Paul Gilmartin on the finances of getting basic-cable big, losing it all, and what happened next

Paul Gilmartin on the finances of getting basic-cable big, losing it all, and what happened next

In our new feature Money Matters, creative people discuss what they're not supposed to: the intersection of entertainment and commerce, as well as moments in their lives and careers when they bottomed out financially and/or professionally. 

The artist: For 16 years, comedian Paul Gilmartin was the co-host of TBS’ Dinner And A Movie. The venerable basic-cable institution ended its lengthy run last year, but by that point Gilmartin had already found his personal and professional calling as the host of The Mental Illness Happy Hour. The popular podcast features sometimes funny, sometimes painful, often cathartic conversations with a fascinating cross-section of entertainers, trauma survivors, mental-health professionals, and listeners. Gilmartin also has a sly comic alter ego in the form of “Richard Martin,” a clean-cut Ohio Republican congressman character that parodied the hypocrisy of blowhard conservatives well before the creation of The Colbert Repot. 

The A.V. Club: What was your perception of money when you were a kid? On the podcast, you’ve described your father as being a Don Draper-like figure. 

Paul Gilmartin: We were upper-middle class. My dad was an insurance executive. My dad was a very conservative guy. He went to the Wharton School Of Business and he was very comfortable with numbers. He saw the world in black and white, but not in the way that a certain [sort of] Republicanism has come to mean the ostracizing of gays. He was just a very fiscally conservative guy. And everything was always laid out. We lived below our means and my dad never spent money on himself. He didn’t really have any hobbies. Watching sports on TV and being left alone, that was what he liked. 

We did have a family across the street from us that was wealthy. They owned the local pizza place, and that pizza place kind of exploded as we were growing up and they became local celebrities. Whatever the newest toy was, they had it. When the microwave came out, they had one instantly. The kid that was my age would always have the mini-bike or the motorcycle, on his 16th birthday, he got his own car. And not just a car, but a Camaro with a gigantic engine and flames on the side of it. So there was a wanting of things when I was a kid and being conscious of the fact that, yeah, there were people that had less than us, but there were also people that had more than us, so I felt pretty normal as far as money. I didn’t feel like we were rich. I didn’t feel like were poor. But I used to tell my grandmother, “One day, I’m going to be so rich, my own limo driver is going to have a limo driver,” and she would laugh. I kind of meant it as a joke, but I was an ambitious kid, and there was always a fear that if I couldn’t succeed at something, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was very afraid of failure. And that’s probably still true today.

AVC: Where do you think that fear of failure comes from?

PG: I don’t know where that comes from. I remember when I told my dad I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, he let out a sigh and just said, “Oh Paul, it’s such a tough business, you have such thin skin.” He said it takes such thick skin, the inference being that I was a kid that was very sensitive and took things very hard, which I can’t disagree with him about that.

AVC: You had a solid, well-paying job before going into comedy. From a financial-security perspective, was it terrifying to quit and head into the risky world of stand-up?

PG: Yes and no. It wasn’t scary then because I could clearly see where the money was coming from, and the comedy boom didn’t look like it was going to end anytime soon. But it was a question of where was my ceiling going to be. That’s what was scary to me. Where will I be? What kind of comic? Will I make it out of Chicago? Or will I move to L.A. and get some kind of job in television and make enough money to retire? That was my goal, to move to L.A. and work in television and make enough money to retire. Because you’d occasionally see a stand-up in their 60s that was not relevant to the crowd anymore. Even stand-ups in their 40s who were not relating to the crowd and they were kind of pathetic. Thank God for George Carlin, who was that age and still completely relevant as a stand-up comedian. So I knew that if you really cared about your craft and you don’t become complacent, if you keep your edge, you can stay relevant. But the question was, where was my ceiling? I started working jobs when I was 14, 15 years old at a Chinese restaurant, and most of the money went to buying weed. But here I am at 49 years old and this is the first time I haven’t had a job since I was 14 years old. So I’ve always had jobs. 

AVC: Was the idea always to get a sitcom, or just periodic work in television?

PG: I think sitcom was how I could always kind of see myself. But also hosting. That was probably an even bigger dream for me, hosting or acting in movies. Those were two big dreams: having a job like Carson or being in movies. But the more attainable one was being on a sitcom. 

AVC: How did you feel about Dinner And A Movie

PG: It was a job that I wouldn’t say I thought was beneath me. But it was something I had anxiety about, because I was afraid my peers would think it wasn’t good. That fear went away, I would say, maybe after six, seven years, and I had enough friends come be guests on it that I got the feeling that, “Oh, this isn’t a bad show. This is actually a show that’s somewhere between okay and really funny.” And so I made my peace with that after about six, seven years. And the money was always good for the fact that it was on cable. It would’ve been probably dirt compared to what people make on network TV. And I didn’t get residuals because it was non-union. So I didn’t have a pension that was being fed. I wasn’t getting health insurance on it. So in many ways, it wasn’t that great. But just the fact that it was on for 16 years, and I would get a raise every year, it eventually became a gig where I would get a check in the mail and I would be like, “Wow! I’m making that much money for working 30 days a year. I am a lucky motherfucker.” So there was probably about six years of that kind of money. So I started storing money away for an IRA, putting money in the stock market, and it was starting to grow. Then as that economic bubble busted, I lost about half of it. I had maybe five more years of good money, maybe six, until ’07. The money was still good. I was putting it back into the stock market and it was growing again. I could see daylight at the end of the tunnel. That if this continues for maybe five more years, I might have enough money to retire.

AVC: Was that always the goal, to have enough money to be able retire? What age did you have as your goal age for retiring?

PG: I wasn’t going to retire. But what I was going to do was only do things that creatively moved me. So I wasn’t going to stop working. I was just going to not work clubs that treated me badly, and not go on auditions for things that I thought were bad. So that was the goal, was to have some freedom. So I was probably about five years away. If Dinner And A Movie had continued paying me what they were paying me, and if the stock market had been okay, I would’ve been approaching that goal. But then in ’07 they cut my paycheck by 66 percent.

AVC: How did you find out? 

PG: Normally I would find out that the show was being picked up again, if my contract was being picked up again, I would normally find out in December. And they had told Claude, the chef on our show, that they had picked his contract up. And I hadn’t gotten the call. Then four or five days went by, and the thought started occurring to me, “Wow, maybe they’re going to replace me.” And for the first time in a while, I was like, “Oh, fuck. What am I going to do if that happens?” And I got a call from my agent, and I remember I was at a used bookstore. And he said, “I got some bad news.” And I just remember feeling the blood leave my face. You know? Just that feeling. It’s almost like your body temperature drops. And he said, “The good news is, is they want you back.” And so I felt good. He said, “But the bad news is, here’s what they’re offering.” And I just felt like somebody had punched me in the stomach. When I called my lawyer to say that, he said, “How can they do that?” He’s never seen anything like that. I’ve got this lawyer that’s been in show business for 20 years, and this is one of the shittiest things he’s ever seen. You know? One of the most disrespectful things he’s ever seen. So I felt humiliated. A part of me was still like, “Hey, dude. You still have a better job than 90 percent of the country. Shut the fuck up. You’re still working a month a year, and you’re making enough money to get by.

AVC: And you get to be on TV, which is still a big deal for a lot of people, although maybe not as big a deal as it was 15 years ago. 

PG: [Laughs.] Yeah. That was not a perk for me. I would say probably two or three years into doing Dinner And A Movie, I said, “This fame thing, it is occasionally a nice thing." But the pressure of having a million people watch you make a mistake is way worse than having someone stop you on the street and telling you they love you. The bad of that outweighs the good to me. I began to look at people behind the camera and think, “That’s where the longevity is. That’s where the power is.” I would be very happy to never be on camera again. It always stressed me out when we would shoot. I’d usually go home exhausted and just mentally spent from the anxiety of worrying about how I am coming across. So that part of having that job was not necessarily a plus for me. Every once in a while it would be a plus. But the money was the real plus for me. And now that was gone. And now I had to show up at that same place, doing the same job, for a third of the money. And within months of that pay being cut, the stock market tanked, and I lost half of my retirement money and half of my savings. And now I was never going to be able to retire, ever.

AVC: Was there some part of you that, when they said they wanted you back at one-third of your original pay, thought, “No, fuck that.” 

PG: There was a part of me that felt that way. But one of the first things I said to my agent was, “I’ve been waiting for this to happen.” I didn’t expect it to be this drastic, but I had always felt a little overpaid for a cable show, because I had other friends who hosted stuff on cable, and they were not making nearly the amount of money that I was making. I think the general public would be shocked at how little money people outside of primetime network make. We always think everybody else has got it made and has got it going on. So there was that temptation to say, “Go fuck yourself.” But I had been sober for about four years at that point, and my perspective on life had changed. You know, my God—if you wanted to call it—was no longer money, fame, and power. It was about having a sense of purpose and constantly seeking what that sense of purpose was. And trying to live decently and honestly. And I have to say, while I’m not glad that my money was cut, I did learn some things from it. I was able to see how I had taken that money—not necessarily the money for granted, but my position of power on the show for granted. A perfect example of that is, I was always annoyed by the needs of the sales force at the network. They were pretty much willing to give the show away, to whore it out for as much money as possible. That’s what sales forces do. And then it’s up to the executive producer of the show to push back and say, “No, we have the viewer to think about.” And I was always championing the viewer. I felt that if we disrespect them by jamming ads in every nook and cranny and present them in a way that’s phony, they’re going to stop watching this show for the reason which they originally did, which was because it was fun and there was an underlying honesty to it. And so there was a constant battle with that. 

When we would have a product on that was particularly egregious, like Kraft or something like that, I would be openly hostile about the copy that I had to read. I would reek of sarcasm when the camera would stop. I would say what I really wanted to say about the product. And sometimes the product reps, they would be on the floor. And the executive producer would come to me and he would say, “You know the client just heard you say that their product tastes like shit, and that it comes out of babies’ assholes.” And I’d be like, “Oh, shit.” And I’d go apologize to them. And then I’d do it a month later. 

I never did it after my money was cut. I think my sense of entitlement was taken away. And that was a blessing. I appreciated the show and my job more working for a third of what I was than I did before. But it was not an easy transition, and it was not immediate. There was about a year of real resentment. But the person who cut my pay was never somebody that I came into contact with. So I was never really sure who exactly it was, so whenever I would encounter somebody who I thought might have been the person that did it, I would feel really small and kind of humiliated around them. Like they knew I had nothing else going on, and I had no leverage, and they called me on it. Like somebody who tried to bluff in a poker hand and turned over the shittiest hand you could possibly have. That’s kind of what I felt like.

AVC: That puts you in a terrible bind, where you feel humiliated but you still have to show up for work every day. 

PG: Yeah, definitely. I had to walk the walk that I had learned by getting sober. Your worldview has to change if you’re an addict or an alcoholic and you want to stay off drugs and alcohol and be happy. Your worldview has to change. And so this became a part of this. I couldn’t ignore this. And so I had to find the positives. And one of the positives was I had to be on the lookout for an idea that I might come up with that would be my next job. And so, Richard Martin came out of that, which was, and still is, a very creatively satisfying thing to do. It hasn’t made me any money, but I certainly got a lot of meetings from it. I got some interest from the industry. It was an ego stroke. Actually, I started doing it before my money was cut. But I probably wouldn’t have created vehicles for it if my money hadn’t been cut. It would have just been something that I did for fun on the side. 

So I had to look to the future more and say, “What do I do now? How am I going to live the rest of my life?” Because the luster was starting to wear off of being a stand-up comedian. It just grinds your soul being on the road. Being onstage is probably the only part that’s good about being a stand-up. And on some nights, even that’s horrible. So, yeah, I had to go, “What’s next? What does the universe want me to do?” And fortunately, I had started meditating, and one day when I was meditating I came up with the idea for the podcast. 

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AVC: Being a recovering alcoholic, was there some part of you that got the bad news and thought, “Fuck it. Let’s go get drunk.” 

PG: No. No. That was never an option. The desire to drink and use had really been lifted for me. I was fortunate in that. It was more a battle to stay unafraid. I’m not a person that has a difficult time staying positive. But I am a person who has a difficult time not being afraid. And so I would be afraid, but I learned to talk about it. So I would talk to my friends about it, friends that were sober. The coolest thing about being an alcoholic in recovery is there’s always somebody that has bottomed out way worse than you and risen from the ashes. So my story was almost embarrassing to talk about with other alcoholics and drug addicts, because they would be like, “What the fuck do you have to complain about? I’m living in the Salvation Army and I’ve got HIV.” Because I was in constant daily contact with people like that, there was always a perspective that I was still fortunate, that I was still lucky. But that wouldn’t necessarily take this fear away. It would take away the feeling that the universe shit on me. But it wouldn’t take away the feeling of wanting to know, “Where am I headed?”

AVC: When you’re in that intense pain, was it easy to delineate between thinking, “The executives at this particular cable company, perhaps out of deference to changes in the economy have undergone draconian measures that adversely affect me” and, “The world just fucking hates me”?

PG: No, it was not. “The universe hates me.” I remember when I was driving to that used bookstore, and I was thinking, “God, I still haven’t gotten that call yet.” And I remember I was at a stoplight. And I just closed my eyes. And I just said, “Whatever is meant to be is meant to be. Please just give me the strength to accept whatever it is that happens.” And an hour later—not even an hour later—20 minutes later I got my answer. And I remember after the blood left my stomach and I hung up with my agent, I just kind of smiled and I went, “Okay. Here we go. Let’s see what happens in this new chapter in my life.” And I vacillate between going from that, excited to see what’s next, and terrified that I’m not going to be able to handle it.

AVC: It seems like the fact that you were sober and had this spiritual life gave you the tools to deal with something that probably would be pretty shattering to a lot of people.

PG: Oh, yeah. Because before I was sober, I would threaten to quit over them not giving me an extra half-percent pay raise. And I would play hardball for two weeks and be genuinely resentful. If I had not been sober when my pay got cut, I absolutely would have been fired, because I would have thrown a tantrum. My ego would not have been able to handle going back and working for a third of what I was. It was too humiliating for me. But I had begun to see that the world operates on a complicated, sophisticated level that I will never be able to fully understand, but if I just search for whatever is positive inside what’s right in front of me, things have a way of working out. And here I am five years after my pay being cut, two years after the show being cancelled. I made less money this year than I had when I was 15 years old, and I’m okay with it because I believe in the universe. I believe that there is abundance everywhere. It’s just up to me to be awake enough to see it, and to put my fear aside to walk toward it. And this podcast has been a perfect example of it. I’m obviously not doing it for the money, because I’ve made $7,000 in the last year. But it stirs my soul. And being sober, I’ve learned to move toward things that stir my soul, instead of moving places out of fear. 

AVC: You’ve said on the show that when you made the most amount of money, you were also the most miserable. It seems like there’s no correlation between having a nice chunk of money and having internal happiness or internal contentment.

PG: This is going to sound really cheesy, but when money, fame, and power were my gods, I could never get enough of that: those three gods. I always was left wanting more. It would maybe fulfill me for a day, a week, maybe a month if I’d get in People magazine or on TV Guide, or I’d get a commercial, or I’d sell a comedy club out for a week and I’d get a big fat check. My ego would certainly be excited for a brief period of time, but then I would be back to the place of, “Who am I? Am I an honest, decent person? Do I care about other people?” And I couldn’t honestly answer that and say yes. I was really kind of a selfish, arrogant person who was driven by fear. And so the more money I made, the more fucked up I felt, because I felt empty. It’s like, “Jesus, what’s it going to take to make me happy?”

AVC: It seems like there’s this weird thing where on one hand, you feel like, “I’m not deserving of my success.” And on the other hand you’re thinking, “I’m deserving of a lot more success.” Once you play that game, there literally is no way to win it. 

PG: It is. It’s that weird conundrum. I’m the piece of shit the world revolves around. Your ego will find a way to attach itself and shit on anything if you don’t have the right perspective and the right support network. It’s just impossible. 

There’s another thing that I just wanted to touch on, too. When we first moved to Los Angeles, because you’re on one edge of the country, you’re not as able to work clubs as much, because the airfare is more expensive and you want to be in town more. So all of a sudden you’re making less money, and you’re in a city that’s more expensive. And so for the first time in my life, I was having to sell things to pay for rent. This was 1994. And one of the first things I told my agent was, “I will do anything except Star Search.” And the first thing they got me was Star Search. And I was so torn, because it embodied everything I hated about entertainment but it would allow me to pay rent for a couple of months, so I took it. 

It was not as bad as I thought it would be it. And I decided to have fun with it. I decided to mock it to its face. One of the things I would do—they never checked the credits that I would give them, so I stated making shit up to make myself laugh and to make the crew laugh. Because Ed McMahon would have to read your credits and just to hear these ridiculous credits coming out of his mouth on national television was hilarious. The best one was he had to say, “You may know our next comedian from Baywatch where he plays Jojo the lotion boy.” [Laughs.] So I kind of took this attitude about being in a spot that I didn’t like, and I made the best of it. And I learned a lot there, like, sometimes you’re going to have to do shit that goes outside your comfort zone. But you can always find some kind of way to entertain yourself and soften that feeling.

AVC: To fast-forward a bit, Dinner And A Movie was cancelled last year. 

PG: We knew it was somewhere between a couple of months to maybe as much as two years away. The executive producer on our show always did a good job of preparing us for it without having us all freak out. He would say, “There are people in upper management who aren’t fans of the show anymore, and they want it gone.” And I really appreciated that he was always honest with us about that. So we were in a creative meeting in probably May of 2011, about two months after I started doing this podcast, and he said, “I have a announcement to make. September is going to be our last show.” And I just remember that feeling of blood leaving my face and rushing to my stomach. And I was torn between being glad because I didn’t have to hold up a Kraft product anymore, and wondering how the fuck I was going to make a nickel. Thank God my wife was working at that time and still is, so I know our mortgage is going to get paid. But anyone who is married and unemployed knows that you still want to make your own money. So I was prepared for it, in a way, but you are never fully prepared to be told that the job you’ve had for a third of your life is over.

AVC: What did you do after you found out?

PG: I think we went out and had lunch and sort of laughed about it. We’ve always had a really black sense of humor on the show. [Chef] Claud [Mann] and [co-host] Janet [Varney] were really good friends of mine and we went and talked about how we felt. And we were all sad, probably mostly because we wouldn’t be seeing each other on a regular basis anymore. We had a lot of fun. There were some fucking amazing memories from doing that show. A lot of things that were really, really awesome.

One question that I forgot to answer was, you asked if I felt like a piece of shit or did I blame the corporation. And I 100 percent—well, I guess I should say 80 percent—blamed the corporate mentality. It was not done at a point when you could blame the economy. My money was cut in November of 2007, and the housing bubble burst in 2008. I felt like the redheaded stepchild because my partners hadn’t been cut yet. I was the only one. Claud’s paycheck, the same thing happened to him the next year. And as sad as I was, for some guy who has to put his kids through college, it made me feel less alone. Less like I was getting picked on by the network. Less like the network hated me. 

But that corporate mentality, the lack of loyalty—that never would have happened if TBS hadn’t been bought by Time Warner. TBS was a homespun network. There was a feeling of family. But when Time Warner bought it in the late ’90s, all of a sudden suits were visiting and telling us that we needed to streamline things. And they just kept that vibe. So we were all like, “Okay, the glory days are over. We’re now part of this machine that is trying to dilute this.” And they did. They jammed it full of ads and people stopped watching. They lost their respect for the viewers. 

That is something that is endemic in corporate America. There is a lack of respect for customers. They don’t care what the customers will think of them 10 years down the line. They just say, “Let’s get as much out of them as we can right now.” And I think it’s all part of bloated CEO pays and bonuses. There is an incentive to fuck over a company in the long run by producing good numbers for a bonus in a quarter. And that’s what we’re seeing now. All these companies going belly up, and then upper management grabs their parachutes and bail out. That was not the case with my dad’s generation. When my dad died, people came to his funeral who had done business with him 20 years before. And they said, “Your dad was the last guy who we would sign a million-dollar deal with based on a handshake and knew that he would keep his word.”

AVC: At what point did you realize that The Mental Illness Happy Hour was what you wanted to do with your life?

PG: I think I started getting emails from listeners and that was what solidified that feeling. I got an email that said they planned on killing themselves and had listened to an episode and changed their mind. And I showed it to my wife and she said, “If your podcast never makes a nickel, that’s okay, keep doing it.” That made me feel really good to know that she supports me in that. And that probably happened around maybe 15 episodes in. But by the second or third episode, I felt like, “Oh my God, this excites me to do. This stirs something in me.” I felt like I could do this show forever. But whether or not this could be my sole job, I probably didn’t feel like that was a possibility until about 20 episodes in. I started thinking about how I could grow the show. I put surveys on the website so I could get to know the listeners. It was a way to create a community. People post on the forum and it just grew into a community. There are a lot of us out there, but people just have very few places to get this kind of comfort and lack of judgment. There is so much stigma still attached to it. So yeah, that happened about three or four months into it.

AVC: It’s difficult to monetize a podcast. At this stage, was that something that factored in? Or was this just something you needed to do for your soul?

PG: I believe that I will be able to support myself from it. At this point I’m nowhere near that. But what I focus on is growing the podcast, because then the money part will take care of itself. So I just focus on growing the show. That’s my biggest business-side focus of the podcast. There are only so many ways to monetize it. You can do ads. You can do bonus episodes and charge people for those. You can charge people for back episodes. Or you can ask for donations. The one I’m most comfortable doing is asking for donations, and probably 90 of the money I’ve made has been from donations.

AVC: There must be something satisfying about the directness and intimacy of people sending money directly. 

PG: It is, definitely, especially when it comes with a note attached to it that explains why they connected with the podcast. I really appreciate that. I get donations from college students. I know how little money college students have, so that really touches me. I still feel uncomfortable asking for money because I’m so afraid that someone will think I’m greedy or that I’m arrogant. But my show does give something to people who like it. It does have value. So I shouldn’t feel embarrassed or hesitant asking for money. I’m moving toward a place where I feel more confident and bolder about asking for money. But it is a source of anxiety. And there still is an idea floating around my head about making it a non-profit and getting money from foundations and stuff like that. And when your depression is fucking with you, then complicated issues are so overwhelming. And the thought of jumping into that deep end of the pool and making it a non-profit—I would have to create a board and have board meetings and all that paperwork and decisions—that all just scares the shit out of me. But if that was all set up and I was making a decent living as a non-profit, it would be nice in that I would probably have different considerations about the show creatively. Probably not huge differences, but I would worry a little bit less about things like having a popular person on the show to grow ratings. It would be more about what truly does the mentally ill population need right now. I would worry less about it being funny. God knows that there are episodes that don’t have a shred of laughter, but it would probably be a little less entertaining. I’m not sure.

AVC: One of the things that money does in our society is it gives people more freedom. Do you think that not having to worry about stuff would give you a broader canvas?

PG: Yeah, but one of the worries would be that if I did something offensive then the foundation would pull funding. So I might make less creative choices. Right now I feel incredibly free with my choices. It’s such as exciting time in digital media, to have an idea, to be able to expand it through social media, through Google+ Hangouts, through surveys on the website, through tweeting. I’ll start a thread on Facebook. It’s amazing how the right idea can do exactly the opposite of what people say social media is doing, which is separating us. It’s amazing how it can bring people together if the idea is right.

AVC: Is it hard to reconcile the enormous emotional and professional value the podcast has and the fact that it’s still so hard to make money from it?

PG: If I didn’t get emails from listeners, I would probably feel that way. The emails that I get from people are so deep, in terms of them expressing what the show means to them, it is very easy to say, “This show is not worth just $7,000 a year.” And I suppose the fact that my wife is working makes it easier for me to have that attitude. But I’m putting all my eggs in this basket. I’d say 90 percent of the time—even 98 percent of the time—I’m completely at peace with that. I’m willing to go wherever that takes me. I have pictured myself living in a tiny apartment with the barest of necessities and still doing this show. And that is not an unpleasant thought to me. I can imagine having a happy life with most of what I have stripped away, if I’m still able to do the show and connect to people. I hope that’s not where my life is going to go, but I’ve already gone down the road of having a lot of money and being in People magazine and having my face on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard. And when I had all that I wanted to put a gun in my mouth. So that obviously isn’t going to fix me. I just feel oddly okay with where everything is at this exact moment.