Conversation with Sean Keenan
Local comedian Sean Keenan and his cohorts gained underground Charlotte fame through their sketch comedy outfit The Perch, which played various Plaza Midwood clubs for seven years. This month, Keenan and crew are back with their new group Robot Johnson, which takes the Spirit Square stage for four new shows every weekend into August. For the new shows, Keenan will bring back his hilarious character Talking Baby, the foulmouthed, movie-reviewing anatomically correct baby doll.
OK, time for the standard first question: Where do you get your ideas?
Three things. One is personal life. There are people in my life where I'm like, "I really like the way that guy talks." A perfect example is there's a guy who's now a recurring character based on a real person. The "Gordon the Marginalized Redneck" sketch is based on a real person. He was the nicest, most gracious human being in the world, but you say one wrong thing to him, and he snaps and he was ready to kill you. And I was like, "that is an amazing idea for a character." So I just kept watching him and watching him and watching him and getting his mannerisms and seeing what he looked like, and then I was like, "Ah! I got it. I know exactly what it is now." And, you know, you tool it up a little bit so it's not actually the person. Because he has seen shows, so when he comes to see the show, he's not like "that's me, you m**********r."
Two is from the news. I'll see something and go, "I need to write that." And the third thing is through anger. If something really, really makes me mad, I'll start writing a sketch about it. Although that doesn't happen nearly as much anymore. I guess not as much makes me angry. I'm getting a little older. I don't have the piss and vinegar of youth in me.
So how has your humor changed in the decade you’ve been doing sketch?
I'm not so interested in shocking people anymore as I am making people go, "that is really, really funny." When someone comes to see the show, they have a choice. They can go and see a movie. They can watch television. They can go and see another theater show. We have to be—because no one knows who we are—we have to be twice as funny as anything you can see anywhere else. My sense of humor has changed, and I think the group sense of humor has changed as well. We’re not so willing to do something so absolutely vile and disgusting, whereas at one point, that was our humor. And now that just doesn’t make me laugh nearly as much as a well-executed or well-written joke.
We're looking to go forward, too. You can have a bit of filth in the show—you saw the show, you know we do, but in order to move forward you’ve gotta be able to drop that as well, and I think that we have reached that level now. Because our end goal is not to do these shows at Spirit Square and that's it. We have plans for world domination.
Do you worry about being as funny the second time around?
That was a huge fear going back into this. I was fueled by anger when writing most of that old stuff. And I'm a much happier human being now. So I was nervous about not being funny. But I would say that we’re better than we were.
I think one of great things about our new show is, whereas before we were just offending people, now there's actual honest-to-god ideas and thoughts behind our sketches. If you believe adamantly in your beliefs, you are probably going to be offended by something, no matter what that belief is, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, or religious or not religious. We have to do that to do our jobs. And if we do our job correctly, then it is the funniest thing that you could possibly see that week.
What makes a show good?
First and foremost, it’s writing. You can walk out of a writer's meeting, and think, "wow, this is going to be an awesome, awesome show." The second is performance, and the third is directing. But basically you know from your material whether or not you're going to have a really funny show or not.
So why are some parts of, say, Saturday Night Live so bad, then?
Bob Odenkirk [a former SNL writer and creator of HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show] has the perfect line for that. Someone asked him why is Saturday Night Live so uneven? And his line is, "Have you ever tried to make Wayne Gretzky funny?" That's literally what it is. You have the material of who you're working with. I can't imagine how hard it is to pretend to it’s OK that Tom Green is the host of the show that week. I can't imagine how hard that is.
So what should people expect from a Robot Johnson show?
If we do our job correctly, then it is the funniest thing that you could possibly see that week. … Chances are, one out of ten people will be offended by our show. But I think one of great things about our new show is, whereas before we were just offending people, now there’s actual honest-to-god ideas and thoughts behind our sketches now. If you believe adamantly in your beliefs, you are probably going to be offended by something, no matter what that is, whether it's Republican or Democrat, or religious or not religious. We have to do that to do our jobs, otherwise we are the TGI Friday lineup on TV. There was nothing funny about that.
Will you tackle local topics?
Oh yeah. There's going to be a lot of local flavor in the shows, and a lot of current events. That's one of the things that is sorely lacking in this town.
Did you have to be talked into bringing back the character Talking Baby?
A little bit, but it's not like I hate doing it. It's a great character. It's the most popular I've ever been. Sometimes I would have to wait for minutes on end for people to stop laughing, and I'd never felt that before. So hell yeah I want that back!
How do you come up with that character?
We used to have rehearsals that were so long. And we were so tired. One night I just grabbed a prop from the prop room—it just happened to be the baby and I just started yelling at Blaine (Miller, the director), as the baby. "When are we gonna go home? I am f***ing tired!" And everyone in the room started laughing. And I was like that’s the new thing. I kept trying to shoehorn him into sketches that he didn’t fit. Like, he was a bartender one time. It was just too weird. But then one day I was watching Siskel and Ebert after Siskel had died, and it was just weird, because it was Ebert and another person. You could have Ebert reviewing movies with anyone, and it’s not going to matter, because it's always going to be not Siskel. So I thought, why don’t you put the weirdest thing up there you could possibly think of…I got that doll! I wrote it right after having that thought and put it in the show that week. The very first time, it blew up.
And that was the character that got you hired on MTV (Talking Baby starred in an in-house ad campaign). What was it like working there?
They have this weird thing where they want to have the appearance of being cutting edge, when nothing about them is cutting edge. This was the joke that got me the job: If you’re dumb enough to believe that Italian immigrants actually eat at the Olive Garden, you're dumb enough to believe something, something, something about MTV. That is the joke I am certain got me the job. The very first thing they turn around and say is get rid of all of that, but have the appearance that that's there…any negativity at all, they want out. So I was like, then give me artists that I can make fun of, so we can work together, man. Because what [Talking Baby] does is, the things that he loves, he really loves, and the things that he doesn’t love, he grinds into a fine powder. That's the whole point of it. He needs things to whale on.
How did the gig end?
This is how I lost my job—do you know this story, how I lost my job at MTV? The Super Bowl. The very Super Bowl that the Panthers were in. The halftime show was produced by MTV. That halftime show is the same halftime show that Janet Jackson shows her boobie. The people that produced that are my bosses. After Super Bowl Sunday, that Monday, they all get fired. And everything that's on their desk, that’s their project, all gets wiped. Including my stuff. Janet Jackson’s boobie got me fired from MTV.
So a couple weeks went by and I hadn’t heard from anybody about the next round of stuff. So I called up and said, "Well, what happened to this person?" And they go, "Oh, I don’t know what you're talking about." So I said, "Well, what about my boss?" "Oh, he was fired." So finally I track down an accountant, and the accountant is like, "Oh, baby, they all got fired. Everybody got fired because of the halftime show." I was like, "Wow. Well, that was a poor way to handle that."
For your other career, a prop guy for movies and commercials, you must have worked with some big names. Dish.
I've been very lucky in the past couple years that I’ve worked on two movies with really, really big movie stars and they both turned out to be as great as their media personality makes it seem that they are. Will Ferrell and George Clooney.
OK, give me one Ferrell story and one Clooney story.
Will Ferrell's the type of celebrity that people just feel like they're friends. So people will come up to him, and they'll just start reciting lines from movies, and he'll be like, "Oh, I remember that one." I would think it would drive someone crazy. Hopefully I will get to that point someday, and we’ll see how I react. I want to be able to react like he does toward people, because everyone thinks he's their buddy. "Hey, Will, I got a great idea for you." And he’s like "Oh, OK." And he'll stand there and listen to it! It’s amazing to me!
So the story is, there's this hallway, and it's really, really narrow. And I'm walking this way, and Ferrell is walking that way. So we stop, and I say, "Oh, excuse me." And he says, "No. No." And he just stands there for a second. And I was like, I don't know how to handle this. And then he says, "Um, so, I've gotta make a call." And he pulls out his phone, and he pretends to talk to somebody." It's not that great a story.
The Clooney story is awesome. I have this thing—I love awesome shoes, like I noticed your shoes when you walked in and I thought, "Those are pretty cool." I know that's girlie stuff, but I don't care. And Clooney had on these Adidas that I had never seen before—they were awesome. So I'm standing off set with my buddy that I'm working with, and he says, "Hey, look at Clooney's shoes." And I think that Clooney is completely out of earshot, and I go, "Yeah, I've never seen those before, those are really awesome." After talking about it a while, I go, "We gotta find those shoes." And Clooney turns around—I didn’t realize he could hear me—and he says "You can't afford these shoes." And I give him a little chuckle. And he walks up to me after he's done directing, and he goes, "You want to know how much I paid for these shoes?" And I was like, 'Uh, yeah, how much did you pay for them?" And he’s like "I have no idea. I got 'em for free. But the things I had to do to get these shoes, you don’t ever want to have to do." He has this look on his face like "you don't want to have to see what I've seen.' It was great.
I finally ended up seeing the shoes about six month later, and they were like $200 sneakers. And you know what, he was right. I could get them if I want to. I just choose not to pay $220 for a pair of sneakers.
For tickets to Robot Johnson, go to carolinatix.org