“When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat”. – George Carlin
Modern media insists we categorize talent– you know, put folks in boxes according to their entertaining skill set. It works fine for the one-dimensional. He’s a movie star, she’s a singer/songwriter, he’s a comedian, she’s a stripper. You get my drift. Which brings us to the hydra-headed multi-faceted, standup comic, impressionist, actor, renaissance freak (yes, freak) genius, Craig Gass.
His eclectic resume is scripted from two decades of working rooms, following leads, embarrassing and endearing strangers while building a modest and devoted fan base. Craig didn’t pursue a particular career path, the career happened to Craig; in no small way thanks to his uncanny ability to capture the voice and idiosyncrasies of the celebrities he impersonates.
Craig began doing standup in 1993 by hitting the grueling, bumpy comedy circuit road and cultivating his craft in whatever crappy bar or club would have him. Shortly into the new millennium, shock radio kingpin, Howard Stern, took Craig under his massive, media wing. The Mt. Vernon, New York son of deaf parents made frequent, freaky appearances on Stern, blowing listener minds with his uncanny impressions of notorious celebrities like Christopher Walken, Gene Simmons, Gilbert Gottfried, Tracy Morgan, Sam Kinison, Al Pacino and Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich. This platform lead to Hollywood, but not like you’d think.
“I never really had an agent, all my TV roles appeared from people who were supporters of mine,” says Craig. “One of Howard Stern’s writers got me the guest part as Miranda’s overweight glazed donut eating boyfriend on Sex in the City. Someone from the show called and said, ‘we heard you talking about your relationship this morning and we think you’d play a really good insecure guy for a storyline we’re developing.’ My impression of Al Pacino on Stern was heard by one of the Family Guy writers. All of a sudden, I’m in a recording studio with Seth McFarlane. Peter Griffin says, ‘This is crazier than when Al Pacino was a slum lord Laundromat attendant.’ They cut to me and I’m riffing the classic Pacino line from …And Justice for All (great Metallica record by the way) at this wall of broken washing machines, ‘You’re out of order! And you’re out of order!’”
In 2004, Craig’s unique ability to sound like famous people led to a co-starring role on CBS’s hit sitcom, King of Queens. Kevin James character hires Craig as the new delivery driver who keeps his fellow employees in bellyaching laughs. Hollywood has known some venerated impressionists – Rich Little, David Frye, Frank Gorshin, Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond and Frank Callendo, to name few. While they’re all laudable in their parroting prowess, Craig takes impression a step further. He just doesn’t mirror the sound, cadence and mannerisms – he literally channels the individual into a speaking-in-tongues-esque out of body presentation, frighteningly precise without the aid of a single prop. He just doesn’t do Adam Sandler, he becomes Adam Sandler, every character nuance a laser sharp reflection of the original. Craig owes this phenomenal gift to the force majeure of his birth and childhood environment.
“Neither of my parents could hear, so I couldn’t learn how to talk by listening to them,” he recalls. “I learned words and sentences and sounds by copying the voices I heard on television.” Raised in a household of silence and gesticulation, Craig’s childhood was profoundly marked by his media consumption of 70’s and 80’s Zeitgeist. That unique upbringing held him in good stead as he tested his first audiences when he discovered the joys of being the class clown. Craig is a living, breathing, mimicking product of pop culture and his career is an authentic, modern day grassroots destiny play. Which brings us to the here and now, 2013, and the realization of his personal standup prophecy – The Worst Comedy Show EVER.
The DVD/CD, produced on a shoe string budget (more like the threadbare shoe string off a homeless bum) is an absolute masterpiece of satirical self-deprecation that echoes the shattered heart, tortured soul and cracked insights of Louis C.K’s award-winning FX series, Louie. “How about the Doug Stanhope suicide episode of Louie?” he vibrates. “I ran into Artie Lange from the Stern show a couple months after that aired – Artie who tried to kill himself! Know what he says to me? ‘You think I got a lawsuit there?’”
Shot at the “shittiest” place he could conjure in his 20-year-asphalt-tested imagination, Craig took his cameraman/producer/penniless sidekick, Aaron Anderson, to Dave’s of Milton, a burned out but beloved hole-in-the-wall diner/bar located (well) outside Seattle, Washington, where stand up comics galore have gone for decades to test their material on the easily amused and endlessly forgiving blue collar patrons. “The material on the DVD and CD was developed from night after night of near empty rooms in shit hole bars and comedy dives,” confesses Craig. “And now it’s been turned into my dream comes true! I am proud, ecstatic and terrified – but a good kind of terror.”
Craig spent several years in Seattle. He loves the northwest villagers and they love him, from the drunks at Dave’s to the grunge rock legends like Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready who has a hilarious cameo on the DVD; and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney who lend their fractured personalities to several news blackouts on the CD, hearkening George Carlin’s post 60s hippy dippy weatherman.
Craig Gass hasn’t cultivated his steady, professional ascension via influence peddling or favors from superstar friends. On the contrary, he’s resisted walking through doors blown wide open by immensely powerful figures like his comic mentor and hero. “When I first started doing standup, I snuck backstage to see George at the Temple Theater in Tacoma,” he remembers. “His long time opening act, Dennis Blair, introduced us. Said, ‘George, you got to hear this kid’s Sam Kinison.’ He started laughing and said to me, ‘You’re a very talented and funny guy,’ then ran off to do his show. I called a buddy and started crying on the phone. That night began a friendship that lasted until the day he died. George offered to help me with my career many times. But I wanted to learn from him not take advantage of his influence. He was my greatest mentor, a father figure who never stopped imparting wisdom on comedy, people and life.”
Craig Gass will make you laugh, weep, choke, recoil and most importantly, recognize that the faults, flaws and freaky behavior that we all posses, do not define us but rather, unite us. “We all have way more in common than we do that divides us,” he delivers as the Dave’s crowd prepares to depart their favorite shit hole post performance. It’s the perfect postscript for a funny man standing at the crossroads of superstardom – or sitting on the bus stop of professional oblivion. Either way, we’ll be right up front, cheering and jeering.
— Lonn Friend