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John Ennis Talks About His Journey in Comedy

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Hollywood has launched a thousand careers, and among them are the many extremely talented character actors and comedians we've watched for years and whose nuanced performances knock us on our asses every time we see them. Just the sight of them elicits responses like, "Hey, I love that guy! Wasn't he in that one movie? You know the one. What is that guy's name?" They're the bit players, the minor characters, the people who give performances that sometimes outshine those of the people whose names go above the title. They're the unsung heroes of Hollywood, and we thought it was high time they were given the attention they deserve.

John Ennis is well-known to some as one of the stars of the legendary HBO comedy series "Mr. Show" and has been a ubiquitous presence on TV and in movies ever since. He has appeared on "Malcolm In the Middle," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and "Arrested Development," as well as the films Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Zodiac, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, and many more.

Steve Karas: Let's start with the basics. Where did you grow up?

John Ennis: I grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Needham, Mass and went to school in Boston at Emerson College.

Were you doing stand-up at first?

I never did a lot of stand-up but I was in sketch comedy from a very early age. At Emerson I was in a great comedy group called This is Pathetic with David Cross. There were a lot of other people in that group, including Laura Kightlinger, Mike Bent, Howard Horvath, Joe Murphy and Doug Frisby. We kind of thought we were the Beatles of sketch comedy.

Did everyone else think you guys were the Beatles of sketch comedy?

At Emerson, yes, but once the college experience was over I realized very quickly that my life was essentially, "Yes, ma'am, hold on one second I forgot your blue-cheese dressing." After college, David Cross and I were in a comedy troupe called The Kids You Used to Hate. When David became a regular in Boston at Catch a Rising Star with his Cross Comedy show, I was a part of that.

Having worked with David Cross since college, were you a part of the original Bob and David shows -- which ultimately became "Mr. Show"?

Yes. But the show then was called Three Goofballz which included Brian Posehn, a legendary comedian named Jeremy Kramer, and Molly Shannon. Jack Black and Kyle Gass from Tenacious D were also in that show. I used to introduce Tenacious D and pretend they were my nephews. It was a strong troupe and I was in every one of those shows.

How did "Mr. Show" come about?

Well, Bob and David first became very close from having worked together on The Ben Stiller Show. David was brought in as a writer -- he wrote on some pieces with Bob and they became very close and realized they were good together. They just started writing sketch shows.
In the mid-'90s we brought Three Goofballz to the Diamond Club in Hollywood. The audience was just built of other comedians and we were really just trying to make each other laugh. It was a blast.

When HBO decided to get behind the show, how involved were they with the creative process? Did the guys have free reign to do whatever they wanted?

In the beginning HBO definitely told them which cast members had to go and there were things like that. But, there were some really great people at HBO who realized that Bob and David doing their own thing is better than the network trying to control it. So, while people like Carolyn Strauss at HBO would give them very good notes, they really allowed the show to evolve.

In a nutshell, describe your experience on "Mr. Show."

I was just always aware that I was given this opportunity to work with these great minds. I really respected Bob and David as well as the great group of people writing on that show. When we would go in for read-throughs (to see what the writers came up with) I'd always be laughing really hard, howling, and thinking "God, this is what we're doing?" It was always so exciting.

Did HBO eventually cancel "Mr. Show"?

No, they offered us another season but moved us from Friday nights (which we loved) to Monday night. Now, today I think anybody would be happy to have a Monday night on HBO. But at the time, cable deals weren't even in place, so we were all getting paid very little. That didn't bother Bob and David too much. Their objective was to do their thing and get the product out there. But it was devastating. Bob and David were rightfully full of themselves in feeling that they were strong in what they do and naturally upset being moved. That was really what made them step away from it and not do it anymore. But HBO did offer us another season, it wasn't cancelled.

Well, as it turned out the show went out on its best season so it's good for the legacy I suppose. Is the former cast of "Mr. Show" still tight knit? Do you keep in touch?

I just did a film for Bob. He's a great director, great to work with, and a great creator. I was in Vancouver a few months back with David at the Vancouver Comedy Festival and it was amazing, just hanging out together. I don't get to see him too often but he's been great to my daughter, Jessie Ennis, who just won best comedic storytelling at Sundance this past year for The Arm, and is a permanent blogger on The Huffington Post.

Wow, you must be enormously proud of Jessie. Did you encourage her to get into show business?

When I literally held Jessie for the first time I said, "She's going to direct me some day" and when she did she won at Sundance. I am so proud of her.

What were some of the shows you grew up on that made you want to get into comedy?

Well, I loved Monty Python. I loved "The Carol Burnett Show," but I watch it now and the back-up players are so bad that I can't imagine why I let that fly. Lyle Wagner was like a steward from an airplane who got cast on that show. I also loved "Sonny and Cher"; it was something I watched with my mom, along with "Soap" and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." And laughing with my mom at something was my favorite thing in life. It meant she wasn't going to hit me. Also "Cheech and Chong" -- not because pot is so good for you but because at the time I really felt they were funny in a way that I'd never seen before. That was what made me want to be in comedy -- seeing how much fun these people were having making people laugh.

We can't think of anyone from "Mr. Show" that didn't go on to do great things. Was Tom Kenny already the voice of Sponge Bob?

He got Sponge Bob towards the end of "Mr. Show." I love Tom Kenny. His wife Jill Talley (another "Mr. Show" alumnus) might be the best comedic performer I've ever seen. To me, she's going to emerge and have her own show someday and when she does, I'll play the mailman that drops stuff off just so I could be a part of it. Like Tom, I think she's a genius.

So, what's next on the horizon for you?

I'm directing something now called "Celebrity Buzz" with some great people attached, like producer(s) John Cameron (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, Lars and the Real Girl) and Clinton Trucks. The Kids in The Hall's Dave Foley will be in the cast. I also have a comedy show called Love Buckets. All the skits and songs are about love. That's the only thing we're willing to explore and it's so much fun. Our most recent special guest was Dave Foley. My daughter and I perform a bit in the show as well.

Sounds like you have a lot of stuff going on.

I'm also doing the Dana Gould Hour. Dana and I had been on an HBO Young Comedians Special called "Campus Comedy" when we were 17-years-old, and I've known him ever since. We've always been friends. Dana has a very funny podcast. Tom Kenny does the announcements. Dana and I play these two characters from Boston who start their conversation with a statement about politics and then it devolves into something that has nothing to do with politics. For example, one of us might say, "What's up with this Mitt Romney?" and the other will reply, "I used to date a girl that worked at that bank."

Do you think Romney has a good reputation among those who live in Boston?

No, not so much. He's bragging about the fact that he balanced the budget. It's the law in Massachusetts to balance the budget. The fact that he's bragging about it is funny.

I saw some recent photos of you on Facebook and its astonishing how much weight you have lost.

I've lost 100 pounds.

How did you do it?

I walked every day and would drink wheat grass in the morning, eat a handful of nuts at lunch and drink Yerba Mate. But really, I just walked and walked, trying to walk towards the new me. I still haven't found him.

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