Interview with Greg Barris

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.”

GB: Yeah.

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?

GB: Yeah.

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.

BB: Wow.

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.”

Greg’s album is available for download. 

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