He sits across from me on a couch in the back of what most people imagine is this grand palace of a room, but in actuality, is anything but. The standard green room consists of a couch, a chair, a bathroom, and a fridge stocked with red bull. Behind the thin-layered walls, you can hear the opener comics go on, and get a good vibe for the room before you step out onstage. This being a snowy Sunday in Chicago, even the most seasoned veteran would have their work cut out for them.
Bobby Lee is most certainly a seasoned veteran in this race, having been in the game since 1994. But with the passage of time comes the gradual evolution of a comedian. So if you’re going to go see Bobby Lee in 2018, you are not going to get precisely the same guy who was on MADtv for all those years.
“Well, I’m old,” Bobby tells me, from behind the cloud of vape smoke. “I’m getting really old. In the beginning of my career, I used to like to mimic people. And that’s how I thought you were supposed to do it. You’d see a guy and go ‘Oh, I want to kind of do that,’ and then it would just come out in a kind of manic and weird way. But as years go by, you just get closer to yourself. So I think I’m just more myself onstage.”
Yes, he still does his signature stripping down to his leopard print underwear onstage. Yes, he still manages to grind up against an unsuspecting (yet in the interest of the ‘#METOO’ movement, might I add completely volunteering) audience member. That hasn’t changed, despite his onstage comments of regret for doing it while being out in the world promoting a show on ABC. In that way, this is still the same Bobby Lee we’ve always seen. And he’s just as funny (if not funnier) than he’s always been. But with age we get an additional bonus: We get a person onstage who is closer to who he is in real life.
“When I feel down about myself and get kind of depressed,” he tells me in a completely earnest moment, “I go ‘Dude, you don’t really have a job and you’re making pretty good money, so just relax.’ But I think it’s human nature to want more. But I’ve been sober for a long time, so that has helped a lot. I just don’t care as much anymore. But I still get jealous and I’m still competitive which you need to be. I’ll see a kid and go ‘Alright, I’ve got to compete. I’ve got to figure this out.’ If you don’t have that competitive edge, you’re not going to make it.”
The thing Bobby Lee is most known for, MADtv, is also the thing he happens to be going on 9 years removed from. “MADtv was a fluke for me,” he tells me, “because I’m not really a sketch guy. There are times where I just lay in bed and I think about those years and I miss it. I miss being with all those guys. 8 years is a long time. You’re there with a bunch of guys and girls and you’re just doing silly shit. Life is completely different than that now.”
Just how different is his life? Well, he is constantly staying busy, that’s for sure. In addition to a co-starring role in the NETFLIX series Love (which comes to an end when the 3rd season launches today, March 10th), he is also co-starring on a brand new series for ABC called Splitting Up Together. In it, he plays one of two couples that are in the midst of a divorce.
Additionally, he is also the host of a very popular podcast Tiger Belly, which boasts over 2 million downloads a month. Guests on the show have included Tom Segura, Taran Killam, Will Sasso, Russell Peters, among many others. The success of the show is in no small part because of his devoted audience.
“You reach an audience that you didn’t quite know was there. I mean there’s a lot of my audience that doesn’t really watch mainstream television. My audience is a little weird. They were just kind of like ‘We don’t like him in this. We don’t like him in this.’ But now they can finally communicate with me through that medium which reaches them. It’s easy to just download or whatever. It’s just a really quick and cool way of interacting that people that really are your fans.”
His fans are truly 100% loyal, make no mistake about it. Wherever he may be, they come out in droves. As I sit in the back of the club, it is clear to me, even on the roughest Sunday night for a comedian, just how much love there is in this room for the man. These people literally drove out in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm just for him. That is true dedication.
Never being someone who had wanted to become a “road comic,” Bobby’s main jaunt in Los Angeles still remains The Comedy Store. This is also where he first encountered so many of his idols when he was first starting out.
“When George Carlin used to come into The Comedy Store, I was a door man. He used to kind of put his hand on me and go ‘How are ya, Mr. Lee?’ He used to call me Mr. Lee. And he would just do his set. I remember me and another comic used to carry Richard Pryor when he was in his wheelchair onstage. And he’d have boogers under his nose and we’d have to wipe the boogers because he was sick. So all those memories. I’ve been around the legends.”
If you ask a comedian in the 80’s or 90’s who they most looked up to, 9 out of 10 times, one of those comics they mentioned would be Sam Kinison. There was something about the way Sam lived his life not just onstage, but offstage, that really spoke to people. Bobby Lee was no different. And even though he never got to meet the man himself, that’s not to say their lives haven’t found a way to intersect.
“Kinison really effected me in a certain way,” he tells me. “It’s so funny because Kinison died before I did comedy, but my life has kind of been around his life. Like for instance, Pauly [Shore] went on tour with Sam, and then Pauly took me on the same tour that Kinison took him on. Then at the end of the tour we went to Sam’s gravesite. It was really emotional. And then the guy that held Sam Kinison’s body when he died, Carl LaBove, is a very good friend of mine. And Sam Kinison’s ex-girlfriend gave me a Sam Kinison shirt that he used to wear on tour. So I’ve been around Sam. I never met him, but I know for a fact that we would’ve been friends.”
Towards the end of the conversation, one of the things that struck me most fascinating was just how zen he feels about all of this. Show business is not an easy thing on the brain or the soul. So many comedians spend so much of their time over-analyzing what every moment means, and trying to stage their own legacy to leave behind. But it soon becomes crystal clear that Bobby Lee is not one of those people.
“These random things will happen in my career,” Bobby muses, “and I don’t really fight it because who knows where it’s going to lead. I could die tomorrow. There probably isn’t a legacy for me, and I’m okay with that. Life is random. You can’t plan it.”
Splitting Up Together premieres on NBC March 27th