Comedy and Comic Books with Andrés du Bouchet
If you listen closely to the lead track of Andrés du Bouchet’s new album, 20-Sided Guy, you’ll likely pick out my obnoxious cackle. I was lucky enough to be present at the RIOT LA comedy fest this past January where du Bouchet recorded the track “To Victory!” which is a monologue delivered in character as a medieval general and which my friends have nearly gotten sick of hearing me talk about. Du Bouchet recorded all 16 tracks on the new album at different venues, adding yet another layer to the multi-faceted nature of his work, his high-concept, one-man-show-esque character pieces. This approach to comedy has also served du Bouchet well in his day job of the last many years as a writer for Conan, helping to define that show’s signature high/lowbrow fare.
This week, du Bouchet celebrates the release of the new album with two shows, one in Los Angeles and one in New York, but I was also lucky enough to lure him down to The American Comedy Company in San Diego for a triumphant performance, and then afterwards to the diner next door where we discussed the trials and tribulations of Team Coco over the years, wearing on the audience’s patience, and the superiority of Marvel Comics over DC. Then my girlfriend and I took him to do karaoke, where he sang songs by Depeche Mode and Pearl Jam with great aplomb.
Writing for Conan is your main job, so how often do you get to standup?
Not as often as I used to. If I’m getting up on stage once every couple of weeks, that’s kind of a lot for me. And something like tonight where I had to do a bunch of my pieces in a row, that’s very rare, actually.
Did you anticipate that, when you started writing for Conan, that you would do less standup?
No, there was no real plan. It just kind of happened organically that I didn’t feel like doing it as often. I feel like there is only so much creative energy you have in your brain, so at the end of the day, I tend to just want to go home and watch TV and have a beer. Every once in a while I try to light a fire under my ass to perform more often, but I’ve had mixed results. I often get really kinda lazy and cancel on stuff a lot because — I don’t know if it’s depression or laziness or whatever, but it’s really hard to get me motivated to perform nowadays. I’m at the point now where I think these first two albums that I did, I pretty much used up all my material. So if I wanna do a third album in a couple years, I should write something new, so that’ll be the impetus, I guess, for getting back out there. But I’ll take a break now.
Did that play into the format of 20-Sided Guy? Every track is recorded at a different show. Was that part of the appeal of that format, not having to record a whole hour in one go?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. The first album I did, I recorded it in back-to-back nights at a club in Los Angeles called Bar Lubitsch, which is a really small performance space behind the bar. The first night, I did an hour and twenty minutes of stuff, and the second night was like an hour. And I took the best stuff from both and put it on the album. But both nights I really felt like, Okay, I’m testing an audience’s patience by making them endure this much high-concept stuff in a row. And I said the exact same thing to you tonight right after the show, or it might have been TK [Kelly] backstage, but basically, I feel like I have a much better success rate when I get up on stage and do my 10 or 15 minutes in the middle of a bunch of other standup comedians and it’s like, “Oh, that guy did a bunch of weird stuff, what was his name?” I come and go, bing bang boom, and I’m out of there. Tonight was a great example, you see the law of diminishing returns: They’re on board for the warrior piece, a little less onboard for the jokes, a little less onboard for the one-man musical, a little less on board so on and so forth. I don’t blame them at all. It’s a lot to ask of an audience to readjust their expectations five times over the course of an hour. So that was why for the second album, I wanted to record those things individually and give them places. Plus that was also the theme of the album: “I’m going on a journey!” and Frodo and all that bullshit. The whole album became basically I’m just going to nerd out to the max and it fit into the whole idea.
That whole “less is more” approach makes perfect sense, but — and not to tar every other comic with a broad brush — but that hour is what they tend to be going for.
Yes, but they’re crafting a cohesive piece that’s an hour long, not fragmented like I do. I have a lot of admiration for that.
So what you’re doing is more like an old metal, prog rock concept album?
Yeah, I do these tracks that are like 12, 17 minutes long. It’s on vinyl, but that’s only 45 minutes long, but it comes with a download for free of the digital version, which is two and a half hours long. A massive sprawling… thing. (laughs)
How was recording that logistically? Like, thinking about it, seems to me it would be either really complicated or really simple to do.
It felt easier than it should have been. I had the people at A Special Things Records, Matt Belknap and Ryan McManemin, were both super patient with me. Ryan would come with me wherever I went and did spots in L.A. and record every one, and if they couldn’t make it they hired someone to record it, like when I was in Portland or Austin and stuff like that. They would hire other people to come record me. I’m sure logistically it might not have been easy for them, but for me it felt pretty carefree, just “La-di-dah, I’ll record wherever I want!” That label, they’re the cool comedy people, for sure, whose taste I really respect. So I was very eager to work with them.
Did they approach you or was it…?
Turned out we both had the same manager, their company and my manager. So when I told my manager I wanted to do a second album, she just set up a meeting with me and them, and we figured out it was good match. Very simple.
And you’re having two release shows for the record this week?
Yes, one on Tuesday night, the 25th, in North Hollywood in Los Angeles, and then Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, in Brooklyn, New York, and that should be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to — more than anything I’m looking forward to it all being over (laughs). I’ve been working on this album for a year and a half or so. Chronologically, the first track, which is actually the last track on the album, was recorded in March of 2013, so that’s a year and 8 months. Over a year and a half that I’ve been working on this, and I want it done, I want it out, I want it over, I want it out of my brain, I want it out there, I don’t care if it gets shitty reviews, I just want it final. So I’m looking forward to this week being over, but the shows will be fun and I’ll really try hard.
How much time are you doing on those shows?
Those I’m hosting, so it’s a more spread out…the first show I’m co-hosting with a friend of mine, Adam Felber, who we’ve done shows together before, and we’re going to be pretending to be from a fictional management company that manages me. I’m never gonna show up, it’s just gonna be us wondering where the hell I’ve been all night, so that’ll be fun. And then the one in New York, I’m just hosting as me and I’ll probably just be the weird poetry guy.
Who else is going to be on those shows?
The L.A. one has Jimmy Pardo and Jackie Kashian and Mike Gibbons and Dan Cronin, who I work with, and Travis Clark, and the New York one has Aparna Nancherla and Claudia Cogan, and Ben Kronberg is doing it via Skype, which I think will be fun and a couple more people that I don’t — I didn’t book that one, and my connection to the New York scene is slowly evaporating over the years. But I’m looking forward to going back; I don’t get to go back to New York City all that often anymore.
And you moved out to L.A. with Conan?
Yeah, I lived in New York City for 12 years, and I moved out here in 2009 for the purpose of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, which is a can’t-miss prospect (laughs). Long legs, it’s guaranteed, so why not move out to L.A.? It’s like the equivalent of getting tenure for a college professor: Sure thing, guaranteed money — no, it all worked out great. I chuckle now, it’s very funny. I think things are awesome right now, and I’m really proud of the show we do, but compare this moment to what I thought I was coming to L.A. for is very amusing to me, to see how different everything worked out. And now the show that I thought I was gonna be working on is basically a lip-sync contest (laughs), but whatever. We’re still writing comedy at least.
Were you married before you moved out here?
We got married just after we moved. Yeah, we’ve been married for five years and together for almost ten, and yeah that was pretty stressful. When we moved out to L.A., we were in the process of planning our wedding, and that whole year was crazy.
Did you read Bill Carter’s book, The War for Late Night?
I read the one he wrote about Leno and Letterman, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the one he wrote about our situation. There’s no point in revisiting. And I also didn’t wanna get caught up in disagreeing with his version of events.
He didn’t interview you at all?
No, he didn’t interview me or anything. I didn’t want to read about something that was basically an event that took place in my life and be like, “No, that’s not what it was like, fuck you.” I enjoyed the first book he did a lot.
Yeah, he’s not a pro-Leno guy.
No, yeah, I’ve heard he’s very pro-our side, but even so, that was just a very stressful time.
When you started at Late Night, who else was on board already when you came on?
A lot of guys who have been there a long time: Brian Stack; Brian McCann, who’s no longer with us but he had been there for at least 10 or 15 years; Brian Kiley, who’s been there almost 20 years; Michael Gordon, the only writer who’s been there since day one in 1993, and he’s still with us, and he’s the guy in the Masturbating Bear outfit, so that’s his claim to fame. So there’s a lot of guys like that who have been there a long time. And then there’s my pal Dan Cronin, who had been there for a couple years before me, and shortly after I got hired, my friend Todd Levin got hired a couple weeks after that, so we’ve been there about the same amount of time. A few other people have come and gone. Everyone to a person are all really good, cool people, very talented people. I would say the writing staff changes very slowly, so from year to year, it’s like one person is different or one or two people are gone and replaced by one or two other people. But it’s a very slow evolution, so it always feels like it’s the same bunch of people.
And how many writers are on staff currently?
We’ve kind of contracted a little bit. I feel like when we first started at TBS, it was like 15 and now it’s 11, I think. It’s just kind of contracted over time out of necessity, I guess. I feel like they must have figured out we don’t need that many people (laughs). “When people leave, let’s not replace them right away.” There’s four people who work on the monologue, and seven people that work on the sketches and other bits, and that’s what I do. It’s a pretty efficient crew.
Has your standup always been this high-concept? It seems like it would blend very easily in to Conan.
My standup has always been very character-based, heavy premise-based. For years, people were like, You should go write for Conan, and I was like, All right. And then after a couple years of submitting stuff, I eventually got on there. I feel very at home. Especially with the other writers, we’re definitely on the same wavelength.
Clearly, it’s a dream job, but what about it did you not expect after you got it?
Yeah, there’s plenty of stuff about the job that is not what I expected. The thing that surprised me the most about Hollywood in general is how little writers are respected and are essentially considered no different than the catering staff or whatever. And that’s a Hollywood-wide thing. On our show, we’re given a little more pull and influence. But that was the big shocker for me. I got hired right around the time as the big WGA writers strike, and just reading all the stuff about that and seeing how the industry was responding to that made me realize, Wow, they really just want us to shut the fuck up and take as little money as possible in exchange for creating all the shit that makes them millions of dollars. It just baffled me, that’s what surprised me the most about this business.
Would you like to get into performing more, or…?
I do like performing, and I dunno, I mean, I think there’s no ideal situation, but I think it would be to be in charge of my own show and writing my own stuff. And that kind of situation is very rare, to be an auteur. Vince Gilligan or Matt Weiner, the Mad Men guy, one of those very very few people — this is pretty much never going to happen to me, but that’s the ideal goal, being the person to have the final say in matters and whose name behind a project and who people respect for that reason. Essentially, the people who get respect in show business are the producers and the stars. That’s it. And I’m never going to be a movie star, but an EP of my creation or something.
If you had a crack at something like that, what would it be, what sort of show would it be?
That’s a great question. I have no fucking clue. I dunno. A very strange single-cam sitcom, I guess. I really don’t know. My brain is too occupied coming up with stuff on a day-to-day basis for my job.
What is your schedule like? I’m very curious about that sort of daily grind, is it like 9-5?
Almost. I mean, speaking for myself, I get in anywhere from 9 to 9:30, and leave around 7. That’s a typical day. Fridays are a little easier because we don’t tape a show on Fridays, so I’ll get out at 5. So it’s not crazy at all, a very human schedule.
It’s always so nuts to me, to imagine you get dressed in the morning and you go to work and you write jokes all day, and then you come home and put your hat back on the rack. That just seems so great.
It really is a dream job. Whenever I’m dissatisfied with it, I feel very guilty for being dissatisfied (laughs). And then I kick myself in the ass and I say, “Hey, get your shit together, you should be very happy this is your life.”
What did you do for work before all this?
Well, I had a couple other TV writing gigs before this, but before that for ten straight years in New York City, I did the whole crappy day job/performing at night thing. Mostly temp work in banks and almost only banks. For like the four years before I finally got TV writing gigs, I was an admin assistant for Morgan Stanley in their law department. So about as different an environment as you can imagine.
Do you have to go to school for something like that?
I have a degree in English. Nothing I studied — not to shit on admin assistants, but the only thing you really need to be is a fairly bright person who can communicate well. A desk job. And I answered phones and keeping track of my boss’s calendars it was not terrible at all. They were very understanding people who let me go on auditions and I called in sick way too often, and it was always obvious that I was just hungover and not because I was really sick, because I was staying out doing comedy and doing karaoke. Those were fun days, but they’re better now.
Do you still play Dungeons & Dragons today?
I do. Not as often as I would like. I became reintroduced to it in San Francisco in I wanna say 2012, during San Francisco Sketch Fest. And I stayed in touch with the people I played with and went back and played with them again the next year.
Were they other comics too, or…?
They’re a funky mix of people. One guy is a great artist who did the album art for the new album, and another guy who is a comedian and writer, but he’s also in charge of that website eBaum’s World, that’s a really funny website. And then I started playing D&D a couple times with some other comedians in L.A., and then I started brushing up on how to be a Dungeon Master again and hosted a game a couple months ago and I wanna try and keep that going. But it’s not often enough. It’s only been a couple times a year in the last three years, but that’s way more than the previous 20 years, so I’m excited. It’s fun. After all the video game explosions over the last few years, I was a big fan of that game Skyrim on Xbox, but I almost prefer the D&D thing where you’re just talking and visualizing stuff in your mind. It’s a social experience: You’re sitting around a table with a bunch of your friends and I’ll hopefully keep it going. My Amazon wish list has all the new D&D books on it, so my mother-in-law better get her shit together and get those for me.
Do you have that original module that the album cover art is based on?
Yeah, I have that S1, Tomb of Horrors, and S2, White Plume Mountain, and S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I have the originals. They’re all in kind of shitty condition, frayed and tattered, but yeah, they’re all originals from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. There’s something about the artwork, the fonts, where I look at them and I’m immediately 12 years old again. Especially Tomb of Horrors, which is so fucking creepy. The original module came with a book of artwork so the Dungeon Master would be like, “You’re in this room, blah blah blah, and this is what it looks like,” and hold up a drawing. And all the drawings are kind of simple but at the same time really effective and creepy is the only way I can put it. It’s almost scary.
Who was the artist on that?
I dunno. Gary Gygax was the author, but I dunno. It wouldn’t be somebody like Vallejo or Frazetta because it’s not that detailed.
I played some D&D, but I was always more into comic books. Was that something you were also into?
Yeah, especially if we’re talking about the early ‘80s to mid ‘80s, I collected a lot of comic books, and I actually have ten thousand or so in my office at work. Y’know, those big rectangular boxes. I was really meticulous as a kid and I’d put them all with the cardboard backing and plastic sleeve, and I have nowhere to keep them, so I keep them in my office at work.
Are you into Marvel or DC?
I’m a Marvel guy.
I knew there was something I liked about you.
Marvel all the way. I find the DC stuff to be laughably childish and shitty. All right, so a guy is born on another planet and he comes to Earth, and because of the color of our sun, he can fly, has super strength, can shoot lasers out of his eyes, can freeze things with his breath, has x-ray vision? Fuck that. A twelve-year-old wrote that shit. Marvel has fuckin’ mutants and it’s biologically explained, they took the five extra minutes to explain where these superpowers were coming from and giving a quasi-rational science-fiction approach. Here’s how this works; even though this is completely fanciful, here are the logical steps to explain this. And then DC was like, “Oh, yeah, this guy likes to dress like a bat, this dude breathes underwater and talks to fish.” Fuck you. “This is a woman, but she’s wonderful.”
If you were collecting in the early ‘80s, do you have like a lot of Frank Miller Daredevil or…?
Maybe? I wasn’t a big Daredevil guy. I collected a lot of Avengers and Thor. The Hulk. All my favorite heroes were angry loners — The Hulk and Silver Surfer and I was a big X-Men fan. Everything that sprang from all that cosmic kinda stuff, all that Thanos stuff. I have a fair amount of Spider-Man stuff, but I don’t look through that too much. Everything mutant-related I have ton of—X-Men, X-Factor, New Mutants, X-Force, Wolverine, all the titles that spun from the mutant stuff. And anything Hulk-related because Hulk’s my favorite.
Are you reading any currently?
Not really. What I’ll do is wait for these big event series to play out and then I’ll get the graphic novel, so I have a bunch of those to read still. I’m a big fan of the Marvel movies too, so ever since they started teasing Thanos as the main bad guy, I started rereading all the Infinity Gauntlet stuff, the Infinity War stuff, and they’re pretty savvy with their marketing, so they’ve started to reintroduce Thanos into their other titles. He was always one of my favorite characters because he was batshit crazy and in love with Death, which I always thought was funny.
Would you be into writing anything like that, or a novel or anything?
I would like to write a novel in the style of a Robert E. Howard. Just like pulpy, overdescriptive action and blood and guts and swords and sorcery. There’s a couple tracks on the new album which sprung from Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, and that show was great for me so it forced me to write new stuff. One of them is an H.P. Lovecraft homage, and one is a Godzilla story, where he fucks Rodan and then destroys a whole city by sticking a giant missile up his butt. Those two tracks in particular had a pulp-fiction, frayed-paperback style of writing which I really, really enjoy. Using way too many adjectives and adverbs and getting really into the description. So it would be something in the style of the old Conan the Barbarian books by Robert E. Howard, which I still occasionally read from time to time. I have the whole collection. Just getting out the glossary and finding ten different ways to say the word “red” or the word “fire.” Conflagration!
Photo by CleftClips.
Jimmy Callaway lives in San Diego, CA. For more shenanigans, visit his bloggy, Attention, Children.