Smile Politely

Gast is a gas

There aren’t a lot of comedians (local stand ups, I mean) who are willing to describe themselves as goofy. They’re all aiming for edgy, shocking, socially savvy, awkward… financially successful. Esteban Gast sets himself apart. He’s going for the goof.

Smile Politely: How did you get started in comedy? When did you become interested?

Esteban Gast: I had always been interested in comedy and performing. My family was very supportive and encouraging. Actually, little Esteban was a big fan of singing songs on the radio in an Opera voice. The rules were clear: no soccer indoors but singing Linkin Park like Pavarotti was encouraged. I also really loved to watch comedy. We would all watch Whose Line is it Anyway? as a family and I begged for (and got… begging works!) the 1998 Jerry Seinfield special I’m Telling You for the Last Time. It has all his classic bits.

I was cleaning my room in my parents house this morning, and I had saved every random article that referenced a comedian. There was this short three question interview with Seth Meyers in a magazine that I saved. I mean, the interview essentially said nothing. It was something I had felt… needed to be saved. Young Esteban had said, “Yes! This will guide me. Must save it in desk.” I was just digging for anything about comedy.

In high school, I wrote a few new “Marty and Bobbi Culp” skits and performed it at these big all-school assemblies. Then, senior year in high school, I won a stand-up competition and it was such a blast. During undergrad, I did standup a few times a year. It was strange though; I would win competitions and was lucky enough to be featured in these campus publications or do these paying shows but refused to believe that I could do something in comedy. I had thought law school or working abroad and never took my dreams seriously. I sometimes think about my parents who moved here from Colombia and both have PhDs and worked their tails off and I go “They came here…so I can tell jokes?” Then, I stop and pause and say, “They came here… so I can tell jokes. And that’s amazing.” So in the last few years (after I had a fellowship in what I thought was a “dream job” in Panama), I’ve started becoming really interested in comedy and growing as a comedian and performer.

SP: What are some of your other comic influences/heroes? I’m partial to Bill Cosby and George Carlin, although they are completely on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Gast: Bill Cosby and George Carlin! That’s like saying your favorite season is summer and winter. You just like seasons! Of course the comedy legends have influenced me. I love how Cosby can tell a story and [I like] Carlin’s unique voice. I feel like I understood why he did comedy. As for comedians right now, I love John Mulaney, Pete Holmes, and TJ Miller. They’re this particular brand of silly that I love and connect with. They also try different things. Pete’s late night show threw out all the rules for what you think is a late night show. TJ’s mix of crowd work into his bits is something I strive for. (Yes, I’m calling them by their first name like were pals.) I’m so excited Mike Birbiglia is coming to Champaign. He’s another guy I look up to in comedy, storytelling, and overall nice-guy-ness. 

SP: I heart John Mulaney! (“I’m new in town…”) 

Gast: Oh my gosh. New in Town is a work of art.

SP: George Carlin used humor to change social trends and stimulate consciousness about oppression. Cosby tells stories. He highlights the common American experiences we share (being a father, fighting with a spouse, going to the dentist…). Any comedians you really can’t stand? I’ll start: Jeff Dunham is a racist hack and I hate that he’s a millionaire.

Gast: Exactly, about Carlin and Cosby. I, like, imagine many people feel he’s like the Nickelback of comedy. feel that way about Jeff Dunham.

I think it’s just hard to watch comedy where people use these shortcuts in humor. I’ve been told a few times (even by a booker) that if I were more Latino in my act, I could move up faster. I am Colombian and am proud of it, but what if I just want to talk about an awkward story? I think of Carlos Mencia and George Lopez and just cringe watching them talk about Latina mothers. Yes, my mom is hilarious, but so is waiting in line behind someone and moving in with my fiancé and being the second child. I guess I get sad when I watch something and think “You really listened to that one person when they said, ‘Only do the Latin schtick.'”

To clarify: I get frustrated when Mencia and Lopez talk about the difference between white moms and Latina moms for an entire hour. Not just their moms in general. I’m sure they have great mothers.

SP: YES. The niche thing! Ugh. Janeane Garofalo once said in an interview that there are bookers who will flat out say, “We don’t book women,” but if a middle aged white guy bombs, there isn’t a sudden moratorium on white dudes. They get to keep working. They get to talk about waiting in line at the DMV.

What’s your point of view? Do you have a “thing”? Or is it just based on your life? (Like Maria Bamford has the voices and Jerry Seinfeld is a clean comic…)

Gast: I think I’m finding my point of view still. I’m still such a young comic. I think of words I want my comedy to be. Mostly it’s silly, goofy, and creative. So I’ll write something and I’ll think, “Is this silly?” rather than “Is this under my ‘persona’”? I think that frees up a lot more space and freedom to find my voice. And I know “silly” might be a strange word, or maybe even a childish word, but it’s where my personality fits. Carlin is not silly. Steve Martin is silly. I’m the nice, well-mannered guy in real life, so on stage I want to be as funny as possible, but in a way that represents me. I just talk about life! Life is interesting and goofy enough. I mean, I’m getting married in August but have a Lion King poster in my room. 

I think I also have interests outside of comedy. I think “my thing” can also be this person with a polymathic personality. I made this mini documentary on student loans, and I am working on these other creative projects that sometimes intersect with comedy and sometimes don’t. I teach creativity at the University and am starting a business with my fiance. I think “my thing” could be that I love comedy, but I also love teaching and business, and it would be great to blend it all together. 

SP: Do you run your material by your fiancé? Is she an audience for you like my husband is for me? He’s smart and has a sharp comedic sense, so I aim my work at him and it’s worked well so far.

Gast: I run all my material by her. When I met her, she wasn’t that big of a comedy fan. She wasn’t exposed to too much of it. By now, she can quote New in Town, word for word, and her dad and I talk comedy shop all the time. She’s a painter and graphic designer, so she has brought this incredible creative mind. She also happens to be hilarious and helps make just about all my jokes funnier. She… supports all my comedy endeavors. I’m so lucky she doesn’t mind that I’m off to a show in Quad Cities and driving three hours each way on a weekend, when I should be planning surprise picnics or whatever it is the males in Nicholas Sparks books do. She also recognizes that that sort of driving and time away may be part of the relationship for many, many years. I couldn’t be luckier!

SP: What’s your dream gig? Where/how do you want to end up at 40? 60? 

Gast: Oh, man. That’s so tough. I had this very, very short lived late night style talk show in the Illini Union, complete with a jazz band, opening monologue, and guests, which were students who were doing amazing things like starting nonprofits and businesses. I’ve always been fascinated with late night shows, so that’s a big dream.

But truly, if I can make a living off of being goofy… that’s the greatest thing in the whole world. I’m not picky as long as I get to be creative in the ways that I want to be.

SP: That IS the dream. 

You can check out plenty of comedy events that Gast and other comedians perform at, including his appearance at Memphis on Main tonight (starting at 8 p.m.), and Thursday night at Clark Bar (starting at 9 p.m.) Check for all the info.

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