Chris Elliott helped define the dominant comic mode of the '80s as a writer and featured performer on Late Night With David Letterman, headlined the ahead-of-its-time Cabin Boy in the '90s, and played Lily's deadbeat dad on How I Met Your Mother in the '00s. Now, as the star of Adult Swim's Eagleheart (produced by Conan O'Brien's Conaco), Elliott is doing for U.S. Marshals what Childrens Hospital has done for pediatricians: making them seem totally demented. Upon the release of Season 1 of Eagleheart on DVD (with dozens of extras, including the absolutely indispensable Kill Reel), and on the eve of its Season 2 premiere (midnight tonight), Elliott spoke with us about death punches, how to age-up a dead body in a bed, and the physical toll of playing a fake U.S. Marshal.
The Season 1 Eagleheart DVD set features clips from the show's first pilot. Can you describe the original concept for the show, and how it evolved?
The original concept that Andrew Weinberg and Michael Koman and Jason Woliner wrote and created was a show about an actor doing a show like Walker, Texas Ranger — Chuck Norris — so it's about a Chuck Norris actor, onscreen and off. So the onscreen stuff was a number of show-within-a-show snippets of the pretend show that this actor was doing, and then we follow him backstage. We did that pilot, and it came out fine; it was a half an hour, but Adult Swim responded more to the show-within-a-show aspect of the pilot, so what they picked up, really, was the fake show.
As a consulting producer on the show — and its star, of course — how involved were you in that evolution?
I'm a pretty specific voice, and I think when I joined the project, these guys were fans of mine, and it kind of changed and evolved into more of a surreal kind of show that reflects my sense of humor — and theirs — perhaps more than the pilot did. And I think early on, when we were picked up, I was out and sat in on some meetings and put in my two cents, for which way I'd like to see it go, and it was completely in line with the way they wanted to do it. The good thing is, I'm at a point now in my career where writers know me, especially writers who grew up watching Get a Life or Cabin Boy or me on Letterman, and they sort of had my voice down, right from the start, and knew the areas that I would want to go into and do, so it was always a pretty good fit.
You mention the length of the original pilot: Some Adult Swim shows, like Metalocalypse and Delocated, have started at 15 minutes and gone to a half hour. Is that something you might want for Eagleheart in the future?
We've talked about that. The thing about Eagleheart right now, in this form, is that half the laughs in it come from the fact that it is so fast. It's so jam-packed, and the pace is so quick, that I think if you kept up that pace in a half-hour version, you'd be exhausted. So I think the show would have to actually change a little bit [if it changed to a half-hour format]. On one hand, that might be great, because it would give a little breathing space to the acting side of it, and possibly to the emotional side of it, a little bit. But I think you would also lose the bizarre pace of the show, which, honestly, if you watch the show right now, you can't look away. You have to watch every second of it. If you sneeze, you miss something. We were all saying the other day, that when we watch it with friends, and they start to say something, you have to tell them to shut up. "No no no no no, watch this!" And I really like that aspect of the show. There are moments where I think, "Oh, I did a take there that they didn't have time to keep in because I paused too long," or whatever, or I said something that had to be cut out, and I wish it could be there, but then I realize, two seconds later, this cut to something else just made me laugh.
MacGruber jumped straight from a two-minute format to a 90-minute format, so that could be a model for what Eagleheart might do next.
There are some things that are probably better going by fast on Eagleheart right now, rather than lingering.
Between Conan O'Brien and David Letterman, you've probably worked with our generation's two greatest minds in late-night comedy.
That's true! That's absolutely true.
They have very distinct comic styles, so what would you say you've learned from each of them?
No, I've taught them! They've learned from me!
What have they learned from you?
Oh, they haven't learned anything from me. They have completely different styles, and they're very different people. Conan, I think, might come more from a comedy writer's perspective, so I think I have something in common with him there. And then Dave comes from a little bit more of a performance standpoint, and I have that in common with him. They've both been very supportive of me all through my career. I wouldn't be talking with you if it wasn't for Dave Letterman. And I think the first thing I ever learned from that guy was that if you've found something that you do that's funny, then you have to just keep doing that and be true to that and not compromise it — which sounds sort of hokey, but that is the one little bit of advice he gave me when I was very young. He said, "Don't stop doing what you're doing." And then I think he added, "I don't know what the hell it is that you do, but don't stop doing it." And he was right. The few times that I've ventured out and tried to compromise what I do, it's only 50 percent for me. It's never really me. And with Conan, I don't know him as well as Dave, so it's hard to say what I've learned from him. Both of them share this quality that makes you want to be loyal to them, which is something that I admire. I don't think I have that! But I feel loyal to both those guys.
Is Conan very hands-on as a producer on Eagleheart?
To the degree that he looks at rough cuts and says, "That's really funny," and that kind of thing, and supports the show and helps out if there's any problem at the network that needs to be massaged, or anything like that — which very rarely happens, as far as I know about. It's his show, so yeah, he's involved, but he pretty much lets us do what we do, and there's very little interference. And he's in the show this season: He plays himself as a producer of a short-lived show about U.S. Marshals that pretty much ruined his career. We edited in little clips from the original pilot as examples of the show that he had been producing. Chris Monsanto actually is hired to play that character in that show, and [Conan's] the producer of it.
Is it intimidating to try to top the kills of Season 1 (particularly Death Punch)?
If we did it too much, it would be overkill, in a way, so you have to pick and choose when you blow people's heads off. But for the most part, Season 2 is even bigger and badder and meaner than Season 1 in terms of the violence — and funnier. There's something about seeing it with sound effects and the goofiness — it's so over-the-top and so crazy that it's hilarious. I don't think anybody is ever at a loss for trying to figure out how to kill somebody on Eagleheart.
Are there violent shows or movies, that you know of, that have inspired the show's writers and producers?
Probably just movies that we've all grown up with, like slasher movies and that sort of thing. Everything is sort of a reference to something. There are little nods to past violence in movies, like a Clint Eastwood movie or whatever. But it's never a parody of it, which I like. And this show, in general — it's not a parody. And that's something I think, possibly, that we had to fight in the first season, is that perception, that it's like The Naked Gun or a cop show parody. And we never wanted it to be that way — I certainly didn't, and [Weinberg and Koman] didn't. The whole Marshal aspect of it is really just a way to hang this surreal show on some sort of spine, but in general, it's a show that is not really a cop show. It goes wherever it wants to go. It makes these abrupt turns and suddenly you're in this whole other show, and it all happens in literally 11 minutes.
In the DVD commentary on the episode "Double Your Displeasure," you talk about a rewrite you had asked for, changing a moment where a politician gets caught in bed with a child to having him in bed with a dead prostitute. How do you decide where to draw the line of taste in a show this absurd?
With me, it's just a personal thing, and probably subjective; I think everybody has their lines. I think that is probably the only time on the show, in both seasons, that I kind of said, "Can we change that a little bit?" I guess maybe it's a generational thing with me, but that's the one area that I'm sort of like, "Ehhhhh, nah, I don't want to do it." Unless it's so incredibly funny and is making some comment and isn't offensive because it's so obvious. I just thought, "Eh, I don't know, let's not do that." But you're right, it is like, why would I say no to that but I'm OK with beheading people and doing all that stuff, but like I said, everybody has their own line. And I think we all respect each other's feelings in that sense.
If that's the only time it's ever happened, it does speak to the way the show's creators are tuned in to your sensibility.
Yeah, and they completely understood that. The funny thing about that was, it was originally written as a little boy that was going to be in bed with the Senator, and that I was going to take the pictures of it to blackmail him. And then we changed it to a guy's corpse. But the day we shot that, the actual actor who was going to play the corpse looked really young to me. So we had to put a fake mustache on him so that he didn't just look like a teenager.
Has it happened the other way, where Adult Swim has blocked storylines you wanted to do, on taste grounds?
Not that I'm aware of, but I pretty much am trying to approach this show purely as an actor. My consulting on the show is more or less me taking a pass at each script, rewording jokes or putting in alternate jokes for me, that kind of thing. Because the show is so short, there's some talk about, "You have to wait a little bit longer to have somebody killed here." But generally, Adult Swim has been really good, and if there's been any kind of question from the censors, it starts to work up the chain of command, and eventually it hits the point where somebody at Adult Swim says, "Oh no no, let these guys do what they're doing."
On the DVDs, you mention an injury you sustained while leapfrogging in the pilot. Were there other injuries in Season 1 or 2?
I think I say it on the commentary that, doing the pilot, I had this torn rotator cuff in my shoulder. I had actually gotten into shape for the pilot, but every time I had to throw a punch, I just was in excruciating pain, and in the outtakes, you can see me rubbing my arm between takes. But other than that, my only problem with the schedule or whatever on Eagleheart is that we shoot it, usually, over the summer, and then it takes a while before it airs. I've had seven months down; I'm like Marlon Brando showing up for Apocalypse Now, I'm just so fat at this point. So I have to yo-yo every year for Eagleheart.
You talked about Conan O'Brien's guest shot in Season 2; other guest stars include Ben Stiller, Bud Cort, and Dean Norris. Who else will we see in Season 2?
I think those are the main ones. The idea is not really to use a lot of guest stars on the show, because it runs the risk of taking you out of the show. Conan O'Brien basically plays himself, and it's sort of a documentary episode, so it's different. Ben is hilarious as a character, and you totally believe him. And Dean approached it like he was doing a drama. Usually the villains are kind of familiar-looking faces, somebody maybe you've seen on a drama on television, and they have to approach the material seriously, as if they're doing a drama. We've been lucky because they all have, and they're really believable, even though they're doing these ridiculous things. Nobody's wanted to be too goofy, which is great. In general, we keep the guest stars to a minimum.
Eagleheart returns for its second season two days after Justified ends its third, which means TV's two best shows about U.S. Marshals won't be on at the same time.
Justified is a great show. It's weird, though, because we are not a parody of it. Other than the cowboy hat, there's very little comparison there. I was at a restaurant once out here, and one of the producers or writers on that show came up to me and had heard about Eagleheart and thought we were doing a parody of it. I had to explain that we were pretty different.
They're about as different as two TV shows about U.S. Marshals can be.
That's for sure.
Tara Ariano doesn't deliver nearly as many Death Punches as you'd think.