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Interview Thu Sep 22 2011

Interview: Robert Buscemi

Buscemi_Cowboy_Small_File_Color_X.jpgI recently spoke with Robert Buscemi, who is best known for his offbeat standup as well as the many characters that he showcased on the local hit game-show, Don't Spit The Water. Buscemi is returning home to Chicago next Sunday, Oct. 2 for his one-night-only show at The Annoyance Theater. Here is what he had to say about it.

Welcome back to Chicago. How does it feel to be performing on the old stomping grounds?

Great. I love seeing who the cool new stand-up kids are, what the new hot shows are, and seeing some old friends whose talents and experience are paying off. And I love hitting the Annoyance again, which is the coolest comedy venue in America. And hitting Chicago Underground Comedy at The Beat Kitchen is like coming home.

Talk about your upcoming show at The Annoyance. You've got a great lineup planned.

Oh yeah. Adam Burke and Cameron Esposito came onto the stand-up scene pretty strong when they started and just never quit, and now they're both reaping rewards with albums, festivals, and press. The Second City's Abby McEnany is one of the funniest performers I've ever seen, and she's been doing one-woman show work lately. Comedy rock band Lola Balatro is fantastic, and authentically righteous -- Paul Thomas takes production way seriously, and their recordings and videos are exquisite. They've made fans among my non-comedy friends, and their live shows are wonderful. And my man James Fritz won "Best Comic" in The Reader this summer, which I won in 2009 just before I moved to LA, so it was really gratifying to see him get that, since he's such a fearless, original, smart voice. I go out of my way to pack the Annoyance and take the feedback of my non-comedian friends seriously, and this line-up is sort of a "Best Of" of my previous Annoyance shows. I'm doing a bunch of other shows in Chicago too, which I list on my website.

One of the first shows I saw in Chicago was "Don't Spit The Water," which was also the first time I ever saw you perform. That show just became a TV pilot, didn't it?

It did indeed. It just a few weeks ago ran late-night on The U. I play international ladies' man Earl LaRue, who's one of three comics. I've been an associate of Blewt! Productions, who run DSTW, for years, ever since I started doing DSTW on stage as LaRue maybe six years ago now...Steve Gadlin is one of the most determined do-it-yourself producers I've ever met, and he nurtured that show into a juggernaut and got it on TV. Gadlin's one of a kind that way -- he makes things happen like no one else. I always ask him when I have big PR questions. He's the Yoda. And Blewt!'s comic vision is wonderful, just unapologetic jackassery and silliness, and I think because of that vision they attract some of the most fun, adventuous performers in Chicago for their various shows, folks like Bryan Bowden, Kristen Studard, and Ken Barnard. I always regretted I never had the time to do something in an "Impress These Apes" run, which is an eight week talent competition wrapped in a brainless science fiction narrative. It's a genius concept, because the talent competition part is for real, and it's a really exciting build toward a single winner. So Blewt is this really comfortable, loose family I'm proud to be associated with. And DSTW hosts Sasha and the Noob (Gadlin and Paul Luikart) almost won the Andy Kaufman Award, which is a huge deal since past winners include Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, and Brent Weinbach. So they're in contact creatively with Kaufman Award producer Al Piranello, and that's a powerful friend.

What inspires you as an artist?

Most of my material comes out of conversation. I just take loose notes on my conversations from time to time, and when funny things happen, I write them down. Almost every time I'm at a dinner party, I'll write down something funny that's happened right there at the table. Knowing funny people is where I get tons of material -- you just start riffing or goofing with a friend and if you're lucky, it'll translate to the stage. Also Twitter has been wonderful. You get instant feedback and plenty of your stuff will work on stage. And my deepest motivation is just to counter boredom and morbidity. If I don't create material and perform, I get in a foul mood and just sad and unfulfilled and existential. So ... I just appreciate art, I guess. It makes me feel so much less lonely and hopeless. I feel like it's all we have. I respect people who are trying to counter drabness by taking a chance, at whatever level. I'm a sucker for the redemptive power of art: Waiting for Guffman, The Story of Anvil, American Movie -- to me, these movies are inspiring. They're not about losers. They're about people making life tolerable by creating, even if there's no money to be made.

You are multi-faceted as an artist. Do you have a preferred creative medium?

I love to improvise and I miss acting in theater a ton. I've done both far less since I started stand-up. I also love writing short autobiographical essays to perform on stage at more literary shows, and writing and performing in short films. But all my facets are geared toward performing on-stage or on-camera. And believe it or not, Twitter and Facebook are wonderful creative outlets for me, and let me extend my stage persona that much further, as well as key into a fan base. I was so happy when I left academia for the stage, first as an actor, then as an improvisor. I was in grad school to be an English professor, but I always wanted to perform. And then, when I finally got up the nerve to do stand-up, I feel like I finally, truly became myself. So yeah, I'm sentimental about it all, and I'd be lost if I couldn't write and perform on-stage and on-camera.

Who is your favorite comedian or performer, currently and of all time?

Steve Martin, and maybe Chris Elliot. Early David Letterman was wonderful too. Among my pals and contemporaries, I love Hannibal Buress, Nick Vatterot, Pete Holmes and Kyle Kinane. It was such a joy and a privilege to come up in Chicago with people like them, who are that massively talented and skilled and original. For someone I see and admire out here in LA... Maria Bamford, and there are lots of talented young performers I've come to know, Jake Weisman for example. For actors, I love Richard Grant, Tim Roth, Toni Collette, Gene Hackman. I like odd, interesting performers. But all-time, it's Steve Martin.

What other projects are you working on?

I record a second stand-up concert album for Rooftop Productions on December 20th at a very cool weekly show out here in LA, and that's got all my interest just now. It's all original material, so I'm doing all the stand-up I can between now and then, keeping my bits tight and testing brand-new material and cobbling it all together. It'll be another full hour. Rooftop's been really good to me and discovered me out of Chicago Underground Comedy, which would send them footage of all our shows. Rooftop flew me to Aspen for their comedy festival, which was a heady experience. My first album for them, Palpable, is a real benchmark in my career, and they did such a beautiful job on it, and it came out great. I recorded it at the Lincoln Lodge in Chicago, and now I'm excited to record this new one in LA among a whole new crowd of performers and artists I run with.

What's next, creatively?

It takes time to get your feet planted in LA, to hit the pavement and meet everyone and stake out your ground and build some buzz and build your reputation, and I feel like after two years I'm starting to feel my oats out here. I didn't start from scratch, exactly, since I was already experienced and have lots of friends out here from Chicago, but you have to make your own way and build a new network in a new city, and that takes effort, especially if you're a pretty unusual act like me. And people gave me stage time from the beginning, but you want a cumulative wave, some real momentum where people are seeking you out... just this week I've got five shows, five nights in a row. And that's really gratifying, since I'm really enjoying feeling some rewards for all the effort I've put in, both in getting booked and getting the audience to really key into your persona... I just want to push stand-up as hard as I can right now, since as I say it's getting to be so fun now that I've been getting my name around for a while. I've been on TV doing comedy now, and have made lots of little films and TV commercials I'm proud of. But now I really want to get on TV doing my stand-up, so I'm working hard toward that.

Tickets and information for Buscemi's upcoming show at The Annoyance can be found here. For more on Buscemi, visit his Twitter, Facebook or personal website.

 
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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

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