Talking to Andrés du Bouchet About Writing for Conan, Standup, and the Gravy Boat Lighthouse
You wouldn’t expect this after seeing him perform, but comedian Andrés du Bouchet is actually, in his own words, “a fairly boring person.” Nor would you take that away after reading his bio, in which he has a lot in common with Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. Du Bouchet “does not have screen or stage presence,” according to his bio, “they have ‘him’ presence.”
Nope, it’s all part of his imagination, his extremely active, probably-startled-his-teachers type of imagination. An imagination that landed him a job in 2008 writing sketches for Conan O’Brien.
But to hear him perform his monologue-style of comedy live, you might be convinced that du Bouchet really does “prowl the pop-culture landscape like a stentorian bear/man/hurricane of whimsy.” He has that booming, larger-than-life persona when he takes the stage, and it’s encapsulated on his new album, Naked Trampoline Hamlet, which comes out next Tuesday.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to du Bouchet about his new album, his favorite Conan sketch, and how he overcame his crippling stage fright.
I saw that you recorded your album at Bar Lubitsch in LA. When did you record it?
It was over two nights on June 8 and 9 of this year. I basically recorded almost the same sets both nights and then just took the takes of each bit that I liked the best.
Going into your show, did you know what bits you wanted to use for your album?
Yeah. I had a lot of material stored up over the 10 years I was doing comedy in New York before I moved out [to LA]. I had never done a CD before, so basically the bits that won out were the ones that I had been doing most recently, the most frequently, and in my opinion, had been going the best. [Laughs.] It made it easy to narrow down. I thought, “Alright, what are the things that I’ve been doing in LA that have been getting laughs?”… It’s funny, when I initially started planning the CD I was being super ambitious in my head and thinking “Wow, I can craft this amazing evening of scripted monologue comedy,” and then I was like “Eh, this would be pretty boring if I used all this stuff.” [Laughs.] I kind of approached it by how I imagine bands do it when they’ve been slaving away for years and years and they finally get their first record deal. And they’re like, “Well what 10 tracks do we put on the first album?” You don’t necessarily put your 10 best songs on it; you put the 10 songs that fit together the best.
I never thought about it that way. The audience at the shows, were some of them familiar with your work? Was this the kind of show where you promoted it heavily and got your fans to show up, because the first bit you did, Danny Yeahyeah, was funny and worked well, but I could see that being risky on a different night if the audience doesn’t know your particular brand of humor. [Editor’s note: Danny Yeahyeah is an elaborate call and response-type joke with the audience.]
Yeah, that’s a good point. I feel like those crowds were half-half. It’s a pretty small venue. You can’t really fit more than 40 or 50 people in to that room…Both nights I had several friends in the audience, but I could also tell that there were many people there who didn’t quite know what they had gotten themselves into. [Laughs.]…It was definitely a mix. There were certain pieces like the Naked Trampoline Hamlet bit and the Finch bit that have done way better previously in various spots I’ve done over the years. They went fine for the CD recording, but neither one of them killed like they have pretty frequently in the past. I think that was a case of some people in the audience not realizing that I was starting a new character or a new bit and I didn’t do a good enough job of segueing or setting it up. They didn’t know what I was doing. [Laughs.] In the past, when I do those bits, I’m like one dude who’s in a show full of standup comedians and I think the audience is better prepared to get on board with what I’m doing cause they’re like “Oh here’s something different, let me pay attention.”
(Click here for a clip of one of the album tracks.)
In terms of your style and your act, has it always been a different take on things that sort of skewers traditional standup? Is that what you wanted to get into when you started performing?
My act has always been like that. I’m not sure it was a conscious choice.
Ok, so you didn’t look at mainstream standup and think “This is a bunch of bullshit, I want to try something different?”
Not at all. There are a ton of stand-ups that I love, who you would call traditional stand-ups. I actually have a ton of respect for people who can do that well. My basic problem was that I was so uncomfortable on stage and had terrible stage fright when I started out, and I would use any excuse to not be myself on stage. I had to do two things: I had to talk in an accent of some sort and I had to have it so super scripted out and memorized that I felt comfortable. That was like my safety blanket. I’d write these bits where I would do these monologues and if I flubbed one word, I would literally go into a spiral and mail in the rest of the bit and get off stage. That was how horrible my stage fright was. It was like that for the first couple years. I like to think I have good stage presence now, but that’s almost all as a result of having sort of forced myself against my will to go onstage when I was terrified over and over again.
Wow, that’s really interesting. I would have thought you were the kind of guy who’s a natural showman who just shows up and is like “Give me the mic.” That’s the aura you present on stage.
Thank you. It’s overcompensating for how terrified I was. Eventually, I developed a lot of pieces where the most comfortable for me to be on stage was to be like this sort of [raises voice] “I’m a blah, blah, blah!” booming, theatrical guy. For no better reason than I’m comfortable talking that way, and people seem people to laugh more when I say things that way. [Laughs.] It all kind of developed out of stage fright and not trusting that my actual personality was interesting. I feel like I’m a fairly boring person, frankly. Most people are pretty surprised when they find out I’m a comedian if they just met me. The instinct is these people aren’t going to find me interesting, but maybe they’ll find this guy interesting.
Well, you could have fooled me. You got your start in New York, right?
Yes, I was living with my folks in New Jersey in ’94-’95 and commuting in to do improv, not longform, but the old game-oriented improv. You know, “I need a noun, now I need an occupation, alright, this is a game show.” I moved to New York in ’97, and that’s when I started to do more solo stuff and getting up on stage at open mics and stuff like that. From ’97 on, until I moved out to LA, that was my thing, the sort of alternative scene in New York.
You’re obviously a great writer, you were hired as a writer and that pays the bills. But you also have that larger-than-life stage presence. Would you like to get more into performing if that opportunity presents itself? Are you pretty content with the writing work?
My favorite thing is to perform stuff I wrote. That’s my favorite single thing. I enjoy writing and I enjoy acting, but nothing’s better than getting on stage and saying stuff I wrote. [Laughs.] That’s called being a comedian, right? I do want to act more actually, and I’m starting to do all the basic stuff like put a reel together and take acting classes. I don’t think that acting’s ever going to become the main thing I do though, because writing is where I’m most comfortable. If that’s all I did from now on, I’d be happy. But I do get a kick out of being big and loud on stage.
I saw some clips of you performing at the Giant Tuesday Night of Amazing Inventions and Also There is a Game show you used to host at Rififi back in 2005. That looked like a blast.
That was the most fun I’ve ever had. We did that every Tuesday night and it was total chaos. It was with a bunch of my friends who are still my good friends and they’re all back in New York still. The reason I started it was so I could get rid of my stage fright. Cause I figured if I had my own show every week, and I had to get up on stage, that would be the best way to beat it out of me. It was great training for both performing and writing because we wrote new stuff every week…It was the whole typical starving artist thing, but I was having such a wonderful time. I wasn’t getting paid to do comedy, but I was doing what I wanted, there were no restrictions or editing or whatever.
Do you have any interest in doing something like that in LA, or do you not have time with your job?
It’s hard. I host a monthly show now called the Du Bouchet Center for the Performing Arts. The thing about that show is it’s super low-maintenance. I host it and then we have three comedians and musical act and it’s a very straightforward variety show. We don’t put the work into it to make it a cohesive show with recurring characters and sketches. There just isn’t time.
Will you be doing any touring with the album?
You know, I haven’t really thought about that, but the fact of the matter is probably that I can’t really get out of town unless I book a bunch of weekend shows. We’ll see. I’d like to do some festivals and stuff like that.
But you’ll be able to do some stuff in New York when Conan tapes out there, right?
Yeah, I think I’m doing 3 or 4 spots there, which should be a lot of fun.
There’s been some coverage of Conan’s ratings and how they’ve taken a bit of a hit recently. Does that kind of stuff have any impact on the writing staff? Does it add any pressure?
Honestly, we don’t really talk about ratings a whole lot in the writers’ room. If there is any pressure based on ratings, we don’t hear about it. I don’t know if that’s something Conan and TBS and the producers of the show all discuss, but we just put our nose to the grindstone and keep cranking out what we do and not worry about it. Every once in a while it will come up and we’ll be like “Well, should we be concerned?” There’s no point in us worrying about it, that’s for sure, because we have no power over it. All we can do is do our jobs. We’re like the kids of the family and Conan and everybody else on top are the parents. They do not discuss adult problems with us. [Laughs.]
My solution is you guys just have to figure out how to synch your programming with the Daily Show’s so you’re on when they go to commercial and they’re on when you go to commercial. There’s so much overlap with those audiences.
I personally think that we need to just open the flood gates more and do crazier shit so that we’re not competing with anybody else in terms of addressing current events or politics. Frankly, people are going to go to Colbert and the Daily Show for that. We might as well be the people doing the insane stuff with sketches and characters and more absurd stuff. I’m hoping we can keep pushing back into that territory. We’ll see.
Are those your favorites things to write? The absurd sketches and characters?
Absolutely. The sillier and more absurd, the better. The old Late Night with Conan O’Brien show with all the characters is one of my favorite things ever, along with Monty Python and even Looney Toons cartoons. Anything that’s absurd. Like, I’m one of those people that will quote Anchorman like crazy.
I read that the legendary Gravy Boat Lighthouse sketch on Conan was your idea. How did that idea come about?
Last Thanksgiving when we were asked to come up with holiday pitches, I submitted a document with a bunch of ideas, and this was literally one of the ideas: Are you an insane person who thinks their gravy boat is a real boat? Are you constantly worried that it will crash and sink? Then you need the gravy boat lighthouse! And it got approved, much to my surprise. When I was told to make it, it was a fun challenge to figure out what the commercial would actually be like. I’m happy with how it came out, and it’s still my favorite thing I’ve done for Conan.
Gravy Boat Lighthouse has its own Facebook fan page. Does that give you faith in America’s appetite for absurdity?
The GBL Facebook page is definitely a sign that there’s still a place in people’s hearts for pure stupidity! And pure stupidity (absurdity) is my thing, so that gives me hope.
Is the writers room at Conan pretty laid back? Does it ever get competitive?
It’s very laid back and collaborative. We don’t have the luxury of being cut-throat because we have to put four shows on every week. We are THRILLED if someone has an idea that we can use. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Great, I’ll help you with that idea.” You’re not going to want to prevent someone else’s stuff from getting on. We’re all rooting for each other.
It’s pretty cool how the Conan writers have become an established brand now with touring and showcases of Conan writers performing live. It doesn’t seem like a lot of other shows are doing that.
It’s great. I like how we are a sort-of troupe. The guy who books comedians on our show has been really good about producing these nights for us, like Night at the Improv with the Conan writers. He gets a kick out of it and there’s enough fans of the show that want to see us perform individually that they usually get pretty good attendance. I’m proud of it. I like to be known as one of the Conan guys.
I follow a lot of the Conan writers on Twitter. Everyone’s really funny, including yourself. Do you guys ever get competitive over that?
No, not at all. I know I don’t have as many followers as some of the other guys because I don’t tweet as frequently and I also don’t make as concerted of an effort to be funny. I usually tweet random shit or angry stuff or drunk stuff or whatever. Some of the writers like Dan Cronin and Josh Comers and Rob Kutner — those three guys are like joke machines, cranking out real pithy, funny well-crafted jokes every day. Frankly I can’t do that, so I don’t worry about competing with that. Again it’s that same theory of, well if I just keep doing it every day, whoever likes it will stick around and whoever doesn’t like it will go away.
Phil Davidson is a copywriter (in reality) and a comedy writer (in his head).