Some of my readers will know I occasionally write freelance articles for the comedy website Cracked.com. I love Cracked. It’s one of a very small handful of places where writers with no professional experience or industry connections can get their writing read by millions and get paid to do it. But I might never have ventured to check out the site if it hadn’t made a killer first impression on me in the form of an article by Cracked columnist Chris Bucholz, called How to Win a Fight Against Twenty Children. It was, as the title suggests, a practical guide that considered, in hilariously comprehensive detail, the logistics of fighting a large group of children all at once. Chris Bucholz has a certain proclivity for writing about these less visited areas of the comedic spectrum. His work is usually at its funniest when he’s covering a subject that no one realizes has been severely under-explored until he explores it. He’s the one who thinks about how Kevin McAllister from Home Alone would do in a zombie attack or how completely unfair the scoring system is in the fictional sport of quidditch. In this interview, I ask him about his history with Cracked and his writing process, among other things.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: How did you originally get involved with Cracked.com?
Chris Bucholz: I was basically just this guy who hung around on a couple comedy forums, specifically JayPinkerton.com and PointlessWasteOfTime.com. I was posting little comics and stories that were getting pretty good feedback, and when Jay Pinkerton took on an editor position at Cracked, he invited me to start submitting content. No-one’s been able to figure out a way to make me stop ever since.
BB: You’ve been with Cracked.com since 2006. What has it been like watching it grow into the megasite it is now?
CB: I’m a freelancer, and from my perspective, the process of putting bum jokes into a word processor hasn’t fundamentally changed much in the past six years. But when I think about it, yeah I guess the site’s success (and my small part of it) is a little source of pride for me.
But we are just talking about Internet success here; it’s not like I can’t go to the store without being hounded by the paparazzi. Yet.
BB: How has creating weekly content for Cracked, every week for six years, changed the way you write?
CB: When I was starting out, I was far more interested in getting jokes down first, then crafting the article around that. That process has almost completely flipped now, with the points and arguments getting laid out first, and only then getting prettied up with the descriptions of funny sex acts.
BB: Describe the process of getting your average weekly column together.
CB: Throughout the week I read news sites, blogs, and otherwise try to stay plugged in to what people are talking about. I fill a little text file with ideas about possible columns, so that when it’s writing time I’m usually not grasping too much for a topic.
After that I decide how I want to frame it (lists, fake interview, short story, etc…) and then start outlining the points I’ll make. The first draft takes the longest, and will involve really heroic amounts of procrastination. It’s also, for all that work, not that funny yet. It’s the second and third and fourth drafts where pictures get added, the jokes get refined, and things start getting funny and rude enough that I’d be reluctant to show it to my parents.
BB: How do you avoid burning out when you’re expected to come up with new content every week?
CB: Part of this is experience, and the confidence that comes with it. After six years, I know I can come up with the funny when I need to. And the other part is a sense of professionalism. It’s a job, and I do it, and I don’t complain, because it’s actually a pretty rad job.
BB: Do you ever have weeks when your column goes live and you still have serious reservations about it?
CB: Not any more. During the first year or so this happened a couple times, but I’ve since refined my process to the point where everything I put out can pass my own 143-point Laff Inspection. I certainly think more highly of some columns than others, but don’t have serious reservations about any of them.
BB: Michael Swaim and Daniel O’Brien have cited you as their favorite columnist. Who are some of your favorite writers on Cracked?
CB: Did they? I bet they were fishing for compliments in return. Nice try guys. That said, I do read and enjoy all of the other columnists, but if I have to throw out a name, I’ll plug Robert Brockway, who is both bonkers and delightful.
BB: Outside of Cracked, who are some of your favorite writers and creative influences?
CB: My biggest influences actually do work or have worked for Cracked at some point, namely David Wong, Jay Pinkerton and Seanbaby. In the unplugged world, I read Neal Stephenson, Iain Banks, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, and a few others. I’m also historically a big Douglas Adams fan, although he hasn’t written much lately for some reason.
BB: You’ve written a series of practical guides for weirdly specific situations (being challenged to a duel, dealing with a murderous clone, etc). I’ve had trouble describing them to people because they’re really too unique to be compared to anything. How did you develop them?
CB: I stand on the shoulders of giants. Bad advice columns have been around for years in a variety of other contexts, college newspapers most notably. And Jay Pinkerton did a couple columns on very specific bad situations back in the early days of the site. I’ve just run with the idea, playing up the dialog aspect a little more, and establishing the weird co-dependent relationship between the unnamed advice giver and advice needer. They’re some of my favorite columns.
BB: You’ve come up with a lot of other unique premises as well (an elaborate note left on a car door, an apology letter that tells the story of a petting zoo fiasco, an interview with the fictional characters Bert and Ernie). You tend to be able to weave a lot of different kinds of jokes into these pieces and many of them even have story arcs. Do you normally come up with these premises first or do you develop them as a means of facilitating jokes and ideas you’ve already written?
CB: Premise first, always. Because the universe isn’t fair, these really good premises don’t come around very often, so I do try to take extra special care when writing them. And I’d like to think Bert and Ernie would take the same care if they ever wrote about me.
BB: What are some reasons you like writing for the internet?
CB: I get to write about basically anything I want, litter it with low brow jokes, and get an enormous audience for it. It would be hard to find a similar gig in traditional media, at least not until the New York Times gets a lot cooler.
BB: What are some bad things about writing for the internet?
CB: Not many downsides at all at this point. It’s impossible to explain to grandparents what I do. I guess that’s a downside. I’m not pulling in much of the 70-95 demo.
BB: In addition to writing for Cracked, you have your website ChrisBucholz.com. Do you have anything else you’re working on right now?
I’m also working on a novel, as is, I suspect, everyone else who writes on the Internet. Unlike everyone else’s though, this one is incredible and fantastic. When there’s more news to share about it, I’ll be sharing news about it like mad. You’ll probably have a hard time escaping it, actually.
You can read more from Chris Bucholz in his weekly column at Cracked.com
Greg Barris has bounced back from a seemingly endless string of blunders that make up the bulk of his hysterical new album Shame Wave. He hosts Heart of Darkness, a monthly comedy/music show in addition to being part of the psychedelic comedy rock band Wigmaker’s Son and now, this album from A Special Thing Records, gives the general public some insight into his propensity for disaster, from going to jail for putting a sticker on a poll to dating a dominatrix.
As a rule, he tends to avoid dwelling on failures of the past, except of course when he’s going through them over and over in painstaking, relentlessly funny detail for his act, rectifying things at the end of the set with “The Forgiveness Song,” an interactive part of the show where audience members and performer forgive one another for sins past. Greg Barris’s refusal to let the past get in the way of the present is his greatest trait, his tragic flaw, and his main source of comedy for this inspired first album.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: I know from research that your father’s a wigmaker and I know from the album that you’re trying to get closer to him. How has he affected your standup?
Greg Barris: Oh a ton. I mean even the reason I’m doing this is a large influence of him. Him and his father too are storytellers. They kind of keep the family stories and they have all their own stories. My dad was always a fan of standup comedy. Even when I was a little kid, he had everything that was ever on HBO on VHS. We would watch it as a family. And my dad’s just a real character, very blunt, just entertaining.
BB: I’ve been noticing this pattern a lot with people I’ve interviewed recently where they have parents who listen to comedy, a lot of times explicit comedy even with their young kids. Was that not an issue in your house–swear words in comedy?
GB: Well the thing was my dad didn’t really curse ever, but my mom–they’re both from New York–but my mom’s from Brooklyn and every other word out of her mouth is like “fuck this.” Like she would be driving us to school and we would take a turn and she’d always hit the curb on a turn and be like “that fucking curb,” you know, stuff like that. I remember getting in trouble for saying “damn” in class in a Lutheran private school. They called my mom to the principal’s office, and I was like “we say damn all the time” and my mom just sold me down the river. She was like “I don’t know where he gets this from. We never use language like that. He probably got it from that boy–his dad owns a Greyhound bus station.”
BB: (laughs) The title of your album is “Shame Wave,” so I was trying to track down where you had used “shame wave” before and I found it in the Wigmakers Son album, in the track entitled “Forgiveness.”
BB: You say “sometimes it’s hard to have a good time when you carry with you the burden of guilt and shame from the things you’ve done in the past, but you’ve gotta stop riding the shame wave.” Why was Shame Wave the right title for this album?
GB: I think the idea of “shame wave,” it’s like the idea that you keep remembering what you did last night and burst you know? Shame comes over you from something you said to somebody or some horrible thing you did when you were drunk or something you’re ashamed of that you remember hits you suddenly. Like, you know, you tried to hit on a girl and she rejected you. You go to sleep and you wake up, not really remembering everything when you do, and then you’re like “…aw shit, that happened.” You were really drunk and then you’re hungover and you’re waking up in the morning, getting ready for your day and you’re like “oh my god, I threw up on the bar” or “I said some horrible shit to some strangers” or something like that. And a lot of the things on the album are those kind of stories where something horrible happened to me.
BB: Would you say that you end up dedicating a lot of energy to getting out of that shame wave?
GB: Yeah, I think I did. Now, I’m trying to be shame wave free. I do that thing, “The Forgiveness Song,” I do that in my monthly show at the end of every show and I get everyone in the audience to confess a sin. I talk about trying to live without shame because when you’re living with shame, you’re always living in the past and if you’re living with shame, you’re almost timid when you’re doing things. You’ve got to do what you think you need to do instead of worrying about whether you think you’re going to be ashamed of it or not. And then now, I’m trying to be sober and healthy so I make sober decisions…even though sometimes they’re still the cause of shame.
BB: You do that “forgiveness” song every month in your monthly show?
BB: It has kind of a religious feel to it, like there’s this kind of congregation, but for you it’s just reminding yourself of that idea?
GB: Well it’s definitely playing on the Southern Baptist tent revival feel. The idea is that you can forgive yourself for what you did, we can forgive each other for what we did, you don’t need some kind of other thing to forgive you and that’s it, just let it go instead of dwelling on it. I just really liked that idea. It always gets everybody very tense in the moment of like “okay, now I’m gonna come to everybody in the show” and then I go to people and they’re like “oh my god, he’s gonna come to me” and that tension is always good fuel for a lot of comedy, a lot of laughs. And it’s funny when everybody confesses–I’ve had hundreds of sins confessed and then I say it out loud.
BB: Ever had some really crazy stuff confessed to you?
GB: Oh a bunch of stuff. A girl was with her dad and confessed to having sexual thoughts about her dad.
GB: I would say sixty percent of all of it is something someone did when they were a kid. Like they punched a kid when they were a kid, they said something horrible, they pushed a kid down the stairs, that kind of thing.
BB: Sounds pretty cathartic for a comedy show.
GB: Yeah, and it’s funny to hear. My mom was there once and I went to her and she was like “get the fuck away from me” (laughs)
BB: (laughs) So, a lot of musicians don’t like to follow a band but between Heart of Darkness and The Wigmaker’s Son album, you work with musicians pretty extensively. Why do you like to do so much work with musicians and how do you make music and comedy work well together?
GB: For a lot of people it doesn’t work. And comedy won’t work if people going to the show don’t know there’s gonna be comedy. I don’t think it’s a good idea. But when people are aware of what it’s gonna be, it’s good. And my live shows, the way we do it is good because the band is on stage the whole time. They’re super tight and well rehearsed so they’re playing before I get on stage to introduce me and I come out on stage and do a song with them. I do twenty minutes of standup and they play everybody off stage, real tight, like right when you’re done with your set and they play ‘til I come back out. And then people in the show will use them in their standup . For a long time I was exclusively doing this thing where they would play behind what I was saying. I think all that works really well. As long as the band knows when to stop and when to start and how we’re getting off and on stage, then it’s good. As long as they’re tight enough.
The other thing is, I’ll do a lot of shows where I’ll open for a band or I’ll host, like I did this show with this bank The Mask, and they had two guests on and they had Reggie Watts. I was hosting and I did ten minutes up front and 20 minutes in the middle. As long as the people are aware that’s gonna happen and there’s a certain sensibility of what you’re doing…And I like playing a show where you’re in that kind of a venue. It’s more about loose rock than you. I think it’s more fun. People are more open-minded…
BB: It hadn’t occurred to me until you were describing it just now but honestly it’s sort of like a setup for a late-night show, like David Letterman’s band–just to have a really tight band that sort of facilitates the show.
GB: Yeah, exactly. And what I really like to do with my show is have it be very collaborative. You ever see the documentary on the band by Martin Scorsese? It’s called “The Last Waltz” and that’s kind of like a general idea of what the format of my show is. That show that they did was like “okay, this is the last thing the band is gonna do as a band” and they’re all on stage and they brought in at least like two nights of every major act in the country and played like two or three songs with them. If you were in the audience, you know that this has never happened before and will never happen again in this way and it’s this really great feeling. It’s almost like when you go see a really excellent improv show you know it’s never gonna happen that way so…it’s almost like a parlor trick but it has that magic feeling to it and that’s what I try to do with the show every time, where I have two comedians, a guest scientist and a guest musician and instead of doing exactly what they always do, they’re gonna do something collaborative with the band as a show. And as an audience, you’re watching it all and, especially as it’s playing out, you realize “this has not happened before this way, these guys don’t normally perform like this, and this won’t happen again.”
BB: Yeah, that’s the feeling I always get when I’m seeing Reggie Watts. It’s so in the moment and so unique to the moment. It’s got that feel that’s especially magnetic in live shows.
GB: Yeah definitely. And even when Reggie comes and does the show, he’s done the show so many times and my band–they’re very talented, they’re really like four different bands that combine to make my band and they’re all excellent musicians and they do so much stuff with Reggie. Reggie doesn’t normally perform with a band–I mean when he does Conan he does–but when you see him, he’s usually by himself. So it’s really cool to see him and he knows them really well. They all play off each other really well and they’ll end up doing something really big together every time. And I like to do that with my set as well. I’ll either do something with the band or I’ll–especially with my monthly show there a lot of the same people there–so I’ll try to do 20-30 minutes of new material sort of about what happened that last couple days of my life.
BB: How do you get it together fast enough?
GB: I think the key for me is to not be like writing stuff all the time but I’m sort of like “okay, here are some bullet points that have happened recently” and then I go up there and just talk about it. It’s mostly just me saying what I’ve been up to in maybe like a story way, just being really honest.
BB: How did you end up recording this album through AST Records?
GB: I was recommended to them by Reggie Watt’s manager, Olivia Wingate. She put us in touch and they checked out a bunch of things I was doing. Those guys are great. I was trying to figure out how I should put it out and there are a couple other labels that do exclusively comedy. Outside of Comedy Central Records, which is obviously a good route to go because of the marketing and promotion of it, look at the people that A Special Thing puts out–they’re all pretty heavy hitters. They also have sort of a through-line of sensibility, I think. They’re not putting out just anything. They just have a certain style of comic that they’re looking for, a certain style of comedy that they do. And A Special Thing in general–I was using their website years and years ago just to be a part of the comedy community. It’s like the best sort of online comedy community where comedy nerds and comedy fans are going to see what everybody is up to in New York, LA, other places. It’s pretty cool.
BB: Is there anything beyond standup that you would really like to visit doing in the future?
GB: I do some acting. I’m gonna be in a film in the spring next year, this hi-fi film. I’m doing a pitch in November for a show. This will be like almost my tenth television pitch, and you know, those don’t go anywhere, but I keep doing it and hopefully something will happen. I’m also interested in sciencey kind of stuff. Like I’m working on an experimental coffee burning engine. Actually I’m doing that today. I’m meeting these people at a coffee roasting plant. I feel like it does utilize this sort of creative comedy brain of mine and I’m excited about that project. I feel like in some instances I can put things together that maybe people wouldn’t normally see because I’m always sort of looking at a broader picture of how things are connected–maybe I’m going a little overboard with that but…
BB: Well yeah, I think if you just look, historically creative people and scientists can and do work very well together.
GB: Yeah definitely.
BB: Sometimes in standup you get the opportunity to meet people you admire in the profession, comedians who are older than you. Have you had some cool opportunities to work with people like that?
GB: Yeah, I’ll do Kevin Nealon’s show in LA. He has a Tuesday show called “New Material Night” at The Laugh Factory. He hosts it, and he’ll do ten or fifteen minutes and then he’ll come and sit in a chair on stage with you and just talk to you for another ten or fifteen minutes. The first time I met him my friend Patrick Garrity featured for him for a long time. You hear all these stories of comedians like “oh Rodney Dangerfield brought up all these comics and helped people out”–you hear stories like that all the time. Like all these people in the 70’s and 80’s were helping people out and discovering them and that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s not my experience. I mean, Kevin didn’t know me at all. I was just friends with Patrick, hanging out in his hotel room and he was in town doing Caroline’s, Thursday to Sunday. And he was super nice and just brought me with him to every club he went to, didn’t know me at all, and to every booker was like “this is Greg, he’s really funny, he should be performing here,” and every time I go to LA he’s super nice. He puts me on his show and if I can’t do his show or he’s not doing it, or it’s already booked, he’s always like “yeah, stay in touch, make sure you email me,” that kind of thing. He doesn’t have to be nice. He doesn’t have to go out of his way. He’s a very talented comic and it was really helpful, a good example of how you should be.
BB: You’ve had various times when you’ve done some kind of unconventional art, like the stickers you put up. Is visual art important to you and is it something that you always want to be a part of your work.
GB: Yeah, I think the design is really important. If you have an idea, conveying the idea is important and also, especially with the stickers and things, you’re really effecting people. Even my album that I just put out, the people who did that are very talented and I just really like the way it looks. It’s really clean, kind of clear about what it is. So much of comedy–it’s getting a lot better now but there’s still so much of it–doesn’t look good at all. The design is really bad. It’s very cheap and a little cheesy. I like to work with good designers and I also like to make my own things that convey images to people that they can get in one small, quick glance, like with the stickers. Very concise, you know.
BB: And you’re still stickering even after going to jail for it?
GB: I took a major break and then I did that short documentary with that guy, Scott Moran, and the day that we were done I was like “I’ve gotta start putting stickers up again.” Since then I’ve been putting up more stickers. I just put up a huge poster that says “Down with the Reptilian Agenda.”
Nate Bargatze says he’s already surpassed whatever hopes he had for himself when he decided to drop his job reading water meters in Tennessee and move to Chicago. In the ten years since then, most of which have been spent in New York’s comedy scene, he’s been seen on Conan and Comedy Central, and now he’s upping the ante with the new album “Yelled at by a Clown” (from AST Records). In this very solid hour, Bargatze makes comedic spectacle out of subjects that many comedians would be afraid to touch, not because of their shock value or taboo, but because of the challenge in making them funny. Marriage and childhood, for example, are some of the most covered subjects in the standup canon, but Bargatze breathes fresh comedic life into them. He also takes on mundane facts (like consumer options for car owners) and weird world trivia (like how you can shoot rocket launchers at cows in Cambodia for $400) all with the same laid-back delivery style, letting the material speak for itself, which it most certainly does. We talked last week about being from the south, script writing, and favorite comedians. Below, is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: I’m always surprised when I hear about comedians who do their writing on stage. When you’re working out material on stage, what’s usually going through your head?
Nate Bargatze: One of my favorite parts of comedy is that once you’ve been doing it long enough–when you’re telling jokes, you’re not just thinking about whatever joke you’re on. You’re a couple jokes ahead. I’ve always loved that. It’s like you’re constantly moving forward to being like “alright, what’s after this joke” as you’re telling the joke. But sometimes you’ll forget what’s supposed to go next, so I’ll be telling jokes and I’ll think “I can only think of four jokes after this one.” And then it’s three jokes and two jokes. And then it’s just one joke and it’s like “I can’t believe I didn’t think of anything else.” So that’s always frightening. You’re trying to do your jokes all cool and collected but in your head, you’re like “we have nothing after this!”
BB: (laughs) So what is your go-to when that happens?
NB: Usually for me, I go to a joke that I don’t want to do and that I haven’t done in forever. And that’s the weird joke that’ll pop into my head, so I’ll have to do some old joke that I hate and don’t want to do and that can usually get me back onto like “okay, now we’re gonna do this.” It’s almost like a punishment–like “now you’re gonna damage yourself by telling a joke you made when you’d been doing stand-up comedy for a year.”
BB: So, I grew up in Texas with a family that’s from New York.
NB: Oh really?
BB: Yeah, it’s a weird thing with northern-southern relations, I think both groups kind of have ideas about what the other one is. Working as a southern comic in New York, did you ever experience any weirdness from that divide, being from Tennessee?
NB: I think when you move here, you tend to think everybody’s rude. And then you realize it’s not that everybody’s rude here. Everybody’s just like “We gotta go. Why are we gonna waste time acting like we’re friends?” I like it actually. I like the driving here a lot. Actually, driving in New York now, when I go drive in the south, I’m losing it, because everybody’s just kind of relaxed and going at their own pace.
But one thing about New York is, people living in Manhattan, like people who grew up in Manhattan, some of them don’t know how to travel, don’t even have drivers licenses–they’ve never left Manhattan; they’re like trapped in their own world and they think like “oh, I’ve got all this culture, I’ve got everything.” You’ve never left this little tiny island. You have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the country. I’ve had experiences with people where they’re like “you’re just some redneck from the backwoods”–they don’t say it in a mean way, but they’ll make jokes like I’m some country bumpkin and it’s like “I have seen way more of the country than you have. You’ve never left your block.”
BB: Usually for me, when I experience that, it’s more subtle. Like, I’ll say that I’m from Texas in a group of northern people who don’t know me and it will be like “oh we kind of assume that you’re really conservative…” or something like that. Do you ever get that from people?
NB: Yeah, and I tell people too, I’m exactly what everybody thinks the south is. I’m just that. I’m a southern, conservative Christian. But it’s funny–sometimes when people hear that, they assume I’m judging them. Like, I would never do that, but they quickly do that to me. They prejudge you, thinking you’re judging them. And I guess when they go down there, people are like “oh, what are you a left winged?” But it’s just like people hate conservatives in New York. I always say, you’d be better off being a pedophile on stage than you would being conservative. People hate conservatives. Some people will think I’m judging everybody and they are all completely judging the south in thinking that, in kind of a backwards way.
BB: You mentioned on WTF with Marc Maron, that the dream for you would be if you could be one of those comedians who makes it through the sitcom route like Seinfeld, Kevin James, Ray Romano, those guys.
BB: Have you done much script writing?
NB: I wrote a show, a pilot called Nateland. I actually wrote it with three other guys, which is a lot of people to write a show with, I’ve come to find out when we have meetings. But these guys are really funny. We’ve actually shot–like we did commercials for it. It’s already made, kind of–real quick trailers out on youtube. It would be a show based on my life and it would be like a sitcom kind of thing. So we just did that and hopefully we’ll get to pitch that. That would be unbelievable.
BB: It must be tough because whenever you get into that process you know it’s a shot in the dark and you just kind of have to hope for the best.
NB: Yeah. You never know. And another thing is there are so many different ways to go nowadays–It’s not just ABC, CBS. I mean those are still pretty big channels, but like FX, that kind of stuff–there’s just so many different channels so you can at least pitch it to so many more people. But you know, like you said, it’s ridiculously hard to get a TV show on even with all these channels…but I think that’s the best way…it would be great to do movies, it would be great to do all that stuff. All I want to do is be able to build a fan base so I can do standup. I think Seinfeld had such a perfect career. It’s easy to say that now, looking at it, but it just worked out perfectly. One show, and it’s this unbelievable show and now he does whatever he wants. He can do standup whenever he wants. That’s the end goal for a small comic–to just be able to do standup anywhere, anytime you want to.
BB: Who were some of your favorite comedians when you were younger?
NB: I would say Seinfeld and Sinbad.
BB: Really? Very different comics.
NB: Yeah. I remember watching Sinbad very young. I remember watching his special and I remember it being like the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
BB: I’ve heard stories from comics like Norm MacDonald, talking about him doing jokes based on stuff that happened a couple minutes before the show–like he’s really spontaneous.
NB: Yeah, a lot of comics act like they don’t write anything down and it’s all new every show. I don’t believe that. They do the same jokes over and over. That’s how they get them good. But Sinbad is one where it’s like “ I don’t know, maybe he did think it all up off the top” (laughs). He’s unbelievable. Afros and Bellbottoms was his special and I remember just watching that and it was so good. So funny–he’s still so funny.
Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Delirious–I think they both still hold up. And that dude’s one of the best. Eddie Murphy is crazy. You watch that stuff now and you think “that nuts.”
BB: Who are your favorite comedians now–people who are around right now?
NB: Bill Burr.
BB: He’s great.
NB: Yeah, I bet you get him a lot with that question. I think he’s the best working right now, so I would say him. And Brian Regan. He is really the first person I ever saw that like–I didn’t know someone could be that funny and not be like the most famous person on earth.
BB: That is true, but one thing he’s said in interviews is that he really likes being known purely on the merits of his standup. No matter where he goes, if people know him, it’s because of that, and that’s pretty cool.
NB: Yeah, well Burr’s almost like that too. I mean he’s done stuff but…
BB: Well yeah, I don’t know Bill Burr as the guy who does standup and acts on Breaking Bad. I know him as a standup comedian who later got that part.
BB: One thing I noticed about your new album is that it’s very clean. I think with a lot of comedians, the first hour they put together for a CD is clean out of necessity, because you have to be able to do the material everywhere.
BB: So was that the case for you? Do you have dirty stuff that just didn’t end up on the album or are you in that Brian Regan camp, where you just don’t do much dirty material?
NB: Yeah, I just don’t do any. I mean if I get asked to do any shows that even look like it’s supposed to be dirty I guess I have some stuff I can go do, but I don’t have any, like, “dick jokes” you know?
NB: Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m fine with them and they’re all great, but I never wrote that way. That’s just how my mind thinks. It just thinks clean. I talk about murder quite a bit though. I don’t cuss, but there’s a ton of murder.
During his time as a co-host for the Brooklyn comedy show Big Terrific, Gabe Liedman has figured out how to channel awkwardness and insecurity into his own personal brand of charisma. Now, his aptly named first album Hiyeeee!! (from AST records), introduces that charisma to the rest of the world. Liedman puts disarmingly personal anecdotes on display alongside singular takes on pop culture. He covers online dating, Hoarders, and monkeys in bits that make easy tonal leaps from biting to sincere. In this interview we talk about jokes, labels, other comedians, and what’s coming next as he starts a new chapter in his career.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: You do most of your writing while you’re actually up on stage right?
Gabe Liedman: That’s right, yeah.
BB: Is there something better about doing it up there than writing it down on paper?
GL: There’s something that’s more natural to me. I’m a talker. I like dialogue. I like everything being out loud. I hardly ever just write essays, you know–I don’t have a book in the works or anything. And I guess I have that improv geek in me who’s like “just try it.” It’s not that scary to just try something. And a lot of the ways I still tell my jokes are the way I told them the first time. If they were a hit that first time then that’s how they stay. (laughs) I should probably revise more, but I don’t.
BB: And then you still have that option if you, in the moment, stumble into something really good, it’s like “yeah, I can keep that.”
GL: Yeah, the jokes kind of grow as I riff on them week after week after month after month or whatever. That’s when new lines come. I think everything that I do started as an improv or a riff.
BB: Well isn’t there a pretty big hazard for failure there, like the first few times you do it?
GL: For sure. And it will never stop being surprising when I think something’s gonna be so funny and then it’s just not funny to the audience. It’s always a huge shock. There’s plenty of stuff I’ve done where it’s been like “this is gonna be amazing,” and then it’s just straight-up not. (laughs) But that’s for everyone too. Even if I had written it out first, it’s not like I would’ve been able to tell. You have to bounce it off the audience.
BB: Especially with you, I would think it would be so risky because so much of your material is really personal stuff.
GL: Yeah. It is. It is risky, and there are definitely personal anecdotes that I’ve tried out to be like “is there a bit here” and found out that there isn’t, or that I wasn’t getting the point across right or whatever. But I don’t think it hits me any harder than it would hit a more straightforward, one-liner type of guy.
BB: Well, I remember hearing an interview with Anthony Jeselnik where he talked about how in his early days he would sometimes bomb. But when I heard that, I was like “well yeah, but you’re telling these one liners, and the character you’re doing is kind of nonchalant, so there’s kind of a built-in security, so it doesn’t hurt as much.”
GL: Yeah. I could see that. I mean, it’s so hard for me to picture Anthony bombing. Because he can tell so many jokes in like five minutes. And I’ve seen a few sets where some of them were new and some hit harder than others. I never thought of it as a luxury. I could tell that he was like “well…tried it and it didn’t work”–you could tell he could feel it too. But even then, he just kind of blows my mind. He has it together, you know? I feel like I’m meandering compared to someone like that. Like Demetri Martin did my show a couple weeks ago and he was explaining–because he’s like another one-liner guy who does fifteen minutes and fifty jokes or whatever–he was explaining that he has notes that he brings up that are divided into three columns. All the way to the left are things that are tested, that he knows are gonna be great. In the middle are 50-50’s, and in in the right hand column are all the new things. And he just follows the energy of the room and tries out something new. If it bombs, he goes back to the left. But that’s kind of a cool luxury. I guess everyone has their own ways of dealing with it. I don’t know exactly what mine is…I kind of throw shit out.
BB: (laughs) At least it’s engaging. Like, if it’s not funny, you still have things that you can say that people are going to find interesting.
GL: Yeah. And because I’m just kind of talking, the words don’t have to come out exactly right. It’s a lot of just being in the moment and connecting.
BB: You say in your album that you’re good at public speaking but bad at private speaking.
GL: Yes. (laughs)
BB: It sounds like, because the album is some older stuff and some newer stuff, that may be sort of an older thing that you grew out of a bit.
GL: That’s actually new. I started doing that this year actually. That was me trying to explain the sort of social awkwardness that I feel like is shared by so many comedians and I think that’s a thing you’ll hear in probably everyone’s standup set. Maybe except for Anthony or someone whose performing with a character of complete confidence. I remember coming up with that one when I was trying to sort of muse on why I’m able to do standup when I’m not able to mingle at a party. And I was talking about how the light on stage kind of blinds me; the audience is there and I can see the outlines of their heads, but they’re pretty much sitting still and laughing and they’re being nice–it’s not a normal interaction. Whereas so many people, when they find out you’re a standup comedian, they’re like “I would never do that. That’s like my worst nightmare. How can you do that?” And I always say, “well I can’t just, like, go to a party and meet someone new.” It’s a total trade-off. If you’re the type of person who can get up in front of a room full of people and be like “let me blow your mind for twelve minutes,” then you’re not the type of person who can just chill out and be a cool friend.
BB: I’m sort of in this camp too and I feel like being on stage is easier, or even something like this where I’m doing an interview, because there’s a very clear idea of what I’m supposed to be doing, whereas with social interaction, it’s ambiguous. Once you identify what your objective is, it makes it a lot easier to do.
GL: Yes, totally. And also, on stage you can lead with your flaws and if you do that in person, that’s like the worst–being like “oh, I am a fucking mess,” is a funny thing to say on stage to get into a bit but if you said that to a stranger at a party they’d be like “Help! Someone help,” you know…
BB: (laughs) So in researching for this interview, reading what other people have written about you, I’ve found that you get a lot of the same descriptors over and over. You’ll get like alternative comedy, Brooklyn, indy comedy, storytelling comedy, or you’ll get something based around the fact that you’re gay.
BB: Does that kind of stuff bother you?
GL: It doesn’t really bother me. I guess everyone fits into a box, and there’s not a ton written about me. Terms like “alt. comedy” are weird, but I get what you’re saying. No one should tune into Gabe Liedman expecting something super mainstream. But you know, there’s a million boxes. And the gay thing is a little weird, but honestly, I’m as filthy as anyone for just completely putting that foot forward. It is something that I wear on my sleeve super-hard and no one is…begging me to do that (laughs). So maybe I’m as guilty as anyone else for being like “I’m gay and weird! And that’s how you need to understand me.” But maybe over time people will start saying that I’m…nice (laughs) or something. And I don’t even know what other words they should be using.
BB: It’s kind of hard to tell–if you wear being gay on your sleeve–it’s hard to tell, “am I using this?” Or am I being put in a box because of this? Like I have gay parents and sometimes when I bring it up I think “am I playing a card here to get people to listen?”
GL: Well, I mean, if you are playing a card, it’s your card. (laughs) I don’t know. Last year when I did Marc Maron’s podcast, I had met Marc a couple times but we didn’t–and still don’t–know each other well. And he was just going up to every comic and being like “okay, so what do you want to talk about?” And I was the one who was like “uh, we can talk about how I’m gay.” I was the one who offered that up. So I guess I’ve signed up to be a fascinating topic as well. And that led to a conversation that was all about that and it turned out to be super interesting. But when it comes to standup, I like to go back and forth between putting it in people’s faces, saying the most intense thing I can about it, and then also sometimes just letting it be the background and not addressing it….it’s a complicated thing. I guess I play the card when I want to but also, like, I earned this card by being in the closet and miserable for so long, but now I get to have a ton of fun with it and maybe make some money.
BB: Well yeah. I think if you feel like you’re not exploiting something, if you just feel like you’re being honest, then it’s probably fine right?
GL: Yeah, I think so. And like, I don’t often play a different type of gay guy than I am in the way I talk about myself. I don’t think I ham it up super hard but also, sometimes I guess I do. I don’t know. It’s a complicated thing.
BB: Yeah it is.
GL: I guess I’ll always be alt, indy, and gay to people who are trying to describe me in three words (laughs). And one day “funny” will be one of those words.
BB: That’s in there. It’s in there.
BB: I’ll use it a bunch of times in my writeup.
GL: Great. Perfect.
BB: Who were some comedians you liked when you were younger?
GL: When I was younger I loved Ellen and Wendy Liebman, Paula Poundstone, a lot of women, I guess.
BB: Were you a Janeane Garofalo fan?
GL: I was a Janeane Garofalo fan. I was lucky enough to be a teenager during the Janeane Garofalo blow-up and it was dead on. I mean, Reality Bites is like one of the most important things that’s ever happened. But yeah, I guess of just straight-up standup, I loved Wendy Leibman. She was amazing. And as a young kid, what’s really fucked up is my dad used to have Richard Pryor concert tapes and he would just play that. That was like my earliest memory of standup.
BB: Wait, how old were you for this?
GL: Like young. Probably like ten or under. It was like Paul Simon’s Graceland and Richard Pryor. And Enya’s Watermark, I remember.
BB: (laughs) You’ve got a very diverse dad.
GL: My dad is pretty intense yeah. (laughs)
BB: What do you think, he was like “oh he won’t get most of the stuff that’s inappropriate,” or just…
GL: I don’t think he gave a shit. I think he was laughing so hard that it was just like the world fell away behind him.
BB: Did it resonate with you? Did you listen to it and think “this is really good.”
GL: Yeah. I thought it was really funny. There was a lot that I didn’t understand. There’s probably still stuff that, if I went back, I wouldn’t understand fully (laughs). But, yeah, I could tell it was hilarious and it cracked my dad up so hard that it was worth it.
BB: Who are some comedians who are on the scene now who you really like?
GL: I, obviously, am obsessed with Jenny Slate and Max Silvestri. Love Chelsea Peretti, I think she’s like the funniest. Amy Schumer, I love…Tig Notaro, Jessi Klein, a lot of ladies again. I’m a huge Hannibal Buress fan. I feel like my deep dark secret is that I have Hannibal telling my jokes in my head while I’m telling them and that’s how I slow down and take my time. Watching Hannibal is what made me realize I was rushing through my set, because he is so funny and slow and lax, and that was a huge revelation.
BB: Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace–I saw that pretty recently and that was pretty spectacular.
GL: Yes. Spectacular.
BB: What is the worst gig or the craziest gig that you ever had?
GL: Oh my God. I mean, I’ve had so many awful ones. One I would say…it actually kind of went fine, but the weirdest–definitely the weirdest in a bad way–I did a Jewish standup tour with Jenny Slate, Rachel Feinstein and some other people, and we went to a summer camp, out in the mountains, outside of Atlanta. And it was all kids and it was during the day. It was super fucking awkward and weird, and I ended up totally outing some kid, just pointing to him and being like “this guy knows what I’m talking about.” And it got a huge laugh. I’ll never forget how hard everyone else laughed and how quickly he covered his face, and I was like “what the fuck am I doing? I’m such a monster. I’m so uncomfortable that I just fucking ruined someone.” It was the worst.
BB: I’m guessing at a summer camp with a bunch of kids, it wasn’t an ideal crowd…
GL: No, it was not an ideal crowd and it was so early on in my standup career with Jenny. I still was probably like two years into performing and like, we weren’t that funny and we definitely were not for kids (laughs) and how we ever ended up there…it’ll just go down in history as one of the weirdest, like, “what the hell am I doing here?”
BB: I guess the moral of the story is that it’s easy to sort of forget yourself and forget things like that when a gig’s not going great, and just go for whatever you can find.
GL: Yup. Totally playing dirty. It was weird.
BB: Looking back at what has happened in your career so far, what would you do differently if you could go back?
GL: I think I would at least fake having more confidence. I feel like I wasted a lot of time being shy or telling myself I couldn’t go that far and I wish that I hadn’t wasted so many years with everyone else basically telling me “it’s all gonna be great, you’re funny, go for it,” and just, you know floored it earlier. I’m not that old, but yeah, I wish I had been charging at full steam the whole time, instead of being like “well I have my limitations…”
BB: Do you think that there’s been something good from having to learn that lesson the long way?
GL: I think so. I feel kind of fully formed. I mean, even a few years ago, I was not as funny, not as complicated, not as mature…Now I wish I could just go back five years, six years, whatever it’s been, and say “look, when you’re thirty, everyone’s gonna be rooting for you, you’ll have a great job, you’re gonna be happy, you’re gonna be healthy, assume the best.” That would have at least lifted some shit off my shoulders. Because I really thought that I was taking some huge risk by being an out gay comic and now that I’m an actual person in the world, it’s like “come on, what else were you gonna be?”