Greg Fitzsimmons is the scrappy, Irish brawler of stand-up comedy. No, really. He admittedly has some anger issues and has been known to challenge other comedians to step outside. He once went at it on stage with a heckler and hit the guy with a microphone.
Fitzsimmons, 45, is now married with two children and not as pugnacious, but he’s still feisty. His humor stems from his willingness to talk candidly about his anger and other personal issues, which he does frequently on his podcast, and his satellite radio show that he does for Howard Stern’s Howard 101 Channel on Sirius XM. Stern was an early fan of Fitzsimmons’ unflinching honesty, as Fitzsimmons is a frequent guest and was one of the finalists for the sidekick job that eventually went to Artie Lange.
Fitzsimmons also has an impressive resumé as a TV writer, where he’s worked on shows ranging from The Man Show to Lucky Louie to The Ellen Degeneres Show, where he won four Daytime Emmy Awards. His latest TV project is Pumped!, agame show in the vein of Cash Cab, but set at gas stations. I recently caught up with Fitzsimmons to chat about his love of game shows, the decline of comedy club ticket sales, and his fondness for psychotropic medication.
You dad was a popular radio personality in New York. I imagine you get some of your sense of humor from him. Did you get any of it from your mom as well? Is she a witty, funny person?
It’s funny because since my dad was in entertainment, people assume I got it from him. But it’s her and her side of the family who are really the ball-busters. Really funny Irish storytellers who are always making jokes with a real wise-ass attitude. That’s a huge influence on me.
You’re Irish on both sides?
Yep, I am 100 percent Irish.
So you’re pretty much incapable of being quiet.
I would think so. It’s an amazingly consistent thing with Irish people. We will talk to strangers at parties for hours. It’s what we were bred to do I think. And the Jewish people were bred to write the stuff that we say.
[Laughs.] I checked out Pumped!. Congrats on the show by the way. How does it feel to be back in front of the camera? This is your first hosting gig since Idiot Savants, correct?
Pretty much. I did all those VH-1 I Love the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, but those were different. It’s funny, hosting a game show is something I’ve always loved doing. I’ve done probably 10 game show pilots, but just never had the luck of getting one picked up. It’s great. It’s a great feeling to be in middle of things. It’s so much like stand-up. You know you have to make it happen. You just make the situation funny. It’s a really exciting, challenging thing.
Do you prefer game shows because they give you more of an opportunity to riff, as opposed to being on sitcom and reading scripted lines?
Yeah, being on a sitcom would be really hard for me. It’s hard for me to read lines that somebody else writes for me, especially since I’ve been writing on so many shows as well. It’s hard to just give it up. It’s hard to give up your voice, and your choices of how you would do things. The funny thing is with game shows, some people might think “oh, you’re a game show host. There’s nothing creative there.” But with Pumped, I think I really have the opportunity to do what essentially is crowd work, like what I would do at a comedy club. It’s just like that, except the person isn’t going to throw a glass at me. [Laughs.] Or walk out on their check.
I loved in the premiere episode when you were talking to the guy with the mohawk and you kept on insisting that he punch you in the face. His reaction was great.
I think you scared him a little bit.
Yeah. That was great. I love that guy. He came back to the gas station. We shot at that station for four days straight, and he came back every single day and just kind of hung around. He just wanted to keep reliving his glory of winning $1400 or $1600.
Do you have any other interesting stories to share from the tapings? Did anybody try to come at you or anything?
Yeah, there was a guy in Staten Island who will go on in infamy. First of all when we got out there, we realized that 99 percent of the population is in the witness protection program. [Laughs.] Nobody wanted to be shown on camera. We had to keep asking people. In the other places we’ve been to, I’d say 95 percent of the people we approached wanted to play. In Staten Island, 5 percent wanted to play. So this one guy, he had a track suit on with gold chains and black hair that looked like he blow-dried it back, and he had a white Cadillac, and he sees us standing there with the camera, and he floors his car at the camera crew.
And he’s screaming, “Who the fuck are you? Get those fucking cameras out of my face!” We had to have a guy step in. Luckily one of our producers is a martial arts lunatic, so everything got taken care of. But we left Staten Island shortly after that.
So it sounds like Staten Island did not disappoint.
No, you dream and you hope that it will be everything you see on the Jersey Shore and there, lo and behold, Staten Island keeps its reputation intact.
Judging by your book, you were a first-rate shit-starter growing up. What else were you like? Were you a popular kid?
Up until 8th grade, I was the leader of the losers. I hung out with the nerds but I was like a champion for them. And then when I got to 8th grade somehow I just started doing crazy stuff. And then I was the crazy one and then all of the sudden the cool kids liked me. So I left all the nerds behind, I was like “Later guys, the cool kids will hang out with me now.” And then I was like the low man on the totem pole with the cool kids. They let me hang out because I would hang off rafters from like 10 stories up and I would do flips off walls and I would jump out windows and I would say stuff to teachers that nobody would believe somebody would say. I started getting off on vandalism and drinking and it just sort of propelled me into the ranks of the cool kids.
What does your therapist say accounted for your acting out?
I think part of it is I have ADHD, which means you need a lot of stimulus…It’s the same thing with stand-up. I mean you step on stage in front of hundreds of people and you got to survive for an hour. Getting into fights is the same kind of dynamic.
Do you take anything to treat it?
Now I have a patch. It’s not adderall, it’s something else. It’s a time-release patch that I wear every day.
Does that have any noticeable effect on your writing or anything? Does it increase your output?
Well I can only tell when I don’t take it. On a day when I don’t wear the patch, I’m like a zombie. I don’t get anything done and I just wander around. I started taking medication about five years ago and I’ve probably gotten more done in the last five years than I did my entire life.
Yeah, I finish through on projects, I’m able to be present a lot more than I used to. I don’t daydream as much. It’s been a very positive thing.
Did you know early on that you wanted to do comedy?
No, I just loved it. I never thought it was something you could do. There weren’t comedians then the way there are now. It wasn’t a career. The first time I did it was a high school talent show, and then I did it my senior year of college. It was the biggest challenge. It was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. I did it because it was like, “I can’t believe someone would allow me to do this.” Once I did it, I was so hooked. I just kept signing up for open mic nights and just waiting around and hanging around clubs until midnight to see if I could get on. It was just such a thrill. I got so competitive about trying to get stage time. And then I started to get paid, and later on it was something you could go on the road doing. I never thought about it as being a career. Then I look up one day and all of the sudden I got a wife and two kids, a house and cars, and it’s like “Wow, that goof that I started doing is my career.”
Did you do any odd jobs when you started out?
I was a banquet waiter at the Marriott. I got pretty lucky because I started in Boston, and in Boston at the time there was a lot of comedy clubs and rooms outside of Boston in New Hampshire and Rhode Island and Connecticut and Maine. If you had a car, and you had 10 or 15 minutes of material, you could start making money pretty early on. You could make 50 bucks a night, and you could be out there five nights a week doing it. I actually didn’t work that long. I was a full-time comic within a year-and-a-half of starting. I caught the wave at just the right time. Today, people start out doing stand-up and no matter how talented they are there’s just not that kind of access to make money in clubs that there used to be. It’s changed the game.
But do you think there’s some sort of stand-up resurgence happening right now? I’ll use the example of Chicago, where I’m from. There are two new comedy clubs set to open there next month.
I’m not sure if it’s the cart going ahead of the horse. Sometimes these comedy clubs expand with the bigger rooms and there’s not always the market for it. Chicago has always been a town that’s tried to do stand-up but it hasn’t really worked. It’s a sketch and improv town…I can’t predict the future, but I know personally, crowds have not been coming out in the last year-and-a-half the way they had been before. I’m not really sure what’s happening. It seems like comedy is obviously getting bigger on the internet, and people are probably watching it on TV more. I think it’s making it tough for people to go out to clubs. I’m surprised to see new clubs opening, to be honest.
That’s interesting. So you’ve definitely noticed a difference in your ticket sales over the past year?
Yeah, and I’ve have had a pretty good year-and-a-half in terms of media exposure. I’ve been on the Stern show and my podcast has gotten pretty big, and I’ve been doing the Chelsea Handler show and Adam Carolla’s podcast. The difference is a couple years ago, the crowds would come in and maybe 50 percent of them were people coming to see me and the other half were just comedy fans that would come to the club. And now it feels like 90 percent of the people are there to see me. People don’t just go out to a comedy club anymore. Now it’s like a theater. You’ve got to draw every person possible to your shows. That’s why you’re seeing so much social media stuff. You got to mobilize your people to come out and see you.
You mentioned the Howard Stern Show earlier. How important is the Stern fanbase to your career?
Yeah, the Stern fanbase is amazing. They’re really loyal. They’re rock-solid. They come out, and you can count on them for that. They’re great to talk to after the show. They’re always real people. It’s funny, you think of Stern fans and you think they’re a bunch of Fraternity guys and fart-joke people, but they’re not at all. They’re guys who have grown old with Howard.
Do the fans ever turn on you when you and Howard are at odds, like with the Andy Dick thing?
That’s hard to say because there’s so many different kinds of Stern fans. The internet Stern fans, yes, they will turn on you. But they are a very small percentage of the listeners. The ones that I talk to, they think it’s great. Anything that creates some drama on the show and that’s real, they love. They don’t necessarily blame you for making Howard mad. They more appreciate that you brought something to the show.
You’ve had a lot of success writing for shows. Does that stuff still interest you?
I love doing it, but it’s all-encompassing. If you ever write on a TV show, that’s going to be your life. I can’t do as much road work and I find that I can’t get my podcast done easily. All of the other projects that come up you have to put on hold. I love doing that, but it has to be a project that I feel strongly about. You can’t possibly do that for a show that you’re not proud of. When it works, it’s really great. When it’s bad, it’s the worst thing in the world.
You’ve had some bad ones?
Yeah, I’ve had a couple bad ones. You get real claustrophobic, and there starts to be a lot of politics, and you start to feel underused. The main is you got to feel valued. As comics, we’re very narcissistic…If you don’t feel utilized, then I start to feel kind of starved.
Yeah, I can see that. Is that why you prefer the podcast and the radio show, because you have more control over the content?
Yeah, I think so. Stand-up and podcasts and satellite radio all offer complete freedom of speech. I have no bosses in any of them; nobody tells me what to do. How do you compare to that? How do you compare to just going out and taking your own thoughts and opinions and jokes and just putting them out there in a completely unchecked way? It doesn’t get any better than that. When you’re writing on a TV show, it’s just like any other job. It’s A LOT of politics. When I have to check myself before I put out something creative, it kind of ruins the process.
Pumped airs on the Speed Channel on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST, and The Greg Fitzsimmons Show airs on Sirius XM Howard 101 on Mondays at 9 p.m. PST.
Phil Davidson is a copywriter (in reality) and a comedy writer (in his head).