In previous decades, American television found itself overtaken once a year by the annual airing of Christmas specials. Whether these were the numerous broadcasts hosted by Andy Williams and Bing Crosby, children’s programs like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, or weird one-offs like the Star Wars Holiday Special, many of these cheerful productions became holiday traditions for networks and the families who watch them. Yet more recent iterations of this Christmas tradition have abandoned the variety show elements perfected by Williams, Crosby and their counterparts.
Hence why Andy Richter’s Home for the Holidays, out on Seeso today, feels like a breath of fresh air — even though it’s actually a ridiculous parody of the entire genre populated by the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s best and brightest. We spoke with the host — Conan‘s Andy Richter — about his decision to dive back into improv, whether or not Home for the Holidays is family appropriate, and his penchant for tweeting about politics.
What was the thinking behind doing a parody of the Christmas special?
Home for the Holidays was a designed as a Christmas special for Seeso, but it’s also a collection of UCB talent. UCB has a deal with Seeso, which serves as an outlet for their properties and people — different shows and characters they’ve done. So this was kind of like a review of UCB talent within the framework of being my holiday special. It was meant to be a kind of parody or play on the Andy Williams Christmas specials, but a really profane kind of twisted one of those.
You’ve got a long history with UCB. How did this particular project come about?
They came to me. I’ve been involved with UCB since pretty much their beginning, as sort of a friend of the theatre. I’ve done tons of improv shows with them, and I’ve appeared in a bunch of other stuff with them. I’m sort of an unofficial member, like a cousin or an uncle. So this was something Matt Besser approached me about. He’s one of the theatre’s co-founders, and he said they were going to do this sketch show to showcase UCB talent. Besser explained they were going to do it as a Christmas show, and wondered if if I’d play along with the conceit that it was my Christmas special. With my “family” and the like, so to speak.
Despite all this talk of “family,” I probably won’t show this to my parents on Christmas.
Or your kids, if you have kids.
Will you let your kids watch it?
Listen, my kids have heard it all. They’re just bored by me at this point, so they probably wouldn’t care because I’m in it. It’s definitely adult entertainment, but it’s also a very good indication of what seeing a live show at the UCB theatre in Los Angeles or New York is like. Pretty much everybody in that show was doing bits that they’d done before.
Like Seth Morris’ Bob Ducca character.
Exactly, or Sappity Tappity the drunken, alcoholic, British Christmas tree. You know, Jon Daly‘s done entire shows of that character. That’s also one of the reasons that it was done in front of a live audience. To provide anyone watching the special at home on Seeso with a similar experience to seeing it at the actual theatre. In that sense, it’s more of a standard UCB review show than any kind of actual Christmas special — it just happens to concern Christmas and have me in it.
UCB prides itself on improvisation, but even improv requires a script or an outline. What was the Home for Holidays writing process like?
There was definitely a script, which was written by Besser and Eva Anderson — a writer who does a lot of stuff for the UCB. They knocked out a kind of template, or the connective tissue between the different sketches. I sat in with them on a couple of writing sessions and contributed here and there, but it was ultimately Besser and Anderson’s script. Then again, things like the “Farty the Snowman” song and similarly silly bits were just written into script as “…and then this bit will happen.”
There were definitely spots in the script when, for example, Besser’s Bjork character would simply pop in and do something. The script simply included them as placeholders, leaving the performers plenty of room for improvisation. We also figured we’d throw it open to the audience and let the people on stage play around with them at a few spots. It wasn’t completely improvised, but there was a lot of back and forth. In a show like this, you’ve got to get from here to there, so you have to keep it to a schedule in some way. But yes, there was still a lot of room in there for screwing around, as I’m sure you could tell.
Compared to Conan, however, I’m sure the script here was much looser.
Right. Most of the time when people say they improvise stuff in filmed entertainment, that doesn’t mean the cameras are rolling while the actors don’t necessarily know what they’re going to do. They’ve got an outline. Especially when you’re improvising on film, because it becomes really technical in certain situations. The camera operator has to keep you in focus the whole time, so you can’t just run around the room doing whatever you want because there’s a camera that has to follow you around.
What happens frequently with improv on film is, there will be a joke and you’ll know you have to get a certain bit of business done while you’re telling that joke. You can improvise different ways to get across what needs to be said, but it’s not like you can take off and rewrite the whole scene. Although you can slug in a slightly different joke in a slot where there’s already meant to be a joke, which is what happened a lot in Home for the Holidays. Plus, we were able to do more free-form work, like whenever we decided to include audience participation into certain bits. We could ramble during those moments knowing it everything would eventually come together during the editing process.
Improv often presents comics with more chances to break character, especially if somebody says or does something particularly funny. Did that ever happen to you while filming this?
There were a couple, but I really do try to keep it together. This one was a little weird in spots because I’m playing myself, but a character version of myself. During rehearsals I found myself laughing a lot at people, as I would if I were doing a show on the UCB stage. Especially nowadays, as I haven’t done pure improv with them for a long time. I’m old and tired and that’s a young man’s game, but whenever I’m there I’ll usually do some kind of fake interview or interaction with the UCB talent. And I’ll laugh if something’s funny, as I did for this a lot during the rehearsals. There wasn’t anything anybody told me that I thought I wasn’t supposed to laugh at, especially since I was playing this character-me instead of me-me. I never thought I had to “Keep it in my pants.”
When I’m being disciplined, I’m pretty good at not cracking up. Especially when I work in movies or television — when I’m playing a character — I try to be very good about not cracking up. I’ve been in scenes where somebody’s cracking up, and after the second or third time they blow the take while doing that, it becomes less and less cute. You’re wasting time and money, and everybody else there is trying to work, so you’ve got to control yourself. Yet when I’m being myself, I’m always more loose because I’m reacting more naturally to everything happening around me. So I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually playing a fake-me, not a real-me.
Your use of social media to comment on American politics has earned you some attention. That said, you do a remarkable job of keeping your political opinions separate from your comedic work — whether on Conan, in this special, or whatever else you do.
I don’t find politics that funny. I keep most of my political talk to my personal life. My Twitter account is just me. I mean, I’ll promote things on my Twitter account, but it’s just meant to be an ongoing conversation between me — a human being — and others who use the platform. There’s a lot of stuff I’ll talk about on there that I won’t talk about on Conan because it’s not really a political comedy show. We’ll do topical humor, but we never do specifically political content. A lot of other shows do precisely that, but it’s a crowded marketplace already so we just stay out. Plus, I would have a hard time if it were my job to make the current political situation funny. I mean, I can make some jokes about it, but usually they’re too angry to make it onto television. So I’ll keep them on Twitter. And like I said, I just don’t find it funny. I think it’s all rather scary and dire.
That’s an interesting point to make, especially when so many commenters initially responded to the election results with the same quip — that “at least comedy, or music, will be good for the next four years.”
That’s really as about an infantile response as you can have to the real, severe hardships that are likely going be inflicted upon the most vulnerable members of American society. A lot of it is just way too serious. I mean we’re all still doing jokes, mind you, but the man has already committed such amazing instances of malpractice. He’s not even in office yet but people are already getting bummed out, and it’s scary. So when you say his entire cabinet is a clown car of incompetence and goofballs in tinfoil hats, people aren’t going to laugh and think that’s right. Our democracy is in serious jeopardy! People are terrified, and with good reason. Comedy doesn’t need any help. Comedy is just fine on it’s own. Let’s worry about people who need medical care. That’s a little more important than comedy.
Andy Richter’s Home for the Holidays streams today exclusively on Seeso.