Comedian John Caparulo on being smart to appear dumb
John Caparulo will be performing six shows at Comedy Works.
A lot of comedy audiences have an Us vs. Them attitude regarding what standups to like; they feel they have to decide between David Cross or Larry The Cable Guy. And while this attitude would usually push comedian John Caparulo into the latter category (he's critical of healthy eating and people who read, and appeared on The Blue Collar Comedy Tour), a thoughtful glance at his onstage persona reveals a provocative intelligence in the vein of loveable oaf Homer Simpson, whom Cap cites as one of his biggest influences.
In anticipation of his upcoming six-show run at Comedy Works that starts tomorrow, April 24, we caught up with the apathetic comedian to chat about how smart you have to be in order to appear dumb, as well as what it was like to work the door at the now-legendary Comedy Store in Hollywood.
Westword: Both you and your buddy from Chelsea Lately, Natasha Leggero, are from the Midwest, and when I spoke with her recently, she said that being raised in that part of the country gives you a different perspective than someone who came up in metropolitan L.A. Was that your experience coming from Ohio?
John Caparulo: Yeah. I mean, people talk about the elections and how "so goes Ohio, so goes the nation." When you get into the Midwest, before you hit the cornfields, it is a blend of small-town sensibilities, but you're not a bunch of rubes. I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of comics come from there. I grew up in a place where I was like, "Oh, man, I do not want to stay here." So it was either New York or Los Angeles -- and I figure I'd rather be broke and warm.
Coming from the so-goes-the-nation state, I imagine politics were everywhere. Yet you talk in your standup about how you really don't care about politics and don't follow the news.
When I was a kid, my dad always watched the six o'clock news, so I was up on things. But now that I'm an adult with my DVR, I'd rather just watch old episodes of The Simpsons. But things like not following the news come with a feeling of guilt, where I feel like I should know about politics, I should read more, all that stuff. And then there's this moment where I pop and I'm like, "You know what? Fuck them. I don't want to read and watch the news, I'm just going to do what I want."
And I think a lot of people feel that way. It's like not wanting to go to school. My wife is constantly on Twitter and things like that, and so she'll be like, "Someone set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon," and I'll turn on CNN. But if she wasn't here, it could be days later and I'll be like, "What happened in Boston?"
But almost anything can be made political. You have a bit about not wanting to eat healthy food, which is an issue some conservative pundits have latched onto after Michelle Obama's school-lunch campaign.
I was just talking with somebody about this yesterday. You know, up until I was thirty I was a really skinny guy -- obviously, I overcame that. But I ate what I wanted all the time. And now my body matches my personality, someone who really doesn't care.
But it's not like I have a platform, like I'm taking a hard stance against healthy eating and literacy. "We've got to stop these things!" No, I look at it like I have this inner child who wants to be petty, and doesn't want to deal with all the crap that reality gives you. The person I am on stage is tapping into my most base, primal instincts. I want to shun all these guilty feelings of "I should eat better, read more, know more about politics" --but I don't wanna.
Correct me if you disagree, but to me your material comes off as very anti-intellectual. And it's common for comedians to not respect intellectualism, and intellectuals to hold no regard for standup. But to me, there's an irony in that they both often serve the same purpose, but through different means. Observational comedy is really just sociology.
Yeah, people often ask me who my influences are. And my biggest comedy influence is Homer Simpson -- that character's ability to make big things very small is something that I've always pursued. It's like, there's all this big stuff happening in the world, but when it comes down to it, it's all about how it affects me.
It takes a lot of intelligence to make myself sound so dumb.
Exactly! And Homer Simpson is such a great illustration of that, because the people who wrote that character were mostly intellectuals. A lot of them went to Harvard and other prestigious universities.
Yeah, I'm not anti-intellectual. People can take it that way, but it comes from an intelligent place. I actually do like to read. There's more to it than what you see.
I understand as an individual that there's a big picture to life, things I should be aware of and think about -- but like most people, I just want to get through my day. So I bring out that inner child that doesn't want to be socially conscious. When I'm doing a standup act I'm not running for office, I'm just bitching about my life. And I'm boiling it down to be as simple as possible. The world can be overwhelming, and there's an impulse to minimize it.
I think a lot of comedy audiences don't realize that, to a certain degree, a standup has an onstage character that can be villainous and one-dimensional. And some people feel that if they clap or laugh at an opinion, they're somehow endorsing it.
That's something that always drives me nuts. Like I have this joke that starts, "I wanted to get a bulldog and my friend said bulldogs are really dumb dogs," and inevitably every show, or once a weekend, there will be some chick who owns a bulldog yelling out, "No, they're not!" And I'm like, "I didn't say it -- my friend said it! And if you'll just let me handle this, I have a punchline."
The person that I am on stage is the person I wish I could be in real life. It's the things that I wish I could say in the moment, but I'm too polite. Like anybody is. When somebody says something awful or stupid to me, I go along with it in the moment -- and then when I leave, I'm mad at myself, like, "Goddammit, I had a chance to really knock him down a peg." I don't think of it as a character I'm doing on stage -- it's still me, it's just a deep-seated childish side of me.
Do people often approach you after shows, saying they were offended by something you said?
No. Or at least, I never met anyone who was offended until social media came around. I'm not one of those guys. I wish I was, but if I feel like an audience is uncomfortable, I'm not going to maintain that vibe. It bothers me.
That's interesting, because so many standups are, to varying degrees, sociopaths. They not only don't care if an audience is uncomfortable, they live for it.
Oh, yeah, they don't care if people are yelling at them or walking out. I would never want to do that. If people came to my show, and were anything but happy and had a good time, I would feel terrible about it.
If we could switch gears for just a moment, I'd like to talk about you working as the doorman at the legendary Comedy Store in L.A. I know Marc Maron also had that same job -- were there a lot of young comics who wanted that gig as a kind of rite of passage?
Nobody ever looks at it that way while they're doing it. There was this time where a spot opened up for me to perform upstairs in The Belly Room, and I went up and did the spot, and came back down to my place at the door, and the manager handed me a mop. There was a flooded toilet that was pouring into the hallway. So the people who just watched me have a great set upstairs were now seeing me mop up this toilet water.
While it's happening, it really sucks. But I didn't realize until I got to Montreal [Just For Laughs Comedy Festival] in 2003 what a valuable experience that was. I was sometimes working the door seven nights a week, getting paid $25 a night -- but I'd sit there and watch everyone go up and do their set, waiting desperately for somebody to not show up, or if there was time at the end I would go up at 1:45 a.m. after Dice.
It's interesting that you bring up Andrew "Dice" Clay, because he represents that comedy boom in the '80s that the Comedy Store benefited from. But when you were working there, alternative comedy was dominating the medium, and that was antithetical to what was popular in the '80s. Did you witness that evolution while working at the Store?
That's the thing: The Comedy Store was at its worst moments when I was a doorman. It was in a transition phase. Mitzi wasn't around as much, and it was an inmates-running-the-asylum kind of atmosphere. It was a rough situation, and that helped me develop as a comic. The place has changed since then, though.
That sort of alternative comedy came in vogue for a bit, but the Comedy Store didn't really cater to that sort of thing. That scene existed more at the Largo. There was a darkness to the Comedy Store; it was very rough. If you go in front of that crowd and try to be "intellectual," you're going to get eaten alive.
John Caparulo will be performing six shows at the downtown Comedy works starting at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 25, through Sunday, April 28. Tickets are $26-$31; for more information, visit www.comedyworks.com.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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