Please Stand Up
Josh Gondelman ’07 made his comedic debut on ‘Conan’
Josh Gondelman ’07 is many things: a stand-up comic, a writer for “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, the co-author of the widely popular @SeinfeldToday Twitter account, a former preschool teacher and a Brandeis alumnus.
His newest comedy album, “Physical Whisper,” debuted at number 4 on the comedy Billboard charts and, on Mar. 23, appeared on the late-night talk show “Conan.” Gondelman spoke with the Justice to discuss how his interest in comedy developed, how it shapes his life today and any advice he might give to those who are interested in pursuing a comedic career.
As a child, comedic television shows and books always interested Gondelman, but it was not until he arrived at Brandeis that he realized comedy was “not just something on television or in movies” and could really be something he could make into his own creation.
He joined the improv theater group TBA, or To Be Announced, at the beginning of his first year, and by the end, his stand-up performances commenced.
Gondelman double-majored in English and Creative Writing and minored in Hispanic Studies. His favorite classes included Topics in Cinema (HISP193b) taught by Prof. James Mandrell (HISP) and screenwriting classes taught by Prof. Marc Weinberg (ENG).
CENTER STAGE: Gondelman not only performs as a stand-up but also works as a writer for “Last Week Tonight” and runs a popular comedic Twitter account.
Considering the influence his education had on his comedy, Gondelman said, “I think it’s pretty direct — just a lot of the principles of speaking clearly or writing with clarity and purpose were really helpful to me — those, I think, are kind of foundational to comedy writing, as well.”
He is influenced by a large number of other comedians and authors, as well. “The last novel I read that has the closest to kind of like a stand-up or comedy rhythm is ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty,” said Gondelman. He also cited David Sedaris, a comedian and author, as a big inspiration during his college years.
On Mar. 23, Gondelman made his debut on “Conan.” While he insisted that he normally doesn’t get very nervous before performing his shows, he admitted that the larger audience present for “Conan” worried him a bit.
However, he told the story of how the show’s host, Conan O’Brien, helped to put him at ease.
“I was a little nervous, but then backstage, they held up our new album, which is on cassette, and their comedy producer said that [Conan] will hold it up and people will laugh just at the fact that it’s a cassette … and it’ll break the ice. And it did, … and people laughed and I was like, ‘Cool, it’s almost like I already got a laugh.’ So I felt really good coming out of that.”
Gondelman said that for Conan, he had his routine memorized word for word, but that for day-to-day stand-up, he “just kind of rolls into it,” especially when he is doing two or three shows a night.
Writing for “Last Week Tonight” is a different experience altogether — his job is to write about politics rather than personal experiences, which tend to be the centerpiece of his stand-up comedy.
Though Gondelman calls himself a “politically minded person,” he leaves politics out of his stand-up comedy. “I don’t talk about personal politics or specific current events, just because it’s so fun to get to write about them for a show that’s about to air in a week, but it’s much harder to write a joke that’s about some kind of political event that’s going on that will be worth telling on stage six months from now,” he said.
Gondelman’s brand of comedy also tends to view the world through a generally optimistic lens. “I try not to write cynically in general, even at work,” he said.
“I think I have cynical moments, but I don’t think necessarily they’re my best moments as a person or as a writer. … I feel like everybody’s kind of going to follow the path that’s most natural to them, and it’s an uphill climb for me to decide, ‘I’m gonna be tough, and not take any crap and that’s how I relate to people.’
“Whereas it feels a lot better for me to have a gentler approach to things — and so however successful I am, I don’t think I would be as as successful if I were trying to be contrary with how I genuinely deal with the world.”
Gondelman has experimented with both written and spoken comedy, but he sees the similarities among all his forms of work as being able to get instant feedback from a variety of sources.
When doing stand-up, the feedback is from a live audience; when running a comedic Twitter, it’s from an online live audience; and when working on a team to write material for a show, it’s from the other members of the team.
He embraces the constructive criticism he recieves, calling it part of the job, and says feedback “is helpful for kind of obliterating that ego that wants to cling to stuff that just isn’t working.”
His simple advice for those who are looking to pursue a career in comedy is to “start and make things you like, and find people who you like to work with and collaborate with them, and then put your work in places where people can see and enjoy it.”
He also cited two quotes he has turned into his personal mottos, “work hard and be kind” and “work a job until you can’t afford to be there anymore.”
“Work at a job … and make time for [comedy or writing or visual arts or dance] if you love to do it, and then when you start getting pulled away from your daytime work to do more creative stuff, then leave, not just when you can afford it,” he suggested. Gondelman himself worked as a preschool teacher before becoming a full-time comic.
Gondelman explained to the Justice that for him, the most satisfying part of the job is “being able to work in a field where [he’s] constantly encouraged to learn new things and process them and react to them.”