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‘I’ve been acting stupid on stage for years.’
On a warm Monday night in Los Angeles, Josh Fadem and frequent collaborator Johnny Pemberton performed at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre while tied together with 30 feet of nautical rope.
The two comedians, both dressed in comically oversized suits, fell down and doused themselves with water. Between doing a variety of bizarre characters, Fadem and Pemberton periodically yelled, “Oh no, Mom’s home!” By the end of the night, Fadem had swallowed two or three raw eggs, covered his head in packing tape, and given birth to a rotisserie chicken.
The show, titled Roped, is spontaneous and seemingly improvised—although later Fadem tells me it was somewhat planned out—and toes the line between comedy and performance art. When we meet after the show, I tell Fadem that I’m excited to interview him.
“How do you know who I am?” he responds.
Fadem is perhaps best known for his appearances on 30 Rock—where he also dons an oversized suit—as Liz Lemon’s adorably clueless agent Simon Barrons. He’s also appeared on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Whitest Kids U’Know, Key & Peele, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Better Call Saul; written for The Eric Andre Show; and produced hilarious YouTube videos and vines. Fadem’s dog, Bobby, has become a Vine star.
Recently, Fadem gained recognition for “Space Jam 2,” a bizarre parody of the Michael Jordan classic. He posted it less than two months ago, and it’s already reached more than 100,000 views.
Unsurprisingly, “Space Jam 2” is not the weirdest video on Fadem’s channel. In “Josh Fadem Slept in His Clothes,” he shows off his physical comedy chops, reminiscent of Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx, and manages, again, to gracefully swallow an egg.
Fadem was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was one of the few Jewish kids. It’s clear that being different from his peers informed the type of comedy he does, which celebrates a sort of wild absurdity. In perhaps his most well-known standup bit, he struggles with holding the microphone, getting tangled up in the chord and gleefully falling all over the stage. (In recent years, he actually broke his wrist doing this, but hey, suffer for your art.)
“The comedy comes from watching a lot of comedy and movies growing up and also being a little different,” Fadem explained. “But I don’t think that story is more unique than anyone else’s. …Maybe you could say I was born in a pothole and it wasn’t filled until there was a city petition to fill the pothole that I went to school. That’s what forced me to move to L.A.
“Also I escaped 9/11,” he joked, referencing the recent Steve Rannazzisi controversy. “Wait, I actually escaped Pearl Harbor. I didn’t see the laughter until I escaped Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Essentially, I escaped a fake tragedy to make myself more interesting because I couldn’t find a real one. And it was less emotionally traumatic.”
While many comedians find their humor through self-deprecation, Fadem’s work evokes a sense of earnestness while still being laugh-out-loud funny. I came to understand how his personality informs his stage persona, with a little cajoling.
Your work is very absurdist and reminiscent of video art. Does that inform your comedy?
Yes. No. I don’t know. Sometimes. Maybe.
That’s the worst answer I’ve ever received.
Well, sometimes. I’ve heard actors say if you can’t memorize the lines, the writing’s bad.
But my question?
Oh, yeah. What was the question? Do I like video art?
Well, is that something that influences you?
If it’s not boring… I don’t know… I’m reluctant to say what video art is good because maybe there’s some video art expert connoisseur reading and they think, “Oh, that’s the most obvious thing to say!”
Oh my god, don’t be self-conscious. That’s going to make the interview bad.
Oh, right. Well maybe that’s also my secret, what video art I like.
OK, well, I’m not going to make you look stupid in the article. Also, I’m interested in vulnerability. That’s, like, my life goal. And I want my readers to get to know you, which means you actually have to answer my questions.
Right. Well, maybe I should just say whatever the answer is instead of trying to figure out the perfect answer.
Do I like video art? Yes. I like weird, different stuff that takes a left turn. I like Paul McCarthy. Probably the show we did the other night, Roped, had some Paul McCarthy influence. When I worked on The Eric Andre Show, Eric and I bonded over our mutual appreciation for Paul McCarthy. I’ve seen some William Wegman video art from the ‘70s and I like him. I have a big stack of VHS tapes of rare video artists—I don’t remember their names—but I have a whole bunch of stuff like that, hard-to-find stuff, and I worked at a video store for 10 years, so you just throw things on and find weird stuff. I’m naturally someone who likes to dig for stuff that’s not easy to find.
Great! Oh, OK. You’re not going to like this question.
What? Did my dad abuse me?
The question is: How did you get into comedy? Tell me about your journey.
I moved out to L.A. I was going to go to film school, but I was a shitty student, an ADHD kid. So I took some Groundlings classes and tried to take some community college classes. Well, let me just tell you the long story I’ve told on a million podcasts.
Yeah, just tell me!
I don’t know why I’m getting so self-conscious. I guess it’s you who I’m getting self-conscious about.
I don’t know.
Well, I’m simultaneously a judgmental person and a nonjudgmental person…
I don’t even know if it’s that. Maybe it’s just that I think it’s not that interesting.
It’s interesting to me, I promise.
I’m from Oklahoma. I graduated high school. I didn’t go to college. I wasn’t a great student. I was really good at art and speech and I flunked a bunch of other classes. I had to go to summer school and I barely graduated because I was on a bunch of meds and couldn’t pay attention. Wait, hold on, I need to pull up my script. It’s in my brain. I know the story.
No, speak from the heart.
It is scripted though, at this point. So I moved out to Los Angeles at 20 years old. I was trying to go to film school, but then I realized I didn’t like school so I didn’t apply. So I made some friends and I did standup once. I was terrible, so I thought, “I’ll never do that again.” A while after that someone asked me if I wanted to host a weekly show and I still didn’t really know what I was doing—by this point, I had just turned 23—and I said yes! When I did it, I did a character, instead of myself, because I had bombed as myself. This character I created was dumb. I wrote a bunch of really stupid jokes for him. But this character had a strong point of view and that got laughs. As soon as I got laughs, I just started saying, “I’m a comedian,” so I consistently tried to do standup after that.
I wanted to ask you about Roped. What was your process like for figuring out that show?
Well, no one will have seen it but I can tell you anyway… Mike Still [the artistic director at UCB L.A.] asked Johnny and I if we wanted to do a one-off show for an 11 o’clock spot. Johnny and I [had] been working on a weird two-person show for a while. We’re both at similar points in our careers. We also both look really young. And we decided we wanted to do something really crazy.
I was sort of waiting for it to get even crazier. Like, I thought you guys would take out your dicks or something.
I’m not a “take my dick out” kind of guy. I feel like people thought it should go there. I wonder if it needed to go there.
I don’t know. Every time I’ve seen a dick in a comedy show, I’m like, “That didn’t need to happen.”
That’s how I usually feel. When I see people do that, I find myself grinning laughing in the context they were doing it in, but it’s still taking your dick out. You can’t not react, but at the same time… of course everyone is going to react that way, it’s a dick. It’s the same as whenever you laugh at a fart joke. You’re kind of like, “Why did I laugh at that?”
So I’m OK with underwear. I’m OK with gross stuff, but I think when you move into that territory it becomes something else. Maybe I’ll change my mind about that, though.
OK, so I’ll make the headline: JOSH FADEM, NO DICKS.
No dicks! At least not mine. But I’m all about baring the embarrassing things in my act. There’s an element of—wait, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
No, you do know what you’re talking about.
Right. Well, I could keep articulating it. I prefer saying these things behind closed doors as opposed to declaring my opinions about comedy rules.
I don’t think you are. I think you’re expressing an interesting opinion, and obviously, I want my article to be interesting, but I think you should be more comfortable expressing yourself on the record, because what’s wrong with what you have to say?
Because I could be wrong!
But we could all be wrong. That’s art.
I could say this now, and see something and realize that I disagree with what I said to you. I could be like, “Oh, I really like that guy’s dick.”
Well, I don’t think you’re saying that all dicks are bad. I think you’re saying, often times showing your dick in a comedy show doesn’t work, which is true.
Anyways, when Johnny and I were planning out Roped, we made lists of every crazy thing we wanted to see on the stage and which characters we wanted to do. We made an agreement to always keep the ball in the air, metaphorically speaking. The show is just a mashup of everything we’ve been doing for years. I’ve been acting stupid on stage for years.
I actually saw you sitting in the audience during the show, and you had a very dead-eyed look on your face. You did not seem into it.
I was enjoying it the whole time! I guess I just have “bitchface” or whatever.
I’m always, as a standup, spotting “bitchface.” Sometimes I have to look away to keep the show going. Other times, like when I do my weekly show, if I spot “bitchface” I’ll turn it into 10 minutes of like, “How are you doing today? You look so unhappy,” or whatever.
Oh man, I sort of hate that. I hate that I always have an unhappy look on my face.
Well, what are your expectations when you go see a show? Are you like, “Make me laugh”?
It depends on what show I’m seeing. I was expecting your show to be good and weird, so you fulfilled my expectations.
That’s good, I guess.
So, what’s your favorite part about performing?
There’s nothing I love more than playing dress-up, getting on the stage, putting on a silly wigs and oversized pants, and becoming a character. That’s the most fun thing ever. I love to play off of a crowd, to find the timing that they’re relating to. Oh man, that feels like a pretentious thing to say. Mostly I like it when it’s fun. I don’t know what else to say.
What are some other good questions you got?
I guess I want to know more how you feel about your career, how you feel about your successes and failures.
I think that having a lot of failures in your career is important and healthy. I don’t think it’s good for someone to get too big too quick because they can often get lazy.
I’ve had my fair share of rejections in my career, but I’ve used that to inspire me to do new things I have more control over. Like my friend suggested I write a page of something everyday. So I wrote a one-page story every day for a week and then that turned into a month, and eventually I ended up writing 365 one-page short stories and put them up on my blog. That project actually came to a close a couple weeks ago. The point of that project was to make sure I was making art everyday and not having that in anyone else’s control. And to practice and get better.
[Fadem glances at my notes] Now I see you wrote down “Make article as weird as Fadem’s comedy.” How would you do that?
Well, I guess I didn’t want to write another traditional profile of a comedian where all I ask is “How did you get into comedy?” I wanted to make it a legitimate conversation between us.
Maybe there’s just something we talk about where it’s like, we got on another topic and it ended up being a good topic, where’s it’s like, “Eve and Josh talk about fruit salad!” Do you love it? Or you don’t? Do you feel indifferent about it?
I’m pretty indifferent about fruit salad.
Maybe you should write that we talked about fruit salad, and we both decided that we were pretty indifferent about. I suppose if it’s a side for something salty, and you’re thinking, “I shouldn’t eat French fries,” you can suffer through some fruit salad.
But why not some mixed greens?
Maybe they’re only offering fruit salad.
What the fuck kind of place would only offer fruit salad?
“Why does there need to be fruit salad?” is the question we’re pondering! Listen, in America, we should have the right to at least have fruit salad as an option.
You want to take away our right to fruit salad?
I just think a salad should be a right.
But we’re in the United States of America, and if a fruit salad wants to exist, it has the right.
Screengrab via joshfadem/YouTube
Eve Peyser is a writer and comedian based in New York. She has published bylines in Esquire, the Washington Post, Gizmodo, and GQ, and she works as a staff politics and culture writer at Vice.