Dana Gould has been doing stand-up comedy for 35 years. For at least 25 of those years, he has been one of the most inventive, brilliant, and respected comics in the business. He was a writer on The Simpsons for seven years, and has been closely associated with excellent TV, including The Ben Stiller Show and Parks and Recreation. More recently, he wrote an episode of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Netflix reboot and created the IFC horror-comedy show Stan Against Evil.
Even more recently—May 3, in fact—Gould performed two shows at the Columbia City Theater, both of which were recorded for his next album, which will be released on the Northwest punk-rock (and, latterly, comedy LP) label Kill Rock Stars.
Before the shows, Gould and his opener, Emma Arnold, had an early dinner of Thai food with the staff of Kill Rock Stars at Spice Room, across Rainier Avenue from the theater. It was the first time most of them had met one another, and the atmosphere was convivial but subdued. Gould told a few stories while the KRS kids chatted and looked at their phones.
Trying to convey a comedian's style in print can be a sucker bet—there's a reason everyone uses the same handful of adjectives to talk about Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin—but Gould's work has staked out a beautiful, largely uncharted patch of land between silliness and suicidal despair.
An early highlight of the Columbia City set was a hunk in which Gould revealed that his "oddly political birthday," August 24, 1964, was exactly nine months and two days after the assassination of JFK, "which tells you all you need to know about how my father processes grief."
What followed was an astonishingly balletic pantomime of his father unhooking his belt, unbuttoning his pants, lowering his pants, lowering his underwear, spitting in his hand, stroking himself hard, then proceeding to have sexual congress with his mother from behind, replete with light ass slap, all while delivering a lachrymose monologue about the terrible news from Dallas. "What does this mean? What does this say about us as a people, you know?... Maybe it's time for a different form of government—a parliament, maybe."
His capacity for saying things most people are either (or both) unwilling to say or incapable of dreaming up is precisely what has made Gould a heroic figure to a certain strand of comedy fans who are slightly more chagrined than cheered by the rising tide of democratization in stand-up.
In one way, Kill Rock Stars signing a veteran like Gould is a coup for the label, which is clearly working to establish itself as a force in the comedy album world. In another, Gould's work offers a strong contrast to the sensibilities and audiences of some of the younger, more conspicuously "woke" performers who record for KRS, like Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher, Hari Kondabolu, and W. Kamau Bell.
Gould does bits about rape, murder, suicide, murder-suicide, divorce, and religion, among other "not okay" subjects. Part of the joke is that you know you're not really supposed to acknowledge the possibility that anything about those subjects might be funny. And yet... Gould's treatment of them is reliably gutturally hilarious—not merely because of the audacity of mining them for laughter, but because of his astonishing verbal and physical dexterity in bringing them to life.
In addition, he seems to choose these subjects because they're provocative, because he believes that it's worth exploring the fine distinctions between commentary and exploitation, between complicated and problematic, between offensive and "offensive." (Look at his bit about the Black Dahlia murder, one of the most masterful long walks off a terrible pier I've ever heard.)
But the problem Gould faced last Wednesday was more immediate, and universal to all comedians, no matter how seasoned: uninvited audience participation. A very eager guy piped up with intermittent "yeahs" and "whoos" throughout the early set, not trying to disrupt, but disrupting nonetheless. Gould humored him, then dispatched him ("My turn!") and moved on, but the bit suffered. When he came back to the same point in the second set, he made sure to cover the disrupted section with surgical accuracy, for the sake of the show, the album, and the words themselves.
Afterward, the backstage hang was, again, convivial and subdued. Gould, Arnold, and the Kill Rock Stars crew compared notes about the two sets (consensus: the second one was generally better). There was no hedonism and no decadence, just polite interest in the Walkers shortbread cookies and bottled water. In fact, if there is such a thing as the opposite of the bungalow at the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi died, it was probably the greenroom of the Columbia City Theater after Dana Gould recorded his debut album for Kill Rock Stars.
Considering the alternatives, this seems like good news.