Kevin Nealon Is Drawing Attention to Himself
Like a lot of comics (and, frankly, like the rest of us), Kevin Nealon wasn’t doing so hot during the pandemic. “(In quarantine), I didn't get that outlet for doing stand-up,” he says. “And I was so used to doing it almost every weekend. All of a sudden, that came to a screeching halt.”
So he began focusing on an old hobby — painting comedic pictures of show-biz pals that are featured in his new book, I Exaggerate: My Brushes with Fame. “Caricatures are like a nonverbal form of comedy,” he explains. “People could see them and get a laugh out of them, so art kind of filled that void (for me).”
In fact, it turns out that sketch comedy and, er, sketching comedy have a lot in common. “It's just an exaggeration,” says Nealon. “You take the truth, then you put a little twist on it, and bingo, there you have it.”
His caricatures proved to be healing in other ways, too, like when he worked on a drawing of his old friend Garry Shandling. “That was of a labor of love. The amount of time that it took me to do that one,” he says. “I just was reliving our experiences as friends, and it was pretty cathartic.”
They first connected on Shandling’s Larry Sanders Show (Hank Kingsley was afraid Nealon would steal his sidekick gig), in Shandling’s legendary pick-up basketball games and via another strange tie — they were both bugged by convicted wiretapper Anthony Pellicano.
Even though Pellicano was recently released from prison, Nealon isn’t too concerned. “I don’t have a landline anymore,” he says. Still, there was a “why me?” reaction when he opened up the New York Times a few years ago to discover that he (along with Shandling, Sly Stallone and Michael Jackson, among others) were the targets of Pellicano’s wiretaps. “I almost dropped the paper,” he tells me. “I said what the hell is this? I thought I was being pranked or something.”
But it made sense when he remembered phone calls he’d had with Shandling. “I occasionally would hear little taps on the phone. Jokingly, I said to Garry, ‘I think somebody’s tapping my phone here.’ But I never could imagine that it was actually happening.”
Weird virtual run-ins with shady characters didn’t stop Nealon from killing it for nine seasons on Saturday Night Live. When he left, that was the record for the longest tenure on the show, although that mark has since been broken — “Like most records,” he says — by Kenan Thompson, Seth Meyers, Darrell Hammond and others.
“Maybe it’s a good thing to stay for a long time,” muses Nealon. But then again, he adds, “Maybe it should be a two-term thing like the president. You get eight years.” The danger in staying too long is that at some point, the well runs dry, and “you run out of tricks” as a cast member. That’s why Nealon believes it’s a good thing that “Lorne brings in the new blood every once in a while.”
It’s been a while since there’s been a transfer of power on the Weekend Update desk, where Colin Jost and Michael Che now hold the record for most Update segments. Nealon held that chair himself for a few seasons. What’s the key to delivering the fake news?
“First and foremost are the jokes,” he says. “They have to be funny, the news stories. And then your delivery has to be good. Chevy Chase was my role model. I loved the way Chevy Chase did it more like a straight newscaster with a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek. Dennis (Miller) had a whole different twist on it. He was being Dennis, which was great.”
Somewhere along the line, a new Weekend Update style took hold. “It seems like lately, everybody’s kind of cheeky, you know? They like to laugh. Colin Jost and Che do a great job, but even before them, it became more of a ‘getting outside the newscaster’ thing. They’re kind of judging each others’ jokes and rolling their eyes. That’s good, people like that, but it's a different style than what I was doing back then.”
The key is finding one’s own distinct voice, says Nealon, something that applies to both comedy and caricature. One way to get there is to analyze the work of others, something Nealon did early in his career as a bartender at the Improv: “You just study. You’re a student of comedy there, and it really helps.”
And so, Nealon has taken a similar approach to his comic art. “I look at a lot of caricatures online, and I’m always studying different people’s styles,” he says. “And like comedy, it takes you a while to find your style.”
Nealon isn’t sure he’s exactly found his just yet. “But know the more you do it, the closer you come to creating your own style,” he concludes. “I’m just excited about the progress and the process. I’m going to reach it.”
Top image: Kevin Nealon Instagram