Many comedians, much like musicians, seem to move solely in two ways: soaring upward or plunging downward. This may be a somewhat caustic observation, but these same artists are frequently at the mercy of both the gnat-like attention span of the public and the commerce-driven flavors being relentlessly fed to audiences by self-appointed industry tastemakers.
But there is a middle ground in this scenario which is, in fact, the norm statistically, not the exception. After accruing a fair amount of attention, their careers recede, public focus turns to the next breed, and either through circumstance or expiration dates mandated by the entertainment biz, they are left to their own devices.
Many of these very same creatives are, in some ways, freed up from this career shift. They ignore these impasses, redirecting their ideas and innovations toward projects that are more rewarding to them and, by extension, their audiences.
Case in point: Jamie Kennedy.
A native of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Kennedy’s first high-visibility was with 1996’s Scream, as well as starring in its subsequent franchises. In ’02, he moved to the small screen with The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, his aggressive take on the Candid Camera-style format, for which he combined comedy sketches driven by hidden-camera pranks aimed at unsuspecting victims, culminating with the big reveal-tagline, “You’ve Been ‘X’-ed!” Experiment benefitted from Kennedy’s chameleon-like disguises, along with a good-natured sense of pranksterism that was never malicious. When Ashton Kutcher ripped off Kennedy’s format with MTV’s Punk’d, he lacked both the humor and blue-collar vibe of Kennedy’s ideas, since Kutcher’s “victims” were all then-trendy celebs. Malibu’s Most Wanted (2003) kept Kennedy in the spotlight, with its tale of rich white boy Bradley “B-Rad” Gluckman (Kennedy), and his attempts to lie, worm, and hustle his way into the hip-hop scene.
In his film projects, Kennedy’s ideas are usually driven by social commentary — but some seemed to have difficulty translating well into the finished project. His documentary Heckler (2007) explored standup comedians’ ongoing (and surely unwanted) relationship with hecklers. Onscreen interviewees were from a wide spectrum of notables, from Maria Bamford and Paul F. Tompkins to George Wallace and Christopher Hitchens. The mainstream reviews were hot-and-cold, but Kennedy gets props for recounting an under-documented phenomenon on screen which includes some hilarious comedian-to-heckler retaliations. Like many of his peers, Kennedy’s standup material is perpetually written, re-edited, and reconfigured, at times still in flux as he walks onstage to grab the mic. And he can still boast a loyal fanbase who flock to his concerts. In recent years, Kennedy has focused on more dramatic roles, including the supernatural series Ghost Whisperer and most recently, NBC’s medical drama, Heartbeat.
To be blunt, Kennedy is rarely the critics’ darling. He’s been nominated for, and won, both Stinkers Bad Movie or Razzies Awards, a weird sort of anti-accolade trophy case. In the media, he’s been described as a kind of adolescent holdover; others praise him as a quick-witted subversive. But keeping with the earlier comedian-musician parallel, two of the greatest bands in rock history — Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath — were commonly brutalized by the music press in their ’70s peaks. And while few might remember the top critic faves of 1971, countless people immediately recognize the protean blues-metal of Led Zep’s “Black Dog” within seconds of its gnarling riff. Is Kennedy the Jimmy Page of comedy? No. Is he a misunderstood genius? I can’t make that case. But his ongoing efforts at staying in the game are, at the very least, commendable, and his resistance to fade away into has-been-ville is based on tenacity and talent rather than late-career lucky breaks.
Kennedy spoke to Folio Weekly Magazine from New Orleans, where he was enjoying some downtime between gigs. We riffed on the shift to drama, dealing with the haters, and moving forward.
Folio Weekly Magazine: You’re swinging back through Jacksonville to perform at The Comedy Zone again. How were your gigs here in the past?
Jamie Kennedy: Yeah, man, at the Radisson … uh, no, the Ramada. That’s right; it’s right behind the Whole Foods. [Laughs.] It’s cool, man. That guy runs one of the tightest clubs in the country. It’s in a little hotel but it’s an amazing room, it’s very intimate, and it’s usually packed out. That’s a great crowd, man.
Currently, you’re focusing on TV drama, but for years, you were known as this wiseass comedian. When you shifted over to drama, were you concerned your comedic notoriety would work against you and “typecast” you out of that move — that audiences wouldn’t find this believable?
Yeah. That’s a very good observation and I think at times that happens. Because I kind of am a “thing,” you know; like “Jamie Kennedy.” As much as I was an actor before, once I did the show [Experiment] and Malibu, I became, like, a “thing.” Even when people would talk to me, “What’s up, ‘Jamie Kennedy’?” Almost like I was everybody’s neighbor. So I don’t know, that’s what I’m kind of struggling with right now, to be honest with you: Am I going to remain “Jamie Kennedy” or morph into different roles? And we’ll see. But I think it was a good opportunity and [Heartbeat]’s a good show. I really just think you need to try and do something bigger than the last thing that you did, and hopefully people will adjust and see you as that.
It seems as if, with any type of artist, unless you’re just a delusional narcissist, there’s already this internal voice that says, “You’re a piece of shit. This idea sucks.” Then you get some kind of acclaim and there are people who make a living to tell you in print, “This is shit, you suck.” Does that affect you much?
No, man, Heckler was really all about that. But those things definitely affect me. I spent a year from the time I pitched Malibu’s Most Wanted to the time we shot it, to the time it came out … I mean, we spent more than a year writing the script, begging the studio for money, working with marketing, trying to get the jokes in, going to little cities and doing mall appearances; whatever we can so people can see this little thing we created. And at the screenings, the people really, really liked it. And the first review was The Boston Globe: “This underwhelming, wannabe piece of … ” [Laughs.] And I was, like, “What?! I just spent a fucking year of my life, you fucking jerk, cretin.” This dude probably never leaves his house.
I did an interview once with David Wild from Rolling Stone, and also Bill Carter from The New York Times. Different guys like that have given me nice props. And then I get some dude from WaffleMovies.com shitting all over me. How the fuck did this guy get to the top of my Google SEO? Some people just have to get attention.
With standup in particular, if it’s really on and the comedian is just riffing, it seems like there’s a strong chance of losing the crowd. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth once said something to the effect of, “Beware of any band that’s good every night.” I think that’s totally true with comedy as well.
Dude, that’s so awesome and absolutely true. There are times when I have a show, like the other night I did bad, you know? And I bombed. The people were pretty cool about it. I was trying something, and I think it pretty much sucked [Laughs] but the audience seemed to roll with it. I don’t know, does Kevin Durant hit 30 points a night? I sure don’t. But I’d like to think people understand it. With standup, you’re not always getting a “show.” I might be in my head riffing on something new right when I pick up that mic.