Comedian Gary Gulman just may be his own biggest critic. But that won’t stop him from tearing into pro sports players as he hosts the first season of NESN’s Comedy All-Stars.
Religion and politics have long been the comedic pressure points for stand-up comics. But in Boston, God’s devoted following barely rivals the zealousness of Red Sox Nation. And maybe that makes Gary Gulman’s job hosting a sports-based comedy show on the New England Sports Network a bit trickier.
Gulman, the third place finalist on the second season of Last Comic Standing and one of the co-stars of Dane Cook’s 2006 HBO series Tourgasm, should know what he’s in for with NESN’s Comedy All-Stars.
He grew up just outside of the city and is a Boston College alumnus, where he, no doubt, experienced a few drunken sports riots. In the last few years, Boston has enjoyed victories in nearly every big contest except the presidential election. But, hey, you can’t win them all.
Of course, Gulman’s last few years have been pretty good too, with a one-hour Comedy Central stand-up special Boyish Man and his album Conversations with Inanimate Objects. Recently, however, he revealed himself to Punchline Magazine to be far more restless about his career and his material than fans would guess— at least based on his mostly upbeat stage persona.
This NESN show airs Fridays at 10:30, after Red Sox coverage. Are you afraid Red Sox fans will be too drunk to watch it at that point?
I’m imagining that the drunks won’t watch it at all, that they’ll be at a party or their friend’s house or something like that. I think of a lot of comedy being watched alone, for some reason. It’s surprising to me that people are getting together to watch stand-up comedy. My biggest fear is that the games last so fucking long that 10:30 is…I think the game starts at 7:05 or something, that’d be a pretty quick game. The average game has been 3:45 or four hours with extra innings. If only on the first game they don’t go in extra innings, or they get in and out in three and a half hours, that’d be perfect. Also that people are so bummed out if they lose that they won’t enjoy any comedy.
They might want the pick-me-up.
I don’t know. When the Red Sox lose I don’t want to watch SportsCenter, I don’t want to watch anything. Maybe stand-up would be okay. Growing up, I always feel like jokes about sports were pretty rare, so that’s a pretty cool aspect of the show—that we get to do sports jokes. Normally, I guess a lot of the audience is not that interested in sports.
Is the show exclusively sports jokes?
Yeah, but I will say that some of the jokes are shoehorned into being sports jokes; they’re not really sports jokes per se. For instance, I shoehorned a joke about the ropes in gym class, which is not a classic sports joke. Gym class is not really considered a sport.
So, are you willing to get more specific with references in these jokes because the audience will be exclusively sports fans?
Yeah. I do jokes about the specific guys in the steroids scandal. I feel bad for the guys who did steroids and still suck. You have the Barry Bondses, Jason Gimabis, and Clemenses and stuff, but guys like Ishmael Valdez and Larry Bigbie, guys who aren’t very well-known and hit like 10 home runs, it’s like, ‘What’s the fucking point of the steroids?’ That was pretty good to me; I’ll do that joke. And, it was cool to do jokes about Tom Brady and things like that. The casual sports fan kind of knows him peripherally but isn’t into him like a Boston sports fan. There is one joke I do about Jerry Remy that outside of New England no one gets.
What is it about Boston and New England sports that make them a ripe target for comedy?
I think the Red Sox couldn’t have planned to create a following any better over the years. They just almost win every year, get all these people who are so desperate to win, and they finally do win and it’s so overwhelmingly ecstatic. I noticed that girls I grew up with who were never into baseball at all, actually took great pride in the fact that they weren’t going to watch sports to get a man, all of sudden they know every player and the line-ups. And, also the fact that there’s a Jew in the front office and a Jew at first base. It’s just ridiculous. Ryan Braun hit two home runs and Kevin Youkilis hit a home run, so three Jewish home runs in one game. It was Biblical.
Are Jews defying stereotypes in baseball?
It used to be that you couldn’t talk baseball with a Jew for 60 seconds without hearing about Sandy Koufax. The only thing with Youkilis is that they talk about him defying stereotypes, but he’s fighting with Manny Ramirez and I always get worried about people getting angry. What if he hurts Manny Ramirez and he can’t play, and they blame the Jew for costing them the game? There’s still paranoia. If Bill Buckner had been Jewish, it would have been very upsetting. I can’t imagine that it would’ve been much more than 24 hours before somebody said – maybe not in public – “God, that fucking Jew.” I don’t know. I think I may be paranoid.
Where did you start doing stand-up in Boston?
Nick’s Comedy Stop. Billy Martin was the host— the open mic guy there. I think he’s the head writer for Bill Maher now. At the time, he was pretty unknown.
I’ve heard you still drop into [the tiny Harvard Square comedy club] The Comedy Studio.
I go in there all the time. I just try out new jokes. It’s probably the safest place in the country to try out new jokes, for me at least. I always feel so comfortable. They really have great comics. I was very impressed last time I went there.
What do you think their secret is? Is it the magic of being two floors above a Chinese restaurant?
I think they’ve captured the originality and spirit of a lot of the quote-unquote alternative comics that have come out of Boston. I imagine they’re all very big fans of Patton Oswalt, Demetri Martin. They get it, as they say.
How would you characterize the kind of comedy that you do and how it relates to “alternative comedy?”
I think alternative comedy now means doing jokes about the Holocaust. No, I’m exaggerating, but I just had this conversation with Todd Glass about the alternative thing. I just think that what’s been called alternative is just a lot more original than what you’re used to getting. I, of course, don’t consider myself alternative. I’m very mainstream, but I’m sort of a tweener in that I’m not hacky enough to be fully mainstream, but I’m not quirky and original enough to be considered alternative. So, I fall into a sort of twilight zone of despair.
There are certain jokes that indicate how mainstream a comic is. If you’re talking about how the side effects of drugs that they advertise on TV are worse than the actual illness they’re supposed to prevent, that’s like the hackiest joke out there now. If you’re still doing that joke, that usually is an indicator of being mainstream, in a bad way. There are guys who are mainstream in a good way. I feel like Brian Regan is pretty mainstream, but he’s incredible. I’ve very rarely heard anyone say that he’s not the best or one of the best.
Regan is a guy who is renowned in part for being a very funny comic who just happens to also be pretty clean. You’re not known for being filthy either. Is that important to you?
It was early on when I was really focused and obsessed with doing The Tonight Show and Letterman and stuff like that. Then, I quickly realized that those things don’t make or break a career. Then it was not the ultimate accomplishment to be clean, so I gave myself a break on that. I try not to be vulgar. Well, define vulgar. I try not to be a vulgarian. That’s as far as it goes there. A lot of times because of my track record they expect me to be clean, so if I’m doing a private show, I’ll accommodate, but for the most part in my live show, I don’t try to break the “fuck” meter or something, but I definitely use it as a spice. What’s a common spice? Like a paprika. Thyme.
Sage maybe? Rosemary is a good one.
Anything in a Simon and Garfunkel song.
When you were starting out, what kind of jokes were you doing?
I had one joke that has become ubiquitous in the comedy community and that is the naming-of-hurricanes joke and how funny it is that they give certain names to hurricanes that aren’t very hurricane-esque. That joke has sort of franchised. I had a joke about how they started serving cappuccino at 7-11; that was in about 1993 I think. That was a big hit for a while. Most good comics, I hope, cringe at some of the stuff from early on. I know I do. But then I cringe at stuff I did four or five years ago.
Are you a tough self-critic?
Yeah. I mean, if I had my druthers, I would’ve never gotten onstage because there’s just nothing that is original or creative enough. But, I hobble through with the stuff I’ve been able to cobble together over the years. I think Colin Quinn said it best when he said, ‘Someday, you’ll get to the point where you don’t feel guilty walking offstage.’ That’s what I aspire to. I probably should be a lot more cocky and arrogant, but it’s too early.
Where does that guilt come from? Do you feel like you’re unworthy of success or does the guilt pre-date even the fame you have now?
I just have such respect for the art. And there are so many people who do it so well. Some nights I come off and even jokes that get a laugh, I’m like, ‘Oh, that needs work, that’s not exactly inspired or anything.’ I could let myself feel good, but I don’t. I mean, you take somebody like Greg Giraldo. Have you seen him lately? I really feel like he’s the top social thinker in comedy right now. He’s just really talking about some important things. We were just working in Seattle at this festival, a special show for a radio station, and I was blown away. He’s original, creative, and funny, and I don’t think I’m as socially and politically relevant as somebody like him. Or, someone like… Jesus, there’s really no one doing it as well as him. He’s in a class by himself.
Do you ever consider the degree to which the kind of material you can do is dictated by your physical appearance?
That’s an interesting question. I often feel like certain comedians have a little bit of an edge because they look the part, or they can be angry, and the people won’t believe that they’re angry [offstage]. Like, Larry David is really great at being angry-funny. I’ve occasionally been told by my fiancé and other people that ‘They really think that you’re really angry when you’re yelling.’ So, that sort of thing is difficult. I think I come off pretty normal and nice, so it’s harder sometimes.
The other thing is that I’m a pretty moody guy, but no one really wants to see a normal-looking guy complain about things or talk about being unhappy. That’s hard. Most people are like, ‘Well, you have all your hair and you’re tall, so why are you unhappy?’ That can be limiting. I think Woody Allen had the perfect look for his comedy. And, sometimes I think that I’m in a little bit of a corner.
In ideal circumstances – if appearance somehow didn’t impact the way an audience received your material, and if they also had no idea of your previous work, what kind of material would you be doing?
I’ve always wanted to do more significant stuff. I think of myself as well-informed, but the hardest thing to do is talk about politics and current events and be funny and not just preachy. I was in Washington D.C over the weekend and I was talking about veal, and I said I hate to think I’m eating baby calves, and people were in an uproar. They really loved veal and the consumption of veal. It was in the confines of a joke, but the point is that it’s really risky. Unless you’re preaching to the converted or your fan base is sort of lined up with your ideology, it’s difficult to do it well within the show.
It’s a real valley when I talk about veal. And calf roping. People were sensitive about calf roping. Which I think is quite funny. So, I guess that’s not so much my appearance but the expectation that people have when they come to my show that there’s really not going to be much controversy. I guess that requires a little more judgment to get into that stuff, or maybe it’s something I have to couch a little better, I don’t know.
For more info, check out Gary Gulman’s official site and the NESN Comedy All-Stars page. If you don’t live in New England, you can catch Comedy All-Stars on the Dish Network channel 434 and 434 HD, and Direct TV channel 623.