"I got into this business wanting to be Robert DeNiro or Christopher Walken or Al Pacino. I mean, I thought I was going to be the great dramatic actor. The problem is I'm just not that deep and I'm not that masochistic."
– Bryan Callen
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Bryan.
Bryan Callen: Yes, sir! What's up, buddy?
GM: Not much. Where are you?
BC: I'm sitting here in Los Angeles. I've got a pair of very tight jeans on and I don't have a shirt on so just get ahold of yourself. I'm in the sunshine. I have a sallow quality to my skin so I'm trying to get some kind of a tan. I don't tan properly.
GM: But you live there.
BC: I live in L.A.
GM: So why don't you have a proper tan already?
BC: I don't know. I just can't. I mean, laying in the sun... I'm too neurotic. I'm too busy. That's how it is.
GM: It's perfectly grey and rainy here, as you're probably well aware.
BC: Well, I think that grey and rainy always breeds better character. Somehow when you're in the sunshine all day, you can kind of be brain dead and get away with it. I always find that people from grey, kinda shitty climates are more interesting to be around. I don't know if they're more fun to be around, but they're certainly more interesting.
GM: How many times have you played the MIX in Vancouver?
BC: I think this is going to be the third time. And I love it. I love performing in Canada. I don't know what it is. It's so interesting because I go to Minnesota and it's a northern place with lots of white people and they're just a very staid group of people. I don't know if it's that Germanic, Scandinavian discipline where they don't drink that much, they laugh but it's a measured laughter. They're just a conservative group in some ways. And I go to Canada and they're the biggest comedy fans in the world. It's the craziest thing. You can get away with anything. You can be as esoteric as you want and they go with you. I just love it.
GM: Is that true across Canada? How many places have you played?
BC: I have played in Winnipeg, I've played in Calgary, and I've never had an experience that was any different. It's always been fantastic. There are two places in the world that have the best crowds. One is Miami and the other is anywhere in Canada. And I stand by that after doing comedy for as long as I've been doing it.
GM: I always heard the ACME Comedy Club was one of the best.
BC: Yeah, and they have the House of Comedy in the biggest mall in the world. And it's fine. Rick Bronson has a place in Edmonton and Edmonton is just oil fields and it's just incredible, man. They come out in droves and they come out not only to laugh, they buy all my merchandise! They buy my bad t-shirts. So I've now come up with better t-shirts because if I'm going to sell something, it's gotta be something I would wear.
GM: You didn't realize people were actually going to be buying them.
GM: So how long have you been doing standup?
BC: I've been doing standup, really, on the road now for about eight years. But I'd always been doing it. Before I got MADtv I was doing it. But it hasn't been really until the past eight years that I've considered myself a real road comic, a guy who's a national headliner. You know, that kind of thing. That's taken a while.
GM: That's what I didn't get, how you got to MADtv. You started doing standup and acting?
BC: It was really through being just an actor. I got into this business wanting to be Robert DeNiro or Christopher Walken or Al Pacino. I mean, I thought I was going to be the great dramatic actor. The problem is I'm just not that deep and I'm not that masochistic. I just wasn't willing to do... I don't know if I even had it, to be honest with you. But I was a better jackass. I've always wanted to be a brooding, deep, dark artist but I can never keep that façade going for more than 15 minutes. I don't have any inner pain, damn it. My parents were really nice to me. I remember once when I was like 20 I tried to walk around with a scowl. I was like, I smile too much. And I started frowning and I gave myself a headache. It just didn't work out.
GM: That's odd because a lot of standups come from dysfunctional families.
BC: Yeah, that's true. A lot of comics are fairly dark or they come from dysfunctional backgrounds. I think that my dysfunction came from the fact that I was moved around constantly. I was always thrown into a whole different... I went from country to country until I was 14. I moved every year or every two years. I think that when you're thrown into a whole new set of circumstances, you want to make friends and the way you make friends with guys is you make them laugh. Be good at sports and make them laugh. I was okay at sports but I was a better jackass.
GM: Reading your bio and all the places you lived as a kid, it sounds amazing. But I guess at the time you probably didn't want to keep moving. Was it like that for you?
BC: Yeah, I think it's traumatic in a way. I wouldn't trade it for the world but it was certainly a heartbreak. You have to say goodbye to your dog and you have to say goodbye to [cell phone cut out] and you're thrown not only into a different school but a different country, a different continent and a different language and a different culture. So I had to learn how to adapt very quickly. I got really good at that. I got really good at meeting new people and ingratiating myself very quickly. I think that's what I do for a living now. So in a great way it was a training ground for me. It's just funny how your life comes full circle. I remember, I travelled so much I never wanted to travel again. I said I'm never gonna travel. I think part of the reason, honestly, that I didn't do as well in film acting as I could have or I didn't get certain jobs was because I would go in the audition and subconsciously I knew that this film or whatever it might have been was shooting in somewhere like New Mexico or Namibia or whatever it was. I really think it got in the way of my auditions. I really think I kind of was like, 'I don't want to travel. I don't want to go away.' I think when I was 33, it was the first time in my life I'd ever put anything on a wall because I knew I was going to be there for a while. I didn't want to leave. But the irony is, of course, now I travel all the time for what I do so it's kind of come full circle. I have put myself into a position where I do what I had to do as a child. Here's a new set of circumstances, I'm in a hotel and I'm going to make you laugh. I'm going to figure out a way for you to like me. I love my job. It's just funny how now, at least, I have some control over it. I was a traveller, I was a nomad as a kid.
GM: Do you hold to that outside of your job now? Do you ever travel to exotic places? I know Minnesota and Vancouver are pretty exotic.
BC: No. I have the opportunity all the time. I don't care. Not interested. I went to all those places. I know those places. So when people say, 'Hey, we should go to India' or 'We should go to China,' nah, it's okay. Been there. You do that. I'm gonna hang out in the sun in California. It's funny, that's what it does to you.
GM: Do you have a favourite spot you lived in as a kid?
BC: Yeah, I think Lebanon. Lebanon was great. I had a great childhood. All of it was great. Pakistan I remember being amazing. The one thing you don't have, I think, when you're in a foreign land is you don't have security. I was in the war in Lebanon. We had to live in the Holiday Inn and my father couldn't get back in the country. There were certain things I remember [cell phone cut out]. You certainly didn't feel in control. [cell phone cut out] When we were in Lebanon, there were machine guns. You could see people with guns. You could hear planes. So for a little while, I don't think our lives were ever in danger really, but – and I don't want to sound too dramatic here – but certainly as a kid I didn't know how to put a lot of that into context. And then my parents kept that hidden from you. But you still pick up on that stuff. [cell phone cut out] ... here in this place, I look different than the population. I remember as a boy going to countries, whether it was Pakistan or wherever it was – I don't want to insult anybody's country – buy I grew up in the developing world. I remember very, very clearly, for example in Africa, being a kid in a van and watching droves of people come up and beg for money. And then I gave somebody my boxed lunch. I was on a safari in Africa. I put my boxed lunch in one of their hands and they fought over it. They literally fought over it. Now, that kind of stuff, what happens to you as a boy is you say wait a minute, why don't I ever have to worry about eating? I remember being in [cell phone cut out] Republic and seeing a bunch of orphans. Street kids. They were no older than nine, ten. And they were hungry. They were ferals from living on the street and having to fend for themselves, and they would band in groups, in little gangs. And I remember thinking to myself I didn't have to grow up this way. I'd been lucky. The math fell in my favour. Somehow I was born white in a [cell phone cut out] even though I know the reasons for that but they had nothing to do with me. It wasn't because I was a good person. It's just that I got lucky. So those are the kinds of things that nag at you as a boy. They cause you to ask questions and I suppose even create some kind of a political commitment or some kind of a philosophical commitment or at least a desire to figure out why. That, in that sense, is the dysfunction I'm talking about. It's a long round about way of saying it. That's the dysfunction I'm talking about that may have led me down the path of standup comedy.
GM: You talk about your good memories of Pakistan. How does that inform you when you see them in the news and how they're portrayed now?
BC: I wish that all Americans would have just one month abroad because what it would teach everyone is that there is no difference between Pakistanis, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli. There's no difference. Yes, yes, okay, the Afghanis can be tribal. Yes, in Waziristan if you're a woman it's probably not the best place for you to be. Yes, yes, yes. But if you actually get down to the nitty-gritty of the average Pakistani, the average Indian, the average whoever, what you really do know emotionally is that they're exactly the same. They think about things the way we think about things, they want a better life for their children, they want to be able to speak their mind, they want to have a say in who governs them. These kinds of things that we take for granted in our liberal democracies. But there's no difference. There isn't. Yes, there's tradition. Yes, there's religion. They have doubts about God, too. A lot of them are atheists, too. They're not religious. I don't care what anybody says. Look, human beings, I don't care who they are, they want their own sovereignity. If you try to pull a spoon out of a child's hand and that child wants that spoon, he's going to resist. It's human, man. It's human. By the way, one of the things I love about being a comic is when I come to a place like Vancouver, the number of people that come up to get a picture with me, I mean, it's the United Nations. It's all different kinds of faces and cultures. And that's what's such a [cell phone cut out]. I have a podcast that can reach so many people. And my standup, I mean, you're reaching people from all different kinds of cultures and ilks and creeds and races. It's fantastic.
GM: And you're wise enough to know that, too. You're not just playing to the one group that you belong to.
BC: When you grow up all over the world, you may look a certain way but you certainly don't feel like you belong to whatever that group is. I always have a much deeper affiliation for people I grew up around: Indians and Arabs and Iranians and Israelis or whoever they are. I find myself more at home with a bunch of Cubans than I do a bunch of Anglo-Saxons from Connecticut. I just do.
GM: Is that why you're given a pass from the Middle Easterners for playing one of them in movies?
BC: I think the reason I'm given the pass is because it's authentic. The character was fairly authentic. I hope. I've heard that from other people. The accent and the mannerisms, it's the people I grew up around. The friends I had. That guy from The Hangover, Eddie, is based on a real guy, a Jordanian named Fulsik (?). I think in that sense, if you're going to do a character, if they can sense that you're coming from a respectful but funny place, it's all good.
GM: When you got started on MADtv, did you know what you were getting into?
BC: I was just so excited and happy to be a working actor. Like, I didn't know if I was ever going to even get on TV. The first time you realize that you're going to be on TV, the first time you prove to yourself that you're actually talented enough in this impossible business to make a living, to make a paycheque, I was just still reeling over that. That was just incredible, man. I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'What?! I did it. At least I can say I did something.' Your biggest fear is that you're not going to do anything.
GM: You graduated in history or drama?
BC: No, history. I didn't study drama. I took a couple of acting classes.
GM: After graduating, did you get a job or did you immediately try to become an actor?
BC: I became a banker. I worked at Lehman Brothers, the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, for two years. I was trying to be a banker and make my father proud. (chuckles) Disaster.
GM: But it all worked out in the end.
BC: Yeah, it worked out in the end, man. I'm so excited about my next one-hour. I'm so excited about it. It's basically the best thing I've ever written. It's always a privilege. I can't believe I get to do this, again, for a living. Like, what?!
GM: Are we going to see that hour?
BC: Everything I'm doing this time around is completely different from what I did the last time I was in Vancouver. The one thing I'm acutely aware of is that as you start to build a following, you have to come with new material. You have to. People are paying babysitters, they're paying [cell phone cut out]. You've got to come out and you've got to give them a new show. That responsibility never goes away.
GM: But some people want to hear the old stuff, too.
BC: Yeah, they do. You know you're developing a following when people start calling out for the oldies but goodies. So maybe I'll throw in some of that stuff for the show, who knows?
GM: Bring your ostrich material.
BC: (laughs) People love that. I can do that.
GM: So after two years of banking, you wanted to be an actor? Is that how the time line went?
BC: Yeah. Yeah. I realized after banking that I was going to die. I realized that I just couldn't do this anymore because the end game was what? Making shareholders wealthier and my life at the end of all of it would be a number. I guess I'd have more money. I just couldn't see doing it. It just didn't make any sense to me. I couldn't motivate myself.
GM: So you tried standup, but not to any great success?
BC: The standup came from the fact that I looked in the mirror and I realized there's nothing really physically special about me. I'm a medium white guy with brown eyes. It's not like, Let's get that medium white guy who looks like that other white guy. I had to figure out a way to separate myself. I also looked at how hard it was for actors who were just actors. There are so many good actors. You can't just be an actor and make a living. Good luck. I remember I wanted to be a stage actor until I realized the average salary was $14,000 or something in New York. I was like, I can't live that way. So comedy was something I just... I made a speech at a wedding and my girlfriend at the time said, 'Dude, you're funny. You gotta start doing standup.' I was terrified. I was like, 'Really?' She was like, 'Yeah, really! You make all of us laugh really hard all the time. Start doing standup. You're not going to be Robert DeNiro. That's not how it works. You have a better chance being a senator.' I was like, 'Alright.'
GM: You're doing quite well as an actor now.
BC: I guess. [cell phone cut out] ... auditions and nothing happens.
GM: It's still a fight.
BC: It never ends. It never ends, right?
GM: I haven't heard your podcast, but looking at it, you're a real renaissance man. It looks fascinating and I'm glad there's one out there like that, hosted by a comedian, that has comedians as guests but also has historians, and authors...
BC: Yeah, that's what I like. I realized there are a lot of great, smart leaders of thought who spent a long time not only wrestling with very important questions but they write a book about it and they [cell phone cut out]. So I call them up or I email them and they come on my podcast. I read their book and we talk about the book and the questions. I get very smart people and I say, 'What makes you angry about the world and what do you want to change? And how do you want to change it?' And what I'm going to start doing is actually pairing up a celebrity with those academics. All celebrities want to feel like they can contribute to the intellectual debate. So I'm going to start pairing up a celebrity who's interested in a subject, maybe like climate change, and I'll get a climate scientist on there and go from there.
GM: That should help get more listeners because a lot of people like the celebrity factor.
BC: They do. But why not use celebrity to highlight important issues? Why not use celebrity to highlight and contribute to the important questions, the important debates? Must we all sparkle on the surface? Does it really matter what Kim Kardashian's new look is? Give me a fucking break, man. If I'm going to do a goddamn podcast, it's going to be about something, you know? So that's what I'm passionate about. I don't know much, but I like talking to people who know a lot more than I do.
GM: I guess getting a celebrity on there, with your humour and theirs, probably, it just makes the subject come alive and that might get people interested in the subject or book.
BC: Exactly. And I'm going to create a rating system for my books, too. My colleague, Hunter Maats, who's a Harvard graduate and wrote a book called The Straight-A Conspiracy, he's my co-host. And he's the one who gets me these academics. We're going to create the Maats-Callen or the Callen-Maats rating system for the books.
GM: It'll be like Oprah's book club.
GM: Except for with books of substance.
GM: How many episodes have you done?
BC: A hundred-twenty, I think.
GM: Does it drop on a certain day or is it when you get them done?
BC: On a Monday and a Thursday.
GM: You said you're really proud of this new hour of material. Is it because it's more personal?
BC: It's a lot more personal. It's wrestling with the idea of what is a man, what is a real man? There are a lot of different definitions. It's like the definition of courage. What is courage? Well, some men can fight four guys in a dark alley but they can't quit a job they hate. Courage is maybe a false concept. You might be brave until I drop you in the middle of the ocean. See how brave you are then. Being really brave can be synonymous with being really dumb. It's the same thing with masculinity. What makes a real man? A guy with a machine gun and big muscles? Well, maybe, but if you got a bad disease, you're looking for the little doctor with soft hands. That's your hero. So it all depends on context.
GM: Do you have answers for what a real man is?
BC: I don't know, man. I'm working it out. My one hour is the beginning of that question and that debate. But it's coming together and I'm proud of it.
GM: You were talking about being an average-looking white guy with nothing to set you apart, but I would say that your background and interests, if you can bring that to your comedy, that's what sets you apart.
BC: That's right. That's the goal.
GM: It's not just dick jokes.
BC: It's not just dick jokes! I got a couple dick jokes but that's where I draw the line.
GM: But they come from a worldview perspective.
BC: (laughs) Correct. You are correct, sir.
GM: Okay, Bryan. Thanks a lot for talking to me.
BC: Hey, thanks for having me. Thanks for the interview, brother. Come out to the show, for God's sake.