Kyle Dunnigan is hilarious. You should read this interview so that you can pretend you already knew about him because, at this point, you really should. Best known from his work on the television series and movie Reno 911! , Dunnigan is a prolific and sidesplitting standup with numerous appearances on Conan, Kimmel, Leno and Ferguson. He now writes and performs on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. Dunnigan also co-hosts the popular podcast, Professor Blastoff, with comedians Tig Notaro and David Huntsberger and his YouTube channel is followed by millions.
Today he is releasing a new Christmas comedy album, Craig’s All-Star Rockin’ Christmas, You Guys! It features a slew of ridiculous songs, celebrity impressions, guest stars, and genuine musical talent. We talked to him about comedy, music, public embarrassment and whether or not men are funny.
Paste: When did you start combining comedy and music?
Kyle Dunnigan: I started playing music when I was 12. We had a piano in our basement that was missing—about half the keys were broken. I learned how to play with that which I think was helpful in a way because you had to force yourself to hear what was supposed to be there. I think they should teach kids on pianos like that by the way, wait, God no!
So my parents noticed I was interested and they got me a real piano. I just always wrote songs as a side hobby. So it was sort of a natural thing to write comedy songs.
But when I started writing songs I wrote very serious songs. Or things that a 13-14 year old would think are very serious issues.
Paste: Such as?
KD: Girls that didn’t like me.
Paste: Of course.
KD: Drama, a lot of drama—that’s were I got my muse. Teenage angst and drama.
Paste: It’s worked out pretty well for a couple other songwriters.
KD: Oh yeah. I got nowhere though. I wasn’t breaking any new ground. But actually one of the songs in my new Christmas album is a piano piece and that is one of the first songs I ever wrote—when I was like 13. I never used the melody or the music until now. I’m glad it found a home.
Paste: Which song is it?
KD: The song is so ridiculous. It’s called, “Santa’s Stuck Up in Our Chimney and We Can’t Find Our Dad.” Amy Schumer and her sister sing it. They’re supposed to be little kids. Every year dads will dress up as Santa and try to surprise their kids by coming down the chimney and every year a dad gets stuck and dies. So this is a very upbeat song.
KD: They’re telling Santa don’t worry their dad will be there soon, because he’s their hero and he’s so smart. And he’s in the chimney screaming at himself.
Paste: Have you always wanted to do a Christmas album?
KD: I had thought about it for a couple years and this guy Jim Roach who produces the album had mentioned it. I had just come off a deal with IFC and they passed on a show. I had worked really hard on this pilot. A lot of times you get a deal and you’ll work on something that just never gets made, so I kind of felt like I had energy to actually make something. I wanted something I could have in my hands that I worked on. So it was good timing.
Paste: How long did it take you?
KD: We did it in a crazy short amount of time. We recorded it in four weeks. I would come into the studio with an idea for a song and maybe a little bit of the music and one or two days we would write the song and record it. There are some comedy bits and impressions on there too.
Paste: Right now, you still do standup, you write and act on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, and you co-host the Professor Blastoff Podcast. What do you prefer sketchwork, writing, standup?
KD: I love that I can do different things and feel stimulated in different parts of my brain. Right now I’m editing a video I shot two days ago for one of the songs on the album and it’s a totally different part of my brain to edit. I love doing different things where, for a little while, I can focus on standup then sketch writing, then performing, then directing a video. That to me is stimulating.
Paste: You like to keep mixing it up.
KD: Yeah, but doing all these different things I get a little scatterbrained. Like I found my phone in the refrigerator the other day. I lose track of small things. I left my car in the garage. It was running. I live in an apartment complex so I could’ve killed people. Yeah, I think I would do well on some kind of medication. I just haven’t gone to the doctor yet.
Paste: You need a reminder medication?
KD: Yeah, I keep forgetting to get my reminder medication. I think it’s Ritalin. But supposedly it crushes your creativity.
Paste: It might not be worth it. People might have to take the hit, or your phone at least.
KD: The phone took a major hit in the fridge. And yeah, people in my building might have to die in order for me to write a comedy album.
Paste: They say art is sacrifice.
KD: Worth it.
Paste: So, you’re around a lot of funny women. You work with Tig. You work with Amy.
KD: I am. I’m surrounded by very funny, powerful women.
Paste: So what do you think then, are men funny? Or do you think that they think men are capable of being as funny as women?
KD: Yeah I think that should be the new question. In my world women are hilarious. Sarah’s [Sarah Silverman, his girlfriend] hilarious, Amy’s hilarious and Tig is hilarious. They all make me cry laughing.
Paste: How is working on Amy’s show?
KD: It’s really fun. I have friends on other shows and I heard nightmare stories and they all were very jealous. The stress is very low. Productions will keep you there for hours and hours but really, writing comedy, you get three or four hours a day where you can be creative. The rest is just torturing the writers. So they’re very aware of how the process works and they don’t overwork people, which happens on some shows.
Paste: So can you tell us about a few more songs on the new Christmas album?
KD: Yep, I have a song I’m editing right now called “Fuck you, Mistletoe.” I don’t know if you can write that—maybe you’ll need some asterisks. It’s about these really tough cowboys who get stuck under the mistletoe by accident and they’re like shit. The whole song is about, “fuck you mistletoe, these two cowboys are hetero,” but they say, “cowboys aren’t pussies, so let’s do this.” So their lives unravel and they lose their family because they just happened to bump into each other underneath the mistletoe.
Paste: Like any country song.
KD: There’s also a hip-hop song where Craig [Dunnigan’s character from Reno 911] does some rapping. It’s about how if Christmas is the best holiday and if it isn’t your favorite holiday then your favorite holiday is shit, basically. It goes through the different holidays and why they’re worse than Christmas.
There’s a Tim Gunn song [Dunnigan nails a Tim Gunn impression] where he is helping the elves get dressed to go clubbing on Christmas Eve, their one night off each year. He ends up being so particular about their outfits that they never get to go out and they’re just really pissed at Tim Gunn.
Paste: Have you ever had a run-in with someone who you do impressions of?
KD: I haven’t met Tim Gunn, but Sarah and I went to Hawaii on Bill Maher’s private plane. We hung out in Hawaii and he wasn’t aware that I did an impression of him. No one told him at the time. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. Then, she was on Howard Stern and she played a message I left her as Bill Maher, so he might know now.
Paste: You seem to have a lot of embarrassing life events happen to you. You’ve discussed some on your podcast: getting the crotch of your blue jeans caught in the wheel of a bicycle your brother was riding; believing you had AIDS (which you didn’t) after you’d had sex once in your life and letting that belief compel you to climb onto the stage at Billy Joel concert in Yankee Stadium; telling your mother the aforementioned story and having her tell you in front of an audience that doctors at one point advised her to abort you; and, of course, many tales of intestinal vulnerability during intimate moments. Do you think there is something about your personality that causes these things to happen to you more often than other people?
KD: Yes, they definitely happen to me more than other people. People will often remind me of things I did. So many things have happened. It’s funny because I hate the feeling of being embarrassed.
Paste: Isn’t that hard for someone in comedy?
KD: Yeah, you face rejection a lot. I’m at the point now where I’ve felt all feelings possible and can handle them. I know I’ll be okay and things are temporary. But it can be very frustrating when it happens. Like the time I had to go to Atlanta for a show, got off in the airport and took a bus to the car rental place, not realizing I was in Chicago at the layover.
At the time it was very stressful and there was the prospect of losing thousands of dollars for missing a gig. So the only way to deal with it is if you can talk about it later and people laugh, then that makes it almost worth it. That one wasn’t quite worth it. But the others usually are.
I used to get really mad and I realized that didn’t work. I thought let me just accept this is how my brain works. It works well in some ways and not well in other ways, so I just don’t get too stressed about it.
Paste: That’s a good philosophy and one that definitely makes sense for someone working in comedy. Was there a time you thought you might not do comedy or had another career in mind?
KD: I never really thought about doing something else in a serious way. I was 26 and I was very poor, not really making it. My father had branched off and started his own law firm because he got a huge case. They said if you go to law school you will have a really good job when you get out. You can take over the business. So financially that was tempting and I thought about it. Luckily, I didn’t because what would have been two years into law school—if I had gone—my father got sick and he died a few years later.
I also worked down on Wall Street for a little while doing trades. They offered me a job when I was young for 50,000 a year, which was a lot for my age at the time. I was so young and poor it didn’t mean anything to me so I turned it down. You know when you’re young you don’t know what it’s like to get paid. All my friends were poor. So it wasn’t as hard of a decision as it sounds like.
Paste: What are some of the next projects you’re working on?
KD: I have a pilot at Nickelodeon. It’s a show I created, based on a character I do. I think they’re going to started drawing it up in a few weeks. I handed in a second draft of the pilot scripts. It’s been really fun to do.
Paste: What age is it aimed at?
KD: Very specifically Nickelodeon is aimed at eight and nine year-olds. I had a three-minute cartoon there and to decide whether it would be turned into a full half-hour, eight and nine year-olds had to watch it. It’s funny when an eight or nine year-old is going to decide whether you are going to make a show or not. But that’s the audience. I mean, they don’t solely rely on eight and nine year-olds to make the decision.
Paste: They’re not wearing tiny suits and green-lighting programming?
KD: Right, with their adorable little ties. You’ve got to consider them. But I’d like to continue making things. I’m not really interested in development deals anymore. I think it’s kind of a waste of time especially with what’s going on with the Internet. You don’t really need to wait around for years to get notes and all this other stuff. I’m interested in just continuing to make stuff with nice people and my friends. That to me is heaven.