Gene Getman is a New York based stand-up comedian who has lived everywhere from a mental hospital to Texas; here is a link to his website:
Q: What made you want to be a stand-up comedian?
A: People ask this question often and it’s a lot like being asked “How are you?” The degree of honesty with which you answer depends a lot on the circumstances. To a stranger on the street, going off about your insecurities and upbringing would be insane, but in the setting of a therapist’s office, getting into your issues with megalomania and seeing your dad’s balls as a kid seems a bit more appropriate.
To be perfectly honest, I’m really not sure why I began doing stand-up comedy and I’ve given it plenty of thought in the time since having started. It’s easy to say that I just watched some stand-up as a kid and thought “hey, I could do that!” But that would be about as sincere as answering the “How are you?” question by saying “I’m ok”.
I think alot of the appeal came from watching guys like Doug Stanhope, Joe Rogan, and Louis CK perform these high-concept, paradigm-changing bits. Many of their jokes were not only funny but highly insightful. They changed my perspective on the word in a way that’s humbling and enlightening. The ideas they shared through their act were not just profound but highly entertaining and there’s something to be said for taking a potent thought and delivering it in a way that’s captivating and exciting.
Anytime I hear a really good new joke, it makes my world feel just a little bit bigger and thats an incredible feeling! Maybe I just wanted to have that kind of impact on someone else. Or rather, I wanted to be credited with being the one to make that kind of impact on someone else. But that still doesnt answer the question of why I decided that I needed to be the guy to do that. Respect? Adulation? My dad’s balls? Or perhaps I saw it as a means to not having to work a job I hated 8+ hours a day and even the slightest chance of achieving that possibility was worth a fool’s errand. But what in me seeks those things to begin with? Im not really sure. I think it’s easier to just say that I just watched some comics and thought “hey, I could do that!”.
Q: What is the difference between someone who is considered funny by everyone who knows them and somebody who can actually do stand up?
A: Empathy. And it’s the difference between people who eventually improve as comics and those who dont. What people who are funny to their friends don’t realize is what it’s like to be an audience member at a stand-up comedy show. Imagine having a complete stranger walk up to you on the street and not only require your attention but expect you to get on board with their opinions and ideas to such an extent that you explode in laughter! Why in the world would you give this stranger the time of day much less be sold to their way of thinking?
The only justification for validating a given set of ideas lies with the credibility we place in the individual delivering them and despite our best intuition, this credibility isn’t so much associated with the content of the statement than the context of who delivers it. Who says the thing being said is often far more important than what is being said at face-value. It’s why comedy clubs build their comics up with mountains of credits before they go on stage. “This next comic has been on every late night show ever!! He performed at George Carlin’s funeral!!! He’s so funny you’ll take up smoking crack just to calm yourself down!!!!! GIVE IT UP FOR….” Give what up, by the way? – Your sense of disbelief.
People who are funny to their friends already have the context and sense of disbelief built-in through years of familiarity. It’s not so much what they say that brings about the humor as is what they say in terms who they are.
Also, being funny on stage means being funny the whole time you’re on stage. People underestimate what that entails. It’s relatively easy to come up with a witty line in a conversation and be funny for 3 seconds but after that moment is over, the funny guy at the watercooler has the luxury of continuing on with the rest of his conversation being mostly inane! Getting a laugh on stage buys you 15 seconds, if that, of non-funny dialogue and you still have to be engaging or you’ll lose the crowd for the next joke.
A comic on stage constantly has to be on top of how they are being received by the audience. Professional comics are experts at this. They understand the underlying context and emotion behind every given second of their act. Conversely, we all see those people who keep coming back but “just don’t get it”. They think they’re killing but the audience is cringing (god, I hope that’s not me!). Knowing the difference takes empathy. And it’s the real learning curve behind becoming a great comic.
Q: Who are some of your comedic influences?
A: Growing up, I watched alot of Comedy Central stand-up and got to see alot of the comics who are now considered quintessential, as they were coming up. They all found their way into my sphere of influence. Dave Attell with his endless left-turns and absurd midget jokes, Greg Giraldo with this poignant social commentary, Bill Burr with his everyman take on relationships and jovial sexism, Doug Stanhope in his biting cynicism and unsurpassed honesty, Joe Rogan with his grandiose existential chunks on what it means to be a human being, Patrice O’Neal with his fearless, matter-of-fact stage presence that seemed virtually untouchable, and of course Louis CK who’s somehow managed to put all of those things together! I hear one or another of their voices behind every joke I write, sometimes even louder than my own. But I’m beginning to learn where to look for my voice under the weight of these guys, to whom I can only ever hope to hold a candle.
Q: What subjects do you think have been done to death?
A: Having done stand-up for just over 2 years and having been exposed to more open mic comedy than any human being should have to see in a lifetime, I’ve definitely noticed several of same topics coming up over and over. It’s weird. And Im not talking about plagiarism. People, especially new comics starting out, somehow gravitate towards the same constructs and ideas.
Here are a few I can think of off the top of my head:
- Michael J. Fox doing anything that requires a steady hand (sewing, shaving, brain surgery)
- Any play on rape being inherently non-consensual. Here’s an example using a really bad joke I used to do: “I asked my girlfriend if she was into rape fantasies. She said “no” and I said “perfect”.
- Harry Potter
- Miley Cyrus/Justin Bieber
- Gay People. Ex: “I have nothing against gay people, I just think it’s gross..” or “I wish I were gay because I wouldn’t have to deal with women..”
- Angry socio-political rants in the form: “We’re so spoiled in America! Don’t you know that people in [3rd world country] don’t even have [thing Americans have]”
- “So I was taking a shit the other day..”
..and of course..
- Masturbation. If stand-up comedy is taken to be a sample of what people value and care about, the human race must be masturbating themselves to dehydration on an hourly basis.
That’s not to say that I’m judging. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I made every hacky mistake and probably invented a few of my own. I always said that on a scale of 0 to 100, 0 being the level of skill you typically see the first time a person steps on stage and 100 being that of a comedy master (Richard Pryor, George Carlin) I started in the negative. I sucked, ALOT! And I still have a long way to go just to catch up with the people who have actual talent. Luckily, Calvin Coolidge had a few things to say in my favor:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Though you gotta wonder what kind of idiot takes his comedy advice from Calvin Coolidge.
Q: Are New York audiences really harsher than other audiences?
A: I’ve only been doing standup in New York a short time so I haven’t really had a chance to get a feel for every aspect of the city so everything I’m about to say will probably be wrong, but from what I can tell I would not say that New York crowds are more harsh, only that they are more diverse. You definitely have to work harder for a New York audience but that’s because the audience you get is mostly a roll of the dice.
In other parts of the country, the crowds tend to be a lot more consistent simply because the local population is. New York City crowds tend to vary wildly. Even within a single show, you’ll can expect to see some young and old couples, people from Australia, tourists from Cleveland on vacation, a Canadian, drunk guys from The Bronx who came in off the street, a Bachelorette Party, and a guy in a Pokemon costume (that happened).
The other reason: New York audiences tend to be a bit more cultured. Club crowds especially consist of people who are typically more well-travelled, higher-educated, and have in general been exposed to more experience throughout their lives whether they grew up in the city or by definition, having travelled here. It definitely takes a bit more to raise their eyebrows than the typical audience in the middle of the country. Or maybe it’s because most of them don’t speak English.
Q: What kind of day job do you have and what is funny about it?
A: The funniest thing about my day job is that it doesn’t exist. But its a good thing. Jobs are as much of a trap as they are a means of supporting yourself. Sure, you’ll have financial security but what portion of your time will be left over to enjoy it? Time is our one true asset and the premise of working a job you hate as a means of survival literally resolves to exchanging your life and consciousness for assets. It’s an absurd proposition. Of course while money may not bring happiness, the lack of it will surely bring misery and Im certainly not advocating some sort of idealistic bohemian existence crashing on couches between visits to Burning Man. Yet, it’s very difficult to make a living solely on stand-up. Fortunately the skills you learn along the way translate very well to other walks of life. I try to keep my means of income at close to stand-up as possible which means picking up gigs in videography and film editing, web design, graphic design, and taking freelance writing gigs when I can. Pretty much anything creative, I try to turn into a source of income, if possible. I also try to pick up acting/extras gigs when I can manage to wake up before 2pm to go on an audition. Most recently, I’m working on getting my documents in to be licensed as a cab driver which I can do late at night after I’ve exhausted my stagetime opportunities. If all else fails, I can always use my engineering degree and master’s in applied math to teach or pick up freelance tutoring gigs (which actually pay better).
Q: What’s funnier Texas or New York?
A: New York is definitely funnier. There’s just alot more going on. This city is insanity! No human was ever meant to live this way. The potential for comedy is probably the one redeeming quality New York City has. You’re not gonna get much to go off by sitting in a cow pasture in Bernardo, Texas. The sheer density of people and ideas in New York City leaves no room for anything but comedy. Certainly not parking spaces or affordable housing.
Q: How did you end up in a mental hospital?
A: When I first read this question I thought “Oh yeah, it was from the time I took acid and ended up raging through the Subway until someone called the cops and they took me to the psych ward”, but I was released the next day which means that the time I spent an entire month in a mental hospital was a completely separate incident!
I was around 15 or 16 and on probation for some stuff I probably shouldn’t mention in writing (it involved more acid). For some reason, they had a social worker coming to my house because I guess they couldn’t imagine that a kid as fucked up as myself could be raised by anyone other than satan-worshiping rapists (For the record, my parents are very nice people. They’ve never raped anyone). From what I can recall, I was being pretty dismissive of the social worker and started playing guitar loudly to freak her out. I guess it worked because the next thing I remember, I was in some building (probably the Social Services Office) where they somehow convinced my parents that I needed to “Go away for a bit.” My parents, being Russian immigrants were easily intimidated and away I went!
It all seems very surreal and fucked up when I think about it as an adult. I mean what right or reason did they have for locking me up? Sure, I was out of control as a teenager; I had stopped going to school, staying out late drinking and doing drugs (though I only ever smoked pot and occasionally used other psychedelics), but what kid isn’t acting out at 16? Aside from the aforementioned non-violent offense, I was never a threat to anyone. It doesn’t warrant my complete removal from society! I basically went to jail for a month for not subscribing to what is deemed to be the standard path in life. Pardon me for not allowing my time to be wasted sitting in a classroom in one of the worlds worst education systems. And I taught middle school for a year. If those kids could only understand the degree of carelessness, inefficiency, and disregard the administrators have for their time, they would drop out faster than you can say “G.E.D”. But that’s neither here nor there. Go fuck yourself, social services! (To borrow a quote from an episode of Maury).
Q: What was the most surprising thing you saw there?
A: Well in my highly medicated state – What disease was I being medicated for, again? Oh, that’s right, individuality – I can’t say that there was much of anything that particularly caught my eye. It was pretty much exactly what you would picture being in a mental institution to be like, less the cute socially awkward girl with an eating disorder and the large but gentle black guy who lost his 2 year old son getting sno-cones at a pool party. You wake up, get force-fed breakfast you would feel bad serving to a trash compactor, then have most of your day wasted as you’re herded around like lobotomized cattle from activity to therapy session until the day mercifully ends in you being locked back into your cage but you can’t even rub one out because whatever cocktail of will-suppressing pharma-crack they have you on keeps your dick more limp than a paraplegic on muscle relaxants. Fuck anyone who’s ever received a paycheck with the name of that place in the top-left corner. I hope they died yesterday.
Q: Tell me a journalism joke.
A: I would but my editor didn’t think it was funny.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)