I was patched into a conference call with comedian Chris Fleming, who was curious as to why our interview was even taking place. “I got an email that said Splitsider wanted to check in on me. It sounded like you guys were concerned, like a friend at a party,” he said.
“Oh no, where is Chris? I haven’t seen him in a while. The last thing he said was that he was going to do some Jager bombs,” I replied.
“I heard they found him on the golf course. Security picked him up on the green.”
Drawing inspiration from Robin Williams, Maria Bamford, and The Mighty Boosh, Fleming is equal parts imagination and inferiority complex, a combination that has led him to create some of the most bizarrely funny performance art taking place online and onstage today. He first went viral with his character Gayle Waters-Waters, the hyper, suburban, stay-at-home mom with a penchant for Chobani yogurt. From there he continued to release dozens of DIY YouTube videos that have collectively accumulated nearly 28 million views on his channel. Meanwhile, he was busy developing his live performance chops, which led to Showpig, the one-man show that earned great reviews at Just For Laughs and is about to make its way to Washington DC, Orlando, Atlanta, and Chicago in December. I talked to Fleming about creating Showpig, his modest career goals, and how Gayle nearly destroyed his personal relationships.
I heard that Showpig was a hit at JFL.
JFL, man. I get super stressed about stuff like that. I’m like one of those little dogs that needs a thunder blanket. I did two shows at JFL. One was on the outdoor stage and it was a freaking bloodbath. It was a big crowd of Canadian tourists. It was one of those shows where you do all of your material, every joke you’ve ever written, in like four or five minutes. You know how you go through a wormhole when people aren’t jiving with you? I just took off my glasses and disassociated. I don’t think they recognized anything I was saying as humor. I think they just wanted to see Gerard Depardieu getting his tie stuck in a car door. To passersby I looked like the heir to a failing creperie and I was just trying to drum up business for papa. But the second show, the actual legit show in a theater, was so freaking fun and euphoric in comparison. All in all it was a great experience.
It’s already hard enough to perform comedy outdoors, but Showpig has all the multimedia stuff, which… I don’t know how that would translate on an open-air stage.
Yeah, there was a multimedia element to it. The screen was LED and it was broad daylight outside, so you couldn’t see anything. I was completely fucked. Also, the host came up to me two minutes before the show and said, “Alright man, this is going to be fun. But FYI, the trees suck up all the laughs, so you’re not going to hear anything. But aside from that it’s going to be fucking great.” That’s kind of whimsical. It sounds like a young adult novel. The ecosystem needs human laughter and somehow the trees turn it into its own food supply.
It sounds like a parody of that awful M. Night Shyamalan/Mark Wahlberg movie.
Yeah, it’s like if the trees from The Happening became even needier and actually needed attention. But he was right. I had fans a half-mile out that said they could see gyrating, but couldn’t hear anything. I guess I should have known it would be a death march, because outdoor theater always offers the constant reminder at 360 degrees that there’s something better you could be doing with your time. That’s why we perform standup in dark, dark, closed-in tanks.
People go to JFL in hopes of getting discovered and making deals. How did things work out for you?
My promoters submitted me. I made it very clear to them and all of the wells I’ve been screaming into that I’m trying to crawl out of my YouTube obscurity and go legit. I did sign with Avalon Management while there at Montreal.
Ooh, Hollywood Chris Fleming.
That’s my email address. But yeah, I’ve been kind of wary of working with people, I guess. I have a hard time explaining my ideas. I just kind of have to make them and then people say, “Oh, now I see what you were going for.” Whereas, if you try to describe it it sounds like the ramblings of an insane woman. People have been telling me how weird my stuff is lately. I’ve always had this kind of inferiority complex. I don’t think I’m weird enough. I fancy myself kind of a Tim Allen with bangs. I just have this fear… I can picture my unborn, unconceived son on the playground getting pantsed as people run around screaming, “Your dad’s a YouTuber! Your dad’s a YouTuber!” and my son replying, “But that wasn’t his endgame! He’s got a general meeting at MTV/Viacom tomorrow morning!”
You developed a fan base off of YouTube, specifically with Gayle. Some of the language that you’re using sounds slightly distancing. You want to “go legit,” and the imagined taunt of “Your dad is a YouTuber.” Do you worry that as you expand your career you’ll alienate your original fans?
Of course. But I have nothing but gratitude for the fan base. They’re so good to me. The inferiority complex is more within myself. I’ll always be doing the YouTube thing. I just need some kind of thing where I can make my parents’ friends breathe a sigh of relief that I’m doing alright in their eyes. The Gayle thing is interesting to me. For instance, any time I post something the fans will be like, “Where’s the new Gayle?” It’s weird to have a small group that you need to also please that gets pissed at you for branching out just so you can survive a little bit beyond that thing. It’s hard to know when to be preservational and when to expand. But I’ve got to expand, because Gayle was tearing my friends and family apart. It’s such a production in terms of involvement and the things that my loved ones did for me. The last Gayle live show that we did, there was a horse that was having explosive diarrhea that my dad was cleaning up backstage. There was a goat that would jump onto chairs just to piss on them. My girlfriend, who was on the show and directing the show, was backstage choking on her mustache and throwing up in a trash can because this mustache had gone down her throat. It was like an Aerosmith backstage. It was insane.
How long did you work on Showpig before you started touring with it?
I wrote it in a yurt in Santa Barbara over the course of a couple days. I did two little workshop shows in LA where I would do an hour and a half to two hours. My partner, Melissa Strype, would be in the sound booth. She’s ruthless with notes like, “That is good,” “That is horrendous. Never do that again,” “Shame on you,” that kind of thing. After those two nights I was able to craft it. Then we went to New York City with it for the first big show in February.
Wow, that’s fast. Did it continue to take shape the more you performed it?
Not really. I mean, I do a lot of improvisation, but in terms of the actual structure, once I get married to something I really don’t primp it.
You mentioned that you were going to film Showpig as a special. Do you have those plans in place?
Who knows where it’s going to go? Maybe some zoo gift shop bathroom might be interested in playing it on the screens above the Koala Care station.
What does moving forward look like to you? What would you like to do project-wise? Where do you want to see your career?
I’ve got a little part in a movie coming up, which is great. I’d like to do more of that. I also have an idea for a show that I’m working on sketching and developing. It’s called Unspeakable Earth. It’s like Planet Earth, but with made-up animals. I want to continue to tour and do live shows. I love making terrible music and music videos. I love doing that for some reason. I don’t really do stuff too long-term. I’m kind of stupid in that way. I was just in my sister’s wedding as a maid of honor. The last month that was all that I was focused on. I forgot I had a career or anything. I was just focused on the speech I was giving, during which I got emotional. I instructed the DJ to play “Who Let the Dogs Out” if I got emotional, so that whenever I started to cry the Baha Men would come on and bring me out of it. But there’s nothing really long-term for me. I’m just trying to get better at what I’m doing.
Check out some of Fleming’s upcoming tour dates here.
Photo by Alexandra Genova.