Bill Grundfest’s sensibility is unique, defiant and courageous. Golden Globe Winner, three-time Emmy nominee, writer, producer, director and teacher, Grundfest is a fusion of impeccably timed wit, salient intelligence and kindness.
Within minutes of meeting Grundfest, you know precisely where you stand. He’s indisputably liberated from the trappings of filters. If you’re lucky enough to work with him, you quickly realize his level of honesty is one of the reasons why he is such a respected and acclaimed writer/producer.
Grundfest’s body of work is entwined in the fabric of counterculture and pop culture. His roots are steeped in comedy. While performing stand-up, he founded “The Comedy Cellar” in NYC. Thirty-years later, “The Comedy Cellar” remains a preeminent home to both world-class and up and coming comedians. He discovered today’s most prolific political comedian and commentator, Jon Stewart, and fostered his career. Grundfest also provided a dais for other illustrious comedians such as Bill Maher, Rita Rudner, Ray Romano and Dave Atell. Grundfest has written, produced and directed works that include “Pryor Offenses,” “The Richard Pryor Comedy Special,” “Mad About You,” and “Exes & Ohs.”
I caught up with Bill to dish all things Grundfest.
Katie Schwartz: Do you remember the moment when you knew that comedy was your destiny? What were the circumstances?
Bill Grundfest: I was 5. My parents had come to the U.S. a few years before I was born, after the war (the Big One, with all the shooting), speaking no English but for a couple phrases including “pot to piss in” and “the Germans killed our whole family – more bratwurst?” In the face of this F.O.D. (Fog Of Doom), I decided that unless somebody started telling some jokes around here, we were cooked. As my older brother showed no interest in this, I appointed myself Emotional Buoy. By the time I was 10 and studying, recording, reading and memorizing the work of folks ranging from Bob Newhart to James Thurber, Abbott and Costello etc, I suspected they would not be getting a doctor or lawyer out of me.
Schwartz: Who were you most influenced by and why?
Grundfest: The Germans (see the reason above). Next, my family. Comedically, though, if that’s your gist, the major influences were Woody Allen, because he was still hilarious, and wore glasses like mine and David Steinberg, because he was hilarious and was a fellow survivor of Yeshiva (Jewish day School).
Schwartz: You began your career as a stand-up comic, what did you love most about it?
Grundfest: “Love” is not a word to use with comics about anything. If they were capable of what normal people call “love” they would NOT be comics. If I may rephrase your question – “what did you hate least about your life during that time?” The camaraderie. In those days, comics, while competing for the same jobs, would tell each other about jobs and opportunities and help each other with their material and performances. Which is odd, since stand-up is the loneliest most solitary of all the performing arts – you write, direct, edit, produce and perform it all on your own, without anybody telling you you can’t – okay THAT’s the part I loved about it. No “authority”, except the audience. I have a problem with authority. Always have. This caused me to march against the Vietnam War for which I was called a Commie-Pinko-Lefty, but later, it got me called a Tea Party Republican. But that, in essence is what every comic and every joke has as its sole purpose – the destruction of the authority. (This is also why anybody who uses comedy to piss on the already weak and downtrodden is perverting its purpose – comedy must piss on and mock the empowered, the incumbents – be they a government, a parent or an “Agreed Upon Truth” which is of course bullshit.
Schwartz: You founded the first comedy club I performed at in New York “The Comedy Cellar” – an exceptional club. What was the impetus for creating it?
Grundfest: Money. I didn’t want to go on the road as just another comic, and wanted to build a career. That means NY or LA. I was already in NY. AS a comic, I also knew what comics needed that the other comedy clubs weren’t giving them (i.e. a little more money and a lot more respect, appreciation and a place to call home. It’s almost 30 years later and that formula still works and has kept the Comedy Cellar the premiere club in the country and maybe the world. No brag, just fact.
Schwartz: You showcased and launched some of the most auspicious comedians of our time, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Ray Romano, in addition to scores of others. At the time, did you foresee each playing such a vital role in our social and political culture?
Grundfest: I saw talent before others did, but nobody could have foreseen what Jon Stewart has done, because nobody had ever done it before. Jon has become the only comic since Will Rogers, and before him, Mark Twain to move the needle on the Popular Debate. Am I saying Jon is the most important and influential comedian we’ve had since Will Rogers? Yes. That doesn’t mean that Richard Pryor is not still the Greatest Stand Up Of All Time, but even Richard and Carlin didn’t CAUSE the needle to move.
Schwartz: While in New York, you had your own radio show, “The Wild Bill Grundfest Show”. What was it all about?
Grundfest: It was about 5 hours of a guy (me) trying to do a radio show while his co-host (my ex) tried to stop him (thinking she was helping). IN other words, it was George Burns-Grace Allen meets Kermit and Piggy.
Schwartz: When did you know that you wanted to write comedy instead of perform?
Grundfest: When I realized I was never going to make it to the Major Leagues/Network TV as a performer, but that my writing was cutting through, and creating opportunities for me. I had just turned 34, and I figured if I wasn’t on track to performing stardom while I was still a cute Jew, pushing 40 wasn’t going to help.
Schwartz: Do you miss performing?
Grundfest: I do miss performing, but I’m not sure the audience misses me performing.
Schwartz: Prior to schlepping to Los Angeles, did you know that you wanted to be a television writer?
Grundfest: Yes, it’s the whole reason I schlepped. I got lucky once here, I went everyplace with my spec scripts in envelopes, schmoozed everyone who would talk to me, and if they said “I’d love to read your stuff sometime”, I’d just hand it to them. That got me my first deal, and my first agent. Go big or go home.
Schwartz: How did you embark on your writing career?
Grundfest: I’ve always used my writing to create vehicles and opportunities for myself as a performer. The Big Shift was the decision to write for others – i.e. TV. In NY, while I still had the Comedy Cellar and the NBC radio show, I began writing and producing projects for VH1, including the evergreen hit “The Chicken That Ate Christmas”, in which I played an enormous asshole executive who worked for a company that makes chemical waste (not the chemicals, just the waste), whose soul gets saved on Xmas by a guy in a giant chicken suit, as well as “Bill’s Date” – a Harry Met Sally rom-com that used VH1’s music videos to advance the story (and fill up the hour). Then before moving to LA, I wrote 3 sitcom spec scripts and a spec pilot and started handing them out to any humanoid that seemed interested (see above).
Schwartz: You’ve been a writer/producer for, “Mad About You” and numerous other successful television shows, specials and award shows, what do you love most about television?
Grundfest: Money (the old days money). And – in a good situation, the camaraderie. Comedy writers – the truly good ones – are not threatened by each other, and don’t play games “in the writers room” to screw with the other writers heads and become top dog. The truly good ones know they’re good and if surrounded by other good ones, it becomes like a great jazz band, where the musicians listen and enjoy each other and give each other space and support to be as good as they can be (not play games that make people less good than they can be so as to reduce the competition in the room – yes, that is the usual posture of the writers room. So the money, camaraderie and the immediacy – film takes years to get made and maybe released. TV MUST get made, and immediately, so if what you want is to interact with an audience (and I do) then TV is the only way to do that. Sure you can make a living writing films that get sold but never made, then made but not released, then released and not seen by many people – but I’d rather run a dry cleaner.
Schwartz: Let’s dish about “Pryor Offenses” – Unapologetic brilliance. How did your path intersect with Pryor’s, and what did that show mean to you?
Grundfest: That is most kind of you. And you are quite accurate. The best thing I have done in my entire career. My path crossed Richard’s because I went out and crossed it. This is show biz – ya want something, go get it – go big or go home, etc. I saw that very few comics that were getting series had an actual “point of view” – certainly nothing like what Richard had. His was a brilliant comedy of very deep pain (in fact my subtitle for the show was “cry till you laugh”) and I went back to his albums to listen to him again, and realized that I could deconstruct his material into the characters that we’d care about as the basis for a TV project/series. It was like cutting diamonds – his insights into humanity and the ability (even the desire) to use his deep personal pain as the clay of comedy stand above everyone else in artistry, craft and personal courage. I wrote (on spec) a template for what the pilot and first season would be, called his wife, met, made a deal, went to Showtime, they ordered a script, loved it, shot it, it tested thru the roof, and never got ordered to series. They bought “Barbershop” the series as their black show. Big Mystery.
Schwartz: What is the difference, if any, between television comedies today and when you started?
Grundfest: I don’t think much has changed – a good story is still the most important thing – oh, and a laugh track.
Schwartz: How would you summarize comedy in a logline?
Grundfest: Somebody who isn’t you gets hurt. Hahahahahaha!
Bill has been teaching at UCLA for a few years. Now, he is launching the University of Professional Media. “Bill is the president of the University of Professional Media, a start up that trains humans to create film/video for all screens (film, TV, web, mobile) using a revolutionary learn-by-doing (no theory allowed) method and instructors who have major awards or nominations for having actually DONE it (as opposed to the vast majority of instructors who have few or no produced credits). The inaugural 1 year class, based in Hollywood, is highly selective and very limited. For info contact him directly at email@example.com. –Bill Grundfest
When asked why Bill began teaching, he had this to say: “You get to a point where it’s time to start teaching what you know before you get so old you start forgetting what you know. I work with people all the time who have been allegedly trained (i.e. film schools) and yet do not know the first thing about how a PRO actually does it. Becoming a successful pro in film/TV can ONLY be taught by those who have succeeded at it themselves. Because the TRUTH occurs behind the closed doors of writer’s room, producers and executive offices, and if you haven’t lived in those rooms yourself, you have no idea of what it actually takes to succeed. The people making the most money at teaching in this area have few or no produced credits and sell snake oil that will kill your career.”
To find out more about Bill Grundfest, check out Wikipedia, UCLA Writer’s Program and IMDB. Bill is offering Zouch readers 20% off if they qualify to attend his new University of Professional Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.