Part of the joy of comedy comes in the form of meeting those who inspire you. It appears such is true in this case. For this portion of Laugh Tracks, we asked comedian Mark Normand (Conan, Inside Amy Schumer) to speak with comedian Gary Gulman (Conan, David Letterman, Last Comic Standing). And it looks as if we weren’t the only ones excited…
Mark Normand: What is the feeling you get when you see a bad or hacky act killing at a show? Please describe.
Gary Gulman: It's rough, but it's my fault. I shouldn't be bothered by it, but a few things go through my mind when I am in that situation:
First, I get angry at the audience for having bad taste. I get petulant and want to just go up there afterwards and castigate them for enjoying the same old tricks and subjects that were dated in the early ’90s. This is a bad way to go onstage, with resentment and self-righteousness, not a charming disposition.
Second, I think of all the extra time I would have gotten over the years to work on my shit if these comics had an ounce of self-awareness.
Finally, as an act of selflessness and generosity, I think of all the good comics who these types of audiences have failed over the years because they weren't mainstream enough. I hardly ever acknowledge any of these feelings outside of Florida, but they are there and they are poisonous.
Let me add that I can live with a bad comic who is original; it's the hack I lose my mind over. Tobias Wolff summed it up best, saying, "We know what is sacred to us when we recoil from impiety." Stand-up comedy is sacred to me and I recoil from these blasphemous heretics.
Normand: Do you have any bit ideas or premises that you know are funny but just can't get them to hit?
Gulman:Oh my God, thousands! It's very frustrating, but over the years I've been able to rescue bits by placing them in some of my stories as asides and digressions so they absorb some of the momentum of jokes that work.
Normand: Usually when I see a handsome, chiseled, strapping guy such as yourself get on stage, I'm immediately skeptical about him being funny. Do you ever worry people won't think you're funny because of your handsomeness?
Gulman: How do I answer this without coming off arrogant or vain? Let me start by saying there are countless women who don't want to fuck me. I smile at strangers all day and am rebuffed 99.9 percent of the time, so I never get very comfortable with my appearance.
I think, like many people’s, my self-image is stuck in a puberty time warp where I was spider monkey–level horny. It was not until I got to my current size of six-foot-six, 220 pounds that they began to look in proportion. I also never kissed a girl until I was 17 and I didn't get one naked until my freshman year of college, so I've had plenty to keep me humble.
Having said that, perhaps my size and fitness may make audience members think I'm either an asshole, not funny or both. I remember seeing Joe Rogan when I was in high school and thinking, “Wow! What a funny motherfucker!” Not only was and is he funny, but he was and is quite striking physically. I don't think there was any instinct that he should not be funny.
Normand: I've been trying to find my voice for seven goddamn years now, Gul! How'd you find yours? Were you ever self-conscious about it?
Gulman: As I told you at that party recently, you do have a voice…a very distinct, unique voice. I know this because there are people who can imitate you and it's funny. I admire your voice, so just trust that that part of your work is done. You just need to keep writing for that and build a body of work to share.
As for my voice, I don't really know what that is. I know I have a style or a certain "sound" that I hope is unique, but I've never thought of my voice as being imitable…like Dan Naturman or Seinfeld.
Normand: You have a lot of specific references in your act: Karate Kid, Trader Joe’s and Netflix, to name a few. Do you ever worry that you're losing a certain percentage of the crowd that may not be familiar?
Gulman: I think the fact that I choose specific subjects and then talk about them for a long time causes part of the audience to "sit the joke out," which is okay if the people who are familiar with the subject are really enthusiastic about it.
It's when you do an obscure or esoteric reference about something like NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross where you get that two-person "art house laughter." You know, that thing where the people who get it laugh extra hard to show the others they get it. I don't care for that type of laughter; it seems elitist and phony, but perhaps—and I don't mean this as a pejorative—that's what the Alt rooms are for. I like doing them because it concentrates a lot of comedy-savvy people who are not interested in the cliché comedy tropes and are a little worldlier about cool things like Terry Gross or the Helvetica documentary.
But honestly, I don't think Karate Kid, Netflix or Trader Joe's are so obscure that I can't find a quorum at every show. Also, I rarely go so deep that it's only for experts or insiders.
The bottom line is that my prime directive is to be a comedian I would want to pay to see. I would pay to see a guy talking about Trader Joe’s and my family of lunatic Jews.
Normand: A lot of comics like to bust balls and playfully insult one another. It's kind of part of our culture. How do you feel about that?
Gulman: It's tough because I am sensitive. And while I may like to dish it out, I can't always brush off insults. If you insult my clothes or appearance or mother, I'm okay, but if anyone attacks my act or jokes I will go to DEFCON 1 and turn the keys to arm my nuclear missiles. You don't go after my jugular, Normand!
Normand: Exactly how long have you been addicted to cocaine?
Gulman: I've never seen it, actually. I’m on two antianxiety antidepressants, a lot of coffee and some bomb-ass weed at sometime on most days.
Normand: Do you ever have writing droughts? Going days, maybe weeks where you can't think of anything good? And you kind of wonder how you'd ever written a joke before that? Just me? Okay.
Gulman: The good thing with comedy is you may have a writing drought, but can you have a drought of saying things you thought of onstage? No…right?! Also, every time I get onstage I am adjusting the variables: the delivery, pacing, the wording, the order. So, in some ways, if you look at every good joke as a work in progress that can be added to or adjusted like a painting, only avoidance can lead to a drought.
Normand: Boston might have the best comedy alumni of all time. [Louis] C.K., Dane [Cook], Patrice [O’Neal], [Doug] Stanhope, [Steven] Wright, you, Nick DiPaolo, not Dennis Leary, etc. Why do you think that is?
Gulman: This might be a chicken-and-egg thing, but if you go back before those guys you have names like Steve Sweeney, Lenny Clarke, Don Gavin, the late Kevin Knox, Rich Ceisler, Paul D'Angelo, Anthony Clark, Brian Kiley, Kenny Rogerson, Tony V…it's endless, right? So, in order to stand out and get any work around those guys who just annihilated every night, you had to come coco Jack. And also, you learned a lot from watching these guys. They were kings.
Normand: Weird question. I've noticed you mine the hell out of each joke subject. Is that intentional? I write a joke about something and move on. Do you have something in you where you know exactly how long a joke could possibly be?
Gulman: Since I did that long joke about fruit years ago, I realized that if you assemble a long joke/story right, you can really get a lot out there without losing the audience. More importantly to me, not many guys do that. I mean, basically, as I heard the late Richard Jeni put it before I ever stepped onstage...you want to try to put as many laugh-lines together in the shortest space. So over the years, I think I've developed an instinct for how much I can stuff into a story and where there's a pocket to shove a joke in.
It's probably an OCD symptom, but I agree with Seinfeld that a good joke never has to be done, you can tinker a long time. My rule, and I break it sometimes if there's a request, is to try and work on a good joke until I put it on a TV special.