The last time we checked in with comedian Todd Glass, almost exactly one year ago, his wisdom proved sage. Glass foretold a new comedy club would open in Portland long before the name Helium was ever mentioned.
In the time since, Glass has been on quite a ride. He's toured the country, opening for the likes of David Cross, David Spade, and Louis CK, as well as appearing on CK's dark and terrific new FX show, Louie, and the petulant, but equally funny internet meme commentary Tosh.0.
Earlier this spring, Glass was scheduled to perform at Bridgetown Comedy Fest. The trip, however, was cancelled because Glass suffered a heart attack. Fittingly for a guy who's been doing stand-up for over 25 years—ever since he was 16—it happened on stage.
Glass is known as a "comedian's comedian" for his love of the craft and his incisive ability to comment on his own progress. We checked in with Glass about his health, his act, a new TV project, and the word on the street about Helium. ANDREW R TONRY
MERCURY: First we should talk about the heart attack.
TODD GLASS: I'm fine. Long story short, I work out every day and I eat pretty good. But my late-night habits were bad and I got off Lipitor, which I should've been on. And a year-and-a-half later, bang! I was getting so tired, and after my show—I was doing a show with Sarah Silverman and Jeff Ross—I just got really sick and nauseated and went down. Thank God Jeff Ross called the ambulance and got me to the hospital.
I lucked out in a way, to have a heart attack and have no damage to my heart, really at all.
Has it changed your act, or how you're approaching comedy?
You know, I wish I could say yes. But I had a pretty good appreciation for life before it. I know it sounds cheesy, but I really do. I try not to take anything for granted. It's maybe given me a few funny stories to tell. But I always thought heart attacks happened to old people, so I'm trying not to talk about it.
It must be nice, in a way, to come out of a near-death experience without a negative revelation like, "I've been wasting my life."
I am doing what I want. I don't want to seem unappreciative. Every little bit helps remind you, but I was doing pretty good before.
How frequently do you write? Is it a discipline thing or do you wait for moments to strike you?
I don't sit there and write. Something happens and I jot a few words down. And then I do the bit, and I'll say, "Well, that worked." Just a few words to remind me what it is. If I have a bit that's a five-minute bit, it's maybe three [written] sentences. Eighty percent of my bits I'll just change around every single night.
The standard I set for myself is that if somebody were to come back and see me a year later, I would at least think that half of my material would be new. I hope they're thinking, "All right, we like to see those old jokes and now we get to see a healthy dose of new stuff."
Are you working on any other projects outside of stand-up?
I just shot a pilot on Saturday called Dinner at Todd's. And it really was something I had done over the years and everyone else was like, "This should be a show." I have friends over to my house for dinner, and basically we talk about everything all over the gamut, from serious stuff to funny stuff—you know, everything, just like you talk about when you have a dinner. And then I have these surprise things that would happen throughout the evening... all of a sudden a five-piece mariachi band will knock on the door. People love it.
That's what the show was. We just did the pilot Saturday with Sarah Silverman (and others). David Spade did a cameo and a lot of funny things happen throughout the evening. We end up by the fire pit in my backyard at the end of the night.
I don't know what you call it. It could be elements of a talk show and a variety show. But the main thing that it's doing is the relaxed atmosphere of candles and low lighting, and a fire pit just brings out something in people that the studio is not going to bring out.
I've been doing [parties like this] for 10 years. My nature is, if you're doing an interview and you can make it intimate, why not? The parties started 10 or 15 years ago. Now we have to go sell it. HBO or the Independent Film Channel, places like that I would love to see it end up.
In LA's comedic circles, are you hearing anything about Helium yet?
Honestly, so far all I've heard from comics are positive things—that it's just everything everybody thought it would be. [Owner Marc Grossman] runs a great club. Everybody that I know that's heard about it or has been there has raved about it, and said that they're just so excited.
I struggle sometimes with the term "alternative comedy." Where does it come from and what does it really mean?
There was a period in the '90s where people coming to comedy clubs, they weren't great crowds. So a few comedians started [doing shows at] this restaurant that wasn't open at night, or at an empty room where people were getting in for free, or paid five dollars, and it wasn't all about selling drinks.
I think that's where the phrase came from—I think it came from alternative venues, and then it got called alternative comedy. You didn't have to like all of [the comedians], but if you didn't like any of them, your club became irrelevant. Because what was called alternative comedy or alternative venues, that's Will Ferrell—not so alternative anymore. That's Patton Oswalt. That's Jack Black. That's Kathy Griffin. That's Paul F. Tompkins and Zach Galifianakis. That's mainstream comedy now. It just naturally morphs. It's like fashion.
What do you tell people who've never seen live stand-up to convince them to give it a try?
I was 16 years old and I thought stand-up was either Robin Williams or an open mic night act that's been doing it for a year. What they don't realize is a lot of these acts that come to a great club, they're at their peak. That's what they're doing. You really do see great shows. And these days with YouTube, go check out an act. If you're thinking about it, Google 'em and see if, "Hey, is this my cup of tea?"
A lot of people's only experiences with comedy are those half-hour Comedy Central specials, which don't convey the feeling of live stand-up very well.
It doesn't represent the experience at all. The only way I can explain that, if you watched a concert on TV, have you ever gotten up and went, "Yeaaaaaah!" Even on your surround-sound you usually don't get up and start chanting. There's nothing like watching stand-up comedy live.