Funny Business

Comedian Gabe Liedman ’04 lays it all on the (writers’) table.

For the last five years, Gabe Liedman ’04 has been writing for some of television’s buzziest series — Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine — as well as the offbeat sketch-based Kroll Show. “Writers’ rooms are a mix of creative individuals, so the chemistry is always different,” he says of the delicate collaboration. “You’re often thrown together with total strangers and told to pull off a work of art together. As you can imagine, it’s not always smooth. But I’ve been lucky with a lot of great rooms.” Today, Liedman is a writer and producer for the award-winning Amazon series Transparent.

“Comedy always seemed like the best use of a brain to me,” says Liedman, who grew up soaking in sitcoms like Seinfeld, The Carol Burnett Show, Murphy Brown and The Golden Girls. The versatile writer and performer recently sat down with Columbia College Today to talk about his influences, his “instant” friendship with classmate and former comedy partner Jenny Slate ’04 and his journey from selling belts at Barneys New York to cracking jokes for Amazon Studios.

CCT: Did you always know that you wanted to be in comedy?

Gabe Liedman ’04: I always knew that I wanted to be in entertainment. I grew up in Philly, watching a lot of TV, exclusively comedy. It’s just what I was drawn to. Quoting The Simpsons with my friends Monday morning at school was a sport. It was obsessive! Throughout my childhood I tried my best to participate in plays and stuff like that at school, but I didn’t really find my voice until my high school started an improv comedy club. It was a branch of the national improv theater ComedySportz — short-form improv sort of like Whose Line Is It Anyway? I can’t remember where I got the guts to participate, but for some reason I went for it. And that unlocked something in me. I excelled, despite being pretty shy and decidedly unpopular. My taste was heavily informed by my funny, if slightly insane, family. We listened to comedy records in the car instead of music — usually Richard Pryor, which is definitely not suitable for kids. We were always joking, always going for a laugh in times of stress.

And you followed that interest at Columbia?

Yes! I joined the Varsity Show — that’s where I met Jenny, trying out, and we ended up being in that together and [also] the Two Left Feet improv group on campus. I was like, “This is the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life.” Instant friends. When we graduated, we said, “Well, I’m not done doing comedy just because school’s over.” There were other people still involved [in comedy], too. So, we kept doing sketch and improv together, and over the years other people found their grown-up careers and we were the last two standing. We still hang out all the time.

What was your Varsity Show experience like?

You have to black out to do the audition. You turn on a totally different part of your brain and say: “No fear. I’m just going to say the first thing that pops into my head.” My grades improved markedly from when I started. I don’t know the neuroscience of it, but it was the most crazy crash course in confidence and believing in the thoughts that you have, and basically, not telling yourself to shut up. Also, there is a very strict production schedule, so it is a little bit more than just a club. You have to put on a whole show on a certain day, and it had better be good because everyone is watching. So that was my first experience really having to meet those kinds of creative deadlines. It was much more like my real life now than schoolwork was.

Anything else about the College that’s now relevant in your “real life”?

The Creative Writing Program was huge for me. It’s where I learned how to write scripts and sit around a table and critique other people’s works and collaborate in that way. It was part of General Studies, so the classes had a very different makeup. They were at night; there were school employees there, there were people who were continuing ed who were just doing it out of interest. There were also the undergrads like me who were like, “I want to be a writer when I grow up.”

All the teachers were working artists; I had a filmmaker who had films in festivals, and an author who had a book out. That was inspiring; it was like, “There is a life.” It’s not just an idea that people write for a living.

What did you do after graduation?

During the day I was a salesperson at Barneys on 60th and Madison. Jenny had a lot of odd jobs — she worked at a bakery, she was a nanny. It was, “Find whatever day work you can that gives you your nights free; pay your bills that way.” Then at night we worked in comedy clubs for free for years. I was lucky to fall pretty quickly into the alternative comedy scene at a club called Rififi in the East Village. It was a really magical time and place — a comedy show every night of the week, with hosts and performers who are so famous and successful now, though no one would’ve guessed it at the time. The place was a serious dump. Its doors stayed open thanks to a weekly dance party for underage NYU students on Friday nights. But the alternative comedy scene was at dive bars like that, rather than at traditional comedy clubs like Carolines in Times Square. Looking back, I can’t believe it even existed, and it definitely never could in today’s East Village. It was magic!

"It's a great lesson in life for a white man to experience not being the power voice. I'm there to serve someone else's story. More people should go through it."

I remember, in the mid-2000s, you were on the VH1 show Best Week Ever, which had comedians joking about the week in pop culture. What was that like?

I was totally on that! That was such a funny production model — they would have comedians come in for an hour and you would just sit in a chair and make jokes, and then they would pay you $500 and you would leave. It was such a huge deal at the time, so exciting. A lot of people got their start there. That’s where Paul F. Tompkins and John Mulaney and all these huge guys came from. It was just like, “This is a place in Manhattan that will pay you to be funny.”

How did you get connected to Amy Schumer? Not many people knew her in 2013, when you started working on her show.

A lot of my first shows were with comics who I came up with, or a little bit behind, who were like, “Want to work on my show?” It was sort of friends helping each other out. Amy was in my same downtown Lower East Side scene. She had done [the reality show] Last Comic Standing and she sort of had her profile from that. She liked my work and when she sold her show to Comedy Central, she asked if I would be interested. And I was like, “God yes! Definitely.” That was super fun. She’s awesome. That was a great writers’ room and my first union job. That sort of gave me the feeling like I could do this forever.

You also worked on Broad City, and now Transparent — a lot of shows created and run by women. What’s it like being a man in that kind of environment?

I’ve always felt the best working with women. It was no surprise that Jenny and I clung to each other. I think being a gay guy who’s out feels different to women than it does to straight guys.

Comedy Central used to play a ton of stand-up specials during the day, which I watched growing up, and there was always Rita Rudner and Wendy Liebman and Ellen DeGeneres. When people say women aren’t funny, it’s crazy; I actually find women more funny and more interesting. And I guess that’s the vibe I give off, because women have championed me in a lot of the same ways that I’ve championed them.

But I’ve also written for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is a giant Fox show. It’s the typical writers’ room that you hear about that’s run by all Harvard people and it’s super male, but I fit in. I stayed there for 70 episodes and loved it. It’s not like I’ll only work for women, but the more choices I get to make about my own fate, the more I gravitate toward women.

Right now, I’m the only man in the writers’ room at Transparent, which is really cool. It’s a great lesson in life for a white man to experience not being the power voice. I’m there to serve someone else’s story. More people should go through it. More people should experience it.

Illustrations by Michelle Poirier

Let’s talk about that. Transparent tackles a lot of charged topics — gender, trauma, the Holocaust. What’s it like to collaborate in that environment?

Tackling issues is always scary. It’s scary to think you might get it wrong, might offend someone or a large group of people. So the stakes feel high. We certainly haven’t been perfect at my time at Transparent, far from it. And there were a lot of close calls no one got to see, thank God. But it’s been a cool challenge. I like coming from the comedy world and working on a drama. Or, something that’s more dramatic at least — it’s often classified as a comedy, just because it’s 30-minute episodes. I guess it’s the overachiever in me or something, knowing that I can do something outside of my comfort zone, or deliver something that people don’t necessarily expect from me based on the other things on my résumé.

Also, working with so many other queer people is just invaluable. It’s not the norm by any means, and I relish it.

Do you think of yourself as a writer, comedian or both?

Both. If you were to look at my finances, the money is coming from writing jobs and that’s what I do 10 months out of the year. But I got there because I’m a comedian and I’m not going to stop doing that.

When I’m in production on a show, which for the last five years has been the majority of my time — writing in writers’ rooms — I try to do standup once or twice a month to keep the muscle active. Then when we’re on break, which is maybe two or three months out of the year, I try to do it a couple of times a week. That’s usually when I get my new jokes.

You mentioned “alternative comedy” earlier. Is that how you would describe your style?

I think I would be considered observational, not topical. I talk a lot about myself — what the world’s like through my eyes. I feel like that’s what I have to offer. I don’t get that political. It’s kind of impossible now to avoid discussing Donald Trump, but up to that point I wasn’t super political.

There’s an old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time. I saw one of your stand-up acts where you’re talking about your online dating experiences. It was like mini-tragedies that you expanded upon.

Mini-tragedies, embarrassment, it’s all sort of the darker side of life. You’re trying to get people to relate to you. So it’s something we all have in common — that it sucks to date, that we’re not the weight we want to be.

What are some new projects that you’re working on?

I’m writing season five of Transparent for Amazon Studios. I’m also about to enter the development world, taking three original pilots to studios and networks to see if anyone is interested in making them with me. I can’t get too detailed on that front, mostly out of superstition and a little bit for legal reasons. But, it’s exciting! By the time this is printed there might be a new show out there that says “Created by Gabe Liedman.” Maybe even three! Maybe still zero. But this is a new thing for me and I am psyched!

What would you tell the person who’s two or three years out of the College, working at Barneys but trying to get into comedy?

My dad used to say, “I didn’t help you go to Columbia so you could sell belts.” I would tell that person, “Imagine yourself as a character in a movie. This is just the shitty part in the beginning. You’ve seen this before. Just get through the end of your 20s; it’ll pay off. Just have fun.” I look back at it as the best part; it was the best those years of my life could have possibly gone.