comics talk to comics

Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman, and Max Silvestri on the End of Their Weekly Comedy Show, Big Terrific

Photo: Chase Allgood/Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

On June 5, 2008, Big Terrific, a stand-up comedy show hosted by then-unknowns Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman, and Max Silvestri, started in earnest in the back bar of the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix. Over the course of the next seven years (which included a venue change to Williamsburg’s Cameo), Big Terrific emerged as the best comedy show in the city. Part of the success was the lineups, which have included the likes of Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, and Aziz Ansari (Ansari in particular has appeared frequently), but mostly it was Jenny, Gabe, and Max, whose friendship created an inviting atmosphere, and whose individual comedy was so consistently hilarious and specific that you knew you were going to have a good time on any given Wednesday night.

Sadly, Big Terrific is ending this week. Tonight is the last show at Cameo, and this Sunday, the trio will do two final shows at Greenpoint’s Warsaw. Max has been hosting the shows solo since Gabe joined Jenny in L.A. in 2013, and now Max, as these things go, is also moving out West. To mark the transition, Vulture asked Jenny, Gabe, and Max to interview each other about the show. (As best friends, the conversation is loose, so we bolded sentences that start a new line of discussion.) They talk about how it started, some highlights, some (poop-related) lowlights, and what it’s meant for their comedy and their friendship. (They also talk about wet undergarments for awhile!) Big Terrific will be missed.

[The call was scheduled for 11 a.m. Max was slightly late.]

Gabe Liedman: Where is he?

Jenny Slate: Yes!

GL: I don’t even know if I want to do this show anymore.

JS: Me neither. Forget this!

GL: It says 11 o’clock on my fucking oven.

JS: I’m in my bridal gown. I’m in my veil. I am so irritated.

Max Silvestri: Right now, Jenny?

GL: Oh, he’s here.

JS: I put on my bridal gown and my veil at least eight hours prior to Shabbat every Friday. I’m not a fucking bitch.

MS: I don’t get that joke. I just don’t understand. I don’t even know what that is on Friday

GL: Are you not doing the conversion classes?

JS: Max, remember last week, when you called mozzarella balls “matzo balls”?

MS: [Laughs.] Yeah I thought that was a cute joke, and you guys and Leah [Beckmann, Max’s girlfriend] were not okay with that.

JS: It is like after all these years, we have all been waiting to jump on you for not being a Jew, and finally, we did it.

MS: So, wait, have we started? Is this it?

JS: I don’t really want to talk to Gabe because I texted him this morning to tell him last night I was so drunk that I got in the shower with my underpants on, and he’s been texting me all morning to ask how wet my underpants were, so I don’t want to talk to him anymore because he’s perverted.

GL: It is important for me to know if your panties are wet.

MS: You owe your friend an answer.

GL: Yeah.

MS: Sometimes after I go for a run, I get into the shower with my spandex on, and then that’s how I clean it. This is not a joke.

GL: Wait, what spandex are you wearing?

MS: So, I only have two pairs of gym underwear, and then I wash it in the shower, and then I wring it out over my head and mouth.

JS: Oh, yeah, that makes tons of sense.

GL: I have shorts with built-in underwear, which I don’t like that much, and those bathing suits, too. Remember, Jen, at the beach, I wore them?

JS: I do remember that, Gabe. I do remember that. Well, I have about 100 sports bras, and I only wear them one time, and then I throw them away because I am athletic. That’s what it is.

MS: Well, yeah, it is because that stuff that leaks out of you that doesn’t come out in the wash.

JS: My nips are burning hot and make little nip-size holes. It’s like after I use them one time, I can’t use them anymore because there are little bullet holes right where my nips have obviously scorched the material, so I don’t clean it.

GL: Oh, no, I understand. [Laughs.]

JS: I throw it away.

MS: Before I go for a run, I shave the area around my nipples, just that area, and put masking tape over them so they don’t burn. Pretty standard marathon stuff. I’ve seen a documentary about Uta Pippig, is that the one?

JS: Uh, yeah, she had diarrhea and her period, and that was in the Boston marathon, which, you know, is big.

MS: It sure was. Didn’t she still win?

JS: Um, I would say in general she lost, because 20 years later we’re still talking about her diarrhea and period, but I don’t know if she won.

MS: But she won in the sense that I can’t think of a single other marathon winner except Uta Pippig because she just came across that finish line whipping her shorts above her head or whatever.

JS: [Laughs.] Yeah.

MS: I guess we should talk about the show Big Terrific.

GL: I’m glad we’re giving it a nice ending.

MS: Yeah, I’m so happy you guys are going to be back in town for the last shows.

JS: Me, too.

GL: Me, too. It is going to be really fun and fancy, and I heard that that theater is gorgeous.

JS: Is it like an actual theater?

MS: Well, no, I mean, the stage looks like a theater, but it is like a raw space.

JS: A raw space with curtains.

MS: [Laughs.]

JS: That’s what I call my pusssaaaayy, girl. I’m sorry. I apologize.

MS: Stay on brand. Stay on brand.

JS: [Laughs.] Okay, so our show was seven years.

MS: Yeah, just under seven. I was looking at the email that Gabe sent for the first show. It made me laugh so hard that he said, “The most exciting comedic team-up since Woody Harrelson guest-starred on Will and Grace.” I don’t remember those episodes at all. That’s a real specific reference.

GL: Well, I stand by that. I think that’s still true, right?

MS: I’m flattered either way. Do you remember who asked who to do the show?

JS: I don’t really know, but I feel like in my memory, Gabe and I were doing our show at Hugs and you were maybe doing something by yourself at Sound Fix.

GL: Yeah, it was once a month, right?

MS: Yeah, I had moved the show I had done for a little while at Rififi, I Like Attention, to Sound Fix, but it was monthly, and you guys were every other week, and I know that we didn’t want to do a weekly by ourselves.

JS: I remember that it was still at a time where there was a concern of whether or not you could fill a room every week. We really depended on our friends to come. We didn’t really have a fan base, and [as] a sort of cheesy business move, we were like, Well we can combine email-blast lists and combine our very, very small fan bases. It was also scary because Sound Fix was much larger and it was a lot nicer.

GL: Yeah, Hugs was like the corner of a huge room. There was like no division between the video games. Do you remember why we stopped doing it there, Jen?

JS: No.

GL: Because the girl who ran it told us we had to start bringing our own microphones to the show [Laughs.]

JS: Oh my God, yeah.

GL: And we looked at each other and we were like, I’m not going like buy a microphone and carry it to the show.

MS: Like you’re a professional pool player, bringing your own cue to the bar.

GL: Yeah, let me just grab my own mic out of my case. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

MS: I’m a hustler.

GL: Also, a mic cost $14, but still it was so weird.

JS: There are so few opportunities to have self-respect when you’re starting a stand-up career. You perform for free in shitholes that often don’t have a stage or a microphone or even working toilets, but it is really when you have those moments where you’re allowed to exercise your right to self-respect and be like, “You know what, if you don’t have a microphone, you’re not even a venue anymore, you’re just a person with a room, and I have a room at my house, so I’m going there. Fuck you, I’ll find another way to do this. Go fuck yourself.”

MS: [Laughs.]

GL: Yeah, so we didn’t end up buying microphones.

JS: No, we didn’t.

MS: To this day, we still didn’t buy a microphone.

GL: I am such a pussy now compared to myself then when I look back, even though I know a lot more and I’m a lot more grown-up. I say no to a lot of shit now just out of comfort and fear.

MS: Yeah.

JS: Yeah.

GL: I wonder if I would be where I am now if it even occurred to me back then how scary it was. It didn’t feel scary.

JS: No, it didn’t feel scary, but it is also totally different when you are a stranger and have absolutely nothing to lose. Nothing terrible is going to happen if we all for some reason get up there and totally eat it.

MS: When we all started Big Terrific, the consequences were so low in that we all were making some money at comedy, but it was not like our careers that we were fully holding on to. We were all building at different levels, so it was like, Oh, who cares? I’ll do whatever I want on this stage like that’s not my job.

GL: Did we ever have Sound Fix shows where there wasn’t enough of an audience to do a show?

MS: It actually only happened once: the night of the vice-presidential debates between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

GL: Oh my God.

MS: Noah [Garfinkel] was on it, Matt McCarthy, Aziz [Ansari], and nobody came. We were like, Don’t we just kind of want to watch the debate? and Sound Fix put it on.

GL: Yesssss.

MS: They projected it.

JS: Yes!

GL: Yes! I do remember that!

MS: This was like her follow-up so that she wasn’t a dummy.

JS: We actually watched a couple of debates there because I remember sitting with Donald Glover, who was on the show, and that was the first time I ever met Aubrey Plaza. It was UCB people started coming in. The show was starting to be big enough, it was a big enough room, and it also was the first place that all of us performed that had any sort of standards for tech. The microphones did work and the projector worked.

GL: It was a better room, for sure. That was also the most photogenic comedy room. Every picture from Sound Fix is so gorgeous because of the molding.

JS: It also had a great vibe. And you know what else? They had those crazy—

GL: Bloody Marys?!

JS: The Bloody Marys! We called them BMs because they would straight-up blow your colon out. I always, as we all know, get major pre-show diarrhea no matter what, but those were so fucking good. They had a whole pickle in them. I would just have two giant BMs before we went up.

MS: No dinner. None of us would have any dinner. We would just have a pickle and BMs, and then go up onstage. Also, Sound Fix’s lounge was beautiful, the record store was so classy and cool, and then the middle little antechamber, that was a bathroom and a couch. It was crazy that that existed between. That’s the thing: We’d have those Bloody Marys and you’d have to bring your own rope from home to hold the door closed. It was like hanging on a hook or whatever, and it was like, Yo, I’m ten feet from Sarah Silverman, can I please blow one out in peace for three seconds.

JS: If a building could actually have a taint, that’s what that place would be. It is literally the taint of the space. I actually remember when Sarah Silverman was there and she had a picture of somebody’s balls on her phone, and I was like, Everybody is gathered around to take a look at this phone and I just need to take a shit so bad, but I don’t want to.

GL: It was Harris [Wittels]’s balls.

JS: It was Harris’s balls, you’re right.

GL: Sarah Silverman was the first person who we felt like we had to hide away from the audience, but also the audience was so big that night, that to get from the taint bathroom room to the stage, she had to hold our hands and walk on the bar. Do you remember?

JS: Yes!

MS: There was something that made sense about that. As much as I feel like I was a little embarrassed, like, Sorry we don’t have a green room, it also felt very appropriately our show and our vibe to just walk this giant performer over the bar at the side of the stage.

GL: It also was like such a visual metaphor for, “You’re too big for the room now!”

JS: I love that we did that Halloween show. We did many Halloween shows, but there was one where Max was Weird Al, Gabe was — I can’t remember if you were George Costanza or Steven Spielberg? I was Left Eye from TLC. Then, for some reason at the time, we were all totally obsessed with Encino Man. Max printed out the script, and we laughed and laughed about it, and how it was total nonsense. Wheezing on domes with nugs and grinders or whatever.

GL: I was Costanza, it was a baseball jacket.

MS: I totally forgot about that. Do you remember when we did The Wire season six?

JS: Yes! I do!

MS: Patrick Borelli, who is now a writer for The Tonight Show, had this complicated bit where he had written a script for an episode of The Wire season six, like after The Wire ended. So that show, each season was showing Baltimore through the docks or schools. Season six was the Baltimore Zoo. So he edited an intro that was a mixture of gritty Baltimore footage and zoo animals and had that Tom Waits song, and he had Marlow trying to smuggle in drugs through the giraffe cages. Then the giraffes had their own … it was so complicated. Audience members were holding little printouts on Popsicle sticks … in front of their faces, it was such a ridiculous thing.

JS: I remember holding that thing in front of my face. I also have not seen The Wire, and I didn’t understand the character that I was playing, so that was hard for me.

MS: I’m sorry if you’re still mad.

JS: That’s fine.

GL: People are still talking about how bad you were that night.

JS: That was an evening where I doubted myself.

GL: I was at an audition and they said, “Just don’t do what Jenny did for that Wire bit.”

JS: Classic J.Slate fuck-up there, huh?

GL: What about Tammy [Hart, the Sound Fix and eventual Cameo booker]?

MS: Tammy is the reason this all happened. She met us through this dude that had been to a couple shows at Rififi and had read something I’d written in The A.V. Club, and she asked me about doing a show at Sound Fix. She made the weekly show work. Then she brought us to Cameo as well. If it wasn’t for Tammy, I might have quit stand-up regularly any number of times.

JS: She also got us hooked up with the guy that owned the pizza place, Vinnie’s. I would get a lot of free pizza. I know that’s not what we’re talking about here, but it’s really important.

GL: I had to pay for mine.

MS: I paid for mine, too. That’s kind of fucked up, Jenny.

JS: I didn’t steal the pizza. It was offered to me.

GL: Perks of being a pretty girl.

MS: I definitely went there and I was like, “Hey, good to see you! We have a crazy amount of connections.” He’s like, “Yeah, totally. $4.25. Put the quarters in the tip jar.” No free pizza for me.

I feel like if we hadn’t done Big Terrific, and hadn’t had a weekly show that didn’t require much from us to have momentum — you know, we worked hard to be good at it and we booked it, but ultimately, we didn’t have to hustle that long for that show, we were not handing out flyers in the subway — I feel like I don’t know if I would have kept up with stand-up.

JS: It was a really, really comfortable space. It built confidence. It certainly built our friendship. It was a home for us, and for me, it’s always about encouragement. I always do better when I’m encouraged. I never got heckled. Not once at our show. It was always a friendly, sweet space.

MS: We had a bit of a clubhouse, and the three of us were not big on criticizing one another, even in a joking way.

JS: No, never.

GL: No.

MS: It wasn’t like everywhere else in comedy. It wasn’t just encouragement from a supportive audience who liked our personalities, but it was a place to do comedy where your fellow comedians aren’t razzing you. Any time we would have somebody on who didn’t get that vibe, it was like, “Oh, no, you’re doing this all wrong. You should leave. That’s not how we do things here.”

JS: The dicks never got to come back. Not that there were very many of them at all, but meanies never got invited back. In general, also, the industry can be so scary and so forbidding, so it was really, really nice to have a place that was like, “Of course you can try something new, that’s what we’re all hoping for, and we all love each other’s brains.”

Also, it was really fucking fun to hang out. That’s what you hoped for every Wednesday. Not just to be entertained by each other and entertained by strangers, but then to sit around for like three and a half to four hours afterwards and just drill it in and drink like seven BMs.

MS: Man, I don’t think I’ve had a Thursday morning in New York in seven years that I haven’t been tired. I just realized that is a thing. We never took any shows off. So that’s gonna be a whole new New York.

I do feel like the show is ending at a good time. It’s a bummer, but New York is done. That block is gonna be all Lululemon stores within a year. The idea of doing poop comedy in the back of an electronic music venue feels like its time is ending.

JS: Awww …

GL: In Williamsburg.

MS: Yeah, in Williamsburg. We can do it elsewhere. The time for poop comedy’s not ending, just on North 6th Street.

JS: Oh, no, I’m going to med school.

MS: Oh, okay.

JS: I want to become a doctor to help people’s anuses feel better.

MS: We should all become doctors and then open a practice together. If we start now, we can be doctors by the time we’re 41, and that would be great.

GL: That has always been my goal.

JS: Max, I feel like you had the original joke of calling your butthole your “candy gland,” is that true?

MS: That is true. I have a joke about accidentally getting gasoline shot up my ass and learning how sensitive my candy gland is. Though I was then told that human anuses are not actually glands, only dog anuses are. That’s why you don’t have to wipe them. Is this a great place to end? You do have to wipe the human anus.

GL: But not the dog anus.

MS: I mean, you can wipe dogs’ anuses, but you don’t have to. It’s up to you.

JS: I mean, I shave my anus after every bowel movement, but I don’t wipe it. I thought you were just supposed to shave it down.

MS: Do you reuse razors, because you shouldn’t? I don’t know if you’ve looked at them afterwards, but you might wanna toss those razors. Or not use Dean [Fleischer-Camp, Jenny’s husband]’s. Is that why Dean’s always breaking out?

JS: Yes, that’s why Dean’s always breaking out. No, no, I put the razors right under my pillow. What a great note to end on, guys.

MS: I can’t think of anything else that we should talk about.

JS: I’d like to thank Cameo for all those tater tots that I sucked down over the years. They were great.

MS: I will say that Big Terrific has been the most fun experience of my life, and becoming best friends with you guys is tied for first. I’m so glad.

GL: Aw, Max!

JS: You’re the best! I love you both, and I’m glad we did our show. It was the fucking best.

GL: Yeah, me, too.

MS: I’m also glad we get paid to do comedy.

JS: Gabe, can you come over and come help me get my underwear out of the shower?

GL: Sure, I’m on my way.

Slate, Liedman, and Silvestri on Big Terrific