Though Greg Fitzsimmons has more than flirted with writing for TV (winning four Emmys for his work on The Ellen DeGeneres Show), he is a stand-up comedian at heart. He’s not only a great performer, but he’s a passionate advocate for the art form. In March, he’ll be headlining a benefit for Gerry Red Wilson foundation. The group raises money for spinal meningitis, a disease which took the life of comic Gerry Red Wilson in 1998. Also appearing at the show will be Louis CK, Jim Norton, Artie Lange and Nick Di Paolo. Tickets go on sale Friday the 18th and can be purchased online here.
Update: Pre-sale tickets are up for Dead-Frog readers right now. The general public doesn’t get access until 10AM tomorrow. Purchase tickets for the Gerry Red Wilson Foundation Benefit here.
I talked to Fitzsimmons about the ongoing writers’ strike, joke stealing, the anticlimax of performance and whether Howard Stern would make a good stand-up.
I noticed that you have quite a few dates lined up for the next year. Is that a symptom of the writers’ strike? Or is it more that you want to make stand-up more the center of your career right now.
People can’t get enough of me right now. (laughs) And by those people I don’t mean my family at home. They want me out on the road. There was a family meeting and my four-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, go.” (laughs)
No. Part of it’s the writers’ strike. I’m definitely taking more dates than I would. But I don’t do as many days when I go away. I’ve pretty much cut it down to Thursday to Saturday, as opposed to Tuesday to Sunday.
I feel like I do better shows with a shorter week. I feel like I get too depressed when I’m gone that much. I’m not even writing. It just turns into a job. I gotta get home and be around my family and recharge. So I’m trying to do fewer shows, but better shows.
Not necessarily do a lot of writers have the stand-up background to make a living off of it. It must be a little strange how you relate to your friends who are writers only.
Yes. I think it’s the same way women have to look at marriage. Stand-up’s the woman that brought me to the dance, you gotta stay with her. And women have to look at blowjobs as that’s why we married you. It can make the marriage right again. Don’t forget the tools that you brought into this thing.
I’ve never stopped doing stand-up. Most of the reason is that there’s nothing I’d rather do more. And the other part of it is, is it’s just this well that you can always draw from financially. And it keeps you out there.
It’s like life to me. It sounds corny, but stand-up is like the closest thing that I can come to feeling truthful. Because everything you do on TV, you’re serving somebody. And stand-up, you’re really just trying to find a way to get closer to your truth on stage.
It’s what draws me to the art – there’s nothing between the performer and the audience.
I think during a thing like the strike it’s important that comedians try and be vocal about it. Because we’re essentially going head to head against the news. What message do you think the public is going to get? Ours or theirs? And the only way you can reach people is through the Internet and through stand-up. And I think that comics have a very strong presence on the Internet.
That’s why I’m also trying to get Russian whores to speak out on the strike. Because between us and the Russian whores that’s 90% of the World Wide Web. If we could just get the two girls from “Two Girls and a Cup” to just say something about the strike in between eating fecal waste from each other’s rectum, we could push the studios along. If one of the girls just takes a sip of shit from the cup and says, “This tastes like that deal studios brought to the writers last week.” (laughs)
That would be perfect.
Today The Ten, an underrated comedy from last summer, comes to DVD. Ten stories highlight each of the Bible’s Ten Commandments in a very loose way, with characters interconnecting between sketches. Each bit is extremely silly (an example: a man becomes a celebrity after falling from a plane and ending up embedded in the ground, unable to move). But they’re all played seriously. Helping to ground the absurd are serious actors and actresses like Oliver Platt, Gretchen Mol, Liev Schreiber and WInona Ryder, who has a torrid affair with a ventriloquist dummy. Also part of the fun are some great alt comedy folk including Ron Corddry, A.D. Miles, Jason Sudekis and nearly every member of “The State.” I got a chance to do a short email interview with “Ten” Director David Wain, who along with being a member of “The State” and “Stella” previously directed “Wet Hot American Summer.” We talked about interconnected sketches, absurdity and the classic comedy “Airplane.”
Sketch comedy movies are often described as hit or miss. Do you think that’s a fair criticism? It seems like an obvious thing to say about any movie – there will be parts you like more than other parts.
It makes sense that one would feel this way about sketch comedy because each part has a different premise, different set of characters, different style—not everyone is going to like every sketch. Also there’s an inevitable “dip” in a sketch-based film, when you’re not following a three-act story, where no matter how funny the jokes are, it can start to get tedious. In The Ten we tried to combat this phenomenon by keeping the whole movie relatively short, and by imbuing each piece with more than just jokes.
It’s interesting that a film using the Ten Commandments only has one segment (Gretchen Mol with Jesus Chriso) that plays with religion. Did you consciously want to stay away from religion?
It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as just where our taste lies. I’ve never been too interested comedy that’s overtly political or religious. In The Ten we were more interested in the underlying moral/ethical themes of the Ten Commandments as basis for a variety of comic stories.
When you’re doing a film that’s not necessarily for a mainstream audience, do you still have audience expectations that you have to deal with?
Of course. Even small independent movies take millions of dollars to make, and must connect so some sort of audience. That said, I’ve been extremely lucky that my first two movies (Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten) were made with almost zero influence from financiers, and we were largely allowed to freely explore our instincts and tastes (with certain casting requirements). As with most everything I’ve done, I just trusted that what we find funny, others will. How many others, I can never predict. Most things I’ve done has been met with obsessive worship from some, and abject hostility from others.
It seems with a sketch comedy film that once you move on to a new sketch that it’s hard to keep momentum. You’re setting up the next bits and what not. Do you think the ways that the characters in “The Ten” interconnect help to keep the momentum going?
Definitely. More than I anticipated, actually. We thought the way the characters overlapped was just icing on the cake of The Ten, but it turns out to have been a crucial element of the film that I’d have done much more of, in hindsight.
There’s a real love of the absurd in a lot of your comedy. How grounded does a scene or a sketch have to be before you can go off on a non-sequitur?
There’s certainly no formula. That kind of thing is entirely a matter of instinct and taste.
Are there times you have to throw away a gag because you have to serve the scene?
All the time. There’s a ton of deleted material on The Ten DVD that is exactly that. Of course The Ten had a much higher threshold for tangents and absurdity because we didn’t have an overall story to serve, to keep moving forward. The jokes were the first priority. In Wet Hot and Stella we more often had to throw out jokes that took away from the story drive, but those too were sketch-like narratives. The movie I’m working on now (currently untitled comedy for Universal) is a much more “straight-forward” narrative, and it’s an interesting and satisfying discipline to try to keep every scene and every joke as on-topic, on-character, and on-story as possible, while still making you laugh.
Is there a point where absurdity can change the tone so much that a film becomes like “Airplane”?
Well in infer from the way you word the question that you don’t like “Airplane.” I think “Airplane” is a classic comedy and far more sophisticated than it appears on the surface. This is why its myriad imitators (and sequels) haven’t worked, but the original “Airplane” lives on. It’s much more than just string of puns and sight gags. On the other hand, I have to admit I have always been wary of having too many “airplane jokes” in what I do, but that’s because I want to be true to my own specific voice and no one else’s. The Ten and Airplane share the idea that anything goes, in service of comedy. Narrative structure, logic, continuity, emotional reality, character depth—they all take a back seat. I can understand why this puts off some people. And truthfully, it puts me off too, when done recklessly. Nor would I want to have a movie diet of only absurdist comedies. But when done well, whether it’s Monty Python, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Cohen Brothers, Peter Sellers, whoever… they can be sublime. The audiences and critics who have embraced The Ten have seen it as a whole movie, that even though it doesn’t the conventional earmarks of most feature films, there’s a cohesiveness to the point of view.
Editor’s Note: Just to be clear, I love “Airplane.” The reason I asked David about this is simply, “Airplane” is one thing and generally I think the aesthetic aspired to by Wain is another. It seemed like a pretty fine line to tread.
Just prior to his HBO special Captain Miserable, I talk to Dave Attell about how stand-up is presented on TV, performing for all of America and how moms want their sons to be Jerry Seinfeld.
Why is the special titled Captain Miserable? You don’t seem like a sad guy from your performances.
That’s my clown mask. Nah, I had a lot of different names that I wanted to use. But I’m sick of all these names which are “Notorious” or “Never-ending”. Seems like it’s more of a condom name. Not to put ‘em down. But “Relentless” or “Notorious”…
It’s hyping up the persona of the performer
Yeah. I always like to go the other direction, which is make it a funny title. I’m probably never going to write a book, so it’s the only thing I’ll get to title.
To get to the point, I am a miserable prick. But I’m also a captain. (laughs)
Captain Miserable was filmed in a theater. How is that different than the intimacy of a comedy club?
I am a club comic. I’ve been doing it for twenty years. The special you always want to be special. I’ve done theaters and I’ve done a theater tour here or there. That’s the way we went with it.
But it’s a lot harder for theater it seems for me that it is in the clubs. In a club, you can always work the crowd, you can kind of work off the energy that’s coming right back at you. At a theater you have to wait for people, you have to give it some breath so everybody gets it. Especially if it’s being taped. You want every joke to hit. So it kind of goes against my nature timing of jokes.
You feel like you’re a faster comic and being a theater kind of slows that down.
A theater you feel more performance. I feel like I’m letting down the crowd more in a theater than I am a club. (laughs) Kind of like the difference between supper and lunch.
That’s the thing about stand-up on television. You so often see in a theater and rarely see it in a comedy club. Do you wish they would show it more in a comedy club?
I don’t care where they show it – in a theater… outdoors is always a death knell. But if it’s in a theater or a club, as long as it’s not censored and the people who are there are there to see comedy, I think it’s great. A lot of people are there to see network versions of stand-up, like Last Comic Standing or something like that. I’m not talking about being super filthy or dirty. It really is difficult to get your point across with network explorerds for products and different things that you’re not allowed to talk about. Often when you do your five or six minute spot on whatever show you’re not allowed to do what you do in the clubs. You got jerry-rig it. The cool thing about HBO is they have no restrictions. You get to see more material the way it’s meant to be.
Tasked with following up the breakout book “Our Dumb Century”, Onion Writers Mike DiCenzo and Dan Guterman headed up a project which would be daunting all by itself. “Our Dumb World.” sets out to satirize not only the big nations of the world but almost every commonwealth, protectorate and island on the globe. I talked with DiCenzo and Guterman about how this book is a departure for the Onion, the missteps along the way in its creation and why it is not a toilet read.
I’ve really enjoyed the book. I can’t say I’ve read all of it because it’s dense. Amazingly dense.
Dan Guterman: Yeah, it took about 14 years to write.
(Laughs) Which means you started this book before “Our Dumb Century.”
DG: We did. We actually took a break from this book, whipped out “Our Dumb Century” in about three weeks and then returned to this book.
You guys weren’t there when the Onion did “Our Dumb Century”, correct?
DG: No we weren’t.
So was this intimidating to mastermind putting together a follow-up?
Mike DiCenzo: Absolutely. It started a couple of years ago when Scott Dikkers [early and current Onion Editor-In-Chief] came back to the Onion and basically just walked into the Onion and said, “We’re doing an Atlas of the world.” Especially for me and Dan, we wanted to work as hard as possible to make it a worthy follow-up to “Our Dumb Century” which both of us loved and worshiped.
DG: We both were practically introduced to the Onion through “Our Dumb Century”. I remember picking up a copy and being completely blown away by its intelligence and density and pure funniness. It was a big deal for us to do the follow-up.
Though best known perhaps for his appearances on Vh1 talking head nostalgia programs, Michael Ian Black is probably most beloved for his sketch comedy work on “The State” and for the sitcom “Stella” with fellow State members David Wain and Michael Showalter. In recent years, Black also has embarked on a stand-up career which brought the release of his first CD “I am a Wonderful Man” earlier this year. I talked to Black about his stand-up in contrast to his years as a performer at the alternative show “Eating It”, the upcoming movie he scripted entitled “Run Fatboy Run” and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras at shows and why he hates them.
Note: I talked to Black around the release of his CD but just got to transcribing it now. So if there’s any weird timeline issues, that’s why.
I saw you at “Eating It” a lot back in its early days at Rebar and at Luna Lounge and it’s interesting how your stand-up is now compared to then. It’s a bit more traditional now. And I was wondering if you could trace that for me.
Well, when I was doing Luna and before that Rebar, I was really experimenting with different forms of what comedy could be. I was just sort of playing with ideas. I was not really developed as a solo comedian – I had never done it before and was just playing around.
And so, it was all experimental. Over time, I wanted to – I’d always admired stand-up comedians and wanted to understand how to do what they do. It was just interesting to me. So over the past couple of years I just started doing traditional stand-up. Because I admire the craft so much. I admire people who can just get up on the stage and make people laugh. I wasn’t so interested in being Andy Kaufman-esque anymore or esoteric or weird. I wanted to just be able to get on the stage and not have people know who I am and be able to make them laugh. I thought that was an admirable goal.
It’s totally an admirable goal. But I think part of your stand-up now is informed by that experience. There’s some conceptual stuff…
I guess it does. I don’t really think of it that way. It’s just the kind of comedy I write. So I don’t think of “this is one thing and this is another” so much as I’m just trying to write jokes.
I know I’m probably getting a little esoteric here. Part of what I do is analyzing comedy. So I get that response – it’s a good one. Jokes are a bit like magic. They come out of the ether and they just work.
For me, I’m not an accomplished enough a comedian that I know how to do that. That I know how to write a joke and it works. Or doesn’t work. For me, so much is trial and error. And something I think is funny and bring to stage just gets crickets. Or vice versa. Something I don’t have a lot of faith in plays very well.
Was there anything on the CD that you kind of discovered?
A few things that you hear on that album weren’t written and just kind of came out of my mouth. Or jokes that I just hadn’t performed before or literally had just written that day.
That’s pretty ballsy to do.
Well it is and it isn’t. I knew I had an act. And I felt like if things don’t work, I’ll just cut them out. (laughs) That’s the nice thing about audio editing.
Jim Norton is a pervert. But that’s not what makes him funny. What makes him funny - and brilliantly so - is both how confessional he is with his flaws and moreover, his own self disgust at them. Norton has described his own body as an “atrocity.” After performing a half hour special for HBO two years ago, he’s back to the premium outlet with a one hour special entitled “Jim Norton: Monster Rain” premiering tonight at 10PM. Earlier this week, I talked with Norton about self-loathing, the blank-phobia criticism and the phrase “silly goose.”
One of the things that’s a big part of your comedy is self loathing. But you’re getting more successful now with the HBO special and the best selling book. Plus, you’re in a relationship now. Do you find it’s harder to make yourself the target for your jokes?
No. That’s always coming from an honest place. It’s like the old expression, “wherever you go, there you are.” That shit’s all external. And it’s great. The special’s great. The book is great. But you know what I mean? When I’m in the mirror, I’m still looking at Jim Norton. That stuff doesn’t change.
Because the perception is always irrational anyway. To be obsessed with smashing your own face through a window… it’s not like conditions were that bad that it warranted that. So no matter how good conditions get that’s always going to be there.
Right. You’re very open about the fact that you once attempted suicide. When you look back on that, is it kind of the same thing? Were conditions that bad that it warranted that?
No. I was drinking. I’m an alchy, so I was drinking so much. And I think that played into it, the drunkenness. But conditions externally were okay. Internally they were a disaster. I was certainly the problem.
It’s kind of fascinating that you came out of that attempt and rehab with almost complete irreverence. My impression of people who have gone through something like that is that they’re a lot more reverent. They’re confessional is a dark sad way, rather than a dark funny way.
A lot of people try and just be fucking melodramatic about it and they think they’re going to be spokespeople for something. The bottom line is I do have feelings about it, but I have to address it kind of shitty and smugly and make fun of myself because that’s how I address everything else.
So it would be kind of embarrassing if I’m sitting here teasing Christopher Reeve and his stupid legs and yet I’m self righteous about my own fucking wrist cutting. Then I’m a boob. (laughs)
I think one of things about your comedy that people who don’t know you don’t realize is that you’re harder on yourself so much more than other people. Do you think because you trash yourself you can get away with much more when you’re targeting something else?
I think so to a certain degree. But I also think it’s because I’m comfortable doing it. If the crowd groans because I’m trashing Heather Mills, making fun of her leg being gone or whatever it is, I don’t change what I’m doing. And I’m not uncomfortable with the fact that they might not be uncomfortable with it.
So I think when you show a complete lack of regard for their morality by being honest… I don’t mean I’m some rebel who’s ruining everybody’s life. I’m just being honest in humor. If you show no regard for that, [the audience] has two choices. They can laugh and come along with you. Or be angry and leave.
For almost five years in Los Angeles, Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter have been putting on a show called Comedy Death Ray. The live show is revered in comedy circles for bringing up some of the new favorites of stand-up, many of which get their first exposure to a bigger audience on Death Ray. The show also allows some very funny people like Zach Galifianakis, Doug Benson and Todd Glass a place to experiment and play. Just this week, Comedy Central Records released a double CD set of Comedy Death Ray featuring two different shows with two distinct flavors. Besides being performers, Aukerman and Porter have written for sketch comedy shows like Mr. Show and have an upcoming pilot for Fox called The Right Now Show that just happens to be taping tonight. I talked about both projects with the pair along with the dangers of self-indulgence and the need to stay a little silly.
I’m in New York, so I’ve never actually seen a Comedy Death Ray show.
BJ: Holy… you should kill yourself. No, we taped it.
That’s what’s cool to me. It’s often that these seminal shows are lost to history. People will say you should have been there with the Ding Ho or Luna Lounge. There’s no Ding Ho CD or Luna Lounge CD.
BJ: Or Dane Cook’s bedroom when we opened his mouth, basically.
Scott: You should have been there…
The man is an entertainer.
BJ: That’s a wise start. Shitting on the people on our label.
I don’t think Dane Cook’s going to do another CD on Comedy Central Records.
Scott: I’m sure they still sell the old ones though.
True. How are you putting it together for someone like myself who has never seen a Comedy Death Ray show?
Scott: I would say we had two goals when doing this CD. The first goal is to introduce people who have never seen the show before to the best comics that are on the show. And goal number two is to introduce people that they never heard of before and give you a bit more flavor of what the show is actually like.
And those goals are very much in line with the philosophy of the show from the very beginning. It’s the very best people who are out there…
BJ: Mixed with newcomers.
That’s something I really love, because a couple of these people aren’t often in NY and don’t have their own CD. So I can take that track and say, “Here’s this guy I like” to a friend.
BJ: There’s two different disks recorded at two different shows. And they’re two very different shows. The San Francisco disk was in front of 450 people and was a real professional show where people did their best stuff. So to some people that’s going to be their favorite disk.
The second disk was taped at our all-night anniversary show. And some of those sets are taped at like 4:30 or 5 in the morning, when people are a little groggy and not doing what they would do if they knew it was being recorded. That said, that disk has an entirely different flavor. It’s more experimental. It has more of the newcomers on it. It has people doing stuff that you won’t see on Comedy Central or HBO specials.
The second disk, as somewhat of a comedy snob, is the purer disk. Like Zach Galifianakis’ “Live at the Purple Onion” DVD, not necessarily is it going perfectly, but you get that sensation of what it’s like to be at a live show.
BJ: Brian Posehn went up at 4:45 in the morning. And he gets lost at a certain point. I don’t know if we kept him getting lost on the CD. That joke isn’t as technically well delivered as I’m sure it is in his Comedy Central special. But the whole disk has this looseness and flavor to it where anything can happen that a lot of people will prefer.
I think a lot of time in comedy, you’ll get the end result of a movement. You’ll get SNL but you won’t see Second City and Lemmings before it. And this is a great way that someone can trace someone’s act – “oh, this is where that came from” and so on.
BJ: Then there are other people… I read a review of it today and the guy only liked disk 1. And he was disappointed that Patton Oswalt’s bit was something he had heard before. He only wanted the famous people. He’s like, “Disk 2 is horrible. I don’t know any of these people.”
In three years, he’ll put that same disk back in and go…
BJ: Oh wow! (laughs)