Kevin Nealon Is Hiking and Laughing and Drawing
in the The New Yorker
Kevin Nealon—the venerated standup and comedic actor seen in more than twenty movies, many written and produced by his friend Adam Sandler—never intended to start a YouTube talk show. “I was hiking with Matthew Modine in the summer of 2017,” Nealon said from his Bel Air home, in Los Angeles, not far from a series of narrow, dusty paths and pockmarked roads better suited to rented burro than foot. “We were going up a really steep incline. We were talking, so out of breath, we couldn’t understand each other. I thought it’d be a funny video clip. So I recorded it just holding my cell phone out. I posted it, and it got a good response. I thought: I should do this every week with a different friend who’s a celebrity.”
Perhaps it’s the quasi-fresh air. Or the possibility of being attacked by a mountain lion, which once nearly happened. Or the numerous passersby who ask, “Hey, is that who I think it is?” Whatever the case, “Hiking with Kevin,” with more than two hundred and fifty thousand subscribers, has become a welcome respite from the tightly scripted Q. & A.s that actors and comedians are forced to endure before live studio audiences or on podcasts with hosts far more interested in laughs than in learning anything from their guests. On the walks, no subject is off limits. Better yet, there’s rarely, if ever, a project to promote. It would be like an episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” if both interviewer and subject sweated profusely and were constantly winded.
Conan O’Brien appeared with Nealon in an early episode and spoke openly about his lifelong struggle with anxiety. After showing up hours late, Jeff Goldblum recalled a mugging that he received in Los Angeles decades ago, and how he came to learn that the attacker’s mother was a fan of his 1980 ABC comedy series, “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe.” The sun-averse and germophobic Howie Mandel, wearing an extremely large Sonoma hat purchased specifically for the hike to ward off the slightest ray of UV, described his acrobatic ability to open public doors with only a knee or his feet. The comedian Whitney Cummings, in February, 2019, revealed her mangled right ear, which had been partly chewed off by a dog. The closeup of the stitched-together lobe, seen in the stark, natural Los Angeles light, is enough to stay with a viewer forever.
There’s a garage-punk feel to the entire proceedings on these hills of Franklin, Solstice, and Corral Canyons, a counterintuitive approach that might surprise those who are familiar with Nealon from the more mainstream “S.N.L.” characters he performed from 1986 to 1995, such as Franz (of “Hans & Franz”), or from his eight-season run as the synesthesia-suffering stoner Doug Wilson on Showtime’s “Weeds.” Here, Nealon acts as his own producer (inviting the guests himself), cinematographer (using a handheld GoPro on a selfie stick), and editor (with Adobe Premiere Pro on his MacBook).
A 1975 graduate of Sacred Heart University in his home state of Connecticut, where he majored in marketing, Nealon made his way to Los Angeles a few years later to perform standup, eventually landing a job as a bartender at the Budd Friedman-run Hollywood Improv—a beehive of what’s now considered legendary comedic talent. “I was in such an incredible position by working at that bar for two years, and I loved it,” Nealon says. “I would see all these comics come in that I had watched on TV growing up. I was just in awe. Robin Williams would come in from shooting ‘Mork & Mindy,’ still in his suspenders. The showroom would be packed, so I would go up into the office upstairs. I’d watch through the peephole Andy Kaufman reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ and doing his laundry onstage. It made a huge effect on me.”
Using Kaufman, Williams, Steve Martin, and Albert Brooks as comedic lodestars, Nealon honed his own unique, surreal, deadpan style, creating slightly unhinged characters such as Mr. Subliminal, a passive-aggressive straight arrow who has nothing of interest to say until a short, shocking interjection unmasks his true intentions. There was something—Hot sex!—intriguing about this nebbish. Nealon’s characters were meta, possibly disturbed, but, like the creator himself, highly likable. “Kevin’s a very easy-going, lighthearted guy,” David Spade e-mailed. “He gets you with the dry jokes when you’re not even looking for them. He’s such a master at not putting any spin on them.”
At thirty, after years of honing his act in front of small audiences around the country, Nealon appeared on “The Tonight Show,” in August, 1984, making such a connection with Johnny Carson that he earned the much coveted invite to hit the couch post-routine, the holy grail of standup, back when such a thing existed. “I remember Carson just laughing and throwing his head back,” Nealon said. “I remember cigarette smoke coming out of his nostrils. It was such a natural high for me. To this day, I never did anything that really gave me that feeling.”
Numerous “Tonight Show” and other television appearances followed, and, in 1986, at the suggestion of his friend Dana Carvey, Nealon auditioned for Lorne Michaels at “S.N.L.,” and went on to become one of the longest-tenured performers in the show’s history, with a nine-year run. It was there, during the sometimes interminable weekly afternoon table reads, at the large table in the writers’ wing, that Nealon returned to a passion he’d had since he was a child: drawing caricatures of those around him. “I’d draw the hosts, I’d draw the other actors, I’d draw anyone I admired,” Nealon said.
On October 25th, Nealon will publish “I Exaggerate: My Brushes with Fame,” a hardcover collection of more than fifty finely detailed, hyper-realistic caricatures of people whom Nealon has worked with (Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Tiffany Haddish) or admired from afar (Anthony Bourdain, Kurt Cobain, Humphrey Bogart). “It’s something I’ve wanted to do, but never at this level,” Nealon said. “When I was growing up, I had two framed caricature pastel drawings of my parents on my bedroom wall by a Parisian artist, and they were unlike anything you’d ever seen. Every night, I’d go to bed, and, subconsciously, I’d be studying those caricatures.”
As with all things caricature—both onstage and off—there exists a dangerously thin margin of error; the difference between complimenting and mocking can vanish to nothing, with the one bleeding into the other. Nealon’s illustrations are just on the edge of beautiful and monstrous, as if dragged through an augmented-reality filter app. Freddie Mercury resembles not so much a world-famous rock star as a bucktoothed ferret dipped in pubic hair. Blood vessels practically burst forth from Garry Shandling’s bulbous nose. Christopher Walken’s red-rimmed eyes bug out toward the viewer as if from a 3-D horror film. And yet, clearly, there’s a love and admiration for each of these celebrities, evidenced by an artistic style made famous by nineteenth-century Parisian artists, such as Claude Monet early in his career, or by contemporaries like Britain’s Paul Moyse, who, over the course of ten Skype lessons in 2019, taught Nealon the nuances of this very particular art form. “I basically learned how to draw on a Wacom, a digital tablet,” Nealon told me. “I’d say the lessons were probably sixty per cent learning how to figure out that thing. And then forty per cent were drawing caricatures.”
Chris Farley is captured childlike, sickly and vulnerable, seemingly moments from a horrible demise that we know is lurking just around the corner. You want to reach through and give him a hug—and a warning. Chris Rock is seemingly caught mid-punch line, eyes gleaming nearly as brightly as his diamond earring. He’s killing it, he knows it, and he’ll do it again. And again. He has reached cruising altitude and is hurtling along at top speed.
“If you’re thinking about what that person’s going to be thinking when they see it, whether they’ll be offended or not, then you’re really not being true to your caricature,” Nealon said. “But these are people I really admire, people I consider icons. And I’m not above doing my own caricature and making fun of myself.”
Beneath each caricature is a short, conversational, forthright essay. About his mentor Andy Kaufman: “Andy took more risks than any comic I knew. . . . In truth, he was more of a performance artist than a stand-up but described himself as a ‘song and dance man.’ ”
Nealon recalls Lauren Bacall, with whom he worked on the 1991 comedy “All I Want for Christmas,” telling him an anecdote that one wouldn’t necessarily hear on an episode of “Access Hollywood.” After lowering a cancer-stricken Humphrey Bogart inside a dumbwaiter down a floor in their Hollywood mansion, Bacall opened “the small door to reveal Humphrey” to the guests. “Dinner has arrived!” she would declare.
The essay on Garry Shandling is derived, in part, from a eulogy that Nealon delivered at the comedian’s April, 2016, Los Angeles memorial service. “It took some work to be Garry’s friend,” Nealon writes, “but it was so worth it. He was quality. He was the gold standard. He was funny, brilliant, self-deprecating, playful, kind, generous, stylish, spiritual—I got those off his Tinder profile—and handsome.”
Despite a knee replacement that was performed in August, Nealon is back on a cross-country standup tour this fall. The fourth season of “Hiking with Kevin” premières on October 27th, albeit on slightly flatter and easier trails. Already in the dusty pipeline: Marc Maron, Greg Kinnear, Eugene Levy, Julian Lennon, and Paul Rudd . . . and possibly one particular reclusive “special guest” not prone to interviews. “I came close to quitting after I first arrived in Hollywood,” Nealon told me, near the end of our conversation, undoubtedly anxious to hit the trails before sunset. “I called my father from the payphone on Beverly and Van Ness, and said, ‘Dad, I really am at a crossroads here. I don’t know what to do.’ I was hoping he would say, ‘Why don’t you come home, Kev?’ I was homesick. Instead, he said, ‘You’re a big boy. Stay out there and give it a shot.’ It was kind of hurtful. I knew he wanted me to come home, but, because he was such a great father, he put my future ahead of his desires. Everything I’ve achieved since then is the payoff. It was a sacrifice, too. But this is the payoff.”