It’s A Man’s, Man’s World
by Jay S. Jacobs
Stand up comedian. Actor. Podcast host. Father. Occasional color commentary guy. Seeker of knowledge. Chronicler of sexual roles.
You don’t want to be the dude responsible for keeping Bryan Callen’s résumé current.
You’ve seen him on TV, or on the big screen, or in the comedy clubs. His filmography veers wildly from a recurring role in The Hangover films to doing serious time in Oz to being an original cast member on MADtv. He has played a corporate shark on How I Met Your Mother, a recovering alcoholic on Seventh Heaven, the guy who beats up Santa Claus in Bad Santa and a sportscaster in Warrior. He also shared the screen in two recent Kevin Hart comedies – Ride Along and About Last Night.
However, perhaps his favorite role is host of the podcast The Bryan Callen Show, in which he uses his gig as the host to learn as much about life as he possibly can.
Now, as he plans his latest and greatest comedy special, the world is Bryan Callen’s oyster. And it’s only getting better.
We recently caught up with Callen to discuss his life as an entertainment renaissance man.
When did you first realize you were funny? How did you decide you wanted to be a comedian?
I grew up all over the world. My family moved around to different parts of the world. My pop would come home like, “Hey, we’re going to Saudi Arabia!” I was like, oh that sucks. I have a dog and friends. I’d get thrown into a whole different set of circumstances with a whole different group of people. Basically, I realized that the way you get guys to like you, if you want to make friends, is be a jackass or be good at sports. I was okay at sports, but I was a bigger jackass. I was a better jackass. So from a very early age I had to learn how to navigate and ingratiate myself to a group of people. Now I get paid to do it. When I get up on stage, it doesn’t even occur to me that that’s what I’m doing, probably because I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid.
Your comic persona is sort of as a guy’s guy, a dude who drinks and talks sports and goes to strip clubs, the type of best friend that most guys have and most of their wives just barely put up with.
I try more to talk about really the problem with masculinity. You feel one way, but society makes you do another. You still have testosterone and a caveman, but so much of what our DNA is about is very inconvenient and downright inappropriate in modern day society, right? So, in that sense, that’s kind of what I try to express, the fact that I feel so different than the way I’m expected to behave.
Who are some of the comedians who inspired you to take it up?
I was never inspired by comedians. I was in fact always inspired by authors and dramatic actors. I wanted to be Robert De Niro or Christopher Walken. I wanted to be a pro athlete, like Michael Jordan or… Andre Agassi, whatever. I suppose you’re usually fascinated with what is a mystery. I never found comedy to be as much of a mystery as say someone who could write an amazing book and weave a story together. I guess you get to a point where writing something funny is not as much of a challenge as is the idea that you’re trying to be dramatic and tell a story while being funny.
At this point, you’re on TV, film, a comic, have a podcast and lots of other things going. When do you get to sleep?
(laughs) Well, to keep it going, one of the things that bothers me is how delicate I am. I do need sleep. I do need food. I always say if you’re a nice guy, miss five hours of sleep and miss two meals, then come talk. One of the things that I resent about my own biology is the fact that I’m so goddamned precious. But my children are what really ground me. Playing with my son. My son and daughter, they demand that I slow down. They demand that you put your phone away and look them in the eye. You’ve always got to be writing just to develop a following. People expect new tricks. It’s not like being a musician where you can sing the same song. You have to come up with new tricks. That requires you to be in what I would consider a comedic mindset, where you’re writing all the time.
As a traveling stand-up comedian, when you meet people do they always expect you to be “on” and funny?
Not really. I think what happens is when you get a little bit more known, a lot of times people just look at you a little bit like you’re an alien. Here you are, you’re making us laugh for an hour straight. They don’t know how you do that. It’s like how I look at a surgeon or something. I remember I was sitting on this plane and this guy sits next to me and he recognizes me. He asks me all kind of questions. He was very excited. He said, “I’m sorry to be asking you all these questions. I’m a fan. It’s fun to meet somebody from your business.” I said, “Listen, man, if you were a brain surgeon, I’d probably be doing the same thing as you.” He said, “I am a brain surgeon.” He pulled out all of his medical things he was working on. Boy, let me tell you, did the tables shift? He couldn’t get away from me fast enough by the end of that flight. I was literally asking him every question under the sun.
How often do people come up to you and go, “Hey, aren’t you that guy?”
Yeah, well that is the level of my celebrity. Life as Bryan Callen. Unless I’m in parts of Canada, it’s usually “Aren’t you that guy?” I’ll take it. I’ll take it. When I’m Bryan Callen, that’s when I’ll be able to afford the two million dollar house.
You were one of the original cast members of MADtv. How did you get involved in that show and what did you learn from the experience?
I learned that sketch comedy is VERY difficult. It’s way more work than fun. I learned that I was in over my head. It was sort of a baptism by fire. I was thrown in with a bunch of really experienced sketch comics. I did the best I could. It was a privilege to be part of something that lasted that long. I guess I learned basically if you want to make something really good, there is this idea that it should be easy. That is not true.
Your first recurring role after MADtv was on Oz, a very different kind of show for you. What was it like to be on such a realistic and dark, dramatic series like that?
We had a lot of laughs on the set. The Hell’s Angels would hang out. It was a rough group. The people that you’d see in the background shots were a lot of times real prisoners, had been real prisoners. It was a very realistic, depressing environment. It was also a great place to be an actor. I will say, that when you do a movie or you do a TV show like that, and it’s dramatic, it’s not a lot of fun and games. There’s a lot of waiting around. People are trying to be a character and hold on to their preparation and in an emotional state. A lot of times it can be a lot more work. You’ve got to be very conscientious and disciplined about how you use your energy. [When I was in] The Hangover II, it was like, yeah, well hanging around with you guys [is normal] because I’m around comedians. When you’re around actors, everybody is in character. You’ve got to be ready all the time.
What role do you think was most like who you really are, and which role was hardest to get a grasp on?
I think, believe it or not, the role I did on Seventh Heaven where I had to play an alcoholic. This guy whose life had hit a certain point. My biggest fear was the threat. I never wanted to create the role. Look back and say, wow, that could have been. I think that’s what drove me to sobriety. I suppose, that role, believe it or not on Seventh Heaven, which is a family show, they wrote me an incredible role. I was an alcoholic, tending with my booze and my lost family. So that was kind of difficult. But, mostly, honestly, the roles I’ve had the hardest time with were roles on stage, original productions. You get on stage, you better be a masterpiece by the end of the piece. That’s where technique and craft come in.
You seem to get brought in to play oddball supporting roles – in stuff like The Hangover and Old School and The Goods. How fun is it to come in and be a go-to-guy for laughs?
I wish I was a movie star. I always want to work more. I always want a bigger part. But that's just not how it works sometimes. So I take what I can get and I try to do the best I can with it.
You've just done two movies with Kevin Hart, Ride Along and About Last Night. Coincidence, or is he stalking you?
Yeah, Kevin is stalking me. (laughs) No, I actually think he's so prodigiously talented. I love the guy. Kevin is impossible not to love. He's such a hard-working, good person. He's just always funny. He's just one of those incredible people. I've never worked with anybody where I can never keep a straight face, because I never know what he's going to do. He'll just surprise you. He surprises himself, I think.
You mentioned it was fun to do a dramatic role on Seventh Heaven. Would you like to do more drama?
I guess so. I'll do whatever. The thing about me is I like doing anything that feels like a challenge. I like trying to find something in the role, so even if it is small, I'm going to try to be memorable. The biggest thing about me is when I look in the mirror – and I did this a long time ago – I went into comedy because when I walk into the room and they look at me, it's not like, "Hey, let's use the medium white guy with brown hair." Well no. That's not how it works, man. So I had to make myself memorable. That's why in The Hangover, well what can I do here? Let me do a character so people will remember me. He owns a wedding chapel. What kind of guy does that? That forced me to find a way for people to remember me. Because they're not going to remember me just because I'm Bryan Callen, medium white guy. You've got to do something different. You're not getting a part just because you are a good actor. In this business, you've got to have something different.
You've had a recurring role on How I Met Your Mother. What was that like and are you sorry to see the show end?
Yeah. I never really watched it much, but it's a great show. I'm friends with a lot of the people on the show. Again, when you're doing these things, you don't realize they are going to be hits. You don't realize that it's going to be a big deal, but it was. When you're doing it, it always just feels like another show. What you remember are the people that you work with. That's the big part of it.
Lately, on TV you've been in a bunch of episodes of World's Dumbest... What's the dumbest thing you've ever done?
The dumbest thing I've ever done? Well... God, that's a long list. I'll tell you, rescuing two pit bulls and having two huge macaw parrots and moving my girlfriend into my house at the same time. That's a lot to manage. It didn't work out too well with any of it. My pit bulls kept fighting. Me and my girlfriend fought a lot. And the birds made a lot of noise and were gross and were a nightmare.
Your podcast is interesting in that you don't just pull out the typical celeb types. I like the fact that you touch on all kinds of things, politics, literature, music, sports, whatever. What do you look for in a guest?
I look for people that are answering and wrestling with big questions. The questions that matter. What I mean by that is that there are a lot of real issues. If you talk to the average doctor or talk to the average person, you are going to be entertained. The business doesn't require that you think deeply about issues. I realized that there were a lot of people writing books and thinking for twenty years on a subject. Like Jared Diamond won a Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel. This is a guy who said: Why is there a difference between... for example, people who live close to the equator. Why does sub-Saharan Africa not have as much as Northern Europe? Why did they not go in step? What happened that Northern Europeans had so much and people in Africa had so little? He took twenty years to answer that question with a seminal book. Those are the kind of people I learn from. My podcast is less about talking popular and way more a selfish endeavor. I'm trying to see how much I can learn. I get to talk to people who would never speak with me. William Bernstein, who wrote The Four Pillars of Investing and The Birth of Plenty. Or Charles Mann who wrote 1491. These are eminent historians and very, very smart people. I guess my criterion is: Is this guy going to be dynamic? Does this guy have something to say? Am I going to learn something? Is he going to change my paradigm? My thought paradigm. My mind.
Who or what would you consider the fantasy ideal guest for your podcast?
That's a great question. That's a great question. It's funny, when you meet some people, you have to have the right questions. I'd really have to think about that. I think probably Ray Kurzweil. Ray Kurzweil is a futuristic guy. He's a professor. He wrote a book called The Singularity is Near. He predicted the internet. He is somebody who I think has been more accurate in predicting how we are going to live than anybody else that I know of. I think the Wall Street Journal called him "The Thomas Edison of our time." Sure, I'd love to talk to a President; Barack Obama or something. [But] I think I could predict a lot of what those kinds of people would speak about. I had a chance to speak with Arnold Schwarzenegger for two hours. He was great, but you're not necessarily going to learn as much as you are with somebody who is actually an innovative leader of thought. Like Ray Kurzweil. So, it would be someone like that, I think.
You also did a very impressive job of color commentary in the movie Warrior. Is color man yet another hat that you want to try on?
Well, I love the fight game. I'm not qualified to call fights. But I've spent enough time on a mat and I think I know fighting. I love the game so much, I know fighting more than just boxing. I'm not a total novice about it. For the most part, I just told them, "Fight and roll camera and I'll just call the fight as I see it." That's how we did that. Of course, there was dialogue, but at the same time I was given some leeway, because I knew what I was talking about. I started out in ju-jitsu, I've wrestled enough, I've done enough boxing to at least be able to talk about it. I'm not going to win it, but I can talk about it.
As an actor, what are some movies that you most wish you had been a part of?
Oh, boy. I got into the movies because of Raging Bull. When I saw what Robert De Niro did – I was 19 years old – I had never seen anything like that. When I saw what he did in The Deer Hunter, in that Russian roulette scene, I didn't even know how to put it into context. I just knew that it made me feel so deeply. It just really shook me up, to realize that there was this thing called film – this crazy collaborative process is a powerful, powerful tool. You know what else did? Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Some of these movies as a young man hit you where you live. When you say to yourself, I got to actually wake up and be on set how I'm written. I've got one go around. There are so many movies you'd like to be a part of, but what Sean Penn does – what he did when he was a young man – those things really affected me deeply. There are actors that are cool and there are actors that break your heart. Like Mickey Rourke does. Those are the actors I really [like]. Mickey Rourke, De Niro and even [Christopher] Walken. And Sean Penn. When you're a young man and these people are these very macho, male figures, getting out there and crying and doing the things that you're not supposed to do as a man – be sensitive, be reckless, be vulnerable, be weak, surrender, throw yourself to the ground – those are the things that give you life as a man. That breaks me from what society tells you you're supposed to be. Being a man, and especially being a straight white guy in America, it comes with parameters. Those parameters get reinforced, sometimes specifically. So, maybe I was looking for a way out of that.
What kinds of things bring you back to the old days? What makes you nostalgic?
All old movies. It takes me back. I watched An Officer and a Gentleman recently and I started crying. When he said, "I've got no place else to go. I've got nothing else." Also old Springsteen songs.
I actually just today interviewed John G. Avildsen, director of the original Rocky.
One of the greatest movies of all times. I went to theater school with his son.
Is there a certain movie that if you are in a bad mood it automatically cheers you up?
Oh, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Airplane!, Monty Python & the Holy Grail. The great classics are always fantastic.
Is there something you watch when you need a good cry?
No, because I don't need a good cry. (laughs) Even if I did, I wouldn't admit it.
What movie are you most embarrassed to admit that you totally love?
Oh, man. That's a good one. Gee whiz. Well, I'll tell you what. What I love... and I never tell anybody this... but figure skating. Figure skating brings me to tears. And so does So You Think You Can Dance. So does The Voice. So does The Best of American Idol. If you want to see me cry, I'm in my hotel room and I'm not watching porn, I'm watching all those shows with my ear plugs on and Kleenex. But don't tell anybody that.
Your secret is safe with me.
Yeah, sure. Right.
What movie do you absolutely hate that everyone else in the world seems to think is great?
Well, you have to be careful with this. But Hollywood is full of movies that take an unoriginal idea and they put a bunch of talented people around it. Any movie usually that has been manufactured artificially. It's a little bit like when you see these planned communities. Somebody has planned them out before. The cities and communities where people live in or have homes in are those that sprung up organically. And were usually the inspiration of one or two people behind it. So think about the great story. There was always one person who came up with an idea that made them laugh or cry. Those are the best ones. The same goes for great songs.
You've done so many different things in your career. How would you like for people to look at your body of work?
I don't take it that seriously. I don't look at my own body of work. I guess when I think about that, I think of my children. Having children, it is the first time I ever thought I hope my children look at me and I hope they don't say, "Eh, he's a fraud." I hope they say something like, "He really did something original as a comic." So my stand up is really where I place a lot of energy. I'm about to shoot my special – probably in June or July, I'm not sure. It'll be the best I can do. It'll be the best I've ever done. That I hope doesn't break my heart. I hope I'm proud of it. I do so little that I'm proud of. I do so little that I can even watch myself in. I'm just my own worst critic.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 25, 2014.
Photo Credit: © 2014. Courtesy of BryanCallen.com. All rights reserved.
#JaredDiamond #CharlesMann #children #RayKurzweil #WorldsDumbest #Oz #PulitzerPrize #AboutLastNight #SeventhHeaven #howimetyourmother #podcast #TheBirthofPlenty #TheHangover #MADtv #men #1491 #standup #GunsGermsandSteel #popentertainment #TheBryanCallenShow #drama #PopEntertainmentcom #warrior #BryanCallen #father #jaysjacobs #books #WilliamBernstein #comedy #RideAlong #TheFourPillarsofInvesting #TheSingularitIsNear