As a best-selling relationship book author, a devoted husband and father and host of a SOAPnet dating advice show, comedian Greg Behrendt’s touchy-feely side is a huge asset. But don’t be fooled. Behrendt’s a total dude. And a funny one at that.
A lot of people are really into Greg Behrendt these days. Long one of the most recognizable faces in stand-up circles, he has recorded an HBO special (Mantastic), three Comedy Central projects (including 2006’s Greg Behrendt Is Uncool and the upcoming Greg Behrendt: That Guy From That Thing) and multiple late-night appearances.
But the rocker-turned-comic exploded into the mainstream in 2004 when he co-authored the no-duh dating guidebook He’s Just Not That Into You with Sex and the City writer Liz Tucillo, whom he innocently offered the advice to while working as a consultant for the show. The book unexpectedly sold millions of copies and opened multiple TV opportunities for Behrendt, including the relationship-analyzing Greg Behrendt’s Wake Up Call that now airs on SOAPnet. He has since penned another book, It’s Called A Break-Up Because It’s Broken, and is working on It’s Just a Bleeping Date with his wife, Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt. He’s Just Not That Into You was just made into a star-studded (Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Drew Barrymore) movie that debuted at No. 1 and had made more than $71 million as of press time.
Behrendt, who had little involvement with the film, is stunned at the avenue by which his break came. Stand-up remains his first love, and he’s back on the road now for the Greg Behrendt Is Totally That Into You Tour, hitting Carolines in New York tonight through Sunday. In the middle of a headlining weekend in San Francisco, the town where he cut his comedy chops alongside some other future stars, Behrendt chatted with Punchline Magazine about adapting to his growing audience.
How was the San Francisco homecoming?
San Francisco is great, and this is the first time I’ve developed any kind of following. Cobb’s is a great club and it’s been filling up nice. Because of my weird career I have because of the book and all that, I bring a lot of people who have never been to stand-up before, which is sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.
How have the books and the movie changed the expectations of your stand-up crowds? Are people expecting more relationship material out of you?
It depends on how many women are in the audience generally, because that’s who the book crowd is. But yeah, there are some nights where I get a sense that people thought there was going to be more. And I say up front, it’s not a seminar or a lecture. You know that topic; it’s on the cover of the book. It’s right there. So sometimes it can be a struggle, but generally, by the end of night they enjoy it because it’s still the same person.
And you still do some of the Q & A format from your books at the end of shows. What kind of topics are people throwing at you there?
Everything from, ‘What’s your favorite punk band?’ to ‘When am I going to be happy?’ And I do it mostly because I don’t answer people’s questions on Myspace or Facebook or any of that because I get them all of the time and I can’t possibly do that. So if there’s like a Thursday night show and there’s no second show, I’ll do a Q & A.
Do people want to talk to you about the movie at shows?
They’re always saying, ‘Hey, I loved your movie!’ I’m like, ‘That’s cool. I didn’t write it or produce it.’ But yeah, people seem to like it. I guess it’s part of my brand or whatever, so people want to come and talk about it. Not everyone loved the movie, but that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t really care. It’s exciting for me. The whole thing is surreal that any of this happened, that it was on Oprah, that the book did well, that there was a second book, that it got made into a movie that had these big names in it. It’s like winning a contest.
Have you ever had to acknowledge that an audience is just not that into you?
Yeah. Some crowds, they came out for some kind of answer or wanted more about the book, and I’m plowing through a snack cracker bit or talking about fucking elephants or something and they’re not down with it. And I’ve just got to go, ‘Well, this is just cutting the wheat from the chaff.’ I only really want stand-up fans to stay around because I’ve already done the books. The message is out there. This is the whole me. If this isn’t for you, I get it. It doesn’t happen that often, but it does.
Another thing is I’m a little bit dirtier than they expect. It’s funny to me because I go, ‘Did you watch Sex and the City?’ They all cheer. And I go, Sex and the City was a dirty show. There were episodes of people eating butts and people peeing on each other. Get over yourselves.’ I always find that surprising. There are days when I sometimes wish I was working for Louis CK’s crowd, but on the other hand, the people in my crowds are some lovely, lovely people that just haven’t been there before. They sit in the front row and stare at you the whole time, then come up and go, ‘That was the best!’ And I say, ‘You should have let it show on your face!’
How did you get started in San Francisco?
I graduated from the University of Oregon with a theater degree, and I came back here and was waiting tables and trying to find work as an actor, which is not a skill that I have. My mom saw an ad for an improv group and thought that I would be good at that. So I went and auditioned, and Margaret Cho was in it along with a couple other stand-ups, and they all recommended that I do stand-up. I was like, ‘Are you kicking me out of the group? (laughs) I’m not sure what’s happening.’ So I gave it a shot. That was 20 years ago, Feb. 28 of ‘89, I believe.
How did you prepare for that show?
I wrote down a handful of things I had said during my improv days that I thought were funny and then I rocked back and forth in my short pants and denim jacket for three hours before I had to go on and then I finally just went up and yelled it into the mic and ran around and then ran off. It was mildly successful, I think, because the guy before me went up and had a panic attack and left the stage. That’s what I had to follow. And this was in the old days in San Francisco at a place called Holy City Zoo, where on open mic nights there would be 35, 40 people. Everyone worked there that eventually went to L.A.— Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, everyone that you know came up there. It was really cool, a tiny little room the size of your bedroom.
Even with the anxiety, did you enjoy the first time?
Loved it. Loved it. I remember talking to someone the other day and saying there have been a few moments in life where you suddenly go, ‘Oh, I’m home. This is what I do. These are my people.’ Even when I went up the very next weekend and ate it like nobody’s business, I knew, ‘Oh, this is what I do.’ It’s like a calling in a way. Nobody wants to do stand-up unless they have to. Who would put themselves through that misery? It’s a different skill where there’s not a lot of payback. For most people, you have to generally find another career along the way to support yourself. But if it’s the thing you do, you end up doing it. I’ve had some nice breaks in this business, but I’ve never quit doing stand-up.
What other jobs did you do while you got established?
I waited tables and worked at a clothing store. I folded shirts, dude. I did. I tried to help men buy clothes, which is difficult because they don’t like being waited on by other men. It’s awkward. ‘Dude, I’m not coming onto you, I’m supposed to help you. I don’t like this any more than you do, but you need some pants.’
Did you enjoy your improv experience? How long did you stick with it?
I stayed with the group until it fell apart. It was alright. I think that it’s a really good set to have; I don’t know that it’s something you have to go watch. I mean certainly, people like the guys at UCB, the Groundlings, who do it real well. But for the most part, most improv experiences are like, really? ‘We need a place and a type of hat.’ Yeah, OK. That’s not going to be funny. But it teaches you to work on your feet, and it’s fun. I like the group dynamic of all that.
Had you been interested in stand-up before your first experience?
Once I decided I was going to do it, I went and researched it because I had never been a super fan. I was really into music – that entire time, I had a band as well. So I was sort of splitting the careers, trying to figure out which one was going to happen. It was sort of clear the band was not. So people always go, ‘Who were your influences?’ I like the people that I started with. I really admired Cross and Garofalo and Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn. Those are the folks that I was friends with and the folks that I would drive out and do one-nighters with. Growing up, certainly I liked Monty Python, liked Bill Cosby, big Newhart fan. But comedy was not something I was obsessed with.
When did you start feeling comfortable with your on-stage persona?
Yesterday. (laughs) It takes a while because two things happen. One, a lot of times in life, you don’t even know who you are. And then your persona begins to evolve, especially when you get on stage. I think what happened was when I got to L.A., there was a show called the Un-Cabaret that a lot of us went down and did. I was always trying to write jokes and tell jokes and that kind of stuff, but the Un-Cabaret rule was you just came up and you told a story about whatever was going on, a life story, and every week had to be different.
Once I started doing that, I started telling stories about me and my life and the things that I like and I don’t like and all that stuff, sort of confessional stuff, and I found myself going, ‘Oh, this is what I do.’ Because my mom was always like, ‘You’re funny, but you’d be funnier if you were like you are at dinner.’ Those are always the stories that people remember, the ones where you have some experience you can retell.
How has the book writing process influenced your stand-up writing process and vice versa?
When I [book] write, I generally write with a partner and I generally dictate when we’re doing my part of the book. I like to stand up and walk around and talk and then somebody writes down what I said and then I rewrite it. I never write stand-up. I never sit at a computer and say, ‘I’m going to write a bit about cake and it’s going to go like this,’ because I write in a way that doesn’t sound like I talk or think. Same with my writing. I have to be talking for a long time and then I sort of catch some ideas from what I’ve said to somebody else.
It’s similar in that I’ve always tried, from the HBO special on, to have a point. I’ve always tried to just not have random stuff – not that there’s anything wrong with that, that’s just what I prefer. Hopefully when people come see me, and this was true before the books, I’ve always encouraged people to fucking take advantage of life and don’t edit your personality and don’t spend time in the service of things that don’t serve you, because you’re going to miss this thing and it’s going to be over and it’s going to be a bummer. I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve gotten to do a lot of things I wanted to do in my life and many things I never expected to happen.
I saw some of my buddies the other day, some of my best friends from school who have very nice lives, and we were just talking about how many people are miserable. I go do this book stuff and I meet people who’ve been in crap relationships for 15, 20 years and I’m like, ‘What the fuck? What are you doing? Stop.’ I was trying to have some kind of positive point of view, which is sort of odd or maybe antithetical for comedians, but I am not that cynical of a person. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cynical comic. I like having our institutions and our celebrities slammed. I love good comedy no matter who’s doing it. It’s just not my style. I’m not good at it. If I do something bitter and cynical, I sound like a dick.
Did you realize that right away?
To be honest, it took me getting sober to figure that out. Because when I wasn’t sober, I was trying to be a male version of Janeane Garofalo or whoever my buddies were. I did have a little bit of that streak in me. But it didn’t make sense. People were like, ‘What the fuck are you yelling about? You’re a fucking white guy. You have nothing to complain about.’ Then I got sober and I realized that it was funnier that I was an idiot than it was me trying to be intense.
What were your aspirations once you started getting serious with it?
It’s funny. I never had aspirations. I remember Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain happened and I was like, oh my god, you could make a living as a comedian. That was sort of my goal if that was at all possible. I went out and did stand-up and hoped that would happen. Then my wife said, ‘I think you should open your options. No offense, I think you’re great, but you should consider other possibilities.’ I think that really is sort of the truth of my crew of people. Most of us had to deal with a lot of different things.
If you could have made a living doing only stand-up, would you have taken that?
Yeah, to a certain degree, because I got married and I’m very much in love with my wife. Even before the book, we started writing scripts together. We wrote a pilot for Fox that didn’t go, a pilot for Comedy Central that didn’t go, but we were working on stuff. I wanted to be around her. I even took a job on Internet radio briefly. I don’t know if you remember a thing called Comedy World. They were paying an obscene amount of money to not go on the road.
The other problem was – here’s the truth – I couldn’t go on the road. I could make a living, but I couldn’t make a really good living. I wasn’t famous enough to headline, so I had to take other jobs. When I got married, I got that Internet job and the money was ridiculous, to broadcast radio to eight people. So I did that and when I was working at Comedy World, Michael Patrick King, who was the executive producer of Sex and the City and who also directed the stage version of Mantastic, came in and said they were on their second season and he said, ‘Hey man, the staff is seven women and two gay men, and we were wondering if you could come in and tell us what pussy tastes like because nobody knows.’ I’m not kidding you, those were the exact words he used, and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’
So I got that job at Sex and the City, which was a really big deal. That sort of changed the shape of things, because the show was a bit of a hit and it was in the days when they would run credits at the end of a TV show that you could actually see. So my name was always on the show and suddenly I got this reputation as being a writer in the business, which was helpful. I would do that, go do stand-up, do Internet radio, do a bunch of things. Then the fortuitous [He’s Just Not That Into You] conversation happened, and they made it into an episode and Liz [Tucillo] came up with the book. We wrote it really for fun over a six-month period, probably in a period of actually three weeks of working, for very little money. Our expectation was maybe this book will be in Urban Outfitters and that will be that. And then it sort of blew up.
Like you said about diversifying, it’s not like there are movies being made off stand-up bits.
Look, you get to some point in your career … I think when you’re young, you have a real idea of what it is you want to do and you’re strident about it and you shoot for those goals and you make it. And then you get older and you pretty much do what everyone thinks you’re good enough at doing, because you’re sort of more about living your life, you’ve got family and kids and so you’re more interested in how the rest of your world’s going to go and you’re willing to open yourself up to other ideas. I think that’s key – just go to places that want you.
Eugene Mirman came to my show last night. He’s in town to do a book signing; actually blurbed his book. We know each other in passing. He told me, ‘It wasn’t my idea to go to rock clubs – I couldn’t go anywhere else. Nobody else wanted see me do stand-up. People always give you a motive you don’t have, like oh, you think you’re cool. I didn’t think I was cool. Nobody else would book me, so I started doing these clubs. I was never trying to do anything.’ I don’t think anyone usually is. Usually people who are trying to do a thing, you’re suspect of them from the beginning. But Eugene genuinely went to the doors that were open, and this relationship door just opened for me. I have a knack for being able to talk to people about their relationships; it’s just a thing that I have and people are willing to listen to me for whatever reason. So I accept it for being what it is and then I still try to do stand-up.
If you had given that advice to 26-year-old Greg, what would he have said?
‘I’m not writing a book, dude. I’m not writing a book for girls, alright? I’m a stand-up. That’s what I do.’ I fought every single good idea my mom had for me when I was a kid. I really wanted to be an athlete; my mom was like, ‘You should try the guitar.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not a guitar player, Mom!’ As it turns out now, I’m 45 and I have a strictly instrumental ska and surf band called The Reigning Monarchs (myspace.com/thereigningmonarchs). We’re playing the Tribeca Film Festival, so maybe I do play guitar. Maybe my mom was right. Maybe when my mom said I should go to the theater department, she was right, instead of me being the failed athlete that I turned out to be.
How does crowd work with your band compare to crowd work as a stand-up?
Eugene and I talked about this the other night. Everything is easier than stand-up. When you’re on stage with a band and you just say a couple of funny things, people are blown away because generally most bands won’t talk to you or they’re not funny or they don’t have the stage presence. So I’ll walk to the mic and tell a little story or say something like that. It’s all easier. It’s great. I love being on stage with the band and love that the band is instrumental because as much as I enjoy what I do, it’s nice not to have a funny point of view sometimes. It’s nice just to not try and have to get people to listen. Music is something that can sort of wash over you, whereas you have to pay attention to stand-up. It’s nice sometimes when people aren’t always completely paying attention.
Greg’s stand-up tour will take him to New York City, Dallas and Raleigh after this weekend. For more tour dates and info on Greg, check out. gregbehrendt.com.