Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up

(original article) New York Times

Finlay MacKay for The New York Times

Jerry Seinfeld: How to Write a Joke: The comedian describes the anatomy of his Pop-Tart joke, still a work in progress, and shows his longhand writing process.

Published: December 20, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld began his commute after dinner, in no particular hurry. Around quarter to 8 on a drizzly Tuesday, he left his Manhattan home — a palatial duplex apartment with picture windows and a broad terrace overlooking Central Park — and made for a nearby garage. Due to tell jokes at a comedy club downtown, he decided to drive what he calls his “city car”: a 1998 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. Stepping into the garage, he tugged a thick fabric cover from the car. The interior was a pristine matte black, and the paint job was a startlingly luminous azure. “It’s called Mexico blue — a very traditional Porsche color,” Seinfeld said. “In the ’70s it looked normal, but now it looks insane.”

His hair, flecked with gray, was buzzed almost to the scalp, and he was dressed in light-blue Levi’s, a navy knit polo and a dark wool blazer. Seinfeld, who once said he wore sneakers long into adulthood “because it reminds me I don’t have a job,” has lately grown partial to Nike Shox, which he likes for their extravagant cushioning, but tonight he opted for tan suede desert boots. When he’s in the workplace — on a stage, microphone in hand, trying to make a crowd erupt — the feel of a harder sole helps him get into the right mind-set.

“I just tried a little Twitter experiment,” Seinfeld said. His appearance, at Gotham Comedy Club, had so far been kept secret, but just before leaving home, he’d announced the gig online on a whim. “They’ve only got a half-hour to get there, so I’m not expecting a flash mob,” he said. Gotham was an opportunity for Seinfeld to audition brand-new material and fine-tune older bits in a relatively low-stakes context. In two days, he would perform for nearly 3,000 people at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater, and that show loomed large. It would be Seinfeld’s first performance in New York City since 1998, not counting impromptu club appearances and the odd private event, and it would kick off a citywide tour, with performances in each of the other boroughs. Born in Brooklyn, educated in Queens and famous for a fictional Manhattan apartment, Seinfeld called the tour “a valentine,” but he was, on one level, ambivalent about it. “ ‘The Hometown Hero Returns’ is not my narrative of being a stand-up,” he said. “For me, it’s the hotel. It’s ‘I Don’t Belong Here.’ It’s ‘The Stranger Rides Into Town.’ That’s the proper form of this craft.”

Seinfeld wondered if hordes would see his tweet and hustle over to Gotham, but sparse attendance would be fine, too. Several weeks earlier he materialized, unannounced, at the Creek and the Cave, a club in Long Island City, and performed for “14 people.” Most comedians dislike telling jokes to empty seats, but at this point Seinfeld enjoys a room that offers some resistance. “I miss opening for Frankie Valli and Ben Vereen, walking out as an unknown and there’s no applause: let’s get it on,” he said. “I once opened for Vic Damone at a nooner on a basketball court in Brooklyn. They’re going, Who is this kid? Oh, god! They’re sure you’re not worth the trouble. But I’d win over some of those rooms.” After you’ve helped create and starred in one of television’s best-rated, best-loved sitcoms — a show that, thanks to rampant syndication, is still bursting Kramer-style into people’s living rooms 14 years after its finale — tough crowds are tougher to come by. “I would love it if there were only two people there tonight,” he said.

To get the Porsche out of the garage, Seinfeld had to execute something like a 12-point turn, somehow managing, as he nudged the car back and forth, not to leave chips of Mexico blue all over an unnervingly close concrete column. Seinfeld is 58, and his face is rounder and more deeply lined than it once was, but it has retained the bright-eyed boyishness of his sitcom days. He smiles readily, either at something someone else has said or — since he is frequently the funniest person within earshot — at something he came up with. His default display of amusement is to squint hard and scrunch up his nose till his front teeth protrude from a rictus grin: a groundhog tickled by the sight of his own shadow.

Tonight he was feeling out of sorts. “My head’s spinning a little bit from the travel,” he said. He had returned only yesterday from France, where he spent a three-day vacation sightseeing with his family, attending a birthday party and examining a vintage Meyers Manx dune buggy he was thinking about buying. Ever since he began working comedy clubs, in 1975, Seinfeld has considered himself a stand-up above all else, and the other roles he has taken on — sitcom icon, husband, father of three — can come into conflict with the calling. “We did a lot of moving, and we had a lot of fun,” he explained, “but I get thrown off easily. If I have one weekend off from stand-up, and I do something weird, I completely forget who I am and what I do for a living.”

Because Seinfeld’s big post-“Seinfeld” projects have been few and far between — the stand-up documentary “Comedian” (2002), the animated children’s film “Bee Movie” (2007), the reality-show misfire “The Marriage Ref” (2010), which he produced and appeared on as a judge — you might assume that he whiled away the last decade on a private island somewhere, racing Spyders and fanning himself with royalty checks. Instead, since 2000, Seinfeld has spent a portion of nearly every week doing stand-up. He is on track to do 89 shows this year, plus private appearances, which shakes out to about two performances a week. He’s living the life of a road comic, albeit one who sells out 20,000-seat London arenas and schleps to gigs via chartered planes rather than rented subcompacts.

Earlier this year, Seinfeld started a 10-episode online series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in which he wheels around in gorgeous old Triumphs and Karmann Ghias and cracks wise over mugs of coffee with friends like Larry David, Alec Baldwin and Carl Reiner. The show’s intended audience, Seinfeld says, is “this bubble world of people who love funny and want to get into it a little closer.” But while he acknowledges the Internet’s usefulness in keeping comedy relevant — podcasts, video channels and Web sites devoted to comedy are booming — he sees stand-up as, at bottom, an antidote to technological alienation. “We’re craving the nondigital even more these days, the authentically human interaction,” he says. “We need to see some schmuck sweat.”

For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”

When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

Gotham Comedy Club was a 15-minute drive downtown. Passing the Museum of Natural History, Seinfeld tuned the car radio to WFAN, where a baseball game was under way. “Do you know this player Adam Greenberg?” he asked. “Seven years ago, he was a rookie, and in his very first at-bat he got hit in the head with the ball — knocked out, concussed, out of the league.” Seinfeld raised an index finger from the wheel: “One pitch.” The Marlins had agreed to sign Greenberg for a single day after fans petitioned on his behalf. “It might seem a bit Jewy if I get too excited about it — I wish he wasn’t Jewish,” Seinfeld said. “But it’s a fascinating story. One at-bat after seven years. Think of the pressure on this guy!”

Seinfeld likes pressure. He describes doing live comedy as “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.” His objective at Gotham was piecework. “A lot of what I’ll be doing tonight are tiny things in my bits where I’m looking for a little fix, where something isn’t quite smooth,” he said. “A lot of stuff I do out of pure obsessiveness.” One bit began with the observation that “tuxedos are the universal symbol for pulling a fast one.” “That line works,” he said. “But I want to get from there to a point about how the places where you see tuxedos are not honest places — casinos, award shows, beauty pageants, the maitre d’ — all these things feel shady.” He added: “But I’ve been having trouble getting the audience to that. I’m trying to bring that to a punchline.”

Seinfeld likens his fine-bore interest in jokes to his longstanding infatuation with Porsches, of which he owns “a few dozen.” “People ask me, Why Porsches? A lot of it is the size, same as with bits. The smaller something is, the harder it is to make, because there’s less room for error.” In high school he took shop classes, even after a counselor told him that collegebound kids didn’t need to, because he wanted to know how machines fit together. “I have this old ’57 Porsche Speedster, and the way the door closes, I’ll just sit there and listen to the sound of the latch going, cluh-CLICK-click,” Seinfeld said. “That door! I live for that door. Whatever the opposite of planned obsolescence is, that’s what I’m into.” Mark Schiff, a veteran club comic and one of Seinfeld’s oldest friends, told me: “He’s a scientist. When you watch him, he’s in the lab, concocting. I feel that way, too, to a degree, but with him every little nuance is so valuable.” Sarah Silverman, who has shared bills with Seinfeld and long admired him, agrees: “Whereas most comedians are lazy bastards, he’s the ultimate craftsman.”

In front of Gotham, six orange traffic cones marked “Con Edison” were arranged in the street. Spotting us, a bouncer built like a bank safe emerged to remove them: when Seinfeld appears here, he calls the owner, who reserves a space. Seinfeld got out, eliciting happy stares and excited murmurs from passers-by. His posture was excellent; his gait leisurely. In Gotham’s packed main room, the comic Jim Gaffigan was onstage. Seinfeld remained in the hallway, studying a sheet of yellow paper scribbled with lines he wanted to improve. In the car, he’d warned me, “When I get to the club I’m not going to want to chat until after; I’m in my own world.” He made some small talk with the bouncer and the owner about baseball, but he was plainly preoccupied. The bouncer said, apropos of Greenberg’s head injury, “My daughter got a concussion, and she still gets headaches.” Seinfeld was staring at his notes. “Huh,” he replied, no longer listening.

After a few minutes, Gotham’s host asked the 300-strong crowd to welcome “a special guest — Jerry Seinfeld!” and if they’d been tipped off on Twitter, it didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. “Yes! Yes!” a burly guy shrieked, grasping frantically for his phone to take a picture. Seinfeld’s set lasted 20 minutes and he seemed at ease. The tuxedo bit got medium-size laughs; one of the biggest explosions came when Seinfeld, mulling the topic of goofy outfits that dads wear on weekends, concluded, “All fathers essentially dress in the clothing style of the last good year of their lives” — a joke about aging-male despair couched in a joke about fashion. When Seinfeld recited it, a man in khakis did an actual spit take into his beer bottle. At one point, Seinfeld lost his thread and sighed as he checked his notes; even the sigh got a laugh. He closed to a standing ovation.

Seinfeld retired to a dressing room, plopping down beside a bucket of bottled water. I congratulated him on the performance. “I’d say two-thirds of that set was garbage,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Whether it was lines coming out wrong or the rhythm being off.” He said he’d counted “probably eight” jokes that failed to get the kinds of laughs he desired. “There’s different kinds of laughs,” he explained. “It’s like a baseball lineup: this guy’s your power hitter, this guy gets on base, this guy works out walks. If everybody does their job, we’re gonna win.” I told him about the khaki guy’s spit take, and Seinfeld cracked up, calling this “a rare butterfly.” Nevertheless, “there wasn’t one moment where I was where I wanted to be. That was just a workout. I had to get it going again.”

Over nine seasons, “Seinfeld” enjoyed an omnipresent, epochal success: you can draw a line from “Seinfeld” to Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to Ricky Gervais’s “Office,” “Arrested Development,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the American “Office” and out from there to maybe half the sitcoms currently on the air. In stand-up circles, Seinfeld is a towering figure, revered for the sharpness of his eye as he scrutinizes subjects large (marriage, death) and small (answering-machine protocol, 5-Hour Energy drink). In 2001, George Carlin spoke admiringly of “the little world, the kind of world Jerry Seinfeld investigated to a great, high level.” When “Seinfeld” went off the air and Seinfeld began rededicating himself to stand-up, he told Time that he didn’t consider himself great. When I asked him how he evaluates his talent today, Seinfeld demurred before allowing, “I think it’s there now.” He says he plans to do stand-up “into my 80s, and beyond.”

One afternoon not long after the Gotham gig, Seinfeld invited me to his Upper West Side work space, where he spends most days, writing jokes. Clean, modern and cozy, it resembled some hip therapist’s office: a high-ceilinged, poured-concrete box with a long plushy couch, a little balcony and a kitchenette. Framed pictures covered a wall: a production still from the George Reeves “Superman” serial; an original cartoon of Seinfeld and Alfred E. Neuman that ran on the cover of Mad Magazine in 1997; a photo of Steve McQueen with a Porsche 917 that the actor owned in the ’70s and that today belongs to Seinfeld. A sleek Pinarello racing bicycle, which Seinfeld rides around town, stood against a wall. “It’s very addictive, that feeling of gliding through the city,” he said. Some Emmys huddled in a corner beside a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Seinfeld cherishes more than the awards: “I did a comedy show with that in third grade.”

Seinfeld sat in an armchair in a sweater and jeans, resting gray Shox on a footstool. On a typical weekday, after getting the kids (his daughter Sascha, 12, son Julian, 9, son Shepherd, 7) to school and exercising in his building’s gym, Seinfeld walks here, grabs a legal pad and a Bic pen and sits at his desk. No street noise penetrates. The pages of the pad are destined for either a wastebasket or a master file containing Seinfeld’s entire act, handwritten. The other day, perusing this file, he found a joke in which, discussing touch-screen phones, he likens the act of scrolling through a contact list and deleting names to the effete, disdainful gesture of a “gay French king” deciding whom to behead. Seinfeld wrote the joke a year ago and forgot it; having rediscovered it, he’d be telling it onstage that weekend.

Seinfeld’s shows last a little over an hour, but he has about two hours of material in active rotation, so he’s able to swap in different bits on different nights. 
There is a contemporary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis. Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly synonymous with black-belt stand-up. Seinfeld wants no part of it. “This ‘new hour’ nonsense — I can’t do it,” he said. “I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work.” C.K., who used to open for Seinfeld, has called him “a virtuoso — he plays it like a violin,” and the two are friendly. I asked Seinfeld if he thought C.K.’s stand-up hours, widely praised, would improve if he spent more than a year honing each one. “It’s not really fair for me to judge the way somebody else approaches it,” Seinfeld replied. “I care about a certain level of detail, but it’s personal. He would get bored of it. It’s not his way. It’s a different sensibility.” There was another big difference between the two, Seinfeld noted: “Working clean.” Almost from the beginning, Seinfeld has forsworn graphic language in his bits, dismissing it as a crutch. “Guys that can use any word they want — if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week,” he said.

Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.

“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”

Seinfeld believes funniness is genetic. When his father, Kalman, was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he’d transcribe jokes he heard and store them in a box for safekeeping. “In the army, that’s kind of how you got through it,” Seinfeld says. “People would tell jokes by the score, because what else are you going to do to maintain sanity? The recognizing of jokes as precious material: that’s where it starts. If you’ve got the gene, a joke is an amazing thing. It’s something you save in a box in a war.”

Born in 1954 and raised on Long Island, in Massapequa, Seinfeld dreamed of growing up to be an advertising man, and he still appreciates commercials for their narrative economy. The Seinfelds were “pretty Jewish,” Seinfeld recalls: “Went to temple, kept kosher, two sets of dishes.” The younger of two siblings (his sister helps handle his business), he earned his first spit take, as a little kid, while snacking with a pal; Seinfeld told a joke, and the friend burst out laughing, spraying Seinfeld’s face with sodden crumbs. His love of comedy matured when he heard Jean Shepherd’s epic, askew radio monologues, and when he bought Bill Cosby’s 1965 album, “Why Is There Air?” Seinfeld adored Shepherd’s knack for “taking something small and making it big,” and he marveled at Cosby’s “vocal instrument: he can do this person, the sound of chewing gum, the corduroys rubbing together, the other kids — he was all over the keyboard.” But the comedian who made Seinfeld think he could actually become one was Robert Klein. “He was a New York, middle-class kid,” Seinfeld says, “and through that I could see a path for myself.”

Seinfeld’s work habits were stringent from the start. Studying communications and theater at Queens College, he arranged an independent study in stand-up, trying club sets, analyzing others’ sets and writing a 40-page paper. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” in 1981, he practiced his five-minute set “200 times” beforehand, jogging around Manhattan and listening to the “Superman” theme on a Walkman to amp up.

We’re accustomed to the cliché of the stand-up as sad clown: a racked soul on a dim stage, salving psychic wounds, craving approval. When audiences yell, “I love you,” at Seinfeld, he likes to reply, “I love you, too, and this is my favorite type of intimate relationship.” He told me: “That’s the wiring of a stand-up. This is my best way of functioning.” But he sees himself more as exacting athlete than tortured artist. He compares himself to baseball players — putting spin on the ball as it leaves his fingers, trying to keep his batting average high — and to surfers: “What are they doing that for? It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.” He said: “I’m not filling a deep emotional hole here. I’m playing a very difficult game, and if you’d like to see someone who’s very good at a difficult game, that’s what I do.”

For audiences, Seinfeld’s approach has its escapist comforts. In his jokes he often arranges life’s messy confusions, shrewdly and immaculately, into a bouquet of trivial irritants. Seinfeld’s comedic persona is unflappable — annoyed plenty, but unmarked by extremes of emotion, much less tragedy. “He’s the least neurotic Jew on earth,” Sarah Silverman says. In a joke Seinfeld told for decades, he called an overflowing toilet “the most frightening moment in the life of a human being,” and there’s a sense in which his clean, precise bits are marvels of plumbing, keeping abjection at bay. On “The Arsenio Hall Show,” in 1991, Hall told Seinfeld, “We got so much going on in the world; we got this war, the economy, crime.” Seinfeld replied, “It’s all going on, but it’s not happening right here, right now; it’s all going on out there.”

This sensibility reached brilliant heights on the sitcom, which featured four gleefully mercenary protagonists for whom New York was a playground of silly social hurdles, warm diner booths and the odd totalitarian soup joint — Seinfeld calls the show “utopian.” “Seinfeld” feels so emblematically ’90s largely because of its extreme moral disengagement, which rankled some viewers. In a column for The Times, Maureen Dowd quoted Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s literary editor, as saying that “Seinfeld” was “the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption.” She went on to say that the show was a product of “the what’s-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph.” (Fittingly, the series ended with the gang imprisoned on good Samaritan laws.)

Seinfeld disagrees that his show was, as the saying goes, about nothing. “I don’t think these things are trivial,” he says, pointing to how political commentators compared President Obama’s renewed bravado the day after his lackluster Colorado debate performance to the “Seinfeld” episode where George, insulted at work, devises a comeback too late. And Seinfeld says that as his act has grown to address marriage and fatherhood, the laughs have deepened. “It hits them in a totally different way,” he said. “Once you step into that area, you’re in their kitchen, in their bedroom, deep in their life. It’s a very intimate and potent comedic thing.”

His best jokes, concerned as they are with the ultra-quotidian, have an understated timelessness. Several younger comedians I spoke with described Seinfeld as an ongoing influence. Judd Apatow, who as a kid in the late ’70s became obsessed with Seinfeld’s stand-up, told me, “From the get-go he was the greatest observational comedian who ever lived — nobody was, or is, as funny as him.” In high school, Apatow persuaded Seinfeld to sit for a long interview during which he dissected his bits, methodically laying bare their musculature. Apatow says it was “a lesson in how to write jokes” that he has never forgotten. Kevin Hart, an arena-packing comic, told me that Seinfeld was generous with advice when Hart was starting out, adding that his analytical gift remains unequaled: “He can describe a bouncing ball in a way that changes the way you look at bouncing balls forever.”

Seinfeld doesn’t chase trends: he is fully content to woodshed up on Mount Olympus. He has only passing interest in topical humor and no time for winking meta-jokes or absurdist non sequiturs. He believes in showmanship, laying out his bits in heavily theatricalized tones and cadences rather than feigning extemporaneousness or a cool deadpan, and when he plays theaters, he wears Armani suits in blacks and grays. “I have old-school values,” he says.

This has obvious dangers. The defining comic of a bygone era, as Seinfeld is to the ’90s, risks becoming that era’s prisoner: out of touch, or worse, obsolete. Seinfeld’s style was so distinctly realized so early on that it quickly lent itself to an immortal caricature: “What’s the deal with? . . .” Seinfeld himself poked fun at his association with this construction all the way back in a 1992 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, playing a quiz-show host who began nearly every question with those four words.

But, in almost counterintuitive ways, Seinfeld has dodged self-parody in his act. Avoiding excessive topicality has allowed his jokes to feel evergreen; keeping them a bit square has forced him to keep them sharp; and skipping grand pronouncements for small, finely rendered epiphanies allows the material to seem universal. Aziz Ansari, another young comedian who admires Seinfeld, told me, “You could stick him on some alien planet and he’d have the same brilliant, precise observations about how silly everything they do is.”

Since Richard Pryor, at least, confession has been prized in stand-up, and this is as true today as ever. The biggest stand-up story of 2012 came this summer, when the comedian Tig Notaro took a Los Angeles stage and wrung laughs from a saga of personal misery that included the sudden death of her 65-year-old mother followed by a breast-cancer diagnosis. At Seinfeld’s office, I asked him what he’d do, onstage, if he had a month like that, and I appended a “God forbid” to the question. “Thank you for ‘God forbid,’ ” he said. “I love it. Hilarious. You have to say that.” He clapped his hands with delight. “If I had a month like that, I’d do a whole bit about ‘God forbid.’ ”

Seinfeld’s father died in 1985, while battling numerous cancers, “probably ultimately of heart failure,” Seinfeld says. (His mother, 98, lives in Florida.) He never told jokes about it, he said, because “it doesn’t make me funny. If it makes you funny, that’s what you talk about. That bit for Tig Notaro, it decided it wanted to be a bit. The bit is using her to get to the audience, and she’s lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. She’s the second baseman in the double play: You’ve just got to be there to catch it and throw it on. She’s a genius for recognizing it and making the move.” But he insisted that bloodletting was not requisite for greatness. “What does Don Rickles tell us about himself in his show? Probably not much. He’s not pouring his guts out to you, but his craft is so amazing, his skill is so amazing, there’s depth in that.”

Beneath the surface, Seinfeld says, much of his act concerns “the pointlessness of life itself. I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important.” Larry David, to whom Seinfeld remains close, told me, “Jerry doesn’t get enough credit for his misanthropy — it’s why we get along so well.” In a new bit, Seinfeld likens a man to a balloon. At the outset of a romantic relationship, the balloon is buoyant and beautiful and “the woman holds on tight” for fear he’ll fly away. Flash forward, and the balloon’s doddering around, off in a corner somewhere, low to the floor, pathetically unable to “even lift up its own string.” It’s as elegantly crushing a joke about human decay and dashed hopes as has been told.

In conversation, Seinfeld describes an offstage “tendency toward depression,” accompanied by a lifelong spiritual yearning. “There’s always something missing,” he said. He has dabbled in Zen Buddhism (“I love the word games, the koans”), Scientology (“I took a couple classes in 1976”) and transcendental meditation. He still identifies as Jewish. “I was very flattered recently to hear about a Nazi rally in Florida where they took DVDs of the show, sprayed swastikas on them and threw them through the windows of a synagogue,” he said. “That was nice.”

He alluded to romantic dissatisfaction as something that used to depress him. On the sitcom, Seinfeld’s life was a carousel of beautiful women. “Was that my actual life at the time?” he asks. “Probably.” He remained single until he was 45, and in his act today he notes that he clearly had “some issues.” After having kids, he told me, he realized “there was this whole other quadrant of my brain lying there dormant. Kids give you something. If it wasn’t for my kids, I’m pretty much done with living. I could kill myself. Now there’s something else to live for.”

One Friday in early October, Seinfeld took a private plane from New York to Kansas City, Mo., told jokes onstage for 75 minutes, then flew to Milwaukee, where he was booked at the Riverside Theater the next night. On Saturday morning he wanted to see “Argo,” so he rented an entire theater at the local movie palace, the Oriental, and watched it with his opening act, Mark Schiff, and his tour producer. “I liked it,” Seinfeld said later on, over coffee at his hotel, “but the ending was a little Hollywood.”

He had done two of his five planned performances in New York, one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx. Seinfeld thought they’d gone well, but he confided that the dates might double as a farewell tour of the city. “When Clark Kent turns into Superman, he needs a moment — a phone booth, a storage room!” Seinfeld said, describing the breathing room he relies on to get into show mode. “If I’m at home, I don’t have the physical or mental space to don my costume. It’s horrible. There’s no closing of doors: I have little kids. As soon as you close the door someone’s banging on it. And when I’m home, I love that. I don’t want any personal space, I want them crawling all over me. But when I do this other thing? I can’t tell you I enjoyed it that much.”

When Seinfeld isn’t on the road, he stays in. He likes “Mad Men”; his wife, Jessica, a cookbook author, likes “Homeland”; the whole family enjoys “The Voice.” Seinfeld does not watch any sitcom regularly, giving up on most after a few minutes. If he happens to catch a “Seinfeld” rerun, he’ll watch until he sees himself, then change the channel. He regards his own ubiquity with nonchalance. After his performance at Brooklyn College, in November, when a fan asked him what programs he enjoys, Seinfeld replied: “I don’t watch that much television. I was television.”

Over coffee at his hotel in Milwaukee, Seinfeld talked about his home life, characterizing his children as the opposite of rich brats. His daughter grew upset, he said, upon receiving an iPhone 5 from Jessica, calling it a “mean-girl phone” and requesting something cheaper; his son Julian tells Jerry he’s “spoiled” and implores him to sell his cars. The kids have inherited the comedy gene. “I’ll say, ‘O.K., it’s time for dinner,’ ” Seinfeld said, “and they go, ‘Oh, like I didn’t already know that.’ I say, ‘That’s me, you can’t do me!’ ”

“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is an experiment in “isolating the gene,” Seinfeld says. “I went out the other night with three comics and a noncomedian, and it was amazing: these are all Jack Russells, and this is a Collie.” He’s proud of the Web show’s finale, in which he and Michael Richards discussed the onstage tirade that Richards delivered in 2006, derailing his career. Confronting black hecklers, Richards bellowed the word “nigger” seven times, an outpouring caught on camera. In the controversy that followed, it was hard not to see the rant as a moment of unfiltered ugliness, but Seinfeld says this interpretation reflects a category error. Speech on a stage, delivered in a performative context, is unique, he argues, and bits — even those that come off the cuff — are different from straight confessions. “It was a colossal comedic error,” Seinfeld said. “He was angry, and it was the wrong choice, but it was a comedic attempt that failed. In our culture, we don’t allow that, especially in the racial realm. But as a comedian, I know what happened, he knows what happened and every other comedian knows what happened. And all the black comics know it, and a lot of them felt bad about it, because they know it’s rough to be judged that way in that context. You’re leaping off a cliff and trying to land on the other side. It was just another missed leap.”

When we’d drained our cups, Seinfeld stood and, stopping for some photos in the lobby, went to his room for a nap. I met him later in his dressing room at the Riverside, where he was about to take the stage for a 10 p.m. performance. His jacket hung from a rack in the corner, and he was on a couch in shirt sleeves, dipping pretzels into a Skippy jar, watching the Yankees game, feeling good. Schiff, his opener, was there, too. A car commercial featuring Shaquille O’Neal came on. “Look at this horrible sweater they put him in,” Seinfeld said. “You can see how his knees are hurting him when he comes down those stairs.” O’Neal called the car stylish. “ ‘Stylish?’ ” Seinfeld repeated. “With your sweater vest on?” The game resumed, and Ichiro Suzuki, the lean Yankees outfielder, approached the plate. “This is the guy I relate to more than any athlete,” Seinfeld said. “His precision, incredible precision. Look at his body type — he’s made the most of what he has. He’s the hardest guy to get out. He’s fast. And he’s old.”

The camera panned across the dugout. “These are young guys, Mark,” Seinfeld said. “How could they have these nerves of steel?”

“They do 180 games,” Schiff said. “If you did 180 shows in a row, you’d have it.”

“But this is the postseason, this one counts,” Seinfeld said. “If a crowd doesn’t laugh, O.K. But this guy gives up the homer, and 60,000 people are weeping!”

Schiff soon disappeared to warm up the audience. Seinfeld fell silent, chewing pretzels and watching the game. In 20 minutes, he was up. He stood, brushed the crumbs from his pants, slid into his jacket and made for the stage, ready to play some ball.

Jonah Weiner is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He last wrote for the magazine about the artist David Shrigley.

Editor: Sheila Glaser.

Armando Iannucci’s Bafta lecture 2012 – full transcript

(Original post)

Armando Iannucci Bafta

Armando Iannucci spoke at the annual Bafta television lecture about the need for British creative talent to be more forceful. Photograph: Bafta/Jamie Simonds

Well as you can see I am a lot shorter than people might expect. Television exaggerates people’s heights so to give you some idea of my actual height take my measure against this podium here. This podium is one foot high, so that gives you an idea. Thank-you very much, Bafta, for your incredible kindness in not only inviting me to give this year’s Television Lecture, but of laying on such a magnificent parade through central London leading up to it. I know how deeply the British public share our concerns about the digital future and the challenge of multi-platform delivery, which is why I’m sure they turned out in the large numbers they did this afternoon.

Now, my predecessor in this spot, Peter Bennett-Jones, argued last year that the BBC needs to be split into two divisions, one factual, and one entertainment. Indeed, many in the crowd in Trafalgar Square were telling me the same today … and I’ll be taking Peter’s advice tonight, and speaking just about comedy and drama, since that’s what I feel qualified to discuss. I also ought to point out that Peter is my agent so I suppose it’s appropriate he gets a 10% share of my argument this evening.

But I dedicate tonight’s lecture 100% to him. He’s been my mentor and model for nearly 20 years now, fighting to help me make the comedy I wanted to make under the creative conditions I needed to make it, and his generosity, idealism and idiosyncrasy for me represent totally what we are in UK Television when we are at our best. Especially the idiosyncrasy.

This lecture has the rather aggressive title of ‘Fight, Fight, Fight’. And to show I mean business, I also ought to warn you that I use the F-word three times this evening, and by that I mean ‘Fuck’. And that was one of them.

I had originally thought of calling tonight’s talk ‘Make Good Programmes’ and the plan was to be introduced, come over to the lectern and say, ‘Good evening. Make good programmes’ and then sit down again. But that would only have led to an awkward silence, followed by everyone heading downstairs to a glass of rather sharp-tasting white wine and then, with a free evening ahead of them, no doubt heading over to a rival talk Brian Sewell is giving on Titian at The National Gallery.

But ‘Make Good Programmes’ is all I’ve ever believed, it’s all I’ve ever want to believe. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Make good programmes, and they will come.

My only working principle, whenever we make something, is rather ruthlessly to concentrate on that rectangular screen on the monitor as I’m filming. What’s happening in that screen? Is it clear what’s going on? Is what’s in that monitor the funniest, the best it can be? Is it telling the story? Is it believable what those people are saying? And I will always fight to make it so, even if that means starting afresh, rewriting the scene, dropping an extremely expensive prop, ignoring a magnificent but distracting view the location manager sold his wife to get access to.

All of that, because that rectangle is all the viewer cares about too. Whatever device that rectangle is on may keep changing, away from the home and onto the tablet, but it’s still those same four sides enclosing what you’ve made. It’s an intimate connection between you and them. There may be a hundred people on set, we may measure our reach in terms of millions, but ultimately people watch in ones and twos, and with families and friends. TV is personal.

It’s personal for me. When I was growing up in Glasgow my father was self-employed, and had good times and bad times. In the good times, we lived in a nice house, but there were bad times. There was a particularly bad time when there were six of us in a two-bedroomed tenement flat in Glasgow. But even then, I remember television taking us out of ourselves. Us all gathered round and there being laughter, at Morecombe and Wise and The Generation Game and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. But also great illumination, with the likes of The World at War and Horizon and a fantastic series I remember dramatising Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, where he began his intellectual journey that was to lead to the development of his theory on evolution.

I personally felt grateful that British TV set itself apart from its international rivals in this way, not afraid to challenge, to stretch the mind and imagination. It stretched mine, it galvanised my creative ambitions, it gave me a standard to reach for, which is why I feel happy making television, and grateful and thankful that I’m making it in Britain.

That’s why I’ve called this talk ‘Fight, Fight, Fight’, because I want to encourage us to be more aggressive in promoting what makes British TV so good. And to be ambitious, arrogant even, in how we sell it to the world. Never to sell ourselves short. And I’ll be talking about my American experiences in a moment. But commercially, I want us all, especially the BBC, with a brand recognition up there with Apple and Google, to go abroad and prostitute itself to blue-buggery if need be in how it sells and makes money from its content, so that money can come back to production in the UK.

But more importantly, at home, I want us to be more vocal in fighting whatever attacks or restricts our creative ambition. The caution, the assault from politicians and press barons, the unnecessary constraints imposed by any executives who commission in their own image, according to their own agenda of tastes and priorities, instead of in creative engagement with the programme makers,

I want to banish forever the memory of a seminar a few years back, where a roomful of some of the best comedy writers in the country were told by executives, ‘here’s some of the topics we’re looking for in comedy … Builders, women …. No doubt they were inundated with scripts about a building firm who wanted to build a woman. I want to argue that programme makers, the creative industry in television, is its hugest asset, and will be the true source of any profit to come, and needs to be treated with respect and support.

Now, profit, the weasel word, profit. I’m not a naturally aggressive person, but one of the few times I’ve spoken out in public about television was after James Murdoch spoke up in favour of profit, and attacked the BBC for being far too good. I was frustrated that the BBC started apologetically looking at reining in some of its services, and apologising for having websites and digital channels and local radio. And at the time I said publicly I loved the BBC dearly but I was frustrated that, every time it was accused of a crime, even one it wasn’t guilty of, it would immediately hand itself in to the nearest police station. I also said the BBC should get someone to tell James Murdoch to fuck off, but it looks like that happened at the most recent MacTaggart Lecture [which was given by James’ sister Elisabeth Murdoch].

Now, it would take someone with a sick and twisted sense of humour to revel in the subsequent emotional distress that has befallen James Murdoch since he made that argument, which is why Bafta has asked me to give this lecture.

But I want to look at that provocative remark he used at the end of his MacTaggart Lecture, that ‘the only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit,’. That sentence riled me. It got to me. Not just because my first instincts were telling me it was the opposite of everything I believed, but also because of a niggling, troubling little emergency flare that went off at the back of my mind that perhaps there might be something in it. That independence is key. That creative independence is what defines British television at its best, but if it’s under attack, where is it to go if not into the arms of the moneymen?

Well, we’ll see.

So let’s, first, take a look at the world stage. British television was once the most admired, the most copied and influential in the world. I say ‘once’ because I think over the past five, maybe 10, years we’ve stopped thinking that. We’ve been surprised and gob smacked by how good American telly has become.

Bringing cinema production values to the small screen and attracting cinema talent. America’s best writers and directors have been enticed to the longer-form TV drama and as a consequence have given us the likes of The Wire, Damages, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, Homeland, and Game of Thrones. Some of these series have been called the greatest television ever made. Which is silly, because that’s Breaking Bad. Or is it Family Guy?

My epiphany was when watching an episode of Battlestar Gallactica, not the ’80s mullet version, but the high concept reboot from a few years back, where some of the central cast – held in captivity by the Cylons – resorted to suicide bombing to overthrow them. For an American show deep in America’s War on Terror, this was an astonishing piece of bravado from the programme makers, and it made me sit up and think about how gloriously daring we could be with television drama.

But American TV wasn’t always to that standard. In the 1970s and ’80s, that time when perhaps America’s political and cultural dominance was at its height, and when Britain’s great doubts about its identity and role were at their most pronounced, in those times we at least consoled ourselves with one unarguable, self-evident fact; American TV was glittery crap and ours was really, really good. Yes, there were iconic shows from the US like Kojak and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but these were just well made entertainments at the very tippy-topmost peak of a mound of dross.

We rejoiced in the vulgarity of their LA sheen, we enjoyed being appalled by the sausage-factory productivity, with regular, yearly seasons of 22 episodes or even more, typified by a famous Simpson’s episode where Homer raises money to fund a new, seventh episode of his favourite British TV show,

And we jumped up in down with barely concealed patronising glee that even a costume soap from us like Upstairs, Downstairs could be repackaged in America as Masterpiece Theatre. And we laughed, oh how we laughed, at their repeated attempts to take top quality British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers and make a complete shredded turkey out of them.

And then, with The Sopranos we started identifying the appearance of quality, edgy television. We identified it with HBO. We maybe saw it as a one-off. After all, HBO’s slogan ‘It’s not TV , it’s HBO’ reinforced this notion that what we were watching was somehow an exception. But now as rivals Showtime and AMC and FX ape HBO’s commitment to a different type of television, with the likes of Mad Men and Dexter, and as the big networks catch the bug with high-concept shows such as Lost and, dammit, The Office, I think in Britain TV has gone through something of an identity crisis.

Why is this? Firstly, I think the increasing power and dominance of the commissioning executive (and by that I mean either genre commissioner or channel controller or scheduler – an executive who has some say in the commissioning of programmes) I think the increasing power and dominance they’ve had is partly to blame for this. Separating broadcasters from programme-makers gave those broadcasters a power that has grown and grown so that at times it becomes a form of diktat as to what the content should be.

“We want a animated sketch show about teenage car crash victims”; “We’re looking for more dramas about superhero weathermen fighting permafrost”; ” We’re after a sassy late-night antiques show”; “We want a multi-ethnic quiz hosted by an Indian Amanda Burton.”

Too often, the commissioning executive became the chief creative officer behind any show, the one coming up with the title, insisting on the key cast, determining the format, imposing hard-line notes on the script, influencing the edit. Very often the producers and key creative talent became the suppliers, the contracted creative labour, used to bring the commissioner’s project to completion.

We were told we, the programme makers, were there to make headlines, grab ratings, pull in the viewers, or ‘punch through the mix’ as I remember one memo put it. The discovery that reality was popular and cheap let to a downturn in drama and comedy, and an upswing in that colossally twattish decade of programmes that described their entire contents in their title. Top Ten Celebrity Mingers, remember that? The Boy Who Can Burp His Own Kidneys. Help Me, My Sister’s a Pope.

Apologies if you’ve heard this before, but I just think it typifies what was going on. I worked for Talkback, which was a comedy company, but then became much more successful making reality shows, and it produced House Doctor – one of its hits. Someone working at Talkback had decided that they were going to leave, and it was a brainstorming session for spin-off ideas from House Doctor. People were chucking in Garden Doctor, people were saying: ‘Garden Doctor, fantastic, people go into gardens, do them up, sell them, improve the house’. School Doctor: ‘fantastic, people go into schools, they turn them round, whatever’. Body Doctor: ‘fantastic, people go in and …’ at which point my friend, who was about to leave, stood up and said ‘that’s a fucking doctor’. Now, thankfully, the worst of those days are behind us but I do think we still expend too much of our energy trying to second-guess what the executives are after.

In comedy, for example, the agenda kept changing with a set of circular twists and turns more dizzying than the ones that got our gymnasts a bronze at the Olympics. Commissioners and controllers saying there’s too much single camera comedy on these days and they want some more studio audience sitcoms.

And then along comes Gavin and Stacey, which proves the audience sitcom is dead so we don’t need any more thanks. And then along comes Miranda and the appeal goes out once more audience sitcoms just like that. And then along comes The Inbetweeners.

It seems to go in cycles of four years. And yet controllers and commissioners seems to come and go every two years, so the cycle gets disrupted by another cycle inside the bigger cycle, until no one knows what we’re meant to be making and everyone is just sick.

I honestly don’t think that this was the commissioning executive’s fault; it was more a symptom of the dysfunctional nature of the job. Pressure on that exec to get the commission right, to get the ratings and the awards and the conversational buzz, against all competition. And that inevitably pushes them into wanting final say on all aspects of the programme. The more they have their say, however, the less say there is from the creative team.

On top of all this, because drama and comedy is so expensive to make, I think there grew up a tendency to think, we were lucky to be making it at all. It was a ‘beggars can’t be choosers mentality’ that gave the broadcaster the upper hand in dishing out notes and casting suggestions and schedule deadlines. It made it easier to say no without too much explanation. ‘Sorry, we’ve already got a show set in a county with cars in it.’

That’s the nature of the dysfunction: it diminishes the use of the greatest resource in British Television, the fund of creative talent of writers and performers and producers, who made the greatest television in the world. The more limitations and constrictions we impose on that talent, the more British television is diminished.

If we operate under a culture of caution and compliance, our TV industry will not flow at full strength, at a time when it has to. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several chances of working with American broadcasters, and I’ve had contrasting experiences.

There was a US Version of The Thick of It, which was piloted at ABC, and there I saw first-hand the network system. The notes from every executive, meetings with a roomful of vice-presidents laid out in crescent formation in swinging chairs. Every decision on casting, location, the look, even the colour of the ties, (although I was allowed to have final decision on that one), but every other decision needed approval and sign-off from above.

Then flash forward three years and my experiences making Veep with HBO. There, the conversations were direct, focused. Most heartening, the whole experience was about forming a creative relationship, a dialogue, with the programme maker. Their first words to me were, ‘we like what you do, why would we want to change it?’ Yes, there were notes and talks, but these were always supportive suggestions. If there was ever a difference of opinion over a decision, word would always come back: ‘it’s your show. It’s up to you,’.

That’s an extraordinary contrast, and it’s tempting to conclude that the big networks just aren’t the place to go to do the type of shows that we make here, the idiosyncratic personal stuff, the typically British stuff. But I think that’s wrong. Good stuff is made by the networks and the mistake in the end was ours for thinking that, though we came up with the programme idea, we weren’t best equipped to make it ourselves. We didn’t big ourselves up enough in the process. In fact, as my experience with Veep has borne out, confidence in our own ability pays dividends. Veep, though shot in America, with an American cast, has an all-British team of writers, all-British directors, all-British post-production from start to finish – titles, music, editing. The cast even came to London to rehearse.

It’s a lesson I need to hold on to, it’s one I’ve learnt. That we can make international television, but we need to make it our way because we have all the advantages of belonging to the best creative pool of talent in the world. The US comes to us for ideas because we have great ideas, but we are also the best equipped to make them.

For me, Veep is a start, but it signals that it’s possible, just possible, to enter not just a financial partnership with other countries, but a creative one as well. And we need to, because the market has become global, the potential audience, truly international.

I want to break off ever so briefly to show you a clip, I was thinking – given that we’re in the height of election fever over in the States – it would be good to see something funny about the American election and I scoured around various channels and networks and websites, and the thing that’s made me laugh consistently is this clip, which is fairly self explanatory. So if we just watch this, and we’ll talk about it afterwards.

There are three things I wanted to say about that clip, and I’ll say them very quickly. I could actually do a whole lecture. Firstly, it was done on the internet, so nobody commissioned it, someone went and did it off their own bat. And that’s an example of how the internet has given us creative tools to write, to create, to film, to test out ideas.

It means that, whereas 20 years ago people were saying to me ‘how do I start? How do I get into comedy?’ and I would say to them ‘well, you’ll have to go along to a radio production, go to a writers’ meeting of Weekending and see if you can write for that,’ or ‘have you got a script?’. Nowadays, people are giving me CDs and DVDs and web links, and the ability to create off your own bat means that actually there’s now no excuse, if you want to become a member of the creative industry within television, there is now nothing stopping you in terms of going out and being able to enact your ideas. Now, obviously, some things take a little bit of money, and need a little bit of support and financial backing. But the ability to grab people, especially if what you make is good, I think is now greater. Secondly, that clip was made in the US, but I can access if here.

The fact is that domestic audiences are becoming less and less attached to watching stuff made in their homeland, less and less attached to watching home-grown television. Are more ready to watch, no matter where it’s made. For that reason British comedy is now far more popular in America than it’s ever been, because people know where to access the stuff.

They know where to find Inbetweeners and Peep Show. We just started, this week, The Thick of It has gone out in the UK, but it’s now simultaneously going out on Hulu in America. We, in the UK, aren’t too fazed by watching Nordic drama, we’re not actually that fussed by where it’s made, as long as it’s good. And that’s an interesting thing.

Thirdly, I can watch that whenever I like. This removes the art of the scheduler, since scheduling becomes a personal gift to the viewer, who watches whatever they like. And I think, especially watching how the young view their television, or rather view content on YouTube on their laptop, on their phone, and have this expectation that they can access anything from anywhere in the world, and at any time they want it, I think that this inevitable revolution in viewing habits that people are frightened of is going to come upon us in the next three, four years.

What that means, though, is that content is supreme. That the programme commissioner, the scheduler, the controller has less of a vital job and that the responsibility for coming up with good stuff is back with us. Across the world, the cry is up for content. People want good stuff, and they’ll search anywhere to find it. Schedulers, networks are on the wane, and the makers of good stuff will be in the driving seat.

And that’s why it’s great we belong to the best creative industry in the world, but also why it’s essential that everyone, executives and producers, in British television prioritises good quality, challenging, imaginative programming because it’s only by doing so will we play to our strengths and stand out from the competition.

We are at our best not in committee, but when we’re at our most idiosyncratic. The best British television is the vision of individual creative minds, responding to the values and events of the society around them. But it’s not self-absorbed, it’s genuinely part of the wider spirit of what’s going on in a community, but a specific response to that spirit. It’s a challenge, or a celebration of it, or a critique of it or an affirmation of it. Because it’s individual, because it’s personal, it communicates, it connects with the viewer. Commissioning executives are at their best when they give space and encouragement to these individual responses. When they fund, and nurture and guide Graham Linehan, Adam Curtis, Nira Park, John Lloyd, Steven Moffat, Charlie Brooker, Julia Davies, Iain Morris, Simon Cowell, Jon Plowman, Shane Meadows, Aardman Animation, and hundreds more like them, producers and writers, many of whom are not household names, but who have a consistent passion for striking ideas, all part of the collective and exceptional TV talent in the UK.

I personally will always be grateful to Roly Keating when as Controller of BBC Four, he listened to my rather back-of-an-envelope description of what a fuzzy, semi-improvised, quickly shot, ensemble political comedy might be like and then gave me £200,000 and said, ‘see what you can make with this,’. We made the first three episodes.

And I think also something like the recent Star Gazing Live on BBC2, the astronomy show stretched nightly across a single week, was an example of great, creative commissioning, where time and space, literally, was entrusted to a group of individuals and experts, at a risk it could all fall flat, but given encouragement and profile – and in the garnering, great viewing figures and rewards.

The best commissioners don’t work over creative production, but alongside it. They don’t stare down at what’s on their desks, but look up and see what talent is there in the room and how it can be stretched and challenged and inspired to think about the best way to fill that rectangular screen in the corner. Look at the Olympic opening ceremony. There was the commission, ‘let Britain show the rest of the world what it is now,’ and it was entrusted to one man, Danny Boyle, to feel free to flesh it out. It was quirky, entertaining, and insightful. It didn’t please everyone. My favourites exchange was from the Tory MP Aidan Burley who tweeted it was ‘multi-cultural crap’ and a reply from @paulsinha who tweeted back, ‘if you think the ceremony is multi-cultural, wait till you see the sport,’.

But I think we got some sense of the energy and passion that went into that ceremony: it was a clear creative vision, and so it connected. Just imagine what would have happened if that same brief, ‘show the world what Britain now is,’ was instead given to a committee. If there had been boxes to tick, content to pick off.

Well, we don’t need to imagine, because we all remember the Millennium Dome Exhibition. When the government, the chief commissioner, decided the thing was too important to be left to mere creatives. So it thought it could determine the content, which was why the section in The Body Zone on creativity was a brain on a stick telling Tommy Cooper jokes.

Which mindless image brings me neatly onto the subject of politicians. Another reason British television has felt so disarmed, confused as to what it’s for or where it should be going, is because of the consistent, cack-handed, interference from politicians, goaded by the press, and the rather supine and scared way the broadcasting executives have failed to fight back, too scared to face the rebuke of the press headlines.

Governments, whether right or left, have become the commissioners in chief, nudging and cajoling the networks into their preferred business models without the slightest sensitivity or awareness of what the British public wants from its television service, or what the British TV industry is capable of.

Now, it’s all too easy to portray the average politician as a policy-wonk fed since the age of 14 on position papers on social policy and party outreach, professionally married to the job, ascetically weaned day and night on the company of his or her fellow party workers and political researchers, never seeing daylight, never watching telly, never having any cultural development outside whatever serves their policy purview.

This would be all too easy a caricature. But it would also be accurate. Because that’s what career politicians are like. By career politicians I mean those politicians who have worked the system well enough to gain office. They have no idea what the average member of the public culturally consumes because they are not average members of the public. They are specially bred adminadroids legislabating into an empty chamber and who experience everything through the matrix of their own political blueprint for Britain. Or, put simply, they don’t watch much telly.

The recent Leveson inquiry has thrown up many things, including the testimony of the late Jeremy Hunt. It’s interesting to notice that although people criticise the fact that we now have a transport secretary who’s scared of flying and an equalities minister who’s against gays, nobody has picked up on the fact that a man a lot of people want to see dead is now health secretary.

As we all remember, Jeremy Hunt was a firm supporter of the News Corp takeover of BskyB, writing a letter to the prime minister early in 2010, before he’d been decide to wave it through. In that letter of advice, in November 2010 , Hunt wrote: ‘James Murdoch wants to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world’s first multi-platform media operator available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad. The UK has the chance to lead the way on this as we did in the ’80s with the Wapping move. If we block it our media sector will suffer for years’.

No reference here to content, nothing about what this will mean for the British viewer, what form of programming it will unlock; what benefits it will bring to our viewing experience; how culturally it will have impact; what opportunities it will present to the creative industry. Nothing. Just a dry analysis of the cash nexus behind a digital strategy.

It’s a lack of imaginative engagement that, coming from someone who went on to become culture secretary, I find quite chilling. But it’s typical I think of how the political class view us. We are there to be badgered if we don’t conform to their message, if they feel we haven’t represented their side of the story well enough, or we are there to be bullied if we stray from their economic overview of what a broadcasting industry should do. If they feel it’s too downmarket; too upmarket; too expensive; not investing enough; too leftwing; too rightwing; too London-centric; spending too much money on outsourcing to the regions; not attracting key talent; spending too much on key talent. I say bullying because I do feel politicians, goaded by newspaper editors, have seen broadcasting, and particularly the BBC, as an easy target.

But now is the time to fight back. There’s a perfect alignment of the stars in favour of the creative forces behind television in the UK. It won’t last, so now’s the time to strike. The Leveson inquiry has highlighted public misgivings about how our politicians and the press operate, but also the events of the summer have given us a reminder of what the public actually values about British cultural life.

In much the same way there was a pride at the celebration of the NHS in that opening ceremony, I think there’s a growing recognition that the BBC, and indeed, the UK’s wider commitment across channels to public service broadcasting, has given us the very best television available.

The public will now never forgive anyone who meddles with British TV for political advantage or to further their own economic agenda. With a new director general there couldn’t be a better time to reset the board, and signal that we’re just not going to take that kind of interference any more. That we are proud, we relish our idiosyncrasy in television, that it defines our greatness, and that to diminish it is to sterilise our ambition. The facts now prove it.

When ITV regions were sold off to the highest bidder, and we ended up with the likes of Carlton (for whom, incidentally David Cameron did the PR) then ITV suffered the consequences in declining viewers, and reputation. This it’s now rebuilding, through a commitment once again, to quality drama and distinctive, idiosyncratic programmes.

As Sky realises it’s extended as far as it can, the number of subscriptions it can pick up through sport and movies, it’s had to commit to finding a whole new type of subscriber, one who’s looking for that quality, that high-end production values and scripted ambition that we used to associate with British TV, but which we now recognise in America.

And so it’s ploughing a fortune into new production, big new dramas and new comedy. It’s establishing relationships with theatre companies, and opera groups and book festivals that others can only dream of. We should be willing this venture to succeed. For years we’ve been arguing that Sky makes all this money and it should use it to fund original content, so I think it’s cheap and churlish point scoring to ignore them or want them to fail. But, the challenge now is for Sky to hold its nerve. Some shows won’t rate, the money can’t last forever. If it really wants to make its mark, it’s now got to find the new talent, engage with the young writers, find the next comedians and actors and show it can take risks with them as well. The reward for us will be that there is a genuine hunger and competitive fight among broadcasters for the best new drama and comedy.

If we can demonstrate that good programmes actually do mean good business, then we’ve arrived at a truly creative marketplace where there’s a genuine fight for content, a fear that the best might be going elsewhere if you don’t snap it up.

That dramatically shifts the focus back to us, the programme makers, to come up with more, new, startling ideas, absolutely unmissable storylines and settings, the sharpest writing. The commissioners will have to put more work into establishing relationships with key talent, cajoling, encouraging them to feel confident that once again they’ve found a home for their work.

This is the one profound impression I brought back from my work at HBO. That, actually, its business model is now inextricably bound up in its claims for originality and the close relationships it forms with programme makers. That it makes money from new subscriptions, and it can only increase its subscriptions if more and more people know they’re paying to get something different from their usual fare. And that can only happen if HBO keeps coming up with programmes that are more daring, or funnier, or more distinctive than the competition.

As a result, it makes a fortune, and can plug that back into production. It doesn’t run commercials and actually isn’t too bothered by individual ratings. Other networks are now copying them, like FX, Showtime and AMC. This way of making adventurous television is becoming the norm. It’s why American TV at the moment is the place most creatives want to go. At HBO, I found a refreshing commitment to me, the programme maker, a culture of backing the creative.

But here’s the thing, what makes US television so good now, this commitment to us, is not new. For it’s precisely what defined British television for decades. Our passion, our drive to make what felt different and adventurous, had been the hallmark of British television for 40 years. I like to think that, if it got lost recently, that was just a blip. That it hasn’t been forgotten, and that once again the circumstances are slotting into place whereby it has to re-emerge and stay with us if we’re to survive and then go on to re-take our position as the best TV makers in the world.

And that blip, that period we’ve just come through, where programmes were filtered through charts and schedules and executive brain cells and imposed on a creative workforce, that is precisely the old-fashioned mechanics of the big American networks that HBO and company are fighting free of. Just as US TV was excelling by copying the values of British programme makers, so were British channels falling into the worse habits of committee-driven American network TV.

I don’t know what it’s saying, but I wrote this speech on my iPad, which I bought when I was filming in America. So it must be on American settings, because every time I typed in BBC the autocorrect changed it to NBC.

I genuinely believe that times are changing, that networks are waking up to the fact that viewers will leave them unless they can commission daring and original shows. That there is now genuine competition among them for the best talent, that the internet and the international viewing audience now mean programme makers can circumvent traditional channels and commissioners if they feel they’re making no headway for them.

I believe that we may be on the verge of a tantalising moment in television, where the more good programmes we make, the healthier the audiences and the revenue. It will represent a final and fitting twist to those words of James Murdoch. He said that ‘the only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit.’ Could it be that soon the only reliable, durable guarantee of profit is independence? Only we can prove whether that will be the case.

It won’t happen overnight. It does need investment, we should be more aggressive in selling our content overseas. The BBC should be more aggressive, all of television should, against the politicians and press barons who seek to tame it and rein it in. It’s up to all of us to fight, fight to recapture first position with our ideas, but fight forcefully and loudly against all those who criticise what we do. We shouldn’t be scared of offending, or portraying a multi-cultural nation, or pouring money into talent, or making shows that split opinion, that occasionally fail.

We shouldn’t be afraid of abandoning caution and market research, nor afraid to write and produce from the heart, out of passion. After all, what better way is there to connect with someone, than a fight? Thank-you very much.

Bailey’s brain is a pretty funny place – SMH

Bill Bailey amp stack by Andy Hollingworth. Publicity pic supplied  Bill Bailey amp stack by Andy Hollingworth.jpgBill Bailey … ”I often say in the show that if you take nothing else from the show, take this that I’m going to tell you now.” Photo: Andy Hollingworth

Bill Bailey gets called smart not just because he’s a comedian who sounds like he’s read a book or two and likes Elvis Costello. A multi-instrumentalist who can not only act as a guide to the orchestra but play alongside it (possibly on the clarinet, maybe even on the oud, but more likely the piano), Bailey can talk Nietzsche and Chris de Burgh, string theory and Star Trek, dancing bears and French declension.

It doesn’t hurt that as well as roles in TV and film comedies such as Black Books, Hot Fuzz and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he has appeared on stage performing Harold Pinter and Twelve Angry Men and is both dryly knowledgeable and surreal on the panel show QI.

And now he is a survivalist. Well, of a sort. Bailey is in the ”garden bunker” of the North Devon home he shares with his wife, Kristen, and their nine-year old son, Dax, when my call comes through. So, is he stocked up for the end of days? Well, sort of. He has hummus, julienned carrots, a kettle, a mandola and a load of books. There are also teabags and the remains of a cheese sandwich (hey, potential penicillin!) and, in the cupboard, a tiny jar of maple syrup.

”That’s the smallest jar of maple syrup I’ve ever seen,” he laughs. ”That wouldn’t even do the corner of one pancake.” He does concede it might come in handy in a post-apocalyptic world where smelling like you are edible could help.


”That would be how you attract a mate in the grim, post-apocalyptic wilderness, and for women it would work like catnip and they’d come out of the bushes [he intones in zombie monotone] ‘procreate, procreate,”’ he says. Then after a pause: ”Which is much like Devon now.”

The interesting thing about Bailey as a comedian is that I feel as if I am smarter after hearing him than I had been before. Which might be disturbing with your regular joke teller but Bailey, whose new show is called Qualmpeddler, really is smarter than most.

”It’s a harder one to pull off, actually, and I’ve noticed that over the years. It’s much easier to be the low status ‘I can’t understand the world’ sort [of comedian] – that is almost to the traditional role of the comic, going back centuries to court jesters. So trying to steer away from that is harder to do but it’s more interesting, I think. There is such a wealth of human history to draw material from and I often say in the show that if you take nothing else from the show, take this that I’m going to tell you now.”

Being clever hasn’t hurt, given Bailey is as comfortable playing arenas of 10,000 as theatres of 600. He doesn’t do the know-it-all who looks down on the world and the audience type of comedy, either. He singularly fails at being arrogant.

”I’ve tried,” he laughs. ”I’ve tried it on, being a bit arrogant, and I ended up apologising afterwards.”

Bailey has made funny with digressions into religious art, owls and how much dark matter there is in the universe. Can he make any subject interesting as comedy if it’s something he’s interested in?

”I would hope so, yes. That is part of the challenge of doing the shows. I’m always on the lookout to incorporate new and interesting ideas and subject matter. You look at it and think, well, this is pretty barren ground, there is nothing here, go back, go back, nothing to see. But that is when I want to push forward and start digging to see if there’s something there.”

Finding that nugget of humour in the pebbles of a dry topic makes comedy a bit like prospecting, Bailey says. There are higher rewards than piles of cash if the audience can take something away with them they didn’t have on arrival.

”I’ve realised that part of the comic’s job is, in a way, almost like an obligation to try and illuminate subjects that may be too dry or maybe impenetrable, to draw the humour out of them,” he says.

”After years of doing these shows you have the tools to do that [because] thinking laterally about something is something that is the preserve of comics and writers and poets, because that’s what we do every day. And that’s why I’m drinking coffee at 4am [he laughs] looking at the screen going, ‘Come on, there must be something about protein and DNA.”’

Of course, if you can’t make it funny with a joke, put it in a song, right? Bailey, who turned 48 in February, approves when I tell him that one of the comedy and life discoveries of my teen years was the American satirist of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Tom Lehrer, who could make the periodic table funny as well as laugh at the Pope, the bomb and German scientists in song.

”If you come at things from a different angle you can absorb it,” Bailey says of the esoteric topic for a musical joke. ”I wrote out The Categorical Imperative by Emmanuel Kant and I summarised it to the theme from Match of the Day,” he says before proceeding to sing to me.

”You get to the kernel of something in a song and I had people writing to me saying ‘I have that as a mnemonic when I go into my philosophy exam.”’

Bill Bailey performs at the State Theatre from September 5 to 8 and September 19.

Patton Oswalt’s Letters to Both Sides: His keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012

(This is from, and was originally written by Sean L McCarthy)

After stirring keynote speeches by Lewis Black and Marc Maron over the past couple of years, Patton Oswalt took to the stage adjacent to the Hyatt lounge on Thursday afternoon to deliver the third annual keynote for the Just For Laughs Comedy Conference in Montreal.

Oswalt employed self-deprecation right off the bat, joking that he was far from JFL’s first choice to address the comedians, industry and fans in the audience. “Luckily for me, none of them could be bothered to wake up before 1 p.m.,” he said. He also noted with sarcasm that in a year in which comedy has come under the microscope of the media and bloggers, of course, a “straight white male” should be the comedy community’s representative to make sense of it all. Speaking of which, he added: “People are referring to us as the comedy communtiy — thats how fucked up things are right now.”

Instead of a straight speech, Oswalt wrote two open letters and read them aloud.

The first letter he addressed to “all of the comedians in the room”; the second, to “all of the gatekeepers” of the comedy business.

Here are those letters.

Dear comedian in 2012:

How are you? I am good. In answer to your last letter, the mozzarella sticks at the Irvine Improv do taste weird. I’m taking your advice and sticking with the nachos.

Hey, ‘know what I was thinking the other day? Everything I know about succeeding as a comedian and ultimately as an artist is worthless now, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

I started doing comedy in the summer of 1988. That was a different time, wasn’t it? Joe Piscopo was president, Mary Lou Retton won the Cold War, and Andy Kindler turned 50

If I hadn’t popped that goddamn ‘P’, the Piscopo joke would’ve annihilated.

When I say everything I know about succeeding a comedian is worthless, I know what I’m talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.

The first time was the evening of May 22, 1992. I’d been doing standup almost four years at that point, and that was Johnny Carson’s last ever Tonight Show.

Up until that night, the way you made it in comedy was very clear, simple, straightforward. You went on Carson, you killed, you got called over to the couch, and the next day you had your sitcom and your mansion, and you’re made. Just ask Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. And Bill Clinton. That’s how you did it.

But now, Johnny was gone and he wasn’t coming back.

All the comedians I remember starting out with in D.C., all the older ones, told me over and over again ‘you gotta work clean, you gotta get your five minutes, and you gotta get on Carson.’ And it all comes down to that.

And in one night, all of them were wrong. And not just wrong, they were unmoored. They were drifting. A lot of these bulletproof comics I’d opened for, whose careers seemed pre-destined, a lot of them never recovered from that night. You’ll never hear their names. They had been sharks in a man-made pond and had been drained. They decided their time had passed.

Keep that in mind for later. They had decided their time had passed.

The second time everything I knew about comedy became worthless has been petty much every day for the last three years.

I know that’s not an exact date. Some other younger, not yet famous name in this room – you are going to pinpoint that date 20 years from now. But for now, every day for about the last few years will have to suffice.

I just want to give you a brief timeline of my career up to this point, when I knew it was all changing again. Listen to my words very carefully. Two words will come up again and again and they’re going to come back later along with that phrase “they decided” and people are going to carry me around the room.

I was lucky enough to get hired onto King of Queens in 1998. I had nine years on that show. Money, great cast, even better writers, a lot of fun. I bought a house. Then I was lucky enough to get cast as a lead voice in a Pixar movie in 2007. Acclaim, money, I got to meet a lot of my heroes. Then I was lucky enough to get cast on The United States of Tara on Showtime. I got to watch Toni Collette work. I got to perform Diablo Cody’s writing. After which, I was lucky enough to get cast in Young Adult, which is where I got to make out with Charlize Theron. I will use that as an icebreaker if i ever meet Christina Ricci.

I’ve been lucky enough to be given specials on HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime. As well as I’ve been lucky enough to release records on major labels, and I was lucky they approached me to do it. And that led to me being lucky enough to get Grammy nominations.

I know that sounds like a huge ego-stroking credit dump. But if you listened very carefully, you would have heard two words over and over again: “lucky” and “given.” Those are two very very dangerous words for a comedian. Those two words can put you to sleep, especially once you get a taste of both being “lucky” and being “given.” The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.

Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that.

What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.

Remember what I said earlier about those bulletproof headliners who focused on their 5 minutes on the Tonight Show and when it ended they decided their opportunity was gone? They decided. Nobody decided that for them. They decided.

Now, look at my career up to this point. Luck, being given. Other people deciding for me.

In the middle of the TV shows and the albums and the specials, I took a big chunk of my money and invested it in a little tour called The Comedians of Comedy. I put it together with my friends, we did small clubs, stayed in shitty hotel rooms, packed ourselves in a tiny van and drove it around the country. The tour was filmed for a very low-budget documentary that I convinced Netflix to release. That became a low-budget show on Comedy Central that we all still own a part of, me and the comedians. That led to a low budget concert film that we put on DVD.

At the end of it, I was exhausted, I was in debt, and I wound up with a wider fanbase of the kind of people I always dreamed of having as fans. And I built that from the ground up, friends and people I respected and was a fan of.

And I realize now I need to combine both of the lessons I’ve learned.

I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.

I’m seeing this notion take form in a lot of my friends. A lot of you out there. You, for instance, the person I’m writing to. Your podcast is amazing. Your videos on your YouTube channel are getting better and better every single one that you make, just like when we did open mics, better and better every week. Your Twitter feed is hilarious.

Listen, I’m doing the Laugh Trench in Milwaukee next week. Is there any chance for an RT?

Your friend, Patton Oswalt

This is his second letter.

Dear gatekeepers in broadcast and cable executive offices, focus groups, record labels, development departments, agencies and management companies:


Last month I turned in a script for a pilot I co-wrote with Phil Rosenthal who has had a share of luck and success I can only dream of. Thanks for the notes you gave me on the pilot script. I’m not going to be implementing any of them.

And no, I’m not going to call you “the enemy” or “the man.” I have zero right to say that based on the breaks I’ve gotten from you over the years. If I tried to strike a Che Guevara pose, you would be correct in pointing out that the dramatic underlighting on my face was being reflected up from my swimming pool.

I am as much to blame for my uneasiness and realization of late that I’m part of the problem, that I’m half asleep and more than half complacent.

And I’m still not going to implement your notes. And I’m quoting Phil Rosenthal on this, but he said after we read your notes – and I’m quoting him verbatim – “We’re living in a post-Louie world, and these notes are from a pre-According to Jim world.”

I just read a letter to my fellow comedians telling them what I’m about to tell you, but in a different way. Here it is.

You guys need to stop thinking like gatekeepers. You need to do it for the sake of your own survival.

Because all of us comedians after watching Louis CK revolutionize sitcoms and comedy recordings and live tours. And listening to “WTF With Marc Maron” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and watching the growth of the UCB Theatre on two coasts and seeing careers being made on Twitter and Youtube.

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.

And that doesn’t prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, there’s an essay, there’s a paper, and there’s a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and that’s it. And then after you’re done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because you’re an adult now.

Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less.

If we work with you in the future, it’s going to be because we like your product and your choices and your commitment to pushing boundaries and ability to protect the new and difficult.

Here’s the deal, and I think it’s a really good one.

I want you, all of the gatekeepers, to become fans. I want you to become true enthusiasts like me. I want you to become thrill-seekers. I want you to be as excited as I was when I first saw Maria Bamford’s stand-up, or attended The Paul F. Tompkins show, or listened to Sklarbro Country….

I want you to be as charged with hope as I am that we’re looking at the most top-heavy with talent young wave of comedians that this industry have ever had at any time in its history.

And since this new generation was born into post-modern anything, they are wilder and more fearless than anything you’ve ever dealt with. But remind yourselves: Youth isn’t king. Content is king. Lena Dunham’s 26-year-old voice is just as vital as Louis CK’s 42-year-old voice which is just as vital as Eddie Pepitone’s 50-something voice.

Age doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about what you have to say and what you’re going to say. Please throw the old fucking model away.

Just the tiny sampling at this amazing festival…. I’m excited to not be the funniest person in the room. It makes me work harder and try to be better at what I do. So be as excited and grateful as I am.

And if in the opportunities you give me, you try to cram all this wildness and risk-taking back in to the crappy mimeographic worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away. We’re not going to work together. No harm no foul. We can just walk away.

You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Oswalt holds up an iPhone)

In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.

I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your tv network.

In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.

If you get out of our way and we fuckin’ get out and fall on our face, we won’t blame you like we did in the past. Because we won’t have taken any of your notes, so it’ll truly be on us.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the stuff uploaded to Youtube. There are sitcoms now on the internet, some of them are brilliant, some of them are “meh,” some of them fuckin suck. At about the same ratio that things are brilliant and “meh” and suck on your network.

If you think that we’re somehow going to turn on you later if what we do falls on its face, and blame you because we can’t take criticism? Let me tell you one thing: We have gone through years of open mics to get where we need to get. Criticism is nothing to us, and comment threads are fucking electrons.


Patton Oswalt

(hat tip to Sharilyn Johnson of Third Beat, who sat next to me during Oswalt’s speech and typed much more furiously than I did)

BBC – Comedy foreign accents: Are they ever a good idea?

The BBC discuss is it ever a good idea to do a comedy foreign accent?
From “allo guv’nah” to “g’day sport”, we’ve all done it – mimicked either a regional or foreign accent. And most of us do it to raise a laugh.

David Cameron did it this week when he attempted to impersonate the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Delivering his annual foreign policy speech to the Lord Mayor of London’s banquet, he described an exchange he had had with Gillard on the subject of a new rule allowing first-born girls to accede to the throne.

Mimicking an Australian accent, Cameron said Gillard thought it was “good news for sheilas everywhere”.

Although it went down well in the room – with much applause and laughter – it was a different matter down under, with one news website describing it as “perhaps one of the worst Aussie accents in history”.

People should be free to speak in any accent they want”

Sean Ruttledge Comic

Barack Obama played it safe during his recent trip to Australia peppering his speech with a few choice colloquialisms – greeting high school students with a jaunty “g’day” or talking about having a “chinwag” with Gillard – without feeling the need to go a bit Paul Hogan.

But is it right to mimic accents? Can it be just plain rude, or simply not very funny?

Sean Ruttledge, comic and voice artist, applauds Cameron’s attempt at humour.

“He got a big laugh – the room appreciated it, good on him,” he said. “Obviously a [head of government] needs to be careful when they try this kind of thing – they don’t want it remixed into some kid’s video mash-up for YouTube.”

But he says that where Cameron went wrong was to issue a jokey disclaimer about not doing a very good Australian accent.

“If you are doing edgy material then you shouldn’t be shy about it – just go for it.”

Ruttledge has done myriad voices in his World Tour of English Regional Accents and Dialects YouTube video series. While it garnered many fans, there were some people who loathed it.

David Cameron and Julia Gillard Julia Gillard has not said what she thought of Cameron’s imitation

“It was banned on YouTube countless times – and I received a lot of hate mail,” says Ruttledge.

There are certain groups that don’t like to be lampooned, he says. In the UK, it was the Liverpudlians who were most sensitive about how they were portrayed, he suggests.

“I was cartoon-like, very stereotypical – a bit like Harry Enfield’s Scousers ‘Calm Down’ routine. There is a lot of hurt in Merseyside over that.”

For those who feel the urge to launch into some mimicry, context and intent is key, says Ruttledge. “This dictates whether someone will find it offensive.

“People should be free to speak in any accent they want – no-one could believe that one white Anglo-Saxon [head of government] was going to offend another white Anglo-Saxon [head of government] by imitating her accent.

“If I’m talking to someone, and I’m recounting an encounter with a traffic warden – I will switch from narrator into a different character. If the traffic warden was Nigerian, for example, you may find it entertaining or you may find it racist depending on how you look at things. I’m a comic, I do it for laughter.”

But, he says, the lay person has to be careful what accents they do. Imitating certain accents gives the perception that someone is simply being racist, he says.

“Chinese comes off badly – as does Indian, Nigerian, or West African.”

Oliver Double, an expert in comedy at the University of Kent, says that it is all about context. There are certain accents that one should be wary of attempting to imitate.

“With comic routines, people are more touchy if the group you are impersonating has a history of serious prejudice. If a white person puts on a Pakistani accent, there will be a frisson in the audience.

Allo Allo Allo Allo was responsible for many people putting on comedy French accents

“Similarly, if a crowd of friends is out for the evening and one person launches into a Peter Sellers-style Indian accent, and there is an Indian present, it may not be funny to them. In terms of what is acceptably funny, you may never know where people’s sensibilities lie.”

This is not the first time that Cameron has drawn brickbats for mimicking an accent. In 2009, questions were raised about the wisdom of putting on a German accent while discussing a possible ID scheme.

“Where are your papers?” he asked in an accent, widely assumed to be of a German guard.

But Ruttledge sees nothing wrong with this either.

“These kinds of cliches come from the movies and sitcoms – it’s acceptable mainstream comedy. Weirdly, certain accents are fair game – the whole “Allo Allo” thing had everyone going around doing exaggerated accents from the French resistance.

“It’s all about context and intent, the funny voices aren’t necessarily meant to offend.”

So which are accents are people most likely to attempt?

For Ruttledge, Geordie accents are one of the most popular.

“There is also a generic Northern ‘trouble at mill’ accent that southerners, in particular, like to do. The Irish often get it, too, although some Irish accents are hard to pull off. So there is a ‘generic Irish’ accent.”

Growing up in South Yorkshire, one would expect Ruttledge to have the Rotherham accent off pat, but he had one local man pointing out that the Rotherham accent in the regional dialects series was not up to scratch.

“It’s in the ear of the beholder,” says Ruttledge.

Ricky Gervais – Time – The Difference Between American and British Humour

Ricky Gervais discusses the difference between american and british humour.

It’s often dangerous to generalize, but under threat, I would say that Americans are more “down the line.” They don’t hide their hopes and fears. They applaud ambition and openly reward success. Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers. We embrace the underdog until it’s no longer the underdog.We like to bring authority down a peg or two. Just for the hell of it. Americans say, “have a nice day” whether they mean it or not. Brits are terrified to say this. We tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere but I think it might be for the opposite reason. We don’t want to celebrate anything too soon. Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner. This is due to our upbringing. Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Brits are told, “it won’t happen for you.”

There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is of course not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits. We use it as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly take the piss out of people we like or dislike basically. And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.

This can sometimes be perceived as nasty if the recipients aren’t used to it. It isn’t. It’s play fighting. It’s almost a sign of affection if we like you, and ego bursting if we don’t. You just have to know which one it is.

I guess the biggest difference between the U.S. version and the U.K. version of The Office reflected this. We had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be childish, and insecure, and even a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. The irony is of course that I think David Brent’s dark descension and eventual redemption made him all the more compelling. But I think that’s a lot more palatable in Britain for the reasons already stated. Brits almost expect doom and gloom so to start off that way but then have a happy ending is an unexpected joy. Network America has to give people a reason to like you not just a reason to watch you. In Britain we stop watching things like Big Brother when the villain is evicted. We don’t want to watch a bunch of idiots having a good time. We want them to be as miserable as us. America rewards up front, on-your-sleeve niceness. A perceived wicked streak is somewhat frowned upon.

Recently I have been accused of being a shock comic, and cruel and cynical. This is of course almost solely due to a few comments I made as host of this years Golden Globes. But nothing could be further from the truth.

I never actively try to offend. That’s churlish, pointless and frankly too easy. But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth. That way you’ll never have to apologize. I hate it when a comedian says, “Sorry for what I said.” You shouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it and you should never regret anything you meant to do. As a comedian, I think my job isn’t just to make people laugh but also make them think. As a famous comedian, I also want a strict door policy on my club. Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is. Good luck to them, but that’s not my game, I’m afraid.

I’m not one of those people who think that comedy is your conscience taking a day off. My conscience never takes a day off and I can justify everything I do. There’s no line to be drawn in comedy in the sense that there are things you should never joke about. There’s nothing that you should never joke about, but it depends what that joke is. Comedy comes from a good or a bad place. The subject of a joke isn’t necessarily the target of the joke. You can make jokes about race without any race being the butt of the joke. Racism itself can be the butt, for example. When dealing with a so-called taboo subject, the angst and discomfort of the audience is what’s under the microscope. Our own preconceptions and prejudices are often what are being challenged. I don’t like racist jokes. Not because they are offensive. I don’t like them because they’re not funny. And they’re not funny because they’re not true. They are almost always based on a falsehood somewhere along the way, which ruins the gag for me. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit. Not a platform.

As for cynicism, I don’t care for it much. I’m a romantic. From The Office, and Extras to The Invention Of Lying and Cemetery Junction, goodness and sweetness, honour and truth, love and friendship always triumph.

For me, humanity is king.

Oh and for the record I’d rather a waiter say, “Have a nice day” and not mean it, than ignore me and mean it.

Gervais is a comedian, actor and producer. The views expressed are his own.

Patton Oswalt interviewed by the A.V. Club

The is an interesting, if long, interview with Patton Oswalt over at the A.V Club by Genevieve Koski

Here’s what Patton has to say about life:
It took me until my 40s to realize it: There’s no destination. There’s no getting anywhere. There’s just the going. The key to life is to make the going really fun. Because people that are like, “If I just get to this, then boom!” And then they get there and there’s this dawning of an afterwards. Whereas I’m just always in the going. And it’s not a frantic going like, “I gotta keep going or I’m gonna go nuts!” I can not do anything for weeks or months if I need to and just sit and read books or watch movies. I’m just as fine consuming and absorbing new art as I am trying to make it. But it’s all in the going.
Here is the full content for prosperity:
‪When we asked to interview Patton Oswalt, he told us he was worried about wearing out his welcome at The A.V. Club, what with how many times we’ve written about him (and he’s occasionally written for us) over the years. But considering how many projects the prolific comedian has in the hopper at any given moment, there’s always something new to talk about with Oswalt. In the time since we spoke to him in 2009, he released his first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland; filmed a handful of movies; made numerous TV appearances, both as a regular and guest star; and even took a short-lived stab at Broadway. In the midst of all that, he’s continued to build and hone new stand-up material, which culminates in the upcoming Showtime special Finest Hour, airing September 5, and the attendant comedy album of the same name, which comes out September 20. Oswalt took a break between the two projects he’s currently filming in New York—a new Adult Swim show from the creators of Wonder Showzen and an upcoming comedy with Johnny Knoxville—to discuss the special, countering knee-jerk hate both onstage and online, and why he doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on his successes and failures.‬

The A.V. Club: We always seem to catch you when you’re in New York, which, judging by a bit on Finest Hour, is not your favorite place to be. 

Patton Oswalt: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, again, there’s nothing wrong with visiting here, but right now, you’re catching me during a three-month residency. My first month, I was staying in the Lower East Side, because when I was here last year, I was up in the more boring, touristy part of Hell’s Kitchen. So then I told the people that are doing this TV show, “I gotta stay in the West Village, or I gotta stay in the Lower East Side. I want someplace real.” And then after a month in the Lower East Side, during the New York heat wave, I was like, “Okay, you know what? I’m 42 years old. I think I’m done. I’ve had enough of the ‘real.’ This would’ve been great when I was 19, this is friggin’ horrible now.” I would open the doors to the hotel in the lobby, and even the two doormen would look back, like, “All right, dude, here it comes,” and just this wave of garbage air would pummel you. It was like a shockwave of stink. I was almost excited to do it in the morning to see what new, horrible smell would come down there. I was like, “I can’t do this. So I’m close to the IFC Center and the Whole Foods? That’s not worth it.” It’s just not worth it to me anymore.

AVC: Are you doing any stand-up sets while you’re there, or are you pretty much focusing on filming? 

PO: Well, I finished the TV show August 5, and then I went right into this movie. And right now, as much as I wanna do sets, I keep getting these 5:30 a.m. call times. And again, 10 years ago, I would’ve said, “Yeah, I’ll go do some sets, hang out, get a couple hours’ sleep. There’s coffee on the set. I’ll be fine.” And now, I’m like, “Nope. Daddy’s gotta go to bed at 7 o’clock.” [Laughs.] ’Cause I know how my body operates differently from what it did when it was 30 and when it was 20. As unhealthy as I am, I’m weirdly aware of exactly how my body functions.

AVC: You’ve reached a level now where a lot of your time is taken up with acting and writing, and then these large-scale theater gigs to do stand-up. When do you work out new material? Do you still try and do smaller sets and drop-ins when you’re working out new stuff? 

PO: Yeah, whenever I can. Here’s what’s really strange: Now that I’m starting to do more movies and TV shows, what I’m discovering—and I’ve actually talked to other friends of mine who do way more movies and TV shows—if you work in movies and television, you’re never in L.A. Movies and TV are the new “road” for performers. [Laughs.] If I were to just focus on stand-up, I could actually, paradoxically enough, be home way more, because I would leave on a Friday, go do a couple theaters Friday, Saturday, maybe Sunday, come home. I’d be home all week, and I would just do what I love to do, which are all these little sets all around L.A. There are all these amazing shows now. Just go up and work out new stuff. But of course, now that I most want to be home with my daughter, I’m getting these movie offers, and no movies shoot in L.A. anymore! They don’t make movies there! That’s the one thing they don’t do is movies and TV shows. [Laughs.] A friend of mine was like, “I need to work, ’cause I have kids, and I got this offer for a one-season commitment to a one-hour drama, and it’s shot in Vancouver. I can’t take my kids up to Vancouver for nine months, I just can’t.” And he had to turn it down. It’s so odd.

AVC: The L.A. comedy scene has exploded recently, but obviously New York is still a big proving ground for stand-ups as well. Do you think there’s a certain type of personality that gravitates toward one city over the other, or is it just a matter of circumstance?  

PO: I think the kind of person that gravitates toward New York is a person that’s not so much focused on controlling exactly how they appear and how they exit. They’re more fascinated with the process. In other words, running around, doing three sets a night. One of the sets, you’ve had a piece of pizza before you got on the subway to get there. They’re much more in tune with, like, “This is real life. This is how I am in this moment.” They’re very much more in the moment. The whole sorting and controlling the image, that’s up to other people, when you’re finished with your work 20 years down the road. Other people, it’s their job to sort it out. They just wanna do, do, do, do, do, until they can’t anymore. I think that’s why Los Angeles is where you’re seeing the birth of the podcast and video-short explosions. Stuff like Five Second Films, and Comedy Bang Bang, and Paul F. Tompkins’ amazing podcast. Because they’re drawn to L.A., which is more about entrances, how you present yourself, how you make your splash, how you make your debut, and how you control your image. It’s just as fecund out there. People are doing just as much work, but in a much more controlled way. Because L.A. is very controlled. You know, in Los Angeles, you’re constantly in your car, you’re sealed up, you’re not walking around. Whereas in New York, after a while, all your stuff is kind of public, in one way or the other. I’m not saying either one of those is bad; they’re both great for a very specific kind of comedian. And I’m glad that they both exist.

AVC: So it’s not East Coast/West Coast comedy wars? 

PO: I don’t see it as a war. A less boring term would be “The East Coast/West Coast supplementation.” I think they both play off each other really, really well. It would be really interesting to see a very prolific New York comedian who’s used to that kind of pace transplanted to Los Angeles, and a very controlled, insular—but still brilliant and prolific—Los Angeles comedian suddenly in the rawness of New York. And seeing how those two things bounce off each other would be really amazing. A show like Louie, which is so goddamn brilliant, but it is so raw, it feels like a rough documentary sometimes. It’s just life happening. And then a show like Community, which is equally brilliant—it’s by this guy, Dan Harmon, who was a transplant to L.A.—and it’s so brilliantly about people that are kind of sealed up in their own little pop-culture worlds. And what’s so poignant about it is they’re trying so hard to reach out of those cocoons every week. And more often than not, they fail, but they’re trying. Whereas Louis’ show is about a guy that’s connected to the world whether he wants to be or not, because it is there all the fucking time. And it’s so fascinating to see those two extremes play out on TV right now.

AVC: Speaking to what you were saying about the rawness of doing stand-up in New York: You play to larger audiences who have bought tickets to see you specifically, and they’re attuned to your sensibilities, where you stand on religion, politics, whatever, so you don’t have to win them over. It seems like that would be liberating, but is there a part of you that misses confronting an unfamiliar audience? 

PO: What’s really weird is, there was always that part of me that was drawn to it for the confrontational—and also from fear, ’cause normally, I’m not a very confrontational person. I would much rather be left alone, and stay inside and read a book. But then that part of me draws me on stage, like, “Okay, let’s get out there.” But what’s odd is, now that I’m getting a little older, and because you change all the time—and I’ve already seen this in some of the reviews of my CDs, people will listen to Feelin’ Kinda Patton, and I’m getting drunk onstage and railing against parents, like, “Why the fuck would people have kids? Why do people get sober? It’s so stupid.” And then two albums later, I’m about to get married, and planning to have a kid, and I’m not drinking as much. So to me, each album is just like an issue of a magazine: That’s what’s happening with me at that time. And a lot of times, I’ll say stuff onstage not even meaning to challenge people, just to be honest with exactly where I am right now, and I’ll get the same kind of, “Whoa, wait a minute.” And then I have to win them over to that point of view. So, I think if you’re honest about getting older and changing, you’ll always have to confront the audience, especially an audience that comes in with expectations, “Okay, we’re gonna hear this, this, this, and this,” and then I’m like, “Well….”

Like, my feelings on religion are starting to morph. I’m still very much an atheist, except that I don’t necessarily see religion as being a bad thing. So, that’s a weird thing that I’m struggling with that seems to be offending both atheists and people that are religious. [Laughs.] I’m almost saying certain people do better with religion, the way that certain rock stars do better if they’re shooting heroin. Like, if Keith Richards wasn’t doing heroin sitting in that car outside of where they were filming Performance and being pissed off at Mick [Jagger] fucking Anita Pallenberg, then we wouldn’t have Gimme Shelter. If Michelangelo wasn’t terrified of all this religious bullshit afterlife stuff, then we wouldn’t have The Last Judgment that he painted. So, maybe that was good for us, that that person had to suffer through that. I don’t know, but I’m looking at that.

AVC: Do you think any of that is tied to you becoming a father? It’s a lot easier to explain death to a child when you can tell them about heaven.

PO: Goddamn, that’s so weird. Again, I was very much an atheist, but I was never like the Richard Dawkins [type], getting in people’s faces about it. Maybe ’cause I write so much, and ’cause I’m so steeped in horror and science fiction and comic books, I can see the origins of how they made up every religion. I know where it came from; the human heart wanted that stuff. I’m not saying that I’m smarter. In a way, it’s because I’m not as intelligent that I can see where that stuff comes from. But at the same time, her cat died, and she was hysterical and was crying. And I totally was like, “Well, she’s in kitty heaven.” I just totally agreed with “kitty heaven” right there. You can’t tell someone who’s despondent about something that they loved and that loved them unconditionally, “Well, there’s nothing after this. They’re just gone.”

I’m very open to wherever being a parent is going to take me. I think one of the great hidden jokes of my early albums is how 100-percent sure I am of everything. And then, it’s almost like this prequel: You’re like, “Oh, you don’t realize what the fuck is about to hit you.” [Laughs.] “You don’t realize how you’re about to get that carpet ripped out from under your feet.” So, I came to this weird realization, reading about what’s going on in Africa and the Sudan and stuff like that, that I don’t hate any music. Or at least, I don’t hate the motivations behind it. And a lot of people are like, “Oh, those guys are doing this shitty music so they can get money and pussy.” Yeah, but do you know what people do to get money and pussy on this planet? Really horrible things. Like, they do horrifying things to get money and pussy and power. So, if Nickelback wants to sing “Photograph,” they decide to do that instead of forming a cult and killing people, it’s hard for me to get angry at that. [Laughs.] You’re like, “Hey, good for them.”

AVC: Like what you were saying about religion and heroin: A great many good things have come out of dudes trying to get money and pussy.

PO: Exactly. Every time a hipster bitches about Nickelback, they should send some money to the Red Cross, just to go, “Hey, look, I’m sorry that I spent one minute going off about Ke$ha and Nickelback. They’re not the best people on the planet, but I probably could’ve used that time better.” Ke$ha should do an ad for Doctors Without Borders going, “Hey guys, have at it. Rip my music apart. But every time you do it, just send a quarter to Doctors Without Borders.” [Laughs.]

AVC: The A.V. Club and its commenters would be sending a lot of money there. 

PO: Oh my God, can you imagine how much money you guys could make if any time somebody wanted to write something negative about Dane Cook or Ke$ha, or anything, they had to pay? It’s a pay-to-complain site. Think of some kind of algorithm that can tell if you’re writing something positive. You can write that stuff for free. But if you want to write something negative, you have to open a PayPal account. Oh my God, you could wipe out third world debt with one article about Jim Belushi. [Laughs.]

AVC: I think you’re onto something here.

PO: Oh my God. I would have to owe, like, $500,000.

AVC: I wrote a huge article about how terrible Ke$ha is, so I’d probably be out quite a few bucks myself.  

PO: Yeah, your great-grandkids would be born in debt. [Laughs.]

AVC: This is your first hourlong special that isn’t for Comedy Central, right?

PO: Yes… Wait a minute. Yeah, it is! I had a half-hour HBO special, and I had a half-hour Comedy Central special, which is fucking horrible. If anyone could break into Comedy Central with a huge magnet and just bulk-erase every copy of that special, that would be awesome. Then I did an hour for them that I really, really liked. The other hour that I did for them was my fourth album. And those two I really, really liked and had great fun with. They went really well, and this new one went even better. I had so much fun. I had exactly the crew that I wanted. I had the director, Jason Woliner, who’s amazing, and I got to be in Seattle. I don’t know what it is about Seattle. The minute I get to that city, it’s not so much that I calm down, I just feel like there’s a future, for some reason. I feel like, “Yeah, I’m gonna do this, and then, there’ll be other things I’ll do.” Whereas sometimes in Los Angeles, I just feel like, “Yeah, this is finite. This will end.” So, I like the illusion that Seattle gives me, that, “Oh yeah, there’ll be stuff going on.”

AVC: Was the move to Showtime because of the United States Of Tara connection? 

PO: We’d sort of shopped it around, and I’m moving into a model where I can own everything that I do. So Showtime and Comedy Central did some kind of split deal, because Comedy Central’s putting the album out, but it’s the kind of thing where I can still own it. Eventually, it goes back to me. It was just this really interesting new deal. But I wanted to finally do a one-hour special where there’s no commercials and no editing for content. Comedy Central’s gonna show it in the spring with commercials and some edits. And then I’m sure they’ll do it in the evening in that “Secret Stash” thing they do. But I just wanted, initially, to do an hour: “Boom! There it is.”

AVC: You’ve talked before about the frustration of having Comedy Central throw a commercial in the middle of a bit.

PO: Yeah. Especially if I’m railing about the shallowness of society, and then they cut to a commercial for microwavable pizza bagels, it’s sort of like it’s becoming an SCTV sketch, and I’m the punchline. [Laughs.]

AVC: In a recent blog entry, you said that you hoped this material was deeper and more mature. Can you expand a little on that?

PO: Whenever I say “deeper,” I just mean more and more self-aware. It’s one thing to be angry at something, like, “Oh, this is stupid,” and point it out. But then I think it’s important that I go, “Why would I, particularly, think this thing is stupid and get wound up about it?” and turn it back on me, which, to me, is just as fascinating. “Oh, this actually comes from this embarrassing thing, and that’s why I don’t like that.” Like the romantic-comedy [bit]. As disparaging as I’m being about romantic comedies, and how I know all of their beats, and especially how all the gay characters talk in these movies, all that comes from the fact that I still am a sucker and go see all these goddamn movies. I can bitch about it all I want, but I’ve given them my money. That’s why I’m so well-versed in this stuff. [Laughs.] I also bitch about all these stupid action movies, and I go to see every fucking one!

Right now, there’s two massive crossovers going on in the DC and Marvel comic-book universe. In Marvel, it’s Fear Itself, and in DC, it’s Flashpoint. And I’m like, “Ah, fucking crossovers! This is a way they can slap the name of the crossover on some minor book and get you to buy it, because one panel has to do with the major crossover.” And I know this ’cause I’ve bought every issue and read them. [Laughs.] I’m bitching about, “I can’t believe they’re doing Cheetos in these fuckin’ cheetah paw shapes! They’re so dumb. What idiot buys this? And by the way, when you eat them, the little paw things jam into the roof of your mouth.” “Well, why do you know that?” “Well, I bought—listen, it doesn’t…” Anything that I am bitching about, I am part of the problem. That’s becoming my theme. If I’m onstage making people pay to hear me complain about it, then by default, I’m part of the problem. [Laughs.]

AVC: That whole knee-jerk hatred of everything has become such a pervasive attitude with the Internet. 

PO: Oh, yeah. I mean, it can be. It’s rewired my brain. I have to expend extra effort not to immediately roll my eyes at a new thing, and think about, even if something shitty gets done, maybe a person did it with good intentions or maybe. There’s all kinds of music and film I like that is of quality that is made by some pretty horrible assholes. And there’s all kind of frivolous, disposable pop-culture shit that’s made by some genuinely sweet people. So you sort of have to pick your battles. It’s hard to reconcile that as you get older. I’ve met certain heroes of mine and they’re fuckin’ douchebags. And then I’ve met people who, I don’t hate them, but I’m always like, “Whatever,” and they’re the [Yelling in agony] nicest people on the planet! [Grumbling.] “Would you fucking just be an asshole to me?” You’re taking away my justification!

AVC: You’re going to meet Snooki one day and she’s just gonna be the sweetest person you’ve ever met.

PO: Goddammit, and she’ll have just reread Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and she’s gonna want to discuss that with me. I’ll just be like, “Goddammit!” Then I’m gonna finally meet Elvis Costello and he’s gonna be on a Razor scooter, drinking a Jamba Juice and he’s gonna want to show me his abs. [Laughs.] “Check out the abs!” Goddammit! He’s gonna have a Jar Jar Binks baseball cap on. It’s gonna be a nightmare! But yeah, I mean, it’s weird. It’s like, I know where of I bitch, because I have been neck deep in it. I’m financing the existence of things I don’t like. That’s what’s going on.

Can I do a little weird tangent? I did an interview with The A.V. Club a long time ago. I had an album coming out and I’m bitching about this and that and, “This is stupid. This is lame, blah blah blah.” And it got like, 150 comments underneath it and the comments are like, “Yeah, he’s okay. He’s funny.” There’s nothing negative. It’s just like, “Yeah, I’ve seen him. He’s okay.” Then, I was doing my first little film festival at the New Beverly a couple years ago and The A.V. Club said, “Hey, can someone interview you for this film festival?” And I had the worst, the worst, bronchial flu I had ever had. I could barely speak, but I also wanted to promote this because I wanted to help out the New Beverly. I was like, “I’ll do the interview. I’ll talk as long as I’m physically able to, but I have a horrible feeling that, like, 15 minutes into it, my voice will go out.” So I was only able to talk for 15 minutes and then my voice went out and in the 15 minutes, I just praised the eight films I was showing. That’s all I did. I was like, “I love this film because blah blah blah.” There’s like 550 comments under that one and it’s all, “Fuck this! What, these are the best fuckin’ movies? Asshole!” And I realized, oh. It’s because my first interview was all, “This is bullshit and I hate this and this stuff” and the second interview, which is super-short, was just, “I love this. This is great and this is great.” [Laughs.] Nothing creates rage on the Internet like sincerely enjoying something. That drives people up the fuckin’ wall.

AVC: Quick! Hate on something right now!

PO: Oh, yeah. Hey! Fucking… uh… chairs! What the fuck! Really? Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to? What, I can’t just stand? Fuck you, chairs! Whoever made chairs is worse than Hitler.

AVC: Whew, thanks.

PO: Yeah, that’ll balance everything out. [Laughs.]

AVC: You touched on this a minute ago, but there’s been this recent influx of comedy podcasts, and then a show like Louie, which has gotten really kind of insider-y about standup. It seems like there’s this trend of pulling back the curtain on standup and the lives of standups.

PO: Yeah, but you know what? I know that you’re saying it’s very insider-y standup, but stuff like Louie or Marc Maron’s WTF [podcast], they start off by going inside and then they always relate it to something universal that everyone can understand. So just like the best pieces of art, like Network or Broadcast News or Singin’ In The Rain, are ostensibly about this exotic world, they make it so human that even if you’re not in that world, you get it. I get what’s going on. Like, I don’t understand the world of drag queens or seat-of-the-pants bush pilots, but if I watch Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert or Only Angels Have Wings, I get it. Because they make you understand. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a news reporter, but if you watch All The President’s Men, you get it. There’s been plenty of podcasts about comedy and plenty of shows about comedians that fail miserably because they didn’t take it down to a very personal, human level. They tried to just keep it exotic, you know? So I think that’s why stuff like Louie, anyone can watch Louie and understand, “Okay, I get it.” Any white person in the ’70s could watch Richard Pryor when all he’s talking about is being a black person, but you totally understand what he’s talking about, because he makes it so human. So really, you’re like, “Oh shit, I’ve gone through something like that.” Everyone understands it.

AVC: You’ve been talking about doing punch-up on Hollywood scripts for a long time and then that was a plot line on Louie...

PO: I know!

AVC: That used to be something that people outside the industry weren’t really aware of, but it’s becoming much more common knowledge now, in part because of you.

PO: Well, for one thing, it’s because they like to keep that [Whispering] very, very quiet. Again, [Louis C.K.] made it very, very human, because what he did was, if you noticed, all the jokes and stuff that get pitched in that room are stuff that people have probably seen in these awful comedies and never thought twice about. But he shows you, “Oh no, it comes from…” Because you watch these comedies and you go, “Wow, one scene really doesn’t seem to follow the next.” Even if you like the movie, you’re kind of like, “It was just a bunch of…” ’Cause it’s written by committee. And they don’t think about, “What would the character do?” They’re just like, “Okay, in this scene, what can happen?”

I remember I was on this panel at South By Southwest and Thomas Haden Church, he just made Sideways. You could tell he was so happy to be in a really good comedy. Something that wasn’t needy and it was just great. To borrow Conan O’Brien’s term, “It wasn’t needy.” [Laughs.] He said the movie—and this makes me laugh so much—you know the movie George Of The Jungle? Well, he’s in that. So they did an early screening, and one of the notes came back: The first big laugh in the movie comes at like, 17 minutes in when an animal farts. That’s the first time the whole audience laughs. So then he went to the première, because they went back and retooled the movie and he says, “From the get-go, there’s just animals farting in the background for no reason!” [Laughs.] Like, from the beginning, they took the note that, “Well, the audience laughed when the animal farted” and they just throw in farts through the whole movie! Unfortunately, that’s how these guys think.

And by the way, even great directors are not immune to that. I can understand where that comes from. You want laughs! Silence, if you’re doing a comedy, or no reaction when you’re doing some other kind of movie, is really scary. And you want those. Sometimes you get fuckin’ greedy as a comedian. I know from the times when you just don’t know when to let go and you want to jump in over other people. It’s just fear. Fear and greed. Even Spielberg said when he made Jaws, at an early screening, when that fuckin’ shark comes out of the water, when Roy Scheider’s chumming and the audience just goes apeshit? He went back and reshot the scene of Richard Dreyfus going under the boat and that head pops out. He’s like, “I got greedy! I wanted another one!”

AVC: That’s one of the reasons why Louie is so remarkable, because it can go so long without a laugh.

PO: I know. Again, that show is a master class of how to be a confident comedian. That’s really what it is. It’s a master class in, “We can go for a little while and then let this thing go ‘boom.’ We can string people along.” Because it’s never uninteresting. You know what I mean? People mistake no laughs for, “Oh, it’s boring!” No, no. People aren’t laughing because they’re listening. Seeing where this is gonna go. So let this fucking happen!

AVC: But this new awareness on the audiences’ parts about the machinations of comedy, do you think that has the potential to change the way punch-up or standup is executed?

PO: Oh God, I hope so. I really hope so. I think the best thing that came out of the whole alternative scene from the early ’90s is the rebellion that happened from the waves of comedians that came up in the early aughts. A lot of us were very guilty of [Mumbling.] “I don’t know if this works, uh… We gotta work this out. See where this goes!” And just a lot of shoegazing bullshit and a lot of self-indulgent crap. You got this new wave of comedians that are just as innovative as we ever were, but they’re also fucking prepared! They’re putting on a goddamn show! They come up there and they actually revel in writing jokes and taking this very basic form and doing something new with the content. Whereas we felt, “We could change the form of this!” No, the form is fine! Why don’t you inject it with some startling content?

I just saw Book Of Mormon and we all went out for drinks afterward, and I was talking to Bobby Lopez, who is the lyricist. He’s like, “This song is this old Broadway trope and this song is that old Broadway trope. We just took that delivery system and had it say shit you never would imagine you would hear being said on Broadway, and that’s what’s so fuckin’ shocking.” They weren’t up there going, “We did it. We fucked with the whole…” No! They literally did a Broadway show you would see in the ’50s! The opening is basically the “Hiya Hugo” thing from Bye Bye Birdie. He’s like, “Yeah! We fucked with it!” I love that! I’m so much more about content rather than form. And I think people get so hung up on form. “I’m gonna change the form, man!” “Yeah, but you don’t know how the form works yet.” So a lot of alt comedians coming up hadn’t learned how to write fucking jokes. And I think a lot of the younger comedians that started after us saw the dead end that went down and they went back and said, “I’m gonna learn how to write fuckin’ jokes.” And now, that’s why I think the wave that’s coming up now is just ridiculous. There’s so much talent! Especially as the guy who just wants to keep consuming film and TV, I’m facing a very good future.

AVC: We recently interviewed Kyle Kinane, whom you introduced to a lot of people by bringing him out on tour with you. What do you look for in young comics, and is there anybody that you’re really into right now?

PO: Oh boy, the main thing to look for in young comics is, “Do you like doing standup?” And there’s a lot of young comics, they’re funny, but they’re clearly looking to get out. Like, “This better lead to some goddamn acting and movies so I don’t have to do this shit anymore.” I don’t know what it is, maybe because I’ve been doing it so long, you can always smell that. People that I like right now? People who I have open for me a lot. I mean, Kyle, but Kyle’s at the point where he should be headlining. I can’t ask him to open for me. Myq Kaplan is pretty amazing. This kid Joe Mande. I don’t know if you follow him on Twitter. Joe Mande’s good. This guy, Dan Telfer, who’s also from Chicago. Oh, Joe DeRosa, who you saw on Louie. He was Ethan, the asshole that kept shooting everything down. [Laughs.] And again, that totally links back to what I was talking about. All he’s doing is sitting there, “Well, this is bullshit.” “Well, what’s your change?” “Well, I don’t have one.” Well then, you’re not helping! Unless you can make it better, you can’t bitch about it!

Again, I always think you can learn from younger people. I don’t subscribe to that whole, “Well, I’m at a point of mastery right now.” I just don’t believe in that idea of, “I am now at this point.” No, always think of yourself as learning. And he was one of the guys that made me go deeper in my comedy in that he’ll go onstage and just righteously bitch about stuff. He’s an angry motherfucker! And he’s very sour. But very funny. But after bitching about it, he then would point out what an asshole he is for bitching about it. “You realize that the reason I’m so funny about this is because I’m kind of an asshole. The fact that I’m so angry about this.” And it’s really startling to see a comedian do that and get bigger laughs from doing that. He’d just do the whole thing about yelling at a guy at Best Buy, then realizing, “Wait a minute. I’m yelling at a guy who works at Best Buy. I’m such an asshole.” [Laughs.] I can’t do it justice, but it’s really funny.

Then also, people like… Oh God! It’s going a little bit beyond standup for me right now. The other people that are coming up are people like James Adomian and Andy Daly and Eddie Pepitone, who are basically finding a career on podcasts. Doing these really deep, rich characters. Just seemingly effortlessly. Same with Seth Morris. His character spun off into a fuckin’ podcast. And then also, people on Twitter. And I know that sounds so lame, but there are some really amazing minds working on Twitter right now. I mean, there’s real people like Megan Amram and Shelby Fero and JennyJohnsonHi5. The age range and the experience range is so different. You know, Shelby just started college; Megan, who graduated college is now working in L.A.; Jenny is a stepmom of two and is a news producer from Houston, and all have similarly fucked-up worldviews and really great writing. Just really great writing. And then you have people who are doing these characters on Twitter who are really consistent and brilliant.

AVC: It’s interesting, you were talking about comedians back in the alt-comedy days trying to blow up the form, but Twitter really has blown up the form. It’s very specifically its own form of comedy.

PO: Oh, yeah. It’s as restrictive as haiku, and because of it, I think it frees people up.

AVC: It’s frustrating when people think Twitter is just about rambling about whatever comes to your head and saying what you’re eating, because it can be a really great exercise in writing and editing.

PO: Oh God. Hey, believe me, the people that do Twitter as, “Eh, whatever comes to my head,” they don’t last very long. But people like Shelby Fero or even deeper—DadBoner, PeanutFreeMom, and teendad13—that are doing these brilliantly. Like, the typos in teendad’s Twitter, he must agonize over those the way that Joyce agonized over Finnegan’s Wake. Like, “How exactly am I going to write ‘a peal of thunder?’” It’s so fuckin’ brilliant.

AVC: The last time we talked, you were just starting your run on Caprica and you were working on The United States Of Tara and you were excited about working regularly in series television. Have the fates of those shows, and then Dollhouse as well, soured the experience for you at all? Or is it just part of the cycle? Because obviously, you had success on King Of Queens before that.

PO: Those were shows that I was very lucky to get involved in, three shows that the creators had a very, very specific vision for and went for it, often times to the detriment of the ratings. And I knew what they had planned for the second season of Caprica. They were taking a long view with that show. They had really amazing stuff, but he really saw it as, “I don’t want to rush it because I need to lay all this stuff. This is all very important to me.” They weren’t just making shit up as they went along. And same with Tara. If anything, they were excited that they wrote themselves purposely into a corner at the end of season three, like, “Well, it’s over, right?” But they wanted to see, “What new directions do we take this in?” They wanted to make it as hard as they possibly could on themselves were they given a fourth season. You saw how things were clicking so hard in the third season with the stuff they were doing, especially after the second season, which I thought sort of spun its wheels a little bit, sometimes.

And same with Dollhouse. Although, I think Dollhouse, the problem with that had more to do with—I don’t know what networks’ problems are with Joss Whedon, they just fuck with his goddamn shows. They fuck with his shows. He maps up his amazing universe, and they put them on out of order. What the fuck does he have to do before somebody trusts him? Dollhouse was amazing and was going to be even more amazing if they just fucking leave him alone! I’m sorry, I don’t wanna get into that. Oh, I can’t wait for the commenters: “Oh, just another Joss Whedon defender. The big, bad fuckin’ network crushing a genius!” But honestly, there’s objective evidence that that’s the case. This isn’t my opinion anymore. You can look at every one of those shows! They get fucked with!

AVC: And now you’re working on a new show, The Heart, She Holler, for Adult Swim, right? What can you tell us about it?

PO: I’m gonna say this: The creators [PFFR, creators of Wonder Showzen] should get interviewed about this thing, because they have a much deeper vision for it. Think of the worst Williamsburg hipster douchebag, then think of what that person thinks the South is. And that’s what the show is. It’s what someone who would never set foot in the South thinks the South is. Like, try to imagine if Abel Ferrara made Hee Haw.

AVC: I can’t imagine that, but okay.

PO: Well, you’re about to. You’re about to get to see it and judge it for yourself.

AVC: It seems like right now, Adult Swim seems like a really nurturing environment for comedy, with stuff like Childrens Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV, versus Comedy Central, which is kind of known for pulling the plug on shows without letting them prove themselves.

PO: Yeah. Also, I think Comedy Central, in a weird way, are slaves to what I seem to think is a false demographic. Where they think their demographic is now MTV2’s demographic. Whereas everything that’s ever been successful for them has appealed to either adults or really, really smart teens. It’s the Beavis And Butt-Head conundrum, where MTV put that on and it was insanely popular, it said, “Oh, it’s just about these dumb kids, so we’ve got to appeal to dumb kids.” Like, no, no. The people who like Beavis And Butt-Head are the smart kids and the smart adults who understand the satire that’s going on. A lot of dumb kids didn’t like Beavis And Butt-Head. They didn’t quite get what was going on. So I think Comedy Central doesn’t quite understand that right now. At least they’re trying. The last massive success they had was with Dave Chappelle, which was a show that they kind of quietly left alone for a couple of seasons, and I don’t think they’ve quite done that yet with a new show. Or maybe they’re just going through some growing pains. But they are putting stuff out there. Then it doesn’t stick. It’s frustrating.

AVC: They’re also competing against other networks doing kind of the same thing, like Adult Swim, and FX is doing some pretty forward-thinking comedy right now.

PO: Yeah. I mean, Comedy Central did sort of set the bar pretty high. Like for news commentary with The Daily Show and Colbert Report and for satire with South Park, and other people took that and ran with it. So I think maybe their next card is to figure out what their identity is in the wake of that. It’s sort of like the way MAD magazine was so radical in the ’50s and ’60s, then people who grew up on that began making TV shows and movies that were just as winking and self-knowing as MAD, then MAD had a hard time doing satire as well as they used to for a while.

AVC: Last year was kind of weird for you in that people kept stealing your material.

PO: Yeah, I don’t know what the fuck was going on with that. I think I stupidly assumed that, “Hey, we’re in this way closed to YouTube culture, there can’t be people left that don’t know if you do something in public that’s being filmed and you’re stealing something, it’s clearly gonna get back to people.” … But when you do see your stuff getting stolen, even if it’s on a very small scale, it really is this kind of hurtful, sort of scary thing. And I was gonna be silent, especially about the guy out in the Midwest who was doing my material. I was like, “I don’t wanna get involved in this shit.” Cause I saw how it boomeranged back on some of my other friends when they had tried to point out when things got stolen. But when my silence started, I started seeing comments in articles like, “Well, this guy says he wrote this for Patton and Patton’s not saying anything, so maybe he did.” It’s like, “What?!” Like, my silence was creating more suspicion and was hurting me.

So, I just said, “Okay, I’m just gonna kill this fly with a fuckin’ bazooka. I just want this over with.” And then, the Columbia thing, cause it happened so soon after the guy in the Midwest, that was also something I just did not want to deal with. And then I get a call from David Itzkoff from the New York Times and he’s wanting comment. Again, if I say, “No comment,” it’s gonna end up looking bad on me. Why is all the pressure on me all of a sudden? I didn’t do anything wrong here! So I just said, “Yeah, this fucking kid stole my stuff.” I was really torn about that, too. ’Cause on the one hand, I kept thinking, “Well, maybe this kid really is just a scumbag and maybe he shouldn’t be a valedictorian” and then the other part of me thought, “Maybe the reason he’s a valedictorian is because he didn’t waste his four years of college looking at YouTube the way I do all day and really doesn’t understand that world because he’s studying. Maybe the fact that he took my thing is proof that he actually doesn’t understand how the Internet works because he’s not wasting his time on the Internet and is actually a really good student.” Does that make sense? I know that sounds really twisted, because other people pointed out to me, “Well, there’s other people that he quoted. He quoted them but he didn’t quote you.” I was like, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t take that personally.”

There’s so much of the general public and even the so-called intelligentsia that don’t understand how comedy works. They think it’s a God-given right that everyone should be funny. But actually, just like with athletic talent or mathematical talent or scientific talent, it’s actually a small percent of the population that truly has it and people just cannot grasp the idea that there are people that just make funny stuff up from nowhere. So if they see people doing it, they just go, “They must get it out of books somewhere. There’s no way that someone can just make stuff like that up.” To this day, when I do interviews, people go, “So, do people write your stuff? Do you hire people?” They just cannot get it through their heads, “No, no. Comedians, they come up with this stuff themselves. They really do!” [Laughs.] There was a syndicated columnist. A very intelligent guy, Mike Barnicle. Some of his whole columns he took unchanged from George Carlin routines. Then other columnists would defend him saying, “Well, Carlin didn’t write that stuff. He’s a comedian. They’re jokes!”

AVC: It comes out of a joke book!

PO: Yeah, there’s no way! A person can’t write that! It’s 2011 and people still don’t understand that that’s how it works.

AVC: It’s funny, because the Internet likely played a hand in people coming across your work in the first place, but it also was how you and the rest of the world found out what they did. The Internet can foster so much creativity, but then it provides these shortcuts for those who aren’t willing to do their own work. It reminds me of what you wrote for Wired about the death of geek culture, how having everything at your fingertips kind of keeps you from having to do the work, whether it’s playing through a videogame without cheat codes or writing a graduation speech. 

PO: [Laughs.] Yeah. Although, I don’t like being like, “Well, society’s over!” I mean, Socrates thought that society was over when they mankind invented writing … Definitely the search aspect of things has been truncated and I think that a lot of creativity comes during the search. In other words, when you’re going to look for the thing that you’re so obsessed with, you tend to go down little byways and alleyways and meet interesting people in looking for the object of your desire. But when it’s just a click away, that search, with all of its kind of attendant adventures and mishaps and dead ends and frustrations, that’s gone. And there’s a lot of creativity to be found in that search. And I think people are wistful for it, because the road trip movie is still very, very popular. The idea of being stranded and having your transportation options limited is still clearly romantic and appealing to people. Whereas in reality, with cell phones and all these geosynchronous map functions on everybody’s iPhone, it’s more of a chore to get lost than 10 years ago it was a chore to get yourself oriented.

There’s a very smart, but also kind of sad moment in the new Fright Night movie where the hero needs to go break into the vampire’s house to look around, and he just goes on his iPhone and gets a “How to pick a lock” app, which is very, very realistic. I mean, it was smart enough that they worked that into the movie, but you know, 10 years ago, you would have to find a shady character in the neighborhood or go down that road to find someone to teach him how to pick a lock. Which would be interesting. And now, that’s not part of it. And I would actually applaud the movie for embracing, “Well, no. Kids don’t do that anymore.” You can vaguely type a sentence of what you want into a computer and you can probably find what you need now. You don’t even need to be articulate.

AVC: You don’t even need to know what you want, exactly.

PO: Yeah. Just write, “Steampunk, boob, ninja,” and you’ll probably get what you’re looking for. I remember five years ago, I guess I just wanted to know—in movies, people are always stealing bearer bonds. A real thief doesn’t steal money, they steal bearer bonds. Which is, I guess, a shorthand way of a movie trying to tell you that [Whispering.] “We’ve done our research. We really know what the world is about.” So I was talking to an account manager saying, “Hey, how do bearer bonds work?” And so this person was explaining what they represent. And I go, “So why do people steal them in movies?” And this person went, “I don’t know because there haven’t been bearer bonds in 20 years.” A young accountant today wouldn’t know a bearer bond if they looked at it. Everything is electronic. And this person went off on this kind of interesting tangent about, “I think it makes movies sound smart when they say they’re stealing bearer bonds, but the one movie that’s actually been weirdly realistic about how heists work now is that bad movie called Swordfish, where they just go make some computer geek break in and steal stuff. Real, professional thieves don’t actually break into banks, they break into computer systems, ’cause that’s where all the money is.” And it was really interesting to hear that. Like, “Okay, someone’s gotta figure out how to make that interesting.” Cause that’s the new reality.

But, again, in that search, because I wasn’t that computer-literate, my first thought was, “Well, I should call someone up and see if they will go to lunch with me for an hour and talk to me.” So that was kind of interesting.

AVC: Since we last talked to you, you’ve had two big career firsts: Your first starring film role, Big Fan, and then your first book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. How do you look back on those projects? 

PO: Well, what I kinda realized was, I don’t want to be—It’s like what I was talking about with a lot of the New York comedians that I really like. The thing I like about the New York scene is that it’s not your job to reflect too long on what it is you’re doing. It’s to do more and more stuff. So I tried to not get too involved into over-thinking “starring in a movie.” It was like, “I’m here and I want to be a professional actor. I don’t want to be a star. I don’t want to go and talk about my body of work all the time. I want to just keep doing movies and meeting new people and going new places.” And then at the end of my life, I’ll have these really cool experiences. It’s gotta be so annoying if you’re somebody like, let’s say you’re an Al Pacino and you’re constantly being given these lifetime-achievement awards and career retrospectives. I really just like getting up in the morning, having my coffee, reading the script, figuring out how I’m going to say something new. That’s what’s fun. Same with writing. I did the book, I’m gonna do another one, and in between doing the book, I’m writing articles here and there for Lapham’s Quarterly and Spin. I like writing things. I like the process of writing and figuring out what I think as the words are kind of tumbling on the paper. You know, someone else can organize all that stuff after I’m gone. But I’m not looking to organize an anthology of all of my past magazine writing. I just want to work on the next book and see what that is. And I’m shooting a movie right now in New York, I’m starring in another movie.

Also, when I did the play [Lips Together, Teeth Apart] in New York, for the [Laughing.] two weeks I did it before it all fell apart, everything to me, good or bad, is an experience. I just want to have more experiences. I don’t look back at my old albums. I don’t organize or collate or try to rethink them. They’re up on my website, people can buy ’em, but I’m not thinking of them anymore because I’m trying to get back up onstage and write new material. In the past year, especially, I just want a steady pace. I want to write a little bit everyday, I want to be open to any acting opportunity. I think I said this before in that response I wrote to David Cross, which is, “I’m really in this for two things: I want the money and I want the anecdotes.” I certainly want to keep working, but I also just want really cool stories. So, to me, working on an excellent film like Big Fan or working on a disaster like Blade: Trinity are just as equally valuable to me in my life because I’ve got great stories to tell about each one.

It took me until my 40s to realize it: There’s no destination. There’s no getting anywhere. There’s just the going. The key to life is to make the going really fun. Because people that are like, “If I just get to this, then boom!” And then they get there and there’s this dawning of an afterwards. Whereas I’m just always in the going. And it’s not a frantic going like, “I gotta keep going or I’m gonna go nuts!” I can not do anything for weeks or months if I need to and just sit and read books or watch movies. I’m just as fine consuming and absorbing new art as I am trying to make it. But it’s all in the going.

Louie CK and Dane Cook go Meta

Dane Cook has been accused of stealing Louie CK jokes in the past. If the two have a problem with each other they have seemed to have worked it out as Dane Cook appeared on Louie show discussing the whole joke stealing debacle. If Louie had a problem with Dane I’m sure he would have given his side of the story a better go and ended up looking like less of an asshole.

The whole piece reminds me a bit of what Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon did in A Cock and Bull Story and more recently The Trip where the line between the actors and a meta version of themselves starts to blur.

The Guys over at The Comics Comic have done the hard work and transcribed the whole exchange.

LCK: Um, I need to ask you for a favor.

DC: This should be, uh, that’s really something. OK.

LCK: Look, I know that, um.

DC: Um what?

LCK: I have a daughter

DC: What can I do for you?

LCK: I have a daughter, she just turned 10, she had a birthday. She wants to go see Lady Gaga.

DC: Lady Gaga. Awesome.

LCK: And I know you have the same promoter as her.

DC: Yeah.

LCK: So I was hoping that you could help me…to get her tickets, for her birthday.

DC: I could totally do that for you. Easily. I know Lady Gaga.

LCK: You do?

DC: And, yeah. I could get you tickets, backstage, and I could help you make your daughter very very happy. All you have to do is go on YouTube and tell everybody I did not steal your material.

LCK: I never said that you stole my material…

DC: You never said it. But you let other people say it.

LCK: What let? I can’t tell other people what to say!

DC: You’re full of shit!

LCK: Dane, look.

DC: You know what? I’m excited that you’re in this room right now, because I have waited four years to tell you this. You know the year 2000 and 6?

LCK: 2000 and 6?

DC: Yes. 2000 and 6.

LCK: You don’t really say 2000 and 6. It’s 2006. 2000 and 6 is like saying the year 2000 and by the way the number 6.

DC: 2000 AND 6 was the greatest year of my entire life. I had a double-platinum comedy album, first one ever to exist. I had a massive HBO special. I was on the cover of TIME.

LCK: Well, you on the corner. The little corner thing. It’s not like when the president is on the cover.

DC: 2000 and 6. That should have been like my triumph, and I enjoyed it, Louis, for maybe two months. Two months before it started to suck, because everything I read about me was about how I stole jokes from you, which I didn’t.

LCK: I kinda think you did.

DC: Dude! Why would I steal three jokes from you when I have hours of material. Why? Why! Why would I do that? Risk my reputation!

LCK: Cause they were funny jokes.

DC: You know what, Louis? You know what the biggest lie in the world is, is that I’m a rock star, I’m a millionaire, I’m a comedy behemoth, and you’re like a comic’s comic. And you’re an inside joke guy. And I’m a sell-out. And, and, and I sold my soul. And you have, and you have artistic integrity. And you’re a good guy. We’re in this room, right now, you and me. You’re looking at me. You let your name be used to hurt me. And now you’re sitting here asking me to use my fame to get you tickets to Lady Gaga? I mean, how shitty do you feel right now?

LCK: Very

DC: So you admit that this is all bullshit.

LCK: You wanna know what I think? I don’t think that you saw me do those jokes and said I’m going to tell those jokes, too. I don’t think there’s a world where you’re that stupid. Or that bad a guy. I, I do think, though, that you’re like — you’re like a machine of success. You’re like a rocket. You’re rocketing to the stars, and your engines are sucking stuff up. Stuff is getting sucked up in your engines, like birds and bugs and some of my jokes. I think you saw me do them. I know you saw me do them, and I think they just went in your brain, and I don’t think you meant to do it, but I don’t think you stopped yourself, either. And that’s why I never felt the need to help you not be hated by a lot of people. But I feel bad. I mean I do. I feel bad.

DC: That’s great. I mean, that you feel bad, right here, in this room, just the two of us, alone. Maybe if you felt bad publicly, on the Internet, then this could all be behind us.

LCK: Well, are you willing to admit that even for a minute, that maybe you inadvertently took them, or some, maybe you had some part of it, maybe they got in your brain, you shat them out. Maybe it was inadvertent, but maybe it did happen. I shouldn’t have come here.

DC: Louis. Do you want the tickets? Because I’m sure that, honestly, I think that your daughter, I bet she’s really nice. But you have a lot of nerve coming in here. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t have kids, so I don’t get it. But it must mean a lot for you to come in here and do this, so, you want the tickets?

LCK: Thank you. Yes. I’d like the tickets.

DC: How many?

LCK: Two, please.

DC: You got it. Hmm-mm. OK.

LCK: Thank you. I appreciate it a lot. Seriously.

DC: The one thing that, like, really just, gets to me, is the whole thing about people saying that I stole the joke about the itchy asshole. Because I get an itchy asshole. a lot. So for you to think you’re the only person who got an itchy asshole in America? I mean, that’s bullshit.

LCK: You should try natural laundry detergent.

DC: What?…Your daughter is 10?

LCK: Yeah.

DC: Why are you getting her tickets?

LCK: What do you mean?

DC: She’s 10. I mean, I remember being 10. An envelope when you’re 10 is, that’s a bummer. You know, when you’re a kid, you want like a box. Why didn’t you go get her something? Get her something like a gift that you found, from her daddy. You know? A box is exciting. An envelope is, you know.

LCK: Shit.

And Here is what Sean L MacCarthy, who posted the above content said that Dane Cook told him back in the summer of 2007…

I will say, Louis CK, I wrote Louis CK a letter. Louis CK wrote me a letter. I’m cool with Louis CK now. We hung out backstage at Comics Come Home, and I think we have a nice rapport. Do I think it sucks that I had to go through that rocky time, and having people saying that? Yeah. But it was going to happen, from somewhere somehow. There’s too much good happening to me, somebody had to come and blast me from somewhere. I told my family ‘Get ready, because it’s my turn to take some shots.’”

“But Louis CK is a great comic, and again, I’ve never spoken to this but, about those premises, some of those things were things I’d been doing for years. And certain people would come to me and go, ‘You were doing that in New York City too after that guy got hit by the car. What if he took it from you and put it on his CD?’ Never. Because I can look and say, if 10 comics watched a guy get hit by a car out here, right now, seven of them might go onstage that night and talk about the observational humor that they had. How many people have probably talked about it? It just happened that Louis and I had some parallel thinking. And when I look and go, maybe one night at the Cellar, he absorbed? No. I’m not going to go and blame him or say that at all, because I think he’s a great comic, and a great guy. And I hope to work with Louis CK on something someday. I hope we can put this behind us and actually do something good for the benefit of comedy. I mean, he’s a good guy. (emphasis now added)

I saw another guy earlier this year who did essentially the same bit with the naming the kids strange sounds, and he did it for his Live at Gotham set for Comedy Central. “I know the guy that you’re talking about, because I remember people talking about it.

And I wondered why would you do that when that’s one of the bits that people claim you’ve stolen from CK? “What’s going on? Right. But I’ll tell you who else did that bit. Steve Martin. And Louis loves Steve Martin, and I love Steve Martin. Now would I say, ‘Louis you stole that bit from Steve Martin?’ No! Absolutely not. And that’s one of these three little pieces of things, again. Just, I’ll say to anybody, you really want to know the truth? If you want to just hate me for the sake of hating me, you want to jump on this? Well, you’ve got a good excuse. But if you really want to know the real deal, listen to ‘Harmful (When Swallowed),’ listen to ‘Retaliation,’ watch Vicious and go, ‘Who the hell else is doing this B-and-E thing?’ My comedy is my thing. I have my own unique spin that I put on stuff. You can’t look at one little piece of something without looking at the whole thing.

Marc Maron, Just For Laughs Keynote Address

Marc Maron, now famous for his twice weekly podcast, WTF (with Marc Maron), gave a keynote address at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival.

Maron called for more respect for stand-ups from the industry. He described in first-hand detail the daily sacrifices comics make on the road, and the battles many have with their own personality flaws.

But he said agents, managers and TV executives often don’t give stand-ups respect for the work that goes into perfecting the craft.

With comics and the comedy industry, it’s not really Us versus Them, but sometimes it feels like it is.

The industry takes comics for granted, and makes us jump through hoops. I get it, but what about some respect for the commodity, the clown?

I’ve spent half my life building my clown, fuelled by jealousy and spite.

Maron has also posted the audio of the speech and it can be found here:

Also the video has been uploaded here.

And here is the text of the speech:

Welcome to the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival and fuck you, some of you, you know who you are. Wait. Sorry. That was the old me. I would like to apologize for being a dick just then. Goddamanit. See that’s progress. The amount of time between action and apology was seconds.I am excited to be here. So, I Will now proceed to make this speech all about me and see where that takes us.Things are going pretty well for me right now and that is a problem. I don’t know what kind of person you are but I am the kind of person who when things are going well there is a voice in my head saying, “You’re going to fuck it up. You’re going to fuck it, Marc.”  Over and over and over again. I just wish that voice were louder than the voice screaming, “Lets fuck it up! Come on, pussy! What happened to you? Fuck it up. Burn some bridges, fuck up your career, fuck up this speech, break up with girlfriend, Start drinking again, pussy! You used to have balls and edge! Have you forgotten what it’s like being alone on a couch drunk and crying with no future and nothing left to lose? Have you forgotten what freedom feels like, pussy? Fuck it up!

So, that is going on right now.

When they asked me to give this speech months ago the first thing I said to my manager was, “What? They can’t get anyone else? With this much time? Really?” Then my manager said, “They want you.” So I asked, “Why me?”

Why ask why me? is the better question. This was obviously a good thing–I got the gig–but I’m the kind of person that needs to deconstruct even a good thing so I can understand what is expected of me and who is expecting it. You would think, “Well, Marc, they want you to be funny.” Not good enough. In my mind I needed to know what the angle was. Did no one else want to do this? Did someone drop out? Be honest, who said no already? Chelsea Handler? Did Chelsea Handler say no already? I don’t want Chelsea Handler’s sloppy seconds. Am I cheap? I mean, shit, I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years and I’ve been invited to this festival maybe twice before this. Which is ridiculous considering how many “new faces” I’ve tried out along the way. To their credit the festival did have me on the ‘remember these old faces’ show a few years ago but I get it. Let’s be honest.  I haven’t made anyone in this room any real money.  I’m currently working out of my garage. I am in a constant battle with resentment against many people in this room. So, again, why me?

You see what happened there? Within minutes the opportunity to give this speech became: “This is a set up. They’re fucking me. I mean what kind of bullshit is this?”

That is the kind of thinking that has kept me out of the big time for my entire career.

Okay, I’m going to try to address both sides here–the industry and the comics. It’s not really an us against them situation but sometimes it feels like it is.

As I said, I have been doing standup for 25 years. I’ve put more than half my life into building my clown. That’s how I see it. Comics keep getting up on stage and in time the part of them that lives and thrives up there is their clown. My clown was fueled by jealousy and spite for most of my career. I’m the clown who recently read The War for Late Night and thought it was basically about me not being in show business. I’m the clown who thought most of Jon Stewart’s success was based on his commitment to a haircut. I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called Fuck You Marc Maron.

Three years ago my clown was broke, on many levels, and according to my manager at the time un-bookable and without options. That was a good talk:

My manager: Nobody wants to work with you. I can’t get you an agent. I cant you get you any road work.  I can’t get you anything. Me: Uh, okay, so, uh, what do we do…..
My manager: Are you looking at my hair? Why are you looking at my hair? Does it look bad?
Me: No, it’s fine. What should I do?
My manager: I don’t know what we’re going to do. Stop looking at my hair. Am I fat? Seriously, am I?

My first thought after that meeting was: I’m going to kill myself. My second thought was: I could get a regular job. My third thought was: I need a new manager. I think I had the order wrong. I drove home defeated. 25 years in and I had nothing. I was sitting alone in my garage in a house I was about to lose because of that bitch–lets not get into that now–and I realized. Fuck, you can build a clown, and they might not come. I was thinking, “It’s over. It’s fucking over.” Then I thought: “You have no kids, no wife, no career, certainly no plan B. Why not kill yourself?”  I thought about suicide a lot—not because I really wanted to kill myself. I just found it relaxing to know that I could if I had to. You’ve never had that moment……(do bit)

Then I thought maybe I could get a regular job. Even though the last regular job I had was in a restaurant like 25 years ago. I said to myself, I still got it! It’s like riding a bike. Just get me a spatula and watch me flip some eggs or some burgers. Then I thought, “What are you fucking crazy? You think they’re going to hire a 47 year old man who’s last restaurant job was part time short order cook in 1987? How are you going to explain those lost years? Are you going to show the bar manager your Conan reel. You’re an idiot.”

Broke, defeated and career-less, I started doing a podcast in that very garage where I was planning my own demise. I started talking about myself on the mic with no one telling me what I could or couldn’t say. I started to reach out to comics. I needed help. Personal help. Professional help. Help. I needed to talk. So, I reached out to my peers and talked to them. I started to feel better about life, comedy, creativity, community. I started to understand who I was by talking to other comics and sharing it with you. I started to laugh at things again. I was excited to be alive. Doing the podcast and listening to comics was saving my life. I realized that is what comedy can do for people.

You know what the industry had to do with that?

Absolutely nothing.

When I played an early episode for my now former manager in his office thinking that I was turning a career corner and we finally had something he listened for 3 minutes and said, “I don’t get it.”

I don’t blame him. Why would he? It wasn’t on his radar or in his wheel house. There’s no package deal, no episode commitment, no theaters to sell out. He had no idea what it was or how to extract money from it AND I did it from my garage. Perfect. It took me 25 years to do the best thing I had ever done and there was no clear way monetize it.

I’m ahead of the game.

So, back to the offer for this speech. I thought wait that’s the reason they want me—I do this podcast out of my garage that has had over 20 million downloads in less than two years. It is critically acclaimed. I have interviewed over 200 comics, created live shows, I am writing a book, I have a loyal borderline-obsessive fan base who bring me baked goods and artwork, I have evolved as a person and a performer, I am at the top of my game and no one can tell me what to do—I built it myself, I work for myself, I have full creative freedom.

I am the future of show business. Not your show business, my show business. They want me to do this speech because I am the future of our industry.

Then my new manager got back to me and said, “They liked the jokes you did when you introduced Kindler a couple of years ago. That’s why they asked you.”

So, it was the jokes about them, you, the industry, that got them interested. Hmm. Fuck. That was like two jokes. I’m not good at insult comedy. Any time I do roast type of jokes they go to far, cut too deep, too true, gets me in trouble.

I think the president of Comedy Central, Doug Herzog, is still mad at me. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize again to Doug. Years ago, when Doug Herzog and Eileen Katz first moved to Comedy Central from MTV and began re-tooling it I performed at a Comedy Central party at Catch A Rising Star. I remember the joke I did. I said, “I am glad the that Doug and Eileen moved from MTV to Comedy Central because I think that all television should look like a 24-hour, round-the-clock, pie-eating contest.” I don’t know if it was the venom I said it with or what but two days later I was in Eileen Katz’s office with my old manager, who was having a great hair day, apologizing to Eileen for that joke. So, I am not the guy to make you industry people laugh at yourselves. Kindler will do that in couple of days. And if I could, in the spirit of making an amends, I would like to apologize to Doug Herzog, again, and say, I am sorry Doug. Since you have been there, Comedy Central has become the best pie-eating contest on television.

Yes, I have been bitter in my life. I have felt slighted by the industry and misunderstood. I have made mistakes and fucked things up. That’s the kind of comic I am. It isn’t unusual. I will admit and accept my faults and mistakes but It bothers me that the industry takes comics for granted and makes us jump through stupid hoops and lie to us—constantly. I get it. You think it’s part of your job but how about a little respect for us—the commodity. The clowns.

When I was kid watching comedians on TV and listening to their records they were the only ones that could make it all seem okay. They seemed to cut through the bullshit and disarm fears and horror by being clever and funny. I don’t think I could have survived my childhood without watching standup comics. When I started doing comedy I didn’t understand show business. I just wanted to be a comedian. Now after 25 years of doing standup and the last two years of having long conversations with over 200 comics I can honestly say they are some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open minded, sensitive, insightful, talented, self centered, neurotic, compulsive, angry, fucked up, sweet, creative people in the world.

I love comedians. I respect anyone who goes all in to do what I consider a noble profession and art form. Despite whatever drives us towards this profession i.e. insecurity, need for attention, megalomania, poor parenting, anger, a mixture of all of the above. Whatever it is, we comics are out there on the front lines of our sanity.

We risk all sense of security and the possibility of living stable lives to do comedy. We are out there in B rooms, dive bars, coffee shops, bookstores and comedy clubs trying to find the funny, trying to connect, trying to interpret our problems and the world around us and make it into jokes. We are out there dragging our friends and co-workers to comedy clubs at odd hours so we can get on stage. We are out there desperately tweeting, updating statuses and shooting silly videos. We are out there driving ten hours straight to feature in fill in blank city here. We are out there acting excited on local morning radio programs with hosts whose malignant egos are as big as their regional popularity. We are out there pretending we like club owners and listening to their ‘input’. We are out there fighting the good fight against our own weaknesses: battling courageously with internet porn, booze, pills, weed, blow, hookers, hangers on, sad angry girls we can’t get out of our room, twitter trolls and broken relationships. We are out there on treadmills at Holiday Inn Expresses and Marriott suite hotels trying to balance out our self-destructive compulsions, sadness and fat. We are up making our own waffles at at 9:58 AM two minutes before the free buffet closes and thrilled about it. Do not underestimate the power of a lobby waffle to change your outlook.

All this for what? For the opportunity to be funny in front of as many people as possible and share our point of view, entertain, tell some jokes, crunch some truths, release some of the tension that builds up in people, in the culture and ourselves.

So, if I could I would like to help out some of the younger comics here with some things that I learned from experience in show business. Most of these only refer to those of us that have remained heat-less for most of our careers. I can’t speak to heat. I do know that symbiosis with the industry is necessary after a certain point and there are great agents, managers and executives who want to make great product but for the most part it’s about money. To quote a promoter who was quoting an older promoter in relation to his involvement with the Charlie Sheen tour: “Don’t smell it, sell it.” True story.

The list.

  1. Show business is not your parents. When you get to Hollywood you should have something more than, “Hey! I’m here! When do we go on the rides?”
  2. Try to tap into your authentic voice, your genuine funny and build from there.
  3. Try to find a manager that gets you.
  4. Nurturing and developing talent is no longer relevant. Don’t expect it. If you want to hear about that talk to an agent, manager or comic from back in the day….but don’t get sucked in. They’ll pay for the meal but they’ll feed on you naïvete to fuel their diminishing relevance and that can be a soul suck.
  5. If you have a manager there is a language spoken by them and their assistants that you should begin to understand. For example when an assistant says: He’s on a call or I’ll try to get her in the car or he just stepped out or I don’t have her right now or their in a meeting or he’s at lunch or she’s on set or or or…. All of those mean: They’ve got no time for you. You have nothing going on. Go make something happen so they can take credit for it.
  6. Sometimes a ‘general meeting’ just means that executives had an open day, needed to fill out their schedule and want to be entertained. Don’t get your hopes up.
  7. If your manager says any of these: We’re trading calls or I have a call in to them or they said you killed it or they love you or their having a meeting about you or we’re waiting to hear back or they’re big fans. These usually mean: You didn’t get it and someone will tell you second hand.
  8. There is really no business like show business. Except maybe prostitution. There’s a bit of overlap there.
  9. This is not a meritocracy. Get over yourself.
  10. Dave Rath will be you manager

The amazing thing about being a comedian is that no one can tell us to stop even if we should. Delusion is necessary to do this. Some of you aren’t that great. Some of you may get better. Some of you are great…now. Some of you may get opportunities even when you stink. Some of you will get them and they will go nowhere and then you have to figure out how to buffer that disappointment and because of that get funnier or fade away. Some of you may be perfectly happy with mediocrity. Some of you will get nothing but heartbreak. Some of you will he heralded as geniuses and become huge. Of course all of you think that one describes you….hence the delusion necessary to push on. Occasionally everything will synch up and you will find your place in this racket. There is a good chance it will be completely surprising and not anything like you expected.

I’m not a household name, I’m not a huge comic, I have not made millions of dollars but I am okay and I make a living. I’m good with that. Finally. Comedy saved my life but also destroyed it in many ways. That is the precarious balance of our craft and some of us don’t survive it. We lost a few truly great comics this year.

Greg Giraldo isn’t here which is weird. He was always here. Greg was a friend of mine and of many of you. He wasn’t a close friend but we were connected by the unspoken bond between comics. After talking to hundreds of comics I know that bond runs deeper than just friendship and is more honest than most relationships. He certainly was a kindred spirit. I battle demons every day and as of today, I am winning, or at least have a détente. Greg lost that fight. He was a brilliant comedian but in a way that is rare. He was not a dark angry cloud. He was smart, current, honest, courageous and did it with humility and light. He was a comedic force of nature that is profoundly missed. He was just a guy that always seemed so alive that accepting that he isn’t is hard and sad. He is survived by his ex wife, his kids and his youtube videos. We miss him.

In an interesting twist this year, Robert Schimmel did not die of cancer but he did pass. Bob was a class act. A legacy to true blue lounge comedy and an impeccable craftsman of the story and the joke. He battled a horrible disease for over decade and brought a lot of laughs and hope to people affected by cancer. He made me laugh—a lot. I listen to his CDs if I need a real laugh. That is as honest a tribute as I can give. I miss him and I am sad I didn’t get to talk to him more.

Mike DeStefano as a person went through more shit than I can even imagine. Some of it self generated, all of it tragic and mind blowing, and he overcame it. How? With comedy. I recently talked to his brother, Joe who said, “Mike had a tough time living until he found comedy and then it was the opposite. Doing comedy is what saved him. His comedy helped a lot of people and it helped him.” I’d never met a guy more at peace with his past and present and more excited about the a future that sadly isn’t going to happen now but he knew in his heart he was living on borrowed time and everyday was a gift.

All of these guys should have had many more years of life between them but they didn’t. These guys were unique in that they were real comics, hilarious, deep, hard core, risk taking, envelope pushing artists that made a profound impact on people and changed minds and lives with their funny. I know that to be true.

I’m not sure if there is one point to this speech or any really. If you are a comic hang in there if you can because you never know what’s going to happen or how it is going to happen and there are a lot more ways and places for it to happen. I know my place in show business now. It’s in my garage. Who knows where yours is but there is truly nothing more important than comedy….well, that may be an overstatement. There are a few things more important than comedy but they aren’t funny……until we make them funny.

Godspeed. Have a good festival. We’re good, right? We’re good?