Spalding Gray, Sit Down Comedian

“Sitting squared behind that table gives me a center, makes the story the important thing and to some extent the table is a new image that can’t be pinned down. It is authoritarian but it also is not stand-up comedy.” — Spalding Gray on not being a stand-up comic

If you read a certain amount of interviews with Spalding Gray you’re going to notice a reoccurring sentiment, a sort of consistent refusal– it comes out of his mouth bluntly, more or less like so: “I am not a stand-up comedian.” Cataloging these instances in one sitting starts to paint a picture of someone, perhaps, protesting too much. Who was he railing against? Was Gray really being pinned with a stand-up comedian tag? It turns out, yes, he was. A few examples:

”He is a sit-down monologuist with the comic sensibility of a stand-up comedian,”– New York Times

“Part stand-up comedy, part psychoanalytic free association,” — NPR

“Gray’s aural diaries are funnier than Woody Allen’s old stand-up bits, and more candid than the confessions exacted by Oprah.” — Seattle Times

So, why did this matter to Gray? One answer is that Gray was firmly rooted in not only a theatre background but was also deeply emerged in the burgeoning downtown avant-garde New York culture of the 1980s . For the New York artists of the ’80s, even if the end result was making an audience laugh, the initial goal always originated as something far loftier. But the other answer that comes to mind might be one that has been overlooked. That is, stand-up comedy in the ’80s was essentially a cultural-slum out of which few escaped. Today, the idea of a stand-up comedian elevating their work to the level of something considered to be, for lack of a better word, art, is fairly common (comedians like Louis CK, Marc Maron,Bill Hicks and Tig Notaro come to mind) but this was a true rarity at the time (George Carlin & Richard Pryor being obvious exceptions). Even more, the exploding popularity of stand-up comedy in the ’80s left a low-brow-commercial-stench upon the whole medium. Was the comedy-club stage a place to truly express yourself or were you just there to assist in the sales of hot wings and draft beers? The historical arc of the medium supports this idea:

“In the early ’80s, there was a comedy boom: Clubs sprouted across the country and in the county–at its peak, the county supported four comedy clubs that packed their rooms for almost every show–and comedians multiplied, filling those stages.” — LA Times

“In the 1980s, stand-up boomed, and even mediocre acts could make a living.” — New York Times

With this piece of the historical puzzle in place, Gray’s refusal of the genre-tag becomes far more understandable. The painful journey Gray took to finally arrive seated behind a desk telling the story of his life was far too intense for him to willfully allow his monologues to swim in the same waters as road comics playing venues with names like Snickerz or Chuckles. But with each subsequent monologue, as his reputation slowly grew, he danced ever more precariously all over the line between monologue and comedian. As one eulogy in the New York Times explained, “The persona he created became beloved — almost too beloved, in a way that sometimes trivialized him into a Seinfeldian curmudgeon — and he jetted all over the world replicating it.”

Similarly, nothing I found in the Gray interview archives is more telling regarding this topic than this excerpt from a New York Times profile:

“I want this [monologue] to be different from the others.” He pauses for effect. “I stand up twice.’

Gray saw the line clearly, was attracted to it, and became an expert tight rope walker during this courting process. “If I can make people laugh it’s like being a good lover,” he noted in a later interview.

Were he around today, Gray might not be so touchy about the stand-up tag. The comedy medium has transformed. Besides the content itself, there’s the significant breaking away from the club-“just here to sell appetizers”-mentality. In fact, you’re just as likely today to see a stand-up show in a venue where Gray performed as you are in a designated comedy club.

Additionally, the fairly recent, symbiotic comedian/podcast relationship has made the form more ubiquitous and widely available than ever before (one can easily imagine Gray turning his daily journaling into a podcast). Today a teenager in Australia, for example, can access hundreds upon hundreds of hours (!) of their favorite American comedian talking into a microphone, all for free, with a few mouse clicks. There has never been such unmitigated access to artistic voices as there is right this instant. Further, I’d argue that there is something about this untethered access to an artist’s thoughts that is abstractly, probably even directly, connected to Gray’s fearless willingness to put the most embarrassing parts of himself out there for all to see (Gray’s name comes up regularly on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron– frequently the most popular podcast of the medium).

In a way, the dynamic has completely reversed itself in which it’s now the comedians who now strive to transcend the “joke teller”-role by putting together storytelling shows that are performed as separate from their act, always billed as their unique “One Man Show.” Storytelling slams and live events dedicated to “regular folks” expressing their personal story in an elevated way are all very much part of the current zeitgeist.

Spalding Gray never ditched the desk to join the care-free joy of the stand-up comedians but now, in an odd turn of events, the comedians have come marching into Spalding Gray’s territory. Maybe, like Gray, they’ve also figured out that being in charge one’s story equals a kind of irresitible control. As Gray said, “I would prefer to tell [my own life story] because [in] telling you’re always in control, you’re like God.”

Now who wouldn’t want that?

Originally published February 6, 2013. A largue audio archive of Gray’s best known and lesser works was released today on the Howl app, a new subscription service unveiled by the comedy podcast network Earwolf.