You may recognize Jon Glaser from his appearances on Conan, Wonder Showzen, or Cheap Seats. You may have even heard his track on the Invite Them Up CD compilation, where he reads a series of letters written by his recently deceased father to the band ZZ Top. By the track's end, one thing is certain: Jon Glaser is a comedic genius.
What are your earliest memories of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
Bugs Bunny and all the Looney Tunes were my first favorite thing. Even if I didn't get a reference, it was still funny. Everything about it was funny. I was impressed by the choices they made. I don't know if I was aware of that, the choices, but I was certainly impressed when I was older.
What do you mean by choices?
What I meant by 'choices' are some of the comedic and creative choices they made. An example that sums up what I'm trying to say is a scene where Daffy Duck is smugly setting up several circus items for some trained pigeons to perform on, which, the way I remember it, included a bicycle on a tight rope and some balls to balance on, only to have the birds immediately fly out an open window and escape when he opens their cage. It's a simple joke, not especially funny, and could easily have been corny, but it's more about the small, subtle way they played it that made it so hilarious to me: Daffy Duck is so confident, smug and meticulous as he sets everything up. The timing is perfect, and his reaction at the end is small. I guess it's those kinds of choices and sensibility that I appreciated more as I got older. I know it might sound ridiculous to say that a cartoon had an influence, but it did. Read more about how I feel in 'The Onion' article "Pretentious Asshole Describes Why Cartoon Is Funny."
And what are some things you liked when you were older?
Sadly, I liked Robin Williams. I thought he was so great, hilarious, and the voices he did. Not knowing any better, I just thought he was the funniest thing. I liked early SCTV that I saw. Saturday Night Live I liked as a kid. Honestly, Looney Tunes were to me, and still are, very influential. I wasn't a real comedy nerd when I was a kid. A lot of friends of mine were really into Python and SCTV. I would catch them peripherally, but I wasn't a religious follower of any of those shows, even SNL. I'd watch things here and there, but Bugs Bunny is what I'd watch all the time.
Were your parents funny people?
Not necessarily. My dad sort of is, although now our senses of humor are different.
Would they bring comedy into the household with, say, comedy albums?
I did get this one Steve Martin album. It may have been a Chanukah gift. I don't remember who got it for me. My mom got me tickets when I was in high school to see the Second City touring company. It was playing in Ann Arbor. She got me tickets for that because she knew that I wanted to do comedy. I was not exposed to lots of comedy albums. No Billy Cosby, Woody Allen, or Albert Brooks albums. Nothing like that. The only thing I had was that one Steve Martin album, which I thought was pretty funny. The one memory I have of it was getting it as a present. Sitting down with my mom and dad in the living room, putting it on and listening to it. There's this one bit where he says, "I met this woman at a party and she took me back to her place. She had the best pussy," then people start laughing and he says, "I'm talking about her cat," it's a cutesy bit about that and there's a slightly uncomfortable moment when I'm sitting with my parents and he's saying, "She has the best pussy." I was probably fourteen at the time. The bit ends with, "That cat was the best fuck I ever had too," then the album came off.
What were you like in school?
I did okay in school. Played a lot of sports. I gave up baseball to try a play in high school. I kind of knew I wanted to try comedy stuff. I didn't want to get a theater major in college, but there were comedy shows, things to do, and I kind of knew I wanted to try that. I'm jumping ahead school wise, but my senior year of college I took the train to Chicago to audition for Second City. I was half way through college I didn't know what I was going to do. I knew what I wanted to try but I wasn't sure how it was going to work. I called the theater on the whim to see if they were having auditions. I didn't get in, but I did get to meet the producer, which was a cool moment. I was in the lobby going to the train back to Ann Arbor. I'm un-tucking my shirt-I figured I better tuck my shirt in for the audition. She came out and said, "Can I talk to you in my office." I didn't know who she was, but I knew she was in the room during the audition, so I was freaking out. She was the producer for years, this legendary woman, and she was very nice and encouraging. That sealed the deal. I knew I'd move to Chicago when I was done with college and that I'd start checking things out in terms of Second City. I started doing classes and eventually was hired by the touring company.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in comedy?
In college. I always knew I wanted to try it, at least on the acting end. I wasn't sure how I'd do it. I wasn't taking creative writing classes. I just got a pretty generic communications degree.
What sort of aspirations did you have in high school?
Going to the University of Michigan was such a big deal for me in High School. My grandfather took me to Michigan games every year. I wasn't really thinking about comedy as much as getting into that school. The Michigan mascot is the Wolverine and the opening line for my college essay is highly embarrassing. It's not ironic when I say this, the opening line was, "Ever since my grandfather took me my first Michigan football game I always knew I wanted to be a Wolverine." It was awful, but I meant it. And I got in.
Were you the class clown type in high school?
Not really. Some times, but I wouldn't say so. I never liked referring to myself as the funny one. Maybe other people would say that.
But you played a lot of sports?
I was playing a lot of sports when I went to high school. I had always been interested in performing, but never really thought about it. There was an assembly where they made the whole school watch a play and I loved it and it made me want to try it. The following spring I opted not to play baseball. I tried out for the play and got it. That's when I started taking the turn for performing. I still played soccer in the fall, but did theater in winter and spring.
What sort of creative outlets did you have growing up?
I did a lot of stuff by myself. I would draw. My mom bought me note pads because I liked making cartoon flipbooks. I made up a soccer league, drew jersey, and made up names for guys. I did stuff like that. Friends of mine that got into comedy spent their time watching SCTV. I didn't do a lot of that. I'd catch snippets here and there and it was appealing, but I never got obsessed in it.
Are alienation and outsiderdom essential components of being funny?
Not at all. Alienation and outsiderdom are essential components of being Todd Hanson. Ha ha! Just having some fun with Todd, who I understand is the person who posed that RIDICULOUS question. Ha ha! Just having some more fun by putting the word 'ridiculous' in all caps to emphasize how ridiculous I may or may not think the question is. You can read more about how I feel about this question in my new book, "The Handsome Insider". And my real answer to the question is "No."
Where in Michigan did you grow up?
The suburbs of Detroit in a place called South Field.
What particular event in college made you lean toward wanting to go into comedy?
There was a sketch show that they did there. I saw it, tried out for it, and got in. I tried stand up. Doing that show was a big deal for me. The senior year of college, some of the people in the comedy group and I took off. We decided to take it on the road and made our own grass roots tour. We rented a van and drove across the country. We had apartments in Ann Arbor. We started cold calling schools and booked out own tour. Then I came back, finished school, went to Chicago to audition for Second City, and I moved there after college.
They have a training center and they have five levels. You don't have to do all of them and you don't have to take the classes to be in the touring company, but a lot of people do. I just wanted to do whatever I could. I was taking classes at ImprovOlympic. I spent that first year working, taking classes, performing wherever I could, meeting other people, and doing various shows. That was for a year and a half and then I auditioned for the touring company and got in.
What shows did you do there?
I only did one actual revue as a cast member. I toured for about a year and a half and did a lot of understudying for the shows for the main stage. They have another theater called The ETC, which is like a second tier theater but the shows that are done there and the people that perform in them are great. It's like a minor league until you get to the main stage, if you get to the main stage.
How did what you were writing then compare to what you're doing now?
You just get better the more you do it, so I'd say that my writing is simply stronger.
Once you left the touring company, what did you do?
I was a full cast member at the main stage revue. I left Second City to write on the Dana Carvey Show, which was a short live sketch show on NBC, which brought me to New York. That's the only job I had between Second City and Jenny McCarthy, which was in LA.
The Dana Carvey writing staff is like an Olympic Dream Team of comedy writers. What was the environment like on that show?
It was pretty amazing. It was very loose. We were allowed to come up with whatever we wanted. You could write anything and it was embraced. An impressive staff of writers and everyone was phenomenally funny and confident. It can be a frustrating thing working with people who are insecure about what they do. It makes a huge difference in the room. That was my first job, so it was an amazing first job also. I had auditioned as an actor for Saturday Night Live the summer of '95. Robert Smigel, who was the original head writer on Conan, was the executive producer of The Dana Carvey show. I didn't get SNL, but he saw my audition tape, liked it, and was friends with the guy who directed my Second City show and got in touch with him – and I also auditioned as an actor for Dana Carvey- based on that, they asked if I'd be interested in submitting to the show as a writer. I wrote up a packet of sketches, submitted them, and they flew me out to New York to meet them. A month later I got it. That was in January of '96.
How did that experience compare with The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour?
You're pulling out the gems. That was more of a job, but it was still fun. There were nice people working there and I had friends working on it. We had a good time doing it, but the shows and writing don't compare, but I've had worse jobs. Even on the worst shows you work on you can meet great people.
How have your experiences been with notes from network executives?
It hasn't been too bad, but that can be frustrating depending on where you go. One time, I was on the Jenny Mccarthy show, which was an MTV show, I wrote a piece that featured puppets. There was one joke where a puppet was on a rooftop, he was threatening someone, and a SWAT team was called in. One of the SWAT team members had a beam on the puppet and he says, "I got a clear brain stem shot on this guy. Just give me the green light." We got a note from standards saying, "Can you change that? Brainstem is too graphic." I didn't understand why. It's puppets, it's cartoonish, and I didn't think we should change it. I actually got on the phone with the standards person and asked why we had to change it. A lot of times, I think that these people feel that they have to give a note because it's their job. Basically, this woman couldn't articulate a good reason and eventually admitted that she just didn't like it. I said, "If you just don't like it, we're not going to change it," and we got to leave it in. Sometimes the alternatives they give you are worse. You can't say scumbag, but you can say douchbag, which doesn't make sense.
How do you come up with your characters?
No real rhyme or reason. I don't sit down and try to think of characters or ideas. It usually just kind of happens from whatever I'm doing. This is a bit lengthy a description, but if you're looking for examples, I was watching the movie "Meatballs", and there actually is a song in the movie called "Meat Balls", by Rick Dees, the guy who did 'Disco Duck'. There is a line in the song that goes something like "When you're walkin' down the street, and shufflin' your feet, you don't wanna be no meat ball!" I fucking lost it when I heard that. I wish we could attach an audio button or something to this interview so people could hear what that lyric sounds like sung instead of just reading it, it's hilarious. Anyway, I loved the idea of people sincerely using the word "meatball" in their every day vernacular, as a common insult or put down, and that's where the idea came from for this scene that I did with Jon Benjamin awhile ago. We were an educational community group that acted out scenes for parents as a way to help them broach certain issues with their teen age kids. I played the father, and Jon played the son, who was neglecting his chores. I ask him why he forgot to take out the garbage again, and then calmly tell him that I think he's been acting like a real meatball lately. He gets mad and says that he's not a meatball. I tell him that meatballs don't forget to take out the garbage three weeks in a row. The scene goes on for a very long time with us saying the word 'meatball' as many times as we could. It was as annoying as it sounds.
Do you go onstage with certain points that you want to hit as the character or do you go onstage as the character and let it exist?
Both. Sometimes I'll go up with just an idea and make it up as I go and see what works, because that's just fun to do. I just did a Hurricane Katrina benefit, and did some bit where I was a guy who biked from New Orleans to New York that I literally thought of as I was riding my bike to the club. I called a friend who lives nearby when I got there and borrowed a bike jersey and bike shorts. The only real idea I had going on stage was that I would be out of breath the entire time I was doing the routine. I did some shitty Bill Cosby impression that I didn't know I was going to do until I was telling the audience I was going to do it. My one regret is that I forgot to annoy the audience with Tooly the Bike Tool, which was a bike tool I also borrowed that I was going to do some lame ventriloquism with.
But most of the time, I go up with the core idea and a few areas I want to hit, or jokes I want to say. But it's never too planned initially, and there are usually a lot of fun, spontaneous discoveries that come from keeping it loose.
I do a character called Tiny Hands, who is a guy who basically has very tiny hands, which are baby doll hands that I cut off a baby doll and put in the cuffs of my shirt and then bind the cuffs so it looks like they're my hands. The first time I did it, there were a few planned ideas and beats. But there were also things I hadn't thought about that became fun to do, one of which was fidgeting with the microphone cord and discovering that it fit perfectly between the thumb and forefinger of one of the doll hands. The minutia of playing with the cord became my favorite thing to do whenever I did the character after that. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go do an interview with "Taking A Shit" magazine and describe the shit I took today, which will probably be way more interesting than the description of the microphone cord. It's a great magazine, by the way.
I read a particular incident from Comedy Central's Last Laugh '04 where someone was going around making lame jokes that they'd punctuate by going, "Office Prankster. You've just been office pranked!" That person went out for lunch and then you and Jon Benjamin went into his office, disassembled all of his furniture, and piled it in the middle of the room.
I remember someone telling me that that ended up on the Internet. It's so odd because, to me, it's such a non-event of a moment. Stuff like that happens all the time. Writers just goof around. It read as the dumbest story. "These guys put this guy's office furniture…what a couple of crazy guys!"
I also read that Jon Benjamin has a lax work policy. Do you find that to be the case?
No, I don't think so.
Not a lot of playing of Pocket Tanks ?
Plenty of Pocket Tanks playing, but work still gets done.
And where did you meet Jon Benjamin?
On the Jenny McCarthy Show.
Many people have been wondering if you plan on releasing a compilation of some of the work you've done over the years.
I have no plans to, but if people are wondering maybe I should.
What are some projects that you're currently involved in?
I'm working on Human Giant for MTV, which I think will air next year.
What do you like to do after a performance?
Nothing special. Maybe hang out a little. I have a baby now, so I usually go home and hang out with him.
Jon Glaser will be appearing with the Invite Them Up tour at the Bower Ballroom on December 14th, 2006.