Talking to Gabe Liedman About ‘The Half Hour’, Re-writing Jokes, and Writing for TV
For the past 15 years, Comedy Central’s half hour specials have showcased the future stars of standup. Looking back, the early years of Comedy Central Presents included memorable sets from the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook and dozens more. Re-branded The Half Hour in 2012, the series continues to feature the best up-and-coming comics in the country.
For many comedians, it’s that history that makes doing a half hour special so significant. While a half hour may once have been a comic’s first major exposure, comedians now have many ways to build an audience. Almost everyone who taped a special this year does non-standup comedy as well, branching out into the worlds of podcasting, sketch and improv, web series, acting, and more. In this new series, I sat down with each of this year’s 16 Half Hour comedians to talk about their specials, their careers, and their generation of comedians. Each interview will also feature an exclusive clip from the special. All the interviews can be found here.
Beloved as half of the fantastic comedy duo “Gabe and Jenny” with Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman co-created the amazing New York standup show Big Terrific with Slate and standup Max Silvestri. Though he now lives in LA, I caught up with him in Brooklyn before Big Terrific’s fifth anniversary show to talk about his first ever televised standup and the benefit of doing a weekly show.
So how was the taping?
Awesome. It went perfectly. It was really fun and looking back, it just went perfectly. Can’t wait to see it. No regrets.
What did doing a Half Hour mean to you?
I guess I’ve always thought of myself as doing something different than standup. And so when I got to do an album this year, and then a special, it made me feel like part of the community. I guess I always felt like what I was—when I started, I was worried that what I was doing was not standup and now I feel like it’s definitely standup.
Why did you feel like it wasn’t standup? You did sketch first, right?
Yeah, I started improv and sketch, and then Jenny and I were like a standup duo, and it was really different than what everyone else was doing. Sure, there was like a precedent for it, but I think I always felt like a weirdo or a kid compared to who we were performing with. And planning a half hour is tricky. A lot of my bits are like 11 minutes long, and that’s not normal. So it just feels really nice to know that Comedy Central thinks of me in the same terms that they’re thinking of everyone else. It feels good. And everyone else that I was taping with, I felt had done Live at Gotham or had done at least one set on a late night show or something shorter, and to think that I went straight to a Half Hour is mind-blowing to me. That was my first standup on TV ever. So it was cool that I got to skip steps.
Is there a lot of overlap between the album and the special?
There is. There are two or three bits are from the album, but they have been re-written. It’s mostly like the premise is there, with different punchlines.
Wow. That sounds almost more difficult than writing a new bit.
I know, but that’s how I think. It’s weird, if you look at a lot of other people’s sets, a lot of people are talking about the same premises, it’s what you say about it that makes it different. And so like, something new will occur to me about Netflix or about the idea of a fantasy, and then it’s like, it feels better to do something fresh than old. So the album was rewritten from how those things started, and then since then I’ve rewritten most of it. And I even opened with a brand new joke that I wrote like a week before hand, which is psycho, I don’t know why I did that but I did. And it went great. [He laughs.]
What I was thinking is that, I didn’t want to go into autopilot. So, whatever trick I could up come up with to make sure I was paying attention was what I wanted to do. Because I, and I bet everyone else who taped too, could do their 30-minute set while thinking about something else, or asleep. But that’s not a good performance.
And how’s LA?
I love it. It’s the best. It was a much-needed change. Not that I dislike New York, but I was here for 13 years, and was spending a part of every year there working or auditioning and stuff. And everytime I went I was just like, this is so nice. Yeah, so I’m happy that I got a job writing Kroll Show and got to move in an easy, happy way.
I know you write for TV a lot. What’s your normal gig like?
I make most of my money from writing for TV. So, in the last year I wrote Billy on the Street, and then I wrote for Inside Amy Schumer, and that was the best. And now I’m writing Kroll Show. It’s really only been in the last year or two with festivals and now this special that I’m making money from standup.
Are you still performing a lot in LA?
Yeah, I perform a ton in LA. I still perform every week, at least once. The reason I’m here is because Max and I are doing this big show at Music Hall.
This is the fifth anniversary of Big Terrific. How did that show help you when you were coming up?
It was everything. It did everything. Before you have an album, or a special, it’s so valuable to just be able to tell someone, “Oh, you can catch me here every week.” It’s like your resume, its better than your headshot. And any writing job—I’ve like been a full-time TV writer for maybe four years now, and it’s all been because people could come see me live.
It’s such a great show.
I’m so proud of it. I can’t believe it’s lasted—I mean, I can believe it because its so easy and fun, but when we started it, we started it just to have fun. It wasn’t for work, but you know, that’s where people saw Jenny for the first time, that’s where people hired me or Max to write. It’s the most valuable tool.
So many of the people doing special this years have or are regularly on podcasts. Any plans to do that?
I don’t know if I plan to. I mean, I love them. I’m an avid podcast listener and I love guesting on people’s. I think podcasts are an LA thing. It feels like every young comic in New York has a monthly show, and then it seems like everyone in LA has a podcast. Because that’s where the companies are, in LA. That’s where Nerdist and Earwolf they have studios. There’s not a big infrastructure for podcasts in New York yet. I’m sure its coming.
And you still perform with Jenny. How does that play into your standup? Is that totally separate material?
It’s funny, it used to be home base. That’s what was normal to me, was “Gabe and Jenny,” and then when I would do solo, that was me trying to figure out my voice or whatever. And now solo feels like home base and “Gabe and Jenny” feels like a fun celebration. And it’s like a totally different energy. There is some overlap now with material, there are some things that I say in a set with Jenny that is part of my solo act and vice versa, there’s stuff from her solo act that we use together, but honestly, when the two of us perform together, it’s just like hanging out. It’s like, no pressure. She’s funny. She still gets nervous for absolutely every show, no matter what. Whereas I, when I’m with her, the pressure’s off.
You guys always look like you’re having so much fun.
It’s true. We’re totally having fun.
So what’s next for you?
We still have a couple months of writing for Kroll Show, we’re writing season two. It’s gonna be amazing. And it’s pilot season now so there’s a lot of constant auditions and meetings, which feels really good. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing for my summer job, but that’s normal for me. Every job I have has an end date. But I’m sure it’ll be fun and good, whatever it is.
Gabe Liedman’s Half Hour airs Friday, May 24 at 12:30 am (technically Saturday morning). He’s on Twitter at@gabeliedman.
Elise Czajkowski is a contributing editor at Splitsider and comedy journalist in New York City. She occasionally tweets at @EliseCz.