A lot of people have probably heard about the Upright Citizens Brigade by now. They know about Amy Poehler as an original member, seen Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, or Jack McBrayer perform in a recent show at the LA theater, and heard about the origin stories that began there for people like Donald Glover, Aubrey Plaza, and Broad City creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. However, few people can say they were around for the origin story of the theater itself in New York like Colton Dunn is able to lay claim to, and not many have worked harder in the improv and sketch game over the last 20 years than him.
That work has paid off in his unforgettable guest appearances in Parks and Recreation as a layabout animal control worker alongside Harris Wittels, as a writer on Key and Peele for the full run of the show, and now as Garrett, a sarcastic customer service rep on Superstore, which debuts its third season on NBC this Thursday.
Dunn has seen it all, heard it all, and done it all in the improv world as we know it today, and in some cases has used his platform to help change and transform it all in a positive way. Having felt like he’s accomplished much of what he set out to do in the sketch world, Dunn is looking to take a bigger piece of the acting world, while of course never forgetting where he came from.
You’ve been around the business for a long time, but there is some new territory here for you as an actor on Superstore. How does it feel to be going into the third season of a popular network show?
It feels great. I’ve worked on a lot of shows, and obviously I think a lot of it has to do with how incredibly talented the writers and cast are and everybody involved, but also there’s so much luck that goes into stuff like this, so I feel very fortunate to be a part of a show that has had the opportunity to go three seasons.
You have a storied improv career and background and have mentioned in the past that sometimes on Superstore a person might adlib something and then even if it isn’t used, we could see it written into the show later. Is that a new technique?
No, it’s definitely a technique that’s been used before. It’s part of a positive work environment that’s also just trying to get in good stuff. Sometimes you improvise something that’s super funny but maybe it’s not particularly right, but I’m so thankful that the writers take note of those things and then they’ll put them into the show. The other day we were on set and Ben Feldman was talking about Italian restaurants vs. hamburger joints and he was saying, “Real Italian food is transcendent – there’s a roof on burgers, there’s no roof on Italian food.” We thought that was such a Jonah thing for him to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if that shows up at some point.
How are your wheelchair skills after three seasons?
By now, I feel pretty comfortable with it as far as getting around set. I’m always trying to do new things and trying to look on blogs and stuff and sorta see what other people have done using their wheelchairs as far as your arms getting sore and good exercises, stuff like that. If anything, it’s very much a learning experience using a wheelchair.
Santina Muha is a comedian and a consultant on the show. I brought her in while I was doing the pilot just trying to get her input on how to integrate that into the show and get some ideas on the ideal way to handle it as somebody who uses a wheelchair but still allowing them as funny and not feeling like we can’t talk about it at all. But also not feeling like we’re exploiting it or anything like that. She’s great.
You’ve been around the UCB theater just about as long as anyone, beginning in 1997. How did you first get involved with them?
I was just about to start college in Minnesota and about two weeks before school started, I took a trip to New York with some friends. I had been doing a little bit of comedy in high school and wanted to get more into it. So I wanted to see a sketch show and I saw the Upright Citizens Brigade, which was in a small theater above the KGB room in New York City, and it was so funny. I went back to Minnesota and enrolled in school, moved into my dorm, and the whole time I was just thinking about how funny the show was and how I just wanted to be doing that. About two months after school started I dropped out and moved to New York and started trying to do improv comedy, standup, and sketch.
What is some of the good and not-so-good of how improv has changed over the last 15 years?
I love seeing how much diversity there is in comedy, whether it’s more female comedians or minorities. When I started at UCB, it was just me – I was the only black guy at the theater. Now it’s a diverse theater. I really love seeing the diversity. And I think what I’d like to see changed – just to see that continue all the way up through the levels, with more female and people of color directors on comedy shows and as showrunners, and I’d like to see that diversity keep moving up.
You met Jordan Peele while you were doing comedy at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and then became a writer on Key and Peele. How did it feel this year to not be doing Key and Peele now that it was ended?
It felt okay. We did a lot of sketches. I miss those guys, but the nice thing about the show is that when we ended, everybody from the top down was sort of ready to move on and do their own thing. Obviously, Keegan is a very accomplished actor and he had a lot of stuff he wanted to do. Jordan really, really wanted to get out and be a movie director. And I really wanted to focus on acting. All of us had kinda slugged it out in sketch comedy for years and years before we did that show, so it was really great to finally get a chance to be on a show that we were all really proud of, but we also all felt that we did it and we made the show that we wanted to do, and we got out while we felt like we were on top of it. We’ll never have to worry about “What about that sixth season of Key and Peele that wasn’t so good?” We won’t have that. We got out on top and I’m still really proud of that body of sketches.
A lot of people saw you for the first time and will always remember you for being in animal control on Parks and Rec. What do you remember about working side-by-side with Harris Wittels on that show?
It was awesome. I loved it, I loved every time I got the call that they were going back to the animal control guys. I was just so excited that I’d be able to spend a couple of days with Harris. He was a really good friend of mine and super funny, and it was just a blast. You kinda watch those and you see that both of us are really playing a lot in those characters. That was really fun too about that set on Parks and Rec – they would just come to play. They’d let you come in, make the character your own, and those were some really awesome times.
How much of it was you and Harris improvising and riffing together?
I mean, a lot of it. We’d always get a take where we would do it as it was scripted and then we’d kinda let loose, especially those guys being crazy, zany dudes, so a lot of what was fun about them was just kind of going back and forth and us responding to each other’s crazy statements. There was definitely a lot of improv but a lot of that was also on the page. They really did a good job of figuring out who those characters were and coming up with funny things like that bird with us wanting it to be the Flintstones bird. That was hilarious.
You got to do some acting in a horror movie a few years back with Hatchet II. What is was like to work with some legendary horror actors?
That was an absolute blast. One of my favorite things was going out in New Orleans with Tony Todd, who’s in that movie and who played Candyman. Seeing people freak out when you walk into a bar or a club with Candyman, that was probably my favorite experience there. He’s not intimidating or scary at all – he’s a really awesome, nice, genuine down-to-earth dude. Obviously he played one of the scariest people though.
What was it like to get chainsawed in half in a movie?
It was wonderful. It was one of the selling points of why I wanted to do that movie.
You are very active and vocal about social issues on Twitter. How important is it for you as a comedian to use this platform in that way, especially at times when people using their platform for change is such a hot-button issue?
I think it’s really important. It’s important to have a point of view, and whether my point of view is right or wrong, it’s my point of view and if I don’t let that be made in the comedy that I’m doing, then the comedy becomes a little stale. So I think opinion really matters. If you have a platform, take some time to try to do something good. I’ve been very lucky and fortunate to have the career that I have, and if I can use any of that opportunity to spread information about stuff that I think is important and I can help out other people, then it’s something I love to do.
Same for all of the football players who have used their platform to make a statement, right?
I think that’s great. It’s wonderful and it’s their right to do that. I think some people get upset and they think maybe somehow that’s disrespecting the country to have a protest like that, but I think that’s exactly what the country is all about. I’d much rather have football players identifying and standing up for people who are not football players, and the idea that they should just come out and play the sport and not have any individual thought I think is ridiculous. I completely support everybody’s right to free speech and expression.