Brian Stack is a writer and performer on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. You might know him as Frankenstein in the segment Frankenstein Wastes a Minute of Your Time or you might know him for his terrific work as Special Agent in Charge in the film Spaceman. Now you'll know all about Brian's childhood, how he got to where is today, and his limited run Improv show Let's Have A Ball, featuring writers and actors of The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
What are your earliest memories of seeing or hearing things that made
I have a very vague memory of seeing some old Red Skelton clips on TV when I was around 3 or 4 years old and finding him really hilarious, but I can't remember why. Maybe he was just pulling his lower lip over his face, and that was good enough for me. I also remember laughing really hard at "The Three Stooges" when I was a little. My friend Adam said he remembers actually thanking God for The Three Stooges when he discovered them as a kid, and I'm sure I felt the same way.
Were your parents funny people or trying to bring comedy into the
My parents both have good senses of humor, and I was exposed to some great things through them early on. In addition to TV shows they watched when I was little, like the old "Bob Newhart Show", I remember seeing lots of old movies like the Marx Brothers classics, as well as later films like Woody Allen's "Love and Death" and "Take The Money and Run", as well as dark comedies like Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" and "The Hospital". I still love all that stuff, too.
How many siblings do you have?
I have one sister, Laurel, who's three years younger than me. Like my parents, she also has a good sense of humor.
What sort of place did you grow up in?
My dad was in the army on active duty until I was around 5 years old, so we moved around a lot back then, but I spent most of my life before college in Palatine, Illinois, a Northwest suburb of Chicago. It was a pretty typical suburban neighborhood, I guess. Not fancy like the North Shore 'burbs in the John Hughes movies, but we didn't have to carry straight razors to the bus stop either.
Young people, free time, and suburban sprawl often leads to mischievous behavior. Could the same be said of young Brian Stack?
I didn't get in any serious trouble when I was a little kid, but I did do some stuff with my friends that got us yelled at occasionally, like stealing wood from construction houses to make crappy go-carts or whatever. My dad still laughs about the time he looked out of our family room window and saw me and my friends pull out the extension cord plug for a power drill that a construction worker was using all the way across the street on the second floor. The guy was jumping up and down, screaming that he was going to kill us. We would've deserved it, too. Little bastards. When I got older, in junior high and high school, I never got in any serious trouble either. There was the usual underage beer-drinking stuff that most kids get in trouble for now and then, but that was about it.
Was there a lot of humor in your household?
Well, I would say there was always an appreciation for different kinds of humor in our house, even if the atmosphere was pretty reserved overall. Being Irish-Catholic, we were probably too emotionally repressed to get rowdy. I remember hearing a lot of hilarious stories when I was little, though, especially from my Irish grandparents who were really great storytellers.
What are your earliest memories of you being aware of your ability to
make people laugh?
Since I was a pretty quiet kid, almost all of the joking around I did when I was growing up involved simply mumbling stuff to my friends, and then repeating what I'd mumbled since they didn't hear me the first time. I remember learning pretty early on that I could do certain kinds of character voices or dialects, but that just gave me new ways to mumble.
Do you remember a time when you started to put more thought into being
funny, perhaps in terms of timing or delivery?
I used to talk about comedy a lot with my friends, but I never actually thought I would end up doing it myself. I'm sure I learned a lot from just watching and listening to all the great comedians and actors I admired, but I don't remember consciously trying to develop any timing or delivery techniques for myself back then. I kind of stumbled into improv comedy accidentally when I was in my early 20's, and I was hooked instantly. It was only then that I began to actually think about comedy from a performer's point-of-view.
What were you like in school?
School for me is kind of a gray blur when I think back on it. I was never really the "class clown" type back then, that's for sure. Like I said earlier, I was a fairly quiet kid. I was a pretty good student, got along with people overall, and played a little sports, but at my all-guy's Catholic high school, if you didn't play varsity football you were kind of invisible. I wasn't exactly the football type. I injure myself if I shampoo too aggressively.
How'd you get your laughs in school?
Any laughs I got in school came pretty much from just joking around with my friends. I do remember making my 8th-grade English class laugh when I did a speech project in a goofy German character voice, but any other laughs I got before age 22 came strictly from mumbling to two or three people at a time, often in a convenience store parking lot.
What are some things that, during your formative years, influenced your
The things that influenced me the most when I was growing up were probably "Monty Python", "SCTV", early "Saturday Night Live", Woody Allen, and Peter Sellers. I remember loving Steve Martin and Richard Pryor back then, too, but I don't know how much actual "influence" they had since they seemed so different from me. James L. Brooks is another big hero of mine.
Would your humor ever get you in trouble in school?
I don't remember ever getting in any serious trouble in school because of humor. I think I occasionally ticked off a couple of teachers and/or coaches that took themselves way more seriously than I was physiologically capable of taking them, and I got yelled at sometimes for being an unorganized slob (still a real problem for me) but that was about as "troubled" as my school years ever got.
Were you also incorporating humor into your school assignments?
Whenever there was an opportunity to incorporate some humor into assignments, I really loved doing that. I don't remember having a lot of opportunities to do that, though, unfortunately.
What sort of creative outlets did you have?
Not many back then, really. I used to draw cartoons a lot, and I would occasionally make stupid "parody" cassettes with my friends in which we'd make up our own fake TV shows or commercials, but that was about it as far as "creative outlets" until I started doing improv after college.
What sort of aspirations did you have growing up?
When I was growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living later on. Actually, the few things I really wanted to do just were just completely unrealistic. For example, I used to dream of being a great pro athlete despite the fact that I had absolutely no athletic ability. I still felt pretty lost, even when I finished college, and for several years after that.
Were you a member of any clubs?
Well, I was never in anything that actually had the word "club" in it. I did somehow manage to make the tennis team in high school, despite the fact that I moved like an oak tree, and I drew some cartoon illustrations for my college newspaper, but that was about it.
I also played some electric guitar in my high school's Jazz Band. Actually, to call it a "jazz" band was pretty sacrilegious since we just plowed our way amateurishly through old standards. I wasn't very good. I just kind of strummed along, playing the few chords I knew and faking the ones I didn't, while our lead guitarist did all the heavy lifting.
How much time did you spend alone in your formative years?
I had some good friends when I was growing up, but since my parents worked a lot back then, I did spend quite a bit of time on my own during high school, particularly during the school week. I've never minded being by myself, though. I've always been a little bit solitary by nature. That's probably why I tend to space out a lot when I'm in crowded situations. My friends and family have often accused me of being in my own world a lot of the time. I probably have at least a mild form of A.D.D., but I know lots of other people feel the same way.
Do you think that alienation and outsiderdom might be essential components of being funny?
There have obviously been some brilliantly funny "alienated outsiders" in comedy, and there probably always will be, but I wouldn't say that alienation or outsiderdom are "essential" to being funny. I've met so many different kinds of funny people over the years, some who are alienated outsiders, some who aren't alienated at all, and some who fall somewhere in between.
How about in your own experience?
I wouldn't really classify myself as an "alienated outsider", but I do remember feeling like kind of a misfit when I was growing up. I never felt like I belonged to any particular kind of group. My friends tended to be a mixture of various types of people. It wasn't until I started doing improv after college that I felt like I found a group of people that I related to a lot on many different levels. I've had friends who are stand-ups or musicians and they've described feeling exactly the same way when they discovered people on the same wavelength as them.
What did you do after graduating from high school?
I went to college at Indiana University, worked some hilariously crappy jobs over the summers, and then to grad school at University of Wisconsin-Madison for a couple years. I went to UW for all the wrong reasons but I loved Madison, met a lot of great people, and started performing at a great little Improv theatre called The Ark, which is now unfortunately a Laundromat. After finishing school at UW, I then moved back to Chicago and worked at an ad agency for a few years while taking classes at Second City and ImprovOlympic. I performed in several different Improv groups, at night and on weekends before getting hired by Second City in '92. I worked in the Second City National Touring Company for a couple years before joining the Second City E.T.C. resident company. After doing three revues there over the next couple years, I was hired as a writer at "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in April of '97 and I've been here ever since.
What were your wrong reasons?
I had no idea what to do with my life after college, so I applied to grad school to avoid dealing with real life for a while. UW offered me a teaching assistantship in the Communications Department, which would pay my tuition and expenses, so I knew I wouldn't go into debt while avoiding reality. I loved the people I met at UW, though, and Madison is such a great town. Like I said earlier, that's also where I started doing improv, so I have no regrets about the two years I spent living there.
What were some of your hilariously crappy jobs?
In addition to cutting people's lawns, one of my crappy summer jobs during college was carrying out huge, heavy audio/video cabinets from a retail warehouse called W. Bell& Co., and trying to somehow shove them into people's cars. One of the summers I worked there, a bunch of stuff began disappearing mysteriously from the warehouse, and the manager was going to give us lie detector tests to find out who the thief was. One night after work, this nerdy little guy from the camera department burst into tears and confessed to me that he'd stolen all the stuff. I couldn't believe it. I never ratted him out, and luckily I didn't have to take and fail a lie detector test about it. Another guy I worked with got busted for wheeling a big box full of Sony Walkmans out to his friend's car one afternoon. I guess he thought no one would notice. I also worked an internship one summer at the Chicago CBS-TV station, and ended up mostly answering phone calls from crazy people. I was in a walking cast during most of that internship after trying to slam-dunk a football in my friend's driveway. Incredibly sad, but incredibly true.
What was it like rooming with Onion Head Writer Todd Hanson?
I never actually roomed with Todd, but he was one of my best friends in Madison. It's so great that he lives in New York now. Todd and I performed in the same improv group together at Madison's Ark Improvisational Theater. I wish he did more performing these days. He's a hilarious improviser. I'm not the least bit surprised that he's had so much success as an "Onion" writer. He's one of the smartest, funniest, and most criminally under-confident people I've ever met. Todd did end up living in the same house I'd lived in after I left Madison, with one or two of my old roommates, including the hilarious Matt Cook, another Ark performer who was one of the first "Onion" writers.
How helpful was your college experience in your career as a comedian?
Well, it was while I was in college that I first discovered Improv, as a fan anyway. A guy on my dorm floor, Mick Napier, who later went on to be a brilliant director at Second City and founded The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, had an Improv group there. He encouraged me to audition but I didn't have the guts. If I hadn't had the chance to get really mad at myself for chickening out, I doubt I would've ended up doing Improv later on in Madison.
How helpful has your degree been?
Well, I think any general knowledge I've picked up over the years, including what I learned in college, has come in handy over the years in my Improv and writing work. Some of the smartest people I know never even finished college, though, so I don't take my degree very seriously. I'm grateful that I got to go to college, and I'm glad I went, but I don't think it's necessarily for everybody.
How would you describe your role in the film Spaceman?
I played an FBI agent who loved nothing better than cutting up aliens or beating them to death with a baseball bat. My partner was played by John Hildreth who was in my cast at Second City at the time. I had a great time playing that part, and I'm very grateful to the writer/director Scott Dikkers for asking me to do it. I'm glad Scott was able to actually make the film, too, even on an incredibly low budget. I love Todd Hanson's brief appearance as a supermarket shoplifter. It's great that Scott and Todd are back working together at "The Onion" again.
You delivered a show stealing performance in that film, what sort of acting training do you have outside of Improv?
Thanks a lot. I was a little surprised that Scott asked me to play a part like that, but I did my best, and just hoped it would turn out okay. Other than a beginner's acting class my senior year of college, I've had very little formal acting training outside of improv. I would advise anyone that's interested in improv to take some acting classes, though. I ended up learning many things, or at least trying to learn many things, the hard way later on. Basic things like projecting my voice were a problem for me when I started working at Second City, and they really shouldn't have been. I've always envied my friends who've had more formal training, but some of them have told me that they sometimes had to un-learn certain things taught to them by people that had no business teaching.
Given the opportunity, would you be interested in doing more acting outside of your work on Conan?
I'd love to do more acting work if the right opportunities come along. I do some voiceover work outside of "Conan", but because of our busy schedule, I haven't had much of a chance to do much outside "on-camera" acting. I did recently play a small part on "30 Rock", though, and I had a great time doing that. I think that show is hilarious.
How would you describe a typical day at Conan?
We usually get in around 10:30 or 11am. We have a morning production meeting at 11:15, and then work on stuff for that day's show or for upcoming shows. We usually rehearse stuff between 2:30 and 4:30 or so, and then tape the show at around 5:30. After the taping, we usually have some dinner in the office and then keep working until around 11pm or so usually. Sometimes we get out earlier than that, and sometimes we get out later. On Fridays, we usually go home right after taping.
What are the conditions that you would say are needed to produce a good writing staff?
Well, in my rather limited experience, I would say that a good staff tends to have a good mix of personality types that complement each other, and get along well together at the same time.
What sort of people, in your experience, work well together in a writing room situation?
I've personally found that some of the best writing occurs when different kinds of personalities work together and bounce ideas off of each other. Many of the best ideas we've come up with at our show have developed accidentally through screwing around before meetings or whatever, so it obviously helps that we all get along well. I think it helps a lot that we tend to find the same kinds of things funny overall, but the fact that we're all pretty different as people helps a lot, too.
What lead to your being hired for Conan?
One day back in '97, when I was working at Second City in Chicago, one of the "Conan" writers, Brian McCann, an old friend of mine from Chicago improv groups, called me up and told me that they were looking for a temporary fill-in writer to work for three months until one of the writers, Tommy Blacha, returned from an injury-related hiatus. Brian, Tommy, and another writer, Greg Cohen, had recommended me for the job based on my work in Chicago, and I was asked to send in a packet of ideas right away to the then head writer Jonathan Groff. I wasn't expecting to actually get the job, but luckily I did, and I moved out here with my wife Miriam who had also been working with me at Second City. We assumed we'd be going back after three months but, fortunately, Conan and Jon Groff liked the work I was doing and talked NBC into keeping me on after Tommy came back. I'll always be grateful to them for that.
What happens with all the unsolicited sketch submissions sent to the show? Have any such sketches ever appeared on air or lead to someone getting some sort of job on the show?
It's the show's policy to only use material that's generated by our writing staff. I'm not sure exactly why that policy was developed but it's always been that way. I really don't know what happens to the unsolicited material that comes in. I assume it's simply sent back to people. When our head writer is actively looking to hire someone, he begins looking at submission packets from writers, but almost all of those packets are submitted through the writer's agents or managers.
How did Frankenstein Wastes a Minute of Your Time Come to Be?
Brian McCann came up with that concept originally. He had asked me to play Frankenstein a few times over the years before then, probably because I rarely bend my knees, and one day he came up with the "Wastes Time" idea. We collaborated on many of the actual bits, and I wrote some Frankenstein sketches on my own later on, but I doubt I would've even thought of playing Frankenstein if Brian hadn't asked me to.
Is the character of Frankenstein's Monster public domain or does someone from the Shelley estate get paid every time such a sketch airs?
I assume it's public domain at this point, but I'm not sure. Maybe we've been shafting the Shelleys all this time. I don't think Ms. Shelley ever anticipated that her monster would one day be portrayed as a big, goofy man-child that's eager to please and points at uninteresting objects, but I could be wrong.
How long does the Frankenstein transformation process take?
It usually takes about a half-hour to 45 minutes to get the prosthetics and make-up on, and another ten minutes or so to get all the padding and clothes on. It makes it easier that the make-up guys, Josh and Louie, who also do prosthetics and special make-up effects for "SNL", are such funny guys.
With your experience with prosthetic facial hair, which would you say is funnier: fake beards/mustaches or real beards/mustaches.
I'll go with fake beards and real mustaches.
Compare and contrast yourself and the character The World's Tallest Nebraskan.
He's not too far off from me, I suppose. I'm also a total Midwesterner who tends to drone on and on sometimes. I can't shrink myself 6 inches at will like he can, which is a shame because I'd probably trip at lot less at 5'10".
Tell me about Let's Have A Ball.
I was unfortunately unable be there for the first performance of the 4-week run at UCB, but I really hope to make it for the next three shows if I can. Basically, the idea grew out of the desire that several of us had to do another brief run of improv shows. Outside of occasionally doing ASSSCAT on Sundays at UCB, I rarely get a chance to do improv anymore these days. I had done a 4-week run of shows a couple years ago with Jon Glaser, Kevin Dorff, Brian McCann, Jodi Lennon, and my wife Miriam, and we had a great time. I mentioned to our friend, Christina Gausas, how great it would be to do something like that again. Christina put the show and cast together with the help of the UCB Theater's artistic director, Anthony King, and I'm really grateful to them for that. I love all of the people in the cast, some of whom are old friends of mine from Chicago, and I'd hate to miss even one of the remaining shows in this run. I heard the first show was a lot of fun. It's probably just as well that Miriam and I couldn't get a babysitter that night, though, since my back went completely out on Saturday. I've been walking even more like Frankenstein than usual the past couple days.
The final installment of Let's Have A Ball will be January 27th at the UCB theater. Reserve your tickets online!