"Is 'cunt' too much?" asks David Koechner.
The comedian, best recognized as Champ Kind from the hit 2004 comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, is sitting outside his childhood home in Tipton, a tiny town in central Missouri, his bald head lightly flecked with the summer rain that's been starting and stopping all day. His elbows rest on a picnic table his father built years ago with leftover scrap metal from the family manufacturing business.
The question is directed at Matt Dwyer, Koechner's opening act for a comedy benefit show that night at the St. Andrew Catholic School gym in the middle of town.
"I say feel it out," says Dwyer.
Koechner, Dwyer and guitarist Andy Paley are preparing the show's material. The table is cluttered with notebooks, a thick binder and an open MacBook. Koechner fidgets with a black marker in his right hand.
"I don't think I should do 'River,'" he says.
Dwyer looks confused. "What's 'River'?" he asks.
Koechner slackens his jaw, juts out his lower lip and tightens his brows, adopting the dumb expression and clipped drawl of his oldest character, a hillbilly drifter named Gerald "T-Bones" Tibbons. The character, whom Koechner debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1996, is based on a real person — an itinerant roofer named "Four Way George" who hung out at an intersection in Tipton for one memorable childhood summer. Koechner launches into the joke:
"Dirtiest joke I ever heard was told to me by the Mississippi River. Hey, I can't repeat the joke 'cause it's got the word 'cunt' in it. And I'm not gonna to stand up here and say the word 'cunt' to an audience."
Dwyer and Paley crack up, and Koechner, on a roll, stays in character:
"I ain't gonna tell the joke, 'cause it's offensive. I mean, the joke's got the word 'cunt' in it. And I'm not gonna be the guy that they say, 'Oh, he told the joke with the word "cunt."' I ain't gonna do it, I ain't gonna do it!"
Moments later, Koechner is back to looking nervous as he flips through a binder of jokes scrawled on loose leaf paper. He'll be performing for 600 people — nearly a third of the town's population — over the next two days. Tonight he'll stand before an audience containing his mother, all five of his siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins and dozens of childhood friends. It's the first time he has ever performed in his hometown.
Ten years after Anchorman, Koechner has attained the "Oh, that guy!" type of fame a scene-stealing character actor can live on for years. Subsequently, the 51 year old had memorable turns as a skeezeball gun lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking, a persistently annoying neighbor in Extract and a number of supporting roles in Judd Apatow comedies. He also landed a recurring role as Michael Scott's thoroughly awful friend Todd Packer on the U.S. version of The Office.
Koechner arrived in Tipton that morning at the wheel of a hulking white GMC van. Crammed inside were Dwyer, Paley, a personal assistant and Koechner's brother-in-law, Pat Morgan. Also along for the ride was the two-man camera crew that produces Koechner's YouTube series Full On Koechner, a mixture of skits and character work. The resulting posse is less Hollywood entourage and more of a circus.
Koechner points out the driver-side window at various landmarks, like a water tower painted up as a giant eight ball, the remnants of a billiards factory shuttered in the late '70s.
"The city limits extend past a prison, and federal dollars are allocated on headcount," he says. "So a thousand of the residents are locked up."
Koechner parks the van at the Hometown Cafe, and he and the group settle at a corner table. He orders a burger, but soon two boys, no older than ten, approach him. They stare in open-mouthed awe.
"Do you like Ford or Dodge?" Koechner asks one, before asking after their grandfather.
This pattern repeats itself for nearly everyone in the restaurant: kitchen staff, the family of four sitting in a booth on the other side of room, more kids meekly asking for autographs and pictures. Koechner turns no one away. He asks questions about their families, whose names he always recognizes. His burger remains largely untouched.
"Part of me feels obligated because I'm from here," he says, sitting down to finally finish his food. "They need a touchstone...," his voice trails off for a few moments, "...to make sure I haven't changed. To make sure that we're all from the same place."
That evening, Koechner arrives at the gym an hour before Dwyer is scheduled to open. Cameras are set up on the collapsed bleachers opposite the stage. The smell of pizza and wings permeates the air. Volunteers man a concession stand in the gym's lobby, take tickets and hand out buckets full of clinking bottles of Budweiser.
When Koechner walks onstage, the crowd roars. He's changed out of the blue polo and now wears a snug black T-shirt, cowboy boots, dark jeans and his fedora.
"I have five kids," he begins. "People say: 'Wow, you must learn a lot from your children.' This is what I learned: I fucking hate kids."
From there, the show becomes a mishmash of inside jokes, which net huge laughs, and are virtually impenetrable to a Tipton outsider. He throws out Champ Kind's catchphrase, "WHAAAMY!" to thunderous applause. Then he dives into some character work: "Roy," a lisping, overweight gay man whose boyfriend is also named Roy, and has two cats named Siegfried and Roy. ("I know, it's confusing.") Then Gerald "T-Bones" Tibbons makes his much anticipated appearance. Koechner pulls the trigger on "River."
"Sometimes a river, it'll talk back to ya. You know what they say, 'Old man river he don't say nothing'? Well, Missouri rivers is straight up loquacious. Won't shut up, and a horrible gossip, that river, talking about every inlet stream that feeds it. Dirtiest joke I ever heard was told to me by a Missouri river. Can't repeat it. So dirty it would make a hobo blush. Speaking of hobos, one time I was at the Missouri State Fair..."
The word "cunt" is notably absent.
When the show concludes the crowd doesn't leave. They drink the rest of the beer. Koechner spends two hours taking pictures, signing autographs and slapping the backs of old high school friends.
Finally, the stragglers begin caravanning out, taking the party to Aces, one of the town's two bars. Koechner lags behind them, staying at the gym to mingle.
Inside Aces, brother-in-law Morgan, who's been drinking since early in the evening, is holding court.
"A small-town boy," Morgan says of Koechner. "This is just the natural matriculation of the fucking work he put in, of the steps he took, how much he fought. Dave is just growing into his own age, because he's looked 50 since he was 30, so now that he's 50, he's going to be gigantic."
Morgan may be right. It's still late summer, but the hotly anticipated sequel to Anchorman is due out in a few short months. Koechner is preparing for a flurry of promotional touring, appearances and interviews leading up to the December 18 release, which is sure to elevate his profile higher than ever.
"That's all I've heard for ten years: 'When's the next one?'" says Koechner. "I've never seen such anticipation for a project."
There are seven pieces of metal hanging from a makeshift shed outside Koechner's childhood home, a neat, white-paneled structure with a jungle gym in front. The metal pieces are oblong and twisted objects — hooks and squared-off bars of irregular lengths.
"My dad once bought a bunch of scrap iron, a big box of bolts and other things," Koechner explains. "He had each of the kids pick out something that represented them."
He points at the center, two cylindrical pieces locked together as a T. "That's mom and dad. That's the union."
The comedian's light brown eyes tear up slightly when he talks about his father, Cecil, who died in 2011 at the age of 80. Then he points at a small, curved piece, farthest to the left.
"I think that one's me. The screwy one."
Koechner was born in 1962 and grew up a middle child among two brothers and three sisters. His older brother, Mark, now runs the family business, Koechner Manufacturing Company Inc., which has sold turkey coops since 1960.
"David had an aura about him," Mark says. "When he walked in the room, people drew to him, stopped to look at him."
Nana Dueber, now in her sixties, babysat for Keochner and recalls him as trouble early on.
"David and Mark wanted to play cowboys and Indians, and I said sure," she says. "They tied me up to a dining room chair. Seriously, tied to the dining room chair. They were running around the table 'shooting' guns, and I'm yelling at them, and they're just laughing. It's something I have never forgotten, and I never babysat for them again. Oh my Lord, that was horrible."
In 1985, Koechner, then a junior-year political-science major at the University of Missouri in Columbia, took a trip up to Chicago with some friends for a show at the improvisational comedy mecca Second City.
"Being from small town, I had never met an actor. I didn't know how you become one," recalls Koechner. "So I saw the show, and as I was going down the stairs I saw they offered classes, and I was like, 'Oh! Of course! That's how you learn. Classes!'"
Koechner promptly dropped out of college and moved up to Chicago. He eventually studied with Del Close, a pioneer of improvisational theater who molded a generation of comedians in the '70s, '80s and '90s. During those years, Koechner performed regularly with a bunch of struggling nobodies: Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and future Anchorman director Adam McKay, among others.
Koechner also met Dwyer, a comedian who's now based in LA, and both men formally joined the Second City troupe in 1994.
"He taught me to commit even if you're doing something that's not going well," recalls Dwyer. "You just fucking plow through it and give it your all. You make it work. It's a very Chicago attitude."
In 1995, after nearly ten years honing his craft, Koechner was spotted by a casting director for MADtv. She tipped off Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who invited Koechner to New York City for auditions. On his third round, Koechner found himself sitting in an office with Michaels and writer Steve Higgins. At the end of the meeting, Koechner says, Higgins leaned over and whispered in his ear: "Congratulations, you're hired!"
Around the same time, Michaels also hired a young comedian out of LA named Will Ferrell. The two debuted in a 1995 rookie class that included future mainstays like Darrell Hammond, Chris Kattan, Cheri Oteri and Colin Quinn.
For Koechner, SNL was a chance to show off his character work. T-Bones was given center stage, popping up in one memorable skit when he played executioner to Christopher Walken's death-row inmate. Koechner was also one half of the wig-wearing European dandy duo "The Fops." While Koechner felt he was at the top of his game, his characters failed to achieve the massive popularity of his superstar castmates' — the same season saw the debut of the "Spartan Cheerleaders," "Goat Boy" and the "Roxbury Guys."
The way Koechner explains it, NBC was concerned about the ratings as it competed with rival programs MADtv and The Howard Stern Show. Koechner says he was told that the West Coast NBC execs wanted changes.
"I was one of the changes."
He was dropped from the cast after a single season.
"It was devastating," he remembers. "I had just got my ticket punched, up to the major leagues and suddenly I'm back in Double-A."
Nevertheless, having SNL on his résumé opened doors for Koechner. He moved to LA, and in 1999 reconnected with SNL writer David "Gruber" Allen. The two created The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, an endearingly lowbrow musical variety act that became a fan favorite on the LA comedy scene, especially at Largo. He also managed to pick up a few minor movie roles.
In 2003, Koechner got word from his agent that his old pals McKay and Ferrell were casting a movie about the halcyon days of 1970s local news. He auditioned and won the part of Champ Kind, a cowboy-hat-wearing sportscaster who is both a skirt-chasing misogynist and a barely closeted homosexual.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was made on a $26 million budget and after its release in the summer of 2004 grossed $95 million worldwide. It was arguably a bigger hit in DVD form, becoming, as Koechner puts it, like an "old friend people are so happy to revisit."
The movie was a turning point in the careers of the entire cast. Ferrell was formally inducted into the "Frat Pack" by the media. It was Apatow's first huge movie success, and he followed up with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad. Steve Carell would also go on to become a household name, taking over The Office as Michael Scott. Conventionally handsome Paul Rudd scored leading roles in various Apatow productions, like 2012's This Is 40.
For Koechner, the success following Anchorman was more subdued. He was dubbed a "junior varsity" member of the Frat Pack by USA Today. He is regularly confused with actor Rob Corddry, due to their similar hairlines and talent for playing absurd characters. And most of the doors that opened led Koechner to similar roles: alpha-male buffoons with varying degrees of sleaziness.
Koechner says he doesn't agonize over the disparity in fame between himself and the other members of San Diego's Action 4 News Team.
"There's nothing I can do except live my life and try to be as true and honest to myself as I can be."
"To me," he says, "it's all a gift."
On March 28, 2012, Koechner received a phone call, suggesting he may want to tune in to Conan that night.
That evening, Ron Burgundy himself stepped out in his trademark suit, white shoes and irrepressible masculinity. After a blistering flute solo, Burgundy/Ferrell got to the point:
"As of oh-nine-hundred Mountain Time, Paramount Pictures and myself, Ronald Joseph Aaron Burgundy, have come to terms on a sequel to Anchorman."
"It was beautiful," Koechner recalls. "I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe it! Look at this! Look at us!' It's like the old friends getting to play and getting paid for it."
The sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, is a roughly two-hour-long behemoth so packed with material that McKay seriously considered releasing it in two installments.
"It was like camp," says Koechner. "The dynamic of the group is the same. Those guys don't have an arrogant bone in their bodies. It's not about ego; it's about the work."
The promotional blitz surrounding the movie has been massive as well. Ron Burgundy turned up on several real nightly newscasts around the country, shot 70 commercials for the Dodge Durango, inspired a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream flavor ("Scotchy Scotch Scotch") and published his own "memoir."
Champ Kind has been unleashed as well: He blustered about on NFL Network and even "auditioned" to be a regular on NFL Total Access. (During the segment, he repeatedly asked the Buffalo Bills' Stevie Johnson if could crash on the wide-receiver's couch for "four to six months.")
The travel has been intense for Koechner. He flew to Australia for the November 24 premiere there, came back home for Thanksgiving, then went back on the road, hitting Dublin and London before the New York City opening this week. Throw in his national standup tour dates, and it's easy to see why Koechner says he has never been busier.
"It's a lot of fun. It really blows to be away from the family, but this is a rare, unique thing that's going on."
Backstage at the Bezemes Family Theater at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Koechner waits to deliver another (mostly) clean performance. He tugs his fedora down low over his eyes.
"My daughter is turning twelve today," he says. "My wife already bought all the gifts. But her birthday party is this weekend, and this weekend I'm home."
It's late October, and this is the way it's been for Koechner for weeks. He Skypes with his five children every morning and flies back for weekends. Given the choice, he would be home on his eldest daughter's birthday, not waiting to give yet another PG-13 performance.
"This is a job, a good job, and I can't turn it down," he says. But he looks tired.
"I will do the lines tonight," he says of his Anchorman sound bites. "I know they need that."
In recent work, Koechner has been trying to step out of Champ Kind's long shadow. In March audiences will get the chance to see Koechner as a villain in director E.L. Katz's dark comedy Cheap Thrills, which took home the Midnighter Audience Award at the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival. Koechner plays a wealthy, sociopathic thrill-seeker who tempts two desperate men into increasingly horrific tasks for money. Variety praised Koechner for "dominating every scene as a kind of demented ringmaster."
"He brought menace to it, but it wasn't just in the writing," says Katz. "I think audiences will be surprised."
Also on Koechner's plate is a role alongside Michael Cera and Julia Stiles in David Cross' directorial debut, Hits, a dark comedy about fame in the age of YouTube. He's also appearing in an episode of Justified next year, and he says he is in talks about a number of pilot television projects with leading roles. And while his Anchorman costars have rocketed to leading-man status — not likely they'll be forfeiting family time to do standup at a small, Midwestern college any time soon — Koechner says television is where he'd ideally like to end up.
"I know a lot of people who have that focused drive, the 'I have to get to the top' kind of thing," says Koechner. "Here's what Daddy wants: Daddy wants a four-camera sitcom that keeps him at home."
Thirty minutes later, he walks out into the spotlight, and the Lindenwood students cheer like maniacs, hooting Champ Kind quotes at him.
"Hello, Lindenwood!" he shouts back. "Damn, that sounds like a pep rally — I like it!"
The tired look is gone as Koechner launches into his act, teasing a young couple in the front row. ("How are we attracted to one another? Usually it's like this: A woman lowers her standards.") He sings a racy bit:
"Heeey, ho, my balls hang low, I sit on the pot when it's time to go. One, two, I drop a deuce, thank the Lord I drink my juice!"
Things seem to be going well until the end of the set, when Koechner refers to the "drama on campus" caused by a local news story about a Lindenwood wrestler arrested for knowingly spreading HIV to multiple partners.
"I have one rule for straight boys that want to get with this," he says in the thick lisp of his character Roy. "You can do anything you want to me...and if you got cheesecake you can do it twice."
"Gaaaaay!" a heckler shouts.
"We're all just people," Koechner suddenly fires back, breaking character. "Yeah, this is where the lecture part starts. Who cares if someone you know and love is gay?"
An uneasy silence descends. Koechner fumbles a little.
"Yeah, this is the part of the show that gets really weird, syrupy and a little preachy, a little didactic," he continues in the silence. "Next, we'll open our Engels Reader..."
Then he stops, takes a massive breath and yells: "WHAAAAAMY!"
And the room erupts into hysteria.