“The Set” with Greg Fitzsimmons
By RJ Waldron on April 3, 2014
Originally appeared on The Interrobang
Known for his scathing sarcasm, comedian Greg Fitzsimmons is first and foremost a hilarious stand up comedian, but he’s also a four time Emmy winning writer and producer who has written for “The Ellen Show” and “Lucky Louie” and he was the head writer for “The Chelsea Handler Show”. He’s had two Comedy Central specials, wrote a critically acclaimed book (“Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons”), and hosted MTV’s award winning game show “Idiot Savants”. You can hear Greg weekly on SiriusXM’s Howard 101 channel hosting ”The Greg Fitzsimmons Show”, and listen to his podcast, “Fitzdog Radio” twice a week. RJ Waldron spent some time talking with Greg for “The Set” our series of conversations with great stand up comedians.
RJW: I wanted to talk a little bit about your upbringing, you’ve been pretty honest about your family being really funny and I was wondering how that shaped your comedy prowess.
Greg Fitzsimmons: “Prowess?!” I like that! (laughing)… The vibe in my family was very fun. It was very much about ball busting and teasing, you know a lot of it in a healthy way. But, I think underneath that is a lot of Irishman… I refer to being Irish a lot, but I consider myself a really quintessentially Irish person. All four of my grandparents came to the Bronx from Ireland and that’s where I was born. It’s a very cutting sensibility and there is like a defensive team on the field at all times as you’re trying to develop an ego. They just say, “Who do you think YOU are?”
RJW: They are really good at keeping you in check, right?
Greg Fitzsimmons: Right. I’m doing a Roast in a few weeks for a DJ down in Florida called Cowhead and I always feel like that’s where I belong, doing Roasts. Because that’s essentially what I grew up doing my whole life.
RJW: So, as a kid do you just learn to deal with that and try to be funnier than your family?
Greg Fitzsimmons: You know, to get a laugh in my house is like a big deal. I think that we all had different ways of getting it, and then you find that line. And, it’s a line that is much further than most people. You know when I first started doing stand-up and I’d go do shows in the Midwest, it was a real problem. They were thoroughly offended by the way I spoke. So, I had to make a real adjustment. And definitely in LA you have to make an adjustment. I found that the New York comedy clubs were a good fit for the way I’d grown up. Guys like Nick DiPaolo, Dave Attell, and Louis C.K., we all talked to each other in really heinous ways, but we all understood that we were just joking. So, now I’ve got a family and there is a lot of that in my family now. My kids can’t believe the way I joke around with them and then they come back with it, after awhile, and they are so thrilled when they score a laugh. So, now the big thing is to sit around and make fun of Dad. They make fun of me being bald, or I don’t know how a certain app works. So, I’m like the nerd. Sometimes, I just want to go, “You don’t know me, motherfucker. You don’t know who I was.” They’re seeing their nerdy dad, now, but there is nothing I can do because I taught them this. I gave them this weapon and now they are using it on me.
RJW: The New York comedy scene, as you were saying, is a lot different than LA. In a lot of ways it’s apples and oranges but so many people compare New York to LA. Do you like what LA has to offer or do you miss the east coast?
Greg Fitzsimmons: I miss New York, a lot. But, the weather is fantastic [in LA], I’m sitting on my back patio right now and there are wind chimes and hummingbirds. But, the comedy is much better in New York. You do more sets and there is a different priority with comedy in New York. I was talking with a guy last night about it, this guy Jerrod Carmichael, a really funny LA comic, and we’re saying when you come to LA and go on stage it’s all about your credits. What the MC says when he brings you up it’s, “ This guy has been on…” But in New York, nobody gives a shit. [In LA] if you have any credits they just lay back and spread their legs and say, “Oooohhh, this is going to be great.” In New York, you go up there and it’s almost like as you walk on stage you can hear their car keys rattling. They are already hailing a cab from the Comedy Cellar. You have to basically get them to stay, you have to earn your way from the get go, there is no free path. It makes you much stronger.
RJW: It seems that growing up in the LA scene is just completely different than the New York scene? I’m not trying to say that New York is better than LA, but it really seems like the New York scene is a tougher crowd.
Greg Fitzsimmons: Yeah, it can even make you a little bit too tough. You see comics and they’ve got this bitter edge and they can’t shake it. I think you can really stifle creativity when it’s so tough that you’re fighting joke to joke in the set so much that you can’t breath. So, whether you’re in LA or New York, I think it’s important to get out on the road and work rooms where you can really foster longer sets. You go to certain rooms in San Francisco or Denver where they are just so supportive and you can really develop some self-esteem that then you can bring back to the city and drain it out, there. Then go back on the road and get some more self-esteem. I think to be just an LA comic, or just a New York comic is not a great way to come up. The more you can expose yourself to every type of crowd, do college shows, do corporate shows, do benefits, work in as many cities as possible, you need all of those tools do become a good comic.
RJW: Do you have a favorite Roast moment?
Greg Fitzsimmons: I don’t watch them. I don’t think that there are enough of those “favorite moments.” I watched them early on and then they became so formulaic, where every single joke was a simile joke. Everything was a metaphor joke, “she is to blank, what blank is to blank,” and it’s just like – is that really how you talk? Why don’t you do your fucking comedy and do it on a Roast? Why is it that all of a sudden everybody talks like Jeffrey Ross? It’s so stupid, what a waste of talent.
RJW: Yeah, and Jeffrey Ross is pretty good at doing Jeff Ross.
Greg Fitzsimmons: And also Jeffrey Ross is doing Borscht Belt comedians, he’s basically a young version of these really great old comics. He’s really nailed that genre. But, that’s just one way to do it. I don’t know, I just feel like the Roasters don’t necessarily know who the person is that they are Roasting. I grew up going to the real Friars Club Roasts because my dad was a member of the Friar’s Club my whole life. The original Roasts were at the Hilton in New York, a lunchtime thing on a Friday, the doors were closed, there was no press, there was no recording devices. It was really just guys that all knew each other, shitting on each other and it was done out of love and comradery. So to me, this version of it that is on TV is so far removed from that, I just don’t find it interesting. I say that, and now I’m going to be asked to be on the next big Roast. (laughing)
RJW: You really take advantage of all of these great ways to express yourself, you have a book, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox, and this really successful podcast, but for you does it always come back to stand-up? You still have a love of touring and being on stage?
Greg Fitzsimmons: Well, I wouldn’t say the touring part. Dom Irrera once said, “I do stand-up for free, they pay me to travel.” My kids are 10 and 13, being away is really hard. So I try to carve it out so that I’m only on the road Friday – Saturday and never work Sundays. But, in terms of creating the material and being on stage, it’s everything. Nothing comes even close to that feeling. It’s total creativity, it’s always a challenge, you’ve got to earn it every single night. The immediate feedback of doing something new and having it work is just a really intense rush. It’s very addictive and to think that you’re growing – you know I’m very hard on myself, so I’ll get sick of my material and just be like, “You suck! You’re uncreative and you’re a hack and you’re no different than anyone else.” And that drives me to try to create something that is more interesting. I think the longer you do stand-up, the longer you have to get the shit out, so you can get to what is actually good. So, I’ve got to keep logging my hours. You have to keep getting out the bad stuff. I guess we’re all just meant to do a lot of bad comedy before we do good comedy.
RJW: Did you have a defining moment where you just said, “That’s it, I’ve got to do stand-up, I’ve got to be a comedian?”
Greg Fitzsimmons: When I was maybe 11 or 12, I was at an awards dinner. I was a horrible athlete and I came in like fourth in the boys 9 and under breaststroke on the swim team. Meanwhile, I was like 11, but they let me swim with the 9 year olds because I was so bad. So, I get up there and they were handing out little plaques with your name on it. So, the swim coach had a microphone and he’d announce the name, you’d come up shake his hand, and sit down. So, I took the plaque and then I took the microphone and I started thanking everybody from the coach to the President. I can’t remember who the President was, either Reagan or Jimmy Carter, but I thanked him. And, I just couldn’t believe it. It was like being at my dinner table and getting a laugh, but it was thirty dinner tables and they were all looking at me, smiling. I had this power to do something that was unexpected and it was edgy and mildly inappropriate and get this confirmation that it was good. That I was special and I was allowed to break the rules. There was no looking back. There was no way to step back into normal life and forget that that had just happened.
RJW: That’s so amazing, I love that story. So, I just want to do like five quick questions that we call The Short Set.
Greg Fitzsimmons: Of course you do!! (laughing) Of course there is something that you are going to throw at me at the end of the interview to make me sound like an asshole. Ok, “You’re an animal, it’s a Western, and you have a French accent… GO!” (laughing)
RJW: Hey, I’ve watched your “Talk Your Way Out of It,” so it’s not nearly as bad as that, I promise! (laughing)
Greg Fitzsimmons: (laughing) Touché, my friend.