Name a current talk show, TV network or Manhattan stage; chances are comedian-actress Judy Gold‘s performed on it. The diehard New Yorker also hosts the 92nd Street Y’s “Funny People” series, earned critical acclaim for a pair of one-person shows, and boasts a lengthy list of awards that includes two Daytime Emmys for writing and producing The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Gold headlines Gotham Comedy Club Friday and Saturday and, with partner Elysa, appears as the first same-sex couple on Celebrity Wife Swap July 1.
You’re from New Jersey, so you’ve never been too far from the New York scene. How have you seen it change and evolve?
Oh my god, it’s unbelievable. First of all, I was never too far away from New York, period. My mother grew up here. I always knew I was getting out of that suburb and getting to New York.
When I started doing stand-up in the mid-80s, it was, like, the hottest time for stand-up. And you could go anywhere to get stagetime. I performed anywhere, at any time: there were happy hours, those street fairs. It was an amazing time. The things I miss the most about that 80s time, when you were auditioning for something–SNL, anything, a casting director, a film–you got onstage and did your set. That was it. It was a live show, you had once chance, and hopefully the stars were aligned and you were going on in the right position and the audience wasn’t tired or they were getting the check. There was none of this social media and filming. So when we auditioned, we really auditioned.
And also I went on the road. We didn’t have Internet, we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones. If you wanted to make phone calls on the road…my phone bills were enormous because you had to call from the hotel phone. You were forced to write all day or go to a bookstore or go see a movie or something instead of sitting on a computer, Skyping or FaceTiming or Internet or whatever. It was a completely different time.
But one of the most incredible things was I had passed at Catch a Rising Star, and at that time they had these comics called “backups,” who would sit at the bar during weekend shows and hope that someone didn’t show up, and they would be able to go on. They would get paid the same amount as a person doing a set, but at that time, since we had no cell phones, in order to make a living you would have to go from club to club to club, to go from The Comic Strip to Catch a Rising Star down to the Comedy Cellar, then Carolines and back uptown. You would make $50 a set, and you would have to do about seven sets a night on the weekends in order to make a salary for the week. And since you could get stuck in traffic or if someone went long…anything could have happened, but there was no way to let the club know. So I would sit at the bar and wait for someone not to show up. The other person who was backup at Catch a Rising Star was Chris Rock. And he got on one night, just killed, and that was the beginning of…you know.
The other thing was the camaraderie. We all hung out together. During the week, the shows went ’til 3 in the morning. It wasn’t like this, when they’re done at 11:30, 12 during the weeknights, you know? They went on until 3, 4 a.m., and you would wait. You would stand there and hang out at the bar, and hope to be picked. I learned so much just standing there watching people.
But it was this tight-knit group, and when we went on the road together, which was often–you know, you’d do these gigs with other people–you were stuck together. There’s a bond among us that can just never be broken, ’cause we have been to the shittiest places, to the shittiest hotels, driving at 3:30 in the morning, trying to get home to sleep in your own bed. It was an incredible life.
It’s interesting how you did the bar shows and restaurants…
And lunch rooms! I did lunch rooms!
That went away for a certain part of the 90s, and then the Lower East Side alternative scene started embracing that again. Now you have a proliferation of bar shows.
Right. Stand-up has gone through so many iterations, but if you think about pure stand-up: you got a mic, you got your set, and there’s no fourth wall. People say that storytelling is alternative, but when you really think about it, Richard Pryor told stories. George Carlin told stories. Bill Cosby told stories. But showcase sets, which are sets during the week in New York and on the weekend, are 15, 20 minutes. When you think about a comedy club, you really don’t want any distractions. But everyone’s drinking, there’s ordering, there’s waitresses coming, and then the check spot, which is the curse of all curses, when everyone gets their check. Is that the right atmosphere for someone telling stories? Because I’ve done a lot of theater, and I’ve done a lot of stand-up, people often ask, “What’s the difference?” I really feel like in stand-up, you’ve got to fight for their attention. You’ve got to grab them, and then you’re the conductor of this sort of great ride that you’re having. And in theater you’re also the conductor, but you begin with having their attention. You have to keep it. There’s no distraction except for some asshole’s cell phone or something.
They say it’s “alternative,” and it was a different atmosphere as well, so…it’s comedy. Is it stand-up comedy? Who knows. But it’s comedy.
What’s the significance of still having a place like Gotham Comedy Club, where you can perform full, headlining stand-up sets?
Where I am at June 13 and 14, by the way! [Laughs] That’s a great thing, because most clubs in New York don’t do that. Carolines does it and Gotham does it. That’s when you really have to go on the road and do that kind of thing and make your money. So it’s wonderful to have a space like Gotham for all those people who are like, “Oh, when am I going to see you in New York?” You don’t want them coming to see you do 10 minutes. You’d rather have them come see you do a full set. You do get that option, and it’s such a great place.
Years ago–when we talk about how comedy has changed–someone did a set on The Tonight Show, and Johnny [Carson] winked or called them over, you were made! You were set! Nothing has that power anymore because we have so much social media and TV and On-Demand. People do a funny YouTube video, and all the sudden they’re a headliner, whether or not they’ve developed material. You’d got to be prepared. I think it’s so important to be prepared.
Or a funny Twitter feed, and you’ve never actually crafted a 45-minute set.
Right! And god, it takes years to craft. People are like, “I’ve been doing it three years!” and I have to say “It takes 10 to 15 years to really…” I mean, do you want to go to a doctor who’s been doing it two or three years? Not that we’re saving lives. But “Laughter is the best medicine.”
What can you tell me about your upcoming episode of Celebrity Wife Swap?
My partner Elysa and I, and our kids, are going to be the first same-sex couple ever on Celebrity Wife Swap. It is a quote unquote reality show, and you just don’t know how it’s going to go. But my goal really was to show people in America that we have the same problems, same issues, same crap going on. And my hope would be that those people who have an issue with gay families or gay marriage equality and everything gay and transgender, they would watch it, and after a minute or two they would realize they’re just watching a family. They’re not watching “A Same-Sex Family.” I haven’t seen it edited, but that is really my goal. There’s nothing more normal–I hate that word; I don’t even want to use that word–but there’s nothing more regular than my family. Except we live in a two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment on the Upper West Side.
And at least you have Penn Jillette on the other side of the equation.
I kind of lucked out. He’s a teddy bear. So we did luck out with that. My partner Elysa became his wife, and his wife Emily became my wife for the week. His wife got to stay in our tiny little apartment with one bathroom.
What else is coming up on the horizon?
I will be interviewing more people at the Y, which I love doing. I am also going to the Montreal comedy festival, and I just finished the NYRP [New York Restoration Project] spring picnic. Great stuff. Lots of gigs going on and things in the works. I’m always writing, and I’m always working on new projects. I also teach. I love teaching.
There’s nothing like live theater and live shows. Nothing. I teach solo performance, not stand-up, so I teach people how to write one-person shows, and perform. Watching their progress…we often do a performance at the end of the semester, and watching my students develop is so gratifying.
Anything else? Life lessons, etc.?
My favorite life lesson that I always tell people–and of course it took me 50 years–is to follow your gut. There is nothing more accurate than your gut. Nothing. They’ll never make a machine, they’ll never make a formula, they’ll never make a drug, they’ll never make anything that is more…precise? No. Authentic? I guess authentic. I don’t know. I’ll be working that out all day today.
But really that is true. The only times I’ve felt regret is when I didn’t follow my gut.
Julie Seabaugh on Twitter. Follow her @julieseabaugh