good one podcast

George Wallace Just Wants to Make You Happy and Whatnot

George Wallace. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

Timing is important in comedy. And not just in terms of the speed of a retort or length of a pause. Senses of humor tend to be very specific to their time. Comedy doesn’t age as well as, say, music. As a result, as comedians age, it’s hard to maintain the same sort of relevancy. That’s why George Wallace’s career is so remarkable. After rising to prominence in the late 1970s, he became one of the most in-demand stand-ups of the ’80s and ’90s. In the 2000s, he fulfilled a career-long dream of his own Las Vegas residency. But that wasn’t it! Over the last decade, Wallace has established himself as one the best tweeters on the dang planet, amassing over 850,000 followers with his brand of stupid stuff, and exposing him to a whole new generation of comedy fans.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Wallace talked about how his perspective and approach to comedy has changed over the decades, the importance of Black comedy spaces, and his old friend Jerry Seinfeld. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

A Podcast About Jokes

On the Power of Happiness in Comedy

As a kid I would watch the TV shows — the Richard Pryors and the Red Foxxes and the Johnny Carsons and the Rodney Dangerfields and the Moms Mableys and the Joan Rivers. I would watch them and I would take their jokes back to school and repeat the jokes, and the kids would laugh. And what I know about that is that laughter brings happiness, so I decided that’s what I’m going to do all my life.

Actually, at 6 years old, I knew I enjoyed making people happy. And to this day, when I see happy people, it makes me happier. That is my sex and my drugs. So that’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I will always do. When you love what you do and you have a passion for something … I’m living my dream, let’s put it like that. So whether it be a joke, constructing a joke, or just saying something funny — comics structure jokes, comedians just say things funny. I think I’m a combination of both. I try to do both. And now today, I probably could talk, just bullshitting, for 15 minutes before I even get to the joke. I get in trouble a lot when I’m working: Oh my God, I only got 15 minutes to finish up the show and I haven’t started yet. I’m talking to people and it’s not jokes, but it’s funny. They’re satisfied. I’m satisfied. It’s probably actually a great gift to be able just to talk and make people laugh and happy.

So what I do is just have some fun. I don’t even know how to explain this; I just love what I do. So when I hit the stage, I’m in my element. I’m in heaven. When I go up those steps — no matter how small the stage is at a comedy club or how big the stage is at a concert hall or a stadium; I’ve worked for ten people, I’ve worked for 70,000 people — I just love it.

On the Importance of Black Comedy Spaces

Def Comedy Jam, not necessarily for me, but it was certainly a vehicle for the young people to come out and express themselves. There was also what we might call systemic racism back in the day, because the Black kids couldn’t go into the comedy clubs. And that was even before rap music. Rap music is a form of expression, saying what you want to say, and what you think.

So it was all-white clubs. There weren’t even Black comedians in the clubs when I started. I just happened to play by the rules — me and Jimmie Walker and Byron Allen, we did clean comedy. That’s what we did. All the television shows: Merv Griffin, Tonight Show, you name it — Leno, Letterman. There still weren’t any Black comedians doing it then. Just the three of us.

You know, if you go to a comedy club, you might see one young Black comedian, but you’re not going to see two. So back in the day, we played the games. I played the game. But when Def Comedy Jam came out, there was a club in Los Angeles called the Community Act Theatre. Michael Williams opened the club, and he was trying to find some young Black comedians, so he thought he’d audition a few comedians. Then the comedians had seen me on TV. And Jimmy Walker, and these young Black kids, were going, “I want to do that too!” And sure enough, that club took off like crazy, and they were expressing themselves in their own way, their own language.

On the Difference Between His and Jerry Seinfeld’s Approach to Comedy

First, you write down the subject matter. Second, sometimes I write the subject matter and try to carry it and take it from that point and try to make it a joke. Seinfeld, to this day, will sit for an hour each day with his yellow pad and write out the whole joke. That is the best way to do it. As you know, he’s been my best friend for 44 years. We started together 1976. Now, the difference in him and the reason we don’t work together a lot is because I like to give 100 percent to what I’m doing. But that’s not good enough for him. He wants 110 percent. One-hundred and ten percent! So to hell with you, Jerry Seinfeld. You do it your way, I do it my way.

He’s so good at what he does, and I’m good too. But it’s just how you do things. You know, he had the TV show, of course. So he puts the asses in the seats. I go out and have fun, and I guess I put asses in the seats too.

On How His Perspective Has Changed Over Time

You don’t even know who you are until after seven years of comedy. I was going onstage in the late ’70s, just trying to learn how to write jokes. You’re just trying to get a joke to go over [well], let alone your personality. When you have your point of view, that’s usually after about seven years, when you start saying what you think. Before, I was going onstage, you start with a joke, joke one, joke two, joke three, and just finish. Then in your sixth or seventh year, you start going, Well, I don’t give a shit. So now you start putting your point of view in, so that’s me now. I can honestly tell you that what I did ten years ago … I’m a different person today. Because I’ve grown into even another me. Every generation, you grow into a new you.

You know, now I’ve gotten to a generation where, when I was your age, I would talk about things I did that young people do: going to the beach, I’m from the nightclub area, from the Studio 54 era. I’m from the drugs. I’m from the sex, from the crazy people. And in the ’80s, you turn a new leaf. In the ’90s you become a new person. Now we’re older, thinking about things that older people do: how mean you are. You think a little more about politics.

More From This Series

See All
George Wallace Just Wants to Make You Happy and Whatnot