This interview first appeared online in Philly City Paper October 9th, 2007 It was conducted on 9/11/07, which is why it begins with questions about 9/11.
Greg Giraldo has this “American Dream” stuff down. The son of immigrants, he went to Harvard Law, then left his career as a lawyer for an even more successful gig as a comedian. His blend of cultural and political commentary has been featured on two Comedy Central specials and multiple appearances on Conan and Letterman. Career counselor just may be next on his résumé.
Were you out and about partaking in some sort of 9/11 memorial?
Yeah, I was commemorating 9/11 by shopping for a digital voice recorder for my comedy skits.
Were you personally affected by 9/11 at all?
Yeah, I lived right here. It affected me very directly in a couple ways. I knew a few people that died during it, and everything else. But now it’s just more of a happy, joyous day.
Did you experience any hesitation after the event about whether you should perform or not?
Yeah, that was definitely a big deal for a while, especially if you’re doing topical stuff. At the time, were you supposed to not talk about it? And yet, nobody really wanted to joke about it, either. So what are you going to do? “Hey, what’s been happening everybody? What’s been going on? How about those shark attacks?” It was hard to avoid the issue. But over time it worked out great. I think I was the first guy to go on Conan and talk about it. I did a whole set of post-9/11 stuff. You kind of felt the audience’s release. It was definitely a cathartic type of thing.
When you started doing material about 9/11 after the event, did audience members approach you to express what they thought about it?
Sometimes; it depended. First of all, we’re talking about the Comedy Cellar in New York City, which you couldn’t even get to by subway, because the subways were still out, when we were already doing shows again. You could smell the burning stuff. The pit was still burning. So it was intense. But then because of that, there was a little bit of a bunker mentality, and the people that were out laughed almost too maniacally. If you’re coming out in what used to be the shadow of the World Trade Center, and you’re coming out to see comedy, you obviously are sort of desperate for some sort of release. What was weird was that we got used to, literally a week after 9/11, doing shows around the city, and then you’d go on the road, and people would freak. They couldn’t handle it. You wanted to say, “Motherfucker, I’ve been doing this. We can still smell the burning buildings, and we’re doing it.” But people seemed in some ways even more sensitive as you got further away because they hadn’t processed it yet.
Did you find that New Yorkers kind of banded together at that moment?
Yeah. It definitely seemed that way.
When did you know things were going to be okay?
When bachelorette parties were back out in the audience. I never thought I’d be happy to see a bunch of drunken girls from Jersey with their inflatable penis balloons. Once I looked out and saw them, I thought that the terrorists couldn’t keep these girls down.
How do you feel about bachelorette parties in general invading a comedy show?
I love bachelorette parties. I think they’re just always about sitting there quietly and enjoying the show, and they’re never in any way interested in the attention all being on them, and they’re never just a bunch of cackling fucking hens that won’t shut up during the whole show. So, you could imagine how I feel about them.
How do you handle the situation when there’s a bachelorette party in the audience?
Normally by ignoring them as much as possible and not making it about them, because that’s really what they’re there for. And then also by feeling my insides die a little at the thought that I’m really just a glorified fucking circus puppet of some sort.
Going back to 9/11, six years afterwards, how have you noticed people’s attitudes changing?
Terrorism doesn’t seem as cool anymore, that’s one. I don’t know, I think everything’s sort of back to what it was. A beautiful thing about America is our collective amnesia.
What have you noticed about people’s weights changing since 9/11?
I think we were already pretty fucking bloated before 9/11. It would be nice to blame the increase on 9/11, but it’s just been a trend that I don’t think is going away anytime soon.
What do you think can be done about this?
I think AIDS seems to work pretty well for people, so maybe that’s ultimately the answer. If we can find a way to cure AIDS, then maybe just getting it for a little while would be the answer. I hate to take that drastic approach, but you gotta look at the bright side of things.
Your parents are immigrants. How is it that a child of immigrants was able to afford to go to Harvard Law?
That’s a personal question. It’s none of your fucking business.
Oh. Are you kidding around or being serious?
No, I’m kidding.
Um, well I borrowed just about everything that I spent. So, luckily I managed to stay dirt poor for years afterward.
How long did it take you to pay off your debt?
I couldn’t pay it at all for a few years, and I kept putting things off, and they gave me these deferments and postponements, and I kept hiding and running. And then I got a deal at ABC to develop a sitcom based on my being a lawyer, which was pretty ironic. And then I took that deal money and paid off the whole chunk in one shot.
Since your lawyer friends weren’t as lucky to land a deal with ABC, did you find that you paid off your debt much faster than they did?
Yeah, but they were a lot more comfortable overall, other than the fact that they were stuck in a soul-deadening profession.
Growing up with parents who were immigrants, did you find that there was a culture clash between the values that they were trying to teach you and the values of American culture?
No, my parents had pretty traditional values. Both of my parents were actually very pro-gay porn, and they really had been trying to push me into gay porn, and that did clash a little bit with American culture, which kind of frowned on that at the time. It’s a lot more tolerant of it now.
Your parents come to a new country and set up a whole new household. You’re a comedian on television. What sort of pressure does this put on your children?
I don’t know. My children seem fine. I hope they don’t feel the pressure to be anything but what God — when I say God, of course I mean Jesus — intends for them.
What is it that you think Jesus intends for them?
I think you gotta really look at each individual kid and see what their strengths are. My oldest seems pretty good at the flamethrower. So he’ll probably do some sort of military stuff. The second one is more of a newspaperman. And I think the youngest will probably build hang gliders.
Not exactly the most traditional careers.
Well, it depends on how you look at it. It’s all manufacturing, you know? It’s pretty traditional under a broader umbrella.
Do you worry about their future seeing as how America is moving away from a manufacturing-based economy towards more of a service-based economy?
Yeah, I do. I try to tell them constantly that if you’re going to be a flamethrower guy, manufacturing flamethrowers is not where the money is, it’s treating the trauma that results to operators of flamethrowers. Maybe he’ll shift it up a little bit. But I worry about the future in general, not just because we’re shifting to a service economy.
What are your concerns for the future?
I worry about Tommy Lee and Kid Rock, and whether they’ll really ever heal that rift. And I also worry a lot about whether the View is going to be as good without Rosie on it.
These are, I imagine, issues that you’ll be addressing, or have addressed, on the Root of All Evil.
We just did the pilot of that, and on that all we discussed was whether Paris Hilton or Dick Cheney was the root of all evil.
Is it looking like that’s going to be a show that makes it to the air?
It’s definitely going to be a show. Lewis Black’s the host. I think they’re retooling whether to make it a legal sort of format, or just more of a debate show, or just do it as a cartoon, or just do it with puppets, or finger painting.
Which direction would you like to see the show go?
I’d like to see the show go in a direction that allows me to be on it as much as possible. I guess finger painting or puppets wouldn’t be the ideal format. I think the debate format would be good. The legal format I thought was fine. They created sort of a courtroom vibe with Lewis Black as the judge. But I don’t think he’s really a legitimate judge.
Did you find yourself slightly more at ease in a courtroom type of setting?
I’m very comfortable in the courtroom, Ben.
Had you envisioned in the past a way to combine your love of law with your love of comedy?
You know, I’ve always tried to blend the two. The two are natural partners, and this might be the thing that finally does it for me.
What were some of the issues that you explored on Adult Content?
That was just a pilot that didn’t go anywhere, so it’s just a painful memory to revisit, but we explored mostly my ever-failing career. Oh no, that’s just something I was thinking about internally while it was going on. Actually, if you want the real answer, we did a giant field piece to examine the sort of completely extreme divergent views of sex and sexual trends in America. So on the one hand, we went and visited the Real Doll factory in California, and did tours of the factory, and spoke to people who had Real Dolls. And we spoke to a woman who is a Christian; she ran a website that sold sex toys to married Christian couples. And then we went and spoke to a woman who was involved in a Supreme Court case down in Alabama where she ran a sex shop and was facing a year in prison for each item that she was selling. So then we went down and tried to help her win her case. We helped her build her legal argument. The law said that the sale or manufacture of any item designed primarily for the stimulation of the human sex organs could result in penalties of ten thousand dollars or a year in jail. So we took all the products to the state house and tried to convince the state senators that the products were not primarily for sex. For example, an inflatable doll was used primarily as a scarecrow, and just occasionally you’d fuck it. And that seemed to render the statute vaguely unconstitutional.
How is it that such a terrific idea didn’t make it to the air?
That’s TV. That’s what it is. They shoot a lot of pilots, and then they decide what they want to do. There’s a lot of very good pilots out there that don’t get on the air.
And what network was this for?
That was for Comedy Central.
Have you thought of packaging some of your pilots that didn’t make it to the air and selling it to the masses, like Dane Cook has?
No. I’ve thought of it, but I don’t have the sort of drive that the young phenom Dane Cook has.
Where does your drive tend to lead you?
Well, I just try to not suck as a comedian. That’s not enough anymore, but so far so good.