The annual Aimee Mann Christmas spectacular is becoming a venerable Los Angeles holiday tradition. Now in its fifth year, it's a “Christmas show for people who don't really like Christmas,” in Mann's words.
We'd call it a blend of comedy, music, and enough Christmas tunes to get the spirit flowing, but not so many they make you want to gag on your egg nog. We spoke with her about this year's incarnation, happening this Saturday, December 10 at the Wiltern.
In previous years you've done the show on multiple nights at Largo. How does it feel to be in much larger venue?
It is a little intimidating, I must say. There's something about Largo where you feel you can really goof around, and it's fine. It's supposed to be a little goofy anyway. But when people come to the Wiltern, they expect a real show.
It's surprising to hear you say that any show would be intimidating — you're a seasoned performer.
I think just because it's so different — it's a variety show. And I always wonder, “Do I have enough variety? Should I get some jugglers, or Christmas elves?” Honestly, there's no money for stuff like that, so you have to hope that a handful of comedians and musicians is entertainment enough. If we're lucky we can rent out a couple of Christmas trees. In my mind, [I'd like to have] snow coming down from the ceiling, maybe a Dickensian backdrop, this elaborate, bordering on Sonny-and-Cher '70s music extravaganza. I did have a magician one year, but magic is tough in a bigger place.
So the show is half comedy and half music?
I do have a lot of comics who are going to make an appearance — Tim Heidecker, Paul F. Tompkins, Michael Penn, Nellie Macay. There'll be some Christmas music, and I'm definitely going to play some non-Christmas music, because I see it as the Christmas show for people who don't really like Christmas. Or people who like some parts of Christmas, but they don't wanna get all “Jingle Bells” about it.
When people think of your music, comedy isn't the first thing that springs to mind, as lots of your songs are emotionally heavy. How did your relationship with the L.A. comedy scene develop?
When the old Largo was still in existence, my husband Michael Penn and I played there a lot, and we used to go to comedy nights every Monday. So we began to get acquainted with them and we had our favorites, and we became friendly. And we had an idea for a show.
One of the difficulties Michael and I both had with playing live is, if you're in the headspace to play music, it's not the same headspace as talking to an audience. So it's very hard to finish a song and then go into a sort of a banter-y thing with the audience. So we started playing these shows, and the idea was like in baseball, when they have a pinch hitter, and they get the expert batter to come in and sub for them.
So why don't we get the expert, the guy who's good at bantering with the audience — a comedian — let's get him to come in and do our banter for us. And so different comics have very entertaining and amusing twists on that idea. And we actually did a tour that we called “acoustic vaudeville.” And one thing that we found that was interesting was that when people are laughing, they kind of listen more attentively when you're playing. The two really do go together, in a weird way.
How did the Christmas show become an annual tradition?
I put out a Christmas record. And this was another thing somebody had suggested to me, and at first I took it as a joke, because I'm so not the Christmas record type of person. But I started to think about it seriously: if I was going to do a Christmas record, what would it be? And I thought about the kinds of music that I really like, there's a kind of Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, like almost jazzy, slightly melancholy Christmas song approach that I did find really appealing, and I thought, well, I could do a record like that.
So I ended up doing this Christmas record, and because I had a Christmas record coming out, I decided to do a show, and incorporate my comedian friends.
And it's been a tour in past years, right?
Yes, but it's just too much — it's too much to try to corral a bunch of different performers on to a bus and get them to commit to two weeks in December when everybody's trying to go home for Christmas and buy presents and stuff. It's pretty tough work.
What are some highlights from past shows?
For me the highlights are usually the comedy — Patton Oswalt has done a couple of years, he did a bit with Michael Penn last year that was really terriffic. Paul F. Tompkins always does the show with me and I think he's the funniest standup around — he's really unbelievably great. Any time I'm onstage with that guy, I feel like that's a highlight.
I've had a couple of movies that I've shot — Jeff Goldblum was in the show last year, we did a sketch together and sang a duet. I have my standard go-to's, Grant Lee Phillips. Nellie McKay is kind of perfect — she's got a Christmas elf kind of thing. We had the guys from Reno 911. Rich Sommer from Mad Men came out in a diaper as Baby New Year one time. That was a highlight.
Do you contribute to writing any of the comedy sketches?
I always want to make sure that is vetted by Paul. I don't trust myself to do any kind of comedy writing. It's too terrifying.