If I had any doubts as to whether Josh Gondelman was actually the nice guy everyone says he is, they were quickly dissolved when he started to talk about Bizzy’s (his old Pug) current health problems. On the day of our interview, Gondelman had just returned from the vet tending to Dizzy’s recent bout with a persistent stomach problem. He explained, “I have an emotional bond with her. When she’s sick, I’m sad. It’s made me realize that I would love human children too much. I would be like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong, but can I breastfeed you?’” In addition to being a good dog owner, Gondelman is also a regular in the New York City comedy scene, a writer on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, and the creator of the popular Modern Seinfeld Twitter account. I talked to Gondelman about his nice guy reputation, his growth as a comic, and his new album Physical Whisper, which is out today.
I told a couple of people that I would be talking to you and the responses that I got were, “He’s so sweet,” and, “Super nice guy.” Then, while I was doing a little bit of research on you, I found two articles, one called “Nice Guys Finish First,” and the other “Josh Gondelman Is Proof That Kindness Can Kill in Comedy.” Was this niceness a natural thing for you or are you some type of strategist who decided to brand yourself as Comedy’s Nice Guy?
No, I think the kind of ironic part is that many comedians are very, very nice. I don’t know how that got to be my reputation and it’s funny because normally that’s not the reputation of a good comedian. In fact, it’s the reputation of most not very good comedians. It’s very flattering that people think that there is goodness in me, but around comics it’s a funny thing to be tagged with. Around other comedians it’s kind of a kiss of death for someone to say that about another comedian.
Yeah, I hear that about a lot of lifelong open micers.
Someone will say, “What’s this person all about?” and the response will be, “Oh, they’re very nice,” instead of, “They’re very funny.”
Exactly. Like, “Are they going to be weird?” “No, they’re really nice.” So it’s like, I’m not going to book them on my show, but I wouldn’t call the police if they show up.
Your first album was called Everything’s the Best, which is such an optimistic and cheery title.
Yeah, so I guess now I know how I get labeled that way. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but also sometimes things are good and you can express that in comedy too. I’m definitely not at my best comedically when I’m furious. I don’t make good comedy that way. It just comes out like a manifesto. When I’m in a good place and thinking about things from a point of, “Oh isn’t that weird?” or, “Here’s a thing I’d like to share,” I do a lot better writing jokes. I love a lot of darker, aggressive comics. It just doesn’t work when I try it. One of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady, has an album called Stay Positive, which I like as an anthem. I heard Craig Finn, the lead singer, in an interview say, “People think it’s a Pollyanna attitude, but when you say, ‘Stay positive,’ you don’t say it when things are good. You say it when things are bad.” That was an illuminating thing for me. You can point out when things aren’t always the best, but you can also issue a reminder that things can be good.
Is your default setting to be positive or is that something you have to work hard to achieve?
I’m pretty hardwired to find the good in things. I guess I’m lucky that way. Not that I don’t think critically about things, but my brain tends to be, “Oh, this is pretty good.” I try to find the silver lining. It’s not like a, “Serenity now” thing; a rage-filled person trying to tamp it down with mantras.
You recorded your new album, Physical Whisper, at the Davis Square Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts. Is that close to where you grew up?
Yes, very close to where I grew up. I grew up in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Davis Square is like a 20 minute drive from there. I lived a 15 minute walk from there the last year I was in Boston before I moved to New York. It was a really nice time. I drove into Somerville and met up with my friend Sean, who was on the show. We got coffee at Diesel, which is this place that’s right next door to the theater. I used to go there a lot. It was an exciting night, but I also got to do these things that I’m very comfortable with. That made it a very pleasant evening.
It’s been about five years since your last album came out. Have you given much thought to how you’ve changed as a performer?
I think the subject matter is a little different. My first album had a lot of material about me teaching preschool. When I recorded the first one I made a conscious effort – because I knew I was going to be leaving that teaching job – to be like, “Okay, I should start observing other things about the world instead of just reporting the charming things that children say.” I took that support system away from my standup. I guess the other thing – and I did this subconsciously – is that the album is 50% longer story bits and 50% shorter set-up/punchline jokes. My first album ends with one story that’s eight minutes. But this one has like three that are that are around that length. That’s becoming a more prominent part of my standup, which I like. I like to be able to have the variety. I like writing jokes, but I also like being able to write a punchy story that works as standup. It’s very satisfying. Probably my favorite bit on the album is this story of a very sweet, funny thing my girlfriend did. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the wildest night where I fought a guy who used to be on Saved by the Bell.” It’s not like this story is one of those incredible “how did this happen to a living person?” stories. This story doesn’t have high-stakes like the Neil Patrick Harris interaction from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. This is just a very small story about hanging out with my girlfriend the night of my grandmother’s funeral. It’s a standup story that explores this little moment and I’m pleased that it’s funny and works as standup.
I found this album to be very conversational.
Thank you. That’s a very kind compliment. Some of my favorite albums recently are John Mulaney’s The Top Part and New in Town. I love the pacing of them. I love how they go between the five-minute stories and minute-long jokes. To me it’s such a pleasurable listening experience when you get that kind of variety coming from – in a baseball sense – different arm angles. You don’t get lulled into a rhythm of, “Here’s the arc of this long story and here’s the big payoff,” or “Here’s a one-liner, here’s a one-liner, here’s a one-liner.” There are people who do both of those things incredibly well, like Mike Birbiglia’s long-form stuff. I saw Jimmy Carr in LA a few months ago and I was like, “Man, you do not get sick of these one-liners because they’re so perfect.” It would be like getting sick of eating chocolate chip cookies.
Can you give me a forecast of what 2016 looks like for you?
I might be writing another book. That would be exciting to get to do. I’m trying to pick my next fun project to do. Whenever I finish something I’m like, “Oh that was good. Next thing please.” I don’t know if that’s because I can’t stand to be alone with regular thoughts that aren’t work-related or whether it’s because I just get a little restless and need something to tinker with. I really love doing standup and hopefully when I have a little bit of down time I’ll be out on the road. I think I can say this: I’m going to be on Conan coming up. It’s very gratifying to have been doing standup for a significant portion of my life and have these little feathers in my cap to show for it.