Talking with Gabe Liedman About His New Album, Jenny Slate, and Going Up for Stereotypical Gay Roles
A wildly-funny performer who’s been wowing audiences in both the New York and L.A. comedy scenes for years now, Gabe Liedman makes his standup album debut this week with Hiyeeee!!, a new release from AST Records. It’s a delightful recording that perfectly captures Liedman’s fast-paced riffs on pop culture and human behavior and demonstrates exactly why he’s become such a sought-after act. In addition to his own standup, Liedman is also a blogger, hosts and books the long-running Wednesday night NYC standup show Big Terrific (which he founded with frequent partner in crime Jenny Slate), and is writing for Amy Schumer’s upcoming Comedy Central sketch show. I recently had a long chat with Gabe Liedman, in which we discussed his favorite episode of Hoarders, the accelerated rated at which comedians are leaving NYC for L.A. these days, and running one of the biggest live comedy shows in the world’s biggest live comedy city.
How often do you perform these days? Are you performing just at Big Terrific?
Definitely every week at Big Terrific, and then I do other rooms around New York as it comes up for sure, which is when people ask me. But yeah, Big Terrific is the most constant every week.
How’s booking that show go? Do you scout comedians yourself?
[I] definitely scout comedians. Max Silvestri and I book it with – we have a booker now – Caroline Craighead – who books a lot of the cooler Brooklyn shows and she’s bringing in the newer faces that Max and I may have missed. The last five years we’ve just been booking it, basically, ourselves. Just our favorite people.
Who are some of your favorite comedians to have perform at the show these days?
My long time favorite, I think, Brent Sullivan does it probably the most. I love Jessi Klein. Whenever Chelsea Peretti is in town, I always jump on that. She’s my favorite, favorite ever. But yeah I guess we have a really great variety. I kind of obsessed with Emily Heller, who is new in town, and I’ve been booking her a ton because I personally can’t get enough.
That’s gotta be great, to be able to just book people you want to see.
Yeah I mean I do have to sit through it. I may as well enjoy it, too.
So what’s your writing process? Do you write on stage or do you write material while you’re at home?
I do everything for the first time on stage. A lot of it comes from your improvising stuff on stage or it’s personal stories from my life that… I kind of edit on stage, too. Yeah, I guess I rarely ever just sit down and write it out. I’ll make a note to myself or something, and then I just kind of do it for the first time on stage always and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Do you record what you do on stage or do you just go off of memory?
Yeah, I just go off of memory. I don’t record, but I probably should. People have explained to me why recording your set is pretty crucial, and it makes a lot of sense, but I never do that. Once in a while, I’ll ask a comic I really respect and admire what they think of something that’s not working. Definitely right before the album, I just asked Jenny Slate, my absolute favorite person/comedian in the world like what she would change about some of my jokes. It was definitely eye-opening, and I definitely took her notes. So, it’s valuable to see, if something’s not working, why it’s not working because you could just guess forever and be wrong.
How often do you recycle material? You know, Louis C.K. will work through a new hour every year. Do you ever throw out your own stuff?
I retire stuff once I get sick of it… I did like 45 minutes on the album out of maybe like a combined 90 minutes of all of my material, I just did my favorites. But a lot of that was dusted-off stuff that I hadn’t done in a couple years because I was done with it personally. No, I don’t write as fast as Louie. I don’t have hours, I probably have 90 minutes for my entire career just solo, and then another 70 million hours with Jenny.
[Laughs] Is it tough with Jenny being out in L.A. now?
It is. Even when she was in New York, though, we were doing kind of our own thing and I had a lot of time to get used to it before it happened. Now, I’m in L.A. a ton. We actually perform a lot together, and we’re very in touch, but yeah, I mean it’s sad to not see her every Wednesday, for sure. It’s all for the best, and I am also moving to L.A. very soon, so this will be a moot point.
Are you looking forward to moving out to L.A.?
Yeah I definitely am. I’m thrilled. I can’t wait. I’ve been in New York for a really long time and I love it, but I also have just never picked up and moved. Every time I go to L.A., I just love it there, so may as well just make it home base.
It seems like there’s always this constant flow of comedians from New York to L.A., but I feel like especially lately it’s picked up.
Yeah and from the New York side, it’s very, very noticeable. It’s hard for me to not think of everything as classes in school or grades, so I remember the grades above me, like when Nick Kroll and Chelsea [Peretti] – that grade, for lack of a better word, picked up and moved. I’ve seen it happen with like, everyone over the years, but there is definitely something going on in the last year where it just seems like, “Oh wait, now I’m one of a handful of people left.”
Does that become hard with booking Big Terrific?
Oh, for sure. I mean, all of the people that I have in my cell phone and could just book without basically thinking about it are gone. So, it’s definitely more of a “see who’s next” vibe, which is great. It’s probably even better for the audience. And then of course, whenever anyone’s in town from L.A., they always check in and do our show, which is the best. So, we’re still – I guess we see everyone – but yeah it’s different. It really is different.
So, were you always interested in comedy, as a kid?
Yeah, I definitely was. My whole family is really funny, and growing up, I wasn’t even the funny one. I was kind of the quiet one. So, it’s weird that I ended up being the comedian, but everyone in my family’s super funny. Always a lot of funny stuff on TV. I remember we used to take road trips, and the only tapes we had in the car were Richard Prior concerts, which is kind of nuts, looking back, that little kids were listening to that. But [I’ve] always been into comedy, but I didn’t know that I could do standup until I was older. Like, that was not part of the plan for me. But I was kind of always shy, and then it took a while. It was basically in my 20s I just figured it out.
Were you in college when you first started doing standup?
Yeah, I started doing improv younger, like in high school. And then, through college, and that’s how I met Jenny Slate and a lot of my other comedy friends. But then, a couple years out of college, I felt done with the kind of “comedy on a team” aspect of improv and sketch and realized it was time to go solo or duo. That was like 2005 or 2006. Not that long ago.
So, what was your early act like when you first started doing standup? Or did you start with Jenny first, as like a duo?
I started with Jenny first. And the act was just super weird and kooky and us talking to each other, but one of the earliest themes we ever touched on is still part of our act… the conversation about her being in love with me and ignoring the fact that I was gay. That came pretty early on actually. [Laughs] And we’re still doing it in some form, always. Yeah, the early act was just very me and her up there and really flipping out and having fun with each other, and it eventually turned into something that was watchable.
[Laughs] Where would you perform when you guys were first doing that?
Just like everyone else at the time, there was this place called Rififi in New York and that was in the East Village, just this really disgusting bar that, for some reason, had a comedy show every night. Everyone from my generation was like, there all the time. Anyone who’s a comedian now, even in L.A., was there. That’s where I met everyone. We would just hang out there and do other people’s shows, and then, eventually we started hosting a show and that lasted until the bar closed, and everyone just went to Brooklyn.
That Brooklyn scene has grown a lot in the past few years. Do you feel like there are more and more shows popping up still?
Yes, there’s always more and more shows coming to Brooklyn or popping up and starting in Brooklyn. I like to think that Big Terrific with me and Max Silvestri and Jenny kind of had something to do with that. I don’t know if I’m being cocky, but we definitely planted roots there really early. I remember making the announcement of “The show’s in Williamsburg now” and everyone being like, “Oh you’re going to Brooklyn?” and now everyone lives in Brooklyn and everyone only goes to Brooklyn, so it’s good.
Yeah, I’m sure that your guys’ show had something to do with that whole shift.
And it was really Max Silvestri who figured it out. He was the first one to set up shop that I knew in Williamsburg. Eugene Mirman, I think, was already in Park Slope. If it wasn’t for Max, Jenny and I would definitely not have had a show in Brooklyn, even though we both were in Brooklyn already.
You think you guys would have went somewhere else?
Yeah, we would have done it wrong. I think he was the genius behind it.
What topics do you most like to discuss on stage?
I just like to get super personal on stage. I think that’s the best way for me to do standup. I’m way more of a sharer than a noticer, I guess. So, most of my material is about me or my experience, rather than crazy shit about the world.
So, that sharer vs. noticer thing, do you classify all comedians like that?
No, I never had before. I guess the easiest divide to see is jokes vs. stories and how people fall into those camps. But yeah, I’ve never said that before. The easiest way to divide would be jokes vs. stories. And everyone dabbles in both, and stories have jokes in them and all of that shit. It’s almost a bigger divide than alt vs. comedy club comedy.
Yeah, but like you said, it is common to see cross-pollination between the two camps.
For sure. And then it’s almost shocking when someone is only one and not the other. I’ve always been super jealous of Anthony Jeselnik’s standup because in 10 minutes, it seems like he can tell 150 jokes and they’re all so funny and they’re so polished and figured out, whereas for me in 10 minutes, I can probably do like three things.
You talk on the new album about watching a lot of Hoarders. Do you have a favorite episode of Hoarders?
Oh my God. That’s really tough, actually. I guess my favorite one was, there was this woman where she hoarded dolls and she had rooms and rooms and rooms full of dolls and stuffed animals. One of the rooms was called the Doll Hospital and it was all broken dolls that she was gonna fix. That’s actually where I got the reference to Chucky from the Rugrats for that joke. Because they did all her solo interviews in this Doll Hospital room, and [there was a] Chucky from Rugrats doll right over her shoulder the whole time, but everything else was dirty and old and that was brand new. And I was like, “Yeah, she has fucking lost her mind, if she has that.”… She is literally just hoarding dolls. She is not a collector… It was nuts. That was a really good Hoarders. I can’t remember her name, but it was pretty epic.
Do you have other reality shows that you’ve been fascinated with lately?
Yeah. I talk a lot about A&E during my act, but I think my real channel for anything reality is TLC. It’s just so many other comics I know and love talk about TLC, so I just kind of jumped on A&E.
But yeah, basically anything on TLC is the best and they’re fucking killing it this new season. Honey Boo Boo Child obviously is like groundbreaking [Laughs]. Really entertaining. They’re doing Breaking Amish, and they’ve got that show about the girl with two heads. I’m really into this British show that they showed a little bit of last year and this year are making their own. It’s called Secret Princes, but the British are called Undercover Princes. It’s literally just the movie Coming to America done as reality TV, and it is so fucking genius. I love it. And I’m die-hard Project Runway. That’s the only classy one I think I watch. I’ll watch any Project Runway ever. I think that is like the number one golden reality show for me.
So, how did you get involved with AST Records for this album?
I was in L.A. for pilot season last year, and I was doing a ton of standup and Ryan from the label saw me do a short set at Eliza Skinner and DC Pierson’s show on Santa Monica, Magic Bag. And I got an email the next day when I was at yoga class, that they wanted to do an album. I was completely surprised [Laughs].
How did you prepare for putting together the album?
AST was like, beautifully hands-off. I was like, “Do you want me to send you a transcript of all my jokes?” and “Do you want to see my set list?” and “How long should it be?” and all this shit. They were just like, “Do your thing. Just do it.” So, I had months of prep. And, like I said, a lot of the jokes I hadn’t done in a couple years – not because they were bad but because I had written new stuff and wasn’t accustomed to doing such a long set. So, the practice was basically doing the old jokes and seeing if they still made sense. A lot of them didn’t and I rewrote a lot of stuff and just dove back into the Gabe Liedman Archive and updated it. And I’m glad I did that because it would be really embarrassing, like I have a long joke about Netflix and like, I stopped doing it because I used to do it so much. I was like, “Oh, Netflix. That joke’s in great shape. That’s one of my best.” And it came time to practice for the album, and I realized I didn’t mention that it’s all streaming now. It was just like, “Oh shit, I haven’t touched this in years.” So there’s little things like that.
How do you go about choosing where to record it?
There are some technical things you have to keep in mind with albums. Part of me wants to do it at my homebase weekly Big Terrific show, but the room is huge and it fits hundreds of people. You’d think that that’d be good, but apparently, it’s bad for albums. You want a certain-sized audience and a certain-sized room for acoustics. It kind of just occurred to me to do it in a city I don’t live in so that people would be largely hearing it for the first time and you get a more genuine reaction. You know that laugh when your co-workers or friends go to a show and you can just tell they’re being supportive? And then, there’s the other kind of laugh like, “Ahhh I didn’t see that coming.” I wanted that second one, so that’s how I chose L.A., and it was either UCB or Meltdown and I just kind of went for UCB.
Yeah, I feel like so many times, if I’m watching a comedian that I’ve seen do the same bit a couple times, it could be the funniest thing but the surprise is gone so I don’t laugh as much.
Yeah, and it’s like… there’s that weird thing at comedy shows where you could really like a joke and just smile super hard but it makes no noise, you know what I mean? You know, you don’t laugh out loud, so I wanted fresh stuff there.
So, I interviewed James Adomian last month, and he said he feels being out professionally has set him back a little bit. Do you feel that being gay has set your career back in any way?
I mean, I don’t know. I guess so. But, saying that is just imagining you’re someone else, you know what I mean? It’s like, I am gay, so I’m going to have a gay career, and I’m definitely not going to like “not be gay” to have a different one. So, it’s not the best way to think about it. I mean like, sure, there’s a lot of shit I’m not being considered for, but that’s how it works for everybody, I guess. I’m not like blowing up, I’m not doing great, so that might have something to do with it but so might a million other things… But it is funny, I’m auditioning for stuff more and more and more all the time, and it’s just like, “Oh wow. All of these characters are gay and wear glasses.” [Laughs] It’s like, I can take the glasses off. So that’s weird, but then there’s this other weird thing happens in the casting world were gay guys and girls are just considered for the same parts and it’s sometimes interchangable… Literally, last week, I tried out for a part that was named “Jackie’s Sister.” It was just like, “we’ll figure it out.” So yeah, it’s fucking weird. But I don’t know, I wouldn’t do anything different. No one can be anyone else, so here we go.
What’s the worst super stereotypical gay guy part that’s been thrown at you?
Oh, I mean, where to begin? There are good, smart, nice gay characters out there, but there’s so many fucking snarky, gay assholes that work at the front desk of whatever office the show takes place in… I have a pretty gay voice, but a lot of the characters I try out for, I need to change my voice to be like, offensively gay. Um also, not that I’ve booked anything, so maybe I’m doing it wrong. [Laughs]. But yeah, it’s just exactly what you think. A fucking bad version of Michael Urie from Ugly Betty a million times over.
Yeah, that sounds rough.
It’s bad, but it’s also fine. I’m doing it on purpose, you know? [Laughs]. I knew it was coming, and it’s not surprising anyone. And then, there’s always the option of doing shit yourself.
Absolutely. With the Internet and everything that’s more and more of a viable option.
Yeah. And also, people’s hearts are weirdly in the right place, even if it’s weird on paper. At least there’s parts all the time, even if they’re not ideal. I mean, it’s not ideal for anyone. You’re always playing out someone else’s weird understanding of what’s going on.