By Pauline M. Millard
Christian Finnegan has come a long way from his days scrounging up an audience for his comedy routines.
In his early days as a comic in New York, Finnegan performed stand up and with a sketch group in alternative comedy venues such as the Luna Lounge’s “Eating It” series as well Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious. It paid little to nothing, but it was a way for him to get out and perform.
Now Finnegan, 33, still does stand-up comedy and once a week can be seen making funnies on VH1’s weekly pop culture roundup show, “Best Week Ever.” He also recently released his first comedy album called, “Two For Flinching.” He has written for HBO’s “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn” and has appeared on Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show.” On first glance, Finnegan doesn’t seem like he would be a comedian, given that he’s a tall, barrel chested guy with spikey blonde hair and a round, open face. But he quickly gives off a jovial vibe, like a big brother or a friendly bear.
The Boston-born Finnegan came to Manhattan when he was 18 and a freshman at New York University. Throughout his late teens and 20s he hop-scotched around the island, living in assorted sublets and shares. It was the late Dinkins-era and early Giuliani years, when the city still wasn’t completely accessible to everyone.
“The first couple of years that I lived here, it seemed that every six months the area of demarcation expanded eastward,” he said. “First it was Second Avenue, then First Avenue then Avenue A. I remember my first time on Second Avenue I thought it was gritty.”
“I’m always the weird guy at the comedy club or the very mainstream guy at the weird club,” he said. “I’ve never really totally fit into to either of those, but I like that I can exist in both.”
Finnegan’s life now is a far cry from when he was in his early 20s, when he was $15,000 in debt and living in the apartment on 108th and Central Park West that had a rat problem. Normally he would stomp around to scare the rats away before he went to bed. One night he forgot his evening ritual and en route to the bathroom watched seven rats scurry across the floor. He was so scared he refused to go back into the bathroom and soon found a new place in Queens.
Such was the life of the aspiring comic. After a few weeks of conservatory training at NYU he realized that he looked forward more to his academic classes than his acting ones, which he felt was a bad sign. He soon switched to playwriting.
His decision to go a slightly more academic route may have helped Finnegan in the long run with his comedy, since he said that doing stand up takes a lot of quick and intricate thinking.
“I think that’s something that a lot of comedians have in common,” he said. “They take things very personally and they over think things that other people would just let go. In a way, that is the root of comedy: applying rigorous logic to things that other people just ignore.”
“The one thing that I like about being a comedian is that you can always just do it,” Finnegan said. “You don’t have to wait for other people to give you an opportunity. You don’t have to wait for anyone to validate you by giving you a part. You can always just do open mics. You might not make any money, you might suck, and odds are you do, but you can always practice your craft.”
Mike Berkowitz met Finnegan five years ago and soon became his booking agent for his tours. “At first I would book him in anything just to get him on a stage, and now he’s one of the hottest comedy acts for colleges,” Berkowitz said. In fact, Finnegan is so much in demand that he’s been chosen as the sole act for Comedy Central’s College Tour.
“Part of Christian’s appeal is that he’s smart enough to appeal to an educated person, yet still accessible to everyone,” Berkowitz said. He thinks part of this came from his appearances on “Best Week Ever” and “Chappelle’s Show.”
“I remember one time I was with him in Chattanooga and as we were walking down the street people were stopping their cars to say hello to him and were actually quoting lines from his sketches in ‘Chappelle’s Show,’” Berkowitz said.
As for his new album album, Finnegan says it was a dream that he’d always had. Sometimes when he speaks to college students, he wonders if they understand why putting out an album would be a big deal, considering that with a simple laptop computer anyone can put out a CD nowadays.
“But when I was a kid, you had to go to a record store and buy a CD, and it was this mysterious process as to how it got made,” he said. “The fact that there is a physical object with my name on it is huge. It’s something that will last, because comedy by nature is ephemeral. The album is sort of a document. A sort of ‘I Was Here.’”