Jimmy Gunn – From the Start to “Retirement”: Part 1


524001_10100888834894608_1764884688_nJimmy Gunn has been knee deep in the Bay Area comedy scene for the past few decades. Delivering his brand of nervously awkward comedy right from the start, he has worked with legends like Bill Hicks, Greg Proops, Patton Oswalt and more. In part one of our interview Jimmy came out of “retirement” to talk about his start, the golden age of Bay Area comedy, acting and how the comedy community has changed over the years… then promptly went back into “retirement”.

Phil: Thank you for coming out of retirement to do this Interview Jimmy

Jimmy: Yes, for this talk I have come out of retirement and will go back into it until next week.

So Jimmy, what was your first comedy experience?

Uh, very first comedy experience? This is actually a fairly well known story among some comics in the area. So I’m not going to mention the name of the guy, but this guy I’m about to talk about did comedy one night and then didn’t do it again, I think, for about 17 years. He’s since gotten back into it and everyone knows his name. Not necessarily a working comic, but he’s definitely made a name for himself.

This guy “John” and I were in a show… a play. At that point I was a director, directing shows, acting in them, writing plays, producing them up in San Francisco. We were in a show, we were in Hamlet. We were out drinking one night at a cast party and we got talking and he said “I always wanted to be a writer on Saturday Night Live. That’s my secret dream.” This is back when we were both like in our early twenties. I said, “Well a lot of those guys on there who are writing and stuff started with stand up.” So we got talking and I promised that if he went up and did some comedy, I would, ya know, support him and back him up by going up and trying to do some comedy. Even though I had no intention of doing it or no desire to do it. So we went up about a week later to the Holy City Zoo, on a Sunday night. He was number 31. I was number 32. Because I really had no material and I figured this was a one off thing, I basically chose to be this really nervous guy who basically was terrible at comedy and all he did was read knock knock jokes out of a book for five minutes and using my acting skills to stay in character. So he got up and it was about 12:30 at night with maybe eight people in the audience.

Five of them were comics and 3 were real audience members. And he started doing his jokes. They were not funny. They were really not good. He got upset with the audience because they weren’t laughing and he started scolding them and he started telling them “How dare they not laugh at this genius material.” This of course, the comics found hilarious, so the comics actually started laughing. As the comics started laughing, the rest of the audience started laughing and this just infuriated him even more. You could just see the steam pushing out of his ears he was so upset and just yelling. Then he got off stage, kind of like “ahh fu.. shit” (in a mumble). I got up, they called me on, and I got up and I read knock knock jokes out of a book for three minutes… nervously, and walked off stage. Then we were walking out of the club, we were the last comics. We were walking out of the club and “John’s” just furious and whatever as we were walking back to the car.

Then I hear this voice from behind me, from out of the club, “Hey Gunn!” and I turned around and it was Jim Earl from Lank & Earl, the comedy team from… back then they were very well known. Now probably new guys don’t know them at all sadly. So Jim Earl was calling my name and I turned around and he goes “Gunn what are you doing on Tuesday?” and I said, “Nothing”. And he goes “Well wanna come back and do our show? It’s called The Freak Show.” And I said “OK” and so went back and did The Freak Show. That was the start of my comedy career. That was back in ‘88.

Basically what I realized was, first of all, I really enjoyed doing it really quickly. But I also realized within about two weeks of doing open mics around and doing the Holy City Zoo constantly, was that just knock knock jokes were not going to be substantial enough to do something with. So that’s when I really decided that I could take the idea of the nervous awful comic way further by just doing all the cliches that I see comics do, and just fuck them over badly. When I started doing that, I started realizing that drunk adults really found that funny.

So before all that you had no intention of doing stand up?

I remember back when I was nineteen a friend of mine was down at Loyola Marymount College. And I went down to visit him, when he was at school and walking by the Improv one night we started talking to this guy who works at the place. And he goes, “You should come by and do the open mic” on whatever night it was… Monday or Tuesday. So we went by, and at the Improv in Hollywood back they used to… this was when there was only one Improv… they used to pull names out of a hat and if you were lucky enough to be pulled you got up. We were in the second round and we got up and we kind of were a comedy team of really just unprepared material.

And you guys were just nineteen then?

I was nineteen and he was eighteen I think. We basically walked out and there was nobody in the audience. I mean zero people. Other than maybe one or two other open mic’ers who were horribly offended that we got up and they didn’t. I just remember thinking, “Oh that was fun. No need to that again. EVER.” Then I guess a few years later Doug Ferrari won the San Francisco International Comedy Competition and he was on KRON’s Noon News. I remember watching and just thinking, “Well if he can do it…” but I didn’t act upon it. I just thought it but didn’t do anything. Then it was about a year later or two years later that the whole thing started with the unknown guy named “John” and me.

So after that show with “John” were you just hooked?

Oh yeah. In fact, “John” and I actually for a little while, kind of split ways. Because it was clear that I was rather enjoying it and he obviously wanted nothing to do with it. I guess it was probably after about six or seven months of doing open mics all over and really kind of gathering maybe about seven to ten minutes of material. Of just really goofy stuff. I started deciding, “OK, I probably should really start putting all my focus on the idea that I may actually be doing this as a career. Because I’m enjoying it, because in 1988 it was the tail end of the golden age of comedy in San Francisco where you were doing things like hosting or doing free showcases but on the showcase were people like Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Schneider and those kind of guys. So I mean we still saw something like, “Oh we can actually do this.” and also if you were funny it took far less time. So for instance, I was on at the Punchline within three months. I probably had my first week there after I’d been doing it about six months. My first paid week was actually not at the Punchline it was at Laughs Unlimited which used to have two clubs. If only I’d known then what I know now I basically was working with… Bill Hicks was the headliner. And so I worked for two weeks with Bill Hicks. Not having any fuckin’ clue who the hell Bill Hicks was, or what would happen. And then worked with him again about a year later.

Was he not the comic then that he became? Or did you just not recognize it?

Back then nobody was “Oh they’re going to be gigantic” or “they’re legendary.” Back then it was “Ah, that’s a very funny comic” or “Yeah that guy is funny.” And Hicks was absolutely geniusly funny, but so were people like Greg Proops and Will Durst and… Mike Meehan was a genius, uh is a genius still. In fact they all are, because they aren’t dead. Larry “Bubbles” Brown is another one. So there was no kind of sense of “he’s going to be a legend”, it was just “Oh he’s a great guy to work for, he’s a great guy to work with.” I mean I used to take him (Hicks) to his AA meetings during the day because he had nothing to do in Citrus Heights or in Sacramento we’d drive up to the American River or drive up to the Zoo. He’d walk around smoking in the Zoo, yelling at the monkeys. It was fun, it was… ya know… I was 24 the first time I worked with him and probably 27 the last time I worked with him. So ya know, for a twenty-something year old working with these guys who… and he’s younger than I am, but he was headlining and I knew that he was getting all these other gigs around. I didn’t realize to the extent of, ya know what was… but he was funny then and he was funny up until the day he died.

So you mentioned some of them, but who was around the scene back then? Who were your contemporaries?

The contemporaries around me, of my scene were Margaret Cho, Greg Behrendt, (Greg) Proops. Proops was kind of one of those… there’s a certain way comedy seems to work, and I still think it works this way today, there seems to be these kinds of mini waves. Kind of like Durst is in the last wave of the 70’s comics and so he’s the Godfather of San Francisco comedy now. Going out of that and into the next group were people like Paula Poundstone, Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Ellen DeGeneres. And then after that it was people like Rob Becker and Greg Proops. Then after that it was kind of my generation which was the Margaret Cho… who is probably the most well known out of all of that generation. Then after that it was the Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn… those guys came in. It’s interesting in comedy in that, I can’t specifically speak to why somebody made it and why somebody didn’t. The one thing I can speak to is to the fact that with all the guys I’m mentioning there is no surprise, ya know, as far as what they’ve become or the notoriety they’ve gotten. Because everyone of them it’s well deserved. There are some comics who have made it who I truly don’t find funny. But then on the other hand, the other thing I will always tell a comic is that being funny is like only ten percent of what’s going to get you what you want. 90% of it is going to be push, drive and passion for wanting it. Ya know, and quite frankly that’s one of the reasons I’m still here and not in LA. I did not have the passion or the drive.

Did you ever move to LA for anything?

Never. I would have probably committed suicide if I ever had to be in LA more than a week. I’m just one of those people who can’t stand it. I think it’s great those San Francisco comics who do move down there are able to handle it and like it and make money at it or what have you, but I’m not one of them. It’s funny too, because my comedy styling, once I started doing a lot of comedy my like of what comedians I liked very much transformed into something very different. I still loved watching the guys I mentioned like Steve Martin and Bobcat Goldthwait and Andy Kaufman… before he died. But I really tended to find I was watching them, once I started doing it a lot, more from the perspective of how did they get what they are getting, how do they do what they do. What’s the technical aspect of what they’re doing. And started to fall in love with people like Greg Proops, who not un-wrongly has the tagline “The Smartest Man in the World”. I don’t think he might be “the smartest man”, but he’s certainly one of the smartest comics. And Hicks was certainly, Durst is certainly that. Michael Meehan is nuts, but he’s, God he’s intelligent. Oswalt… just very… I tend to find that I love really sharp comedy. And the oddest part about that is I can’t do it to save my life. Quite frankly I consider what I do almost more of uh… and this is something recently, I’m not a comic I’m a clown for adults. Ya know, it’s like I don’t have any political humor, I don’t have any kind of like observational humor. I’m just doing goofy ass shit and if you laugh at it great. And yet I love hearing just the best and smartest political humor out there. I love that.

So it sounds like that character that you did the very first time, has stayed with you this whole time in your career.

Yes, the character has been consistent all the way through. It has, I think, I would say if I was to videotape myself today doing the character and myself over the first year of comedy or maybe even more, I would say for as “nervous” as I am, my character has become a lot more brave in the sense that I will yell at people. I have no problem in, ya know, in scolding… in fact to some extent the scolding came out of that whole idea of when you scold an audience, audiences find that funny. So if there’s a way to channel that kind of idea and pretend to scold, then that might get me some laughs. And ya know… I’ve found it does.

I find it now with the community on Facebook and all that stuff, it that seems fairly friendly and is just a lot more public. What was the community like back then, because you couldn’t really talk shit about each other unless you were at a club.

I would say even today most of the shit talking that I hear is really about people who really should probably not be in the comedy scene in the first place. Maybe it’s because I don’t hang out as much or something. I don’t tend to hear a lot of the shit talking against each other… and this is gonna sound so bad… when the comics are funny people. When they’ve got a reputation for being funny, no one shit talks you. I think maybe that is… I mean I don’t personally, I don’t shit talk shit talk anybody. I’ll be very honest and upfront and say I don’t think someone is very funny. But then again, I don’t know when they are going to get funny or I don’t know who else may find they’re very funny. It might just be me, and I don’t find them funny. So I don’t usually shit talk, but I know there are some who do and I think a lot of it has to do with um… and back in the day there wasn’t and again it’s because of the internet you can do it now… you can troll… you can be almost anonymous. But I think today it’s almost more of a “I’m going to put you down because I sure as hell want everybody to know I don’t want to work with you” ya know… it’s like “yea, put me on a show but don’t put me on the same show.” That’s what I “think” seems to be going on. Back then, but I still think it’s very true today. Unlike LA, unlike New York, San Francisco comedians are at your back. They will stand up for you. You get a gig, they will be happy. They won’t look at you and go “what the fuck?” They’ll actually be happy for you. There was an ongoing joke years ago, and I think it’s still basically true which is, in LA people will stab you in the back, be careful. In New York they’ll just stab you. And so, I think that’s still kinda true… again I don’t go down there enough to know.

Was it territorial at all? I mean there were a ton of clubs. Was it ever like “This is our club you can’t do this club!”

No, no… and one of the things that started… I left comedy for about 8 years after I had a kidney transplant. When I got back into it, this didn’t happen but about two or three years after getting back into it I started noticing it which was this kind of three way defining line between San Francisco comics, South Bay comics and East Bay comics or Oakland comics. Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was “the Bay Area” and I still hold very much to the idea that I hope even if the south bay comics don’t want to drive up to the city because it’s too fuckin’ expensive for gas or just because it’s too far, San Francisco comics don’t want to go to Oakland because it’s too scary, I like to think that we’re all still just a “Bay Area” comedy scene. I don’t know if that’s so true, but I would love to think it. I try to do that. I try to dip myself into each of the scenes a little bit, that way I’m kind of around. Nobody thinks of me, I don’t think, as “that South Bay comic or that San Francisco comic”. Which is how I think everybody should be referred to.

What were the venues that you liked performing at or what were the ones that your frequented back in the day?

628x471It was such a great scene, because there were well known clubs… I mean even the lowliest of club, the Holy City Zoo, was even at the time the place to be. It’s where all the comics who were coming in from out of town to work at Punchline or Cobbs or The Other Cafe…after the show they’d go hang out there and do sets. You’d go in one night and Robin Williams would be behind the bar tending bar. Why? Because he felt like it. He had a free night and what else is he gonna do? So every comedy club was your comedy club. The weirdness of what started to happen in the 90’s. And when I say the 90’s I’m particularly talking about the early to mid 90’s, ‘93 ‘94 ‘95… when the first Other Cafe closed over in Cole Valley, everybody was devastated but then they moved to Emeryville. And it was supposed to be this gigantic room, bigger than the Improv or as big as the Improv. And they folded, they couldn’t make it. That was kind of the first sign that things were not right in comedy. And then Comedy Central started and there was a lot of blame on Comedy Central for killing off live comedy. 


Looking back on it I don’t think it’s true and I’m not even sure I believed it then. But, the one thing that was for sure is that starting in around ‘93, clubs started closing all over the place. It started with one nighters. Less and less one nighters. Then it started with major clubs, the Last Laugh in San Jose, they all started shuttering. And it all became a scary atmosphere and yet at the same time there was still these guys who wanted to do comedy. So it was a lot of little popup one nighters at a bar or someplace like a bookstore or whatever. But it was nothing lasting and you couldn’t make money at it. And that’s actually why in ‘94 when I had my transplant I started thinking do I really want to be in this business. Because it doesn’t seem to be much of a business anymore.

So you were doing comedy full time by then?

Yes I was full time by then. The plus side to me doing it full time was because I was on dialysis at the time all of my medical insurance was paid through Medicare. Because if you are on dialysis you get Medicare. So it wasn’t like I was a comic who needed the security of insurance and stuff like that. Actually just before the transplant, for about that year before is that I did start to notice is that all this money I was making in ‘91 and ‘92… and I was making a lot of money in ‘91 and ‘92… by ‘93 I was noticing a bit of a decline. And I started thinking this is weird, but of course I was doing it for a living so I wasn’t really thinking. When I got the transplant and I didn’t have to do dialysis I suddenly thought to myself, “OK, wait a minute now I got all this time freed up I can do whatever I want. Should I really be in this.” And I didn’t know, I kind of eased out of it. I would say that I kept doing gigs through ‘94 and a little bit in ‘95 but by ‘96 I had pretty much stopped, because in late ‘94, I started working with a children’s theatre directing and teaching kids, which I had never done. If you had asked me a year before that if I would be working with kids I would have told you, “Please take your head out of your ass.” But I found I loved it. So that’s what kind of was the ultimate, “OK, I’m just going to stop.” So I did. And I really was totally out of the scene for about six years. And then my wife and I were in Edinburgh in 2002. I ran into Greg Proops, literally on the street. I was standing at a stop light waiting for it to change and I looked to my right and he was standing there. So we went to lunch and we were talking about why I got out of comedy and he goes, “Why did you quit comedy again?” I told him all the business reasons and he goes “You quit for business reasons?” And all of a sudden this light bulb went off in my head and it was like, “Oh my God that’s right I used to do comedy because I LOVED doing comedy.” So when I got back from Edinburgh about, I guess it was about four or five months later I said, “You know what, I’m going to get back into it, BUT with this caveat I am not getting back into it for the money. I’m getting back into it for the love of doing it. If I don’t make any money or don’t get any gigs, fine. But I’m not getting on the phone for two hours a day calling every booker I can get and finally having two of them say yes. So I came back to it and it was a lot of fun coming back to it, because by then I knew my act. I was rusty, but I knew my act. Which meant, and I’ll pat myself on the back…I knew I was funny, I didn’t have to question it. I knew I could grab an audience. So I started doing all these open mics. One of the first things I did was the Battle of the Bay Comedy Competition which was run by Curtis Matthews at Comedy College. I went to see one of the evenings just to see what the deal was. I walked up to him after and said, “Hi I’m interested in doing this. My name is Jimmy Gunn” and he said, “Yeah I know who you are. You worked with Hicks.” What I didn’t realize was he was hanging out with Hicks when we were doing the shows in Sacramento, but I just didn’t remember him. So I did that. Kind of got the rust off and started working again. And again, this gets us back to San Francisco, or Bay Area comedians having each others backs. I showed up at the Punchline… this is after not being there for eight years roughly. And I was kind of explaining to the guy at the door that I used to be a comic. Conor Kellicutt stuck his head through and he goes, “Oh let him in, he’s Jimmy Gunn.” And I was like, ‘huh what? who the fuck are you?” So I felt very welcomed back, very quickly. And I get the gigs now, like you, when you ask me to do a show. I basically now do shows for friends, people I like or shows that I know are going to be good shows. When I first came back I did something which alerted me very quickly to the reminder of what I’d started comedy again for. I was doing a show for a guy… who I won’t mention his name because he’s still doing shows… he was having me headline and he was promising me $150 for the night. OK, sure. So I go to the show. There’s maybe seven or eight people in the audience. And I do the show. He said nothing at this point, I do the show and after he comes up and goes, “You know I hate to do this but I’m not going to be able to pay you because we didn’t have enough people.” I was like, “OK, well you know what I don’t have to work for you ever again because I don’t care”. So it was that kind of thing. You know what, I don’t mind working for my friends because if they end up not being able to pay me, I don’t care. I will do a lot of free work for people I like. I will not do free work for people who I don’t know, who tell me something and then turn around and make excuses after the fact that I already performed. That’s bad news.

Obviously acting was a big baseline for you when you started.


How much do you think comics today would actually benefit from taking acting classes?

That’s a good question. It benefited me because in doing my character it means I know how to sustain my character for a very long time. Like I said, I could have done the interview in the character and improv’d my way through it. Actually in fact, that’s probably what it is… I don’t know if acting classes are necessary. But I do believe improv classes would benefit huge amounts… many comics. I mean the fact is my whole foundation in acting started with improv as a teenager and then kind of moved into actually getting the real mechanics of how to cry and be in character and all that kind of crap. My belief is that the improvisation lessons that you get from taking classes is it gives you the ability to go with whatever happens. You can react at the spur of the moment. Joe Klocek is a great riff artist. I think he’s got things to teach about riffing, but I also believe that Joe Klocek is a great riff artist because he’s f’ing great at improv. There’s a whole load of comics you could say that about. And you’re like “Oh my God they just say make things… wow”, you know how much improv training they’ve had or how much experience they’ve had at improv? I think improv would help many comics enormously. There was a comic who used to perform that I haven’t seen in a couple of years. Very funny guy, but it was so mechanical because basically it was like, he would be introduced and he would go up and it was like somebody pressed the “On” button and he would be doing his material. And I saw it twice where somebody heckled him, somebody yelled out something from the audience and he stopped, he just had no… he was lost. It took him precious few seconds to kind of get on that on-track again and just go. he didn’t react to them, he didn’t say anything about them. And you just thought, “Wait were you the only one that didn’t hear what just happened?”. So any comic whose worth their salt I think probably has a great deal of improv training. Or at least enough to help them, and I think that would help. Acting… ehh.

Some of that is just natural though, right?

Yes, I think you gotta be good at it. I’m an acting teacher and so I do a lot of improv, I do a lot of scene work, I do all this other stuff with students. And I am of the belief after this long that everybody can be good. I’m not of the belief that it’s all natural talent. Yes there are some that are better than others, just like comics, there are some that get it better than others. There are some that get it more quickly than others. But I also believe every single person has it in them the ability to be good at improv, at comedy, at acting at whatever, It’s just how much work do you put into it.

This next question is from Chad Opitz, he asked me to ask you this..

No he’s not gonna win another award.

What actors do you like to watch? What movies will you go to watch just because of the actor?

Figures that’s coming from Chad… fuckin movie theater workers. I worked in a movie theater for years at the New Varsity.

I don’t go because of actors. My other profession is I also work with the San Francisco International Film Festival as part of their screening committee. So I watch upwards of… I’m kind of guessing… around 350 films a year. At this point if I want to go something it’s probably not because of the actor in it. It may be the Director, although that’s not that likely. A lot of times it’s just something that grabs me. Like I really want to see Godzilla. Why? Just something about it grabs me. I want to see the new Planet of the Apes movie because I just think the preview is very well done. I’m sure the movies isn’t. But I’m curious. This may disappoint Chad but there are a lot of actors who I really like a lot, and there are a lot of actors who I don’t understand. But I don’t go to see movies or rent movies because of them. My guilty pleasure is I watch Dolph Lungrend films. And I know they are stupid and I know he’s like the worst actor on the planet. But something about them, I just enjoy them.

I was watching… I haven’t finished it yet, I gotta finish it… I was watching the sequel to Machete. Machete Kills is the sequel by Robert Rodriguez. Oh it’s such garbage cinema but it knows it’s garbage cinema and it’s brilliant garbage cinema. It’s just entertaining as all hell, particularly if you are guy who is like 15.

Click here for Part 2 of the Jimmy Gunn interview




One response to “Jimmy Gunn – From the Start to “Retirement”: Part 1”

  1. […] in 1988. "Basically what I realized was, first of all, I really enjoyed doing it really quickly," he told "But I also realized within about two weeks of doing open mics around and doing the Holy City Zoo […]

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