Dana Gould began his stand-up comedy career at the age of 17, a mere 11 days after graduating from high school, “or as Comedy Central would say, nearly retired.”
Cut to today, and Gould, delivering the 2015 Keynote Address for Montreal’s Just For Laughs, says at his age: “By Comedy Central’s standards, I’m now a magic talking tree!”
He also noted that JFLComedyPro is “the very definition of show business,” and that at any given moment, someone might poke your eye out to get a toehold to reach a higher rung on the show-business ladder.
As for his own journey in entertainment, Gould recalled how “hot” a comedy commodity he was when he attended his first Montreal comedy festival, looking to make it big as a TV star. He did earn a pilot deal that summer. It didn’t get picked up. Nor did the pilots that followed. “I had my hand in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist,” he joked.
“Maybe next year I’ll make it,” he kept telling himself. “When I was finally summoned to audition for Saturday Night Live, I was beyond ready. I was ripe!” NBC flew him and two other comedians to Chicago to audition. “I remember looking at the other two comedians on the plane with me: Chris Rock, Adam Sandler. Don’t worry. You’ll get your time.”
Of course, fame happened more for them then than it did for him.
“Maybe it’s just not going to happen?!” Gould wondered. “It already did happen. I already had made it.”
Over the years, Gould has realized and come to recognize that by making a living doing what he loves as a comedian, he is and continues to make it. He is his own living breathing version of idols Richard Pryor and George Carlin before him. “The rest is just measures of degree,” he says.
The trick is not paying attention to the news or the buzz. Gould said news no longer tells you what’s happening in the world, but rather, who’s winning. “That’s how you get Cupcake Wars,” Gould quipped.
Gould relayed stories of his own doubts and obsessions revolved around David Letterman, trying to land a stand-up slot first on Late Night, then eventually on Late Show, and his feelings toward old Letterman producer Robert Morton. A lot of it, in the end, he now realizes, was wasted time.
“Enjoying yourself is not the only thing, but it is a thing!” Obsessing and fetishizing things such as late-night TV spots or SNL does you not as much good as you think. “They’re not more important than you are.” The movers and shakers at his first Montreal all have moved on, yet he remains a comedian. He’s doing it still. He’s doing it now.
Listen to the full keynote address from Dana Gould at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2015, “You’re Doing It Now”
And the full transcript, for your reading pleasure:
They have this just because I am a comedian. [Holding extra microphone] I might not know how to use these. Oh, this is wonderful! I feel like I am speaking at my own funeral.
Here’s a phrase I don’t want at my funeral – “No one should have to die like that. Who knew those snakes were poisonous?” Alright, I’m going to shut this off. [Places extra microphone on the floor]
Alright, let me start reading a list of people who have hurt me in the business. I believe that is the tradition. I’m here to talk about someone that you might not know that I have a relationship with. I’m known mostly as a solo performer, but I actually happened to work with possibly the greatest comedy partner in the world. He, he is the best straight man in the business. He is hilariously funny, and his name is Jesus Christ. Knock, knock, who is there? No one, I have been here the whole time.
I started doing stand-up comedy 11 days after I graduated from high school. I was 17 years old, or as Comedy Central would say, nearing retirement. And I remember somewhere between my first and second open mic, I lived outside of [unintelligable], 45 minutes outside of Boston, and I drove into Boston and I performed at the somewhat legendary Ding Ho, it was the first time I had ever heard a set. Lenny Clark was the host of the open, and somewhere between my first set and my second set, I was sitting on my friend Johnny Condon’s front porch in my hometown of Hopedale, Mass., and his dad, Ed Condon, who looked like Santa Claus if he shaved, gave me some advice he said, “Gould-y, what ya’ wanna do is – you wanna learn like a song and a little soft-shoe, you don’t wanna go up there and blow your wad, and then have nothing.” And I took two things from that. I don’t wanna discuss my wad with anyone’s dad – blown or otherwise. My wad is my business, and the second thing I took was that is really nothing worse than advice from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about, even if it is well intentioned, and it is my hope that my little comment today doesn’t fall into that category. This festival, Just for Laughs, is the, is the living definition of show business – we are here under the ComedyPro banner. It’s artists and executives – show and business. Warily eying each other, each member of each group desperately hoping they can find another member of the opposing group that has a mutual creative spark, a mutual interest, a dedication, a talent, an insight, an ability – somebody they can use. This is neither right nor wrong. This is nature’s way – this is the way this business works, and I don’t think I am being cynical when I say there is not a person in this room who wouldn’t pop out your eyeball and use the empty socket as a toehold to climb up and get something they wanted off a high shelf.
I grew up in Massachusetts. I was the fifth of six kids, a Catholic man with a Jewish woman’s name, and when you have eight people in a three-bedroom house, the term ‘serenity’ doesn’t come to mind often. There are very few things that everyone agrees on and there are painfully few instances in which everyone is quiet. One of the few such instances that I remember in my home, for whatever reason, was when George Carlin was on television. Whenever George Carlin was on television, everyone shut up. No one spoke. Everyone listened. And I grew up fascinated by that power, that one person with a microphone did all that. We had a two-screen movie theatre in my hometown and when I was in high school I worked as an usher there – I mean it was, there were two auditoriums – it wasn’t two screens in one room. But that’s coming. That’s coming soon. And when I worked there in high school I saw the first Richard Pryor concert film, Richard Pryor Live in Concert. I saw it about 20,000 times because I worked there. The other movie in the theater was Superman with Christopher Reeve, and more people went to see Richard Pryor Live in Concert. All the special effects in the world versus one guy with a microphone, and one guy with a microphone did all that. So not very surprisingly, you don’t need Freud to figure this out – I became a comedian. In fact, I never really wanted to do anything else, I certainly don’t know how to do anything else, and when I first came to this festival some years ago back in 19coughcoughcough – by Comedy Central’s standards I am now a magic, talking tree.
People won’t watch people who are older than them, that’s why you will never see a kid in high school watching a professional baseball game – it doesn’t happen. No kids went to go see Jurassic Park, all those people are in their 30s.
When I first came to this festival years ago, I was on fire! I was so hot! I had a manager, I had an agent, and I was gonna come here and somebody was going see me, and I was going get a deal, and I was gonna make it. And two-thirds of that happened. I came here, and I got a deal to make a pilot, and all of the agents, and all of the managers, and all of the development executives lined up and told me what a genius I was, and I believed them. And we all went back to L.A., and meetings were held and parking was validated – and a pilot was written, and my last memory of that specific episode was we were pitching the pilot at NBC, which at the time had comedy. And they passed on the pilot in the room. Now, they don’t do that often but they reserve that right for when they really hate it. And the studio executive, who I met here at this festival who told me I was such a genius – and who is a decent person in his own right – however, my last memory of him was of him running a football pattern to avoid being seen leaving the building with me. So, I just went back to doing what I do. I walked on a stage, and I picked up a microphone. The next year I got another pilot, and the year after that I got another pilot, and over the course of a few years I had my hand in more pilots than an Air Force proctologist. And at one point during this annual cycle – there used to be a show called Life Goes On and it starred an actor with downs syndrome named Christopher Burke, and you’ll have to forgive my language but I want to make the quote accurate. At one point during this cycle of repetitive annual pilots, my mother called me up and said, “Honey, they gave that retarded boy a show, why won’t anyone out there give you a chance?” Sure he’s retarded…retarded like a fox.
But every year I would get a pilot and it wouldn’t go, and I would go back onstage and I would pick up a microphone, and I would think to myself, maybe next year. Maybe next year I’ll make it. And over time, I started to become pretty good at walking onstage and picking up a microphone to the point that when I was finally summoned to audition for Saturday Night Live, I was beyond ready. I was ripe. I was dripping. I was flown to Chicago with two other comedians and I walked onstage, and I moved the building. You couldn’t touch me. I had one of those sets, you get maybe six of them in your life where everything works, and laughter erupts from the audience like a series of cluster bombs. And I remember flying back to L.A. with the other comedians thinking I’m gonna get on Saturday Night Live. So this is what it’s like when your dream comes true. And immediately in my idiot mind I start to think, “Do I need to buy boxes?” “What do I do with my apartment?” “What about my monster models?” and I looked at the other two comedians who were sitting with me in the plane and I remember thinking, “Chris Rock, Adam Sandler – you’ll get your time. Don’t get too close to my exhaust fumes. I’m burning too hot right now.” Now, I dined out on that story more than one time I can assure you, and a couple of years ago my wife at the time went to New York to see a play that Chris Rock was in and she went backstage speaking with Chris after, and when she came back from New York she went, “Honey, honey, you know that story you tell about auditioning for Saturday Night Live with Chris Rock and Adam Sandler?” “Yeah”, and she goes: “It’s true!”
The word that I would use to describe how I felt at that time was poleaxed. You couldn’t talk to me for a month after that. I would bump into Holocaust survivors and would go, “You are not going to believe what happened to me.” And I remember thinking at that time, “Maybe, maybe it’s just not going to happen. Maybe I’m not going to ever make it.” And of course that what I didn’t realize at that time was that it already did happen, and that I already had made it. It’s difficult when you are in it to be able to step back and objectively look at your career and what success really means. But the sense of awe that I held George Carlin and Richard Pryor in as a child, I already possessed my own version of that. I would walk onstage and pick up a microphone and everybody shut up. And it wasn’t just this thing that I did, it was my job, it was my career, and it was my life’s work, and it still is. And so to the comedians that are here, if you grew up wanting to be a comedian, and you are a comedian, you have made it. The rest is just measures of degree. Now I’m not naïve, there are measures of success and there are levels of success and it’s hard not to worry about that stuff, and it’s impossible not to be competitive. I mean we are in a business where everything has been reduced to a competition, we are in a world where everything has been reduced to competition, because in competition there is drama, and drama is compelling, and when something is compelling people, watch it, and when people watch it you can sell advertising, and if you’re not buying something or selling something, why the fuck are you awake? That’s why the news is no longer what happened, the news is now, “Who won?” They publish movies grosses on Monday morning so we know what movie won. Not what movie is good. What movie won? That’s how you end up with something truly, base level obscene like Cupcake Wars. We live in a world where three people make cupcakes, and two of them are sent home losers. If I know anything about anything, it’s that when someone makes cupcakes, everybody wins! And if elected…!
Show business is a very simple paradigm: It’s people in their 60s telling people in their 50s to get people in their 40s to hire people in their 30s to tell people in their 20s to be entertained. But as comedian, it’s not your job to worry about that. No one in this room needs to waste another minute running a race that isn’t being held because they want to win a trophy that doesn’t exist. If you don’t fit into the spreadsheet projection of what a focus group company has told a TV exec about what their perspective audience finds desirable, who gives a fuck? It has no bearing on who you are as a person, or your value as an artist, and it will not affect the grand arc of your career at all – at all. There are too many venues, there are too many outlets. No one has power over you. At the most it’s work stuff, it’s work stuff. What matters is what happens when you walk out onstage and you pick up a mic.
There was a time in my life when I really hated Robert Morton. Oh my God, for those of you who don’t know Robert Morton, he was the executive producer of Late Night with David Letterman, and then later went on to the Late Show with David Letterman on CBS and all I wanted to do was get on Goddamn David fucking Letterman. So many auditions, and tapes, and phone calls, and tapes of tapes and phonetically breaking down sets — can we remove that one syllable to the third sentence? And I just could not for all of my efforts gauge a set out of the stone face of that show. And after a certain period of time, Morty left the show, and Rob Burnett came in and not long after that, I did the show. So a couple of years later, now I’m engaged, my fiancée is a big agent, and I am now writing for The Simpsons – which is a job I got not from anything that I submitted or wrote, it is a job that I got from people seeing me onstage holding a microphone. The point of it is, I’m now doing OK. I am many people’s view of a success story and I am still thinking I am waiting to make it. And through a weird situation of circumstances, I found myself going to Tuscany with a group of people to stay at Robert Morton’s house, with Robert Morton. I would not want to be Robert Morton. So we get there, and Robert Morton, for the record, is the nicest guy in the world. He could not have been more lovely or gracious or congenial. And we’re there two days, three days, four days, and everyone is having the nicest time except for me, and I am a cobra waiting to strike. I am a scorpion with its tail aloft, and then one day we’re just sitting out on his beautiful yard and we’re talking about the show and Morty goes, “Uh, Dana, when did you first do the show?”
He said, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure Morty. I’m real sure.”
“But that was after I left.”
“You don’t say! You don’t say! Is that true – Not until after you left? Not until after you left-a-rooni!?!”
And Morty just goes “Hmmm, sorry about that, weird, I thought you did the show. You should’ve.”
For all the stress and all the anxiety, and all of the wasted, wasted time and energy, when I finally did do the show, my set was the definition of fine. It was an orgasm of OK-doke. Because I had made the show into such a thing, that when I finally did do it I could not in any way enjoy myself, which is not to say that they did not cherry-pick my set into oblivion, which they did. We love the fourth syllable of that joke. Could you then move the third sentence of the 12th joke before that syllable? And then it didn’t seem to flow naturally. Enjoying yourself is not the only thing, but it is a thing. You know for the longest time I walked around with the false belief that misery is its own reward. Not true. When I finished taping Letterman on that August day in 1996, there was a bunch of traffic so when I walked out of the theater instead of taking the car back, I just walked back to the hotel. All of my friends that lived in New York were out on the road somewhere, so I ended up just going to the movies by myself. There you have it. Fourteen years of obsessing and frustration, and sets and tapes and conference calls and punching my hand and grinding my teeth, and damnit if I didn’t wake up the next morning the same exact human being I was the night before. Finally, finally, finally, finally, I was on TV for five minutes at midnight. But at least I showed up Robert Morton, who thought I did the show five years ago.
Which brings me to the last point I wanted to make, regarding obsessing and fetishizing things like the Late Show. or The Tonight Show, or Saturday Night Live.
If you are a performer, these shows are great but they are not bigger than you are. They certainly shouldn’t be. They’re not more important than you are. I’m a writer, I wrote for The Simpsons for a long time, but I’m a much bigger fan of me. Those shows will come and go, SNL casts come and go, but you’re going to have your career for the rest of your life. And all the movers and shakers in the industry will have moved on to a different job. When I first came here, the people who held the keys to the kingdom that I wanted access to – they have all long since moved on into other jobs. I still have the same job. I walk on stage, and I pick up a microphone. In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he makes the quite brilliant point that your life is not a support system for your art, your art is a support system for your life. And my view of what I thought my career was going to be, what I thought my life was going to be, what I thought would be important to me was so completely and thoroughly and perfectly wrong, it’s kind of brilliant. I wasn’t close on anything. The fact that Chris Rock and Adam Sandler were the ones to get SNL to me at the time was so unfair! By the way if you think life should be fair, try complaining to a homeless person about how expensive it is to go camping.
But the fact is that because I didn’t get it, because I didn’t get the show, the woman in Los Angeles that I had just sort of kind of started to somewhat date, that became a relationship and we ended up getting married. And we now have three children, and three dogs, and two cats, and a rabbit, and a lot of other stuff that is a fuckload more important to me than being recognized on the street from someone who remembers me as being Cold Cuts Man or whatever the hell my stupid character woulda been. [singing] “Cold Cuts Man, Cold Cuts Man, he works in the grocery store, he’s Cold Cuts Man.”
I’d much rather have my family. What I thought was my biggest setback was quite literally the rejection of a lifetime. Which is not to be confused with people who have a stroke and say it was actually a stroke of luck, because nine times out of 10 what they mean by luck is horrible agony. And sure my wife and I got divorced, but hey Saturday Night Live ain’t what it used to be either. I like to think we got cancelled because we were doing poorly in the overnights.
My point is this. I have a friend who believe it or not, is really really close friends with Bob Dylan, and he told me this story and it is the best analogy I have heard about managing your life with your career in show business. Bob Dylan is playing at the Hollywood Bowl, and my friend says to me, “So I go, and I’m walking in and I’m down front you know, because I get good seats, I know the guy. And as I’m walking towards my seat somebody calls for me and I hear “Andy, Andy! Over here! Over here!” And it’s a friend of mine, this woman that I know that works for Bob. And she’s motioning me backstage, “Come over here!” So I go backstage. It’s really nice. They have tables, and chairs, and there’s these big buckets of ice filled with beers. People are hanging out. I’m like, oh my God this is great. Backstage at the Hollywood Bowl, and I’m reaching for a beer and my friend goes “No no no no no, Andy, no no, up here, up here! Go to the lounge, this is backstage, you need to go to the lounge.” So I go up these stairs and now I’m in the lounge. There’s tables and chairs but they’re a little nicer. And there’s an open bar. There’s Kevin Bacon talking to Kyra Sedgwick. This is really good. So I get in line at the open bar and my friend says “No, no, no, no, Andy! Here. You need to be in the VIP lounge. This is just a lounge, you wanna go to the VIP lounge.” So I go up these stairs and I go through a curtain and now I’m in the VIP lounge. And there’s tables and chairs, and it’s really nice. And there’s no bar but there is just waitresses, these beautiful woman walking around with trays and drinks and they’re just handing them out. There’s Jack Nicholson talking to Warren Beatty. I’m thinking, “I’ve arrived. I’m here, I’ve arrived.” And I’m reaching for a drink off a tray and my friend goes, “No, no, Andy. Bob wants to see you! Bob wants to see you!” So I walk out of the VIP lounge and I go on this corridor and I go into a room and there’s an old Jewish man with no shirt on smoking a cigarette. Everybody is killing themselves trying to get close to this thing that isn’t real anyway.
That thing that you want, you’re actually doing it right now. Careers are a series of lounges, and they are to be enjoyed at every step. And even if you’re just backstage, it’s still really good. And my only advice is along the way, try to learn a song and a little soft-shoe, cause you don’t wanna go up there and blow your wad and then have nothing at all.
Thank you very much.”