Among the topics Nealon tackles in this wide-ranging chat are his wife's pregnancy; his upcoming book; his continuing addiction to standup comedy; the ups and downs of SNL; the contrast between the success of Weeds and previous flop sitcoms on which he's appeared; and a new independent movie he's made. The Q&A starts with a comment about the interview's early start time: 8 a.m. Pacific, when many Hollywood types are still hours from awakening. -- Michael Roberts
WW: You'd better not let your celebrity friends know you're up so early, or they'll kick you out of the club.
KN: Oh man, I've been getting up at five or six o'clock every morning. I've just go so much on my mind. You know when you've got so much going on that when you wake up in the morning, you just can't get back to sleep, because you start organizing things in your head?
WW: What are some of the things you're organizing?
KN: I have a baby on the way in four weeks, and I'm wondering if it'll come when I'm in Colorado, and if I'll have to quickly turn around and come home.
WW: Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?
KN: We don't know. It's more of a surprise that way. We never want to know what it is, even after it's born. We don't want to label it, or profile it. And we've been remodeling the house. We're trying to finish that up by today because we have familiy coming out this weekend. And the contractor... It's like one of those house-and-garden shows -- twenty-five people doing stuff the last day. And then I have a book that I'm supposed to finish by March 1, so I'm constantly writing in my head and thinking of what to throw in there to fill up the minimum word requirement.
WW: What's the title?
KN: Well, maybe you can help me out. The title right now is Stretch Marks and Other Scars That Will Never Heal. It's either that one or The Fat Lady Hasn't Sung Yet, But She Is Doing Her Sound-Check.
WW: I cast my vote for Stretch Marks.
KN: That's what I'm leaning towards as well, because the book is about going through the nine or ten months of pregnancy as a husband, and some of the memories it stirs up, and also some related issues to that. And it's comedic essays.
WW: Will some of the material you're pulling together for the book be part of your upcoming show here?
KN: Yeah, it will be. Some of it also involves having a child as an older father, and trying to realize how that's going to affect me. It's pretty much about me, and not so much about the wife and the baby.
WW: Husbands get stretch marks, too...
KN: That's right. I've gained a lot of weight, along with my wife. And since I will be an older father, I'm trying to come up with a name that'll be easy to pronounce on my deathbed -- something that will roll off my tongue, like "Al." So in my last dying breath, I can say it easily: "AAAAAAAAAAALLLL."
WW: I'm guessing that one of the questions you're asked most often is, Why does someone in your position still do standup? After all, you don't have to anymore.
KN: For me, it's a security blanket and a passion blanket. I've always loved doing it. It's why I got into the entertainment industry: because I love doing standup. I was doing standup before I even did Saturday Night Live. Although when I was doing Saturday Night Live, I stopped doing standup on television. But I continued to do the theaters and the clubs and the colleges and the corporate stuff, and I think it's one of those things, as a standup, that you never want to let go, especially if you started as a standup, and if that's what you always wanted to be. A lot of people get into comedy because they want to be discovered and get a sitcom, and then they never do it again -- and as a result, they never get too good at it. But I just love doing it. It's something I'll always have to fall back on.
WW: Is it the equivalent for you of musicians who could just sit at home and record and make the occasional video, but they still have the urge to go out on the road? Is the connection with the audience still something you need?
KN: Exactly. There is that immediate gratification, which Carrie Fisher says is really not fast enough for her. It's one of these things where getting this gratification is part of your life. I've been doing this for twenty-six, twenty-seven years now. I've never worked on the road a ton, like musicians who tour all the time or some comics who are like road rats. But I'll get out and do maybe forty or fifty gigs a year. And you kind of get used to that. Even though I whine about traveling, and how I'm tired of it and don't want to do it anymore, still, it's part of the makeup of my life, and when you stop doing it, you start missing it. It's like that Willie Nelson song -- you gotta get back on the road again. This morning, I woke up thinking, do I pay this contractor, or do I run down to Home Depot and get this? But on the road, it's a whole different life. I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do around the house today. Nobody's coming to me and asking me questions about, "Do you want this pipe here or that pipe there?" Really, all I have to do is lie in bed and wonder what I want from room service. It's almost like a break for me.
WW: Given that you're such a well-know personality, does that help you when you're onstage? Or does it raise expectations and make things that much more difficult?
KN: I think it's a little bit of both. I remember being a middle act, where people really didn't know me, and they had no expectations. You weren't really the boss on the show. You were like a hired hand, and you came in when the audience was nice and fresh, and they had no expectations. You do your twenty minutes and you leave, and then the headliner would come on, and he'd really have to carry the show, up the energy. So for me, I think the celebrity helps in one way, because people are happy to see you. But after ten minutes or so, you've really got to grasp their interest and make them happy that they're getting enough out of their $25 ticket, or whatever it is.
WW: You mentioned Saturday Night Live earlier, and all fans of the show know there are good seasons and bad seasons. This season, I think, is terrible. During your nine-year run on the show, were there some bad seasons, or do you feel you were pretty lucky?
KN: You're right about there being good seasons and bad seasons. It's like the wine business. Some years, the wine is good, and the next year, it's bad. And I think every year has a couple of good shows. The years I was on, the cast before us had some of the lowest ratings the show had ever gotten, so we really had nowhere to go but up, and it kind of became good. Some years weren't as good as other years. Those transition years. Certainly, I saw a lot of castmembers come and go. I ran into Chevy Chase once, and he said, "A lot of people don't remember this, but during the original year of Saturday Night Live, maybe only one out of three shows was good." But people don't remember the bad ones. They just remember that they broke some ground on the show, and that it was edgy.
WW: Is that one of the advantages of the DVD collections of Saturday Night Live? The only skits people see are the classics, so they assume that everything was classic?
KN: Luckily, I think we're built as humans to remember the good and forget the bad. Otherwise, I don't think we'd be able to survive. But there's no sense in putting out the bad sketches.
WW: I don't know. Maybe it could open up a whole new market: The Sketches You Hated From Saturday Night Live.
KN: Or maybe a DVD box set of sketches that never made it on the air, but they were in the rehearsal show. There were actually some good ones that didn't make it on. They weren't all cut because they were bad. Maybe they didn't get on because the host didn't want to do them or we had a similar sketch on that same night.
WW: I also wanted to ask you about Weeds, which has become a big hit for Showtime. Was that a surprise to you? Or from reading the first script, did you think there was something there that would connect with people?
KN: It was a nice surprise for me, because you never know with shows. When I came off of Saturday Night Live, I did two high-profile sitcoms that really got talked about a lot, and that they had high expectations for. One was called Champs, Dreamworks' first sitcom. Gary David Goldberg created it, and Tim Busfield was in it, and some really good actors. I had high hopes for that, and it had a great time slot. But it got overwhelmed with too many people having their hands in it, and it only lasted about ten shows. And then a couple years later I did a show called Hiller and Diller with Imagine, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's company. That was with two good writers who used to write for Happy Days, Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz. It was me and Richard Lewis, but that went away, too, after ten episodes.
WW: For this one, did you go in thinking, well, it's on cable, so if it doesn't take off, it's no big deal?
KN: I was very realistic. I knew it's always a longshot for something to work on TV, and if it does, great. I knew it was very well written, and because it was on cable, I knew it would be a little edgier than something you'd see on the network. And I knew that Mary Louise Parker, who plays Nancy, was a great actress. It was real and edgy and dark -- all the things that I like.
WW: Given that it's been such a critical success, what does that say about the amount of weed consumed by your average television critic?
KN: It really is telling. I can just picture the critics lounging back in the corner, watching the show with a doobie, going, "Yeah, it's good. Finally, people can relate..."
WW: Did they send out something special in the press kit to make sure the reviewers were in the proper state of mind?
KN: I don't know what they sent out with the press kits, but I do know that at a lot of the wrap parties, we have brownies.
WW: What appeals to you most about your character, Doug Wilson, on the show?
KN: It's kind of like Halloween. The character doesn't have much to do with me in real life. Doug is really weak-willed, and he's always choosing between what's right and what's right for him, and more often than not, he picks what is right for him. I think there's room for growth in his personality, but I think he'll always be getting into trouble and making a lot of the wrong choices. It's really exciting to be on a show where you could go just about any way on it. When they start writing, I always wonder where it's going to go this season, and I start coming up with some ideas. Last year, I came up with some ideas, and they didn't use most of them. Like I had the idea that I'd be kicked out of my house and I had to live at Nancy's house out in the garage, and I was just a nuisance. I got into body building and I had all these magazines around the house, like Flex. And then one day Nancy notices that her razor is missing, and she realizes I used it to shave my body. And another idea I had was I started dating a prostitute -- but then I get very upset when I learn she's also a stripper.
WW: This is good stuff. They didn't bite on any of it?
KN: Not yet. Maybe this season. But we have to see my wife this season. We've never seen my wife, and I think they're going to explore that territory a little bit more. And who knows? Maybe I got Elizabeth Perkins pregnant...
WW: When does the new season start filming?
KN: I think around April. We're doing fifteen episodes this season instead of twelve, like we did last season.
WW: I also wanted to ask you about a movie you're making called Remarkable Power.
KN: It's an independent film, an ensemble cast. It takes place in Los Angeles. I play a talk-show character named Jack West, and I've got a talk show that's plunging in the ratings, and the young executive wants to take me off the air, get rid of me. And I keep trying all these tactics to keep it on the air, and I turn it into more of a Jerry Springer-type of show, where I'm bringing on more freaks than celebrity guests. And ultimately I fake my own death and disappear and return three months later, and there's such hype about it that I get my show back...