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Comedy Thu Jul 25 2013

An Interview with Craig Gass (and Others)

CGASS.jpg

Craig Gass's comedy grind began in the early 90s with gigs at "whatever crappy bar or club would have him"; that grind eventually paid off and led the way to regular appearances on "The Howard Stern Show," guest-starring on hit network sitcoms like "The King of Queens," and a quite memorable role on HBO's "Sex and the City." Today, Gass is well-known for his hilarious celebrity impressions that include Christopher Walken, Gilbert Gottfried, and Al Pacino, and starting tonight and throughout the weekend, he'll be bringing them, along with many others, to Zanies' Rosemont and Chicago locations. Recently, I spoke with Gass to talk about the state of celebrity impressionist comedians, why Tracy Morgan is his favorite celebrity to perform and of course, that "Sex and the City" episode.

I read that you learned how to talk from mimicking people on TV because both of your parents and your sister were hearing impaired--is that really how things began for you?

I couldn't learn how to speak from my own family, which is really key in your early development. But being that my family was deaf, I had a clean slate on how to communicate and how to speak so I learned how to talk by copying all the voices I heard on TV. And I never got an accent from the Bronx, which is where I grew up. I always tell people, if you know who Tracy Morgan is, that's like everybody in my neighborhood. "Everybody in the Bronx talk like this, whether you black or white!" [in Morgan voice]

Lately, there seems to be a resurgence of celebrity impressionist comedians--do you think this area of stand-up comedy is making a comeback?

I started doing stand-up comedy 20 years ago and the feeling that I got when I first started was that comedians--and a lot of them still feel this way--hated comedians who did impressions. If you can do an impression you can get a cheap laugh from people because you don't really have to say anything; you can just do the voice and people will laugh. So as a result, it became uncool to do impressions. But when I first started, I didn't do any impressions at all on stage, then one night, I was hanging out with a comedy club owner who heard me doing some impressions of people and he said "Where did you learn how to do that?" So I told him my story and he said I should do it. I told him, "Oh comedians hate that," and he said "Who cares--put your own spin on it, you don't have to do it the way everyone else does." So I started doing them on stage and now, it's what I'm mostly known for--doing voices for "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "The Cleveland Show."

Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Adam Sandler, to name a few, are all celebrity impressions you do. Do you have a favorite?

I like Adam, but I personally love Tracy Morgan because he reminds me of so many people I grew up with. Plus, Tracy has no filter--and when I say he has no filter...

Yes--we've all been witness to the 'filterless' Tracy Morgan...

That guy walks up to me one night at a comedy club. And I could see he was looking at me and I could also see that somebody was pointing at me and telling him, "You know, Craig's family is deaf." And like five minutes later, he was standing next to me and he looked at me and said, "So "Craig your family's like retarded, right?" I'm like, "No, they're deaf--they just can't hear you." He said, "Oh so they wear, like, football helmets and sh--?" I'm like, "No--they can't hear you!" And he goes, "So can they see?" [Laughs]. This dude is crazy. But I love that man--he's hilarious.

How would you describe your process? Does the impression naturally come to you? Do you have to be a fan of someone and then you work on the voice?

Usually the voices get stuck in my head so if I'm a fan of somebody, I'll hear their voice over and over again in my head. The weirder the voice, the easier it is for me to do because it's something to actually shoot for as opposed to someone who has a normal voice or a normal cadence. If someone has a normal voice or a normal cadence, it's hard to distinguish a sound that sounds unique. If you have someone like Christopher Walken, [in Walken's voice] "He's got a real stop--and go--voice, where he'll talk every once in a while then he'll stop--then he'll keep going." So it's really different and easier to grab. It's the normal voices that you have to listen to for a while to find a unique rhythm. But I'm very lazy--some voices are just right there. I just hear it very clearly in my head.

How do you go about perfecting your celebrity impressions? Besides voice or inflection, do mannerisms, facial expressions, etc., come into play for is it really all about the voice?

For me, it's about their whole being and when you see me doing impressions, I'm actually thinking of the person. I'm not thinking of their voice--I'm thinking of the entire person and their voice just kind of comes out. It sounds cheesy, but that's how it is.

Who have you tried--or wanted to try--but just haven't for whatever reason(s)? I've heard Aries Spears say something along the lines of if he can't master someone he just doesn't go there...

Well, it's hard to do women's voices. But I wish to God I had one ability, and that is to sing. I wish I could sing like some of my favorite singers, but I don't. With Aries, I think it is so cool because he not only does voices but when he does famous rappers, there's something "sing-songy" about it that I really admire because it's a whole other talent to sound like some of the music artists that he can do. Then there's Eddie Murphy, who would talk about Michael Jackson and sing beautifully like him or he would sing beautifully like Stevie Wonder. I wish I could do that but I can't sing! I am like, the worst singer in the world!

For a some time now, especially recently, Jay Z has become a part of lots of impressionists' routines. What do you think it is about him, specifically, that makes him so popular among comedians?

Jay Z is so huge. It's like 20 or more years ago, there would be 10 comedians out there who would do a Jack Nicholson impression because he was such a huge part of pop culture. Jay Z is the biggest name in hip hop, so you're gonna have people do an impression of him.

Earlier, you mentioned that it is hard to do women's voices--which got me thinking: Where are the female impressionists? Except for "recent" moments like Tina Fey's spot on impression of Sarah Palin, you really don't see women on stage doing this. Do you think this will change eventually?

That's a good point. I've never even thought about that. Tina did a great Sarah Palin and there was a girl on "America's Got Talent" and she was so good--she did a Sarah Silverman impression that just blew my mind. There should be more women out there doing that, but women in comedy tend to go more towards alternative comedy, like an Amy Schumer type of comedy where it's really shocking. But I haven't heard too many female comedians at all do impressions and there should be more out there.

You're also an actor and you appeared in hit shows including "King of Queens" and "Las Vegas"--but what I'm sure all the ladies remember you as "Glazed Donut Man" from "Sex and the City!"

Yes, I am actually the "glazed donut man." My character dated Miranda [Cynthia Nixon] and I have to tell you--I had to perform that sex act for 19 hours.

That uhh, "downtown" scene took almost a whole day of taping?

I have a crazy story about that. I was right there; I mean, my face was right there. And I had a really bad self image at the time, because I put on 35 pounds to be on the show because [our characters] met at a Weight Watchers meeting. I told her, "I don't want you to feel uncomfortable, just tell me what you wanna do." She said, "Just have fun, but make sure to keep your mouth right here," and she pointed to the inside of her thighs. We did that all day long. I kept trying to make small talk with her because I felt so uncomfortable that I was doing that to her all day. I kept trying to have some [general] conversation like "What kind of music do you listen to?" I mean, I just talked about anything! At one point, I then said, "You have a kid in real life, right?" She said, "Yeah." I said "Are you married?" She said, "No I've been dating this guy." I asked her how long and she said, "Oh, like 12 years." I said, "Twelve years, really? How is that going?" And she just said, "Ehhh, it's whatever." The next thing I know, she got knocked up that weekend, had a kid, and nine months later announced to the world, "I just had a baby and I am leaving my man and I am a lesbian." All my friends were like, "Dude, you turned her gay!" [Laughs]

You arrived in town this week in advance of your shows at Zanies how has your time in Chicago been going so far?

It's all about the food--Giordano's pizza! But I've just been enjoying the city because there's just coolness about Chicago; there is an energy that I love that is just so very real. It's such a big city but people are so down to earth. I love being in Chicago and I've always had great shows and have met really cool people. I'm so glad I'm here.

What can the Chicago audience expect from a Craig Gass show?

Well, with all the food I'll be eating, I'm probably gonna be pretty gassy! I love dirty jokes but I'm a good person, so if you're not easily offended, you should be able to have a great time at my show. I love hearing a great story and I love telling a great story, so that's what the show's gonna be.

~*~

Catch comedian Craig Gass tonight and tomorrow, Friday, Jul. 26, at Zanies-Rosemont, and Friday and Saturday, July 27-28, at Zanies-Chicago, 1548 N. Wells. Tickets are $20-$25; for more information, including show times, visit Zanies.

Photo courtesy of getgass.com.

 
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