From Law School to Standup with Guy Branum
Guy Branum was one of the first comedians I saw live when I moved to Los Angeles. It was clear right away that not only does the audience adore him, but the comedians around him do as well. He’s a big presence onstage and not just because he’s a big, fat man (his words, not mine), but he’s also well spoken and hilarious. We talked about his new album Effable and what it’s like to be a spokesman for gay comics.
Is this the first album you’ve recorded?
It is. I’ve mostly been a professional writer or somebody who was on TV shows like Chelsea Lately. Standup was something that I mostly did in twelve-minute increments or occasional college shows. I don’t really get booked on the road that much, but I thought it would be great to do something manifesto-y that was a bigger exploration of my worldview and my material. And God knows I love performing.
Did something change or was there a moment that made you feel more ready to do an album?
After I did Bridgetown in 2012 a guy who ran a standup label Facebook messaged me and was like, “You should do an album.” I had never really thought about it before, but that trip to Bridgetown was really important for me in a lot of ways. I spent most of 2011 sort of futilely doing what my managers and agents told me to do. It was a lot of work that went nowhere and a lot of trying to put together pitches that fizzed out. A couple more experienced, more significant standups took me aside and were like, “Why aren’t you going on the road? Why aren’t you doing more standup? This is what you should do right now.” After a year of frustration I went to Bridgetown and I remembered, “Oh, standup is the thing I like about this.” If you’re on a TV show, that TV show will probably end up going away. If you’re writing for something, the show may get cancelled. You may lose that job. But standup is the thing that I can always do and I will always love. It made me realize how important it was and made me want to devote myself to it and put something together.
Did you know pretty quickly what the album was going to be about?
I’ve been doing standup for 13 years, so there’s a lot of material that’s come and gone. Some of it was bad. Some of it was good. Standup albums, sometimes they can just feel like, “Here are all of the bits I’ve written in order for an hour.” I wanted there to be something of a thesis. I wanted there to be something of a takeaway to it, because I went to law school and I must organize all arguments. But it’s also a standup album that just needs to be a bunch of funny things. I did sort of work on writing some stuff that isn’t super well positioned to be part of seven to twelve minutes on a stage, but when I am talking to people for longer. Not just people who are the wonderful, lovely people who come to the Meltdown or who I hope are going to be buying this album. That these were people who were interested in me, so I could tell the jokes that I wanted to tell that came from my soul, along side with things that are frilly little riffs about pop culture.
So, what is your thesis for this album?
I mean, it comes down to the title. My years in standup have been a long slow process of trying to A) explain myself to the world, explain who I am where I’m coming from, and put a kind of hard-to-wrap-your-head-around experience into words. Also, convince gay guys that they should have sex with me.
Tell me about your cover art.
Comedy albums look the same a lot and I didn’t want to do that. Also, gay guys don’t really understand standup comedy and particularly standup from other gay guys is something they should be interested in. They like Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho and don’t really come to comedy clubs. I wanted this to be something that had some feel of glossiness and shininess and happiness. Ryan (McManemin) and the guys at A Special Thing [Records] were super helpful with everything, but when it came to cover art I was like, “Let me handle this!” Because I live in West Hollywood and I know a lot of photographers, and I wanted to do something that was sort of immersed in that world and was a beautiful trunk of the West Hollywood that I love. So, I asked my friend Francois to get us a pool, some cute boys and let’s put this together. It was really funny, because it took me a while to communicate what I was trying to do, because he’s used to photographing people to make them look interesting and beautiful and all those things. I was trying to convey the ridiculousness that I wanted. Like, he kept trying to not have me have my shirt off. I’m like, “No dude. The point is me being here, but not fitting in.” It was wonderful. We just spent a day with some very nice and slightly confused models shooting stuff.
Then he went up to the second floor and have me jump into the pool and I was like, “This will look terrible, because I’m a big fat man and I will not be good enough at jumping. It will just look stupid.” Then we got the photos and I was like, “This is what I want on the cover of my album.”
You mention that a lot of gay guys don’t go to comedy clubs. The last couple of years have been big on talking about women in comedy; do you feel that gays in comedy have the same sort of struggle, or is it different?
I think it’s similar in that we, like women, are used to going to comedy clubs and only hearing… I don’t think straight people realize how much gay men get talked about during the course of standup comedy. It’s a lot and is so frequently just gross and shaming. I’m not offended by it. I’m just tired of it. We found our amusement in other places. We have drag queens. We have Kathy Griffin. There was an article in the New York Times a couple of years ago that was basically saying, “Why hasn’t there been a crossover gay male headliner?” You have a little bit of discussion of it, but we’re such a small portion of the population, I don’t think it really crosses people’s minds. There is a presence of gay male comic actors and stuff, so I think people think that takes the place, but it’s not our voice. It’s not our actual perspective. But there is a crazy, crazy talented crop of people who are fighting to make their presence known. We live in a world with John Early and Will Smalley and Casey Ley, so it is not much longer that this can be the case. And I look forward to what those boys do.
Being a gay comic, talking about equal rights — are you glad to be a voice for that or do you get sick of talking about it?
It’s an interesting question, because I know a lot of minorities can get very tired of having to explain their existence to people, but I think that it’s been so important to gay people, because we are not obviously visible. You do sort of have to be courageous enough to step forward and say something for people to understand better. Look, I think it’s my job, so I’m more than willing to say what I have to say, because I’m not going to shut up about my experience. It’s just a hard thing, because I think a lot of gay comedians are scared if they do talk about it too much, people will only think of them as being that. I worry about that. I think for a lot of the time I’ve been doing standup, people have thought of me as, “That gay guy.” It didn’t cross their minds that I might be interested in other things. That it could be part of a well-balanced breakfast of a human being. But I can’t live my life being scared of people who have un-nuanced views of the world. I just have to keep on going being a nuanced me.
You mention in the album that you’re 38. Does your age make any sort of difference? I don’t know if it’s different for men, women, gay men…
Oh, absolutely. Because, I’m not a new thing. It’s hard for me, because sometimes I’ll look at people who are young, started standup young and Hollywood is able to be excited about them. It’s frustrating, but then I have to remember that I had to figure myself out. I had to come out of the closet. I had to figure out how to talk about me before I could talk about me to the world. And also, I had to, a little bit, wait for the world to get better. When I started standup it wasn’t unusual to be at some bar in the central valley and have a table full of people just cross their arms and be annoyed the whole time that I was on stage. That was a reality. By the time I had someone fighting to get me an audition for Montreal New Faces, I wasn’t a new face anymore, because I had already had to prove myself through the backdoor. That’s frustrating, but it was never going to be any other way for me. At times I can get annoyed and I can be like, “Oh wow Guy, you shouldn’t have a track on your album that reminds everybody that you’re 38,” but also, I’ve earned my existence. And, I always have to remind myself that it would be so much worse if I was a woman.
Well, thank you for saying that. But again, yeah, but it’s just the reality of it and you figure out who you are, get stronger and better and that probably makes you a better comedian having faced that sort of thing.
Yeah. There’s this really great video that I watch too much where somebody asks Ruth Bader Ginsburg about how she didn’t get a job out of law school. She’s like, “If I had gotten a job out of law school, I would probably just be a retired lawyer from a firm right now. I’m a Supreme Court Justice.” It’s not good that she lived in a world that was full of discrimination, but fighting that discrimination is what taught her that she had the strength in her to do all of these things. You can only play the game that’s in front of you.
So, basically you’re saying you’re the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of gay standup comics?
I would never remotely say that. No, it’s worse for me to see people like Marga Gomez who was an amazing gay standard comic who really helped show me what was possible for me and to see her not respected and not remembered as she should be these days. And like [James] Adomaian and Gabe Liedman, so many people are out there just talking about who they are and not being scared of it. I’m proud to have had known and worked with those ladies and gentleman.
You went to school to be a lawyer. Did you actually practice law?
I had a job in the Bay Area for less than a year as just a contract attorney while I was studying for the bar, but I ended up leaving that job. I realized I was never going be really, really good at something if I didn’t love it. I had started doing standup, I thought, as a fun hobby and realized it was the thing I loved most.
But what made you think that you might want to be a lawyer? Why’d you go to school for it in the first place?
Well, my mom told me to. I knew that law schools took standardize tests seriously and that I would do well in the LSAT, so I knew I’d get into a good one. I think the reason there are so many standups who went to law school or were lawyers is because it’s about using language to manipulate people (laughing). They are really similar disciplines and I think so frequently I benefit from it, because it’s about taking a fact pattern and restructuring it to make the point that you need or want. Usually it’s with riffs or me getting up on stage and making a counterpoint to somebody else’s joke, but it does help me quickly assemble an argument in my head and be ready to talk it out. One of the hard things about standup that people don’t necessarily think about is that quickly coming up with a joke is one thing, but being able to trust that it will come out of your mouth the way it needs to, that you won’t stumble over it is dangerous. The minute you trip over a word you lose so much power in front of an audience. Law school if nothing else taught me to be comfortable at rattling shit off.
That’s definitely something I noticed about you is that you’re really good at crowd work. What part of standup is more challenging for you?
The thing that’s hardest for me is finding time to write my own stuff and having the discipline to get it done. I’m somebody who normally has a day job writing for somebody else, so it can feel a little bit Cinderella-ish, always being like, “When am I going to have time to make my own dress?” It’s also just a matter of discipline. We all only have so much self discipline throughout the day and I clearly don’t have that much of it. I will frequently end up applying it to the job that is paying my rent and not necessarily to getting something done the way that I want it to be done. In the month leading up to recording the album, Sam Varela gave me a residency at The Palace in LA, so I was able to do twenty minutes every week for a month and it really gave me that opportunity to keep swinging at those jokes and figure out what they needed to be to get them to a final form.
You’re working on Billy on The Street now and you’ve got this new album coming out, anything else that we should be looking forward to from you?
I’m pitching my talk show Talk Show: The Game Show and I’m really excited to figure out an appropriate forum for that.
Awesome. And finally, what’s a fun random fact about you that would surprise most people?
Oh… I worked construction every summer between junior high and the end of college, so I am very capable at finishing concrete. Also, my weakness is wet paper. Nothing makes me more upset or disturbed than wet paper.
(laughing) What do you mean?
It grosses me out. I hate it. It scares me.
I bet that’s an official phobia. There’s got to be a term for it.
(The fear of wet paper is called “Papyrophobia.” It’s not exclusive to wet paper, and could also include the fear of a plain sheet of paper or crumpled ball of paper, according to Phobia Wiki.)
Yeah, I don’t know. The other day, I was out with Alex Koll who’s also a comedian and after I told him that he thought it would be amusing to wet a straw wrapper and do something cute with it. He just did not realize that I wasn’t just joking that it was, “I’m gonna need to go to the other side of the room.”
Photo by Mindy Tucker.