In late September, Mel Brooks told BBC Radio 4 modern political correctness was killing comedy. Between claiming today’s hyper-sensitive sensibilities would never have allowed for films like Blazing Saddles and insisting he had never (and never would) joke about the Holocaust, the famed comedian and filmmaker painted an inconsistent case for comedy against political correctness en masse. Comedians, critics, and Twitter trolls took notice of Brooks’ comments, thereby sending the internet into a viral tailspin.
One of the debate’s participants was Dana Gould, the former writer and producer for The Simpsons whose new stand-up album, Mr. Funny Man, drops today. “I agree with him,” the 53-year-old comic tells Uproxx. As problematic as this may seem at first glance, however, Gould’s honesty — by way of his explanation regarding his learning from, and adapting to, ever-changing trends in acceptable nomenclature and cultural commentary — provides some context.
No comedy album has ever made more envious of the audience who attended the recording than Mr. Funny Man. The bit about President John F. Kennedy and the monkey alone begs for the added visual.
Let me assure you of one thing: it was not what you would describe as “elegant.”
It’s just me cavorting around like a goddamn ape. Nothing attractive going on there. Trust me.
It almost sounds like something you would see during a cutaway scene or joke on The Simpsons. I can imagine the writers saying, “Maybe we can get away with this.”
Yeah. It’s funny. I had a very good and healthy stand-up career, and then I went and worked on The Simpsons for seven or eight years. That experience really changed my approach to stand-up. It really made me a much better stand-up, I think. It turned me into a much more specific writer, and it forced me into corners and cul-de-sacs I wouldn’t have gone into normally. And I only bring this up because I was talking about it last night with my girlfriend. Doing the show made stand-up really exciting again. Because when I started to go back on the road after I was no longer working for The Simpsons, I didn’t have a draw anymore. I had been off the road for seven years. People booked me because they knew me from the show, but I hadn’t been out there cultivating a draw. I was not selling out or making giant amounts of money, but to that end, it was very exciting. “Oh shit, this might not work.” It made me a better comedian.
What was your writing process before The Simpsons? Or, for that matter, did you write out any of your material in advance at all?
I sketched things out. Patton Oswalt got me into composition notebooks — the kind that you’d use in college. Those black and white speckle-covered books. He got me into those, whereas before that I would just write on anything I could find. Since then I’ve graduated to these weird hardcover journals made by Moleskin. That’s my current stationary fetish. So what happens is, nine times out of 10 I think up something in the car. You know, just the noodling on an idea. So I’ll record it while I’m just driving around, and then I’ll write it out. After that, whenever I’m on the road, improvising or trying new things, I’ll find those notes and play with them. Expand them. It is rarely, if ever, what you originally envisioned, but the kernel will grow if the laughter is good. That, or it won’t if the laughs just don’t come. What you write in a notebook is like a blueprint. What you do on stage is a building. The blueprint is just a two-dimensional drawing of what you think the building might be. The building is a living thing, and so it changes and evolves in that way — just as a script is a blueprint for a show or movie.
On Stan Against Evil, we’re always throwing away bits. “No, try it this way. Do it this way. Come in that way. Try this differently.” It’s just like trying out stuff on stage as a stand-up. The writer thinks that everything they write is precious and must be preserved. but I feel that gets pretty lifeless. It’s been my experience that the funniest things in this show, and most other shows, is something improvised in the moment by the writer, the actors, or someone else on the set.
Back to your writing process, I know Marc Maron still uses sticky notes. He even jokes about it in his most recent special. Whereas comics like Carlin are sticklers for language. They’ll write out everything they say exactly as is.
Carlin had an old word processor — one of those portable word processors that were popular back in the day. Remember his show on Fox, The George Carlin Show? My friend was a writer on it, and he said George had an office but wouldn’t actually work on the show all that much. He would just go in there with his computer and work on his stand-up. He would just try stuff out, like bass fishing, and would write uninterrupted, stream of conscious about bass fishing and see if there was something in there. Carlin would keep going until he found something, and most of the time he would chuck whatever it was he was trying. But it didn’t matter, because he was always cranking stuff out.
It just depends on the comic, really. Some write notes, while others write everything. A lot of younger comics prefer to record their sets, listen to them, make changes for the next performance and repeat the process.
I will tell you this, I record every show I do and never listen to a single one of them. That’s not a lie.
Why, for comfort?
It’s in case I really get into a flight of fancy or a really strong riff, so I can find and work on it later. But outside of that, I just kind of… fuck that.
Is this a more recent habit?
So, if I’m hearing you correctly, there’s a chance you have stacks of audiotapes that you’ve never listened to.
Not really, but I do record. I was just thinking, I had a little burst of inspiration yesterday — new stuff I wanted to get down somehow, and I was driving around in the car. I don’t usually use voicemail or voice memos on my phone. I’ll record some of my shows that way, but I actually have a portable cassette recorder. It’s the size of a sandwich. Like, a six-inch Subway sandwich. I record on that still because I like to rewind the tapes. I like the sound it makes, and the quick, easy accessibility of it. Digital recordings are still annoying to navigate for me. I like the clunkiness of actual tapes. Hell, James Ellroy still writes his books in longhand, then has them transcribed.
Between Stan Against Evil, the podcast and this new album, I suspect you don’t have much free time.
I have no free time.
Yet you’re still packing more stand-up, live shows and other things into your schedule. How do you make the time?
The album is out now, so that frees me up some, but I’m still on the road. I need to crank out another hour because people are coming out to see me and I don’t want to repeat myself. People want to hear some of the old stuff, but they also want something now. More than half should be new, and then over the course of the next year, it will become something completely new. To use George Carlin as a reference again, I saw him 18 times in my life, and I always wanted to hear something new. If he does his baseball or football stuff, I thought, “This is great.” But I also wanted to hear some new stuff. That said, I can’t crank out a new hour as fast as some. I’m always amazed by the people who do that. I write a new 40 minutes of material every seven months.
They’re probably able to do it because that’s all they’re doing.
Exactly. Is it all great? That was always my eye-rolling question to myself. There was a period of time when Dave Chappelle did six hours. Dane Cook did eight hours. Dave Chappelle did the longest set before infinity. I’m like, “But was it all great?” What if I just did 55 really solid minutes and walked off?
The first great concert I ever saw was Elvis Costello and the Attractions at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. It was the Spinning Songbook Tour in 1986. He walked out on stage when the lights came up, then played “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and 11 other great songs. He never said a word, and when it was over, he put down the guitar and walked off stage. It was the greatest show I’ve ever seen. They burned through the set. They were so good, and later I thought, “That’s what I want to do. Go on, destroy and walk off. Have no fat.” That’s why I edit my podcast so much as well, too. I like it lean and mean. Now, I do a lean, mean three hours, but it goes into GarageBand at about four and a half hours. Whenever I see a three-hour movie, I always think it’d be better at two hours.
I don’t know if you ever saw The Lord of the Rings films, but they’re already long. Then Peter Jackson released his director’s cuts.
I love Peter Jackson. We have the same passions. But when he did King Kong, I saw it and realized it only gets interesting at the 90-minute mark. That’s the length of the original. I don’t need to know the booking traditions of musical. Get to the giant gorilla fighting dinosaurs.
Speaking of audiences demands for (or against) content, I noticed you were tweeting about Mel Brooks’ comments regarding political correctness.
Yeah, I agree with him. Paul F. Tompkins had a thing about it.
As did many other comics. I don’t pretend to know how to tell jokes, because I don’t, but I feel like context matters when it comes to being funny and politically correct. That said, you can do both.
It’s all context. It’s all about what you’re saying. For the hyper-vigilant woke police, you’re never going to win. I just don’t engage in it, but I do think people will chill out. I’ve also learned there are things I’ve done in previous albums that I should not, will not and cannot do today. I’ll give you a great example. I did a joke on the new album where I said, “I have the same attitude toward trans women that most guys do. People have the right to be themselves, and I support anybody’s decision to be in whatever body they can obtain. Then I close the door and turn to my friends and go, ‘She’s not going to cut her dick off is she?’ Then I said, ‘Because that’s insane.'” I realized after I recorded the bit that it’s a great joke about guys and the root of transphobia, or “dick fear.” But adding the “insane” line made it a condemnation of trans people, so I cut it. That’s an example of the learning curve, which can be really steep for people. It can be very sudden, too. A lot of people are learning as they go. So you can point out people who made a mistake, or who are a little behind the learning curve, without immediately declaring them to be evil.
Speaking of which, there’s a rather absurd rape joke in Mr. Funny Man. It’s funny and it works, but it’s definitely one of those things about which I can see people misinterpreting it, or taking bits and pieces out of context. Because it’s primarily a joke about chimpanzees and how they’re different from humans.
There’s always a key, like a particular theme or phrase, to every piece of work. The one before this was I Know It’s Wrong, as in “I know it’s wrong but it’s funny.” This album is sort of a continuation of that, though it’s actually a lot more personal than the previous one. But the key for the next batch of material is, “If something I’ve said tonight offends you, don’t feel it’s incumbent upon you to tell me.” I do believe it’s sort of a reaction to the excessive woke-ism of comedy, and I do believe that context can be bad, but that the topics are usually safe. The audience’s context is the issue. That’s really what I go into during that specific chunk of material. I was performing at UCB the other night and I told an old joke where I said, “Have you ever dated a goth chick for a few months before you realized she was just an Orthodox Jew?” It got hissed because I said the word “Jew.” But that’s the phrase! Orthodox Jew. That’s what they call themselves. There’s nothing wrong with it, either in how they apply it or how I used it in the joke. They do dress in a somewhat gothic manner. Hence the joke.
Sure, that’s true in some cases. Of course I can think of plenty of examples in which a male comic tells a similar joke that’s altogether lacking in its footing. Just purely meanspirited bits that play on people’s differences, without any other goal or angle in mind.
I get the feeling these discussions of political correctness have, and always will be, around in comedy. But I also feel that social media makes it worse. I outright avoid most Twitter entanglements.
Yeah, it’s tempting. A lot of the time it’s just… I’m genuinely surprised at the level of sociopathic behavior people display on Twitter and other places. I was reading through Sarah Silverman’s Instagram once, and just some of the comments people made were truly vile.
I interviewed her when the Netflix special came out. Without missing a beat, our comments section and the article’s social media posts were bombarded with all kinds of disgusting nonsense.
The other day, I tweeted a genuine question because I think everyone in America has the same two thoughts: What’s going to happen with our unprepared president, and when do I get to see Boo 2: A Madea Halloween? I’m genuinely curious about woke culture’s attitude towards drag is. Is drag a gender-based minstrel show, or is it something else? And if so, why? I just wanted to get people’s opinions on it. It was intentionally provocative, of course, because drag performers are by and large very liberal and progressive people. Nobody wants to give them shit. But let’s be intellectually consistent for once. Somebody posted, “Actually, this is a topic of great conversation, but I never see you in the Reddit rooms, so how the fuck would you know?” I responded, “You made a really great point, and then ended it by posturing like an asshole. Why?” Someone else responded to that with the kicker: “You’ve described the entire internet.”