For most comedians, an hour of material takes between a year to two or three years to craft. It involves countless tour dates, dropping into clubs, trying out things, taking out other things, and frivolous rewriting. It’s an all encompassing, time-consuming process to say the least. So the idea that a comedian would be able to film a half hour for one network and then a brand new hour for another in the same year, with only 5 months to write and film that new hour, would seem pretty crazy, right? Luckily for Gina Brillon, she was up for the task.
Over the years, Gina Brillon has become a staple of the comedy scene with appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Night w/Seth Meyers, Chelsea Lately, and more. Her new special, The Floor is Lava, is on Amazon now. And despite only having a 5 month window to write, produce, and perfect this hour, you would never know it. Brillon truly rose to the occasion, stepped up to the plate, and hit it out of the park. Her special has this very personal quality to it, as she talks about her family, her upbringing in New York, being Vegan in a Latino household, and how she met her husband on a cruise when she wasn’t looking to be tied down. In the last few minutes, she gets even more personal. Fighting off all emotions, she describes just how much this meant to her and the journey that lead her to this moment. It is a raw and pretty honest moment in a special that already was plenty raw to begin with. It’s a moment that says just as much about her as it does about the special.
We recently spoke to Gina over the phone about her new special, how fast it came together, her influences, filming in New York, the shift in comedy, and how she’s been staying creative while in quarantine.
How did the special come together?
Well, it’s my favorite story to tell because it’s such a crazy story that had happened. So essentially, before I had gotten an offer from Amazon and Comedy Dynamics, I got this offer to do a half hour for HBO. And shortly after accepting the offer with HBO, I got an offer to do an hour with Amazon. And when I went back to my team and they were like “Hey, so which one do you want to do?” I was like “Both,” because I’m a sociopath, clearly, to take on more work. And it became a back and forth between my team of whether this was something we could accomplish? Could I write an hour special in 5 months in between my half hour that I was shooting for HBO and the Amazon special. And I was like most crazy creatives, so I was like “I can do anything!” And I decided to take on this monstrous task of basically building an hour special in 5 months. So I sat down with my close team of people and my writer partner James Ben, who we worked on a short film together. And I said “Hey, do you want to help me with this special? Could you help me stay on track and get this done?” And so we actually did and he agreed to it. And he came to every show and watched every set and said “This worked, this didn’t work.” We went through that material and we built something that I’m really proud of right now. A special that means so much not only because of the labor of love it was to create it, but also because of the message that I wanted to convey to people. And so that was really important to me that there be a message at the end of this special. And I think it was really well executed, and that’s hard for me to say because I am hard on myself as a performer. But I was really happy with the end result. And I hope everyone else will be, too.
It’s crazy that you were able to accomplish all of this in 5 months from starting from scratch to production.
And what a lot of people don’t realize about specials, like when I’ve been asked before “How long does it take for a comic to build a special?”, never ever have I known anybody to build a special in less than a year. Because of the work that it takes to write a special, tour with a special, get it down to the perfect order of material of however you want it to go. And then be ready to shoot it, set up where you want to shoot, get a venue. It takes so many different elements. And so for this to come together in such a short period of time, both on Amazon’s part and also the creative work, it’s the proudest I’ve ever been of my work ethic. And so I think when you’re faced with a challenge like that, it goes two ways. You could either look at it and find it daunting because of all the work that goes into it. Or look at it and roll your sleeves up, and be like “Well, time to make it into the ring.” And I was really proud of everything that came out of all that hard work.
And one of the moments that really struck me with the special is how open you are throughout the special. But during the last five minutes, you sort of open up even further and let the audience know just how important all this is for you. And it’s a very sweet and special moment.
Thank you so much. It took a lot of practice in the mirror not to cry. (Laughs). I practiced and I kept saying “Okay, don’t cry. Just don’t cry.” Because I’m one of those people who cannot cry and talk at the same time. If I’m crying, I’m crying. If I’m talking, I’m talking. The two cannot ever work together well. And I’m an ugly crier, so I was like “I can’t.” I’m not a cute one tear dripping down the side of my cheek crier. I’m like a snot, bubbling… It’s not pretty. So I was like “Don’t get emotional. Try not to get emotional.” But it was really important that, at the end of the special, I let people know what my purpose really was in shooting this special and why it meant so much to me. To be pushed out there for everybody at home questioning following their dreams and just being this little girl from the Bronx that had a dream bigger than she could ever imagine and just getting that message across to people has always meant a lot to me. So the fact that I was able to make it apart of this special, and my hope for it is that it does become such a defining moment of the special. It doesn’t have to be a comedy bit that defines the special. So a moment like that just means the world to me if people just remember the special for that.
Well hopefully you can have people coming up to you and letting you know that, what the Brett Butler and George Lopez specials did for you, your special did that for them.
I really do. I hope that there’s a little girl or little future comedian sitting at home watching and going “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I just remember that feeling watching Brett Butler and George Lopez and just knowing this was it. I didn’t know how to accomplish the dream, I had no set plan. But I knew right away. “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life no matter how hard it is.”
And tell me, how important was it for you to do the special in New York? Being a New Yorker yourself, it seemed like you were so happy to be doing it there as you walked out onstage.
Yeah. My very first special was taped in the Palisades. So technically still in New York, but it wasn’t like New York, New York to me. And then my other specials, the half hour was taped in San Antonio, and then I did a 15 minute set that was taped in California. I hadn’t really filmed a special in New York City. And this was in New York City at El Museo del Barrio, which was an impactful place to film that for me, for my culture, being a museum that primarily shows Puerto Rican artwork and artwork from Puerto Rican people. So that being a thing that they were doing, it just meant a lot more for me to film there in the city. Not just in New York, but in that particular location. So it meant a lot for me to film there and I knew it did. And I was very happy that we even found a location in New York to film at that, to me, was so epic.
And very early in the special, you talk about the sort of PC culture. And one thing I always like to ask comics about when I hear them address that and how comedy has changed is at what point do you start to notice that shift when you’re doing comedy?
You know, it was slower than people like to think. I think it was a gradual thing. It’s not like it automatically happened. This cancel culture was a big build. It started off, for a lot of people, just noticing how many things patrons at comedy clubs would complain about. And it was like “This didn’t used to be a thing. People didn’t used to get mad at comics for saying what they were feeling or thinking or giving a point of view that was different from yours.” But then it became such a regularity for people to be like “That joke hurt my feelings,” and for comics to be like “That wasn’t about your feelings. It wasn’t about anything. I don’t know you. I don’t know your life. And to assume that I was intentionally attacking you is just crazy. Are you nuts? I don’t know your life. I don’t know that what I’m going to say is going to upset you.” And then it became minding your P’s and Q’s onstage because you just don’t want the issue of people writing into a club or starting a fight with you after or attacking you online for whatever you said on television or whatever you said at a club that they were at.
And it became very frustrating because I don’t know many comics, but I’m sure there are a few, that their intention is to offend. 90 percent of the time, we’re literally just trying to tell our story and talk about our lives or just entertain and be honest and truthful to ourselves as creatives and performers. And when that backfires, and your intent was good, is just mind-boggling. And so I didn’t notice it notice it until I started doing more colleges and I realized that there was a generational difference now. Whereas colleges used to be the place where you could go and perform and people pushed you to be the rebel that said things that other people were scared to say. And now it became “If you say anything that we disagree with,” and this was something I was actually told by a college, “we will disconnect your mic. We will turn off your microphone and stop the show. If you say anything that we deem inappropriate or racially biased in any way or sexist or this or that, we will literally stop the show.”
And it just kind of took me back because I was like “Woah.” We come from a profession that gave us legendary comics like Pryor and Carlin and all these other people that were like the naysayers. Who said stuff that they shouldn’t, but did so. And now you’re putting a cap on that because of your feelings. And it just seemed like they were silencing the people in society who feel like it is our job to look at the world and make commentary and hold a mirror up to it. And so it was really frustrating to be told that, because you still want to perform. You still love what you do, but now it’s like “Now I’ve got to mind my P’s and Q’s,” and it just kept going and going and going and continuing. I would say, if I had to create a timeline, it goes back to the early 2000’s when I feel like this started to happen more regularly, where people were getting more and more offended. If you go back to the comedy world of the 80’s and the 90’s and you saw what people were saying, they would never get away with that now. Watch Eddie Murphy’s Raw and see if you think he could get away with doing that now.
Even Eddie Murphy said earlier this year that he couldn’t get away with that material now.
Yeah. There’s no way. There’s absolutely no way. All of these legendary comics would be banned.
But it does create that crossroad for comics of whether to censor yourself or just not care about it. Where do you find yourself in regards to that?
Well it was never really an issue for me because I was always very cautious with what I say and how I say it onstage because I started so young. And it was so interesting, because for me, I always had like my parents at my shows, so I was always very careful with what I would say because I have Latino parents and they would whoop my butt onstage if I disrespect them. So I was very cautious with what I would say onstage and then it became a bigger part of my act because I realized being careful with what I say as a comic and working clean made it easier for me to make the transition from the stage to television. I never had to worry about being told to keep something T.V. clean because it’s like “Oh yeah. That’s how I work.” And for a long time, I think I struggled with “Am I still a good comedian if I’m working clean?” Because there was this big boom in like super edgy comedy. And people love edgy comedy now and I was like “Well, am I not edgy because I’m too clean?” And then through the road of self discovery as a performer, I sort of realized “My voice is my voice.” People are going to like it or they’re not. And that’s their choice. That’s their option. I’m not there to correct it and I’m not there to convince them. The people that love my stand-up will support it. The people that don’t, don’t have to. And I don’t need to pay attention to or feed their hate if they come on my page and say terrible things. Man, I am the block and delete queen. If you come on my page and you talk trash, I will not waste my time with you. I am not going back and forth with you. If I leave my comment up there, my fans are going to come for you. So I just block and delete. I just delete it. I don’t think about it because it’s too much energy to waste on somebody who did a pointless thing. Because when I don’t like a performer, I don’t go to their page and take the time out to trash them on their page. I just don’t support their stuff. I don’t watch their movies, I don’t listen to their music. I just have my preferences. Nothing against them, they have their fan base.
So for me, that was never an issue with that cancel culture. I’ve had very few problems with someone coming to me and saying “This bit seems this way.” I had someone accuse me of being anti-transgender for a bit that I did. That really upset me because not only was the bit misunderstood and the story I was telling misunderstood, but I never want to come across as anti-anything when it comes to the LGBTQ community. Because I have so many friends that are in that community, my brother is openly gay. That really hurt. So for me, all I could do is say that’s not what I meant and I apologize. And I think the bit had been posted on my Instagram page and I took it down. And I had a very nice back and forth with a young man about how that wasn’t my intention and I apologized if it was taken the wrong way. I think apologies, for performers, can be really hard because it’s looked at as this sign of weakness that you’re tapping out. And for me, it’s like my intent was misunderstood and the least I could do is apologize. That wasn’t my intent and I apologize if it came across that way. That doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of my material. It means that my intent was good and I apologize. If from an outside perspective you looked at it and you got offended, I can’t help how you interpret things but I apologize if you interpreted something the way that I did not intend it to be.
And it was a very eye opening chat. Some people you can talk to when they come to you. The first time a woman approached me about it, she was very aggressive. And that conversation did not end well. (Laughs). Because you know, aggression meets aggression. When you’re arguing, you can’t argue logic versus emotion. So if I’m logically telling you I did not intend for the bit or the story to come across that way, and you are fighting me on your emotional pain, there’s no way to win that argument. Because logic will never beat out emotion. Emotions are too strong. And I know that. So I just gracefully bow out and go “Okay, lady. If you want to hate me, you can hate me. Just please leave. You can hate me for the rest of your life. Every time a picture comes up of me, you could flip me off. It’s fine. I don’t care. But just go now. I don’t want to have this conversation anymore.” And it’s really been only two incidents where that.
I think it’s bound to happen to every comic at one point or another. And something else I want to know is, you talk about your husband and your family so much onstage. How do they feel about the things you say about them onstage?
(Laughs). It’s so funny, because my husband, he has a great sense of humor. He’s a huge comedy fan, and that’s one of the reasons why when we first met we connected. I’m a comedy nerd, he’s a comedy nerd. And he even told me “I don’t care if you talk about me onstage. Just make it funny. There’s nothing worse than hearing a joke about yourself that bombs.” And so he’s always been very supportive. My parents and my family they’re wildly supportive. They’ve never really been like “Hey, what did you mean by that?” They’ve never gotten upset at anything because usually, 90 percent of the time the stuff that I’ve said onstage I’ve said to them. So my family has always handled every situation with humor. Every tragedy with humor, life with humor.
So I come from a family with a great sense of humor and a great sense of who they are. So if I’m gonna talk about how my mom is a silent person and my dad is a talker and I’m gonna tell that story, it’s because I’ve told it at the dinner table. Or if I’m going to talk about growing up and not having a lot of money, my parents are aware. They were there. So they know what I’m gonna talk about. And I’m also very careful not to delve too much into them personally. I don’t want to rip my parents a new one onstage. I don’t want to destroy my sister’s life onstage. I want to pick out the parts that I know other people can identify with, especially in their family unit, so they can go “Oh my God, my mom’s like that. Oh my God, my sister’s like that.” I don’t need to destroy somebody’s reputation or cause them to have any insecurities because of what I’m saying up there. I’m just going to point out the stuff that they even find comical about themselves and just be like “Hey look. Everybody knows somebody like this.” And it almost gives them a little more comfort. Everybody knows a talker. My husband’s a talker. He knows he’s a talker. I’ve talked about it plenty of times that he’s a talker. And he always laughs and his family laughs at it because they’re like “Yeah, we all know.” And that’s a great way to get strangers to connect. My favorite thing is looking out into the audience and seeing people not only nod in agreement with me but to each other and go “You’re going through that too.” Complete strangers. And it’s a beautiful thing to see. And I’m very lucky and blessed to have a wonderfully supportive family who does not care about all the trash I talk about them.
The last thing I want to ask is, during these weird times, can you stay creative?
I miss it so much. I’m not even gonna lie. I’ve had to cancel a lot of shows, I hate cancelling shows. 90 percent of the time it brings to the point of tears that I have to cancel. I’ve loved this since I was 14 years old. So the thought of cancelling a shows just breaks my heart. So as soon as we started cancelling shows, I was just kind of depressed. Like “How am I going to deal with this? Like the stage is such an outlet for not only myself but every other performer I know that’s going through it right now.” And I had to take a step back and realize sometimes in order to write about life, you have to live it. So in this moment, sitting back and collecting my thoughts and writing about different things that I find upsetting or funny or frustrating and turning them into stories onstage, that’s been my focus and my sanity throughout this period. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss those shows. I miss being onstage and doing meet greets and hugging people after my shows and taking pictures with them and sharing that moment with them. It’s my favorite thing, after shows, is doing meet and greets and talking with the audience and really getting to meet them and see how they felt about the show. I miss all of it and I can’t wait to get back to it. I’m eager for us to be in a place where it’s safe for me to travel and it’s safe for me to go to these places and perform again because I know people are hungry for live performance. And the virtual shows online have been great because they do provide some comfort for the comics and the people. You can still get some laughs, you can still come into this virtual comedy club. It’s not the same. It’s never going to be the same as a live performance. But it’s the closest thing we have, so I appreciate the people that are doing it.
Gina Brillon: The Floor is Lava is on Amazon now.