Having gone to college with the members of the comedy group The State in the late ‘80s, actor Mather Zickel began working with The State alumni like Reno 911!, The Ten, and Stella in the early 2000s. Now, he’s front and center in Adult Swim’s newest 11-minute comedy Newsreaders, a spin-off of Childrens Hospital produced and created by Rob Corddry, Jonathan Stern, and The State’s David Wain. As Louis La Fonda, the host of Newsreaders, a fake newsmagazine show, Zickel nails the cadence and feel of tabloidy reporters, helping the show to take on 60 Minutes in the same way that Childrens Hospital skewers Grey’s Anatomy. I recently had the chance to talk to Mather Zickel about filming the current season of Newsreaders, transitioning from dramatic to comedic acting, and playing Bill Murray in a TV movie about Gilda Radner’s life:
So, at what point did they present the idea of making Newsreaders a spin-off from Childrens Hospital to you?
It came together pretty quickly. I think it was after we had aired like the second or maybe the third episode of Childrens Hospital that was a “Newsreaders” episode. The Louis La Fonda character had actually originated on a movie called The Ten that David Wain wrote and directed, and David, who’s also a producer on Childrens Hospital, really likes to use these characters again and again. He likes to create his own universe where he keeps using characters and intermixing them in different stories, whether it makes sense or not. It often doesn’t. He’s not big on logic, but that’s his sense of humor.
And then, we had David and Rob Corddry, of course, who created Childrens Hospital, and Jon Stern. They brought in our showrunner Jim Margolis, who worked on The Daily Show and before that, he worked on 60 Minutes, so he was very familiar with the newsmagazine format we were doing. He ran the show, so he was very instrumental in the tone.
How much input do you have as far as writing goes? Would you ever pitch jokes or storylines?
Yeah, I would pitch some jokes. I didn’t write any of the scripts. I didn’t break any of the stories. I definitely pitched some jokes, mainly for the intros and outros, which I do. There’s always a degree of improvisation during the shows, so things would come up while we were shooting. I always had an opportunity to get something in there, at least if I could get it approved by those guys.
You’ve acted in a lot of different projects. Do you have a preference in terms of different styles of shows or movies?
I don’t have a preference for style, actually. I feel like I’ve worked in a bunch of different styles. I started in the theater, so that was my first orientation. I think it always just depends on the quality of the writing and who you’re dealing with. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to work in different formats. I’ve done one-hour drama, I’ve done half-hour sitcoms, I’ve done this, which is much more absurd and short attention span. I think it just depends on the quality of the writing for me. I like to keep changing it up. This kind of show is fun because we’re all familiar with each other, the producers and I. We have a shared sense of humor, which is good. It’s a short format, so it doesn’t take that long to do [Laughs]. We can still do it and move on to something else and still have our lives.
How did you first meet David Wain?
I met David in college. We went to NYU together, and I was good friends with a lot of the guys who created The New Group, which became The State. I met David back in ‘88 or ‘89 or something.
Did you ever perform comedy in college or were you mainly focus on dramatic acting?
I was very serious in college [Laughs]. I billed myself as a dramatic actor, but at the same time, I was very jealous of those guys because they were great. The State guys started out as a club, basically, at NYU. I went to their very first show, and I could tell right away how good they were and how funny and creative and inventive they could be. I remember definitely being jealous at the time [Laughs]. It was hard for me to admit that, so I was hoping that maybe they would ask me to be involved in some way, and 10 or 12 years later, that actually started to happen.
It must have been strange watching them all rise up and get a TV show and everything.
Yeah, it’s great. I’ve always said a great way to start working is to stay friends with your more successful contemporaries and get in their good graces and maybe eventually they’ll give you a part in something.
What was it like playing Bill Murray in It’s Always Something, the ABC TV movie about Gilda Radner’s life?
Oh, that was kind of wild. That was a break for me at the time. It was very exciting for me to get that because I didn’t have representation. I had been doing some sketch comedy at that point. Marci Phillips who casts for ABC in New York had seen me in a sketch show and remembered me like a year later when she was casting the project. It was so fun and intimidating because, of course, I grew up loving Bill Murray, and I still love Bill Murray. I’ve never met him. But I also didn’t want to think too much about it. It was important for me not to think about him watching the show. It just felt embarrassing, the notion that he would be watching me playing him. It was essentially a personal take on it, as well. We got to do some of the old Saturday Night Live sketches. We reconstructed them, but then there was also bits of material in the show about his relationship with Gilda and everything. It felt a little strange because you’re kind of dealing with someone’s personal life and dramatizing it in a certain way. There are parts you don’t know if it’s accurate or not because it’s a television movie, and it’s dramatized. So, it was both exciting and a little weird.
Did you ever hear through the grapevine if he saw it or anything?
I have no idea if he saw it. I don’t know. None of the old Saturday Night Live cast really were involved with the project. I didn’t follow up. I just kinda closed my eyes and did it.
Did you watch old sketches of him to prepare?
Yes, I did. We did one of the “Nerds” sketches in the show, so that we tried to replicate exactly. We definitely watched a lot of that. I watched a lot of the old material, which was very fun. I’d also go back and watch the old movies. I remember renting Razor’s Edge, that Somerset Maugham film he had done in the mid-’80s, which was one of his first dramatic roles, just to see him in a different format.
So, what was the sketch comedy stuff you were doing at that point in your career when you were first getting started?
I had a sketch group in New York. I graduated NYU. I did a bunch of downtown theater for several years in basements all over the Lower East Side. My girlfriend at the time got together a couple of her friends, and we got involved in this thing they were running in New York at the time, which was “The One-Minute Play Contest,” which is exactly what it sounds like. So, she and a couple of her friends and me got together and we’d shoot some one-minute sketches. This one guy in the group, Michael Curry, he wrote pretty good stuff and certainly [good] for a one-minute piece. We won the one-minute play contest once or twice and then, we decided to just keep going. It was fun for me. I got to start writing a little bit. Michael did most of the writing, and I started also writing. That was kind of exciting for me. It was also fun because it was freeing for me because since I didn’t look at it as a play or a dramatic piece, I suddenly felt a certain burden lifted… I felt like in a certain way I didn’t have to work as hard or torture myself in the ways that I would when I was doing plays. I felt like, ‘Oh, it’s a sketch. If people laugh, it works and it’s funny.’ That actually was very good for me at that point. It actually made me enjoy performing again in a much freer way than I had been at the time.
Do you have a favorite episode of Newsreaders you shot this season?
Yeah, the one last week is the “Auto Erotic” episode, which I thought was pretty good. I was pretty happy with the way that one turned out. Then, there’s another one called “Jr. Newsreaders,” where we do a puff piece on a sixth grade girl who started her own Newsreaders show for her school. We think she’s really cute and everything and we’re doing a human interest piece on her and she embarrasses us. I kind of go after her aggressively and try to ruin her, and that was kinda fun. Just me going head-to-head with this 12-year-old girl.
’Newsreaders’ airs Thursday nights at midnight on Adult Swim.