Comedian, actor, podcaster, and host of a Fusion show with his name in the title, Chris Gethard is a man of the people. On The Chris Gethard Show—a program that was entirely fan- and self-funded for a while—he fields calls while encircled by the audience, making himself part of the crowd rather than just the ringmaster. He’s also pushed the boundaries of what you can do on TV, inviting comedians and actors on the program to use bidets and confront their high school tormentors. It’s a disarming approach, and one that’s both charming and progressive. That’s par for the course for Gethard, who’ll bring his latest stand-up set, “Career Suicide,” to The A.V. Club’s 3rd Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival in Chicago on Thursday, June 2. In anticipation of that event, we talked to him about what he thinks is funny, from some Conan O’Brien classics to one of the biggest wrestling fiascoes of all time.
The A.V. Club: You had Grosse Pointe Blank on your list, but then linked to this scene. Do you love the whole movie, or just this scene specifically?
Chris Gethard: It’s the whole movie. I’m pretty obsessed and have been since it came out. Anyone who will listen, I will obsess over Grosse Pointe Blank with them.
I actually had a chance to meet Hank Azaria last year. He’s done so many things, and I’m sure comedy nerds are all into The Simpsons, but I think he was taken aback, cause I was very intensely like, “I’m really, really obsessed with Grosse Pointe Blank. I think it’s a completely perfect movie. You’re amazing in it. I want to know everything about what it was like to make that movie.” And he was like, “Oh, okay. Slow down. Let’s talk about it.”
I think it’s great. It’s a movie where if you just said the premise in one sentence, it sounds so dumb. “A hit man returns to his high school reunion.”
One of my favorite things in the world is smart people doing dumb things in a smart way. I remember when I was at UCB taking classes, Ian Roberts said to me, “A lot of the best improv is just smart people doing dumb things in a really smart way.” And that movie is the crown jewel of that idea. It’s so dumb on the surface, and they give it so much heart and so much realism. There are so many hilarious moments, so many touching moments. I think it came out in 1997, so it was at the early wave of like, “let’s just treat something totally dumb with so much integrity,” and I love it. I love it. I could start naming things from different scenes that I love.
I’ve probably watched it about 30 times. There are also a weird number of comedy writers that are obsessed with that movie. I’m not the only comedian that is quietly obsessed with Grosse Pointe Blank. I know at least a handful of other people with whom I’ve had very passionate and intense discussions with about that movie.
AVC: It’s an excellent film. You watch it now and think, “Jeremy Piven can be very funny.” John and Joan Cusack together are just charming.
CG: Oh my god, she’s so funny. And when he calls her Sergeant Pecker, forget about it. The 10 years scene with Piven, forget about it. When he quietly thanks the man for lending him the pen, as he stabs a man to death with the pen, that man is Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, professional kickboxer… Everything about that movie makes me so happy.
Do you know Brian Stack, who writes for Colbert now? He wrote for Conan forever. He’s very into that movie as well. He pointed this out to me, but they have all this stuff with Cusack who disappeared, and his mom is in the asylum, and there’s this lingering question of, “Well, where’s the rest of his family?” There’s this amazing scene where a Joe Strummer song is playing, and he just walks into a graveyard—they don’t say a word about it—he just opens a bottle of liquor, dumps it on a grave, drops the bottle, and you see it has the same last name. It’s like, “Wow, without a single word in this totally absurd movie, they just had this heart-wrenching explanation of who this guy’s dad was, all just through a bottle of liquor and a Joe Strummer song.” It shows you how tight the script on that movie is.
I will also say, in my opinion, that it’s probably Dan Aykroyd’s last full-on completely hilarious performance before he started selling vodka out of skulls and stuff like that.
AVC: His performance makes you feel optimistic in a way. It’s like, “Maybe he can still do it.”
CG: He’s so great! He’s so great! His timing in that movie is incredible, and the lines in that like, “Stabbers, queens of the hotel hit”? He’s crushing that movie. I remember watching it in the theater when it came out and being like, “Oh my God, Aykroyd’s back!” In hindsight, it feels maybe a little bit more like, “Oh right, here was this legend taking a really fierce last stand.” Not that I have any disrespect for Dan Aykroyd, but I do think it’s the last of his totally perfect movies.
AVC: Would you want to meet John Cusack, and would you ask him about this movie?
CG: I would want to meet John Cusack, but if I did meet him, he would not like it, because I wouldn’t shut up about Grosse Pointe Blank. Say Anything would come up a lot, but I would have actual minutia-based questions about Grosse Pointe Blank. Although, I believe he co-wrote the script, so maybe he’d be down. But man, I would annoy him. If I met John Cusack, I’d ask him about Grosse Pointe Blank enough that he would have to tell his people to ask me to leave. I have many, many thoughts and opinions and questions about Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s by far the movie I’ve watched the most times in my life.
AVC: Have you tried to get him on your show?
CG: No, I mean… yeah, I don’t know. I’d love it, but I don’t know why it feels so unattainable to me. I think I just put Cusack in such a stratosphere, in such a place in my mind, that it’s actually not a thing that feels possible to me. But as you say it, we should reach out. We should reach out to Cusack.
AVC: David Letterman at the Taco Bell is a classic.
CG: Letterman is—oh my God, he’s the best. Like… you can hear me, I’m stumbling. I don’t quite know how to explain how formative Letterman was. I remember being a kid and liking Police Academy movies when I was real little and being like, “That’s comedy! That shit’s the best!”
I’ll never forget, I had this really formative experience where my family, we were on vacation, and there was this terrible hurricane, and I had fallen asleep, but my mom couldn’t sleep. And I had woken up because her and my brother were laughing super hard and trying to stifle it so they didn’t wake up my dad and I. While this storm is going on, my mom is just crying laughing watching David Letterman, and I never, ever forgot that moment. I just sat up and watched.
His Book Of Top Ten Lists was the bible to me in my childhood. I read that thing backwards and forwards. The first two books of Top Ten Lists were just it. It was the first time I realized that comedy isn’t just goofy. Comedy can be cool, comedy can be smart. The book came out when I was in fourth grade, and I remember getting really obsessed with it, and just saying things from it as jokes to my classmates. That was around the time that I developed a reputation as a weird kid. That was the first time people just started calling me weird. I remember that felt like such a badge of honor.
You could feel that Letterman was kind of an outsider, and kind of a ball buster and pain in the ass, and that was part of what was good about him. He was weird. He was different. And I sensed that when I was young.
I think the Taco Bell stuff is just about my favorite. I really love anything that drags comedy out to the real world. I’m always so impressed and fascinated by it. I think the Taco Bell stuff is just such a simple, dumb idea, and he nails it with flying colors. When you hear that premise, you want that video to be exactly what it is.
AVC: If it had been anybody else, it could have been annoying.
CG: I feel like Letterman had this really amazing ability at times to almost bend the borders of how the real world works.
I also have so much love for him tormenting Rupert the deli guy. It’s a similar thing where you’d watch it and you’d be like, “man this is just a guy working in a deli,” but it presupposes this weird, alternate comedy world where things make sense. It doesn’t quite make sense, but it just makes it feel so good.
With Letterman in the Taco Bell, he’s kind of being dick, and he’s kind of trying to frustrate people—there are elements of that. But more so, they’re driving their car up to order bean burritos and they have no idea that they’re entering this strange comedy reality that he’s completely in control of without them even being aware that he’s present.
AVC: You have another field piece here: Conan takes Mr. T apple picking. Conan is so good at field pieces.
CG: Conan is the master. Conan is incredible at field pieces. The staff of The Chris Gethard Show is so annoyed at hearing me talk about Conan taking Mr. T apple picking. I feel like all of them are so incredibly tired of me talking about it. Because I really do think that, out of everything on the list, I would go so far as to say that Conan taking Mr. T apple picking is number one. If you told me I could only watch one piece of comedy for the rest of my life, I would pick Mr. T goes apple picking.
Conan is brilliant. So many of his field pieces are just so good. Like when he decorates Andy’s apartment, it’s just so good. He does so many good things that take him out of studio.
I’m a really big fan of things where you know what they are right from the start. As soon as you hear the phrase “Conan takes Mr. T apple picking,” there’s no fat on that. You know what you’re getting and you want all of it. There’s nothing to explain. There’s nothing convoluted that you have to figure out. As soon as you hear that, you know, “Yep, that’s going to be funny.” And then it is. I love it.
You know what it is? You know what sets that apart, even from the rest of Conan’s field pieces? And I’m sorry I’m starting to yell—I’m getting so excited I’m starting to yell, I apologize. But Mr. T is such a bizarre dude, and it’s going to be funny, just because Conan’s remotes are always funny. Conan’s remotes are always hilarious, because Conan can crush those things, because he’s the king of those. But you also have the extra added steps in that video where Mr. T just starts going off the rails and elbowing apples, challenging individual bees to fight—there’s so many moments that you could never have planned for because Mr. T is just becoming more and more of a maniac the longer the piece goes on.
It’s everything I already love about Conan’s remotes, which are just masterful, and on top of that, this really bizarre pop-culture icon that never quite made sense is diving into madness in addition to everything this piece was promising to be.
Can I try something? I’m at my office right now. [Shouts at someone.] J.D.! What’s the most annoying piece of comedy I bring up all the time? What are you most annoyed hearing about? Come on, you guys know this. With Conan! [Mumbled response in the background.] Mr. T, yeah. I annoy you every day. By a round of hands, how many people in this room never want to hear me talk about Mr. T goes apple picking ever again? [Returns to call.] Five hands out of seven just went up. I’m sorry I put you through that experiment.
AVC: Do you think they told Mr. T to turn it on? How “Mr. T” is Mr. T on a daily basis?
CG: I really think it’s played through in an honest way. You can see in Conan’s reaction in particular that they didn’t instruct him to do a lot of stuff. Conan is so clearly baffled by the way Mr. T is behaving that you know there’s not a writer whispering in Mr. T’s ear. It’s not constructed, it’s an actual semi-meltdown that happens in an apple orchard while there are cameras running. It’s perfect.
AVC: Speaking of Mr. T, he makes another appearance on your list. What is going on in this clip? I don’t speak Spanish, so I have no idea.
CG: Here’s the backstory on this. That’s a show called El Gran Juego De La Oca. My brother and I were obsessed with it. We were like, “What is this? What is happening here?” And we used to watch it when we were 11, 12, 13—we used to watch it all the time. And we don’t speak Spanish either.
It was a very elaborate game show where there was a board game and humans rolled dice and then they ran around on the board. I remember watching an episode where, if someone landed on a space that had almost like an executioner symbol or a skull on it, a guy came out and they just wrestled on the spot. All sorts of weird stuff happened on that show. I once saw someone have to get inside a locked car with a full-grown mountain lion. I really was fascinated by it. I found it really hilarious as a spectacle and in an overwhelming way.
Anyway, I’ll never forget when I was a kid, I turned it on one week, and Mr. T was on, which was really unexpected, as you would imagine. This was around the post-career, pre-nostalgia rebirth of Mr. T. This was right in the spot where he needed money. It was kind of a Rosetta Stone for my brother and I, though, because he had this earpiece in that was translating, and he would hear the rules and then answer in English. It was really the first time that we were able to discern what was going on.
It’s a really great memory from my youth. I remember being smart enough that I ran and got a VHS tape and I taped it on my family’s VCR. My brother and I would enjoy that tape for many years. He and I would both say that watching the tape of Mr. T on El Gran Juego De La Oca together was probably the greatest bonding my brother and I have ever been through.
AVC: So what’s the challenge Mr. T has to do here? He has to go up on some ladder where there’s fire, and then he falls through…?
CG: From what I can discern from this challenge, he’s on a rope that’s suspended over a pool, and there’s a number of fuses. The best I’ve ever been able to figure out is that he has to fiddle with each fuse. I don’t know if he’s trying to put them out, I don’t know if he has to disconnect them from something. It’s really hard to say. But what’s really evident immediately is that there’s absolutely a zero percent chance that he can win this challenge. It’s constructed in a way where, if I remember right, he also has to climb backwards on a horizontal rope ladder that’s currently on fire. It’s not going to happen.
One of the great joys of watching El Gran Juego De La Oca as a kid who didn’t speak Spanish is knowing that they all ended in these spectacular ways that I’m sure Spanish-language speakers were informed of, but I never knew. So it was always a really delightful surprise to me.
That moment when he bails, if you watch it closely, he doesn’t fall, he gets out of there. He understands there’s a countdown, and something awful is going to happen. When you watch that thing explode, it’s a very short gap of time. It’s not a safe amount of time between when Mr. T dives off that thing and when that thing is engulfed in what can only be described as a dangerous amount of flame. Like, an amount of flame that there’s no way that would be allowed to be in an enclosed TV studio today. There’s no way. I don’t know how they did that.
I remember there was another bit on that episode where he had to crawl through some kind of cave, and the cave was constructed where they put glass over it. There were all these tunnels, so it was almost like this big giant man-sized anthill that you could look inside. If I remember right, Mr. T was crawling around in it, and that also ended up in an explosion where a cave collapsed on Mr. T, and he was on this mic going, “Oh no, Mr. T is buried under all kinds of rocks.” It was already a show that I thought was so bizarre and funny, and to have Mr. T of all people wind up being the person who vaguely translated it for me was the best.
Spanish-language game shows and Japanese-language game shows—I know it’s a stereotype that they’re all sorts of crazy and spectacle-based and that type of humor has been made fun of in American pop culture, but I think it’s great. I legitimately think it’s great. I didn’t watch it ironically. I knew it was funny to watch a show that’s in Spanish, but I legitimately found it exciting and funny. Even as a kid, irony was not a factor. It still isn’t. I legitimately think a bit where a celebrity has to defuse a floating, flaming ladder or else he’s engulfed in flame—I stand by that today. I would argue that anybody who’s a fan of The Chris Gethard Show would say that game shows such as this—and a lot of stuff that I’ve watched that’s Spanish language and Japanese language—is a really huge influence on the show. I try to emulate it in my work to some degree today.
This is not irony. I need to be clear. This is not cynical ha-ha-ha. I think this is a well-constructed bit. I think this is a legitimately hilarious idea. I think it’s a really funny show. El Gran Juego De La Oca, to me, is top-notch comedy in the same way that I love Jackass or in the same way that I love a lot of stuff that is sort of spectacle-driven lowbrow humor. I think it’s legitimately so hilarious. I need it to be clear. I don’t ironically like it. I like it.
AVC: It’s nice that no one is taking themselves too seriously. Mr. T agreed to participate. He knew what he was getting into, and the audience is there because it’s a funny premise.
CG: Big time. And he enters their world, which I think is such a huge thing. You don’t really see that often.
That’s a really big thing that I rip-off and point to that as an influence. We once had a meeting with all the writers on my show and we just sat around and I showed them all these clips of different things and that was one of them. One of the big things that I pointed out was that the goal of many shows is to put celebrities on a pedestal, and to let celebrities tell you anecdotes about their celebrity life. I don’t think that the types of people that like our show or our type of humor click with that. I think they want to see celebrities come down to their level, and I think Mr. T does that.
One of my favorite moments from my show last season was when Jason Sudeikis was there and told us he had no sense of smell. He was on the show where the audience was dogs, and was like, “If you gave me a chimichanga right now I could eat it in this room right next to this garbage can full of dog shit. I can’t smell the dog shit.” And I was like, great! So we went and got a chimichanga and he ate it. He was totally game, and totally down. That to me is a real moment where I can see the influence of that particular clip. It’s like, yes, he entered our world and did this ridiculous thing. Our world is this fucked up, crazy world, so let’s see somebody of note come in, let their guard down, and play ball by our rules.
That’s one of the things that I’m really fascinated by with that Mr. T clip. He’s on a show where he literally doesn’t even speak the language, and there are two dozen ladies in bikinis dancing in the background, and all these crazy things floating in the sky exploding, and he’s just down. That’s really kind of miraculous.
AVC: This is another “what is even going on?” type situation.
CG: Mr. T on El Gran Juego De La Oca, I’ll stand by, because that’s great comedy. Conan, Letterman, Grosse Pointe Blank, obviously. This is the one item on the list that I was most uncertain about, because this is obviously not planned comedy.
I love when things go off the rails. I love a good spectacle. If you’re asking me straight up what makes me laugh, this is a clip that, if I’m ever depressed, I can put this on, and it just makes me laugh. Because straight up, Ewoks are drinking martinis and they hump Al Roker, of all people. And he’s dressed as fucking Han Solo!
There are a few layers to this that I really love. There are two things that are more psychological that make me laugh harder every time I watch that clip. One is that the lady who’s giving the presentation on Halloween treats just so faithfully tries to plow ahead. You’ll see she just refuses to let the Ewoks win. She just keeps trying to talk over them, and refuses to be thrown. She’s like, “I just really want the world to know about these Halloween treats.” She really tries to plow forward as if this isn’t happening. And the more she tries to maintain that she’s going to get away with whatever the morning show bit she came in to do is, the more it just amplifies the growing train wreck.
The other thing I just love about it, so much, is that you know that these actors hired to play these Ewoks are probably people—I have to imagine, and I can’t speak for anyone. I’m just piecing together the dots in the story in my own mind, admittedly, probably how I want it to be—but these are people who are probably cast in roles where they have to dress up in little costumes all the time. It probably gets so old, so fast. So these people probably met before the show and were like, “We’re dressing up like fucking Ewoks… fuck it, let’s have a couple drinks. Let’s commiserate about the fact that we get marginalized into roles like this.” And they clearly had a couple drinks too many and were like, “Fuck this shit.” And I love it. I love thinking of it that way. I love thinking that it’s those actors screaming, “Fuck this! Let’s have fun. We’re not going to be human scenery dressed up a little teddy bears today. Let’s have fun.” And it just goes. It just really goes.
One of my favorite things is watching that clip with people who haven’t seen it before, because usually they’re a little skeptical and they roll their eyes, and then it gets to a point where the Ewoks are actually drinking martinis on the air. I also applaud the sound guys who keep adding in the Ewok sound effects. Every once in awhile you’ll just hear “ocho, ocho,” because you know the sound guys are loving it. They’re union dudes. They don’t give a shit about how to boil candy corn or whatever they’re talking about.
When they drink the martinis, it’s like, “Oh shit, this is actually something special.” And then when he does the moonwalk, it’s this breaking point where it goes from silly internet clip to actual artful fiasco.
AVC: This thing probably aired at 7 a.m.
CG: Those guys are wasted! They slept that one off and woke up hungover at 5 p.m. Those guys didn’t sleep the night before. They just showed up that morning after a long night.
I love thinking of it as a big “fuck you” from those actors to the casting agents who are like, “We got another Ewok gig for you.”
AVC: I wonder if anyone ever talked to the guys that played the Ewoks.
CG: There’s a street performer in New York City known as Little Michael Jackson, and he is an impersonator of Michael Jackson who is of smaller stature, and I’ve always just assumed that the one guy is him, because he does the moonwalk. That might just be me typecasting in my own mind, as well. I know Little Michael Jackson is friends with Dave Hill, another fine New York comedian. Next time I run into Dave, maybe I’ll ask him if he has an inside scoop on that. Because I wouldn’t be surprised.
AVC: The Shockmaster is another situation where some things went dramatically wrong.
CG: Ugh, I love when things go wrong. Love it. TV is generally a controlled environment to a dictatorial degree. It’s really hard to watch unexpected, chaotic things happen on TV. One of my favorite genres of internet clips is when newscasters have to deal with stuff. I love when things go wrong.
The Shockmaster, I’m happy to say, I saw live when it happened. I was a huge wrestling nerd growing up. My brother and I would watch all of the NWA and WCW events on TBS. So this happened live, and it was jaw-dropping. I can say confidently I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed harder than when that guy falls over that thing, and his fucking helmet falls off. I remember instantly realizing that I just witnessed something that I’ll never forget. I’ve watched that hundreds of times, and I honestly think it’s one of the funniest things that’s ever happened.
I think what really does it for me is that if that went well, it’s still so bad. If that went swimmingly, it’s a really obese guy in a Stormtrooper helmet painted with glitter and a fur vest. Best case scenario, it’s a bootleg Stormtrooper helmet and a fur vest. That’s best case, if they nail it. And instead, it’s already a thing you were going to certify as terrible out of the gate. Literally out of the gate, it’s done, it’s wrecked, it’s over. No one’s ever going to take this seriously again. It’s the best.
AVC: And the bravado behind it, too.
CG: This is a clip that’s truly infamous in the world of wrestling. This is a really celebrated moment of true shame.
I once read that the guy in that suit is not doing that voice. That’s coming over a mic from someone backstage. He does that crazy fake Darth Vader voice. That means that the dude fell, had to pathetically crawl and chase down his helmet, and then stand up, and just stand there and listen as this other guy stuck with it. He just had to stand there, stewing in the knowledge that that happened, and that that’s how it went. That’s a nightmare.
For a pro wrestler, that’s like slipping and falling at your first middle school dance. All eyes are on you, and man, did it go wrong. That is truly a joy and a thing that I’ve never ever gotten out of my head. It’s definitely the funniest wrestling moment I can remember. Wrestling was a very important thing to me, and I think it’s hilarious in many ways, but that is a crown jewel example.
Beetlejuice meets Gilbert Gottfried on The Howard Stern Show
AVC: Have you always been a Howard Stern fan?
CG: I grew up in northern New Jersey, and I was born in 1980, so you couldn’t escape him. I don’t agree morally with everything he’s done over the years—I don’t know too many people who would give a big thumbs up to everything he’s done, and there’s problematic aspects of him—but I really think he’s a genius.
So much of it is, again, that he built this world. World building is such a fascinating thing to me, and he built this whole universe of people who worked on the show and characters who would come in and out of the show, and I think he’s brilliant.
When I was in high school, on the bus to school, the driver would play Howard Stern. That’s how widespread Howard Stern’s influence was in north Jersey back then. I remember my mom hated Howard Stern, but me and my brother would watch his channel 9 show, and my dad would sneak down to the basement and watch it with us, because he liked Howard Stern too. You had to love Howard Stern if you grew up in blue-collar north Jersey in the ’80s and ’90s.
I’ve always loved Beetlejuice, and I’ve always thought Beetlejuice was really fascinating. Obviously, there are exploitation issues there that are not the best. And I’m not promoting that aspect of it. But I did always find Beetlejuice to be really hilarious and fascinating. I just love how instinctive his hatred of Gilbert Gottfried is. I love that there’s no explanation to it. I love that he’s not willing to break it down. There’s nothing that will crack through it. He just decides out of the gate that he’s not down with Gilbert Gottfried.
I don’t think there are too many people better in human history at fanning the flames than Howard Stern. He just fans that flame, and Beetlejuice nails it. What is it that he keeps saying? “He do what he do, I do what I do.” He wants no part of it. It’s true instinctive dislike of this guy, and it’s fun to watch someone with no explanation.
AVC: It’s a little bit of a perfect storm. Had it been anyone else, maybe it wouldn’t have gone as well as Gilbert Gottfried, who’s totally willing to do his Aflac duck character and talk about Problem Child. He does not take himself too seriously.
CG: One-hundred percent. It’s totally true.
If we’re being honest, he’s a guy who I bet a lot of people are like, “Uh, his voice drives me nuts.” There probably are aspects of Gilbert that some people just can’t get down with. The idea that Beetlejuice is representative of, “Nah, just no. You’re coming? No.” We’ve all reacted to someone that way where we can’t even quite explain why we don’t like someone. It’s just an instinctive thing. And for that to unfold on the radio between those two people—again, keeping in mind that this probably happened at 7:45 in the morning, when Howard’s show is on. I love it so much.
Andy Kaufman’s Saturday Night Live screen test
AVC: Why this one?
CG: Andy is a lifelong thing. Like I said, I grew up a wrestling fan, and I always liked comedy, and so I remember seeing I’m From Hollywood on Comedy Central in its early days. That’s the documentary about Andy wrestling in Memphis, wrestling women. I remember being attracted to it first because I was like, “This is real wrestling,” and then realizing that is the funniest person in the world. He’s someone who is willing to completely be an antagonist and a heel in a real way.
I have two pictures on my desk. One is of David Letterman, and one is of Andy Kaufman. I look at those every day.
There are so many things about Andy that I love. There are so many clips that I think are brilliant and brave and hilarious. I think a lot of the discussion around Andy is about how strange he was, or how he embraced performance art, but I think people forget a lot of it was also just so hilarious.
The reason I put his SNL audition tape in there is because I marvel at it, because SNL… we all know that audition process is so stressful for people. It’s so specific. They want certain types of characters, and a certain number of impressions, and they want you to go in and do it a certain way. This is Andy coming out of the gate and just doing stuff that is so strange and so inappropriate for any audition, and so unapologetically just in his own voice. He’s not willing to change it. He’s not going to give them what they want. He’s going to give them what he has to offer. There’s something really beautiful about how uncompromising he was.
That clip really shows it as much as a lot of his other stuff. You could put “I Trusted You”—that’s another one that makes me laugh. Anything with Tony Clifton will make me laugh out loud. His interview with Howdy Doody from his special is just so heartwarming and also bizarre and hilarious. But I thought the SNL one was really appropriate because it’s just a good reminder that he was an outsider in a real way. SNL went on to become not just a comedy institution, but maybe the comedy institution, and here’s this guy who right from the start was like, “No, I think I’m actually going to be a rabble-rouser and unapologetic in what I’m going for,” and it’s really inspiring to me. You have to hang on to what’s unique or weird about your own voice or else what are you doing as a comedian? As an artist? That clip is a total reminder of how that guy did what he wanted, and everybody else was invited to get on board.
AVC: He could have come in and done Andy Kaufman-style voices and impressions and that might have gotten him closer to getting an SNL job, but he came in and said, “No, this is what I’m gonna do.”
CG: Yeah! At that point he was doing Latka, which is an incredible character. He didn’t call it Latka, obviously. He called it The Foreign Man. But he was doing The Foreign Man character, and he has the world’s best Elvis impression. He had a whole bit surrounding a killer impression. I’m sure they would have much rather seen Elvis and Foreign Man compared to the nonsense he gave them. But that’s not what he was in the mood to do that day, so he did his own thing. I find it really inspiring.
AVC: Maybe he also knew that if he got on the show doing Elvis and Foreign Man that he’d end up doing those characters forever.
CG: I think so, yeah.
Lorne Michaels has a quote about Andy Kaufman that’s really beautiful where he says, “Andy is a true artist and you have to let him do what he’s gonna do.” You don’t tell Andy what to do. You give Andy a platform. To me, that’s something that is so rare and worth aspiring to.
You have to commit to that if you’re a weirdo or an outsider. I’ve identified with those adjectives in my day and it’s good to check back in with his stuff. Every time I go back and rewatch Andy’s stuff, I always realize something new, and I find some motivation to keep going on my own stuff.
AVC: Jo Firestone wraps up your list.
CG: Jo’s my favorite. She does all these shows in New York that are so fascinating and so strange compared to your standard stuff. But she puts them up, and crowds find them and embrace them, and they give crowds experiences that they don’t expect. I find Jo really really inspiring and also hilarious. When Jo does a stand-up set, I always laugh. Jo runs this show in New York called Punderdome where—no joke—500 people come up and show up for a pun competition, and people in the crowd scream and cheer like it’s the Roman Colosseum. She can create these environments that feel completely like you’ve left reality and you’re entering something new. She’s better at that than anybody these days. She’s really something special. And I hope that the world at large is smart enough to really embrace her, because I think she’s doing the most original stuff, at least in New York from what I can see, and I have to assume the most original stuff anywhere. If there’s someone doing more inventive stuff than her, I’d love to see it, because she’s really something special.
AVC: It’ll be interesting to see if the masses can figure it out, and if they should even have to.
CG: I hope they can. I see somebody like Jo, who just does this stuff that is so hilarious, and at times so strange, and it’s one of those things where it’s like, “The world needs to catch up to her, and someone needs to notice.”
There’s someone out there who will someday be smart enough to just give Jo a ton of resources to make something that’s in Jo’s actual voice, someone who’s not going to alter it or clean it up to have a broader appeal, but who’s just going to put it on. It’s going to be a game-changer. Her stuff hits so hard with people in such an honest way. You go to a Jo Firestone show in New York, and you watch how crowds react. It’s instinctive; it’s totally from the gut. She puts them in a place that they’re not expecting to go, and they go there. Someday somebody’s going to facilitate that, and she’s going to take over the world.
I’m very confident that Jo Firestone will run the comedy world sometime soon. It would be a better world if that happens.
AVC: She does a middle school talent show with Dylan Marron that I’ve always wanted to see.
CG: It’s hilarious. Every show she does has something like that. It’s a seventh grade talent show. It’s a dating show where you can nominate your single friends and speak on their behalf. It’s a show where the whole audience is dolls and you go in one at a time and do stand up for a room full of dolls. Everything is immersive and an experience for the audience, and just makes you feel disarmed like you’re entering some kind of fantasy world. Even Dr. Gameshow, her radio show—you listen to it and it’s so funny, so odd, and just lovable. It creates a lot of laughter, and a lot of feelings like you’ve entered a more positive world. I really believe in Jo in such a strong way.