Splitsider

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Talking to Brody Stevens About His New Comedy Central Show and His Friendship with Zach Galifianakis

Think of any comedian working today. There’s probably another comic with a similar style.

Except for Brody Stevens.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Steven Brody Stevens does on stage, but it’s high energy and part positive reinforcement, part self-affirmation, part antagonism, part hyper self-awareness, part lack of self-awareness, part revealing stream of consciousness. Or something like that.

However you want to describe it, it works. Stevens is very funny and there aren’t many people in show business who are more captivating. Both HBO and Comedy Central recognized this, and after a 20-year career spent largely on the periphery, gave Stevens the starring vehicle he basically commands with Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!

Billed as Comedy Central’s first drama (it began as a web series on HBO), Enjoy It is also hard to describe, as it’s a documentary with occasional animation and written comedy pieces. But it’s all about the enigmatic Stevens: his life, his career, his much publicized mental breakdown in 2011.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Brody Stevens while he was driving (don’t worry, he was on mood stabilizers and focused and safe and he’d done this before, he assured me) to talk about his new show, his start in comedy, and his relationship with good friend and Enjoy It executive producer Zach Galifianakis.

You have a publicist now, you have a TV show. This is life-changing for a lot of comics.  How are you handling all this newfound fame?

I’m okay with it. I like it. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fun. I don’t consider myself famous. I mean, I’m not. But on Twitter and things, I became a little more famous on Twitter. I know people probably recognize me a little more in public. It feels good. It’s not a shock to my system. I’ve done things in the past like Chelsea [Lately] to prepare me for this kind of thing.

You’ve talked about this in your act, kind of self-prophesizing that you were going to be famous one day. It just hasn’t really sunk in yet at this point?

No. It has not sunken in. Whatever’s going to sink in has not sunken in. Like I said, yes, it feels good. I didn’t strive to have a TV show. I come from a sports background. I come from a work ethic background — a grinder, if you will. My goal was never to be on TV. My goal was not to have my own TV show. My goal was to be the best standup comedian I can be. Because I knew being a standup is the foundation to go into radio. I mean, back in the day, it was radio, go into hosting, go into being an actor. So I really focused on that. Of course you’d be on TV. I wouldn’t say no. If you’re a comedian and someone comes up to you, whether you’re doing comedy for a month or 10 years, most likely, for the most part, you would say yes. But that is not my drive.

My drive was like, stay focused, be patient. I read books early on. Believe it or not, I’m a good listener. Some people don’t think I am. I kind of just put my nose to the grindstone. I say it feels good. I’ve given myself a little window to enjoy this and feel good about it.

Let’s talk about how you started in comedy. You were an accomplished baseball player. After you graduated from college. Did you immediately go into comedy?

[In college,] I had a lot of electives. I could do whatever I wanted. A couple of the baseball players said I was funny and a couple of the other athletes and friends of mine said, “You’re funny.” I didn’t necessarily want to be a comedian. I wanted to be involved in the arts in some way. I took an acting class, just a straightforward acting class at Arizona State. And it was very supportive. I just liked the vibe in there. You know, when you’re a jock in this world it’s all about more childlike humor. It’s not support. So I took the acting class, and I liked it. There were girls in there. So that gave me the bug of being a performer, and then somebody else was like, “Hey, you’re funny. You should do standup comedy.”

So I put two and two together, started writing a couple jokes. I never performed any comedy at Arizona State. So when I came back to Los Angeles, I said I have to give show business a shot. I handled show business like I handled baseball in school: learn everything I can. I was lucky enough to have a situation where I could stay at home for a year or whatever. I was a grip on a USC film, holding equipment, and I said, "I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to hold lights. I don’t want to wait around."

In the meantime, I was taking these standup comedy classes at UCLA. And I wanted to see if I had that buzz, that feel for it, that drive for standup. So it was a two or three-minute set every week. And I was excited about doing comedy in this class, this workshop, where people were saying, “You’re a funny guy, it doesn’t matter what your jokes are, you’re likable, you’ve got something there.” And then I did an open mic. I did that, and then we had our graduating class at The Comedy Store. It was packed with friends and family, and I did very well. At that point, I was like, yeah, I’m a comedian, put my chest out: “I’m funny.” I did it.

And then at an open mic in Chatsworth, it was just depressing. They were close to the same jokes I did the other night, now they’re not getting laughs. I just felt like the vibe in there was desperate. It wasn’t what I was used to, and I didn’t want to deal with it. So I said, "I want to learn more about comedy. I want to learn about contracts, what goes on in these clubs." So I took The Business of Comedy at UCLA. I learned from an agent at the time. Essentially, he said, “You want to do comedy? Get out of Los Angeles. Don’t start here.” And that put it in my head: get out of LA. So it was either go back to Arizona, where I had friends, and no comedy scene or whatever. I didn’t know. I was just a baseball student guy. Or go up to Seattle where I had friends and family and the support of an art community that I wasn’t aware about; my aunts and uncles told me. So I moved up to Seattle, and that’s basically where I started doing my comedy.

What was the reason for the advice you got to not start in LA?

That was almost 20 years ago, so things have changed a little bit. Back then, it was if you’re not ready, you’re not good enough. If you go up on stage after doing comedy for one year and there’s an agent or talent person for NBC, and you’re bad, that’s going to be their first impression of you. Stay out of that. You shouldn’t be doing comedy to be on TV. That’s my opinion. You do standup comedy to be the best standup comedian you can be. If that leads you to TV, great, if you want to do that. It can lead you to movies or whatever. But as a live performer, for me, I focus on standup comedy. There may be improv or sketch guys who say the same kind of thing. That’s what really drives them. That’s why people go to Broadway. It’s live performance. Some comedians don’t like being on TV.

In terms of developing your voice and your persona, was it important to you to be different than other, more traditional acts that you saw? You have a very unique way of performing.

When I started performing, I guess I was always different. I wasn’t the class clown. I wasn’t funniest guy on the baseball team. But I was still funny. The pitchers liked me, the coaches liked me, but I wasn’t a performer. I didn’t put out that energy of a performer, I just did some funny stuff, said some funny things. When I was in college people would say my face was funny a little bit. Even though I as a goofy guy, I didn’t implement that into my comedy.

I didn’t want to be a Jerry Seinfeld necessarily, but I did want to be a joke guy. Telling jokes, laugh. Telling jokes, laugh. And then when I started doing it I’d get angry. It’s frustrating: I think these jokes are funny; they’re not laughing. It kind of brought this voice out out of anger, frustration. I’m a nice guy, but it was like I was a young calf doing that. I wasn’t a bull doing it. At that time to see me get upset, and these comedians up in Seattle would pull me aside and say, “Forget about what you’re doing,  you’re funny.” I had a character, a voice, if you will. So at that point they gave me the confidence to keep doing that, exploring that. It was funny to get upset. And you learn to write for that guy, for that joke. And then you start saying, "I don’t like being upset." People say, “Are you really upset?” I say "Yeah, a little bit of both." I genuinely didn’t like and still don't like going into that red zone. That’s where it gets weird. When I was younger, if I got super upset back in the early '90s, you would think this kid is just aggressive, a young kid with testosterone. Now, you’d think, this guy’s got financial problems, his wife left him, whatever. I’m a better performer now, so I don’t go into that red zone. I’m also just wiser. That’s kind of where that voice came from.

Once I started doing that, after the first couple years I did make a concerted effort to not be like others. I would see someone do something and go, "Yeah, that’s their thing." If you hang out with certain comedians for a year or two, they’re going to rub off on you. I definitely owe a lot of my voice, maybe my mannerisms, certain things, to my teammates I played baseball with, more so in college. The comedians early on in Seattle also helped define my voice, different comedians I looked up to. Also myself. Yeah, maybe my voice is original. The way I look at things is original and different, as I’ve been performing more. Once I went to New York, I accepted being different. It was okay. I always wanted to go to New York.

But in Seattle was really where my voice came out. Those early stages these young comedians, your friends, the comedians that were headlining when you just got started, you’d sit in the back of the room and watch them: that would rub off on me. I’d rather do that than listen to Howard Stern on the radio for four hours a day and then you start talking like Howard Stern. Or you watch one comedian, you’re infatuated — I watched Dave Attell for two years straight and listened to his album, I guarantee you I sounded like Dave Attell, I think. And if you’re just a friend of Dave Attell’s, just being friends you’re going to rub off on people. Maybe that’s why you have New York comedians, there’s a certain vibe: they rub off on each other, they’re calm, they’re in the leather jacket doing standup. You’re around that, you pick up on that. Out here in LA, it’s a different energy. My voice, I would say I found it in Seattle. At that point I found it, and I said, "You know what? I need to be me. I’m gonna be me. I’ve watched these comedians, I’ve learned." I’m not saying I’m taking a little bit of that guy, a little bit of that guy. Naturally, that happens to you. But I’ll always give credit to early on comedians who were around me because they helped contribute and figure out my voice.

Did you and Zach Galifianakis first meet in New York? What made you guys hit it off? 

Zach claims that we never met each other in New York. For the most part, I met Zach out here. I’d seen him perform in New York, and instantly when I saw him, I knew this guy was funny. Like, you look at him — this was pre-beard, he had crazy hair — he was just funny, the three times I saw him at Standup New York on the upper west side. I would perform there, but late at night he would be hosting, and I saw him and thought he was funny. Then I went to a taping of the Sklar Brothers’ show, Apartment 2F, and Zach was a guest star on it, and he was just super funny. So that was that, and I stayed in New York and did my thing.

Then when I moved back to Los Angeles in 2000, I would do a few shows around LA, and he would be on the shows, but I didn’t talk to him. I didn’t think he would think I was funny. I knew that Patton Oswalt thought I was funny, Todd Barry thought I was funny. So that right there: if those guys think I’m funny, Zach’s got to think I’m funny. So I just started performing more, and then we did the Chicago Comedy Festival in 2001. Zach and I and a couple others went to a baseball game. And then we started talking at the baseball game; we hung out.

Then I’d start doing audience warm up at The Best Damn Sports Show. That’s over on the west side, and at that point I start hanging out with Zach when the show would be over. He was living in Santa Monica, and I didn’t want to drive back to The Valley. We would write jokes and laugh, have a good time. Then we started doing Largo. He was one of the guys who told me, “Don’t ask.” I never asked to do Largo. Maybe I would have, but it would have frustrated me. Zach, he said, “Don’t worry about it. Just be funny. Don’t ask.” If you want to put it out in the universe or write it down, whatever, but to physically go up to somebody and say, “Hey, can I be on your show?” Don’t do that. He always put that in my head. I was going in that direction. It frustrated me, like, “Why aren’t I doing Largo? Am I funny enough? Am I ever going to do it?” And Zach said, just keep doing what you’re doing. So we hung out for quite a bit. And after a year or two, he got his show on VH1. And we just kept doing comedy, and Largo, busting each other’s balls, mostly him busting my balls. Still funny. He let me do a couple Between Two Ferns. And I would perform at Largo. That’s basically the Zach and Brody deal, how we met.

Let’s go back to your show a little bit. How long had you guys been shopping the idea for Enjoy It! ?

Early on in our friendship out here in Los Angeles in 2001, 2002 or whatever, Zach always got a kick out of my relationship with my sister, that I was this 35-year-old man arguing with my sister over Tupperware or over making room on a shelf for my canned food. Silly stuff like that. I was living with my sister in my family’s townhome out in The Valley. My mom owned it; we lived there. We were constantly arguing. And Zach said, "I should interview you and your sister." He put that in my head, like that would be funny. My sister and I, we argue, but we’re also very similar. We’re different yet the same. Zach thought that was a funny dynamic. He thought I was funny and weird and likable, and he also thought my relationship with my mother was interesting too. And then performing with me, knowing how I was into baseball, and I had a childlike reaction to things, Zach got a kick out of it. So he always put it in my head that he would want to do a show with me. There was nothing written in stone, but it was always in my head. We wanted at some point to do some show, showcase me, showcase my family. That’s the kind of guy Zach is, it’s not like, “Hey Brody, buddy, let’s make him famous, and I’m Mr. Producer.” He’s actually doing it because he thinks I’m funny. He is a good person.

In terms of the momentum for the show, and getting it greenlit and everything, do you feel like your episode that you had a couple years ago when you were hospitalized made it more attractive to Comedy Central? It’s such a real view of someone’s life that hasn’t really been shown on TV. 

Originally, we went with HBO. They liked what we were going to do. HBO liked that, and what happened happened. I could go into detail about why I went manic and what that was like. That happened. And that was not the plan: that was the HBO deal. So Comedy Central saw that, they saw the comedy in it, me being funny, and hopefully they liked me, or they liked Zach and I's interaction. They liked the animation, the relationship with my mom. They liked what the people on the HBO show liked.

Basically, Comedy Central liked it. They saw potential in it to be a broader, a different show with a dramatic angle. Comedy Central’s trying to be different; there is drama in it. I didn’t go to Comedy Central and say, “Hey, I had a breakdown, check this out, put it on, I think it would be funny.” They saw it and said, “How would you like to do this on Comedy Central?” I had pitched the original idea to Comedy Central. So they wanted to work with me before all that. So I kind of knew they liked me ahead of time. But I don’t mean to say “me me me.” I have to say, having Zach involved does not hurt. That’s a hypothetical, but the fact is, he was involved, he is my friend. I don’t need to justify what happened. It runs through my head a little bit, very little. I feel this story is real. It is me in reality. Some of it’s their interpretation, but it’s real, and I didn’t sell anything. They came to me.

What’s been your experience revisiting that whole period in your life in hindsight? Has it been cathartic for you at all?

Yes. The answer is yes. Watching it during the editing process leading up, the more I watched it, it took the stigma out of it for me. I’ll tell you what, talking about it on stage live, audiences were not a fan of it. They were kind of freaked out when you mention you spent 17 days in a psych ward. So I was doing that, thinking, well, the rest of America’s going to think I’m crazy or think I’m weird. Or, oh, this guy’s got a gun, I can never have him be around certain things. These things are running through my head because I’m talking about a gun, being in a stretcher. So yes, I’m over it. Leading up to it, even three months ago, I was still working through it because I didn’t know how America would perceive it. And I felt like I would have to take two steps backward and relive those moments.

It is cathartic the more I talk about it, when I first saw it on HBO it was hard to watch. Watching it this time, because I am more mature, I’ve had therapy, I felt better about it, but still, going on stage saying you had a breakdown, or you’re in a hospital, I wasn’t getting the response that would ensure me that this was going to be great. People were going to think I’m nuts: that’s what was going through my mind three months ago. I was fine with it, I didn’t know if “America” would be fine with it. Personally, I’m fine with, I’ve always said I’ll speak to mental health groups about medication, the mistakes I made, therapy, the support group. I’m totally cool with that. I like doing that. If I can help erase the stigma of going to a hospital or taking medication, I like doing that. I have no problem.

Where do you want to take the next step with comedy? Do you want to take this and do more standup, or what’s your next goal?

Yeah, I’d like to do more standup. I would basically like to continue doing what I’m doing, and maybe make a few more bucks. I’m not looking to create another character. I just want to be who I am, ride this wave, and naturally let things happen. Whether it be the NY Improv or a small theater or being able to be a guest star on a sitcom, I would take that; I would put my energy out towards that. Just keep doing what I’m doing and see where that takes me. It sounds like a cheesy answer, but I do want to keep my standup. I will not stop doing live standup. It all comes back to that in some form or another.

 

Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! airs on Sundays at midnight on Comedy Central.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.