WASHINGTON — He “pumped up” our laugh muscles as Hans & Franz on “SNL.”
This Friday, Kevin Nealon pairs your Cinco de Mayo drinks with stand-up laughs at the Kennedy Center, marking his first time back to the venue since the 2015 Mark Twain Prize for Eddie Murphy.
“I have friends that say, ‘Your comedy kind of sneaks up on people,’ so I don’t know if it’s a little more dry or what, but club owners say they have to order more red wine when I perform,” Nealon told WTOP. “My act has always been evolving. I equate comedians to blues musicians. They live out their life, draw from that and it gets more seasoned as they get older. Mine’s a twisted approach on my life.”
Born in St. Louis in 1953, Nealon moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, a few months after he was born.
“I was only there for three weeks, hated the place,” Nealon joked about his infant taste.
Growing up, he initially thought he’d pursue a career in music, only to find comedy was a better fit.
“I wanted to be [a] singer-songwriter, but I was just too frightened to do that on stage,” Nealon said. “Telling jokes seemed to come a little more naturally. I really enjoyed the art of stand-up, the craft. I’d watch stand-ups on TV and think, ‘Wow, this is cool! They don’t have any tools. … They just come out and talk, everybody loves them and they make people laugh.’ I thought that was a pretty good career.”
Which comedians were his favorites to watch as a youngster?
“There are people that go back … like Stanley Myron Handelman. I loved Jerry Lewis movies growing up. I loved that slapstick stuff,” Nealon said. “Right before I came out to L.A., it was more like Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Andy Kaufman. I liked that absurdity stuff. They were so unique and original.”
Before long, he figured he tried his own hand at stand-up, choosing the laid-back atmosphere of the Los Angeles comedy scene over the gritty, tough, intense audiences of the New York City nightclubs.
“I moved out to Los Angeles and just started hitting all the open-mic nights, developing material and developing a style,” Nealon said. “When you first start out, you’re emulating other comics. When you go to the clubs back then, they’re emulating either David Letterman or Woody Allen or Richard Pryor or Steve Martin or whoever, then you finally get enough stage time and you develop your own style.”
Nealon got his break by appearing on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1984.
“That was my first big break,” Nealon said. “I sat on the couch with him, we did a panel, it couldn’t have gone better. To this day, it’s the highlight of my career, even more than ‘Weeds’ or ‘Saturday Night Live.’ … To get on ‘The Tonight Show,’ that was the goal. It kinda validated you as a stand-up. I’ve never had more of a natural high than waiting for it to come on air, and to this day, it’s the feather in my cap.”
Little did Nealon know that he would soon find a home back at 30 Rock on “Saturday Night Live.” The wheels of fate started turning when his buddy and roommate Dana Carvey was cast on the show.
“We were friends from the stand-up circuit and were renting a house together in the Hollywood Hills with a couple other comics,” Nealon said. “He got selected to be on that show. He called me from Lorne Michaels’ house and said, ‘Hey Kevin! … Guess who’s in the kitchen? Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd! … I talked to Lorne and they’re looking for one more cast member and I told him about you and he might want to see your tapes!’ And I said, ‘Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray are in the kitchen?'”
As a result, Nealon sent his tape into “SNL” for consideration, not thinking he’d even get the job.
“A couple weeks later, I get another call from Dana: ‘Kevin! I’m back out at Lorne Michaels’ house! … Guess who’s in the kitchen? Steve Martin! … Anyway, Lorne liked your tapes. I think he’s going to fly you in for an audition!’ And I said, ‘Steve Martin’s in the kitchen?’ I flew in [and] auditioned at 30 Rock. I did some stand-up and some loose characters Dana and I used to fool around doing in the driveway.”
To Nealon’s surprise, Michaels loved his audition and wanted to cast him on the show in 1986.
“Two weeks later, I’m sitting in front of Lorne Michaels in a high-rise in Beverly Hills and he’s offering me a job on ‘SNL,'” Nealon said. “The next thing I knew, I’m at Michaels’ house in the kitchen. Dana calls: ‘Kevin! Guess who’s in the kitchen?’ And I said, ‘I am! Big tough guy! I’m in the kitchen now!”
Fittingly, Nealon and Carvey would combine to create two of the most memorable characters in “SNL” history: Hans & Franz, a pair of macho body-builders who spoke in thick Austrian accents.
“After our first season, we went on tour,” Nealon said. “We were in Des Moines, Iowa, staying at a Red Roof Inn. I was watching Showtime’s ‘Up Close and Personal’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was just so hilarious, listening to the cadences of his accent and things. I called Dana’s room and said, ‘You gotta come watch this!’ … So we watched it and, for the rest of the tour, we’re talking like Arnold. … We thought it’d be funny if there were these two pathetic bodybuilders who never lifted a weight.”
So, Carvey and Nealon wrote the sketch “Pumping Up with Hans & Franz” and debuted it in 1987.
“People didn’t know who we were the first time, so it was received kind of warmly but not crazy,” Nealon said. “We let it sit for a couple weeks, and I said to Dana, ‘We should do Hans & Franz again.’ So we wrote up another one, and when we came out, the place went crazy, so we knew they were hits! [In character] ‘Yah! … Don’t be a girly man! If you took your belt off, you’d cause a flab-alanche!'”
Nealon also found success with other characters, from Mr. Subliminal to Mr. No-Depth Perception.
“Mr. Subliminal came from my stand-up comedy,” Nealon said. “I was doing a thing called tagging, where I’d slip those little words in. Then I got together with Al Franken and we knew about subliminal advertising. I went to school for marketing, so I knew about that, and we thought it’d be good to try to get something you want from the other person. … That became a big hit, too! It’s funny, you think you don’t have any characters in you … but when you’re put on the spot, you kind of rise to the occasion.”
He rose to the occasion most as the anchor of the weekly fake-news segment “Weekend Update.”
“The coolest part was that it was a sit-down job,” Nealon joked. “It was fun to be able to do topical material again. … A lot of the writers didn’t want to write for ‘Weekend Update’ because it wasn’t a glorifying position for them. … So, the first year or so, I was actually paying writers in L.A. $50 a joke to just fax me in a joke. I would write some jokes [and] eventually they hired a full-time writer for me.”
No one will ever forget Nealon’s signature sign-off: “I’m Kevin Nealon, and that’s news to me.”
“I didn’t have that the first show — I was trying to come up with something,” Nealon said. “I was laying in bed that next Saturday morning and it just kind of came to me at like 5 in the morning, just throwing it around in my head: ‘That’s news to me.’ Then Robert Smigel incorporated the whole turning of the head in the beginning. … Like on Halloween, my head would turn into a pumpkin.”
His “SNL” connections got him cast in several Adam Sandler movies, namely “Happy Gilmore” (1996), playing a chatty caddy who tries to instruct others how to “feel the flow” and “do the bull dance.”
“I do a [golf] tournament in Lake Tahoe once a year, The American Century Championship,” Nealon said. “You get a lot of fans and athletes and celebrities, so you get people yelling, ‘Feel the flow! Do the bull dance!’ … A lot of my stuff was improvised: ‘Feel the flow, harness the good, block the bad. Put a quarter in, it’s circular, circular, it goes around. Send the ball home, Happy. Bags are packed.'”
After that, Nealon began landing roles in TV shows, most notably Showtime’s “Weeds” (2005-2012).
“I always wondered if there’d be a show after ‘SNL’ that would kind of make a mark for me, because I had done a couple of sitcoms that didn’t last,” Nealon said. “This script came to me and it said ‘Weeds’ and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s another stoner project.’ … But I read it and it had good characters and a good story. I met with Jenji Kohan, who created the show, and we just hit it off. I was perfect for the part of Doug Wilson. I was just a guest star in the pilot, then once it got picked up, they made me a regular.”
These days, he stars across Matt LeBlanc in the sitcom “Man with a Plan” airing Mondays on CBS.
“It’s a fun show to do,” Nealon said. “We got good ratings, we got the People’s Choice Award for Best New Comedy, and we got picked up for a second season [that] we start taping August 7. Then I’ve written a film I’d like to shoot this summer. It’s called ‘The Pleaser,’ a dark comedy about this couple. … My wife brings out her gay mother, a fertility specialist, and her partner to help us get pregnant.”
Until that pregnancy happens, come get some belly laughs from Nealon at the Kennedy Center.
“There’s many reasons to come out,” Nealon said. “It’s a great venue and we need a lot of comedy right now. I’m bringing the comedy and I’m coming with Kirk Fox, who’s a great comic, too. If you’ve ever seen him, he’s so funny. He’s a headliner himself, we’re just buddies so we wanna hang out. I’m developing material for my next special, so it’ll just be a fun night. Oh, and I’m giving out money.”
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WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Kevin Nealon (Full Interview)