When people point to the screen and say, “I know that guy!” they’re often referring to Bryan Callen. While he doesn’t yet have the name recognition of friends like Joe Rogan or co-stars such as Zach Galifianakis, Callen’s resume is no less robust, with memorable roles in The Hangover series and the hit ABC sitcom The Goldbergs. He’s a Mad TV alum as well, and, perhaps most famously, the co-host of The Fighter and The Kid podcast, which is consistently ranked among the most popular shows on the Web and now gets more than eight million downloads per month.
A lifelong athlete and fitness freak, Callen turned 50 this past January, and got in a workout at Onnit headquarters in Austin, TX, en route to a sold-out stand-up show. We got him to sit still long enough to answer a few questions, and he proved he could make us think as well as laugh hysterically.
Bryan Callen Q&A
Onnit: Bryan, you’re 50, why are you still going by the nickname “The Kid?”
Callen: You know, apparently I don’t age. Oh, and I gave that nickname to myself. I was on set, doing a movie that nobody will ever see… Like most movies you do, you think this is going to be the one. I said to everyone on set, “From now on I will be known as The Kid, and not Bryan.” They started calling me “Kid,” and I said, “Excuse me, it’s The Kid,” and somehow it stuck.
Did you ever see me moving around the gym? I’m so spry and supple. It’s like someone stretched my skin over a cheetah, you know what I’m saying?
Without a doubt. What’s your training like these days?
My training is pretty unorthodox. I like to haul sand and wrangle cattle. I hunt boar on horseback with a spear. I do a lot of street fighting and power fucking… But seriously, I like to do full-body workouts. I don’t do this isolation bullshit like concentration curls, even though I look like I do. In all seriousness, I do a variety of things. The secret is not to push yourself too hard.
I box. I spar. It makes me nervous and keeps me uncomfortable. I think the new science on exercise is probably dead on. You can work out a short time with intensity and get great results. Weights are very important. You can get a lot done if you follow the Onnit blueprint and vary it—there’s endurance, there’s mobility, strength training, circuit training in what Onnit does. But as you get older you don’t recover as quickly, so you have to be more conscientious about how you warm up, the kind of workout you do, the intensity, and what you put in your body. I work out four or five days a week. I box three or four times a week and play tennis. I think yoga and heavy Olympic lifting—snatches, cleans, deadlifts, and squats—are the foundation. I do those once or twice a week.
How hard do you go in your sparring?
If you’re sparring a pro, they won’t tune you up. They’ll let you move and then you’re going to get more tired than hurt because they can measure their shots. When you get your bell rung is when you’re sparring with someone like you, and it’s like two high school athletes swinging for the fences. I got my bell rung by a girl who was trying to go pro. She caught me with a hook.
You’re going up against pros?
Let’s be careful. Pros can do anything they want to you, but a pro will sometimes be nice enough to move around with me and make me feel like I’m actually doing something. When actors say they spar with pros it annoys the shit out of me. I’m like, “No, you don’t. You move around. You don’t spar.”
What supplements are you taking?
I do fish oil, krill oil. I like multivitamins because most people are short on zinc and magnesium. Sometimes I’ll take Total Gut Health. I was talking to a medical student whose area of focus was bacteria in the body, and he said, “Believe it or not, Onnit’s Total Gut Health has got it right.” I like that Onnit’s owners take their own products. They’re obsessed with purity and the newest science.
You’ve always been health conscious. Most comedians are not. Did that make it any harder for you to break into the business?
It’s funny because I was always considered a physical comic. People would say, “You’re physical because you can’t really write jokes.” To an extent, they were right. But when you’re in shape, people want to take something away from you. I just know that I feel better when I’m in shape. I like using my body and staying elastic. I’m a physical guy.
We all have prejudice. There’s a good-looking, athletic guy I just met in [Onnit CEO] Aubrey’s office. The first thing you think when you meet a guy like that is, “I wonder if he’s smart.” We all have a prejudice against people who look good and take care of themselves. “Yeah, she’s hot but she’s probably dumb.” Well, that’s not very fair. It’s probably your own shortcomings that make you think that way, so I try not to.
Have jokes about your healthy habits ever made their way into your act?
I make jokes about the fact that I act like a guru and I know what’s good for you. But here’s the thing, if you spend all your time trying to optimize physically, not mentally, not spiritually or philosophically—if you are simply and only a physical creature—you will become peculiar. I think the whole point of staying in shape and being physically optimized is so your body doesn’t break down and get in the way of what you really want to do. Your body is a tool to service you in whatever your particular endeavor is, and, hopefully, what you choose to do is in service of others.
I think about this stuff as I get older. I’m on TV and I have all this stuff going on, but if I’m only using it to consume… one of the great privileges of being a comic is making people laugh for no reason. And when I do that it only lasts for a minute and then it goes into the ether. People are a little happier for a minute. That’s the best I can do. I don’t know how to cool the planet, save the whales, or ensure that lions have a safe habitat. I’m just a silly goose and make people laugh, and I use my body to do that.
Are the jokes that you write different when you feel healthy?
I don’t know. Comedy comes from all sources. It sometimes comes from the fact that you hate yourself, or you’re tired. I don’t worry about where it comes from but I do think that sleep and hydration are where it should start. People who say “I sleep four hours; sleep is for the weak…” Good luck. Good luck sustaining that lifestyle. There’s too much evidence, too much science against that.
You’ve said that when you write jokes you think of what you’re afraid of, ashamed of, or what you’re trying to be. Can you elaborate on the process?
We’re all afraid and we’re all ashamed. You come up as a child in this world and you don’t have the tools to navigate it. Everything is a mystery. When you’re younger, you’re ashamed of the fact that you’re not accomplishing things. You’re ashamed of your confusion. Your body is embarrassing. Your urges are embarrassing. As a kid, you think your mindset is different. You have these forbidden thoughts. If you can focus on that…
I always wanted to be a big, powerful athlete, because my father was a giant. I thought that’s what a man must be. I wanted to be built like The Rock. I wished I had a little Samoan in me—still do [laughs]. It’s funny, to write from there. It’s funny to write from deep deficits. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have the ability to write stuff that everybody identifies with. Everybody has longings, fears, and disappointments. I love writing about where I thought I’d be versus where I really am. I’m 50. I don’t even know what the fuck that really means. But that’s old. It just is. I’m older than some fucking presidents… I mean, you know, not of this country.
Now I’m depressed. Thanks for depressing me with that question.
“We’re all afraid and we’re all ashamed. You come up as a child in this world and you don’t have the tools to navigate it. Everything is a mystery. When you’re younger, you’re ashamed of the fact that you’re not accomplishing things. You’re ashamed of your confusion.”
So does comedy exorcise demons for you?
Of course it does. That’s the whole point of self-expression. It should be all your demons. When you write a story, a film, a book, or a one-hour comedy special, the character always wants something—the money, the girl, a certain kind of freedom. If it’s a good story, movie, whatever, the character learns that what they want isn’t really what they need, and typically they give up on what they want but in the end they get what they need. Then all of us in the theater say, “Oh, man, I have to re-assess my life.”
Why was it a great movie? Because it made you laugh and cry. The reason why is because it tapped into an inner truth you share with everyone else. Story and art and comedy are the cornerstones of how a culture defines itself.
You grew up in a lot of different countries. How did that help you develop the different characters you’ve played, such as the Middle Eastern guy in The Hangover?
I lived in Lebanon and the guy in The Hangover was based on a Lebanese guy I knew. When he gets shot he says in Lebanese, “Your mother’s a whore.” The cast laughed so hard when I did that at the table read. The character was originally written as an Italian guy. So I grew up all over the world and was exposed to all different kinds of cultures. But I was also thrown into a whole new situation with new people all the time and the way you get accepted and get other guys to like you is through sports and making them laugh.
Is doing good impressions a matter of talent or practice?
It’s a matter of ear. [In Donald Trump’s voice:] “We’re going to make America great again. It’s in the nose. It’s nasal. I need to work on it but I could get it. I’ll grab you by your pussy if you disagree with me.”
That sounds a little more like Walken.[In Christopher Walken’s voice:] Walken… is different… he’s got a deeper register. Krill oil is my secret; I’ll never die. Krill keeps me young.
Everybody seems to be starting podcasts these days. Do you have any advice?
I think you should have something to say. You have to be consistent, but also, why are you doing it? I don’t think what I have to say is that interesting but at least I can try to be funny, and I have a great symbiosis with [co-star] Brendan Schaub. Have a hook. Ask yourself why people should listen to you? It’s a pretty saturated market at this point. The Fighter and The Kid just got over eight million downloads last month—it’s all word of mouth and social media.
I think we’ve hit our stride because you’ve got a cage fighter and a dirty comedian. You’re talking about two people who are not only getting paid for what they used to get in trouble for, you’ve also got two guys who failed a lot. Most of our life we just missed every time. He wasn’t a [UFC] champion. I wasn’t a movie star. We spent way more time worrying and being out of work than we did working. People ask me how do you get so successful at 50? I failed for about 20 years. That’s how. For the most part you’re out of work, your show doesn’t take off, people don’t see what you do.
As a comedian, political correctness has to feel limiting at times. How do you fight political correctness without being accused of bigotry?
That’s a very good question. It starts by not allowing the politically correct to bully you with their tyranny, because they’re not being honest. I think the politically correct movement has a fundamental and inherent flaw. Most people who are politically correct have a general and fuzzy notion of what equality is. They want equality at all costs. But they don’t realize that when you work hard you don’t want to be equal, you want to be better.
Of course all of us want everybody to have equality of opportunity, and we don’t want anybody to be discriminated against over things that they have no control over. But you don’t make things equal by bringing down people that are good—productive, effective people who work hard and kick ass. Don’t try to make the strong weak. Stop labeling all of us in power as homophobic and sexist and racist. The problem is way more complicated. I am not as successful as I could be because of my own shortcomings. Because of things I wasn’t willing to do and still am not. I am responsible for the condition that I am in, and I better take on that responsibility.
Look at your culture. If you spend more money on your rims than on your education, your culture has a deficit. I know that’s politically incorrect, but it’s the truth. If you really care about people who are disenfranchised and held down, then start looking at the real causes and not the symptoms. So that’s how you beat the politically correct. You speak the truth and you back it up.
You’re doing a Goldberg’s spin-off show now. What can we expect to see in that?
I hear the script is really good and ABC OK’d it, so I have my own show now. This is success, I guess. I made it, Ma! I made it! And I feel exactly the same. Only I have disposable income and I drive a Tesla.
You’re known to be well-read. What books do you recommend?
All of them. The classics. The great stories. I like Joseph Campbell for young men. You should understand the allegories of the Old and the New Testaments. Familiarize yourself with what Islam is about, Buddhism and Hinduism. Then get some philosophical underpinnings. Understand a little bit about Aristotle and Socrates.
Read the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, the Founding Fathers. These motherfuckers solved the political problem of the day. Alexander Hamilton was a fucking beast. John Jay, Thomas Jefferson—you should know their names. These were the great thinkers of the day and we benefit every day from their incredible work ethic. Don’t focus on the fact that they had slaves! Yes, I know history is full of injustices. Focus on the spirit that was in the air in 1776 and how it changed the history of the world.
“I think you should have something to say. You have to be consistent, but also, why are you doing it? I don’t think what I have to say is that interesting but at least I can try to be funny, and I have a great symbiosis with Brendan Schaub. Have a hook. Ask yourself why people should listen to you?”
How do we become more successful?
If you learn how to play 20 songs on the guitar, have a conversation in Spanish, and get your black belt in jiu-jitsu, I promise you your life would be immeasurably better. You’d have energy, you’d find a home with like-minded people, and you’d learn the art of learning. You learn how to learn other things and apply that to your life.
Lastly, are you glad Joe Rogan shaved his head so people don’t confuse you two anymore?
Yes, people have always said we look exactly alike. But he’s shorter and angrier and I’m more supple. Just think of me as a cheetah—graceful, beautiful. Joe is more of a badger.
Listen to Callen on The Fighter and The Kid at tfatk.com.