Greg Fitzsimmons is an Emmy-award winning writer and comedian who has written for such shows as Ellen and Lucky Louie. As far as memorable jokes made during a stand-up set on a late night talk show goes, his “My dream job is to someday be a late night talk show host, but it’s tough, Mexicans are stealing all our jobs,” on Lopez Tonight, rivals Louie Anderson’s “I can’t stay long, I’m in between meals,” on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Greg is also the host of the popular podcast Fitzdog Radio and in the past year released his first book Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons, Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mail Box, which is an account of the many letters that were written to Greg’s mother by teachers Greg got the best of as a young man. It’s available on Amazon.com and Kindle.
This fall you can see Greg host a new series called Pumped premiering on the Speed Channel on Nov. 17. Recently Greg made headlines when comedian Andy Dick was a guest on his radio show on Sirus XM’s Howard 101 (Monday nights at 9 PM PT) and Andy made several seemingly anti-semitic comments about Howard Stern. Stern was not too pleased with the comments and Greg discusses the aftermath with us. Greg also discusses the future of podcasting, his rage issues, if his feud with Marc Maron is over, and raises the question: has Alternative comedy run its course?
Can you tell us about your new show Pumped?
It’s kind of similar to Cash Cab except it happens at gas stations. You’re going to pull up to a gas station, and as you’re filling up your tank, my face is going to pop up on that video screen. And I’ll kind of start making fun of you and then I’ll just come out with a camera crew. We shot the pilot, it worked really well, and just ambushed people and started asking them questions and they win money, then they drive away. And we show up at a different, random gas station each time.
What kind of questions do you ask them?
In the pilot, it was kind of random, all over the place, but it’s the Speed Channel so they want it to be a little bit more focused on automobile stuff so I will probably not know the answers to a lot of the questions. I know a lot about cars, but not Speed Channel a lot about cars.
Not like Adam Carolla?
Not like Carolla.
Last year you did a set on Kimmel and you were very honest on your podcast about how you thought you had a bad set. Then your next TV set on Lopez Tonight got a big reaction from the crowd and you seemed to be a lot happier with it (see video below). Did you use what you thought was a bad TV set to motivate you to have a great set for your next TV appearance?
Well it’s different because every show is really different. Obviously, Lopez’s audience is Latino, and Kimmel’s audience is almost like a party.You show up and they even move the audience from the main theater into this smaller swing-set (Kimmel’s show). It’s like a club. It all comes down to the experience you’ve had as a stand-up all these years. Because every night, and almost every minute is an adjustment in stand-up, you’re constantly adjusting— your energy, your volume, how you’re moving, what bits you decide to do. So I don’t think one affected the other. Each one is a separate appearance.
On Kimmel, the mistake I think I made was it was a little bit too cerebral and I wasn’t really thinking about that party atmosphere that Kimmel has. And when I went to Lopez, I just had a lot of material about Latino people because my kids go to a Spanish emersion school and I’m from New York and I live in Venice Beach so I just got a lot of stuff that I feel strongly about and so I was just able to string together these jokes about Latinos. And I was really psyched because I love George. He’s a great comic, even though the show wasn’t fantastic. I respect him and I’ve known him a long time, so it felt really good.
You had that great first joke and I thought you had everyone right after that…
Yeah. “These Mexicans are taking all our jobs.” And then I just did the slow burn to George, and he was there for me. He gave it up and clapped, and that was a signal to the audience [that it was okay to laugh].
Did you write the rest of your set for that show after you thought of that first joke?
I thought of that the day before. And I was really questioning whether or not to do it… Because that’s going all in. And I decided, ‘Fuck it, I’m going all in.’
Your dad was a big radio guy in New York. Is that where your love for stand-up came from?
I think that there’s two things. There’s that, I grew up in a family where telling funny stories was paramount. If you sat at the dinner table and you were the one that was getting laughs, then you were the one that was getting attention from your parents. So there’s a very basic, sort of Freudian level that I was working from. And then also, I just always sort of liked the mathematics of telling jokes; I liked the structure of taking an idea, and sort of turning it in a way that the audience doesn’t see what’s coming until the exact moment when you want them to.
And then the more you get that timing down, the more sort of clever the idea is… I just liked all these things that went into this thing that creates a very black and white thing, you either get a laugh or you get no laugh, which is a really painful thing. I kind of respond to that high tension.
On your podcast, you’ve talked about giving up drinking and a Vicodin addiction. When you’re performing on those types of substances what’s the difference than when you’re performing sober?
Well I quit drinking about a year or two into doing stand-up and I knew that it was making a difference. I knew that drinking and doing stand-up was going to make me less of an effective comedian. And I just had a lot invested in wanting to be a really good comedian and so I stopped for that reason. Then I played around with pot and Vicodin when I went through my midlife crisis. And Vicodin made me able to write more, it was easier to perform on stage. It made me fearless, you had no fears, and it got to where on the late shows, I would take one, then I would just freestyle and it was the greatest. I’m not endorsing drugs, but Vicodin is really good when you’re a comedian.
You’ve been on the Howard Stern Show several times and you have a show on Howard’s channel. You’ve talked a lot about having to be honest and real when you’re on Howard. Do you think that has influenced your act or your radio show or podcast?
Yeah, I think it was that and also I started doing… when Alternative Comedy was just starting out in New York, there was a couple rooms that I got involved in and it was similar to the Stern mandate which is you can’t be dishonest, or people don’t care. So it was a challenge to me because I had been doing stand-up enough years… I knew how to handle myself onstage, but I hadn’t gone to deeper places. I didn’t go to places that made me uncomfortable.
And I realized with going on Stern that that’s where the good stuff was. And that’s where you go back to what makes you funny in the first place. That need to quell your anxiety by getting a laugh. And I think that when you start there it’s good. And then I also think that people receive it in a way that’s fresh because they know that you’re not taking on a topic and you don’t have an angle on the topic that’s polished. Like Seinfeld to me is obviously a great craftsman, but I don’t think he’s ever done anything that’s that interesting.
One of my favorite moments on your podcast is when you and Bill Burr were talking about Alt rooms and he said, “They come in there with their fucking Buddy Holly glasses…”
Well Alternative Comedy came out of the sameness of stand-up and that it was becoming not only hacky, but it was becoming very sort of misogynistic, and it didn’t represent a lot of points of view, so Alternative Comedy became this place where other voices could be heard that wanted to talk about politics or more personal stories, and you had such a myriad of different types of voices. And now I’ve found that it’s just the opposite. I find that in stand-up clubs you see people like Louie C.K. or Todd Barry or Patrice Oneal, they’re coming from all over the place and they’re doing it in ways that nobody has done it. Then I go to the Alternative rooms and everybody (mimicking tone) has this sing-songy thing that they deliver and it’s very ironic and they’re dressed the same and all they talk about are meaningless things like pop culture…
Comic books, Star Wars…
Yeah, it’s like nerd has become cool and the whole thing to me has run its cycle.
You had Andy Dick on your radio show recently and there was a big controversy over him saying anti-semitic things about Howard Stern. Howard voiced his disgust on the air about it the next day and also seemed to think you should have stepped in. I know you wrote Howard an e-mail, has he responded?
No I didn’t hear back from him on the email. But that’s kind of how it is. Howard doesn’t really dwell on the past. I think whatever is going on in the moment he gets into it. I think if anything good came out of it, he got riled up and I think the fans always like to hear Howard getting riled up. I have no problem with him being upset with me at all. In terms of our personal relationship, as long as I don’t feel like it showed me disrespecting him, but the fact that the fans started sort of spreading this I’m anti-semitic because I had Andy on and he said anti-semitic things was really really bothersome to me because call me a hack or a thief or a douchebag, but don’t call me anti-semitic because it’s a really ugly word and it’s thrown around a little bit too easily and it’s Andy Dick. He’s Andy Dick.
He’s colorful, he’s a performance artist and I think Howard being called some of the things that he was called there was not new. He went too far with it and I think that Howard was genuinely and understandably upset about it, but you move on. He [Howard] moved on and I certainly sent him an e-mail from the heart saying I felt bad if it made him feel like I was not standing up for him in any way, that wasn’t my intent. But the truth is, they take an hour long show and they pull four or five clips that were small clips and they put it together and it really sounds like “Why wouldn’t Greg…” Because they were all 15 seconds when they happened. So it was sort of sprinkled in in a way, and it wasn’t as offensive as hearing it all lined up.
What has your podcast done for your career?
I don’t really think about it that way. I started doing it because my radio show felt too short and I always wanted to keep the guests longer and the guests always wanted to hang longer so my producer said, ‘Why don’t you do a podcast? We’ll throw this up on your website after.’ And then I liked it so much I started doing two a week because people were responding to it and complaining that it wasn’t on more often. It doesn’t cost me anything, I get a lot of great feedback from it. It definitely makes me create more material. And yeah, I definitely have a lot more people coming out to shows because of the podcast.
But it’s funny, it’s not a marketing tool, it’s just part of the whole picture of me. I don’t like to do anything in this business anymore that I don’t own and that I’m not in control of. I do stand-up, I create some TV shows, and I do this podcast, and I’ve got a lot of video type stuff I’m doing on my website that I own and control. I think that the podcast to me is something that if it were to really start to get advertising the way I think it will, it could be something that you could really do full time. All ships rise with the tide. I want more people to do podcasts because I think every person that does it as a comic is bringing their fan base into it and once they do, they’ll check out other podcasts. So I think it’s great.
I think many of your fans and Marc Maron’s fans were disappointed when he and you buried the hatchet recently. Because when you guys took shots at each other it was great radio (podcasting). Where is the relationship now?
Well Maron is a fucking douche bag (Greg says with a childlike grin, knowing he’s playing with fire). I’ve known Marc since I started. Marc is not an easy guy to get along with and he’s insecure and yet he’s a genius, and I also have a shared history with him. So I feel very close to him. That being said, there are interviews we’ve done where I feel like he’s taken shots at me and I don’t respond well to that, and vice versa. He felt like I was taking shots at him.
So I think it’s certain types of personalities in the room together will have conflict. I think it does make for good podcasting. It’s funny, we just had a talk about it recently and we both sort of acknowledge that it would have been good radio to keep it going, but it’s just neither one of our styles to do that. We’ve had some organic fights on the air, and I’m sure we will again, but right now we’re fine.
How did the feud start?
I tried to fight him in New York. I tried to get him to come outside with me. It was that Alternative room that I was telling you about, Largo. He said some shit to me, and he had said shit to me for a while, and I just said, ‘Let’s go outside.’ And I went to grab him and Louie C.K. jumped in between us and broke it up. It didn’t break it up, because I don’t think that… Marc’s not a fighter.
You’ve hosted the Adult Video News Award Show twice. Is that a tough gig?
It’s probably as tough as it gets. Because it’s seven thousand porn stars. They’re all coked up, they’re all trying to show their tits to the camera and then you’re up there. And you’re the first thing that happens all night. And you’re doing stand-up comedy, which has nothing to do with porn. So the producer said, ‘You’re going to have about 30 seconds to get them, and if you don’t, they’re going to start talking and their not going to stop talking, and we’re going to have to walk you off the stage.’ So I worked out a joke that I thought would (do well)… Like the joke on Lopez we were talking about… I had kind of a perfect opening joke and then I worked on material for like two or three months and it went really well.
Is that a gig you take for the challenge?
Yeah, exactly. For me I’ll do any kind of gig. I just did a gig in a guy’s garage in Santa Monica. Literally he opens his garage door. He’s got a mic and a couple speakers, and about a hundred people show up and they have a keg. There’s another guy who does it outside and you use a bullhorn. I’ll do any show, anywhere, I love it.
I’ve heard you talk about one of your worst gigs on the podcast, where they had you in the middle of the crowd and the crowd didn’t know where you were…
Yeah, it was a New Year’s Eve show in Worcester, Massachusetts. Everyone’s dancing, it’s like 11:30 at night on New Year’s Eve and the DJ just turns the music off and he goes, ‘And now a comedian, Greg Fitzsimmons.’ And I had a wireless mic and I was standing on the dance floor, no elevation, no lights, and I just started telling jokes. People are looking around, they’re angry, they’re yelling at the DJ. A bunch of guidos. I just started walking around the room, kind of like shitting on people. I finally went to the women’s room and I opened up the door and I figured I start yelling at the women in the stalls.
And I open the door and it’s a girl on one toilet and she’s sitting there facing me, taking a shit, so she screams then I just leave and I’m still doing my act on the other side. And now, she’s got her boyfriend and they’re walking towards me. The guy is huge and he’s going to kill me. And I just put the mic down, I ran out the door and I got in my car and left. Happy New Year.
You have Bill Burr on your podcast a lot. How do you guys riff so well together? Is it just the Boston thing?
Yeah, he used to open for me a lot in Boston coming up and I always loved the guy. He’s so pure. There’s no bullshit, no ego, he is still to this day completely unaffected by any success he’s had. We just went back and forth on Twitter this week, we must have tweeted each other 10 times but just in the Boston accent. We’d spell it out. And we play hockey on Tuesday nights, all these comedians play. I just love seeing the guy, man. He’s just a really really good dude and I love how good he’s gotten as a stand-up, I just really enjoy it. We just said we have to go on each other’s podcasts again soon.
When I interviewed him before he said one of the things he likes about you is your ability to guess people’s age, bra sizes, and ethnicity on stage. Where did that come from?
I like to think that my shows are always different and I’m kind of responding to the crowd. Like I was saying before, about adjusting, just trying to be in the moment. A big part of that is you have to be able to read people really well. So I took it to the next level back in Boston when I told a guy who was heckling me that he had to shut up if I could guess his name, his car, and his girlfriend’s name, and I did. People went absolutely fucking berserk. They lost their shit. Ever since then, I’ve started to play “Guess the Asian,” where I guess the ethnicity of Asian women in the crowd. And I guess bra sizes.
Bra sizes, I probably bat about 93 percent correct. “Guess the Asian,” I have nights where I can go four for five and I have nights where I can go zero for four. Which is even funnier. To me it’s just really funny to show people just how much comedians know about them. They think they’re anonymous out there, and I like playing with the idea of letting them know that they’re also being observed by us. Because if someone heckles you, you have like three seconds to deconstruct their whole lives in your mind so that you win the fight. And we’re good at it or we don’t last.
You’re really open with having rage issues. Can you talk about where that started and if it fuels your stand-up?
I was diagnosed with ADHD and my shrink said that’s why I’ve always gotten into a lot of fist fights— because people with ADHD are drawn to surges of high stimulus and combat. She said, ‘It’s totally natural that you’re a stand-up comic because you get to go out there and you’re draining all that energy inside of you by engaging and going to combat.’ And I notice that if I haven’t performed in a couple weeks, I start to get a little depressed and the stand-up forces me to be firing on all pistons; neurologically I’m alive when I’m onstage. And I think it’s the same thing with fights. I’m still drawn to fights. More than I should be. I’ve gone to therapy for it, but it still happens.
You tell a story in your book about being hit by a nun when you were in school and how your mother confronted her. How did it change the way you looked at your mother?
It was kindergarten and it Mrs. Hanley. I remember her name, cause she slapped me with her hand and I told my mom. And she didn’t go to the school by herself, she brought me with her. There was this parent thing going on where a bunch of parents were sitting in the gym on the bleachers, and Mrs. Hanley was there and my mom walked up to her. She didn’t say a word, and she slapped her across the face. And then Mrs. Hanley didn’t do anything, and then my mother put me in the car and drove me home.
And I just remember smiling for the rest of the night and thinking that on one hand, there was this teacher that had done this really horrible thing, and that the situation was righted, that it was corrected, and that my mother cared about me enough to do that. Also, she was showing me that there’s rules for the world and then there’s rules for our family. We behave differently. My dad got into fist fights his entire life, and me and my brother did. Rage is part of the Irish culture. It’s hard to explain, my wife doesn’t understand it.
Were you happy with your act before crowds started to like what you were doing?
I was in college as an English major, so I wanted to be a writer. Like I was saying before, I like the craft of writing and the science of it. There were jokes that I was really proud of, and then there was a lot of stuff that I needed to do starting out to get the crowd. I wasn’t a natural stand-up. I needed to do a lot of material I wasn’t proud of. It was very frat boyish when I started. Then I got to the point where I could effectively be a comedian onstage. Then I think it went backwards, I started to trust in myself that I could do material that was more original and that was closer to what was my truth. And then it went to a deeper place, I think. I was getting cheap laughs, but I needed to do that before I could do the other stuff.
You wrote on Louis C.K.’s Lucky Louie. Why do you think that show had a short run?
That was the one that got away. I’ve written on dozens of shows, and that’s the one I feel like I could have done that for 10 years. Louie’s a really close friend, and we have very similar lives, similar wives. We both came out of Boston, then though New York, and then LA. It was just a show that I think suffered from how ugly it was. I mean that the material was raw and it was more honest than people really wanted to look at for what it was like for a blue collar family. The set was physically very ugly, and I think that was probably something that worked against it staying on the air. I don’t think they could stomach both the material being that harsh and also the set being that drab.
You’ve talked a lot about getting pulled to write on ‘black’ shows. I think the idea of a very white, Irish guy working on a mostly ‘black’ show is hilarious. Why are you such a good fit for those shows?
I think that black shows tend to be looking for sociological angles on things. I think black people, you can’t not address your experience as a black person. I’m drawn to that, whether it’s writing about people’s sexuality, or race, or religion, I’m drawn to talking about those things. Louie (Louis C.K.) actually got me my first job for Cedric The Entertainer. Then your card is kind of stamped because you’ve written on a black show, but then also I would seek out those jobs. Wanda Sykes is a good friend, so I wound up writing on her show. To me it just feels like with a black show, you’re always guaranteed it’s never going to be candy-ass, there’s always going to be some edge to it.
The fearlessness you have onstage and the way you own the stage, where you almost crush a guy’s foot with the mic stand because he wouldn’t take his foot off the stage, where does it come from?
I think it’s the same thing as where the fighting comes from. There’s this rage and this thing with Irish people, like, ‘You’ve stepped on my territory. You’ve challenged me.’ Really, it’s an insecurity I think to lash out the way I do about it. At the same time, I think as a stand-up, that is what you’re doing up there. You’ve got 400 people watching you and it’s implicit that you’re the funniest one. You’ve got a mic, and they paid and they’re watching you, and that’s a big responsibility in a way. You’ve sort of had the balls to say, ‘Alright, I can be that guy.’
And when somebody infringes on that in anyway, not just putting their foot onstage, or heckling, but even talking to somebody else at their table instead of listening, is something that you have to be reall,y really vigilant about. It’s like a virus and you have to stamp it out. The crowd has to see that if they do something like that, that they’ll be punished for it. Then it doesn’t happen. You have to really smash it as soon as you see it. How you smash it doesn’t necessarily mean, ‘You fucking asshole!’ I can just be talking to them, giving them a little bit of attention, then as you do that they feel that you have the power, and they start to respect you more because you’ve not had to lash out. But at the same time, you’ve gently brought them into the show in a way and they respect you for it.
For more info on Greg, his radio show, podcast and new Speed Channel show Pumped, check out his official site at gregfitzsimmons.com.