The 1980s were a great time to be a stand-up comedian: Lots of clubs cropped up, and there was work aplenty for any hopeful youngster with stray jokes scrawled on old receipts. Dana Gould started working as a stand-up right at the height of the boom, and just before everything imploded, he inadvertently had a hand in starting the more narrative, free-form alternative-comedy movement. Gould went on to write and perform on The Ben Stiller Show, scored a bit part on an episode of Seinfeld, and spent the better part of the '00s writing for The Simpsons. But stand-up was his first love, and after leaving the show a couple of years ago, Gould got back in the game. Though he's filmed specials for HBO and Showtime, last month saw the release of his first DVD, Let Me Put My Thoughts In You. It's an hour of Gould's more grown-up material, devoting due time to life as a father, global warming, and, umm, chocolate cocks. The A.V. Club snagged some time on the phone with Gould to discuss his time with The Simpsons, the early days of alt comedy, delts, and his mixed feelings about the term "comic's comic."
The A.V. Club: This is your first stand-up DVD. What took you so long?
Dana Gould: I was working on The Simpsons for six and a half, seven years, and it didn't really lend itself to any extracurricular activity. They like you to be there.
AVC: What kind of hours did you keep?
DG: It was like 10 to 7, 10 to 8. It was kinda like working at the tire factory. You show up,punch in. It's like the sheepdog and the wolf from the old Warner Bros. cartoons.
AVC: How did you get involved with the show?
DG: I backed into it in a strange way. A lot of guys go to Harvard, they write on the Harvard Lampoon, they get a job on Letterman or Saturday Night Live, and then they go to The Simpsons. So there's sort of this structure, college freshmen-to-retirement career path. I really backed into it. I was a comedian and actor, and I came to the realization that I enjoyed writing more than acting. I'd written some projects so I could act in them. And after I wrote them, the fun was over; then it's just wearing makeup and sitting in a trailer.
AVC: What about the joy of seeing yourself onscreen?
DG: No. Acting is really fun, but I'm no great actor. I don't consider myself an actor; I'm a guy who's done some acting, as Tom Waits once said. By that time, I was fortunate enough to have dealt with the psychological conditions that made me need strangers to love me. [Laughs.] So I didn't have that weighing on me. As I've said often, nobody becomes a comedian because they really have their shit together. George Meyer, a longtime writer on The Simpsons, was a fan of mine. He spoke to Mike Scully, who was running the show at the time and heard that I wanted to be a writer. So they asked if I wanted to come over one day a week and be, like, a joke guy. That worked.
AVC: Is that basically doing punch-ups?
DG: Exactly. It's most of the job. You write the script, and then you just go over it 400 times and make all the jokes better. It really is true. That's essentially the way it works.
AVC: Most comics would see that as killing the joke.
DG: There is a tipping point where that does happen. We call it punching down. By and large, you tend to make things better. I did that for six months or something, then Mike said sort of off-handedly, "Your contract's almost up, do you want to come every day?" And I was like, "Sure!" [Laughs.] That was really it! I know I'm probably hated by a lot of people. "The other day—this is the weirdest story—I had to go to Rite Aid to get Q-Tips, which is just one of those things. And the next thing you know, I'm fucking Angelina Jolie." You don't plan on it happening, it just sort of happens. God, I love that story. But really, yesterday though, I did have to go to Rite Aid. If you just go to the store to get toilet paper, and have to get one other thing, you have to really figure out what the other thing is, or it's going to be a joke. You can't just go to the store and buy toilet paper and coffee. Then you have to pad out your order.
AVC: Jim Gaffigan has that joke about going to the store to buy only toilet paper. He says doing that makes people think you're a disgusting individual.
DG: [Laughs.] This is off subject, but I'll never forget this, and I'm not lying: I was at a Kmart buying tube socks. No, I had to get, like, a hammer or something. And I'm not kidding, the guy in front of me has, like, three Fleet enemas and a jug of, like, 99-cent rum. That's not a joke. That man's name? Barack Obama. Anyway, normally The Simpsons is something people plan out years in advance, and I sort of fell into it.
AVC: You were on the show when it was starting to receive a lot of backlash from longtime fans. Were people at the show aware of the way it was being received?
DG: Like any human endeavor, it has a cycle of acceptance, tolerance, rejection; acceptance, tolerance, rejection. It's the same with presidents, bands… It's just a weird aspect of human nature. I will say that the people at the show—and I don't work on the show anymore, I don't speak for the show anymore—the powers that-be pay a lot of attention to the message boards, and I personally think that's crazy. Fans only want what they know they want. And I think it's part of your obligation to surprise them. I'm such a huge fan of the new Battlestar Galactica, and if the fans had gotten what they want, that show would have been garbage. You have an obligation to challenge your fans and your viewers. That said, as I've often said, if I was ever running The Simpsons, it would be off the air in nine minutes. It's easy for me to stand outside and throw rocks. It's a giant endeavor, and Al Jean, who runs it now, you have to tip your hat to him. Getting the show done is too much for one man, and getting it done well—I really think the show is still great. I see earlier shows, and I think they're kind of soft. Matt Warburton wrote a show where Bart became a Catholic, I think it was one of the top five shows I ever did.
There's two tracks when you're writing. It's a room of very smart people, and me. And you are very aware of what came before, and you don't want to be the guy who was on watch when the show sucked. So there's the drive to keep it fresh, funny, and original, and they really do take a lot of pride in that. And there's also the drive to—you know, the sort of fire that the writers continually have to have their feet held to, and the reason the show is still on, is that it's really about the family. Homer loves Marge, and Marge loves Homer. And you've got a show written by 14 guys in a room, who aren't there because they're so emotionally secure. And sometimes it's a challenge.
AVC: You have an old joke circulating on YouTube where you make fun of your friends' kids, but now you have kids of your own, which you joke about on the DVD.
DG: I know! I'm very aware of that. I know that joke. I look back on that now and think, "That comic is so lame." That bit in particular, the naïveté is pretty astounding. How people with kids must react when they see that… They must just roll their eyes. But twins are spooky, let's be honest—my friend's kids were identical twins. If you take nothing else from my act, all twins are spooky. That should be the new 44-cent stamp. "America's proud tradition of spooky twins. A proud tradition that did not start with The Shining." [Laughs.]
AVC: Has your perspective been refined for this special?
DG: When I went on to The Simpsons, I never stopped doing stand-up, but I definitely took my foot off the gas pedal. It wasn't like I was doing nothing, but between 2000 and 2006 or 2007, I grew up. When I started the show, I was like a guy living with my girlfriend. And when I left the show, I was married and had kids, and had this girlfriend on the side. [Laughs.] No, I was just a different person. And I don't really write jokes, per se, so you can only sort of comment on what you're going through in life. But one thing I learned from the show, I did have a much more writerly approach to my act. I think this is one of the ways being a fan of George Carlin influenced me. I was very aware of the specificity of what I was saying, and sort of, like, enjoy wordplay. I don't go, "Car batteries, man. What's that about?" There are people that do that, and they will remain nameless. And the one thing I've always tried to do is make the entire show of a piece. It has a very specific beginning, middle, and end. That's just the nature of the way I write and work. But it's interesting to look at the early specials and the other specials, to see those differences. It's kind of funny. It's somebody that has no idea what having kids is like, then somebody who has been completely destroyed by them. [Laughs.]
AVC: You don't seem to have a good impression of yourself. Your website bio mentions you started comedy at the age of 17, and that you were too young to be any good. Then it skips ahead.
DG: When you're 17 years old, you have no idea who you are as a person, so there's no way you can be a good performer. You can't be a good comedian, because you don't know who you are, you don't know what you're saying. Stand-up is nothing but an expression of self-awareness. It wasn't until I was 23, 24 that I got to have a handle on a perspective on life, where I became decent. And I was just a terribly socially awkward younger person.
AVC: Welcome to comedy.
DG: Yeah, but that's what I don't understand. People get into stand-up comedy by and large because they're smart and they have a perspective. But to a large degree, I also think they're sort of misfits. In high school, the comedian wasn't with the jocks, he wasn't with the stoners. He was just off on his own in a clique that made fun of other people. I don't understand the macho comic. The comic with the tight T-shirt and the delts. [Laughs.] Really, I think it may have started with Andrew “Dice” Clay, even though he was the cartoon version of it. But there are comedians that are like, big, cool guys. When did stand-up comedy become the thing that cool guys did? To me, it goes against the whole point. And I'm not saying they're not funny. I'm saying I don't get it. Comedy comes from vulnerability, being the guy who talks his way out of a fight. Comedians don't do reps. [Laughs.] People walking out of shows going, "Man, that comedian was in great shape!" "Did you see that comedian's delts? Those were shredded!" No one left a George Carlin show talking about his six-pack. Man, if you see Richard Pryor live in concert, the thing that sticks with me is his definition. His pecs are so shredded! [Laughs.]
AVC: You started performing right at the height of the 1980's comedy boom.
DG: I did. Every town had seven clubs.
AVC: Did you have any idea it was fleeting?
DG: No, I wasn't that self-aware at the time. We just thought it was interesting. "Every town has nine clubs!" But one of the reasons I developed so fast was because when I started out, I got a lot of stage time, because I was in Boston and I had a car, and I didn't do blow. So I could drive people, and they didn't have to share their coke with me. So people were like, "Get him! He's awesome!" I ended up going onstage more than one would think. In addition to my skill set, I developed a lot. The facts that I didn't do coke and I owned a car were probably not coincidental.
AVC: On the Comedians Of Comedy DVD Live At The Troubadour, Patton Oswalt introduces you as the founder of alt-comedy.
DG: As I said off-mic to Patton after he introduced me, "Don't try to pin that on me." He's one of my closest friends, very generous with his praise. There was a thing in the late '80s, like '89 and '90: it was the peak of the glut of that comedy boom. And I was living in L.A., I had just moved, and the thing that me and the group of people I was hanging out with at the time—Janeane Garofalo, Kathy Griffin, Bob Odenkirk had just moved out. Colin Quinn was around. I remember specifically going to see Elvis Costello at the Universal Amphitheater and looking around and thinking, "Why aren't these people in comedy clubs?" That was our audience, that was what we were like. Because comedy clubs had become so commercial, our audience didn't go anymore. Janeane was the one who was like, “Let's find a place where we can perform that isn't a comedy club, where our audience will be.” And we kind of set up rules to make it different. It was like, "You can't do material, you have to talk about what went on that week." But the point of that was to take what happened to you and make it funny. And that's where I sort of learned to be a good comedian. Some people misunderstood it as, "Don't try to be funny." [Laughs.] That was never the idea. It's alternative comedy, not the alternative to comedy. In retrospect, it was a bunch of people in suede jackets writing on their hands. I was one of the few who did the alternative stuff who was already pretty established in clubs, and I could go back and forth.
AVC: What does the alternative distinction mean to you today?
DG: It means nothing. It means the same thing “new wave” means. It has more to do with clothes than anything else.
AVC: Hoodies vs. suits?
DG: Precisely. But now everyone wears hoodies, so… I wear a suit, but I’m alternative. It doesn't mean anything. At the time, it meant "Don't just do your six minutes you're trying to get on Letterman with." For whatever reason, I used musical analogies—here's two bands that are old bands, but I'll use them as examples because I heard them yesterday. There's Boston, and there's X. I don't know what two modern analogies would be. [Laughs.] I'm old. Outside of being bands, they have nothing in common. One's organic, and the other is like a product. It's like Tide.
AVC: The term "comic's comic" gets thrown around a lot nowadays, too.
DG: It's a strange term, and I'll say this about it: I've often been accused of being the comic's comic. It's a bad business model when your fans are the people who get in free. To use the musical analogy again, it's like Captain Beefheart. Ah, musicians love him! Or Yo La Tengo would be the ultimate example of that. One of my favorite Onion headlines was something like, "24 record-store clerks injured in roof collapse at Yo La Tengo concert." Part of being an “alternative” comic is an intrinsic honesty and lack of pretension to your self-expression. That was what punk did, stripped away all pretension: "This is who I am, there's a very little perceptible line between who I am onstage and who I am offstage." Then there's the cartoon version of that, which is easily digestible, leather jacket, lot of flash, more people know what that is because it's a brighter package on the shelf. But that doesn’t last as long; it's not as nutritious, but it's easier to grab.
AVC: What's it like writing jokes for videogames?
DG: What's really funny about that is that the money I made voicing videogames so far surpasses the money I made doing things I cared about. It's this weird joke that reality plays on you.