Master Class: Andy Daly On How to Be A Character

Andy Daly is one of the top improvisers and sketch performers around, known for creating hilarious, fully realized characters on stage and screen. Here he talks to Co.Create about the value of committing and how characters can be borne of one’s surroundings.

One way to describe someone who always leaves a lasting impression: he or she is "quite a character." The danger in trying to create such characters, though, as a performer, is the risk of overshooting the mark and winding up with a caricature—a collection of exaggerated tics and predictable choices. But somehow actor/comedian Andy Daly’s creations always maintain a core of truth (no matter how strange they are) and an outer layer of restraint, all without sacrificing the silly and the profane. It’s even harder to do than it sounds.

You might know Andy Daly from television. Although his Twitter handle, @TVsAndyDaly, is somewhat ironic, it is not inaccurate; the comedic actor has starred in Eastbound and Down and MadTV, and had recurring spots on several other shows. You might know Daly from movies, where he has had roles in Semi-Pro with Will Ferrell and Yogi Bear 3-D with, um, Yogi Bear, among others. Daly’s strengths are perhaps best utilized, however, in his character performances, either onstage at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, on podcasts like Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, and on his own album, Nine Sweaters. Although that album itself serves as a master class on character work, Co. Create spoke with Daly recently to get some insight into how these weirdos appear in his mind, and how they emerge, fully formed, on stage.

IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF LEARNING

The first Saturday Night Live season I was heavily interested in was the one with Martin Short, Billy Crystal, and Christopher Guest. There was just something about Martin Short in particular. I really related to him and hung on his every word and mannerism, so I started impersonating all of his characters as an 8th grader. My junior high had a radio show that ran in the mornings, and I started doing Martin Short‘s characters on it.

He had one named Irving Cohen who would always tell the piano player "Give me a ‘c,’ a bouncy ‘c’" and then sing these made-up songs. So I brought in a guy with a piano and I just did the same thing. I was that character. I’d tell the piano player to "Give me a ‘c,’ a bouncy ‘c’" and then I would sing different lyrics to the same tune Martin Short would sing as that character. It was a straight rip-off.

Before that, though, probably the first impression I ever did was Andy Rooney. I had a fifth grade teacher who, as a very small way of trying to contain my class clown energy, gave me 10 minutes at the end of class every Friday to present whatever I wanted. A lot of the time, I did an Andy Rooney impression. I would sit at her desk, empty it, and just comment on what was in there.

HOW IMPROV CAN INFLUENCE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

In high school and college, I was in sketch shows and I was trying to come up with my own characters. After graduation, I was already doing comedy in New York when I started taking classes with an improv company that just moved there called Chicago City Limits. By the time Upright Citizens Brigade came to New York, I was already in the City Limits’ mainstage show. When I saw Amy Poehler, Matt Besser and those guys perform ASSSSCAT [the UCB’s flagship show], I immediately signed up to take classes with them. I had to know how the hell they did that. It was the summer of 1999, and I’ve been involved with UCB ever since.

It’s so cliché, but I love the feeling you get from improv that anything can happen. The audience is already accepting that there are no props or costumes or furniture so the performers can be anywhere doing anything; cut from underground to space, and it doesn’t matter. There is an incredible artistry to all of these people getting on the same page and agreeing to create something new that will never exist again, and that nobody is writing down, and just making a theater piece before an audience’s eyes.

As an improviser, I was always looking for ways to work the characters I’d begun developing into improv scenes. And when I was starting to get auditions for sketch comedy shows, I started to think in terms of what these characters could do in sketches. Then I started to figure out how to find games in sketches for this old man voice or that Irish accent or whatever, and that lead to doing them as bits on stage.

THE BENEFITS OF LOW STAKES

I was auditioning for sketch comedy shows with characters when I got on MadTV. For whatever reason, though, I was coming up with sketch ideas that were not being picked for air and I was not getting to do my go-to characters, so I had this notebook full of rejected ideas. When Matt Besser came to LA and started a weekly show at Improv Olympic in early 2002, he put together a weekly comedy night with me, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Dave Koechner, and some other comics. I tried to do something different from my notebook every week, so a lot of these characters—like my old man stand-up guy—were ones I had been doing for a very long time, but had never fashioned into full bits. Being able to go up on stage without having something be all that perfect, and just finding an environment for yourself to work out new stuff, where it doesn’t matter if it works or not—that’s invaluable.

COMMITMENT COUNTS

I’m a big fan of people who really commit to their characters and aren’t kind of winking out from behind them. I don’t think a new and different voice has to be a part of that, though. Just as long as you know the character and are really willing to invest in who that person is. Characters should have different ways of moving physically, and different ways of speaking. It doesn’t have to be dialect. People have different modes of speech, but there are no rules. I can imagine somebody being a great character comic who doesn’t follow my rules at all and in some way presents every character as a variation on the same guy.

HOW YOUR SURROUNDINGS CAN INFLUENCE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Some of my characters were inspired just by where I was. Improv Olympic, for instance, was practically on Hollywood and Vine, which was such a seedy, dilapidated area then. The guy who’s new to Hollywood, that character grew out of just being in that part of town, and so did "the greatest actor in all of France"—some distinguished actor coming to Hollywood and dealing with what it really is.

I used to do this character just on the subway with a friend where I would try to challenge myself to see how long I could talk without saying anything, just for fun, just to go really high energy and complaining but not about anything in particular. One day I was looking for something to do on stage and I thought why don’t I do that—just go up and talk for as long as possible and say as little as I possibly can? I didn’t even mean for it to be a commentary on empty stand-up that’s all style, no substance, but that’s what some people definitely saw it as, and it sort of migrated that way because the only way to get that character onstage was to have him be a stand-up comic.

DON’T PUT TOO MUCH THOUGHT INTO COSTUMING

Eventually, the A Special Thing community [the online comedy cognoscenti] started to see me around and be aware of me, and then the guys at their record company [AST Records] asked me to record an album. I thought I’d put together an hour-long show of me doing my best bits, but it was actually Scott Aukerman’s idea that I should come back every week to the Comedy Death Ray show [now called Comedy Bang! Bang!, and the inspiration for the podcast and TV show] and do a different character each week. That’s how we ended up recording that album.

The title, 9 Sweaters, actually came about because in the green room at the UCB theater, I was frequently seeing people before shows gluing on beards and stuffing their clothes to look fatter, and I always felt like I didn’t want to do that. My whole thing was trying to do minimal costuming, the least you could get away with to communicate something about this character. The perfect thing to me was always a sweater or a jacket. When I do a live show now, I just play music and change costumes in front of the audience, and the most I have is just a hat and sweater and a pair of glasses involved. I keep it simple.

PREPARATION VARIES WITH THE SITUATION

If I do a bit on stage, I prepare too much. Those bits are all really, really carefully written, and overwritten, and researched. I really don’t feel like I can wing it. So I write it out word for word, and when I’m onstage I’ll improvise around it. In contrast, when I’m on podcasts I don’t go in with much—just with something that this character came here to say or to read or to tell the audience, but that’s always very short. Then I just come prepared to field questions. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have this general thing that I think it’d be fun to hit if we get there, but who knows what’s going to come up? You can’t prepare too much.

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