Craig Anton Interview
Craig Anton is an actor and comedian in Los Angeles, CA. If you look around, you’ll find his named attached to The Office, The Sarah Silverman Program, Tom Goes To The Mayor, Phil of the Future, Boston Legal, The King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Allie McBeal, Lizzie McGuire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, MADtv, Mr. Show, and a late night variety show in Hollywood called The Tomorrow Show, which he co-hosted with Brendon Small and Ron Lynch for 5 years. That’s a lot of heavy keywords to live up to. At the time of this interview, I contacted five other creative career candidates with questions. None of the others came through with Craig’s thoughtful tenacity. Most didn’t come through at all. And that sets us up for the first interview question.
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You’ve worked with zillions of people. You even run your own Comedy Academy. You’ve probably seen a lot of people come and go in this business of comedy. What makes some stick around and take it seriously?
Great question. On show business, my pal Andy used to say it’s 10% talent and 90% perseverance. I’ve seen people that have no right being in show business get struck by lightning days after stepping off the bus and then go on to have endless careers or continue to fail upwards into stardom or other unimagined opportunities. I’ve seen others continue to chip away for years past their prime until their number finally comes up. And I’ve also seen others who were far more talented simply fade away. There’s no real explanation for any of it in show business. It’s timing, luck, hard work, and who you know. Plus a few other variables that are always at play. Personally, I feel it always comes down to the “work.” And one could probably apply this idea to every employment field and also to life in general. If you do the work you will continue to grow and learn, you will continue to improve. One should have a plan of attack and then maybe 4-5 back up plans. Show business offers no guarantees. Oh, and it is hard. It all comes down to what your goals and dreams are, also. I’ve seen horrible B-level comics in the midwest continue to work in horrible clubs in front of horrible crowds to finally fulfill their dreams of headlining horrible B-level theaters in the south. True, there’s a market for everyone, but as an artist are you raising the bar or lowering it? Are you honoring those that have paved the way or just trying to make a buck? All of it will have an effect on the future and whether you stick around. Work begets work. If you’re working, chances are you’ll continue to work. People talk and recommend pals all the time, funny or not, one gig leads to another which leads to another. Sometimes a person can blow around aimlessly for years until they land. It takes some time to develop a voice or a craft. Cliche but true and helpful, it’s all about the journey. Who knows where it will take any of us?
Do you think it is true that comedians draw a lot of their energy from the dark side of things? Is there danger in that?
Comedians have always been guilty of speaking the truth, taking on topics that we think about but don’t dare share out loud. If a comic’s style and substance collide perfectly and the premise and argument are then well supported, which is so rare….we can’t help but agree. There is a strong comic voice that needs to be heard. I believe comics use shock now more than ever. Since the comedy floodgates opened in the 80’s so many people calling themselves comedians were let loose on the country and they didn’t realize where this art form started and few of them had vision of where it could go. Some of the comics that broke it open for what was to come; Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, they spoke honestly from their own voice and point of view, but also commented politically and socially on the world they lived in. They also spoke to an elevated clientele…paying customers who were perhaps readers, people who were seekers of art and truth and nightlife and the discussion of ideas. Since the 80’s comics and club owners saw a chance to make money and found what became popular and marketable…the lowest common denominator. The beast needed to be fed however and most comics coming up wanted to feed that beast….therein lies the problem; poor premises, the abuse of language, semantics, ideas, shock for shock sake, etc. There was no time to recognize where it was all going, who was to see the danger ahead? Is it dangerous now? I don’t know. I think the machine still operates the same since the 80’s…there’s a market for every type of entertainer and then there are the few, strong voices that will continue to climb out of the din.
How did you first become involved with The Tomorrow Show and The Steve Allen Theater? It seems to be a vortex of weirdness and creativity in Los Angeles. How did all of that happen?
I met Amit when he worked at the HBO Workspace Theater, on Seward back in the 90’s, where I mounted the Temp, a show I wrote with an incredible cast which included David Koechner, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Paul Greenberg, Jackie Harris, Stephanie Escajeda, Ron Lynch and Andy Prieboy. At this same theater I began working more with Ron Lynch and we wrote The Idiots, in the back theater, which had two rows, some track lights and some funky, rotten carpet. The HBO workspace morphed (into Comedy Central Space) and moved to the Hudson Theater on Santa Monica and Ron and I began doing the Idiots there. Amit ran our show as stage manager and we all worked fast and furiously well together. Eventually Amit secured the gig at Steve Allen as artistic director and Ron and I gladly came out and helped paint the stage and hang curtains and lights. We were there from the beginning. The Idiots found a new home and we started doing it weekly and monthly and whenever-ly. Five years ago I presented the idea of the Tomorrow Show to Amit. I wanted to create a fun, subversive anything-goes show featuring bands, musicians, variety performers, comedy, short film, dance, danger, staple guns, wood nymphs, fire… I asked Ron and Brendon Small to host it with me. Ron came up with the name. Twenty years ago I had attended a performance of Girly Magazine Party at Theater Theater a show featuring Jim Turner, Mark Fite, David Higgins, Steven Banks, Toby Huss and a host of others. It was at midnight, and it was in Hollywood, and it was packed and I could truly see that it was a happening and it was totally cool. That show and other shows like it in NY, (Where I was living at the time), always stuck with me. Rebellious performers, renegade spaces, or off the wall subversive shows that messed with convention have always attracted me. While I respect convention immensly I’m always searching to create a little chaos….I guess I’m still mad at my father. The fact that much of this collided at the Steve Allen has been coincidental I think. It’s unimaginable to think that we’re part of a scene or that the theater has become a center or a vortex. We’re all just doing what we need to be doing because we’re compelled to. We can’t question it. In the words of Lydia Lunch, “I have to do it or else I’m going to go insane and hurt myself or somebody else.” Although, Amit does have a great eye for great minds and interesting work, (Hell House, Beastly Bombing, Res Box, Janet Klein, Nevermore), he’s continually looking to do provocative work that will challenge audiences…ultimately he’s following his vision and trusting it will work out. We all should practice that a little.
A lot of creative people want so desperately to “make it” that they have a hard time balancing their personal life with their craft. So much that they will often remain single and unattached to any other long-term responsibilities. Any tips / observations on how these two things can co-exist and serve each other?
I think it all comes down to goals and desires…and how one was raised. There’s no rule that says a person has to sacrifice anything really in order to “make it” in show business, or make it as an artist for that matter. I know that if a person wants to be good or the best at something, there is a necessary amount of work that needs to be done. You gotta do the work. And is the work ever done? Maybe not. It’s a constant process. A constant practice. That can be said for most everything in life. And what a joy to know that there’s always work to be done. What a gift! There are so many factors and variables involved in “making it.” Luck, timing, talent, who you know, perseverance… I think the bigger question is why do people perform? What is it that about? My opinion is during formative years, somehow, the young person felt a lack of love, time or understanding from the parent/parents. They go on, consciously or unconsciously to try and fill that hole. Stand ups go on a fearless search for that love and acceptance. Again, just a pithy theory. Most of us who’ve been around stand up can agree that we’ve never seen anyone get better when they take time off. The more time someone puts in writing and performing jokes, the better they’re going to get. Surrounding yourself with the wrong people, the wrong clubs, managers, drugs, alcohol, needy-waitress girlfriends, straight-job boyfriends, family members that can’t take care of themselves, road gigs that take you to the far reaches of the universe, road gigs that last 30 years….it’s going to take you longer…(or maybe not)…but chances are good that “making it,” will be harder. Again, the more obstacles you place in front of you, the less fun the road is going to be….and again, maybe not… maybe that’s the journey that is chosen for you. I do believe that it is possible to find a balance of living a normal life and continuing as a performer. It’s not easy, but the rewards are great. However, it is the hope that one’s ego does not get the best of him or her and sacrifice the health and welfare of his or her family for the dream of “making it.” That decision is mostly basic economics.
How did your work on Tom Goes To The Mayor come about? Do these types of creative gigs happen through traditional industry machinery — such as the grind of printing up head shots, getting an agent, driving around town, making a reel, going on auditions? How much have you put into that, and do you find that it gets results, or do people just want that thing you do?
Tim and Eric sent their kooky tapes of their shows and self produced sketches that they had been making in their Philadelphia basements (pretty sure it was Philadelphia) to Bob Odenkirk. Bob championed them to Cartoon Network and that was that. Bob recommended that they meet a few people here in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to meet with them. They came out and saw my show The Idiots I think. I was lucky to get to work with them on the show. It was a short lived working experience, but always great, they are the greatest guys and should always be allowed to make things. I’m drawn to their work because they push the envelope and then rip it up, set it on fire and then find a box of blood and let it marinate for a couple weeks only to let it fly like the great egret of the Tampa wetlands. That job connection has happened to me two or three times in my career, where someone recommended me. Generally I’ve had to work for every single gig that I’ve gotten. I tested for an NBC pilot 9 years ago, starring Joe Bologna, Hedy Burress, Bridgette Wilson, John Ennis, directed by James Burrows…either the network or the studio said after my test that they wanted to hold me for 10 days while they looked across the country for someone uglier. When I got the role, it was a little anti-climatic to say the least. Luckily, I’ve not had to hustle my head shots or postcards to agents or executives. Someone asked one of my daughters when she was 5 years old what I did for a living, without missing a beat she replied, “He auditions.” Getting headshots done, finding an agent, manager, rebuilding resumes, building a reel, driving around town, going on auditions….that’s all part of the deal. I’m grateful for every gig that I’ve had, they’ve all led to something fantastic. Grateful that I keep learning, that I’m open to the idea of learning more. There’s nothing better than performing live, it’s the most immediate and visceral experience. It takes a ton of focus and commitment. It reminds you as a performer to have a little forgiveness: “there’s a moment… now here comes another one.”
What is the most unexpectedly rewarding acting / comedy gig (as paid work) you have ever done, and why? If there is no answer to that, then: what is your personal favorite of the comedic sketches / inventions / concepts / bits you have come up with yourself?
My favorite gig as of late was the Disney Channel show, the cast and crew were great and I had a fun role. I also got interested in the process; camera work, lighting, pacing, writing, directing, sound…fascinating process. A director I worked with during this period said directing a series episode is like coming to host a party you’ve never been to that’s been going on for years. Other big highlights; The Office, Curb, Ice Cream, making my Andy Kaufman audition tape with my brother as a joke, Bob’s Holiday Office Party, The Idiots. I guess I still giggle at the Andy Kaufman audition tape, we did it without much thought, kept it low-fi, sent it off without thinking about the results. Got pretty close to that gig, which wasn’t really our goal. That was similar to the Ice Cream short….we were young, didn’t think about it, just did it. I like The Idiots, and The Temp, two projects developed and performed live. I love my KXLU college radio character, gives me great joy when I perform it. Proud of Workaday as of late with Ruby Wendell. A short by Joe Petrick. Other than that, it’s all been wonderful.
Everyone has some kind of fundamental belief or world view that they are sharing / presenting, whether or not they are doing it on purpose. What does the life work of Craig Anton say to the world, or what do you hope it says?
My view is to remind people that life is too short and we need to slow down, be mindful of everything and most of all, have some fun. Too many people are too serious and live in an aggressive, self-obsessed manner. My dream is to inspire, share with others in an honest, open way and continue to stay open to all the possibilities.
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Find out more about Craig Anton on imdb.