Robert Kelly has tasted success. During his 20-year career, the national headliner has amassed a loyal following of fans, the respect of fellow comics, and an impressive list of credits. He’s had regular appearances on Sirius-XM’s Opie and Anthony Show and Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, a prominent role in Dane Cook’s Tourgasm and, most recently, a trip to the Tribeca Film Festival for Cheat, a movie he co-wrote and produced with fellow comedians Bill Burr and Joe DeRosa.
Although he’s been seen on Law and Order, ABC’s The Job, and had a recurring role on FX’s Louie, the Boston comic’s blue-collar work ethic compelled him to struggle for something bigger.
And a struggle it has been.
After a disappointment last year in which FX passed on a script that it took him six months to co-write, the ferocious but disarmingly charming comedian spent the last year scratching and clawing for something he could call his own. This time, he may have hit paydirt.
FX recently green-lit a pilot called Bronx Warrants; a dark comedy based on the true exploits of a New York City police unit which lands Kelly in a leading role.
After two decades in a business that can be cruel and disappointing, the cynical and often-jaded comic is always hesitant to count his chickens before they hatch. However, this time, he’s arrived for battle well armed.
With Leary (who recenetly finished his successful run on FX’s Rescue Me) on board, it appears that Kelly has that missing piece of the puzzle for the success that has eluded him — even if he’s the only one who doesn’t realize it.
AmericasComedy.Com: So, FX just ordered the pilot and cast you as the lead. You must be excited.
Robert Kelly: It’s absolutely crazy, it’s beautiful, but I’ve been in this business 20 years so, I’m realistic. You have to pull back a little. It’s cool to dream, but me, Billy Burr and Joe DeRosa had an FX deal last year — a script deal with FX. It took us six months, and then, they said no.
AC: So, is that always in the back of your mind?
RK: Well, if they don’t pick it up, the fall from the top of that mountain is too much to handle. It took me a long time to get this part. I had to audition, audition, audition, then, test for the network. It wasn’t handed to me. The process of it is so freaking daunting and stressful to get it. And then, once you get it, it’s like, “Oh shit! You’ve been through the ringer.”
AC: Well, with Leary and Apostle’s previous success on FX, the buzz around this thing is that it’s going to work.
RK: Yeah, if you asked me even ten years ago who I would want… I mean, Leary, Dean Lorey, Apostle, Serpico, (co-executive producer Tom) Sellitti, and FX. It’s a dream scenario for a guy like me.
AC: So, one more hurdle, and then, you can maybe allow yourself to be a little bit positive?
RK: Hahaha! You sound like my wife, dude! Look, inside I’m thrilled, but I literally have to control my thoughts. What happened on the script deal last year with me and Billy and DeRosa, I actually saw my trailer. I could actually see me coming out of my trailer with my dogs, and somebody shouting, “Robert, we need you on set!” I was envisioning filming this fucking thing. It took six months of our lives, a lot of hard work, and a lot of notes and lot of revamps and lot of re-dos. And we finally presented it, and they were like, “No. We pass.” That’s a hard fucking pill to swallow.
AC: You and Leary have history; you’ve worked together on The Job, you’re both Boston guys, but you didn’t get to skip to the head of the line.
RK: Nope. I had to do everything. I had to go in and read for the writer and producers. I had to read for the director. Then, I had to test. Then, I had to go on tape for FX, and they had to say okay. I had to go through like everybody else. I’m glad I did it that way. Would I have liked to have Leary to just say, “Here, this is yours.”? Of course! It would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights, but it was just good to go through that process. To go through that process and come out the other side successful is a feeling that I think all comedians or actors should have.
AC: In the last few years, a few channels have really stepped up as being reliably good — AMC comes to mind, and of course, FX. What’s going on at FX that they’re hitting these home runs? What separates them from the networks?
RK: They really give a shit about content, creativity, [and] creative people. They care about funny. You have to take it to the edge to see if it works, and they allow people to break the mold of what we’re used to watching. Even the show I’m on, Bronx Warrants; I can’t believe we’re doing half the shit we’re doing. It’s fucking hilarious! It’s real edgy shit. I can’t give away too much, but we do some pretty stupid shit and some outrageous shit happens where I’m like, “How are we going to do this?” Let’s put it this way… they had to figure out how to take out some of the veins on a strap-on dildo because they had to make it TV friendly. We get to swear; we get to say “asshole” and “dipshit” and “dickhead.” That makes it real when a guy like me says to another cop, “You’re a shithead,” or “You’re an asshole.” That makes it real because that’s how we talk in life. So, the dialogue that Dean Lorey wrote is hilarious, but it’s right on the money.
AC: So, the difference is in the latitude that channels like FX give their creative people?
RK: These FX people, John Landgraf, the president of FX — alright. There are two speeches that I’ve heard in my life that have really fucking affected me as far as making you feel like, “You know what? I can do it. I’m going to keep doing this because I can do it,” and he gave both of them. One, at the Louie premiere, he came out and gave a speech about what FX is trying to do and why they’re in business with Louie — this amazing speech about being creative and finding funny and letting people expand and try new things. Then, he gave one at the end of Rescue Me; the last showing premiere. When he brought on Rescue Me, that was a big risk to take on a show like that after 9/11. It was an edgy, fucked up show, dude. Think about that; the main guy was a fucking alcoholic, cheating piece of shit that you liked.
AC: Your friend Godfrey, a New York City-based comic is involved, as well?
RK: I’ve known Godfrey for fifteen years. He went through the same process I did. We’ve been in the business a long time. We both had shit — he had the Sprite campaign, I had Tourgasm, and we both tasted fame and success and we both came down the roller coaster, had to get off the ride and get back in line to come up again. We’ve both been waiting for something like this, a really cool show, to happen, and he killed it, too. It’s cool to work with a stand-up because the other people on the show are fucking legitimate New York City talented actors. It’s cool to watch real actors. After I knew I got my part, I asked if I could sit in and read the part with the actors, and it’s fucking amazing to see real actors. They’re fucking good, man.
AC: Is there room for another cop show on TV?
RK: Name me one other cop show that’s funny. This show is a half hour, really funny. The first episode is me being too fat to try to get my wife pregnant. I mean, that’s my life for Christ’s sake, right now.
AC: Has FX found out that viewers can root for imperfect people?
RK: Absolutely. As long as you can relate to them and they’re real. In the show, I’m a piece of garbage, you know what I mean? But hopefully, you’ll fucking like me. We’re all dysfunctional fucking people in this thing.
AC: That can be relatable because most people watching at home are dysfunctional in some way.
RK: Exactly. Ninety-nine percent of the world… we’re just fucking pieces of garbage. We really are just fucking ugly. Go on a train, look in a crowd… how many really good-looking people are there? Like one, the rest are just … Ugh!
AC: Does it bother you when comics talk about how broken they are because of their mommy issues or whatever, when you grew up in foster care and on the streets in Boston?
RK: We’re all fucked up, dude. Everybody. I’m more focused now in the last five years on being better because we’re almost dead, it’s almost over. My friends are dead. Some of my really good friends are gone. I’ll never fucking see them again. They’re dead. We don’t have that much time left. We got maybe 15, 20 years left of doing these interviews, having jokes and podcasts, and then, there’s going to be a point where it’s like, “What the fuck is going on?” You’re 63 or 70. I don’t know what’s going to happen so, I’m trying to get better. I quit smoking a year ago. I’m getting back into working out; trying to lose some weight. Thank God for this fucking pilot although, the first episode I’m still a fat fuck. I’m trying to get mentally better. I’m trying to get my shit together because I don’t want to be 60 going, “Fuck. I fucked up.” We’re not in competition with anybody. The guy who gets the big hit show and makes millions has nothing to do with you. Just do the hard work. I’m a fat, bald, scared hunk of garbage. The only thing I have is, I can do the work.
Robert Kelly’s podcast, You Know What Dude, is on the Riotcast Network and is available for download for free on iTunes. Simon and Schuster will be publishing Cheat: A Man’s Guide to Infidelity, a book he co-wrote with Bill Burr and Joe DeRosa based on their short film, in October. Visit his Web site, www.robertkellylive.com, for his tour dates, videos, merchandise, and more.
About the Author: Andrew Lisa is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Originally from the East Coast, he has performed at virtually every major club in and around New York City, and was one of the youngest syndicated columnists at the largest newspaper syndicate in the country. He's currently a finalist in the Funniest Comic in LA contest, as well as a regular at the Garrett Morris All-Star Show at the Downtown Comedy Club.