Stand-up comic Gary Gulman has appeared on The Tonight Show, The Late Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Last Comic Standing. He also recently released his latest CD, “All I Want for Chanukah is Christmas.” I had a chance to chat with him about the CD, his life in comedy and the best advice he’s ever received.
Q - How did you get involved with stand-up, and when did you first start doing it?
A - I first started doing it in 1993, and I did open mikes, and then started to get small shows in bars and restaurants and used book stores. I didn’t do it professionally (exclusively as my living) until 1999 or 2000. I always had day-jobs. I was a substitute teacher, and I worked at Starbucks. I did some temp work, and I was an accountant for a couple of years after college.
Q - How do you think your day-jobs influenced your stand-up?
A - Well, I was probably more disciplined about writing and getting on stage because I hated my job so much, especially when I was an accountant. I didn’t have much time each day after work, but I would use the time I did have to do shows and work on my jokes. I also had interesting experiences and perspectives on business and work, so that informed my jokes. It’s hard to write jokes if you don’t have too many life experiences. So if you just went from, say, high school to doing stand-up, there’s a time when you don’t really have that many life experiences to write about, so your jokes are limited. So that’s part of the influence, too.
Q - Since you’ve been doing stand-up since the 90’s, how difficult is it to keep originality in the material since it seems that there are limited topics to write about?
A - I think sometimes certain limitations can breed creativity. So there’s the idea that there’s not that much to talk about any more, but that sort of forces you to talk about things that either haven’t been talked about before or things that are personal. As far as originality, that’s one of my main criteria for a new joke. If I could write about anything, like say, chicken McNuggets, I know I don’t have to bother writing about those, so I can concentrate on weirder things or more unique things. Like, I think I’m the only person who has a joke about that store at the mall, Things Remembered, where they etch your name. So I guess it may be limiting in some ways, but I also think it prompts a little more creativity and more thought to be original. One of my main goals in anything I write is to make sure nobody else is doing it, to the point where I’ll Google it online to see if anybody has mentioned it on TV, or I’ll ask my friends if they’ve ever heard anybody tell a joke about what I’m trying to write about.
Q - I was watching some of your clips online, and I saw your bit about when people ask you what it’s like to be a comedian. That’s pretty unique to your experience.
A - Yeah. I think that sometimes people would say, “Why would you do that? It’s very inside.” But, everyone has someone in their family who does something that is unique or considered out of the mainstream. People don’t put much thought into being gentle with people who are artistic or creative. I had a person at my show the other night, who I guess went to high school with my brother, and he said, “Are you making a good living?” I think he meant well, but why would you say that to somebody? And how am I supposed to respond to that in anything that’s less than obnoxious? It made me so uncomfortable.
Q - It seems that comedians, actors and people in entertainment are the only people that get those sorts of questions.
A - Yes! I think it’s impolite to ask somebody how they’re doing. I have a theory as to why I think it happens. I think some people would have loved to have pursued their interest in something artistic or creative, but their parents or their peers or just the American psyche in general tells you not to go for that, and the only thing that keeps them from going for that is that they think they won’t make a living at it. But, then they want to double-check that nobody is making a living at it to reinforce their parents’ advice to not pursue it. When I first started doing comedy, my brother’s first reaction was, “well, great, but you can’t make a living at it?” Why does that have to be a prerequisite? First of all, it’s not true. And second, why do you only have to do things that you make a living at?
Q - I agree with you completely. I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “Those who try to kill your dreams are the ones who’ve abandoned theirs,” which seems to go along with your theory. Along those same lines, which entertainer gave you the best advice, and what was it?
A - Years in, I read something by Kurt Vonnegut. He said something to the effect that there was a lot of luck involved with making it in an artistic pursuit. In terms of his success, he felt that there were equally talented people who didn’t have great success, at least not financially. And he said there was a lot of luck involved, and it was no reflection on your talent or character. He even said he had some survivor’s guilt about doing so well as a writer. He sort of became big late in life. In his mid-40’s, he published Slaughterhouse-Five, or even later than that, and that was his first big blockbuster of a book. So I remember reading that, and that made me feel pretty good.
I love stories like that where somebody is honest about the extra luck and timing and things like that. There are comedians out there who will hold up books or repeat some Anthony Robbins-type mantras about how they made it, and it makes people who don’t make it feel bad that they were less than true. Or that they weren’t positive enough.
There’s a lot of luck involved, so I think that’s some of the best advice that I’ve read about. When another comedian forwarded it to me, it just made a lot of sense.
Q - Your new CD is called, “All I Want for Chanukah is Christmas.” Can you talk about the title and what people can expect from it?
A - The title is kind of a paraphrase from the joke on the CD, which is when I was growing up, I would beg my mom to celebrate Christmas each year. And she would say, “No, we celebrate Chanukah. What do you want for Chanukah this year?” And my response was, “Christmas. I want Christmas for Chanukah.” So that was where the title came from.
But, it stems from the fact that growing up, I didn’t have many Jewish friends in my neighborhood. To flash the excitement and characters and song and enthusiasm that are involved with Christmas at a young Jewish kid of five or six (when I first figured out what was going on), I just thought that was so cruel that I didn’t get to participate in any of this. And it made me sad. So I became obsessed with Christmas. We would make decorations in school, and I would hang them in my room. I remember one of my mom’s friends was throwing out some garland, and I put that up in my room. I was a Jew who loved Christmas, and I really got into it.
I guess that was another piece of advice that I got years ago. I went to see Ray Bradbury speak at a Barnes and Noble in Los Angeles, and he said that when he was a young boy, he was obsessed with dinosaurs and space and aliens. And he said that he owed a lot of his creativity and writing success to the fact that he never stopped being obsessed with the same things he was obsessed with as a child. So I guess I’ve sort of adopted that, to a certain extent, in my comedy in that the same things that used to excite me as a kid still excite me, or at least I expand on them and talk about the stories behind them.
So that’s where the CD comes from, my love of Christmas. I’m a great observer of Christmas because I never got to embrace it. So I was just fascinated by it. Sometimes you can’t write a joke if you’re too close to it. So if you’re a Christmas celebrator, you might take it for granted and see it the way it’s always been and never question the sort of weirdness or otherness of it.
The CD is a collection of my observations and explanations of the other side of Christmas, which is Chanukah. And there’s a lot of overlap too because Jesus was a Jewish man. I will say it’s not too heavy Jewish; it’s not too heavy Christmas. It’s a nice mix. I’m very careful not to alienate any one group. It’s cultural, and it’s interesting, and most importantly, it’s funny. It’s not lecture-y or anything like that.
Q - What’s next for you? What can people expect from you in the future?
A - I’m making another CD with Comedy Central in the next few months. I’m going to try to make another special. I had this special on Comedy Central called, “Boyish Man” a couple years ago, so I’m looking to make another one of those.
And I like to tour and do shows, from city to city. I’m not sick of hotel food yet. I don’t mind the travel, so as long as I’m single and I’m happy doing this, I’ll continue to do it as long as I can.
Q - I’ll close with this, since you were talking about “the road.” What’s your favorite road story, whether it’s embarrassing or silly or just kind of awesome?
A - One time I got to go to the Capitol. This guy was a fan of myself and Rob Kelly on Tourgasm, and he gave us a tour of the Capitol and took us into the Speaker of the House’s office, and we got a behind-the-scenes/backstage tour of the capitol building in Washington DC. So that’s probably the coolest thing I’ve done on the road, even though it might sound boring. Very rarely do I get any sort of major celebrity treatment, and it was this unique opportunity. That’s my greatest road story, even though it doesn’t involve cocaine or a gang prostitutes.
Kate Brindle is a stand-up comedian from Ann Arbor, MI. For more information and for tour dates, visit her at http://www.katebrindle.com/.