Interview: Kevin Nealon
Depending how old you are, you may know comedian Kevin Nealon from something different. You may remember him from his appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. You may know him from his 12 year stint on Saturday Night Live. Younger folks recognize him from his principal role on the hit show Weeds. Nealon is all these things, but most importantly, he’s a stand-up comedy veteran who has had an accomplished acting career, appearing in many sitcoms and movies. Always on the road, Nealon never ceases to work.
You’re original ambition was not to act, right? It was just to be a straight stand-up?
Yea, stand-up is what I wanted to get into. It was really my passion. I grew up watching a lot of stand-up on those late-night talk shows. I just love the craft of it. This wasn’t a job possibility on career day at school. You never really heard about people wanting to be stand-ups. You just saw people being stand-ups. Then I moved to California to pursue that.
With all the new media out today, do you think it’s more difficult to be a straight stand-up without being in movies or having YouTube videos or a famous Twitter account?
Well there’s certainly a lot more opportunities now to become successful. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. If someone wants to be a stand-up, I’m sure they can just be a stand-up. But there’s so many more other things that are enticing and available for you if someone wants to get into the entertainment field. When I was doing stand-up, that’s all I really wanted to do. Then somebody suggested I get into acting because eventually someone will come around with a part and want you to be in that. And I thought, “Well, that makes sense. I’m gonna have to make money.” That’s what I did. But acting’s always been secondary to me.
I think it’s an age thing, too. I remember when I was doing it for four years. I think back then I was all about stand-up. I still love stand-up today but it’s a lot of work when you’re on the road. It’s a lot of travelling and then you get a family and stuff and you don’t want to be gone all the time. I remember I ran into Bob Newhart in the Denver airport a couple of months ago. I knew him from when he hosted Saturday Night Live. I went up and said hi to him. He said, “How’re you doing?” And I said, “I feel pretty good. I’m just getting a little tired doing stand-up. I’ve been on the road for about 27 years.” He kind of chuckled, rolled his eyes, and said, “Try doing it for 52 years.” It can become a little tedious as you get older.
I feel a lot of comedians who transition to an acting career eventually drop the stand-up for various reason. I find that you’re one of the few guys who has managed to maintain your chop with a full acting plate.
I’ll never let it go. It’s such a part of me now (I’ve been doing it for over 30 years). I feel bad for the actors who don’t have the stand-up to fall back on when they’re not working. You’re right, too, because a lot of comics drop it when they get a series. Paul Reiser did that, Roseanne. It’s interesting because now you’re seeing them coming back. I see Paul back at the clubs and I’m sure there are others, too. It’s part of them.
Was there a moment when you realized, “Wow. I think I’m going to have an acting career.”?
Not really. For me, I’ve always been skeptical of business. In stand-up, you rely on yourself. You’re in control, you know what your’e doing. With acting, people can take that away from you. They can take away the platform. They could cancel a show that you’re on and not hire you anymore. With stand-up, you can always go out there and do stand-up, even if it’s out on the street. As far as a role, I got a couple of roles in commercials for some light beer commercials. I was finally getting recognized as an actor and not as a stand-up.
I remember doing a commercial for Nabisco Country Crackers with this country singer. I was so excited. It probably ran for about a week. I remember Jay Leno coming up to me at the Improv saying, “Yea, saw you in that commercial. Good job. Good going.” Then within a week, they found copper dust particles in the crackers so they had to recall all the boxes crackers and pull the commercial. I did a few commercials after that and then the first acting job I had in a movie was Roxeanne (with Steve Martin). That probably cemented it for me.