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Thursday
Feb122009

Inside With: Dave T. Koenig, Commercial GuyBy: Andrew Singer


WHERE HAVE I SEEN YOU? "I'm not exactly in Olympic shape, yet I continue to be cast in commercials where I need to be doing calisthenics for hours" --Dave Koenig | Photo: Brian Ach

For many comedic actors, booking a national TV commercial is often the lifeblood that can keep them going for an entire year. And for some, like comedian Dave Koenig, a fruitful career can be forged in commercials, even when playing the unfortunate sap who picks the wrong product. By his own account, Koenig is just an actor who's still figuring it out, turning up in independent films, segments on the Onion News Network and standup gigs around the city. The Apiary recently caught up with the comic and new father to discuss leaving behind office jobs, booking commercials and pro-wrestling.

In many commercials, you portray person who uses "the other brand." How do you get into the proper mindset for that role?
I learned early on that it's okay to just be myself as an actor. I reached a point in my life where I knew I wasn't Brad Pitt, and was totally okay with it. So I have no real illusions about my image. I don't feel compelled to avoid looking like a dork the way I did when I was younger, which is important because being goofy honestly may be my biggest strength. I try to be committed to what I am given, whether it's as the guy using the brand paying for the spot or the competitor's product. I actually think it's more fun to be the guy who has it wrong, because there's so much more room to be funny. To me it's really funny seeing someone who thinks they have it all figured out fall completely on their face, so I just try to do what makes me laugh about that.

Ford's 'Shock Response' Team campaign | Photo via Dave Koenig
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You've spent some time in office jobs you disliked. But you made a choice to never go back to them. How was that for you?
I realized my favorite part of those jobs was the interview, because I always enjoyed going in and telling stories and making the interviewer laugh. I usually did well enough to get the job, but once I was there it all went downhill. I remember being led around on my first day at one office job, and as the person showing me around pointed out where stuff was, I thought to myself, "Don't bother. I won't be sticking around very long." That was around 9:15am.

It became clear to me that I wasn't really following any passion. I was just taking jobs that I thought I could get, and once I got them, I wasn't happy, lost interest immediately, and never really tried to excel at any of it. I decided that if I was going to struggle to get work, I may as well struggle to get work I'd truly enjoy once I got it.

Around that time I decided to take a free seminar at an acting studio. It's no longer in business, but everything I heard them say made sense to me. It may sound odd, but it was like a light went off and I knew what I wanted to do. I had always kept it in my head that I wanted to be on TV or in movies, but I suppose I had convinced myself I wasn't good enough, or good-looking enough. The seminar I went to made me feel completely comfortable marketing myself as-is, and that got the ball rolling.

I got a lot of help and support. My wife was awesome and understanding, and my family was behind me. My dad had even hired me to help him in his office until I was on my feet. I gave myself a year to find out whether or not I was on the right path, and within a year I had an agent, booked my first commercial, and was making money.

Microsoft's 'Great Moments at Work' campaign | Photo via Dave Koenig
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You were improvising and doing sketch comedy in the city before it really started to blow up. Can you tell us about those days?
My improv experience has always been short-form, going way back to the late '80s/early '90s when I'd go see Chicago City Limits where they were in that old church basement. Somewhere between college and when I got back into performing, long-form had taken over the city, and I just didn't get it right away.

I took a class at the PIT at the urging of my friend Dan Posluns, a guy I had performed with in a couple of short-form shows. He was someone who I enjoyed dissecting comedy with, so I was happy knowing there'd be someone I could break stuff apart with after class. We took a class with Ptolemy Slocum, who I only kinda knew from commercial auditions, and ended up loving it. I was put on a couple of house teams at the PIT, and like many before and after me, I started to devour improv in heroin-like binges. I actually had to force myself off the I-train for a while, because I reached a point where improv was consuming everything. It really is an amazing phenomenon. I do want to get back into doing more improv, so if you are reading this, you know, give me a call.

What was your favorite memory associated with your sketch group The Commercials?
The Commercials created a lot of great memories for me in a very short amount of time. We're obviously not the first New York comedy group to go up in flames before it really got off the ground, but I'd like to think we were the most tragic, if only because it sounds cooler to say that. While it was going full-tilt, it was honestly the most rewarding comedy experience of my life. As a unit we were very creative and experimental, and we trusted each other to go off in odd directions without worrying how we'd get back on the path. I loved how we sometimes called audibles backstage in the middle of shows, and how at different times one of us would do something a little extra that gave new meaning to the bits we were doing.

There weren't a lot of people who saw us perform, but my hope is that people do remember seeing something they hadn't seen before. I did have a few people come up to me and sing the chorus of a song we did, and that made me both happy and regretful things fell apart. The Commercials is right now on super-hyper-extended hiatus, but if the stars line up just right (or a collective crack outbreak causes public demand), we may show up again in some form or another.

What is one of the most technically demanding acting roles you had in one of your comedy videos or movies?
Physically speaking, the most demanding stuff I've done has been in the commercials I've been in. I'm not exactly in Olympic shape, yet I continue to be cast in commercials where I need to be doing calisthenics for hours, or running and throwing a mattress, or crammed into a giant milk jug. (Note to commercial directors: I will gladly do more of this, even if the commercial is for saltines).

From an acting standpoint, though, my greatest acting challenge so far was being in the cast of Filmic Achievement. It's a feature-length mockumentary about film school students, and it was completely unscripted. Not only was I surrounded with massively talented and successful actors, but we were in character for hours at a time.

There were several days when we would be crammed into a makeshift classroom, essentially taking filmmaking and acting classes taught by other actors. Everyone was incredibly committed to their roles, and it got to the point where it became difficult to separate fiction from reality. We had to create real relationships that were completely organic, in character, while still getting the storyline and important plot points across, so the communication was very different. I had never met any of the other actors before shooting started, so the rapport I developed with many of them was in character the first time we talked. We also never knew when the camera would be on us, either, so we had to stay in character for some takes that lasted as long as 45 minutes.

For Shur-Line Twist 'n' Reach paint roller | Photo via Dave Koenig
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How do you balance performance life with family life?
I'm really learning that on the fly. My wife and I had our first baby, Caroline, last July and it really commanded my attention. I took some time away from acting to get everything in order in 2008, so 2009 will really be my first taste of being a full-time actor and full-time Daddy. I have been getting some thoughts and advice from other acting papas, and that definitely helps.

What's your connection to pro-wrestling?
The dot-com I started with my high school friends was based on a stock market-type game using professional wrestlers as stocks. It was like the Hollywood Stock Exchange, if you remember that. Our revenue-generating idea was to provide business services to professional wrestling companies, and that sent us driving around to different states to meet with owners of those companies. In some cases we got more involved than others, and I found myself in situations I would never have imagined myself in. Like the time I got legit slapped in the face by a wrestler in the ring during a show (I was supposed to get "roughed up" but the guy felt like showing artistic flair). Or the time my buddy Paul and I ended up in a closed-New Jersey nightclub with a group of local "businessmen" yelling at us because the promoter we were working with slipped out without paying the owners money they owed them for having the show in their club. Good times.

What are your goals for the rest of the year?
Last year was a bit of a transition year for me personally, going from Immature Adult to Confused Father, and I intend to re-invest myself in my acting career in 2009. I really want to perform as much as possible. I have a stack of ideas for videos I want to produce, direct and/or be in. I want to do more stand-up this year, and will definitely get my improv on at some point. I'd also love to host something for someone. I'm also eager to collaborate with other people on stuff again. Generally speaking, I want to be more vague while sounding more specific.

--Andrew Singer is a contributing editor for The Apiary. He performs regularly as "Soce the Elemental Wizard." He recently wrote about comedian Sue Funke.

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