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Interview With Comedian Greg Giraldo

As we wrapped up production on SanDiego.com’s new Comedy section, we stumbled across an interview with legendary comedian Greg Giraldo, which had gone largely unnoticed and was gathering dust in our archives. Conducted in the spring of 2006, we provide a look back at a candid conversation with the late Greg Giraldo. Rest in Peace.

Known for his acerbic wit and impeccable writing, Greg Giraldo was one of the most talented stand up comedians working on television and comedy clubs across the nation when he tragically succumbed to a drug overdose on September 29, 2010. At 44 years of age with an 18 year career in stand up, Giraldo fortunately left behind an ample body of work in the form of two comedy albums, 2006’s A Good Day To Cross A River, and 2009’s Midlife Vices (the latter of which also aired as a Comedy Central one hour special on August 16, 2009.)

The late Greg Giraldo.
Courtesy photo

He will undoubtedly be remembered for his many appearances on the Comedy Central Roast series where he never failed to steal the show with his eviscerating jokes. During the last year of his life, Giraldo was featured as a judge on the seventh season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, which elevated his profile in mainstream America even higher. Known among comedians and the club circuit as a hard-partier, Giraldo tragically overdosed while doing a weekend of shows at The Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Prior to the release of his last album, I was fortunate to have a chance to talk with Greg Giraldo about his former life as lawyer and what motivated him to pursue a career in stand up comedy.

Where are you originally from?

Greg Giraldo: I’m from Queens, New York. My father’s from Columbia and my mother’s from Spain.

That’s kind of an eclectic mix there.

Yeah, kind of; I mean it’s hardly Spanish and Russian, but I mean it’s a wild mix I guess.

So you’ve been a lifelong New Yorker?

I lived in LA a little bit, on and off for stretches, ya know six months, a year, a few months there. And I lived in Boston for three years.

Did you really attend Harvard?

That is correct.

When did you decide you’d rather be a comedian than a lawyer?

I was raped.

By a comedian?

No, by a judge. I was in law school; I went, I tried to be a lawyer for a little while, and it just wasn’t gonna work. I bounced around through a bunch of different departments. I was in a giant firm in New York. I did a bunch of different things; I only did it for about a year. I was just basically trying to avoid any real responsibility or contract. This was in 1990 and it was the end of the giant MNA boom. It was just crazy busy insane shit. I was mostly just fucking up other people’s deals and things like that.

When did you start performing?

I started telling jokes in 92’. I knew I was funny, but I didn’t know that I was such a natural comedic genius. I didn’t realize that I was one of the most gifted comedians ever to walk the face of this planet or any other planet. I just thought, “Fuck it. How bad could I be?” There were all those shitty comedy shows like, Evening at The Improv and everything, and I just felt that, I can’t be any worse than those guys. Little did I know it was a long hard slug. I just knew I couldn’t have a regular office job. I knew couldn’t function like that. I knew I didn’t have any great artistic sort of goals when it came to starting stand up, I just wanted to not have a regular job. You can do stand up anywhere in New York. They had open mics in laundry mats. I did stand up at a blood drive. There was just so much stage time. Shitty stage time, but so many places to go on stage.

That seems to be the impetus for a lot of people who do well in stand up comedy.

Yeah, although people usually don’t admit to that. There’s always somebody like, “Man, it was the only thing I was born to do,” or shit like that. It’s basically telling jokes in bars for awhile, so it’s not sculpture.

That does seem like kind of a pompous thing to say for someone just starting out.

Well, who the fuck knows? Everybody’s got their own story. I don’t know if it’s pompous or not, you may be born to do stand up, but it’s just a lot of people sort of claim to have lofty ideals at the beginning. And it’s just kind of hard to imagine when you see what the beginning of stand up is. You’re in a bar with a bunch of drunken idiots and you’re just drinking and you’re getting fucked up. You’re not practicing the cello eighteen hours a day; you’re hanging out in bars. Some people think they have something fascinating to say early on and some people don’t.

What kind of jobs did you work after deciding you wanted to be a stand up comedian?

There were no favorite jobs; it all became such a blur to me. I had this job at this weird travel company that my friend was starting, and there were just tons of hot girls that worked there. It was this bizarre company that he spent his life savings starting up, a company which was building a database of places you can go to on vacation. It was supposed to be this great travel database, and literally the internet was just coming together. We got paid all this money to type vacation brochures into his database, and he thought he was going to have this unique searchable database. I said, “I see some stiff competition right around the corner.”

Are you still friends with that guy?

No, I haven’t seen him in years. But that was a fun job, he had these Euro Investors, it was downtown and was very chique. I could come and go as I please, and they loved to come and watch me do stand up. A lot of my friends cut me a lot of slack during those years, so I guess I should be appreciative. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was a real asshole and I maybe drove his business into the ground.

Have you ever been hired as a comedy writer before?

Not specifically. I would usually get deals to write the pilot that I was going to be in. The one writing thing I did was with this comic named Kevin Brennan. He got hired by Phillip Morris, the tobacco company. They hired him for this bizarre fucking war for hearts and minds campaign, where like he was going to travel around the country promoting personal responsibility. Basically it was this very strange psychological warfare plan that Phillip Morris had come up with. They were going to try, through comedy, to teach people that it was okay to smoke. It was so fucking weird. They never mentioned smoking but they wanted us to write these jokes about personal responsibility and personal choice and freedom of choice. They paid us a lot for a bunch of weeks to sit in this studio, and right next door they were having the Wonder bra search for the next Wonder bra model! So it was a pretty exciting time down at that studio. Then they brought all the Phillip Morris executives in for a show that I was going to open up. I had just been completely fucking wasted and got into a fight, and had ripped a payphone off its wire, so my hand was all bleeding and I had to wrap it up with tape. So I stumble on stage drunk with a bloody hand wrapped up in tape to perform for the people that I had just supposedly written a giant act on how to behave responsibly.

There seems to be a lot of stand up comedians that are behind the scenes writers for numerous projects most people don’t know about.

Yes. There are so many different avenues now to make a living. It’s gotten a lot harder to really break through and really be seen and standout. You have to do so much TV, but as far as the number of opportunities yeah, newer comics are going to have to write for lots of different things. There’s so much stuff out there, particularly if you have a writing background.

You were a regular on the Comedy Central show Tough Crowd, how was that experience?

It was one of the most rewarding television experiences I can imagine for after a minimum pay scale. It was great for me, I loved it. At the beginning, it was insane to basically be shooting the show live and just cranking out tons of new shit everyday and living or dying by it. Most of the times you do anything comedy related on TV its been done a bunch of times.

Is it true that comedians don’t really hang out with each other?

The regulars were people that hang out at the Comedy Cellar in New York City, so I would see them all the time. So we wouldn’t really have to go out of our way to hang out. Some of those guys would hang out together a lot, all the time. It’s true that comedians don’t hang out that much at a certain point in the game because everybody’s doing their own thing. We all work at night, we’re all traveling, that kind of thing. Or it could just be me? Maybe I just don’t get along well with people.

What’s up with joke stealing

Joke stealing is a big deal to me, but I mean, I’m not going to investigate it if it doesn’t effect me directly. If someone were to steal one of my jokes I would certainly look into it.

With regards to television, how do you like hosting as opposed to being a guest?

I like it. I would much prefer to do it sort of long form and ask real questions. I’d kind of prefer to really get the real scoop and really dig deep into those things that are slightly more interesting than your usual three minute interviews. The interviews are only three minutes long; there is only so much you can discuss.

Does Greg Giraldo have a message for the children?

Stay in school mostly. Just stay in school, man. That’s really the most important thing for kids to remember. And cut down on saturated fats if possible, those two and pretty much you’re set. Oh, and don’t become addicted to crack cocaine, or even freebase; it’s similar enough that you will want to stay off of freebase as well. That’s it.