. Like Seinfeld’s tiny sock hanger routine. Rather than just saying, “You know how tiny sock hangers exist,” he’d develop it into a bit and go somewhere with it. It’s fine to use connection points that people understand, for me, as long as you do something interesting with it. “Yeah, I remeMPer slip and slid. Then what?” is what I would say, rather than just have that be the cornerstone of what the joke is. Bring them to a place where they remeMPer Slip and Slide and then go one or two steps further than that and try to make them see something in a new way or something, I guess.
MP: You know what’s always funny though? (Mike blows slide whistle).
CH: Do you really have a slide whistle?
MP: I do. Solid steel. Galvanized.