Dana Gould on Podcasting, Stan Against Evil and Peak TV

Dana Gould headlines the Dairy Arts Center on January 11 and the downtown Comedy Works January 12-14.
Dana Gould headlines the Dairy Arts Center on January 11 and the downtown Comedy Works January 12-14. Courtesy of Dana Gould
Very few comedians have amassed television résumés as impressive as Dana Gould's — and almost none have made it as far without a starring role on their own eponymous sitcom. Yet with an HBO special, two one-hour Showtime specials and guest appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, Conan, Maron and Real Time With Bill Maher all under his belt, Gould has hours of material waiting to delight the newly initiated; he's also had prominent guest roles on shows like Anger Management, Seinfeld and in the dirty-joke-etymology documentary The Aristocrats. Behind the camera, Gould was a co-executive producer of The Simpsons and a producer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. His monthly podcast, The Dana Gould Hour, is a hilarious and inventive exploration of what the medium can do. Lately, Gould has been working behind the scenes as the creator and executive producer of IFC's Stan Against Evil, a horror-comedy series that doesn't skimp on the scares. Westword caught up with Gould before his visit to Colorado this week for headlining engagements at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder and the Comedy Works in downtown Denver to discuss failed projects, his new show, and the concept of "peak TV."

Westword: How did the Dairy Center approach you about doing a show?

Dana Gould: Well, I was already working at the Comedy Works in Denver that weekend, and they actually set it up. I guess they have a relationship with the Dairy Arts Center, so they called up and asked if I’d be willing to come in a night early, and I said, “Sure, I’d love to go to Boulder. It’s where Mork & Mindy took place; of course I have to go.”

Your last special came out in 2013. Do you have plans to record another one any time soon?

Yes, actually, we’re filming it the weekend after I’m in Denver. I’ll be running that special, and I’m scheduled to film it in on January 21. Quite literally the one order of business I have to handle today is that there’s been some confusion on the dates; the production company wants me to film it on the 27th, when I can’t do it. So anyway, I’ll be running the next special with the intention of recording the weekend after I’m in Denver.

Do you have a working title for it yet?

Yeah, I like Mighty Mouth, and my girlfriend likes Talky the Clown.

Either way, you can see the cover right there in your head.

Exactly. I’m not sure yet. Which one do you like?

I kinda like Mighty Mouth.”

I wanted to do Mouth Almighty, but that’s the name of an Elvis Costello song — so that would be stealing.

You know, just pun it up a little and make it yours. That’s just fair use.

Exactly. Fair use.

Congratulations on getting a second season of
Stan Against Evil.

Thank you very much. That’s my other order of business today.

At what point were you told you got the green light? Had you wrapped filming already?

I wrapped production on the first season in September, and I found out we got a second season about four days ago. They told me just before they made the announcement. And I had been wrapped for quite a while, so I was like, “Well, I hope I get picked up.”

After spending so many years in writer’s rooms, how does it feel to be running one?

The problem is that you have to say no to people you don’t want to say no to. I mean, I have eight episodes a season, and I basically arc out the season and come up with the ideas for the stories, and then I usually write about three of them, I co-write one of them, and then I farm out four to other writers. The trick is that I can’t give four scripts to twelve people, you know? But I always have a ton of friends who want to write a script, and I’d love to help them, but I can’t. So it’s just a lot of saying no to people you don’t want to say no to, by order of math.

Eight episodes isn’t that many.

No. And I want to write some of them myself. That’s the fun of it!

Does the shorter than 24-episode production schedule allow for much time to do standup?

Well, we basically shoot an episode in three and a half days. Mathematically, it shouldn’t even work. I’m really not sure how we got it done, but we did. So the good news of it is that because we film in Atlanta, I only have to be away for two months a year instead of nine and a half months a year. Which makes it possible, because I have little kids at home. So that’s the upside. But, yeah, I basically have four careers. I’m a standup comedian; I have a podcast, and that’s a very time-consuming job; I have the show, and I’m currently writing a graphic novel and getting another television show ready. So an eight-episode order is good because it lets me do all these other things.

Can you talk about the graphic novel?

Yeah, sure. I was hired by Boom! Comics to adapt Rod Serling’s first draft screenplay of Planet of the Apes. It was written in 1964, and it’s a very different movie than the one that was eventually made in 1967. They live in a modern-day city, it’s a different tone — it’s really a very different movie. And so I’m taking that script and adapting it into a graphic novel. I could not say no to that.

You’re a pretty big
Planet of the Apes fan, if memory serves.

Yeah, I’m about as big as they come. They knew when they offered it to me that I would have to say yes.

Though I imagine you’re busier than ever, you’ve continued releasing episodes of the Dana Gould Hour every month. What makes you want to keep doing it?

Well, there’s OCD, just good old obsessive compulsive disorder, and I think that it really makes everything else — I cite the podcast as the things that literally made everything else possible. It keeps my name out there and connects my audience. I think the reason that I’m still allowed to work in clubs is because my podcast has nurtured and cultivated my fan base to the point that people show up. Because if people don’t show up, you don’t get hired. And I think the podcast is very much responsible for that. The podcast averages about 100,000 downloads a month, and, you know, I think a lot of those people watched Stan Against Evil because I talked about it on the podcast. I think that’s why Stan started out with such good numbers. It’s like the nuclear rod that powers everything else.

And I’ve said this before, but around the time I left The Simpsons, my wife at the time had a very, very big job; she was running HBO. I thought that during that time, I would write screenplays from home so I could be home with my kids — who are still very little — and I could go on the road like a weekend every month. And I thought that would be the best of both worlds. But I soon found that the screenplays were not very rewarding, and going on the road for a weekend every month with a very limited appeal just made me feel like a dilettante. It really wasn’t until I started doing the podcast — and it took me another two or three years of being miserable to figure out what I needed to do — and it was really the podcast that sort of provided the engine for me to get out of that slump, to recapture my audience and motivate my career forward.

There’s no gatekeepers to podcasts, you don’t need to wait for anyone’s approval, and you can do whatever you want as long as it’s entertaining.

Yeah, and the reason that I don’t go with Earwolf or one of these other podcasting networks is that it’s all mine. If I’m gonna not make any money on something, I’m not gonna take notes on it, too. I’m not going to do all this work for free and then take someone else’s notes. So, yeah, it’s exactly the show I want it to be, and I release them when I’m ready. But enough people seem to be fine with it; the show has its own personality, and I think it’s fairly unique. That’s another thing that was really important to me — to make the podcast my own and not be like “Okay, now I’m going to do my version of WTF.” I put as much effort into recording my podcast as the Beach Boys put into Pet Sounds. It's the most overproduced podcast in the history of the format.

I can't imagine doing that every month.

Don't. It would kill you.

click to enlarge BARRY BLANKENSHIP
Barry Blankenship
Like a lot of people in show business, you’ve had a lot of projects that never quite materialized. Is there anything in particular you still wish you’d been able to make?

Yes, yes. I had a pilot called The Last Larry at Comedy Central that was basically Shaun of the Dead before Shaun of the Dead came out. The premise was essentially the cast of Seinfeld in the world of Night of the Living Dead, and I had to use that reference because it also predated The Walking Dead. And Comedy Central sat on that fucker for two years and did nothing with it. And I still think it was one of the best things I ever wrote. It would have completely beat all of that — it would’ve beat Zombieland, it would’ve beat The Walking Dead. But instead, Comedy Central just sat on that thing and squashed it. And I still haven’t forgiven them.

Oh, man. You would’ve been way ahead of the zombie zeitgeist.

Yes. And it was a really well-written piece of work. And HBO wanted it, and Comedy Central wanted it. I remember David Cross told me, “Don’t go to Comedy Central. They'll kill it,” but I did it anyway. He was right and I was wrong.

I get why that’d be a tough one to let go of.

Yeah, exactly. It was like The Walking Dead, only before The Walking Dead. Yeah, it still annoys me.

One thing that sets your show apart is that the comedy mostly comes from the characters and that there’s a real commitment to the horror elements, particularly the effects and makeup. What inspired that decision?

Absolutely. And for me, I think that's the only way we could do it. That's also the problem I have from people who submit scripts, is that everybody writes a funny episode. And I have to tell them, "Don't write a funny episode. Write a scary episode, and then we'll go in at the end and make it funny with the characters. You're not writing a comedy; you're writing a thrty-minute horror story.

It's not necessarily so different. Comedy and horror both hinge on surprise.

Oh, no, they're totally cousins. Laughter and screaming do the same exact thing: They are involuntary reflexes that release tension. When people go on roller coasters, some of them laugh and some of  them scream. I laugh, my daughter screams. But they're very similar. And in terms of writing, creatively they're very similar, because it becomes all about pulling off the gag. Can you pull off the gag? Whether it's a scare or a laugh, the characters and the story all have to service building up that tension to deliver the gag. Whether or not the gag works is what it becomes all about. So, yeah, writing comedy and writing horror are really, really similar.

Do you have a take on the idea that we’re at peak TV? It seems like a real luxurious problem to have.

Yeah. Well, I know that my dad just got a series, and he's not even a writer. Yeah, I mean people have shows now on networks I've never heard of. "I'm on the Chapstick network, they have a network now." The fact that I have a show is probably a signal that they're giving away too many. But, on the opposite of that, television is the most creatively exciting medium right now. It used to be that movies were the classy thing and that television was sort of a gutter art, and now it's totally the reverse. If you have an idea for a movie, you'd better figure out how to get fucking Iron Man in there or good goddamn luck. Meanwhile, all the good stuff is on television now, you know? My manager calls it "movie product." So many movies go by, and you're like, "Yeah, well, that was two hours in a theater." Effective, saleable movie product. It's kinda gross, but there it is. Oh, did you happen to see the Television Critics Association Awards?

I did not, but I watched a couple of clips.

Did you see the guy from Atlanta come up and go all Kanye West on the guy in a tux who'd won?

That, I did see.

The guy in the tux is my manager. Tom Lasally.

He handled it well.

He's an incredibly funny person. His dad was the producer of The Tonight Show, so Johnny Carson was his dad's boss. He's an incredibly funny guy and an incredibly gracious guy, and the reason that I hired him is because he would much rather talk about music than TV. He has real passions outside of his job; he would go into a volcano to see Radiohead perform. He's really dry and funny, and I thought he handled that really well.

What do you have planned for season two? Anything you can discuss? I guess maybe not, after only four days of having the green light.

No, I started thinking about what we could do pretty much right away. Because again, coming up with the story is the fun part. But I do know how I'm going to get Evie back, and that was one of those ideas that came on like a sneeze. Like, you feel it coming on, it's not here yet, but it's gonna come in a minute, I can feel it getting closer, and then boom! It hits. So I thought about how I was gonna get her out, and then I jumped on it; I couldn't wait to write it. And then that spawned another idea that's going to carry the arc of the whole season. So I can tell you this: With only the best intentions, Stan is going to ruin everything for everybody.

Dana Gould's show at the Dairy Arts Center starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 11, and admission is $15; visit the Dairy Center's box-office page for tickets and more information. The Comedy Works run starts Thursday, January 12, and continues through Saturday, January 14; visit the Comedy Works events calendar for details..

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham