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.

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