Chris Elliott has had a long, storied career in film and television playing oddballs, jerks, and weirdos. There’s Chris Peterson, the 30-year-old paperboy in the cult favorite television series Get A Life. Larry, the awkward and aloof cameraman in Groundhog Day. There’s Woogie, the creepy and increasingly disgusting suitor in There’s Something About Mary. There’s Nathaniel Mayweather, the emotionally stunted seaman in Cabin Boy. And there’s Chris Monsanto, the eccentric U.S. Marshal in Adult Swim’s Eagleheart. But Elliott’s most recent role as an English professor in Marc Lawrence’s The Rewrite, starring Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei, J.K. Simmons, and Allison Janney, displays an actor who can deftly pull back from a goofier reputation to perform with subtlety and quiet confidence. I spoke with the actor and comedian about his new movie role, his dream job working with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on Schitt’s Creek, the nature of mentorship, David Letterman, and how television has changed over the past three decades.
What drew you to The Rewrite and specifically to this role?
The writer and director, Marc Lawrence, I had worked with previously many years ago. We had struck up a friendship and always wanted to work together again, and never did. Although I auditioned for this role, I think he initially wrote it with me in mind, And in this romantic comedy with Hugh Grant, I seemed to speak to it right away. It’s definitely something I had not done until this moment in my history and career. The role was basically, because Marc wrote it, an easy fit for me.
I think you played it beautifully. This character comes across as very earnest and very kind.
Oh, thank you!
Thinking about some of the roles that you’re mostly known for, it seems like a small departure from this series of smug jerks you’ve played in the past: like Larry in Groundhog Day or Woogie in There’s Something About Mary. How was that process of preparing different this time?
I think I spent the last five years of my career trying to tone down what it is I do, because I’m 54 now, and I made my bones really in television doing this kind of man-child character. The older I get, the less palatable that persona is, even though it’s still very comfortable for me to do. This was nice just to not have that pressure on, to try to be that guy. I could just sit into this role and act. I’ve never really considered myself an actor before; I’ve always considered myself just this goofy personality that some people enjoy. It’s fun to actually start to act now, the older I get.
It totally comes across. Your performance is quite understated, and works within the ensemble.
I love the movie. I actually did a couple of interviews, which was stupid on my part, before I had actually seen the movie. And then I saw the movie, and, I mean, the only reason it was unfortunate is because my memory isn’t all that it was, and I couldn’t remember everything I did in the movie. But watching it—not me, I hate watching myself—but the movie, I think, is a great movie. It’s really character-driven, and I think Hugh Grant is great, and Marisa Tomei is great, and J.K. Simmons is amazing to watch.
Absolutely, the ensemble is incredible.
And all the kids are great. It’s just one of those movies that you’re watching actors actually act and listening to the writing. And it’s a movie about writing, so I guess that’s a success that you come away feeling that way. It’s rare, I think, it’s a throwback to a 70s movie or a foreign film to me. It’s about real people and you’re just watching them go through these moments during the day. It’s very close to reality, almost like a documentary in a way.
I’m getting my Ph.D. right now and the fact that this movie centers on mentorship, inspiration, and creativity taught through teaching and instruction—that resonated with me in this career path.
Yeah, I think it does with everybody. And the theme of “when can you start over?” or “when can you do what you thought you were going to be passionate about?” Those are questions I’m asking myself, and I think everyone goes through that. The ultimate question is also about talent, and where does that come from. Can it be taught? Or can it just be practiced into existence? I think it hits on all those questions that, no matter what career, what business, what you do for a living, everyone asks themselves.
This question of how some skills can be taught through inspiration and teaching, versus someone possessing raw talent, is so interesting. Have there been any specific individuals over the course of your career that have been particularly important teachers for you in learning how to express yourself?
David Letterman is the first person that comes to mind. I was hired by him when I was 21, and he was essentially— I didn’t go to college, and he was essentially my mentor and my teacher. Not that he ever acted that way, but looking back on it now, anything I learned in this business (or a lot of what I learned), came from him. It was basically because he opened me up to let myself be myself and be the goofy guy up in the office on television, instead of trying to fit in with what people expected from an actor or from a comic actor or a writer, which is what I was for him, he impressed—it sounds cliché—but he made me realize I could just be myself. That’s what I’ve tried to do for most of my career. I’ve certainly done things for money, but in general, I’ve tried to stay true to what I do.
Letterman has been such a fixture in the late night scene for the past several decades. Do any memories stick out from your early years there?
I just did my last appearance on his show, and it did get me thinking about all those years, and the fact that I met my wife at that show, I got my own TV show [Get A Life] because of that show—ultimately, because of Dave. Anything wonderful in my life, right now, in some way can be traced back to my association with him. It isn’t like one memory that jumps out at me. Those were my college years, those were my first job years. The time that I spent working for him influenced me so much, and it still does. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t remind myself that he essentially created me. It’s hard to pick out one moment. I had so much fun there. I was allowed to do anything I wanted, really, up in the offices and on television.
I look back on working for Dave, and I know it wasn’t something I took for granted at the time. I knew those were some of the best times of my life. Waking up with my wife who worked at Letterman also, walking through Central Park and going to 30 Rock, and getting to be on a really great, funny TV show once a week, going out to dinner in Manhattan and going home—those were just magical memories.
It sounds like such a meaningful experience.
It’s strange to think that he’s going to be off the air. The whole landscape, the whole culture is going to feel like there’s a void. I don’t know if people will be able to articulate it. I think people now just take for granted, “Dave Letterman’s there, he’s on the air.” Even just walking in New York, where I was raised, down the street, I would go recently months without doing a guest appearance on the show, but still I knew in the back of my mind that, “Oh, Dave’s there, the crew’s there rehearsing and getting ready for the show.” That was always there. But that’s not going to be there anymore in my head walking around New York City. That’s going to be an alien feeling. I guess it’ll feel like, when I was a kid, before he came on the air.
The late night comedy landscape is changing so drastically this year, between Letterman leaving, Craig Ferguson leaving, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. This is a huge question, but what do you think will change about the late night comedy scene without these stalwarts of comedy?
I don’t know, I really don’t. The change, I think, has happened already—somewhat gradually with certain people taking over certain jobs. I don’t know how the comedy will change, or what the style will be. I do know that so much of what’s on right now, a lot is owed to Dave for what he created. I’m sure these guys will create their own voices and there will be another generation talking like I’m talking thirty years from now about working for Stephen Colbert. How it’s going to change, I couldn’t tell you.
You are a true veteran of the television comedy scene, between your work on Letterman, Get A Life, SNL, and Eagleheart and Schitt’s Creek. In your experience, do you have a broad view about how working in comedy on television has changed over the past thirty years? What was it like working in television in the 1980s that differs from today?
Well, the difference I think is the Internet and cable and the amount of venues that are out there, and forums for people to be funny on and to do shows on—and not just little monologues, to actually be on. Schitt’s Creek is on a network called Pop. There are so many places now to do things. When I was working for David Letterman and doing my once a week bit, nobody else was really doing that. It was very easy to stand out back then and to have people watch you. You didn’t have a lot of competition.
On the one hand, it’s really great that there are so many venues now for young comedians and actors to try their stuff. On the other hand, it’s harder to be noticed. Back in the 1980s, if something in the news happened and I wanted to do a parody of it on Letterman, I had a couple of days to think about it and write it up. Something happens now, and somebody’s created something brilliant about it on the Internet right away. The immediacy is different. Comedy is much more immediate now and you really have to jump on things now. You didn’t have to back then.
It seems like it could pose a challenge for anyone trying to create a really polished product. Do you find it’s also liberating to have all these channels and opportunities to do something a little weirder?
Absolutely. Eagleheart would never have survived on network television, and Schitt’s Creek wouldn’t either, and not just because of its name, but because of the style of show that it is. The constraints of what network television is aren’t there when you’re working in cable. Like anywhere, there are certain creative restrictions, but in general, it’s much more open to experimental stuff, or stuff that would be experimental when there were only three networks.
I’d like to ask a bit about Schitt’s Creek. It’s a great name, first of all.
It’s cathartic to say the name, really.
Absolutely. How’s the show been going in its beginning stages?
I’ve been having a great time doing it. I’m going up to Canada to shoot another season. I’m working with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. I’m still starstruck in this business, and they were always heroes of mine. SCTV was a big influence on me when I was a kid. It’s really fun to be working with these guys. It’s really fun to, in between takes, to joke around with them. I have to pinch myself that Eugene Levy’s coming up to me and joking with me, Catherine O’Hara wants to play with me between takes and improvise with me. I’m still in shock about working with these people.
It sounds incredible.
They’re brilliant. Eugene’s son, Dan Levy, is really, really funny. He co-created the show with Eugene. This was one of those things where over a year ago, I got a call out of the blue from Eugene asking if I wanted to do a presentation that they were doing for a small pilot that they had an idea for. Of course I said yes to it. That’s the thing about this business, and I’m going to sound like an old man now, but you can go for a long time with nothing happening or nothing really good happening, and then out of the blue something great happens. That’s the only advice I ever gave my kids. That’s the good side of this business: something great is around the corner and you don’t know about it until you wake up and somebody calls. It’s not a business where you necessarily climb a ladder of success. You climb, and then you go back down, and you start climbing again. It is a business where really cool things happen out of the blue.
What’s next for you? Are there any new projects that you’re aching to get involved in?
I’m going to do this other season on Schitt’s Creek and then see what’s next for me. I do like transitioning into acting a little bit more. It’s not like I want to do anything heavy. But it’s so good to hear you say I’m somewhat believable in The Rewrite, because I did go through a period in my career where I was so known for being so goofy that people didn’t necessarily want me popping up in their movies because it sucked people out of the reality of it. If I move into a stage now where a younger audience isn’t as familiar with me or doesn’t have an association with me as totally off-the-wall and crazy, and they can, like yourself, buy me in a serious role, those are the things I’ll probably pursue more.