Alec Kerr

Alec Kerr

The Economy of Laughter: An Interview with Demetri Martin

The comedian Demetri Martin, who performs at the State Theatre on April 28, is known for a unique mix of observational humor, one-liners, jokes about language, drawings and music. His brand of humor earned him a spot as a writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and as a contributor on The Daily Show. As an actor, he’s appeared on such TV shows as House of Lies and New Girl, and in film, most notably as the lead in Taking Woodstock. Dean, his first film as writer, director and star, is set for release this summer.

We talked to him on the phone to learn more about his style of comedy.

A lot of stand-ups make a point of using transitions to have their sets flow, but you do a series of non-sequiturs. Is that an intentional choice?

From the get-go, I wanted to do stand-up because I really just like jokes. Part of the game for me has always been to write the most economical jokes I can. Now, I’ve been doing it awhile and I’ve loosened up a bit and am a little more conversational, but I still like that game of writing the shortest jokes I can. When I'm on stage I do as many as I can in the time that I have, so I usually wind up not doing a lot of segues or anything. I just go from joke to joke.

How did you develop your style?

Steven Wright was my favorite comedian when I was growing up. I still love his comedy. I think he’s such a brilliant joke writer. I liked Gary Larson a lot too as a kid. "The Far Side" always made me laugh. It might have been one of the first things, if not the first thing, that made me laugh just looking at it on a piece of paper. Those two influences, and certainly my father, who wasn't a comedian but was a funny person. As much as I wanted to be like Steven Wright, I can’t be him. I can’t write like him. I think myself emerged out of that. I still tell short jokes because I gravitate towards that.

But I like drawing. I'm not great at it, but I’ve liked drawing since I was a kid. Music came later. As I started headlining and doing longer shows on the road, I found that it was an interesting way to break up my material, to put things together, maybe combine some of the material with drawings or with music. Even tell stories sometimes because it could be a little more narrative and that helped diversify my presentation. For shows that are over 75 minutes or if I’m on stage for 90 minutes, it's not just a list of jokes, there's something more happening.

One of your earliest comedy jobs was writing for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, what was that like?

That was a job I really wanted and was a coveted job in New York in the comedy scene because there weren’t that many of those positions and people didn’t leave that job often. It was a really good place to work. Conan is great to work for. Jeff Ross, who is executive producer of the show, is also great. They are two genuinely nice people and they treat their staff well.

One of the great things about that show is, if you’re a sketch writer, you get to not only write your bit but you get to direct it if you’re shooting any kind of footage for it. You get to cast it, you get to work with the different departments. You’re getting a little crash course in directing in a sense and producing comedy, so I loved that about it.

The thing I didn’t like about it was that the hours were kind of unpredictable. Some nights we’d stay until midnight and other nights we’d stay until 8:30. You never knew when you were going to get out. It was really hard to do stand-up and do the job at the same time. I had to make a choice and I ended up leaving the job, which I never imagined I’d do, because I wanted to keep pursuing stand-up.

Unlike a lot of comedians, you’ve actually gotten to work with a two-time Oscar-winning director on Taking Woodstock. What was it like working with Ang Lee?

I was excited to get that role. It was super educational. I am not a trained actor. Ang is clearly one of the great directors of our time. I knew I was in for an interesting ride. Ang told me in the beginning of rehearsing, “You know all the comedy you do, I’m not interested in that. I picked you as an actor.” And he told me point blank, “Your job is to know your lines, be well-rested and be prepared and be able to adjust. I give you direction, I need you to be able to adjust.” He said “Your job is to give me options.” He did me a big favor because he taught me a lot about acting and filmmaking. It was pretty intense. You know, I wasn’t working in a coalmine but, still, everyday I was on that set taking direction, learning how to do things. And then, there was a whole movie that was waiting for me to get a scene right. It was so different because with stand-up you are on your own; this was part of a larger creative ecosystem.

Did you learn anything from Ang Lee that you applied to your directorial debut, [the 2016 feature film] Dean?

On Ang’s movie and the few other films or TV series I’ve been cast in, you learn quickly how collaborative the whole experience is and how much trust is required. People really have to trust each other and the other departments have to work together and, as an actor, you have to trust your director and everybody, really. That was something I thought of really in the process of making my own movie. This is not just getting people to help me execute my story or my vision, it is finding people to work with who I can trust who will hopefully trust me. It is really about finding collaborators.

What was it like not only acting with but directing such great veterans as Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen?

I got lucky for sure because both of them were such lovely people to work with, and I didn’t know either of them. Now, being on the other side of this movie, I can see how lucky I got. It doesn’t always work out that way. You can get someone to be in your movie and they can be difficult or they're afraid. As a first-time director, you’re really asking people for a lot because there is no proven track recorded. They are taking a big risk. Kevin and Mary did a lot more for me than I did for them, so I will be forever grateful to them no matter how the movie does.

Working with them was great because they were patient and collaborative. I tried to stay out of their way because they have so much more experience than I do, but then, at times, I asked, “Can I have it this way?” or “Can we just try this line this way?” It was very harmonious, especially given how little time we had. They didn’t have a lot of takes to do their scenes because we had to shoot so much each day in order to get the movie done, but even given that, it worked out really nicely.


Demetri Martin: "Lets Get Awkward" | April 28, 7 pm | $30-40 | State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland | Visit for tickets.

  • Published in Arts

Gilbert Gottfried talks Trump, Classic Hollywood, and the Amazing Afterlife of Disney's Aladdin

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried is famous for his screechy, loud voice and abrasive comedy style. But here’s the thing, the squinty man with the grating voice is just an act.


When he uses his regular speaking voice, Gottfried is nearly unrecognizable. He’s mild-mannered, self-deprecating and quick to laugh, often in response to his own wry jokes and observations.


Gottfried’s first big break was on Saturday Night Live, but he had the misfortune of being in the cast which followed the departure of producer Lorne Michaels and the original cast.


It was when he literally found his voice and his career started to pick up. His iconic voice has made him a popular choice for voice acting, with his most famous role being Iago, the parrot in Aladdin.


While he has appeared in films, including The Problem Child series, he seems most comfortable on such TV shows as Hollywood Squares and Comedy Central Roasts.  


Gottfried’s current on-going project is “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast,” in which he discusses classic film and television and interviews icons of the past.


I recently spoke with Gottfried about all these subjects and more in anticipation of his appearance at the Gold Room in Portland, Maine, on March 2.


On your podcast you interview classic actors. Who has been your favorite guest?


So many come on. Sometimes I’m not expecting much from them and they really deliver. I love getting the older ones. I had Sonny Fox on, who was the host of this kiddie show years ago called Wonderama, and he came out with stories about how he was a prisoner of war during World War II. Just recently, it hasn't aired yet, I interviewed Carl Reiner and he was terrific. Bruce Dern was a great interview. I mean so many of them.  


If you could interview absolutely anyone living or dead who would you choose?


It is funny because so many of the people who I think “Oh, we’ve got to interview him” and we’ll call them and then the next day they die. I’ve kind become like the Grim Reaper. I was originally going to call this show The Before It’s Too Late Show. I feel funny saying who because I feel like if I name the person then I am going to jinx myself.


Well then, who do you wish you could’ve talked to that isn’t alive anymore?


So many people. And people even before my time in old movies, like I would’ve liked to have talked to Lon Chaney Jr. The closest I came was I interviewed with this woman, Janet Ann Gallow, who when she was a kid she was a child actress who was in Ghost of Frankenstein with Lon Chaney Jr. She told stories about how Chaney and Bela Lugosi, both of them in their monster makeup, would play hide and go seek with her. But so many legendary people like Humphrey Bogart or even more recent ones that were around like Charles Durning I think would’ve made a great interview. Norman Fell would’ve been fun.


Your one season on Saturday Night Live was the first when Lorne Michaels and the original cast was gone. I feel like it came under unfairly harsh scrutiny.  Do you feel if you had been on the show at a later time you would’ve been able to succeed more?


Oh absolutely. I feel like you don’t want to be the replacement, you want to be the replacement of the replacement. Because when you are the replacement, you get compared to the original and you can never live up to that. Then after you fail, they bring in someone else who is coming in on the white horse and saving the day. I remember before we even aired an episode, we were being attacked in the papers, all these different articles. I do think the season that we were on sucked.


I did find one sketch that I really actually liked you in quite a bit. You were giving a confession to a cop and then he became a director and started giving you notes. I thought that was a pretty well-written sketch and I thought you were really good in it.


Oh, thank you. Because when I think back on any of Saturday Night Live, I cringe at the idea of watching myself.


But when you were on Saturday Night Live you hadn’t developed your comic persona yet; how did you go about creating that?


Well, that’s the funny thing, there was never anything conscious about it. It was just one day, I woke up after my delivery being that way for a while saying “Oh, I guess that’s my delivery.” Because I never actually sat down and thought it out or anything like that. It just kind of happened through performing so much. Now it has become as legitimate a personality as my own stage personality.


Do you remember the first time you got a laugh and thought, “Hey, I want to do this for a living?”


I remember, I was sitting on a couch with my mother, my father, and my grandmother. It was this long couch and my sister was going to take a picture and I was a little kid and we were sitting there a long time while she was trying to get us all in the shot and I said “When’s this rollercoaster going to start?” My parents and grandmother started cracking up and I remember that being one of those moments. And then I started, because I watched so much TV, to imitate different actors and comedians and everything. That’s kind of what led me into it.


My earliest recollection was, it could’ve been kindergarten or first grade, but the teacher was talking and there was some kid who wasn’t paying attention, so she had a newspaper with her and she places a newspaper on his head and I called out “These are the headlines!” and that got a laugh. And my comedy hasn’t advanced since those days.


What were your best and worst times on stage?


It depends. There have been times that, God, I couldn’t wait to get off. I feel like performing and dealing with an audience is like the difference between a good and a bad date. Like a good date, you could be talking for five hours and it feels like just five minutes went by. A bad date, you’re doing five minutes and you feel like five hours have gone by.


It is the 25th anniversary of Aladdin this year. When you took the role of Iago, did you ever imagine how much longevity the film would have with a sequel, a TV series and video games?


Not really. I understood Disney was a big name. I remember, at the time, running into somebody and we were talking and they said “So, what are you doing lately?” and I said “I don’t know, I’m working on some stupid cartoon.” Boy, when it came out, it just exploded. It is one of those quality productions, one of the few I feel like that I’ve been in.


To show even more of an afterlife, there was this article in The New York Times that has been made into a documentary about this autistic boy who would watch Disney films all day long but he couldn’t communicate with his own parents. One day, the father went it to his room and saw a puppet of my character, Iago the parrot, and he put it on his hand and started imitating my voice and the son respond to that. They had a full conversation with him imitating me and the son responding. It just shows what an amazing afterlife Aladdin has had. The documentary is called Life Animated.


I have heard of that. I haven’t had a chance of seeing it, but I watched the trailer and just that practically made me cry.


(Laughs) That’s usually what my comedy does.


You were on Celebrity Apprentice, so you were able to see Trump’s leadership skills, or lack of, up close and personal, so what was your impression of him?


I didn’t really know him all that well. I would speak to him briefly here and there after it was all shot. It would be like a publicity thing. Off camera, he was perfectly nice. As far as leadership skills, the guy in charge of those shows just pops up for one time a week to say “OK, you’ve been doing thing wrong, you’ve been doing this right.” So, there was no way of really knowing.


But with Trump do you think comedians have any responsibility to keep pointing out how absurd things have gotten.


It is always good when there’s comedy. I think it keeps things in order in a way, in a very slight way. For instance, when Hitler was in power, the Three Stooges made two films with Moe as Hitler. When those pop up on TV, I think “You know what? That’s really a good thing.” It took him down a couple of notches.


You were a regular staple on Hollywood Squares. If they were to bring it back again, what newer star do you think would be a good fit for that show?


I remember growing up, I used to watch Hollywood Squares and I always enjoyed it and it always made me laugh and I remember thinking “Oh, this must be when someone is at the rock bottom of their career doing a show like this.” Then of course, I guess God was listening, and I got asked to do it. I really had a great time on that show. But yeah, that would be a tough one to figure out who would do it.


I watched your Wife Swap episode which showcased how frugal you are. If I had $20, how would you recommend that I use it?


I’d tell you to give it to me, I’ll get right back to you.

  • Published in Arts

Food for thought: Sausage Party co-writer muses about crude humor, where to draw the line

Ariel Shaffir, one of the co-writers of the current R-rated, animated hit “Sausage Party,” first met Seth Rogen on a camping trip to the Holy Land in 1998. Years later, Shaffir befriended Rogen’s writing partner Evan Goldberg at McGill University.

After Rogen and Goldberg found some success, Goldberg suggested Shaffir and his writing partner Kyle Hunter come work for him.

Shaffir has been involved as a writer or a producer on several films, most starring Rogen, including “This Is the End,” “The Interview,” “50/50,” “Goon” and “The Night Before.”

I spoke with Shaffir about the making of “Sausage Party.”


At what point did you become involved with the project, because I’ve heard Seth Rogen say that it was long in development?

I got involved in 2008. Seth was actually just talking about this yesterday; originally he and Evan and Jonah Hill just joked about making a movie with the title “Sausage Party” without any concept of what the story might be and then after just joking about that for I don’t even know how long, it could’ve been months, I think one of them realized it could actually be a movie about talking sausages. Then that idea was pitched to us, myself and Kyle Hunter, my writing partner, to just do an R-rated Pixar-style movie and that was in 2008. Then we kind of broke the story together and started writing.


So was it a collaborative thing. Or did individuals contribute things?

No, it was totally collaborative. It was myself, Kyle, Seth and Evan, we sat together in a room and talked about the story and worked on it for years and years and years. And it's collaborative to the point that between writing drafts, we would send it to as many friends who would read it and they would give us notes and we’d incorporate those. It was a very collaborative process.


What were some things you specifically contributed to the script or did it all just get so mixed together that it is hard to tell what’s what anymore?

Yeah, that’s generally how it is. It is hard to really remember who came up with that. I wouldn’t want to take credit for specific things.


Was there one part of the movie you really enjoyed working on?

Yeah, actually, I can remember a very defining moment, at least for me, was when we were filming “50/50” in Vancouver, which is another movie that we all worked on together, we were writing “Sausage Party” in the trailer and I remember the moment we came up with the idea for the Gum character. And we took out a pack of gum and started reading the ingredients in it and typing them out like the “sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol…” that whole joke. I remember thinking at the time, this is maybe the funniest joke that I’ll ever be a part of for the rest of my life. That is actually a thought that I had and to this day I don’t think I’ve been apart of anything as good as that joke in my mind.

Did you have a favorite character to write for?

I would say writing for the Sammy Bagel Jr. character came pretty easily just being a slightly neurotic Jewish person myself. That was easy. I don’t know if it was the funnest. I would say gum is one of the funnest and easiest characters to write for us well. I love all the characters. I can’t really single out one character one to write. They were all such different voices that they were all cool.


Was Sammy Bagel Jr. always intended to be a Woody Allen parody or was that something Edward Norton brought to the table given that he actually did a film with him?

Sammy Bagel Jr. wasn't intended to be a Woody Allen parody. It just so happened that Edward can do a spot on impression of Woody Allen and when he read the script, he wanted to do that role. Then we sort of rewrote the character with more of a Woody Allen voice in mind.


How did composer Alan Menken (who has written for such Disney films as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Tangled”) become involved? As a musician, what was it like working with him?

Conrad Vernon (one of the directors) had worked with Alan before and asked him to do it. We were thrilled that he said yes. And it was amazing working with him. I think he brought us a lot of legitimacy that this movie really needed.


What I really like about a lot of the movies that Seth Rogen has either worked on as a writer or director or producer and that you’ve been involved in, too, like “This Is the End,” “The Interview,” “Sausage Party” is that they are audacious and bold. There’s that line from George Carlin that it’s the duty of the comedian to draw the line and then cross it and I like that these movies do that. Is there ever a discussion about how far to take things?

When we write we try not to censor ourselves too much, just to put everything on paper and then hopefully after some time passes you are able to gain some perspective on where that line is. But there are certainly times where we came up with characters and things that we realized went a little bit too far. It was certainly something we talked about. But we also talked about how we wanted this to be edgy and we knew going into it that this is something that not everyone is going to feel totally comfortable with, but we were fine with that and kind of intrigued by that.


Yeah, because I’ve talked to people and said “Oh yeah, it is funny” and a lot of people have just rolled their eyes at me and said “Oh, that just looks really stupid” or they dismiss it because it's crude. What I think a lot of people who watch might be surprised about is that it actually does have something to say. Were the satirical elements from the beginning or did they develop over time?

It developed over time, but it developed pretty quickly like we knew going into it that it was going to be a Pixar-style movie about the secret life of food. And we knew if we were going to try to parody Pixar that those Pixar movies are incredible, they are always really smart and have something to say like you just said, so we knew that we needed something. As we talked about the secret life of food, we realized it was going to be a film about food discovering that they get eaten, so if they don’t know that they get eaten then what do they believe happens? And that kind of lent itself very naturally to beliefs and belief systems and the fact that groceries stores are generally categorized by ethnicity, it all just really naturally fit together as being a movie about religion and belief. It's honestly one of those situations where puzzle pieces kind of naturally fit together, which does not always happen or usually happen with the writing process, but, for this one, somehow it all worked together really well.


If there were a sequel, because you’ve kind left it open to this other concept, would it be the animated food interacting in the real world?

That is a great question, and I hope to have an answer to that within the next few weeks. You would get a different answer depending on if you asked me or Kyle or Seth or Evan, we haven’t really discussed anything at length but I am hoping that that discussion will happen soon.


Because the movie is doing well enough to certainly warrant a sequel, which is great that a weird, crude movie like this could do so well.

Yeah, I could not be more thrilled about the whole thing. It has done better than we had all hoped it would do. The fact that it is commercially successful is surprising and delightful. But to answer your question, there would have to be some interaction (with the real world). We ended it in a way that it would be weird if there wasn’t.


What food do you think you would be?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza bagels in my time. Maybe one of those if you are what you eat. I don’t know. What food would you be?


I don’t know. I guess, my nickname in high school was Noodles.

Ah, you should be Noodles then. Yeah, I didn’t have a nickname or a food-based nickname so that question is a lot harder for me to answer.

  • Published in Film

Pier-bound Blues Traveler: 'We just keep on rocking out'

In the mid-’90s Blues Traveler became huge on the success of the album “four” which spawned the hits “Hook” and “Run-Around.” While the band has fallen out of the mainstream, frontman John Popper is still leading the band as they regularly tour the country and release albums.

The band’s most recent release, “Blow Up the Moon,” features a diverse list of collaborations, including Hanson, Jewel, Plain White T's, Bowling for Soup and JC Chasez.

Alec Kerr spoke with the band’s guitarist Chan Kinchla about “Blow Up the Moon,” how they have stayed together for nearly three decades and ways the band was influenced by “The Blues Brothers” and “Ghostbusters.”


Your newest album “Blow Up the Moon” has an eclectic list of guests. How were the collaborations chosen?


At first, they were just going to do a couple and just release them as singles or do an E.P. maybe. What we did was throw out requests to as many people — dozens of people. Really it came down to logistics because we’d pile into town — say we’re in Nashville — get a studio for three days, meet Thompson Square, who are just the most terrific people in the world, go get lunch and go in for three days and make some magic happen. Then we’d go fly to Los Angeles and work at 606 Studios with 3OH!3; meet for lunch and then just go in there and see what we could come up with.


Perhaps the most surprising collaboration is with Thomas Ian Nicholas, the guy from “American Pie.” How did his music abilities come onto your radar?


That was kind of just a fun thing we did. Our manager is distantly related to him, so they were close, so he just threw his name in the box. We happened to have a time and it just happened to work out. As long as we were doing all these crazy collaborations we figured we’d take it as far as we could go.


Were you surprised by his abilities?


He’s a very talented dude, and he was really into it. I’m not a huge particularly fan but I do like “American Pie.” I wasn’t really expecting or not expecting much, but he did great.  


If you could collaborate with anyone living or dead in their prime, who would you choose?


Prince. David Bowie. The most horrible year for my musical hero. David Bowie and Prince in one year. It’s horrible. But those would be the two. Or Jimmy Page. He’s still alive so I might have a shot at that.


What do you think the song would wind up being like that if you were to work with all three of those people?


That would be a sick jam, wouldn’t it? Well, it would be those three guys upfront and me in the back just playing rhythm guitar and having fun, I have a feeling.


Blues Traveler has been together for nearly 30 years, how have you been able to keep it together all these years?


We got together in high school. We grew up together, so there’s a lot of connection beyond just being in a band together. We grew up in the same home town. We moved to New York together, so that was a big adventure. I think there’s a lot that keeps us together just because we are childhood friends, and of course my brother is in the band, so I’m stuck with him.


The band found mainstream success when music industry looked very different, how has the band weathered all these changes in the industry and the internet and digital music?


Well, we make less money, but I love the wide-open Internet. I think at some point, it will turn around and some of the creative content will start making more money for the people that make it, but I do like all the openness about it. I think everyone having their niche-y little song list is great. I think it allows everyone to really individualize the music they listen to, so I think all that is great.

We’ve always been a live touring band, so that’s carried us through. We were just a live touring band for years before “four” hit, our big, big record in 1995. We made a lot of money on our records for the next five years or so, but still touring was our mainstay. I think as the record industry has fizzled, we just keep on rocking out around the country and that’s what we’ve always done, so it is not a huge shock to our system. But, like I said, it is a little daunting to do all the work of making a new studio album and know you’re not going to make a dime on it. It is kind of a daunting proposition, so that is the one negative thing, the pushing and drive of getting into the studio is a little less. Though we still manage to get in there once and awhile.


You perform an annual Independence Day concerts at Red Rocks. What keeps you coming back to the venue?


It is Red Rocks, it is the best venue in the country. It is amazing. The fans are amazing. And we always just have an incredible time. It is just an honor to play there, I think, 23 years in a row, minus one health scare there in the middle.


I’m a big fan of “The Blues Brothers” movies. What was it like getting to work on “Blues Brothers 2000?”


That was amazing and quite an honor. And actually, the reason John plays harmonica is because of the Blues Brothers. He was really into comedy and “Saturday Night Live” and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi started that whole thing on “Saturday Night Live,” John just took to that and that’s why he took up the harp, so it is interesting  It was fun to work with all the great people. Dan Aykroyd has come and played with us, so it is very cool.


So, his cameo line about being a really big fan in sincere.


Yes, yes he is.


So, the extra joke that he wants to have Elwood listen to the band and he just flakes on you, it kind of makes it an inside joke for the band a little bit.


I guess so. It was very neat. The movie was OK, but for us it was spectacular fun to be a part of.


Yeah, I enjoy the movie. It isn’t as good as the original


It is fine. It is harmless. The first one was just spectacular. It is hard to compare.


But it is still a great legacy to be a part of.


For sure. Are you kidding me? It was an honor for us, we love that kind of stuff.


I had read that Blues Traveler was named after Gozer the Traveler from “Ghostbusters.”


Indeed. We kind of thought when we were really jamming out like this fifth entity — back when we were just a four-piece — and we wanted to figure out something to call that and “Ghostbusters” was a big movie in ’86, ’87. We are already a blues band but we started to play in New York when we were still in high school. We’d go up to the city sometimes and there were a lot of blues bands in New York, so we stuck the two together: Blues Traveler, at first for just a one night setting but then it just stuck. It kind of found us.


In the movie, you could choose the form of Gozer, if you could choose the form of Gozer, what would it be?


The giant Michelin Man was pretty awesome. Shoot. I’d probably like it be some sort of immense Nordic warrior or a dragon — I’m a big Dungeons and Dragons nerd. Anything with swords and stuff is pretty awesome. So it would have to be something violent with a sword. A two-handed sword. Sort of like the characters in my video games.


Are you excited to play Portland?


We are always love playing up there. We are kind of Northeast — we are from New Jersey, so the Northeast was really the first place we would travel around. All of us are spread all over the country, any time we get a chance to play in our old stomping ground brings back a lot of memories. And it is gorgeous up there in the summer time.


Are you excited to play on the pier?


Have we done it before? I have vague memories of doing this before of playing on the pier. Is it cool? I don’t know anything about it specifically? So, yes, the answer is yes. Anytime we play outdoors close to a body of water, I’m almost always quite happy.


OK, well I guess that is all I have, so thanks for talking with me.


Awesome, man. Are you coming to the show?


Hopefully, yeah.


Right on. Well come say hi if we are in the same room.


Blues Traveler and The Wallflowers with G. Love & Special Sauce and Howie Day | Maine State Pier, Portland | Sunday, Aug. 28 at 5:00pm |

  • Published in Music

The long con: T.J. Miller shares his joke-making process and what it's like to film with Steven Spielberg

Comedian T.J. Miller, who bringing his Meticulously Ridiculous Tour to Port City Music Hall Saturday, Aug. 20, is perhaps best-known for his role in the HBO series “Silicon Valley.” This year, he also appeared in “Deadpool.” Other credits include “Cloverfield,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “She’s Out of My League.”

Alec Kerr spoke with Miller about working on Steven Spielberg’s next film “Ready Player One,” his ironic fragrance line, his 41-track comedy hip-hop E.P. and the development of a spin-off series based on “The Gorburger Show” videos produced with Funny or Die.


You appeared as Weasel in “Deadpool.” Deadpool has healing power that makes him essentially immortal but he is badly scarred. What would you be willing to endure to have a superpower?

I think paper cuts, every kind, millimeter, centimeter, all the way up my body, all over my body, everywhere, you know? And genitals and anal areas, all that kind of stuff. Neck, eyelids, everything. And then for them to squeeze limes, not lemons, listen to me, don’t misprint, OK? Limes. They can squeeze them all over my body. I don’t know how many limes. I guess I would agree to 300 limes, something like that. And then I could have a superpower. I would be up for that. Or I’d let someone slap me really hard on the nose kind of open palm, striking downward like a bad dog, like that. If someone did that really hard a thousand times to me, I’d be willing to do that — not thousand, maybe a 100 — not to be able to fly but just to hover like four or five feet above the ground. That’s plenty. I can impress my wife with that.


You appeared with Paul Rudd in “My Idiot Brother.” What do you think a scene between Ant-Man and Weasel would be like?

I think it’d be really funny. Because Paul Rudd is really funny. He was funny in “My Idiot Brother” and he’s funny as Ant-Man. I think it would be Weasel trying to con Ant-Man out of something, maybe to to be able to borrow his helmet for a little or some sort of accouterment and then he tries to sell it. I think Paul Rudd would kind of be hip to everything that Weasel is trying to do because like “No. No, no, nope, I’m not doing that. Not interest. Do not want to make that investment. Will not get in on that.” Maybe Weasel would try to sidle in on being Ant-Man’s sidekick.


You are appearing in Steven Spielberg’s next film, an adaptation of “Ready Player One.” How is that going?

I mean it is amazing. I’ve actually finished principle photography, but it was really something. We were in Watford, which is North of London in England. Working with Steven Spielberg is exactly what you’d think it would be which is nothing like what you’d expect it. It is pretty fun. He’s just really a calm, quiet, affable genius who really loves movies. He just loves every aspect of telling a story through the medium of film. It is amazing.

And he’s really funny. We’ve crossed paths a bunch of times: My first TV show was (for) Dreamworks Television; “She’s Out of My League” was produced by Dreamworks; he did notes on “Cloverfield.” I have seen him around and had conversations with him, but working with him solidified that he’s just a really funny guy. He’s cracking wise. That’s always refreshing for me because I respect these great directors but I am a comedian who has been hired to act in this instance. So, it is a bonus to work with the best director maybe of all time and also that he is really funny. Like he’ll cheers with Cheetos and then I am his Cheetos brother.


Speaking of “Cloverfield,” what was that like as your first film?

It is pretty weird when you find out you’re not going to be on camera. That’s just a strange moment. I felt like I was the kid at the back of the class. Everyone had been given their parts in the play and I am sort of raising my hand, “Excuse me, hi, Mr. Reeves, Mr. Abrams, so am I on camera at all for the movie?” And they are like, “Yeah, once or twice, maybe.” “OK, so what am I supposed to do?” “Just talk and film the whole thing.”

And so I ended up filming like a good portion of the movie, along with Michael Bonvillain, an amazing DP, the visionary behind it. But during some scenes, I actually filmed what was going on and we’d have to redo takes and we’d have to get it in one take, so it was a very strange experience but it was fun. I liked the whole cast. They were all super cool. The director Matt Reeves was great. It was fun.


What was the origin of “The Gorburger Show?”(the YouTube series where you played a monster that takes over a Japanese talk show)? And what do you think an interview with Gorburger with you would’ve been like?

Oh good, man, I love so much that you’re down with “The Gorburger Show.” We are actually filming eight episodes in a little bit. The origin was I was passing by this bar while doing “Mash Up” — this is the only good thing that came out of the TV show “Mash Up” on Comedy Central that I did — so I was passing by a bar called Villain in downtown Los Angeles and this kind of drunk guy walked out. He had long hair, sort of looked like a skater guy or something and he said “Hey, man, you don’t know me, but I work at Funny or Die and these two guys named the Director Brothers want to do a show, it is crazy. It is like a giant blue monster and Japanese — look we’ll explain it. We all really want you to do it. You’re the only person that can do it.” And I was like “Great, man, Let’s talk about it. I mean, giant blue monster, Japanese morning show, I’m already excited about whatever this is.”

As Gorburger, I would really take T.J. for a dressing down, there would be a lot of roasting but all in a positive way and I’d try to get deeper into my strange philosophical musings because that’s what Gorburger does. He wants to ask people about “Why is that you always talk about weather, because you always talk about weather. ‘Isn’t it hot?’ But none of you talk about your imminent death. You can’t go to a stranger and say ‘It keeps me up at night. How are you feeling about your own death.’ You can’t do that but it is fine to be like ‘I understand it is going to rain on Thursday’ to whoever.” So I would hope Gorburger would ask me questions about how I really feel deep down about life and the meaning or the lack thereof.


What do you think a conversation between Tuffnut from “How to Train Your Dragon” and Robbie V. from “Gravity Falls” would go like?

You like crossing over different film and television medium characters and having them going at with each other. I like it. Tuffnut would get into Robbie’s sort of like “Whatever, man.” It would be a cross between “You’re right this is the worst. Forget it.” and then Robbie agreeing to hit him really hard with mallets and maces and hammers on his helmeted head because Tuffnut can tell a friend by one who is willing to really, really hit him on the helmet as hard as they can. That’s his definition of a good friend.


How did the whole line of fragrances like Wet Garbage come about?

My wife and I, we are trying to extend the brand. We have a brand called Ironic Luxury. We’ve got the domain name. We’ve paid the dudes of the domain. It is active. Once we had that we said, “OK, let’s launch a full line of fragrances under this brand Ironic Luxury.” My wife had a couple of real fragrances that sounded great and I wanted to make some fragrances that were reminiscent of things like New York with Warm Urine or represented the modern American male with his eating and exercise habits with Toddler Body. Wet Garbage is just the essence of New York City and so many cities: Los Angeles, Chanute, Kan., stuff like that.


Does it sell well?

We have sold one bottle of Wet Garbage at $99 and we have yet to deliver but we are doing a small documentary, a short film about the single customer that we have who has waited over a year and a half to get his bottle. We are excited about that. But it is not about how many units you sell. It is about building the brand and that’s what we’re seeing now from Trump Steaks which were available at Sharper Image during the early ’90s.

It is the same thing with my music career. I’ve got “Extended Play E.P.” That is a 41-track rap E.P. that is not actually rap. It is folk, it is pop music and rap, it is a fusion album. I think it definitely broke the bank for Comedy Central Records. It was the most expensive record they ever made and it worked. There was a remix made of it. I obviously produced that and helped fund it with Illegal Art, which is the label that represents Girl Talk and Science Geeks.

That was an important move for me to satirize celebrities that try to get into a different arena. Fucking sell a clothing line at target, fucking fragrance line at Macy’s, something like that. Those people disgust me. So that was my sort of satirical take on that, of making an album and remixing it and reselling it. That’s sort of making fun of musicians for doing that very thing. You know some of the things I’m doing, there’s no reason I am doing them. I think that’s what people are having a tough time wrapping their head around.


You seem to take great pleasure in subverting people’s expectations of what you should be doing.

Yeah, I think there’s some of that. It is also, really, truly at the heart of it, it is like “Wouldn’t it be funny to make a 41-track real album but it is an E.P.?” And then, I’ll let you in on this little secret, Alec — I really haven’t told a lot of people this which is actually true: I was like and what if in 10 years, I started refusing to talk about anything but the album in interviews. They have to lead with the album or I am not talking with them. Every single time. I am in it for the long con. That is a long payoff, when you’re saying a decade later this joke is going to pay off. I had this hip hop career; no one is paying attention; I had a hit album, it was remixed, by me obviously. We need to return to that and I think I should have a greatest hits which is the best seven song from my E.P.


Alright, I guess I’ll let you go. So, thank you for talking with me.

Yeah, man. Is there anything you think you missed? I appreciate you listening to my nonsense.


No, I mean I did have some questions about your process developing a joke, but if you need to go that’s fine.

It usually starts with an idea. One idea that I have been thinking about is my wife, whenever she sees a bird, will be like “Look at that weird looking bird, look how strange he is.” I just begin to think what if birds can understand English but they just can’t speak it. She’s just a horrible person because she’s insulting them. They go back to other birds and they’re like “Stay away from her, man, she’ll make you feel horrible. If you land near her she’s like ‘Look at the weirdo, look how ugly and strange looking that bird is.’” So, I can start with that.

Other stuff, I usually go up on stage and improvise and find my way to it. Sometimes it is just funny for me to know more about giraffes, like to know more giraffe facts than anyone in the audience. Then other stuff is one day figuring out that if you squeeze a plastic bottle a certain way it will splash you in the face and it is really, really surprising to an audience. Like America, it is a bouillabaisse of all different types of interesting, fragmented types of comedy, of all types, and it is all kind of mish-mashed together to make, hopefully, this very funny, delicious stew that doesn’t make you sick the next day.


T.J. Miller will be joined by his wife and fellow performer, Kate Miller, as well as comedian Nick Vatterott on Aug. 20. For more information about Miller, visit

  • Published in Arts

Phases of the Goo Goo Dolls: Band's bassist reflects on movie industry, punk roots

The Goo Goo Dolls became one of the biggest bands of late ’90s and early 2000s following the success of the monster hit “Iris.” A string of hits followed, including “Slide,” “Broadway,” “Black Balloon,” “Here Is Gone,” “Sympathy,” “Better Days” and a cover of Supertramp’s “Give a Little Bit.”

Lead vocalist and guitarist John Rzeznik and bassist Robby Takac first formed the band in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1986. While the band is now known as a pop-rock band, the Goo Goo Dolls started out in the punk and alternative scene. It was the acoustic ballad “Name” from 1995’s “A Boy Named Goo” that thrust the Goo Goo Dolls into the mainstream and paved the way for “Iris.” 

Alec Kerr spoke with Takac in anticipation of the Goo Goo Doll’s performance at the Maine State Pier in Portland, on Wednesday, Aug. 17. They discussed the group’s new album “Boxes,” the Goo’s first experience working with movie executives, the band’s first TV appearance and the joy of performing.


This year marks the 30th anniversary of the band, what has kept you together?

Maybe the fear of not being in a band, I guess. I don’t know. We’ve been doing this since we were kids. I guess we wake up everyday and figure out how we’re still going to be in the Goo Goo Dolls that day.


How have you been adjusting to the band shifting to a duo?

John and I have always kind of been the consistent in this thing from the beginning. We’ve been through a few drummers now. We lived in the same apartment — sometimes the same room. We shared pretty much everything and managed to last this long, so I don’t think it was that much of a change. I think the dynamic in the studio is a little different of course. But we had sort of moved into a new process of record-making over the past five-six years, so I don’t think it was as dramatic as it could’ve been.


Now that you are using more session and touring musicians, did that open you up to trying different sounds on your latest album?

On our last record, “Magnetic,” I think we began to feel the process was getting kind of stale. Prior to making that record, we had written 18 songs and then we’d pick 15 of them and go into the studio with these 15 half-finished songs with the producer and try to crawl out from underneath this big pile of unfinished songs that we had. It turned out to be not fun. It just felt like this big pile of stuff that you had to sort through.

With “Magnetic,” we decided to take it one or two songs at a time and not necessarily with the same producers. We just went out and worked with a bunch of people, and I think it made for a very different record for us. In retrospect, it felt like a growing process for us because I don’t think we were fully comfortable with that process of letting go and I learned a lot making that record. I think we were a little bit more ready to go into the studio and make a record of that type and get across the vibe we wanted to get across. We are really happy with this one when we were done.


(The song) “Flood” reminded me a lot of Kate Bush, would you say that is a fair comparison?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There’s definitely some of that in there. We didn’t just go for the guitars on this record. We wanted to see what else was out there, so lots more orchestration and synthesizer parts, so that definitely puts us in that whole Kate Bush world for sure.


You have two tracks that you wrote and sing lead on “Boxes.” What were the origins of those songs?

They start off like most of my songs do — kind of sounding more like Ramones songs than what you hear on the record. I just bash the songs out on guitars and then take those chord structures and melody structures and start to play around with them a little bit. I bring them into the producers and just keep banging them around until we come up with something that we feel is unique.


Goo Goo Dolls’ sound has evolved so much that there are few remnants of the alternative sound you started with, do you think you’d ever record an album that was a throwback to that original sound?

I don’t know. I guess it is a matter of where this record leads us. You don’t like to make reactionary albums. I would hate to see just make a record like that because we feel like it would sell a lot of records if that wasn’t what was in our hearts. When it comes time to start coming up with the next record, we’ll see where it ends up heading but there are always guitars around, always. It is just a matter of where they wind up in the mix most of the time.


Your network TV debut was performing “Falling Down” on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” (in 1994) and before throwing it to you, Conan says, “You guys got it together, you alright?” Do you remember what was going on?

Yeah, someone tripped, one of the cameramen was behind John’s amp and he pulled the power cord out. We went to start the song and John’s guitar didn’t work, so they had to reset really quick. It is funny, we were just talking to (Conan) about that. We were just on his show a few weeks ago and we said, “The craziest thing happened to us on that show” and he remembered it. He was like “Oh yeah, that doesn’t happen much.” But, of course, it happened to us.  


“Iris” was written for the “City of Angels” soundtrack, but it wasn’t your first experience writing a song for a movie as you recorded “I'm Awake Now” for the “Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare” soundtrack (in 1991). What was that experience like?

Until then, we thought people in the music industry were the most irrational people we had ever met, and then we met people in the movie industry. We realized they are even tougher, man. Yeah, it was a whole other thing for us. We were just kids and making our records and all of a sudden there are producers in the room and movie executives telling us what they thought of the song and giving us suggestions and we had never really dealt with that before.

All of our production experience was making records with our friends and the power struggle you have with your friends, not the power struggle you have with executives. That was a big learning experience for us and we got to work with a different producer outside of our stable of friends and family in Buffalo, who we are still very tight with. But, yeah, that was a great experience for us.


The success of the album “A Boy Named Goo” led to a guest appearance on the show “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Was that I moment where you thought, “OK, we’re starting to get big now?”

Yeah, there was a lot going on at that time that would lead you to believe that but it is funny when something really pops like what happened with “Iris” and the “Dizzy” album, you’re so busy all the time that there’s not even time to think about it. Literally, you’re just hanging on for dear life and trying to get to the next thing and still be able to sing. At the time, we were partying hard, too, man, so there was that. It was crazy. We were young, eager, making it happen. You just put your head down. There’s not a lot of time for reflection, I guess is what I’m trying to say.


Do you miss that level of fame or are you happy to be where the band is now?
I think this band has been through some serious phases. We went longer than the average life of most bands. (We were) a band that nobody knew about, a band that only the hippest of the hip knew. That is a great place to be when you are in a band because the more you don’t sell records and the more people don’t understand what you are doing, the hipper you are. We spent 10 years being that band, driving around in a van trying to get people to notice us and then we just spent 10 years killing it, unbelievably, just lots of hit records. But the interesting thing about the last 10 years of our career was that (while) we were putting records out consistently and touring consistently, our touring numbers kept going up and up. It always felt like it was going to us. And John and I had an at the core awakening or something and I feel like we are into this fourth phase now, I don’t know know what to call it. It is a little bit different than past 10 years have been. It is exciting, after all this time, to feel a certain renewed attitude between John and I about this whole thing.


The success of the song “Name” was a major turning point and changed the direction of the sound of the band. If there hadn’t been a “Name,” what do you think the band would sound like now or where would you be?

We had done songs like “Name” for years, sometimes a little bit more tongue in cheek. When we were growing up, we were on Metal Blade Records and Death Records, all these labels that had really heavy bands, and we still had acoustic songs on our records because all the bands we love still did that, so to us it didn’t seem weird to have those kind of songs on there. For most of the bands on those labels it was weird, but for us it was always something that we did. I think doing more and more of that every record and singing more and John singing more as the band grew, we were just letting things grow. I think we discovered a whole other thing that we could do and it was exciting for us to go, “Wow, we were this band that was playing three-chord punk rock songs in our house, now look what we can do. Let’s see what we can do with this.” That was an exciting time.

“Name” was definitely a catalyst for people to know about that side of us and, quite honestly, back in those days people would come and see us play only knowing “Name” and were slightly confused because they got to see a band that had an 11-year career going out playing CBGB and mass halls in Hoboken and all the punk rock clubs around America who happened to also play this pretty song, too.


Would you ever consider collaborating with Lady Gaga? Because then you’d have a credit of Goo Goo Gaga.

Only if the Foo Fighters get involved, too.


Foo Foo Goo Goo Gaga?

There ya go. And Kajagoogoo, too.

  • Published in Music

Eddie Izzard feels the beat: British comedian brings his improvised humor to Portland

English stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, who will be performing at the State Theatre in Portland, Saturday, July 30, isn't your typical comedian.


In the early 1990s, he openly embraced his interest in cross-dressing and began performing in women's clothing. These days he tends to wear suits, although he adds a touch of femininity with brightly colored painted nails. Earlier this year, he ran 27 marathons in 27 days through South Africa for Sport Relief.


Izzard, whose humor is largely improvised and is often surreal, has also acted in such films as “Ocean's Twelve,” “Ocean's Thirteen,” “Cat's Meow,” in which he played Charlie Chaplin, “Across the Universe” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian as well as the TV series “The Riches.”


Alec Kerr recently spoke with Izzard and discussed his thoughts on the Brexit (Britain's vote to leave the European Union), the LGBT community, bigotry, his creative process and sexy British bad guys.


You have been a major pro-European Union campaigner, what are your thoughts on the Brexit actually being approved?


Well, I don’t feel it is very correct. I feel people had misinformation put out. There was an amount of money that was immediately going to be put into the NHS (National Health Service) and people voted on this basis. Soon as the vote went through, “No, no, that’s not going to happen.” And we said we’re most likely going to have recession and the markets are going to have a tough time and it is really going to hit our country hard and then you’re going to have less (people) likely to get jobs. If you think that’s a good way to get jobs, it is not a good way.


People were misled. It is not great. It is something that has put things into turmoil. It is going to be very hard. People on the lowest income are going to have a very tough time, some of those had voted for Brexit. It is shooting yourself in the foot. But you carry on. World War II was a really tough time.


It is a problem. I just don’t think it is good and I think that people were thinking that the EU is responsible for the economic crisis that happened in 2008. It is called the subprime market put toxic debt into the whole world economy and that all blew up and people knew it would and didn't care about that, so people have had a really tough time of it but they blamed the wrong people. It is unfortunate.


The world has changed quite a bit since you first started being open about your interest in cross-dressing. With Caitlyn Jenner and shows like “I Am Jazz” there is a lot more awareness of transgender ...


Did you say crop dusting?


Crop dusting?


Oh, cross-dressing.


I don't know maybe you do have an interesting in crop dusting. I don't know.


Well, “North by Northwest” does have crop dusting and I have seen “North by Northwest.”


But there seems to be a lot more awareness thanks to Caitlyn Jenner and “I Am Jazz” to transgender, do you think the world is becoming more accepting of the LGBT community?


I hope so. But what I do worry with this whole Brexit situation and your Trump situation, is that there are people who will be very hateful to the LGBT, hateful to the opposite skin color or a different skin color or whatever and maybe that's not changed.


Articulation in the LGBT community of why we exist — the fact that I strongly believe it is genetic — and the fact that we have articulated a better explanation that we are human beings that want to live in the world and work in the world and that's it and we are self identifying and don't get so hung up about it that has gotten a lot better.


I hope people are a nicer set of people in the world but I worry that sometimes that we are not. That we are the same people that we have been all the way back to the Romans, that maybe we've never changed just that leadership has changed, ability to access the information has changed, maybe that we agree on things. But in America, you still have a thing about whether evolution is right. We've moved beyond that in Europe. I would hope that we are in a better place but I can't not be certain.


Do you think there is anything that can be said to change someone with a bigoted mind?


That is what I am curious about. I am really curious about that. I don't know. I wonder whether some people have a certain aptitude and that's built into them, that is hardwired into them, and that whatever you say, you can argue until you're blue in the face, and they will not listen to you. I haven't gotten to the bottom of that.


I would like someone to do studies on that because I have an instinctive feeling that some people are empathetic and some people are not empathetic. And if you're not empathetic, if you are naturally built in not empathetic, it is hardwired in, you can talk until you're blue in the face and they will also say “Well, I don't like you. And I don't like all these people. Don't like people in the next village.” We you used to be tribal and tribal has this whole thing “We like us, we don't like you.” Maybe that people that think alike will like each other, I suppose. You know how that goes on.


I try and work out the ideas that could work for an entire world because no one in politics is allowed to do that because you've got to think of your country or your local council or your area or your indignation people. But while I am not an elected person, I'm sitting here looking at things and saying we've got to be heading towards a world where everyone has a fair chance because I think despair is the fuel of terrorism and hope is the fuel of civilization. We have to keep putting hope into the world. I've articulated those two little lines and they are kind of neat as a little package, a little sound bite but I think it could be true. I don't know how you persuade people to be kind to other people.


Do you think humor is a way of doing that?


Not really. In a way, yes, but no. I think politics is a way of doing that. I think getting elected, I think democracy is a way of doing that. I think economy is a way of doing that. When the economy is good, people are a lot more accepting of other things. When people are having a tough old time, they turn around and say “What's going on here? Why am I having a tough time? Who is charge of all this. I'm going to hate someone for this. I'm going to pissed off at someone for this.”


So comedy, we can make some interesting points, some funny points, but sometimes maybe when we say funny things, if it is politically funny, maybe something that people already of that mindset would say, “Yes, that's a very nice, neat way of doing it” but does it really change the mind of someone who is already locked down. I am not sure.


So, I don't think comedy changes the political world. I think comedy … when comedy is used in a good way, it is an attack weapon. I can attack many of the things. I know we have racist comedians in our country still and they attack ethnic minorities and we despair the fact that we still got some people touring around doing hateful comedy. I will say it is less and less these days, but it still does exist.


What inspired you to start running marathons and what were those experiences like?


The inspiration was I wanted to do an adventure; to raise money while doing it; it was good for my health — it hit a number of things. What I love doing in life, what I really love doing — and if anyone who has ever done it I think they would probably also feel this way — if you can do one thing and do five things by doing the one thing, then that's just great. It is just a really nice thing. If you can run, give yourself a bit of health or quite a lot of health, you have an adventure, you raise money, it can help people having a tough time in your country and around the world, it becomes a story — it is just fun. The doing of it is really tough, but it is like doing “Lord of the Rings” your own version of “Lord of the Rings.” You don't like the thing, you just live the bloody thing. I've done it twice now and it is quite fantastic. The doing of it is not much fun. Well, it is a lot of fun in retrospect but at the time it can be as tough as all beat.


You have discussed the link between dyslexia and creativity, would you go as far as to say you if you weren’t dyslexic you wouldn’t be doing comedy?


Oh, that's interesting. No, I wouldn't say that. I think have comedic genetics from my father. Me, my brother and father have the same sense of humor. Give or take a few dryness levels it is essentially the same. If I wasn't dyslexic, I wouldn't be surreal in my comedy I think.


Was there a particular moment when you realized that you wanted to do comedy?


Yes. I got my first public laugh when I was 12. When I got my first laugh at school, Monty Python were just finishing their television career, but their tapes career, and discs and album career and then film career started from there and that's really when I plugged into Python. I think the very early years of Python when it was happening, I wasn't aware of them, I wasn't clued into them. Once I discovered that I liked (comedy) and I could do it, that I could actually make it happen, I dumped drama because I wanted to do drama when I was 7. I dumped drama and said, “I'm going to do comedy. Comedy is what I'm going to do. I am going to be a comedy performer.” I must have decided that at about 14, 15.


You have said that with your performances, “none of it is written and none of it is rehearsed,” so what is your creative process like?


My creative process is that I go to a place of forfeiture. I went to Los Angeles, I went to San Francisco, and I went to New York and I played six nights a week, two shows a night. I would just do my show and I would improvise, I would ad lib, I would add things, I would subtract things, I would just put things in, I call it verbal sculpting and I would build things up from a kernel of an idea to “Oh, that kind of works, oh yeah, let's add that. No, that doesn't work.” I would build it up until at the end of that, which is about three months, I have a show and then the show kept living and adjusting and editing down and distilling. I distill a show down. I constantly try to weed out the weaker bits and keep the stronger bits.


In “Dressed to Kill” you had a great bit about all the bad guys in the “Star Wars” trilogy being British; were you happy to see that tradition continued in the “Force Awakens?”


I think it is built into your zeitgeist in America because of the colonial war, the Revolutionary War, we have to be your bad guys. Interestingly, a lot of our bad guys have become sexy now. The sexy British bad guy. They used to be bad bad guys and in “Star Wars” they were just the bad guys again but quite a lot of our bad guys are actually becoming sexy; that is quite interesting. It has actually reached a tipping point into something else, not just a two-dimensional bad guy, we have three dimensions and sex, which is fun and interesting.


Like Benedict Cumberbatch in “Star Trek” in an example.


Yes, I'm thinking Tom Hiddleston …


As Loki.


Yes. There was that advert for Jaguar cars, which I am not sure it was shown in America, I think it was, it has three British actors who say, “We are so bad” and they all driving fast cars. I thought that was rather funny.


You have some terrific bad impressions including Christopher Walken. Have you been working on new bad impressions?


No, I haven't got one in my back pocket at the moment, but I was trying to do them in different languages which is slightly tricky because doing shows in different languages and then putting accents on them, that's quite odd. Doing a Northern Irish accent and speaking French, that is tricky. But no, there's new impression right there. If I really worked on it, I think I could get at them and sometimes I am. They do sound quite good sometimes.


I am a big fan of “Across the Universe,” what was it like working on the film?


That was fun, quite intensive, I must say because I had to lip sync what I had sung. I did three takes of the song (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) and I was trying to work out, do I sing this or should I just speak-talk it, Rex Harrison it. So, we decided to Rex Harrison it. Then once it was done and it sounded quite good, I didn't know until the day before I shot it that I was actually going to lip sync the thing to a track.


If you're singing a song and lip syncing, that's one thing to learn. To lip sync to a song, there is a beat and you can do that and a lot of people have done that but there's a little section where it goes into the waltz and “Harry the horse” and that is so … there's no beat to it. To lip sync to that is incredibly difficult and I think I just about pulled it off and they edited around it, but I went slightly mad trying to learn it because I had to just feel the essence of the beat when there was no beat. It is just unbelievably difficult. But it was great and it was big and was huge and it was crazy, so yeah, fun to do.


And it must have been particularly tricky because you had this long improvised tangent that you had to it.


Exactly so. I like that me and John Lennon have done that song. I like that John's done it. And I have sung in John's porch because English Heritage now own the house that he grew up in. Last time I played Liverpool arena, I went to Paul McCartney's house and to John Lennon's house and they said, “If you go down to the porch, that's where John and Paul played guitar, they were practicing. They liked it because the acoustics were great. We encourage you to go down there and sing something.” So I went down and sang “Amazing Grace.” I got my trainer to sing “Amazing Grace,” the normal version and I sang notes in harmony to it. That was fun, weird thing to do.


Eddie Izzard | Saturday, July 30 at 8:00pm | The State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland |

Welcome to the circus: Barenaked Ladies preview Portland show, embrace Internet age

Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies have been a “roller coaster” ride from indie band to mainstream successes back to a more modestly sized following. In 2009, Steven Page, the band’s co-leader and co-songwriter, left the band, but Barenaked Ladies have persevered.

The group are returning to the Maine State Pier Friday, June 24, as part of their Last Summer on Earth tour in support of its new live album “BNL Rocks Red Rocks,” which features such hits as “If I Had a Million Dollars,” “One Week,” “The Old Apartment,” “Brian Wilson” and “Pinch Me.”

Drummer Tyler Stewart spoke with Alec Kerr about the band’s success, the post-Page transition, the band’s involvement with Animal House: The Musical and Canadian stereotypes.


First, I just want to say that despite perhaps not being lyrically appropriate I had my first dance at my wedding to “Have You Seen My Love?”

Oh, wow, yeah. That’s amazing. I love that song. That is one of my favorite songs that Steve (Page) ever wrote. We really embraced the sort of Willie Nelson-ness of it, I thought, on the recording. Interesting choice for a first song at a wedding. You guys are open minded.


Well, it kind of has a waltz quality to it and my wife and I were using it as practice song and it wound up being the only song I could dance to.

(Laughs) Oh, that’s great. That’s awesome. Well, that’s cool, man.


No one seemed to notice that it wasn’t actually a sweet love song, which leads me to my first question: it seems like the band likes to have songs that sound either sweet or upbeat but have lyrics that are darker or a little bit more sad. Is that true?

Definitely. We like to cloak a sometimes depressing message in a sunny or harmonious melody. I think that is one of the strengths of the band. If you’re not paying attention, you would always assume that we’re just these happy-go-lucky guys that write these throwaway novelty songs. But, as you yourself know, there’s a lot more to a Barenaked Ladies song than meets the ear. I would say that one of our modus operandi is to challenge the listener with lyrical content that may not be what they are expecting.


You were a band that started out as an indie group and then you found mainstream success with Stunt and Maroon and then went back to being an indie band. What has that journey been like?

Well, then, that’s a very good question because it has been a roller coaster. It is interesting, when we started out and just started having popularity in the Toronto club scene, we were selling five-song cassette tapes from the stage after our shows. We’d have to get another print run and another one printed. Eventually, it was getting that cassette into stores and it started to out sell things like Madonna and U2 in Toronto. Going from there, signing a major label deal. Getting a number one record in Canada and selling a million copies on a first album, all that shit, you don’t really notice because you’re working so hard. It is a natural progression. Then from there, finding success in the United States, having a No. 1 single and just working our asses off.

We had the benefit of joining the record business at its peak in the mid-to-late ’90s, where there was no Internet yet and radio was playing our music, radio was driving sales — people were buying a ton of music. I think ’97 or ’98 was the most money made selling music ever and that was right around the time that we released our Stunt album. We really reaped the benefits of the major label system. Then to have it all come crashing down within three years, it was an interesting time. On one hand, the future seemed really exciting and bright because of the Internet. I didn’t really give a rat’s ass about the end of the record business because I saw a lot of my friends get eaten up and spit out by that business. We happened to do very well by it. We were one of the lucky ones. But obviously, something had to change.

When we went indie, it was a time when we were trying to cut out the middle man. I think we maybe did that a little too early because we wound up coming back to a major label. The ideas of independent record promotion and sales, every band now has to be like that. You have to make a connection with your fans directly. There can be no middle man. And you have to put on great live shows, otherwise you’re done. You have to find a way. Fortunately, over the years, we’ve always had a good live show, so that has been the one constant on the roller coaster ride. We managed to keep our shirt on and not puke because we have this live show to cling to and we are thankful for that. I think our fans have really embraced that over the years, as well, and have stuck with us through thick and thin.


You have now released three albums as a quartet, how has the dynamic shifted and evolved in the band after going from five to four people and losing one of the co-leads?

It was an interesting time period there where we decided to go out on our own without Steven, and I always felt like we could do it. I never felt any trepidation about it. Steve has a big voice and a very distinctive voice, so we never really had any intention of replacing that. Fortunately, we have four other singers as well and that really serves as well live. Any old material we could still do because a) Ed (Robertson) co-wrote most of the songs and b) We have all been singing and playing them for 25 years anyway.

It has been great. We are all having a lot more fun now because there is more space for everyone to contribute. Everyone has to bring a little more to the table. I am doing a lot more singing. I front a few songs. (Keyboardist) Kevin (Hearn) has the opportunity to write more songs and sing as does (bassist) Jim (Creeggan). We are all doing more. Ed, I think, is very admirably and quite successfully assumed the role of frontman, and he hasn’t missed a beat. We are happy with the way things are. If it wasn’t like this, there wouldn’t be a band. It is that simple. We got to a critical point where it was do or die, so we did and we are still alive. We’re happy about that.


How was it decided that you’d take the lead on “Alcohol?”

Because I’m the one that drinks. Uh, yeah, that was a song I could sing. It is a rockin’ song. The last tour we decided to switch it up a bit and decided to do the song “Drawing” from our children’s album. Because you go from singing about getting drunk to singing about drawing pictures with kids, that’s how we roll here at Barenaked Ladies. We are a renaissance band. Alcoholism and child rearing, they go hand and hand. (laughs) Unfortunately, for a lot of people they do. For us, it is only on stage, just to put that out there as well. That’s a disclaimer.

We have a few more songs up our sleeves that we’re going to pull out on this tour. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but there’s another song I am performing. We always like to spice the set up with snippets or covers of the latest chart songs or whatever, medleys, things like that. So, there’s always something new and exciting that we have to lay on our fans.


On your first live album (Rock Spectacle) you had a circus theme and everyone had names. If you were to do that now, what would those names be? Are you still Tyler the Strong Man?

Dude! These are good questions. Right on. I think Tyler the Bald Man, although I was follicly challenged back then. Ed was the Bearded Lady. Now I have the beard. Hmm, perhaps we are swapping identities. What would I be now? What do I want to be? Ed was the Bearded Lady. I was the Strong Man. What didn’t we cover? I know: Tyler the Siamese Twin because they can’t use that name anymore. Now it is conjoined twins. You’ve got to be politically correct. I mean, really, I’m about the weight of two people or three, so I’m like conjoined twins in the same body. I think Jim would be Plastic Man because he does a lot of yoga and he’s the most flexible, tall thin man I know. Kevin would be the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. And Ed would be the Hypnotist with those blue eyes that keep getting bluer. You look into his eyes and you instantly fall into a spell. So there are our new roles. You’ve got them all.


I was reading at one point, you guys were attached to do “Animal House: The Musical” and I know you had a falling out with the producers. Are those songs ever going to see the light of day?

I don’t think so because they (the producers) own them. We reworked a couple of the melodies into things. It was such a weird concept. They didn’t know what they wanted. We were like the third band to take a crack at it. I believe they’ve gone through two more since then. The problem is, at the end of the day, it is just not a very good story. It is great movie of vignettes. It is a great party, mayhem, drinking, carnage movie but there’s not a helluva a lot of story there, so I think that’s the challenging part of any band working on it. How the hell do we write any interesting songs about this frat party. I think the dream of bringing Animal House to the stage is a very difficult one to achieve. Perhaps it should just stay where it is: on a VHS tape in my parent’s basement.


Just reading about that it was such a bizarre concept. I know taking movies and making them into musicals is popular now but that is just such a strange one to choose.

Yeah, but, you know we worked our asses off. The thing is we didn’t even see a second act. We worked on the first act, and we wrote 15 songs. We performed them for the producers, etc. and we still didn’t see the second act. Also, they didn’t even have a comedian writing the story. They had a playwright writing it — a guy who has written drama. How about a comedian? That sounds like a good idea to me. Anyway, that’s that. It was an interesting opportunity.


Canada is the butt of a lot of jokes. What is your favorite parody of Canada?

You know, the funny thing is we’re the butt of a lot of jokes and we are the ones doing the joking because Canadian comedians are by far some of the most successful comedians ever. I loved Terrance and Phillip from South Park. I honestly thought for a while that it was a bit of a take on Steve and Ed. What’s another good one? Bob and Doug Mckenzie, even though it is done by Canadians. You know “How’s it going, eh?” “Take off, hosers,” all that stuff. That’s the most clearly Canadian thing that’s actually funny that’s been done. I’ve got to say Terrance and Phillip are right up there.


What is one Canadian stereotype that is 100 percent accurate and what is one that you want to put to bed as a complete fallacy?

I think the politeness stereotype is 100 percent accurate but it is also the one I want to put to bed. We say sorry. And of course the way we pronounce it too — “sore-ree.” The “oot and aboot” thing, I’m tired of that. That shit is boring. But most stereotypes about Canadians are actually true. We really do love hockey. We really do say sorry all the time. I am going to start a new one: Canadians are amazing at handjobs. Canadians give incredible handjobs. That’s the new one. So try to get a Canadian handjob. It is the new thing. They’re the best.


Well, I’ll help spread the word.

Thank you.


You regularly perform in Portland. You were there just last summer. What keeps you coming back?

We love Portland, Maine, because it is one of those towns that kind of reminds of Canada — that we could be in Canada. The maritime vibe. We have our Halifax, Fredericton and places like St. John’s, Newfoundland, etc. Portland is a little like that. Except with black people. We love playing in Portland. We have had some great gigs. We had some good gigs there at the arena when it was the Key Arena and, of course, on the roof of, at the time, WCYY. At the corner there we played a concert on the rooftop. That shit was amazing. We had people down below, people hanging out of windows. So, always a good time in Portland, and also always great chowda. Barenaked Ladies are fueled by chowda.


They still actually regularly play a recording from that performance on CYY.

Yeah, yeah for sure man. Because it was awesome. The energy was so high. Back in the day, I think a great thing about a place like Portland is that it is not too big a city and there’s a really kind of community vibe and I think that really hit right into what Barenaked Ladies was doing. We could play acoustic, we could show up in your living room and play a show. Then we can go up on stage in an arena or concert hall and rock it as well. But we are approachable guys and I think people kind of attach to that. Portland was a perfect sized town for Barenaked Ladies and, quite frankly, still is. Last summer, when we played on the pier that was one of the great nights. It was so nice to be on the water, out under the stars. Awesome time.

  • Published in Music
Subscribe to this RSS feed