Before we begin, a little primer on Anti-Seacreast: Brian Dunkleman, born 1971 in upstate New York. Young Dunkleman aspires to be an actor when he grows up, but gets the attention of comedy clubs early and chooses to leave college for a career in stand-up. Eventually makes his way to Hollywood, where he kills on the Tonight Show, gets a guest appearance on NYPD Blue as a comic suspected of murder, plus a cameo as the guy who buys the engagement ring Chandler was going to get for Monica (bastard!). It’s 2002, and Dunkleman is a working actor. He hasn’t hit the stratosphere just yet, but he’s making all the right moves. And then…the show.
To be honest, I’m a little apprehensive about talking to him. Think of it: every day for the past 8 years, friends, reporters, agents, managers, casting directors, strangers on the street, small infants, people waking up from a coma…EVERYBODY remembers you as the guy jumped off the fastest moving gravy train in TV, and has no compunction about reminding you of this fact. E-V-E-R-Y-D-A-Y. That is, when they’re not treating you like cancer. Yet when I get him on the phone, Dunkleman is gracious and cordial. He and his wife just moved into a new place and he’s a little run down from a cold.
What did success look like for Brian Dunkleman before Idol?
Oh, I wanted to be an actor, and in particular, an actor on one of those one-camera shows, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “The Larry Sanders Show” That stuff is brilliant, shows like “Weeds” or “Modern Family”.
But instead, you ended up on American Idol. Remind me again why you left?
Well, Seacrest only ever wanted to be a host, so that was the right gig for him. But I was afraid of getting stuck in reality TV. You gotta remember, at the time reality TV was considered a gamble, or a fad – everyone, me included, thought it would last a year or two, at best. Also, those (Idol) kids are put through a lot. That’s a tough show to be on, being told so bluntly not to pursue your dreams. I thought it was humiliating for them, and it made me uneasy.
Of course, the show blew up, didn’t it? Do you think you would’ve stayed had you know it was going to be so big?
Oh absolutely, but not because the show was successful. Had I known the damage it would do to my career as an actor, I wouldn’t have left. You see, once it got big, people stopped returning my calls. I had booking agents canceling gigs on me. I would get called for the auditions and the casting director would only want me to gossip about Simon Cowell. I went four years without doing any stand-up. Imagine not working for four years in real life. I felt like I had a big black mark against my name. Many times I thought I would’ve gotten more work if I’d been nobody. So yeah – had I known THAT was going to happen, I would not have left. I would not have stayed long, though…maybe 2 or 3 seasons, then out.
So you wished you’d never been on?
Many times, yes.
How did you cope?
For a time…really, really badly. I fell into a huge depression, I saw a shrink. I went on Paxil, but I had an terrible reaction – sent me into hypomania for a year (hypomania, btw, is a mood disorder characterized by sleeplessness, rapid talking, unsubstantiated self-confidence, poor judgment, impulsive behaviour and excessive sexual activity – I think I may be a hypomaniac) . To this day, I don’t know if I cope with it well.
So you’re not out of the funk? You’re still bitter?
Oh I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being bitter…a tiny bit of that will always be with me. But really, I can only be upset with myself. My wife has stood by me the whole time and whenever she’s around, it’s hard for me to stay that way for long.
So how do you maintain the ability to function?
I don’t know. Head down, one foot in front of the other. I try to stay focussed on whatever I’m doing at the time.
But do you think you might have surprised youself and gained something from having to walk the wilderness like that?
Well, I don’t believe in things happening for a reason. If things did happen for a reason, then what’s the reason for Haiti? No, you make your own luck in life. Now, has it made me stronger? Absolutely. If you told me that after Idol, I wouldn’t get another gig for years, pre-Idol me would have said he couldn’t handle it. Post-Idol me knows that he can. The other thing is that I feel more gratitude, which is wonderful. I meet a lot of comics who will bitch about their performance on the Tonight Show, or bitch about their hotel room, or the club they’re performing at. I’m doing more stand-up now, and I just feel so glad that I get to do it. It’s thrilling, and if leaving Idol has done me a favour, it’s that I always feel happy to be working. I’m working at something I enjoy, which lot of people can’t say.
So, resilience and grace – check. Anything else?
Well, I’m working with a guy to develop a comedy series like the ones I always wanted to work on. We’re calling it “American Dunkleman” and essentially it’s about my post-Idol life and how I cope with it. It combines what I’ve always wanted with what I NEVER wanted, and it would be completely ironic if this were to be thing that blows up for me.
So where is the wisdom to be found in all of this? Any advice for someone like me, who feels he missed the boat?
That boat’s gone, man – find another boat. Sure, maybe things didn’t turn out so well, but you still gotta lead your life. Just keep working towards your dreams. Take whatever opportunities you can get, and be happy for them. Also, controlling emotions is for Vulcans – sometimes I’ll think about it and can’t help but feel bad..I just try to ride ‘em out. Again, just try to do stuff you like, and have someone stand by you, like my wife does. Other than that, I don’t know.
As I get off the phone with Dunkleman, I’m struck by how plain-spoken he is about all of this – no fronting, but not a tremendous amount of self-pity or anger, either. I guess he’s lived with this fact of his existence long enough that it bores him more than anything. I think I’d hoped for some grand epiphany, some stunning and unique piece of wisdom on how to cope with this mess. The most he offered was “just keep going” which is good advice as any, I suppose…perhaps the best advice.
I have high hopes for the Dunkleman (probably because we’re leading parallel lives). In many ways, Seacrest is a polished, blow-dryed example of an old paradigm – a seemingly flawless celebrity with no real personality short of that which we (or Simon Cowell) project on him. TV viewers today want to see the imperfections. They mistrust the façade that TV erects and they want to peak around it and see what’s holding it up – that’s probably why reality TV has stuck around so long and why a fall from grace such as Dunkleman’s, can get so much play on TMZ. Dunkleman may not have realized this at the time, but he certainly does now and he’s trying to shape that to his advantage. Now that even “reality TV” feels as superficial as that which preceded it, a honest look from a genuinely funny person at the tragedy of his life, has promise. I hope so…otherwise I’m screwed.