Asking Christian Finnegan that essential question: “Are We There Yet?” From Oz & TBS & back to NYC

Christian Finnegan just got back from his second trip to Australia this spring, and to make him feel more at home, he's headlining this weekend at Comix in NYC. You can also see him on your TV set tonight and other Wednesday nights on TBS as Martin in the new sitcom adaptation of the movie Are We There Yet?.

I caught up with Finnegan over the Internet to find out where he is, so to speak.

Didn't you just go to Australia a couple of months ago? So please straighten this out for me. You went down there for a comedy festival, and then what was this second time? Did you have that planned out already, or did you get the second round of gigs because of how the fest went for you? And did your second Aussie experience of 2010 turn out differently (and how, if so) because of what you had learned from the first trip?

You've got the basic gist of it. In March, I spent two weeks at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It's a beast of a festival–second only to Edinburgh, in terms of size. Just about every room in the Melbourne Town Hall is converted into a performance space, and then there are also shows in 2,000-seat theaters, small bars and everything in between. There haven't been too many Americans there in the past–other than guys like Arj Barker, who is a superstar over there. But they're trying to bring more Americans into the mix. So I was part of a Yank-centric rotisserie show called "Headliners", along with folks like Todd Barry, Greg Behrendt, Tig Notaro and Nick Thune. There was a short adjustment period for me–despite their rowdy reputation, Australians are a wee bit British in their audience sensibilities (probably because BBC comedy dominated Aussie television for so long). But I had a great time and around the time I was set to head back to the States, the producers asked if I might be interested in coming back for the "Roadshow". This is where they send out two separate touring groups around the country, playing towns big and small. I didn't think it would work out for logistical reasons, but lo and behold…

So I just got back Monday evening from the majestically remote western coast of Oz (and with a few days in Darwin, which is the Northern Territory). Melbourne was awesome, but on this trip I got to see that mythical Australia–the one you see in movies. Weird rock formations, vast expanses of red dirt, crocodile infested waters, kangaroos lounging out by the side of the road, etc. It was grueling to be sure, but so very worth it. And the crowds were just spectacular. We ended our run with a week at His Majesty's Theatre in Perth, a gorgeous 1,300-seat opera house that was packed for nearly every show. My only disappointment was that I had to pull out of the Rooftop Comedy Fest, which I'd been really looking forward to. But it was a life experience I just couldn't pass up.

I also must get your perspective on being TV's unofficial official token white guy! Did your resume credit of being on Chappelle's Show have any influence on the decision to cast you on the new TBS sitcom, Are We There Yet? (that you know of, obvs)?

I think I'm going to start billing myself as "America's White Guy". There's just something about me that makes people say "I bet it would be funny to watch this guy interact with black people." But I don't totally agree with the word "token" in this context. 'Tokenism' was/is a genuinely demeaning way of casting one "ethnic" character on a predominantly white show as a way of lazily inoculating itself against charges of racism–it was cynical way of 'throwing black people a bone'. I don't think anyone could, with a straight face, claim that white people are lacking opportunities in television. So the term 'token' when applied to a white character on a predominantly black sitcom seems a bit…off. It's like a benign version of that whiny "Why can't WE say the N word??" argument. And one of things I really like about the show is that Ali (LeRoi, the writer/creator) is not afraid to address racial stuff, but in a way that feels refreshingly casual. It's like, "Yeah, we're different. We like different stuff and we sometimes react differently to situations. So…are we gonna eat, or what??" I don't think young people are nearly as hung up on this junk as we are (or our parents were). The show captures that new reality really well, I think.

Strangely, I'm not sure the Chappelle credit had too much to do with my being cast. Ali told me he was just going through the comedian pages on the Comedy Central website and he came across a few of my clips. Now I'm sure it probably helped convince the other producers, network heads, etcetera–I imagine the phrase "You know, that dude from the Mad Real World sketch…" was uttered more than once. But there was no formal connection between the two.

Do Terry Crews and Ice Cube treat you as the token white guy or were you welcomed into the TBS family immediately?

Everyone involved in the show has been incredibly gracious and welcoming. That thing I was saying about race not being as big of a hang-up these days? That's triply true of television people. From actors and writers to grips and makeup people, a TV shoot is about as "post-racial" an environment as you're likely to find. I mean, I enjoyed getting a laugh on the set every now and then by playing up differences–suggesting to Ice Cube that we have Radiohead record the Are We There Yet? theme song, for example. But it's just silliness.

Terry Crews is perhaps Earth's nicest human being. He's the only actor I've ever heard refer to himself as "blessed" in a way that convinced me he actually feels that way, rather than just saying it because it sounds good. He spent six years as a self-described "journeyman" in the NFL and I think that experience really informed his worldview. He treats everyone like an old friend and appreciates each and every opportunity he's been given. To be honest, he makes me feel like a jaded prick. F that guy.

For the record, I never actually suggested Radiohead to Ice Cube. But I would have, if I'd thought of it.

Also, your character — described by TBS as a "lovable rogue" seems a lot like the Neil Patrick Harris "Barney" character on How I Met Your Mother, and my inside sources tell me you were up for that role, too? Do tell!

Well, my character is a bit more of a schlub. And I'm not as "talented" or "good" as NPH, but I can see the comparison. The character of the "cad best friend" goes back a lot further than How I Met Your Mother, but I probably do bring a bit of arch pretentiousness to my line readings, so blah blah blah. I was only up for the Barney role in the sense that the 500 other actors who auditioned were "up for it". But I remember getting jazzed about that audition because I thought it was a funny script and I felt like that part played into my rather limited strengths. Being on a sitcom has never been an overt goal of mine, but I've always liked the idea of playing a prick. Over the course off shooting the 10 episodes of Are We There Yet?, Ali definitely picked up on this tendency. He allowed me to tweak a lot of my dialogue, add a joke here and there, etc. Granted Are We There Yet? is a show for families, so the jokes are only ever going to go so far. But if it gets picked up, I think they'll play up that part of my personality in future episodes. We shall see.

Are you still doing regular appearances on MSNBC's Countdown? I know when we talked many moons ago about Best Week Ever, you didn't really try to incorporate your talking head TV stuff into stand-up comedy talking into a microphone stuff. Does that apply here as well, or do you find the cable TV news appearances are different in helping you explore new premises?

I haven't appeared on Countdown for about three months, but I hope to be back again sometime soon. It's really just been scheduling issues. They haven't used comedians as much in recent months for a variety of reasons (too much REAL news, Keith taking a couple of extended hiatuses, etc), and I've been unavailable the last two or three times they've asked. I haven't spent more than ten days in a row in NYC since February, so it's been hard to sync our schedules up. But I certainly hope I get to go back. I really adore that show and I'm really proud of some of the things I've been able to say on the air.

To your point, Some of the same issues apply to working Countdown stuff into my stand up as did with Best Week Ever. When I do Countdown, Keith always opens the segment with a big chunk of exposition, setting up what we're going to be talking about. Absent this, the jokes wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. And trying to work all of that exposition into a Saturday late show in Miami would be pure death. Plus, I try and make my segments feel more like a sketch than a series of jokes. I try and address Keith's questions directly (a la "Well Keith, that's where you're wrong…", rather than use him as a jumping-off point for a bunch of stand-alone Sarah Palin lines. As such, it makes some of the jokes harder to extricate from their original context. That said, a number of lines and phrases have made their way into my act. And there have been times where writing for a Countdown segment has inspired me to write a longer stand-up bit, even if the two don't look interchangeable on paper.

But I will say that I'm excited to be all new material this weekend. Well, not 100% new if you've seen me around town the past few months. But I've officially jettisoned the two or three bits "security blanket" bits from "Au Contraire" that I'd been holding onto. The next few months will be about drilling down on the ninety minutes or so of new stuff that I have, and filming a new DVD in early to mid 2011.

Viva comedy.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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