Pleased to meet Brian Stack

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Brian Stack
Brian Stack performs in a comedy sketch on 'Conan' on TBS. (Team Coco/YouTube)

"Bands like the Replacements and R.E.M. were as influential to me when it comes to comedy as a lot of my favorite comedians were," says Brian Stack. "Their whole approach was very relatable to me. It sounded like they were doing what they really wanted to do."

Stack is certainly someone who has followed what he wanted to do. You may not know his name right away, but if you've watched any of Conan O'Brien's late-night shows over the past 18 years, you'll certainly recognize Brian Stack.

Emerging from Chicago's vibrant improv scene, Stack joined the Late Night with Conan O'Brien staff in April 1997. Although he never expected to do comedy professionally, Stack has made a very good career of it. Stack has created numerous characters, writing and performing as the Interrupter, as "Ghost Crooner" Artie Kendall and as an easily fascinated Frankenstein. After making the move with Conan to Los Angeles and to the current Conan incarnation on TBS, Stack continues to create memorable characters like the "Fashion Assassin" James Sinclair St. Wallins, not to mention the countless, nameless characters he plays in an ongoing string of comedy sketches. Beyond Conan, Stack has played various roles on television programs such as The Office and Parks and Recreation.

But underlying all of his writing and acting chops is a deep love of music. "I think I was pretty naïve when I was growing up in thinking that if something was worth hearing, I would hear it on mainstream radio … [but] bands like the Replacements and R.E.M. were very eye-opening to me, because it was like, 'This isn't on the radio and this is great — so what else is out there?' "

College radio


Like many people, Stack was exposed to a wider range of music while at college. During his undergrad years at Indiana University and later during his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Stack discovered bands like the Dead Kennedys, the Butthole Surfers and — most importantly — his two favorite bands, the Replacements and R.E.M. "It was very exciting to discover them," Stack recalls. "It was kind of like when I discovered SCTV — you feel like you've stumbled onto something that's very precious to you and you feel like, 'This is something that's just for me!'

"There's all these other people out there who feel the same way; you just haven't met them. But you gravitate toward each other and find each other. All the misfits kind of eventually, hopefully, find each other."

Lost but laughing


There was something in the Replacements' songs that hit Stack at just the right time. "To this day, they're one of those bands that means the most to me," he says. "I discovered them at a time in my life where I felt a little lost, and they sounded lost in their music but like they were laughing in the face of being lost, and I really connected with that."

Brian StackIt's a connection that has remained strong. Beyond the albums, Stack owns a couple Replacements-related books by Minneapolis writer Jim Walsh — the photographic history Waxed Up Hair and Painted Shoes and the oral history All Over But the Shouting. "I loved reading the book," he says, "especially quotes from people like Craig Finn and Lori Barbero and other people who were fans in the early days."

Stack struggles, as many indie-rock fans do, with the quandary of wishing the bands he loves could have been bigger than they were but understanding more mainstream success might have lessened what was appealing in the first place. He takes comfort in the irrefutable evidence — often acknowledged by artists like Billy Joe Armstrong — that the Replacements influenced a raft of performers who came after them. "A lot of times it's those people who kick in the door who don't make it through the door," Stack says.

Minneapolis appeal


In describing his musical tastes, it becomes clear Stack has an affinity for Minneapolis bands. He says that, as a Chicagoan, he relates to artists from cities that aren't in a glaring show-business spotlight. "You're performing for regular people and other performers, as opposed to performing for record executives and entertainment executives," he says. "You do it because you love it."

Stack says that attitude seemed to characterize bands like the Replacements as well as Hüsker Dü and the Jayhawks, even though their sounds were dissimilar. "They were doing what felt right to them," he says, "and that's very much how the Chicago comedy scene always was to me; no one really expected to make a living in comedy. We were all just doing it because we loved it."

And Stack is no stranger to Minneapolis; his sister lived in Minneapolis for some time, and he got to visit. "Minneapolis has a real charm to it, and it's large enough to have some real diversity and all the cultural advantages of a really big city," he says. "I could easily see myself living in a place like Minneapolis. I think it's a beautiful, beautiful city."

He'll even tune to Minnesota-based radio now and then. From his home in Los Angeles, Stack listens to The Current's stream, having discovered it after watching in-studio sessions on The Current's YouTube channel.

Artistic crossover


"I'm often pleasantly surprised to see how often my favorite musicians happen to be comedy fans," Stack says. "There's a lot of crossover between music and comedy."

Amy Poehler, Yo La TengoAs examples, Stack says Neko Case is just as funny as she is musically talented; he lauds Yo La Tengo for being big comedy fans, noting how they went so far as to put a then-little-known Amy Poehler on the cover of their 2000 single, "You Can Have it All"; and he recounts how when Conan O'Brien and Jack White got together to work on a video, O'Brien wanted to talk about the blues and cool guitars, but White just wanted to talk to O'Brien about The Simpsons.

And then there's Jon Wurster, the drummer for Superchunk and for Bob Mould. "He does these hilarious phone calls into WFMU's The Best Show, and he does it kind of anonymously," Stack says. "Here's this guy that's one of the best drummers in the world and he's also one of the funniest guys in the world."

Working as he does on a late-night talk show, Stack shares the studio with a steady stream of musical guests. He thinks it's a thrill when legends and old favorites visit the show, but he's also discovered new favorites, such as the Alabama Shakes, Patty Griffin, and a band led by Craig Finn. "The first time I ever heard the Hold Steady was when they played 'Your Little Hoodrat Friend' on Late Night," Stack says. "I was a fan right away."

Looking at Stack's own work, many of his characters have musical elements — like the Crooner or more recently, as the voice of Minty the Candycane Singer. Others include classic-Hollywood elements, drawing on Stack's love of old movies. "I think it all just soaks into your brain, like the way musical influences soak into a musician's brain," Stack says. "Like Keith Richards said, 'Everything you've ever heard comes out when you play.' We're all kind of the sum of all the stuff we've loved."

And as for that band from Minneapolis he loves so much, Stack knows they'll be touring again in April, and he hopes to be at one of their shows.

Achin' to be, in fact.

Gallery

Brian Stack plays a YouTube commenter on 'Conan' (TBS):
Brian Stack as "The Interrupter", one of his characters from Late Night with Conan O'Brien:

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