Soon after 6-foot 2-inch standup comic Matt Bragg hits the stage at Hijinx, Boise audiences may hear the line "I'm gay, but I'm not very good at it. Look at me," he'll say, pointing to his worn red polo shirt, baggy jeans, baseball cap and red bandana tied around his wrist. "I look like a lesbian skateboarder."
The Akron, Ohio-born Bragg has been performing standup for about 10 years and isn't afraid to die on stage to find out that a joke doesn't work. He sees the ridiculous in the mundane and though some of his comedy is just for laughs, it often has a message, too.
Over tater tots and Diet Pepsi, Bragg talked about his stint in the Navy, the gay-bashing death of a shipmate, meeting Margaret Cho, why he moved here from Los Angeles and the not-so-lofty goal he hopes to achieve while living here.
Why did you enlist in the Navy?
I wanted to get the f**k out of Ohio. Am I allowed to swear in this?
I'll use asterisks.
OK. Yeah, then I had to get the f**k out of Ohio.
Was that so you could go to college?
That was the initial plan. I was not ready to go to college. After [the Navy] I screwed around for a couple of years, then someone decided I should do stand-up.
Who decided you should do stand-up?
A guy I worked with at Kinko's was booking a barroom, and all the comics bailed. He called me and said, "You're enough of a smartass. Why don't you come down and do some time?" I said, "Give me two weeks and I'll do it." I did it in two weeks.
What was that first show like?
It was scary but went well because basically I stacked the room with my friends. It's something I didn't realize until much later on. All your friends are there and they're supportive of course. Then the third or fourth time, they send you to another room and there's no one there you know. You have that horrible bomb and that's the make-or-break point. You either get back in the saddle or you shut it down.
Why did you move to Boise?
My roommate now was my roommate in San Diego [where Bragg managed The Comedy Store owned by Mitzi Shore]. I moved to Los Angeles, she moved to New York and about the same time, we got sick of our respective cities. Her now ex-boyfriend grew up here so they moved here and she talked me into moving here.
What did she say to convince you?
She was just repetitive. She kept saying, "You need to come here." About a week before I got here, the Funny Bone closed. Perfect. Awesome. Awesome.
How long have you been working at Hijinx?
About a month and a half. It's nice. I do some of the promotions and stuff, the owners are there, they have a bar manager, and then I bring in everything from my experience. It's quite nice. Everyone gets along well. I don't have to do everything. Last time I had no help. I just had douchebag door guys that wouldn't do shit.
So here you have more support?
Brian, Pat and Karl and Colby just accepted me immediately with total love and total respect. It's a great vibe in that club. I've already done my apprenticeship. Not just as a comic but being on staff. And now they've added rock music, which is going to get nutty and whacky. You better be ready to roll with the punches.
What's your hook?
I just try to tell people I'm gay. I'm up front about it. That's my hook. That and I'm a slob. Are you kidding? Look at me. I Febrezed with homemade Febreze! I'm a slob. But I own it.
Why is it important to say you're gay early in your show?
Some people either do not see my gayness at all--while others see it from outer space. I figure I might as well beat them all to the punch. With some gay comics out there, it's just uncomfortable. [They] just need to say it. Everyone already knows ... People in the room who are homophobic, if I already own it and beat them to the punch on it, they can't judge me. They can't sit there and call me a faggot. [They might] call me names and be a dick to me, but then be like, "This guy's actually funny."
Has anyone ever walked out of a show after you say you're gay?
The only time anyone has ever walked out on me is if I'm being too dirty.
Is there one thing people say to you after a show?
It's always a drunk straight girl who wants to set me up with her gay friend. Some people say, "Normally, I wouldn't like a gay comedian but ..." It's like I'm an activist whether I want to be or not.
You're a poster boy.
Right. Not intentionally. When I was in the Navy, my shipmate got beat to death in a park. I was in the park that night; it could have happened to me. I sort of think [because of that] I'm supposed to be a voice.
How do you write jokes? Do you sit down every day?
I try. I try to be disciplined. I sketch things down on napkins and try to keep a notebook. I'm in the process of taking my 8 billion pieces of notebook paper and cocktail napkins and matchbooks and putting them in the computer in one concise format. I'll take a bit and write it and rewrite it. It starts out this big and you have to keep whittling it down until you get exactly what's right about it.
Do you ever write something down and think, "I am so funny?"
No. It depends on if I'm sitting with another good writer. Like my roommate is a great joke doctor. We work really well together. She'll toss something out, I'll toss something out. We springboard. She's a great person ... Sometimes you start out with a premise, and it gets springboarded into something else. So, occasionally I write something, and I think it's funny, but I never get so ahead of myself or full of myself thinking it's [automatically] going to work. It's a matter of years of doing it, formulating it.
Who's the most famous person you ever opened for?
As far as comedians, Roseanne.
How did that go?
It was a little scary and she ended up being absolutely lovely. That was the day that Shelley Morrison [who played Rosario] from Will and Grace got arrested for allegedly shoplifting so I was wearing a shirt that said "Free Rosario." I saw it on the ticker at 4 o'clock and was like, "I'm getting on that right now." No one knew what I was talking about. Did you see that picture? I look fat. That shirt was inappropriately tight.
What's the first thing that goes through your head when a famous headliner walks into your club?
To treat them right. People, I have found, are not always who you think they are. You have to look at them as a person and not ...
Yeah. Margaret Cho was not at all what I expected. I knew she would be cool, but in her stage act she's such a monster ... She goes after it and tears it up. In person, she was very quiet, intellectual, lovely, sweet [and] polite. Totally not rock and roll crazy. First of all, I was already a big fan. She does comedy with a message which I love ... I don't know why I thought she'd be screaming while we were at dinner. It's like having dinner with Celine Dion and thinking she's going to bust out the Titanic song while you're eating. I don't know why I randomly selected Celine Dion.
Who are your top favorite comedians?
Margaret, I really like Whoopi [Goldberg]; the first comedy album I listened to as a kid was [George] Carlin. I don't know why my mom and dad let me listen to Carlin as kids. On 8-track. I like Sandra Bernhardt because she doesn't just do stand-up. She puts on a whole show. It's weird that [my favorites] are mostly female comics. I'm very supportive of female comics because girls in this business get beaten up on, and they have to prove themselves that much harder. So as an openly gay man, I'm right on par with that if not like right below it. I'm a minority.
Is anything and anyone fair game as far as material goes? Including yourself?
Not really ... There are certain places I wouldn't go ... There's stuff about my family nobody needs to know. I mean, you could sit down with my mother, and you'll realize she's crazy, so I'm not dropping a dime on a bitch ... But I try to be respectful. And sometimes stuff just isn't funny. It depends on how much you're willing to give up. The more painful it is, the funnier it is. And sacrifice is the name of this game. I'm pushing 40. It's time to shit or get off the pot.
What would your advice be to a young comedian in a town this size trying to make it?
I always preface any advice with, "But what the f**k do I know?" You've got to figure it out on your own. Someone told me early on when I went around asking for advice, "Just be prepared to die a thousand horrible deaths on stage." Once you can accept that, you're golden.
What's your goal while you live in Boise?
I want to be the gay rock star of Boise. I want to figure out how to get to the front of the line at the Balcony every night. I'll pay for my own drinks, but [I'm] not waiting in line anymore.Note: A shortened version of this interview appeared in the May 27 issue of Boise Weekly.