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Gabe Liedman Won’t Close the Door Behind Him

SEND. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Kim Newmoney

For seven years, Gabe Liedman, along with his co-hosts Jenny Slate and Max Silvestri, helped shape the Brooklyn comedy scene with their weekly stand-up showcase show Big Terrific. Then, as these things go, they all moved to L.A., one by one, to achieve tremendous Hollywood success. Liedman has worked as a writer on shows including Kroll Show, Transparent, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and PEN15, on which he was also the first showrunner. Now, Liedman is the co-creator of Q-Force, Netflix’s new animated series about a team of queer spies. “I’ve had the experience of writing for straight shows that have queer side characters,” Liedman says, “so it was a freeing experience where you don’t have to scrap day to day to try and insert that identity into an existing thing … The whole house is gay. The door is gay. The roof is gay, so it’s like, Now just go in the house and make a show.”

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Liedman discusses Q-Force, the pandemic hitting mid-production of the first season, the surprising backlash to the show’s first teaser, and Big Terrific. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

A Podcast About Jokes

On How the Pandemic Affected Writing Q-Force

I have a million fears about the show coming out and how it’s going to hit people, but one of the biggest ones is, Are people going to watch the show and realize it was written by people who are fucking scared for their lives and not in great places mentally? The pandemic hit hard while we were writing episode four, so [episodes] four through ten were all written in isolation. The way we did things in the olden days, we would sit around a big round table with a whiteboard altogether, and we would chat and we would work things out. What is the digital equivalent to a whiteboard? Now there’s a bunch of apps that are designed specifically for television writers, but we didn’t know about them at the time, and we had to figure it out on the fly. Eventually we figured out what Zoom was. But I don’t know what the hell we were doing at first. But having a daily schedule was a real lifesaver for a lot of people.

I’ve been a part of television shows that crumble and disappear and fall apart for various different reasons, so it became this really important thing to me as the manager to make sure that that did not happen. Like, this was a life-and-death situation, and I needed to make sure that everyone got paid and had food to eat. That’s what it felt like to me. I felt: If we can just show up every day and do this, we’ll be happier. But also, like, we won’t die.

On the Backlash to the Show’s First Teaser

It was a really big reaction. It really surprised me. The stuff that people were saying made sense, but the magnitude of it really surprised me. What’s tricky is that was 15 seconds of the show, and it was put together by a huge corporation, and it was timed to come out during Pride. All those ingredients are like a homemade bomb; you know it’s not going to go great. I knew that something like this is going to rub some people the wrong way for sure.

But I think there are a couple of things going on, if I can be honest. I think if there were 9,000 queer shows out there, then maybe everyone would feel perfectly represented, and it wouldn’t be a fucking thing, and people wouldn’t care. There’s more queer shows now than there ever have been, but there’s still not a ton, so each one feels really loaded to certain parts of the community. And some people are just really anxious about how the community is going to come across. I 100 percent get that.

I also think that there’s a bit of a generational thing going on. People of all different ages have different relationships with their identities and grew up in different climates where certain things are acceptable and certain things aren’t. And I think we showed our millennial ass a little bit in that teaser. For me — someone who’s about to turn 40, who came up in New York City as a stand-up comedian — it felt really, really bold and exciting and cool for me to talk about sex and asses. That was a real mission of mine. If I was ever political in any way, it was in that way of just standing in a very straight space — in a dive bar in the East Village, surrounded by the John Mulaneys and Eugene Mirmans of the world — and just being like, “The way I have sex makes me fucking fart.” But that’s not what everyone’s experiencing — everyone has different relationships with sex — and that short teaser came across as hypersexual to people.

One part of the comments that broke my heart, if I can really just open up for a second, were the people who were like, “Great, now my fuckin’ tormentors have new shit to say to me.” I hate that. That feels bad. My intentions don’t count for shit — it’s public property now; it’s out there. But for whatever it’s worth — if it’s worth anything slightly above shit — I was trying to do the opposite. I was trying to say, “The shit bullies are saying to you is wrong. The shit they’re making fun of you for is the best and it’s what makes you shine. I love that part of you.” Not everyone’s in a place where they’re safe to express themselves fully, and I hope for a world where they are, but I wanted to give them peace.

I think there are other comedians and show creators out there who would have been like, “I don’t give a fuck what people say. I’m going to do my thing,” and I’m just not that person. I am the opposite of that person. I really, really, really care what the audience thinks. I always have. And I don’t mean this in a “I told you so” way, but I want the show to come out and for people to realize we’re on the same side of the argument. The show was not created by cishet people. We’re not the butt of the joke; we’re the ones making the jokes. But that will either happen or not. I can’t really control it. You put your best intentions into it, and then it’s just not your property anymore.

On the Influence of Big Terrific

If you were to ask potential audience members, “What do you hate about stand-up comedy?”, it would be “When the comedian picks on me from the stage” and “Being called out,” or what a comic would call “crowd work.” I think if you were to ask most people, that’s their fucking nightmare, and that’s what keeps them from going to comedy shows — that, suddenly, it’ll turn on them. So Jenny and Max and I were like, “Let’s just never pick on the audience. This is our show. We’ll have the mic. It’s not about shutting down hecklers.” That was really important, and that’s what kept people coming back to see what was probably pretty edgy comedy at the time.

Also the fact that the three of us were — and still are — very, very close friends who actually have a relationship with each other. That’s something that bled into the night. That it was probably palpable how much we liked each other. We would sit in a spot offstage that was very visible and laugh at each other’s jokes and give each other really warm intros. Then for the guest comics that were people that we admired and actually liked, as opposed to who’s the hottest thing right now, we gave them a venue and a lot of stage time — to certain people who weren’t getting stage time elsewhere, but they had the right vibe. The audience felt it was going to be a pleasant evening, where you laugh your ass off and have a million beers. It probably helped that we were not charging a dime at the door.

I can’t give myself any credit really for anything in life, but I am so pleased with what I see happening in New York with the new wave of talent that’s coming up. In the olden days, there were a lot of comics who weren’t happy that I was coming up, and that was really palpable. I felt a lot of people who I admired just were like, We’re not rooting for you, buddy. It was a very defining vibe, and I really didn’t want to do that. When I first met John Early, he had just graduated from college and I was like, “You’re really funny.” I felt, It doesn’t cost me anything to get excited about who’s next. It’s actually really fun.

I love what the comedy scene has become. I don’t bemoan front-facing camera videos. It’s an art form, and it’s really, really fucking funny. I am excited about what’s next, and trying to make sure I don’t close the door behind me. What’s the point? They’re coming anyway. There are just a lot of feelings, a lot of vibes, a lot of sentiment that I got coming up like, “You’re going to wear that onstage?” I’m just not going to be that person, and I never will be.

On His Identity As a Comedian

I think about this so much that it’s embarrassing. The idea I wish I could chop out of my head, but it won’t go anywhere, is that there are so many young comedy fans out there who have no idea that I’m a comedian, and it’s such a big part of how I see myself. But to the young people going to Club Cumming and the shows that exist these days, they have no fucking idea who I am. And that’s so fair because I’ve never set foot on that stage, and I don’t put out work. So, like, how would they know? But it plagues me a little bit, because I really do think of myself as a comic, and it is a scary thought to be like, I guess I’m not. So occasionally, I dust it off; I make sure to get to Largo and local venues here. I opened up for Jenny Slate on a couple of tour dates when I had the availability, and it felt good to flex that muscle again. It is a really big part of my self identity, but I don’t think it is a big part of my public identity anymore. It feels weird.

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Gabe Liedman Won’t Close the Door Behind Him