Chris Elliott Makes the World Safe for 'Hot Air' The self-proclaimed comedy porcupine talks about his new novel, Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest.
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Chris Elliott Makes the World Safe for 'Hot Air'

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Chris Elliott Makes the World Safe for 'Hot Air'

Chris Elliott Makes the World Safe for 'Hot Air'

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Thank you so much, Rachel.

Mount Everest, named after Sir George Everest, a British surveyor general of India. It's about 60 million years old. And while many try to summit, at least 142 have died trying. The main cause of death for those who try: avalanches. Among those who've attempted to scale the 29,028 feet, the ancestor of comedian, actor and author Chris Elliott, or at least…

Mr. CHRIS ELLIOTT (Comedian, Writer, Actor): That's right.

STEWART: …that's the premise of the book, anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: That's right. My great uncle Percy Brackett Elliott, who I'm pretty certain was the first person to summit Mount Everest.

STEWART: Pretty certain.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

Well…

STEWART: You're pretty darn sure.

SMITH: …you can't really prove it unless you go there. That makes it difficult.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Exactly. I get his diary in the mail anonymously, and I decide, okay, I'm going to retrace his footsteps and climb Mount Everest and prove he was the first person to the summit - you know, not this Sir Edmund Hillary guy that everyone goes gaga over when you mention his name.

STEWART: Now you decided not…

Mr. ELLIOTT: I can see everyone going gaga over him right now.

STEWART: Gaga.

SMITH: By the way, by the way, it's not politically correct to just mention Sir Edmund Hillary.

Mr. ELLIOTT: That's right. Well, there is a number of other people as well. Oh, Tenzing Norgay.

SMITH: You've got to mention Tenzing.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Absolutely.

STEWART: But in your book, you choose not to go alone. (unintelligible)

Mr. ELLIOTT: I don't. Well, you know, it's expensive to climb Mount Everest these days, because, you know, thanks to Jon Krakauer, because he made it sound so appealing in his book. So, you know, it's kind of a tourist mecca there now. So I have to get a bunch of my rich celebrities to join me.

STEWART: In fact, there's one here, it says:

(Reading) "I first met Lauren - or Betty to her friends…"

Mr. ELLIOTT: Sure.

STEWART: (Reading) "…many years before, in a summer stock production of 'Kiss Me, Kate.'"

Mr. ELLIOTT: Right.

STEWART: (Reading) "She may not have been quite the star she used to be, but she was still a fiery dame. She was wild, to say the least, and that was one crazy summer - let me tell you, a summer I'll never forget. It was actually Lauren who had given me the third elbow after a painful arm wrestling match one night after the show. I assumed she had the hots for me, especially the night she broke my arm. But whether she did or didn't, she always made me feel a bit unbalanced."

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yes. Yes, and still does. There's a slight…

STEWART: Lauren Bacall went with you?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, there's a little bit of a - yes…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: …and she actually, she taught me how to smoke up at about 25,000 feet up.

STEWART: Sure.

Mr. ELLIOTT: And there's a slight romantic past inferred there, that - a little "Harold and Maude" thing that went on between the two of us. She came along. Tony Danza came along…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: …and I brought him along, basically, because I thought for security reasons. But he ended up just singing show tunes all the way up to the summit.

SMITH: And did he go by the character named Tony…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: …just so you didn't get confused?

Mr. ELLIOTT: He did. Yeah. He made sure he had a little nametag that said Tony. Martin Sheen came along. And he, in the book, actually thinks he's the president.

STEWART: Oh, really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: And then Michael Moore filmed the whole thing with a giant Imax camera, and I basically have to haul him all the way up to the summit.

STEWART: Yeah. There's a lot of references to Michael Moore's large posterior.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Uh-huh. Well, you know…

STEWART: You weren't that happy about having to haul his large posterior.

Mr. ELLIOTT: I don't know why I had to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: For some reason, it was me.

SMITH: Well, and Michael Moore was probably just hoping that President Bush was trying to keep you from making the top.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: He was going to finally expose the truth.

Mr. ELLIOTT: That's right. Well, he does point the finger at some of the big companies that are exploiting the Himalayas nowadays, like, you know, Ron Popeil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Now, lest anyone think we're serious, just for the record…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Okay. She's such newsman.

Mr. ELLIOTT: I know.

STEWART: We are a news organization, Chris. You did not…

Mr. ELLIOTT: That is true.

STEWART: …you did not go and climb Mount Everest with any of these people.

Mr. ELLIOTT: I didn't, but, you know, I did - they did fly me over up to the base camp for that cover photo on the book, and that's when I got frostbite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: As you…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Everybody that goes there comes back missing a nose.

STEWART: They do.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Have you noticed that?

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. ELLIOTT: And that, actually, that does play into the plot of the book.

STEWART: I'm going to be a really little bit lame and ask you this question high up in the interview.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Sure.

STEWART: We put some questions on our blog. We said, hey, is there something you want to ask Chris Elliott? And this question is as good as any I have.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Good. Good.

STEWART: It's from a guy named Will G. He writes:

(Reading) "Why, as a comedian, did you feel the need to write this novel? Was there something deep in your soul that compelled you to put your comedic talents to pen?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, I have sort of been putting my comedic talents to pen for about 25 years, which some people don't realize that I actually started as a writer for "Late Night with David Letterman," and have sort of been writing…

SMITH: Wait, wait, "Panicky Guy" was scripted?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yes, it was. Some fine work there. My early work. But this is actually my third book. I've - and it's my second novel. My first one was called "The Shroud of the Thwacker," and that was a historical crime thriller that took place in New York City in the 1800s, but I did no research on the time period at all. And while I was writing that, I just - I happened to glance up at my bookshelf and I saw "Into Thin Air," and I thought, oh, it might be funny to put me on Everest. And so that became my second novel.

SMITH: But Steve Martin writes books, you write books - is this comedians trying to be taken seriously? Get the Barnes & Noble tours?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Not me. I, you know, my stuff is essentially an extension of what I've been doing on TV and in the movies for 25 years. I'm basically in these books. I put myself in these books, and - but it's the persona that I sort of developed back at Letterman. And no, I don't take them seriously. I want people, you know, when they read my books to put them down and then, you know, wonder why they bought them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: To put Elliotts through college - little Elliotts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. That ain't doing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: This is interesting. In doing reading - doing some research, I thought this was sort of a convergence of events. You started - we're public radio.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Right.

STEWART: You started - one of your very first jobs…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: …was in public TV at PBS as a PA.

Mr. ELLIOTT: It was. It was. Yeah.

STEWART: And then a writers' strike helped you get on to…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Wow. You have done research.

STEWART: …to Letterman. All right. Explain the story to us.

Mr. ELLIOTT: I think that was like in '82 or '81 was the writers' strike that - well, somebody was sort of moonlighting from NBC, came over and worked at PBS during the writers' strike, a producer. And he happened to know that this new show was developing and got me an interview for it, which was eventually "Late Night with David Letterman." I had met Dave a year before, before I was working at PBS as a - I was a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, and I was up selling tickets up at the observation deck and he - at "30 Rock," and he came up with his mother, so I charged him the kiddy fare because he was with his mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: And that tickled him. And when this person at PBS had set up this interview for me, Dave walked in to the interview and remembered me, so that's how I got hired at Letterman.

STEWART: What were you doing at PBS?

Mr. ELLIOTT: I was working…

STEWART: I'm having the image of a young Chris Elliott.

Mr. ELLIOTT: …believe it or not, I was a graphics coordinator for a show called "Inside Story" with Hodding Carter. And so I was like getting…

SMITH: Hilarious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: It was really a lot - a barrel of laughs. That's really where I broke my chops in comedy. And I - you know, getting a lot of AP photos and stock footage and that sort of thing. And I almost didn't take the job at "Late Night" because it was $100 less than what I was making at PBS.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: I was hired as a - I was, you know, I had a nice title at PBS as a graphics coordinator. But "Late Night" was offering me a runner at $200 a week, and I had been making $300 at PBS. So it took a lot of soul-searching to leave my promising PBS career.

STEWART: So you take the leap of faith, you head over to "30 Rock," to the peacock network. Did you have aspirations to be on the air at the time? Like, all of a sudden, you're there and you're in the building, the lights, footlights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, that did happen to me, but I didn't have those thoughts when I first went there. I think my goal was to maybe use it as a stepping stone to get to "Saturday Night Live" as a writer. And - but right away, Dave took a liking to me and kind of fostered my persona and encouraged me to get on TV and do goofy stuff.

And he kind of basically took me under his wing - and, you know, obviously, this was before he had a son of his own. And he put me on, actually, the first show. And from then on, I started to write little jokes and hand them under the table to him, and he used a couple. And I think about two or three years into the show, they made me a writer, and then I just wrote myself into the show.

STEWART: Did you write the Marlon Brando's skits?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. Adam Resnick and I did those together. Adam is my best friend in the world, and we started writing those and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: …I think I'm responsible for bringing Brando out of his shell the last 10 years of his life.

STEWART: For those of you who've never had this experience, to hear Chris Elliott as Marlon Brando on "Letterman," we're going to take care of that right now for you.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Oh, no. Oh, no.

STEWART: Let's listen.

(Soundbite of show, "Late Night with David Letterman")

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) The dog is a cat.

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Talk Show Host, Comedian): Uh-huh.

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) And the cat eats fish.

Mr. LETTERMAN: Right.

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) Fish swim and I swim in a lake with my dog Duchy(ph). And I've got a headache, and man is an ape and an ape is a man. And when you wear a wig, you get a sweat…

Mr. LETTERMAN: Marlon, Marlon, excuse me…

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) …and you put on a hat…

Mr. LETTERMAN: Marlon, you're drifting. Marlon?

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) Oh, geez.

Mr. LETTERMAN: Yeah.

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) Sorry about that. I haven't slept in six days.

Mr. LETTERMAN: Well, why is that?

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) Your snoring keeps me awake all night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) I got him with a jab, a zinger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: (As Marlon Brando) I'm a comedy porcupine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You got to love You Tube.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, it's a love-hate relationship with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah, it is. It's kind of hard to actually hear some of that stuff again. You know, the thing with that show was that it was never the intent to necessarily be funny when I went out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Just so you know.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. ELLIOTT: It was always just to make Dave laugh. And whether or not the audience laughed or not, you know, was secondary. And when I look back on it, I think a lot of the things I did, nine times out of 10, just sort of played kind of like that just played. But, you know, I think at the end of the week, people looked back and they thought, well, it was still different. Nobody had been doing that kind of stuff, and so I get credit for that.

STEWART: When we talk about doing things that are a little bit different, "Get a Life" was a series…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah.

STEWART: …that you wrote on, you starred in that kind of has a cult following. Is that fair to say?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah, it has more of a following than we ever thought it would have. I mean, when that show was on the air, we had no idea that people were watching, and we just assumed that a few that were hated the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, I wanted to play a clip from David Mirkin, who's the executive producer of "Get a Life."

Mr. ELLIOTT: Oh, please don't. Please don't.

STEWART: It's part of an interview, a DVD of this show.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Oh, oh, no, no, no. Please don't.

SMITH: Chris Elliott, this is your life.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Not while I'm here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Let's play that.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Oh, oh, oh.

(Soundbite interview clip)

Mr. DAVID MIRKIN (Executive Producer, "Get A Life"): This show is purposely so sarcastic and sort of angrily dripping bile at most sitcoms. In other words, it just - it was our reaction of being inundated by sitcoms that were full of a lot of sickly sweet (censored) that wasn't real.

Mr. ELLIOTT: What it, what it - I don't know. I want to be Cecile B. DeHerman.

Mr. MIRKIN: And so, you know, it really offended a lot of development people, on very deep levels, where they remembered years and year later…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, tell me more about my show, Dave.

Mr. MIRKIN: …they're saying no "Get A Lifes," no "Get A Lifes" and that worked on the show were always suspect.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Wow. When did you put out those DVDs? That's really interesting.

SMITH: I've never seen a commentary to the commentary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Wow. That's my favorite thing that's happened all week.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. Well, I think that kind of says it all right there.

STEWART: That does say it all.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Adam Resnick and I actually have done the commentary on the whole first season of the show, not these things that were put out a few years ago. And for some reason, they haven't been put out yet, but we're - hopefully, they will.

STEWART: All right. I look forward to it…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah.

STEWART: …after that commentary. That was fantastic.

Mr. ELLIOTT: You're sensing a little something in the air, aren't you, Alison?

STEWART: I am sensing a little something. That experience did not end well with this person?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, it didn't end well all around, actually. You know, FOX, in general, just, you know, was not crazy about the show right from the start. And they, you know, I - Adam and I created the show, and then they wanted to bring in, you know, somebody to - who, you know, they could call a show runner who also got a creative credit and…

STEWART: Isn't Hollywood great?

Mr. ELLIOTT: No, it's not. That's why I live on the East Coast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: There you go.

We're talking to Chris Elliott. His new book is called "Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest." Again, we have another one of our listeners, a Chris Elliott fan, who wants to know:

(Reading) "My favorite Chris Elliott role was the one you did on 'Raymond.' How much did that character's weirdness was in the script? How much came from you?"

Mr. ELLIOTT: A lot of it was in the script, but it was about half and half. You know, I was not the first person who did that part. It was actually Paul Rubens, Pee-wee Herman did it once, and then there was a little, you know, something happening in his career there…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Oh, yeah.

Mr. ELLIOTT: …for a little while. And, you know, a guy like me, you have to hope for those things, because then I got a call to see if - from Phil Rosenthal - who I had known - to see if I wanted to step in and do it, and I did. And I wasn't sure it was going to work at first, because I am so odd and I'm such an acquired taste. But it seemed to - that show is so classy. It was always classy to me, and injecting me into it seemed odd. But I guess, for that reason, it worked.

STEWART: It's interesting, you said you were on book tour. We were talking a little bit but off air - not be too obnoxious and talk about off air. But you can…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Right. Off air - in house, though.

STEWART: In house, though.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah.

STEWART: So, on the record…

Mr. ELLIOTT: Sure.

STEWART: …that you've been on book tour for a while and you - tonight, you're actually going to sign books at Columbus Circle, the Borders there.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Right. Yeah.

STEWART: What's been the weirdest encounter you've had?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Because I can imagine, there must be some Chris Elliott fans out there who are interesting.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah. I do get - you know - until I started writing these books, I didn't realize who my fans were because I did TV and movies, but I never did stand-up. So it - I was expecting, when I started on this book tours, just to see, you know, a bunch of teenagers and high school students and college students, because that's who - in the back of my mind - I still think is my audience. And the first event I went to, it was all, you know, big, bald fat guys, you know, that like me. And I realized, well, everybody's aged with me.

So it's a humbling experience, actually, to put a book out and come face-to-face with your fans. But I have to say I appreciate them, and I haven't really had anything bizarre happen to me yet. You know, everybody will say that they have people come up and ask you to sign various parts of their bodies, and that's never happened to me.

STEWART: If you join KISS, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLIOTT: Yeah.

STEWART: Chris Elliott, thank you so much for coming to the studio today.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Well, thanks, Alison. Thanks.

STEWART: Have a terrific holiday.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Thanks. You, too.

STEWART: The name of the book is "Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest." I'm going to - would you sign my book?

Mr. ELLIOTT: Oh, you bet.

STEWART: All right.

Mr. ELLIOTT: You bet.

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