You P.A.-ed on TNT’s James Dean biopic and then Spider-Man, both featuring James Franco. Did he remember you later on during Pineapple Express or his SNL guest-hosting stint?
No, he didn’t remember me. I wouldn’t have remembered me either; I was kind of a wallflower. You’re just a P.A. bringing him coffee and stuff. The Rock had a similar reaction because I was a P.A. on Scorpion King: “What?” But it is funny to be friends with these guys now and working with them. James goes to film school in New York, and he made a documentary about a week in the life of SNL. For his class. It was pretty neat.
And hadn’t you run into Ben Stiller when you were younger as well?
Yeah, I met Stiller when I was still in Tulsa. He was friends with Jeanne Tripplehorn [also a native Tulsan], and we had Thanksgiving at a mutual friend’s house. I was 17, and Ben and I basically sat and talked about movies all night. I made a short film, which I gave him; he wrote back and said, “Hey man, this is really good.” He actually watched it and liked it. So years later, when I got SNL, I got a call saying, “Ben Stiller wants to have coffee with you.” So I go to have coffee with him, and he says, “You’ve made it, man! That’s so crazy!” It was 10 years later.
And then Tropic Thunder came along.
Yeah, I auditioned for it. It’s not like I just got the job; I read for it and got the job, which felt really good. And I think he was helpful and getting me into Night at the Museum 2 as well. We just work well together. He’s such a good guy; such an example. A really hard-working guy.
Is it true that your first role came about when an actor failed to show up on a film where you were P.A.-ing?
Collateral Damage, yeah. The actor was stuck in traffic, and they had to shoot the scene. So they put me in as the pilot in this uniform. I wasn’t supposed to have a line, but my bosses, the first A.D. and second A.D., though it was so funny that I was in there that they said, “Well, maybe we should have him tell Arnold Schwarzenegger this…” And the director, Andrew Davis, was like, “Yeahyeahyeah, you say this…” So they were laughing behind the camera because they thought they were going to get me a line. And they did! I got Taft-Hartley on the show. If you rent Collateral Damage, there’s a scene that takes place on a plane, and I’m the pilot. My line is, “Three or four hours, depending on the weather.” Which we came up with on the spot.
How soon was it before you weighed a career change?
Well, even after that it took me three years before I went with a friend who said, “Come on, take classes at Second City.” I was so focused on writing and directing, but I was being cast in all my friends’ short films. I’d say, “I can shoot it! I can edit it!” They said, “No, we want you to be in it.” So I took classes at Second City as a way of getting creative. I felt like I was living in L.A. and aside from writing, I wasn’t shooting any shorts. I had no time; I was just working constantly on these crew jobs. But I could take Second City classes every Saturday. So once a week I could be creative and get that going. Then that led to me starting a sketch group called Animals From the Future; Megan Mullally saw me in that group, and that sort of changed everything for me.
So to what degree is your comedy career almost accidental?
I’d always liked comedy, and people would say, “You’re funny,” or, “You can do voices.” I would always impersonate teachers and friends growing up, and I was a big comedy fan, growing up, obviously. I had comedy records, a Monty Python poster in my room — I liked that stuff. It wasn’t like it was out of the blue. But when I was in L.A., I was so focused on becoming a filmmaker that comedy or drama didn’t matter. Once I got to Second City, though, I thought, “This is really, really working out for me.” But for about a year and a half, at Second City or I.O. in L.A., if there was a show going on and I could get up on stage, then I would get up on stage. That was my mantra. I didn’t care what it is; I just wanted to get up there and do it. It was more for myself, to get myself comfortable onstage and try different things.
That’s the biggest [advice] people ask me: “What do I do?” I just say make stuff. Do stuff. As much as you possibly can. All my friends who are successful, that’s the thing we all have in common. We’re always making stuff. And you have to fail, too, and ask yourself, “Where did I screw up?” Like if I had read Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up when I was 15 years old, it would have changed my life. So it was luck, but it was only luck because I was always working on it.