Making the News Funnier
Wait -- Rob Corddry does things other than deliver fake news reports on "The Daily Show?"
It might be strange for fans of the actor/comedian/faux correspondent to see him as anything other than a dead-on impersonator of irony-deficient conservative twits (or, as he calls them, "John Stossel-like idiotic libertarian bores"). But the thirty-five-year-old Corddry displays surprising versatility in his new film Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, a low-budget mockumentary about a legendary paintball champion who retired in disgrace at the height of his career and is attempting a comeback.
Although it's a comedy (and a very funny one at that -- the fact that this SXSW-award-winner is being released independently while Queen Latifah movies get dumped onto a gazillion screens is proof the movie industry is not a meritocracy), Blackballed is surprisingly subdued. In the title role, Corddry gets to hold back this time, nicely understating his part as a guy who just wants to form a team to play paintball, meeting unlikely obstacles all along the way.
More surprising might be the fact that Corddry, a drama and English major from the University of Massachussetts, spent years struggling to make a living as a serious dramatic actor on the New York stage. He wound up doing lots of Shakespeare, but eventually migrated to the Upright Citizens Brigade. Along the way, he did "every temp job there is in this city," subsisting on "40s of Budweiser and dumplings." Obviously, he need not worry anymore. Since his 2002 debut, Corddry has become one of the most recognizable faces of "The Daily Show", and was a natural sub for Jon Stewart when the host took ill this past February. (For the record, Corddry says he "didn't really have time to be terrified" when hosting, but admits to coming close to vomiting afterward.) We caught up with him in New York.
Bilge Ebiri: How did you end up starring in Blackballed?
Rob Corddry: Well, it was clearly an important film. [Laughs] It's been in the ether for a long time -- someone had to make it. In all seriousness, it was the brainchild of the director, Brant Sersen, who wrote the story with a friend of his from high school, Brian Steinberg, whom I know from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. And he got Paul Scheer and me involved -- to help flesh out the story, and of course cast all our friends in it. Which we did. As you can see, if nothing else, we're all very comfortable with each other.
BE: Those familiar with you from "The Daily Show" might be surprised at how understated your performance is here. The film has a Mighty Wind kind of vibe.
RC: I take that as a compliment. I definitely play the straight man here, which is what this calls for -- and which maybe people who see me from "The Daily Show" might not be used to. It wasn't easy, though. I usually like getting more attention than that. And it was hard not laughing at Rob Riggle [who plays a near-psychotic, bellowing ex-marine who joins Bobby Dukes's team].
BE: Is holding back laughter hard for you in general? Jon Stewart seems to crack up pretty regularly.
RC: I very rarely break. Never on "The Daily Show". If I'm improv-ing on stage with my friends, I crack up all the time, because they make me laugh so much. I try not to adhere to the Jimmy Fallon school of comedy, which is to always laugh at how adorable I am. As for Jon, that's just his personality. He's not really cracking up or breaking. That's the way to deliver that material, because he's like part of the audience -- it's a "We're all in it together" vibe. When I hosted, I found myself almost laughing sometimes.
BE: Is it strange that the show has become such a political hot button?
RC: Truthfully, like any other comedy show, we're just trying to take the shortest road to the funniest joke. If a point gets made along the way, that's fine, but it's not what we're out there for. To be honest, it's kind of annoying in the studio to have people applaud everything you say about Tom DeLay. They turn it into a political movement. I mean, I hate looking a gift horse in the mouth, but . . . fuck you people. I'm just kidding.
BE: It might be strange if the Democrats manage to take office, and then you wind up making fun of them.
RC: We poke fun at hypocrisy, and there's no shortage of that on the other side of the aisle. Do you seriously think John Kerry wouldn't provide enough fodder for us? That's a ridiculous notion. That man has never said an interesting thing in his life. That alone is delicious.
BE: As the show becomes more politically pointed and gets more serious guests, does it become harder to use the sarcasm defense?
RC: God no. I take no responsibility for anyone who takes our show seriously. That said, if "The Daily Show" is responsible for one cultural phenomenon, it's that we've provided a forum for people to sell more politically themed books. And for that, I apologize. I've made a habit out of reading a quarter of those things and then throwing them out. If you want a good book, read some of O'Reilly's mystery novels. That's a good read.
BE: I'm sure you've been asked many times about the subjects you interview in your taped segments and whether they're being serious. Are they aware that they're on a comedy show?
RC: Of course. You can't lie to them. Back in the olden days, they said something like, "We're Comedy Central's News Division." I think only an idiot would be taken in by that. Now, everybody knows the show, and they know what they're getting into. They're just out to sell a book or get a hit on a website, basically.
BE: But how do you set something like that up? I just saw a segment where you pretended to be a racist and you interviewed an African-American history professor.
RC: It depends. In that interview, one of the things I had planned to say was, "Look, it's not you. You seem like a nice guy. It's just that the color of your skin puts me off." And the rest of the question was, "I find that easier to judge than the content of your character," which we cut for time. To be honest with you, I didn't know whether I was going to be able to say that to him. But two minutes into the interview, I knew this guy was cool. He knew the deal.
BE: You studied theater in college. Are you worried it'll be hard for you to do serious acting again, now that you're so clearly identified with a comedy show?
RC: It'd be fine with me. I actually think drama is a lot easier, to tell you the truth. I wish comics were given more of an opportunity to do serious stuff. Comedy is like swinging three bats in the batter's box, and when you get up to the plate in a drama, you swing one. In that sense, it's a lot easier. When I first came to New York in 1994, I fancied myself quite the actor. I did Shakespeare for years, but I was always playing jackasses. I got to play Mercutio once, but he's kind of a glorified idiot. He's a jackass with higher billing.
BE: What struggling-actor jobs did you do when you first moved to New York?
RC: I am so good at Word and Excel you wouldn't believe it. I have folded so many pieces of paper and stuffed them into so many envelopes, I should win an award. I always had a rule that I would never work anywhere for over a year, 'cause I didn't want to get comfortable anywhere. I stayed true to that. I worked at Goldman Sachs as the Assistant to the General Counsel! I faked my way all the way up there. And I got fired a day after my one-year anniversary. I put my feet up on the desk -- pretty much knowing that it would do the trick. My boss hated me anyway, 'cause I'd been stoking the fires for a month or so. And I got fired a day later. That way I could collect unemployment. That was another job I had: collecting unemployment. I was very good at that.
BE: Weren't you a museum security guard at one point?
RC: Yeah, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was a really interesting job. The training was incredible. The head guy was great. I'm pretty sure he was from Boston -- I think they were all Mafia connected. [In a Boston accent] "Question: Can I or can I not carry a gun? Answer: Yes! Question: Can I shoot someone if they deface a painting? Answer: Yes!" I was working with gun-toting maniacs.
BE: Did anyone ever deface a painting on your watch?
RC: I saw someone actually destroy "The Death of Socrates," by Jean-Louis David. There was a school group in front of that painting, and I was watching them. Somebody said, "Yo, where's Plato?" Somebody from the back of the group went right up to it and slammed Plato on the head. "Right here, motherfucker!" And I ran over, like in slow motion: "Noo-ooo-ooo". To this day, you can still see a tiny imperfection near Plato's head. He looks even sadder.