Dan Finnerty Interview
Movies are made in order to elicit audience response; a good horror movie will make everyone jump at just the right points, a well-done romance will have women tear up as the end credits roll. While it is difficult to surprise the modern audience—people who have seen and heard it all—occasionally something so genuinely original can still startle and please even the most jaded person. The 2003 release Old School contained such a moment.
In the movie, Will Farrell’s “Frank the Tank” has just been married and is sharing the first dance with his new bride. The scene looks to be a throwaway; a cheesy wedding band in obnoxious tuxedos is playing Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, and nothing interesting is taking place. Then, without warning, the mundane becomes hilarious. During the line, “Every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes,” the singer added one simple word, and everyone’s ears perked. The look on Will Farrell’s face matched that of every person in the theater; “Wait, did I just hear that? No, I must be imagining things…” and almost immediately the joke was driven home: “And fucking every now and then I fall apart!” The entire audience laughed in genuine surprise and enjoyment.
Though others before him had done parodies, Dan Finnerty had the simple idea to add swear words to popular songs. Not only did Dan add swear words, but he did so while playing the songs straight, making the words somehow work, slipping in the vulgarities in a way that made it sound as if they had always been there.
In a word: brilliant.
Between stops on his current tour, Nathan Timmel was able to chat with the exceedingly affable Dan about singing, swearing, and marrying up.
NT: First off, I have a personal question: when were you at Emerson College, because I was right down the road at The Berklee College of Music from 1990 to 1992.
DF: Wow, I was there from ’89 to ’92, that’s crazy.
NT: Yeah, we should have hung out together more, had we actually known one another even existed.
DF: I would have met you at Newbury Comics.
NT: I went there a lot. I was actually at Newbury Comics one day when several New Kids on the Block showed up at a clothing store next door and started a teenybopper riot.
DF: The same thing happened to me. When I graduated in ’92, I went out to dinner to celebrate with family, and the youngest New Kid was there and turned the place into pandemonium. I couldn’t even enjoy my graduation celebration because of Joey Macintyre. [Laughs]
NT: What did you study at Emerson; you’re obviously fluent in music, as you went on to perform on Broadway, were you in theater?
DF: I was an acting major, and I almost majored in TV Production, but that became a minor.
NT: When I listen to The Dan Band, I hear great harmonies and arrangements; is singing something that came naturally to you, and when you put the band together did you use friends, or did you audition actual musicians?
DF: I was always musical, and probably always secretly wanted to start a band, but to me anyone who had a band seemed so legit. I grew up in farm town New York, so I never took the idea of being in a band too seriously. I would have felt too stupid trying to pretend I was worthy of pursuing music. After college, I was doing the show Stomp, and it was my last night with that production and the guys took me out to a bar that had karaoke. I just jumped up and sang I Am Woman, because I was drunk. The next day I moved to L.A., and a friend of mine had a band here, and she wanted me to open for her so it would look like she was headlining. [Laughs] She said to me, “Just sing anything, it doesn’t matter what.” I had just sung I Am Woman, so I did that again, because I thought it was pretty funny, and I added You Light Up My Life and Flashdance (What a Feeling). It was just bongos and an acoustic guitar, and at the end of it, this guy came up to me and he’s like, “Do you have a flyer?” I asked, “For what?” And he said, “For your next show. When is it?” I’m like, [surprised voice] “Fucking never.” He said he booked The Viper Room, and he’d love to book me if I could turn what I did into a thirty-minute set. So I found through friends someone to play keyboards, electric guitar and bass, and we played The Viper Room. After that, I started playing at Largo, which is this cool comedy club here in Los Angeles, and that’s when Tenacious D was just starting to take off, and Zach Galifianakis and Sarah Silverman were always there. From there, I played Largo for about a year before I even added backup singers, because I got to a point where the songs I was choosing needed harmonies, so I found two people to sing backup. After that, we just started putting any bad, ridiculous choreography I could remember from stupid ‘80s videos. So that’s probably how The Dan Band got started, with me just making fun of it all.
NT: You said you originally were singing songs by female artists for comedic effect. When did you have the simple brilliance, and I use those words on purpose, to add swearing? Was alcohol involved?
DF: I always swear anyway, which is a big joke with my friends. I was brought up a strict Catholic, and I couldn’t even literally do variations of swear words, because if it was even implied that I was trying to swear I wasn’t allowed to say it. So the minute my parents dropped me off at Emerson, as they pulled away I got Tourettes and was just like: “FUUUUUUCK!” Which is a good lesson to parents to not be so intense with your kids, because they’ll end up doing what you didn’t want them to do, but in front of the world. [Laughs]
NT: Like the Catholic girls who are so repressed at home that when they get to college they explode onto men.
DF: Exactly. [Laughs] Exactly. The swearing was really just like a little, rhythmic interjection. I’d play just a little personal game, just to see if I could fit “motherfucker” somewhere in the lyric. Todd Phillips, the director of Old School, came to see me, and he basically said, “I have this scene where I need a wedding singer; what songs are you working on?” And I was working on Total Eclipse of the Heart, to put into my show, and Private Dancer, by Tina Turner, and Todd liked both of those ideas. I went to do the scratch vocal, pre-recording, in the studio, and I started singing Total Eclipse. I didn’t think I was allowed to swear, so I was just singing it straight. Todd stopped me like one verse in, asking, “Dude, are you going to swear, like you do in your show?” I was like, “Are you kidding? I can swear?” He said, “Yeah! Go crazy!” And I just said, “Buckle up, motherfucker!” [Laughs]
NT: You’re like psychic; whenever I ask you one question, you answer it, and then another question I have before I can get to it; Todd Phillips discovering you was something you knew would come up. Before that you talked about ‘80s choreography, which was something else I was going to talk about, specifically involving the video for Please Don’t Bomb Nobody This Holiday. Did you put the celebrities in that for fun, or was it an obvious throwback to We Are the World type songs and videos?
DF: I wrote that Christmas album two years ago. Originally they wanted me to do all covers of Christmas songs, because that’s what Christmas albums are, covers of classic songs. But all I ever do is cover songs, so I wanted to write my own this time, which, I don’t know how good an idea that was, because at the end of the day everyone just wants to hear fucking Jingle Bells [laughs]. I definitely wanted to write a We Are the World kind of plea, and mine is so stupid, too, because it’s saying you can bomb people the rest of the year, just take the one day off. Everyone who was in the video has seen my show at one time or another, so I knew there was remotely some good will. It was so ghetto, the way we shot it; I ordered a screen and two lights online, and we just went to their house and pop up this screen, and you could see in their eyes they didn’t realize how low rent this was going to be. I mean, the playback of the song was through my iphone, so they would put on headphones, which were just hooked up to my phone that I was holding in my hand. They would look at me like, “Seriously, this is it?” [Laughs] But it was a lot of fun, I mean, getting to hang with Christopher Guest, who is like a personal idol of mine, what with his mix of comedy and music, with Spinal Tap and Guffman—it was just a lot of fun.
NT: Let me toss an oddball question out there: while I make no judgment on your relationship, when your wife [actress Kathy Najimy] was named Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine, aside from the obvious pride you must have felt, did you sort of stand there, feeling, “So my wife is Woman of the Year, and I put the word ‘fuck’ into popular songs”?
DF: [Excitedly] Oh, she reminds me of that every day. I mean, the other day at my show, on Saturday, I referred to her as “My Ho.” She was in the audience, and I just tossed out, “I want to thank my ho Kathy,” and afterwards someone was like, “Yup, Ms. Magazine woman of the year, and you’ve reduced her to your ho.” The irony is insane. What’s even crazier is: Gloria Steinem officiated our wedding, so half of my friends are sitting at our wedding saying, “What the hell?” I mean, I did feel unworthy, that there were people more deserving of having the distinct honor of Gloria Steinem at their wedding. Kathy certainly deserved it, and I kind of coat-tailed on there. [Laughs] There was one great moment at one of my shows early on at Largo when Gloria walked in just as I was starting the song Gloria, by Laura Branigan. People in the crowd were like, “WOW, Dan’s got it together, having Gloria Steinem enter during Gloria.”
NT: When all it was, was a happy accident. Nice. I looked at your tour schedule, and it’s a healthy mix of colleges and stand-alone theaters; which do you prefer?
DF: There’s definitely a demographic I attract, and it’s guys who looked like me at different ages and weights. Like, I’ll look at a guy and think, “That’s what I looked like ten years and ten pounds ago,” and then I’ll see another guy and think, “That’s what I’ll look like twenty pounds from now.” And then there’s the Old School and Hangover crowds, who see me in those movies. But what’s funny is I did this one-hour special that was produced by Steven Spielberg and was directed by McG, which was awesome. But then it ended up airing on Bravo, which maybe wasn’t so awesome, [Laughs] because that wasn’t like the perfect demo for us. What’s funny, then, is you could tell in the audience who had seen the show on Bravo. And then I did The Jay Leno show, which was a whole new demographic, and yeah, you could just see who in the audience knew what they were getting into, and who maybe didn’t.
NT: Ok, one last, stupid question: When do you think Inside the Actor’s Studio jumped the shark, Martin Lawrence or Bon Jovi?
DF: [Laughs] Bon Jovi.