Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Soup Cans Interview: Brian Unger

Soup Cans editor Steve Pep recently had the chance to speak to multi-hyphenate (humorist, producer, writer and commentator) Brian Unger. The former "The Daily Show" correspondent, who has on occasion filled in for Keith Olberman on MSNBC (someone please give this guy his own cable show already!), has been making the country (especially us) laugh with his terrificly witty and deadpan "Unger Report" on NPR. But enjoy that feature on the radio while you still can - Unger's final day at NPR is on March 20.

What is the process for coming up with stories for your "Unger Report" segment on NPR's "Day to Day?"

This is a good question, Steve. Adequately preparing the Unger Report for NPR listeners weekly -- each Monday morning -- is a delicate waltz. First, I prospect for stories and monitor their trajectory and sustainability in the week's news cycle. I think of the news cycle as a sewer pipe with stories flowing through it. Some stories ripen mid-week, and rot. Some lose their potency, their news value because CNN journalist Rick Sanchez beats them to death with his journalism stick. Other stories sustain longer and flow through the news sewer pipe for the entire week, but after those stories have been handled, consumed, talked out, mocked, or satirized by Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Colbert, Stewart, the cast of SNL, Maher, Olbermann, Ferguson, O'Brien, Shearer, Garrison Keiller, Peter Sagel, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, 2.6 million bloggers, my friend Neal, and, finally, Carson Daly, there's really little left to say. The echo chamber in the sewer pipe is deafening when you're standing alone at the end of it, Steve.

And by week's end, the news buffet, the journalistic cupboard, or sewer, is bone dry, empty and bare, certainly by Sunday morning. Whatever crumbs, or waste residue, are leftover, George Will usually consumes later that morning. That leaves me, Brian Unger, still, with nothing to say. So I'm typically in a desperate search for a topic, issue, or story with an iota of interest or appeal. Sometimes I just call in sick. Of course, none of this applies if a story breaks on Friday night, or over the weekend in which case I get first crack at news, and in essence, become a humorous Cronkite-like figure for people stuck in traffic listening to public radio.

Keep reading to find out what Unger has to say about Keith Olbermann, his stint on the Fox News Channel (and not the hit show "24") and a lot more.

In your opinion, what is the worst thing about working in television?

Feeling intellectually inferior to the people working in public radio.

And what is the worst thing about working in radio?

Feeling financially inferior to the people working in television.

Any thoughts on George Bush finally leaving office?

See answer to question #1.

You've filled in for Keith Olbermann on his show "Countdown." Is being a permanent host for a show like that something you'd be interested in for yourself?

Of course it is. I enjoyed filling in for Keith and was honored he and Phil Griffin at NBC News allowed me to do it. I'm a huge fan of Keith's, and his staff is one of the most talented in TV news - fake or real. It's tricky being the fill-in guy since it's not your race to run. You're not in the chair to win it, but keep it warm. So, you don't get to sprint and show off. It's not a bad job really -- subbing for hosts who get sick, go on vacation, who have a grievance against their bosses, or have a death in the family. A more permanent job would be nice, but displacing the third repeat of Lou Dobbs on HLN at 10 p.m. is no easy feat. I would really love to anchor a show from LA - Larry King seems to be the only presence out here, and so when he's finished interviewing Suzanne Somers, that leaves many smart, funny, and relevant people out here in this part of the country who aren't heard amid the dominant east coast chatter. But the blessing to get such a show, any show, has to come from above, and I don't mean from Jesus.

You were a correspondent on the "The Half-Hour News Hour" on the Fox News Channel. What was your experience like on that show?

Because I'm a journalist acting and an acting journalist, my agent sent me to audition in Chatsworth - a part of L.A. known for its production of pornography and the series "24" -- for what I was told in vague terms was a news-based comedy for "FOX." Out here, "FOX" means "The Simpsons" not "The Hannity." I had a couple of scenes in-hand, not an entire script. And Joel Surnow, the EP of this pilot - and creator of "24" - greeted all of us, but cautioned that some of the comedy in the pilot would be critical of the Left, and that if anyone had a problem, they should consider leaving. As you would expect, not one among our unemployed ranks exited the building in front of the EP of what was the hottest show on TV. Leaving would have blown my chances of getting on "24," forfeited my shot at bumping into Jack Bauer in the hallway, and made me look like I was a liberal without a sense of humor. After all, there are douchebags on the left as well as the right -- but mostly on the right. I rehearsed for the pilot, but for only the scenes I was cast. And those rehearsals complied with the Geneva Conventions. Rehearsals were held on the "24" set, in the conference room at CTU. For a fan of "24," it was intoxicating. It wasn't until tape day that I sobered up. As the studio audience sat quietly awaiting the cold open -- a videotaped piece -- I was as curious as they were to see what show I was in.

In the first sketch, Rush Limbaugh appeared as the president with Ann Coulter as his V.P. It got progressively more partisan from there, but not in a progressive way. "Oops," I said to myself, "Next time I should ask to see the entire script," unless Woody Allen is directing. I was a founding correspondent and a producer on "The Daily Show," I worked for NPR, I had just subbed for Keith -- it was not the right fit for me. My understanding is that "FOX" passed on the pilot. But "FOX NEWS" picked it up because Roger Ailes, I later learned, was a friend of Surnow's - who called me personally and graciously thanked me and asked me to join up. I thought that was very nice of him, but I was in an exclusive contract with The Discovery Channel. And so I wished him luck. I never got a role on "24."

Do you watch "The Daily Show" these days?

I do occasionally, and when I do, I feel proud.

Do you regret ever having taken the job with "Extra," which you were eventually fired from for not having the right look?

My "look" was only part of the problem. Ultimately it wasn't the right fit for either of us. No regrets. You gotta have a thick skin, because Hollywood is a toxic place. If not for that experience, I wouldn't have garnered the research I needed for my pilot at Comedy Central. And I did get to meet Keanu Reeves at the Matrix premiere, and question him vigorously on why he refused to make Point Break II. That also may have contributed to my dismissal.

You seem to keep yourself constantly busy with work. What's on your plate these days?

Season two of Discovery Channel's "Some Assembly Required," which I hosted, is in the can, and should air soon. There will not be a season three I've been told. So, if it "seems" that I'm constantly busy, good. Lately, I've had my hands full socializing my 1 year-old French Mastiff, Honey.

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