Guy Branum Remains Comfortable Having Uncomfortable Conversations

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Guy Branum has seen a lot and worn many different hats in his comedy career, which dates back to the early 2000s. He’s written for and appeared in shows for Chelsea Handler on Chelsea Lately, Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project, and W. Kamau Bell on Totally Biased. Branum is also a standup, having released his first album Effable in 2015, and in November of last year he made headlines for another type of writing with his article for Vulture titled “Tear Down the Boys’ Club That Protected Louis C.K.”

The public response to the piece received much praise and support but predictably had critics, including Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar, which was home to both the metaphorical and literal table highlighted in the piece. But Branum didn’t shy away from any backlash, appearing on Dworman’s podcast to both defend and clarify the intentions of the piece and the meaning of “the table.” It was an admirable move by Branum and further pushed the conversation into the direction it needs to be heading in, not that Branum is shy about talking.

He hosts Talk Show the Game Show on truTV, which of course also has a very literal table: his late night desk, where Branum brings in three guests per show, just like a regular talk show, but with judges who score those who sit across from the jubilant host. Talk Show the Game Show moves fast – a thing for all talk shows to take notice of – and gives its guests something different to do than most places on the promo circuit. It also showcases Branum as not just a writer and support for someone else, but as someone who can be the focal point as well.

That’s also something he wouldn’t shy away from.

What have you learned after two seasons of Talk Show the Game Show?

The nice thing about this show is that we’ve been doing it live for a really long time. So there was a lot about the show that we did understand, the stuff that we should be worried about that might cause somebody to shut down or feel threatened – like a lot of chaos, or asking some random celebrity to come and join in the fray. We understand that’s a lot that could make it uncomfortable for them. We really learned a lot from the first season, mostly with the stupid little games we have people play, figuring out what stuff works and really brings out the side of somebody that you want to see, like what is a side of Melissa Joan Hart that you haven’t seen before? Getting these people to talk about stuff that you may not immediately know they are passionate about. Finding that stuff and opening it up. I also learned that I’m going to sweat. I need to stop being scared of it and just accept that it will happen.

What sort of conversations do you have in the writer’s room for games and how to bring the most out of a guest?

It’s hard because we’re still figuring out what we’re doing, so a lot of the time you’re asking the writers to sort of hit a moving target. But they’re all really great. It takes a staggering amount of research when you’re presented with somebody and there’s not an obvious answer to what a not-obvious interesting thing about this person is. We talk a lot about the writers on late night shows, but we don’t talk a lot about the producers on those shows and the work that they have to do. This show is one where the creative work really starts with the producers, because they’re the ones who understand who this person is, and a good producer can get at what the core of a person is. Then we have to dig deep and go crazy. It was a situation where it really benefits me to have a small writing staff. Having diverse people present who have different angles on things is invaluable.

You’ve written for standup, sitcoms, panel shows, talk shows, all types of things that need a comedic punch-up. What’s your favorite type of writing to do?

In so many ways, the most satisfying is working on a show like mine, but when it’s daily it’s even better. Because you’re just having an idea and turning it into a real thing that same day. And on this show, when we rolled out a dunk tank for our drag queen, when we pulled out a Carmen Sandiego-style map of the Confederacy for a game that required people to locate a historically black college – these ridiculous ideas that turn into something that is right there on your set – it’s pretty great. That part of it is really fun. Jokes getting laughs with that kind of a turnaround is really nice. On a sitcom there’s a lot of time and rewriting and there are things that a sitcom can do that a show like mine can’t. On The Mindy Project it was fun to write something that could make you cry on occasion. No one is crying on Talk Show the Game Show except for losing contestants.

After your “Tear Down the Boys’ Club” article, you received some backlash but also weren’t afraid to clarify or defend your piece on a podcast with the owner at the Comedy Cellar. What was it like to write that article and then to have the fortitude to face it head-on like that?

So it’s an issue that is about women in comedy and gender, and to some extent that’s not for me to talk about, and not for me to pull back the things that I said. Vulture said they talked to a lot of comics and they asked me as well, and I was like “Sure, if you want my ideas,” and it was just my immediate reaction. It was really, really bad that I sort of silently participated in a culture that had so cruelly misused people, that had really said you don’t get to be here unless you shut up about this and take what you’re given. A lot of people said the answer is just for members of traditionally underrepresented groups to keep their heads down and be good at comedy. And I would say that a lot of them have been keeping their heads down and being good at comedy for the past 16 years, and they haven’t really made huge headway towards equal representation. God knows people have broken through, but keeping us quiet and just taking it – keeping women quiet and just taking it – has created an industry that is like 85% male. Also, there aren’t gay male nationally touring headliners, and that’s going to be a problem for me.

One of the interesting things in the conversation with Noam is that at one point in time – and he was so kind and thoughtful about it – he was talking about John Leguizamo, and he essentially said to me, “I’ll never enjoy Leguizamo as much as my Puerto Rican wife can. Maybe a straight audience can never identify as much with you?” He was saying it as if it was academic speculation when he was essentially saying to me, “Maybe your career is a false premise. Maybe you just can’t do this.” Mainstream audiences, which of course ostensibly are heterosexual men getting to be the judge of what is or isn’t comedy, maybe they’ll just never really “get you.” And that’s hardly the first time that idea has crossed my mind, because it is one of the core fears that I have, but it is also horrible. People don’t think about the way it is – implicitly accepting some groups of people as “mainstream” and some groups of people as “niche.” I’m getting ready now to go to a club, a lovely club in Portland full of people who are going to be nice, but I have to be fearing that I am too specific in a way that a lot of other comics don’t.

Given that reality, who were some of the comics who inspired you either along the way or when you were younger, prior to doing comedy?

One of the cool things about comedy is that because no one has given adequate respect to gay comics who have come before me, they’re around and they’re people that I have access to. Marga Gomez is an astoundingly good comic who had a real moment in the nineties, and then they couldn’t figure out what to do with her. When it comes to queer comics, she was the first person I saw on TV who wasn’t just not-scared about talking about being gay but made it seem awesome. Daring, bold, smart.

We did a live version of Talk Show the Game Show at Sketchfest and we had Scott Thompson and Kevin Allison on it. So you know, that’s like half of the people that are being out and gay on television in 1995. The thing is that I’ve always had to look to people who were unlike me and get inspiration from them. God knows all the best chances I’ve had in entertainment are because of a woman giving me a chance, whether it’s Chelsea Handler or Joan Rivers or Mindy Kaling. Or even just Eddie Murphy’s Delirious – a standup special that begins with eight minutes of the most fiercely homophobic material you’ve ever seen – but it still shaped my understanding of what it is to be a comedian as much as anything else.

I think back to the first time seeing the Margaret Cho special where she wore a leather suit because if Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy can do it, she can do it – that was just so inspiring to me. She talks about doing jokes about her period and how guys hate it, and she said if Richard Pryor had a period he would have made jokes about it, and that was like a cannon of construction for me when it came to understanding how I should talk about my stuff. Accept your own deal and don’t be frightened of it. Then Sarah Silverman has an older joke that I’m sure she doesn’t tell anymore – somebody asked her “Why do you use a slur for little people but not for black people?” and she says, “I’m not scared –” and then she uses the word. She says “I’m not scared of midgets.” That is a joke of the time, but also, however much you want to criticize her for using words we are not supposed to use, she was getting at a fundamental truth, which is that people act with impunity when they aren’t scared. I kind of understood that part of what I needed to do onstage was to scare them enough that they would consider me a human being.

What are some other conversations that comedians need to have that they aren’t having currently?

The whole world is changing and evolving and we’re having to figure out what that means in any number of places. I would say comedians have to figure out a new way of talking about politics. We are kind of so starkly seeing the shortcomings in the way we have talked about politics when it comes to the current president. I don’t know what the answers are, but being smug, smirking, and eye-rolling is not going to work anymore. It was fine for people who wanted to be taken seriously, but this is a different ballgame, and we are to some extent still making the same political satire.

The other thing that is closest to my heart that no one really cares about because standup comedy has never had a significant gay male presence – I have just got to figure out with the other people who are working along with me how this works – most of the gay male comics who are performing today are largely performing for heterosexual audiences. Gay women have these icons – most of the people who came out in the 2000s were established comics before that, and they’ve really taken to it, but for gay men it’s still a weird combination of they don’t want to go to a place where somebody’s going to talk about how gross they are, and they’d rather be out of the closet trying to have sex with someone. They love drag queens, they love all of these parallel things, and a lot of the gay male comics I know are like “I don’t need to perform for gay people.” But I think we should be able to talk about our own lives in front of each other, and I hope that changes.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Maybe instead of all that stuff about gay men in comedy, you should just say that the conversation we should be having as a comedy community is how much should avocado toast cost? Because moving past $12 is really a big, significant moment, and it’s happening. We as a community need to figure out how to respond.

Photo by Doug Hyun/truTV.

Guy Branum Remains Comfortable Having Uncomfortable […]