Keeping It Clean: An Interview with Comedian Jim Breuer
“Being clean is the new shock,” Jim Breuer tells PopMatters. “I feel like the last decade was the grunge era for comedians in America. I’m exhausted by it. When you’re paying money to come and see me, it’s my job to make you laugh. I’m not a revolutionary, I’m not going to change the world.”
Jim Breuer sits in an empty bar in Melbourne less than 24 hours after he arrived to do just three shows at the Melbourne and Sydney International Comedy Festivals. He sits so close to the edge of his seat that very often, he looks as if he’ll fall right off.
Yet Breuer isn’t tense, or jet-lagged for that matter. Instead, the opportunity to tour Australia as a stand-up comedian for the first time has renewed his energy and faith in stand-up comedy altogether, it would seem. Now a father of three girls, the one time Saturday Night Live star renowned for his Goat Boy character, his impressions of Joe Pesci and his bang-on portrayal of a stoner in Half Baked finds himself touring heavily as a stand-up comedian, and he couldn’t be happier.
Not content to rely on old characters, Breuer has embraced family and fatherhood. His stand-up shows rely heavily on stories about both. In an age when the world of stand-up comedy is flooded with dark, abnormal comedians who rely simply on shocking to retain audiences instead of attempting to get laughs, Breuer’s remarkably clean approach remains something of an anomaly.
It’s his take on family, both being a parent and taking care of his parents that Breuer insists makes him so relatable to audiences. “In a way that most others would complain or be driven to drink, I find comedy,” says the 44 year old. “Taking care of an 89-year-old man, changing those diapers, that can drive people to drink or shove him in a home. I find the lighter, funnier side so that it becomes a form of therapy for everyone else. It’s cheaper to come see me than it is to go to therapy.”
Even as his daughters, aged 12, 10 and 7 approach a point in which they can understand that their father makes a living by telling jokes about them (but he insists, never at their expense), Breuer isn’t too worried. “I don’t think I’ve put out anything that I’m ashamed of them seeing. Maybe a bit of swearing, but I’ve never been vulgar or I never make people cringe. The only thing they can look at is that pot movie I did, which is just a character.” “That pot movie” he refers to is Half Baked, a film which vaulted Breuer into the public conscience thanks to his remarkably accurate portrayal of Brian, the classic record store employee/stoner.
While Breuer is proud of his work on Half Baked, he acknowledges that it’s been over 14 years since the film’s release. He also understands that if the character brings audiences to his stand-up show, that’s all the better. “It was a hilarious character and it helps that I look baked all the time. But to me, whatever brings them out. If they want to remember me as the pot guy, fine. If they want to remember me as the SNL guy, the goat guy or whatever it is, I know that once I have them and once I’m on stage, they’re always going to keep coming back. They’re going to be completely blown out of their mind. But of course, usually their expectations are quite low.”
“SNL and Half-Baked came and certainly brought me a bigger audience,” he continues, “But I lost the perspective of being a real good comedian. I told myself I didn’t want that to happen again, so in 2008 I started rebuilding again.”
Though the definition has varied as of late, Breuer remains a comedian’s comedian. His respect for the craft of stand-up comedy is so palpable that he views it as a career which will last a lifetime.
“It’s just too addicting,” he says after being asked why certain comedians cannot walk away from stand-up, even after attaining commercial success. “We’re born to make everyone laugh and nothing gets a comic off more than cracking up a room. I can’t explain the drug, but it’s the most addictive drug out there. You can never walk away from it. I know I won’t. No matter what happens in the future, I still want to be like Carlin, like Dangerfield where I can hit a stage when I’m 85 and still here people cracking up. It’s a form of acceptance.”
So despite receiving praise for his characters played on television and in film, does Breuer look at performing stand-up as a form of validation? “Absolutely. On stage, you have the instant reaction. I’m in control of my own destiny up there. If I fail, I can always say, ‘I should have read that audience better. I don’t know why I went in that direction.’ In the commercial world, you’re not writing your character. But when I’m doing stand-up, I’m the ultimate boss. I can create, direct, write and always get my point of view across. They’re laughing hard and I get my own victories. I win.”
Breuer’s likening an hour-long stand-up show to a competition is an apt one, but his writing process would lead one to believe that training for the fight isn’t his strong suit. “I don’t sit down and write it all out,” he says in reference to the process. “I always try it out first onstage. That’s where I can see if it works, right away. It drives me nuts until I can get it out, onstage.”
And if indeed his jokes find an audience immediately, Breuer insists he’s unstoppable. As our interview progress, Breuer begins to let his arms flail out of their own volition when talking about stand-up. Breuer hasn’t gone off the deep end though; at 44, he still gets his kicks onstage. The stories he tells might be quite tame and often heartwarming when compared to other comedians, but he’s still going for the same end result. “I think the premises of my comedy are Cosby-esque, but I don’t come out with a sweater. I come out with a Metallica shirt. I always want to kill. I don’t mind laughs and giggles, whatever. But I want you to be exhausted after seeing m, from laughing. I always try to push it just to the limit. My favourite reaction when meeting fans afterwards is when they’re so tired after the show, just from all the laughter. Then it’ll dawn on them: ‘He didn’t even curse. Was that squeaky clean?’ It just happens. My subjects alone are enough to be a little rougher. I could easily go there, if I had to.”
Breuer won’t dive into the pool of creepy, utterly self-depreciating comedy that relies more on themes of pity and shock to maintain audiences. “One of the reasons that I’m keeping with the way I do things is that 98% of the comedians I’ve seen in the last decade are dark and shocking. Nobody’s pulling off a clean, funny act that’s hilarious.” “Being clean is the new shock,” he continues. “I feel like the last decade was the grunge era for comedians in America. I’m exhausted by it. I want to laugh. I don’t want to hear about things that suck. When you’re paying money to come and see me, it’s my job to make you laugh. And laugh hard. I’m not a revolutionary, I’m not going to change the world.”
Instead, Breuer has accepted the world he lives in. It may not be a dark one, but it’s a world in which Breuer invites his audiences into, one hour at a time. There is no wall between the audience and stage, much like there is no finite reason for his continued success. And Breuer’s ready to keep performing as a means of figuring out that reason.
“There’s comedians who (Make unnecessary changes in life, for the sake of their routine) I’m sure. They might say, ‘Oh, I’ll get divorced and this’ll be my new bit.’ It happens. But it was never like that for me. I never treated my family as an opportunity. Most of my stand-up just happens like a light bulb. Someone will ask me a question and I’ll start talking and I’ll stop and say, ‘Hey, that’s not bad. That’s kind of funny.’ Family life is something I cherish. Comedy isn’t something I look for; it just happens.”