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Nerdy meathead Jon Gabrus on straddling the bro/geek divide

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On the one hand, Jon Gabrus is a 300-pound rugby goon who’s lifted weights competitively and grew up loving Opie And Anthony and The Howard Stern Show. On the other, he’s a veteran improviser and comedy geek. His work straddles a similar divide: one on side, bro-comedy shows like Guy Code and Wild ’N Out, and on the other, a slew of comedy podcasts and recurring roles on shows like The Hotwives Of Las Vegas and Younger. Podcasting has been especially fruitful for Gabrus, who launched his own chatty show last year, High And Mighty, though he earned a lot of attention for his appearances on Earwolf shows, particularly Comedy Bang! Bang! after he debuted in 2013 as an intern from Long Island named Gino Lambardo and quickly became a fan favorite. This week, Gabrus continues to fly the “sensitive meathead” flag in the film 4th Man Out, a comedy about a twentysomething who comes out as gay to his close-knit group of lady-killing guy friends. It opens Friday. The A.V. Club caught up with Gabrus to talk about the film, the world of Gino Lambardo, and his fervent bear following.

The A.V. Club: To start with the film, you just got a call about auditioning for it, right? You didn’t know any of the people?

Jon Gabrus: Nope, I didn’t know much about it. I was just called and they said, “Hey, come on in and audition for an indie movie,” which is not too out of the blue, just an average day, so I was like, “Oh, all right.” It was kind of a fun script, kind of a fun part, and I went in. I rarely think I do well on auditions, but then the producers, who now I know are Lauren [Avinoam], Lauren [Hogarth], and Jed [Mellick], and Andy [Nackman] and the director were all in there, and they were really into [it]. I called my agent and I was like, “They really enjoyed my audition.” [Laughs.] I’m so used to negative feedback all the time that I couldn’t believe it. It was like out of the norm that they dug it.


AVC: What kind of feedback are you used to?

JG: I’m just used to leaving and being like, “I feel like I wasted their time and I definitely wasted my own time.” I often leave auditions thinking that that person is now permanently mad at me.


AVC: That’s a good feeling to have. It makes you feel like you’re making the right choices in life.

JG: Exactly. We’re gearing up for pilot season now, which means I’m going to constantly be rejected and constantly be like, “Well, that stranger absolutely hates me.”

AVC: Ortu in 4th Man Out seems like a role that was written for you, just knowing your sensibility.

JG: Well, that’s what was really funny, too. It was just coincidental, because it’s one of those characters who goes by their last name only, which is something I’ve been doing since I was like 12, and he’s sort of the fat meathead of the group, but he’s also the one that’s in a monogamous relationship. That’s the guy I’ve been my whole life. I’m from blue-collar Long Island, and all my friends are meatheads—they’re all cops and deli owners, all those friends I grew up with. I was the guy who was always in a relationship, but I was also the guy who drank the most or partied the hardest, so I related to Ortu almost immediately.

AVC: Aaron Dancik, who wrote 4th Man Out, is a first-time writer, right?

JG: I believe so, yeah.

AVC: And it’s the first feature length by the director. Your co-stars don’t have long IMDB pages—even Chord Overstreet, who was on Glee. It feels like a scrappy film, especially because you only shot for like 17 days, right?


JG: Yeah, we shot it fast, long hours. I remember the first day of shooting was the scene where we’re all hungover the next day, and Evan [Todd] comes out to Parker [Young]. It was so hot in that basement we were filming in. I was only in a robe in that scene, and I’m sweating my ass off. [Laughs.] But you’re right: The whole production was kind of scrappy. I think that was part of the fun of it, like Evan had never really had a role that big before, and then I know Parker and I never really did. I did like a feature-length indie before, but it was with puppets, so it didn’t really resonate the same way. But doing that movie felt like we were all kind of doing this together because we were all the first-timers, so that was exciting. I think that lent that scrappiness that you were talking about.

AVC: It seems like people wouldn’t be as jaded in that situation.

JG: Yeah, a big collaborative environment. It’s an indie movie, so the “trailer” was a RV that we all shared—a little Winnebago more or less. So that’s one bathroom in a glorified truck for four people, and we all stayed together in an Albany hotel. There’s not much stuff to do in this neighborhood where our hotel was, so it was like a summer camp in a way because we were always side-by-side, hanging out every single night at the hotel, going to the gym or eating dinner or hanging out in the steam room. Whatever we were doing, we were just constantly on top of one another, and I think that lends itself to the movie a little bit, because we didn’t really know each other beforehand. I think Parker and Chord sort of knew each other beforehand, but we managed to hit it off, the three of us, and Evan too, we hit it off pretty hard—we didn’t have much of a choice.


AVC: You mentioned in an interview how you get to kiss a woman in the movie, and you’re normally the gross friend of the guy who kisses the girl. Is there a name for that kind of role, where you’re the funny best friend with the lotharios? I guess “DUFF” qualifies.

JG: I don’t know if there is, either. I feel like a lot of people talk about in rom-coms, there’s the female best friend. There’s all those archetypes in rom-coms. But even among a movie about man-children hanging out, there is always the one who’s often the fat one, often the one with the beard, who is like the man-childest of them all. He’s the one that eventually meets the fat girl or the quirky girl of the girl group of friends and really hits it off.


AVC: To talk about Gino, in one of the Comedy Bang! Bang! best-of episodes, Scott Aukerman did a bonus clip with him, because he said Gino’s episodes never end up in the best-of episodes, but they’re always super funny. He went into Gino’s genesis a bit, but could you elaborate?

JG: Sure. Real quick aside, Scott doing that for me was so nice. I was a longtime fan of the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! before I moved out here. I just always loved listening to it, I thought it was super funny, and then when I got asked to be part of it was huge. Then when he gave me a shout-out on the best-of episode to say “This guy does well on my show,” it was such a high honor, because I’d gone from listener to super-fan to guest star to a fan-favorite character with Gino. The origin of Gino was more or less I’m not a particularly good actor. I mean, maybe I’m an okay actor, but I can’t really do voices or accents. The only accent I can really do is just sort of exaggerating my own New York/Long Island/Brooklyn kind of accent. I know the show requires a lot of improv, and that’s my strong suit as a long-time improviser. I was like, “What can I do to make sure I can just be fast and not get caught up in my own bullshit, and dealing with the minutiae of my character or whatever?” So I was like, “Oh, I’ll just make him like a New Yorker.” But he needs a premise. I’m like, “Why don’t I just not fully understand podcasting, and just be a fan of talk radio?”


AVC: Yeah, what do you call it? “DVR radio”?

JG: DVR radio! Well, it’s also because podcasting is like the hipster little cousin of talk radio, and I grew up on a steady diet of The Howard Stern Show, Opie And Anthony, and The Ron And Fez Show, because my dad listened to talk radio all the time, and Mike And The Mad Dog. Maybe it’s just a Long Island thing, but everybody I knew listened to all that shit, and we would just get together and talk about what Howard did or what O&A did. So I thought, “Why don’t I just be a fan of those shows?” Because I couldn’t even imagine the marrying of Comedy Bang! Bang! and a show like Opie And Anthony or Howard Stern. They’re so close to each other in format and delivery, but they’re so far from each other in content, that I was like it would be fun to try to make that work. It was funny to hear Scott’s point of view [in the best-of episode] of “Oh boy…” Obviously the lore and the character and the arc and the game of Gino has developed a lot. Just taking one random thing I say or that the characters say about me, and making that true, and making that reality, has been really fun with that character.


AVC: It reminds me of Jessica St. Clair and Marissa Wompler. These little one-off non-sequitur jokes become character traits and storylines and they grow out into this insane mythology. It feels like Gino’s on a similar path, building up his world.

JG: It’s such a fun thing. To improv-nerd-out for a second, it’s like the most aggressive yes-anding you can do—if someone’s like, “Yeah, you’re super thin, right?” And you just pull that into a character and do seven more episodes of the podcast and remember to bring that up. I think Paul F. Tompkins and Andy Daly, those guys are like the best at yes-anding so hard that it becomes uncomfortable, like it’s unwieldy true.


AVC: Paul is really great at remembering the details. Scott is too, even though it’s a lot to remember after a while.

JG: I keep getting mad at myself for not remembering certain Gino things. I keep meaning to relisten to some of my old episodes before I come on, and then every time I’m like, “Oh fuck, it’s tomorrow. All right, I just don’t have any new info.” I’m like, “Fuck, I’m dropping the ball here.” [Laughs.] I actually should really hammer out what those details are, because I think I always get them a little off, but that’s also kind of fun for me.


AVC: You were talking about how the sensibilities are so different, like an Opie And Anthony fan coming on something like Comedy Bang! Bang!, but also your experience on stuff like Guy Code and Wild ’N Out isn’t necessarily the same path that UCB alt-comedy nerds would take.

JG: Yeah, you don’t get a lot of meatheads doing improvised theater to begin with, and that’s always been my thing. I talk about the nerd/meathead dichotomy on my podcast a lot, but there was a time when I was doing UCB full-time and playing men’s league rugby in New York City, and I was like the funniest, artsiest rugby player, and the bro-iest improv comedian. I’ve always managed to sort of be in both sides. I always feel that way, even on Comedy Bang! Bang!, because some of my favorite characters are so rich, and so deep, and then Gino is, like, quasi-offensive. I’ve got a little bit of bro-y sense of humor I just can’t get rid of from being raised around bros who were just constantly roasting each other.


Guy Code and Wild ’N Out aren’t even really my senses of humor either, which is funny. Going on the new season of Wild ’N Out, we’re starting to film that soon, and the dudes on that show are all in their early 20s and black and from Atlanta or South Carolina, and I’m like a liberal improv artist from New York who’s in their mid-30s, white, and married. I have like nothing in common with these guys, yet I have a blast because they’re funny and it’s a completely different sense of humor.

There’s two kind of schools when you’re coming up: Don’t just do what you’re good at, but then eventually you have to do just what you’re good at. Guys like Rob Riggle and Jack McBrayer, who have these specific voices, if Jack McBrayer was constantly trying to go against his type or Rob Riggle was constantly trying to go against his type, they might not make it in the business because their types are so specific and so good. I love the kind of the comedy I can do easily, but it excites me to do other shit—like it excites me to be like, “All right, yeah, I’ll try to do a freestyle rap against people who do this for a living. Why not?” It’s kinda fun.


Guy Code was the same thing for me where it was like, oh yeah, sure, it’s pretty fun. I’ll talk to a 14-year-old misogynistic, homophobic audience about being married or the male G-spot or choosing chicken wings over women, and so I thought that was a fun platform for me. I was friends with a lot of those comedians, but half of the shit I’m saying on that show I can’t actually get behind. I’m like, [Sassy voice.] “Yeah, you have a one-night stand with a girl and she wants to stay, you gotta get her out of your house.” And I’m like, “I’ve been dating the same woman for 13 years.”

AVC: “I’ve heard about one night stands.”

JG: Right. They were like talking about dating, and I came to the realization that I started dating my now-wife junior year of college, before you actually went on a date. You didn’t take girls from college out to dinner. I’ve never been on a date. I’ve never been on a date where I didn’t know the end game. I’ve never casually dated someone. I’ve only been out to dinner with the woman who would eventually be my wife.


There are some women and a lot of dudes who are into my look, but I need to convey that I’m funny ahead of time. That’s how I got laid. Every girl I’ve ever been with is because I was funny, not because they were into a 300-pound bearded, pale dudes.

AVC: You’d probably do well with the bear community.

JG: Oh they’re big-time fans. They’re out there. Tumblr has a big community of bears and bear chasers. All my favorites on Tumblr and all the fan mail I get is all like, “We want to tickle you! What size shoe are you?” They’re all like really big, heavyset, bearded guys who are like, “I want to ride your face like a motorcycle!”


AVC: What do you mostly get recognized from?

JG: It’s funny; I still get recognized from Guy Code even though the show’s been off the air maybe for two years. But they rerun it a bunch, and a lot of young, urban kids watch Guy Code because it’s on MTV2, so it’s like a lot of the urban kids, like black kids or hispanic kids or white kids from those kind of neighborhoods. I get recognized a lot by young black dudes—the most of everyone else. It doesn’t happen in L.A. so much. Yeah, my fanbase is all over the place. It’s like young black dudes; alt-comedy fans; podcast heads; and 50-year-old, gay, Chelsea bears. And now because Gino is so Long Island-centric, and it’s getting out there that I’m a Long Island boy and a fan, and then [on] my podcast, I do some episodes about Long Island, so I’ve got this other contingent of people from Long Island who are like, “Keep it in the family. We like this Long Island guy.”


AVC: Speaking of your podcast, it’s pretty free-form. Were you always planning it to be that way, or were you trying to nail a conceit for it before it started?

JG: Yeah, I was throwing around a bunch of different ideas for a podcast. I was trying to come up with a podcast. I wanted to do one. I wanted to do minimal work for it, like minimal prepro. You know, podcasts are all very self-serving, but I wanted mine to be specifically self-serving in that I got to talk about what I want to talk about, too. But I didn’t want it to be limited because I just imagined myself getting very bored of a certain format, or finding difficulty in maintaining a certain format of like, “Shit, okay I gotta drink another six beers.” “Oh right, don’t forget, tonight you’ve gotta get high with so-and-so and discuss your favorite childhood video game.”


I’m doing a Howl series right now where I interview scientists, and I’m only doing three episodes of that. It’s been really hard to track down scientists and do preproduction on the kind of questions you want to ask scientists and stuff like that. [Laughs.] Like, “Oh thank God this isn’t what I’m doing week-to-week!” It’s more just like book a friend and talk about what you want to talk about. The format ended up just being like, “Oh, well what can I do a lot of?” Then I was like, “Maybe I’ll just find things I like and then repeat formats I enjoy.” The format of my podcast is very serving to me in that I don’t get bored, but I think it’s a little disruptive in maintaining an audience, because some people are like, “Oh I came for the Predator chat. I don’t give a fuck about Renaissance fairs.” Or “I love Power Hour, but who cares about Hanukkah and Judaism?” I was actually just going through this with [HeadGum podcast network co-founder] Amir Blumenfeld and I was like, “How do I get more listeners?” He’s like, “It’s hard when your shit is all over the place. Some random topics get more listeners than other ones.” I’m like, “I guess that’s the curse of my podcast.” Like the one I just dropped today is about being fat. I can imagine not a lot of people give a fuck about that—especially when two episodes ago was fitness 2016 special.

AVC: Your first episode had a surprising amount of discussion about bench-pressing.


JG: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s what I like to bring is surprising information. A lot of people talk about the Hanukkah episode, like, “Holy shit, man, I can’t believe you had two very funny people on that and had a very serious discussion about Judaism for 75 minutes.” I’m like, “Yeah, me neither!” I don’t know if this is good podcasting, but I enjoyed myself. I’m just a big curious baby, a curious little scamp.