INTERVIEWS

Rick Overton: The Gentlemanly Comic

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GROUNDHOG-DAY-SCREENINGIf you have ever been lucky enough to come to Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park and see Rick Overton and Robin Williams come on stage and do some improv, you know the raw excitement of seeing creative genius at work. Overton was one of the first comics to break into the cable networks foray into stand-up comedy, but you might know him as an actor in such films as: Groundhog Day or Willow or perhaps as The Drake on Seinfield or Mr. Beesly on The Office. Rick Overton is a true comic talent whose good natured personality can be seen in this exclusive SUSC interview where he asks questions as well as gives us some of his personal time.

 

DNA: Hey, Rick!

Rick Overton: Sorry, ran into somebody I didn’t expect at The Eatery and got hung up.

Not a problem at all man, thanks for giving me some time to pester you.

Oh no, if I can be of any help, I would be glad.

Let me stretch your mind a little bit. My first question is about back in high school when you started your first comedy duo. Were you inspired by other duos like Burns and Schreiber?

Yeah, a little bit, but we didn’t use their timing as much as Bob and Ray and absurdism. Then a little bit of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In thrown in, and some Jonathan Winters thrown in and a little later (Monty) Python added. I have always been a fan of absurdism and got more into the social relevance stuff later with maybe a dash of Firesign Theatre—but a lot of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. But that wasn’t so much sketch and team things—but we did find a way to let a little bit of that (social relevance) seep into our act. And then of course there was Cheech and Chong. But they came a little later. We had already been performing our routine before we had ever heard of them.

When you started with your duo did you perform at The Improv in New York City?

I wanted to go to The Improv but I wasn’t old enough. My Dad took me there a couple of times and I would hang with him, but I wasn’t getting up there yet. But I got a seed planted in my head that was what I wanted to do. I would work the act at school assemblies and later at a coffee house in Allendale, NJ, a coffee house called The Grotto.

I’m a NJ boy myself.

Then you know where Allendale is, up north, near Weehawken. Where were you from?

My family lived in Newark from 1890 to 1965.

Wow.

In the early 1970s, you were probably already seeing people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor perform. Were they already your heroes?

Amongst others: Dick Van Dyke was an earlier hero, Jonathan Winter and Peter Sellers were earlier heroes—as well as Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby.

When did you first perform at The Improv?

I was in my second duo by the time I made it to the Improv. My first duo was with a guy named Tonn, short for Anthony. Tonn Pastore. He got into sales and ended up in Florida—it wasn’t really paying as well to be a comic (laughter). So I get what he did. He’s now one of the top guys, he hung into the game. He’s very funny and he always posts on my Facebook page—he’s a good guy.

I then broke up with Tonn and I wasn’t ready to quit comedy, so I had to find another partner. So my buddy Bill Spitz told me about Roger Sullivan—he was a wild guy, a Marty Feldman of America. Sullivan was brilliant and crazy haired, a genius—a real funny guy. So he and I did Overton & Sullivan for five years and we started working at The Improv—got in working right away there and at Catch (a Rising Star) right away. We were doing our stuff at The Grotto too. So by the time Roger and I were really rolling and getting regular spots, we were still artists. Quote, unquote, “artists” who don’t see much money. You can call yourself an artist when you don’t see much money.

But it keeps you honest!

Then the money comes in and suddenly it goes from “We are one for all and all for one,” to “whose premise is more important, then to whose punch line is more important and whose car it is that drives to gigs and who pays for the gas.” Like a marriage it becomes ruined. It’s tough cutting a check up for a team. If each partner doesn’t feel the other is doing the exact 50%, it gets a lot of resentment going. It’s just the nature of certain things, you grow, you change and you move on. It’s an amalgam of things. Then suddenly I was on my own. The Improv was very cool keeping me in the fold without my partner which was terrifying to me at first. To be completely honest I was scared to death that I couldn’t cut it. I got a few laughs, had a few more, had some up shows and had some down shows—but that’s going to happen.

It happened to me last night.

Where were you?

At a local open mic.

Where do you go?

In Santa Cruz there’s currently like 7 mics a week I could hit, if I’m too lazy to go to SF.

Is it a solid steady scene in Santa Cruz, or intermittent work?

It’s blossomed in the last year, but of course we have the Crows Nest that Jon Fox has been booking for 30 years.

Ah, yeah, Jon Fox—I’ve known him for a little longer than that.

We’ve always been an outermost spoke on the Bay Area comedy hub.

I see.

So you’re a rising star at The Improv and the Catch, what was your decision to move west?

Chris Albrecht, who was the manager at The Improv, and a friend of mine, became an agent at ICM (International Creative Management). He was moving west and recommended that I go there and start getting some acting work—from some of his clients. And some stand-up work, as well, and that was at the beginning of the comedy boom. There were more clubs then comics, it was like the RAF at The Battle of Britain. They had more spitfire than teenagers they could stuff into the cockpit—more rooms then comics, more slots then comedians if you could even begin to imagine that ratio equation. I cannot picture it anymore and I was there! It was so surreal, pre-flood.

Who were your contemporaries that you were performing with when you first started on the West Coast?

Greg Travis, Denny Johnston, Carol Leifer, John DeBellis and Larry David—actually he moved out a little later. I started with Larry in New York. Richard Belzer would come out and do spots, Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman would do spots—before he passed in 84. Lots of people, Paul Rodriguez. . .

Did you go on the road, or were you trying to stay local for acting gigs?

One always interfered with the other for obvious reasons. You have to be around to audition and lose the money that you could have made that week, guaranteed for doing a stand-up spot—or gamble that if you stayed that you would even get the acting spot. It turned out I was starting to do more acting. I really didn’t start rolling into acting until 80-84, that’s when it started to pick up. Before that I was just doing stand-up.

What was your connection Second City?

The Second City Alumni at The Upfront Theatre in Santa Monica. I didn’t go through the classes. I did study with J.J. Barry and Martin Harvey Friedberg in NY back in the 70s. They were former Second City people. So I studied with people who were Second City, but I was never a traditional student. I got accepted into the alumni because I know how to play the different games—but I didn’t go through all the things they went through. To this day I still have fun learning about a new game that maybe I should have known about a long time ago—but that I’m happy to know about now when I go to do it. I worked with Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris. Ryan Stiles would come, hang out and play and Colin Mochrie would show up.

Do you find more freedom doing improv then with your stand-up act?

They both have slightly different rules. In improv you have to be much more open to sharing your time on stage or you’re not a very good improv-ist. If you’re crushing everybody else out of the scene and you say, “Too bad for you,” you’ll be done soon. Improv is about absolute, listening, openness and cooperation and those are things that stand-up is not known for. But it’s awfully good training. A comic is adversarial, and no matter what you throw at them they play an opposite game where they will not do what you want them to do. But that doesn’t always work in improv. When an improv-er is standing next to you and they throw out something you have to go “Yes, and,” or you have displaced the system.

 

Were you part of the comedy strike at The Comedy Store in LA?

I was in New York and I read about the strike and was behind it. We had a sit down with the clubs in New York—and they began to give us a little pay to show solidarity. But back then, if you had a roommate, which I did, there was cheap rent. That seems like another planet now. It’s like science fiction to think about cheap rent in New York. It was a great place to live if you didn’t mind dodging a little lead.

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Interviews
03/31/2014

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