Comedian Guy Branum on How To Make Talk Shows Suck Less

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Comedian Guy Branum loves a good rule set. Fifteen years ago, on the way to a Quiz Bowl competition, Branum came up with the rules of being a talk show guest; on his new TruTV series, Talk Show the Game Show, celebrities are judged on how well they meet this vision. Branum chats and plays games with guests, while an unbiased panel of judges grade the star’s performance. Points can be awarded for name dropping, bringing pets or props, or flashing the host.

I met Branum at a coffeeshop, which was both an exhilarating and terrifying experience; with his signature laser-focused scrutiny, he immediately turned the interview around on me. “What are you reading?” he asked. I told him the book, Cult Vegas, was about the bygone era of entertainment that the Vegas lounge scene represented to a certain breed of baby boomer. Pretty much the only thing that boomers, Guy Branum, and myself have in common is a belief that stars had to work harder to entertain back in the day, and Talk Show the Game Show is all about making stars work for their accolades. Talk shows are supposed to be a chatty cocktail party where all the cool people hang out and get friendly. TV is supposed to be a fun party. And Branum is nothing if not committed to a fun party.

You’ve said that you want Talk Show the Game Show to feel like a cocktail party with “really, really cool people.” What makes a party a cocktail party as opposed to just a party where there are cocktails?

Breeziness. Movability. At a dinner party, you’re having longer conversations with people, you’re entrenched somewhere, you’re just dealing with them. But a cocktail party is all about movement. And yes, on a talk show you do have somebody sit down and they’re your primary conversant for a period of time. But on Talk Show the Game Show, that’s three minutes. You also have the lightness and airiness that comes with everybody being a little bit tipsy. And for the sober people there, an obligation to behave as though they were tipsy. Also, you’re better dressed at a cocktail party. If we were a better show, there would have been a themed signature cocktail for each of the shows, as a jumping-off point, you know? I would have liked that.

Do you think there’s a difference between the breeziness of a cocktail party and being surface? Can you get into a deeper matter, or is that not cocktail?

Being entirely surface is Los Angeles. It’s not cocktail. In vino veritas. A cocktail party should be about people opening up and sharing themselves, and not getting too far. Look, my Passover seder — which was a dinner party, not a cocktail party — ended up with one of my friends yelling at two guys who were being too anti-Hillary. And another one got really mad that she was introduced as “Alex’s wife.” And I was like, “Good. We’ve gotten to the point where things have gotten a little bit messy and a little bit fun.” A cocktail party should flirt with that, since you never move past hors d’oeuvres. It’s not as intense drinking, but it’s also less food soaking up the alcohol. So you have people who aren’t just being polite; they are also being real.

Part of my job, I think, is to be honest with people. Why do I think I get to make a living off of just saying things? I should be saying things that are to some extent personal or hard to say. And I like that we have Karen and Casey [Kilgariff and Schreiner; Branum’s co-hosts] sitting there, ready to say “You were glib and boring and I got nothing.” Karen will go with a really great “I don’t know who you are,” which is one of the best criticisms, because a good talk show should give you a little bit of somebody’s soul. In this world we want to feel less alone, and the way to do that is not by just sitting there and smiling pretty. The Tonight Show is people just sitting there and smiling pretty.

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So what about contemporary talk shows irks you the most?

That they are boring and lifeless. That everybody is doing what they are supposed to do, and there is no risk or danger, and it’s just beautiful people, successful people, behaving as though they are friends with each other when you never really believe it. Or doing these really complex contrivances to show how cool with each other they are.

Sometimes they work. Carpool Karaoke, watching Adele talk about growing up, what the Spice Girls meant to her, that’s great. But when Jimmy Fallon plays charades with people, I never believe that they’re actually playing charades. I never feel like he might say something risky or pushy. It is a host’s job to be nice and comforting, but it is also a host’s job to make sure that the party is fun and everybody’s being real, to some extent.

I miss Carson or Letterman or Joan Rivers sticking it to people, and kind of talking for us. Of course it’s a contrivance, of course it’s people going through the motions to sell their TV show. But also, you’re going to a party to make connections for your business, you’re going to a party to meet a cute boy. All those things are going on, but you’re also having a good time with your friends.

One of the most fun things from last week’s show was Maria Bamford, who we all think of as this, like, delicate lovely thing. In the comedy community, everybody treasures her. I never asked her to do the live show because I was like “I don’t want people yelling at Maria Bamford.” But then she was nice enough to do the TV show, and it was wonderful watching her have more fun the more people got out there. The more there was chaos, the more that it wasn’t just her having to be a talk show guest and was her having a good time with James Adomian and Ben Roy, the more delightful she got, and the more fun she had.

Speaking of you and James and everybody on set, a lot of the very famous people who made the talk shows and quiz shows — Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly — were closeted. So there was always subtext, but never text.

And Fannie Flagg, there were closeted lesbians too! Those talk shows did a great job of letting the closet door open just a tiny, tiny bit. There are always those great and signature moments when Charles Nelson Reilly will make a fag joke. One of the best moments on Match Game was when he made a joke that was, to some extent, derisive of gay people. He made a sort of self-effacing gay joke with whatever his answer was, and Brett Somers was like “Don’t. Don’t do that.” I feel like a lot of panel shows now are very, very scripted and don’t have space for people to make the joke that just comes from their heart instead of the one that everyone in the booth has planned.

A lot of panel shows now are very, very scripted and don’t have space for people to make the joke that just comes from their heart instead of the one that everyone in the booth has planned.

I saw you at Entertaining Julia last month, and I loved when you dressed down the [straight male]comics that came before you for not reading the room.

Oh, that was a really fun and interesting show. It reminds me of this one time I went to a gay bar in West Hollywood to talk to them about starting a show. The owner was the sweetest man. It was like the third meeting we were having, and he said “Just one thing I ask of you. One thing.” I was like “What?” And he said “We’ve had comedy shows here before. Please ask your comics not to insult my clientele.” And it took a little bit of talking to understand what he meant: that straight guys would come in and tell fag jokes. A lot of straight men particularly are used to being the norm. And then they come into a space where they’re not the norm, and they’re ignorant to the fact that their audience isn’t reacting in the same way. They don’t understand why, and they’re just blaming the audience. They don’t use Tinder, you know? Well we do use Tinder, but not in the same way that straight people use Tinder. Tinder is not our whoriest option.

I just can’t imagine entering a space and not, like, immediately calibrating myself.

Gay men like some specific female stand-ups but we are uncomfortable with stand-up as a form, because we are used to it being a thing that’s hostile or difficult for us. And I’m tired of that, because I am a gay standup and I would like for gay guys to pay attention to it more and expect it to be a place where they can think of themselves as being reflected. I just get so tired of straight guys not being able to look at a room and see people react, and understand that the problem is their behavior and not that “this room is weird.”

And that’s part of what a standup is supposed to do. I went to a Catholic college in eastern Pennsylvania this weekend and I had a bad set. And that’s my fault. Because I got up there in front of 19-year-olds who were raised pretty Catholic. I didn’t have enough material to be able to serve up to them what I needed to. And I can’t say that they’re uptight. I can’t be mad at them for being 19 and not caring about people who were famous four years ago. I have to accept that I did that wrong. And a lot of comics who are used to being successful don’t take into account that there are different kinds of audiences.

I like the way that Talk Show the Game Show has a rubric for success, because the social anxiety person in me already felt like all conversations were competitions that you could win, and that there were criteria.

I’ve always maintained that other people are work but they are work that I enjoy. I’m not an extrovert. I am somebody who is possibly happiest playing a very boring PC game while informational television plays in the background. Or old seasons of Survivor. But I love a party. I love a good time.

That said, being gay, social norms don’t make a complete amount of sense to you. You figure them out but it’s not like they are gut reactions. Talk Show the Game Show was, to some extent, about taking that dance and making it explicit.

I listened to your Bullseye interview, and you talked about how TV showed you that there was a world outside where you lived. What, if anything, do you hope rural queers get watching TruTV on a Wednesday?

One thing is, for such a long time there was only one type of gay guy on TV. And he was a wonderful, aspirational gay guy. A thin, attractive, very well-put-together gay guy, wearing pastels and having sassy opinions. And God knows I am two fifths of those things. But being able to see different kinds of gay people and understand that they can exist, so there’s space for me to be something else, I think is something valuable. When I started being on Chelsea Lately, a lot of the reactions were like “He is too gay; he is wrong. He is too fat; he is wrong. That’s not what should be out there.” And it’s cool to watch as things get more sophisticated. People have me, and Bryan Safi, and Billy Eichner, and Michael Carbonaro. There’s just something so wonderful about the fact that I made this stupid party game, and I loved it so much for so long that it became my job. I think that there is something important for queers particularly to understand that you can turn the stuff you love into reality. We so frequently end up focused on creative lives. A lot of people get married and settle down and do all of that. But when you can’t accidentally make a baby, the likelihood that your life will be consumed by a different kind of creation is increased.

And you didn’t start out with that ambition. It took a while. You were in law school.

Yeah, I just didn’t think other people would ever get me ,so it was all just about amusing myself. I feel like there can be a danger, in Los Angeles, of trying too much to be the thing that you think is marketable, or what you’re “supposed” to be. As somebody who’s never been particularly marketable, there’s something nice about bouncing along from thing to thing and hearing “I like what you have to give, keep giving more.” Being interesting is fun. What would I like people in the midwest watching Talk Show the Game Show to think about? Being interesting is fun and being normal and fitting in and having the same opinion as everybody else is boring.

Talk Show the Game Show airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on TruTV.

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