Dana and Julie are getting dressed for work.
Julie: Is it a good idea for any of our parents to move in with us? But who has a choice? “Never take sides against the family.”
Dana: Are you quoting The Godfather? Shut that door.
Julie: Don’t you dare, I can’t be late! It makes sense, doesn’t it? You work hard for your kids, why not work hard for your parents?
Dana: I get it with the kids. The weird thing is, the harder we work for them, the more we have to hide it from them, because if they grow up unhappy, then we’ll never get their money.
Julie: Sweetheart, you have to ask you dad what his plans are.
Dana: I can’t talk to him. We tried today, it doesn’t work.
Julie: There’s a way to do it. Be simple and direct. You read “Talk, Look and Listen.”
Dana: What, what and what?
Julie: It’s by the same guy who wrote, “Wake up and Win.”
Dana: Are those real?
Julie: You never read any of the books I leave out for you.
Dana: You never read any of the books I leave out for you.
Julie: They’re all about serial killers!
Julie grabs “Talk, Look and Listen” off of a stack on the beside table, hands it to Dana and leaves.
A Continued Conversation with the Writer:
Neely: Tell me a bit about your background. Obviously standup, but what else?
Dana: I wanted to be a standup from the time I was about 12 or 13 years old. I kind of knew what I wanted to do really young. My mom took me to see George Carlin when I was 16, and it was one of those moments – “Yeah! That’s what I want to do.” Right there. The first time I did it was two weeks out of high school. I went into Boston and did an open mike night; it was in June of 1982. And then I started doing it in college at the University of Massachusetts. That took me out of my home town and got me into Boston where I made a living at it. Then I moved to San Francisco in 1986. So basically I fell right into it at a really early age. I’ve been making my living at it since I was about 20 or 21 years old. I always intended to get into acting and I naturally assumed I would be a giant movie star with my looks. I moved to LA in the late 80’s and fell in with Janeane Garofalo, who was a friend of mine from Boston. We all moved out here at about the same time. There was this little clique of people like Janeane Garofalo and myself and Bob Odenkirk and Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow. We were all sort of, as I’d describe it, running around in suede coats, writing on our hands. I sort of came out of that comedy class. I worked on “The Ben Stiller Show” and I fell into writing because I’d done a bunch of pilots as talent. You know, you get to a point when you’re a hot standup comedian and you get talent deals and then you do a pilot. In the early 90’s I made a great living making pilots that never saw the light of day.
Neely: Writing them or acting in them?
Dana: Just acting in them. Other people were writing them. Jace Richdale did the first one, Linwood Boomer did one, then Matt Endberg did one. It was “Dana’s Town” or “Dana’s Face.” I can’t remember. So over the years I had my hands in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist. And finally around ’95, I just got sick of sitting down with TV writers and explaining who I was. So I just wrote one on my own as a kind of “I can do this.” It was a show called “World on a String” that was basically a cross between “Seinfeld” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” It was like a traditional sitcom set in a hyper reality. It was made by Fox Alternative for FBC, and it got picked up and made. But it didn’t get on the air – it got close – and people still comment on it. People still tell me that they thought it was interesting – it wasn’t the typical pilot, it had different elements in it. It would probably make a decent show now if I replaced me with a 14 year old girl, I could put it on Nick Jr. or Disney. But if I were a 14 year old girl, I’d have other things to do – I’d be at the mall.
Neely: Not to worry. Pretty soon you’ll be doing that except that you’ll be having to stand in the background.
Dana: Don’t even! I can’t think that far ahead.
Neely: (laughs) It’s not that far ahead.
Dana: No it’s not. They’re already avoiding my eyes when I walk into school before they’re out. Anyway, as an actor, things started to cool and I said, “You know what? I’ll just do standup and write.” By that time I had met the woman I was going to marry and I had been doing standup for 12 or 13 years. So it was one of those moments where I went, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got this. I can write and do standup. I don’t need to be a big star. I’m happy to make a living.” And of course because I had made that decision, I got cast in a sitcom pilot. That one was called “Working” starring Fred Savage and I played the “idiot” on the first season of that show. That was a frustrating experience for me because I wasn’t allowed to do what I do. There wasn’t a lot of communication with the writers. I had a hard time putting into words for them what I felt I could do. One week the character was a Mensa genius and the next week he literally didn’t know how a telephone worked. It was hard to play it because it was just a joke (the unfunny kind).
Neely: It must have been extraordinarily frustrating because you could write and they weren’t listening to you.
Dana: Exactly. But the producers and execs also weren’t listening to the people who were hired to write… I wasn’t the only one with that complaint. So after that, I said “Forget this.” And sometime after that I just left acting for a good long stretch.
Neely: What is the life of a stand-up comedian and how does it affect home life?
Dana: You’d have to ask one (laughs).
Neely: Ha! Ha! Ha!
Dana: The dilemma of the standup comedian is that he has no home life which is why I don’t do it as a living anymore because I don’t want to grow old in a condo. I still perform around town. I’m appearing at the Upright Citizen Brigade’s Theater and then the next night downtown at the Mayan Theater; and I’m going to San Francisco for a weekend in a couple of weeks. But I don’t tour. I’ve been doing this for 26 years so I don’t need to delve that deeply into Dana’s life to develop material. I have a good ear for it now.
Neely: Do you still mine your family?
Dana: Yeah, that and whatever’s current in my life. That’s always been the way I write. As I grow older and develop different interests, my act changes. To me, though, my standup career is more of a hobby. It’s a thing I do that I love to do. This is how I would phrase it, “I’m a standup comedian but I don’t do it competitively.” I’m like a guy who used to surf for a living and now I just surf.
Neely: What was your ultimate goal?
Dana: In standup, I’ve achieved it. I’m a funny guy and people like me. I tell my jokes and people laugh. In life, I’d like to dominate all media.
Neely: Oh excellent. I think we’ve seen a TV show on that. Oh… actually wouldn’t that TV show be “No Ordinary Family”? (laughs)
Dana: It would be “No Extraordinary Pitch.”
Neely: (laughs) I think you may have already answered this but I’ve been laughing so much that I was distracted. When did you get to write some of your own material when you were hired as an actor? Or did you just slip it in?
Dana: Only when I hired myself as an actor.
Neely: So what was the reception?
Dana: The only time I’ve ever written my own material was when it was a show that I was producing or have written. Usually, it’s really hard because when you’re an actor on a sitcom that you’re not writing, you have a duty to define the character on the stage to make it easier for them to write for you and to give them something to write to. And at the time (on “Working”), it was a perfect storm of bad communication. I don’t think I had the skill set to present them with something that they could write to and they didn’t have the skill set to write something consistently. Unless it was their intention to do a character who was that schizophrenic, which they would never tell me. When I did other shows, like “Seinfeld,” I was completely happy to shut my mouth and hit my mark.
Neely: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it was always my impression that you create a character on the page and then you cast the person to play that character and it’s up to the actor to act that character the way it was written.
Dana: The character that I played on “Working” was never a character. It was just a punchline delivery system. It was played by a different actor in the pilot and then they cast me and I played it one way in the audition to get the part. But the way I played it in the audition never made it to the first episode. I was too intimidated by everything else that was going on. I was a C-string cast member, anyway, and couldn’t really raise an objection. Then by the time I did, it was too late. I was just low-hanging fruit.
Neely: If I get around to asking you about your best and worst experiences, I’m going to put that down as a low point.
Dana: I’m not sure if it’s that, but it was definitely my easiest job. Working in a sitcom is pretty pretty sweet. It’s hard to find something to really complain about.
Neely: I know you went to U. Mass., but did you finish?
Dana: No I didn’t. I left after 2½ semesters. My college experience was working as a standup. The classes were sort of this annoyance.
Neely: So you quit to go on the road as a comedian.
Dana: Yeah. To go be a standup.
Neely: Well, someday you can go back and finish school because it would add so much more to your life.
Dana: (chuckles) Exactly. I am an idol of drop-outs everywhere.
Neely: At what point did you come out to LA?
Dana: I moved to San Francisco in 1987, knowing that I would move to LA soon after. What I wanted to do as a performer, I didn’t think I was quite ready to be in LA. LA was pretty much the major leagues and San Francisco was a Triple A club. But it was close enough to LA that you could sort of develop a network of places, clubs, to make a living. I had a great old time. I was living in San Francisco in my mid twenties, making a living as a comic. It was a great time. So the fondness that people have when they recall their college experience, mine was really more when I was a standup in San Francisco and LA in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Neely: Did you always want to write or is it impossible to separate the writing from the performing?
Dana: It’s impossible to separate them; they feed off each other. It’s one and the same. Since I left “The Simpsons,” I’ve been writing features and I enjoy that as well. I love painting in that broad canvas. I’d love to write movies and act in movies and fart around.
Neely: Have you been in any movies?
Dana: Yeah. I’ve had small roles in a bunch of movies.
Neely: So that’s still on the horizon for you…
Dana: Yeah. In the 90’s when I was acting a lot I had a lot of bit parts in things – “Mystery Men,” “My Fellow Americans,” “Reality Bites” – all those kinds of films. Since the pilot, I’ve re-energized my acting career which is ongoing and pretty interesting. There’s a low budget film that I’m going to make.
Neely: Do you still have that tight circle of friends that you had when you came out here? Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofolo, Judd Apatow…
Dana: I still see them, but now it’s as much as people see their college friends. It’s sort of the same thing. When you see each other it’s like you haven’t seen each other since yesterday, even though it might have been a year and a half.
Neely: I know what your least favorite television experience was. What was your favorite television experience?
Dana: That wasn’t my least favorite. My least favorite television experience was a pilot I wrote for Comedy Central which I actually think is the best thing I ever wrote. And they had me do endless, endless, endless, endless, endless, endless rewrites; refining it down into the minutia where I thought they were clearly just giving me notes for the budget, and then they finally said, “Yeah. We just don’t have the money to make this.” That was in an earlier regime. It was basically the movie “Zombieland” a year and a half before the movie “Zombieland.”
Neely: I can see where that’s a gut wrencher.
Dana: One of many. But as George Meyer of “The Simpsons” described Show Business - “On to the next humiliation.”
Neely: (laughter) What was your favorite television experience?
Dana: Doing “Seinfeld.” I was on the last season of “Seinfeld” playing a character called Fragile Frankie Merman who gave Jerry a van that he didn’t want. My feelings got hurt and I went into Central Park and dug a hole and hid in it. I still get recognized for that. It was kind of funny.
Neely: How about favorite books – now and in the past.
Dana: I, oddly enough, don’t know how to read (laughter) which I find interesting in that I’ve done so well. Now-a-days with the limited time I have, I basically read non-fiction. I can read when I’m on the treadmill and that’s about it. I think that Katherine Dunne’s Geek Love is a book that I read, probably in college. The book really affected me because it created this incredibly complex world and the motivations of the characters were amazingly human and normal. These bizarre inhabitants of a freak show, but they were absolutely as normal and flawed as anyone else. I find that that echoes through. I just read Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s War and in a way it’s the same thing. You get all the way up to the highest levels of government and everything is still about people’s personality flaws, ego and turf and agendas and settling scores. I’m fascinated by the personality of politics and how character defines history. History is really just people being true to their character, flaws and all. That’s what defines and writes human history; it’s very little to do with anything more grandiose than that.
Neely: Do you read to your kids?
Dana: Yeah. And that’s the great thing. My 8 year old is now just getting into reading in a big way. She’s about a year away from Harry Potter. I’m very excited for her. She’s a lot like me; she’s going to just dive in there and just vanish.
Neely: What do you read them at night? I loved reading to my son. There’s a whole world of children’s’ literature out there that’s accessible and still interesting to parents.
Dana: My oldest is funny because she’s dark, like me. She likes the Goosebumps books and spooky stuff like that.
Neely: What about Roald Dahl?
Dana: That’s a little too hard for her right now, but she does like this book called A Dark Dark Room which is like these weird little Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Her younger sister, the 6 year old, is more of a princess, more dainty. She has no use for monsters.
Neely: So you’re not having group reading sessions. Each one gets her own.
Dana: Yeah, they all get a little bit of time… away from each other. Because they go to the same school, one’s in second grade and the other’s in first, they’re just down the hall from each other. They see each other at lunch. So they want a little bit of alone time at the end of the day.
Neely: I can see that. So, what are you watching on television now?
Dana: I’m at that point now where I watch just “Charlie Rose,” “Mad Men,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” I’ve recently gotten into the late 60’s “Dragnet.” They’re all out on DVD now and I’m completely enamored of Jack Webb’s story telling ability which drives like a snowcat through a blizzard. He just plows ahead. I really enjoy them – the incredibly no frills performances and dialogue. They’re like tiny little Clifford Odets plays. They just clip along.
Right now I’m in my child rearing years so everything I’m reading and watching is just in snippets.
Neely: I highly recommend this new compilation DVD (Costco has them) of early TV detectives (keeping in mind that most of it is crap) from the 50’s to early 60’s. There are about 12 episodes of the first season of “Dragnet.”
Dana: The black and white ones? I have a giant package of them.
Neely: Most of them were originally radio plays.
Dana: I have those too. Lee Marvin is unbelievable.
Neely: He is!! That one is just brilliant – one of the best of them all. You could already see his star power, and this was before “The Wild One” with Brando and his coffee throwing psycho in “The Big Heat.”
Dana: Back then they were not afraid to let 2 people talk for 5 minutes. There wasn’t this frenetic need to fill it with action. Actually, though, some of the best television in history is going on right now. “The Wire” is as good as anything. “Mad Men” I think is amazing. I think “Boardwalk Empire” is going to grow into something historic. It’s all in what you like. I find it interesting that some of the best stuff is off on these cable channels. The networks have been relegated to procedural drama delivery systems; it’s all about how you solve the murder.
Neely: I hate procedurals. They’re written by template. In going back to Jack Webb, I don’t share your enthusiasm for him as a writer, but what has blown me away, and especially looking at the really early ones, is what an incredible director he was.
Dana: By storyteller, I meant as a director. He didn’t really write a lot of those. It was his economy of camera movement, it was almost shot like a documentary in a weird way. Really interesting.
Neely: I think he understood more about using unusual camera angles as a POV device at that early stage of television than almost anyone did. It was very theatrical.
Dana: “The DI,” was a movie he directed. He’s under-rated; he’s very cinematic. David Mamet wrote one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. Mamet said everything should lead the viewer to ask “what happens next?” And if you don’t leave them asking “What happens next? What does she do next? Where does he go next? What does he see next? What does he say next?” then it’s not working. The actor’s job is to serve the story and Jack Webb, in those “Dragnets,” adhered to that decades before Mamet’s edict; but it was the same thing. There were very few flourishes and indulgent moments. They just cranked along. He managed to tell a lot of story in a very short time.
Neely: Mentors along the way?
Dana: I’ve had a lot of great ones. There’s a comedian and writer named Kevin Rooney who, when I first moved to LA, really took me under his wing. In terms of standup, he was incredibly influential and gave me advice that I still use to this day and pass on to other comics. He’s a great writer, too. I think Mike Scully and George Meyer of “The Simpsons” both made me a much better writer just by being around them and watching them cut through the crap. If Jack Webb was about getting to the story, then Mike and George were about getting to what’s funny and then moving on and get to the next funny. I would say those three people have been a big big influence on me as a writer and a performer.
Neely: What other pilots have you written that have come close to pick up?
Dana: I wrote a pilot called “World on a String” that was made in about ’97 and that supposedly got close. I had a show on TV called “Super Adventure Team” which was the movie “Team America” a year and a half before “Team America.” And to their credit, they did clearly see the show because they used my entire voice cast. And then this show on Comedy Central two years ago that never got close but I think that in terms of what my job is as a writer came the closest the capturing what I pitched to them at the time, and one I thought was a show that really would have said something. The premise of the show… it was pitched as the cast of “Seinfeld” in the world of “I Am Legend.” After the apocalypse, we’ll be in shock for about a month and then we’ll go back to business as usual and people will be jerks and rude and people will cheat on their girlfriends but it will just happen in the back drop of the apocalypse. I think I captured it really well and that’s the one where I kick myself. But I try not to kick myself too hard because I’m all about what’s next. You can spend your life griping about something that didn’t happen.
Neely: Yeah, I spend my life doing that…
Dana: Well, one day you don’t wake up so it’s really not a good thing. What’s going to happen is that you get to the end of the race and you realize there wasn’t a race.
Neely: Who said that?
Dana: My friend Ray Green who’s a public radio producer. We were talking about friends of ours, now dead, and how they lived for their grudges. One day they went to bed and didn’t wake up and that was it. They should have enjoyed those last 50 years.
Neely: How has your comedy changed as you’ve gotten older and as a dad?
Dana: I think it gets better. The more you experience life, the funnier you’re going to be. I always find it crazy when you read about comedians who go “I don’t want to go into therapy because I’m afraid it will hurt my comedy.” How can getting more in touch with who you are… how can that negatively influence your artistic fiber. That always boggled my mind. I think the only stuff I do that’s any good is the stuff I’m going to do tomorrow. The more you live life, the richer the palette of colors you get to pull from. I thought my last special was much better than the special that came before that and I hope my next special will be better than the one that came before it.
Neely: Have you got another special coming up?
Dana: I’m just now starting to put together the material for it. It will be a lot of fun.
Neely: By the way, there is a book I’ll recommend that you read and it’s non-fiction so it fits in with your present day needs. It’s about the era that came right before you in stand up – Leno, Letterman, Boosler, Williams and Seinfeld, among others. It’s a book called I’m Dying Up Here by Bill Noedelseder. I thought it was excellent.
Dana: That’s a great book. Was that the one about the strike?
Dana: I know a lot of people in that book. I have it in a pile somewhere.
Neely: I really loved it; it just flies along. It’s one of those books where you’re laughing and laughing and then you’re incredibly depressed.
Dana: Well as I’ve often said, nobody goes into standup comedy because they have their emotional shit together.
Neely: Anything you wish you could do over?
Dana: No. Really, no. Despite appearances, I’m a super fortunate person. I certainly wish that some things had happened differently but I’m pretty content with the way things are.
Neely: Where or what are you working now?
Dana: Like I said, I’m putting together material for a new special. I’m pitching a show with an actress named Rachel Harris. We had an idea together that we’re trying to assemble into something. And I’m getting ready write a feature that I’ll make as a down and dirty supernatural comedy.
Neely: You gonna’ be in it?
Dana: Yeah, I’m gonna be in it, which is why it’s going to be down and dirty because no one is going to pay to have me star in it. I don’t care. I’m not doing it to make money, I’m doing it because I want to do it. That’s probably the best reason to do stuff.
Neely: I think it always has been, but I think a lot of us lose sight of that.
Dana: I always look at a movie I think is really funny, “Foot Fist Way,” as an example. Have you ever seen it.
Neely: No I haven’t.
Dana: It’s the movie that put Danny McBride (“Eastbound and Down”) on the map. The reason it got made with him as the star was because he made it. Period. He got it made. The same with “Shaun of the Dead” and Simon Pegg.
Neely: Oh my god, I love that movie!
Dana: You get it made because you do it. Don’t wait for anybody to give you a break or let you do something. Just do it.
Neely: You have so much insight and it’s been so much fun talking to you. Thanks for spending the time. I’m so flattered you made the time to talk to me. You have a new fan in me and I can’t wait to read and see more.