If you even have a tertiary view of the comedy scene, chances are you’ve seen a man walking around who seems to know every comedian in the room. He’s dressed better than most, has a head of gray hair that sticks up higher than most, glasses, and a comically-oversized pencil. This man is Jeffrey Gurian; a writer, journalist, comedian, author, and general friend of the industry. If stand-up comedy had an official mascot, it would be Jeffrey Gurian. With a million stories, and probably just as many interviews, Gurian just released two new books, one an oral history of NYC’s legendary comedy club, The Comic Strip Live. The other a collection of funny writings are from his time at The Weekly World News. He’s also currently associated with John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s play show, Oh Hello, which just premiered on Broadway after being a staple sketch for the two comedians for many years. We caught up with Gurian to find out more about his books, hear some stories from the comedy world, how he’s often confused for Elton John, and find out more about the man behind the scarves and hair.
You’re fresh off the red carpet from the premiere of Oh Hello on Broadway. You’re a huge part of this show’s history. Nick [Kroll] and John [Mulaney] asked you to be a part of this red carpet experience. Tell me all about it.
Well, it was phenomenal. First, I was so honored they made me a part of Oh Hello family and that came from Mike Berkowitz, head of APA, who is a consultant on the show and handles all the live events, for Nick and John. It was amazing they acknowledged me as the first person to be pranked with Too Much Tuna on Kroll Show when it was on Comedy Central. The clip went viral, it’s really amazing that it caught on and an important part of the Oh Hello show. Last night was the Broadway premiere, and it was very exciting, as I had never really attended a Broadway premiere before. Certainly not walking a red carpet, ya know? Jimmy Fallon was there sitting with Lorne Michaels together! Like the elite of entertainment was there. Michael Ian Black, Julie Klausner, from Difficult People. Chris Gethard, Seaton Smith, and Countess Luann from Real Housewives. It was a crazy, crazy, crazy night. Jon Hamm came, ’cause he’s supposedly, Nick Kroll’s understudy.
Right! He’s listed. I actually have the Playbill right in front of me and it is amazing that he’s listed as the understudy
As Nick Kroll’s understudy and so is what’s the other guy’s name? John Slattery, it’s got two huge stars. They wound up pranking Alan Alda, who is a huge part of the show, they talk about him every night. They talk about Alan Alda and Steely Dan. As a matter of fact, Alex Timbers is the director of the show and his mom came over to introduce herself to me. She said to me, “are you in Steely Dan?” because everyone thinks I am in the music business. It’s hilarious.
I have to say Jeffrey, that the first time I ever met you was years ago. One of my first jobs in New York was answering phones at Gotham Comedy Club. At the old location on 22nd Street.
22nd Street, which is now The Metropolitan Room, sure.
I remember seeing you for the first time and I was just like, “That guy, if I had to put money, a gun to my head – I would say he either wrote, produced, or plays on an album that sold over a million copies.
Let’s debunk that. Have you, or do you play music at all? Is it something that’s been in your life the way comedy is?
I play the piano, but I hate stereotypes. I hate when you can look at someone and tell what they do just by looking at them. To me that is very boring. You can just look at some guys and just tell they work on Wall Street. So I always felt like you should have your own look, and look however you want, do whatever you like to do. Even my parents thought I was in the music business. Nobody knew the truth. I once went to a black tie event one night, and this really happened, I was in the company of a girl who was in the music business. At the time, my hair was really long and I am wearing a tuxedo and who comes to my table just to say “hello” to me? Keith Richards, Billy Joel, and Paul Anka! They all make special trips to come to my table just to say hello.
The girl was astonished! They never met me before. They just assumed they should know me because I looked like some executive in the music business and they didn’t want to brush me that way. Keith Richards was the third to come over. By that time I was so shocked, I felt like I was tripping. How could this even happen?
Have you signed autographs based on people’s perception of you being in the music industry? Have people come up to you and said, “Oh my God I love your music.”
Yes, but I don’t. I just laugh. Some guy on a cruise once followed me around for hours because he said to my friends, “Is that who I think it is?” and my friend just said “yes,” and didn’t say who I was. The guy thought I was Elton John! So, I’m talking to some girl and this guy comes over to me and starts thanking me for The Red Piano. I never heard of The Red Piano, didn’t know it was an Elton John album. I thought the man was a maniac so I just ignored him. Later that night we are all at dinner and this guy sends over $400 drink to my table. I didn’t even know there was such an expensive drink, thinking that I am Elton John. He kept following me, the dude kept following me! Finally, I had to say to him, “I don’t know who you think I am, but I am not that person,” and he was really annoyed. He thought I had been leading him on that I was Elton John.
Isn’t that crazy?
This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as stories are concerned. When did you really start focusing what you were doing in comedy? Because I’ve seen it posted that you were a dentist at one point, are you a dentist?
Well once you are, you’re always. That started as a nasty rumor and you know how that rumor started?
When did that rumor start?
The day I graduated from Dental School I never stopped, it’s crazy. But yeah, I was a dentist for many years. I was a cosmetic specialist and then I was a professor at NYU in Oral Medicine and Oral Facial Pain. I did that for a long time while I was writing Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Friar’s Roasts, Phil Hartman, and Dice Clay. I’m one of the few people who ever wrote for Dice.
Did they ever try to get you to cap a tooth on the side?
The only time I did that was for Paul Provenza. He was in the show, Only Kidding. I tried not to bring the two things together but people knew. When I was writing for Joan Rivers, she didn’t know until she saw it on TV and she was shocked. She asked, “How come you never told me?” I said, “because no one hires you in show business because you are a dentist, they hire you in spite of it.” It is not really a prerequisite for show business.
How many people think they had Elton John as their dentist? Like to this day they’re walking around like, “you aren’t going to believe this! Man, I am telling you, true story. Elton John filled my cavities.”
I used to have pictures up in my office of me with the comedians, so my patients knew that I was doing this other thing, but I never joked around in the office. People always said, “you really are in comedy? You’re so serious.” Because I was a cosmetic specialist and I never wanted people to think that I didn’t take my work seriously because it was very important to me. I used to lecture on cosmetic dentistry.
As a matter of fact, do you know Robert Smigel?
His dad, Irwin Smigel is considered the father of cosmetic dentistry. His sister, Blanca, who happens to be one of the producers of Oh Hello. She’s one of the people that came over last night to introduce herself to me. She was there with two of her sons and she said, and I didn’t know she was Robert’s sister and Robert is a good friend of mine, came one the Bennington show with me as my guest on SiriusXM. He took time out from taping his show with Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog and Jack McBrayer.
Yeah. Jack McBrayer.
He came on the Bennington,/em> show as my special guest. So it was so nice to get to meet all these people, so much family there last night.
I was telling you about Paul Provenza. Paul was staring in this play and we were doing a radio show together. He happened to mention that he just chipped his tooth. Jackie Mason was the host of the show, and he said to Paul, “Well, why don’t you go to Jeffrey?” and Paul is like, “why would I go to a comedy writer to have my tooth fixed?” Jackie told him about my background and he wound up coming to my office and fixed his tooth. I bonded it for him and he went back on stage that night and it lasted for a very long time, as did our friendship. We’re friends to this day. It must be like 20 years ago. So that’s about the only time I brought comedy actually into the office. I tried to keep the separate.
We will put the dentist aspect of this interview to bed. My vocabulary when it comes to dentistry is very limited, but I do know the space in between someone’s front teeth is called diastema right? Am I correct on that?
Exactly and I always wanted to close Letterman’s diastema. I never got to do it. I would have done that, but I never got to do it.
Your connections to comedy run very deep, you’ve written for some of the biggest comedians to ever take the stage as well as the Friars Club, and you do stand-up yourself. Did you try stand-up before you tried writing for other people?
It’s a great question. When I was 12, I already made up my mind that I wanted to be a dentist and I was already writing comedy. My whole life was that split and I was very fortunate to have written for some well-known people. Going back even to Jerry Louis, Milton Berle, and Henry Youngman. When I was writing for the Friars Roast I got to work with real legends, and in truth I was afraid to do stand-up comedy. I was nervous to go on stage because if you start stand-up when you’re in your twenties and nobody knows you, you have the freedom to bomb, which is how you get better. You go up on stage at the beginning and you’re probably horrible. Some people are lucky and are good right away, but most people are horrible, but you develop by going back on stage. It’s cool because nobody knows you. By the time I was ready to do stand-up too many people knew me and it was a tremendous amount of pressure because they knew me as a writer. If I went on stage and did poorly it would really be very embarrassing, so I put it off for many years. Then about five or six years ago I just got up the courage. So many people told me I should be performing, and I started doing it and it’s been great, I love it. I still feel tense before I go up. But I listen to my past sets, because I record everything, and it gives me the confidence. I hear the laughter and I am like, “you’re funny dude. Just go up and do it. Everybody else does it. You can do it too.” So in June, I made my national TV debut doing stand-up on Gotham Comedy Live.
AXS TV right?
AXS TV, with John Lovitz – who is a very old friend of mine, back from the days when he was on SNL – I used to write with Phil Hartman, John and Phil were very close. I just got accepted into the Boston Comedy Festival and I’ll be performing there in November. This weekend I will be performing in the Yonkers Comedy Festival and I perform at all the clubs around town. When I am in LA, I perform at those clubs too. It has really been fun and has opened me up a lot. I try to do everything that makes me nervous. I confront my uncomfortable on a daily basis because part of my background. I was a very severe stutterer until my twenties. I stuttered so badly that I couldn’t even say my name.
I did not know that. I would have never guessed, so the fact that you were able to overcome that without any repercussions is something I would have never guessed. It would have never crossed my mind.
Even stutterers can’t tell I ever stuttered. I was given the grace to figure out how not to stutter. My parents took me to speech therapy and no one was able to help me. I worked on myself for years. I was determined that I was not going to go through my whole life as a stutterer. I had to change my whole thinking, I had to change my mind in those terms. Now, as an avocation, I work with stutterers and I teach them how not to stutter.
Let’s get some paper cuts. Let’s talk about these two books.
It is an embarrassment of riches because it is hard enough to get one book done and for some reason, two different publishers decided to come out with two books I wrote at the exact same time. There is awkwardness to that. It is hard enough to go out and promote one project. It is actually very difficult to get a book made these days. The publishing field is very different than it was years ago. I was very fortunate. The one book is called Laughing Legends: How the Comic Strip Club Changed the Face of Comedy. It is about the history of this legendary comedy club, The Comic Strip and how it launched the careers of the likes of Eddie Murphy. Chris Rock actually wrote the introduction. It’s a book of interviews with all the big stars that came out of there, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Ray Romano, Paul Reiser, Gilbert Gottfried, Susie Essman, Colin Quinn, on and on, Lisa Lampanelli, Louis Black, Judah Friedlander – they all got their start there. It was fascinating to me that all these people could come out of this one club and the club is still open. It opened on June 1, 1976 and is still open today. The Improv opened in ’63, but it wasn’t until the end of ’72 that Catch A Rising Star opened, Rick Newman’s club. Then The Comic Strip joined them in ’76. The other two clubs are long gone. In LA, they have the Improv and Rick Newman’s club has been franchised, but there is no longer a Catch in New York City. It is really just The Comic Strip that’s still around from those days.
It fascinated me, so I presented it the club’s owner Richie Tienkin, and he came to my house to meet with me. He said I had more pictures on my wall than he did in the club. He trusted me and said I was the guy to write the book. It took four years, three years to do all those interviews because it was hard to schedule people to sit down for an hour. I wound up with 500 pages and transcribed every single word. I wouldn’t trust anybody else to do it because there was gold in there. Talking to all these stars – Jim Gaffigan, Louis Black, Jeffrey Ross, and Jim Breuer. Every one of them sat down and told me their story; how they started, how they wound up at that club, and all their struggles they had in the beginning. So I had 500 pages and I had to narrow it down to 250. How do you cut out stories from all those people? So it took a year to do the editing and I wound up with this book. Anyone who likes the history of comedy, or new comedians who want to know what it was like for these guys, what they went through on their way up, would really like this book. On the cover there’s a blurb from Judd Apatow, who said he often wishes he was a part of the scene at The Comic Strip, but now has enough information to pretend he was. On the back is a blurb from Richard Lewis, Bob Saget, and Nick Kroll. It has lots of photos from the early days of Eddie Murphy. The club opened June 1st and he auditioned on June 17th. Two weeks later Seinfeld was there. It was his home club until he left for LA in 1980.
It’s like there should be a sixth great lake named after you and it’s just a place where you sit and tell all of your stories. You would overflow that great lake. These two books prove that. All of your years writing comedy prove that. Now that you’re a stand-up on stage, it proves that. The fact that you can just walk into a room, like an Oh Hello premiere and hobnob with these people cross paths with you and know who you are. At the end of the day you can’t tell me it is still not fun, every once in a while, when you’re walking around New York City, when a tourist comes up to you and says, “Holy Sh*t! It is Elton John. Can I have a picture?” You must like it.
Last night, some guy stopped me and I thought he must have been mistaken because he was so excited. He and his wife, I thought they thought I was someone else because I had never experienced that level of excitement. He was so excited about the too much tuna, I said, “I think you must think I am someone else” and he goes, “No. I know who you are. Too Much Tuna. You’re the first guy. Would you please take a photo with us?” I told him absolutely. He didn’t say anything about Elton John.
I didn’t get a chance to tell you the title of my other book…
It’s called, Man Robs Bank with His Chin and Other Unusual Stories Missed by Mainstream Media. It’s a book about unusual stories. I used to write for The Weekly World News. The guy who wrote the intro is Scott Dickers, who created The Onion. The Weekly World News was the precursor to The Onion. He said it was a big influence. I had my own column called “Gurian’s World of the Bizarre.” It is about stories like “Man With Infant Head Sues For Discrimination,” or “Man Killed for Giving Girlfriend a Snail Instead of an Engagement Ring.” These are stories people need to hear!
Well Jeffrey, there is no place in comedy that you haven’t been and haven’t touched, so congratulations on all the success and much continued success.
I look forward to picking your brain again down the road.
Anytime at all. I have to tell you that and you ask wonderful questions and it has been really great talking to you.
Hey look, I don’t want to end this by saying that that is entirely too much tuna, for now, this is just the right about of tuna. So thanks
There is never too much tuna, Mark.
Both of Jeffrey Gurian’s books, Laughing Legends: How The Comic Strip Club Changed The Face of Comedy and Man Robs Bank with His Chin: And Other Stories Missed by the Mainstream Media are available on Amazon now. You can also watch many of his interviews at Comedy Matters TV. He’s also a contributing writer for The Interrobang.