David Koechner | A Comic Journey from Donuts to David Lynch

Before Saturday Night Live, he was a member of the Second City troupe, where he honed his skills as an improviser.

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There’s a scene from the 2013 film Cheap Thrills where down-on-his luck Craig, played by Pat Healy, has agreed to have his pinky finger chopped off for $23,000. This stems from a series of increasingly insane bets and dares from a wealthy stranger named Colin, played by David Koechner. In the midst of getting psyched up and ready to endure the grisly procedure, Craig learns Colin won’t be the one doing the butchering: Craig’s friend will. “You don’t want to do it, Colin?” Craig asks. Colin smiles and replies, “Sorry, dude. Too gross.”

It’s a small character moment in a movie chock full of them, but it underlines what makes Koechner, with his mischievous hook-in-the-mouth grin, so in-demand as a performer. One look at his slate of upcoming film and television projects, it’s rather amazing that he can fit in a standup comedy tour, but that’s exactly what he’s managing to do. How does he do it? “Well, it’s all prep, you know. If you’re prepping for a marathon, you won’t prep the same way you would for a basketball game,” he replies. “Any sports metaphor would apply. You prepare for the game you’re gonna play. That kind of engagement stays the same in your brain, no matter what it is you do.”

The Tipton, Missouri, native grew up influenced by television shows and Saturday afternoon comedy flicks: “I was a big fan of Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Flip Wilson.” One television show that particularly captured his young imagination was Saturday Night Live during the Ackyrod and Belushi era. “I was 13 years old at the time,” he says, “so it made a huge impression.” Ultimately, he caught his big break as a cast member on the show in the ’90s, but before that he was a member of the Second City troupe, where he honed his skills as an improviser.

Asked what he’s managed to retain from those days, he jokingly offers “my dignity” before getting serious. “You know, you get more opportunities to perform; that’s the biggest takeaway, I think. Because when you’re in a touring company and tour all over the country, you see what plays where, because different areas will have different responses to certain sketches and jokes. And the other thing is, when you’re in the regular company, you get more touches. I mean you’ll be performing five, six, seven shows a week, and that just makes you stronger.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—his career as an actor and comedian, Koechner says when it comes to his personal entertainment choices, it’s usually not watching comedies. What does he enjoy when he has a little downtime? “To be honest, it would be documentaries, if you’re looking for my first choice,” he offers. “My wife and I have five kids, so we don’t often get to enjoy television series, just because it’s a commitment, and we seem to be fully committed all the time.

“There’s a huge backlog of TV we need to get to, just to remain current to this decade,” he says, laughing. Speaking of the kids, what do they think of their pop’s line of work? “Well, it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s Dad’s job; that’s what he does. As they get older, they think it’s pretty cool, especially when they see their friends’ reactions to me or what I do, and they think, ‘Oh, people like you, Dad!’ It makes them proud.”

Koechner also takes part in an annual Kansas City charity fundraiser for Children’s Mercy Hospital, called Big Slick Celebrity Weekend. “We bring 20 friends in from out of town, we have a softball game at Kauffman Stadium, then we watch the game, visit the kids at Children’s Mercy, then we have a huge fundraiser show on that Saturday.” Part variety show, part live auction, the guests include showbiz pals like Rob Riggle, Jason Sudeikis, Adam Scott, and Paul Rudd. “We’ve raised about million and a half dollars a year for the past couple of years. Kansas City turns out, man.”

Showing no signs of slowing the current pace of his career, Koechner has a couple of projects in particular he’s extremely excited about. “We’re about to start a show for CBS called Superior Donuts and we got picked up for 13 episodes.” The series, also starring Katey Sagal and Judd Hirsch, tells the story of a local donut shop that works to keep its business going in their ever-changing neighborhood. “We start filming at the end of November and I’m very excited about that.”

He’s also pretty excited about working with the legendary David Lynch on the upcoming revival of Twin Peaks, coming out this spring. That must have been amazing, right? “Oh, that was incredible,” he enthuses. “Such a thrill to work with him; he’s such a master. He really is a rare artist, and he was really easy to work with, just a perfect touch. He’d come up and give you some direction, and it was always interesting and enlightening.”

As the conversation turns to working from a script or going off the script, how much freedom does he have to indulge his improv side? “You know, it really depends on the project. With Anchorman, once you get what’s scripted, Adam McKay always encourages us to improvise, which is always a lot of fun. Other projects, some people might be less adept at working with improvised material and how that might fit into a script; but Adam comes from an improv background. All of those people that were in Anchorman were experienced improvisers. Other projects, they look improvised, but they’re not,” he says.

How about The Office? “There was no improvisation in The Office,” he says. “If anything, you could talk to the director and maybe offer an alternative to a line, or end up shortening something. But anything with television is going to remain the same, because you’ve got 21 and a half minutes, and if you change a line or add a line, someone else loses a line, so it’s all very timed out.”

Finally, I throw a question at him from a Facebook friend to which I think everyone needs the answer. Who would win in a fight: Champ Kind from Anchorman or Todd Packer from The Office? There isn’t a trace of hesitation in his response. “Champ” he answers. Because he’s a little more aggressive? “Well, he’s completely more aggressive—plus I think he carries brass knuckles.” | Jim Ousley

Tour dates

11.03-05 | Funny Bone, St. Louis
12.15-17 | Spokane Comedy Club, Spokane WA

For more information, go to his site at www.davidkoechner.com.

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