TV News & Reviews

David Koechner makes a ‘Superior’ career one gig at a time

Judd Hirsch (left) plays the owner of a Chicago doughnut shop and David Koechner is his most faithful — and oddest — customer in “Superior Donuts.”
Judd Hirsch (left) plays the owner of a Chicago doughnut shop and David Koechner is his most faithful — and oddest — customer in “Superior Donuts.” CBS

David Koechner is one of those actors who turns up all over the place.

That just might be by his design. And it fits right in with the character he plays on CBS’ new sitcom “Superior Donuts,” based on the 2008 play by Tracy Letts.

“Superior Donuts,” which debuts Thursday, casts Tipton, Mo., native Koechner as Carl “Tush” Tushinski, a Chicago doughnut shop’s most frequent customer. Tush lost his job when a John Deere factory closed and now makes a living in the “gig economy,” taking gigs wherever he can get them, including as an assailant in a women’s self-defense class and modeling as “before” in before-and-after print ads.

“We live in a time where everyone kind of feels like, ‘Where’s my next check coming from?’ or, ‘This place could close, what am I going to do? What’s my skill set?’ So you have to keep expanding it,” Koechner said on a recent morning before making the nine-minute drive from his Los Angeles home to the show’s set. “In a way it goes hand-in-hand with what I’m doing with stand-up, which is a way I can create my own job. If nothing is going on, I can go out on the road and make money. With a wife and five kids, you can’t have a down month.”

Koechner started doing stand-up comedy about six years ago, well after he’d established himself on TV (on NBC’S “Saturday Night Live” and as the obnoxious recurring character Todd Packer in “The Office”) and in film roles (as sports anchor Champ Kind in 2004’s “Anchorman”). In addition to “Superior Donuts,” he’ll be in the Showtime revival of cult classic “Twin Peaks,” which returns in May.

While Kansas City Chiefs horse Warpaint and Susie were warming up before Sunday's football game, actors Rob Riggle and David Koechner stopped by Arrowhead Stadium.

Koechner’s roots in live performance, including improv and sketch comedy, run deep, but he was seeking another outlet.

“It’s harder and harder as you get older to get everybody together to play,” he said of improv and sketch. “With stand-up you can go up and do a live performance whenever you’re ready. If you’re able to put together an act and people are willing to hire you, that’s another business you have waiting for you.”

Koechner, a 1980 grad of Tipton High School, attended Benedictine College and the University of Missouri studying political science but realized it wasn’t how he wanted to spend his life.

“I took time off and visited friends in Chicago and went to Second City because I was always a fan of all the comedians that come from there and a fan of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and that was where I got my start when I saw they taught classes,” Koechner recalled. “This was before the internet and it wouldn’t be commonly known, especially if you’re from Tipton. There wouldn’t be a poster or a pamphlet circulating that says, ‘By the way, if you’re interested in show business, here’s one way.’ 

He returned to Columbia, Mo., saved money for a year and then moved to Chicago and started taking classes and performing at Second City and ImprovOlympic, now known as the iO Theater.

Koechner landed in the cast of “SNL” for one season (1995-96) and was surprised at the time not to be asked back.

“My understanding is it was a political situation between the West Coast (executives) and (‘SNL’ executive producer) Lorne (Michaels),” Koechner said. “The West Coast wanted changes, and I was it, so for no rhyme or reason, I was out. Show business is like baseball: Everybody gets fired sometime.

“The good news is, six months later I met my wife, and that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

On Dec. 29, 1996, Koechner was flying back to Los Angeles from a visit to Missouri. As he was walking through the Kansas City airport, he was stopped by his now brother-in-law, Pat Morgan, who asked why he wasn’t going to New York for “SNL.”

“He was flying with his sister, Leigh, and we were all on Vanguard Airlines, which didn’t have seat assignments, and they saved me a seat on the plane,” Koechner said. “I was a bit apprehensive — they know me from TV — but that woman was so gorgeous I just had to go sit with them.”

“Dave, are you attracted to my sister?” Koechner remembers Pat Morgan asking. “Because, Leigh, I think you’ve met your match.”

“I can say we’ve been together since the moment we met,” Koechner said. “That’s my Kansas City girl. She’s from Overland Park.”

Koechner said he tries to get back home three times a year, including for June’s Big Slick charity event. He has three siblings in the Kansas City area, a brother in Tipton and another brother in Atchison.

Koechner has played the Kansas City Improv twice, and a few years ago his brother in Tipton got him to return for a fundraiser in the gym of his elementary school, St. Andrew.

“It was surreal, and it’s a little unnerving when it’s your hometown,” Koechner said. “But it turned out really well.”

Now he’s focused on his role in “Superior Donuts,” which tells the story of doughnut shop owner Arthur (Judd Hirsch), his new employee (Jermaine Fowler) and the shop’s assorted customers. “Superior Donuts” executive producer Bob Daily (ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” CBS’ recent “The Odd Couple” reboot) said Koechner and his character both defy expectations.

“David Koechner to me is this unbridled ball of weird energy, and we really want that,” Daily said. “For this character, we were hoping to get somebody who is gonna be coming out of left field at all times, and that’s David Koechner to a T. You never know in person or with that character what David Koechner is going to be saying at a given moment, so that was perfect for that character. Every show needs the weirdo.”

In addition to “Superior Donuts,” Koechner has recurring roles on ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and in the animated shows “American Dad” on TBS and “F Is for Family” on Netflix. And he has a regular role on Comedy Central’s “Another Period,” although he’ll do only a few episodes in the upcoming third season because of his “Superior Donuts” contract.

Koechner also has several films awaiting release, including parts in the big-screen “CHiPS” (March 24) and the filmed-in-Kansas City movie “All Creatures Here Below.”

His part in Showtime’s third season of “Twin Peaks” is top secret.

“The audition was more of an interview with the casting director, and it was just lovely and laid back,” Koechner said.

Then he got a call that he had the job, but Koechner wasn’t told what role he’d play even after getting the script pages for his days of work.

“They said, ‘You’re going to be one of these three people,’ so you kind of become familiar with all the scenes.”

On the day of filming, Koechner and two other actors met director David Lynch, who told each one what the part would be.

“We were tickled pink and just had a blast,” Koechner said. “I don’t know if I’m in one episode or three or four. I don’t even know the whole story. You only know what you did the day you showed up. I think there were 217 actors in this enterprise, and I will tell you it is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”

The only downside to staying busy? Sometimes vacation plans get upended. Koechner expected to be on a weeklong vacation in Mexico to celebrate his wife’s birthday, but it coincided with the first week of production on “Superior Donuts.”

“What can you do? You can’t turn down work, especially good work,” Koechner said. “My wife was going to join some of her girlfriends so she went ahead and I just bought her a (Lexus RX) car — well, it’s a lease — but you gotta get mama what she wants. And she was just as happy that I got work.”

Freelance writer Rob Owen: RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.

Where to watch

‘Superior Donuts’ has a special preview at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and debuts in its regular time slot at 8 p.m. Monday on CBS.

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