When he began making Children’s Hospital in 2008, Rob Corddry did not have access to a time machine–hot tub, or otherwise–that let him know it would one day become possible for webseries to evolve into TV shows. Instead, he just had his sense of humor and a willingness to experiment, adapt, and learn quickly. These are the qualities that have guided his entire career, though.
Corddry emerged from New York’s improv comedy scene in the early 2000s to become a correspondent on The Daily Show. He would go on to join the ranks of that show’s most successful alumni, only leaving to anchor a network sitcom. While that series, Fox’s The Winner, did not end up becoming the hit Corddry might have hoped for, it paved the way for his screen persona, which viewers would get to know in a flurry of “best friend”-type roles in the years to come. As his film career took off, the performer also became a multi-platform content creator with the Emmy-winning Children’s Hospital and its spinoff, Newsreaders, both of which he developed with David Wain. The possibilities of what he’ll do next are now as wide open as if he had access to a chronomancing jacuzzi.
On the occasion of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 opening in theaters on February 20, Co.Create hopped around Rob Corddry’s past to find out how he learned to be productive, work with friends, and move between genres and media.
Rob Corddry’s first paid gig was touring with the National Shakespeare Company. It may not have been a very lucrative entry into the world of performance art, but it proved to be the right thing at the right moment.
“It was really just eight actors playing three different parts each, traveling in a 15-passenger van with sets that they had built themselves. Not the most glamorous Shakespeare ever,” Corddry says. “We did it in junior colleges around the country for a year. I was making between $350 and $400 a week–with $25 extra if I taught a workshop or slept in the van instead of a hotel, which I did a lot. I was out there in the background on stage one day, and other people were acting and I was able to look at this whole situation and I had this glorious moment where I was like ‘I’ve made it! This is it, man.’ And that year was the last time in a long time I was paid to act. But I mean I get why I thought that, because it is kind of true in a way. I realized in that moment that I would have been happy at just getting paid doing what I love. And at the time, making $350 a week meant I was flush.”
As Corddry began spending more time at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, he spent less time in Off-Off-Broadway plays. In 2002, he and Ed Helms were hired as Daily Show correspondents on the same day. In order to get comfortable with his first high-profile job, Corddry studied raw footage from Stephen Colbert’s field segments. The research paid off.
“I think there was two weeks of Daily Show College where I was just watching the raw tapes constantly,” Corddry says. “It was all digital, and so the camera was rolling a lot and I was able to see what happens behind the scenes. I realized that a lot of this is real and it’s gonna take improv skills. But then if you don’t get something then there are ways to manipulate it so that it’s at least funny. There were some I saw where you could tell what they were going in to get and they didn’t quite get it, but then when you watched the final field piece with editing and voiceover, it’s a completely different story. So I think I was ahead of the game a little bit in that I knew that these things were amorphous and we could really just leap on anything interesting that’s seeming to happen and we’ll get something out of it.”
Corddry only found his footing at The Daily Show after learning that ignorance is not necessarily bliss–and there’s an easy solution to it, too.
“I never felt like the smartest guy there, or even a smart guy at all,” Corddry says. “I was always the dumbest guy there. But what I learned was that it’s okay not to know what someone is talking about and to actually, you know, ask them. It’s such a relief sometimes when you don’t have to pretend that you have any idea what someone is talking about and you just go, ‘Oh, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ Then you start actually learning. So I got more comfortable with it as time went on but it was very stressful at first. I felt like I had to perform for the egghead writers. They’re brilliant, but they were an intimidating bunch.”
Although writing was a crucial part of Corddry’s job at The Daily Show, he never wrote a project of his own until he developed Children’s Hospital in 2008. He only arrived at the idea, however, and the focus necessary to execute it, when he was able to clear the clutter from his brain.
“During those six or eight months of the writer’s strike, I was spending eight hours a day learning how to be more productive,” Corddry says. “And that was when I found [David Allen’s] Getting Things Done, by way of Merlin Mann creator of Inbox Zero. It really just clicked. It solved all the problems that I felt I had inherently, which was just ‘What do I do now? What do I do next?’ And it made me love to work in a way I never had before. I’m a list person and for list people, getting everything out of your head and having inboxes, whether they’re digital or an actual box on your desk to file things in, it feels like half the work is done. So once I got a grasp on all that stuff, then I got the idea for Children’s Hospital. Once my mind was clear and my pond had no ripples in it, ideas started bubbling up. It’s about creating space in your brain for more things to do, for ideas to have room.”
In addition to the odd lead role in films like Hot Tub Time Machine, Corddry often shows up in smaller roles in a lot of films, and ends up stealing them. Although there isn’t a real method to his project-selection, there is a simple guiding principle behind it.
“The biggest thing is, ‘Do I like the people working on it?'” Corddry says. “If the script fits in my mouth and I don’t have to force myself around it, then the decision process becomes about other things–time, schedule, what does this mean in the grand scope of things in my 30,000-feet view of my plan. Usually, I’ll have some say in the development process, depending on what it is. Sometimes I don’t want a say in the development process, I just want to be an actor. And then sometimes, in the best case, I am able to suggest and shape casting as well so I can fill it out with the people that I love to work with. Because that’s the main thing, just to do good stuff with people who aren’t dicks.”
As Corddry has seen his web series turn into a TV show and had comedy roles tinged with melancholy, he has learned to be more adaptable because the world of entertainment is rarely as simple as black and white.
“It’s probably detrimental to my career in a way, but I would be happy to play shades of the best-friend role forever. If all the circumstances are right, I will do anything in whatever form of media. There is no plan as to whether it’s comedy or drama or I have to establish myself in some new way. I mean, there are certain parts I want to play. I think I love doing action movies, for instance. I did one where I played a badass alcoholic spy, and I could see myself drifting more into that area because I’m bald and so is Bruce Willis. I’m starting to see less of a line between things, though.
“The division between what’s thought of as TV and movies; that’s an old model, in a way. It’s such a grey mass right now of media. And it’s the same with genres. Like, I’m doing a show for HBO called Ballers. and it’s a comedy but there’s also some pretty heavy moments. And my technique doesn’t change at all. I still endeavor to play every moment honestly. You don’t even have to try really. If you’re playing something honestly then it doesn’t matter what the result is: making somebody laugh or making them cry.”