How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Rob Corddry

Rob Corddry’s newest series, Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital (that’s right: no apostrophe), is a gag-a-second mockery of one of television’s old standbys: the medical drama. Childrens Hospital is the next logical step for Corddry, who began as an actor in college, continued into improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and landed a spot on The Daily Show in 2002. Since then, he’s made some memorable appearances in movies, including Hot Tub Time Machine, and a role as presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer in Oliver Stone’s W.

On Thursday, June 30th, SF Sketchfest will present the cast of Childrens Hospital live on stage, along with the cast of the forthcoming series National Terrorism Strike Force: San Diego: Sport Utility Vehicle [NTSF: SD: SUV] – a parody of police procedurals and action programs in the vein of 24. That show, which premieres next month on Adult Swim, was created by Paul Scheer, formerly a partner of Corddry’s at Upright Citizens Brigade, and co-stars Rob Riggle, who worked with Corddry both at UCB and The Daily Show.

I started my recent conversation with Corddry by asking him about the earliest part of his career.

What was your training prior to joining the Upright Citizens Brigade?

I was a theater and English major in college, and literally the day after graduation, I moved to New York City. I hit the pavement pretty hard and was set on becoming the highest-paid crappy Shakespearean actor ever. I would get Backstage magazine and audition for absolutely everything. And one of the things I got was a play where I met this woman who was in a sketch group. So I auditioned for the sketch group, and I got it. And I was like, “Do I really want to do this? I’m a very important Shakespearean actor.” But six months later, I was furiously writing sketches and learning how to do comedy. We were terrible. It was the worst sketch group in New York’s history. Then I started a sketch group with a bunch of friends called Naked Babies, which exists today – but then, we found UCB.

What years were you at the UCB in New York?

I was actively doing shows every night from about ’97 to about 2001, 2002. When I got on The Daily Show, I just didn’t have the time. And from then on, I’ve just performed sporadically. But for a few years, it was five to seven shows a week. Paul Scheer [Childrens Hospital guest star and creator of NTSF: SD: SUV] and Rob Huebel [co-star of Childrens Hospital] and Rob Riggle [fellow alum of The Daily Show and co-star of NTSF: SD: SUV] were in the class ahead of me.

Were you aware at the time that The Daily Show was going to be a leap forward for you? Looking back on it now, how do you think that experience affected your approach to comedy in general?

I was certainly aware of how special it was. It definitely seemed like a “right time, right place” scenario. We knew it was lightning in a bottle. I wasn’t really thinking about how much it was going to help my career – any more than I always do. [Laughs] My career has been a very long, slow, gradual turtle-walk up a long flight of stairs. But that’s good because that means there’s always an easy learning curve. But The Daily Show did teach me how to be funny on TV – which is how it informed my present work.

Has anyone in the press ever tried to pull a Daily Show-style interview on you?

There was one kid – I was in Austin for something, and somebody interviewed me on the street. Some college kids. And they kept hitting me in the mouth with the microphone. I was like, “Really? You’re pulling a Mo Rocca, circa the year 2000 on me?”

Given that you and most of the cast of Childrens Hospital have a background in improv, I wondered if improvisation played any part in the development of the show.

The development process was very deliberate. But there is improv happening once we feel like we’ve got what we need in the script. Of course, it would be a shame to waste the talents of these brilliant improvisers – I mean, Rob Huebel is probably one of the best improvisers alive. So, I can definitely point to a couple of lines in each episode that are improvised. But for the most part, it’s a tightly-scripted show. And we all have our strengths. Jon Stern, who will be at the show in San Francisco, is one of those rare producers who can write a great joke and can also book a caterer. David has way more experience with that than I do, too. I’m just the monkey in the corner spouting jokes and clanging cymbals.

Are you still the primary writer? You’re credited with many of the scripts.

I like to write about half of them. And I enjoy doing it. It’s really fun to write this show. But also, the three of us edit every script that comes in written by someone else – just to control the voice of the show.

I understand that when you brought the show from the web series to Adult Swim, you preferred the 15-minute format offered by Adult Swim as opposed to the standard 30-minute format of most comedy shows.

Absolutely. I had no interest in bringing it to television at all, until I heard that there was such a thing as a 15-minute format. I just don’t think this relentless joke-after-joke kind of show would be interesting after 15 minutes. This is joke-based comedy, as opposed to character- or relationship-based comedy.

The spinoff [NTSF: SD: SUV] begins airing next month?

As much as I’d like to take credit, it’s not a spinoff and I had nothing to do with it. Jon Stern is the connection – he’s executive producing it with my good friend Paul Scheer. And we come from the same family of comedy – I’d say it’s the same genre. But there’s no real connection to Childrens.

But it [NTSF: SD: SUV] began as a phony advertisement during the re-broadcast of the initial web version of Childrens Hospital on Adult Swim.

That’s right. Paul was nice enough to bail me out, in a way, because I was about 45 seconds to a minute short for one episode. They had shot that fake commercial as sort of a pilot, so Jon suggested sticking that in there. I said, “Great! As long as there’s a lot of punching.”

Will the San Francisco show mark the first time the Childrens Hospital cast has performed live together?
Last season we did some screenings, where we did some live bits – some successful, some not. We’ve learned our lesson and we’ve planned this show out a little bit more. We’re each going to show an episode that hasn’t been seen yet, and we’ll do a Q&A together. And we’ll do some bits. Actually, we’re slowly plotting a live Childrens Hospital tour. We wanted to get it out this fall, but that’s not going to happen. So ideally, we’d like to do it in the spring, before colleges let out. It’s a beast to put together, and none of us have a lot of time. This would be a tightly-scripted show. There would be live music – actually, I believe it’s going to be a musical.

This article is an expanded version of a piece that originally ran on the SF Weekly's arts blog, Exhibitionist. The original version is available here.


On DVD: The Company Men

A topical film that grapples (somewhat aloofly) with the importance of "work" in our daily lives, The Company Men is reasonably intelligent and well-acted - and it features Kevin Costner finally pulling off an accent. Writer-director John Wells tackles the ongoing recession with sensitivity, portraying three characters (played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper) whose positions within a single large corporation are affected in differing ways by the company's need to continue providing good quarterly results to investors amid an ongoing economic crisis. Yet Wells doesn't quite go far enough; these three characters' identities are very much bound up in their jobs, and Wells never properly examines the consequences of self-identifying as a salesman, an executive, or a middle manager in a changing world that challenges our own ethical and moral standards.

Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a successful sales executive at a large ship-building corporation headed by Jim Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Unexpectedly finding himself the victim of down-sizing, Walker has trouble adjusting to unemployment. He doesn't want to give up his Porsche or his country club membership, stubbornly believing their symbolic value will help get him a new job. His pragmatic wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) insists that he find a job - any job - to help keep their family afloat. So Walker goes to work in construction for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), essentially learning a new trade from scratch. Meanwhile, his former company continues to fall apart, with company co-founder McClary and the depressive manager played by Cooper also losing their jobs.

Wells elicits fine performances from his outstanding cast, who have numerous Oscars among them. Jones is particularly fine, his face a road map of heartache and hard living that lends a somber self-awareness to McClary, who knows only too well that many have suffered at his expense over his years of hard work and empire-building. Nelson is beefy and dickish as a cold pragmatist who will do whatever it takes to keep his company in the black. And Costner strikes the right note as a blue-collar professional who wryly enjoys the satisfaction of an honest day's work.

The film's plot is a straightforward look at a loss of pride and the ensuing struggle for redemption, placed in a contemporary, realistic milieu. When Walker and several former co-workers gather at a placement agency as they seek employment, the sense of shame that attends a loss of status and income is palpable. Yet the Affleck character's struggle is diminished when we see him driving a Porsche, living in a house that's got to be 3,000 square feet, and playing golf as he sees fit. This could have been treated as a poignant reminder that many of our larger economic problems can be attributed to massive consumption and ignorance on an individual basis, but these scenes are not handled that way. Walker is simply a prideful man who doesn't want to be stripped of his toys.

And this brings me to what troubles me about
The Company Men, which, as I suggested, is competently made and well-acted. Yet there's a nagging hollowness within the movie's real, tangible themes. Wells does not search hard enough for the significance of work in people's lives. Other than "having a job" as a source of pride and income, there is not much in the movie that talks substantively as to what that work really accomplishes beyond its immediate benefit to the employed. In other words, the questions I would have liked to see asked include: Why do we work at the jobs we have? Why do we have those jobs in the first place? These and related questions are exactly the ones that the newly-unemployed have the opportunity to ask and the present recession has indeed led many to shift their career tracks entirely.

The conclusion of
The Company Men sees Affleck throwing in with the Jones character as they launch a brand-new enterprise together, in an attempt at empire-building all over again. The final scenes are hasty, and I have to assume they were tacked on at the last minute. This assumption is bolstered by an "alternate ending" included on the DVD as a special feature. This alternate ending doesn't add different footage, it just draws the film to a more organic close at an earlier and more appropriate point. In short, Affleck stays on with Costner's character, having decided to make a go of it in the construction business. This ending at least gets within shouting distance of the issues I would have like to see raised in the film, with Affleck re-assessing his career and the kind of people he wants to work with. But the ending we have skirts all of that, making the point that only a legitimate corporate career can provide Affleck with fulfillment - a depressing prospect, to be sure, and a low note upon which to conclude the film. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: The Ambassador (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

The Ambassador is a lot of ridiculous fun with a bizarre combination of elements, including a very 1980s thriller milieu involving middle eastern political strife and terrorism, a 1930s pulp adventure plot, and two major stars of yesteryear - Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson (his last film) - being directed by the capable and prolific J. Lee Thompson. Throw in good supporting performances by Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn and former Blofeld Donald Pleasance, and you have an entertaining (and somewhat campy) action picture that's hiding a few interesting surprises.

The film opens with United States ambassador to Isreal Peter Hacker (Mitchum) and his security aide Frank Stevenson (Hudson) traveling out into the Judean desert to secretly meet with representatives of the PLO. The meeting is broken up when the group is attacked simultaneously by the Israeli secret service and members of a radical PLO splinter group; each of these groups first attacks the rendezvous and then each other. It's a chaotic batshit sequence that confuses the participants amid decent aerial camerawork and rapid-fire gunplay.

Meanwhile, Hacker's wife Alex (Burstyn) is involved in an affair with an antiquities merchant who turns out to have ties to the PLO. The same splinter group that attacked Hacker's desert meet with the PLO is tracking Alex's movements and films her illicit trysts, using the footage to blackmail Hacker into desisting from his attempts at diplomacy among the various interested parties. (I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the, uh, two surprises that Burstyn - aged 52 at the time of the film's production - provides in these early scenes.)

As far as the story goes, it's a pulpy mess of cliches and easy action-film tropes. But the cast keeps things interesting, especially the odd dynamic between Mitchum and Burstyn's characters. These middle-aged globe-trotting bureaucrats don't have much of a marriage, and when Burstyn's affair is revealed, Mitchum's response is more empathetic than angry. The situation ends up bringing them closer together. I don't know how realistic this scenario is, but the actors bring it off well, sharing a world-weary closeness that grows interestingly as the film goes on.

Other aspects of the film are muddled at best - particularly the conclusion, which features gathering of students from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who have convened at Hacker's behest to talk peacefully about a way forward. They wind up being massacred by the machine guns of the PLO splinter group in a violent sequence that eerily prefigures (at least in some respects) the 1987 Mecca massacre. It's a bloody scene that, like much of the film in general, doesn't accomplish much dramatically while maintaining the highest standard of sensationalism. Still, The Ambassador is weird, choppy fun that is maintained by a cast of legendary Hollywood stars. 


On DVD: The Boy Friend (Warner Archive Collection)

The Boy Friend is equal parts throwback and time capsule - an homage to the great Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930s choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley, and a record of an era in filmmaking (1971 to be precise) that fostered experimentation beyond the traditions of the Golden Age studio system - even at major studios such as Warner Brothers, which financed and distributed Ken Russell's adaptation of Sandy Wilson's smash Broadway musical. 

Twiggy, fashion icon of the 1960s, stars as Polly, the assistant stage manager at a second-rate theater in an English seaside town. The troupe is in the midst of its run of "The Boy Friend," except that it is short its leading lady, who has recently been injured. So, Polly is thrown in as a last-minute replacement by the troupe's ambitious director (Max Adrian), out to impress the visiting Hollywood director De Thrill. The performance goes on, with Polly gamely struggling to keep up and ultimately stealing the show by virtue of sheer unpracticed charm. Her convincing performance is aided immeasurably by her real crush on the male lead, Tony (Christopher Gable), whose level of reciprocation appears to be ambivalent throughout. 

Russell's conception of the whole is as a play-within-a-movie, an old-fashioned Hollywood musical with fantasy-like dance numbers that extend well beyond the world of the film's setting. In sequences that rhapsodically depart from the creaky stage of the troupe's run-down theater, dancers perform as dice, as the characters on playing cards, as mushroom-dwelling forest gnomes, as Classical libertines, and as bits of kaleidoscopic glass that move upon gigantic revolving turntables. These numbers are made whole thanks to show-stopping music (Wilson's score was ably adapted and supplemented by Peter Maxwell Davies) and infectious, energetic choreography and dancing. The Boy Friend is easily the best Busby Berkeley musical that Berkeley never made.

Taking their cue from silent cinema as well as Hollywood musicals of yore, the cast hams it up appropriately. Gable is toothy and a touch too pretty as Tony. Adrian is anxious and greasy as the director Max. Glenda Jackson appears in a wonderfully modulated cameo as the injured leading lady, letting Polly know she'll never measure up, only to follow that with restrained encouragement. Tommy Tune has a featured role as a predictably dance-savvy cast member. As Polly, Twiggy embodies some of the same qualities that made her so influential in fashion - quiet humility, innocence, and easy, effortless charm - something like a female Oliver Twist. 

Russell is known as an excessive director, and although The Boy Friend is never excessive in its content, it is rather long. I suspect a judicious editor could easily shed 20 or more of the movie's 138 minutes and not harm the film's narrative flow or spectacular dance sequences. Still, that is the only real caveat I can think of. The Boy Friend is old-fashioned filmmaking that captures a classic feel while pushing the cinematic form of the musical forward in ways that still look clever forty years later. 

Read the full review here


News: New Work for the LA Weekly

I've picked up a gig covering books and comedy for the LA Weekly's arts and culture blog, Style Council. My first piece has just been posted. It's an interview with Harold Goldberg, author of a new book called All Your Base Are Belong to Us. It's an engaging cultural history of video games. I have a few other pieces forthcoming, and I hope many more to come. Watch this space for future posts.

In addition, I have some stuff forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books and (fingers crossed) another publication, but that one's too premature to name at the moment. This freelancing thing is finally starting to work...