David Koechner starts talking the instant I pick up the phone.
"Brian, I'm calling on behalf of Raleigh," he proclaims with an air of pomp. "All of Raleigh. I want to speak for them, I want to speak to them, I want to speak with them. I want to stand with Raleigh. We have had it. I'm not sure why we're upset, what our cause is, but I stand with Raleigh."
Then he breaks character with that inimitable horsey wheeze of a laugh, shifting into a friendly, familiar register. "And you can quote me on that. How are you, friend?"
You might know Koechner as a Saturday Night Live cast member, where he memorably toasted the legend of Bill Brasky, or as sportscaster Champ Kind in both Anchorman films, alongside friend and frequent collaborator Will Ferrell, or as Todd Packer, Michael Scott's insufferable bestie, in The Office. Fresh off appearing in SNL's 40th anniversary blowout, the accomplished character actor is getting back to his live-comedy roots in other ways, too, performing three nights of stand-up at Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh this week.
I spoke with Koechner about his early improv days and late-blooming stand-up, his impressions of the SNL 40th anniversary party, and how a nice guy like him became famous for playing boorish assholes.
INDY: Did you start out in stand-up before the TV and movies?
DAVID KOECHNER: My early genesis was studying long-form improv in Chicago in '87, at a place called the iO, and also at Second City. I studied with a cat named Del Close, who's regarded as the guru of modern improvisation. It was a time when you didn't have multi-tiered class structures. [Improv] got more popular, and now it's got a different economic model. But I had the great fortune of getting on stage right away. So to answer your very simple question in a very long manner: No, I started in improv and sketch. I started doing stand-up four-and-a-half years ago.
Do you find your improv training is useful in stand-up or screen acting?
Absolutely, during the writing process. Locally, where the stakes are low—no one's paying, right?—there are tons of comedy rooms in Los Angeles. So if you've got a premise, you can go out that night and try it out. The audience helps you write it, basically. You throw out your first piece of your premise, see if they're engaged, go somewhere else with it. Then you'll have another thought while you're up there doing it. In a way, it opens your mind to your own personal discussion in a group, because the audience tells you whether you're right or wrong. I would call it a guided improvisation as a writing tool. You can go back and listen to it, see what worked, and then do the writing.
After getting on stage and making up comedy, getting up there with a script must seem easier.
Plus, even if it's scripted, you'll find new stuff, because now that you know it's working, then you're free to step out more, have a new thought on it. We all do—any conversation we have, we always have new ideas, and the same goes for stand-up. You might have a tried and true piece you almost tell rote, but if you slow down and listen to yourself, you might have another idea, add a new coat of paint.
Do you have a preference between live and screen comedy, or do you get different things from them?
Exactly, the latter. You get a different satisfaction from everything, be it improv, stand-up, sketch, single-camera television, live television or film. They're all a little bit different muscle. So I enjoy—I'd just say a full-body workout, Bri. [Laughs]
Would people who know you as Champ Kind from Anchorman or Todd Packer from The Office find what they'd expect in your stand-up?
They're going to be surprised. The first thing they should know is that it's going to be funny and you're going to laugh, and that's all that matters. It is not a Champ Kind or Todd Packer show. I can tell if an audience really wants to hear something; someone inevitably is going to yell out "This guy!" Which gives me the cue that, OK, there's enough people that came to hear something, I'm going to give it to them—a tip of the hat to why they're there.
Stand-up is such a hard thing to describe, because there's so many kinds. Rodney Dangerfield, how would you describe his stand-up? One-liners. Richard Pryor? Challenging cultural mores, making us confront our personal demons and prejudices. That doesn't sound like comedy, but it is. But now we're describing people's stand-up and you go, "I don't want to see that!" [Laughs] So it's one of those dangerous things, anytime you break something down.
The closest I can come to describing my stand-up is two things. One: Whether you like church or you don't like church, it's better than church. Two: I like to describe it as a circus-tent revival with a preacher in clown makeup, and the tent's on a 40-foot flatbed trailer barreling down the highway, and it's on fire, and there's a band playing. [Laughs] That's the metaphor I'd like to introduce for my show. Oh yeah, and no one gets hurt.
If people come to more than one night, will they see the same thing?
I have a set I'm working right now, but I always allow for discovery. The physicality of the room and the audience will change what happens. I do a little crowd work—not a ton. But I think you owe it to people to engage them on a personal level, rather than going, "Here's my stand-up, goodnight!" I like to metaphorically put my arms around the audience, hug 'em and shake 'em a little bit and see what falls out, pick up all the change on the floor.
"Metaphorically." You're not actually going to shake the audience until their change falls out.
Only the smaller ones. [Laughs]
You were on Saturday Night Live for a year. You were involved in the 40th anniversary deal, right?
Yes, I went to the reunion. I've maintained friendships with everybody from the crew and cast to the producers and directors. Will [Ferrell] and I have maintained a personal and professional relationship for all these years, which has been fantastic. Anytime I see someone from the cast I was on, you have a special bond. It's hard not to compare it to the greatest high-school reunion one could imagine. Just to be part of it and go, "Yeah, this is my alma mater," was thrilling, and then to meet a lot of new people I hadn't worked with before was a gas.
The after-party was really off the chain. You start with Dan Aykroyd, Jimmy Fallon and Jim Belushi singing "Soul Man," backed by Paul McCartney, then breaking into some Doors numbers. The B-52s sing. Prince gets up and does a four-song set at the end and just kills it. Just a thrill.
As a big fan of The Office, I have to ask about the development of the Todd Packer character.
The Finchy character on the original U.K. series, who was David Brent's buddy—it's him, basically, and he's an awful person that has no social filter or boundaries. A misfit, a drunk, a misogynist, a homophobe. None of those things describe David Koechner, but I understand what those things are. We've all met people like that in our lives. I get to put all those people in a box.
People use one word, "boorish" characters. Well, the boorish characters are more complex. Why are they so boorish, what's going on with them, right? Where do they get this understanding of life? Basically, it's a huge cry for help, and you get to play it from the inside. Todd Packer is very much like Champ Kind—they're loud, sensitive, slightly racist, misogynist, homophobic, jingoistic and, in Champ's case, closeted, so there's a lot of notes to play. Those two characters are very close to each other, and they're the most popular ones, but there's very distinct differences—and, how much fun is it to say things you'd never say in real life?
Do people expect you to be like Todd Packer when they meet you?
Yes. I will tell you a quick story. My wife and I have five kids, and we've been married 17 years. We're at the airport, flying home to Kansas City. We had just purchased some fast food for the kids, because nutrition is important in our house. I'm helping the kids, putting ketchup on their fries. This couple observing us said, "We're going to give you our seats, because you don't seem like the guy you played on The Office."
I'm sure people see me coming and go, "Oh Lord, here comes that mess." I'm the polar opposite, really; I've got a wife and five kids I adore.
What's coming up for you?
One thing I always plug is a movie called Cheap Thrills, a dark, twisted thriller with some comedic undertones I did last year. I'm in a David Cross movie called Hits that is available [through BitTorrent] online, pay what you want. Also releasing soon, I think on a similar platform—I just did a little thing for Adam Corolla in his movie Road Hard, so I guess, theoretically, one could say I've got two movies out now. And yes, that was me you just saw on The Goldbergs last week.
There's also a new DirectTV series I did called Full Circle, with different actors each holding down two episodes by themselves. I play a corrupt Chicago police officer, and it's a straight-ahead drama—no comedy in it. It's something completely different for me that I want people to see.
This article appeared in print with the headline "This guy!"