Eliza Skinner says she envies people in the entertainment industry who can just pick one craft and stick with it, but her more all-over-the-map approach certainly made my job as an interviewer easier. It’s hard to be at a loss for questions when you’re talking to someone who is lauded for her improv, standup, writing, acting, and freestyle rap battles, among other things. When Eliza’s not teaching and performing musical improv at the UCB Theater, writing scripts, and acting in videos, she can be seen co-hosting the weekly standup show Magic Bag with DC Pierson. In fact, the only real challenge on my side of the interview was figuring out how to cover such a vast and varied talent in one 40-minute Skype session. We talked last Sunday afternoon and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: You’re hosting Magic Bag in a couple hours right?
Eliza Skinner: I am, yeah.
BB: How’s it been, doing it every week?
ES: It’s been fun. I really like working with DC and having to do a show every week kind of forces you to write new material. I’m not always great about writing new material for every show, but it does kind of motivate me to add some new stuff. It’s really low stakes, low pressure. It’s not something we invite industry to. We don’t tape there. It’s just a place where it’s safe to try new stuff out. It’s been really more fun than anything.
BB: You do standup, improv, acting and script-writing. What do you think is the advantage of having a split focus and doing a lot of things at the same time?
ES: For me the advantage has been momentum. When I try to focus on just one thing, I feel very dragged down and stuck. A few years ago, I remember having a meeting with a manager and she was like “well, are you gonna be an actor or a writer? You have to pick one.” And I was like “oh, okay, she knows what she’s talking about,” so I decided to just focus on writing. I couldn’t just do acting. I would be very uncomfortable not being able to generate my own material, having to wait to have somebody call me. So I tried just being a writer and writing just one kind of thing. I couldn’t do it. I would just sit there and stare at my computer. And while there is something to having some discipline and pushing through those moments, I’ve found that when I’m busy, I stay busy. If I go to a show, when I come home, I’m kind of jazzed up and I don’t want to just watch TV; I’ll sit down and write something. And if I’ve been writing all day, I want to go out and do some new standup jokes. And if I want to interact with other people, I can do improv.
BB: So it’s kind of an overall mindset changer to have these different things to do.
ES: Yeah, and for a long time I was like “be a good girl, chain yourself to the desk, and do the work you’ve assigned yourself.” Then I realized that just depressed me so much. (laughs) I couldn’t work that way. I kind of have to zigzag all around and likewise my career has zigzagged all around. I very much envy the people who know the exact one thing they want and just go after that, because they reach it much quicker.
BB: Yeah, but I guess it’s not altogether natural for most people. What if DC hadn’t written a novel just because that’s not conventionally what improv/sketch comedians do? That perception seems kind of dated–that you have to choose one thing.
ES: Yeah, I think it is too. As I said, I did talk to that one manager who told me that and that was a few years ago. Now, I feel like it is seen as an advantage; those are the types people want to work with and it’s exciting because the finished product that they make is more multifaceted. Like DC’s stuff–his book at one point had a playlist that went along with it and that’s going to inform when it becomes a movie. If he was just a novelist sitting in a room, writing a book, I don’t think that he would have even thought to explore all those different avenues. I think you’re right; it is very dated to just do one thing, unless that’s what you want to do, in which case that’s fine. My sister is an actress and that’s all she wanted to do and all she does and she hit it really early.
BB: Yeah, you grew up with that, right? With her auditioning and stuff?
BB: Did that sort of shape you and what you’re doing now?
ES: Yeah, definitely. It probably almost held me back in ways because, you know, I had little sister stuff where I was like “oh, I’m not gonna be like her.” Just, any things that a little sister would see in a big sister and go “ew,” were things I equated with actors. When in fact, I’m a performer. I should’ve just gone with it. Finally, I had to be like “oh those are decisions you made when you were a child. You can let go of those decisions now.”
BB: Did you see yourself as anything creative? Did you see yourself as a writer or a performer in any capacity in those years?
ES: I didn’t know about all the jobs that were available. I knew about acting because of my sister and I knew about musical theater, so I liked those. I wanted to be an actor or maybe a director, but mostly an actor. But the whole time, I was writing. I used to write funny stories all the time when I was a kid and win little prizes for funny stories and I loved comedy. It took me a long time to realize that jobs like sketch comedy were real jobs and that I was better at them than just anybody would be, because, you know, everybody’s funny. Everybody jokes around. So, to think that you’re better at it than everybody else isn’t most people’s first thought. It’s like saying “I’m better at breathing. I’ll do that for a living. I’m gonna be a professional breather.”
BB: (laughs) So for you, when was the turning point of realizing that you were better at it than the average person?
ES: I went to school in this little college town and there wasn’t anything else there besides the school, so there wasn’t any form of entertainment besides the local improv group. And one of my housemates wanted to go audition for this group. They would have auditions once a year and between one and two hundred people would show up. They took all day and they would just eliminate people until they had gotten down to just a few, and out of all of those people, my roommate and I got cast. I’d never seen them perform. I had just gone to keep my roommate company and I had no idea that I was going to be good at it, so I instantly was like “whoa improv! That’s my thing!” And I went online and found out about improv festivals and tried to get the whole group to go and they wouldn’t, so I just drove myself to an improv festival halfway across the country. It was great. Then after college, I was like “well, I’m done with that. I’m gonna be an agent.”
ES: Yeah, absolutely. I thought I was going to be a talent agent. Did that for four months.
BB: What is the career path for that? Did you Google “how to be a talent agent?”
ES: Well my sister was an actor so I was like “do you know any agents?” And she was like “I know mine. You can go be his assistant.” So that’s what I did. I stayed there for four months and it was the worst. It was not fun at all. Possibly, being an adult with a job was shockingly unfun to me at that point, but it was pretty bad, so I stopped working there and started working at a hotel. But I thought, “I shouldn’t live in NewYork just to work at a hotel. What could I do to make it worthwhile?”
And I remembered improv, so I started taking improv classes again. I took a couple improv classes–like one class with a few sessions–and I wasn’t crazy about it, but then they were having auditions for their touring company so I just showed up. I got an audition and I got cast again out of a lot of people. I just kept falling into improv and having it work out very easily without a lot of effort, so I thought “what if I actually put effort into this? What if I tried,” which, in your early twenties is not a cool thing to do, but I decided to really give it a shot. The part I always liked the most was the musical improv stuff–improvising whole musicals or even just songs. Because I had grown up doing musical theater, I kind of had those pathways in my brain already, so it was fun and easy.
BB: Was there ever, at that beginning stage, a confidence issue? To have never done it before and to just jump in and be like “oh, I’m really good at this…”
ES: I’m sure a little bit. You kind of learn some things as craft, growing up doing musical theater. Things like where you look–that your eyes should go right above everybody’s heads, that you should stand up straight–all these things that basically ape confidence. I learned that no matter how you feel, once you get on stage, you do these things and that creates a certain level of confidence, which ended up being a huge boon to me with improv and is actually something I teach in my classes now. I would’ve walked around looking like I was terrified to be on stage as any sane human would be. But I also really have this (laughs)…thing with fear. If I notice fear, I kind of grab onto it and go after it…
BB: Like in an aggressive way?
ES: Yeah, like “oh, that thing scares me? Well then I’m gonna do that thing.” It’s almost like a childish approach to fear. Not with physical stuff, like I’m not going to jump out of a plane, but the way that I act and who I interact with and how I interact with them. That idea of fear is kind of a motivator for me and it’s a challenge. In any kind of improv, I love being given those challenges and having to figure them out and figure out “well how do I do a whole song that rhymes and has feeling to it?” It’s a fun little game for my brain to unpack. I was always far more distracted by that than by any kind of terror or insecurity.
BB: You said when you were on A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume that you really liked being around people who inspire you in your work. Could you talk about how and why that’s important to you?
ES: Yeah well, it’s fun to bounce ideas off of people. When you’re with funny people and you’re joking around, you’re coming up with ideas that can be used other places. I love it when that is the way standup is done. A good friend of mine–Baron Vaughn, hilarious standup–you’ll be hanging out with him and you’ll say something funny and he’s like “that’s a bit. Write it down right now.”
And I’ve started doing that to people also. You get up on stage and try to make those little snippets of things from conversations into whole standup bits, which makes you feel like your general funniness isn’t for naught. You’re not losing those little thoughts you have all day that you would lose if someone wasn’t sitting across from you saying “hey, write that down.”
Also, seeing what people are capable of helps me. I feel like a lot of people have a very negative connotation with the idea of competition. I think competition is great. When I see one of my friends doing some new, cool thing, I’m like “oh, that’s a thing we can do?” Like with DC (Pierson), it’s like “we can write a novel?” It opens these doors you wouldn’t have thought of.
BB: You’ve said that emotion is very important to musical improv. How do you access it consistently?
ES: Oh, by being a raw nerve of a human being. (laughs) I’m joking but it’s a little bit true. I just try to remember emotional experiences. In my classes I get people to sing songs about things that are important to them. Sometimes those are dark things and sometimes those are small things, but if they’re important to somebody, then there’s a lot of feeling attached. I don’t think there’s any point to having a song that is about something you don’t care about. Nobody sings songs like (singing halfheartedly) “yeah I have an old box in my room and I should get rid of it,” unless they can attach some meaning. It’s music; it’s essentially just emotion heightened.
BB: The thing you brought up about remembering emotions made me think of method acting, where you remember a sad moment in your life to bring out an emotional performance. Does that actually come up a lot?
ES: Oh yeah. For me, I’ve been doing it so long, I don’t still have to make associations with certain people and instances. I just kind of have buttons in my head that trigger certain emotions. It’s like there’s a getting-broken-up-with button, and a feeling-lost-and-abandoned button. But when I first started out, it was a lot of going to those specific times and places and feeling those feelings. It’s very cathartic and there’s some crazy in there too. I’ve dated people I’ve performed with and I remember doing a scene in a musical improv one time about a boy who had to give up his cow. I was playing the cow and my ex-boyfriend was playing the boy and suddenly the audience was like “what is going on? The boy and the cow are both crying but they both want each other to have good lives…” It just got real messy. So I’m glad I’ve moved past that.
BB: So do you think that doing musical improv is a little more imparting of yourself than doing standup? Because I would think it would be the other way around.
ES: It is the other way around. Well…as far as content goes, it’s the other way around. Like when I’m doing standup I’m saying things that actually happened to me, but with musical improv, I am kind of turning myself inside out a little bit. Like people can see what’s going on inside me in a different way than they can with standup…
BB: A less informational part of you.
ES: Yeah. More like “oh this is the goop that makes up you.” (laughs) “And I don’t know what the goop means or spells, but I can see what shape and viscosity the goop is,” to make it more complicated.
BB: (laughs) What are some of your favorite characters to play?
ES: The worst ones. The terrible people. I really like the baddies, because I feel like those are the parts of us that everybody’s scared of. Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy but everybody’s worried they’re the bad guy. Know what I mean?
BB: Yeah, I’ve noticed it’s a lot of people who don’t know they’re really bad people.
ES: Yeah, well I think most people who are really bad people don’t know. Everyone thinks they have reasons for doing what they do and if they could just explain it to everybody, then everybody would get it. And I think, like many of us, I’m scared that at my heart I’m just a bad person, just a sea-witch of a human, so, to get close to that and explore that is really fun, and I think that it’s fun for audiences. It’s also fun as a woman because so many of the parts that are created for us from a male gaze are women who are just plot points, rather than characters. Or they’re just kind of black and white–either very, very good, or just pointlessly terrible. So, playing somebody who’s bad but complicated, and for a reason, and just shamelessly ugly, is really fun.
BB: Who are some of the comedians you really liked when you were younger?
ES: Fozzie Bear.
ES: I didn’t know that he was a bad comedian. I just liked that he got to go on stage, delivered punchlines and then said “waka waka.”
BB: So you liked his punchlines unironically?
ES: Yeah, I always liked the rhythm of comedy. I think that happens with a lot of people, at least musical people. Even when you’re too young to get the comedy, you understand the rhythm of it. Like “da dum, da dum, da dum.” I loved The Young Ones. It was more gross and terrible people living together. I loved French and Saunders. I always loved Jennifer Saunders–Ab Fab. She’s really great and, again, creates these unlikable characters and then makes you like them. I remember really liking Ellen Degeneres and her whimsy and her stream-of-consciousness stuff. And I loved Steve Martin, Bill Cosby–those were albums that I had and would listen to. I liked Monty Python a lot. I had a bunch of Python albums, specifically the music that they would have on their shows and that was probably a big influence. I don’t think I’m that absurdists but I think a lot of the people I liked were pretty absurd and character-based. Loved Martin Short. Big Dana Carvey fan.
BB: Where do your tastes go now?
ES: Honesty. People talking about how they actually feel, so Louis CK. I like a lot of my contemporaries, like people who are a couple steps ahead of me like Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress. It’s hard to just name a couple names, because it’s kind of like asking “what foods do you like?” I can name a lot of foods that I like but I’m eating all day long. I’m listening to comedy, going to see comedy…I fell like it’s all pretty relevant and exciting.
BB: Is honesty something you try for in your own standup?
ES: Yeah. One of my pet peeves is hearing people say they did something on stage that they definitely didn’t do. Like if they’re like “this dog came up to me and I punched him in his face and stole his collar.” You didn’t do that. I would find it much more interesting if you said “and I wanted to punch him in his face and steal his collar.’” That distinction is pretty important to me. But even when people are being absurd and silly, I feel like if they’re really letting themselves connect with the audience somehow so we’re like “oh you’re making that all up, but I feel like you’re really letting us know you,” I still really appreciate that.
You can see Eliza’s standup at Magic Bag, every Sunday at 8pm, at The Little Modern Theater in Hollywood, CA.
Maybe it’s the fact that when I talked to Tom Shillue he’d just landed a surprise booking on Jimmy Fallon for later that day, but he gave a pretty excited interview. His answers were long and comprehensive, with the same kind of streamlined precision he brings to the comedy clubs, and by the end of our talk, I thought “yeah, I could definitely see this guy being able to come up with twelve albums in twelve months.” On November 6th, Shillue will release an album (entitled Better, Stronger, Faster) that he assembled in a matter of weeks. Then, he’ll repeat this process every month, until the year runs out, or, until his head explodes–whichever comes first. He’s bringing together old and new material, recording his storyteller standup in every kind of venue from the giant theaters where he opens for Jim Gaffigan to the tiny clubs where comics go to work out. I called him last Wednesday to talk about this momentous project and what follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So, twelve albums in twelve months. Has anyone told you yet that this sounds insane?
Tom Shillue: Yeah, other comics have. Hopefully this will impress more than just other comedians but, yeah, a lot of my peers are like “really?” I had the idea originally that I would do five albums. I had plenty of material to do five, but then there was extra material and I thought “you know what, I could do ten.” Then I thought, “wait a minute, since we’re doing ten, let’s just do twelve.”
BB: How much of this is pulling from material you already have and how much is planning ahead to write on the fly?
TS: It’s probably half and half. I could probably dump out six albums tomorrow from shows I’ve done, because I record all my sets. But at times I’ve done shows like Whiplash at UCB, where I’ll go perform a story based on something that happened in the week or whatever. And it will be like 20 minutes of new material that I’ll perform that night and then just leave and never do again. So, I thought I could probably do albums out of this material–take those stories, go back and work them up. I only have a few weeks so, I go out on stage, record it, see if it works, and if it does, put it on the album. If not, rework it and do it again. Sometimes I think I do better material when I’m under the gun.
BB: So, right now, how far into this twelve album series are you?
TS: I’ve got two done. I’ve got a bunch of files I haven’t even listened to yet of my recorded live shows, then I’ve got stuff in GarageBand. And then I have notes for sets I’ll be doing that hopefully will be making the albums. The third album is in GarageBand now, and that has to be released in early January, so I’m going to get that to my guy at BC Media as soon as possible. I’m sure this whole year is going to be a major headache for my guy who is releasing the albums. He’ll be calling me late at night all the time but hopefully we’ll stay ahead.
BB: The album Big Room consists of two different spots you do opening for Jim Gaffigan in Denver–an early show and a late one. I noticed before you went on for the late show you said “if you hear me repeat a joke, let it go; I’ve gotta stay alive out there.”
TS: (laughs) I was worried I was gonna do that. I’ve had people complain to me on twitter because I wrote some funny tweet and then reused the line when I was doing Red Eye on Fox. They’ll be like “I’ve heard that joke before,” like I’m not allowed to use the same joke on TV and twitter. (laughs)
And in this case, I was trying to cut an album, but I’ve also got an audience to entertain. They’re there to see Jim Gaffigan, so I’ve gotta give them my A-Game and there’s a thousand people in the seats. The idea is I may do that. I might go into some old material and get some laughs and then get back into the new stuff. Some of my stories overlap. Some of my bits are in several of my stories. The albums are all independent of one another but the thing about comics is, we have a tendency to repeat ourselves.
BB: I’ve noticed just in the two albums that I’ve been able to hear of these twelve that a lot of times, you’ll start in the same place but go to a very different place.
TS: Yeah, definitely setups will be repeated. There’s only about four things that I’m interested in, in the world. At some point you have to say to people “look, it’s all the same crap that I’ve been saying.” (laughs) We’re all rewording ourselves, and if I’m telling a fifteen minute story, I think it’s kind of fun to see how an old bit works in the context of this other story–how comedy gets repurposed in a different way. Some of my favorite artists like Woody Allen will constantly repeat themselves but as long as they do it in a new context each time, it’s great.
BB: So in opening for Gaffigan, you were in a big theater venue, and then in Better, Strong, Faster, it was a smaller room. Is there something that appeals to you about contrasting the different kind of venues that comics play in?
TS: Oh yeah. I love small rooms. When I get out there in front of Gaffigan’s crowd, it’s great to be in front of a crowd, but you do need to be a little more on-message. And I think you can hear that on that album; I’m definitely doing more punchy material. But I like small rooms because I like going around and working new material in front of more intimate crowds because you can be more loose with them. You can go to interesting places, do more interesting material, more jazz–it’s just like with jazz guys who are playing for the other musicians, because you’re playing for the other comics in the back. You can’t do that in front of a big crowd.
I love going up there in small rooms and not worrying about your laughs-per-minute but just kind of working on a piece. And people there in the audience like it, but it’s sometimes considered too loose for recorded comedy. That comes out of an older attitude of making albums–like record albums. Now in the digital age, I feel like people just want to consume stuff. Some of my favorite comics, if I could listen to them work on material and get it in my inbox once a month, get their scratch-tracks, I would love that. This project is kind of an in between of that; they’re not scratch tracks, these aren’t my notes, I’ve really worked on them, but on some of these albums you will be hearing improvised material for the first time.
BB: Why do you think you gravitate towards storytelling comedy as opposed to something like what Steven Wright or Demetri Martin does?
TS: I think everybody gravitates to stories in the end, even those guys. Like, look at Demetri lately. His latest stuff has a kind of story-like arc to it because we kind of learn more about Demetri. When you become a fan of someone, you want to get into that narrative. And it’s the same with Steven Wright. When I saw him a few years ago, he was on a show at Emerson College–we did this big reunion show. He went out on stage and he did all new material and it had more of the storytelling. I feel like a lot of people gravitate that way because these big names have a loyal following and the audience always wants to hear more. Like with Bill Cosby, his fans want to be able to hear what’s going on with Bill Cosby now. He can go up there as a legend, sit there on stage and talk about brewing a pot of coffee, and the audience is right there on the edge of their seats.
I’ve always been more about stories than jokes because that’s what I like–that’s what I want to hear. And some of my favorite comics, my favorite stuff of theirs is their stories, after a show. We’ll go and have a beer and I’ll be laughing so hard. That’s what I’ve always got a charge on, even as a comedy fan. Stories go deeper and they give you insight. And it’s a little bit more of a meal when you have to tackle it on stage. It’s like serving up slow food vs. fast food. If you can take your audience into the story to the point where they’d buy it without the laughs, then it’s like, alright, take it to the bank.
BB: You’ve finalized two of ten albums. Are you still as enthusiastic as you were at the start of the project?
TS: Yes. More so. As I’m doing it, it’s all very doable, until the last album or two. Those extra two albums are what kind of scare me. I don’t have a plan for them at all. I think during the course of the year I’ll come up with enough material for those last two, but by the time we get there, I may have to just walk out on stage and do an album. It’s like when you’re driving on the highway and the tank’s on “E” and starts to glow red. It’s that feeling of excitement, “am I gonna make it?”
But I’m seeing these things take shape. I need a deadline to make any of this stuff work; if you set a deadline, you’ve gotta fill it. On Jimmy Fallon tonight, he’s gonna say on national TV “this guy’s doing twelve albums in twelve months.” It’s like “alright, I’m committed now.” There’s something about that that gives you energy. I better come up with it, you know?
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?”
Colin Mochrie takes the old stage adage “life’s an improv” to a whole new level. He’s gone from Second City, to prime-time television, to sold out touring shows without ever writing down what he was going to say beforehand. In this interview we talked about his work on “Whose Line is it Anyway?,” his time at Second City, and his views on his life-long metier, improv comedy.
Kevin Sheil: I’ve heard some alumni of Second City who describe going in as being freshmen in high school and the main-stage actors are kind of like the senior class. And some people describe it as a big family where everyone’s in it together and supportive. Looking back on it–
Colin Mochrie: Sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. It is like a big family, but it’s like a big dysfunctional family. It’s like anything else where you have a lot of people. There are some people who are incredibly supportive and there are others who are just dicks. But, it’s that thing where you learn how to work in that environment. It is one of the most stressful times. Not so much when you’re running the show, but when you’re putting up the show because there’s usually six performers–everyone’s trying to get their material on stage. It’s almost like going to war together. You’re in the trenches and you’re looking out for yourself but you’re also trying to keep your friends alive and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
KS: That does kind of take us to where you first got involved with the British version of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” How did that come about?
CM: I was at Second City and the producers were doing a cross-continent audition. They were going to Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, New York, and LA. And they came to the show I was in at Second City and they asked the cast to audition to them. They were leaving the next morning, so we had to audition at 8 in the morning, which is a horrific time for comedy. And because the cast had worked together for a while, everyone was being very supportive. No one stood out because we were doing what you’re supposed to be doing when you improvise; you support. So none of us got cast. Then, the next year we had moved up to LA. My wife had gotten a pilot sold. And they came through again. And because I didn’t know anybody I was auditioning with, it was like “Hey screw you, look at me.” So, a heartwarming story for all the young people out there.
KS: How did your experience working with the British version differ with the American version?
CM: The audience was probably a little more reserved than the American, but I’d find you’d get more interesting suggestions from them. A lot of the American audiences, we’d get a lot of pop culture where in Britain, they’d throw something like Charles II Advocation Speech at you and you’d go “okay.” And the censorship was the major difference. In Britain, you could do anything. I remember when we moved to America, there was a censor in booth for the entire run. Because there was no script to look at, they were sort of there to keep us on the straight and narrow. The first season we were doing it, they would actually stop us in the middle of a scene and say “can you make up something different?” And that would set Drew (Carey) off because he has a real button about censorship, so the next 20 minutes were unusable, because he would introduce every game as “Okay, now we’re gonna play cock-sucking arms” or something. It made it hard for us because we were never really sure where the line was. There was the obvious stuff–language–but then there were some things that I thought were really inoffensive that they bleeped, and made the audience think of things that were even worse. And then there were some things that they kept in and I thought “really?” It was very confusing so we kind of decided as a cast early on, we can’t really worry about it. We just have to make it up and if it gets on, it gets on.
KS: Do you have any memorable moments looking back at the show-times that you look back and think “well that was really good.”
CM: I don’t really remember a lot of it. That’s one of the curses of improv. It’s like, once it’s over, it’s like, gone. There have been times, when I’ll be flipping through and I see a “Who’s Line…” on and I’m watching it and I recognize none of the scenes. I recognize the scenes other people are doing that I haven’t been in, because I was actually watching them, but, the scenes I’m in–I have no recollection. Now having said that, there are a couple–the Richard Simmons scene kind of stuck. Because it was one of those that–as we were doing it–I thought “I’ve never heard a reaction like this.” It was just…wild. And in the final show edit, they actually cut out a lot of it–because the show had come to a stand still. It was just…and having to stand there for like 3 minutes with Richard Simmons at my crotch, it was just something you can’t erase from your memory.
KS: Nor should you.
CM: No. And then Sid Caeser was on the show and that was a great thrill because he was one of my comedy heroes so it was nice to have him on there. But the beauty of the show was that it took no time. It was three weekends out of the year. After one weekend it worked out that you had done 12 to 16 shows. It was fast and cheap.
KS: What was it like working with Sid Caesar? Sid Caesar came through, and he’s not the only one–a lot of people came through. Stephen Colbert, George Wendt, Robin Williams…Of all the guests that came through–on the American version it tended to be you, Ryan and Wayne–did you have any guests that you enjoyed working with?
CM: I’d have to say all of them. I’d say Sid Caesar was a special one because he was someone I really admired. Robin Williams was great. What I loved about him–he came on–and his energy was so high, it picked us up 150 percent. Florence Henderson was great. Richard Simmons was great. It was the guests who sort of came on and gave their all that were the most fun. It was because they were so in the spirit of the show and were there to give.
KS: What were your favorite and least favorite games to play?
CM: Well I would say Hoedown would be my least favorite.By the time we got to the last show, I think we’d done like 200-300 hoedowns. It was horrific. And my favorite game would change. There were times when you’d get into a rut with a game and it doesn’t really inspire you and then some game does for some reason. The one that was consistently my favorite was “Greatest Hits” just because I got a chance to sit down, which was nice, and then Ryan and I got to banter. There weren’t a lot of gimmicks to it. We could have fun together and then throw it over to the guys to sing and the songs were always amazing so, yeah, that was consistently my favorite game.
KS: You’ve said in interviews that the improvs on “Who’s Line…” were kind of adapted to work for TV, so it wasn’t the exactly the same as when you worked at places like Second City. What about your work at Second City did you miss when you were on “Who’s Line…?”
CM: The difference was on stage, you can take a lot more time setting up a scenario, setting up your character…With “Who’s Line…” it was pretty much…you had to have everything set up with your first line of dialogue and then it was just fast and schticky, whereas you could be a little more subtle in Second City, take a little more time, work on the character more, get more character laughs than goofy laughs. I understand why it had to be that way for television because everything has to be in three minute chunks, so you didn’t have the chance to just go on and on and I missed that.
KS: Since “Who’s Line” ended, even before that, you’ve appeared in a bunch of TV shows and films both in the US and Canada and you’ve also toured a lot, doing live shows. Which do you prefer?
CM: I prefer live shows. I love television and movies as a fan. It’s really hard working in that environment. I’m still shocked that “Who’s Line…” made it to American television, because I think the pitch was “It’s four guys you’ve never heard of, who don’t have a show. They make it up.” Based on that, I don’t know how they even got past the door. So many things go into making a show a hit or making a show a bomb. Depending on interference or help, you know, you have the producers, network directors, a lot of times the performers are sort of the last bit of the puzzle. What I love about doing live shows is, we succeed and fail on our own merits. We can’t blame someone if the show didn’t go well. We can’t say “well they cut my best part.” It was like no, it was my fault. So I liked having the responsibility of the shows and it’s just the most fun I have. Brad and I go out there, you know, we go do two and a half hours of just goofy fun. And it’s really hard to beat.
KS: Speaking of goofy fun, I’ve heard you describe a mousetrap game…If you cold just describe what that is for people who don’t know what that is and why you’d do that to yourself?
CM: Yeah, good question. It was actually Brad’s idea–we have the stage and there’s 100 live mouse traps set on it and we’re barefoot and blindfolded and we do a scene in the mousetraps. And it’s stupid, it’s basically just us hurting ourselves, but the audiences love it. We’ve tried to get it out of the show but people get upset. In addition to the 100 on the floor we’ve actually even started hanging like 20 from the ceiling, so it’s just…it’s stupid. It has no redeeming value. It’s rarely the best improv scene, but people just love seeing minor celebrities get hurt.
KS: What was it like working on Improvoganza?
CM: That was fun because I hadn’t seen everybody for a while. For me that show was just a reason to catch up with people like Greg and Jeff and Wayne. It was just odd because we were in front of a drunken audience every show.
CM: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of drunken audiences, but yeah the show was fun. What I really like about it was I didn’t work with Ryan all the time, who I enjoy working with and we have a good relationship, but on “Who’s Line…” we were in everything together and it was getting to the point where you’d think “haven’t we’ve made this up before?” So it was nice…I got to do things like musical games which I would never be allowed to do on “Who’s Line.” I got a chance to do things I’d never done before.
KS: I guess…talking about improv, what do you think are the most important factors for a good improvisation and for a good improviser to have.
CM: The big thing, and it seems to be the hardest thing because it goes against everything we do in life–you have to listen. Because all you have are your ideas and the people you’re working with. So they could throw something out that is, to them, some minor sentence and it could spark you to something that will take the scene in a whole different direction…The other thing is accepting and supporting what the people you’re playing with are doing. If you have a great idea and the person who you’re working with gets theirs out first, you have to immediately drop yours and support their idea. And that can be very hard to do, especially if you think “oh, well I’ve got the greatest idea in the world but oh…” You didn’t get it out. Those are the two things; being able to accept someone’s ideas and build on it and listening. And I guess having no shame would also be good.
KS: I saw your interview a few years ago on “The Wayne Brady Show” and you mentioned you would take your pants off in shows.
CM: Yes. That’s the no shame part. And then at some point you feel cheap and think “oh well that’s just easy laughs. I’m gonna try and keep my pants on for the entire show.” And then there would always come a time when I would say “no, the pants have to come off.”
KS: “This is happening.” You’ve been doing improvisation for a number of years now. Do you find that you have certain fallbacks. Maybe not jokes necessarily, but I guess certain styles, or do you always try and keep it fresh?
CM: One of the things Brad and I are always trying to do in our show is, we’ve found the show works best when we’re off balance and not secure. So we’re constantly coming up with new games that challenge us, trying to find ways of getting suggestions from the audience, suggestions that we’ve never heard before and suggestions that will throw us, because we find that’s when the survival instinct kicks in and you just go for it. You get really dangerous in improv when you try to start doing preconceived things or fall back on things because they tend to stick out as not improvised. I can’t tell you why. You just go “oh they’ve done that before.” We try to definitely keep off balance.
KS: A lot of the reason people like improvisation if because it’s like witnessing failure.
KS: It’s watching someone juggle who doesn’t actually know how to juggle. Which I guess might be the the mousetrap game in a nutshell.
CM: (laughs) yeah.
KS: One broad question. Looking back at your career and knowing what you know now, what do you wish you’d known when you were just starting out.
CM: Yeah, good one. I wish I’d known how much luck was apart of this career. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, starting with “Who’s line.” Improv is really my only skill. I have nothing else. It’s criminal how untalented I am, so the fact that this one show came along and sort of showcased me and gave me a career is incredibly lucky…It’s difficult to hear, but sometimes hard work doesn’t always pay off. You need the luck. I think everybody gets their lucky break at some point. The thing is, be ready for it. I was constantly, before “Who’s Line…” working in bars and small places doing improv, just keeping the skill set going. So, yeah, I kind of wish I could have relaxed more before I got into the career because really I had no control over what I could do. All I could do was be ready, have as much fun as I can, and hope for the best.