Talking to Andy Kindler, Comedy’s Unofficial Ombudsman

If the alternative comedy movement had its own Declaration of Independence, Andy Kindler would be a principle architect and signatory. The LA-based comedian has been performing stand-up for more than 25 years, and has become known for his hostility toward conventional, hacky comedy. His penchant for exposing formulaic comedy led to him helping form the modern alternative comedy movement at places like UnCabaret at Luna Park, the predecessor for places like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which has spawned some of comedy’s biggest names today.

Kindler, a recurring correspondent on the Late Show with David Letterman, is also known for his 1991 satirical manifesto “The Hack’s Handbook,” which appeared in National Lampoon, and his 15-years-and-running gig delivering the State of the Industry Speech at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival. The speech, one of the festival’s most eagerly-anticipated events, features Kindler speaking his mind and riffing on the evils plaguing the industry in a room full of fellow comedians and industry reps.

I recently spoke with Kindler about alternative comedy, his recent gig as a judge on Last Comic Standing, and how he came to have a role on Fox’s Bob’s Burgers as well as the Disney show, Wizards of Waverly Place.

On the Wizards of Waverly Place, are you essentially playing yourself?

I’m playing this Chancellor, Rudie Tootietootie, and he’s a wizard, but I’m basically being myself. I get to be more over the top. I enjoy acting over the top, yet I criticize comedians who are over the top (laughs). But we’re wizards, you know? How real could it get? You don’t want to play it too much like, who’s the French guy, Truffaut? It’s not cinema verite. But it’s really fun. I enjoy it.

Your act isn’t necessarily blue material, but being on a kids show like that, do you ever have to hold back on some things when you’re performing stand-up?

Like you said, my act is not blue anyway. I really don’t hesitate to have kids of any age come to my show if they are allowed. I have to think maybe there could be a couple things that would be weird for a 10-year-old. But in general, I just don’t have language that goes in that area. When you’re around kids, you should act age appropriate anyway. I don’t think it’s cool for adults to be acting to edgy around kids.

Are you incorporating any of your experiences with the show into your act? Does it provide any good material for you?

Well, I’m a recurring correspondent for the Late Show with David Letterman and I just did Yankees Spring Training. So I interviewed some of the Yankees and I tell Nick Swisher, “I see you’ve done some acting things,” and he says “Yeah, I’ve done some acting.” And I said “Well you haven’t really done the acting I’ve done till you’ve done shows like the Wizards of Waverly Place.” And then they showed a scene with me from that show. It was pretty funny. So in that instance it was actually incorporated into another gig.

What would State of the Industry Andy Kindler Say about Andy Kindler the actor appearing on a Disney Show?

That wouldn’t be something I would ever address in my speech cause I don’t feel like I’m doing something that’s bad, it’s just targeted to a different audience. The speech thing, that would be more like choosing to be a judge on Last Comic Standing after slamming the show every year at the speech. That would be uppermost in my mind (laughs). And I did have to address that when I was doing Last Comic Standing. My whole thing with Last Comic Standing was the fact that they used comedians like ANT as judges. They had Playboy Bunnies evaluating the comedians. It was just the cheesy part of it. When I became a judge on it, I was very clear about not wanting to have those things happen. Everything depends on where you are with your career, how you need to pay your bills. Tomorrow, if someone said “what do you want to do?” I wouldn’t chose to be a judge on a reality show. I don’t love reality shows that much. It does become problematic once you just have people voting on things. Many times that hasn’t worked out. You know, George W. Bush got into office twice (laughs).

That being said, it couldn’t have come out better from my point of view. I’m really glad I did it.

You got to spend a lot of time with Greg Giraldo on Last Comic Standing. Were you guys friends before that?

Our paths crossed at many, kind-of momentous times. When he first got a sitcom, and that was right after he first started, I remember meeting him at the Laugh Factory.

Then his sitcom didn’t go, and he completely built his act from the ground up and became this amazing comic. I did the Comedy Central Roast of Chevy Chase with him, and that was his first roast. I got cut out cause I had to follow Lisa Lampanelli and that was five hours into the show.

But Giraldo was just fantastic. And then I would see him now and again — we were both on different coasts — and then we were both on Root of All Evil. I really got to see how brilliant he was. I can’t say enough about how great he was.

You’ve been doing comedy for a long time. Hypothetically, let’s say 10 years from now, you become a household name after appearing on a hit show. You don’t need the money anymore. Are you still doing stand-up?

You can never predict, but I would say yes. As much of a cliché it is to say it’s the thing I love most, it really is the thing I love most.  It keeps me sane and grounded. Pound for pound it’s the best experience to have as a performer. I love it, I really do love it. Now, if I really didn’t need the money, I wouldn’t necessarily take every gig (laughs). I’d certainly stay in town more.

And how many days are you on the road on average in a given year?

Since Last Comic Standing, I would say two weekends a month. And that doesn’t include gigs I perform when I’m in town. Playing In town is kind of cool because I like the rooms. It’s stressful when you go out on the road because you just never know where you’re going to be playing. You don’t know what the crowds are going to be like. It’s scary, which I think is good for you as a, whatever you want to call it, an artist. It’s good to have to work at it. The danger is you don’t want to tailor your act for the road, necessarily, you want to stick to what you believe, but making it work in different situations I think is good.

Do you work the LA club scene when you’re not on the road?

Not the mainstream clubs. There are a whole group of comics who play the Comedy Store, and I know several of them but I never had a good experience at the Comedy Store, even though when I first moved to LA it was the greatest club. By the time I started in the mid-80’s, the whole atmosphere of the club had changed. The only mainstream club that I’ve played consistently over the years is the Improv. But my favorite places are the alternative places like Largo, the UCB Theater and then other small places. I’m a huge fan of small rooms.

So what is it about the alternative venues that makes everyone want to play them? Are you more comfortable with the crowds and trying new material?

That’s exactly what it is. When I started stand-up in the mid-80’s, it was still feeling the effect of the whole Letterman, Richard Lewis, Gary Shandling stand-up revolution sort-of thing. The clubs were really supposed to be places where you tried new material. Then the clubs became more Laugh Factory-like road clubs where people were always worried about auditioning. That’s what the alternative clubs serve as. They’re supposed to be places where you can relax and work on things. And not have to be performing. That’s the big argument I hear from comics all the time as they’re getting ready to go on the road or do concerts. They say the crowd’s paying this money and you have to make them happy. I think that’s always a tension. As a comedian, I think our job is not to make the crowds happy, I think our job is to do what we think is the funniest thing for us, and then hope that the crowd comes along. With my favorite comedians, I’m not walking out if every joke doesn’t kill.

It’s been 20 years since you wrote the Hack’s Handbook: A Starter Kit for National Lampoon.

Yep, 20 years exactly. By that time everyone was tired of these shows on TV and Evening at the Improv and these million spinoff-type shows and every city had 8 clubs. That’s when I wrote the article.

So were you trying to distance yourself from that scene when you wrote the article?

I had already distanced by then anyway. By that time, I’m not sure if Uncabaret at Luna Park had started yet, but  I already had sense of what not to do. For me it took me a few years to really figure out what I was doing and then I started to see how hacky everybody was, and it always made me laugh and caused me great pain to see terrible comedians getting crowds to laugh at bad material, and then you’d go up and they wouldn’t laugh. I’m not a big fan of saying the only good comedy is genius comedy about complex issues, but you have to listen as an audience member. The article was based on all those things that people did during that time period to elicit laughter.

Were you a lone voice at the time with your criticism?

I wasn’t a lone voice because I had friends of mine who helped me with lines for the examples in the article.  As soon as it was published, it really resonated with so many comedians out there who felt the same way I did. We certainly were a minority voice, though. Because in general, if something’s successful, most people figure why would I question this? The vast majority of comedians were taking the money and running. However, I’ve always been blessed by the fact that I can’t do bad things well (laughs). If I tried to be a comic who was a crowd pleaser and used those gimmicks, it wouldn’t work.

Do you feel like the content from that article still holds true today?

Oh yeah, and I’m really proud of that. I had some help from the editors who helped sculpt it into an early Mad Magazine kind of thing. Every time I read it, I still love it. And I’m not an egomaniac. There are many things from my past that are online that I wouldn’t direct you to. “Oh I used to love when I had my huge glasses in the early 90’s and my acid-washed jacket” (laughs).

When and how did your act become more comedy deconstruction-oriented? Did that evolve naturally? Is that where you felt most comfortable?

It kind of snuck up on me…The first time I did a joke that didn’t work, I said “Well that joke certainly didn’t work.” So I was always self-deprecating and commenting on what was going on. And you know my early material, which I didn’t think was very good, almost could have made the Hack’s Handbook (laughs). But I had some early stuff that was good, too. You can be funny right from the beginning. There’s nothing to stop you from being funny. It’s just that the material gets better because you get better at it. The deconstruction thing came from me being fascinated always pretty early on by how hacky comedy was and how hacky things are in general and I had to call attention to it. To me it’s funny to call attention to the structure of the joke. I don’t know why, I like it.

It would seem like your ideal crowd would need to have at least a basic understanding of stand-up comedy to fully appreciate what you’re doing when you break things down.

I agree with you. That’s not to say I wouldn’t entertain people without that, but it’s much better if they have some knowledge coming in the door. Because I am making fun of the whole concept of stand-up.

Going back to Last Comic Standing, aside from the fun you were having with Greg and Natasha Leggero, from a viewer’s perspective it appeared you legitimately enjoyed the experience of watching all those comedians and analyzing their performances. Was that the case?

I would say it was almost like pure joy doing the show. It was one of those — I don’t know if I want to call it magical — but it was one of those where the producers and everyone else involved with the show was on the same page. The most difficult part was when it got down to the last 10 people, and I thought they were all funny people, it became hard…We definitely weren’t going to be Simon Cowell. With stand-up comics, if you think they’re funny, I don’t think you can get to the point where you say “Yeah, I think you’re funny, but you need to put this joke here and that joke there.” You can do a little bit of that, but not much.

Did watching all those comedians help you as a performer?

Well, I saw some negatives that would definitely fit into the Hack Handbook. So many comics were doing stand-up about homeless people. Everyone was using this group of people as a punching bag to get laughs and there’s something mean-spirited about it, and it’s cheap. I was inspired by listening to Greg. I don’t know if there was anything I saw there would make me change the way I approach my own comedy. I know where my own challenges are. The experience helped me in general to just be myself on TV, which I think is hard. Sometimes I’ll look at things and think, I can’t look at myself. I don’t think most people, unless you’re Donald Trump, can really look at themselves that long.

Exactly. When I transcribe this tape, I’m going to be thinking “God, Do I really sound like that much of a pussy?”

Donald Trump’s the only person in the world right now who has no moments of that. There’s not one moment of one day in that guy’s life where he thinks (impersonating Trump) “Maybe these people are right, maybe I am an asshole.” He just continues to think he’s fantastic…My wife and I do watch his show, and it has always been bad, but it’s getting worse if that’s possible. Because there’s nothing going on. The tasks are like (impersonating Trump) “You are going to have to sell four pizzas.” It’s all about them calling their rich friends, and then there’s a scene where they get stuck in traffic. “Send Latoya Jackson to get a big of ice” (laughs).

You’re known as a comedian who doesn’t pull punches. Was there a point where you started feeling comfortable enough to call out comedians by name? Did you feel like you needed to reach a certain status level? Or were you just going to start making fun of Jay Leno no matter what?

I think it was one of those things where I felt compelled to do it. From a combination of anger about where my career is in relation to these people (laughs). And envy. Everything combines to cause rage, and then rage can cause comedy sometimes (laughs). With Leno, I couldn’t stand how NBC treated Johnny Carson and David Letterman. I love David Letterman. And you know Leno, he was so funny in the 80’s. And then as soon as he got into this Leno mode of trying to please middle America he became impossible to watch and he’s a big phony. But I don’t really like the confrontation side of it (laughs). It’s not like I’m looking to get into people’s face at all. And I do always worry about it. Because I know it affects my career. I would be inhuman if I didn’t admit that I worry about it, but I guess I worry about it less and less. The only thing I try and do now is I try to make sure that I’m doing things not for the right reason like I’m on the side of good. I do edit myself and I do evaluate things, like why am I going after this person. And there’s no question that it’s affecting my career. I used to make fun of Adam Sandler a lot or Kevin James. You know, they’re not going to cast me in their movies. As time has gone along, I’ve also had the realization that I don’t want to be in a lot of those movies.

How many years have you been doing the State of the Industry speech at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal?

I think this will be the 16th year maybe.

That’s got to be quite an honor that everyone turns to you as the guy to go up there and let people have it.

There’s no question. When I first started comedy, there were so many years where I was struggling, so to be looked up to and respected by other comedians, when that started to happen it was a fantastic feeling. And having this venue where I get to do this thing every year has been pretty amazing for me. Cause it’s all new material every year. In the last couple years, it has changed for the better. I face it with less panic. You never know who’s going to be in the room. But the last couple of years, I’ve been very happy with it.

So how does comedy compare today vs. the 80’s with the stand-up boom and the 90’s with the sitcom boom. Is it better today, in your opinion?

I think it always goes through ebbs and flows and ups and downs. When Janeane Garofalo and all those people came around that was a big revolution. And now I feel that there’s never been more really funny people, and different ways to be funny. But that goes up against these multi-national corporations that are running entertainment now and how they devalue it. So it’s hard to make a living. The technology and the fact that people can make things with their own cameras, that’s all for the good. There are just so many great people out there now like Zach Galifianakis and Nick Kroll and John Mulaney and TJ Miller. There are so many funny people right now. I’m just really impressed by how many there are. And of course everyone on Bob’s Burgers like H. Jon Benjamin and Kristen Schaal and Dan Mintz and Eugene Mirman.

Speaking of Bob’s Burgers, how did you get involved with that show as Mort the Mortician?

Loren Bouchard created it, and Loren Bouchard goes all the way back to Dr. Katz. H. Jon Benjamin was the voice of the son on Dr. Katz. Loren worked also on Home Movies with Brendon Small, so I’ve known Loren for a long, long time. I think he just kept me in mind for this. It’s been amazing and we just got picked up for a second season.

Photo by Susan Maljan.

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Talking to Andy Kindler, Comedy’s Unofficial Ombudsman