TSJ Interviews Comedian Josh Gondelman

Who says social media isn’t a career booster? If you were to ask one of the creators of Twitter’s Modern Seinfeld – an account that generates storylines for the show… if the legendary sitcom was still on – you would definitely say it was. New York comedian Josh Gondelman (one-half of the account) admits he’s in constant shock at its success, having watched his creation receive over 200,000 followers in under a week, and recently crack the 350,000 mark.

When he’s not cracking jokes on Twitter, Gondelman does stand up. He’s been featured in clubs and festivals throughout the country. He recently sat down with The Smoking Jacket to discuss comedy, his Boston roots and of course, Modern Seinfeld.

TSJ Interviews Comedian Josh Gondelman

The Smoking Jacket: I know that you started out in Boston. Some amazing names in comedy hatched there… What was it like growing up around that?

Josh Gondelman: I’m really fortunate to have started in such an established scene and a place where there’s every kind of comedy. You get to do it all if you get to a certain level. There are clubs, both big and small. There are rooms that work on their own model too, such as not just getting people in only to buy drinks. They work to get the people they want there.

TSJ: It seems those are the best types of clubs.

JG: Absolutely! Those are always the best. There are rooms like that all over the country. But many places are like let’s get them in the door and then we’ve got them. I call it slash and burn comedy – I don’t know if I lifted that from somewhere [laughs] – but it’s the kind where you’re not concerned with sustainability. You’re just counting on people coming and getting more to come.

TSJ: Are the majority of them in Boston just businesses looking to make money?

JG: I don’t think so. There are some that I wish would run a little bit more for the art of stand up comedy, but I think most of them found a tone and know what works. Mostly, the rooms have different flavors. And I love performing in those too, the places I’m not necessarily comfortable in. Not saying that people heckle, they just are more reactive.

Kramer stays with Jerry while his apartment is being “renovated,” gives Jerry bed bugs. George is humiliated after he drunk dials Elaine.

— Modern Seinfeld (@SeinfeldToday) December 22, 2012

TSJ: Yeah, Boston is notorious for being a bit rough.

JG: I feel like that the crowds there are very honest. Most of the crowds are not places you can go and just get a great response. But then again, if you win them over, once they’re on your side, they like you. It’s interesting.

I think right before I started things began breaking down. None of the rooms were too alt or too straight down the middle. If you’re good you can play at any of them.

TSJ: It’s more diverse?

JG: That, but also, I think the vibe changed a little bit. Chris and Dave Walsh, they had this really great show when I started out and every comic loved them. To me, they were the focal point to where I started. Everybody wanted to hang out at their show; it was so fun and good. To me, that’s what bridged that gap.

I started doing bringer open mics at a similar place. For my disposition it was very helpful to do because it got me in front of real crowds. My act was very gentle and I was worried about being super clean. I think it helped being there in front of paying customers instead of jaded comedians who felt I wasn’t saying anything because I was nineteen years old.

Kramer starts an offline dating “site.” KRAMER: It’s like online dating… but at a place.
JERRY: You’re describing a bar! That’s a bar!

— Modern Seinfeld (@SeinfeldToday) January 10, 2013

TSJ: Do you think that because you knew some of the audience, because it was a bringer show, it made you cleaner? I’d imagine if it were just comics in the crowd you’d have more freedom.

JG: I think so; I think it does. Especially here in New York, I feel going to an open mic, you have to write jokes that don’t just work at open mics. You have to be a little self-deprecating or a little inside because that’s what comics respond to.

Sometimes I’ll write a joke I know won’t work at an open mic but I think real people might enjoy. So I wouldn’t say open mics give you more freedom but there’s a different set of colors on your palette that you’re painting with.

TSJ: That’s why jokes wouldn’t work in different rooms?

JG: I think there are certain jokes that if you’re performing in an open mic, which is usually in front of other comics, a comedian might see coming. Or might tune out because it’s a topic they’ve heard discussed before. Louis CK said, “There aren’t hack premises. There’s just hack jokes,” so if you have an audience of comedy fans I think they will be more receptive than a comedians who is like ugh, I just heard a billion bits about this because this is what I do.

Josh Gondelman Stand Up Clip

TSJ: I’ve never thought about that.

JG: It’s a really interesting conundrum. It’s like going to a jazz club and playing metal solos.

TSJ: So how long had you been doing stand up when you moved to New York.

JG: I moved after seven years. I started really slowly. My first year, I’d go up like once or twice a month. Some people jump in with both feet; I really admire that. I sort of wish I had, but I was nineteen and had nothing to say. I had no interesting experience.

TSJ: That’s normal I think. It’s rare to have any experience there.

JG: Yeah, some people can do it, which is always amazing to me. A lot of the comedy I started with was like So at my dorm… And I could see so many of the audiences members, like 24 years old, just turning off.

TSJ: And how long till you felt you could man the stage?

JG: I’m still feeling it, honestly. Every eight months I think I’m getting there and then I’m like what was I thinking? [laughs] I’ll look at jokes I was doing a year and a half ago and think how did I do that every night?

TSJ: Getting knocked down, isn’t that a good thing? Do you ever want to get to the point where you’re like I got this!

JG: It’s great to feel that way onstage, I think. But off stage, I never want to be there. Onstage, crowds respond to a comedian being in control. If your stage persona is nervous or anxious, people still respond. Someone like Woody Allen, he wasn’t a comfortable guy onstage but he was so masterful about his anxiety there. I think crowds responded that that. But off stage, you don’t want to be like I figured it out!

TSJ: I don’t know if you’re nervous or anxious offstage, but why do you think those who are can hone it when they are onstage?

JG: That’s a good question. I think its practice. I know some people find the writing of stand up cathartic, but for me, the process of stand up is very relaxing. Being onstage for me is very relaxing. I love being there when things are not at their best for me. I don’t necessarily have to deal with my problems. I can just be in that moment; it’s a controlled environment where I know the rules. It’s very soothing.

TSJ: So coming from Boston and now in New York, what are some of the differences you see?

JG: In Boston, I think you tend to focus on stand up and get really good at it. In New York, people are doing more things. Stand up, many times, isn’t the only focus. Maybe they have a podcast or a book they’re writing. In Boston, I think they’re more focused on only stand up. Here, in New York, there’s also just so many more people doing it and more time to diversify.

TSJ: Do you think that’s in part because some of the industry is here?

JG: I think there’s that perception. This is where opportunity is. I know I’ve benefitted from being here and being around people.

TSJ: Is that why you moved here?

JG: I was dating someone who came here. Plus it was just time for me to leave Boston. I felt like I had achieved almost all of my achievable goals there – except work with someone at the Wilbur Theater.

TSJ: I forget whom I was speaking with, but they had mentioned that Boston is such a great city; however, there comes a time where you have to get out because if you don’t leave you never will.

JG: You never will because it’s one of the few places where you can do a lot of comedy and work all of the time without having to travel three or four hours.

TSJ: That was their argument; you can make a fantastic living doing stand up comedy.

JG: There’s a generation of guys who are amazing comedians and they maybe leave twice a year to do the road. Everything they do is in New England, and I knew it just wasn’t for me. My stand up doesn’t travel to every single room; I know that. Those guys can; it’s incredible.

TSJ: But when they leave is it the same response?

JG: I think most of them can play anywhere but they don’t have to. There’s a guy – Bob Marley – who headlines all over the country, but has like 18 albums of material all about Maine. [laughs] He’s hugely popular there; he does so well and is so good. He can play all over the country but is so on the pulse of the New England region. He’s so good that I don’t think he really has to leave.

TSJ: I don’t know if you can make this judgment, but the guys who stay there, are they more content with just being a stand up as opposed to the ones who come to New York?

JG: I think that’s pretty fair.

TSJ: I’m not saying all. I mean, New York has such amazing comics.

JG: If you say that you just want to make a living in stand up, New England is a great place for that. But if you want to write or act and do stand up, those people often leave. I think you can just live a better human being life if you stay there.

My friend is a comic there. He has a house, his wife is having twins, and he doesn’t like being away from home for four or five days. He told me once that he just wanted to get really great at stand up; he’s so focused comedy-wise. He knew that he was going to work really hard at that and the rest would come. Once he said that he became much more at ease. He’s not worried about making it, which is how everyone should be. He is very in tune with his human heart-side of things.

TSJ: Isn’t that easier said than done, to go over to that side? That thought of I want to make it is so hard to rid.

JG: I think it’s whatever is satisfying to you. If you’re human being life is not in order it’s so easy to dive into work, like it is with any job. If you have a gratifying home life then you are more likely to balance it well.

I was dating someone in Boston but was at a place where I felt I had to be working all of the time. It was really bad for our relationship. I was working a day job, doing shows and was really rigid about getting good. Then I moved here about a year after we broke up. Now I’m trying to find that balance; I think I’m doing a better job.

Josh Gondelman on The Steve Katsos Show

TSJ: What changed that? Maturity and age?

JG: I think that’s part of it, yeah. I think I just don’t have that anxiety of if I’m not doing stand up every day, every minute. I’m not a comedian anymore. When I left my day job and was able to tackle other creative projects I sort of got a little better. Diversifying my work portfolio helped a lot.

TSJ: It’s hard to just relax sometimes.

JG: Yeah! Especially if you’re diligent about working when you should be. If you’re just sitting around all day not doing anything productive I would feel more guilty not doing a show, or if I was working a different job I’d feel like I didn’t do anything productive to my career. It’s nice to be able to live.

TSJ: When did you get there?

JG: It started when I won the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival in Atlanta in 2010. That was a big change in that it meant traveling for stand up was a bigger part of my career. That was the beginning of feeling like an actual comedian. I was going on the road more and getting more opportunities at home. When I left my day job as a preschool teacher I felt a little more like Oh, I’m doing it. I felt conflicted because I wouldn’t be helping people as much…

TSJ: That’s nice of you.

JG: It is and it isn’t [laughs] because I didn’t correct it. Some comedians move to New York and never want a day job so they have to go on the road to be able to support living in New York.

George accidentally texts his mom a nude photo intended for his girlfriend. Elaine dumps her bf because he calls himself a “mixologist.”

— Modern Seinfeld (@SeinfeldToday) January 9, 2013

TSJ: That’s a hard thing. I was unaware until a while ago that the road pays better than the city.

JG: Definitely. And if you’re a guy who is good in the clubs all over the country, that doesn’t mean anything to the clubs here.

TSJ: Why’s that? Is there a little pretention there? Like this is New York. The best of the best are here.

JG: A little bit, yeah. The best comics are here, every single week. If you’re headlining somewhere in Dayton, that’s great, but then you come to New York and go to the Cellar or the Strip. The owners are they’re like, “We have Attell and Bobby Kelly,” or even guys who aren’t those guys but have done Letterman and such. Everyone who is on the road, when they are not there, are either in New York or LA.

TSJ: It’s a difficult game. So how often do you find yourself on the road then?

JG: I go off and on. It’s a couple weekends a month, sometimes.

TSJ: Is it weird going back to Boston?

JG: No, I love it! Maybe it’s weird for them? For my friends and people who know me there. I remember when I was living there; the guys who moved out would come back like twice a month to do spots. Eventually they’d move back because they were just working in New England. I don’t want that; maybe if I’m going to visit family and can do something or if someone is doing a benefit.

TSJ: You mentioned before that you found your room. What type of room is your favorite?

JG: I like a small room.

TSJ: There’s an intimacy there.

JG: There is! I love that give and take. On Tuesday nights I do a show at the Sidewalk Café; I feel at home there. I don’t feel like I’m auditioning to come back there. Getting over that feeling, the feeling of I need to do well to come back, is important.

Jerry makes a dinner reservation online, but they won’t seat him, because he never replied to the confirmation email. Bania gets his table.

— Modern Seinfeld (@SeinfeldToday) January 2, 2013

TSJ: Being there twice a month, do you perform new material each time?

JG: Not always. But it is a place where if I have a new bit that I’ve done at an open mic, that will be one of the first places I do it. I’m at ease there. In a small room, the crowd is right there with you.

TSJ: Every comic needs a place where you can try new material and suffer through things you’ve never delivered before.

JG: Oh, yeah. It’s very important.

TSJ: So can we talk about the Modern Seinfeld Twitter handle?

JG: Of course!

TSJ: I am obsessed with this thing. I’m such a Seinfeld/Larry David enthusiast and was thrilled when I saw it the first time. Can you tell me how it started?

JG: One afternoon I tweeted just a couple of “Modern Seinfeld” ideas under my own Twitter account. I don’t think I’m the first person to post something like that.

Jack Moore, a friend of mine who is a Sports editor at BuzzFeed, thought it’d be really funny if it were it’s own thing. He created the account, tweeting a few times.

TSJ: Did you know at the time?

JG: We had not communicated at the time, but he did credit me online. And literally, overnight it blew up. Then it had two thousand followers in one day. The next day, everyone was writing about it. Eventually it was up to 30 thousand followers. ABC news called me; it was crazy. All the while people were accusing Jack of taking my thing.

TSJ: You didn’t feel that way?

JG: No, I didn’t. Honestly, if he didn’t create the account I might not have done it. So that day I said we should collaborate on it.

TSJ: Was he open to it?

JG: Absolutely. Then it took another day to figure out how we’d work on it together. I was just so delighted by how many people resonated with the idea. I really wanted to get involved with it just for the sake of oh; I kind of hatched the idea. I’d like to keep working on it because it’s leading somewhere interesting.

TSJ: Now I believe it has over 350,000 followers.

JG: Yeah! And we’re still gaining followers, which is crazy for a parody account. But I think we keep chipping away showing that there’s a bunch of angles to take it.

TSJ: So how does it work?

JG: We tweet four times a day roughly. Every two to three days I’ll send Jack about ten premises. He puts it together and tweets it and I manage the Facebook account, which is where we put the press and stuff. The twitter account is just for the tweets.

TSJ: And I love that it’s not following anybody.

JG: No one! Not us, not Jerry Seinfeld. It’s really funny that way.

TSJ: Were you a fan of the show?

JG: I was! I was not a crazy fan. I like it, I’ll watch it if it’s on, but I’m not encyclopedic. But for me, those character types are so strong. And the things that happened on the show were so vivid that it’s easy to write even if I haven’t seen every episode.

TSJ: So what’s coming from it?

JG: Well, we’re trying to pitch a spinoff book. It’s been super crazy, the kinds of things that have been happening. We’re not sure how much liberty we’ll have to use the name ‘Seinfeld’ so what we’re doing would be called, ‘What’s The Deal? A Guide To Living in the Age of Modern Inconvenience.’

The intro to the book proposal sort of explains why we need ‘Seinfeld’ back. [laughs] It was so specific in the way it dealt with minutia. It’s almost like advertising in the way Listerine brought about the idea of halitosis to the public consciousness. Like “close talker;” that’s been around but ‘Seinfeld’ brought that to people. No show does that anymore. ‘Curb’ does at times but is more involved in the character, I think.

TSJ: Larry David didn’t have fame when ‘Seinfeld’ was around too.

JG: Exactly! And Jerry Seinfeld was a comedian, which is not a relatable profession but he had very relatable problems. I think that happens in ‘Louie’ also, keeping him grounded. ‘Girls’ too. I think it really nails a vibe. ‘Seinfeld’ reverberates in such a mundane way. Some of those things are just so perfect.

TSJ: Is the book like Fallon’s ‘Thank You Notes’?

JG: The premise is here’s what ‘Seinfeld’ did really well. We’ve constructed a guide to living in the age from how things have changed form 1998 to 2013. One chapter would be Facebook: What’s The Deal with Facebook? The history of it, who are the annoying people on it, and such. So it’s not really like the ‘Thank You Notes’ book.

TSJ: How did it feel when you realized this thing was blowing up?

JG: Jack and I still talk about it. It is crazy. We’ve taken calls from production companies; we have new representation.

TSJ: Didn’t you tell me that Seinfeld himself likes it?

JG: We heard through the grapevine that he thinks it’s funny, which is way better than him being litigious. [laughs] Obviously the dream is he or Larry David to be like “Hey, this is great. We love these guys.” But the next best thing is to hear they like it and they don’t take suit against us. But Jason Alexander has tweeted about it. Jon Favreau has tweeted about it. B.J. Novak, also.

TSJ: That’s fantastic! I’m very excited for you.

JG: Thank you! It’s dazzlingly exciting. It’s weird that Twitter has been a career boost, but it’s the kind of thing where I’m glad it’s happening now rather than three years ago. I’m more situated now. I have a bigger body of work.

TSJ: You feel like you have something to say.

JG: Oh yeah! I’ve had more experience, more relationships – professional and personal, etc. I’m also trying to sell this other book idea I had about this postcard project I did. I had a break up that shook me and then I went on the road. Not having someone to say goodnight to was really a rattling thing for me. So I started a project where I’d write a postcard to whomever wanted one. I’d do it before bed when I was on the road. I pushed it and got over 350 requests. So I’ve written about 400 postcards to people. I’m writing a book of essays based on that experience, my relationship to those people.

TSJ: That’s a wonderful idea. You mailed out all of those postcards?

JG: Yeah! I spent hundreds of dollars. [laughs]

TSJ: That’s what I was thinking. I love that idea. Having someone to say goodnight to is huge. That journey for human connection is something I’m obsessed with.

JG: I heard a lot of interesting stories through it! I told them to email me with three things about themselves. The responses were unbelievable.

TSJ: I’ll bet. Once you open the door and allow yourself to be vulnerable, I’m sure everyone else followed suit.

JG: Oh yeah. People wrote me about their deepest thoughts, but then of course some were just silly and fun. One guy wrote me asking about my feelings on medicinal marijuana and forgot to put his address. [laughs]

Another funny thing with the Seinfeld thing, we were contacted yesterday by OKCupid to do fake ‘Seinfeld’ dating profiles for Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. They asked us to do it for their Valentine’s Day content.

TSJ: You going to do it?

JG: Of course!

TSJ: So being an immense ‘Seinfeld’ and Larry David buff, I must ask – Jerry Seinfeld of Larry David?

JG: ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ makes me laugh harder, but ‘Seinfeld’ is more of a pleasure to watch. In ‘Seinfeld’ I don’t get that huge gut laughter as frequently, but I think they nail it better.

I also think in ‘Curb’ the stakes are so high but also anxiety provoking. A couple of shows are like that for me. I can’t watch five episode of ‘Louie’ in a row because it’s sometimes so uncomfortable.

TSJ: The Bully episode was that for me.

JG: Yes! That terrified me. That’s absolutely it. It’s a nightmare for me, a woman leaving me because I wouldn’t fight a high school kid. That, to me, is terrifying. My female friends find that episode so funny, like no one would react that way. But for me, I think I might.