Daniel Van Kirk on stage (Courtesy: Daniel Van Kirk)
Plenty of stars appear on comedian Doug Benson’s podcast Doug Loves Movies -- Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman are just a few of the dozens of famous guests Benson has hosted.
But the clear fan favorite? “Mark Wahlberg.” Already a regular on the show by the time he made his first appearance in New York, the recording of that particular episode turned to white noise due to the volume of the crowd's roaring after he hit the stage and let out his catchphrase: “Do you wanna do some lines?”
Of course, when I say “Mark Wahlberg,” I don’t mean the real Wahlberg. I mean Daniel Van Kirk, a comedic actor who does an impression of Wahlberg that is somehow accurate and completely ridiculous at the same time. Van Kirk doesn’t look like Wahlberg, nor does he really try to; his costume consists of a bad wig. But he has the voice down pat, and that’s all he needs to get his version of Wahlberg -- an absurdly cocky version of Wahlberg -- across.
Van Kirk is a great example of the rising comedic talent coming out of the podcast world. Like James Adomian and Paul F. Tompkins, Van Kirk has an ability to imitate celebrities and turn them into unforgettable characters; beyond Wahlberg, which he started doing on the Sklarbro Country podcast, he also appears on shows as Steven Seagal and Steven Avery, the subject of the Netflix docu-series Making A Murderer. And those skills have led to Van Kirk's being in demand by other podcasts and even TV shows: his Wahlberg impression has been used for shorts on Fox's Animation Domination High-Def, and eventually led to Van Kirk's own series for the Nerdist Network, called DVK.
I spoke with Van Kirk before his many SF Sketchfest appearances last month. We discussed how he found his talent, where it's gotten him, and the impact of podcasts on comedy. He even let me ask "Mark Wahlberg" a few questions as well, and you can hear the audio of that at the end of this Q&A.
How did you get into comedy?
As a kid, I used to listen to comedy albums, memorize the bits and redo them for my uncle. I also would watch Saturday Night Live, then go to Sunday school the next morning and do all the characters, or at least all the ones I was allowed to do. By the time I finished high school I knew I wanted to be an actor, so I went to college and majored in theater. Years after college, I realized that comedy felt more natural for me, so I started doing that and moved out to L.A. not long after.
I put in the time and effort to get into the Upright Citizens Brigade theater (UCB) and that really kicked it into gear for me. That’s how I met the Sklar Brothers and began doing podcasts with them. If you are interested in comedy, that’s where it’s easy to cut your teeth and be inundated with knowledge from the best comedians in the country.
It all has gone on from there, and I’ve just been tricking people into letting me perform on stage ever since.
Did you find you had a talent for impressions early on?
My impressions of anyone famous were basically me doing an impression of Dana Carvey’s impression. But I think it did teach me a lot about figuring another person’s characteristics and exploiting them until it’s not funny any more.
I also grew up doing a lot of my teachers and football coaches. Once, as part of a prep rally, they had me pretend to be the athletic director and head football coach of my school. I spoke to the entire student body as “Coach Crandall” for 10 minutes. I’m sure those jokes still hold up.
What’s funny is that looking back, it seems like every impression I’ve ever done I came into by accident. With each person, if there’s something odd that I notice them doing or saying and it worms its way into my head, I’ll just start doing it.
I always defer to the great impressionists who can look at somebody and go, “I’m going to do an impression of them,” and are able to break one down. I’m sad to report that I’m just not that good. But if somebody worms their way into my head and I find that I can talk like them, that’s when I’ll lock in and start to blow out the character.
How did you discover your Mark Wahlberg impression?
It was after I watched the movie The Happening. There’s a ridiculous scene where Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are walking across a field, and Wahlberg tells a story that he’s completely made up. He just says, “The other day, I went to the store, and I pretended I was sick because the girl behind the counter was cute. And I talked to her. And she talked to me. And I bought cough medicine… and I wasn’t even sick.”
And then Deschanel asks him, “Is that true?” and Wahlberg goes, “No.”
I just thought that was the most ridiculous… Why even write that scene?! What was the point of that? And then as I said before, it just wormed it’s way into my head and I found myself going, “The other day…” And I could put anything I wanted to after that and it didn’t even have to make sense.
Are you worried at all from getting any backlash from Wahlberg?
I always say this: I’m trying to do a full character. So if I ever met Mark Wahlberg I’d say, “First, I hope you realize I’m a huge fan of yours. More importantly, I hope you realize I’m just doing a character with the same name and that sounds like you. Nothing else is true.”
In my world of Wahlberg, [Mark’s brother] Donnie needs help. In the real world, Donnie is doing great. He was in one of the most prolific boy bands of the last 25 years, he’s on a hit show, he’s in lots of movies -- he’s doing great. But in my world, he lives above the garage, sleeps on a futon and needs help.
With impressions, you have to have the confidence to do the voice, but in some ways it's more important to have a take -- an angle on what this person is about. And it doesn't have to be real. I'm doing an impression of Wahlberg but I'm not an impersonator; impersonators are in Las Vegas, and you want them to sing like Liza Minelli and that's it. If I did a Liza Minelli impersonation it would sound like her but that's where it would end.
Listen to an excerpt of our interview with Daniel Van Kirk's "Mark Wahlberg" character below:
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.