Todd Glass has spent a lifetime in comedy. In 25 years he's never been away from the stage for more than a month. Glass is revered as a "comedian's comic" for his respect and passion for the art. He's worked with just about every comic you've ever heard of, including David Cross, Dennis Miller, Sarah Silverman, and Adam Sandler, and has appeared on everything from Married with Children to his own Comedy Central special. As Jack Black put it, "I covet his fucking brain!" Glass' style is classic, witty, far reaching, and sharp. He controls a room with ease while adding meta touches, commenting on his own act and the art in progress. We talked to Glass about his work, and about potential shifts underway in the Portland comedy scene.
MERCURY: Is it true you've been performing since you were 16?
TODD GLASS: Isn't that crazy? I started in Philadelphia at a place called the Comedy Works. I always say that the place that I started at, the guy had a good taste in comedy. The acts back then, they weren't huge, but they were on their way. I would see guys like Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried, Richard Lewis, Jim Carrey was there, Roseanne Barr. Early on I knew—I don't know why, I'm gonna say luck—I knew there was no race. Just get onstage and do good comedy.
How has the popularity of web comedy and comics making shorts changed the game?
The web helps. My nephew knows comedians that are at a level that he wouldn't have known them 30 years ago. Because 30 years ago there wasn't the web and you only knew guys [if] you saw them on Letterman or you saw them on the Tonight Show or on TV. And so I ask my nephew, "How do you know Zach Galifianakis?" "Oh, we saw him on the internet." I'm talking about before he was in movies.
I like when I see good new comedians. Because it means comedy is in a good place. When I was at the Portland comedy festival [Bridgetown Comedy Fest], I was like, "Holy fuck!" Every night I would see comedians that maybe I knew of but hadn't seen yet, and I'd be like, they are real funny. You want there to be good comedy. That doesn't mean I don't get jealous. There's nothing wrong with jealousy as long as you turn it into motivation instead of bitterness.
Are you coming back because of Bridgetown?
Totally. It's pretty simple, I usually do [comedy] clubs. If I do a theatre it's usually a college show. But I've never really done this before; where I had a really good time there and I wanted to come back in the summer. So I saw the Hawthorne Theatre and they have that lounge area.... We're gonna dress it [up] a little.
I just had a good night there and I wanted to come back and wanted to do something real simple. I didn't want to go somewhere with 500 people and worry... I just wanted to come and have fun. I like the crowds. There's no doubt the crowds were really good.
What makes a good comedy club?
When you walk into a club you can tell if it has an artistic feel. It's from the way you're greeted, it's just like the show is first—the way they light a room, you can tell they just get it. The show comes first. And the best example of that is a movie theater, you know, they don't make most of their money off popcorn and candy, they make all of their money from concessions. But they still know that when you go into the movie theater that they have to sell the food and the concessions outside and that the movie's dark. Even though they're making money off their food and popcorn, they know the people are still coming to see the movie. They're not stupid enough to go, "Let's put the popcorn machine in the movie theater." A great club is just when it has an artistic feel.
What would it take for Portland to become more of a comedy town?
The word is that it's going to be soon. I don't know why, a lot of people feel like [Portland] can't handle it. But it can. And it will soon. I really think that there are a lot of people who don't think crowds know the difference between bad comedy and good comedy. I always compare it to music—even though you don't call bad comedians "cover comedians," people know good comedy just like they know good music. Imagine if you opened up a music venue and you just hired people to do covers? Well, you're not going to get the artistic young people to come out to see unique bands. And it's the same thing with comedy—people know the difference. Obviously, they did [at Bridgetown] and those audiences were great. Even though it's a new festival.
Sometimes you get a club—and I think Portland will have it soon—that has a reputation for just having good comedy. You don't know always who you're seeing, but you trust the taste of the club. And unless you're having famous people at your club every single week, it's important that your club has an identity outside of your performers. It's just like music venues, where I don't know the musician's name, but I always see good music there. And 90 percent of the time when I go there I see music I like. With comedy it's the same thing. It is nice when a club has a reputation for bringing in the type of acts you like. It's important. You don't know who you might see, but you know it's going to be a good show.
In the last three or four years—and maybe it's because of the festival—people realized there are a lot of people who are craving [good comedy]. I think there might be a feeling the city is craving types of comedians that don't play that club [Harvey's]. Because of the festival, I think people are coming out, they're like, "Hey! We could handle a club here. Everyone's going to book Zach [Galifianakis] when they're famous. They're looking for a club, I would surmise, that has those type of acts, but before they're household names. Maybe the festival woke that up.
How often does a comic have to perform to stay sharp?
You have to be on stage all the time. One time I didn't perform for a month and it took me a few nights to get it back. That's probably the longest gap I've had in 25 years. I love it, and I know it sounds cliché. And I'm not saying it's not hard, and you put in your work—I adore stand-up comedy as much as the day I started. It's my favorite thing in the world to do. It's just great. It's fun.
Does a good comedian need to teach or add to the discussion in a meaningful way, as opposed to someone like Dane Cook who just coaxes laughs without shedding light on anything else?
I used to wonder, even after doing comedy for 20 years, what kind of comic am I? When George Carlin died I was watching a lot of his specials and I went, "Oh, I don't have to pick. I can do both." I hope, at my best, I can bounce back and forth. Look at the great comedians in the history of our time. Rodney Dangerfield didn't say anything. Steve Martin didn't say anything. But that doesn't mean they didn't bring an interesting perspective on comedy to the table. It reminds me of something Dennis Miller told me a long time ago, just giving me really nice words of wisdom when I was battling years ago. He said, "You know what, if you're going to be silly, you strive to be Steve Martin silly," and that means an inventive silly.
How does it feel to be considered a "comedian's comic"?
Obviously that makes me feel really good, I'm not gonna lie. But I don't wanna be the type of comedian that just my peers like....
You've done a lot of TV shows, all the way back to Married with Children. Is your ideal place on a stage, on TV, or somewhere else?
I love to do shows, and if the bulk of my money came from there I'd be thrilled. In a hypothetical wave-a-magic-wand kind of world, [I'd pick a career like] Lewis Black, where I could tour, do TV, but not have my own show. That's so much stress. I would never quit stand-up comedy.
We can say that everyone likes comedy or likes to laugh, but people that go out to movies and concerts have never been to a comedy show, and I wonder why.
A lot of people, you're right, have not been to a comedy club. Once they go they love it, and I think they don't understand that just because you don't know [the names of the performers], they're not great comedians. Maybe they don't know it's gonna be good. I know the first time I went to a comedy club, I thought it was either you see somebody famous or it's open mic night. Then people like Paul Reiser and Richard Lewis walked out and I was like, "Shit! These guys are funny!"
In a comedy club I have laughed harder than at any sitcom or movie.
If you go to see a comedian, you know already the odds are you're going to like him. When you go see a new show—not household names yet—it's great. If you really like comedy, 80 percent of the time you're going to enjoy the show. It's addicting. There's nothing better than seeing a live show with people around. I will say that second best to seeing comedy is not a DVD, it's a CD. Turn out the lights, and you can sort of picture you're there. When you're watching it, it doesn't bring you any closer there. There's something about it.
We have such good attendance and respect for other arts—I mean, there are 50 rock shows every night, but there's just such a hole with comedy.
In every city there's smart people. I don't care what city you're in—there are smart people. You're not trying to get 10,000 people a night to your club. No matter how big your city is, you need 250 people a show. So if somebody comes in and books good comedy, those people will come out. I think that the festival has done that for Portland. Let's say they would have booked all those comedians and there was nobody at the festival. Well they'd go, okay, well, Portland doesn't like this type of comedy. But obviously that didn't happen. When you book these types of comedians, those people will come out. I think some cities, they just wait a little longer. Philadelphia didn't have a room like that for a long time. Now they do and it's doing great.
It's my hope that the festival has started that.
I think it did. It sounds cheesy to say, but they deserve a room like that. They do. For some reason when you compare comedy to music it makes it so clear. Sometimes people go, "Do you think comedy will be hot next year? Will it be relevant?" It will always be relevant. Put that to music. Pretend I'm asking you and listen to how dumb it sounds: "Do you think there will be music in five years? Like, new music?" Yes! It will always be relevant. People think it goes in phases because there was a time where every city had five comedy clubs. But good comedy will be relevant now 'til the end of time. If you just book good comedy, it's gonna be successful. If you have a club and you don't book the kind of comedians that comedy-savvy people come out to, that's going to hurt you too. That happened a lot with comedy clubs, the bad ones, they started booking shows for people that weren't comedy savvy. There was something that happened in the early '90s where there were an overabundance of comedy clubs, and that scared people. I think Portland: Hey, there's room for more than one club. I really by no means want to seem like I'm saying negative things about the club that's there. But maybe there's room for more.