Just me and my sax: a Q&A with comedian and Pittsburgh-native Jon Daly

Just me and my sax: a Q&A with comedian and Pittsburgh-native Jon Daly

It's probably not cool to reduce Pittsburgh-based Jon Daly's career to a single character on a show that ended in 2015, but when it comes to Don, the softhearted uber-yinzer in the Kroll Show sketch "Pawnsylvania," a certain level of respect from his hometown is in order.

The sketch, if you're unfamiliar, follows the Keystone State rivalry between pawnshop owners Don and his Philly cousin Murph (Kroll), who are each equipped with profound regional accents and no shortage of obscure slang and mannerisms that were probably missed by national audiences, but adored in the commonwealth. Kroll nails Murph as a stubborn manchild/gambling addict/jokester, but Daly really shines through as Don, bringing a breezy, likable presence to what could otherwise be a dopey and pitiable character. It's hard to pin down exactly, but that vague appeal is in pretty much every character Daly plays, and part of what makes him memorable in every project.

These days, Daly is back with Kroll on his Netflix show Big Mouth, voicing recurring character Judd Birch. You might have also heard him on Bob's Burgers, Archer, and Family Guy, or seen his appearances on Brooklyn Nine Nine, Zoolander 2, and Hail, Caesar! With his upcoming appearance at Club Cafe on Thursday, Pittsburgh City Paper reached out to Daly to discuss Don, Red Hot Chili Peppers, acting in the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, and his upcoming new album. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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Is the character Don from "Pawnsylvania" based on a real person or a composite?

He’s based on a teacher I had, mixed with a bus driver I had, mixed with a priest that used to give mass in this intense Pittsburgh accent. When we were kids, all we did was make fun of this priest. He would go, [in extreme Pittsburgh accent] “Oh the healing power of almighty God.” [Laughs] It seemed like he was leaning into it, even if we had Pittsburgh accents back then, it was like, "whoa, THAT is a Pittsburgh accent." It barely sounds like English.

You started with improv shows at the Cathedral of Learning, right?
I started doing improv at Friday Night Improv and that was the foundation of me doing comedy. That was just a great thing to do when I was in high school because I wanted to perform and act, and it ended up being like this consistent thing that is audience participatory, so you can kinda get up on stage right away. So I started hanging out with those guys and it was a great thing. Through that, I got the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, which was definitely a boost for my confidence.

What was your experience like at the Renaissance Festival?
In the Renaissance Festival, I played the prince and I had to basically wear a carpet, like a wall to wall carpet. So it was like 100 degrees and I was wearing this horrible thing, but it was great. I was like 17, so I felt really young and I wanted to hang with all the actual adults that were there, but it was definitely not the vibe. But it was fun and I got to stroll around and scream at people, and when people took out a camera to take a picture, I was like, “What is this flashing box you hold??”

So there’s improv in that too, you don’t have lines. Wait, do you have lines?
That was almost all improv except for a few things you have to say.

You had a role in the Coen brothers movie, Hail, Caesar! What lessons or memories stick out the most from that experience?
Just working with the Coen brothers was pretty unbelievable. I got to work with Josh Brolin, Roger Deakins, and the Coen brothers, and I got to talk to them a little bit and how they work. Being on a set that immaculate, from the '40s, is just an experience on its own, like going back in time. Then just working with those guys was incredible. I talked to them about the Three Stooges.

When did you first become aware of the golfer John Daly?
I think he won the British Open and that’s when he became world-famous, I was like 13 or 14, and my dad was into golf and he was like, "There’s a golfer named John Daly!" 

When you were 13, was he the John Daly we know today?
He was definitely a wild man I would say. I don’t know if he was like out and out, like balls-out crazy. He was a fat guy who swilled Diet Coke and smoked on the golf course, and he really seemed like he didn’t give a fuck about the niceties of golf. He had a mullet, he’s from Arkansas, he drove golf balls out of people's mouths and that stuff, he’s a one-man circus. He’s got a touch of P.T. Barnum.

He looks very at home with his shirt off smoking a cigarette. Not many can pull that off.
Much like Jimmy Buffett, he’s a master of his own brand, which is always interesting, when someone is infiltrating a world but they are just this incredibly specific brand. [Daly's] brand just so happens to be … a big middle finger.

Your tour starts in a week. How much of the show is planned and how much is improv?

I pretty much know what my songs are going to be in the show but the Pittsburgh show is special because my brothers are coming into town to be a part of my family band, Daly City. I wrote a song about my family, so we revolved the set around that song and just played some songs from our childhood too. Then my nephew AJ, he's 12, he’s gonna be on keyboards and that’s gonna be a very special thing for me and it’s gonna be hilarious. So I have some surprises planned for Pittsburgh and different ones for Philly and New York.

How many instruments will be on stage for the Pittsburgh show?
For the Pittsburgh show, I’ve got a sax, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, but mostly it’s just me and my sax.

What was your musical education like? What did you start with?
I started with piano, then I was at Carson Middle school in North Allegheny, and I started in the band. Fourth grade, I started playing sax, and then in high school, I started doing like choral singing — that might not be the coolest thing to write, but I did and it was actually very educational and a good basis for doing music.

What’s your strongest instrument?

My strongest instrument is dancing, but also sax. I wouldn’t call myself a … I’m pretty good but there’s always room for improvement. But definitely sax.

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It’s been five years since the release of your Red Hot Chili Peppers parody, "Abracadabralifornia." Does it ever come back into your life? Do people ever still think it's real?
I don’t think people have thought it was real for a while, but when it came out people definitely thought it was real and several news outlets covered it as if it was real. It had the effect of having the Red Hot Chili Peppers dislike me, which is a byproduct that I don’t like. But I dunno, what are you gonna do? It was done with a lot of love, a lot of care. I don’t think I could have done the song if I wasn’t a deep Chili Peppers fan.

You can’t do it to that level of detail if you don’t love the band. Didn’t Chad Smith retweet it?
Chad Smith retweeted it but all the Chili Peppers that had followed me up to that point on Twitter at least, they all unfollowed me, including [Smith]. What are you gonna do?

Do you come back to Pittsburgh often?
I do. I came back for Thanksgiving, coming back for Christmas, I’m coming back for the show, I come back as much as I can. I also did the opening of the Arcade Comedy Theater which is an incredible comedy theater Downtown, that was a really awesome experience. That place is epic.

What are you working on now?
I’m in a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which starts in January. And then I’m on another show called Dark Ages which is coming out in the spring.

Oh, and I have an album coming out. It’s forthcoming, it’s an album of all the songs I’m playing on tour. it is, the music is finished, the album art is being done by an artist from Clearfield, Pa., Rebecca Morgan, who’s a genius. Every song has a sax solo. And it’s just really dumb, really fun stuff. I’m stoked about it.

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