On the cusp of his Sunday special on Comedy Central, I talked with Brian Regan about the power of public speaking, working clean and how tour buses are the death of comedians.
You have this reputation for being a clean comedian. But I think it’s very easy for people who haven’t seen you to assume that clean trumps funny for you. Do you think people make that mistake sometimes?
Yeah. This has been a long struggle for me. I never really describe my own comedy as clean. It’s what other people do. But I always worry that it oversimplifies it to say that it’s clean. To me, an empty stage for an hour is clean. (laughs) Nobody’s going to see that.
Is that because the landscape of comedy has changed so much? Before people were encouraged to not work blue. But that stigma about working blue now, so it feels like everybody goes blue now.
It’s true. I just work the way that I like to work. It has nothing to do with me sitting down and saying, “OK, I’m going to write clean comedy.” I just write the kind of comedy that I like to do. It just happens to be clean.
But, at the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back, I do think it’s interesting. I like what I do as a comic and hopefully other people like it as well. But I always felt that there’s a lot of people out there who hopefully like me who don’t think one way or the other if it’s clean. They just think, “He’s a pretty funny guy.” I’d like to think people aren’t coming to see me going, “Man, we’re going to see some clean comedy.” (laughs)
But it is refreshing to have someone like you out there. Because though I do enjoy the dark stuff, there’s something great about something that’s pure enjoyment – that kind of gets to laughter’s cleansing power.
I appreciate that. As far as liking dark comedy, I’m the same way. There are so many comedians out there who work blue or dirty or raunchy, who I think are incredible. Comedy is like music. There’s a bunch of different things under the broad music umbrella. You got rock and roll on one side, you got jazz on the other side. A jazz person can enjoy a rock and roll band and vice versa. I like doing what I do as a comedian but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a Nick Di Paolo or a Chris Rock.
Though many may know him through his other work – NewsRadio, Fear Factor, UFC and now perhaps as comedy’s self-appointed cop, Joe Rogan excels at one thing in particular, stand-up. “Shiny Happy Jihad” his first comedy album since 2000’s “I’m Gonna Be Dead Someday”, hit stores yesterday. For those who haven’t experienced Rogan’s comedy, they’ll be things they expect – the punch lines delivered in an adrenaline-fueled fervor. But what might surprise them is the insightful take that Rogan brings to his material. I talked to Rogan about the similar influences of martial arts and psychedelic drugs, his magic trick and, of course, Carlos Mencia.
What I enjoy the most about your comedy is your take on the big stuff – why are we here? What are human beings exactly? And so much of comedy now is pop culture based. Why do you think the type of subject matter that you cover is so rare?
I think most comedians are just doing stuff that they find interesting. They’re doing stuff that they think is going to get a big response from the audience. I think the way I approach comedy is I’m looking at it from a different point of view than most comedians. I’ve had a very unusual life. And comedy really is just—here’s the world through my eyes. Here’s the world through my perspective.
Is there a particular experience that you’ve had that you think makes you different from most comedians?
I think psychedelic drugs are a big part of it. That’s definitely had a huge impact on the way I look at life. I think if you look at comedians, you can definitely make a distinction between the ones who have experienced psychedelic drugs and the ones who haven’t. If you look at all people in life, there’s a big difference between people who’ve experienced altered states of consciousness and people who haven’t.
You have this philosophical bent to what you do. I always think of comics who say “I’m dumb” as not very far away from a philosopher saying he’s wise because he knows how ignorant he is. I often think of Socrates as a comedian in some ways.
For sure. I mean, life is funny. Anybody who is thinking about life is going to say something funny. Because it’s fucking ridiculous.
Especially as it gets more complex where we’ve got this weird fucking life where our whole cultural structure was put together back when people didn’t have access to information and we were doing things based on ignorance. Whether you looking at the Christian Right controls a giant part of this world… that alone. The Christian Right controlling anything in politics is fucking hilarious.
At the beginning of her new album Self Help, Jen Kirkman describes how she has a stand set up with papers on it, presumably for reference. But after listening to her stand-up, where ideas cascade so fast that you feel you’re rushing right alongside the neurons of her mind as they fire, one might wonder - why does she need the stand of papers? It’s a contradiction that plays over and over in her work - she seems to teeter on the edge of her impulses (just giving her a copy of your key makes her wonder if she might sneak in and kill you) but it camouflages an explosively funny routine that’s obviously been made with care. This slight of hand is a unique component to stand-up and it’s a joy to hear someone like Kirkman master it.
As a New Yorker, I don’t get to enjoy the Los-Angeles-based Kirkman’s work on a regular basis, so the recent release of her album Self Help by the nascent AST Records makes it that much more of a prize. You should pick one up yourself. She’s also a player on VH1’s upcoming viewer-driven sketch comedy Acceptable TV, which airs this Friday at 10PM. You can already watch and vote on some of their programing now. I corresponded with Jen via email, where she talked about Joan Rivers, audiences on dates and the parallels of political dissent and comedic taste.
How much distance do you feel there has to be between “stage Jen” and “real Jen”?
I don’t know if there has to be that much distance. I found the more I revealed myself, or the parts of myself that I’ve come to accept but I realize might be simultaneously weird but relatable I’ve had more people tell me that they liked my set or related. Stage Jen comes from Real Jen but of course, Real Jen does not hold people hostage talking for 8-45 minutes at a time without letting the other person respond. Of course, Real Jen has emotional and personal experiences that with time, distance and a good sense of boundaries could become funny and she doesn’t let Stage Jen take them out until they are ready or else you’re really watching someone’s therapy session on stage. I’d rather tell the audience how the session went, and not invite them into it. It surprises me though that people still feel like I’m ‘baring it all’ on stage but I pick from a small pool of what I deem acceptable to reveal.
Jonathan Katz loves jokes. And he cannot resist making them. He’s best known for Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, an animated comedy that was the only reason to watch Comedy Central prior to South Park. But he’s been a performer for more than twenty five years, first as a musician and then gravitating to the Boston comedy scene. In 1997, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He often describes it with a typical lightness: ‘‘I have two incurable diseases. I’m a comedian, and I have MS. And neither of them is getting a lot better.”
His first CD Caffeinated plays as a sort of greatest hits, putting together pieces from more than twenty years of performance into a seamless package. (The track “Three Hobbies” has three of the funniest prank calls I’ve ever heard.) I talked to Jonathan Katz about his beginnings in the Boston Comedy scene, Dr. Katz’s legacy to stand-up comedy and how the media expects someone with MS to behave.
One of the things that you joke about with your comedy is how it’s not for everyone. But is there a certain pride that you have in that?
Well, yeah. I think what I do is a try to give the audience as little information as they need to get the joke. And if they don’t get the joke, it’s not the right audience.
I guess it’s a kind of a snobbery. I’m not saying I won’t let them into to the show. But I’m challenging them to pay attention.
You would want more people to get you if they could.
I think there the Jerry Seinfeld model. He created a kind of comedy that appeals to such a broad audience up to and including Asians. (laughs) I don’t know what that means. He works with such a broad audience and he’s at least as clever as I am, if not more.
And then there’s somebody like a guy named Robert Shakes, who I quote all the time but nobody ever heard of because he died before he turned 40 of a heart attack. He did jokes that you really had to pay attention to. Steven Wright is in that category. Steven Wright could have found a broader audience. But instead of finding a broader audience, he went out and found the people who love him. And eventually they started looking for him.
I’ve heard you describe yourself as a comedian in an accountant body. You say it like it’s a curse, but do you think it helps you create surprise in audiences who don’t expect what you say to come from you.
I described myself that way after working in Boston for a few years where there was a shortage of bald, Jewish comedians. Not the case in New York, but in Boston I was following these very energetic wild zany guys. Guys like Kevin Meaney, Steve Sweeney, Don Gavin, Lenny Clarke.
As a performer, Zach Galifianakis stretches what audiences expect from a stand-up comedian. He has incredible jokes, one-liners which twist as explosively as any by Steven Wright. But what surrounds that material is equally fascinating; diverging into moments that are joyful, strange, or uncomfortable but can always be hyphenated with a funny (joyful-funny, strange-funny, uncomfortable-funny). Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion, his new DVD, gives audiences a chance to see Zach naturally, not how he is in any moment but at this one moment. I talked to Zach about being polished, comedy nerds and the ethics of pranking.
The DVD is shot very differently than a lot of other stand-up specials. It’s a much more intimate experience. What was the goal when you were deciding how it should look?
As far as the execution of it, I think I and the director Michael Blieden wanted to show the bare bones of stand-up. Because a lot of stand-up things you see are much more polished. I just wanted to make sure the audience got to see the rawness of stand-up performance. A lot of times they are edited where it is more streamlined. I’m not really interested in being polished.
It kind of dispels that illusion of making it look easy. There’s a real awkwardness, and the pauses and the mistakes are left in.
The mistakes. (Zach laughs)
There are parts where you say that “this won’t be on the DVD” and then it is.
I also wanted to comment on that I was being taped. You don’t see that either.
Definitely. You talk to the camera a number of times.
So it’s more interesting to me to show the tumbleweeds, if you will, sometimes.
Do you feel people don’t appreciate the process of building a set?
I mean, people either get it or they don’t get it. It’s not for everyone. If you see a special on television – a Comedy Central special – it’s very polished and very staged. And every beat worked out. To me, I don’t perform like that. I perform a bit of a high-wire act. Some people don’t want to see that, though, and I understand that. To me, that’s what I wanted to show.
As a reliable putdown artist for many of Comedy Central Roast, Lisa Lampanelli rose to prominence as a breed of comic that seemed more destined for parody by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on late night TV than the club circuit. Her latest, Dirty Girl, was just released last month on CD and DVD. I talked with the Queen of Mean about having warmth on stage, interracial dating and where to sit if you do or do not want to be a target for her insult comedy.
Your act seems like it would be hard to develop because until people know who you are, they would be less likely to get you. There are a lot of comics who say until people are coming just to see you, that sometimes it’s hard to win them over.
Well, what it is, is that I always knew I could do whatever I want because I’m freaking lovable, OK? Because I’m the most likeable, nicest person you’ll ever meet. So basically I can make fun of you and you’re not going to get mad.
But there will always be a percentage of people going to a comedy club as a fan of the club first. As in, “Oh, we love Caroline’s, let’s go,” or “We love Punchline, let’s go.” And those are the ones who will be shocked and go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she said that.” But in a theater now – now that I’m drawing into theaters – you deliberately make the choice to come see that comic. So now I can do what I want.
But to be honest, I always did whatever I want. I never edited myself for these pricks. There was a whole string of Improvs who wouldn’t use me because they thought I was racist. And I was like, “You’re a cunt. You’re gonna be sorry.”
Not all the Improvs. There are ones that are great. Just this string that this one guy opens, who are calling now, “Can we get her?” Too late, dude. You missed the boat.
Kurt Andersen is a novelist and host of Public Radio International’s Studio 360. But prior to that, Kurt and current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter were co-editors of the much-imitated humor magazine Spy. On the occasion of what would have been the magazine’s twentieth anniversary, a retrospective has been released entitled “Spy: The Funny Years.” The book gives a fascinating peek at the birth of Spy and contains many of the pieces that made it entertaining and vibrant. As someone whose collection of back issues is spread over two states, to have much of my favorites at my fingertips again is a real joy. In the interview, Kurt touches upon Spy’s links to Mad, the end of the Irony Epidemic and the so-called Harvard Lampoon mafia.
Exaggeration is one of the best tools a comedian can have, but it seems to me when you’re doing a more journalistic brand of humor like Spy that exaggeration is out. How was exaggeration a component of Spy and if it wasn’t, how did you compensate?
In terms of the journalism, the fact based stuff, which is, granted, most of the magazine, I guess we compensated by… until you said this, it never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to anybody then, that “hmm, we’re lacking this important tool in the comic arsenal. What can we do to compensate?” I guess what was the de facto compensation is that you find real facts that are striking or, even better, astonishing in their truthfulness and that somehow is the surrogate for normal satirical comic exaggeration.
Also it seems like the decade that Spy was most associated with—the ‘80s—so much of it was exaggerated.
That’s true. And I think what began in the late ‘80s of a kind of living largeness and over-the-top exaggeration of life and lifestyle, I actually think, with small downticks along the way, that it looks to be like we’re still living in that era.
But I think that’s right. I think suddenly that’s what it seemed. That life itself was suddenly becoming cartoonish and clownish. And if you could just capture glimpses of it and when the lily didn’t need to be gilded, don’t gild it. That’s what we were doing instead of exaggeration.
So many people were so big themselves that you certainly didn’t have to worry about that.
When [exaggeration] could be done, with cover images and such, we certainly did that.
With this, one of the things you mention in the book is how Mad Magazine was a big influence on Spy. And Mad Magazine is very rooted in exaggeration. So where is Mad Magazine in Spy’s DNA?
In the close textual analysis of humor way, it probably isn’t much. Although that the density of the pages and in the marginalia-type things…
Sort of like Sergio Aragones cartoons…
Yeah, exactly. But I would say more than that, when I was a kid first reading Mad in 1962, it was pretty much the only comedy channel, venue, piece of media for kids. So that was the way in which it was influential.
And the other thing for me - and probably for Graydon living in Canada, but for me living in Omaha – it was this shot of what struck me as a quintessentially New York thing. So it was the New Yorkiness. And it’s various flavors of sarcasm, snideness, clued-in-ness, smart-aleckyness – all that stuff. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey but there was no Nickelodeon, there was none of this stuff. It was the only place in the mainstream media as an 8-year old or a 10-year old in Omaha, Nebraska, that this was a sensibility and a way at looking at the world.