About Christian Finnegan
When Christian Finnegan was trying to arrive at a title for his first DVDrelease, he rifled through the punchlines in his comedy act, looking tofind the right snappy, snarky one-liner. “But they all seemed a little toostandup comedy-ish to me,” he explains. “Then I thought of AuContraire, which is just a throw-off phrase that I used in the middle of ajoke. It was very indicative of me, in the sense that it’s a little foppysounding, but also a little bit defiant. Because that’s a major element of my comedy: ‘You are wrong. And now I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong.’”But maybe Au Contraire also fits as a title because Finnegan is a bit of aself-contrarian, when it comes to having a comedy style that’s not easyto pin down. He’s highly recognizable to the TV-viewing comedycognoscenti for being a regular on VH1’s Best Week Ever and KeithOlbermann’s MSNBC show. Yet when it comes to his standup act, hechucks purely topical humor out the window in favor of gettingpersonal. And as you watch the opening minutes of Au Contraire, itmay not be easy to peg right away exactly which vein of comedy goldFinnegan intends to mine. Is his comedy sophisticated, or does he workblue? Will he go for the lowest common denominator, or take thecomic high road? The answer to all of the above would be… yes.“Sometimes I find that I’m too dirty for the people who want to hearreally highfalutin comedy, and too highfalutin for people who reallywant to hear about boobs,” Finnegan notes. “But I kind of like that,because the people who can relate to both are the people I’m trying toreach. That’s sort of my sweet spot: If you’ve ever read a philosophytext and yet you also have the iFart application on your iPhone, you’rethe perfect audience member for me.”But that mix of tone and subject matter is not to say that Finnegan goes in for completely random comedy. “It’s cool now to be kind of a onelinercomic, or do a neo-Borstch Belty or neo-Steven Wright thing. But Ireally enjoy people who have something to say—even if it’s stupid; itdoesn’t have to be political or socially responsible. I like people whoare willing to explore a topic for a long period of time—Bill Cosby,George Carlin, Doug Stanhope, Louis CK, Greg Geraldo, people likethat. And it just feels natural and fits better for me.”Finnegan first found a measure of TV notoriety with a short butindelible appearance in a sketch on Dave Chappelle’s old show(playing the only white guy in an otherwise all-black parody of TheReal World). But he really came into his own a few years ago as aregular on VH1’s Best Week Ever, where he riffed on gossip and popculture. So it may come as a surprise to anyone watching Au Contrairethat he goes in more for relationship humor. “I always worry whensomebody says ‘I love Best Week Ever— I’m gonna come to your showtonight!’ I’m always like, ‘Just so you know, I’m not going to be talkingabout Dancing with the Stars, and I hope that’s okay with you.’ I lovethrowing pop culture references into my act. I’m a massive trivia geek. Iwon a car on a game show a number of years ago for knowing ‘80smusic videos. But that’s not really where I want to exist as a standup.”He’s relishing his current fortnightly-or-so appearances on KeithOlbermann’s show, which exercise completely different comedicmuscles. “It’s fun, but very pressure filled, because I get called to do itthat day and don’t know what we’re talking about until around5:30pm. I spend an hour or two trying to write jokes, and then you saythem once and they’re gone—which is so different from standup,where you might do a joke 50 times before you really get the wordingdown and find out what works and what doesn’t. But I love that I canwork at the absolute top of my intelligence, being as obscure as I wantto be or making an odd historical reference. It’s nice to kind of not haveto worry about some drunk down in the front row being like ‘What thef--- is this homo talking about?’”And Finnegan does get some of that. Early in the new DVD, he lets theaudience know that, despite what they may be thinking—au contraire,indeed!—he is married, and she’s not a beard. “When I got up onstage, I could see it in people’s faces: that dude is sure I’m gay, andhe’s totally not buying this whole wife bullshit. And I decided toaddress that. Until a few years ago, I used to be a lot heavier—I was up in the upper 270s—and one of the consequences of having changedmy physicality is that hopefully I won’t die soon. But I also found thatafter I lost weight, people saw me very differently onstage. When I wasbigger, I had more of a schlubby, everyman appeal, but when I got inshape, I was looked at more as poncy and girly. I’ve always really beenas wussy-ish as I am now, but I also started to get more effete with mymanner of dress. So it all happened organically out of that.” (Don’texpect any weight-loss jokes in his act, though. “There’s nothing lessinteresting than watching a comedian talk about actualaccomplishments!” Finnegan maintains. “I would give myself the fingerif I were doing that material.”)Au Contraire, which is arriving on DVD days after its premiere as aComedy Central special, was filmed in October 2008 at Philadelphia’shistoric Trocadero Theatre. “I always have good sets in Philly, and Ifind the professional people who live in the city to be very smart—anda little bit mean,” he cheerfully adds. “There’s a heart of darkness toPhiladelphia which I like.” Finnegan also wanted to find a venue lessantiseptic than the comedy clubs or amphitheatres used in otherstandup specials. “This place was an opera house in the 19th centurybefore becoming a burlesque house early in the 20th century, and nowmetal bands play there. I think of what I do as being smart takes onstupid topics and stupid takes on smart topics, so there’s somethingabout the dichotomy of the Trocadero that appealed to me.”Au Contraire includes some unusual bonus features—including areplay of the entire special with the camera focusing on just oneaudience member, accompanied by Finnegan doing a subsequentrunning commentary with that very attendee. “I was thinking aboutdirectors’ commentary tracks on DVDs, and there’s nothing aboutstandup that would lend itself to such a thing. Who wants to hearsomeone talking over someone talking for an hour? But I had this otheridea. When I’m watching a show, I love fixating on a randomaudience member. It’s fascinating to watch exactly what makes aperson laugh and what doesn’t, whether he’s trying to force a chuckle,or if he’s holding back because he’s worried he might offend his date.”Another DVD bonus has Finnegan, in character as a superciliousinterviewer, chatting with some guests whose real-life professions orhobbies mirror subjects he discusses in his act—from an ex-pole vaulterto a female sex-store clerk. If you think these bits are scripted, guessagain: All his “guests” are real people he found through Facebook orMySpace queries. “We did edit those interviews to play up theawkwardness as much as possible—which was not terribly difficult. I’ma big fan of the extended pause in comedy, where, if someone makes ajoke, you cut to someone being silent. Just complete dead air—that, I’ma fan of.”Fortunately, outside of that particular oddball DVD supplement, there’sno such pregnant silence in the main comedic body of Au Contraire.The legit laughs accrue as Finnegan goes for the populist jugular. “Ilove catharsis in comedy,” says the 36-year-old New York native—“that laugh of recognition, of ‘Yes, that’s what I’ve always felt, and whyhasn’t anyone said that before?’” That might apply to Finnegan’s wrytake on the ineffectiveness of lingerie past a certain point in a long-term relationship (“Oh, now your boobs have lace on them”)… or,conversely, to the eternally orgasmic qualities of the Playstation 3. “Alot of comedians talk about videogames, but usually in very tacky orvery standard mainstream terms. They don’t really get into thesensation of what it feels like to really love videogames and how muchit can really run your life.”“I’m also proud of dumb little words and phrases. I love the fact that Igot a Sha Na Na joke on this DVD, and that, of all things, it’s part of ajoke about the Wii. I’m pretty certain that no one has ever made thatconnection before. And I love working in a word like ‘shan’t’ or puttingin a phrase like ‘in excelsis deo’ for no reason whatsoever. I think it’spretty obvious for anyone who watches that I’m a little bit pretentiouswith my vocabulary choices. But I like that—especially when I’mtalking about something that on the surface that looks very dirty and Rrated.I like being able to talk about a guy with a ‘Certified Muff Diver’T-shirt and break it down into pompous, analytical terms. That sort ofdichotomy is what I enjoy—and if I can find some fluffy, foo-foo wordto describe some base sex act, then that’s a good day for me.”Finnegan’s faithful audience shan’t disagree.