Kevin Nealon — A Hike Best Taken

kevin nealon mic stand up

Before Michael Che and Colin Jost, Kevin Nealon sat at the “Weekend Update” desk of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Multiple replacements (joints) later and at the age of 70, Nealon isn’t sitting or slowing down. He’s hiking. You can find him on YouTube doing just that, while talking to celebrities. When he’s not hiking, Nealon is performing stand-up on the road, entertaining the masses with his “constant tour.”

ABILITY’s Chet Cooper met with Nealon to talk about his health challenges as well as his long-term relationship with comedy, writing and acting. Nealon spoke about the birth of “Hiking with Kevin,” his life experience on tour and how he’s doing what makes him happy.

kevin nealon hiking with ray romano
Kevin Nealon hiking with Ray Romano

Chet Cooper: You interviewed Ray Romano, and he brought out that he had anxiety disorder. I had interviewed him, and he never brought that up.

Kevin Nealon: I don’t even remember that.

Cooper: You do such a nice job; it becomes so personalized. I’ve been thinking about creating a similar show, but instead of hiking in the beautiful outdoors it would be ‘Scuba diving with Chet’.

Nealon: (laughs) That would be funny. There would be a problem with the sound.

Cooper: Do you know what the magazine’s about and why we’re here?

Nealon: Yeah, I think I was on the cover of one once.

Cooper: I didn’t know that.


Cooper: How are things going with your A-fib [atrial fibrillation].

Nealon: Things are going great with the A-fib. I had it for maybe 12 years and it became more persistent. The doctor told me it would get to a point where I would have to do something about it. That’s called an ablation. That’s what I had done, and I haven’t had a problem with it since. An ablation is where they go in through your groin, like a robotic thing, and through your neck, and they solder around that electrical situation in your heart. They put dots all the way around that electrical portion of your heart, like a corral and it keeps it in there so it doesn’t come outside.

kevin nealon drone
Kevin looking for his drone

Cooper: Do you have a device…

Nealon: No, I don’t have a mechanism. They went in to do the surgery or whatever they call it, the procedure with a wire and they would solder, do a little burn, around this whole area that was affected.

An A-fib is caused by the electrical circuits in your heart. They’re misfiring somehow. So, the doctor finds out where that area is and looks on the screen and goes in up your arteries or whatever it is to get there, and there’s a little burn, burn, burn, all around that area so it won’t be able to go outside of there.

Cooper: So, it neutralizes whatever is not working properly?

Nealon: Yeah. Keeps it confined so it doesn’t get out.

Cooper: Can you imagine who figured that one out?

Nealon: It’s amazing how technology and advances in medical issues have progressed so quickly. And all the advances they’re finding for all other kinds of diseases, too, that we’re not even hearing about now, but they’re on the edge of discovering things. It’s exciting.

Cooper: I was at the Cleveland Clinic watching with some physicians and psychiatrists around deep brain simulation, and they had a patient in another room. They had already mapped the brain and placed the probe. They said, “Lift your glass.” And his hand was shaking violently. They turned on the device and asked him to lift the glass. The shaking and tremors stopped.

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Nealon: Wow, that’s amazing!

Cooper: All that electrical.

Nealon: Is he cured from that now?

Cooper: Oh, he died on the operating table.

Nealon: Oh, he did?

kevin nealon hiking with jimmy kimmel

Cooper: Sorry, no I’m kidding. How did you come up with “Hiking with Kevin?

Nealon: Matthew Modine is a friend of mine. I hadn’t seen him for a while—from “Full Metal Jacket” and “Stranger Things” now—And I said, “Matt, you want to go for a hike in the canyon?” And he said, “Sure.” So, we’re hiking and it’s a really steep incline, and we’re so out of breath and we’re talking, and it’s like you can’t finish a sentence. It’s very broken up. And I said. “This would be funny if this was like an interview show.” [mimics speaking while hardly able to breathe] So, I posted that on Twitter, two-minute interstitials, you know? And I put two or three of those up, and people really liked them. And Matt said to me, “You should do a weekly show, a ‘Hiking with Kevin’ kind of a thing.”

Cooper: I think I stumbled on YouTube of you doing this because of something—you know, the algorithms that follows you once you look at something. I think from that you appeared a few times with Conan, and then your name started popping up. Do you still produce the show?

Nealon: Yes

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Cooper: The feeds I saw were four to six years ago. That’s why I didn’t know if you had done any newer ones. I looked at your website, but it was there?

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Nealon: Because I’m mostly promoting my stand-up tour on that website. That’s a good point. I should have it redone and updated a little bit.

Cooper: It would increase your audience.

Nealon: Yeah, I’m in the process now of taking it out and trying to get it sold to the platform. And then maybe increase it, do international hikes.

Cooper: And when you expand, you might not be able to do them all yourself. You could say, “And co-hosting is Chet.”

Nealon: (laughs) Good idea, yeah!

Cooper: You could do co-hosting.

Nealon: I was going to do one—I still might do it. —where I’m hiking with somebody and Conan comes down the other way interviewing somebody else. (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs) Nice.

Nealon: He takes my guests, I take his! That’s a good idea. I do need to expand my website and then maybe do some merchandise, too, for the hike.

Cooper: Merch is always good. Maybe contract a third-party to do it for you because, as busy as it is, especially if you’re still producing and editing.

kevin nealon book

Nealon: Yeah, yeah, that takes a long time.

Cooper: What software are you using?

Nealon: I use Premier Pro. Adobe. Do you do that?

Cooper: Yes, we have some video interviews.

Nealon: Can I ask what is your disability?

Cooper: I have a couple I’ve acquired and a couple I was born with, ADHD and Dyslexia.

Nealon: How does ADHD manifest itself? My wife keeps accusing me of having ADD or ADHD.

Cooper: You guys make jokes on your hike with Conan. He is answering a question, and you call out squirrel or something. Going off-topic. Very creative minds tend to go off tangent.

Nealon: Oh, I see what you’re saying, where I keep changing the topic.

Cooper: (laughs) Yeah.

Nealon: I learned that from Howard Stern. He would ask a lot of rapid-fire questions of people. And then he would hit on one. That’s based on that.

Cooper: The methodology…

Nealon: But the ADHD thing, how does that—

Cooper: It might manifest with problem paying attention, short attention span, maybe difficulty focusing…

Nealon: So as long as you’re able to focus, you don’t have it? Because I can sit down and paint for, like, two hours.

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Cooper: I’ve interviewed people who had severe involuntary movements, but when they paint their spasms or tourette tics stop. I mention that because there maybe something about truly engaging in something one loves doing then your “squirrel” distraction stops and you can be focused.

Nealon: I know. On the way down here, I was listening to an Audible book in my car, and I had to rewind it four or five times because my mind just wandered off. I wasn’t listening to it.

kevin nealon self portrait
Kevin Nealon self portrait

Cooper: I’m sorry, what were you just saying?

Nealon: (laughs)

Cooper: Growing up, my biggest challenge with dyslexia was trying to get good grades in all classes. Navigating different teaching styles and subjects was difficult.

Nealon: You get good grades studying backward countries.

Cooper: (laughs) Nice!

Nealon: Do you know who else has dyslexia is Joel McHale, the actor. Do you know him?

Cooper: Yes. What was the last thing he was in?

Nealon: I think it was “The Great Indoors.”

Cooper: With your traveling schedule, have you looked into doing shooting “Hiking” in other states?

Nealon: Yeah, in fact, I often bring my camera and stuff with me in case I run into somebody. When I go to New York I might run into a celebrity. Or I’ll just bring it to get B-roll, like flying a drone.

Cooper: What kind of drone are you using?

Nealon: It’s a Mavic drone and then a DJI drone, a smaller one.

Cooper: I’ve got a mini-drone, but I haven’t learned to fly it without worrying it will fly away or run into something. It does have obstacle avoidance.

Nealon: The newer ones have that. I have that and the mini-four EGI. I’ve crashed, like, five drones. I was able to repair them, but you know, you take your eye off of them for a minute and either the wind takes them or it’s not on the right setting.

Cooper: Mine has about 30 mile wind resistance.

Nealon: Wow! What do you use it for?

Cooper: Taking baths. I haven’t filmed with it yet.

kevin nealon portrait of christopher walken
Kevin Nealon’s painting of Christopher Walken

Nealon: Oh! (laughs)

Cooper: I’m still practicing on it. I surf with a friend and as we’re getting older we’d like to capture some footage before it’s too late—

Nealon: How old are you now?

Cooper: How old do you think I am?

Nealon: Forty?

Cooper: We’ll leave it at that. (laughs) What did you do prior to SNL?

Nealon: Stand-up is all I ever really wanted to do. Now I’ve done commercials here and there and some guest spots on TV shows.

I had the A-fib, I’ve had four joints replaced from arthritis.

Cooper: Which ones?

Nealon: Both my knees and a hip and a shoulder.

Cooper: How long did it take you to recover?

Nealon: The hip was easy. That was the easiest one. And then the shoulder was a little more difficult. But the knees are the hard one. This one I had about a year and a half ago and this one about six months ago. It’s still painful going up stairs.

Cooper: But you were hiking in between both of those?

Nealon: I can get back there for three months. But it’s got to be a little flatter. The inclines have gone down each year.

Cooper: You could always hike downhill.

Nealon: Actually, it’s harder to hike downhill with bad knees. But I remember when I had the surgery, I would see other people hiking and get really envious of getting out there, you know, people running, jogging. So, I had that done. I think those are my only disabilities, just the sore joints and the A-fib, which could always come back, but it hasn’t yet.

Cooper: When did you first start stand-up?

kevin nealon portrait of chris farley
Portrait of Chris Farley

Nealon: That’s all I really wanted to do, stand-up. I still watch it on TV all the time. I like telling jokes. I came out to Los Angeles to do stand-up, and all the other stuff was secondary. I started getting a commercial or two here and there or a guest spot on a show. Somebody said once, “I know you like to do stand-up, but are you taking any acting classes?” I said, “No, not really.” He said, “Well, you should be because, one day, some casting agent will come into the show room and see you perform and want you to come in and do a cold reading, audition.” I said, “That makes sense.” So, I started taking some acting classes around LA for a couple years, started getting auditions and started getting more and more stuff. I started doing “The Tonight Show” and Letterman, all those talk shows, doing stand-up.

And then “Saturday Night Live” came along; all of a sudden I had to change gears. I’m not thinking about jokes anymore; I’m thinking about characters and writing sketches. But I never stopped doing stand-up. I would always continue to do it through the breaks and the hiatuses and in between different shows I was on. It’s really, really what I wanted. And here I am, 70, still doing stand-up.

Cooper: Were you considered the jokester in school?

Nealon: You know what happened? I love memorizing jokes in the back pages of the newspaper. They’d have my favorite jokes from whoever were the contemporary comedians back then. I’d memorize a couple of those and I’d go to a party and personalize them, like it had happened to me in real life. I’d say, “Did you hear about that guy who stole a fire truck downtown?” And people would go, “Are you serious?” And I’d say, “Yeah, yesterday, he stole a fire truck.” “Did they get him?” “Yeah, some guy stole a cop car and pulled him over and got him.” (laughter) That kind of stuff. I would tell those jokes.

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At school I was a little more shy. I was a little more comfortable with my friends in the neighborhood, but at school I was a little shy. I wasn’t like the class clown or anything. In college I became more and more interested in stand-up. A friend of mine once said, “You should try those comedy clubs in New York.” I was telling all those jokes.” And I thought, first of all, I’ve got to write my own material.

So, I would go in and look at those clubs and I’d be really intimidated. They were New York kind of clubs, tight, the comics were real brash and edgy. I thought, “I don’t think I could do this here.” So, I decided that in California people seemed more laid-back. I came out here and it was the perfect home for me.

kevin nealon bob saget

Cooper: And along the way, did you make a lot of friends who are still friends today?

Nealon: Comics, you mean? Oh, yeah. I started in the late ’70s, so I’ve known everyone, from Robin Williams to Jay Leno to guys who aren’t around anymore. Gary Shandling was a good friend of mine, Bob Saget, Richard Louis. It’s kind of odd losing these people along the way. Everybody our age, or my age, you lose people. That’s part of life.

Cooper: Bob Saget was friends with Regina Hall and we had a fun interview. Pretty nice person.

Nealon: As far as losing people along the way, it makes you appreciate people more because you never know if they’ll be around the next day.

Cooper: Yeah. Robin Williams, I met him a couple of times because he was friends with Christopher Reeve.

Nealon: Yeah, they were roommates.

Cooper: Right. He wanted to wait and be interviewed after he produced the movie about the life of John Callahan. If you aren’t aware of his cartoon style the jokes are a little dark. One scene shows two cowboys ready to have a gun fight in the main street. A voice shouts out “Don’t be a fool Billy” and looking at the two cowboys you notice Billy is without arms. Robin always supported Christopher Reeve’s journey.

Nealon: So many people who have gone by the wayside over the years. And I remember jokes from comics a long time ago. I used to be in the clubs all the time, and there wasn’t such a proliferation of comics as there are now, there are thousands of comics. Before it was more of a novelty profession. I knew every comic, I knew their jokes, I knew when they would swallow before they would say a punchline. Those are the people who hit you harder when they pass, as opposed to now, there are so many comics, good ones, too. I’ll see someone I never heard of before, and they’re great. It’s because I’m not in the clubs every night any more. When I went to do SNL, like I said, I never stopped doing stand-up, but I wasn’t living at the clubs like I used to.

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The funny thing is, comedy was so fertile in the ’80s, when you would work at a club from Tuesday through Sunday, every night. Now, it’s just basically Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, or Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, three nights. But you would run into the other comics at the hub airports, like St. Louis or Salt Lake City. They were coming from one club; you’re going to another one. It was pretty cool. Now I don’t think I would recognize half of the comics who were walking through a club or an airport.

Cooper: How did you get cast on SNL?

Nealon: Some people are hired as cast members. I was hired as a writer the first year and a feature player, which meant they would give me seven on-air shows. But I got on every show. The next year Lorne Michaels offered me that I could either be a regular cast member or I could continue to be a writer and a feature player. So of course I took the cast member, but we all continue to write on that show. We all wrote, whether we were recognized or paid as a writer or not. You have to give yourself as many opportunities as possible. That’s what I did there.

And I had to learn how to do sketches and create characters. I’m just a stand-up. I wasn’t thinking along those lines. I was thinking along the lines of setting up a punchline. And now all of a sudden, I have to come up with characters and a sketch idea.

Cooper: It worked.

Nealon: Yeah, I was a quick learner. I had to adapt. It was a great experience, nine years.

Cooper: What was your degree?

Nealon: B.S. in marketing.

Cooper: Which you’re not doing with your show that well. We’ll get to that. Do you prepare the intros or do you just go right into it?

Nealon: No, the intro I don’t really prepare. Maybe when I’m driving over there, I think of something, but it’s really more spontaneous. What’s going on, what I’m feeling right now. Is it raining?

Cooper: You have great openings, funny and informative, it sounds organic.

Nealon: That’s the other thing about those hikes. It’s so disarming for the guest because you’re out in nature, you’re hiking, there’s no audience, no lights or big mics. They’re a lot more forthcoming and revealing about more personal issues. I always give them the opportunity to tell me if they don’t want me to leave something in there. So, that’s one of the great things about that hike. And it’s a lot of work because I hike for maybe an hour, and hour and a half with them, and I only use maybe 15 or 20 minutes. But on some I do have two- or three-parters, which I have in the bank. I bank those.

kevin nealon portrait of tilda swinton
Kevin Nealon’s painting of Tilda Swinton

Cooper: You’re still doing it?

Nealon: Yeah. I want to get somebody else to edit for me because that takes the longest time, but half of the comedy is coming from how you edit.

Cooper: There is so much young talent in your backyard, including USC and UCLA film students.

Nealon: Yeah, there are a lot of them out there. Sometimes I think perhaps a more seasoned person is better with the comedic timing and would maybe know my style better, but I guess it could be anybody really. It just depends on their background and their sensibilities.

Cooper: I think it would save you time — what is it you want to do when you grow up?

Nealon: (laughs) I’m doing it now. That’s why I’m so happy in life. I’m doing everything I wanted to do. Although when I turned 60, I decided that the things I had been talking about for so long, I would start doing them. So, I started painting, caricatures, I started taking Spanish, I’ve been taking Spanish for three years now. I started learning how to play the piano.

Cooper: Wow, that all takes a lot of time!

Nealon: That’s the hard part. I’m not good at all. I’ve played the guitar since I was 10, and the banjo. But the piano is a much easier instrument because you can see all the keys laid out. C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. And on the guitar, I never looked at it that way. I knew scale patterns on the guitar, but I didn’t see the way the chords were formed, the notes. I like it in that respect. I don’t play a lot now because I’m doing so many other things. I’m painting. I have a book out called “I Exaggerate My Brushes with Fame.” It’s a bunch of caricatures I drew of celebrities and anecdotes with it.

Cooper: Some great pieces, however they’re not on your website? (finger wagging)

Nealon: It’s not on the website, but it’s on my Instagram. (laughter) You’re right. Thanks for putting that fire under me. I’ve got to do something about that.

kevin nealon hiking video equipment

Cooper: Use your degree in marketing —tell us about your stand-up tour.

Nealon: (laughs) People can check out the tour on my website, KevinNealon. They can see where I’ll be, in their hometown or whatever. I don’t really have a tour name because it’s a constant tour.

Cooper: That’s the name!

Nealon: Constant Tour! It’s just fun to do. I’ve been doing it for so long.

Cooper: Do you go to the same venues?

Nealon: A lot of the same ones, and sometimes not. I have agents who get offers in and come to me and they try to route them sometimes so they’re in the same general area.

Cooper: Some comedians love the road.

Nealon: Yeah, it’s strenuous sometimes. It’s a lot of work. I’d rather be home sometimes. But it always is fun to be out there. I like to stay engaged, too. As I’m getting older, I don’t want to be just sitting at home watching news or hanging out with a couple of old friends. I like to get out in the comic clubs in LA and find out what’s going on, be around younger people, engage with them, see where they’re coming from. I think that keeps you young, too, more stimulated.

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Cooper: Do you see the audiences as people who know you, or do you see newer audiences that maybe aren’t aware of your background?

kevin nealon holding mics

Nealon: I think the younger people aren’t aware of a lot of the shows I guess like “Weeds.” That was before they were born. Sounds weird saying that. But then the older people are kind of—They know what they’re coming to see. And some people have never seen me before. I was telling somebody, sometimes I get on stage and I get depressed because it’s all old people, and then I realize, “Wait a minute, I’m older than they are!” (laughter)

Cooper: I know, looking into the mirror and thinking who’s this? Is the road exhausting?

Nealon: Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s not exactly the same because I’m not out hitting the clubs or the bars after my stand-up or getting in at 2 in the morning, and hungover the next morning. Now it’s much more doable. I get to come to nice hotels, or towns, meet new people, see different audiences. It’s interesting. I’ll be standing up there thinking, “I’ve never met these people in my life. I never knew they even existed.” And now I’m seeing them, and they’ve had their whole life, all of their laughs, all their crying, all their bowel movements, (laughter) and that’s kind of a special experience for me.

Cooper: That’s a great way to think about people, places and life’s journey.

Nealon: But I do like people. That’s the bottom line. I have a certain, I don’t know, a certain compassion for people. I like to see people laughing. I like to see people happy.

And the “Hiking” show or YouTube? That’s what I love doing. I’ll never retire. I’m fortunate to be able to be living in my passion. I’m not one of these people who says, “Oh, man, I really want to do this,” and then they never do it, and they have a boring job.

Cooper: It’s rewarding in making people laugh. Probably every time I’m in an elevator, I think of something to engage with people as they have their heads down feeling awkward being in a closed room with strangers.

Nealon: You’re a good elevator act? (laughter)

Cooper: A new show! And I love it when I’m in another country and I don’t know the language and I can still make them laugh.

Nealon: That’s a real skill right there. I like to make people laugh. Working in a store or whatever, servers,

Cooper: When people are stressed, get them to have a happy moment.

Nealon: It’s a lot easier to get someone like that to laugh, somebody who’s down about something because comedy works better with tragedy. It’s a release.

kevin nealon painting

Nealon: You know who you remind me of a lot? Dick Cavett.

Cooper: When I was in high school, a teacher gave me an A, I didn’t think I earned it, but she said I reminded her of Dick Cavett — and she loved him. I should have thanked him.

Nealon: No way, really? Not physically, just the style of interview and conversation. It’s very thoughtful and gentle.

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Cooper: FU.

Nealon: And he would say that too. (laughter)

kevin nealon saturday night live 1
Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon in SNL’s “Pumpin’ Up” with Hans & Franzs

Cooper: Do you think there’s an intrinsic darkness to comedians. I know many that are at least very introverted, shy, but great writers.

Nealon: That’s not rare. There are a lot of comics who are kind of dark and who like to crawl into a cubbyhole after they get off the stage. I was very fortunate because I grew up in a great family, great parents. There wasn’t really anything I didn’t need or want.

Cooper: Where was this?

Nealon: Connecticut.

Cooper: What did they do?

Nealon: My father’s an aeronautical engineer and my mother was a homemaker, housewife and was around that the whole time. My comedy doesn’t come from the darkness, it comes from my imagination.

Cooper: What else can we say before we wrap up?

Nealon: My father used to say this to us a lot when we were leaving to go somewhere: “Go have fun.”

In Loving Memory of Bob Saget

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