Interview with Gabe Liedman

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.

GL: Yeah.

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.

GL: Okay.

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?”

Gabe’s album is available for download on iTunes. You can follow him on twitter @gabeliedman

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