Paul Kozlowski may not be a household name. He’s not a spotlight kind of guy except when on stage spouting jokes through a graying full-bodied beard. “I’ll be the guy who looks like Ernest Hemingway, but without the shotgun in his mouth,” he said during a recent phone conversation.
On Friday, May 5, 8 p.m., Kozlowski will be part of a fundraising comedy event at the State Theatre, 107 W. State St., Ithaca. The benefit to raise money for refugee settlement will feature headliner Eman Morgan and fellow comics Kelsey Claire Hagen, Kenneth McLaurin and Francisco Ruben Arce. Tickets are $22, available at stateofithaca.com or by calling (607) 277-8283.
To boost his current efforts, Kozlowski recently created the comedy website Syriously.net. This collaborative effort with other comics throughout upstate New York will be part-directory and part-content creation.
In this conversation, the Cortland-born comic chatted about show business, friendships with Bobcat Goldthwait and Tom Kenny, his love for Central New York and the local comedians who cenrich this entertainment niche.
How has it been going since your return?
I’ve been back for a couple years now, but I’d been away since 1979. I’ve been living in different cities but came home for holidays. It’s good to come back, and it’s a nice break to get to the countryside. It’s nice here. I returned to help take care of my mom. She’d gotten sick and ended up passing away a few months ago.
I kind of liked living in New York City, Boston and Chicago. Los Angeles can be a little grating. If you’re working and doing really well, it’s great. I was doing alright, but I’ve never been a city person. It’s a little gritty, a little Wild Westy.
About 13 years ago, I moved back to LA, because I was doing this sports show for Fox. I didn’t know anything about sports, so it was perfect. Immediately after I moved there, it got canceled.
But I’d always wanted to open up a performance space. That part was a huge headache, and performance spaces in LA are kind of cliquey. Instead for a dozen years I owned an art gallery and apartment space in a semi-funky area.
When living in New York City, my apartment had boxes filled with lighting equipment. A friend of mine worked at this mannequin factory that went bankrupt. They said take whatever you want.
It was called The Fake Gallery, because they were paintings that were made to look almost exactly like art. I started painting these really tiny pictures of giant landscapes. I screwed around with painting around the same time I started writing for television, because everything you write goes into the meat grinder. I appreciated having a singular vision. No jokes involved, but they started selling.
There was a whole wall of color swatches with made-up names. Cartoon Network had bought several of them for their headquarters. I’d also put out fake signs like “Johnson’s Turnip Pound,” and people would come in and ask if I had turnips.
I just had a variety of people from all over coming in and doing stuff. Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt had residencies in the studio. They would work on their material for their albums. It was amazing to watch and listen to. I lived in the back, so it was cool to have comedy right there. I managed the place, booked shows and stayed out of the way as they did their thing.
There were also a lot of stray dogs. I kept grabbing them, and finally I needed to find a place where they could run around. Dogs and comedians: I collect and take care of them. Dogs are fantastically magnificent beings, and so are comedians.
I kind of hated to leave, but it’s good to get out while you’re ahead.
What was it like writing for notable comedians?
I gave up stand-up comedy and instead wrote for shows, including Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres, John Leguizamo. It’s way better than being on the road. When I stopped it was when comedy died the first time. It peaked in the 1990s. A bunch of comedy clubs closed and it kind of got lame.
I was writing for Ellen DeGeneres. When I first started, I was told to not engage her or look her in the eye. I went the whole season, writing in her voice and never speaking to her. It got to the point where I wanted to go the whole season without her talking to me. I did. It was so weird, but her checks cleared.
Writing for Dave Attell was great. He came up with some of the most amazing stuff I’d ever seen. I’d write down the ideas. Ten minutes later, he’d hate it, come up with something just as brilliant. But then hate that. It was for this failed reboot of The Gong Show. He was just so miserable. I think that’s why he’s so hilarious. He’s self-loathing, and there’s no ego. Ego kills comedy and every art.
I’ve never had a Hollywood meeting that wasn’t skin-crawling. I remember meeting (Saturday Night Live producer) Lorne Michaels and sitting there, suffocating. He was pontificating about all that he’s done. I had a meeting with the MadTV guys, all I could think about was the dead fly in between the window and the screen. That’s me. That ego, when it gets to that level, is just so “ugh.”
People can tell when you’re faking. I’m not very good at covering it up. That’s why I thought doing my own thing on the internet is the way to go. Thankfully it’s a thing now. That’s why people like Jimmy Dore and Eddie Pepitone are thriving. They’re doing their own thing, and no one is telling them how to do it.
It’s easier to work with your friends or with a team working toward a collaborative effort, removing the ego from it and making the best show possible. I worked with Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris on the sketch show Exit 57. Those guys were amazing to work with, and it was a blast. I stayed out of their way as a writer for both seasons. It was a lot of watching.
Colbert is such a nice guy, very Tom Kenny-like. They have this whole moral thing, perhaps coming from Catholic backgrounds. I really connected with Amy Sedaris. Her brother (David) was always on the set, not as a cast member but hanging out. It wasn’t until after that I learned they lived in Cortland at one point.
The best person to write with was Kenny, because we worked together for so long. His brain is directly wired to his mouth. It’s amazing.
Talk about your friendships with Bob Goldthwait and Tom Kenny.
One time I went to the haunted house at the New York State Fairgrounds. I remember these wiseass guys fucking with me. Years later, I found out it was Kenny and Goldthwait. While seeing George Carlin at the Landmark Theatre, there were these two loud goofballs in front of me. Come to find out years later it was them. It’s like one of those movies where the characters keep meeting.
I didn’t meet Goldthwait and Kenny until Boston. We left because there wasn’t anything. We kept almost crossing paths. They were doing comedy in Skaneateles. If I’d known about it, I’d hitchhike there. There really wasn’t any place to perform in Cortland. So I was in Boston for about an hour before I met Goldthwait. Kenny was still in Syracuse, but the moment he moved to Boston we were in a sketch group called Uncle Stinky’s Ditzy Doodle Revue.
I met Barry Crimmins around the same time. He’s a monster now. Like bands, he’s huge in Europe. He’s like a god. Last year Barry Crimmins started back up doing comedy, and he asked me to open for him. Goldthwait made the Call Me Lucky documentary about him. I thought about it, because I had not done standup comedy in so long but decided what the hell.
It helped me find out there is so much comedy going on in upstate New York. It’s an amazing scene. I started out in Chicago and then moved to Boston during the heyday with Kenny, Goldthwait, Steven Wright and all these guys. I’ve been around all these scenes, and the upstate scene rivals all of those places. These guys are young and don’t know it, because of their age. The scene’s blossoming is very seductive.
Goldthwait made the mistake of putting us in a lot of his movies. There was one day where Kenny and I were on the set of Shakes the Clown. We were in the background, and we were such dicks.
We didn’t understand deep-focus lenses. You could clearly see us in the background, and for every take we were looking into the camera and waving, blowing hot dogs. We forgot about that moment until Kenny brought it up a while later. Goldthwait talked about editing it for about three days straight. He spent hours trying to edit us out of that scene to the point where he said he broke down crying and then started laughing. He’s smartened up and has not put us in his movies.
We’d meet at this place, Sam’s, a bar where we all hung out. Shakes was kind of based on this bar where all the clowns hung out. It was like those war movies, where the guys are hanging out before they go off to battle. We’d commiserate and then go out and face our fate.
You mentioned comedy had died. Why is that?
Stand-up comedy picked up in the 1980s. Goldthwait, Kenny and I were rejects, but comedy was our only avenue to come into the scene. Eventually it got popular, everyone started doing it. The quality of comedy got watered down, because people who really were not that funny got in. They’re the guys who always hung out and talked with the club owners.
There are a lot of different theories. A lot of people think it was because of the number of comedy shows on television, like MadTV, Evening at the Improv and Caroline’s Comedy Hour. It was constant, and I think people had enough.
But you love the comedy scene up here.
It seems like there is a critical mass. You need enough good guys. It’s similar to the grunge scene in Seattle. It’s kind of isolated up here, its own original thing. I would have totally missed it if I didn’t come back.
I think part of the reason is the economy sucks; the comics are working three jobs and they’re still living in their parents’ basements. It’s the same thing we experienced in the 1980s. They’re compelled to do comedy.
I was talking with Patton Oswalt about this, and it might be a generational thing. Comedy has gotten good again, because it’s very difficult again. It’s really smart and not just these frat guys on stage. It should really get good now, especially with this whole Trump thing.
Syracuse, I think, has the best scene. Ithaca, Binghamton, Rochester, Watertown and Utica have some great people. And they travel between all of these places. There are all these original people. It’s like when water boils, these molecules bounce off one another.
The shows are really solid shows. Many have a good five-, 10- or 15-minute set. They’re not 45-minute headliners yet, but when you have eight comedians to a show, it adds up.
Steve Rodgers, Abdul Hadi, R.J. McCarthy and Justin Jackson are really funny and example-setters. I went on a road trip to Oswego with McCarty and Jackson. It was like a flashback to 1981, talking about comics, why they suck or why they’re so good.
The one thing missing from Syracuse is a real comedy club. George O’Dea’s is one of the best places. Funny Bone in the mall is more of a corporate thing. They’re not as local-friendly as they could be. They turn shows into competitions, and some people get 30 or more of their friends to show up. It’s not really a competition. I was told that I’m too old to perform there.
There isn’t an age limit on the internet.
You can put everything out there for everyone to see. I’ve learned a lot with trying to build websites and edit video. I want everything to be snappy and professional. The main thing is to create awareness.
I’m very happy Goldthwait agreed to be featured on the website. The interview can be found online.
Syriously.net is a place where comedians can promote themselves, add their own content or collaborate with others and allow people to see what this is all about. And it gives me a chance to mentor. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
Is there anything you’ve been working on?
I’ve been working on a show: Larry the Groundhog Show. It’s a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse kind of thing.
When I worked at MTV, Pepsi wanted to do a Groundhog Day thing. Think about a groundhog being a student and waking up after a bender. Pizza boxes are everywhere. Roots are coming from the ceiling. They designed this groundhog costume for me, but they pulled out at the last minute. I kept the groundhog costume.