I’m a decent interviewer, and certainly better than in my younger years when most of my interviews amounted to little more than a tape-recorded version of “The Chris Farley Show.” (“Remember when Sipowicz called that guy a hump? That was awesome!”) Still, no matter how skilled I get at asking the right questions in the right order, I can never shake the feeling that, because I don’t share a common frame of reference with my subjects, there’s only so deep our conversations can go. Even in the midst of a long, involved, interesting discussion, there will inevitably come a point where I can see in my subject’s eyes, or hear in their voices, that sense of, “I wish I could explain it to you, but you really had to be there and do what I’ve done.”
Because that’s a barrier I usually can’t cross, I’ve always been a sucker for subject-on-subject interviews, where a pair of people from the same field, usually at the same level of fame and often familiar with each other in real life, sit down, shoot the breeze and – if they’re done right – ask each other the sorts of questions that would never occur to me no matter how much research I did.
HBO’s new special “Talking Funny,” which debuts Friday night at 9, is a classic example of how effective that approach can be. The concept is simple: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais sit on a living room set and spend an hour discussing their approaches to stand-up comedy.
These are four men who are at or near the top of this tough, tough profession. The three Americans have known each other for decades, and Gervais and C.K. have been friends and occasional co-stars for a few years now. There’s a level of familiarity with each other, and with the jobs that they do, that leads to the kind of frank, insightful, and frequently very funny conversation that wouldn’t have been half as interesting if HBO had insisted on having Bob Costas or someone like him moderate it.
There’s a fascinating discussion, for instance, of profanity on stage and why Seinfeld has refused to curse in his act. At one point, Seinfeld performs a bit from C.K.’s act, and C.K. marvels at how much Seinfeld’s more polished delivery changed the nature of the joke. At one point, the men get into an argument about how easy it is to just go on stage and make people laugh, regardless of material, and C.K. surprises the others by saying that he frequently drops jokes from his act that get big laughs because he believes the laughs aren’t coming from their quality, but because he knows how to deliver them after so many years on stage.
And with no outsider to play referee, there’s plenty of room for the comics to one-up and mock each other. Seinfeld makes fun of the tight t-shirts favored by the newly-svelte Gervais. Rock explains that his typical performance is much longer than what Seinfeld or Gervais do because he doesn’t have their sitcom riches to fall back on. And everyone takes delight in challenging Seinfeld’s insistence that he puts himself on the same level as the common man, when his persona for so long has been built around him being smarter and better than everyone else.
Gervais hasn’t been doing stand-up nearly as long as the other three, and unfortunately doesn’t have as much to contribute to the discussion. (There’s probably a lot to talk about how easily he slid into that world at a relatively advanced age, but the conversation never goes there.) But he provides a bunch of laughs, and the other three have more than enough insight to carry him.
Sometimes, I read or see interviews that make me frustrated the interviewer didn’t ask a particular question. While there was plenty these four could have continued to talk about, there was never a point where I felt they missed something obvious because they didn’t know the others and what they do well enough