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. I spoke with Nealon about his stand-up, acting work and animal rights activism. His new Showtime special Whelmed, But Not Overly premieres Aug. 4 at 10:30 pm EST.
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.
So you have the final season of Weeds airing right now. Is that bittersweet?
I think it’s just sweet. I’m grateful that it made it eight season; it’s rare that a show lasts that long. I’ve had a great experience on that. That only took 3 and 1/2 months out of the year [to film] so it was really just a blip on my radar. The rest of the year I would do stand-up comedy or parts in Adam Sandler films. I’m pretty nostalgic so I appreciate that I had it and I’m also optimistic about what I have coming up ahead. I think it’s important to keep your life changing a lot so you stay stimulated.
What else is coming up ahead? Was there any progress on Isabel? [Kevin shot a pilot for NBC earlier this year.]
Isabel did not get picked up for NBC. I’ve got the last season of Weeds and my special on Showtime on August 4th. And I’m also writing a pilot for myself. That would be a single-camera half-hour comedy. It would be a little bit based on my life. It’s basically a couple living in a beach community. He’s sort of an older father, has a two-year old. My wife is a lot younger with me. So it’s just dealing with all those situations that come from that. I play a mediocre comic and my wife is a struggling commercial actress. We were able to afford this house in this beach community because she did a commercial for a maxipad called Vagisore.
I have to talk to you about this No Kill Los Angeles public service announcement (seen above). How did you get into this cause?
I was in a relationship with this girl who was very involved and very aware of what was going on in slaughterhouses and factory farming. I started reading up on it because of her and we went to Los Vegas one year to help with a courtcase against PETA. From there, we just became more involved. I’ve done a lot of work for animals over the years, shelters primarily. I’m a go-to guy with helping various organizations. I do whatever I can. They asked me if I would do a PSA called No Kill LA.
The PSA reminds me of that George Carlin bit where he asks for a moment of silence for various fake funny diseases and conditions. This ad took that concept to a whole other level of funny!
They tested a couple ideas with me. One of them was me in a kennel licking my crotch. We tried to come up with something else, maybe a little more subtle and funnier. They had a couple writers come up with this idea that we shot. It was a lot more Hollywood. So they had me sitting there reading these phoney diseases. Then I started coming up with a lot. We realized we could have sat there all day coming up with anything.
Your special comes out on Showtime on August 4th. What’s the special about?
The special is called, “Whelmed, But Not Overly”. It’s my second one-hour special for Showtime. The first one I did was a couple years earlier. I’m learning now that with stand-up, like a jazz musician, you have to live life to write about it. Like I’ve been saying, I’ve been doing this for quite awhile. So my act has kind of evolved over the years.
A lot of my stand-up is based on my life. In this one I talk about dealing with my fears, stuff like crazy things like chimp attacks, surgery, staying healthy. I’m meditating now, but I’m not a good meditator. I start worrying because I’m in this room with all this time and my mind starts wandering. And my mantra’s not the best. It’s, “Oooooohhh NO!” I’m just trying to find happiness. I talk about laziness, infidelity, relationships. A little bit about Obama.
Check out “Whelmed, But Not Overly” on Showtime on Aug. 4 at 10:30pm!