Paul Gilmartin is in the midst of a career renaissance. For the past 16 years he's been the host of TBS's seemingly ubiquitous Dinner and a Movie, but last year he's traded in his family-friendly one-liners to examine the darker parts of the human soul on his self-help podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour. On the show, Paul invites a guest to work through the nitty-gritty of their own mental disfunction. The results aren't always funny, but, as Gilmartin puts it in the intro, they are definitely "one hot ladle of awkward and icky."
Days after his 50th episode was released, Paul sat down with us at Mel's Drive-In in Sherman Oaks and talked about eating meat, his recent appearance on Marc Maron's WTF, and the advice he received from George Carlin.
Rick: What do you usually get here?
Paul: I came here about two weeks ago and they have this shake I love. It's a chocolate malt with marshmallow in it, and I love marshmallows. And I had the cheeseburger last time I was here. I'm going to get that again.
Rick: I'm looking at their steak sliders.
Rick: I just took a month off from meat recently.
Paul: Were you craving it?
Rick: Not so much, actually. It was surprising.
Paul: My wife dreams about chicken. She's a pescetarian. It's just a digestion thing more than anything, but I know that morally she enjoys not eating meat.
Rick: The month I had off it was great, in that I was able to stick it in everyone else's face that I was better than them.
Paul: Of course.
Rick: But now, after the softball game I just had, I just want meat.
Paul: How did you do?
Rick: We tied. It was frustrating, because we had an umpire who was not very into our team, so there were five or six calls that went against us.
Paul: Did anyone on your team snap?
Rick: There was a lot of yelling.
Paul: I know that feeling. I've been that guy who yells. Hockey's my sport.
Rick: Do you still snap?
Paul: Not nearly as much. One time I got clothes-lined by a guy, like in the movie Slapshot. You know where the Hanson brother sticks the arm out and the guy's skating in the other direction? A guy did that to me and I lost it. The refs pulled us apart before I could get a punch in, and I was so furious I tried to spit on the guy and it hit the ref. I got suspended for five games and my teammates never let me live it down. I was quite ashamed.
Rick: You seem a lot more calmed down on your podcast. In fact, let's talk about that. Do you get a different reaction from crowds when you do standup now?
Paul: I actually haven't done road comedy since I've started the podcast. Because you can't be sad in a comedy club. There's a real pressure if you're going to say something dark, you have to find a way to not bring the audience down. While I don't think my podcast brings people down, there are moments that are very dark and bleak, and comedy club people just aren't patient enough. And you throw liquor in, and liquor is a vulnerability killer. The older I get, the less patience I have for drunk people who don't read the paper.
Rick: Even as an audience member, going to places like UCB or other alternative comedy shows in L.A., you get spoiled. I don't remember the last time I've been to a legitimate comedy club.
Paul: I really can't stand them anymore. And there's a relief, because I was not getting comedy club offers in the last two years. It's like the comedy club audience and I have a mutual agreement -- you won't take interest in me and I won't take an interest in you. We've both kept up our end of the bargain. What do you think about this shake?
Paul: You want it?
Rick: No, I don't really like them. I kind of buried mine in the shake.
Paul: I think there's a lot of red dye in them. My wife reads all the stuff about what's good for you and what's bad for you, and I get the Cliff's Notes.
Rick: I try to avoid that sometimes, kind of a willful ignorance thing. I tried to stay away from Food Inc.
Paul: I watched Fast Food Nation and just cried at the end when they're at the slaughterhouse. It was so awful. I hope someday I have the strength to be vegetarian, because morally I want to be one, but my favorite foods are meat-based. Plus, according to some people, the blood type that I have thrives on animal protein. I don't know if that's true, but that's what I tell myself.
Rick: Now that you're technically in the field, do you have an opinion on self-help gurus, the Dr. Phils and what-not?
Paul: It depends on the particular one. Someone like Oprah did a great service for this country. She got people talking about incest, anorexia, all the stuff people shied away from because it was too dark. And she did it in a way that was honest and genuine. I'm not a fan of the Dr. Laura/Dr. Phil method where they talk down to somebody. That works against people's self esteem. Not my cup of tea.
Rick: I actually just listened to your WTF today. How was that whole process?
Paul: It was fine. I taped it when I was on episode 30 of my podcast, so that must have been over the summer. I had a few reservations of things I said to Marc [Maron], but he was very patient with my insecurity.
Rick: Was there anything on WTF that you went into more than you wanted to?
Paul: Not really. There were a couple of things I may have mentioned I didn't talk about on my podcast, but not many. That's one of the great things about not having kids, I can feel free to say whatever I'm going to say and not have to worry about it.
Paul: Definitely. I'm just there to say to people that you're not alone. There's almost nothing you've thought of or experienced that has only happened to you. Maybe the circumstances were unique, but the feelings and thoughts are so common. The survey on the website is just amazing. People write the same negative thoughts. Procrastination is the biggest thing that bothers people about themselves, 85 to 90% of the women think they're fat or have an eating issue, guys wish they watched less porn, smoked less weed, played less video games.
Rick: I can relate.
Paul: Me too. For the longest time I always wondered why do I find darkness comforting? Why am I drawn to documentaries about dark subjects? And I realized it makes me feel less alone.
Rick: And that's what great comedians do. They always delve into that dark spot everyone can relate to.
Paul: Yeah, like Richard Pryor. He did more for race relations in this country than any other artist of my time. As a kid, I wanted to be Richard Pryor. He was so cool, and yet vulnerable and funny. He and George Carlin and Lenny Bruce are kind of the big ones for me.
Rick: Carlin's the guy for me. I grew up Catholic, and it wasn't so much pounded into me as much as, like, this is the accepted way of being.
Paul: It's just osmosis.
Rick: I saw him in high school, and it was just, "Oh, you can think like this?"
Paul: I actually met him once. He was so nice. I was in Vegas performing in a small room for a week and he was in the big celebrity room. And every time I'd talk to my wife on the phone that week, she'd be like "you should talk to him, he's supposed to be nice to comedians." And I finally gave him a call, and he called me back the next day and invited me backstage and asked me all about my career. And then, that night, he watched my set and gave me some advice. He said, "stick with the sick shit."
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[Photos by Hagop Kalaidjian]