The Face You Know: An Interview with Anchorman's David Koechner
The email from the publicist pierced the heart of the David Koechner paradox: “Your readers know his face, quote his lines and dress up like him for Halloween, yet many don’t actually know his name. “Oh, that guy!” is David Koechner, one of the busiest men in show business.”
He’s Champ Kind from Anchorman, Todd Packer from The Office and a player in some of the biggest comedies in the last 15 years—Austin Powers, the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Talladega Nights. In December, he’ll bolster that resume with Anchorman: The Legend Continues, the long-awaited sequel to the 2004 blockbuster. Any American who consumes even trace amounts of television and film would recognize him immediately, but far fewer could put the name to the face. Koechner would love to see that change, and he spoke with Paste about growing up in a small town, his one-year stint at Saturday Night Live, breaking into the movie scene, and breaking through the “that guy!” barrier.
What’s it like being a part of something as massive as the Anchorman sequel?
You have to count your blessings, and that’s a big one. We shot it earlier this year from the end of February to the middle of May, and I tell you, it’s just a thrill and this movie certainly won’t disappoint anybody. It seems like the appetite is whetted for this picture unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The press blitz is already huge.
I know, and look, the full media blitz isn’t really on yet! Just the passive blitz is incredible. But I’m anticipating going into some of the theaters and watching people at the movie, because I think it’s just going to be a thunderclap.
You’ll actually go see it in a theater? Do you go in disguise?
It’ll be after everyone’s sat down and the movie’ss already started, and you’ll dip in there for a second just to get a taste of how people are enjoying it. It’s usually just that some fellas get together that are in the picture, and it’s not for every movie, but for something like this it might have to happen. I think it’s going to be like a rock concert.
Along with Anchorman, you’re taking on some more dramatic roles. What’s that transition been like?
Cheap Thrills is going to debut in February, and it’s a thriller that has some twisted comedic elements to it. I play a serious character, and it’s a grind, it sucks you in and pulls you along. And yes, it’s a welcome change. There’s a presumption that comic actors can’t do dramas, that they won’t quite get it, when actually the opposite is true. Comic actors can do it because they’re human and we all have drama in our lives. I’ve found it’s much harder for dramatic actors to do a comedy, but I know dramatic actors and producers sometimes get nervous about whether or not a comic can pull off a dramatic role.
Your publicist brought up this idea that while your face is familiar to millions, your name might not be. Is that frustrating to you?
With people on the street, it’s always, “That guy! Hey you! I know you!” and that kind of thing. But I think it’s changing. It’ll be really interesting when people say my last name correctly. It’s always mispronounced because my family says “Keck-ner,” and that’s now how it’s pronounced in Germany. Every German I meet, I say, “how do you pronounce this name?” and they say “Kuh-chner.” Nowhere else in the English language does “oe” make the short “e” sound, except for our name, apparently. So I think people come across my name, they look at it, they understand they’re probably going to say it incorrectly, and they just punt. [laughs] They’re not going to commit to learning it.
Have you ever considered changing it?
No. I have 36 first cousins on my dad’s side, and there would be hell to pay if I ever decided, no, you guys are saying it wrong, I’m changing it.
You grew up in a small town working in your dad’s turkey-coop-manufacturing business. And a lot of your roles now tend to be more rural, simple, often redneck. Has your background somewhat dictated the direction your career took?
I grew up in a town called Tipton, Missouri, with a population of 2,000 people, so that certainly informed who I was in my early life but was also the impetus to make me want to search something else out. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to live in a city. I didn’t necessarily know that I wanted to be an actor, but I knew I wanted a lot more than what was available in our small town. And no offense to the good people there, but, you know, I had the traveling jones.
A lot of the characters I’ve played over the years have been rednecks, and that’s something that’s easy and familiar to me, so it’s in my wheelhouse, so they’ll give you that angle. And I think growing up in a small town informs the rest of my work because you tend to have a different appreciation. Or maybe you just assume everyone else is your friend because growing up in a small town, you’re usually friendly to everybody. And that’s the kind of people my parents were, so that probably has more of an influence on me.
Were you into acting as a kid?
It wasn’t available. There wasn’t any theater. I mean, yeah, you can see the high school play once a year, but you had to drive 25 or 45 miles even to see a movie. But I was a ham. A completely disruptive class clown. I’m the third of six children, so I think it was probably just an attempt to get some attention. And let’s face it, it still is.
Was it tough making the transition from that background when you started getting into the arts at Benedictine College and the University of Missouri?
Well, I was a Poli-Sci major first in college. But by the third year of my studies, I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer or administrator, and the chances of holding public office were pretty slim given that I wasn’t born into a political family or a particularly wealthy one. Nor was I the smartest guy in the room. If you’re from humble means, and you don’t have political connections, the way to get there is to be brighter than anyone else, and I realized I wasn’t that fella. So I quit all my classes not knowing exactly what I was going to do, but I just quit going to school. And when I visited a friend in Chicago, and went to the Second City theater and saw they taught classes, the light went off. Oh, that’s how you do this. I was already a fan of Second City because I knew a lot of the early Saturday Night Live people came from there.
I didn’t start studying acting until I was 24. That’s when I moved to Chicago and started taking classes. I wish I had started earlier. I wish it had been available to me. I did the high-school play, but you can only be in that junior and senior year. It had a one week run and that was it.
How long were you in Chicago before SNL came through?
I was in Chicago nine years. I started taking classes in February of ‘87, and I was on stage within three weeks. That was the great thing about being in Chicago at that time. There were a lot fewer students and a lot fewer schools, so you’d have access to an audience and access to a stage a lot quicker in your development than you do now. I was taking classes simultaneously at the IO [Improv Olympic theater] and Second City, and I was on stage four to five nights per week.
Nine years is a long time, career-wise. Were you always pretty confident that your career would work out, or did some insecurity begin to sneak in?
Once I had made my decision to be an actor, I kinda knew it was going to work. That’s just my internal mechanism. It’s my decision, and that’s it. This is going to happen, it’s not going to be a problem, and I’m just going to keep moving forward. Even when I had setbacks I don’t think I was mature enough then to understand why they happened. I probably made mistakes again and again, but for me it was all about perseverance.
What were those mistakes?
I had to work harder. There’s a thing about improvisation where once you become efficient at it, at a certain level, that’s all you’re doing. I wish I would have been writing and performing solo and doing more plays and paying more attention to short-term and long-terms goals. I was just there thinking, “I’ll leave Chicago when I get a job.” I knew I was going to get a job, I just didn’t know when it was going to be. But that was basically a very generalized plan.
I’m fortunate that I did get a job, but it could’ve happened a couple years later, and I may have been better prepared. I would have liked to have been better prepared for it when it came. But my approach was more laissez faire, like, “It’ll happen and when it happens. It’ll be grand, and it’ll just keep moving.”
The other thing is I would audition once a year for the Second City touring company, and if you only do one audition per year, it’s probably not going to be your best. I would’ve been better served by going on multiple auditions for a bunch of different projects. But all I wanted was the Second City.
And how did the SNL audition come about?
They found me. They always have scouts. They have people looking out, and [SNL producer] Pam Thomas saw that I had auditioned for Mad TV earlier that year, and she sent my tape to the people at Broadway Video. So I was on their radar, and when they were auditioning people that summer 1995, I was asked to come out and audition. So I auditioned twice, and the third time they flew me out they let me know that I had the job.
Your stint was relatively short, just a year. How do you feel about your time there when you look back?
I still appreciate the show. I don’t want to watch it as much as I used to. My wife and I have five kids, so we’re pretty busy. But you know, it was wonderful start. It was awesome. Looking back, I made mistakes when I was on the show. Some people would come up and say, “How about this for a sketch?” And I’d say, “That’s a bad idea.” Which is not a very good way to approach other co-workers, but it was an honest opinion. But people don’t want that. You should say just “yes” until it falls apart by itself.
You seem like the kind of person who expresses your opinion pretty readily.
Well, I can be oppositional, which is not necessarily a great attribute in show business, because everybody wants to be right. But you can go too far the other way, too. You have to strike a balance. But SNL can be a tough, tough atmosphere. If anything, I wish I’d been more prepared for that when it came along. It can be a grind.
Your sketches with Mark McKinney (where Koechner played Fagan the British Fop) are still some of my favorites.
Oh thank you. Hey, I’m proud of everything I did. There was no reason for them to fire me. It was politics that got me int he end. I had a very successful year, and I dare say any other season I would not have been let go. That was a West Coast decision, it wasn’t Lorne. Lorne did not want to get rid of me. Don Ohlmeyer was the captain of my demise.
What was the issue there?
Who knows? Maybe he just didn’t like me, I have no idea. I’ve never met the guy. But everybody loses their job in show business eventually, and so did he.
And the end of SNL precipitated your move to LA.
Yeah, that fall I moved to LA, got a house with a couple of buddies of mine, and six months after that I met my wife. I got a development deal right away. Three years in a row I got a development deal, so that gave me room to create and a job to go to and a goal to pursue. And I was fortunate that I started getting big parts here and there throughout my first years in Los Angeles, so I was able to sustain myself.
That’s also when I started writing. With a development deal, you meet with a writer or several writers, and you come up with content and you try to write a script that’s going to be produced. So that’s what happened for several cycles, and at the same time I started working with Dave Allen. We met when he was guest writing on SNL, and we did a movie together called Dill Scallion. He had been doing this Naked Trucker show in LA, and he asked me to do a character with him, and that’s where the Naked Trucker and T-bone show was born. We did that successfully at a night club twice a month for about nine years, and that really was a boost to my career because it became wildly popular among the creators of content in Los Angeles. I got a lot of jobs just because of that.
And you must have become more diplomatic over time, because it feels like there’s always a role for you in the big comedies.
Not always…not always…[laughs]. I’ve been blessed, there’s no question about that. I’ve got plenty. I don’t complain about stuff. And I’ve absolutely become more diplomatic. I mean, sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not. It depends upon my level of involvement. When writers write, it’s got to be right, and if it’s wrong, someone’s gotta say something. I have no problem saying something. I’m not afraid of the truth.
Let’s talk about your family. You’ve got five kids, which feels like a lot by Hollywood standards. Was that always the plan?
My wife and I are both from families of six kids, so I think she always had that number in her head. When my son was born, my wife lost her uterus. But they were able to keep her ovaries, so we created embryos together a year later and that’s how we had four kids. We created 11 embryos and worked through those in the next 10 years, so it was a completely different journey. She and I are writing a book about that now.
Lately you’ve migrated into stand-up. Do you see that as a lasting passion?
Yes. I’ve done improvisation all my life, and that’s a group effort, so sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult to get everybody together and on the same page. And if there’s pay, you’re going to be splitting it with five other guys. So I’ve found that what I’d rather do is go out and do it on my own. I can do it when I want and then just take the pay for myself [laughs]. And you can determine when you want to do it. Any night of the week in Los Angeles, if you want to go perform stand-up, you can, whereas it takes more organization if you’re going to do it as a group. I love performing live and this lets me do it whenever I want.
Between stand-up and acting and writing and improv, you’re involved in a lot of different arenas. Which ones do you think will take precedence as your career goes forward?
All of the above. I will always be writing and creating my own material, and I love doing stand-up, so I plan on continuing do that, and I’ve got a bunch of different projects I’m working on developing with a bunch of different people so that’s all I want to do.
Anchorman was your break-out role, and as we prepare for the sequel, my last question will be how you managed to land that part.
Adam McKay and I met in Chicago, and we drove out to New York together when we were both hired to do SNL at the same time. Adam had always been a performer and a writer, so I’ve known Adam for a long time, and I met Will when I was doing SNL. But I still had to audition because this was their first film together and they couldn’t just pass out roles. I think it probably helped that I understood the tonality and how they write. I was familiar with that, which probably gave me an edge in the audition. That’s all I can say. I got the job.
Looking back now, I would actually say things got gigantic after SNL, because that gave me the spark. That was an immense push, but I guess certainly Anchorman greased the wheels more.