Andy Kindler on hack comics, his new CD and criticizing comedy from within
Andy Kindler is widely known for his recurring roles on Bob's Burgers and Everybody Loves Raymond, but he's revered among comedy nerds for his scathing State of the Industry addresses at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival, which in the past has included gems such as "Adam Carolla is like Hitler if Hitler weren't funny." He's appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman close to forty times and has a prominent role on season two of IFC's Maron. Kindler is in town this week to headline Sex Pot comedy's six-month anniversary showcase at the Oriental Theater; the aptly titled Sex Pot American Summer also features Chuck Roy, Mara Wiles, Christie Buchele, Bobby Crane and host Jordan Doll. In advance of the Friday night show, Westword recently spoke with Kindler about how hackery has changed, his upcoming album release and criticizing comedy from within.
Westword: I know that the Montreal Just for Laughs festival is coming up, and that you usually do your annual State of the Industry speech there. It's usually a big to-do. How long has that been going on, and how did it come together?
Andy Kindler: It's been going on since 1996. That's a long time, I know. I went to my first Just for Laughs in '93. I'd written an article for National Lampoon in 1991 called "The Hack's Handbook," which stated and outlined how to be a bad comic, how to um, uh...
Appeal to the lowest common denominator?
Exactly. So it came up that I would do something like a demonstration of how to be a hack comic at the festival. And I got Patton Oswalt, Blaine Capatch and a lot of different comics from what they called the alternative scene in L.A. back then. And it went well, so he invited me back next year. My manager came up with the name State of the Industry and it was just one of those things. It just took off. Well, I don't know about took off. I'm not in the stratosphere.
Well, among comedy nerds, it's a big deal.
It became a tradition. It's always a very interesting situation because it's always new every year; I hopefully do a new hour. Well, I've shortened it a bit, actually. Some years I did an hour and fifteen minutes, an hour twenty, and that's no good. I've learned a lot of lessons over the years. At first, I could be very angry. Then I learned to lessen the anger, to make it more roast-like -- unless I'm going after somebody who really bothers me. Last year, I went after Adam Carolla. Last year was weird. I didn't get in trouble, but I got recognition --notoriety for going after Louis CK the year before last, but that was more of a roast where it's obvious that I respect him and I think he has talent. With the Carolla thing, it's not a roast because I think he really is engaging in hate speech.
Do you think that the drive to criticize comedy from within comes from wanting it to be better? I can be pretty critical myself, but it comes from love. I realize that's abusive step-dad logic.
Keep reading for more from Andy Kindler.
It's a very weird thing. I have certain rules about it. I really believe in going after more well-known public figures as opposed to...like, if I see a bad comedian, which I do all the time, I'm not going to say anything because I feel like that's not my job. My goal isn't to wake up in the morning and hurt people's feelings. It's just that I'm compelled to say these things. I feel like this target must be taken down. Other times I just want to joke about it. And I admit that a lot of times it comes from my own envy or bitterness. Over the years, I've tried to adjust my act and be more honest about what's going on. Being self-deprecating helps the criticism more. The other thing is, a lot of the times, I'll go after people who I actually used to like. I went after Sandler for a lot of years because I was a big fan of his. Then he started making all these movies and at some point I thought, "Well, someone better point this out." So I go after people who I feel could be doing better or have taken a turn in their career. Like Leno once he screwed over Letterman. He used to be everyone's favorite comedian, but to me he became a slammable target.
So, in the years since you wrote the Hack's Handbook, how do you think the profile of a hack has changed? Because they're not necessarily guys with their blazer sleeves rolled up doing Monica Lewinski jokes anymore.
No, they're not. In fact, I would say that the amount of people who are hacks has decreased noticeably. Really, the whole style of "what's the deal with that guy, who's the rocket scientist that came up with...," that whole '80s rhythm is gone. Very few comics can get away with sounding that rehearsed. It changes every generation. In the old days, in the '80s, people didn't know who they were going to come see at a comedy club. They'd won the "answer the phone contest" and brought eighty friends who knew even less than them about comedy. It's like going to a random movie theater because you liked a movie once before.
At the lowest rungs, it's still totally like that.
That's true. It has not gone away in that sense.
If anything, there's less money these days.
There's no question that there's still a lot of problems, that there will always be problem inherent in an art form like this. I do notice a lot of people who want to shock to get laughs. It's such a tricky thing, you don't want to make rules about it. There's nobody more hilarious than Dave Attell, and he'd break every rule you set up. But he's funny. With a lot of people, they're just making a joke extreme or graphically sexual just to get an easy laugh. There's always a way to be a hack.
It's an advanced level thing. It takes experience to be able to reach for the top shelf of taboo topics. A lot of comics who grew up with heroes who broke the rules want to skip to that part right away.
That problem is endemic -- to use that word -- the biggest problem when people get into comedy, or music, or whatever, is that their ambition outstrips...not their talent necessarily, but their goals. "I have to be successful quicker, I have to kill." You're going to stop yourself from growing. I've been doing comedy for thirty years and I've made breakthroughs all along the way. If I'd stopped at any time, I wouldn't have been able to do that. I'm not saying that I go onstage every night knowing that I'm going to do well. I don't think anybody does -- the ones who say they can are the ones you want to doubt. It's the whole inside-out versus outside-in thing. It has to be organic.
Unfounded self-promotion is a pet peeve of mine. People who run a shitty show and have a website before they've even been on stage 100 times clutter the landscape.
You have to have that side that promotes. I admit that in the beginning, I wasn't very good at it. Some people are shy. Beware of people who are the other way.
If you focus on being a good comedian, then the other stuff should fall into place, right? Funny speaks for itself.
I absolutely do believe that the cream rises to the top. I also joke that once it gets there, it's skimmed off and discarded. You know the Joseph Campbell thing of "follow your bliss?" I think that most people will spend their whole life not figuring out what they're meant to do, or figuring out what they're meant to do on their way to do something else. So I just feel lucky that I know what I love to do. Everything else figures itself out.
Comedy is not something everyone can do. It can be a cruel mistress that turns on you in a second.
I think that, but I'm almost a believer that everyone can find something that they were meant to do, but that's not always true. To take the most obvious example, if I said, "Tomorrow, I'm going to start training and in three years I'll be a pro-basketball player," that would be an unrealistic goal. Most people think they have to be a star. If people could find what they love -- what am I, a life coach now?
You're very concerned about other people's self-actualization, you know, so long as they're not hacks.
Oh, man. You sound like you're from New York.
Maybe that's just my phone voice. I'm Colorado-born and -raised.
I'm so excited to be out there, but probably for the wrong reasons.
What wrong reasons would those be?
Are you all over it already? I mean the legalized pot?
No, it's still pretty great. I think you'll enjoy the atmosphere at a Sex Pot show. Do you know what a hash dab is?
No, I've seen those vaporizer pens that people put hash in.
Dabs are similar, but you use a blowtorch. So it'll look like there are five or six welders at work in the audience at any given point during a show.
Well, I hope to do plenty of research while I'm out there.
Do you have any other shows scheduled in Denver or do you have to fly back right away?
I'm heading back to L.A. I've been wanting to come back to Denver for years. I love the city when I've been there. I went to a place that was close to Denver, but more in the suburbs. It just closed; I've closed a lot of clubs.
Was it Wit's End?
Yes, that's exactly what is was. You know, years and years ago in the '80s, there were so many great comics coming out of Denver, but I haven't played Comedy Works since then.
Do you have any standup-related projects coming up?
I'm going to be coming out with a CD soon, so I'm very excited. It's called Hence the Humor.
When did you record that?
I recorded it last December, and like everything in my life, it's been delayed coming out. I've been saying it'll be available on vinyl for people who don't want to listen to it. The frequency range of standup is so important to preserve. You really want to hear my annoying highs. That should come out this summer. Then I'm on the second season of Maron, which is exciting. And I'm still Mort on Bob's Burgers.
Anything else you want to mention before we wrap up?
Well, I just did Letterman and that was actually a really amazing experience. He's always been my hero. When I got into standup, that was the show I wanted to do. Now he's retiring. I'm never someone who says that they killed or they didn't; I'll let you know exactly what I didn't like about my own set. But everything came together here, which was very exciting. I go after Fallon a lot, which for me is a real joy.
What do you think of Colbert taking over for Letterman? It's almost like he's failed upwards a bit. After spending years developing this innovative character and doing really sharp satire, now he's going to another white dude in a fifty-year-old format.
I think that the way the universe should have worked is that Carson should have gone to Letterman. That got screwed up, universe-wise, and now it's finally righted itself. Only once in a generation do guys like Colbert come around. There's nobody funnier than him. I love his show, but I also think he kind of wants to put the character behind him in some way. He has a lot of depth when he drops that character. For people who understand comedy, it's almost a dream come true, but who knows? The TV landscape is so split apart now.
I hope they let him fuck around a bit. Late night is pretty stale.
Except, when I watch Letterman, all I want to watch is him. He's the last of his kind. But I do think that Colbert is somebody who could shake things up for real.
Well, it's cool that you got in there before Letterman retired. You've been on a bunch of times, right?
I first went on in 1996 and I think I've been on like forty times since then because I used to do all those field pieces. That really is me tooting my own horn.
Well, you're officially part of history now.
I didn't mean for that to land like a gavel.
You didn't mean to remind me of death?
I like to close out all my interviews with a reminder that mortality is coming for us all.
Andy, you've had a great run. You will be missed. You've got a lifetime seat at the Improv.
Doors open at 7 p.m. for the show that starts at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 30. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased through the Oriental Theater website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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