Bill Grundfest [Interview]

Why hello there old comedy loving friends. As you may have noticed in the last few months, we have grown quite fond of the world of stand up comedy lately. It is an ever-loving passion we have had for quite some time, but we have worked to bring to to an all new light lately. And today we have a perfect guest to help put us directly on top! Today we are speaking with the legendary comedian/writer/founder of the acclaimed Comedy Cellar in New York City, the great Bill Grundfest.

If you are any sort of fan of stand up comedy, or truly funny in general, there is no possible way you are not aware of the the legendary Comedy Cellar. It has appeared in just about every project that took comedy even remotely serious, including the recent De Niro fronted film The Comedian, which I have I recently watched on a plane, and have to say was actually pretty damn entertaining. Anyway, our main man Bill is the man who’s ass you should all be proverbially kissing, because he is the man who developed the original concept, and created the now legendary Comedy Cellar.

And what is more interesting….he left it all. He developed a comedic empire, and then simply gave it away. Why the fuck would you do that, you may ask? Well, when the end result would eventually be to become a Golden Globe award winning television writer on the coast with more sunshine, it probably wouldn’t seem so crazy. And that is exactly what he did. A man like Bill Grundfest is loaded with so much talent that it is almost unfair to his peers. He has had an incredible career that has spanned decades.

And we are so damn excited that he was gracious enough to share a few words with us here at Trainwreck’d Society today! We have had some legends in the past, but having Bill here today feels absolutely surreal, and we are so damn happy to have him! So please enjoy some great words from the amazing Bill Grundfest!

What was some of the earliest material you can remember performing when you first began telling jokes?

My first joke was when I was 5, and my audience was my Post World War II immigrant, barely-speaking-English parents. It was the Knock Knock, who’s there?, banana/orange joke. If you need me to write the joke out, forget it.
When you decided to develop the now legendary Comedy Cellar, what made you think it was going to work out? And could you have ever imagine what it would become shortly after you opened it, and what it became after you moved on from it?

I knew it would work, I just didn’t know it would last 35 years. Nobody and nothing in New York lasts 35 years. Neither me nor Manny imagined the level of success it achieved, especially under Noam and Estee’s execution after I left and Manny passed. I know he’s smiling from behind an oud in heaven.

You made one of the craziest decisions I have ever heard of when you decided to leave your successful career running the Cellar to pursue a career in the world of writing for television. In retrospect, you obviously made a perfect decision as you have had some amazing success in this business. But, what the hell, man? What made you decide you wanted to take such a crazy risk? What compelled you to leave such beautiful conformity?
I was 34, had had a radio show on NBC, a couple of cable specials, but I wasn’t becoming a star, and could see 40 looming. I wanted to be in the major leagues of television and if it couldn’t be as the star of a sitcom or talk show, then as a writer/producer would be fine. Rule #1: If you are willing to do literally anything to achieve a clearly envisioned goal, the odds are actually pretty good you’ll achieve it. Most people aren’t willing to do literally anything. I was – starting with being brutally honest with myself about my chances of becoming a star.
I recently heard you explaining to Barry Katz on Industry Standard about how you first kicked off your career in television by handing out spec scripts to whoever may take them. This is probably a pretty dated concept these days, but it obviously worked. What would you consider to be the modern day equivalent of these acts? What do you believe a new writer has to do today to break into the business?
It would work still today. New anythings in this business need to step outside the norm and do something crazy. You must break out of the safety of the “norm.” Failure to become a success is what’s normal in show biz. If you want to succeed in anything, you have to risk looking like an idiot.
What have you noticed to be the biggest change in the “writer’s rooms” and television writing in general since when you first began in the business, up to now? Besides the lightening of the wallets of course. And despite less pay, do you believe the quality of television has gotten better, or worse?

There’s an amazing amount of good TV out there. My only complaint is: can we stop with the “anti-hero” bullshit? It’s not funny, not cool, it’s really coarsening the culture and destroying the very idea of a “value system.”

Mad About You was one of those shows that has always stood out to me personally as a reasonably beloved show by both critics and audiences, although it was against some serious competition during its run. In your obviously much more knowledgable opinion, what do you believe it was that made Mad About You stand out amongst the crowd? 

Writing a sitcom is like writing a song – to be a hit you have to write a great song and have a great performer sing it. As writers, our staff was among the best in TV, and we had Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt to sing what we wrote.

We always have to ask our statue holding friends this one question: Where do you keep your Golden Globe? And does its physical location have any sort of significance to you?

It’s in a shrine my mother has to her sons, in between my 3 Emmy nominations, and a Peabody award.

So what do you have coming up that our readers should know about?

I’m attached to a couple of pilots and am very big in China, where we adapted Mad About You for a Chinese cast and audience – and were the number one show for our run with hundreds of millions of views.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

BMy kids. They love me. Go figure.

Just so you know, Bill was not over exaggerating about the impact of Mad About You in China. Check out this amazing insight from The Wall Street Journal:

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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