Twenty Years Later, The Dan Band Is Still the Funniest Part of ‘Old School’

Twenty Years Later The Dan Band Is Still the Funniest Part of 'Old School'

Photograph: Paramount Pictures; Collage: Gabe Conte
Dan Finnerty on how his scene-stealing cameo as a raunchy wedding singer in the Todd Phillips classic changed his life—and got him in a Drake video.

Last spring, Dan Finnerty—the comedic frontman of The Dan Band, the raunchy, pop cover group made popular by Old School—received an Instagram notification that he didn’t recognize: “Champagnepapi started following you.” After a quick Google search told him the blue check-marked handle with its 130 million followers belonged to Drake, he sent a screenshot to his 25-year-old daughter. “Check your DMs,” she insisted loudly over the phone, where Finnerty found a brief message from the hip-hop artist.

“Hey, I’m doing a video with a wedding. Is there any way you’d recreate your scene in Old School,” Drake wrote, signing off with a fingers-crossed emoji.

Finnerty replied in a manner typical of his white, jocular, 52-year-old identity: “Sounds good, Drake.”

With plans to film him in a nine-minute music video for his single “Falling Back,” the Canadian rapper tasked Finnerty with spoofing a song from his extensive catalog, so the comedy singer sent Drake a voice-note with a melodramatic version of his 2009 hit “Best I Ever Had.” The next day, Finnerty, bleary-eyed following a red eye from San Diego, stood in a hotel ballroom, belting out slow, falsetto interpretations of “You’re the fucking best” in front of numerous IG honey brides, as Drake nodded in approval at the head table. “I was just laughing the whole time,” Finnerty remembers. “Like, What the fuck?

Like many men of a certain age, Drake had been captivated by The Dan Band ever since the outfit showed up in a Todd Phillips’ R-rated comedy. Released 20 years ago this week, Old School—about three men closer to middle-age than college-age who begin a fraternity—became an unlikely hit, more than tripling its budget at the box office and catapulting Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, and Luke Wilson into comic stardom. But Finnerty’s first-act cameo as a foul-mouthed wedding singer lands the earliest impression, dropping F-bombs into Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and shocking guests as they danced to his reimagined power ballad. By the end of his set, in which he entertains Vaughn with a ludicrous version of Lionel Richie’s “Lady,” Finnerty had stolen the entire scene. “At all our early screenings it always got a tremendous response,” Phillips says over email. “It’s so unexpected and it feels so out of place in the best way.”

Though Finnerty and his rotating cast of suit-jacketed backup singers had already spent several years performing expletive-ridden female anthems in L.A. nightclubs, the movie expedited the band’s mainstream popularity. “All the people that would start to come to the shows or hire us—that was based on Old School,” Finnerty says. Over the last two decades, the Hollywood sheen has kept Finnerty rocking and cracking jokes, affirming the comedian’s profane hold over audiences. At a time when most comedies are relegated to streaming services, The Dan Band serves as a nostalgic trip to a raunchier, monocultural landscape, where a one-minute cameo could fuel an entire career performing women-empowerment classics unironically. “I like how it’s evolved. Even if some of the songs are the same, every show is different based on who is in the audience,” Finnerty says. “They know anything can happen.”

The bones of The Dan Band started with some late-night karaoke. In the mid-1990s, at the end of his American tour of the off-Broadway show “Stomp,” Finnerty took his cast members to a Toronto bar and began singing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” for some laughs. A couple years later at a karaoke bar in Los Angeles, he drunkenly performed it again and “the reaction I got in the room was just like, That’s genius!” he says. That night, a friend asked Finnerty if he’d open for her band with a few songs “so it looked like she was headlining,” he remembers. After agreeing and performing a set list that included “You Light Up My Life” and “Fame,” a promoter approached him. 

“He was like, ‘I book The Viper Room, when’s your next show?’ 

“I’m like, ‘Never.’

“He goes, ‘If you can make a 20-minute set, I’ll book you next Friday.’”

That week, Finnerty curated a handful of 70s and 80s pop songs—transforming R&B staples like “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “Flashdance” into surfer punk jams—which he’d grown up listening to. “Those songs are funny, and I knew I could do something with the water splashing,” he laughs. “That’s when I realized they were all female songs.” Though he forgot to invite friends to his debut, he grabbed the remaining crowd’s attention with his unexpected song choices and secured more gigs. “That’s when my wife [actress Kathy Najimy] was like, ‘This is what’s going to get you noticed. This is what’s going to get you on a sitcom.’”

Luke Wilson and director Todd Phillips on the set of Old School, 2003.Everrett Collection / Courtesy of DreamWorks

Finnerty had grown up attending Catholic school in Rochester, N.Y., aspiring to be on television as the “smartass neighbor who said a couple funny zingers.” Though he had a strong voice, “I liked singing if I could be funny,” he says. “I never wanted to just sing a ballad and commit to emoting any feelings.” The initial concept of The Dan Band effectively merged those two interests. With his swear-happy vocals, goofy dancing, and quick-witted crowd banter, Finnerty soon began booking monthly dates at Largo, where Tenacious D and other comedians had gotten their starts. Around 2000, he added two permanent backup singers and expanded the band’s celebrity audience by “talking more in between songs, adding ridiculous choreography, and trying to one up ourselves every time,” he says.

About a year later,  Breckin Meyer (Clueless, Franklin & Bash) invited Todd Phillips to Largo to see Finnerty sing. “I just loved their whole point of view,” Phillips says. “Dan was a natural performer and knew how to keep the crowd engaged.” At the time, he and Scot Armstrong’s Old School script didn’t include a wedding singer, but that all changed once he saw The Dan Band’s performance. “Todd said, ‘I’m doing a movie, there’s a wedding scene, and I need a song. What would you sing?’” Finnerty recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m working on a medley of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and ‘Private Dancer.’ And Todd said, ‘I love it.’” Within a week, Finnerty and his band members were in a Hollywood studio recording vocals. The only problem? He wasn’t cursing. “We went outside to have a smoke and I basically was like, ‘What the fuck?’” Phillips says. “He misunderstood that we were making an R-rated comedy and didn’t know that he had the freedom.” Once Finnerty realized he could swear, “we went back inside and changed “Total Eclipse of the Heart” forever.”

On the day of the shoot, inside L.A.’s Wilshire Ebell Theatre, Finnerty had about three takes to unleash his perfectly-timed curse words on his wedding guests. “It was all such a blur,” he says. “I could tell people thought I wasn’t going to swear.” The scene takes place early in Old School, when Frank (Ferrell) and his wife (Perrey Reeves) begin their first dance with the bridal party. In one take, Phillips floats the camera from the stage, capturing Finnerty in profile, to the dance floor. Moments later, the frontman slightly adjusts Tyler’s lyrics: “I see the fucking look in your eye,” he sings, a sneaky punctuation that prompts Ferrell to throw a brief, confused glance back at Finnerty, and then to Reeves. “It’s so unexpected and it feels so out of place in the best way,” says Phillips, who designed the moment as a steadicam shot. “There is something so disruptive about taking such a time-honored tradition—the bride and groom’s first dance—and just completely defiling it.” 

Though Phillips admits the camera misses Finnerty’s second F-bomb by a hair, “I saw the playback and thought it was so fucking funny to have my giant head coming into frame and then Will Ferrell nailing that reaction,” Finnerty says. “That’s when I knew it wasn’t going to get cut.” In place of “Private Dancer,” Finnerty finishes the scene with the final notes of “Lady,” inserting some “Lonely Goatherd” riffs and cementing what could have been a generic 90 seconds into a dynamite cameo. “He has great timing and he’s so quick,” says Gene Reed, Finnerty’s long-time backup performer, who had a front-row view on set. “He has a total sense of humor about it all, but you still have to be able to sing and know what you’re doing.” By the spring of 2003, the movie had earned $86 million at the global box office, giving The Dan Band an “as seen in Old School” slogan that garnered larger crowds, a record deal, nationwide tour dates, and frequent requests to hear their soiled version of “Total Eclipse.”

Over the next several years, Finnerty committed to growing his act and audience. In 2004, Steven Spielberg executive-produced the band’s hour-long special for Bravo that showcased the spontaneous thrills of their live shows. Finnerty then continued his reign within the Todd Phillips comedy universe, appearing in Starsky and Hutch as a carrot-topped bat mitzvah singer performing an age-inappropriate version of “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” A couple years later, he returned to  wedding singer duties in The Hangover, reinterpreting 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop,” annoying Jeffrey Tambor, and flipping off an old man while grinding on his wife. As he spins and screams in ecstasy with a rendition of “Fame,” he takes over the movie’s finale with an overwhelming and hilarious arrogance. “By then, I just had the confidence to jump off the stage whenever I wanted,” Finnerty says. 

“It was kind of an inside joke to myself that he always showed up in my films as a hired entertainer who has his own idea of how the night should go,” Phillips says. “It just felt right.”

Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke wilson in Old School, 2003.Everett Collection / Courtesy of DreamWorks

That cavalier energy and desire to mess with the crowd persists in The Dan Band’s live act. As his assholish persona and overtly sexual gyrations attest, Finnerty thrives on making the men in his audiences uncomfortable, replicating the characters he’s played on screen. “I wanted it to be this guy who had the mic so he made the most of it and stood up to whomever he wanted,” he says. “You can see my own self-hatred based on who I pick on.” As the show progressed, however, he continued to find new inspiration and updates for performances—like when he saw Pink floating from silks at the 2010 Grammys. “Dan called the next day and said, ‘We’re doing that. We’re meeting at this gym in the Valley,’” Reed says. Soon enough, three “middle-aged, overweight men” were putting on their own aerial gymnastics show two feet above the ground. “We all had black and blue bruises around our lower backs getting dizzy,” Reed jokes.

Since the pandemic subsided, Finnerty has taken the show back on the road, playing select cities throughout the country, along with some private gigs, occasional (hefty-paying) weddings, and, yes, Drake music videos, continuing a career that he calls “the one good thing that came out of drunken karaoke.” Still, two decades after Old School, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and his perfectly-timed F-bombs remain his signature sendoff, ensuring The Dan Band will live as long as the movie does. “It’s the least entertaining song we do in the whole show, but it’s the recognition—people are high-fiving when I swear, and I get it,” Finnerty says. “It’s cool to be part of someone’s happy memory.” 

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