Catching up with Comic James Adomian

Written by Charlie Sotelo | Wednesday, Aug 15, 2012

James Adomian at SXSW 2012

It’s hard to talk about James Adomian without getting a little gushy; consistently referred to as one of the most talented players in the industry, he’s something of a quadruple-threat, a brilliant actor, improviser, impressionist, and writer whose performances are unpredictable and unmissable. The SXSW Comedy alum has had a whirlwind year of festival dates, tours, and TV appearances -- and this week, he’s celebrating the release of his debut stand-up album, Low Hangin Fruit.

Adomian’s well known for his impressions -- he got his small-screen start playing George W. Bush on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and is a frequent guest on podcasts like Sklarboro Country and Comedy Bang! Bang!, where he showcases characters including Jesse Ventura, Huell Howser, and Gary Busey. Recently, he introduced Andy Kindler’s famed “State of the Industry” address at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival with an impression of the elder comic so pitch-perfect, some said he stole the show. At SXSW Comedy 2012, he appeared on a live edition of Comedy Bang! Bang! and was named one of the fest’s MVPs by Huffington Post Comedy.

Low Hangin Fruit is available online exclusively through Earwolf. The album seamlessly blends character bits with observational humor and introspective asides, and the result -- an hour-long showcase of Adomian’s range -- is one of the strongest comedy records of the year.

We caught up with Adomian to talk about his busy summer, his big plans for the fall, and his thoughts on being labeled a “gay comic.” Read on!

Are you based in NY or LA these days?

All my operations are actually based out of the Cayman Islands. I spend a lot of time in New York and L.A. but that's all a front for my offshore activities. Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha.

We love Low Hangin Fruit. What was the experience of recording the album like?

It was fun! This is my first album, and Earwolf's too, so it was very much a learn-as-we-go kind of project. I now know more about audience mics than I know about my own apartment. We recorded first in Portland around the time of Bridgetown. Those shows were fun but we decided to do it again at Union Hall in Brooklyn this summer, and that's what forms the majority of the album -- there is one bonus story from Portland that's on there. Overall it was challenging and fun and full of nasty energy drinks!

What were some of the earliest impressions you tried out?

Teachers and coaches, serious newsmen, cartoons, muppets, other kids, movie stars -- I was always mimicking and mirroring people like some kind of little asshole. I'm surprised that people put up with me long enough for it to pay off.

What inspired you to start stand-up?

Well, some may know and/or care that the first half of my career was as a sketch/improv/character performer, first at Groundlings, then at UCB. I had gotten into stand-up in my early twenties, but was scared away from it after six months because of the fire-breathing, ball-busting macho power structure that I found in the mainstream scene.

So I stuck with sketch comedy for several years, until a hilarious comic and dear mentor, who's no longer with us, gave me perhaps the wisest advice of my life and told me that I should be doing stand-up. We had lots of down-time while I was featuring on the road for him, so I basically presented him with my objections and problems with the format of stand-up and he knocked them down, one-by-one. I was like, "I don't like the way people do impressions in stand-up sets." And he was like, "I know, neither do I! So find a way to do it that doesn't suck!" He challenged me to go out and create my own voice as a stand-up comic. I'm forever in debt to him because stand-up is the most fun I've ever had, and before I had convinced myself it wasn't for me.

So by the time I really started doing stand-up, it was just for fun on the side of my sketch comedy career. I had been performing characters at standup shows fairly frequently, talking to the audience even though I was in a costume, so it was just a small leap to go: hey, let's drop the costume and see what I can say as myself, with my own voice, and see what happens. It was amazing how so many new comedic ideas opened up to me simply because I was approaching them from my own point of view. And I had a lot of fun doing that, and people reacted with an encouraging enthusiasm that I didn't anticipate. So now my emphasis has flip-flopped, so I do mostly stand-up, with characters on the side for fun.

Jesse Ventura and conspiracy theories, Sam Elliott and exaggerated masculinity -- it seems like many of your bits are based in cultural commentary as much as the comedy of impersonation. What tends to draw you to certain characters?

You're right! I find that an interesting point of view is way more enticing than the vocal quality when doing an impression or a character. Personally, I believe that an impression should be funny, original and relevant before it is accurate. I don't sit in front of a TV "mastering" some celebrity's mannerisms. I consider that a waste of my time. I do an impression of someone when they make a big impression on me, positive or negative, and I just can't stop thinking about them.

As for cultural commentary, I do listen very keenly to what ideologies fuel people and media entities when they speak to me or to the public at large. Like a lot of smartasses, I'm hyper-sensitive to manipulation and subtext, so I notice and react when I'm being sold a dubious worldview or a line of bullshit, or even just an oddly-expressed talking point that I might agree with. That is: you never want to watch me watch TV news.

How was your recent trip to Montreal's Just For Laughs festival? (We heard your Andy Kindler introduction and don't disagree with those who say you stole the show.)

Was it stolen? Or bartered? Or a third form of transactional arrangement?
Andy Kindler is one of my heroes, and he was so sweet to have me intro him as Kindler at his big address, which was just a dream for me. Andy kills me and I'm thrilled to work with him whenever we get the chance. Paul F. Tompkins and Jon Dore also had me do their shows. I think altogether I did 18 shows full of characters and stand-up at JFL this year -- and then went right into the Comedy Bang! Bang! live tour. I'm just back from all that and I've been sleeping a lot.

You are a comic who happens to identify as gay, and while your material is sometimes based on the premise that you are, indeed, a gay man, it's not necessarily 'gay comedy' -- what are your thoughts on the complexity of this kind of labeling?

The short of it is, I'm proud of who I am and enjoy the many gay adventures I get to have. I guess I also have a lot of things to talk about besides me and my life. So I make room for both. When I'm doing stand-up as myself, I nearly always make a point to tell the audience that I date men, but also work that into larger discussions of our world and what's wrong with it. (My in-character personas are more beholden to the life and worldview of the person I'm playing.)

I also think there's some power in not having to dwell only on being gay. I can go, "Hey! Here's a few funny things about gay life and homophobia that you didn't realize. See? Now let's segue that into something else, fuckos!" I feel a distinct power in NOT having to go, "Gay, gay, gay-gay-gay, guess what -- GAY!" -- but I do have a couple of bits like that and I love them.

And by the way, I only say "gay" because nobody quite understands what "queer" means, though I prefer that label. Labels are always misleading, no matter how close they get to accurate. When I take over and change the language, I will do away with a lot of these labels altogether and we can again fuck around freely like our ancestors. Except we can live longer and have restaurants and computers.

Your stand-up works in political themes without being alienating or inaccessible to mainstream listeners; what's the process of trying to find the humor in causes you're clearly passionate about like?

Trial. By. Fire. A lot of political comedy doesn't work. When it does work, it's because it was forced to run through a bitter gauntlet of strong opinions and even stronger disinterest. Plus, you're up against the steady drone of corporate news propaganda, which has a terrifying sway over people's minds. See how hilarious that was?

What projects are you working on next? (We've got our fingers crossed for a James Adomian podcast!)

Keep 'em crossed and rub a rabbit's foot -- it might happen! I like the idea of doing my own podcast, if I can find a way to do it while traveling and also pull some reward out of the effort. It would bring a lot of scrutiny for what is necessarily, for me, informal and pure fun, given the volunteer nature of podcasting. Otherwise, I have some fun web video projects coming out in the next couple of months, and I'm currently in the process of creating two potential TV shows: one live-action and one animated. I will also be hitting the road as much as I can get away with, cause I love this beautiful country of ours -- and our geographical and cultural neighbors!