Interview: 10 Questions for Comedian Justin Golak

For the sake of full disclosure, Justin Golak is my husband, so I’m kind of biased in saying that I think he’s endlessly frustrating and, because of it, brilliant. If you’ve listened to our podcast, “A Feminist & A Comedian Walk Into A Bar,” you’re familiar with my bellicose sigh that signals my alarm of “You can’t say that!” 

However, his ability to eloquently and righteously steak knife a sacred cow from either side of the culture war is my favorite thing about him. He’s endlessly intellectually challenging.

And funny.

And that, as you’ll read here, is the whole point.

This Friday Justin releases his third professional hour worth of stand-up comedy on an album titled “American Apathy.” In our following interview, we talk about his influences, plans for his fourth hour, what motivates him to stay in such an admittedly brutal field, and why comedy is entertainment—not talking points.

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Check out his podcast “Justin Golak’s Safe Space” this Thursday. On this week’s episode, I  interview him about the evolution of modern comedy and the business and barriers of stand-up and making it a full-time profession. Prepare to hear a lot of my aforementioned sighing.

You can watch “American Apathy” for free on lo-class. It premieres this Friday, Sept. 29. Here’s the trailer:

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When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?

The story I always tell, because I do feel it was the true kernel that sprouted the idea, is this: When I was in second grade, I told my mom that when I grew up I wanted to be funny for a living–because up until then (and, for the most part, after then too), being funny between lesson plans was the only thing I really enjoyed about school. My mom said that there were no jobs where you could just be funny, unless I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Everything my mom said after “unless” was delivered with a heavy, but fair when coming from a mother to her child, lather of sarcasm and dismissiveness. However, just knowing that there was something out there, something that was established, with a title and everything, that was a job where you just had to be funny definitely locked that general destination into my life’s journey.

I love the essays you write at the end of each episode of your podcast. Why stay in this field, this form?

I really enjoy hip-hop. And often when we’re listening to it together, you say something about being surprised that I don’t really care for poetry (which I do not–sorry, poets). I never had a really good response as to why I love one and loathed the other. But recently I was thinking about it, and I think that I like that the MC puts their name on their work, along with their voice, their face, and, at a live show, their presence. There’s something about the full ownership of your art that I think live, or even recorded, performance has. I think satire and humor writing of all kinds can be great, but to me, being a humorist feels like being a drone pilot, lobbing shots from behind a keyboard. Being a stand-up feels like going headfirst into the jungle with just a tactical knife strapped to your belt. And I like being in the shit, looking at the whites of eyeballs.

Coming back to hip-hop, I also have made the comparison between “wack” and “hack” in hip-hop and comedy respectively. I watched a documentary about hip-hop where the documentarian asked an MC about what it meant for someone or something to be “wack.” In short, it means someone or something is bad or inferior. But besides that part of the description, I loved how the MC made subtle reference to the fact that he believed it was a term used amongst people in the creative community of hip-hop with maybe some extension to the most diehard of fans.

That’s just like “hack” in the comedy community. Not only is it the most damning of terms one can levy as a comic, it’s really something said amongst comics. Your average comedy consumer doesn’t really use that word. But, I think that’s why stand-up comedy churns out some of the most original, biting, and profound content of all of the other creative art forms–because there’s quality control amongst the community itself. If you’re not coming correct, it’s an uphill battle for you at best.

You have to play to the front and back of the room at all times. And that keeps things tight. I love that about stand-up, and it’s why I want to stay in it forever. I love being in something that has contempt for mediocrity. It makes you work harder and push yourself further. I don’t think every art form, even some that include live performance (sorry, poets), has that. Bullies are always gonna be insufferable dicks that help no one. But too much support can also dilute the product. And that’s no good either.

What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being a comedian today?

Getting paid. Entertainment is the last thing people want to pay for anymore. And it’s not just money, but what that money represents. If you can go “full time” with comedy, you have more time to perform, which means you can get better and produce better content for the ether to consume. The more time you must dedicate to an unrelated day job, the more your finished product is sullied. And that’s a shame not just for the performer but for the entertainment consumer as well.

So, demanding money for creative work isn’t some crass request, it’s simply telling the end user that you get out what you put in. And even a couple bucks here or there to the people or products you really like will benefit you and the things you like in the long run.

I love being in something that has contempt for mediocrity.

What three comedians, jokes or comedy specials have been most influential to your style?

Let’s get the most problematic out of the way first: Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby is a master class in pacing. Everything is deliberate and confident. He’ll take as long as he wants or needs to get to the punchline (or even the next joke) and he’s not worried about you losing interest along the way. It’s fucking beautiful, man. He had a quote once that essentially said you don’t have to be funny the whole time you’re on stage as long as you always have the audience’s attention. And he always did. And that’s something I try to mimic. I love hearing an audience laugh. But nothing makes me happier then looking out and seeing them look up at me like a dog looks at you when you bring a bag of takeout home.

Chris Rock’s “BringThe Pain” & “Bigger and Blacker.” It’s two specials, but since they’re from one comic and blew my mind in the same way at relatively the same time, I listed them together. Chris Rock may be the best comedian of the post-Carlin/Pryor generation. I consider him the best stand-up comic of all time. I love that Chris Rock elevates everything he touches. He was just as charismatic, energetic and visceral as the Def Jam comics that were performing when these specials hit and just as intelligent and insightful as any social commentator or spoken word artist. He elevated both sides and perfected a persona that was a flawless combination of both: hip, urban humor styling that wasn’t just pussy jokes and thinker-humor that gave you actual belly laughs and not just nods of agreement and polite applause breaks. He made both sets of comics work harder because he showed the holes in both their games. Bill Burr once said that when Chris Rock released “Bring The Pain,” it was like when Nirvana released “Nevermind.” Hack comics knew their days were numbered just like the hairsprayed rockers on Sunset knew the same thing. The bar had been raised.

George Carlin. His ability to dissect a subject is unfuckwithable. He doesn’t just skewer something. He pokes a million tiny holes in it and let’s it collapse under its own volition. That’s what makes him the most original and prolific. If every subject is a chicken, all the mediocre comics come in and carve off the breasts, maybe take a couple legs. He takes what’s left of the carcass, breaks it down, boils it in a stock pot, and makes the most delicious stew you’ve ever had. He takes the parts of a subject no one is using and makes better jokes than the ones made with the obvious parts. It’s, again, a master class in setting yourself apart from the pack.

What does the idea of American apathy actually mean to you? What makes you an apathetic American?

I called the album “American Apathy” because I think all jokes are a form of apathy. All art, really. Me being a professional joke-teller is the most apathetic part about me. I remember once, I did a set that involved me cracking-wise on some social subjects. I was talking to a girl after the show, and at some point, I mentioned that I don’t always vote, and she was stunned. And furious. She questioned how I could talk about society and not actively and constantly participate in it. And I think that’s a major confusion a lot of people have about art and society. I MAY just happen to care about the thing I’m talking about on stage, but it’s not implicit. I’m talking about something on stage because it has comedic value. And that’s really it. I’m not trying to make a point, or change a mind, or do anything noble. I’m trying to be entertaining.

I feel like most political comedy shows on TV are just slightly funnier (and sometimes not even that) versions of Hannity or Rachel Maddow. Hannity and Maddow already present news in an entertaining way. What differentiates them from a straight up comedy show about society and politics? It used to be that the comedy show put funny above viewpoint. Hannity and Maddow are restricted to a point of view that they believe will make the country better. Comedy should just take the funniest stand. And that’s it.

People now take serious umbrage with the points of view–I’m not talking someone being offended, I’m talking people being seriously mad about only the position taken on an issue–of comedians on political comedy shows. I think those people are ridiculous. But, I do also put the blame on a lot of people in comedy who seem to take on that mantle to become slightly jokier journalists or commentators. That’s not what you are. And to take that on is equal parts insulting to the funny-makers and the news-tellers.

Why is American apathy interesting to you?

It’s not that I don’t care about the world around me or that I’m some sort of nihilist. But when I’m on stage, it’s about the funny. I think there’s a lot of people giving a big ol’ eye roll to the new style of social and political comedy. Just Google “clapter.” I wanted to put a label on my comedy that lets you know, no matter what I talk about, what angle I take, or whatever, for this next hour, I’m just trying to entertain you. And if you miss entertainment for entertainment’s sake, give what I got a spin and I hope you have a good time.

If a comic is saying something with the express purpose to change someone’s mind to that opinion or to only gather people with those beliefs, what differentiates him from a preacher or a politician? I think the most a comedic performance can do, besides purely entertain, is to get people to think. And that is important.

When I do a bit that pokes holes in something like, let’s say, religion, I’m not trying to convince people to become atheists or to curate an audience of all non-believers. I hope you leave the show with those jokes in your mind and they actually stimulate your brain on a subject that may have laid dormant or just unknowingly unaddressed. Then that means you actually think on it. You look at my little, jokey points and address them within yourself. And I don’t really care if you say to yourself, “No, fuck that, there are things I know that will always make me believe in God,” or, “He’s right, there probably is no god,” I’m just happy that you actually have, or have reclaimed, your beliefs after firmly considering them.

I think a major problem with society isn’t what people believe but that they don’t constantly question what they believe. So even if that belief doesn’t move, at least you’re pressuring it in its current position at all times.

Can you recognize your growth as an artist in this album?

Definitely. I feel like what I did, and then ultimately laid down, after the previous hour has always been better. Including on this album. Which is good. And reassuring. Because once you lay something down for an album, you’re like, “What if that’s the funniest thing I ever do?” I’m in that terrified mindset right now. So, who knows if my fourth hour will even be a thing. I do know that the third one is my best yet, though.

What’s been inspiring you lately?

Doug Stanhope. Anything and everything he’s done. He’s fearless in a way that’s almost cartoonish. And I mean that as a compliment. Like, it’s a surreal, otherworldly level of fearlessness. You see it and just think, “I thought this level of I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck was meant to be strived for but never attained? How am I actually watching it happen then?”

What do you hope has evolved by the time you record your next album?

Technical skills. It’s all about that going forward. I’ve spent the last 10-plus years finding a voice, finding a style, learning how to be funny, learning how to be comfortable on stage, coming up with a writing system–all that foundational shit. Now I want to start gleaning the specific skills the guys from question four have mastered. Album three, you’re listening to a backroom brawler. Between that and album number four, I want to learn how to box.

If you could invite three people living or dead to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

Bill Clinton because every dinner party needs someone with some good stories. Kerry Washington because she’s gorgeous and every dinner party needs some eye candy. But, when you only have three guests, you can’t waste a whole pick on just beauty. I’d also choose her specifically because I’ve seen her make appearances on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and she can hold her own with certified pundits. She’ll keep meal chatter lively. Finally, Sylvester Stallone. Because you have to use one invite just to get the chance to be in the same room with someone you’ve always wanted to meet.

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