2006_12_dana_gould.jpg Dana Gould wrote for seven years for The Simpsons, starred in the NBC sitcom Working opposite Fred Savage, and has performed stand up on HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central. He is considered, by many, to be the originator of the alternative comedy movement and is, without a doubt, one of the strongest comedic talents working today. Here he is, for the first time in NYC in seven years, Mr. Dana Gould!

What are your earliest memories of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
We always watched the Carol Burnett show growing up, so I've been laughing at that stuff since I've been nine or ten. I had a Nixon impression and a Tim Conway Mrs. Mrs. H-Wiggins impression since nine of ten. The thing that tipped me over was my when my brother came back from basic training for the army, he brought back FM and AM, the George Carlin album. Even though I didn't get most of it, I really liked it. In the way that my two year old watches Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang all the time and I can't imagine that she understands what's happening, but it resonates with her. What a terrible answer!

It's actually almost the same answer as when you were asked the same question on the old Aspecialthing site.
Should I come up with a better one?

No, it's good. Were your parents funny people or trying to bring comedy into the household?
They were very funny, sometimes even Ha-Ha funny.

Did they bring comedy into the household?
They'd bring Vodka into the household. And the humor flowed from there.

Did they frequent comedy clubs?
No. I don't think my parents have ever been in a club that didn't have a stuffed deer head on the wall. And it's not there ironically.

How many siblings did you have?
Had and have five. I have four older brothers and a younger sister.

Was there a lot of humor in the household, perhaps as a way to get attention?
It was very typical. Survival humor. Everyone in my family is very funny in their own way, but it's all very dark, black Irish humor. I was talking to my dad the other day and he was really funny because one of my brothers is pestering him to buy a burial plot and my father isn't going to do it because he wants to make my brother pay for it, which is meant to be funny but is also true. I think that sums up the humor of my family.

What are your earliest memories of you being aware of your ability to make people laugh?
I had an impression of Richard Nixon when I was about six or seven years old that I would consciously do as a bit that would make people laugh. I also fell down a hill outside my house and broke my collarbone about the same time, and that made my brother laugh. Given the two, I stuck with Nixon.

How about a time that you started contemplating something like timing?
Never contemplated it.

What were you like in school?

Were you like an outgoing, class clown type?
I was obnoxious. I was most certainly the class clown, but, looking back on it, I certainly wouldn't have wanted me as a student. I was super loud, super immature, and super clueless for a long, long time. When I meet people that knew me from before I was thirty years old, I'm always shame faced and apologetic.

How'd you get your laughs in school?
I was a funny, clever, wiseass. I wasn't whoopee cushion funny. I was still good; you just had to sift through a lot of mud to get to the nuggets.

Do you remember and of the nuggets?
I was in junior high school during the hay-day of Saturday Night Live. It was a lot of Steve Martin, Wild and Crazy Guy Stuff.

You'd do bits from his albums?
Yeah, and SNL. Dan Aykroyd as Tom Snyder and all those things. The one interesting thing about my adolescence is that because I was at the end of a long line of kids, I was basically unsupervised so I watched, from about third grade, The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. I was up late. Those are the shows that I liked and my comedy education started very early. I started doing stand up when I was seventeen and the tools I had as a comedian were a lot more advanced than the tools I had as a person.

What are some other things that, during your formative years, influenced your comedic sensibility?
A near biblical commitment to masturbation is really the only thing I can recall outside of satisfying my basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. A lot of alone time. I wasn't an athlete. I certainly wasn't dating any girls in high school. I was, probably like most stand ups, very nerdy and reading. Stuff that would serve me later in life but not get me laid anytime quickly in my teens.

Would you say, then, that perhaps alienation and outsiderdom be essential components of being funny?
Yes. Usually the people that peak in high school are tragic, tragic adults. Most of them end up working for the water department in their hometown and driving around said high school as the decades slip past.

Outside of George Carlin and Steve Martin, was there anything else, writers other comedians, or perhaps something older like Laurel and Hardy or Looney Tunes, that influenced you?
I knew I was supposed to like The Marx Brothers, although I don't think I really do. I enjoyed the Marx Brothers later in life. When I was in high school, I got into Woody Allen. We had a very early paid cable system in my hometown called Starcase and I remember watching Manhattan when I was in tenth grade. Woody Allen was one of the few people in movies that actively avoided getting into fights, which was something that I could really appreciate. My favorite TV shows were Star Trek and that stuff.

Would your humor ever get you in trouble in school?
Fifty fifty. I was pretty witty for a thirteen year old. I was fairly clever. My comedic skills were better than my people skills, so teachers either really loved me or really hated me. Some of my teachers let me get away with murder and others wouldn't let me get away with anything, so it sort of balanced out.

Were you also incorporating humor into your school assignments?
There wasn't a lot of room for it. In trigonometry, I did a lot of jokes. I had some funny-ass theorems.

What sort of high school did you go to?
I didn't know it was really good until I got into the world. I grew up in a really small town in Massachusetts and I got out of high school just before the Reagan tax cuts started to decimate the American public school system. I was at the benefit of the hay day welfare state of the seventies in sweet, liberal Massachusetts. I had a kick ass public education with some teachers who, in retrospect, were pretty superlative.

What sort of creative outlets did you have?
We had a play once a year that I always did. And then nothing. You waited to leave.

You weren't writing stories on your own?
I tried to write stand up and had a notebook of stuff and I did my first open mic two weeks out of high school. I was thinking about it well into it. It's funny: my wife had a really terrific high school experience. She was very popular and is still friends from her friends from high school. I went to high school with some wonderful people, but my entire high school experience was just waiting to leave.

You had mentioned spending a lot of alone time. I read a biography of Michael O'Donoghue. He was a sickly child and, as a result, spent a lot of alone time. I was thinking that that might be common amongst a certain type of comedian.
I think it probably is. I know Robin Williams was a very solitary kid too. Comedians tend to be thinkers and if you're a deep thinking ten year old you're probably not running around. I don't know if it's a chicken or the egg thing. Either people who are comedically inclined tend not to be inclined toward activities that lead to a lot of social stuff, like practices, or if people who aren't into that stuff end up spending a lot of alone time, which leads them to view the world kind of funny.

What sort of aspirations did you have in high school?
I wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to meet waitresses and felt that being a comedian was my best way to go about it and I was right.

Were you on student council in high school?
I was not. I was an AV geek. I was the AV club. If you wanted to see a filmstrip in my high school, you went through me. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't know shit about igneous rock.

What was your first open mic experience like?
My first open mic was fantastic. I crushed. And my second mic was as bad as my first one was good.

That was at the Ding Ho?
Yeah, and both of them hosted by Lenny Clarke, who I had had lunch with last month. I'm still in touch with those people.

Was that your first time there?
I had never been there before. My high school librarian her husband took me. She was one of the people that recognized that I had the ability to do this and just needed an outlet.

Did you go to college?
I was a child prodigy, but I was too old to be considered a child and wasn't really a prodigy.

How often did you go to open mics?
I tried to go every week, but it was hard. I didn't have a car. I think I went three or four times over the course of the summer. The summer of 1982. In the fall, I went to U Mass and started two open mics just to get stage time.

How much time were you dedicating to writing at that time?
All of it. I went to college, but I was working on my act. College was boring and I wasn't getting laid.

What'd you study in college?
I dimly remember studying communications. I don't think I retained anything I learned.

How would you rate your college experience?
College is great because you're out on your own and you're living that life. I discovered the music that I took to in life and it's all those things, but I had no scholastic aspirations. I was living on my own, I had a meal plan, and I could do stand up twice a week. That was pretty sweet. I only stayed two years and then I moved to Boston to be a professional open micer.

What was the open mic scene like at the time?
It was great. It was 1984 when I went to Boston. It was the beginning of the comedy boom and Boston was a great comedy town. I was working with Tom Kenny, Bob Goldthwait had just moved to San Francisco, and Boston was a real comedy hot bed. In terms of wanting to be a comedian, I was at the right place at the right time.

Were there any comedians you aspired to be like at that time?
In the mid-80's, everybody wanted to be Steven Wright. It was the beginning of that character boom, with Emo Phillips, Judy Tenuta, and Bobcat. Ironically, Steven Wright, who arguably started that, is not a character. That's just who he is. Everybody I mentioned is a master at doing stand up.

I was 21, so I was trying to find out my stand-up persona at the time that I was trying to find out my walking around in the world persona. The two kind of collided. In the way that Paul Weller always wanted to be Pete Townsend, Carlin was always someone I inspired to be like. In terms of the people who influenced me, there were a lot of amazing comedians in Boston at the time. Kenny Rogerson was a huge influence on me, Jack Gallagher, and, when I moved to San Francisco, Jon Ross was someone who I really admired. All these people, I stole as much as I could from them. Not their material; that's precious. Just their personhood.

How does your early material compare to what you're doing now?
It was adequate. For any person who's a writer, the older you get the more you know and the more you have a viewpoint of the world the better your writing gets. When I moved to Los Angeles in the early 90's in the beginning of the "alternative scene", you couldn't really "do your material" and just had to talk and do new stuff and tell a story. That's when my act really gelled. Two things were going on: I was doing sets at these bookstores where there was no material allowed, which forced me to just tell stories, and I was also getting spots at the Improv, but they were terrible. As they should have been; I was a nobody. It was late at night on Wednesdays when there was no one there, so it made no sense to be presentational in my act. It was ridiculous; there were only six people there. I just started doing the same thing I was doing in the bookstore. I was just talking and I couldn't really pretend to be a comedian doing a show because there were six people at twelve thirty. That's when what I do gelled for me.

While you were in Boston, did you try to take the club route at all?
Boston never had the three-act structure. It was always a tag team. I will say, I moved up pretty quickly from open mics to paid slots. I moved to San Francisco in 1987 because I wanted to go to LA but knew I wasn't ready to go to LA. San Francisco was close, seemed nice, and I knew people there.

Did you do any emcee work in Boston?
They didn't have it. Most shows were three or four acts. One guy would do fifteen and bring out the next act, and so forth.

Was there a time where you did any emcee work?
I emceed in San Francisco, but very briefly. I sort of hit the ground in the middle. I'm a lousy emcee. Didn't mesh well with my style or personality. You don't want the emcee to be the anti-comic.

A lot of people, such as Patton Oswalt, refer to you as the originator of "Alternative comedy scene".
I guess you have to blame someone. He's really nice to say that. I was there at the beginning and was one of the few people doing it who went pretty easily back and forth from comedy clubs to the alternative scene. Janine Garofalo was also a big progenitor of that. I think it's fine. It was a punk movement in the way that punk bands created their own label. It was just comedians finding their own venues. It was punk not in a fashion sense but in the workers controlling the means of production sense.

Do you know who coined the phrase "alternative comedy"?
I have no idea. Probably some writer for the LA Weekly. We never called it that. It was more of a description. It was just a show.

What was the scene like at the time?
Being a comic in LA in the early 90's was great. The fondness that people have for their college and high school years is the fondness I have when I look back on that period. Everybody's 23. You have all the right's and privileges of adults without any of the real responsibilities. It was just a really fertile comedy scene. It was all those people in LA. It was me, Janine, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross came a little bit later, Ben Still was hanging around, Beth Lapides started the Un-Cabaret shows, which was the flagship of the alternative comedy movement. That was the thing that really broke it in LA. It made it sort of an established thing. Those shows at Luna Park in the early 90's were huge. The comedy clubs were miffed. Once, I bumped into Bud Freedman and he gave me this sidelong glance and said, "Still performing in book stories Mr. Gould?"

What were you doing at the time to support yourself financially?
I was a working comic. I was living with my girlfriend. I was a baby adult. I was going up to San Francisco but I was also on the road. I did gigs in the southwest, in the Carolinas. I developed a thing that wasn't healthy. I'd sleep as much as possible. Up to twelve to fourteen hours a day of sleeping and just minimize my conscious time in that place. And that's also when you read the Beats to somehow validate this depressing lifestyle as some sort of artistic journey and you'd chew your own hand off to get out of it.

How many weeks in a year would you spend on the road?
A little less than half the year.

When you perform, do you go up knowing what you're going to say or do you have more of a rough skeleton and points you want to hit?
I think that, like most comics, I have a pretty definite idea of where I'm going. The bits develop as I progress. I rarely go up just blank.

Under what circumstances would you drop a joke?
I don't so much drop jokes as much as I forget them. I can't tell you how many times people come up to me, quote something, and I'll go, "Yeah, what did ever happen to that? I'll do it tonight."

Where do you go now if you want to do some new material?
Now I'll try new material at the Improv because I have enough solid material that I can put it in there and not worry about it even if it tanks completely. I'm also fairly secure in my style and have a good sense of whether or not it will do well before I do it.

How many years did it take you to discover your onstage persona?
Your onstage persona goes hand in hand with your off stage persona. Because I started so young, I was at a disadvantage in that regard because I didn't have an off stage persona yet either. Those two developed hand in hand and I'd put it around the early 90's where I had developed an onstage attitude and approach that worked and off stage I had mastered a fairly good impression of a personality.

What would you say, then, to someone who wants to get into comedy at an early age?
I'd just encourage them. The brutal thing is where you get really successful very young. Where you're eighteen years old doing an open mics and then you get on a sitcom and then you think you've made it at nineteen because you've freezed your personal development. It took me a long, long time. I've had every disappointment and failure you can have and that saves your ass as a person and a performer. Anybody who's successful at an early age in any form, I think, ends up with that same problem. It's like life. It's sifting victories out of the failures and disappointments.

What are some signs that you use to read a crowd?
When I was younger and toured the south, the crowds didn't like me and I didn't like them. And then Kevin Rooney, who gave me a lot of great advice when I was a younger comic, said something to me that really changed my perspective the instant I heard it. It was, "The audience wants to like you, but they want to know that you like them." I wish I knew the date he told me cause that changed everything. It's not to say that you pander. An audience can sense if you genuinely don't want to be there. I'll often pretend that I don't want to be there or I'll belittle a crowd in a way to control them. If I'm following someone who's really strong and just ripped the crowd apart, the first thing I'll do is very confidently not tell a joke and just stare at the crowd. I'll just do with a lot of confidence everything that they're afraid the act would do so that they'll know I'm not afraid to be in the situation that I'm in. And then, basically, I'll reboot the whole show.

When you used to do open mics, what sort of tactics did you have to better yourself as a performer?
You just tape yourself and listen to it. Keep what works and throw out what doesn't. That's essentially it. A lot of times you have a favorite joke that you think is funny, but after two or three times it's dead and you just throw it out. The bad reputation that the alternative comedy scene got is that people look at it as the alternative-to-comedy scene. You would get people that got absolutely not one laugh and they'd still get off and think that it went great by dint of the fact that they spoke in public. It's still a show. Even if it's in a Laundromat it's a show. But never do comedy in a Laundromat. People shouldn't be surprised by shows. You should never go into a place where there shouldn't normally be a show and have to endure a show against your will.

Would you say that most jokes are funny the first time you tell them?
I think funny jokes are funny. You always kind of tweak it. While I was writing on The Simpson I took a long break where I didn't stop performing whole-heartedly but I kind of let it sit idle. Now that I've left the show and I'm sort of back to performing, I've smashed a lot of my older pieces that I still like on the floor and picked up the tiny chunks that I liked, hoping to rebuild them. Otherwise, it'd just get boring. You need to keep it fresh for yourself.

And how'd you get involved with The Simpsons?
As an actor I was on a TV show and had done a bunch of pilots. I finally wrote a pilot for myself and I realized that I liked the writing process much more than the acting process. I thought, "I'll just be a writer and a stand up." By that time, I had already met my wife, grew up, and didn't need strangers to love me as much as I used to. I started writing for sitcoms and very quickly George Meyer, who was a fan of mine from the Un-Cabaret shows, heard that I was looking for something and I got hired two days a week for The Simpsons as a punch up guy- they call it consulting. They liked me, hired me full time, and I was there for almost seven years.

Did any Simpsons writers ever do a show like Un-Cabaret?
Tom Martin was a writer at the time that I started and he was a stand up. Most of The Simpsons writers are guys from The Harvard Lampoon. There's a lot of former Letterman and SNL writers.

How would you describe your time working on The Simpsons?
It was great. I really learned how to write. You're in there everyday with some of the smartest and best guys in the business. For me, personally, it became the golden handcuffs. It's a great place and people think you're a genius because you work there and you make scads of money, but I really wanted to do other stuff. Fortunately, I was economically in a position where my family was taken care of, so I wasn’t being cavalier with their security.

What sort of acting training do you have?
None, which probably explains why I'm not a good actor. I have a feeling that my lack of acting training and lack of acting talent go hand in hand. I think that, like most writers and comedians, there's a very onionskin thin layer of disbelief that I can get away with.

While you were writing with The Simpsons, how often were you able to perform?
I still performed. The worst it ever got was once a month. That also corresponded when we had babies and I was playing grown up.

Do you have to constantly do stand up to keep fresh or have you reached a point where you can take time off and not be affected?
Now that I'm back to it my goal for my career, at the point, is to make my living as a screen writing, which is progressing nicely, knock on wood, writing movies, which I'm better at than writing for television, and I think. I'll do stand up for the joy of it. I'll do stand up once a month for about three or four days. I perform weekly in LA. I'm performing tonight and I'm performing tomorrow night with the Comedians of Comedy. I don't really do anything and then I'll be doing Cobb's on New Year's with Patton and Greg Fitzsimmons. I'd like to do stand up the way other people golf. It's a thing I do to stay sane that only takes up a little bit of time.

What do you think of the term "edgy"?
It's just a marketing term like "alternative comedy". You see these kids walking around Melrose or walking around the Village and they've got whatever the rebellious wardrobe of the day is. They could go onstage dressed like that and they'd be described as edgy but they're not doing anything or saying anything. Phillip Roth is edgy, but he looks normal. "Edgy" is more of a content thing. To me, Sarah Silverman is edgy. She's taking a risk and people who don't get it are really at a disadvantage, which I think is hilarious.

Who are some of your contemporaries whom you enjoy and find funny?
Patton, Brian Posehn, Greg Fitzsimmons, Louis CK, Nick Swardson. I'm sure I'm leaving people out and they'll hate me for it.

Do you go out to see comedy frequently?
If I'm not performing, I tend not to go. It's like visiting your office on your day off.

Is comedy something that you enjoy analyzing?
I do that without thinking and it's always surprising. Paul F. Tompkins is someone that I really like to watch because his comedy is completely a distillation of his personality. You'd be hard pressed to steal anything from him because he has to do it. He's like Kevin Meany in that sense.

What's the most difficult part of writing a screenplay, for you?
The second half of the second act. The reason I love writing screenplays is that it's like doing a puzzle that you have to build first. First you have to design and build it and then you get the fun challenge of doing that puzzle. I really enjoy the whole process, but it takes a long time. It's really rewarding in a way that stand up is not. It's a much slower, more work intensive process, but doing it right is great. Once you build the structure of it you can be creative and artistic, but there's a lot of engineering that you have to put into the storytelling, which I find really fun to do.

Is a book something that you'd ever be interested in writing?
I would like to write a book. I've actually been thinking of taking a creative writing course because I'd hate to write a shitty book. But, yes, I would like to write a book.

What would you say are some traps that comedians should watch out for?
Artistically, I would say, paraphrasing Kevin Rooney, "It's a show." The open mic scene, especially the alternative scene, gets really insular and you really have to not just play to your pals in the back. You should be able to walk into a club full of strangers and be able to perform and not just plop your notebook on the stool and read it. That's not performing. In terms of career advice, when you get to the point where people are trying to pitch you a sitcom be very careful because the nature of that is that they put you in the center of a show and then surround you with supporting characters, but the structure of the show is that the supporting characters are all wacky and the wackier they get the less funny you have to be and you end up becoming somebody's who's not doing the thing that you got the show to do and you don't have the skills to do the job you're now doing. They hire a comedian because they're funny, but during the course of the show they develop them into a straight man.

How much of a meritocracy would you say comedy is?
You will not manipulate me into shitting on Dane Cook. I can honestly say I've never seen him perform.

Do you think that bad comedians know that they're bad?
What are you trying to tell me?

While you were working on the Simpsons, it seems like your particular style of comedy was flourishing, but you weren't performing as much as you might have liked. How did you feel about that?
Terrible. I had a lot going on in my life. I had my daughters, wife, and my screen writing career was starting, which was all very satisfying, but watching people like David Cross and Patton, I felt like a surfer without a board watching my friends ride a curl.

When was the last time you did a show outside of California?
I don't know.

When was the last time you had performed in New York?
I haven't performed in New York since I did The Simpsons. I'm doing Conan January 3rd, so I would have performed technically in the state. I'm confident that everyone will appreciate my genius.

Will you be doing any drop in, surprise sets?
Definitely. I'll be going up at The Strip and wherever. It won't be a drop in, surprise set. It'll be me desperately trying to put together my Conan set. There will be nothing cavalier about it.

What are some projects that you're currently involved in that you're able to discuss?
There's a script I wrote called The Salesman that I'm doing another draft of now. It has a big name director wanting to make it and they're lining up studios for that. It might actually get made. I'm about to pitch a couple movies. I haven't even been gone from the Simpsons for a month, so I'm very surprised and happy about how quickly this other stuff is coming into play.

What do you like to do after a performance?
I'm a married man with little children, so within an hour of every show you can find me up in the hotel with a tall glass of milk and a hot bible.

Dana Gould will be in NYC on January 4th to record a set for Conan and will then be performing at Cobb's at San Francisco on the 28th through the 31st, the Helium Comedy club at Philadelphia February 22nd through 24th, the Acme comedy club in Minneapolis March 1st through 3rd, and will be back in NYC on March 4th at the Gotham Comedy Club. Visit Dana's website to experience over eight hours of stand up absolutely free.