Profile in Comedy: Gary Gulman
Gary Gulman has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show on CBS, Last Call with Carson Daly, and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He was second runner up on Season 2 of Last Comic Standing and a finalist on Season 3. He has made specials for Showtime and Comedy Central and written and starred in pilots for CBS, Fox, and Showtime. He was also a star on HBO's Tourgasm. His CD Conversations with Inanimate Objects is really good — seriously.
When did you first realize that you were uniquely funny?
Uniquely?! Gadzooks! I'll let you know when I'm unique. I'm getting there, though.
Who do you think were your influences?
Chris Elliott, David Brenner, Paul Reiser, Garry Shandling.
Do you remember your first original joke?
I remember saying a funny quip in first grade. The teacher asked what a chick was. Another kid said a baby chicken and I said, out of turn, “or a girl!” Killed! Even the teacher was broken up by it. I still get the same feeling in my stomach when something comes to me. It never gets old.
When did you realize that comedy was something you had to do for a living?
I have to make a distinction between “for a living” and “full time.” With any artistic endeavor there are immensely talented people who never “make a living” in their chosen field. There's a lot of luck involved so I hate to make the idea of making a living a necessary hurdle to being a comedian. I think after getting my first job after college with an international CPA I thought, this is it? This is adulthood and I'll be in this for forty more years, best case. Fuck that! I want to do something meaningful or at least fun. You couldn't pay me enough to go back.
What was your first job in comedy writing or performance?
My first comedian job was hosting a show (for Rob Steen) above an Italian restaurant in Beverly, Massachusetts, called the Casa De Luca.
I sold tickets, set up the chairs, sat the audience, ran the sound system, paid the comics, and emceed the show. For that I received $25 in CASH! It was as enjoyable as any of the more higher profile/lucrative jobs I've had.
My first writing job was a $200 project writing for some guy making a wedding video for his sister-in-law. I don't think he used any of my ideas, but the check cleared.
Be a smart and clever comedy writer, but don't be elitist. This type of comedy usually serves only one thing — your ego. You can write intelligent, personal, and funny comedy and be approachable at the same time. Check your ego from time to time and make sure you have a good balance between originality and approachability.
My first WGA [Writers Guild of America]-certified writing job was for a 20th Century Fox pilot for Fox television based on my standup comedy (this was 1999; I think you got a development deal just for showing up at the Montreal Comedy Festival back then) called My Gary. It hasn't been picked up … YET!
What is the biggest difficulty you've encountered being a comedy writer?
The waiting! I think everyone is so afraid to offend anyone in Hollywood that they never give you a clear no. I honestly have never heard a no to any of the four pilots I wrote on.
How much of a reality show is “reality” and how much is “show”?
In the case of Last Comic Standing, all of the standup was legitimate. They may have edited some of the head-to-head match-ups to make it look closer, but I think for the most part it was “reality.” The off-stage stuff was definitely put together to make dramatic arcs, but again there was nothing that was just plain false.
How long does it take you to prepare for a comedy special?
I did my first one about six years in, so in a way that one took six years. Right? You're always preparing to get your work out there. I found out I was doing it in June and then did as many spots as I could until August when I shot it. So I worked on assembling and “testing” the content of the special for a little over a month. My second special I shot a week after it was offered to me. I had to put my topics on a teleprompter so I wouldn't leave anything out. The second one came out better but I also had another three years under my belt.
Are there jokes that you do just for you?
For me at this point I do all the jokes for me, not in a self-indulgent way, but there's nothing I say just to get a laugh. I do a joke because it's funny or clever or meaningful to me. That hasn't always been the case. For years it was a mixed bag. I did some jokes just because they worked and gave me that oxygen we need. I was looking to get hired, which is a terrible motivator for an artist, but I've evolved, hopefully. The greatest thing I ever heard related to this was in the Curb Your Enthusiasm pilot. Someone, it may have been Jerry Seinfeld, said that Larry had unwavering convictions as to what he thought was funny. That's essential to becoming unique/original and it's hard to stay true to in an environment where the audience's laughter is (wrongly I feel) considered so important in measuring a performer's talents.
What are the differences between writing for yourself and writing for others?
I only wrote anything for someone other than me once. My friend was roasting Pam Anderson and I sat with him and some other comedians pitching jokes. Surprisingly, it was fun and I didn't have any paternal feelings about the jokes. The main objective was making the other comedians laugh.
What do you find exciting about comedy right now?
So much! I don't think there's ever been a better time to be a comedian. When I first started in the '90s we used to lament the fact that “the Boom” was over. Nobody was making a killing in the clubs and there were very few people who were well known just for being comedians. Now between YouTube and Comedy Central there are (I think and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this) more comedians known only, or predominantly, as comedians than any time in my lifetime. There are no overnight-type successes like when Carson ruled, but I think those stories, and again I may be wrong, for the most part were either incredibly rare or overblown. I remember Tom Dreesen telling me on the night I did my first Leno that when he did The Tonight Show you were famous the next day. Meanwhile, I had honestly never heard of him.
Also while very mainstream comedy is still drawing much of the audience (I'm talking Leno and the Blue Collar guys and Two and a Half Men) it's nice to see what I like to call comedy of bad comedy or the uncomfortably unfunny (mastered by the Christopher Guest troupe and Ricky Gervais) become really popular. I've always found the unfunny trying to be funny so f-ing funny!
Where do you think the future of comedy is headed?
Hopefully the postmodern Andy Kindler thing will become more accepted. I just can't imagine audiences will continue to respond to the same hackneyed premises in the next decade, but I didn't think it would last this long. I would think that Steve Martin would have snuffed out that crap, but it's still here, am I right, fellas?!
As audiences become more specific and more segmented, is your job becoming easier or more difficult?
I think easier for everyone because while it's still a completely different ball game, once you're able to develop an audience that is there specifically for you, there are more venues where a quirky comedian can find a receptive audience. Mainstream comics will always have the majority of the clubs, but I have noticed there are some major clubs that cater to a more progressive (SMARTER!) audience.
What is the best thing about being a comedy writer?
It's a rejection of the 9 to 5 empty bullshit. It's rebellious but without risking your life on a motorcycle.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming comedy writers?
Be original. Be persistent. Be lucky. Be-lieve.