The Free-Wheeling Todd Glass

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Of all the memorable episodes of Marc Maron’s influential WTF Podcast, maybe none was more so than the Todd Glass interview from two years ago, when the long-time and well-respected comic announced he was gay.

Glass, who’s been performing for 30 years and is often mentioned as one of the funniest guys around by nearly everyone in the comedy community, said he decided to make the announcement because he couldn’t take the hiding anymore and because he wanted to take a stand against the growing number of suicides committed by gay youths.

It’s a riveting interview that explains a lot about personal freedoms as key to performance.

It’s not accurate to say Glass’s career hasn’t taken off since the announcement – he’s always been a great comic – but it gave him a new kind of exposure. He wrote a best-selling book, The Todd Glass Situation, and got to be a guest on The Daily Show.

I recently had the chance to talk to Glass about his book, his hilarious podcast, life on the road, and why nothing should be outlawed in comedy.

You’re on the road a lot. What are some of the differences between a good club and a bad club?

When you don’t have a creative person on staff like one of the managers whose opinion means something, you’ll always have a shitty club. If somebody constantly makes financial decisions as opposed to creative decisions – obviously a good blend is what you’re looking for – you’ll always have a shitty club. At a creative club, where they also wanna make money, a creative manager won’t seat a table of five for dinner up front two minutes before show time. I really don’t want them serving people in the first row while the show’s going on. It really doesn’t make the performance great. Those decisions. It took me a long time to figure out that if there’s not a creative person on the staff, that’s what makes a shitty club.

Do you feel like most clubs are pretty good? Or are there just as many shitty ones as there are good ones?

I would say about 40 percent of clubs are awesome. They do better than the other clubs, financially. You’d think the other clubs would figure it out. Like, hey, that club made a creative decision. And those clubs do very well, the ones that have a creative backbone. Having a creative person on staff who knows comedy and how hard it is. Overwhelmingly those clubs always do well.

I understand you’re off to Maui. That’s very admirable of you, to go out to Maui and please the fans out there.

Right? That’s great. No wonder they have a comedy festival there. Everybody wants to go. So, I’m very excited about that. We get to be in Hawaii and it’s amazing. I’m not just saying it but you look at the roster, whoever’s doing it, it’s like every comedian.

Congrats on your book. That’s very cool! And you’re happy with how everything turned out with it?

Yeah! It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I put that together with Jon Grotenstein, and he was very helpful. It was good. It was fun, and I didn’t expect it to help my standup. It helped my standup act because of the way that you tell stories that never even made it in the act. And then what you say, and then writing it in person, I didn’t think it would happen, but you’re sitting down for days and days and weeks and weeks just writing about your life and then you realize how much of that is really in your act. The book has drastically changed my act.

Really?

Yeah, it’s great. It makes me want all of those social issues in my act. The book gets preachy. But with comedy I think it should all be funny. And the thing is, preachy is in comedy, you don’t change anybody’s beliefs, you just make people laugh who agreed with you. And the goal is to change people’s beliefs so it has to be funnier than preachy. And when it is, you can change peoples’ beliefs. Comedy is amazing. Some people make shitty jokes and say, “Oh, it’s just comedy.” It’s not just comedy. Comedy has an amazing power.

Did you start the book shortly after you made your announcement on the WTF Podcast? Was that sort of the timeline?

I did, I did. It was about the week after. And the week before that I told my manager that I would never write a book.

[Laughs.] Have you noticed much of a bump in terms of ticket sales as a result of the book? Are people coming out and seeing your standup more as a result of it?

They come out, they know you better. It’s funny that when people know you better in life – you may have a friend, where they know you and there’s more of a relationship. They know why you tick, what makes you tick. So the book is definitely helping in more ways than I thought. It changing the act and anytime I think you’re honest, I think you help somebody breathe easier. It’s best to turn around and do it for somebody else. I know that people who have been honest about their lives helped me breathe easier in the past, so I hope to do the same for some other people.

You covered so much in your book. For those who haven’t read it, you’ve had an incredibly interesting life both in and out of comedy. So the first time you got up onstage, you were 16?

Yes, I started in Philadelphia and I didn’t even really know what comedy was. Then I went down to a place called The Comedy Works. And then I went a million times. The acts were amazing! We were 16, 17 years old at that time, and we were young, but we got comedy. The younger mind sometimes will be open to new music or new comedy so we got it. In hindsight, we were pretty open-minded. Maybe you have more of an open mind when you’re young, but we loved the stuff Richard Lewis was doing. Like sometimes the tables next to us wouldn’t get it as much as we got it. We got to see him, Paul Reiser, Gilbert Gottfried, Steven Wright.

And they were relatively young at that time right?

They were newer. They weren’t nearly as big as they are now. Even Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.

Could you tell pretty early on who had it and who was gonna go far?

Well, we didn’t speak about it. We just knew that they were funny. We just loved it. I was obsessed with it. Standup comedy, what’s really great about it is that if you go see a great standup, like if you go see Jim Gaffigan or Paul F. Tompkins or Louis C.K, or whoever it is, Brian Regan, in an hour or so you’re gonna get a lot of really great fucking laughs. Like hundreds of laughs. In comedy it’s so gratifying and natural and in an hour, you get so much. And I fell in love with it. I couldn’t get enough. I was obsessed.

I know you were always interested in performing. Did you know immediately that it was specifically standup comedy that you loved?

When I was younger I used to love it. When somebody comes up to me after a show and they’re like, “My 12- or 13-year-old thinks you’re funny but he couldn’t get into the club,” I get it. I go, “Oh, that was me!” And I love to take the phone and call the kid on the phone. That’s me and comedians all over the place. Me and my friends were, in high school, into guys like Garry Shandling who were already on television. I used to watch Jay Leno in high school come on Letterman and it was just the best thing in the world for me. It was like comedy classes. When you’d hear Jay Leno, you’d be like “Oh, this is gonna be good.” So for a fan of comedy it was the best. And I still love it. What I love about it the most is that comedy goes through highs and lows but that comedy is still gonna be around. It’s like music. Do you think music is still gonna be around in 20 years? Of course. Comedy will continue. Now, a lot shitty clubs will close. That’s what happened in ’94. A lot of shitty clubs closed. The good clubs, maybe they built bigger clubs, but if you look at the history of any club, all the good clubs are still open. They’re still open. They never die, just the shitty clubs. It was always a great place but especially in the past 5 to 10 years, they’re so many new great comedians. There’s a ton of people all over the scene.

I wanted to ask you about that because you’ve been at it for a while. 30 years in comedy. What are some of the more inspiring changes you’ve seen over that time?

Some of the older school guys say, “Comedy’s not what it used to be,” which is what Steve Allen used to say. That means you’re out of touch. Why don’t you just shut up? Have you heard Jerry Seinfeld or Garry Shandling break down comedy? It’s cathartic because they get it and they explain it. There have always been shitty comics and there have always been great comics. Comedy now is great and I think that in these 10 years, there have been a lot of comics introduced to middle America because of social media and Twitter and podcasts. They wouldn’t have made it to that audience 20 years ago. It used to be you had to be on HBO or something. But then because of podcasts, even guys like Paul F. Tompkins could elevate their careers, guys like Eddie Pepitone, they blew up. I think that’s been the case in the past 12 years, especially. I was in Atlanta and I was like, “Holy fuck!” This is exciting. There are a lot of new funny people.

It’s almost overwhelming.

It is overwhelming. It’s a great moment. And for television! And sure there’s a lot of shitty television, but guess what? There’s also a fuck ton of great television. So many cool shows. To watch Key and Peele – I just sat down one night and caught up on it, and I’m like, “Holy fuck.” They are superheroes. They have singlehandedly brought back my love of sketch comedy. Their sketch comedy almost has the same rules as standup. They set the standards high. Every time I watch one of their shows, I’m like, “Will they be able to follow this?”

It’s really good.

Especially if it’s a short avant-garde piece. I’m pausing it every 10 seconds going “Holy shit. This is fucking great.”

Going back to your start, you talk about in the book a lot how school just wasn’t for you. Do you feel that was advantageous in becoming a comic? Like, you knew where your heart was at such an early age, and what you wanted to do with your life?

I think so. I don’t think comics have to be depressed people, I think that’s a misunderstanding. But I think you have to move to the beat of a different drum. But I don’t think you have to be depressed. And I had good parents. But it was definitely like “What am I gonna do?” I didn’t even know if I was smart enough. The way my brain was, and I’m not sure that I can explain it, I was smart, smart enough to know, “What am I gonna do?” I thought maybe landscaping, but I didn’t like labor. I love landscaping and the concept of being able to transform a space and doing it so quickly. But then comedy came along, and I never really said I was gonna do this the rest of my life, but indirectly I was like, “Holy shit.” I knew that when I did my first open mic night and I met some other comedians, I was fucking happy. It took me like two weeks and afterwards all the comedians went out and I was like “this is the best goddamn thing in the world!” And standup was fun, but hanging out with other comedians was the best part of the night because you don’t always do well all of the time but hanging out with everybody afterwards, it was like the coolest thing in the world. It was like being popular in high school but now with a bunch of really creative, cool people.

How long before you were doing it full time? What age were you hitting the road?

I was living at home so to make a living doing it didn’t take a lot. I started when I was 16. When I was 19, I was opening for bands – The Temptations, George Jones, Diana Ross. I was 19, doing okay. Now my act sucked. My act sucked, that grew and I’m glad it did, but I was doing alright.

You’ve been working steadily ever since and have grown into a big-name comic, and you’ve done it without having a lot of sitcom exposure or stuff like that. Is that more gratifying to you in the way that you’ve built an audience primarily as a comic?

I want to make it very clear when I say this that I don’t sound like “I don’t want a show that would bring me to a larger audience.” I’m trying to clean up the verbiage on it, and I’ve been corrected myself. People will say I haven’t made it yet, and there’s different levels of making it. But I know you know what I mean. I haven’t had like the success of Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt and I always say the same thing. I am jealous of those people but it’s what you do with your jealousy. It’s that emotion, what you do with it? Do you turn it into motivation? Or do you turn it into bitterness? I am good at turning it into motivation, but part of that, the upside is that I became a better comedian in the meantime because all you’re doing is making your living doing comedy, you grow in a different way. Once you’re a household name you can still grow as a comedian if that’s all you’re doing. Obviously George Carlin grew in his 50s, his 60s, to 70. He grew to the day he died. So I want to be clear that you can grow as a comedian forever. But, there’s no telling to the gargantuan thing that happens, when you’re not a household name and you have to work every night. So I still want to be better, I still want to grow. I still look at some of my work and get embarrassed by it. But I am better comedian than I was 15 years ago, or 10 years ago. So I think that’s the upside that happened. Now I say I’m ready. It’s important to me.

I would describe your style as free-wheeling. You like to keep it loose and mess around with the audience. Do you find standup to be more exhilarating for you that way?

It keeps it from getting stale. I like to see what is going on that night and go in a different direction. I have tried some beaten paths, because when I don’t have a path then you can’t go off the beaten path. So that’s the way I try to do it. I used to not even have the path. But now I like to have the path, know what I’m gonna do. Then if I go off the path and it’s not working, then I wanna come back and go down the path that I know works. But yeah it’s fun to go off the path. Sometimes that works and you never return to your beaten path. It’s just as fun.

It’s great that you’re having such a good time on the road.

My new favorite expression is there’s so much shit, everyone’s perspective is their reality. So they don’t realize, oh that’s your reality. If you’re working shitty comedy clubs where they fill the audiences, oh the road can suck. But if you’re hitting these cool clubs, the road is great. New city, new comedy club, new comedians. You know what it’s like meeting new comedians? It’s like – you have your old friends and you love them dearly but making new friends when you’re younger, you stop doing that as you get older. At least some people do. It’s like making new friends. You have things in common but you’re new friends. And it’s so exciting. So you get to go this club, meet new friends, so it feels like when you’re in high school and you meet new people, make new friends. New best friends within 3 seconds and within 3 seconds you know “we’re gonna have so much fun for the next 5 days.”

So you like to spend some time with your features and your opening acts and get to know them?

Yeah, it’s fun. What else is gonna be better than that?

I want talk about your Daily Show segment that you got to do. Not many comics get to do panel on The Daily Show.

No, it’s funny you say that because I said the same thing to my brother. He asked if that’s a cool show to do, and I was like “You bet it is.” I was really nervous. I love that show. It was about a week before, I was doing it, and I know I had this theory, and I know I’m long-winded with everything. But everyone wonders what their eternal life is going to be, and the more religious you are the more you worry about that, but no one really knows. And what if just your words were your eternal life. Whatever you say, that’s your eternal life… And history, history doesn’t lie. If history lies then you’re just full of shit, you don’t want to be proven wrong. But history doesn’t fucking lie… To watch The Daily Show now and go “wow, this show.” In 30 years, look at the Jon Stewart show, in 40 years to stumble upon it and go “Oh this guy’s funny.” That’s what’s gonna happen. That’s what happens to me. I remember looking on the internet one night and finding this old show that was on so that show is just gonna prove itself to be on the right side of history. So the eternal life – everybody on that show is monumental. That’s a huge compliment, and they deserve it. And that’s what we talked about. But I never thought I’d get to be on that show. I didn’t even think about it. And then they called me and I was like fuck, I am a little nervous. After I did that interview I went out to dinner with some friends and I said one thing when I was done. Let me tell you, Jon Stewart, he is fucking present. He is everything. When you’re done talking, he is, and he’s not faking it either. There are different levels of being engaged and one is when people think they’re engaged. Maybe that’s the start – fake it till you make it. And then get to the point where, “Oh, no no no, we’re engaged.” So it was a lot of fun. I never got to do The Tonight Show with Johnny, I never go to do The Tonight Show with Jay, I never got to do David Letterman, but I’ve done a lot of other cool things. I try not to be “woe is me.” They’re all the standards and I never really got to do any of them. But the Daily Show was cool. I really enjoyed that.

Had to be such a thrill. It puts you in the category of being a thinker. The people on The Daily Show write books, they set policies.

And I was glad to be a part of something like that. So that was a lot of fun. I think when the book came along I didn’t even think about Jon Stewart because I’m a standup and I didn’t even think that was an option. So even though I wrote the book I’m still a standup – but Howard Stern and Letterman are really all it is. And I love all the talk shows but when it comes to those types of things, like when you say you want to get into comedy, what things do you want to do – Letterman or Howard Stern are really the last two.

You’d be so good on Howard.

I think so, I’d be really nervous but maybe after some details you’re embarrassed to talk about, especially like my sexuality, but still.

You could handle that.

I could handle that.

Your podcast just celebrated its third anniversary. Congrats.

Thank you.

Since your announcement and your book, has it made the podcast so much freer for you that you can just talk about whatever at this point? What’s changed?

Good question. It’s slowly happened, but I always say this – I was happy before, obviously. I was enjoying my life and I did standup but talking about it, it’s getting to the point that talking about it doesn’t mean a 30-minute dissertation about something in the news involving gay marriage. I can now talk about it from an honest perspective. Hiding shit is exhausting. And you don’t know how exhausting it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s something I said with people coming up to me after a show that maybe they had a DUI that they were mortified about. But those people come up to you and you realize hiding shit in general is just exhausting. And to talk about it, you have a story… The hiding. I’m just so glad it’s fucking over.

What I really like about the podcast is that I don’t have to hide anything. I said it a lot because I think it really does say what’s so great about podcasting, one of the things that gave radio the purity of standup. So if you hear that, yeah that’s true. The purity of standup. But that’s why people love it. Because they love it like I love standup. If you’re doing standup right, it doesn’t mean you have to talk social issues or politics, even a comedian doesn’t tackle social issues or politics they still do well with an audience because they’re not on the wrong side. It doesn’t have to be social or political. But I like drawing from a little bit of everything – white people, black people, Chinese people, transsexuals. Someone told me after one of my shows that they were going to get a sex change operation. And I thought, “Yes.” They know that they are going to be in a safe environment at my show. So when I looked at the Jon Stewart audience, and me and my friends were going in and looking at the line full of people, it made me so happy. The audience at The Daily Show was kind and gentle. I like comedians that are kind, gentle, decent, crass. I love crass, I love vulgarity. I don’t want fluffy bullshit. I love crass and harsh but also gentle and kind, and that’s what you see when you look at that audience. It’s like that’s the audience I want. I want to get that audience. To be mad at the right group, because I don’t give a fuck about any of the people, but I crave the right people. In 30 years from now, we’ll look back and see that we were offending the right people.

Do you feel like since coming out you have any extra weight on your shoulders speaking on behalf of gay male comics? Will you weigh in when controversies pop up? Are you generally on the side of comedians?

I defend what’s right. Sometimes comedians are right. I’m a comedian first. I used to say I didn’t want to offend anybody, but I corrected it – I don’t give a fuck about offending people, just annoying people. And then who is to decide what’s right? History. So when those things happen, I defend it if the comedian is right, but you’re not defending a comedian if you’re not defending the audience too. Some audiences are dumb. It depends on where you’re performing. If there’s an outrage, I don’t know one way or another. That’s showbiz. And nothing makes you look better than defending a group that no one will defend. Someone might be giving someone a hard time and they’re not always wrong. If they are, then I’ll defend the comedian, I’ll be like, “fuck that audience that was a comedian’s joke, you idiot.” But comedians make great things and sometimes comedians are on the wrong side of history. And history fucking punches them. And I hate when they do that. They didn’t say anything – you know who shouldn’t say anything anymore? Shitty comedians. Don’t go find some random clip of George Carlin saying it and take it out of context. The people who can’t say anything anymore are shitty comedians because you can take anything you want out of context and if I’m wrong I don’t know what goddamn planet I’m living on. But you can say anything you want, and people will all react to it. Where the confusion is is that people will respond that’s what they’re confused on. I think comedians should be able to say whatever the fuck they want. Nothing should be outlawed in comedy. Every comedian should say exactly what they want. I don’t give a fuck what it is. And if people have a problem with that? Go somewhere else. That’s where they’re confused. “I can’t say anything anymore” – you can say anything! People just react. What don’t you want? What don’t you like about that?

You’re making a whole lot of sense.

I hope so, because I’ve been on the treadmill for 45 minutes and I’m sweating more about this than from my run.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.