Life can change in an instant. If you’re lucky, that moment works in your favor, guiding true love to the barstool next to yours, or fatefully shifting your resume to the top of the pile. If you’re unlucky, it’s all downhill from here.
Good fortune is indifferent to Gabe Delahaye, and it has been since the day his junior high talent show was canceled. And so, 25 years later, the comedian is going back to his hometown to figure out what went wrong. Follow his journey in An Oral History of the 1993 Tappan Jr. High School Talent Show, which launches today.
The three-episode fictional comedy series guest stars Lauren Lapkus (Orange is the New Black, Jurassic World); Sean Clements (Parks and Recreation, Workaholics); John Gabrus (Guy Code, High and Mighty podcast); Jon Daly (Kroll Show); and Lakshmi Sundaram (Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). It was produced at Little Everywhere and is available exclusively on Stitcher Premium.
Here, he sits down with us to talk improv, hidden talents and broken dreams.
How did you come up with the show’s concept?
It somehow took three years for this project to come together, and most of that was contract negotiations. People don’t realize that podcast contract negotiations are cutthroat and very intense.
A few years ago, Jeff Ulrich, one of the founders of Earwolf, was launching a new podcasting platform for more heavily produced, limited-series projects. We met at ArcLight and saw that Jack O’Connell movie about a young British soldier who gets stranded in Belfast at the height of political unrest. Jeff bought us hot dogs, we watched this intense period war movie, and then he asked me if I had any ideas. So, by all accounts, a very standard business meeting. I pitched him the idea of doing a very silly oral history of a seemingly insignificant junior high talent show that goes off the rails. He said yes. Then we handed things over to our respective lawyers who tore each other apart for years.
I’m a fan of oral histories because they tell a more complete story than other forms of historical writing. You’re catching snapshots from different sources rather than just a myopic and singular point of view. Like, when you read oral histories of a defunct magazine, or a defunct TV show, or basically anything defunct that is also either a magazine or a TV show, you get stories from everyone who worked there. You know, this person fucked that person over, and this person was dealing with a drug problem at the time. Oral histories are a really cool form of portraiture.
So I was thinking, what’s the DUMBEST subject for an oral history? There might be something dumber, but this is pretty dumb. I’m not even sure this could count as an oral history since it’s one character’s story, and he’s just interviewing people to back up his own perspective (with limited success). But that was the thinking, and it makes for an amazing title everyone agrees is amazing.
I also love the podcast Heavyweight, by Jonathan Goldstein, where he and his guests attempt to resolve some unresolved issue from their past. I didn’t set out to create my own version of Heavyweight because I pitched this project before Heavyweight existed. So actually, Jonathan Goldstein pretty much stole the idea for his show from me. And if Jonathan Goldstein wants to doubt me, I have a lawyer that will happily keep him tied up in negotiations for years.
How much of it is autobiographical?
Well, it can’t be too autobiographical because I never went to junior high, lol. I went to “middle school.” It was called Tappan, though. I was too lazy to come up with a fictional name for it, and I liked the sound of the real name. Tappan. But pretty much everything else is made up. I don’t even think we had a talent show.
That said, I definitely struggled in middle school. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and the loneliness and isolation of the character I play on the podcast is pretty reflective of my actual loneliness growing up. I also joke in the show about not owning Marithe Francois Girbaud jeans, which is true. We didn’t have a lot of money, so my mom would give me a fixed clothing budget for the school year. When I spent it, those were my clothes. I would have to wear hand-me-downs if something stopped fitting or got ruined. I’m pretty sure a single pair of Girbaud jeans would have blown the entire year’s budget. Those jeans were a big deal in school, and I learned a lot about class warfare from seeing which 13-year-olds could afford them and which couldn’t.
The themes of the show are also fairly autobiographical. Not so much being desperately confused about why I’m not the biggest star in the world, but more about having those “what if” moments where you hit a fork in the road and wonder what would have happened if you’d taken the other path. Also, obsessing over small things, letting them swallow your life. And being stubbornly incapable of seeing what everyone else can see right in front of you. (I’m an incredibly deep and philosophical person, and I see things so profoundly in a way that is super unique.)
There was a loose script, but many scenes were improvised. Why did that feel like the best approach?
We actually had a full script that could have been recorded without changing a word, but it was always a suggestive template. Like, here’s where we need to get to or what we need to learn in this scene, and here’s one way to get there or learn it — but let’s try doing it the way actual people talk to each other and see how that goes. Not every character was written with the specific cast in mind, so everyone brought something different to the table. My script was incredible, obviously, but when John Gabrus improvs about being an island floating in the ocean jizzing lava or whatever, I could never have come up with that on my own. So I think improv offered two very appealing features: it allowed the talented cast to write better jokes than mine, and it made everyone sound more natural, looser. When something is only audio, that looseness goes a long way.
You’re a triple threat: show creator, writer and actor. In which role do you feel most comfortable?
Hahaha. YES! Thank you. I agree that I’m a triple-threat, and it’s so nice to be called one. I really like performing. It’s the opposite of writing: it’s social, impermanent and enjoyable. I obviously love writing, and it’s how I make my living, but it can be frustrating and exhausting and a bit excruciating. Performing can be those things, too, so... I don’t know. Part of the reason I like performing is that I feel confident in my writing, which can be worked on in private until it’s good. Performing is a little scarier, which makes it exciting. But if I’m being completely honest, I think I’m most comfortable in being a multi-hyphenate triple-threat.
Your wife plays a character on the show. What was it like working together?
It was the best! My wife, Lakshmi Sundaram, is the funniest, smartest person I know, and she’s such a natural performer. She kept making me laugh so much that it was hard not to break with her. We’ve never really gotten to perform together outside of helping each other run lines for auditions, so that was fun. I hope we get to do more of it.
The show is a comedy, but it delivers a message. Any advice for those of us with unfulfilled childhood dreams?
I think there’s an American cultural belief that one’s “dream” has to include both financial and attention-based (i.e. fame) rewards. The unfortunate side effect is the idea that anything outside of those parameters is at worst a failure and at best a nice hobby. As a result, the boilerplate advice is to never give up, as if somehow life itself is giving up, and that if you never give up, maybe, just maybe, you’ll stop being a loser and start being a rich cool guy/girl.
I think it’s more important to chase after the thing that got you excited about the dream in the first place. If you wanted to be a rock star but you’re still having fun playing drums in your garage every weekend, that’s pretty good! If you wanted to be a comedian, and you’re stuck selling car insurance all day but also posting jokes on Twitter — ok, I’ve just described literally my nightmare of a person, but I guess I’m trying to give credit where it is due to people with normal jobs who are being true themselves whenever they can. Life is hard enough as it is. Don’t worry about turning something you love into a job.
Then again, work is really hard and exhausting and it drains you of the vital energy to do the things you like more than work. I don’t really have a solution for that problem. I’m a triple-threat, not a life coach.
What podcasts are you listening to right now?
As I mentioned, I love Heavyweight. I love love love The Best Show with Tom Scharpling and Hollywood Handbook. Lauren Lapkus and Gabrus have a dozen podcasts between them, and they’re all great. I’m a huge fan of everyone who appeared on the show, truly.
There’s so much great comedy happening in podcast form these days, but I lean towards documentaries and true crime. I love Crimetown and Revisionist History. I used to listen to Keepin’ it 1600 before the election but got so mad at everything related to the election that I stayed away from political podcasts for awhile. I’ve been slowly getting back into them with Pod Save America. And I’m not sure if they count as podcasts, but I listen to all that NPR stuff — This American Life, Radiolab — in podcast form.
Do you, like your character on the show, have a secret talent?
I have a brown belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. And I can juggle. I keep both of these talents secret but for very different reasons.
What would you be doing if the writing/acting thing hadn’t worked out?
Well, the fictional version of me in the show is a temp at a hospital, which is something I did for awhile in my 20s. I suppose I could always fall back on that. (Going back to your question about how autobiographical the show is, that year as a temp was when I did the majority of my soul-searching and wondering where I went wrong.) My college major was a very flirty combination of film, photography and creative writing, so I definitely backed myself into a corner pretty early on, and I’m lucky that I can at least afford to pay my rent on the corner.