Patton Oswalt begins another branch of his fantastic Comeidans of Comedy tour on April 20th, this time focusing on cities in the middle of the country. He, along with Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Eugene Mirman will be visiting not just in places like Chicago and Detroit, but also Milvale, PA and Louisville, Kentrucky. (Full set of dates) I talked with Patton about this swing of the tour and, in a update later today, about what makes the ideal conditions for comedy.
One of the things I noticed with this part of the Comedians of Comedy tour is that, in part, it’s going through the middle of the country. And it’s incredibly lazy to characterize this part of America as unsophisticated, but unfortunately it’s also fairly common. Is doing shows there a sort of point of pride for you, proving to naysayers that these people are ready for your brand of stand-up?
It’s actually the opposite, because I’ve found out to experience that, a lot of people in the Midwest, not all of them, but more of them, are way more politically aware and tuned-in than people on either of the left coasts. Because a lot of these policies that I bitch about in the abstract, when I read about they’re fucking with people’s healthcare, they’re fucking with people’s childcare, it affects those people directly. They feel it immediately.
You see not only people that are more politically aware but are actually more hands-on politically active. Whereas on the left coast I think a lot of people are most politically active in the abstract. In the midwest they’re like, “fuck, I’ll show you exactly what’s going wrong.” Yeah, in the Midwest you get a lot of ignorance too. But there’s a kind of ignorance you can get in LA where you have people who have access to all kinds of alternative media and ignore it, because there’s this level of narcissism that is not present in the Midwest.
In fact, if people are pro-Bush, they’re Pro-Bush in a very active, vocal way, whereas there’s people like Britney Spears out here who are like, (appropriate mocking voice) “I guess we should just listen to the President.” That’s as far as they go. Fucking pathetic.
I’m played the Midwest my whole career. I’ve never had any problems. Except for Pittsburgh (where Patton had to be escorted from the stage after comedy club patrons exploded in pro-Bush chanting), people who have a problem with my stuff will come to the bar after the show and we’ll just sit there and talk.
Vernon Chatman and John Lee are the creators of “Wonder Showzen”, which is quite simply, brilliant. The show is much more than a parody of a kids show. The darkness of the content, like a segment where children will talk about a trip to the hotdog factory that turns into taking heroin with the workers, is played against the kid’s-show form (“I got to ride the black pony!”) in a way that leads to explosive laughs. This season they might run a segment when children ask people to recount their Sept. 11 experiences while wearing Groucho glasses. Wonder Showzen’s first season DVD was released today and its second season begins on MTV2 this Friday (9:30 EST). A preview segment can be seen here.
I interviewed the creators Vernon and John over email. I asked them about horror and humor, what children can get away with and, of course, patience. They answered me with… well, just read it.
Matt and Trey have often said while describing South Park that “Children are assholes.” What do you think of children?
Children are the magical glue that keeps our society hurtling towards guaranteed destruction. Every morning we force feverish miscreants (selves) to huff that glue, before we translate their death spasms into morse code, and then into English. We lay it out into script format and shoot. Children’s assholes have almost nothing to do with it. What Matt and Trey were probably trying to say was that they are so rich, they can afford to shit from children.
Wonder Showzen attaches a lot of horrific elements to the humor – blood, screams, decomposing and dying animals. How close are horror and humor in your minds?
Our minds are so tiny and so symmetrical, everything is crammed equally close to everything else up in there. That said, anyone who has watched helplessly as their entire family was mercilessly and methodically butchered before their eyes knows firsthand how delightfully interchangeable horror and humor truly are.
Some of the performances by children in the show are absolutely spot-on in terms of inflection – they’ll say the line exactly as an adult might. How hard is it to get these performances?
Have you ever placed a medicinal lozenge in the mouth of a dead mule and then attempted to pull it back out from the other end of the beast? You have? I’m jealous of you. Because you’ve had it easy. Also, you smell nice. Especially your hands.
Louis C.K. will be performing at Caroline’s in New York all weekend with two shows Friday and Saturday and one on Sunday. I talked to him today for a short time about podcasting, commitment in comedy and his upcoming HBO show “Lucky Louie.”
When you do your jokes about your kids you don’t do a lot of qualifiers on them like “I love my kids” or “My kids are great.” How did you come to that?
I just found that I didn’t need to.
Really? It seems a lot of comics feel like they have to do that.
It depends on what you’re doing on stage. I find that audiences, especially audiences with children, are refreshed by the honesty. I think that if I said something like that, that I love my kids, that it would ruin it. It would make it seem disingenuous and like I’m nervous about what I’m saying. If you think you have to qualify it that means that you find the things that you are saying to be wrong. I think that what people like about what I’m saying on stage is that I clearly mean it. Whether they agree with it or not, the fact that I’m 100 percent (chuckles) committed to it makes it work. You qualify stuff, you de-commit it and you ruin it.
So if you don’t hold up the taboo, they don’t sit there and think about it.
Exactly. Fuck it. What taboo. The kids aren’t there. They’re not in the club. So who gives a shit. And anyway I do enough for my kid. I raise my kid and I keep her from dying. So she can just fucking kiss my ass. (laughs)
Though a club headliner for years, Ron White has exploded as a comedian ever since he joined Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy for the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” in 2000. While continuing to tour with “the boys”, Ron has also enjoyed increased solo success as well. His most recent album “You Can’t Fix Stupid”, debuted at #14 on Billboard’s Hot 200. A DVD of the same title will be released later this month. He’s also performing this week in a sold-out series of shows at Atlanta’s Punchline Comedy Club in preperation for Blue Collar 3. I talked with the candid Ron about performing stand-up everyday, his friendships with both Larry the Cable Guy and Doug Stanhope and what else he actually does care about.
I’ve heard you say you got labeled Southern early on because of your accent. Did you struggle against being a redneck on stage at first?
I was never specifically Southern. Because of the voice that’s what they call me and they still do. And the show is not very Southern at all. But those are my roots, so I guess things are flavored that way. But I have no problem with it at all, it’s just who I am.
But originally when you performed you had a cowboy hat.
Oh yeah, I still do have it. I just don’t wear it on the stage.
So when did you transition into your sorta-Dean Martin look, all in black with your scotch.
Well, there was always a drink even when the cowboy hat was there. And there was always a cigarette. And the cowboy hat, usually I was dressed up, but back where I’m from, the hat is from a very famous hat maker, the same guy who used to make Stevie Ray Vaughn’s hats. He made all the hats for Lynard Skynard. This guy named Manny Gammage who’s dead now. So in places like Austin, the hat’s got a felt brim but a straw top, so anybody that would see it would know exactly where it came from. It’s a very expensive hat.
So you guys - Foxworthy, Engvall and Larry - were very big in what a lot of people on the coast dismiss as flyover states for a long time and then Blue Collar played on Comedy Central and kind of woke people up. Was it satisfying to have the mainstream industry finally get you?
I’m not even sure they still do. I’ve been a club headliner for 17 years almost. So I always considered myself successful, even though how things are going now I wasn’t. I’ve never been one to look up the ladder. I’ve always looked down the ladder. As long as there’s one guy down there, I’m fine.
This is a big week for stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia. Tuesday Comedy Central releases his CD/DVD “Two Drink Mike”. And February 9, he begins his Comedy Central-backed College tour, Medium Man on Campus at NYU’s Skirball Center. I talked to Mike via phone about how delusion is required to be a stand-up and his status as the Jimmy Carter of New York Comedy.
Mike: I do have some trepidation talking about the art form of stand-up.
I can understand. It’s a typical comedian response. It’s kind of like magic or sausages…
By all means, comedy has its own slight of hand.
One of the things I love about you is that your stand-up style is it’s very childlike and optimistic, but you play in dark subjects. It’s not done cynically. It’s not, “oh, he just said rape, look at that.” Did you come to that style very naturally or did you discover that out-and-out cynicism doesn’t work for you?
This is why I never want to talk about comedy because I’m constantly running the risk of sounding like one of the lesser-known members of the Grateful Dead. “I’m just on a journey, man. I’m just trying to find it.” (Laughs)
My brother Joe, who I’m very close to, we’d always love comedy and watched it together as kids. He’s four years older than me, so when I was in high school, he brought me in on some satire pieces he was writing for his school newspaper. And I just fell in love with the idea of comedy, I was a shy kid and it was this kind of forum where you can just take aim at shit. Comedy gives a lot of people a voice who don’t necessarily have one. There’s often a perception that comedians were the class clown in school. And I find that a lot of the comedians who I really adore, by my estimation, were not the class clown.
They didn’t talk very much in school.
Who am I to speculate, but I don’t think Steven Wright was a hit at parties. Yet he’s my favorite comedian.
A friend of mine insists there are four great subjects for humor, the most potent of which is food. I suspect he would greatly enjoy Jim Gaffigan, whose new Comedy Central special “Beyond the Pale” sees him playing with food… eating it, ordering it, the boxes it comes in. His “Beyond the Pale” CD, DVD and recently redesigned website are all arriving with a precision synergy that media companies salivate for. In a world of audiences are increasingly narrow, Jim Gaffigan specializes in the universal, in entertainment that’s for everyone but not in a way . Smart observations about things like Christmas decorations are played against Jim’s trademark running soft-spoken asides as a perplexed and somewhat literal audience member (“He’s anti-Christmas.”). The following interview was conducted via e-mail.
You were raised to believe success was to be found in a suit and tie, having a day job. How does that influence you today at the level of success you’ve achieved?
Well, I hate dressing up. I barely can motivate to shave. I guess what remains from my upbringing is a desire to have some security. Keep my kids fed.
Many comedians, including yourself, have been pushing for their fans to vote for them in the Stand-Up Showdown. Do you think Comedy Central uses the results to determine future programming or is the push for votes more of a pride thing?
Honestly Comedy Central is a mystery to me. I’d think the results would have some impact on them but I guess not. Paul F. Tompkins (brilliant in my book) won last year and I doubt CC came running with a development deal. I think Comedy Central really uses it to drive up hits to their site so they can get more money for website ads.
The contest is silly really. Comedians are all different. It’s like having on contest on favorite food. Hot Dog vs. the Potato chip. I enjoy them both… I’m confusing myself but you get the point. It is some pride for comics. For instance, I just want to be in the top 25.
When you started performing stand-up, you’ve said you wanted to be like Dave Attell. What did you learn from watching him? You work completely clean now but did you aspire originally to be dirty?
Attell is a genius. Really one of the best writers today. I learned so much from Dave. For instance, word economy and attempting to make a joke undeniable.
I never aspired to be clean or dirty. I just want to work with out any crutches really. Any stand up would tell you that a curse word always seems to make a joke get a better reaction and can save bad jokes.
We know you’ll be talking about food during your special, so people are going to get hungry. It’s Pavlovian. What would the best thing to eat while watching?
Mmmmm. So many things. You could eat a hot pocket but you might have to watch from the toilet.
Jim Gaffigan’s stand-up special “Beyond the Pale” airs this Sunday on Comedy Central at 9 and 10 PM (8 & 9 Central). The “Beyond the Pale” DVD, with extras like the facetious “How to Be a Stand-Up” and his first stand-up performance (which actually is a good lesson for aspiring stand-ups), and the “Beyond the Pale” CD arrive in stores February 7.
Since 2002, Janet Varney has been one of the co-organizers of San Francisco Sketchfest. For over two weeks, San Francisco’s funny per capita takes a huge spike from the large descent of talent on the bay area, this year including Mr. Show, Fred Armisen, UCB, Michael Showalter & David Wain. The festival is in its last week now, with many great shows to come. I talked with Janet about San Francisco’s and sketch comedy’s place in the industry right now.
When I think of some of the most beloved comedy from the past 20 years, sketch comedy takes up a large amount of it. But most comedy festivals center firmly on stand-up. Why do you think that is?
For one thing, it’s much more expensive to put up and pay a group of people at a festival, opposed to flying out and compensating just one person. Then there’s also the matter of the “Industry” wanting to make development deals with solo stand-up comedians rather than with conceptual sketch groups. But the festival situation is also a reflection of the day-to-day problem sketch groups can face, which is that there are generally far fewer sketch comedy venues than traditional stand-up clubs. James Reichmuth of Kasper Hauser made a great point when we did “Fresh Air” on KQED this morning (along with Rob Baedeker and Cole Stratton): if you’re a developing stand-up comedian, there are a series of steps you can take to get seen, work on your material, and potentially make money playing gigs. It doesn’t really work that way for sketch comedians. Sketch comedy doesn’t typically get booked at comedy clubs, and it can be very expensive for a group to rent a theatre (which is often a better environment for the way sketch works). That’s why places like the Mock Cafe, or the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NY & LA, are so important. And finally, despite the large number of sketch shows and groups that can be cited as hugely influential in comedy, some people still don’t quite “get” the sketch thing. For example, somehow, year after year, we keep having to explain to people that sketch isn’t improv. Of course sketch can derive from improv, but… you get the idea.
Stand-ups can be classified to some degree (observational, political, def-jam, prop), which can help unify a show to attract an audience. What are the challenges of grouping sketch comedy groups into shows, which seem not as easily classified?
Great question! That’s something we face every year. When going through the giant amount of submissions and making the always-difficult selections, we do try to be mindful of who we’re going to be putting on a bill together. What’s great is when we actually try putting two or three groups together with very different sensibilities and it works; it’s a cool way to expose audiences to different styles. But generally, we do try to create a night of comedy that will have a sort of flow to it. Wow. I just made that process seem so much more pretentious than it actually is.