There are no signs in the tiny town of Tipton honoring David Koechner, the comedian, musician, and film and television actor who got his start at Second City in Chicago and was once a featured player on Saturday Night Live. But most everyone in the tight knit community feels a familial sense of pride in his accomplishments.
And why not, he’s one of their own—the local boy who made good in Hollywood.
Since leaving his hometown, David has carved out a solid career as a talented character actor, known for supporting or cameo roles in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, starring his friend Steve Carell, or in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy with Will Ferrell. Whether it’s the obnoxious Todd Packer on NBC’s hit comedy The Office, or the characters he’s created for his stage acts, like Gerald Tibbons, based on a real-life drifter in Tipton, David has made them his own, wholly original through his perspective of growing up in small town America.
“I am a boy from Tipton. It’s who I am,” he says. “My work and my life have always been informed by my experiences here in my hometown.”
On this muggy summer day he and his wife, Leigh, who hails from Overland Park, Kansas, and their five children spill out of a large rented van in the driveway of David’s childhood home on Morgan Street.
His parents, Margaret Ann and Cecil, have been waiting on the front porch in a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. (This visit would be the last time that David would see his father, who passed away on August 3, 2011.) This is the first time they’ve seen their newest grandchild, Eve, who was born in January of this year, and there are hugs and kisses all around. Then Charlie, 12, Margot, 9, and 5-yearold twins Sargent and Audrey swing on a playground that Cecil built.
In person, David, 48, is much taller than he seems on film. He’s a bit over six feet two, and as he sits by his father, you see a strong resemblance between them, one that hasn’t gone unnoticed, even by his own children.
“There’s a photo in my home in Los Angeles of my parents on their wedding day, and my wedding portrait hangs next to it. One day my daughter Audrey asked who I married before her mom,” he says.
He and his father also share a distinct sense of humor. So perhaps he didn’t fall that far from the proverbial family tree. “Just the other day I made a joke, and I told my assistant, ‘That was a Cecil Koechner joke,’” David says.
Although he and his family have called Los Angeles home for many years, his connections to Tipton run deep, and he and his family visit at least twice a year.
A few days earlier, David participated in the Big Slick Celebrity Poker Tournament and Party at Harrah’s North in Kansas City, which benefited Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics. Actors and Kansas City-natives Rob Riggle, Paul Rudd, and Jason Sudeikis headlined the annual event, which David says raised $200,000 for the hospital. He and Jon Hamm, a native of St. Louis and star of Mad Men, sang during the seventh inning stretch at a Royal’s baseball game, too.
“It’s quite costly to fly seven people home, so any opportunity like this allows my kids a chance to get to know their cousins,” he says. “They also like hanging out with my parents and soaking up the different quality of life here and seeing where I grew up.”
One of six siblings (Mark, Mary Rose, Cecilia, Joan, and Joe), David grew up in a large, loving Catholic family surrounded by an extended family that included 19 aunts and uncles and dozens and dozens of cousins.
“My parents have been married for 52 years, but I don’t remember seeing them fight. I’m sure they did, but they were smart enough to do it in another room,” he says. “My father had only an eighth-grade education, but he has always worked hard. So did my mom. It blows my mind that she raised six children without any help and also did the books for the family business.”
Founded in 1960, Koechner Manufacturing started out as a small business on David’s grandfather’s farm west of Tipton, where Cecil woke up every morning and milked 40 cows.
In June of 1967, Cecil moved the business to its present location on Highway 50 East where the company makes turkey coops for a select group of customers throughout the United States. The young David swept the office and later counted out bolts and nuts and also cleaned the bathroom in the break room.
“My father’s business was really the center of my universe growing up and played a large part in my life,” says David. “It was how we identified ourselves.”
David’s father definitely knew that his middle son, an auburn-haired boy with freckles, was his own person. He was a solid C student at St. Andrews, the Catholic school he attended through eighth grade, and his teachers remember him as the class clown.
“I know I was a disruption in class, but with five siblings, making people laugh was my way of seeking attention,” he says. “The first time I recognized that I might be funny was in the third grade. It was wintertime on a Friday, and we were all wearing our coats and waiting for the bell to ring. The teacher asked if anyone wanted to get up and talk, and I raised my hand,” he says. “Bob Bestgen had the loudest laugh in the class, so I had him sit on a chair and I hid my hat in his coat. My bit was trying to find it, and my classmates all laughed.”
With the nearest movie theater more than 30 miles away and only three broadcast network television channels, the young David had to provide his own entertainment. Often that was playing with his friend and classmate John Brandt, who he has known since he was two.
As John, an American Family insurance agent who has lived in Tipton all his life, points out, “Back then there were no PlayStations, so getting out of the house and riding bikes around town was big fun.”
When he was 15, David went to work for his Uncle Emil’s gas station and café at the Intersection of Highways 50 and 5, which today is the site of the only stoplight in the town of Tipton.
“I washed dishes, cooked, waited tables, and pumped gas, and my Uncle gave me a raise after two weeks because I was such a hard worker,” David says.
The colorful clientele included the locals and farmers as well as the travelers passing through. It was a rich environment that expanded his horizons.
“Looking back, I realize that seeing all those new people had a huge effect on me, and I started absorbing their character traits that later would become part of my act,” he says.
A lineman on the football team, he also participated in speech competitions and was the lead in the high school production of Neil Simon’s play, Barefoot in the Park
“I loved being on stage,” David says. “I had no sense then of acting as a possible career, but I had whet my appetite.”
After graduation, he and John took an RV to Bennett Spring State Park on the Niangua River in Lebanon for a week to celebrate and go trout fishing.
“By the second or third day we ran out of beer,” John recalls.
David headed off to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, mostly, he says, because it was expected.
“There are two nuns and two priests on my mother’s side of the family, and she definitely wanted me to go to a Catholic college,” he says.
After two years he wanted a bigger environment so he transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia where he studied political science, something he’d been interested in since the seventh grade.
“I wanted to help people, but I soon realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I was never going to be a senator. How could I when I’d never set foot on a country club? They don’t give hillbillies money to run, although others may argue that they did with Clinton. But I think he’s brilliant,” says the lifelong Democrat.
Uninspired and at a crossroads, he quit going to classes and became academically ineligible. But a chance trip to Chicago one weekend would prove fateful.
“We saw a show at Second City, and I knew what I wanted to do. And when I learned that you could take classes in improvisation, I had chosen my path,” he says. “My father was a bit puzzled at the time, but when something really speaks to you like that, you have to do it.”
David returned to Columbia and worked at three restaurants, including Harpo’s, the longtime college hangout. By 1986 he had saved up enough money to move to Chicago. He trained under Del Close, the guru of improvisation, at the Improv Olympic before joining The Second City comedy troupe, which would become his creative home.
“In Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the more access you have to a thing, the better you’re going to be,” he says. “Bill Gates lived within walking distance to the University of Washington and had access to their computer lab. Being in Chicago, I was on stage from the very first night and would do shows four nights a week and be in class the other nights. But it was all fun. The study was the playing and the joy.”
He spent nine years performing and learning, working alongside a confluence of who’s who in comedy talent, including Steve Carell, Nancy Walls (now married to Steve Carell), Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and the late Chris Farley.
After graduating in 1994, he auditioned and landed a spot on the Northwest Second City touring company. A talent scout saw him perform and soon he was hired by the legendary Lorne Michaels to be a player on Saturday Night Live’s 1995-1996 season.
“I remember watching the first episode of SNL in 1975. I was 13 years old and I was hooked. I just knew somehow I was going to be on that show someday,” he says.
At the time, it was the pinnacle of his career and an amazing experience to know that most of his friends and family were watching that first night.
“Maybe not the third of the population in the Correctional Facility,” jokes his father. “But there were many viewing parties going on to celebrate.”
A heady time, his family and friends, including John and another childhood friend, Bruce Barbour, visited the set in New York. “We had limo service the whole weekend, and David took really good care of us,” John says. “We definitely saw the sun come up on two mornings.”
Although David’s creativity blossomed at SNL, his time on the show was cut short when he wasn’t asked to return for another season. “I didn’t play the petty politics well and put off a couple of producers, and that hurt me,” he speculates.
He quickly was hired as part of the sketch cast on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and later moved to Los Angeles where he won parts on then popular comedies such as Mad About You and Dharma & Greg.
His big break came when he was cast as sports reporter Champ Kind in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was written and directed by Adam McKay and starred a then much lesser-known Ferrell, both of whom he had befriended at SNL.
“This was Adam’s first film and both he and Ferrell, who was not as big a star as he is now, wanted me for the role. But they didn’t tell the studio that because the executives would say, ‘definitely not him’ so they played the waiting game, and two days after my audition I got the call,” he says.
Other roles followed in films such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Snakes on a Plane, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, again with the McKay-Ferrell team and executive producer Judd Apatow.
At a time when many actors were begging to be on the hit NBC comedy The Office, the star of the show Steve Carell personally chose David for a guest starring role as his obnoxious friend Todd Packer. That was 2005, and since then David has appeared on a handful of episodes of the long-running comedy.
His small part as a gun lobbyist in the critically acclaimed Thank You for Smoking earned him notice, and he got the starring role in The Comebacks, where he played a football coach with a losing record.
While he makes the most of the parts he plays in films written by others, it’s the characters he’s created on his own that really stand out and speak to his improvisational roots. Like Gerald Tibbons, who he introduced on SNL.
“Every night in the summer, this bushy red-haired guy who worked as a roofer would sit on the southwest corner of the four-way stop at Highways 50 and 5. I called him Four-Way George and incorporated some of his mannerisms,” he says.
Marked by his slicked comb-over, mutton chop sideburns and an underbite, Tibbons showed up again when David joined SNL friend David “Gruber” Allen’s improvisational stage act. A mix of stand-up comedy and song, “The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show” became popular at clubs in Los Angeles. He and Allen were featured acts on Real Time with Bill Maher, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and went on tour with Tenacious D.
In 2007, they brought their act to television for a series on Comedy Central, but it didn’t translate well to the small screen, and reviews were mixed.
“There were definitely compromises made for television, and it didn’t work,” he says. “Since I was an executive producer, I can’t blame anyone but myself, but it was definitely a disappointment.”
David, who has experienced the highs and the lows, remains resilient, focused on moving forward to new opportunities.
“Being an actor in Hollywood is like being a shark in the ocean. If you stand still, you die,” he says.
Whether it’s an anthropology professor who believes in Bigfoot in Tenure, where he co-starred with Luke Wilson, Final Destination 5 3D, a horror film and sequel released in August, or Piranha 3DD with stars like Ving Rhames and David Hasselhoff, he gives the part his all.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re yelling at someone in your car in traffic or you’re doing a play, if your intention is to make art, then that’s what you’re doing,” he said at The Theater School at DePaul University’s annual fundraising dinner where he was honored earlier this year.
Certainly the economic downturn of the past two or three years has affected the entertainment industry and him personally, so last year he went on the road as a stand-up comedian.
“Parts that I would normally get are going to A-listers who need the work. So with seven mouths to feed, I decided I needed to be employed in between my film and television roles,” he says.
He describes his stand-up act as storytelling through various characters, costumes, and jokes with occasional music from himself and friends. The spark for one of his riffs came from his experiences attending the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia in the ’70s.
“My dad would give me a dollar at the beginning of the day and say, ‘Don’t come back until you’ve gotten lost.’ I could go to the cattle barns, anywhere, but not the carnival midway,” he says. “Of course I snuck through the mile-long midway anyway. It was like the wild, wild west, the magical trailers all painted in what I call ‘carny art,’ the scantily clad ladies, and the world’s fattest man.”
While he’s quite outspoken about his political opinions, he doesn’t voice them in his act. “We’re a nation divided and I’m not known as a political stand-up comic,” he says. But the current state of our government is brought up easily and frequently in conversation. easily and frequently in conversation.
“There’s not two parties in this country, there’s only one and it’s money,” he quips. “It’s all about helping yourself, and the people have nothing to do with it. The power structure is one large corporation serving its needs.”
He also doesn’t talk politics as host of “Always Open,” an Internet talk show produced by Will Arnett and Jason Bateman through their media company Dumb Dumb. It is a free flowing conversation with other actors over a meal at a Denny’s restaurant; so far the show has received positive press and featured celebrities such as Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Kristen Bell, and Will Forte.
In the March premiere, he interviewed Bateman, who he worked with in the 2009 movie Extract. Seeing David, Bateman said, he can always count on a great hat, a minivan, and a hug.
“I do wear a lot of hats. Got to keep the sun off that head,” says David. “The minivan reference is probably because our children go to the same school, and he sees me drop them off.
“I’m very blessed with a great family and a circle of friends who are like my Los Angeles cousins. Many of them go back 25 years to Chicago, and now we’re raising our kids together,” he says. “Family is the world I know and where I’m secure. So creating my own family has always been a natural inclination.”
Both the products of large Irish Catholic families, he and his wife knew they wanted their own brood, and they were so committed that three of their children were born with a surrogate, an experience Leigh has detailed on her blog, Absolute Leigh, www.absoluteleigh.com.
The two met in the Kansas City International Airport in 1996, in late December.
“I’d flown in to visit my family for the holidays and was returning to Los Angeles, and her brother, Pat, was a SNL fan. She was very attractive, and we started talking,” he says.
The conversation continued on the plane, and she invited David to her New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles. They began dating, and they were married at the Immaculate Conception Church in Kansas City in June of 1998.
Leigh was a recreation and leisure major at Kansas State University and master dive instructor who once worked at a Club Med in Tahiti. With her own aspirations in show business, she was chosen as one of 10 contestants (out of an initial 18,000) to compete for their own talk show on Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network OWN.
“There’s more rejection here in show business than any other place in the world, but David works hard and keeps at it,” Leigh says. “He’s super talented, and everyone who does work with him loves him.”
Despite the stresses of parenthood and Hollywood, they’ve survived more than a decade of marriage.
“We were destined to be together,” Leigh says. “Every summer when I was a kid and on the way to camp at Lake of the Ozarks, we would stop in this small town and get ice cream at the 5 & 50 Drive-In … and that little town was Tipton, and the place is still there.”
They celebrated their 13-year wedding anniversary during this visit, over a meal of his mother’s fried chicken, one of his favorite foods.
“David definitely knows where he comes from, and he hasn’t forgotten me or what he’s learned from growing up here,” says John, who was there for the celebration along with Bruce and both of their wives. “He wanted to be a comedian and be in Hollywood, and he chased his childhood dream and succeeded. I really admire him for that.”
David has definitely enjoyed the ride and adjusted to the life of an actor. While he participated in the Stand Up for Joplin comedy show and fundraiser that was held on July 19 and had stand-up dates booked in cities in Iowa and New York, he lives with the uncertainty of where his next acting work will come from.
Right now, though, a million miles away from Los Angeles, where he says the “anxiety level is palpable,” David enjoys the small town tranquility, where nothing much changes.
“We all enjoy the slower pace and recharge a bit when we come here,” David says.
He had a chance to publicly show his gratitude for his hometown during its sesquicentennial celebration in July of 2008. Taking the makeshift stage, a 40-foot flatbed trailer, with his son Charlie, he received a standing ovation from the crowd gathered on the high school football field with Koechner Manufacturing looming in the background directly across the highway.
“Anything I’ve ever done or ever will do is because of you. Thank you for making me who I am,” said an emotional David.
He would later sign autographs for a long line of fans, including his high school drama teacher who brought the playbills from the two theater productions he acted in during his junior and senior year. There were also many awestruck young girls who had seen him as Uncle Earl on Hannah Montana, a popular show on The Disney Channel, a part he took because his daughter was a huge fan of the show.
“When I come home people here do seem happy to see me, and I think they do feel some sense of ownership,” says David. “And that’s great. It would bother me a lot more if they were pointing at me and saying, ‘Who’s that?’ or ‘What happened to that Koechner boy who went to Los Angeles?’
To keep up to date on David’s movies, TV shows, and live appearances, visit www.davidkoechner.com.