Since 2011, Mike O’Brien has been the host of one of the most unusual and funniest celebrity talk shows, 7 Minutes in Heaven. The concept is rather simple: O’Brien and his guest(s) stand in a closet while he asks them questions that are certainly not typical of the standard talk show format. For example, the most recent episode of 7 Minutes in Heaven featured The Last Man on Earth star Will Forte, and O’Brien asked him if he thinks his fart output is high for a man of his age, height, and weight. Not exactly the kind of banter that you’d hear on Charlie Rose, but O’Brien has never proclaimed to be the talk show king. He’s just a regular guy who likes to talk to people in his closet, and at the end he will give them a really awkward kiss.
Forte’s appearance was the second of a brief new run of episodes O’Brien shot for Above Average, with Sarah Silverman stopping by earlier this month and Eva Longoria appearing in an installment that debuts today. Just three episodes? What a tease. But we caught up with O’Brien to learn the history of this bizarre and wonderful web series while also grilling him with questions of our own. Mainly, we had to know what it was like to share a closet with Insane Clown Posse, but there were other less important things to discuss as well.
What’s your process in selling guests on the idea? How do you go about choosing and getting people in the closet?
I get some help from Broadway Video usually, so Caroline, who works there, and I will formulate a huge list, like 100 to 150 actors, politicians, musicians that are all our dream guests. Then she does a big wide sending out of emails asking their agents, publicists, et cetera, if they want to do this. We hear back from zero, one, or two of them. [Laughs.] Then another route to go is through people we know in common. I’ve been good friends with Jason Sudeikis and he might be like, “You know who I’m working with right now who might want to do this and might be good?” and that’s a pretty sure way of booking. Then there’s a third, less-often-but-it-happens way where sometimes people will come to us and it’s always neat and very flattering when that happens. That’s happened with a few people hopefully coming up and it’s just a matter of booking their busy schedules.
Who on your wish list has surprised you the most by saying yes?
I was really surprised years ago when we got Ellen DeGeneres and kind of surprised by how she rolls. She drove herself and had no team with her and she just strolled in out of her car, gave me a hug, and was like, “Let’s do this!” And of course that’s how she is, that’s how she seems to be. But a lot of times people aren’t quite how they seem to be. Jeff Goldblum, I can’t believe he said yes. As you get to know these people more and more you’re like, that’s the type of guy who’s game for a lot of different things in a cool way. Those are two that jump to mind.
Who was the very first guest you had?
Kristen Wiig – well, we shot four on the first day and we released her first. But the literal first interview was Hoda Kotb. I remember being really nervous and being glad she was an interviewer for a living because she was helping me out, keeping the energy going and moving things along.
When you look back to those early episodes, and when you do the show now, how would you compare those two feelings?
Then, it was a level of genuine terror that doesn’t exist anymore when I’m doing one. But I have no idea what’s going to happen when I go to kiss this person and they don’t know it’s coming, because we hadn’t put any out yet. Also, I’m an awkward interviewer and that’s not an act. I’m awkward with people, especially if you squash me in a tiny space with them for 30 or 40 minutes. So, that’s still there, but now I’ve got a little less blind terror and a little more, “I really hope this upcoming bit works because I think we really need something physical so that we’re not always just sitting and talking.”
How is it now with people anticipating the kiss, rather than being caught off guard by it? Or are people still caught off guard?
No one’s caught off guard anymore. Once we shot eight of them we started releasing them, so the first eight are genuine, actual reactions and not knowing about a kiss at all. Everyone since then, except Insane Clown Posse, had clearly watched one or two, so they knew there was a kiss at the end. ICP was on tour or something and hadn’t watched any, so they were surprised by it. Everyone else knows and the real answer is it’s a shame that we can never go back to that innocence, kind of like real life with first kisses and stuff. But they always kind of have a little bit of a plan or know it’s coming and I think probably, in the back of their minds, know whether they’re going to go with it or resist it in a humorous way. I think they have a general plan but my goal is usually to throw that off so that there is still a genuine awkwardness.
Sometimes I’ll just put it in the middle of the interview because they know as I’m starting to wrap up that it’s coming so I decide to throw them off that way. Or I do it like once and I see what their planned thing is, and then I just keep doing it until you’re getting them acting like they actually would act. It’s a little bit more of a dance now to get that sweet, sweet awkwardness.
Can you say if you’ve had a favorite guest?
I probably could answer it if you put, like, five more modifiers on it. It’s really hard to compare. A handful of the guests are friends of mine for 15 years or more, and some of them are celebrities I liked in movies when I was little. It feels hard to say who is a favorite. But they’re really, really hard for me to compare. Some like Sudeikis and Samberg were good, to bring in an old personal friend of mine, that feels really great to hang with your friend and call it a web series. Other ones were just like crazy weird.
Sometimes they’re a favorite for a while because of how surprised I was. I thought they were going to be hard or a pain in the butt and they were really fun and easy. And I think pain in the butt would be the word that I thought Tracy Morgan would be, just hard to keep wrangled in. I don’t know why you would really need to wrangle people in in an interview. But he’s a slightly intimidating person to interview, both because I idolized him on SNL and because he’s always going to throw you way more curveballs and I’m normally the one throwing the curveballs and I’d be dodging them as well that day, and it turned out so much fun and easy that I was like, oh. That was my favorite for a while.
Patricia Clarkson, because it went in some genuine real moments in a way that a lot of them don’t. There are a handful of them like that. I just remember Jon Hamm was a huge one and so much fun. There are just too many favorites but I love a lot of them in different ways.
Is there a dream guest that you’re still trying to get?
Obviously the biggest people on Earth would all look funny in a closet. Oprah, Bill Clinton, Barack, any huge politician, Hillary. I guess Trump? I don’t know. Nah. Why do it? Maybe Trump in like 30 years. A near-dead Trump might be cool, but I bet he’s already got an interview lined up for that day anyway so I’ll move on. Athletes I love, musicians — those are a little harder. Comedians get it more and sign up more quickly, but Kendrick Lamar would be amazing. He’s just such an interesting interview, period. I’m also just a fan of his. And obviously a few comedy legends like the Bill Murrays, but I still haven’t gotten, if I ever will be able to, but would be awesome.
Which of your guests have surprised you the most, in terms of what you were expecting them to be like?
There’s one coming up that’s fresh on my mind, Eva Longoria. I’m not sure what I thought she’d be but I pictured her to be protective of her image. There are some people who are very nervous, like, “What exactly are we going to talk about?” I pictured she’d be along those lines just because she runs a lot of stuff in her world, those people tend to be kind of micromanaging each aspect of their life and worried, and I sensed zero of that from the time she walked in the door to the time we finished the interview. It was just the most relaxed and playful. She must have watched a couple and been like, “Oh, this looks like a thing that’s so up my alley.” And it was. She was so natural and fun and shooting from the hip in a way that I wondered if she would be more deliberate. That was a great surprise.
Are there people you’ve interviewed who just don’t get it? Or people you realize maybe part-way through aren’t embracing the experience?
Insane Clown Posse clearly hadn’t had time to see any episodes and are just going with their defensive dukes up because they go to a lot of interviews about how their music has ruined people and been the indirect cause of murder, in some cases. It took them 20 minutes before they were like, “Wait, so this is all it is? It’s all just dumb questions like this? You’re never really going to grill us?” And I was like, “No, this is for fun,” and you could see, at least Violent J was relaxing into it more and was like, “That was so fun! That’s all it was? That was so great!” And I’m like, “What are they usually like for you?” I’d known from my research watching a million interviews with them that they’re almost always brutal. It’s some guy like holding up a photo of a person who died and the killer was listening to their music and they have to speak to that.
It’s interesting too when you had him play the role of the concerned PTA mom. He really got into that, which was cool.
That’s when he was turning a corner and being like, hey, not only is this fun, it looked like he was working out some of his frustration with media.
Going into it, did you have any reservations with having them on the show?
No, I was dying to have them on. I grew up in southeast Michigan and was very aware of them all along and had written, along with Colin Jost, some videos for SNL that were parodying their infomercials that ICP does for the Gathering of the Juggalos each summer, and we had not used their name but it was pretty clearly inspired by their really weird videos they make to promote this insane event, The Gathering. They reached out to us and were like, “We love this. Would you like to come to The Gathering?” Me and my friend did and I recommend it. Especially if you’re sort of a wealthy East Coast person, it’s perfect. There’s wine tasting, it’s great, you should just go. Don’t ask questions, don’t Google it. But we’d gone and I met them briefly backstage at a thing once, so I was just super excited and then kind of surprised a few minutes into it to realize they hadn’t been able to research it at all and just started to get that sinking feeling of dread that I had to try to surprise Violent J with a kiss and I know he’s not going to be down with that.
And that was a difficult moment.
Yeah, and I was like, I don’t want to let myself fully off the hook. I want to push this a little bit but I can’t go as far as like with Borat. I just don’t really feel like getting punched in the face and if I draw out the awkwardness for 30 seconds I get to be done and we can go back to being normal with these guys.
When it comes to guest hygiene, has there been anyone that has bad breath or any issue like that?
No one has smelled bad, that’s real. And we had Jon Glaser in a tank top and it was 102 degrees, literally, in New York that day and he was like, “Let’s wear these tank tops,” and kept his armpits exposed for most of the interview and smelled like a delicious stick of Right Guard or something. Generally, they’ve all been great with that.
And I haven’t gotten any weird kissing. There is a thing in life, as I’m sure you know, where you’re kissing someone in real life and you’re like, oh, we’re not really compatible. Or one or both of us isn’t doing a great job today. I’ve never had that problem with this because I think you gotta be going at it for more than 10 seconds to really get that feeling. Again, we’re not actually on a date or whatever, this is Ty Burrell and he’s got his own life. We’re not actually falling in love and kissing. You’re like, this is kind of half-jokey stage kisses and only maybe Patricia Clarkson had some feeling of like, this is maybe really how we would kiss if we had just been hanging out. Everyone else you feel a little bit like it’s a stage kiss.
When you had Jeff Goldblum in the closet and had your mom on the phone, does she know you’re going to call?
That was real. She may have known I was interviewing Jeff Goldblum that week but I didn’t tell her, “Hey, be around in a minute.” In fact, we called again with Sarah Silverman and got her answering machine. I don’t want them planning ahead too much because it was so much fun to hear my mom go, “Oh, hi Jeff!” in a genuine way and not like she’s been practicing saying that and waiting by the phone.