You may not know the name ‘John Fugelsang,’ but you’ve undoubtedly seen him on TV. He’s been on every channel, after all.
The comedian and political pundit, who made a name for himself with his more than 20 appearances on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher,” has hosted or co-hosted shows on everything from CNBC to the Game Show Network to the TV Guide Channel, and he’s even worn the “journalist” hat for CNN lately, where he asked the question that prompted a Mitt Romney spokesperson to utter the infamous “etch-a-sketch” line.
Progressive radio listeners can hear Fugelsang every Friday on “The Stephanie Miller Show,” and South Florida audiences may recognize him from his whiz-bang stand-up performance at last year’s “Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour” at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse.
But Fugelsang’s biggest love, it seems, is live theater, and he gives the staid formula of the one-man show a reboot this weekend. He returns to the Parker Playhouse Saturday for a one-night only performance his solo show “Guilt: A Love Story,” which was developed at an artist residency at Dartmouth and which later ran off-Broadway.
Never one to shy away from controversial opinions – about politics, religion and the theater – Fugelsang shared a few minutes with Boca Raton prior to this Saturday’s show (click below the interview for ticket information).
You’ve said that “Guilt” is a solo show for people who hate solo shows. How so?
Anyone who’s a fan of theater has seen lots of bad one-person shows. I love solo theater, and I have a lot of heroes in the genre, but I think that bad solo theater falls into three categories: somebody having therapy onstage and calling it theater, somebody shoving propaganda down your throat and calling it theater, and then finally, comedians doing their act without a microphone but with a couch onstage and calling it theater. I’ve been to all three of those shows many times.
When the New York Theatre Workshop first asked me to be an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth, I said, “Give me a year,” because I wanted to have this right where I wanted it. I really wanted to have a show that was the bastard child of Spalding Gray and George Carlin, that was going to be very funny but also had a tight five-act structure, was nonlinear and told several stories at once. So I spent a long time crafting it to get it just the way I wanted it. I had done so much political work, and this was my first time doing something that was purely personal. Once my mother had given me her permission to tell her story onstage, I really wanted to do it in a way that was as entertaining as possible, but also that would appeal to as broad an audience as possible. I wanted this to be a show that I could do for conservatives and liberals, and for seniors and college kids, for atheists and people of faith. It was my attempt at doing something that was very edgy and very mainstream all at once.
So the concept of the show is you growing up as the son of a nun in a strict Catholic household?
No, it’s not about me growing up. Everybody said, “When you are going to do a show about your childhood?” And I thought, we’ve seen so many shows about growing up Catholic, and Catholic school, and so many great comedians have done stuff about that. I wanted to do something that was about being an adult child of these people, about how no matter how far you think you’ve escaped your parents’ programming and become your own person, when you least expect it your parents’ hang-ups will come back into your life, both for good and for bad. This show tells the story of my parents’ very forbidden love: My father was wearing Franciscan robes and teaching Catholic school in Brooklyn. He swore an oath to never fall in love, and he did, with a nun, and kept it secret for 10 years, while my mother was off working with lepers in Malawi, Africa.
And I wanted to tell that story while at the same time talking about how, as their son, I was this incredible f**kup who could never measure up to that kind of love. So it tells several different love stories and several different marriage stories. It also traces 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian guilt. It begins with me dissecting the story of Onan in the Book of Genesis, about how it’s ground zero for most of the shame issues in the Christian faith. But it’s funny.
What religion do you prescribe to now, if any?
I would consider myself a Catholic, but I don’t think the Pope would consider me a Catholic.
And what do your parents think?
My father died in 2010. My parents got to come to the opening of this show when it first appeared off-Broadway, and they got a kick out of that, of seeing me in a sold-out theater. They sat right in front of Tom Brokaw. My mother was kind of alarmed seeing me play her onstage – I play about 25 characters in this show – and I had to convince her that I was playing a very broad caricature of her, that it wasn’t meant to be how I really perceive her. But they quite liked it, and they were very supportive.
The whole plot of the show began when my father had his second heart attack, and the doctors told him he only had weeks to live. And my mother took me aside and asked me if I would agree to marry my girlfriend to give my father something to stay alive for. My mother said that if I set a date, it would keep my dad alive, which to me is the greatest act of parental guilt in human history. My girlfriend and I had been together for many years, and we were the opposite of my parents. They avowed to never marry for spiritual reasons. We avowed to never marry for bohemian reasons, because we thought we were going to be nonmonogamous artists and gypsies who never went through that whole custom. So the whole show tells the story about how both my parents and myself came to break our vows and agree to marry. So it’s a very anti-family, pro-family play. Hopefully, it has something to inspire and offend everyone.
How different is prepping a show like this compared to memorizing a stand-up act to perform in front of a crowd?
It’s quite different. For one, this is a piece of theater – 50 pages of scripted text with lighting and sound cues attached to it, so it’s not like I can play around. Although I do – I’ll throw in jokes here and there and change it up a bit. But it’s profoundly different than doing stand-up. I think that doing solo theater makes you a better stand-up, and that doing stand-up makes you a better actor. I wanted this show to really combine the best of both of those disciplines. It’s one thing to go onstage and make people laugh for an hour and a half. But if you can make them laugh for an hour and 15 minutes, and then they cry for the last 15, it’s a very satisfying experience.
It probably allows you to have more range as an actor than anything that you’ve done on television or movies so far.
Tremendously. For a while, I was only getting offered these horrible game shows and talk shows and reality shows, and it came to a head a couple of years ago when I was offered a job on a very prominent morning news show. I won’t say its name, but it’s about having a “Good Morning” in “America.”
And I turned it down, because I wanted to go back to L.A. and write this piece and do solo theater, which alienated quite a few of my agents. It reached a point where I was being offered every game show and talk show and reality show and dating show, and it just didn’t interest me. I felt I had done that, and I wanted to do something a bit deeper, and I wanted to do something that combined comedy and drama in the richest way possible.
It’s clear listening to you on the radio and onstage that you’re a Biblical scholar. I imagine there are not a lot of pundits on the left who as well-spoken on matters of faith as you are. Do you think liberals should own religion more than they have in recent history?
I don’t think you can ever tell liberals what they should do, because they don’t want to hear it. But I do think that we need to take the Bible and Jesus back from the fundamentalists. Because for too long, Jesus has been used by people who worship him as a god instead of following his teachings. I think that if the real Jesus came back today, his most vociferous followers now would be the first ones lining up to hang him again. Just as I believe in taking back the flag from bullies and fake patriots, I deeply believe in taking back Jesus and the Bible from haters and greed merchants.
Who would Jesus vote for in this election?
I don’t know. I don’t think he would vote for either of the two major party candidates. I think Jesus would be third party all the way, if he did vote. I bring up the fact that Jesus never lived in a democracy quite a bit, because when you hear people say, “Jesus said to help the poor, but he didn’t say the government should do it!” I always respond, “Yes, but Jesus didn’t have democracy.” If you want your tax dollars to help people over here instead of blowing them up over there, then vote that way. And if you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, to help the sick, to avoid violence, to take better care of those in prison, to help the needy, fine. Don’t vote that way. But don’t ever say you want a government based on Christian values, because you don’t.
Do you think evangelical Christians will end up holding their noses and voting for Mitt Romney?
I think some of them will. I think some of them will stay home. I’m actually surprised we have not yet seen a prominent third-party evangelical candidacy. I think it speaks to how organized the GOP really is that they have seemingly squelched that. I don’t think you’re going to see Mike Huckabee entering the race as a third party, or anything like that. And I’m very surprised by it. I have a lot of real conservatives in my life, and they just can’t stand Romney. I can’t think of any conservative loved ones who are excited about Romney. They may hate Obama, but they really don’t like Romney. Obama’s the one they love to hate, but Romney’s the one they really hate to love.
“Guilt: A Love Story” is at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, at Parker Playhouse, 707 N.E. Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $30 to $45. Call 954/462-0222 or visit www.parkerplayhouse.com.