Last month, veteran standup Dana Gould released his newest standup special and album, I Know It’s Wrong. Debuting at number one on iTunes in comedy, the album is his first since 1998. Gould took this hiatus from extended standup to serve as a writer and producer for The Simpsons for seven years. Now, he’s busier than ever, with his podcast, The Dana Gould Hour, pilot projects, acting, and, of course, standup.
I got the chance to talk with Gould about his special, the podcast audience, and being a “comedian’s comedian.”
Let’s talk about your most recent special for Showtime, I Know It’s Wrong. In it, you’re not afraid of a long buildup without any laughter. Does that come from the years of experience?
Yeah, that’s just having done it for so long, knowing how to play an audience. The trick to that is — and it’s one of the reasons I like to go into the audience sometimes — is that it’s surprising to them. The fact that I start talking and there’s no joke, and it keeps going and there’s no joke. The silence comes from the confusion, like, “This isn’t supposed to be happening; we’re at a comedy club.” Once you do that, it’s exciting when they realize you’re still in control of the situation. It’s just really fun as a performer, to experiment with the audiences and move the tone of the show.
You also use a mix of personal stories and ridiculous, almost sketch-like situations (such as the KKK discussing Dracula). Is that a conscious choice? Do you prefer one or the other?
I like the mix because it keeps it more interesting for me to do different kinds of things. I basically grew up unsupervised. I started watching comedians on The Tonight Show when I was around 11 or 12. Those different styles are second nature to me because I was so immersed in it. One of the things I did learn on The Simpsons was the way that different styles of jokes can coexist. I think working on The Simpsons for all that time really informed my standup. It allowed me to do several different genres of performing. The KKK bit, that’s a really old school standup bit. That’s something people Bob Newhart or Lenny Bruce would do. They’re really great when you write them, and they get tight. It’s great, and it’s not the kind of thing you see everyday. They’re not as common as they used to be.
Are there other ways your time at The Simpsons influenced your standup?
The other thing The Simpsons did for my standup was — I had really only done standup and acting when I went there. And the job is very demanding on your time, and it prevented me from doing a lot of standup. It really hammered home for me as a person how important it is to go up and perform. And when I didn’t do that, it really affected my mood.
When you were at The Simpsons and even today, when you’re coming up with ideas, do you automatically know, this is for standup or writing or a bit for the podcast? How does that process work?
Some things I will do, a lot of things are just Twitter, I need to write a joke today. I need to get something on my Twitter feed. I’m also writing two different pilots right now. Sometimes I’ll come up with stuff that only works for a pilot or only works in a script; there’s no way to do it in standup. That makes me happy because there’s no way to use it in another capacity. I’m glad it’s going to live here. Standup usually wins. If I can do it in my standup act I’ll throw it in there.
Speaking of pilots, you were working on an FX pilot with Dave Grohl last year. Can you tell me what happened with that and the projects you’re currently working on?
That pilot did not go, at the end of the day, one out of every 10 goes and it was just something I don’t think they wanted to take the risk on it. I was happy with the script. Right now I’m writing an animated pilot for FOX and a live-action pilot for CBS. It’s funny, and the podcast and writing my new hour of standup. I’m full up now on different projects, but it’s fun because certain things only live in certain areas.
Is there a schedule you try to stick to with the podcast?
I really try to get one out a month. Right now, I’m sitting here and I have to get to the end of the third act of my pilot today, and then I have two 90-minute interviews I have to start editing. I have to write and record the middle segment of the podcast, which is the little journalistic piece with the sound drops, and then I can assemble it and put it together. All that has to happen next week.
And is there a projected date for your next hour of standup?
No, usually it takes about a year, a year and half to really get it where it should be in terms of quality. So I’ll start thinking about putting it out this time next year. Because I don’t tour 40 weeks a year, it takes me about a year.
Going back to standup then, it’s impressive how your segues come so naturally. Is that how they’re originally conceived or through an editing process?
I definitely write them. I like it to feel very natural, for the progression to feel natural. I like it to seem like I’m just talking. In that way it’s less presentational; it seems more conversational. To reference the thing I’m going to reference is sort of like a guy in a band referencing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; it’s like, let me show you the finest example of this. But the first Richard Pryor live in concert movie, called Richard Pryor: Live in Concert from 1978, that to me is standup that has never been presented better. It’s probably the greatest standup that has ever lived at the peak of his power. It’s just breathtaking. The way he did it, if you watch it, everything flows very naturally. He gets on stage, and he just starts talking, tells you this story, and in 90 minutes, he’s done. That’s what I try to emulate: how do I make this non-presentational flow very natural?
You may have already just answered this question, but in the special you talk about “The Beatles of something.” Who, for you, is The Beatles of comedy, or of standup comedy?
I don’t think anybody will ever touch Richard Pryor. But as a standup, I was most influenced by George Carlin. I really grew up with him from when I was about nine or 10 years old. I come from a big Irish family, and we always had his albums, we always watched him on television. Everybody loved him. He was almost like a weird member of my family. I have a very almost biological affinity towards George Carlin. I can’t imagine. Really it would be a tie. For standup, it would be Richard Pryor, and anything else, it would be Monty Python captured a sense of the magic The Beatles had. George Harrison said that there was a sense of magic that The Beatles had that left the Beatles and went into Monty Python. I think that between the two of those is where that lies.
And you work with a lot of different comedians, whether on your podcast or other projects. Are there any you’d highlight as up and coming or some you’d like to work with that you haven’t gotten the chance to yet?
Not up and coming, but Eddie Pepitone takes my breath away. What a natural he is. He speaks my language in terms of where he goes in his humor, I think we’re very sympatico. I love Jonah Ray, he’s not what you’d call somebody coming up, but he is also somebody who does presentational bits, very old school bits. He doesn’t just do one thing. His act is very wide-ranging, and I love the way he experiments and tries to do different things. There are so many that are established that I’m a big fan of. You always see people coming up that are really strong, and it’s people that started five years ago, but they’re already, you feel like, “You’re definitely going to be somebody; you’re doing something unique.” People like Kumail [Nanjiani], it’s like, “You were born to be a standup.” And people forget about Kumail, English is his second language. He’s Pakistani. It’s always alarming. I also love, I’m a big fan of Matt Braunger.
What’s the experience of the new special’s release been like?
I’m really, really proud of it. I think it’s the best one I’ve done. I’m really happy with the response to the album, I think it’s because of the podcast. The album debuted at number one on iTunes in comedy. I’m really stunned. Maybe it’s just me, I’m not aware of how many — people call me “the comedian’s comedian” a lot, which I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not. But I was very pleasantly surprised at the response to it. I wasn’t expecting that. The entire thing has been incredibly satisfying.
So you think the podcast brought in more viewers of your special?
It’s just one of those magic things. I understand it because it’s such a direct way to communicate with your audience. Not everybody listens to podcasts, but the people who do listen to podcasts are the kind of people who will immediately buy your album. I knew that because my audience is a podcast audience that they’re very audio-oriented. That’s absolutely behind the audio sales. The album sold much more than the video, I’m sure. It’s sort of the lifestyle choice of podcast listeners. Like, I’ll listen to George Carlin’s CDs that I’ve heard a million times, but I won’t sit and watch the special. The audio you can do while you’re doing something else. But for a special you have to dedicate time to it. Ironically, with Carlin, I think his last special, It’s Bad for Ya, is one of his best ones, and he was, I think, 72. It’s great: I have 23 more years.
And you’ve met him on a few occasions.
Yeah, I came to know him. I would describe it as we had a friendly acquaintanceship. That was great. I’ve met all of my heroes that are alive. And they’ve all been nice. That would be terrible to meet someone you idolized and they were an asshole.
But your Bob Hope bit…
He was not a hero. But that’s absolutely true, and if you go on my Tumblr, there’s a photo of Bob and I at that special, and he’s looking at me with such disdain.
Your bit on the “r-word” is reminiscent of Carlin and his famous “dirty words” bit.
Absolutely. Not only is that a Carlin bit, but “The Beatles of music” is a Carlin bit. Absolutely, it’s that form. He did a bit about people that are openly gay, as opposed to being openly black or openly white, openly versus happens to be. I have a friend who happens to be black, but I have a friend who’s openly gay. The Beatles bit is structured exactly like that bit. That’s the sort of thing you can do when you’ve grown up with standup as a second language. It’s so innately riveted in your head. That’s a complete Carlin bit. I should send Kelly, his daughter, a check.
Emma Soren is a writer from Chicago living in Philadelphia.