By Ben Kharakh
In this interview, Emmy award winning writer and comedian Greg Fitzsimmons discusses the importance of honesty in comedy, what "edgy" means to him, and the time he got into a fist fight onstage.
How helpful did you find your college experience to be in your career as a writer and comedian?
Very. Going to an urban school gives you a chance to be in the energy of the real world. I was going to comedy clubs every night and performing all the time. In terms of the academics, I was an English major and that helped me as a writer and as a stand up. It's almost the same formula: you come up with a premise, or thesis, and then you have examples, transitions, turns, and it gives you that discipline of taking an idea, pushing it forward, shaping it, and having it all pay off in the end.
And how useful is it, in television, to have a college degree?
Not at all. I think it's one of those things where you get out of it what you put into it. My best friend from college is currently executive producer of the Spike Feresten show on FOX. He and I have worked together and there have been other people from BU that I've worked with. You make amazing connections at college because you have no fear. You're doing things because you want to and you find like minded people who can be a real resource later, not just professionally but their friendship can be something you can count on because they knew you when you were dreaming about this thing and they understand you, which is a pretty amazing thing.
Lucky Louie was not picked up by HBO for another run, but I heard a rumor that Comedy Central was picking it up.
They had some meetings but it didn't go forward. It's officially over.
What was the atmosphere in the writing room like for Lucky Louie?
It was good. TV writers are pretty nerdy compared to stand ups. Our room had half stand up comedians and half nerdy writers. I think the writers get annoyed with the stand ups always talking about other comedians and road stories. There's an energy that stand up comics have that keeps the room alive, but it can also be distracting.
Comedy nerds, though, love hearing about other comedians and road stories. What do you think of comedy nerd message boards?
I never go to them. I don't know who the people are, so I don't know why I would talk to them. I find that there's a lot of people on those websites that have very strong opinions and if someone has a strong opinion like that I'd like to be in the room talking with them. Anonymous strong opinions, to me, are not worth spending a lot of time on.
If you knew who it was but it was still online, would it make you feel differently?
Yeah, the times that I am interested is if Louie wrote something and then Greg Giraldo responded. Then, great, I'd love to hear that dialog and get involved in it. But I've never been someone that hangs around the comedy club talking to other comics. I try to get to the club before my set, go on, and I usually leave right after. Some of my best friends are comics, but there are too many comedians around that get mad at me because I don't remember them or I'll feel awkward approaching other people. I find the whole social system of comedians to be awkward. Most of us are loners and I feel that we're better off that way.
Is analyzing humor something that you enjoy?
I'll do it with certain people, like if I'm talking to Dave Attell, Louie, or someone who I really respect. We'll talk about it only in the sense of trying to understand why something is working or not working, but, in general, I think it's dangerous to analyze comedy too much. Bob Newhart has a new book out and he mentions how comedians are thin skinned, acerbic, and anti-establishment, and those are the comedians that I like. When I go to the Improv and there are a bunch of guys smiling, shaking my hand, and being positive, I can't relate to it. I come from the New York scene of depressed comedians bumping into each other, maybe arguing, and moving on. I don't like the new shiny happy comedian. It doesn't jive with what I think is good comedy.
What do you mean by "shiny happy"?
There's a pop mentality now in stand up of trying to get a lot of people to be your friend on Myspace, being completely accessible to your fans, doing material that's, "We all do this," and trying to evoke a response from the audience where they nudge each other with the elbow and go, "That's you." I'm more interested in the comedian with a point of view that nobody understands, who then gets behind it, delivers it, and finds a way to make it connect to people. I think there's two types of comedians: comedians who figure out what the audience wants and gives it to them and comedians who have something that they need to express and find a way to connect it to people.
Do you think it's possible to be a younger comedian, like someone in their early 20's, and still have something interesting to say?
Absolutely. As long as someone's being truthful onstage, they're very watchable. I work with young comedians who open for me and they often strike me as having the confidence and desire to get up there and take crowds on with their point of view, which, to me, is interesting. It doesn't have to be hostile. More often, comics start out and they learn the tricks first before they stumble onto their own voice. That's how I started, and I don't think that I was good for a number of years. I'm always encouraged when I see a young comic who isn't trying to sound like somebody else and isn't relying on shock or trite stage gimmicks that make the crowd think you're cool. Comedians aren't cool. I don't know when this whole cool thing started in comedy. I think cool is very anti-intellectual, anti-creative, and, to me, cool is conformity. I'd much rather see somebody go up and just be themselves onstage. That's the fastest way to be a comedian that's worth something.
Do you think that bad comedians know that they're bad?
There's no bad comedians, per-se. If you're making a living at it and that was your goal, I guess you can call yourself a good comedian. I'm not judging anyone else's comedy. America wants to be entertained and if a crowd of people spent ten or fifteen bucks to a see a show and they went home feeling that they had a good night out, who am I to say that that's bad? When I see someone do well with the sort of comedy that I don't enjoy, It doesn't affect me. I've been very fortunate to make a living doing this for a lot of years and my comedy is just about trying to pull back layers. I think, "What am I ashamed of or embarrassed to talk about?" and then try to bring that onstage.
What are some traps that you think comedians should avoid?
I think performing for the back of the room, for the other comedians that are there, which is tough. I know that in LA and New York it's tough to get stage time and you often end up performing for a room full of comedians waiting to go on. Don't think of who the crowd is; think of what you want to say. Another trap is drinking. Tape your sets and make sure that everything that you're saying up there is you saying it. I see a lot of people doing Jon Stewart or Dane Cook onstage. It's hard to get onstage when you're first starting out. You're scared and you gravitate toward coping somebody's style. It might even be subconscious, but it gets you through. You might need to do that to find your own voice, and I certainly did that. Going back to Bob Newhart, nobody did comedy like he did back then. When he started, everything was fast paced and shticky, and Newhart came out with these long pauses and a stuttering delivery. People dug it because it was different.
Comics think too much about what people want, what's going to get them an agent, what's going to get them a following, or what's going to get them successful as fast as possible. If you really want to become an opening act, you can become an opening act by using any of these tricks onstage. Using false anger. Crowds love the angry comic. The guy who's screaming and yelling about stuff and saying things that are politically incorrect. That's great if it's really coming from you, but if you're posturing that you're angry cause you know that it's a high-energy emotion that crowds connect to easily, then that's not going to take you anywhere. You can meet a girl at a bar with some clever tricks and pick up lines, but you're never going to know her until you're yourself. That's really corny and I've never used it as a metaphor before, but I think it really is about that. The sooner that you can be yourself and find out if there's something there, the sooner that something real happens onstage.
You mentioned people that go onstage and say things to shock the audience, and a lot of times that's called "edgy." What do you think edgy means?
Whenever I go on Howard Stern, I think of something about me that I'd be uncomfortable telling even a good friend about and then I tell it on the show. I've talked about when I had a hard time orgasming with my wife, or when I came close to having a gay experience in college, or my father being an alcoholic. Stuff that I've kept secret for decades and I just bring it out. To me, that's edgy. I can go on and make jokes about gay people or black people, but, in my heart, I don't feel racist against black people and I'm not homophobic, so that would be false for me, but I could calculate that the crowd would eat it up. The strong choice is to not think about being edgy but to think about being honest.
What do you think of the term alternative comedy?
I don't believe it exists in the creative sense, but I think it exists in a marketing sense. When audiences hear alternative, I think they associate that with the type of comedian that might not do material that they've done a lot. Audiences are pretty savvy and when they hear a comedian reciting an act that's been done before, they tune out. When they hear the term "alternative comedy" they feel that they're going to see people do stuff that's a little less glossy and will maybe be more creative and take more risks. I would argue that some of the stuff that you see at comedy clubs is just as risky. Many times, when comedians hear the word alternative, they bring a notebook onstage, and I'm guilty of this, and write the first half of the joke and wing the rest onstage.. I don't change my act when I do an alternative night. If I'm doing a club, I'm doing an hour- forty-five minutes of stuff that I know will work and fifteen minutes of stuff that's new to me. If I'm doing an alternative night, I'm only doing the new stuff.
With all the roadwork that you've done, have you ever had an experience where you've been physically threatened by an audience member?
I got beat up once onstage in Boston when I was just starting out. I got a heckler and I went back and forth with him too many times and we had a fist fight onstage. He needed stitches and I needed to go to a chiropractor afterward. This was at a club, ironically, called stitches. He was alone and had just gotten out of the Israeli army. His name was Simcha and I remember that because I told him that that was the name of the village idiot in Woody Allen's Love and Death. He had gone to a Jewish singles night in Boston and he thought that the Jewish singles would be excited to meet him since he was from Israel, but he didn't realize that these were Boston University/Long Island Jewish and had absolutely no interest in a cab driver. He was angry about that and was trying to take it out on me. Eventually, he charged the stage with his fists clenched and I hit him in the face with a microphone and then he me in a headlock. After the bouncers finally cleared the stage, I went back onstage because I had five minutes left in my set. When I went back on I got a standing ovation because it was Boston and they'd rather see a fist fight than a comedy show anyway.
What do you like to do after a performance?
If I'm on the road, I love it when there's a movie theater near by and I can go see a late movie because it's very hard to go to the hotel room all by yourself when you're all wound up. I don't drink, so I don't like to hang out around the club. So it's great if I can go see a movie. I always think that I'm going to write, but I'm just too tired. The worst part of being on the road is that it takes six hours to fall asleep and then you have to wake up early to do radio. After a show in LA, I get off stage, walk straight to the parking lot, and try to see my wife before she goes to sleep.