Boston might be the closest thing standup comedy has to a marine corps. Louis C.K., Bill Burr, and Doug Stanhope are all part of a long and impressive list of comics who got their start in Boston. Don't be fooled by the cheekbones of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Boston will fuck you up.
Greg Fitzsimmons knows this well. Starting out on the open-mic circuit in Boston, Fitzsimmons was terrified that the testosterone-dense crowds would find out he was gay. He's not gay and has no idea why this bothered him.
Fitzsimmons eventually made it out of Boston alive, though when we caught up with him, he was staying at his mom's two-bedroom apartment in Jupiter, Florida, with his sister, her husband, and their two kids, as well as his wife and their two children. So we don't know if that whole "alive" thing is still true.
We chatted with Fitzsimmons (who was nursing a neck injury suffered on a Busch Gardens roller coaster) about his life on stage, from the early days to the present.
New Times: You started doing standup in Boston, right?
Greg Fitzsimmons: Yeah. I started in, like '89.
Boston seems like an intimidating place in general, but I imagine it must be terrifying to try and start your standup career there.
Yeah, it was. I look back at it the same way you look back at things you did when you were young. You think, "Was I crazy? What made me think I could do that?" I think it was like riding a roller coaster. It was just like, how much can I get my heart rate going? How much fear can I take? You kind of need that stimulation. I think that Boston was the place with the toughest attitude. Everybody was a tough guy. Everybody was like a union worker or worked on the docks.
I always thought they were going to find out that I was gay. Even though I'm not gay. That's how I always felt. I felt like I was going to be outed, and I always felt like such a pussy, because they were going to just think I was gay. And that shouldn't bother me as somebody who's not only not gay but not homophobic, but it's just such a manly place.
What would 1989 comedy rookie Greg Fitzsimmons think of the Greg Fitzsimmons of today?
You know, that makes me think of Matthew McConaughey's speech at the Oscars. About how in ten years, I want to be my own hero. I think that I would be proud. I mean, I am proud. I feel good about the kind of standup that I do. I don't wish that I was a huge theater act. But sometimes I wonder if I could have been. You know, if I had done things differently and thought a little more about what it was that audiences wanted to see and ordered my act in a way that was more accessible. But that's not why I got into it. I think I'd be proud of the fact that I stuck to my guns. My only criteria for doing a certain type of material is that it turns me on.
Have you noticed the crowds changing since your podcast started to gain a following? Do you feel like they go in already knowing you?
Definitely. They all know my life. They listen to me talk about the details of my life and the themes I'm interested in. They know where I live. They know what I do for a living. And so I can start right in with the punchline. Which isn't to say that if people haven't listened to my podcast, they'll miss the joke, but it gives you that collective experience and that bond with the audience. We're all part of a narrative.
I really liked your special Life On Stage, but there were a few jokes where you could sense the audience pucker up a bit. You never lost them, but you pushed them to the edge. Do you enjoy toying with an audience and seeing just how far you can take them without losing them?
To me that's where it feels the most vital and the most, like, this is why I do it -- when you're making them a little uncomfortable and asking them to trust you and to come along. Like, "It's OK, I'm going to get you to the punchline. I'm not bringing up abortion just for the sake of bringing it up. There's going to be a payoff, and we're all going to get to laugh, and we're going to move past it."
I think the longer you do standup, the more you have an ability to respect the audience. It can be indulgent. I don't want to be the comedian that comes out and just pushes those buttons and challenges the audience on every single joke. Because that gets kind of tiresome and predictable. You have to let off the gas a little bit at some points.
How have the hecklers evolved over your career? Have they gotten worse or better over time?
I don't think it changes. I think it's up to each comedian to kind of set the table for what's allowed. Depending on the situation, I don't mind people heckling, because heckling is kind of a big umbrella. There are people that will converse with you at appropriate times, like when you're in between jokes. There's a time when it's obvious that it's OK to say something.
And I'll even ask the audience something. I'll ask a question that they can answer. There are times when a reasonable person understands you can interact. And then there's people where, if I might take 30 seconds to set up a more involved bit, they make a joke. And then it fucks everybody.
Then it's like, "You fucking idiot. You piece of shit. You drunken moron. I had to build up stock to even attempt this joke, and then you thought -- in your drunken moment -- you had this little fuzzy feeling in your brain stem that said, 'I'm going to be the star right now.'" That's heckling to me. That's unacceptable. And that's the point where I will deconstruct your life. I will gut you and hold you out for the rest of the crowd to see and expose you as the maggot that you are.
I've been in the audience before when that happens, and it's so frustrating to me as an audience member. I can't imagine how it must feel to a comedian onstage.
It's like watching an athlete when they're doing well, and it's like, "God that's so easy." Comedy is a lot harder than it looks, and sometimes it looks like we're just talking and people are laughing, but we're not just talking. That's actually constructed material that has taken months or years to put together. And it can be destroyed by you forgetting that there's a reason why we're onstage and you're sitting in a seat facing us.
Well, hopefully you don't have that problem in Fort Lauderdale.
Oh, no. I will. Fort Lauderdale is infamous.
Yeah. They're drunk, and I like it because they're lively. I think there's a lot of energy, but there's a fair amount of noise from the audience.
Greg Fitzsimmons will be at the Fort Lauderdale Improv from April 24 through April 27. Tickets cost $20 with a two-drink minimum. Call 954-981-5653, or visit ftl.improv.com.