Brent Weinbach has been one of my favorite comedians since I saw him open for the Comedians of Comedy Tour in 2007. My friends and I, all being huge fans of Maria Bamford and Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt, knew their acts and their material inside and out. Brent Weinbach was an unexpected wild card, a guy with whose material we did not know and for whose act we were very much not prepared. We laughed so hard that I remember eventually trying to make myself stop so I wouldn’t miss anything. He left such an impression on me that when my friend and writing partner Cameron Ashley and I collaborated on our drug-addled psycho-western, we named the villain Brent Weinbach. So it was with great excitement that I attended his most recent show here in San Diego at The Whistlestop, as part of the monthly show, where we discussed substitute teaching, his and Doug Lussenhop’s web series Pound House and putting the absurd back into comedy.
Serial Optimist: I wanted to start by asking you about your substitute-teaching career. How long were you doing comedy while also substitute teaching?
Brent Weinbach: I think I overlapped, oh, about three years.
SO: Was that tough? I know comedy is really a late-night pursuit.
Brent: Yeah, sure, yeah, I would get like two hours’ sleep sometimes. I tried to go to sleep early, but anytime there was a holiday, that was the best, because I could just stay up late and not worry about it. I remember once I went to school, to teach school, and I had two hours of sleep, maybe three, but I remember that day, I think it was the lack of sleep that allowed for the students to really get to me, and I kinda lost control that day, and, uh, I called a student a name.
SO: Was it a name you could repeat?
Brent: I could, legally, but I’m ashamed to.
SO: Okay, that’s fair enough.
Brent: I called a student the b-word. And then also, aside from that—I mean, look, I lost control, I was in the wrong. Everybody was just going nuts that day, like the students could smell that I’d had a lack of sleep. But one of them got up on a chair and was dancing around, eating chicken wings. I told her to get off, and she jumped off the chair and kinda pushed my back, and at the same time, wiping her grease-covered hands on my dry-clean-only sweater.
SO: Well, I think under those circumstances—
Brent: No, that was a separate incident. Same day, but separate incident. I didn’t call her a name. That was just a bad day, and I just walked out of the classroom, and took a break for a little while, and when I came back the principal had taken over the class. So that was my worst day substitute teaching. Actually, almost every day was my worst, but that was one of the more memorable ones.
SO: That seems like a rough gig in general, but then on top of that, doing comedy.
Brent: Well, I naturally want to stay up late anyway, I just don’t like getting up at 6 in the morning, but then on top of that, these kids were just very, ah, aggressive students.
SO: It was in Oakland, which is kinda known as a rough town.
Brent: It is, but the truth is I say Oakland a lot because it’s easier for people to identify that, but the truth is it was actually Emeryville and Berkeley. Emeryville is basically Oakland, but it’s its own district.
SO: Did your coworkers know you were doing comedy?
Brent: Some of them did, yeah.
SO: Was that frowned upon at all?
Brent: No, no. There were these tech guys there, and they actually came to a show of mine once. I used to make these hand fliers and they would put them up on their wall. Some students knew. I used to do shows in Oakland at these clubs, and sometimes the students’ parents saw me. I remember this woman came up to me after a show, and I used to have this bit about the exotic names I would encounter with these students. And this woman came up to me after a show, she said, “Yeah, you know, my niece is Jamonica.” I was like, “Oh really?” And she said, “Yeah, I have a son who goes to Emery High, his name is Josh” and she said his last name, and then I knew who she was talking about, and I thought Oh, man, her son, this kid was—he had these eyes that looked in two different directions kind of, and he looked pretty scary. But he was nice to me the next day, he saw me and said, “Hey, my mom said she saw you do comedy and she said it was good.” So.
SO: So when parents would see you perform, they reacted well?
Brent: Yeah, it wasn’t often they saw me perform, but they would because I think they related to the material. I used to do a lot of material about substitute teaching, and I was doing a lot of impressions of their kids, basically, and they liked that, yeah. And then one time there was this kid who was kind of a little hipper than your average kid, and he came to a show of mine when he was like 16, and he brought his mom, and they watched the show together and enjoyed it. I think.
SO: Were you always the character you do on stage? Was that from day one?
Brent: Yeah, it was more exaggerated on day one. But it became a little bit less so. But I kinda just, I dunno, sort of just an exaggeration of who I am in real life, I guess, but it was more exaggerated when I started. But it also kinda had to do a little bit with the way I was in class too, actually, because I would kinda be strict, I would try to be strict, at least when I started. I would go in and say [in authoritative voice] “No talking. No eating. No dice. If you need any help, I’m here to help you, just ask me.” I would just be like that, kind of. And it was kind of the way I did stand-up also.
Brent Weinbach at Just For Laughs 2013
SO: So you never had kind of a traditional stand-up act?
Brent: Well, I never tried to be conversational on stage. Actually, that’s not true. Like, in late high school, I wrote material that would be more conversational, but I could never do it that way because it never felt genuine. It always felt fake to me. And so, I finally realized that I didn’t have to be like that. It suddenly clicked with me that I could just be more presentational and more deliberate and not seem casual, and I realized that that was way more comfortable because it didn’t seem fake to me if I did it that way. Like if it looked like a performance, then I’m not faking anything, but a fake conversation with an audience, to me, I would be embarrassed if somebody saw me do that twice, because that would be so fake. So I never really did that on stage. And then I eventually wrote a bit about that about being more casual on stage, and I kinda threw in that bit and tried to show why it doesn’t work for me, at least. I’m just trying to keep it real, y’know? [laughs]
SO: Was there resistance to that amongst the comedy community? I guess if you’re doing that in the Bay Area, it seems like it would be well received.
Brent: Yeah, not from the other comics, no. I think the comics welcomed something like that for the most part. I mean, some people thought it was weird, but it wasn’t my persona, it was just everything. My material was just kind of nonsensical and absurd. Also I used to dirtier material, too, I used to do a lot of jokes about semen and stuff. I guess I used to do more scatological stuff, which was little more graphic. But not the comics, no. I think sometimes the audiences in the beginning, when I used to be more exaggerated, audiences would maybe no take to that as well, because they were used to a more casual style.
SO: So what would have been the worst show that you’ve had?
Brent: I remember I was emceeing a show in Modesto once. This is not the worst show I’ve done. See, to me a show is worse when people do know you, you’re established, and then you have a bad set. But nobody knew me in Modesto, I was having a bad set and people started booing me. It was one of those clubs that’s not a comedy club, but a dance club, but they had comedy before the dancing, so that was the kind of crowd that was coming in, people who wanted to dance. There were also people there for the comedy show, but they weren’t into me. So they’re booing me and they started throwing napkins at me, and then I got off stage and the feature act went on and he ended early, and the headliner hadn’t shown up yet, so the manager asked me did I mind doing more time. And I said, “Well, I could do that, but I don’t think they like me, I don’t think they wanna hear me.” So I went up and then they started throwing wet napkins at me, and then they started throwing fruit. Like, limes from their drinks. It was a very old-fashioned experience; it wasn’t very far from having tomatoes thrown at me.
SO: Very vaudevillian.
Brent: Yeah, and then finally the headliner showed up, and I got off stage, and even off-stage, I walked by a table, and they went, “Boo!” Even off-stage. Then a separate time I went to Modesto, I did a joke about… I just mentioned Jamba Juice. The joke wasn’t about Jamba Juice. I was talking about substitute teaching in Oakland, and I was like, “Okay, Tuan, there’s no eating in class, put away the food, the cellular phone, and the dice.” And then his response is, “Why y’all yelling at me, blood, dang. You hella scandalous.” Then I talk about substitute teaching in Walnut Creek, which is a more suburban part of the Bay Area. So I go, “Excuse me, Cody, please put away the baklava and Jamba Juice.” Or something like that. And then his responses is, “Why y’all yelling at me, blood, dang.” So the suburban kid talks the same, basically. So that’s the joke, it’s not about Jamba Juice. But this woman after the show, I was walking past her, and she pointed at me, looking at me with mean eyes, and she says, “That Jamba Juice joke was not funny!” And I thought it was funny that she would say that, and that she would get so sensitive about Jamba Juice. But then I found out that she worked at Jamba Juice, so.
SO: Well, that makes perfect sense.
Brent: But that show in Modesto, getting stuff thrown at me, was a bad show but it wasn’t that bad. But my worst show of all time I was doing a show in San Francisco, and I had fans at the show. But then there was a good portion of the crowd that was there to see this rapper guy named Schaffer the Darklord. But I had a good portion of the crowd there to see me. And there was this woman who was drunk in the front row, this white woman, and she started saying that my stuff was racist, and started calling me racist. I told you how I lost control substitute teaching; this was the one time I lost control doing stand-up, because I couldn’t hear myself talk and she was being really distracting, calling me racist, so finally I kinda just started yelling at her a little bit and called her some names, which I regret. I had kind of a Michael Richards moment. And then nobody could hear her because she was up front, so to people in the back, it was just like I was yelling at some woman. So I really started to turn the crowd against me. It all eventually culminated with this guy spitting at me. And I saw it. Just this plasma-esque object flying towards me, made of mucous. I thought it hit me, I thought it hit my shoulder. Once that happened, I decided I’m off; I’m leaving the stage, because that’s just so gross. And I got offstage and I checked my sweater, and—you know what, now that I think about it, it was the same sweater, with the chicken grease. But I looked at it and there was nothing there, it fortunately had missed me, but it had flown right past my face. Imagine if that hit me? Yuck. So that was a really embarrassing show because it was in front of people who came to see me, like a third of the crowd, maybe half, fans of mine, and that was really embarrassing.
That was the worst show I ever had, I feel like, because I was actually doing okay, and then I started turning the crowd against me and started having a bad set and got called racist and a guy spit at me and had to end the set prematurely. So I think it’s worse when there’s people there to see me.
SO: So I’d like to talk to you some about Pound House. Is there more forthcoming?
Brent: Yeah, we’re gonna do a new batch. We were supposed to get together Sunday to start writing, but something came up, and we couldn’t do it. So we’re supposed to get together tomorrow, actually, and start writing it.
SO: Is it just you and Doug when you sit down and write?
Brent: Yeah, it’s mainly just us, and then there’s this girl named Mia who’s the producer and she sometimes sit in a little bit, but it’s mostly just me and Doug, yeah.
SO: You guys are credited as co-directors. How does that work, directing with another person?
Brent: Well, final say ultimately goes to Doug, but I help him to direct the episodes. 90% of the time, we agree on what we want. There was one thing that we had a big disagreement on in the second episode that ultimately we went with his version, but for the most part, during the shoot, I’m doing all the—yeah, we’re just doing it together. And I sit with him during the editing process. He does some of the editing by himself, but I’m in there for about 70% of it.
SO: How did you guys meet? When you moved to L.A. or…?
Brent: Yeah, he came up to me in 2005 or 2006. He’d only been doing comedy a year or less, but he used to run this show in Glendale, this place called Big Fish, I think. I never went to it actually. And I had started to come down to Los Angeles to do shows, and he saw me at a show and came up to me and gave me his number, and I didn’t know who he was, I just thought he was some random comedian guy. And he kinda was, actually. And that was how I met him. And I’d heard the Glendale show was a challenging room, and I already kinda done my share of challenging rooms like Modesto, so I never did his show. But then we were briefly managed by the same manager, and we did a showcase together once, and I saw his act and I thought, Whoa, that was kinda neat—I didn’t think it was “kinda neat,” I thought it was neat, actually. But then it wasn’t until 2010 that his act had really developed and I saw him do a set and I really liked it. And then I remember we were doing this festival together, I think it was 2010 also, and I said if you’re going to do a showcase set, let me see what your showcase set is. And he did all his hits, y’know? And then I was like he’s in my top 5 favorite comedians. After I saw him and saw where his act had developed, I became very interested in working with him.
SO: So, when you were shooting the six episodes…
Brent: There are seven actually, there’s an unofficial pilot. We shot this video at first that was not part of the series, the one about the beanbag.
Bean Bag (Pound House Pilot)
SO: Oh, no, I didn’t see that one. I remember a reference to the beanbag—
Brent: Yeah, that’s my favorite one actually, that was one we just did for fun. We were just trying to shoot some stuff, and that’s when we established the whole David Lynch tone was editing that one. Because of that one, Tim [Heidecker] or Eric [Wareheim], I don’t remember, they brought it to Jash. And then we did six off of that. The six official ones.
SO: Did you guys shoot all of those in one chunk of time, or…?
Brent: Yeah, I think it was four days of shooting: Three in a row, and then another day a few days later. The shooting was short, but the editing took a long time, like a month. Plus, I would be out of town or something, so it took longer. A lot of footage to go through.
SO: Right, it seems like a lot of the editing makes the jokes punch harder.
Brent: There’s definitely a lot of editing jokes and stuff, definitely a lot of stuff that happens later that makes it funnier. For example, one thing was I have this line where I say, “Ten days, ten nights.” But when we were editing, something sounded too scripted about that. And so we just used the audio of me saying “Ten days,” and put it under the audio of me saying, “Ten nights,” so I say, “Ten days, ten days.” And that just worked so much better, and it was an editing thing that made it that funnier, I think.
SO: How has fan/critical reaction been to the series?
Brent: Yeah, it’s good, I think. Good, good, good.
SO: Good. And to close, I wanted to ask you about, like, when I talk to my friends about comedy, speaking generally, it seems like some people find the more absurdist stuff to be almost pretentious, like being weird just for the sake of being weird.
Brent: It’s weird, yeah. Thing is, with me at least, my humor is pretty base actually. It’s a lot of penises and poo stuff. I feel like absurd humor is just so silly, it’s the opposite of pretentious. It’s so stupid, actually, y’know? Just silly, stupid humor. I feel like pretentious humor, if anything, is stuff that’s really clever, and I don’t really do that. Sometimes even if a joke is too clever, I won’t do it because I don’t like jokes that require you to think too much to get. I think because I look smart—and I am actually smart—even though I’m doing stupid comedy, I deliver it in a deadpan way, I think people might think it’s smart or whatever. For some people, it might seem pretentious or cerebral, which it’s not. It’s really a more visceral thing. But because I’m doing it deadpan and just the way I look and I’m straight-faced about it, my delivery is serious, people might think it’s some sort of cerebral kind of thing. But if you just look at what the material is, it’s totally stupid humor, just stupid penis jokes. Funny faces and funny accents, basically. I have in the past, I don’t feel like I experience this as much anymore, but I have encountered audiences that think that they need to think when they watch my comedy. I just get the sense that people are thinking too hard sometimes, and I want to tell them, “Don’t think. There’s nothing that deep going on here; it’s actually as stupid as it seems. So just sit back and relax and enjoy it, and just experience it and don’t think about it.” And then there’s other audiences that I think do enjoy the clever humor, enjoy thinking and doing some math to get a joke and pride themselves on that, and my stuff might be too silly for that, but I dunno.
SO: Well, I think you meet in the middle with that.
Brent: Well, these days I try to build that bridge as strongly as possible. I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to alienate. I want comedy to bring people together in harmony. When worlds kaleidoscope. Know what I mean? Two worlds different from each other come together and make beautiful colors together.
SO: That is the loveliest image I’ve ever heard, I think, in my life.
Brent: That phrase, “when worlds kaleidoscope,” I heard that on some public radio program once, and it just stuck with me. And actually, I think absurdist humor, if people don’t think too hard about it—not just absurdist humor, but visceral humor and stuff that more has to do with visuals and has less to do with the writing and more with the presence and the act-out, that to me is more unifying than the cerebral stuff because there’s a purity to it that’s closer to the way we laughed at things when we were kids. Kids laugh more at that absurdist stuff because it’s so silly, and I think that could unify crowds more or connect me to crowds more. The idea as a comedian is to try to figure out a way to make it so audiences can get to that place where they don’t have to think too hard and just experience and laugh, even though it’s absurd. So really, absurdist humor is the great unifier.