Big and Getting Bigger
The Ed Gossling Story
When Eddie Gossling walks into a room, people notice. While his imposing physical presence may be the first thing that catches their eye, it's something else that draws the focus. Perhaps it's the contrast of his rather angelic baby face with his gargantuan frame. Or perhaps it is the mischievous aura about the stand-up artist, a sense that he's up to no good, and one can't help but watch him to see what he's going to do next. His infectious self-confidence lets people know right away, "I'm funny, fucker, so step back and watch me work." Gossling was an integral part of the Austin comedy scene when I got involved in it nearly four years ago, so I've been fortunate to witness the evolution of his stand-up act from its earliest stages. He was one of a group of local comics -- among them, Charlie Shannon, Johnny Hardwick, Joey Waldon, J.R. Brow, Laura House, Howard Kremer, and Chip Pope -- who were experimental and electric. Their colorful personalities and spontaneity ensured that even a mundane open mike night could erupt at any moment in hilarious comic combustion.
At that time, Gossling's act centered around his size and was heavy with raw, shock-value material. It got him noticed, but it also got him more than a little flak. One of his first professional gigs was opening for Gregory Hines at the Carver Cultural Center in San Antonio, and his routine led to a storm of protest from critics and angry parents. "Diane Windler [of the San Antonio Express-News] didn't like my performance and tore me apart. She was the classical music editor for the paper, so you'd think I would have been right up her alley. One parent wrote, "His material was immoral and truly disgusting. Parents should have been warned not to bring their children.' Another parent called me "foul-mouthed' and "not a good scene-setter.' It kind of bugged me because I had given these people a tape, and they booked me knowing what was on the tape. But I also learned that maybe I was a comic that was best in the friendly confines of a comedy club near you. In the end, I got some great lines for my promo material. Gregory Hines was cool and told me that he enjoyed my show. He's a really gifted performer and probably deserved a better opening act."
Gossling is straightforward about the rawness of his material, then and now, but he likes to consider it from the perspective of a writer and performer whose material is always evolving. "When you start," the comic says, "your only goal is to get laughs, and you might not really care how you get there. You might not know anything else except "laughs' equals "good job.' After you do anything for a while, you become more aware, not only of what you're doing but also of who you are. Hopefully, you grow as a person, and your act will reflect that. I'm not embarrassed about anything I've ever done onstage because I've always known that at the time, that was the place I was at in my career. My maturation is hopefully going to be ongoing."
While earlier audiences roared at stories of Gossling getting stuck in an airplane lavatory or listening in the next room while his grandparents had sex, Eddie now gets the same huge laughs with bits on the parenting skills of dolphins or mathematically challenged NASA engineers. Not that Gossling doesn't enjoy doing "blue" material; often he's at his best when he gets down and dirty ("There's a reason I watch a lot of porno, people. 'Cause chicks won't fuck me."). But his material has grown as he grows closer to finding his voice and allowing his true self to emerge through his act. Gossling is extremely intelligent, and his unique perspective on things allows him to comment on diverse topics from a point of view that is uniquely his own.
"The one rule I try to tailor my act after is something I picked up out of Richard Pryor's book, Pryor Convictions: "Thou Shall Not Be Dull!' If it isn't funny, at the least I hope it is interesting, or I've wasted everybody's time."
Gossling has been playing various clubs in San Antonio and Austin since early in his career, but the place where he truly started honing his act was a small club on Sixth Street beloved by Austin's stand-up faithfuls, the infamous Velveeta Room. "The Velveeta Room was really neat," Gossling remembers. "It was a kind of clubhouse where we would all meet up, chat, work on some new riffs, and yell shit at the new guys; if you've ever sat close to the back of the room on a Thursday night, you know what I'm talking about."
The Velveeta could be an imposing environment for a new comic. Not only were the crowds notoriously tough, but if you weren't funny and original, you would most certainly hear it from the older comics. "The V Room makes you tough," Gossling says. "Nobody gives you anything for free; you've got to take it. But once you're in, you're in. To this day, it's one of the most gratifying places I've ever performed."
In 1995, Gossling's stand-up education took a leap forward when Austin's largest comedy club, the Laff Stop, was acquired by a San Antonio couple who recruited him to work there on a regular basis. Bruce and Colleen Barshop, who renamed the venue the Capitol City Comedy Club, recognized Gossling's "larger than life" persona and offered to make him a house emcee at the club. Gossling alternated hosting duties with fellow comic Laura House, but even so the standing gig meant that every other week he was working eight shows in a row.
"Nothing could have been more helpful to me then my time at Cap City. I emceed there for a straight year. I also worked at the club during the day, so I got to learn a little about the other side of the business and meet a lot of people. The bonus was, the weeks I wasn't [working] I was down at the Velveeta, so that was just a lot of stage time, and that's really what makes a comic. You can tell a comic that hits the stage every night as opposed to one that doesn't make the effort to get up. I liken it to what Martin Sheen said in the beginning of Apocalypse Now. Every day you spend off the stage, you get weaker, and every day Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger -- Charlie in this case being other comics. You need to be in it all the time. Getting up is the key."
It certainly was for Gossling. As a result of his Cap City efforts -- aided by the fact that he is a hard-working comic, constantly writing and refining his material and delivery -- Gossling was signed by booker/agent Rich Miller, who has kept him working the road at a hectic pace. For the last couple of years, Gossling has been pretty much a comedy gypsy.
Being constantly on the road hasn't required Gossling to make the serious lifestyle adjustments that it does some comics. Since his father is a B-52 pilot in the Air Force, the comic grew up with the nomadic lifestyle of military personnel. "Growing up like that," he says, "you move every three years, so I had to be able to make new friends quickly but never get too attached. That aspect of my childhood really helped me in being a comic, though I didn't know it at the time. Being a comic is kind of like being a whore. You spend an hour helping strangers have a good time, get paid, and then you're on to your next fuck."
At this point in his career, the gypsy existence suits Gossling. "I dig living on the road and making every new stop your home for a week," he says. "I might miss having close personal relationships because of the lifestyle, but I have come to find that I groove to my time in isolation. I like hanging out after the show with the staff and eating lunch with the comics and going to see movies, but I really dig driving at night, listening to Art Bell while the moon chases me to the next gig.
"I also like returning to places I've been before and catching up. That's like family when you get someplace again where you really clicked with everyone the last time. Some of the places I love to be other than Austin are Stooges in Milwaukee, the Funny Bone in St. Louis, and Wiley's Comedy Club in Dayton, Ohio, where I will be for New Year's Eve. Wiley's is also the first club I ever worked on the road, so that room is extra special to me. Those places are like being with family."
Is life on the road all wine and roses? No. "The worst place I ever was at," Gossling remembers, "was a one-nighter in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The hotel was crap. The people there had never been to a live performance of anything, except maybe a monster truck rally, and the owner was a tool that thought he knew everything about everything. Gigs like that make you appreciate a sunrise more than you used to for one reason; it means you get to leave Shitville and the locals have to stay."
Then there are those long drives between gigs, which Gossling deals with in his own singular way: "I do shows in my car when I'm by myself, complete with heckling," he says. "I am always rebooked for more money each time. I also pretend I'm on Letterman or Conan and he's interviewing me and I'm killing, the crowd loves me. Then I realize I'm in the middle of Illinois and close to empty and there is not a gas station in sight. I talk back to the radio a lot and also talk to the people at the gas stations a little too much for their comfort and personal safety. But after seven hours of talking to yourself in a car, it's hard not to come off like a psycho. I tend to think outside the box a lot and that can be odd for people who have to share an aisle with me at the store. I almost prefer them to not get me in that case; it's more fun that way."
Recently, the road brought Gossling back to San Antonio, and I had the opportunity to see him working on a new bit at the Rivercenter Comedy Club. The lights dimmed and the Doors' "The End" began to play softly in the background. Gossling lit a cigarette and launched into a "war story," a parody of macho war-film bullshit in which Gossling recounts a fateful afternoon at a National Guard barbecue. While the comics in the back of the room howled with laughter, some of the audience seemed more confused than entertained. I asked him if he felt that he was sometimes leaving his audience behind.
"That bit won't be done until everyone in the room gets it," Gossling said. "Right now, the comics like it and it's hit-and-miss with the audience. But that's the difference between a good comic and a motherfucker (i.e., a great comic). The great ones are able to sell the idea to the whole room. Chris Rock is edgy and funny to both comics and audiences alike. He has found his voice and he kills. It is gratifying when the audience laughs at a joke because that means you're doing your job. It is gratifying when the back of the room laughs because it means your peers, the most cynical people in the business, think you're funny. When you get them both going, the front and the back (even if it is for different reasons), that's when you are really saying something, and that in turn is when it really feels good.
"Right now, the audience isn't gonna get everything that I throw at them in a night. As long as I remember that that is my fault and not theirs, I'll be all right about it. If they don't get a certain bit, I keep working on that bit until they get it, and it's still the same thing I said in the first place, I just found a new way to get there. It means, if nothing else, that I have grown as a performer and growth can't be bad, ever. But is fun to see the clueless looks on their faces sometimes."
For his return to Austin this week, Gossling will show the locals how he's grown -- not physically but comedically. And he'll do it by taking his act -- and them -- further than they've been with him before. "Any good performer should not only push themselves but should also push the crowd to see what it will accept," the comic says. "How far you can go is an always raging battle with the art of stand-up. It is really the one and only thing that keeps stand-up alive and separate from some of the other forms of entertainment." So, how far will you go, folks?
Eddie Gossling plays the Capitol City Comedy Club, 8120 Research, through Sunday, Dec. 12. Call 467-2333.