Interview: Greg Fitzsimmons, Stand-Up Comic

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

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.

Now you also have this radio show on Howard 101 on Sirius satellite radio. That’s seems a little similar to stand-up in that it’s another place where you can have that singular voice.

It’s a lot like stand-up in that way, except you’re not getting that immediate gratification of the laughs. So you have to find your rhythm in a vacuum. With stand-up you start to find your rhythm from where it gets filled in with laughter. And when I listen to the really good radio guys, their momentum… they’ve just figured it out over time. When to get a sort of manic run out and when to just slow it down. You don’t want to Rush Limbaugh it to death, but sometimes you can go really slow and people are hanging on every word. When I’m in a club I know when to do that, because I can see that I’ve got ‘em. But on the radio, I’m not sure when their really sitting next to the radio or when they’re going, “Oh, this is kind of boring.”

So you’ve got to, I guess, plan a little bit more of what you’re going to do. Whereas as a stand-up, I just kind of go by the energy of the crowd with the choices that I’m making.

But even when you’re doing stand-up, you can’t necessary imagine where a crowd might go because of a joke?

I’m always surprised. The whole dynamic of standing in a room and saying things into a microphone and people actually collectively laughing out loud is still a phenomenon I don’t understand. It’s the thing that got me into stand-up when I was 8. I used to collect records and study all these different comics like Bob Newhart. I didn’t understand – and I still don’t – that physical reaction to a thought. So I guess that’s what keeps me coming back. Is that you really don’t ever know how it’s going to cause – you start to know on a subconscious level.

But I always start with “Gee, what makes me uncomfortable?” or what do I find absurd. And I start with that thought and find a way to connect it with a bunch of strangers. But when they’re going to laugh and how hard, that’s sort of the joy of stand-up. They tell you. And then it’s pretty consistent. That same joke in Minneapolis and then in Houston will generally do about the same. And when it doesn’t, it really stands out. “Wow, that joke always does a seven and a half or an eight. And tonight it got a 10.” Or “Tonight it bombed. That’s weird.”

But that’s the exception. You take a random sampling of strangers and you feed the same linear succession of words, and they will have x number of responses. And it’s fucking great.

But it’s still loose enough that at one moment that it could change.

Well it’d be boring otherwise.

If you knew how this would always turn out… There’s that old joke about the prison where the guys know the jokes enough that they can yell out the number of the joke – “five” and get a laugh. It’s not like that.

I think that’s what comedy used to be. In the same way people yell “Freebird” when Lynard Skynard goes on stage, people that went to see Milton Berle, they really wanted to hear certain bits and routines. And people like Abbot and Costello… the other day I was listening to the “Who’s on First” routine. There’s not a more elegant, intelligent bit of performance I’ve heard in my life as that routine. It’s fucking beautiful.

It’s gorgeous. It stands to the test of time.

They’ll never top that. And that was a different kind of comedy back then. Some guys still really take a routine and craft it and craft it and craft it. But it seems like the comedians that I’m attracted to and the type of comedy I like to do is about walking on stage and taking what’s most alive in my mind and connect it to a bunch of strangers.

And that’s the thing about translate comedy to any sort of medium like television or the internet, there’s that element of live performance that makes it so enriching. There’s a sharp difference.

And a lot of it is very subconscious for the audience and the performer. You know you are being taken on a ride and you know where you’re just being recited to. And I know as a comic, I don’t when it’s going to happen, be it a college gig I think is going to suck or a Friday late show at some drunken club. And then other sites you walk on stage and it’s here and it’s beautiful and you walk off feeling like… You know when you masturbate and you orgasm but you don’t have any physical sensation. It’s like that.

Ah, yeah. Unfortunately I know exactly what you mean. (laughs)

It’s an anticlimax.

It’s more fun the doing than the actual end of it.

So the lesson is enjoy the fucking because you don’t know how it’s going to feel.

Going off on the show on Howard 101. Do you think that Howard Stern would have made a good stand-up comic?

Of course.

He definitely has that sense of rhythm. But I don’t know if he could have taken going through the clubs night after night.

I think it would be hard for him because he’s a control freak. Admittedly. And for stand-ups, there are so many elements that are out of your control. And I think the reason why Howard is where he is, is that he has been able to manage every aspect of the way his show is delivered. And with stand-up so much is changing. And you have to react to it.

I’m not saying he couldn’t do it. I’m just saying I don’t think he would have enjoyed doing it night in and night out.

He’s a great storyteller who knows that there’s a beginning and a middle and an end to each thing that’s on the show. And he always knows when there’s no meat left on the bone and to move on. And that’s just from experience. That’s the kind of experience he’s gotten from being in the vacuum. Not having a crowd tell him what works and what doesn’t, in a way has allowed him to be that much truer of a voice.

I think most bad comedy comes from the performer trying to deliver to the audience what he perceives them wanting. Rather than the performer that he thinks is funny.

A lot of comics talk about memorizing album when they’re younger. And some of them even say they performed another comic’s bits when they got started. Is that imitation, joke stealing?

No. Well, look. Who gives a shit? Anyone that’s up there for the first year, if they’re stealing a bit, first of all, other people probably know it. Second, not that many people will see it. It’ll catch up with you.

The first time I ever performed was a high school talent show and it was a Bill Cosby routine. And then I did some of my own jokes. But I did the dentist routine from Bill Cosby. People knew it was a Bill Cosby routine, but I was doing it.

And then I was started working in Boston. I look back at some of the bits I did. A lot of them are really pedestrian and I’m embarrassed by some of the things I talked about. So in terms of actually stealing, the thing I tell comics is you’re going to sound like other people when starting out and that’s fine. Every young comic today is trying to sound and move like Dane Cook. And when I was coming up, everyone was trying to sound like Denis Leary, or I should say Bill Hicks. (Laughs)

But that’s fine. You go there until you find your own legs. But you got to survive on stage. And if you respect somebody’s work you’re going to sound like them. Jesus Christ, listen to the “Rolling Stones: England’s Newest Hitmakers.” It’s all Chuck Berry songs. Even the riffs that Keith Richards plays are straight from Chuck Berry. But then they found their own sound.

Obviously stealing jokes is a big taboo, but if you steal jokes it’s going to catch up to you. And you know what? Better early than later. You look at the guys who make really big and then it catches up to them, and it’s much more damaging.

It’s interesting because for people starting out, I think material is something that’s easier to find in some ways. But performing isn’t. To do somebody else’s material early on and follow the cadence and the rhythm of it, it could be a great lesson.

Absolutely. I don’t begrudge anyone who’s first starting out. It’s so hard. And the numbers are so stacked against you. And it’s so scary. You only advice I ever give people is to watch a lot of comedy so you can learn what to do and what not to do. And to ignore any of the people at your own level because their all going to be jealous of your success and celebrating your failure. It’s a very competitive business and it involves a lot of people who are not feeling that great about themselves. If you can meet one or two people that you trust and support each other, that’s a great thing. But don’t expect that to be the norm.

You can visit Greg Fitzsimmons at his site or his myspace page

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