Interview: Dana Gould

RAGHAV MEHTA | Updated 10/10/2013

Alt-comedy forefather and "Simpsons" writer talks divorce, new TNT show and the state of standup.

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Gould is either America’s funniest smart man or smartest funny man. “Did you know any whistle can be a rape whistle? Except maybe a slide whistle,” he joked last year at Acme Comedy Club. Considered one of the founding fathers of the early-’90s alternative comedy scene, Gould had his storied standup career interrupted when he accepted a writing job for “The Simpsons.” He left the show and returned to the stage in 2006. caught up with comedy's most consummate professional to talk about his role on TNT's new show "Mob City," modern alt-comedy and how writing for "The Simpsons" helped him grow as a standup.

Q: You seem like a very routine-oriented person. Is that accurate?

Well, I have kids so my days start very, very early. So, I get them all squared away and then I manage to put off work till about 11 o’clock at night and then I work till about 2.

Q: Do you always find writing at night helps you?

A: I always write super early in the morning or very late at night. I can’t get anything done during the day hours. There’s a vampiric quality to it I can’t be responsible for.

Q: I’ve read that there’s some loose science behind that – either writing when you’ve just woken up or as you’re going to sleep.

A: Yeah, I like to call it my head macaroni.

Q: Well, I understand you’re going through a divorce right now?

A: I am. It’s awesome [laughs].

Q: You’ve described it as amicable.

A: It is the definition of the best of a bad situation.

Q: How so?

A: That’s none of your business [laughs]. Everybody gets along. The lives of adults get complicated but everybody’s getting along well, and I’m looking for just enough strife to keep me in new material.

Q: Will that be in your special coming out next month?

No, that will be the next one [laughs]. Yeah, this is the last of the married specials.

Q: You have a role as a LAPD detective on TNT’s new show “Mob City.” I know you’re a big monster movie guy, but have you always been a big fan of the gangster folklore as well?

A: Yeah, well, more and more specifically it takes place in Los Angeles and based on real events from the mid century, late '40s and early '50s. And I’m particularly fascinated by that world and have a book called “L.A. Noir,” which is by a guy named John Buntin. I had actually bought that book the day it came out and said, "Well, this is my thing." So, the fact that I got a spot on this show is strange, but really fortuitous and terrific.

Q: You’re often referred to as one of the founding fathers of alt comedy. Are you a big fan of a lot of contemporary alt comedy?

I am. I think a lot of the best comics today come from that scene. People like Matt Braunger, Jonah Ray, Tig Notaro, Kumail Nanjiani. All these guys are fantastic. I don’t know what alt-comedy means anymore. Comedy ... I liken it to music, in that it appeals to a specific audience and I think alt comedy doesn’t mean anything – it seems to be the type of comedy that appeals to people that are fans of alt-music. There just seems to be less strutting [laughs].

Q: When you returned to the stage after writing for "The Simpsons," did you find that experience changed your approach to joke writing?

Absolutely, it absolutely did. The way “The Simpsons” works, it forced me to dig a little deeper. It just bumped everything up a notch, I think. It forced me to look around a little bit more than normally. But they are very different kinds of writing. The way “The Simpsons” works is the punchline of the joke you think you’re going to make is actually the setup to the joke that you’re going to make. So, what I try to make my act work along the same lines. I try to make it a little bit more surprising and more disguised.

Q: Can you share a particular highlight from that experience?

A: Well, for me it was just all the people I got to meet. You know, getting to meet Stephen Hawking, or Elvis Costello, or Keith Richards ... you know, there are very few situations where you’re going to bump into those people. And the greatest thing that happened to me along the lines of the show was that I was in Italy and I turned on the television and there was an episode of “The Simpsons” on that I had written ... in Italian [laughs]. It was really bizarre. It was called “Bart Has Two Mommies”

Q: You’ve been doing comedy for so long, what are the biggest improvements you’ve noticed over the years?

A: You know, I think the social media helps you access your crowd more directly. You can access your specific audience and cultivate them a lot easier than you used to be able to. The downside of that is technology allows people to get out of the gate really quickly. You know, if you have 20 minutes of material, I don’t think you should have a CD. Those things kind of took a hit.

Q: Do you think overexposure is a problem, too?

A: Yeah, if everyone sees you develop, they’re never going to remember you being great. There’s that but the best anything - the best musicians, the best actors, the best comedians­ -  tend to be smart, and smart people probably know to keep a low profile before [until they’re ready]. Because comedians, just like everybody, you develop and you get markedly better. Even giant comedians like Chris Rock or Louis C.K., if you look at them 10 years ago, they were great then but they’re much better now.

Q: Is there any advice you wish you had received early on that you know now?

A: That’s a really good question [pauses to collect his thoughts]. The best advice I would give myself about show business is it’s not personal. When you’re rejected, it’s not about you and when you’re successful, it’s not about you. There’s a time when you’re needed and you fulfill a need and sometimes things fit and sometimes things don’t and it’s really random. You just have to get zen about it and realize it’s not really about you and it’s not a heavy-duty, personal thing.