A favorite of comedy geeks, David Cross recently wrote the book I Drink for a Reason, a collection of funny essays. He has also gone on tour to support the book, giving fans outside of the coasts a chance to see him perform stand-up live for the first time in five years. (You can check out David Cross’s upcoming tour dates here.) I talked with David about the differences between writing a book and stand-up, why he turned off his Google alert and how his family life is off-limits on stage, at least for now.
What were the challenges you found in writing a funny book as opposed to writing a bit of stand-up or a comedy sketch?
Well, I guess the ideas don’t flow as naturally or prolifically when I’m sitting down to write because you’re writing in a vacuum. When I’m writing stand-up there’s such a give and take in the energy. Plus I’m talking out loud. I never talk out loud when I write.
It’s all my interior voice. Ideas, whether they’re good or bad, come easier to me when I’m talking on stage. That’s sort of the way I write on stage. I have the idea and I just sort of riff the idea until I’ve done the set a bunch of times. And I pick and choose what I say and then that becomes a bit.
I’ve never met somebody who sat down and just wrote jokes. So that genre doesn’t come easily to me. But it was nice to be able to have the idea written down on a piece of paper and be able to edit it there once it was done.
Like if you set up a bit of stand-up wrong, then you’re in that place and can’t go back and fix it.
Yeah, but then I can comment on that. “Oh I fucked that up” or whatever. It’s just so different because you’re communicating in a completely different way.
I just find it to be very hard. I’m amazed when I look at old National Lampoons with Michael O’Donoghue and Doug Kenney and how they’re able to make me laugh out loud. It’s very difficult. You rely on the readers’ sense of timing. You have to figure out how to get that comic pacing in their head.
Well, I probably do have the benefit, if people are familiar with my work, of assuming that the voice that you have when you’re reading it is my own. You can sort of hear my voice in it. I’d be interested to talk to somebody who liked reading humorous books, who’s not familiar with my work at all, to see what they thought of it. Because they wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing what cadence I use. And that’s another huge difference. You don’t have the benefit of pausing and gesticulation and intonations and cadence. There’s no performance to it.
You could put something in italic like Spy would.
That’s all you get.
Italics or bold.
You get an ellipse or all caps.
There you go. The typographic ability of stand-up in print.
Australian comic Jim Jefferies comes via the U.K. to deliver his first HBO special tomorrow, May 16 at 10 PM.
Here are audio clips from my interview with him, which will be updated as I edit them.
British Comedy Clubs vs. American Comedy Clubs
Spoiled Big City Audiences
His Problem with Overly Intellectual Comedy
This is an incomplete transcript. More to come later today. Also later today, the premiere of Louis C.K.‘s new comedy special “Chewed Up” at 11PM on Showtime.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about the economy lately. You’ve kind of cultivated an audience of parents with kids who are probably worried about this as well. Does this put a little bit more pressure on you to give the people who come to the theater a good show because this is probably a big night out for them?
There’s no doubt about that. I feel way more pressure when they pay that kind of money. And in a theater, the pressure is all on you. There’s no alternate. If they go to a club, they’ve drank. They’ve probably ate.
You’re a part of the show, but when they come to a theater they’re just sitting in these chairs facing you. It’s a whole lot more pressure. You really got to make them feel like that was their night for them. You are their evening.
People come out to see you. It’s one thing if they come out to see whoever’s at the club that night. Then they’re just happy if it worked out. If not, they’re like, “that guy wasn’t as good as other times we’ve been there.”
It’s very disappointing to see somebody who you’re a fan of and have the show be mediocre.
I heard you talk about Shameless and how you look back at the guy differently. Have you already had that experience with Chewed Up?
My life has changed a lot since “Chewed Up” and yes, I have looked back on it and gone, “Ugh, that’s what he was like.”
So each is like a chapter in your life.
In a way. Each one has a different stage in maturity. And each one has a different stage in how I look at things in the world too. I’m obviously I’m still the same person. So there’s continuity there.
I used to see a therapist. And I thought about seeing one again, but then I think, “What am I not saying to my audience?” The process of clearing out my brain of the most upsetting and most real thoughts is how I come up with material. So what would I need to do that with a therapist for?
Bill Burr talks about his love for the New York Comedy Club scene, how a stand-up special should be shot and the answer to his special’s title.
I thought the title of the special, “Why Do I Do This?”, was pretty interesting in that it implied a level of frustration or self loathing. But that’s not really reflected in your performance necessarily.
It was sort of an inside joke. That question has popped in my head throughout my career. On my way up, I’d be waiting to go up on stage in some sort of impossible situation that was going to be an hour of humiliation.
A lot of it was college gigs. I’d be standing there waiting to go on in a cafeteria at 12:30 in the afternoon. There’s people eating grilled cheese sandwiches and there like, “OK, we got a comedy show with a comedian Bill Burr. He’s really funny and here he is.” They give you the worst intro ever and nobody has an idea that there’s a show. And you go up there and you look like an absolute tool.
And I’d remember that I always think that, “Why do I do this?” Why didn’t I study harder in school? And just become a lawyer or something like that.
So it’s kind of undercutting. This is a very big highlight in a stand-up comic’s career – an hour special and a DVD. And the title undercuts that.
Yeah, and the subtle thing is that the special is why I did it. I went through all that crap. I guess the answer is “the special.”
I just didn’t want to call the special “Dangerous” – everybody has the one word description now. “Never backing down” – so fuckin’ edgy. I’m not trying to belittle the art but you’re just telling jokes.
I imagine a bunch of people are going to trash me. It’s very easy when you ask a question. People who aren’t going to like my show are going to go “’Why do I do this?’ Because you suck! Why should you do it.” There’s always a danger of that but I don’t really care.
The following interview with Maria was conducted over email.
A female comedian friend of mine was a little bothered that you weren’t part of Vanity Fair’s Funny Women issue. I was bummed that you weren’t on there too. Did you feel like it was an oversight?
Oh no! Not at all. I’m not at all in that league- there were tons of lots more relevant ladies left out because they probably didn’t have the room in the picture.
That Vanity Fair issue was focused more on comedy on TV or movies. Like a lot of mainstream media, they kind of ignored live comedy. Is being a stand-up like stealth show business?
Stand-up is listed with Karaoke in most newspapers- but, once people can get your emails and myspaces it gets better as far as letting people know about your showbiz. I love the internet.
I’ve heard you mention the book The Artist Way helped you pursue stand- up as a career. Self-help books are very sincere and comedy is very cynical by nature. Was getting through the book a little hard as your comic mind grew – that you found more in the book to make fun of the more it helped you?
I LOVE SELF HELP. Help me to help me help me help ME help ME. I have a hard time being sincere on stage, but off stage- it’s all solid eye contact, low voice and a deep yearning to understand. I love to make fun of that book but I also LOVE THAT BOOK.
Tommy Tiernan is a big name on the other side of the pond, but here in the States he’s far less known. Overseas, Tiernan lives up to Irish roots with a reputation for hilarious storytelling, often throwing his whole body into his tales. Americans have had limited opportunities to see Tiernan, save for a few appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman. That will start to change some when his special “Tommy Tiernan: Something Mental” premieres on Comedy Central this Friday at 11 PM.
Sadly, my recording equipment broke just immediately prior to our phone interview, so this interview was conducted by email. My short interview with Tiernan touches on swearing and blasphemy, and immediately following is a preview clip from “Something Mental” that gives an idea about why I had to ask about it.
How have your experiences with American audiences compared with British audiences? Are we more uptight about the word “fuck”?
No, you’re more uptight about words like Osama and Twins. Some American audiences are quite literal minded and if you’re not contributing to the great and holy optimism that you work for the devil.
Perhaps the difference might be better described as going from an audience where you’re well known to one where you’re less known. Is it a bit surreal to make that transition?
No, I find the Irish follow me everywhere. They are the world’s most public Secret Service.
How do you think the special will play on Comedy Central, where they bleep the word “fuck”? Are they censoring your Irish soul?
I think it’s gonna sound like I’m on a life support machine. I’m an evangelical preacher with a dirty mouth, that’s all.
You’re a very physical comedian but use your body to punctuate some smart ideas. Most people don’t typically associate physical comedy with intelligent insightful observation. Is that a weird bias to you?
Picture me as the epileptic Stephen Hawking.
You trust the audience will figure out English slang that they don’t already know. Is humor far more universal than people typically believe?
I think if you over explain your references you lose comic impact. People can get the gist of what you are saying anyway. Words that they don’t understand just make you sound erotic…sorry exotic.
Can you relate the how and why you were accused of blasphemy by the senate? Is that just a moral condemnation or is their a legal component to it?
I performed some material on Irish TV that some humans took offence at on behalf of the divine creator. It was basically an impersonation of The Lamb Of God combined with a satirical portrayal of Christ on the cross trying to engage Mary Magdalene in a bit of flirty chit chat. There was a legal component to it but God wasn’t available for the court date. He was busy congratulating Bush on bombing the Taliban.
Storytelling is such a big part of what you do. What’s the key to telling a great story?
I think the teller has to be intrigued by the story himself. That interest hooks the audience. Anybody can make anything compelling if they are consumed by it. For example a donut talking about a fat person.
Mike Birbiglia has grown as a comedians since my first interview with the comic. He’s changing his style to rely more on sharing a great story that holds an audience, eliciting a diversity of reactions that inevitably lead back to laughter. His first one-hour special entitled “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” shares many of the stories that he has told on his immensely popular Secret Public Journal.
Another new trait to his comedy is his unique way of framing political material, trying to make it as friendly to all audience as possible, but doing it in places where he’s not preaching to the converted. I talked to Mike about the special and storytelling, audience reactions and his one criticism of the special, if he was held to just one.
”What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” is presented a little bit more like a one man show than a stand-up special. Does that change how an audience responds to material?
Well, it’s funny. Because I’ve been changing my focus over the last few years from joketelling to storytelling. Kind of in the tradition of Cosby and Pryor, as models… I’m not comparing myself to them. (laughs)
My agent, Mike Berkowitz… I’ll totally be outing him by saying this but I really trust his opinion. He listened to the CD and said, “Your CD is only CD that I listen to and I don’t shut it off every five minutes. I’m actually engaged and I want to hear what’s going to happen next. And it keeps me there.”
That’s all I’m trying to do. I want to have comedy albums that you feel like are an experiences rather than, “that’s funny… that’s funny… that’s funny… I’m going to go get a sandwich.” (laughs) And you come back a couple of days later and go, “oh, that’s funny… that’s funny… that’s funny… I’m going to go for a jog.”
There’s definitely a lot of great, very funny CDs out there. And what I’m trying to do is have CDs that are full kind of concert experiences rather than just funny.
It is kind of a problem with some comedy CDs. They don’t repeat well. But something like what you’re doing, you can experience them over and over again. It’s more like reading a book or a short story – you get put into the same place and have the same feelings.
Absolutely. I’m playing Carolines March 27-30. I’m doing four nights and I’m doing four different shows. Thursday night, I’m doing “Two Drink Mike.” Friday night, I’m doing “Secret Public Journal Live.” Saturday night, I’m doing “Sleepwalk with Me.” And Sunday night, I’m doing a best of and requests and kind of a fun free-for-all show. B-sides if you will.
And somebody said to me, do you think the audience will be bored because they’re one step ahead of you on “Two Drink Mike.” I actually think that if you call it out before you do it. And there’s an understanding of what you’re doing, you’re in the clear.
If I walked out on stage and said, “You know I was just thinking the other day, I should call myself a cracker.” (laughs) People would be like, “No, you didn’t. You were thinking that four years ago.”
Because I have the T-shirt to prove it. (laughs)
Exactly. But if you come out and say, “A few years ago I was recording this album ‘Two Drink Mike.’ Here’s what I was thinking about at the time.” And then you go into the stuff. And people are, “Yea. Yea. I remember this one. This one’s great.”