Jon Glaser Is Trying Not to Get So Angry Anymore
Jon Glaser is seated on his couch in New York, an adorable dog nearby. “We got him two years ago,” he tells me. “He’s literally by my side always.” Suddenly, I start to wonder: Wait, is that… the Gatsby? Turns out it is, although Glaser seems thrown for a second when I ask: “I’m assuming you’ve listened to the album?”
I have, which is the reason for our Zoom conversation, but you can’t blame me for not being sure. Jon Glaser’s Soothing Meditations for the Solitary Dog is his first comedy album, which features Jon Glaser — or “Jon Glaser” — as the friendly host of a “vocal relaxation session” meant to calm skittish pets while their owners are away. His co-star is Gatsby, a dog whose name has given “Glaser” nothing but trouble. (As the comic explains on Soothing Meditations, Gatsby came with that name — Glaser isn’t such a big F. Scott Fitzgerald fan that he would name a dog after the author’s most famous novel.)
Over the course of the record’s 30 minutes, as oozing, woozy New Age tones play in the background, Glaser attempts to guide your dog through a meditation so that it doesn’t freak out about being left alone at home. The problem is, things start to go very wrong very fast. I won’t spoil anything, but what first seems like a fairly straightforward session soon spirals into surreal chaos, including moments of extreme anger and violent altercations, as “Uncle Jon” goes from Zen to foul-mouthed, his fury rising and rising. Seriously, don’t fucking get him started on those douchebags who zip around New York on scooters.
If you know Glaser’s work, Soothing Meditations will be a treat, very much in keeping with the brand of comedy he’s perfected over the years. Whether as a writer on Late Night With Conan O’Brien or becoming a Parks and Recreation fan favorite as Jeremy Jamm, the Emmy-nominated 55-year-old performer loves treating extreme situations and weird individuals as if they’re completely normal, crafting laughs by playing everything straight. The album is exactly the same way, the tension and the humor building thanks to this utterly fictional scenario he’s concocted that’s meant to be believable. So well-executed is the illusion that I wasn’t entirely sure if Gatsby — who graces the cover of Soothing Meditations — was Glaser’s actual dog. He is — and, as I soon learned, the “Glaser” we hear on the album is a lot like the real Glaser, much to his own frustration.
I talked to the comic about committing to the bit, his anger issues and why he doesn’t want to come across as a pretentious dick.
What I like about the album is that it goes off on these increasingly strange tangents, but it’s based in reality: Your dog actually is named Gatsby, and you have had encounters with people zipping by on their scooters in New York.
I wanted this just to feel pretty straight, and certainly be funny and just be a fun listen. But I (didn’t) want it to become the jokey version.
I’m telling you, every day that I walk my dog, here comes a fucking kid on a scooter. Certainly, more New Yorkers can relate, but I’d like to hope there’s just this global thing (about) the minutiae of annoyance and the things that you allow to bother you. Some of these (everyday annoyances), it’s like, “Who gives a shit?” — but that’s who I am as a person. I’m always working on that to stop letting things bother me so much, but it just became this dumb, funny idea (for) the album.
Was Soothing Meditations inspired by any one thing? New Age self-help? People who pamper their pets?
I’ve been asked by various people if I ever want to (start) a podcast, and I always feel like I don’t — there’s too many — and doing a parody of New Age stuff, that’s just been done to death. But Eugene (Mirman) and Julie (Smith, co-founders of PGF Records) said, “Hey, we’re doing this label now, and if you ever have any smaller ideas that you really wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, let us know.” This is not a big money-making venture — it’s just more the creative satisfaction of keeping the money low and then hoping it does well in sales. This was for the enjoyment of doing something.
I can’t remember where (the concept for Soothing Meditations came from). I always had a loose idea of a news reporter that couldn’t get a dog sitter and just having to take his dog (to work) — you’re seeing all the cliché news shots like (does TV-news-reporter voice), “Standing outside where the murder was... (to his imaginary dog) come on, let’s go… Sorry, I couldn’t get a dog sitter. Anyway…” (He’s) trying to do the best he could, and then somehow it became a much more involved project than I thought it would be. It wasn’t a reaction to anything — it wasn’t “Here’s my take on this genre.” It was more about something that just goes off the rails.
Some of my favorite stuff of yours — like Slipnutz — works on the same principle of “This is a disaster, but let’s do our best.”
Just committing to trying to make the best of it. I always like stuff that’s rooted in a little more drama (but) played pretty straight and pretty seriously, no matter how stupid the premise. There’s obviously a leap in logic that you have to just go with (on the album): “Why wouldn’t he just hit the pause button and come back later?” It’s all dumb, but you go with it or you don’t.
You seem to really love “This is just so dumb” comedy.
The dumber, the better. If I get that reaction from something, it’s usually a good thing — you’re just immediately annoyed because you’re like, “Okay, I see where they’re going and, oh my god, they’re committing to it.” But it still has to be funny and it still has to ride that line of not being too jokey — when it becomes too much of that, it starts to not work. When things become a little too proud of themselves, I just don’t like that, personally, where you can tell that the writer or the actor (has) a little bit of a wink to the audience about how clever it is. I try to avoid that.
Have you always disliked jokey humor?
More so as I got older. I did a little stand-up in college, and I look back on that stuff… There’s obviously people that start off brilliantly, but I was not there. I had to just fail and figure things out and start seeing more things and realizing what I liked more — that developed over time as the “craft” was honed.
Make sure you put in parentheses, “He said ‘craft’ ironically,” so no one thinks I’m a fucking dick.
That’s funny you say that: Do you have an aversion to being thought of as someone who spends a lot of time breaking down his own jokes? Like you’re stroking your beard and pondering what makes things funny?
I try to avoid that. There’s nothing wrong with (talking about craft) — there’s times where I’ll enjoy that — but it just bugs me, and that’s my own shit. People should feel free to talk about the craft — it’s my own hang-up.
Is it a worry of coming across as pretentious?
I certainly don’t like when people talk about it like that. But there’s plenty of people that are very much about the craft and detail-oriented, and I mean those as compliments — I’m really blown away by that — but they don’t talk about it like that, because they don’t need to.
In the great documentary It Started As a Joke, which is partly about Eugene Mirman’s first wife’s battle with cancer, you go on stage and spontaneously tell this story about your dad shortly before he died. It was really beautiful, partly because it was clear that you hadn’t planned it and weren’t really worrying about where the laughs would be. What was that like up there for you getting emotional as you told that story?
It was just in and of the moment. The documentary is just such a beautiful film and just captures… This is going to sound so generic, but everything about all of it, where there’s so many emotions happening and that just became what it was about.
In my mind, it just didn’t feel like I would go on stage and do a random bit, but I also didn’t want to shoehorn it in. It just felt organic to the moment, so I didn’t go on stage and worry about “How’s this going to go?” I used to (worry about things like that) — it takes time to get comfortable on stage and get confident, and that usually comes with experience. But it was just such a comfortable space with friends and dealing with such a brutally sad topic, but being able to talk about it and tell stories and make it funny.
It’s weird — with the fucking world (right now), I’m feeling really conflicted about promoting (this album) while all this shit’s going on. I’ve scaled way back in social media — that goes back a year, where it was just, “I don’t like this.” I’m grateful for all the mindless fun stuff in my feed — it’s important, obviously, to be aware and informed and certainly outraged, but it’s important to have (silly stuff) too.
I’ve told this story before, but when I was working at (Late Night With Conan O'Brien) on 9/11, we went back to work after a week. I just felt like, “This is too soon. Why are we here? It’s been a fucking week — what’s the rush?” But there was an actor we used, he was a retired firefighter, hurt his knee, couldn’t be a firefighter anymore. He was a really nice guy, and we used him all the time — he became a friend of the show. After 9/11, he’s down there (at the World Trade Center) every day going through the wreckage, just helping, being there, pulling out bodies. After a couple of weeks of this, now they’re going to funerals, and (our offices) are up near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He called me: “Can I come by after a funeral to talk to everybody?” So, he comes by with one of his friends — the whole crew of Conan is just gathered around and he’s saying, “We’re so grateful you’re back on the air. We’re down there every day. It’s a nightmare — you cannot imagine how horrible — and we go back at night and we turn your show on. We tune out for an hour and we laugh and we’re just grateful.”
I know comedy serves a purpose — I don’t like talking about it in those terms because I feel like a dick, but it does. To hear him say that, I think about it all the time.
The tension on Soothing Meditations starts to escalate when you confront people on the street in New York who piss you off. Has making the album helped relieve some of those annoyances for you?
No, it’s been the opposite. (Laughs) I just had one (encounter) yesterday where I went for a long bike ride in the park — just a thoroughly enjoyable, mind-clearing, fun bike ride. I get home, I’m sitting on my stoop, have my bike leaned up next to me — I take my phone out, checking a couple of things. Some fucking kid on his scooter — little snot-nosed little dick — comes cruising down the sidewalk, kind of clocked me, and then came right at me. Like, “Whoa, I’m going right near you!” I was dressed for cycling and maybe he thought, “Oh, we’re fellow adventure-athlete type people. I’m a daredevil, too!” Maybe he thought I was going to think it was cool.
I could see him coming and he’s (got a) runny nose — I’m like, “Get your fucking cold germs away from me. (Don’t) blow your cold on me, goddamn it.”
Have you ever had an altercation with someone like you do on the album?
I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I’ve done it with (people and their) dogs: “Hey, your dog took a shit.” That pisses me off pretty bad — I actually saw it today and I didn’t say anything because I felt like, “I’m going to get pissed off. Not today, not today…” But I didn’t like that — the (owner) just seemed like he was a hundred yards away, didn’t give a fuck. (Getting angry) Oh, man, even now (as I’m thinking about it), I just…
Honestly, I’ve been trying to be mindful of that stuff — to not let that stuff bother me. Sometimes it’s tough. I have a thing with a guy — some douchebag, entitled white guy, older than me, just a dick — and I’m like, “All right, just let this one go, but I’m going to long-game this. I know people on this block — I know who he is.” I was going down that road — I found out his name, I found out his address, and I kept walking up and down that block waiting, hoping to see him and be like, “Oh, hey, man,” and say his name. He’d know I know his name.
At first, it was like, “No, I walk up and down this street all the time — I’m not going to let this fucking asshole dictate where I can walk.” Then I was just like, “What a waste of time — go walk up the other street. Who gives a shit?” I like this (other) street better now anyway. I’ll still walk up and down that block every now and then, and I’m ready for it, but I don’t intentionally seek out anger. That kind of shit, I am trying to minimize, but it’s still hard because there’s that sense of injustice and “Someone’s got to do something.”
You have a well-documented history of portraying funny douchebags. Who’s the first dick you ever played?
The first thing that’s coming to mind is a sketch in a sketch show in college where I was the professor of a rock ‘n’ roll school — a metalhead — and it was just a lot of attitude. He wasn’t necessarily a dick or a douchebag, but he was in that vein.
There were writers for the sketch show and a director, and they would assign who played what, and I was apparently thought of for that role. So I guess early on there was a recognizable penchant for playing dicks.
How much of Councilman Jamm was based on people you knew?
I didn’t necessarily pattern him after anybody. There is certainly just that generic archetype of the overconfident douchebag. But every time I’d feel like, “This is too broad, this is too big,” then you realize it’s not, which is stunningly upsetting that there’s real people out there. Long after Parks and Rec, as Veep got better and better and then less and less fictitious, it’s just crazy what the world has become.
How much does Jamm come from you?
I actually have a book proposal out right now that hopefully someone will go for, and it’s about that: I play all these assholes and people must wonder, “Why is he so good at that?” And then I have to wonder, “Why am I so good at that?” Trying to figure that out — am I an asshole? — it’s a funny exploration of that. I hope “No” is the answer.