Some people were just born to do what they do, and Hugh Fink was born to be funny. Or was he born to play the violin? Because even though comedy has set the course of Hugh’s life, he has performed violin solos to a packed Carnegie Hall, something I can’t boast about!
Hugh is one of a very few comics who has been able to fuse his musical life with his stage persona, much like the late great Jack Benny, whose violin I’m fortunate to play. Ever since he was a child, Hugh loved getting up in front of people and performing, no matter what form it took.
Eventually, he discovered that not only could he create material for himself, but he had a talent for writing material that would suit any number of other talented performers! And that was the key that unlocked doors throughout show business, most notably at Saturday Night Live, where Hugh enjoyed a seven-year tenure and wrote more opening monologues than any other SNL writer.
Hugh and I talk about growing up alongside Joshua Bell (and later using him in a wicked stage act with Tracy Morgan), how stand-up relates to musical performance, and how TV shows get made. Of course I also sit back and listen to behind-the-scenes tales from SNL!
Nathan Cole: Hi and welcome back to Stand Partners for Life. This is Nathan Cole and today with me, really excited to have as my guest, Hugh Fink, comic, writer, violinist. He’s been gracious enough to join me here at Disney Hall for a change. Welcome to Stand Partners For Life, Hugh.
Hugh Fink: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Nathan, instead of taping a podcast at a smoke filled comedy club, to be in a classy concert hall. I like it.
Nathan Cole: We try to keep it classy here at Disney most of the time. Well, we can just jump right into that. I mean, you’ve spent so much of your life in those clubs performing, writing, but what’s not usual for a comic is that you have a serious history as a violinist. We were talking about that just a bit ago, you and I, but give us the quick version of your violin life, because that was … either came before or maybe concurrently with your life in comedy.
Hugh Fink: Sure. My parents were classical music lovers. My dad was the Attorney for the Indianapolis Symphony, the Musicians Union. As a very young kid I would be taken to these concerts at the orchestra and I loved it. I guess I told my parents at age four or five that I wanted to study violin. They were not so sure about that because they knew it was a tough instrument. They already owned a piano, but they were friends with the concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony at the time, Eric Rosenblith. He had known a little about this new Suzuki method, although he was not a proponent of it at all because he was like a pupil of Carl Flesch or some of these old-
Nathan Cole: Old school.
Hugh Fink: He was super old school, but he wasn’t sure how to tell my parents to start off a five year old with lessons. He wasn’t going to do it. There was a Suzuki teacher, one in Indianapolis, and that’s who I studied with.
Nathan Cole: This would have been not so long I bet, after the method really took hold in the U.S. because I started Suzuki and that was early 80’s.
Hugh Fink: You are right. I started in the late ’60s. I ended up studying Suzuki for eight years, and going to the Suzuki Summer Institute at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.
Nathan Cole: Stevens Point. Okay.
Hugh Fink: Right. Shinichi came.
Nathan Cole: Wow.
Hugh Fink: Yes. I actually was part of the generation where I got to see him live.
Nathan Cole: Well, that’s extraordinary.
Hugh Fink: It was extraordinary. I didn’t have much interaction with him, but I remember, I think he was chain smoking and he looked like a ripe old age and very Buddha-esque just this is why … He didn’t speak much English either, but that was a great experience. I think what it taught me, Nathan, was beyond the violin part, to meet other young violinists who are just normal kids. It was a camp, so we’d have classes and master classes and all that, but we’d also have so much playing around time, playing softball all the time, and eating in the cafeteria. It introduced me to the fun of music as a social activity, just riffing with these other musicians and having-
Nathan Cole: You were a teenager at this point, or younger?
Hugh Fink: I started when I was six, but by … Yes. Then I did it six, seven years in a row, so I was a young teen.
Nathan Cole: Yeah. I think my first real music camps I would say were, yeah, that 10, 11, 12 range, and same thing, just to meet other kids from other parts of the country that were doing what I was doing.I grew up in Kentucky, you grew up in Indiana.
Hugh Fink: Correct.
Nathan Cole: I wonder if it was a similar … It’s not like everybody else around us was playing violin and-
Hugh Fink: No, no. In fact, I think you’ve seen some of my stand-up when I do a lot of jokes about how being in a country western place like Indiana, it was weird to be a classical violinist, but I like being different that way.
Hugh Fink: <audio from stand-up comedy>Thank you. You see, I had an identity crisis. My father wanted me to be the next Henny Youngman. My mother wanted me to be the next Jascha Heifetz. When I play in the orchestra I get totally confused… [violin playing] Two Jews walk into a bar! </audio>
Hugh Fink: But then I got… I think I realized that I had outgrown my teacher in the sense that I wasn’t really progressing in ways that I wanted to. I ended up getting to study with a violin professor at Indiana University. For the last two or three years in high school I would drive down to Bloomington and have lessons. That’s when I get more serious about violin, really practicing a few hours a day and taking it more seriously.
Nathan Cole: Would you say that was … I mean was violin your main interest at that point?
Hugh Fink: One of them. I mean I would say of any artistic endeavor for sure. I was also really funny and always doing stuff that was contrary to being a serious musician.
Nathan Cole: Was violin, I wonder, was it the first organized … because with violin you’ve got to … there is a way, not that it’s always right, but there is a way to go about things and you do it every day. Was that the first organized extra curricular that-
Hugh Fink: Yes, I would say that’s true. Also, it was the first organized way that guaranteed me performing time because I love getting to be in front of audiences and entertain and get accolades. Getting to do some recitals, and then there was like a state wide competition where these judges would … you weren’t competing against other musicians, you were competing against yourself.
Nathan Cole: You get a rating, solo and ensemble?
Hugh Fink: A rating, so every year I would do that and I loved it. I think for me any opportunity to be on stage in front of an audience was a good thing.
Nathan Cole: I was going to ask because that’s not … I did enjoy performing and I didn’t get so nervous when I was a kid, but it wasn’t … I guess mostly I knew that there was a thing that I was supposed to do and I wanted to do it well and get through it unscathed on the other side. I wouldn’t necessarily say I relished the chance to be in front of people but you did.
Hugh Fink: I did, for sure.
Nathan Cole: That continued through high school.
Hugh Fink: Through high school then by the time I was applying to college and stuff, I had by then decided that though I love violin and I wanted to be, if I could’ve had the talent that I thought was required to be a great violinist or even a really good professional violinist I would have pursued it, but by then I decided I was left-handed, I had double-jointedness, I had a lot of tension in my … There were too many obstacles that I felt were going to stop me because I was looking at other peers of mine who just were … didn’t have some of those issues. I thought I could never compete with this.
Nathan Cole: You talked about walking through the practice halls at IU.
Hugh Fink: Correct, and I’d hear someone playing Paganini Caprice going like, “Oh my God. I got to go check out what professor this is,” and it’s an 11-year-old Korean kid. I’m going, “Oh no!”
Nathan Cole: I’ve been there, I have. For sure.
Hugh Fink: I think it was humbling, but also I was a realist and I also had this other dream of… since I was a performer, like maybe I can be a comedian. That doesn’t affect how your left hand technique is to be a good comic. I decided I would go to NYU, New York University. I got admitted as an actor. I also got a little music scholarship because the orchestra wasn’t particularly strong and they wanted me to be in the orchestra as the assistant concertmaster. I did that and could continue studying privately during my years. I had a teacher in Manhattan School of Music for a few years.
Nathan Cole: So you did? Because Akiko went to Manhattan.
Hugh Fink: She did pre-college.
Nathan Cole: That’s great. May I ask who you studied with there?
Hugh Fink: Stanley Bednar. Who was like again a real old school guy. The teacher who I studied with at IU worshiped Raphael Bronstein, who was apparently one the gurus of Manhattan School during that era. I would take the subway from Greenwich Village when I went to New York University to Harlem to my lessons, which was cool. Just like another part of New York I didn’t know. Then I stopped studying probably by the time I was 20. That’s the last time I had private lessons.
Nathan Cole: How do you go about becoming a comic … becoming a comedian? Because that had to start also in high school and before?
Hugh Fink: Yes, I mean I think it was something that I just always liked doing and I was good at… meaning, not necessarily being the class clown, because I wasn’t disruptive in that way. Just being witty and having the ability to verbally use my humor as a weapon for sure and write funny stuff all the time. There is a paper I saw recently from 4th grade where a teacher wrote on it, “Do you have to make everything funny?” She was pissed. I loved the fact that my parents … they were proud of that, that they recognized I had a special skill at it. The problem is, back when I was growing up, there were so few professional comedians and my dad would … He loved comedy. He was a funny guy. He’d get me out of bed to watch stand-up on Johnny Carson.
Hugh Fink: He treated it as an art form which is really neat. There weren’t comedy clubs like there are now in every city, and they weren’t TV shows other than Carson really, and a couple of others that had comedians. It didn’t seem like a real profession you could go into.
Nathan Cole: You pretty much had to go to New York then?
Hugh Fink: New York or LA I would say so, yeah.
Nathan Cole: Had you gotten any performing experience doing that while you were still in Indiana?
Hugh Fink: Not really, I mean only at high school, they sometimes have the morning announcements-
Nathan Cole: Right, okay.
Hugh Fink: I would use the opportunity-
Nathan Cole: That was you?
Hugh Fink: … to do that. Then I would do an impression of our principal and get into huge trouble because the students loved it. Then the people who had me do it go, “You cannot do that anymore. You are mocking him.” Any opportunity to get laughs in front of an audience I would pretty much take.
Nathan Cole: There is a Simpsons where Bart bills himself as the “Boy of a Thousand Voices” and as soon as he does an impression of Principal Skinner, Skinner says, “You are about to be the Boy of a Thousand Days’ Detention.” The guy that I went to high school with that did the announcements my senior year, and he was class president, he is currently in LA, he owns a small comedy club.
Hugh Fink: Really?
Nathan Cole: We were the same age and I know he occasionally gets up to perform. It’s funny how I can totally see that with him and even more so with you with the experiences you’ve had. That must have taken enormous confidence then to go to the big city from the mid-west with that focus, knowing that that’s what you wanted to do. How much of that is writing and performing when you were in school, what was the balance there?
Hugh Fink: I would say that ultimately stand-up is a performance art form, but to be a really good comic that does television sets regularly and has stuff that’s timeless, that’s when the writing comes in. I loved the combination of getting to put on paper things that I thought would be funny to present in front of strangers. Because that’s always the key with stand-up is, it’s the transition of… it’s one thing to make your friends and family laugh, but to go up in front of people who have no idea who you are, that’s really the challenge.
Nathan Cole: OK I’m starting to sweat…
Hugh Fink: Yeah, exactly. There is no give of like, “Oh, I already know Hugh and he’s a funny guy.” It’s like I’m literally in Midland Texas when I’m 25 years old, I’ve never been to Texas in my life, performing to people in cowboy hats who don’t know who the hell I am. That to me is the ultimate test of a stand-up, but I like the combination of writing and performing.
Nathan Cole: That’s so interesting for me to think of. I mean with me and most fellow violinists, we are starting with the strong material. It’s been around. It’s stood the test of time and all we’re supposed to do now… and it’s going to be obviously limiting too, all we’re supposed to do is go out and perform it well! But to write your own and, as you say, get up cold in front of people that don’t know you. That’s part of it, right? They get to know you or at least they get to trust you, if it’s going to be a successful performance…
Hugh Fink: That’s correct.
Nathan Cole: … almost immediately.
Hugh Fink: The more they trust you, the more you get away with. In fact, it makes it easier to try out new material that maybe isn’t as strong or doesn’t work, because if they already trust you and you try something that doesn’t work they are forgiving. If you’re a new performer and they don’t trust you, then like at any moment things can go south.
Nathan Cole: We met through mutual friend Mishna Wolff who was nice enough to do an interview with me, and I wrote an article on natesviolin.com about performance nerves. The whole performing aspect of stand-up and what violinists can learn from that. It was shocking to me how much time she spent in front of people before the big one, before the performance that mattered and that was such a great reminder to me of the risks I need to take. Also, to perhaps to be a little easier on myself if I was performing a piece for the first time and not feeling comfortable with it.
Nathan Cole: She was saying, “Why would you feel comfortable with it? What you’re trying to prepare by yourself in the practice room is things you’ve never done in front of people. Why would you expect you would just go in front of people and do it?” But that is I think what we expect.
Hugh Fink: That is, and it’s why I don’t like the process of acting auditions, which I have done a little of. To me that’s … for someone who loves performing and is good at it, that’s the most unnerving thing for me. Like to sit home and work alone on a script memorizing my part, and then be put into a room with a casting director and maybe another actor is terrifying.
Nathan Cole: But you have … You’ve been on some shows. You’ve been in films as well.
Hugh Fink: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nathan Cole: What are some of your favorite performing experiences, let’s say before we talk about stand-up, and before we talk about writing because you’ve been writing for some huge shows. What are some of the performances that stand out for you?
Hugh Fink: One, and I’m not saying this just because I’m doing the Nathan Cole podcast, but the one that absolutely stands out is: I opened up for John Stewart at Carnegie Hall and Alan King, the legendary comedian, was the host. He brought me on stage, he introduced me, I did 20 minutes and then John Stewart followed me as the headliner and did maybe 45. Even John Stewart couldn’t get over it, he was like, “Hugh, I’m happy to be here, but for you this must be … You’re never going to top this. You’re a violinist, you’ve played a long time, you are at Carnegie Hall getting to play your violin on stage in front of a sold out crowd but as a comedian.”
Nathan Cole: I haven’t done that.
Hugh Fink: Right, but it was remarkable. To be in the dressing room and there’s these photos of Koussevitzky or whomever and John is like, “I don’t know who the [heck] these people are.” I knew who they all were, so for me it felt very at home to get to have this experience.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, that’s such a special place.
Hugh Fink: That was really special.
Nathan Cole: Now, do you write for other … have you written for other stand-ups, or is that something that really doesn’t happen? Do stand-ups write their own-
Hugh Fink: Stand-ups write their own until they’re so successful that they don’t have to anymore. The exception to that would be Jerry Seinfeld to my knowledge, who to this day still writes his own stuff. Anyone who hosts a talk show: Letterman, Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, they are not writing anything. Their whole staff of 10 to 50 writers is writing for them. Ellen DeGeneres is a great stand-up who I worked with earlier in my career. She’s going to do a TV special now, she announced. I already heard that she’ll tweak it, but she’ll definitely have several writers come up with stuff for her because she doesn’t have the time. It’s the most time consuming thing to work on your act and write stand-up. It’s not something that you can just do quickly-
Nathan Cole: Spare time.
Hugh Fink: Spare time. Chris Rock also, he gets help, but he loves writing and is a good writer, so he’ll write some of his own stuff.
Nathan Cole: We’ve got tickets to see him in November. I think it is here in LA when he comes, because I’ve never seen him live.
Hugh Fink: He’s terrific.
Nathan Cole: Well, was your experience typical, and what is the progression, you know you’re writing for this person or this show, and then you go on to this other thing, or maybe there isn’t a standard path?
Hugh Fink: I would say there’s not a standard. It’s like for every person it works out differently. For me, getting on Saturday Night Live as a writer, I proved very early on that I was super adapted at monologues because I can, as a stand-up not only can I write jokes that work for a live audience, but I can adapt my comedic sense to whoever the host was, and write something in their voice. That’s a commodity, because some writers can only write in their own voice.
Nathan Cole: I think I’ve seen some of those monologues.
Hugh Fink: Yes. I think I did write more monologues than any other writer during my tenure at Saturday Night Live and-
Nathan Cole: When were those years?
Hugh Fink: They were, to make it simple, the Will Ferrell years. I started and left with him. Started in 1995, left in 2002. It was a seven-year run. From that I got the confidence and experience to go on to doing TV shows and other things where I was hired to write for one person, like D. L. Hughley, the African-American comedian. He had a short-lived political talk show on CNN that we did in New York.
Nathan Cole: Really?
Hugh Fink: Yeah, it was right when Obama was elected in his first term. It was “D. L. Breaks the News”. It was a great show. I was one of D.L.’s main guys, writing monologue bits for him.
Nathan Cole: Was he in The Original Kings of Comedy?
Hugh Fink: He was.
Nathan Cole: Okay. We just saw that for the first time. I don’t know why it had taken so long, but what a talent.
Hugh Fink: He’s a huge talent. He was great in that movie.
Nathan Cole: We could stay on SNL I’m sure for quite a while. What’s a look at the writing process? First of all, how many writers might be involved in a week?
Hugh Fink: I would say “too many” is the answer to that! There’s like 15 to 20 writers during a week. The process of writing actually occurs only in a few days per week. Meaning Monday and Tuesday are the days you’re writing for that Saturday show, because by Wednesday they pick the sketches for the week. At that point Thursday and Friday are rehearsal days, and the only thing new that would be written is if there’s some breaking news story that they want to address, which does happen. But the majority of the show was written you know, Monday and Tuesday.
Nathan Cole: They pick the material before anybody’s actually read through it in rehearsal?
Hugh Fink: No. On Wednesday there’s a huge table read with all the cast, and when you’re the writer you assign who you want to read each part. It’s tremendous power.
Nathan Cole: I had no idea.
Hugh Fink: It’s fantastic. Writers at Saturday Night Live have more power than on any other TV show that I know of, which is fantastic.
Nathan Cole: Now that has to lead to some conflicts depending on-
Hugh Fink: It does. I think Lorne Michaels… in a cool way he respects writers as producers, and felt like they know in their head who should be cast, they know the strengths and weaknesses of the cast, let them decide. If he has any disagreements he can change it, but he generally sticks to what the writers want. It’s the only show on TV where the greatest performers on the show are still beholden to the writers, because if you’re not a good writer, which many SNL cast members aren’t, you’re not going to do well.
Nathan Cole: It makes me wish that I don’t know … especially in this day and age they could have a little ticker on the bottom, or something that would let you know who’s writing…
Hugh Fink: I’d love that.
Nathan Cole: …what you’re listening to.
Hugh Fink: That would be great.
Nathan Cole: There must have been some magic combinations, are you able to say maybe who one or two of your favorite performers to write for were? Like they say, “Okay, it’s Hugh and so and so. This is going to be …”
Hugh Fink: Absolutely, so during my years I loved writing for Norm Macdonald. He was a stand-up like me. I knew him before either of us were on the show. Tracy Morgan– I think I was the first writer at SNL to really write for him, because he was a fish out of water. He didn’t know anybody on the show, and he had a hard time adjusting to the world of Saturday Night Live, and Lorne Michaels. But I did collaborate, sometimes just come up with stuff for him just for a few seasons. Yeah, for sure.
Nathan Cole: Are there … just because that info isn’t so readily available, are there sketches that I’m going to know or our audience is going to know that that were your-
Hugh Fink: I think so. For Norm Macdonald I wrote all his Larry Kings, a real impact at the time. People loved us. They were pretty vicious, and deliberately so. It was like… I hated what Larry King had become. I really wanted to skewer him and Norm did a brilliant impression of him. We did that a lot. For Tracy, there was a talk show we did twice called Pimp Chat. I wrote Pimp Chat. Then my most infamous recurring sketch was Mr. Peepers with Chris Kattan. The half monkey, a boy who’d spit apples at your face, but yes it was written! I had to write when he’d spit the apple and all that stuff.
Nathan Cole: There are so many sketches that worked, and I always try to imagine how they’d sounded on the first reading, because it just … They seem like they wouldn’t look funny on paper to me, but obviously the people behind it… there’s that chemistry between the writers and performers.
Hugh Fink: For sure, and when you attend the table read it’s a joyous experience because you’re seeing some amazingly talented actors bring what you’ve written to life. They go full throttle because they are competitive. They want to get their sketch on the air, there’s no holding back. Sometimes they’ll even put on a wig or use a prop just to help with the laughter, so you’re seeing like a very, very rough version of the sketch performed live.
Nathan Cole: The audience for this is just the other writers and the-
Hugh Fink: It’s the staff. It’s not just the writers, it’s the hair and makeup people, the associate directors. There’s probably … There could be like 50 people in that room, 50 or 60. When you get a laugh it’s a big laugh, it’s almost like a sizable comedy club audience!
Nathan Cole: What are the qualities that … I mean, because it’s so fast-paced to write in that environment. Obviously you have to be able to produce more quickly. Are you given any direction beforehand what you’re going to write about, or it’s just up to you?
Hugh Fink: Remarkably you are given no direction, zero. Artistically that’s brilliant. Sometimes when you’re having a slow week you’re like, “Oh man, I don’t know what to write.” It would almost be easier if someone said, “I need you to write, here is the premise.”
Nathan Cole: And did it happen too… I mean, there must have been performers that were very popular to write for, and others maybe they weren’t totally… is that part of why people would leave the show, or be asked to leave?
Hugh Fink: Yes, absolutely.
Nathan Cole: Because people just weren’t interested in-
Hugh Fink: Yeah. One thing people are surprised at is there’s no equality on the show, meaning it’s not as if they go, “Oh, this cast member doesn’t have anything written for them.” It’s like, “Well, maybe the reason that cast member is not having anything written for them is because people don’t think they’re that funny.” It’s survival of the fittest. Yeah, when you have a star like Will Ferrell a high percentage of stuff is being written, where if he is not the star of it, he’s in it. And then there may be two other actors on the show where they are only included in four sketches out of 40 at the table read.
Nathan Cole: How long will this reading go?
Hugh Fink: Several hours, because it’s about 30 to 40 sketches read out loud from start to finish.
Nathan Cole: Who picked the hosts?
Hugh Fink: Lorne Michaels along with a small team of talent producers. Their job was to keep him informed about who’s hip, who’s hot because there’s no way he would know some of these people. He has the … He was the arbiter of saying yes, no or maybe.
Nathan Cole: Was it always just one writer per monologue?
Hugh Fink: Generally, yes. I would say I was allowed to … If I wanted to go to another writer and say, “Help me with this,” for sure. But monologues especially seem to be written primarily by one person.
Nathan Cole: Okay. What was the transition like, or how did you know when it was time to leave the show?
Hugh Fink: Well, that’s a great question. For me it was the law of diminishing returns. I’d gotten a taste of performing on the show. I did get an opportunity a few times.
Nathan Cole: Oh, really?
Hugh Fink: Yeah. The best time was when Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were the presidential candidates. I did a great Joe Lieberman impression, so I got to do it. I did a Weekend Update piece as myself, and the premise of it was there’s only … out of 20 writers at Saturday Night Live, I was one year the only Jewish writer, and that’s why the show sucked. That was my premise. Everyone loved it. Lorne thought it was funny, and let it on the air. It was Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon who were the hosts of Weekend Update, so they introduced me as writer Hugh Fink.
Hugh Fink: Within my premise I got in my Joe Lieberman impression, because he was Jewish, I forget how I did it. That went over really well, and I got big laughs. That was maybe my fourth or fifth year as a writer on the show and it brought me right back to my performing roots and I was like, “I want to be on the show, I don’t want to write anymore.” I think once it became clear to me that I was still primarily going to be a writer and not be given the opportunity to perform that much, I felt like I got to move on, because seven years is a long time to be there.
Nathan Cole: Did you have already things lined up then?
Hugh Fink: I got a job offer in Los Angeles for a brand-new sitcom, so that was the impetus for me making the move.
Nathan Cole: Well, had you considered living in LA before that? Was it a place that you wanted to come to?
Hugh Fink: No, I had told all my friends I’d never be back.
Nathan Cole: It sounds a little like Akiko and me!
Hugh Fink: Saturday Night Live, this is dream, I want out of LA, I’ll come back to visit and do some gigs, but I’m never going to live here again.
Hugh Fink: Things changed and it became clear to me that after Saturday Night Live there’s no real upward move in New York. There’s Conan O’Brien, there was the Daily Show but it’s not like there’s many shows to work on in New York. That’s why most people end up back in Los Angeles.
Nathan Cole: Was the sitcom … was that a long term thing, or just … That’s what brought you back?
Hugh Fink: Yeah, it did bring me back. It became a short-term thing because it bombed and this is an example for you, Nathan, of how… It was like a dream team of comedy writers based on their credits. There was Greg Daniels who created the American version of The Office, he was the executive producer of King of the Hill. George Meyer, who’s one of the most famous writers of the Simpsons. Will Gluck, who became a huge director of feature films, was a writer on the show. It was remarkable how many A-list comedy writers were on the staff of this NBC show, which is one of the reasons I took the job. My agent said, “You’re going to be in great company. This show is like… there’s never been a writing staff like this.” It was canceled after six episodes. It was not a good show.
Nathan Cole: Even you thought?
Hugh Fink: Even I did, yeah. I was … Unfortunately, it reminded me of why I don’t watch a lot of sitcoms, traditional ones, because I find them very forced and not based in the reality that I like.
Nathan Cole: It’s amazing thinking back to my childhood. I mean that’s what was on. Just about nothing else, and since I was a kid I wasn’t thinking about what else might they put on TV. It was just… that’s what a TV show was. At that point, had TV moved on from the sitcom, and this was a bit more of a throwback? Or was this still when sitcoms were-
Hugh Fink: This was at the height of Friends. The show I worked on, they were trying to think of as a replacement for Friends. It was NBC. It was the whole Must-See TV era. That was what was going on. Frasier was wrapping up, Everybody Loves Raymond. Those shows had been on eight or nine years, so they were coming to a close.
Nathan Cole: This was meant to be another big staple in the … okay.
Hugh Fink: Exactly.
Nathan Cole: How did you move on?
Hugh Fink: The show was canceled which at the time I was like, “Well, this is what I rooted for.” Then it was a great lesson to me like, “Okay. I don’t want to be stuck now on this track of working on sitcoms that I don’t like.” That’s not satisfying, especially coming from Saturday Live where so much of that experience was joyous and exciting. I ended up doing the final season of the Drew Carey Show, which is very successful, another sitcom that had a good run and it was on its final season.
Hugh Fink: Creatively it was very limiting because the show worked, they had their characters. They just needed funny people to write jokes. You’re not going to reinvent anything. While I was there, and it was a very talented writing staff, I was able to have free time to go, “What do I want to do?” I created the Showbiz Show with David Spade, which became my first series that I got on the air. It ran for three seasons on Comedy Central. It was very much in my voice because this was pre-TMZ, pre-viral videos. It was a really irreverent, honestly funny look at show business and pop culture.
Nathan Cole: This was yours in the sense of … you were the show creator? What’s the title?
Hugh Fink: I was the sole creator. The pilot, David Spade wasn’t even involved with, it was another comedian who I cast to host it. It went well, but the network wanted a bigger star to host the show, they got Spade.
Nathan Cole: And it worked?
Hugh Fink: And it worked.
Nathan Cole: Now, we’ve … We’re going to come back in the end to what you’re doing right now. We’ve skipped over some of what makes you, I won’t say unique, because there’s at least one other person that’s put violin into their comedy. When I’ve watched your videos, where you’re actually not just talking about the violin or bringing your experience with the violin in an abstract way, but literally putting the violin up there in front of the microphone… your impression of someone faking the audience out as to whether they’re done or not. It’s just– we went back and watched it like 10 times in a row!
Hugh Fink: Oh, that’s awesome!
Hugh Fink: <stand-up comedy audio> Does anyone happen to have a 18th century Italian violin I could borrow? I don’t believe it! </audio>
Nathan Cole: How did you … For me it would just be courage. How did you find the courage or how did you decide people are going to laugh at this, I’m going to bring a violin up there?
Hugh Fink: Well, keep in mind as a kid my background had been entertaining people. If I played the violin, I always found that people were impressed with a kid who plays the violin decently. Maybe you experienced this too, it’s an instrument that people know is hard and they know that it can sound really bad when it’s played poorly. If you are a young person who plays it in tune and with any dexterity, I found people are impressed.
Hugh Fink: I think my instinct told me, if I can figure out funny ways, clever ways to incorporate my violin into my stand-up, but not in the Jack Benny persona where I’m trying to talk about how [crummy] a violinist I am, but almost do the Victor Borge model where people will go, “Oh, my God, he actually can play!” Now, I say Victor Borge because I only wish that my violin skills were as good as his piano skills because he seemed like a really good pianist to me. I’m nowhere nearly that good on violin. But for the layman at a comedy club, I’m a great violinist.
Nathan Cole: Well, but Akiko and I were watching it and saying like, “Well, he’s really good.”
Hugh Fink: Well, thank you.
Nathan Cole: Like, “He’s really … He really could play!” I wondered, “When did he decide not to keep playing?”
Hugh Fink: That’s nice of you.
Nathan Cole: No. You need that because even people who don’t know violin playing specifically are … they can sense if you really know what you’re doing and if you feel it. You mentioned Jack Benny, kind of the elephant in the violin comedy room. A little later after we turn the mics off I’m going to have you play on his Stradivarius. It’s amazing to me to think of a time when a violin-playing comic was one of the most famous people in the world and could essentially play a version of himself, not himself but a version of. And at the same time tour as a violinist.
Nathan Cole: My grandfather was in the Philadelphia Orchestra back in the 40s through the 60s and played at least one concert with Jack Benny. He remembered enough of the jokes and the bits to tell me. Jack Benny goes up and tries to play the Mendelssohn Concerto and the concertmaster taps him and shows him how it’s done. Next one of the ushers (who is really a violinist in the orchestra) jumps up and takes the violin, plays it better. Finally, it’s a janitor! And he’s got the look down and all that.
Nathan Cole: There are still … I meet some young people today who have seen those, thanks to YouTube. I bet there was a period of 20 years where young people didn’t really know who he was. Now, if you’re a violinist on Facebook or wherever, someone’s going to be sharing some of those videos with you. I mean, was that ever part of your inspiration?
Hugh Fink: It honestly wasn’t. It’s weird for me when I’d play comedy clubs as a young stand-up and older people would go, “You’re like a Jack Benny!” That reference to me was … I knew it because everyone would mention it. I didn’t have … There was no YouTube when I was in my 20s. I had not seen Jack Benny very much.
Nathan Cole: Right. How could you?
Hugh Fink: You know, from stories my parents told me, he was a genuinely funny, like a brilliantly funny guy separate from the violin. Just his whole shtick and his persona and had great timing and I knew all that. But I wasn’t really familiar, wasn’t influenced by his violin stuff at all. Then there was Henny Youngman. He’s another violin-playing comic. Unlike Benny, I think Henny Youngman truly wasn’t a good violinist. He just truly used it as a device to tell his old school one-liners, which is a funny … it’s a funny conceit. Yeah.
Nathan Cole: Have you gone back and watched any of the Jack Benny episodes? Because that’s what strikes me, looking back, as it was more … one-liners are great too, but he was putting together these episodes centering on his violin playing.
Hugh Fink: You know I’m not familiar with those. I’d probably love them, but yeah I’m not.
Nathan Cole: I just wonder… they must have come off well at the time or he wouldn’t have remained as popular as he was. It’s just funny to me how Jack Benny comes home, he’s depressed about his violin playing… Rochester’s bought him a new … not bought him, but he’s helping him operate his new tape recorder. Meanwhile, he’s got Isaac Stern stashed in the closet to fake the-
Hugh Fink: Really?
Nathan Cole: To fake the … Yeah, that’s one of the favorite skits. The setup is he’s going to have Jack Benny play into the recording machine and pretend to play it back, but in reality he’s got his friend, Isaac Stern stashed in the closet who’s going to play the thing when he says “playback”! And, it goes wrong…
Hugh Fink: That’s amazing.
Nathan Cole: It’s just a different time.
Hugh Fink: Well, it shows how clever minds think alike, because I did a bit… unfortunately I don’t think it’s on tape, but I did it with Tracy Morgan and Josh Bell.
Nathan Cole: Oh, really.
Hugh Fink: Who I don’t know if I mentioned on here-
Nathan Cole: No, not yet.
Hugh Fink: We did the bit several times. We did it at the Montreal Comedy Festival and we did it in New York a few times. The bit was, I’d be doing my violin comedy and the crowd would like it. Then Tracy Morgan would rush to stage, as Tracy Morgan. Of course, he was a celebrity and people loved him and he’d go like, “Hugh Fink, let me tell you something man. Your violin sucks!” I’m like, “Tracy, actually that’s not true.” He’s like, “You sound [crappy].” I’m like, “Tracy, the crowd will disagree with you.” Tracy is like, “Anybody can play a violin. It’s not that hard!” I go, “Tracy, that’s ridiculous.” Tracy at that point would turn to the audience and say, “I’m going to find anyone and bring them up here!”
Hugh Fink: He found Josh Bell who the crowd didn’t know. Josh Bell who’s … comes up as an unassuming audience member and Tracy is like, “Give me your violin, Fink!” I hand Tracy my violin. At which point Tracy starts to teach Josh Bell how to hold the violin, how to hold the bow and Tracy is instructing him and Josh starts off playing incredibly awkwardly and badly, and then sort of stammers into playing some Wieniawski thing. The crowd’s going nuts and then Tracy goes, “[Screw] you all, that’s Josh Bell! Grammy-Award-winning violinist…” The bit would kill. Of course nowadays … this was 10 years ago, it’d be a harder bit to get away with maybe because some people would recognize Josh. But as long as some of the crowd doesn’t know Josh, it works great.
Nathan Cole: If people … If you guys sell it-
Hugh Fink: Exactly, we sold it. Josh was great. He’s a natural performer. He’s got a good sense of humor. He loved the premise of him having to be this clumsy guy and Tracy was great. That was a really fun bit.
Nathan Cole: Tell me how you came to know Joshua Bell. I know you grew up not far from Josh.
Hugh Fink: Yeah. He’s from Bloomington, Indiana where his parents were at the Kinsey Institute. I’m from Indianapolis. Some of my friends from Indianapolis who ended up at the Indiana School of Music knew Josh when he was a teenager, when he was studying with Gingold and everyone knew who he was. I think one time I was invited down there to Bloomington and they introduced me to him. We hit it off. I was already … I think I was maybe a high school senior or a freshman in college, but he thought I was funny. Then when I moved to LA and started doing stand-up, when he’d come out here as a kid to play with the LA Philharmonic or give recitals, he’d come to see me at the Comedy Store. He was not of age to get in, so his mom would bring him! His mom would have to lug him to the comedy club. He couldn’t wait to be on his own, to travel and stuff.
Nathan Cole: That’s so great.
Hugh Fink: Then Josh, when he played with the LA Philharmonic, I’d always come to his concerts and I got to become friendly with Mitch Newman and some of the other musicians.
Nathan Cole: I know Mitch was the one that told me about not only you, but going to some comedy clubs right when I first came here so I had-
Hugh Fink: Really?
Nathan Cole: Yeah. When I first moved out to LA I was blown away like, “Wow, this is where they made The Price Is Right!” That was my favorite show as a four-year-old. I didn’t even know where to start. He was like, “You’ve got to get out to see some comedy! That’s one of the things that’s amazing about living out here.”
Hugh Fink: He’s right. Well, I’m pretty sure Mitch attended one of my other major favorite performances, when I was on the Rodney Dangerfield HBO Young Comedian Special, which is taped at Royce Hall, UCLA. Mitch came to see me do that as well.
Nathan Cole: Was it … Were you playing violin as well there?
Hugh Fink: I was, yeah.
Nathan Cole: Well, in a couple of minutes I’m going to see if you want to play some more violin! I think the stage is open for us.
Hugh Fink: I’m very much looking forward to it.
Nathan Cole: Tell us what you’re up to right now. You had a great sounding show that you are doing now.
Hugh Fink: Right. I just completed as a producer/writer season two of the television series Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg’s Potluck Dinner Party. You can see why it’s called that because Snoop is truly always stoned. Martha gets drunk on the air because it’s a cooking show with celebrities where they each … they’ll take one type of food, like, let’s say New Orleans food. And Martha will make her Martha Stewart shrimp po’boys and Snoop will make his dirty rice and grits from the hood. They cook on the show, they have celebrities on the show and they get wasted because Martha is making cocktails the whole time! On the New Orleans show she made a … I think it’s called a Sazerac and they were just … they’re gone. The tapings take two hours plus and they are eating and drinking. They have a great chemistry, Martha and Snoop. They are friends and strangely enough they have things in common to talk about.
Nathan Cole: Are you performing on that show?
Hugh Fink: I’m not performing, no. I’m just producing and writing.
Nathan Cole: Great. Well, I can’t thank you enough for coming down to Disney Hall and letting us in on how you … the path you took from violinist to comic, and keeping those two enmeshed the whole time.
Hugh Fink: It’s a pleasure, and you know I always feel like my roots studying violin had a profound influence on my ability to just be fearless about performing stand-up, so they go hand in hand for me.
Nathan Cole: Great. Well, thank you so much.
Hugh Fink: A pleasure.