Interview with Michael Gifford
I sat down with Mike Gifford to discuss his writing, his process, and most importantly, how nothing matters because the planet is going to incinerate itself one day. And to be clear—the iced coffee was mine. Mike doesn’t like to drink caffeine past a certain point in the day. That’s definitely the smart thing to do.
Mike Gifford is a comedic essay writer, performer, and director in Chicago, IL. Mike was the co-writer and director of the 2017 revival of "Steamworks: The Musical," and is an original ensemble member of "The Shithole" variety show, where you can still see him perform original essays. Mike is proud to say he has made virtually no money off of his artistic pursuits and has no interest in fame or posterity. He still works very hard to make people laugh, grossed out, or disgusted while reading his essays on stage.
Kala Wahl: What attracted you to writing solo material/monologues for the stage?
Mike Gifford: Monologues were a complete accident.
I was asked by a guy to write this essay for a variety show. I’d never performed solo before in my life. I’d done this podcast with another guy, and he wasn’t a bad guy, but we just didn’t see eye-to-eye creatively. This guy running the variety show asked me to do a monologue about my experience in politics. So, that’s when I wrote this very first essay—first one I’d ever written—and performed in front of people at a show. It was about President James Buchanan and his homosexual relationship with William Rufus King, the senator from Alabama. They’d lived together for twenty years in a fairly open homosexual relationship. So, I wrote an essay about that. It went over really well; people laughed. It was wonderful.
I was asked to come back and do it again—that meant I had to write a new one. And then I wrote a new one after that. It was an avalanche. I kept writing; I would write a new five-minute monologue for virtually almost every show I did, which was crazy. I didn’t know any better. But there’s not a lot that’s changed in my process from the beginning. I may be totally wrong with that. I’m not doing anything right, but it’s fun.
KW: What’s the crossover between monologues and essays?
MG: You could get into semantics. I believe an essay, specifically, is determining a length of something. I think that’s if you’re being very technical, but I might be wrong there. The difference really could be—for example, a character monologue would be taking on a different persona. Let’s say for this piece I’m going to be playing Orson Wells eating taffy. [Does voice of Orson Wells eating taffy]. So, I have a very specific voice. That’s a character piece. As just a monologue as me, or reading an essay, that’s simply that. But there always is a sense, for me, that’s it’s never quite me. It’s not really me; it’s me performing. So, performing me is a little bit different than just me bitching.
KW: I noticed a big theme in your writing is queer identity and your experience as a gay male in day-to-day life. What do you want your audience to take away from this kind of material?
MG: These days, everyone has an agenda. I don’t care. I don’t want them to learn anything. I want them to laugh, and then through that, I think it makes everything a little more acceptable.
I’m disgusting. I find all these gross topics interesting, and I talk about it very bluntly. And the funny thing about me is—even though I’m a big prude—while most people don’t want to talk about anything, I’d much rather push the boundary and gross people out. And I’ve really grossed people out before. I once performed a five-minute piece about anal sex. I had one thing in there, it was: “Butt oven of burning delight.” It really grossed people out. And it was really funny, people laughed. But it was gross.
There are rare occasions where I’ve written something specifically to connect with people. I don’t think performing does anything to change anyone’s mind about anything. I don’t necessarily think I’ll change anyone’s mind. I’d rather be as funny and vulgar as possible—that’s my entire objective. I couldn’t care less.
There was a moment where I did care and I wanted to get a little bit of success, and I was getting some, but it made me very unhappy—at least in my case. I’m just sort of rolling with the punches and enjoying doing the little things I get to do. Which is very fortunate. Most people have very miserable lives. So, I’m doing all right.
KW: Your writing is incredibly blunt; it’s super honest and to the point. What are your thoughts surrounding the stylistic choice of writing in your own voice?
MG: I just never censored myself. Because that’s the way I talk. I’m very matter-of-fact.
People get very offended by certain types of things. I am sort of like George Carlin on the topic of shell shock. Now they call it PTSD or something else. It’s like, no: it’s shell shock. It’s a blast and it’s hurting the brain. They even have studies talking about the brain damage that comes from all these bombs and gunshots and stuff that really fucks up a soldier’s brain. It’s shell shock; it always was shell shock. That’s exactly what it is. Two syllables, done. But we’ve evolved over time and we’ve dehumanized it as much as possible. So, now it’s a very politically correct word that sounds very easy, but it doesn’t describe what it is at all. Which is shell shock. It’s fucking up your brain.
So, I guess for me, I’m just too blunt. I’ve never been a good liar. It’s gotten me into all sorts of trouble, but it’s also made me very funny. People like liars; it’s much more comfortable. But I’m not very good at it.
KW: You sit down to write solo material—what does your process look like? How do you transfer your ideas to the stage?
MG: So, like right now I’m writing a piece. I’m performing a piece before the election. I never write about my experience in politics or anything like that, because it seems to be preachy. And I don’t want to be preachy. So, what I do is try to find an angle that isn’t preachy. I’ve been thinking about pulling something from the Federalist Papers. Or I could say, “This is a lost piece from the Federalist Papers that was written by Alexander Hamilton or James Monroe.” What if I wrote one of the lost Federalist Papers and I performed that? That might be an angle. I thought of that just now. I might do that; that’s a very good idea.
So, anyways, I get with that. Then I do a little research. I may go home and start to read about the Federalist Papers and find some interesting in’s to write about. They could be satirical as to the election that’s going to be happening. And that’s it. And then I’m just funny. The only way you know if something is funny or not is by performing it in front of people. A big part of it is selling it; I’m good at that. But there are all sorts of factors. There can be death by exposition. So, in the course of being funny, the set-up can destroy something organically funny. I’ll write something, often times, with long description in the sentences, and it’ll come across rather preachy. I cut those. And I go right to the funny thing and skip the bullshit. Now that’s antithetical to being descriptive if you’re writing an essay or prose or an article, but for performing, you want to get right to it. You don’t want to get boring. Whereas if someone’s reading and has to interpret it, you want more detail to explain what you’re trying to say. I don’t need all that detail because they know exactly what I’m saying because I’m saying it right in front of them. That’s the balance as far as process goes.
And honestly, whenever it comes to performing the essays I write, it’s messy. A lot of it is counterintuitive to when you’re preparing for an article or a journal or something to be read. It’s a very different mindset. And you have to keep that in mind. Otherwise whenever you’re performing it, it can be very boring.
KW: Why keep writing and performing?
MG: This is wonderful. I finally have a very good answer for this, because I wouldn’t have had in the past. I would have had a bullshit answer that I would have felt very sincere about, but I would have been wrong.
I only do things I find fun. I couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks. Or making money in that way. I just don’t care, because I’ll be dead. It’ll be over. I’ll be dead and done and in the dirt. So, everything that I did doesn’t matter. And one day, whenever the planet burns up, no one will remember what anyone did. To me, that is very reassuring. Because I don’t have to worry about it. It just takes the weight off.
I used to have all this pressure, and knowing that it doesn’t matter gives great meaning to me, actually. Most people look at it entirely wrong. Knowing that it’s all over means that all I have to worry about is making sure that I’m doing the best I can today. As long as I do the best I can today and have fun, I don’t have to worry about anything else. I could drop dead of a heart attack right now and then that’s it. So, I better enjoy every moment now. Who cares? That’s why I keep writing and performing. Because it’s fun. There’s a lot more value to me when I write and perform that way, because I’m not worried like I used to be.
Interview by Kala Wahl