Wednesday, February 16, 2011
TOM RAGU: SAUCY, SARCASTIC, & SERIOUSLY FUNNY!
Saucy, Sarcastic, and Seriously Funny!
What’s more therapeutic than sex? Well, nothing. But laughter comes REALLY close! Funny man Tom Ragú knows about the art of making people laugh. The woofy mirthmaster has been making quite a name for himself on the New York City stand-up comedy circuit, as both a performer and producer. As producer, Ragú utilizes a rotating roster of over 150 comedians, preferring to use artists who know each other in the same show. Ragú states, "The comedians know each other, so they are going to perform both for each other and for the audience. I found that when you get a bunch of comedians who don‘t know each other, then it becomes more competitive. When you have people who have a history with each other, it becomes more of a happy time! As a matter of fact, I think the name of my next show should be ‘Happy Time’!" Ragú invites all of us to "get happy!". His nights of knee-slapping include "Women We Love"-- a "celebration of women in comedy". Tom also hosts and performs at The long-running Tom Ragú Comedy Revue at The Stonewall Inn in New York City‘s West Village. Tom and I met at The Metropolitan Room, which Tom accurately describes as "one of the classiest cabaret rooms in New York City". (I agree!) It‘s also, incidentally, the original site of The Gotham Comedy Club, where many well-known comedians got their start. We talk about life in the Comedy Nation, Oprah and Gayle, and his source of his biggest inspiration, his Mama Ragú!
JR: Hi Tom. Thanks for meeting me!
TR: It's my pleasure.
JR: New York City is one of those places where a million funny things seem to happen every day, intentionally or not. Is New York City the main source of your comedy, or is there another source where you get your material?
TR: I don’t have to look far. The main source of my material is my mother, Mama Ragú…
TR: ... or as I like to call her, “the original vagina“… because, she is a vagina so kind and loving that she made me never wanna go back in! So, she really is the big inspiration and the big source for a lot of my material. So, I certainly hope that she lives to 175 years old, because if she ever goes, I’ll have no act.
JR: (Still laughing...)
TR: And so, like a lot of ethnic types of households-- whether it’s Italian, or Greek, or Jewish-- the mother really is the anchor of the family. My mother, growing up, was a little detached. Because, I think that she did know that she had a gay son-- but like most old-fashioned Italian people, if you put your head in the sand and ignore it, it will go away-- whatever “it” is. Whatever problem is going on at the time, if you consider it a problem and you just ignore it, it will go away. It became clearly apparent to her, and to anyone that was paying attention, that I was not going away. I was a loudmouth, I was a rebel, and I was a person who saw the humor in every single thing-- whether it was appropriate at the time or not. And so, if you fast forward 20 years, we are extremely close-- as best friends as a mother and a son could be. And I find myself being humbled in her presence, and very grateful that we have that relationship. I don’t think that Lindsay Lohan and Dina Lohan have that kind of close mother/daughter bond. So, I am very grateful. And… she’s my number one fan and my biggest supporter. She comes to almost every show.
TR: So, I really don’t think that’s the case with a lot of gay people. I think that a lot of gay people are estranged from their families, and they create their own families. I certainly have created my own family too, of friends. But I know dozens and dozens of people over the years who don’t even talk to their families. I feel grateful that I have her in my life. She’s a pretty incredible woman.
JR: That’s great that you can include her in your humor-- sort of like the way that Margaret Cho can make her mother the butt of her jokes sometimes-- but behind the jokes, there’s a real admiration and appreciation.
TR: She absolutely is the butt of all my jokes, but she knows that everything that I say actually DID happen. She was in the hospital recently, and they kept her for a couple of days for observation. So of course, the hospital food comes. Everyone knows that the hospital food is horrible. That’s like the big running joke for decades; that hospital food is horrible. That’s why they call it “hospital food”. So, apparently-- and I don’t know how she ever escaped this-- my mother has never been in a hospital, where hospital food came. So, she was shocked and amazed-- and I mean shocked and amazed-- at the hospital food. She said, “What the hell is this crap? What is that?” I said, “That looks like it could be chicken.” And then she said, “Well, I’m just gonna have the mashed potatoes.“ Then, she took one bite of the mashed potatoes and she did, “These are NOT mashed potatoes. These came from a mix!“ I said, “Of course they did. Do you think that there are a thousand men in the kitchen mashing potatoes for the entire hospital? Do you think that that’s going on?!” So, apparently the woman has never stayed in a hospital, or she has never had the hospital food. She’s had people sneak in pizza or pasta or homemade food… because apparently, this was the first time at her age that she actually had actual, genuine hospital food-- and she was shocked!… I wanted to bring her food, but the people wouldn’t let me. I made the mistake of asking, “Should I bring her food from home?” and they were like, “No, no, no! Don’t do that!” I should have just done it anyway…
JR: Yeah… Now, in Kathy Griffin’s book, “Official Book Club Selection”, she talks about the amazing struggles that she and other comedians went through as neophytes, before eventually finding success. In your own pathway as a comedian, where do you see yourself now?
TR: I started doing comedy in the late ‘90’s in California at The Comedy Store in La Jolla. They had an amateur night every Sunday night. My friend John and I would go to it, and it was horrible. It literally was: Bob from accounting got drunk and decided to go up and do his “best” five minutes of material about the people in the office. Well, the people in the office thought it was hysterical, but no one else could relate to Bob from accounting. My friend John said, “I dare you to get up there, because you‘re so much funnier than these people who are getting up." All someone has to do is dare me to do something-- especially back then-- and I will probably do it.
JR: I’ll keep that in mind!
TR: (Laughs) I got up there, and I don’t even know what I talked about-- probably Britney Spears and the Britney versus Christina thing that was going on at the time, and some other jokes. Looking back, they were so fantastic that I don’t even remember them! And I got the “comedy bug”. It does happen: Once you hear that laughter, that was it. Unfortunately, the second time I got up and decided to do comedy, it did not go so well! And then the third time… I allowed a couple of hecklers along the way to get under my skin. I stopped doing comedy and then became a DJ. That was what I did for about six or seven more years. When I moved back to New York in 2002, shortly after that I was watching a Judy Gold special on Comedy Central. It was hilarious. I think it was sometime in 2002 or 2003, and it just got to me in a way that I said to myself, “What am I doing here, sitting watching this special? I should be on stage!” It inspired me and lit a fire inside of my spirit to get back up and do what I should be doing. I started jumping on stages and trying to do comedy. I then created my own opportunities by producing some of my own shows. It was a very gratifying experience five years from that moment to have the opportunity to actually work with Judy Gold. It was literally a full circle moment for me on this very stage-- the Metropolitan Room-- where I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Judy Gold!”. I’ve worked with her a number of times, and I’ve worked with a lot of people who I have seen on television: Vanessa Hollingshead, Jessica Kirson… There are a number of people who I have admired, and then I’ve gotten to work with them. It hasn’t come easy. I think that for me, rather than waiting around for someone to come around and give me an opportunity or give me a shot on stage, I just created my own opportunities. The Tom Ragu Comedy Revue-- which is sort of my anchor show-- started out in the back of a bookstore in a coffee house in The East Village in 2006: The Rapture Café on Avenue A. Then after about nine months of being there, the show moved to another venue-- a little bit of a bigger place that had an actual stage that had many other shows going on. Then we moved to another place, and then we moved to The Stonewall Inn, where the show has been for the last two years. So, it’s been a gradual ride. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons-- and I learned a lot of them the hard way. There have been people who have told me, “You shouldn’t do this, and you shouldn’t do that, and don’t do this…”, but I never would have listened to that. I didn’t. And I have had to learn every single thing and every single lesson the hard way. The comedy business is a really serious business, if you consider what it is that we do. The business of making people laugh is a very serious business. I like to think that I look for the lesson in every single experience that I have-- all the good ones, and all the bad ones. And the bad ones are the ones from which I really learn some very powerful lessons. And a lot of them have to do with me. A lot of them have to do with being firm and standing up for myself. A lot of them revolve around managing people properly and treating people with the same dignity and respect that I command. I’m not going to except people to treat me with any sort of respect or dignity if I don’t respect people or talk with them in a dignified way. You get in this world what you put into it. And, I observe it from afar with a lot of other people, and I don’t see a lot of that going on. I see a lot of people trying to climb over other people to get to the microphone, and I see people talking about other people behind their back, and writing about people on Facebook and on blogs, and I see people acting very envious of other people’s opportunities that they’ve created for themselves. Everybody’s comedy journey is different. My comedy journey is gonna be different from the guy standing right next to me, even though maybe we’re both gay male comedians from New York. We’re gonna have completely different comedy journeys. And that’s fine.
JR: It’s interesting that you used to be a DJ too. I’ve always believed that like stand-up comedians, DJ’s are also among the unsung heroes of the entertainment biz.
TR: I think that they’re both similar. I think that comedy is very musical. There is a cadence to it. In music, everything happens in fours. In comedy, everything happens in threes. If you listen to any joke, there are three parts to every joke. There is the premise, the setup, and then the punch. Whenever you hear a comedian talk about or reference some sort of experience that they’ve had, they are going to give you three examples. And then the next time that you watch any one of the big comedians or any one of the comedians in any local show, observe the joke: Like, “Let me tell you what happened today: First, I went to Duane Read. Then , I almost got hit by a taxi. Then, I slipped and fell. And the lesson is…” And then you get the punch line. There’s always three parts. Never two. Never four. I find comedy to be very similar to music, because there‘s a formula.
JR: Yeah! Now, you mentioned Judy Gold. Is there anyone else who you look at as a role model in the comedy world?
TR: There’s a wide variety of people. It’s Joan Rivers, it’s Jerry Seinfeld, it’s Totie Fields, it’s Moms Mabely, it’s Dave Attell, it’s Mario Cantone, it’s Louis Black, it’s Jon Stewart… Those are just some of them. Those are the people who really inspired me, and those who I can watch over and over again and never get tired of them.
JR: So, how long does it take you to prepare your material? How do you get ready for a new act?
TR:When something new has happened to me, I usually write it down immediately. Then I work on it and turn it into a joke, and then read it out loud, and get the cadence going to see how long it will be. I’ll try it out and call a couple of friends, and go over it with my dog Pete Ragú, who’s a very good audience…
TR: He loves every single thing I do. He’s one of those designer dogs that they make in the lab with love. He’s a Yorkie/Bichon Frise mix . So he’s a York-chon terrier. And really, there’s no way to maintain any masculinity when you have a dog like this. Even if you are the biggest gay man that there is, you cannot maintain any kind of masculinity when you have a Yorkie/Bichon Frise mix. But he’s a lovely guy… and I like him more than I like most people!
JR: (Laughs) I feel the same way about my pets! I’ve never seen a Yorkie/Bichon Frise mix… but when I think about dogs like that, I wonder, “Is this what technology produced? This animal is a descendant of the mighty wolf and the noble coyote? A creature like this could never survive in nature!”
TR: We have made hypoallergenic dogs. He’s a hypoallergenic Yorkie: a big Yorkie with a Bichon tail…
JR: With my particular menagerie of pets at home, I suppose I have no right to judge! So, Tom, you’ve done double duty as both a performer and a producer. What are some of the big differences between the two? Is it hard to balance the two roles sometimes?
TR: I personally don’t find it hard. I have observed other people, and in looking at the job that they do, it appears that this may not be what they ultimately could be doing. I think that people who are performers and also producers, who produce their own shows, are using both sides of their brain. There are career types who perform-- whether it’s singing or dancing or some other type of artwork-- and that’s what they do. But they are not analytical types at all. They wouldn’t be able to manage anyone. They don’t know the art of trying to talk to someone. They would not be able to balance a checkbook or work with money at all, and they absolutely shouldn’t. And then there are people who are analytical and who are thinkers, and it’s all about money, and they’re able to calculate everything real quick and know how manage and how to talk to people… but they have no sense of humor and they are not artistic at all. They don’t appreciate music and they don’t appreciate comedy, and they’re always looking at the bottom line. When you are able to find the rare few people who are able to do both-- and who are able to do both WELL-- then it really is a rare find. There are a few of us in the comedy community. I happen to think that my talents lie in both areas. I think that I’m a good producer, and that I am fair, and that I have a pretty good idea of what people want-- and I try to give it to them. And then I think that as a comedian, even though I am still growing and there‘s always enough room to learn, I think that I know what people want and I think that people appreciate my perspective. I think that for me, it’s a good marriage of the two. There are some other people out there who are also good comedians and good producers. But there are legions of people who are not. And they should just be performers!
JR: Is there any particular celebrity who has been the target of your jokes? Someone who has been the target most often? Besides Mama Ragú!
TR: I LOVE Oprah and Gayle. They are just comedy gold for me. Now, Oprah has spent 24 years of building up this reputation for being so spiritual, and so giving, and so loving… and really building a brand for herself. This 25th season has been all about breaking that down. Because, when Oprah launched her network in January, she has this golden show called “Season 25: Behind the Scenes”. Now, I don’t know if you had the opportunity to watch this show...
JR: I made sure I missed it!…
TR: It’s a reality show about the Oprah Winfrey Show. It’s all about the producers, and it’s all about preparing for all the different shows, and all about the madness that goes on at Harpo… leading up to the big moment which is when the audience comes and then “It’s the Oprah Winfrey SHOWWWW!” It’s that whole thing, you know, like, “You get a car, and you get a car, and everybody gets a car, and you‘re going to Australia, and the whole audience goes to Australia .…” Well, we got to see all the planning that goes behind all of that… and the hundreds of people who work at Harpo. There are over 460 people who work there to make that moment happen. Well, what we have never seen before is that Oprah is spitting, cursing, yelling at people…I think I caught her smoking in the ladies’ room. You know, she shows up for work with her hair in curlers, barefoot, walking her dog… It is hilarious! And then of course, there’s Gayle. And HE is hilarious!
TR: I love Gayle. Now, Gayle has his claws in Oprah and has never let go for the entire 25 years. So, Gayle deserves an Emmy just for holding on. And, Oprah has peed a circle around Gayle, and Oprah owns Gayle, basically. Gayle couldn‘t be happier. Now, there’s always this thing: “Are they a couple? Are they not a couple?“ I honestly don‘t think that Oprah is gay. I really don’t. I think that Oprah is a heterosexual woman who actually loves people, and tries to do good in the world, and wants to leave a good legacy. But I do think Gayle is!
JR: (Laughs... Are we detecting a pattern here?!)
TR: It’s hilarious. The whole Oprah Winfrey network is hilarious. There’s “The Gayle King Show”, because of course Gayle had to get a show. Now, Oprah Winfrey also has a channel on Sirius XM Radio. The Gayle King television show is just a camera recording the radio show! It literally is just Gayle sitting in a room, with a mic, going through notes. I’m watching this with Mama Ragú. I’m looking at her, she’s looking at me, and I‘m saying, “This is the stupidest television show that I‘ve ever seen.“ All it is, is a woman with a mic, reading notes and not knowing where she is… she‘s like “What are we doing next?” It’s worse than “The Wendy Williams Show“. I mean, it really is. There‘s no rehearsal at all. I said, “This is the stupidest show”. And Mama Ragú said, “But we’re watching it. I’m watching it, you’re watching it. Who’s the stupid one?!” And she’s absolutely right. We’re all watching it. I really don’t go after Oprah or Gayle, but I do think that if I did go after celebrities, they would be the ones… and, those stupid Housewives!!!
JR: (Laughs) Oh, yeah!
TR: I can’t stand them either. I don’t like Kim Zolciak, with all her wigs and her weaves and everything else. I don’t like Nene Leakes, because it sounds like a venereal disease I had when I was in the Navy… I don’t like any of these “Real Housewives” of anywhere… because they are some of the most unlikable, untalented, famous-for-nothing people that I’ve ever seen. There are people who are genuinely talented, and they can’t even get seen by the people over at Bravo. And then you have these people who are on a reality show, and all they do is scream and yell and try to pull each other’s hair… And then there’s this great show on either Discovery or TLC called “I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant.” I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to see this reality show…
JR: I’ll make sure I miss that one too.
TR: So this is a show where ladies go through an entire gestational period not realizing that they were pregnant. Now I, as a thinking person, did not even know that this was possible. But apparently, it is. And apparently, the place to give birth is in the restroom of you’re favorite fast food restaurant. So, you are going to see in the next 10 years or so a bunch of babies being named “Popeye” and “McDonalds” and “McNugget” and “Supersize”… because babies are being born in the restrooms of McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s. It’s alarming… and that’s a show! I don’t understand how there’s more than one or two of these young ladies giving birth. I would think that it was a very rare occurrence… but apparently there are lots of people who are pregnant and they didn’t know it!
JR: Well, doesn’t watching these shows make you feel smarter?
TR: No. It makes me feel very angry, because it makes me feel like this is what the Program Directors and the Executives at the television studios think that we want to see. You know, it used to be that television taught you something. I know that when I was growing up, there was always a lesson. Every time I watched “The Facts of Life” of “The Golden Girls”, there was a lesson at the end and I felt good. I don’t feel good when I watch “The Real Housewives of Washington, D.C.” I’m, sorry. I don’t!
JR: I know what you mean. It’s shows like the ones you mentioned that make me glad I don’t have cable TV! So, what does Tom Ragú do do for fun when he is not performing or producing?
TR: I find that I am always producing and doing something. I hang out with Pete Ragú, my dog, and I hang out with Mama Ragú. I like to do things with them together: eat with them, read the newspaper with them, and walk them. I usually walk them together, so that Pete Ragú can go to the bathroom, and Mama Ragú can get some air… and everything is fine. So, I get to kill two birds with one stone by walking them together… I like to cook, and, uh… my life is not very exciting! Because when one thing ends, another thing is already being planned. I’m already planning May shows. There really is no resting. I very rarely have the time to relax or rest. Somebody said, “You know, you should really get into a relationship!” I have no time! It wouldn’t be fair. I don’t want to get to know anybody, and I don’t want anybody to get to know me. It wouldn’t be fair to start a relationship with somebody. I would never be around. Plus, I have no patience with people, and I don’t like most people, and I think that I’m funnier than most people.
TR: When people find out that I am a comedian, they always try and be funny around me. And I can’t stand that! It’s like, they’re “on” and they’re trying to do their best material. When I’m off stage, I’m off stage! I mean, I’m not trying out material on the UPS man who rings the bell or whatever, It’s really funny to watch, when you meet new comedians who are doing comedy for a year or so. They are always “on“, because they think that Comedy Central is gonna meet them and they’re going to get discovered at Starbucks. So, they’re always “on“, and when they find out that you’re a comedian, or you’re a producer, or booker of some particular place or whatever, they are always “on“. They will work their material into a conversation. And I wonder, “How did we end up talking about you getting hit by a car? Isn’t that part of your act?” They’re like, Yeah, it is… but it actually happened!” I find it hilarious… and annoying!
JR: (Laughs... and now I'm starting to ache!)
In case you didn’t notice, I laughed a lot during this interview. Be prepared to laugh even more with “Tom Ragú Presents “Bear-ly Funny” on Friday, February 18th at The Metropolitan Room, 34 W. 22nd St., NYC, at 9:30 PM. The show promises “the funniest, fuzziest, furriest” performers, including comedians, performance artists, a special appearance by The Boys of BEAR-lesque, and more! Call 212-206-0440 or visit www.MetropolitanRoom.com for more deets. And also check out www.TomRagu.com for much more!