Comedian Gabe Mollica is not famous. For now, he sees this as a good thing.
At the opening of his comedy show, “Solo,” on Wednesday night at the SoHo Playhouse, an audience member came up to him after the performance and expressed astonishment that it was actually funny.
“It's nice if people's expectations for you are so low, they couldn't be lower,” said Mollica, recalling the moment in a subsequent interview.
He was being serious: he loves to surprise and delight an audience.
Mollica may not be a household name, but he’s well known in New York comedy circles. Ophira Eisenberg was a creative consultant on his show. Chris Gethard opened it with a standup set Wednesday night.
“I liked that as a guy, he was throwing out a story that was about love and friendship and complicated aspects of relationships,” said Eisenberg, who first met Mollica when he performed at a Moth storytelling session she hosted in 2016.
Gethard expressed a similar sentiment. He and Mollica bonded this summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“I saw the show, and immediately my gears started turning,” said Gethard, who was so inspired by Mollica’s hustle and talent that they wound up brainstorming jokes for the piece.
Gethard also said he appreciated that Mollica has not built his brand by focusing on cancel culture, a trend he’s noticed among young comedians eager for stage time.
“To see someone like Gabe come up and draw a line in the sand and go, 'No, I'm gonna be a thoughtful guy who talks about some emotional things I've been through' … not exactly in vogue right now," Gethard said. "I think it's very cool to see somebody stick to their guns as far as doing what feels genuine and natural to them.”
Mollica kicks off his show with this statement: “I turned 30 and realized I had no friends.”
Sure, he explains, he had a group of “bros” he’d known his whole life. But when confronted with loneliness and his mother’s hospitalization, he found himself wanting more intimacy from his friendships. And he had no idea how to find it.
For the next hour, the show explores several big relationships in his life, but primarily focuses on the one with his best friend. It is funny and heartfelt, with surprises along the way.
The show is filled with his delightful observations on life. Mollica notes that men have a habit of ranking everything, from Adam Sandler movies to wood flooring. (“Oak is the fourth-best wood,” says one friend.) He has ideas for how to find a therapist, positing that we should choose them the way we find teams for “The Voice” – you start talking about your problems until a therapist pushes a button to select you. There’s a fun through-line about how, as a kid obsessed with musical theater, he began a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim.
Ultimately the show is about the desire to truly connect with someone, something Mollica craves deeply.
“I'm always kind of yearning for connection,” he said. “I'm on my phone 12 hours a day, like all of us are. And I think all of us feel a little bit disconnected, even though we're on this device that’s marketed to us and connects us, but usually makes me feel pretty alone.”
The pandemic helped him realize that comedy – something he’d always thought of as a solo endeavor – was actually quite collaborative. “I was so lonely and I couldn't perform that I needed to just talk about my ideas with people,” he said.
About a year ago, he connected with Eisenberg, and they began working through his scripts on Zoom.
Mollica has been compared to Mike Birbiglia, a nod he relishes.
“The reason I do this is because of him,” said Mollica, noting that he was at that moment looking at a CD from Birbiglia (“Dog Years”) on the wall of his Astoria apartment. “He never talks about it, but I have a signed copy,” he added.
Mollica recalls that when he saw Birbiglia’s show “My Girlfriend's Boyfriend” in 2012, “the back of my head blew off. I was totally floored,” he said. “And I tried to write a show on the bus back to college.”
He hasn’t yet met Birbiglia, but says they’re “orbiting” the same circles and know several of the same people. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Eisenberg agreed with the comparison to Birbiglia.
“What comics out there do you know that also do storytelling well?” she said, laughing. “You're going to a smaller pool. It is a rare quality to have that seamless transition between the storytelling and the jokes.”
"Solo" runs Friday, Nov. 4-Saturday, Nov. 5 and Wednesday, Nov. 9-Saturday, Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. at the SoHo Playhouse, with a different comedian opening each night; ovationtix.com