How Spalding Gray Moved Standup Comedy Beyond Jokes

This past August, a number of Spalding Gray monologues and more became available on Howl Premium. They are joined with a number of familiar podcasts on that network, including the Earwolf and Wolfpop archives, made up mostly of standup comics’ podcasts. Gray makes an auspicious addition to this cohort; his work in monologue has had a tremendous impact on standup comedy, and contributed to the blurring line between the two media.

In 1967, when Spalding Gray was 25 and vacationing with his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth LeCompte, Gray’s mother committed suicide. Following that vacation, he and LeCompte moved to New York City and began the work that would come to define their respective careers. The two got heavily involved in experimental theater, and were soon working with The Performance Group. Gray’s work with The Performance Group and later The Wooster Group, would be essential in developing the format of the solo show, and its impact on modern standup comedy.

The Performance Group’s claim to notoriety at the time was their productions of existing plays, newly-rewritten through improvisation with the performers, resulting in productions that were almost unrecognizable from the original text. Their 1969 production of Macbeth, retitled Makbeth, had scenes playing simultaneously, or repetitively, and restricted the audience to a thirty-inch thick perimeter around the stage – action took place on either side of them.

LeCompte and Gray, along with other members of the Group, began developing their own material, and more and more, Gray was stepping out of the narrative and addressing the audience directly. “In Tooth of Crime I would tire of looking at Joan [Mackintosh] and look at the audience instead, for a relief,” he explained. This technique also has its roots in the Marx Brothers, whose stage performances were very improv-heavy, as the Brothers would get bored of a joke once it had already been delivered.

Gray’s performance was moving toward first-person presentation, and he and LeCompte developed what was called Three Places in Rhode Island, three plays about Gray’s own life and his mother’s suicide. Rumstick Road, the second entry in the trilogy, included recordings of him talking about her suicide with his own psychiatrist. The Village Voice reviewer objected, describing it as “the violation of a stranger’s privacy.” Gray responded that he “saw theatre as a place to make the personal public.” In 1979 he debuted Sex and Death to the Age 14, his first ever solo show.

Gray sat at a desk-sized table onstage, with a notebook “containing an outline of all I could remember about sex and death up until I was 14 years old.” With that, his format was established, as was the format for many solo performers who would follow. Between 1979 and his death by suicide in 2004, he gained acclaim for his solo shows, leading to acting roles in film and television (his small part in The Killing Fields giving him material for perhaps his most famous monologue, Swimming to Cambodia), and directors such as Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh filming his monologues.

His influence on modern monologue can hardly be overstated. In 1984, the Drama Desk Awards created the Outstanding Solo Performance category, in which Spalding Gray was nominated in 1985, 1991, 1994, and 2000. The category has also included the other Monsters of Monologue, Eric Bogosian, Anna Deveare Smith, John Leguizamo, etc. In recent years, the category has included more people whose work has also been considered standup comedy – Colin Quinn, Judy Gold, and of course Mike Birbiglia.

In his posthumously-published journals, Gray speaks rarely of comedy – he couldn’t be said to necessarily be influenced himself by comedians much, apart from his repeated comparisons of himself to Woody Allen, “a Woody Allen WASP that cannot love and cannot make a lot of money because the audience that identifies with me has no money.” On an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, Letterman also describes him as “WASP Woody Allen.”

These comparisons were made when Woody Allen’s public history with sexual assault only included joking about his ex-wife being raped, whom he’d married when she was 16. It’s likelier that what Gray saw in Woody Allen was their shared neurotic anhedonia (the former’s a perfect synecdoche with his autobiographical novel’s titular Impossible Vacation), and also the development through storytelling of specific public personae. Just as Woody Allen characters are always essentially Woody Allen, Spalding Gray’s theatrical career was defined by his performances as Spalding Gray.

By the late 70s, of course, Woody Allen was no longer performing standup, but the world of standup was reflecting very closely the development of personal material in Gray’s work. As Richard Zoglin notes in Comedy at the Edge, the late 1960s-1970s  rise of standup comedians who wrote their own, personal material, rather than relying on “jokes written by others” “paralleled a revolution that was taking place across the popular arts… rock artists were no longer satisfied merely to sing other people’s songs; now they were writing and performing their own work.”

Drawing more from their personal experiences, standup comedians were telling longer stories, not just moving from punchline to punchline. You can watch Richard Pryor’s performances over the course of the 70s evolve to the point that he can tell a ten minute story about his own heart attack, his father’s death, and his relationship with his grandmother that’s hilarious, but has almost no real setup/punchlines that can be taken out of context as jokes per se. As the New York TimesJason Zinoman notes, Pryor, like Gray, “found the humor through these dark, confessional stories.”

By the mid-80s, Gray’s work was getting more and more attention, leading to a rarity for monologists, even today: a theatrical release of a filmed performance of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia. It was directed by Jonathan Demme, who had previously released a different kind of concert film: The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (coincidentally[?] one of Gray’s greatest screen roles was in The Talking Heads’ David Byrne’s film True Stories). Swimming to Cambodia plays much like a standup concert film – Spalding Gray enters the theater, sits down at his iconic table, and begins speaking to his live audience. He uses some props, like maps, but there are very few film effects other than what happens onstage (unlike Steven Soderbergh’s 1996 film of Gray’s Anatomy, which is more effects-heavy). It’s funny, of course, but not constantly. Unlike an actual standup performance, Gray is comfortable going plenty of time without getting any laughs. It’s distinctly not comedy; it’s storytelling.

In 1988, though, HBO Comedy released Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure, directed by Thomas Schlamme and including material cut from Swimming to Cambodia (HBO Comedy has also released standup specials from comedians like Wanda Sykes as well as John Leguizamo’s solo show Ghetto Klown). On that 1986 appearance on Late Night Gray is described even more vaguely as a “humorist” and describes himself as a “male Lily Tomlin.” In a 1986 interview, Gray definitively rules himself out as a standup comedian, but explains as the dividing line “sitting squared behind that table.” Even sitting on a stool without the table “would [make him] feel like [standup comedian] Shelley Berman.”

Gray continued to appear on stage and in film throughout his life, playing the Stage Manager in Our Town in the late 80s, Fran’s therapist on multiple episodes of The Nanny in the late 90s, and of course writing and starring in solo shows examining his life and experiences. In 2001 he was in an automobile accident that may have put him in a depressive state, leading to his suicide in 2004. In the years since his death, his reputation and acclaim have only grown, and Steven Soderbergh’s 2010 documentary, And Everything Is Going Fine, pieced together a single chronological autobiographical monologue from Gray’s shows over his life.

Now, more than in his own time, the line between standup comedy and monologue is further blurred. Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me began as a standup routine, then was developed as a story for The Moth, then for This American Life, and then for his successful solo show in 2008.

This video shows him working on the show’s central anecdote in a variety of media:

That a story can work both in standup and in theatrical monologue comes as no surprise, but Gray’s influence in the latter has had an impact on the former. Like many of Gray’s fans, John Mulaney first became aware of Gray after his suicide, and since then dove deeply into his work. Mulaney describes a passage in the 1996 Gray monologue It’s A Slippery Slope, “told in this rhythm that is as fast as skiing, yet he manages to drop in jokes every two lines.” You can definitely see this kind of rhythm in Mulaney’s own work when he tells stories. Mulaney considers his bit “Chase Through The Subway” directly “stolen” from It’s A Slippery Slope:

To solo performer David Lawson, the difference between solo shows and standup is the audience expecting jokes, rather than stories. When an audience goes into a solo show, “they subconsciously think ‘I’ll laugh a little, but not every few seconds guaranteed.’” Even this, he admits, is a minor distinction. “When you see John Leguizamo, it’s not quite standup, but you know you’re going to laugh.” With his own solo show, Insomnia in Space, he notes that when he’s had “too quiet of a night, it’s not make-or-break like it would be in standup.” Gray’s recorded performances could have been done in a studio, Lawson notes, but the stories work best when you can hear the laughs. His recording of It’s A Slippery Slope includes live audience laughter during segments, sounding almost like a “comedy club environment.”

Sue Costello, a comedian-playwright-actor-producer influenced by Gray, sees the “comedy club environment” as crucial to the standup/monologist dichotomy. “In standup clubs, the deal is, people come expecting you to make them laugh. With a monologist, there is more room for pauses and not so much pressure to get laughs.”

Zinoman believes that the performer, not the space, determines the medium: “A standup comic is uncomfortable without a laugh, but Gray was not. That’s the fundamental difference in the two traditions. There are branches of standup increasingly moving away from punchlines, but that’s the divide.”

There may be no better recent example of straddling that divide than Tig Notaro’s famous Largo set. As Louis CK wrote in 2012, “I…watched [Notaro] tell a stunned audience[,] ‘[H]i. I have cancer. Just found out today. I’m going to die soon[.]” What followed was one of the greatest standup performances I ever saw… Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened…”

That standup set was itself developed originally as a This American Life story, before Ira Glass recommended that Notaro work it out onstage. Following that performance, of course, it did appear on This American Life. In other words, Notaro began working on a monologue, then performed pieces of it onstage at a comedy club to find the laughs in it, which created the monologue it has become. That performance piece stepped from monologue to standup set to monologue again.

Notaro’s set exemplifies had what Costello describes as Gray’s trademark: “He just did what was inside of him. He went from the inside out, rather than the outside in. We are at a point that everyone wants to get back to those kind of basics.” Starting from one’s own truth and finding the story – and the laughs – after that is key to Gray’s solo work and that of many performers in his wake. Costello describes this as vital in the creation of her own forthcoming solo show, I Wasn’t Trying To Be Funny.

In the years between his accident and his suicide, Spalding Gray did little writing and little performing. Had he been able, it would have been illuminating to have had access to more of his insights on his own state of mind at the time of his death. He was always so nakedly honest about his feelings and his experiences (with the notable exception of almost never discussing onstage having sex with men), a piece about how much he’d changed could have been one of his best. It’s likewise a shame that he missed Notaro’s Largo set; he also missed the This American Life/Mike Daisey flap, a moment that examined the blurring line between monologue and journalism. It may be that we’re moving toward a time when we’ll need to devise stronger barriers between different types of storytelling; we won’t ever be able to stop influence from crossing them.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the webseries Doing Good.

How Spalding Gray Moved Standup Comedy Beyond Jokes