David Koechner has, by our rough estimate, starred in approximately a bazillion different television shows and movies. The versatile comedic actor who got his start in the Chicago improv scene is best known for his roles as Todd Packer in The Office and Champ Kind in Anchorman – two hilarious, yet very distinct types of chauvinistic jerks – but you’re just as likely to recognize him from any number of sketch shows, sitcoms, cartoons, and 3D killer piranha films from the mid-‘90s on.
This year has proved as busy as ever for Koechner. In addition to once again donning Champ’s cowboy hat for the much-anticipated Anchorman sequel, he’s also receiving early buzz for his decidedly dark turn in the pitch black comedy Cheap Thrills and is gearing up for a national standup tour.
Before he set out for Anchorman 2’s promotional media blitz, I had the chance to talk to David Koechner over the phone about the sequel fans have spent the last decade asking him about, his impressive work ethic, and what he’s learned from his recent move into the realm of standup comedy.
Are you relieved you’ll no longer have to answer questions about when a sequel to Anchorman is happening?
I think immediately the next question will be asked, “So, when’s the third one?”
That was going to be my last question.
[Laughs.] No, I enjoy the enthusiasm people have to such a degree that they demanded the second movie. So that’s fantastic.
The original plan was to make a Broadway musical version of the movie. Were you prepared to sing in that?
Oh, yeah. Well, the plan was that it was going to be a Broadway version, but it wasn’t going to be a musical. There were probably going to be musical elements in it, but it was just going to be a fun thing to do to celebrate the first movie. But it never got that far down the road.
So that was just an idea that was thrown out?
Yeah, they were making plans. We were going to rehearse in the spring of 2010 and in the summer of 2010 we were going to do a Broadway version of the first Anchorman. So, it wasn’t necessarily a musical version of the movie, it was just going to be a stage show. Just for fun.
When you were filming the original, did you have any idea it was going to be such a huge hit?
Well all we knew — and I remember having this conversation — we knew it felt pretty special. It felt like, “This is kind of uncommon. This whole movie seems to be working on all cylinders.” You can never know what’s going to be a hit, and I guess it doesn’t actually qualify as a hit at the box office because it only made 84 million dollars. And you’re kind of expecting comedy movies like that to make 100 million dollars. And that might be the reason it took so long to get the second one made.
As someone who has starred in so many comedies, do you have a personal opinion of why you think Anchorman in particular made such a lasting impression?
Yeah, it’s deeper in scope and more complex than might be obvious. It’s a satire. But you don’t sell satires because you sell broad comedies, so it’s a broad comedy. It’s a satire parading as a broad comedy. There’s so much more to it than in your initial impression. That’s why people keep coming back and watching it again. Because I hear from people all the time that they missed something on a previous viewing. What do you think?
I think it’s the quotability. I have friends who still quote from that movie. I think it’s probably stuck with us longer than a lot of other comedies just because you can always go back and say, “smelly pirate hooker.” That’s good in everyday conversation.
Yeah, say that in a business meeting and you’ll do fine.
Has the success of the movie been a double-edged sword for you at all? Obviously it was big for your career, but you’ve probably had the film quoted to you more than I could possibly imagine.
Well, that’s a delight! I don’t think there’s any downside to that.
Was there at all a pressure when you were filming the sequel to live up or to surpass the original?
I never worried about it. You got Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, brilliant as ever, and we had the same cast come back, so I had no apprehension. It’s very funny. I think the audience is gonna be very happy.
Do we learn anything new and exciting about Champ in the sequel or is he just the same alcoholic, potentially gay sportscaster that we all know and love?
I think he’s darker than you may have noticed before. Not completely off the rails, but certainly there’s a shadow over him.
Adam McKay said that you filmed enough alternate jokes to actually make an entirely different movie. When filming, was there a script to follow or was each scene basically an improv session?
Both. Yeah, we’d shoot the script and then Adam or whoever was open to offer up alternative lines of dialogue for every scene. So basically you’ve got three or four different chances for every line in the movie. And you know, that gives them choices in the editing bay. A lot of times, they probably just pick one because I think there were so many funny lines. We were lobbying to make this into two films about three quarters of the way through the movie. Like, let’s just Kill Bill this thing because we didn’t want to lose anything.
As an actor, do you prefer to have that kind of creative freedom? To be able to riff and put your own lines or spin on the character?
It depends on who’s involved in the project because not everybody can create that atmosphere and understand how they’re gonna ride that bull. And McKay is one of the best, if not the best at that thing.
You’re one of those performers who accomplishes more than should be humanly possible every year. In addition to your television and film roles, you do standup tours, film sketches for your YouTube channel, post to Twitter and Instagram, all while raising a family. Where do you get your work ethic from?
[Laughs.] I started working for my dad in the manufacturing business when I was seven years old. That’s probably it. We’re from a small town in Missouri, and that was just part of being a home with six kids. My dad is one of nine, my mother is one of 11. What happens in those large Midwestern communities – they’re largely farming communities – everybody’s expected to pitch in and work as soon as they are able. My guess is my dad probably started working for his dad when he was five, so in a way, I was kind of a slacker.
You’ve recently been focusing more on performing traditional standup comedy. Is that an area of comedy you’ve always been interested in and wanted to try?
Yes and no. I look back and I wish I had started doing it back when I was in Chicago. But there was kind of a different philosophy about what you should do onstage. There was this feeling that if you did standup, you might become more selfish onstage and you wouldn’t listen. You might just try to tell jokes as opposed to further the scene. Which, that’s not always gonna be case to case, because they’re certainly not mutually exclusive. But I think they both inform each other in a good way. But I love being live and doing standup allows me to do it by myself. I don’t necessarily have to have five or six other sketch players or improvisers to do live performance.
What have you learned about performing standup since you first started?
You learn what people like. I guess the biggest learning curve for me was what people expect from me doing standup because they only know me from doing television or movies, so there’s an expectation that I will be reciting their favorite lines. So, at first I didn’t do that, but I’ve come to understand that’s what got them there in the first place. I hope to shoot a special at some point in 2014 so a broader audience might understand that, “Oh, he does more than Champ Kind.”
What subjects do you personally like to talk about in your standup?
Well, I do a lot of character work. I also like to find little idiosyncrasies that are common for all of us, usually in relationships as I’ve been married for 15 years, but that’s not mutually exclusive to married couples. There are some commonalities in all couples, all dating, which I’ve found that works… basically the way we mate as humans has become an interesting thing for me to play with.
You’re receiving critical attention for your part in the upcoming film Cheap Thrills, which is a bit more of serious role for you. Do you think people underestimate how well comedic actors can do serious roles?
For me to comment on that is a little bit dangerous and self-serving, but my short answer would be yes. [Laughs.] You gotta check out Cheap Thrills. It is a barn burner. I’ve watched it with several festival audiences and it’s an amazing ride. I never thought there were laughs in the movie. I was shocked. There are big laughs in this very dark, sinister thriller. So it’s either a thriller or one of the darkest comedies I’ve ever seen. But it’s a really difficult movie to describe because people want just a logline of what the movie is, but this one doesn’t fit any particular category. They’re calling it a genre film because it’s a thriller, and there are some tough scenes, but unlikely enough, it’s got big laughs. By the end of it, the entire audience is sucked in to the picture. It’s really remarkable to watch.
Was it at all difficult to film? Because the film looks like it goes to some dark places.
You just do your work. Everybody works differently, but you can give an honest account of what the writer’s intentions are, I believe, by finding a difficulty that you’ve had in life. It doesn’t mean that I have to name someone or do something sinister. It’s not like I would necessarily do any of these things to a person, so how can you find an honest moment to compare with the thing the character might be doing? I think there’s a lot of different ways that might add complexities. And I’m not going to go into it anymore than that because that’s just boring. I don’t think anybody wants to hear actors pontificate about their process. But there are certainly ways to access and give an honest performance without having done as sinister a thing as your character might be intending. Does that make sense?
Yeah, so you try to tap into more of a real experience?
Well, I think you can use a routine banality of life that could compare to something else. Let’s just say that you’re bored, and that can certainly be a true substitute for someone perhaps not reacting to a terrible situation the way you thought they would, which might make them seem more sinister. Right? So if someone did something bad to someone in front of me, and my reaction was boredom, doesn’t that seem like an awful person?
That would be pretty terrifying.
Right? So sometimes it’s not reacting which seems more awful because, let’s say something bad happened in front of me, and I’m a character in a film and my reaction was like this maniacal enjoyment. That might seem less honest than if I had just reacted bored.
It’s hard to parse out this idea without specific material in front of us. I’m just saying there are honest substitutions in your own life that can match whatever’s happening in your character’s life. That’d be a more succinct way of putting it. Even if it’s accessing banal moments of your life, they could stack up to an honest moment in a film that might be difficult.
Along with your recent move to standup, you’ve also branched out with roles in several dramas and horror films in the last few years. Have you purposefully been trying to experiment and push your career in new directions?
Well, I think everybody is. I think everybody delights in trying new things, and that’s not only for actors but everybody in life. Like when people learn to play guitar at 51. I didn’t put on a pair of skis until I was 40. That’s because I’m from the Midwest, but you know, I’ll always try new things, and certainly, diversity in a career doesn’t hurt.
Are you going to try and do more serious roles, or move into a new genre or form of comedy you want to try in particular?
Well, if you look at my resume, you might notice I don’t turn a lot of things down. [Laughs.] But the reason for that is I have a wife and five children, and it’s incredibly expensive to live in Los Angeles. So those two things factor into my choices. Everyone assumes that most actors have all of these choices, when really there’s probably 20 or maybe 30 actors that have lined-up choices throughout the year. Otherwise, you’re just – hey man, we gots to work.
So you’re just taking what comes your way?
Sometimes. I do turn stuff down, but I don’t necessarily have the luxury of picking and choosing all the time. Sometimes you do a project and you think it’s going to turn out well, and for any number of reasons, it can not be the greatest thing that you may have hoped for.
You’ve had so many roles over your career. Besides Anchorman and The Office, what do people on the street recognize you from the most?
Besides those two? Waiting, Out Cold, and Run Ronnie Run. Those are the shout outs I get from the audience during shows. They want to hear those four movies – five, including the television show. Anchorman, The Office, Waiting, Out Cold, and Run Ronnie Run.
Those are your greatest hits?
I don’t know. Apparently, because those are the ones that are consistently called out for from the audiences all over the country.
What projects are you most excited about doing in 2014?
There’s some television I have in development that I’m very excited about. There’s two movies I’m developing that would be a thrill to do. I’m also producing some other stuff. There’s a new web series I’m developing with a friend of mine that will be amazing once we get it going. Just stuff like that. And doing a standup special. But I guess I should preface that by saying, “Spending more time at home.” But I’m not sure that’s going to happen. [Laughs.] I’ve been on the road a lot this year so I’m hoping to do less. So I’d like to get a television show so I could just stay in town.
Jeremy Popkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. His work has been featured on Ology, Nerve, and Destructoid.