Dude, What's Happening?

An Interview with Greg Behrendt

by Nikki Tranter

'The one cool thing with getting older is that you can actively choose to be an eccentric. When people ask you what are you listening to you go, 'You know I'm not really listening to anything, I'm really into Japanese furniture right now.'' Greg Behrendt talks about Jerry Maguire, Sarah Silverman, his new DVD, and the importance of bringing the rock.

PopMatters Books Editor

One day you’re a vital dude with plans and information. Next day: old man. ation. Next day: old man.
—Greg Behrendt, The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn, 31 October 2001

I’m on a fan-list for a particular Buffalo-born rock band. Recently, I received an email from that fan-list promoting the Detroit “VH1 Super Bowl event”, at which my beloved rockers would be performing. An ocean and about five grand away from even considering attending, I lamented another great rock show gone unattended, but then I saw the conditions on which my attendance would have hinged had I been anywhere near Michigan earlier in the month. Consider VH1’s concert-goer rules:

1. No white shirts; no logos; dress nice.
2. Must be able to get to show on your own.
3. Must stay for entire event until 11pm.
4. Must be between 18 and 30 years of age.

What? Stipulations one through three are reasonable enough (even if rule one is completely fascist and rule two is a little bit duh), but “must be between 18 and 30”—the hell? Maybe it makes a putrid kind of sense that VH1, even with that Styx Behind the Music on fairly regular rotation, wishes to cater for the young and spunky. But this doesn’t exactly work when the lead singer of that Buffalo band just turned 40. Spunky though he may be, even in a wide shot he ain’t passing for 29. And he wasn’t the only post-30 offender on stage that night.

Referenced DVD:

Greg Behrendt is Uncool
(Warner/WEA, 2005)
DVD Release Date: 15 November 2005

So, here’s the news—30 isn’t cool unless you’re a big rock star. That means I’ve got about three years of coolness left and comedian/author Greg Behrendt left his cool days behind 12 years ago. He, however, isn’t taking it lying down. It’s Behrendt’s belief that as long as the dads of America are aware of their uncoolness, they can get away with attending at least a few more Green Day shows.

On his new Uncool DVD, Behrendt (comedian of 16 years and co-author of self-help bibles He’s Just Not That Into You and It’s Called a Break-Up Because It’s Broken), hits the comedy circuit to dissect ideas of cool. What is cool? Who is cool? If cool is an intangible, ever-changing thing, can age really play a part in someone’s own personal coolness? According to Behrendt, age above much else, works to delineate cool and uncool more than fashion, philosophy, or taste. The 40-year-old guy at the Green Day show, according to one of Behrendt’s more famous comedy bits, isn’t an old school fan deserved of praise for keeping up with modern trends. He is, in fact, Creepy Guy; the wrinkled dude with the chain wallet interrupting mad teen fun to relive his youth. And the teens don’t want him. What is the aging rock fan to do? Greg Behrendt is Uncool has the answers.

Anyone familiar with Behrendt’s stand-up (or his monthly Bring the Rock show at LA’s Café Largo at which musicians and comedians discuss their rock passions), knows just how important it is for the guy to continue rocking long after his society-stipulated cool-expiration. But Uncool is not all about rockin’ out. The show is a genuinely funny, heartfelt exploration into the middle-aged man’s world. Uncool isn’t a man’s comedy act, however. Rocker, though he is, Behrendt is no handyman, admitting he’d fit in at New York’s Fashion Week before a hardware sale. His dueling personas—big rock guy; softhearted cuddly daddy—gives Uncool is crossover appeal. It works for both sexes, it works for all types. Mostly, it works because of Behrendt’s sincerity. Among the rants, a clear concern is displayed for the plights of men and women of contemporary, age-conscious Earth. In the end, Behrendt’s concept of cool isn’t about hot bands and fashion, but about simply being nice. And he should know; they don’t come much nicer than Greg Behrendt.

PopMatters recently spoke to Behrendt about life, love, self-help, and the meaning of good comedy.

Is it a new millennium thing, 30-40-year-olds wanting to relive their rock years?
I think it is. When my parents grew up, and parents of the boomer generation, rock music was the counter culture. Whereas now it is the culture so you’re raised with it and its hard to give it up and feel like you’re not a part of it and yet you have the desire to still participate because none of its shocking to you. In fact, you still want to go. Hey, I want to go see the Living End, right, but when I start dancing at the Living End people are going, “Dude, what’s happening? Stop, you need to stop.” And I do need to stop because I’m 20 years older than the band. It’s that thing that you realize even though your heart’s in it you can outgrow it in a weird way.

Can you pinpoint when you become Creepy Guy?
Well, I think when they ask you to take your chain wallet off because you’re 40. When you get called on it, I think that’s it. Once you have kids, it’s creepy. You can just feel it. You can look around the room. If I go see some old band—if I go to an AC/DC concert, you’re fine—I mean those guys are older than me, so that’s okay. I can go see Aerosmith. But I go see the Killers and it’s game on, brother: “What are you doing here? This is creepy. Why don’t you just get the DVD and listen to it in your car? You’re freaking everybody out—just iTune it, man, and stay away.”

What’s it going to be like when the 13-year-olds are 40, what are they going to do with culture where it is now?
I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I’ll be living in a plastic bubble. I don’t know what happens. You know, the one cool thing with getting older is that you can actively choose to just be an eccentric. When people ask you what are you listening to, you go: “You know, I’m not really listening to anything. I’m really into Japanese furniture right now. I’m really about shapes and sizes. But, you know, you listen to the music, I’m gonna be weird. You know what I’m into right now? Angora for men. I’m into new fabrics for men.” Just become an eccentric. That’s the next phase for me. Just to become deliciously incongruent and a part of no generation except my own.

I took your “Are you uncool?” test on your website and started to feel like I’m at your stage already, only backwards as I’m always the youngest person at the show. [Note: The test considers attending concerts alone very uncool.] I went to numerous concerts alone.
Like what would you go see?

I saw Kenny Rogers alone.
Oh my goodness.

There is a benefit to going by yourself. They throw you on the end of the row because they have seat to fill, so I ended up second row and had the time of my life. It’s kind of a secret benefit.
That’s interesting.

But it feels very weird… I went to Richie Sambora by myself, that’s not too dorky.
Um, no… I don’t even know—what is a Richie Sambora concert like as opposed to a whole Bon Jovi show?

It was at a club, a promotional thing for his album. I don’t recommend going to club shows alone, though.
If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?

Okay, if you were really talking about the counter culture, and punk—I would say going to see Richie Sambora and Kenny Rogers is so much more punk that going to see Green Day, I can’t even believe it. Everyone is sort of marching in step to go see Green Day whereas you’re doing something that most people are not. Especially that combo, where you put those two together. You may be the coolest person I’ve ever talked to. And you have no shame—you feel good about going to see the Gambler and the guitarist from Bon Jovi. I think you are the coolest person I’ve ever met. So you did not fail that test. That test is rigged anyway and Warner Brothers made that. It’s only kind of funny.

So I passed?
You really passed. See, I’m not kidding you. You’re exactly what I’m talking about. People wouldn’t even know where to pinpoint you. They’re like, I’d like to put her in a box and categorize her but I can’t because I don’t know where to put the Gambler and Sambora.

So, perhaps you can be so uncool that you’re cool again?
You know, I think so. Yeah you can, I think to a certain degree. But you know cool is a thing that always changes shape, it’s not actually there. It’s something that people strive for. I think cool really is being a nice person. I think when people use that word about people because they had an experience with somebody—“That guy’s cool, man; he nice.”

It’s not what you’re into but how you are?
I think so. I know people that are cool that wear really great clothes and I know people that are cool that… don’t. I have some friends that have things that are not cool but are very cool.

Has getting you name recognized through the books in turn helped your comedy get more recognition?
Oh my god, yeah. It’s changed everything. You go on Oprah and you become that to people because she has such an awesome amount of power… Not power, but people like her. She’s got a following and when she endorses something people get excited about it. She really just gave me a boost in my career. At that point I wasn’t going to argue with what boat my ship came in on, you know? So I write books for women—I don’t care if I made a cracker that people like, I was just excited to be working.

How strange was it for you to get this side career almost accidentally?
Very strange. But it tells you something about life: you don’t get to make the choices. I believe my work and I like it. I just didn’t think anything was going to happen. I did it completely out of love, I was like, “If I could write a book for my sister, this is the book I’d write.” Don’t date a guy who doesn’t fucking treat you like the princess you are. If we could have written it for both sexes, I would have said, you know, even in your friendships, don’t tolerate bullshit, don’t be around friends that you feel like you have to please them all the time. What’s that all about? So, that was my intention. I had no idea that it would… I thought I would be able to walk into a book store and say. “Hey look—I wrote that book there.” I thought that would be the end result.

Do you think in a way people need to be told what is essentially commonsense?
Yeah, I think we all do. I think we all like to have it written down. I think we all like to have a set of rules or guidelines or just something edging us everywhere and I don’t think there’s any shame in it. You know, I’m nine and half years a recovering alcoholic> Well, the solution to it’s really simple—you’re an alcoholic, stop drinking, right? But it isn’t that simple and then you pick up a book and you know, the people at Alcoholics Anonymous read it and it makes sense to you and you think, how could I have… but that’s just the way it goes. Sometimes you have to know that other people saw it and felt it as well. That other people experienced it. Most self-help should be called, Yeah, duh!

Your comedy appears to work similarly in that people are hearing you mirror their own experiences. You notice yourself simply repeating something or doing something that you can fit into your own comic context and use in your act…
That’s exactly how I work. I rarely sit down to write something. I usually have an experience and relate it to somebody and go, there I connected some dots, you know? That’s what makes people laugh. And then you go and take it on the stage and sometimes it works and sometimes people go, “What’s he talking about?” I don’t know; I thought it was it funny in the kitchen.

When do you know you’re funny?
I don’t know if you know you’re funny, but you enjoy being funny. I know I’m funny because people tell me I am, but when I watch myself it doesn’t make me laugh. Does that make sense? Because I know the jokes and, to me, I feel like I’m pulling the wool over people’s eyes. And there are probably people who do not enjoy what I do. But, yeah, I just like being funny. I get giddy with the idea of stringing words together that make people laugh.

If you watch yourself and you’re not laughing, do you understand what it is that makes other people laugh?
Not when I watch it. When I’m on stage I get it. When I’m saying it live I’m getting it—I know what rhythms make people laugh and what words and I get that. But when I watch it myself, I’m like, I guess. It’s very hard.

Do you work on the rhythms?
No, I speak how I naturally speak. But I think the room will dictate the way or the speed with which I speak. In that way, it’s very much like jazz: this crowd kind of likes it dirtier or this crowd is a bit uptight. Sometimes you get crowds where they laugh but not for a long time and sometimes you get crowds where, oh my god, these people wont stop laughing. You just adjust your rhythm to the room.

Who are your favorite comics? Who makes you laugh?
I’m a big fan of my peers. I love David Cross. So, he was one of my roommates. And Patton Oswalt. Um, there’s another really funny comic, Laura Kightlinger. You know, it’s always different for me. For when I watch Patton, I just love the words he uses. He’s an incredibly articulate wordsmith and he’s able to make a trip from here to the bathroom hilarious. I can’t understand it. He just mines comedy out of everything. David, I love the sheer and total audacity of what he does and his bravery, And I just love the sound of his voice, Different things about different people. You know how some people just tickle you? The person that makes me laugh the hardest in my whole world is my sister. I don’t know why but, fuck, she makes me laugh.

One thing I love about listening to you is you’re not the typical opera-hating, women-misunderstanding man comic. You’re not good at the hardware store and you’re not that into sports. Man comics so often appear uncultured and we’re supposed to find that funny.
Yeah, you know I don’t really buy that, and I don’t want to give in to that stereotype. Because I think we should try to strive for more. And I also just generally, I’m useless with tools. I’ll end up in a pool of my own blood. But I can go to a make-up counter and find, you know, plenty of products for my skin. I’d be very at home at Fashion Week, New York.

Where are the women comics to offset that man-thing? Are there good women comics out there that we’re just not seeing?
I thought and still think Janeane Garofalo was one of the best things to happen to women in comedy. Whether you thought she was hilarious or not I thought what she stood for and the way she presented herself was and is awesome. I don’t think anyone’s come along… Sarah Silverman is pretty good, fairly controversial. But she’s also kind of playing that “dude racist” card; the “how shocking can I be thing”, which I think is kind of… It’s okay, but I think Janeane really stood for a different point of view for women and I loved that about her. [Women in comedy] is a hard sell. I think that men make up a lot of comedy audiences and men are loathe to hear a woman talk like that, sadly. But Laura Kightlinger, same thing, another really good comic. Jackie Kashian is really good. I don’t know. There’ll be some girl—I have faith—someone will come in and knock it out, show everybody what’s what. Just about the time I need to hang it up it’ll be time for the young kids to go, “You guys suck”, and then be really great.

What has been the best reaction to the DVD so far—what have you enjoyed hearing from people?
You know what, I get a lot of emails from dads that really dig it. It really is geared towards that crowd. I mean occasionally I get stuff from young kids, but usually, it’s like, “Dude, I just took my daughter to see New Found Glory”, or “I just went to take her to the Warped Tour”, or whatever. That kind of thing—guys that sort of fee, “Hey, I get it”. That I love. I love sharing that experience because I couldn’t be happier to be a dad.

Dads around the world, that grew up when you grew up, are having their experiences validated.
Yeah, exactly. And then we’re all saying, look we’re probably too old for this stuff and we’re probably not gonna go but at least I know that you know that we both feel foolish. You know, I’m gonna sign your check that you can go to a rock show if you sign mine. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from guys in the military, over in Iraq. They trade DVDs and stuff over there and mine was sent over and I get letters from guys who miss their kids and all that kind of stuff. And although I’m not psyched about our being there I support them as people and I feel for them and I desperately want them to come home… from everywhere. I want us to get out of everywhere. The guy who’s in the self-help game, I’m, like, “you know we really could stand to take a little look at ourselves for a while.” Why don’t we do that for a while? Why don’t we clean ourselves up and then go back out and talk to everybody and ask if anyone wants our help and not decide that they need it because, also, wouldn’t it be hot to have some of their oil. So many of those guys are so young that are over and you get these letters from them and you’re the exciting part of their day. It just breaks your heart. It can be overwhelming, but it’s nice to know that you did something and it matters to somebody who’s in a shitty situation. You know, that’s really why we’re all here as people, is to fucking bolster each other up as we go through this little gift we’ve been given.

Do you get similar responses from the book, that you’ve helped people in this way?
Yeah, I get amazing letters from women that I’ve changed their lives and I always have to point out to them that they changed their lives and that I just maybe put a spotlight, maybe, on the problem. It’s not good to give people credit for the changes you’ve made. You have to acknowledge that you manned up got out of your shitty situation. You know, I may have pointed out to you that it was shitty, but it takes a lot to extricate yourself from things that don’t work in your life.

Do women like hearing that from a man?
I think they do. It’s funny, in America, there’s a lot of women that dug the book, but then there are a lot of women who are like, “Why do we have to get this information from a man?” But who cares? We’re all on this journey—don’t shoot the messenger. The message itself is a universal message that you can use in all of your life—if your job is shit and you haven’t been promoted and you’ve been there for five years, fucking leave. You’re not going to get any points at the end of this thing for slogging it out and having a miserable life. And I feel like, the same thing would go to a guy. I remember talking to a buddy of mine right when the book came out. He said, “Yeah, this girl, I was talking to her, you know, and she was like, oh, I’ve gotta go into my parking garage and then I’ll call you back. And she hasn’t called me back and I was thinking about calling her.” I go, “How long ago was that?” And he goes, like, “Five weeks ago.” I’m like. “Dude, you can’t be telling me that story. Because you know who I am, right? It goes both ways. She does like you. She went into a parking garage and forgot about who you were for five weeks. That can’t be good.” So, it’s that thing where I feel like the message went everywhere, but the books were geared towards women because they came from Sex and the City.

There was something you said recently about Jerry Maguire, speaking of that message. You said it was a good movie with a bad message. How did you mean that?
Okay—I have to say at the beginning of this I am a huge fan of Cameron Crowe and I enjoy the movie and I watch it every time it’s on. However, the thing that people took away from that is that you need another person to complete you, so you go around looking for this missing piece as opposed to you being complete yourself and meeting somebody else who is also complete. I think that is part of the mistake that we make. The other thing I don’t like about it is “You had me at hello.” Okay, here’s this guy who has come back to make an apology; he’s come back to say, “I blew it” okay? And she’s on the floor picking shit up and says, “You had me at hello.” Like, “You didn’t even have to apologize, I already like you.” And it’s like, no! You should say, “That’s an awesome speech and we’re all impressed. Now come back and do it every day for the next fucking three months and then I will begin to possibly believe you”. Because you know it’s like, I can just talk my way into it. If I can write a good enough speech I’ll be able to walk into the house and fix everything.

Cameron Crowe is all about that.
Yeah, and it’s the coolest stuff, but its fantasy. It’s romantic fantasy and that’s totally great and I don’t ever want to downplay him. But I’m afraid that people take that message and then that’s what they’re waiting for. And I sort of think that’s not a great message. It’s also a movie—so you have to trust that people are going to know fact from fiction. I think a lot of times people don’t. They want their lives to be just like movies and forget that they’re not.

One thing’s dictated to you by this movie and then you’ve got a different message in your book—somebody’s telling you something and you’re deciding…
Exactly. And a lot of people tell me, well I don’t like your book and I’m like. “Right on. I ain’t mad at you. You don’t have to like my book. In fact, good for you that you don’t. It means you have an opinion and if you’re version works for you, I’m not going to stop you.” I didn’t write it because I wanted it to make people believe in the things that I do. I wrote it because two women said, you have to put this information down.

What’s your favorite joke?
My favorite joke? Oh my god. Oh yeah—I hope I tell it right. It’s long… not too long. A guy walks into a bar with an octopus and he says to the people in the bar, this octopus can play any instrument in the world better than any person. And a guy is like, I don’t think that’s true. He goes, No it’s true. So he goes, I’ll bet you five bucks he can’t play a guitar better than Eddie Van Halen. And he goes, all right five bucks, he gives him a guitar and sure enough he can play the guitar better than Eddie Van Halen and everyone’s blown away. Another guy says, I don’t think he can play the horn as good as Miles Davis. They give him a horn and sure enough, he just blows the shit out of it; it’s fantastic. And then another guy steps in and he goes, really? I don’t think he could play the bagpipes better than anybody. So he gives him the bagpipe and the octopus has the bagpipe and he’s fooling around with it; he turns it upside down. And they guy goes, come on, what’s wrong, what are you doing? He goes why don’t you play the thing? He goes play it, I’m gonna fuck it as soon as I can get it’s pajamas off. That is my favorite joke and I think it’s because it has the word “pajamas” in it.

Note: Behrendt’s talk show, The Greg Behrendt Show, is currently in production with Sony Pictures Television.

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