GREG FITZSIMMONS – Interview
This is not hyperbole, just fact: This is the best interview you’ll read all year.
I never quite can tell what conversation will make the life of a freelance writer a little less depressing but conversing with comedian Greg Fitzsimmons about his book Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox was certainly a conversation that made me believe Greg could possibly be the most honest man I’ve talked to all year. While he and I talked about what it meant to write a book that was so unflinchingly funny in a way that only those with caustic senses of humor can appreciate there was also the sense that here was a man who had yet to accomplish things in his career, who had regrets, and who was willing to talk about wondering whether he would realize his goal to get an hour long comedy special. It’s hard to think that the man who has a successful podcast, Fitzdog Radio, and plays to audiences who know who he is and want to be entertained by his brand of funny would have any reason to look inward. But he does and he couldn’t have been more frank about the nature of comedy today, what it means to be a comedian on the road and how you don’t carry yourself if you’re looking for help, and what it means to have finally exercised the demons of the mind onto paper.
I think it would be deceptive if I didn’t state that I’ve listened to the man’s podcast since its inception, that his style of speaking to other comedians or to himself if he’s all alone just letting his thoughts flow and collide out of his mouth, the male equivalent of Mrs. Dalloway, a Virginia Woolf of comedic consciousness, but what you see below made me realize that he’s one of the few out in the world of entertainment that will actually answer a question in a straightforward and direct manner. It’s a rarity to have the ear of someone like Greg who doesn’t stick to talking points, who is willing to share something genuine, and for that I am grateful. The book is an amazingly hilarious charting of one man’s course through life, especially considering that anyone with ADHD will be forever grateful for the many pictures and letters which breaks up any lengthy passages, and it made me laugh out loud. It must sound so trite to say, but in an age when what passes for comedy is Mike & Molly there is comfort to be had knowing Greg is out there ready to take down anyone or anything at a moment’s notice in the same breath recognizing his own frailties as a man, a husband, a father. The book is wholly satisfying and more than worth the time it will take to appreciate how hard that this man has scratched, bitten, and fought to get to the middle.
Buy the book. Visit the man’s site. Read the interview.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Greg?
CS: Christopher Stipp.
FITZSIMMONS: Christopher, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for calling.
CS: Really, the pleasure is mine. I just finished the book over the weekend. Loved it.
FITZSIMMONS: I can’t tell you how nice that is to hear when I spent so long writing it and now to actually have people reading it just these last few weeks. Feels great. Thank you.
CS: You are welcome. I had just finished Adam Carolla’s book a week prior, finding that both made me laugh while reading it, but yours was more personal, profound in a way. I would like to start by asking if you really had that in mind – whether you wanted to make this a raw look into your life.
FITZSIMMONS: I’m Irish so I was raised on literature. I was an English major and I dreamed about being a writer since I was little. My comedy is drawn to, not only is it dark, it’s story telling that’s truthful and so when it came to writing a book I knew that there was two directions. We had four publishers bid on the book and they all had a different take on the letters. I wrote a proposal and they each had a solid different split on whether or not it would be funny to show the letters, write jokes about them and then another publisher wanted the letters out completely and just write the narrative so the great thing about Simon & Schuster is that they wanted both, which is the right way to go. It allowed me to – there’s a chapter, it’s a sad part where dad dies, one chapter where I really put all the dad drinking stuff in – it just allowed me to then go through high school years where antics were funnier. It let me do what I do in my stand-up, just try to draw people in with my truth and then relieve it with jokes.
CS: I keep thinking about what part of the book I wanted to touch upon and I keep coming back to the moment when you were talking about Uncle Jerry. You were at your uncle’s house and I forget exactly what the circumstances were but he snapped, he took one of your cousins, took him to a back room, made him stay there, the kid starts thumping his head against a wall and moaning while the rest of you guys then found it hilarious…
FITZSIMMONS: [Laughs] You must be Irish. Only Irish people think that’s funny. Other people think that’s horrible.
CS: I am Irish. And I found it hilarious. I look at a show like Rescue Me and I find that dry sense of humor to be satisfying, where it seems all you do is bust balls and take people down a peg or two once in a while. But in a healthy way if I’m in a relationship, you know?
FITZSIMMONS: Yes. The Irish are committed to taking down hubris wherever we see it. It’s a function of growing up. Historically we were made to feel like pieces of shit by the British so we police ourselves.
CS: And that brings up a good point. You reference it in your book that being Irish it’s part of your DNA and I’m almost, reading it over and over again in your writing, I’m ready to believe that it’s true. That it is a nature, not a nurture, thing.
FITZSIMMONS: It is interesting because you always wonder how much of it is cultural and how much is innate. Speaking of the Irish – our livers process alcohol must faster which is just a physical fact that has led to a certain behavior. And I think the Irish are prone to depression and I think manic depression and I kind of feel like I have elements of that I keep myself from feeling too great because the fall-off is so painful.
I just of feel like if I clip the highs I won’t go as low and I think culturally it was a way of dealing with that swing we have. And I don’t know if it comes from the damp climate but I think there is just a sensibility to stay steady.
CS: And do you find that, as you referenced, that you kind of fight those impulses? You write you have never hit your kids. Do you find yourself fighting with demons from the past when it comes to trying to correct the path it looks like you were on as you grew up?
FITZSIMMONS: I look at this book – I’ve had my midlife crisis the last few years and the book was definitely a part of that and, at the same time, it made it profound. I can really look at the two acts of my life. The first one is now over. In the book I don’t have to look back anymore. I don’t plan on looking back anymore. I’ve got a beautiful wife who loves me and I’ve got two kids who are 7 and 10. I live in Venice Beach which is not exactly where I want to live. And I’m healthy and I just can’t waste anymore time worrying about how my parents raised me or whether or not I had too much conflict as a kid. I’ve got it all in the book. I can just lock it and move on. It’s a very liberating thing for me emotionally.
CS: I see that in the text. Matter of fact, I just listened to your latest podcast where you broke down the Ten Commandments, which is an essential listen every week for anyone interested in solid humor, but you did it without anyone around you. You were just riffing by yourself. How do these ideas quickly materialize from thought to rant?
FITZSIMMONS: Well, on Friday, I forget which Commandment – but one of the Commandments got me curious like if we were to read the commandments – just curious to where we fall on them now. So I riffed on them Friday night and then Saturday in between the two shows I was doing, literally just sitting in the green room during that hour and a half, in between shows, I just turned on my recorder and started riffing. Then I hitched up with other comics and they were like, “Where’s the script?” I go, “There’s no script. Just go.” And it just somehow – I think doing stand-up for the last 20 years has enabled me to bullshit for an hour.
CS: It’s a wicked skill. It obviously allows you to land you writing gigs and what have you. I know some people have asked you what do you prefer more – the writing or performing – but really though, what feeds the other? What part of the brain is getting satisfied when you are locked in a room writing versus being on a stage and performing?
FITZSIMMONS: I think it has a lot to do with lifestyle. In a perfect world I can be on stage in front of hundreds of people every night and trying new material and showing that insane outpouring of acceptance from the crowd and the danger of some nights not feeling that – that would be ideal. But, the reality is I have to leave my family to go do that so writing allows me to stay home for months at a time and I do enjoy it. I like collaborating with other people and I get very claustrophobic. You know, ADHD, I’m a loaner and I need to go after a while.
CS: I know you’ve touched upon it too in a podcast in that it’s a lonely existence – you’re off doing what you need to do to satisfy that sort of need to do something else and shake it up – but once you’re out there do you find yourself saying “I need to go home” or is more like you need to stay days away before that feeling goes away?
FITZSIMMONS: I think the grass looks greener on the other side of my yard. I don’t even need to look at the neighbor’s yard to long for the other part of my life instead of the part that I’m in and I think it’s gotten a little unhealthy. I feel unsatisfied in each one because I’m at the point now where I do a radio show, a podcast, I’ve got a TV deal with 20th Century Fox for a sitcom, I’ve got a game show deal with Nickelodeon, I’ve got the book that I’m still promoting and then the stand-up and after a while you go, you also have two kids and I’m so loaded I don’t see friends anymore because every spare moment I have I’m going to soccer practice and something’s got to give.
This book was a way for me to take all these energies and focus them on one thing; but no real plan, though, of where that would take me other than it would force me to have all of them work towards one thing and I think that that allowed me to make real progress and giving more clarity to what I want to do.
CS: Not to be facetious about it but is it to get that what they call “f.u. money” – essentially say “I can do things on my own time” instead of saying, “I need to fill a need because I need to keep my kids in school, I need to keep my wife from having a job of her own?” Or is it something more than just the money?
FITZSIMMONS: Well, for me, a lot of it is money at this point only because I worked as a kid – from the age of 12 on I was shoveling driveways, raking leaves, I was caddying by the time I was 14. I was just always working and then through the time I was in college I’ve been doing stand-up but really found myself at whether it was stand-up or writing just giving it everything. And, after 20 years of that you start to feel like – life starts to say f.u.. And you always have to work and I’ve always been pretty smart about buying real estate and for a long time I’ve benefited from not having to take just one job and it’s allowed me to make choices and in the long run even more beneficial to my career because I truly do what I want, what excites me. I think, and it’s the biggest cliché, but it really is true, that if you are doing what you love you don’t have to worry about the money. It just always seems to work out.
But what would work well for me if this book did well enough that I could get another book deal. I’m starting to get more and more advertisers to my podcast and I think that if my foundation was doing a podcast a few days a week it would make it real money and doing another book then I could continue to cut my stand-up down to just weekends or one night shows rather than 3 or 4 days at a time and not take any writing jobs, unless they were mine, not anyone else’s.
CS: The idea of just working on weekends for standup…I was just reminded when you talked to Brian Regan, an amazing interview as I never gave that guy a second thought but now I want to check the guy out based on what you two talked about…
FITZSIMMONS: Now here’s a guy if you ask comedians whether you are talking to the biggest alternative comic or biggest performer, he’s the one guy that I think bridges all worlds of comedy and is so respected. He’s clean, original, and makes you laugh. Period.
CS: He does and this is the funny thing – growing up as a kid I used to watch Mario Joyner’s Half-Hour Comedy Hour and John Mulrooney when he did Comic Strip Live. It was decades ago but Brian seems like he still has the same passion for performing.
FITZSIMMONS: It’s passion but also craftsmanship. He’s one of these guys who, you talk about Irish, I think he comes from a family of about 6 or 7 Irish boys and he has that work ethic and aesthetic for quality without having any ego about it. He always just puts on his tool belt and worked on his act and then underneath that is this silly, goofy, physical comedy and when you bring those two things together it’s magic.
CS: Not to switch too many gears, I’m curious to know – the Howard Stern effect. You reference him in the book and you reference how he’s able to goad things out of you that you normally wouldn’t have otherwise shared. What is it about Howard that he’s able to get people to really open up? Is it the power of how many people he’s broadcasting to? Is it a skill that he has? What’s under the hood that makes him such a good interviewer?
FITZSIMMONS: It’s definitely not about how many people are listening. That rarely crosses my mind. It’s if you’re a girl in high school, and the guy with the ’69 GTO and leather jacket, who smokes, and asks you to go out on a date. You are going to go further with him than you would the nice guy…than with Brian Regan.
You accept this. You have a curiosity and something compels you to take the challenge to be around this person and all of a sudden you find yourself further than you would have gone and all of a sudden you’re blowing Howard Stern.
CS: It’s amazing how many people he’s able to – amazing interviews – he’s almost the Playboy of radio where, sure, you have the naked women but you sure as hell would subscribe just to get the articles. I think he’s unique and I just don’t understand what he’s able to do and how he’s able to make all these people open up.
FITZSIMMONS: Well, you know what it is? You learn very quickly. Anybody that comes on the show is a fan of the show. It’s very rare that someone comes on because the publicist pitched a really hot project. I’ve seen Howard get pitched guests for his show and I’ve seen what interests him and what doesn’t. If there’s not a story he doesn’t really care about how big the project or how big they are. There has to be something that he knows he can tap a nerve with. The person is going through a transition, whether it’s divorce or getting off drugs or changing careers – something that he can stir up and get some real juice out of. I think that he then is able to make you realize you can’t deflect. He’ll call you on it. Just by being one hundred percent truthful – first of all about himself – everything he’s embarrassed about – then it’s, “OK, that’s how we play in this room.” And so if you try not to answer questions, that’s when he attacks he does that as a recourse for not playing by his rules in his sandbox.
CS: Do you try to do that? Now that you are on the other side and you’re talking to someone like a Brian Regan or talking to comics on the road, are you trying to take some of that or do you just go in there with your own intentions in mind?
FITZSIMMONS: I certainly do it differently than Howard because I come from a different world than he does. He had a lot to prove when he was starting out. He felt very changed by his mother and he wanted to be the outrageous guy and would ask tough questions of famous people. Where I come from it’s about – I think defiance about Catholicism, and I don’t want to be impolite necessarily – but at the same time from doing stand-up for so many years, I gauge my radio show the way I would assume a comedy crowd would be receiving the show. In other words, if I feel like it’s boring, I will attack my guest. I’ll cut them off. I’ll tell them they are being boring and say things like, “Can you say it any slower? Can you drag this out more?” I’m very direct but I never offend a guest and it’s just because I pay attention to them. I’m only being truthful. I have no tolerance for people that indulge themselves a story they’ve told a million times. I don’t want that kind of show. I don’t want your prepared jokes. I just want you to answer questions in an honest way. I learned that from Howard. I think the motives may be different.
CS: He choose you – I assume he had some hand in having you have your own show on Sirius.
FITZSIMMONS: Yes, he asked me on the air one day. He said, “Do you want to have your own show?” and I said, “Yeah.”
CS: That must have been wholly gratifying. Was it just that fast or was it…
FITZSIMMONS: It was that fast. It was literally just, “Hey, want your own show?” And at the time he threw a bunch of people on at first and of all the people – you got people that have full-time shows – Bubba and Ferrell – but of all the people he threw up there the few that remained are the guy who claims he was abducted by aliens and somebody who’s an alcoholic. I’m a 44 year-old guy with a receding hairline and two kids who doesn’t drink or do drugs and somehow I have a show that has traction on his network.
CS: That is pretty remarkable. It must have been completely flattering to think you could have a place on his network.
FITZSIMMONS: When I first got the show I knew it was a lark. This thing could go one, two, three episodes and then it could politely and, well, I knew it could go six months. By that time you kind of know if you’re dead in the water. And so I felt – my dad did radio his whole life. He was one of the most successful DJ’s in New York. I really dug in and certain opportunities in your life that you are very aware at the time could be very meaningful if you put the effort into it and if I don’t put the effort into it, it’s really going to show so I always respected the opportunity. I took a lot of good notes and was able to grow and learn the skills of broadcasting just by being on.
CS: Was it, I don’t want to say terrifying, but was it? Let’s say today is my first day and I’m on the radio interviewing you, I’d be out of my mind thinking how do I balance both trying to be funny but be informative but also be a good host and interview someone properly. Were you filled with anxiety by being a comedian and wanting to be funny or were you past anxiety at that point?
FITZSIMMONS: No, lots of anxiety every single time. The only thing that makes it work is I took a two year acting program at the Neighborhood Playhouse and learned the Meisner Technique where you really just put every thought out of your head except focusing your attention on your partner. Listening in the audition, looking at them, being connected to them. And I find with interviews, not worrying about my manners, and not worrying about my agenda, I can get out of the way of the interview. Then I can be really fast and I can be really clever and can be really gracious and the only thing you have to learn is jump breaking for commercial and try to put some bits in there, recurring bits in there and all that, but as me interviewing, even the monologue, it’s about just having the confidence to get out of your own way which I learned in stand-up.
You are not a good stand-up until you are not nervous and you don’t care.
You don’t let them judge you. It’s like you just do it and do it until you are in the zone longer and longer each time. So, it’s still terrifying to me because I don’t know how long to pause and I don’t know how much to ramp up. So the only thing that keeps it organic for me is like that thing backstage it kind of helps to be the comic for the green room because I see a smile and say, “OK, this is working.” And from there I think that there’s more meat on this bone and I’m going to keep going on this part.
CS: And I’m reminded about the riff from last night just going off, you were knocking the Commandments down, one after another. It was almost felt like, as we listen to you, you were thinking, “While I’m at it let’s just go through the rest of this and see what I can make out of it.”
FITZSIMMONS: I was on the Internet that day and I just had a number next to each one. It was like, one, no gods, then two, father and mother, and I had thoughts on each one and had done it on stage a couple of times so I felt it was starting to gel a little more. That’s the great thing about doing a podcast on the road. I’ve always got a page of bullet points or new ideas I want to talk about, like Sarah Palin is like a rodeo clown. She’s comic relief during a bad economy. Just one image and you go on stage with it and explore it. You just keep throwing stuff out and I record every set and then by the weekend it’s a little more gelled so the time I get a podcast usually like Saturday, I’ve already done two or three sets. So now I’m doing a podcast and it’s totally fresh and brand new but it’s also got a little bit of form.
CS: I’m reminded about last week, too, I was listening to Howard’s show and he was talking to Gilbert Gottfried and Gilbert had no interest in being a mentor to anybody.
FITZSIMMONS: Yeah, I loved that.
CS: And I’m reminded of you when you are talking to these comics and these people who I have never heard of but I hope they come into their own and become people that I do hear about, do you find that this is something you wanted to do in talking to these comedians that are relatively fresh on the scene? Is it your intention to be sort of an elder statesman, as it were?
FITZSIMMONS: No, not at all. There are a lot of comics I find on the show that are original and earnest and I feel like even if they don’t make it big, here’s somebody who I think I can help and want to help. It always comes down to would it make a difference if I gave this person advice. And when you are working with a guy who is drinking at every show, he doesn’t change a word of his act, he’s more concerned about after the show. I’m not going to waste a second of my energy on to try and say to that guy “You know you can transition this better” but when I see somebody who’s young, going over their notes, they are nervous, they care, then I feel like what’s the glaring thing about their act that I can point out – one given note, if taken, can save that person from having to figure it out on their own. But, only if you really listen to it, which is hard. I love coaching people in anything that I feel I might have some skill in. I don’t know why but I love kids. I love teaching them sports. I love working with anybody that is, like you said, is earnest, and if I am in a position to help them, I love that.
But I can’t stand the sense of entitlement that a lot of young comics have today. They see you, I go through my set and run out because there will be people that come up and say “You don’t remember me?” and I say “When did we meet?” and they say, “I don’t know, it was probably…” It’s like, “You motherfucker….’I don’t remember’…F.U….I don’t owe you anything.” Just because you have happened to see me, just because I may be above you on the ladder that doesn’t entitle you to be rude or have some expectation that I’m going to…..I don’t f’n know you. You want me to what? Call a club. Tell them I got somebody to open for me? And then if you bomb I look bad? Where’s the upside for me? I never once asked a comic to bring me on the road with him. I used to drive for hours to go to clubs and showcase and then get hired by the club. Now it seems everyone wants you to do them a favor. And you don’t even know them. I think the landscape has changed like that. When I’m on the road and can connect with somebody who is quality, I love it. But, the idea of being a mentor is really preposterous. I’m still trying to learn how to do stand-up myself.
CS: To that point, I think it actually comes down to the work ethic. I think myself I’ve been told you do good work and the work speaks for itself that you’ll eventually be recognized for it but some people now want to jump that line and think it’s more about style. And that if you have enough style you can move forward, and it certainly works in some areas, but where do you fall on that whether work for it’s own sake will get you noticed or is it about self-promotion, is it about putting something in front of somebody and saying, “Recognize me! Recognize what I do!” Is there a line there?
FITZSIMMONS: Yeah, that’s what I struggle with every day. Self-promotion today is such a pure drain of energy and time and if you go half-ass you might as well not do it at all. At the same time if you don’t do it at all, you’re screwed. People are bombarded with marketing and promotion and they think they can just go on the road and just kill and think that that’s going to build up a following – those days are over.
The guy who had a regular TV show, no matter how bad, those guys will outdraw everybody except, literally Brian Regan and maybe two other guys besides him that don’t have weekly TV exposure or guys that have movie exposure. I think clubs booked by talent and with a certain editorial in mind. So I try to find a way of marketing myself that is more natural. I like Twitter because I can send out one or two tweets a day and maybe one is a joke and one is about a book signing tonight and I always have a fear, a paranoia, that people are going to see me as just another pushy person who’s trying to get somewhere in a rush and more often than not, I don’t do enough.
I’m ashamed of marketing myself. I find it distasteful and I feel like I’m proud of the show I do and I’m proud of what I do. The thing about being a perfectionist is I don’t put out as much content as I should. I really do worry about that. I hired a webmaster. I have a publicist right now and I have a producer on my podcast which most people don’t have because I need to hand stuff off so I can focus on the creative side of things.
CS: It’s really fantastic. Nothing but quality. What’s more I respect that if you’re busy or if you can’t do it you allow yourself to miss a day. You’re not out to put out a half-assed product and that comes through.
FITZSIMMONS: Like Twitter, the podcast seemed like the way to put content out that wasn’t…that wasn’t promotion for the sake of promotion but it was content that worked as promotion.
CS: Do you find that people responding positively? I don’t know how many followers you are up to now but do you find it’s a positive thing for you to use?
FITZSIMMONS: I have like 17,000 people that follow me on Twitter. It’s not like in the days of the Myspace page when I had way more than that but I would say three quarters of them were probably spam addresses, whereas on Twitter these are people that are actually reading your shit. It’s crazy. I do a couple segments on my show like Overheard, where people sending things overheard, and I get a hundred of them a week and I get people coming out to my shows and it used to be way back when it was because I had a show on MTV and that went away, and then it was Best Week Ever and those people come out…but the podcast by far is the biggest draw because people are listening for the whole hour, every week, and it may not be the same numbers you get on Stern but they are really there to listen to it.
CS: And advertisers? Are they responding well to the fact that you are such a top rated download?
FITZSIMMONS: Yes, it makes a difference and also that and the demographic they are going after. I think that’s like Adam Carolla and Marc Maron and myself are the young male demographic that people watch. So I’m actually surprised that there aren’t more advertisers. I know it’s a podcast and I really think that they will. Like right now, there’s half a dozen that work with most of us and breaking through to that next level is what everyone is trying to do now. What’s hard is that if someone is not familiar with podcast it’s hard to turn them on to the process of it – people are techno-phobes and are just used to getting their content the way they get it. You really have to go after the tech-savvy and the people who have iPhones and really care about fresh content as opposed to listening to albums on their iPod. I guess the short answer I guess is I think that the business model isn’t there yet but I think that the audience is growing and seems like everything is in place for it to grow much faster and we’re not yet in the clutches of the studio system – still completely independent meaning we can keep all the money, which is nice.
CS: There is only so much – how many ProFlowers bouquets can I buy this week – how many downloads can I make from audible – and you are right it does seem like a very tiny – all these companies – feels like there should be a lot more because, demographically, like you’re speaking, there’s always these other people advertising. I’m amazed that it’s just these core half a dozen.
FITZSIMMONS: I just got a couple new sponsors. There are some that I won’t take. I’ve had offers – pornography – and then junk companies where they want you to write the ad and want you to work off commission on what you bring in. I’m not interested in that. There’s a recipe of every thousand downloads you get a certain dollar amount. That’s the only way it really makes sense.
CS: Is this thing growing on its own? Is it taking away from what you really want to be doing, and that’s your act, your comedy? Is it not even significant to even talk about because the technology is so in its infancy that it’s not really taking any of your time to deal with?
FITZSIMMONS: When I was coming up in New York and then LA, I always did a lot of alternative comedy because there’s always one room that I would try to work every week or every other week because it would force me to do 10 new minutes. You are standing in front of a crowd that was there every week so you couldn’t do something you’ve done before and it forced me to come up with new material every week. And, the podcast is the same way. I try not to look in the paper for what my monologue is going to be. I try to really look at either my life, which is pretty limited – two kids and on the road a lot there’s just so many airplane jokes and my kid threw up jokes – for me where my head is at is the existential midlife crisis type things.
Like the 10 Commandments – thinking about the big picture and trying to express my anger or confusion about things that are in my heart right now and I think that trying to do topical stuff is fine as long as it’s a springboard into something bigger. I was talking to a friend about how much of your identity is a collection of attributes, whether it’s fine wine seems to go along with classical music and good cigars and Brooks Brothers, no matter what walk of life you’re from you think you have much more taste in a universal, objective way and give yourself credit for having more choice in taste than you really have. It’s more that identification with a group and social climbing and that’s something that seems to touch a nerve. When I bring that up, people get incensed.
Even my own wife, who swears that, no, it takes a certain intelligence and worldliness to appreciate a single malt scotch that’s good or bad. Even she couldn’t really wrap her head around the fact that if she was from another world it would be much more about whether or not your wear a sarong that denotes a different cast system and you may not be attacked with sticks for it and that everyone has their agenda with their fashion choices or culinary choices or where they vacationed. Something like that is a show and whether or not the show goes that way that’s where I’m going to start it and 9 out of 10 times it goes in a completely different direction. I do the same thing with sand up. I’ll explore an idea and if there’s something to it, I’ll continue it on stage or vice versa.
FITZSIMMONS: If I had what Brian Regan has, which is that work ethic, I’m going to write it all down, I’m going to organize it and then like Louis CK is doing, what Chris Rock did, and what George Carlin did, which is every year do my one hour special – I lay it down and then start from scratch. I wish I could do that. I have ADHD and every set is like a drunken knife fight for me.
I jump from thought to thought and talk about how the spotlight above me is humming and driving me crazy and I never quite get through a stream of consciousness that’s not interrupted.
CS: Do you think you have it in you, let’s say if HBO came up, or Comedy Central, said, “We want you to do an hour show.” Would it motivate you?
FITZSIMMONS: I’m dying to do a one hour show. I know I have that hour. I’ve actually done it on tape. I made a spreadsheet with all the bits and I just did an act a few weeks ago in Minneapolis and I recorded three shows and I have the hour. Every minute is something that I’m proud of, that I worked on, and that I know will stand up in a theater but I’ve been so caught up in this book that I haven’t even pursued it. But the one hour in the past, there wasn’t enough interest. It’s a lot of money and there aren’t a lot of buyers like there used to be. HBO is only interested in things like George Lopez, somebody who already has a show or big name. And then Comedy Central is a place that I would have more luck with but maybe they are pursing someone younger.
So, I’m kind of dying to do it the same way I’m dying to do this book. There’s nothing I want more now than to do the one hour special so that at the end of my life I can sit on my porch with 14 Emmys on the mantle and my book on the shelf, with my one hour special on top of the TV.
CS: I’m amazed that it hasn’t happened. It almost seems like the cliché from your own show that you like just being in the middle and but that’s where you’re currently caught.
FITZSIMMONS: Yeah, I was on the road for two years straight and that’s a lot of road work. And when you do that you lose all the momentum if you’re not out there – you’re not a comedian anymore because a lot of comedians get off the road as they start writing gig and you never seen them on the stage again. I would fly out on weekends…I never gave up on it but the perception was the same. It’s held me back a lot. It’s just the reality of it.
CS: Really? Even with all the road gigs you did? Hasn’t the tide turned?
FITZSIMMONS: No. I think I’m back in a place of having more visibility as a pure stand-up but the fact that, even writing a book, even having a TV deal, it all works against you in a weird way. I know it sounds contradictory saying guys like George Lopez, but he got to where he was with stand-up. I got jobs more because of my writing skills. And it just gets spread kind of thin. “Oh, he’s the guy with the podcast.” “He’s the guy on Stern.” But, not always, “He’s the guy who used to work stand up non-stop for 20 years.” I think my goal now is to do as much as I can and put my main energy into the podcast and stand-up because they seem to work really well together.
Do a one hour special and get to the point when you can go out one night or two nights as opposed to longer and it’s just a matter of believing it will happen and making it a priority, which I didn’t do before, and that’s one of the things I talked about when I did the book. I was focusing all these different energies because I know I put a more concerted effort in this book than I ever have in my life. It taught me about how much time I was wasting and things I gave up doing this book that I certainly didn’t miss. I don’t audition anymore.
I am not very good at auditioning.
I have a low batting average and a huge waste of time to drive up to the valley and rehearse and it makes me feel like a loser. There are certain things I had to give up while I was writing the book and I’m not bringing back into my life. Stand-up is the most truthful thing you can do in our society today. I think there is probably more freedom of speech with stand up than almost anything else. You can choose to do it the way you want to. You can do theaters, you can do clubs, you can just do it on the internet. You can do it on TV. Whatever your sensibility works best, you have the option to do it that way.
CS: Do you find people respond the same way? In terms of comedy, can you be, I guess Brian Regan would be the best example, that people respond to the same comedy he has been doing for decades, are you finding that you can be as free? Are audiences different than they were, 10, 15, 20 years ago?
FITZSIMMONS: I don’t know. I never really thought about that. I always just walk on stage and walk up to the mike and my goal is – I truly have no idea what I am going to say when I walk up to the microphone. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the middle. I have bullet points I want to get to but some nights I don’t get to any of it. I know I’ve grown in some ways and in other ways I think I have gotten, I don’t know if I’ve gotten weaker, but I was on Bob and Tom this morning and they pulled out some comedy clips to play them on the air from 15 years ago and it was jokes, just bam, bam, bam, good jokes.
I think back and I don’t write like that anymore and I do miss it.
It was really more of a varsity sport back then for me. It was like, “How can I type this up? How can I land a tagline to this?” As opposed to now it’s much more about, “How can I talk around an idea that I think is interesting to keep the audience with me through choppy waters ‘cause they might have been uncomfortable with the topic but we all came through it together?” But there’s a part of me that would like to do more of that.
CS: I am intensely curious to know – you bring her up in the book, you said that Erin wants to put the brakes on what you can say sometimes. Do you find that the deeper relationship you have with the wife and the kids, that the impulse is to drag them into the comedy in a way – is there an impulse to keep that at bay? Is there a back and forth of what you can and can’t talk about?
FITZSIMMONS: I think it helps me make more mature decisions about what I should be talking about. I am reading this book right now called The Razor’s Edge. Have you heard about that?
FITZSIMMONS: It’s kind of a classic and it’s about this guy who is born in the upper-class in Chicago, 19-teen’s and it’s a fast read. It explored what it was like to be a part of that whole scene of Paris of that time. His friends tell him, “What are you doing? You’re wasting your life. You’re not working. You’re not going to the country club. You’re not working on your golf game. You’re throwing your life away asking all these questions about God and evil. These questions have been asked forever and you think you’re going to solve them?” And he says, “Well, if they’ve been asked forever maybe because there’s no answer they are the only questions that are supposed to be asked.”
So, I don’t know if you could say embarrassing but maybe divulging more about my family than what would make people comfortable I can be forced to have to take on bigger questions and more important ideas than anger at my child misbehaving or frustrations about not having sex with my wife as much. That kind of stuff has been pretty well mined and I think, even for me, I kind of transcend those kinds of things. It’s my marriage, my kids, and thinking about how can I deepen my relationship with my wife. How can I be a more supportive non-judgmental parent to my kids and not feel frustration?
And I think with my stand up it’s the same thing.
How can I go deeper with my stand up? At the end of my career can I look back and be proud of the topics I was talking about on stage? I look back at some of the material and I absolutely cringe. I talked about those jokes before but I also did a lot of very – I don’t want to say offensive – but tacky topics – not topics – tacky premises. So, I think it’s good to cringe when you look back at your work because it means there must be some kind of growth going on and I just really do feel that after 20 years I have no idea the right way to do it – it’s a work in progress.
CS: And I think that’s a good a place to end it as it could be.
FITZSIMMONS: Hey, I can’t go any deeper than that!
Greg is his garage in Venice with Mike Gibbons for today’s podcast, which focuses on identity, character, and being pegged as a type. They bag on hipsters, and try to figure out producer Jordy Altman’s type. Greg and Mike create a new game “Prophetic or Pathetic?” and also get to “Talk Your Way Out Of It” and “Overheards”.
Revolution is in the air. Since first hearing the story as a child, any mention of the ‘Boston Tea Party’ has elicited in me an excitement that is uniquely American. When I heard rumblings that there was a new Tea Party, I got goose bumps. I love tea, I love parties, I hate taxes; I’m in! It seemed that most of America joined in my excitement …
To read the full article, click HERE!
Norm MacDonald comes to Greg’s garage for possibly the funniest podcast in the history of mankind. Norm gives his thoughts on Oprah, he announces women are not throwing, and have never thrown themselves at him, and tells what happens when Alan King mouthed off to Don Rickles. Norm gives comedy lessons with the help of Steve Allen, Greg premieres the new game Talk Your Way Out of It, they play Liar’s Poker, and they write a joke for Greg’s Jimmy Kimmel Live appearance.
SCPR – Patt Morrison – November 24, 2010
It’s probably happened to many people with hyperactive mothers—you’re reorganizing the attic, moving houses or just poking around through old stuff and you come across a box full of letters, ticket stubs and other keepsakes collected over the years commemorating the good, bad, and ugly of you life. Comedian Greg Fitzsimmons came across just such a box, or boxes in his case, that contained disciplinary letters, incident reports, and newspaper clippings that his parents received from teachers & school officials. In his book Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons Greg picks up where his parents left off with his own collection of letters received during college and throughout his career. Just in time for Thanksgiving, where the best and worst of childhood memories are dragged across the dinner table, Greg & his mother share the trials and tribulations of being in a family without losing your sanity.
Book Review: Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons
Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox by Greg Fitzsimmons (Simon & Schuster, $25, 9781439182697/1439182698, November 9, 2010)
Standup comic, writer and radio personality Greg Fitzsimmons stumbled on a cache of letters that his mother saved from his childhood and teenage years. Eagerly browsing through what she had deemed worth saving, he discovered the collection contained every last bad report she had ever received about him, starting with his preschool teacher’s ridiculous complaint that he was unable to wiggle (the inability to wiggle should have tipped them all off that this was TROUBLE in short pants). Instead of burying this hoard of rebukes testifying that he was trouble every place he set foot, Fitzsimmons uses them as prompts in this merciless and hilarious memoir of his pugnacious early years and coming into his own as a comic. Humiliating craziness is recounted; blame is placed with acid zingers that define his style; and the incontrovertible evidence is laid out in the original letters and family photos.
“Raised by Irish parents from the Bronx, my culture was about short fuses, long grudges and zero tolerance for giving in,” Fitzsimmons states in an emotionally complex portrait of his father who epitomized that culture–fierce, funny, inconsistent and scarily intimidating. When those bad reports arrived in the mail, Greg never knew whether his father (Bob Fitzsimmons, a popular talk-show host on New York City radio) would find them infuriating (leading to a hiding for little Greg) or funny (leading to a laugh-in by the whole family). Extreme mood swings and alcoholic rages were, to be sure, balanced by gales of laughter over whatever was handy to mock, but home was a breeding ground for Greg’s hate and rage, which he would later “channel in a productive manner [in] drunken, smoke-filled stand-up comedy clubs.”
Rebelling against a bullying patriarch was a full-time job for Greg as an adolescent. He began drinking seriously at 13 and, despite his self-described small-and-scrawny size, was always in fights. A typical exchange with his parents at that time: “Greg, get off the roof, you’re drunk!” as he ignored their orders. The key to his survival was leaving home. After backpacking in Europe, he enrolled in Boston University. Never a dedicated student, Fitzsimmons discovered his passion in Boston–to stand in front of a crowd daring him to make them laugh when the looks on their faces said, “You loser, you can’t even get us to crack a smile.”
He recalls, “In Boston, they’d rather see a fistfight than a comedy show.” Once he gave them both in a performance that earned a standing ovation from a really tough audience. “For me being funny was always in reaction to somebody telling me what to do,” he confesses. That would be Dad, who died young at 54, yet still looms large, as a model and a warning, for his son.–John McFarland
Shelf Talker: A merciless and hilarious memoir of surviving a domineering father to turn hate and rage into comedy.
Crave Online – Johnny Firecloud – November 21, 2010
Let’s begin with a disclaimer: If your particular brand of comedy involves the words Dane Cook or Larry the Cable Guy, chances are strong that Greg Fizsimmons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you absolutely despise the kneejerk dumb-funny comedy they shill, opting instead for true grit and relatable, agonizing humor, Fitzsimmons is the man for you.
Constructed around a collection of increasingly angry, unintentionally hilarious letters from his outraged former instructors, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox can’t help itself in an overload of raucous hilarity, becoming a classic Irish American coming of age tale about a bright kid who keeps asking increasingly inappropriate questions of those charged with raising and caring for the future side-splitter, and his general ability to sidestep consequence. Think of it as A Christmas Story with less holiday flare and a whole lot more mischief.
The 44 year-old Fitzsimmons has made a lot of mistakes in his long road to becoming a four-time Emmy Award winner, but while most parents would hide or destroy any evidence so clearly demonstrating their child’s failures, Greg’s family has preserved each mistake like a precious memento from his childhood, allowing for hilarious recounting in a book that steps beyond the nostalgic humor and – through tracing his shameless self-damnation back to its origin, fantastic storytelling and a genuinely morose attitude – reaches a point of empathetic harmony with the reader.
Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons is a highlight reel of Greg’s life as a kid in the Boston suburbs spent terrorizing the neighborhood, told through this avalanche of disciplinary letters, incident reports and newspaper clippings that his parents received from teachers and school officials. Greg picks up where his parents left off with his own collection of letters received during college and throughout his successful career as a writer, producer, and stand-up comic. Revealing the larger story of how Greg’s distinctly dysfunctional Irish-American family bred him to blindly challenge anyone, anytime, anywhere, over anything, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons comes full circle to show that the Fitzsimmons torch has been passed on proudly to a new generation.
“Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons,” one such letter begins, “Greg was loitering in the hallway when I walked by on my way home. Greg began openly mocking me by making fun of my last name (i.e. ‘The grass looked very Dewey this morning,’ ‘Dewey have any homework?’ and ‘Are we going to learn the Dewey Decimal System?’) It is disrespectful to address a teacher in such a manner, and I think its best to bring this to his parents’ attention.”
Full of wince-worthy stories and cringe-tastic photos to pair with the narrative, the book pulls the reader back into the grit of growing up as an everyday kid. The laughter mixes well with the poignant heartbreak associated with growing up, from being rejected by girls to recounting his father’s death in a chapter called The Sad Part Where Dad Dies. Furthermore, it’s impossible to go wrong when you’ve got a crushingly hilarious foreword from the King of All Media himself, Howard Stern, complete with a sexy picture of his stunning wife Beth.
A fantastic comedic wit with a dazzling ability to move words on paper, Greg Fitzsimmons is far more than another stand-up routine. Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons is highly recommended – pick it up for the holidays. And if the stories sound familiar, or you have one to top his, Fitzsimmons has created a Web site, DearMrsFitzsimmons.com, for you to share.
CraveOnline Rating: 9 out of 10