The RunOff: Caitlin Gill (Part 1)

Many months back I interviewed Caitlin Gill for a piece featured on Antithesis Comedy. Much of the interview was trimmed out for brevity but I’ve lovingly transcribed a bit to present to you, the loyal readers. [P.S. I’m performing with Caitlin tomorrow at Vitus. I’m super excited for that fact alone. Added to that, one of my favorite comedians of all time (whom cannot be named for legal reasons) will be headlining the show. I’m incredibly blessed.]


Courting Comedy: Is there any story behind your name?

Caitlin Gill: My mom said it was Robert Frost’s wife name, but I’ve never fact checked that. I just ran with it; could very well be true. It’s Celtic, I’m Scottish.

CC: Where are you originally from?

Gill: I grew up in Napa, the illustrious Napa Valley… I don’t know, I hated it. It’s beautiful but I hated it. It’s repressed and people are happy about it; they’re just so content, so smug and content.

CC: Have you preformed out there?

Gill: Uh-huh, yeah, it’s brutal. Napa has a really nice venue where good comics play. Things are getting different and better there since I left in the last 10 years…Good things have happened downtown and it more fun to be there… [It was] culturally empty beyond alcohol during my time spent there.

I’ve played [Napa] at a place called Downtown Joe’s, which is a shitty brew pub. (I’m not afraid to say it Downtown Joe’s)… And the bartender was somebody I went to high school with. I was there with my boyfriend at the time who was sleeping with somebody I went to high school with (that wasn’t me). [I think] my parents were there with Kaseem Bentley, so I think I watched my father insulted by Kaseem Bentley. I had a good set and people were admiring and polite but I felt like it didn’t go well. I knew [the audience] appreciated it and that always makes me think badly of people. Like really? [Be]cause I know that was mediocre. So it’s nice of you to compliment but you are either being insincere or wrong.

It was skin-crawly. And I tried to go back and do it again because James Fluty ran a nice room out there that other comics made great use of (and they had awesome posters and it was fun to be a part of) but it was like laying on glass. Being on stage [in Napa] is like laying on glass; an impressive spectacle but painful for the performer.

CC: Was that your first taste of performing in front of the people you grew up with; were you in theater or anything like that?

Gill: I was in theater in high school… I tried to perform stand-up in high school. I got my whole drama class to sit down and listen to my “debut”. But I really thought I could just walk up and perform stand-up; it didn’t occur me to write anything down. So it lasted about, seven seconds (which may be generous) and it definitely ended in tears. I did comedic theater after that and then went to college.

CC: What college did you end up going to.

Gill: Humbolt State University.

CC: Nice.

Gill: Yeah, it’s a beautiful school.

CC: You were a political science major right?

Gill: Yes I was.

CC: Where did comedy fit into political science when you were in college.

Gill: Totally didn’t. Didn’t even occur to me… Humbolt had an improv group but every organized function at Humbolt was populated with people who didn’t get into the unorganized-house-party-chaos that existed outside of Humbolt. So, I think I was a social elitist for party slackers and the improv kids were too tightly wound to seem fun to me.

What I did instead, oddly, was throw myself into student government and do that with verve and passion for four years. I really enjoyed doing higher education advocacy and thought that I would do advocacy, like lobbying, for causes I was concerned about. And then I left college and I did that for literally two weeks before I was like “Nope! I’m out of here”.

CC: Was it the work load, or the commitment of body and mind? What drove you out?

Gill: My experience was with the Public Interest Research Group. I worked with a lot of great organizations in college but college is a structured, supportive environment where I had more money… I had loans, that I could live on. So if I made a meager income it wasn’t any big deal.

After college I ambitiously pursued a selfless career in public service. I was getting paid $16,000 a year, the same as all my compatriots, shoulder to shoulder with everyone, except “everyone” are trust fund kids and student government leaders from elite universities that don’t have concerns about resources.

And I just got crushed by this reality that I felt so foolish for not being better in tune what I was studying. Social concern is such a privilege. There was some level on which I knew that, but I was going to a [sort of] working class with a working class background. It didn’t occur to me that it’s only the elite that gets to care. You can’t move across the country to run an election drive on a campus at a community college in Iowa without thousands of dollars in your bank account. That’s just a reality.

Part of that just filled me with rage. I got so angry [thinking] ‘Why wouldn’t an institution like that not choose to enfranchise the people they seek to help and pay fewer people more?’ They hire a ton of folks right out of college, [they should] boil that down. Take your best student advocates, pay them a living wage and see what happens. I think the results would be different.

But that’s just 10 years of bitterness simmering over. I don’t regret not pursuing that career, it wasn’t right for me, the study was. I loved studying politics, the application did not suit me at all.

CC: How much do you keep up with current events now?

Gill: I listen to the news all the time every day. I follow international news… I’m interested in the bigger picture. I don’t read enough about San Francisco politics, for example. So am I versed in every part of the news? No. But am I aware of way too many details of what Pakistan thinks about how and why we went in and when we did? Oh yeah, totally way too much.

CC: How much of a buffer was there between public service and comedy?

Gill: I moved home and worked at a shitty job in a video store and then a shitty job at a winery and wallowed. I had gone to college gung-ho: “I’m gonna be a campaign manager! I will be Lady James Carville!”

The identity was stripped… so rebuilding had to be done (which is never pretty). And it was happening in a place I wasn’t very proud to be (my parents’ house, in a demin shirt working for Hollywood Video).

CC: Rest in peace.

Gill: R.I.P. guys. Wherever you are now.

I didn’t know what I was going to do but I was aware that depression is a real thing and I was experiencing it.

I got a call from my best friend from college who lived in San Francisco. She was studying Museum Sciences at San Francisco State; it’s one of the only places you can do that so she lived in the big city. She called and she said her landlord [was] moving into her apartment. She was getting evicted, she had to move, she [had] thirty days, she didn’t know what she was going to do. And by the end of the conversation we were on Craigslist looking for apartments. I moved to San Francisco and I knew it was to do stand-up before I even performed. I started talking a lot of game at my old job: “That’s what I’m moving to do, I’m gonna do it!”

I moved in September [2006], I started performing May of 2007… at the Seabiscuit, 47th [Ave] and Noreaga, as far away from people as you can get. I debuted in front of Ben Feldman, Kaseem Bentley… just an odd assortment of San Francisco’s finest.

CC: Was the Caitlin Gill of yesteryear anywhere close to the Caitlin Gill of today?

Gill: I think for a while I had written things down pretty hard. I tried to get it off the paper, to the microphone. I didn’t know that comedians wait to get confessional. I think I was pretty open really early and I think that was important in what other comics saw (because other comics give you your first opportunities). So, it’s interesting that what they saw in me was this bold streak of fearlessness that [I would eventually] make joke writing catch up to.

It was a lot of stuff people wanted to listen to, I just didn’t quite know how to put it there yet. And as I develop I’m learning that I have a riff-gun… When I’m present on stage, I can leave writing behind entirely and write while I’m speaking… When you’re on stage at places you’ve seen heroes and you’re riffing and it’s working… I’m never gonna stop [riffing], I will be doing this forever. It’s only gonna get better.

CC: When did you start this riffing streak?

Gill: I would give credit to Club Deluxe first because it is a rough room. You can have some of the best sets of your career there. When that room is hot, there’s nothing like it, it’s a great spot. I don’t care what giant arenas you play, there’s nothing like 150 or less in a tight, dark space for comedy. That’s what comedy is to me. So, I’m sure blowing it up at the Improv would feel amazing but to me, crushing at Deluxe is just a different flavor (and I like it!)

Thanks to Big Al [Gonzales] I hosted a showcase there for a couple of years. Learning how to fight in that room, you can’t go back there with your same stuff. You can’t show regulars… your same material over and over. You know that and [if] you have combative regulars, that’s a great environment to foster some riffing skills.

The first sets where I was flying, [where] I knew that I could [riff], was at Luna’s in Sacramento, which is another tiny, little coffee shop. I bet they could squeeze eighty people if they had to, but maybe not according to the fire department. It is the first place I talked over 45 minutes, first place I talked an hour. That [audience] stays with me, they listen and I sound different there because of how the crowd responds. So, I just have to learn how to bring crowds to me like I can there in rooms where it matters more (not that it doesn’t matter at Luna’s). Keith Lowell Jensen had a great idea recording an album [Cats Made of Rabbits], it looks great, it sounds great. Sounds like a million people are laughing at him, [it’s] just so tight in there.

CC: Is there anything performance/career wise that you’re working to improve?

Gill: I feel like that about everything… I don’t know if this is just comics or artist or what but every time I listen to [my sets] I suck wind through my teeth. “Ugh, why didn’t I do that the way I can hear I should do it now.” … Some sets I listen to and I’m happy with moments and I know how a crowd responds usually. I don’t think I have a weird perspective on that (although that terrifies me). I’m really [afraid] of being a comic who just get humored but doesn’t get laughs but in my mind thinks I do.

CC: How do you feel about Chicken Gill? [Caitlin dressed and performed as a chicken at the 2010 San Francisco Punch Line Halloween Sunday Showcase]

Gill: Chicken Gill was pretty awesome. I was very happy.  I was terrified of Chicken Gill. There’s this picture… of me in the chicken suit that Ameen [Belbahri] took. I’m sitting against the Punch Line in the back where you can leave through the kitchen. My notebook is open and it’s just chicken legs… I look like a chicken but I am so zeroed in on making sure this [performance] works and has an arch as an idea… I remember hearing the picture and looking up at [Ameen] with these death-eyes and he goes [startled] “Ha… sorry!”

Yeah, Chicken Gill was terrifying. I was so happy when that work. And I was so happy because [for] the comics that came up after, I feel like it made a difference. I am such a geeky, cheesy host (such a cheese ball) because it’s a job. It’s not the same as just having a set. [Some] people feel like it is, that’s cool, they’re not wrong. I feel like like [hosting] is a job and your responsibility is to set the show up for everybody that comes after you. You have to respond to problems different, hecklers differently, the crowd differently; it’s totally different. So for me to stray from material and take a chance, I was so hoping I didn’t ruin the show anyone. I think Miles [K] came up right after and I think Miles had the set of the night… I think his set  just CRUSHED. I felt like part of that was laying the ground work for comics doing something they’ve never done before. For all the silly costumers, I think that Chicken Gill was important [for that night].

CC: Has there ever been a time where you’ve gotten more physical on stage?

Gill: I really want to.. that’s one of those things that I want to do better. Sometimes when I’m writing a joke, I don’t see it. I have to perform it and then I’ll learn. I’ll start moving and people will respond and then I’ll keep it.

Acting a joke out is the last thing I figure out how to do, which is funny because my body is hilarious. It’s one of the things I love about it. It [has] become so beautiful and I love it so much and the more I love it, the more other people like which is great of course, but it’s SO FUNNY. I have this tiny little head and it’s on top of these giant hips which from every angle (especially underneath) is funny. My arms are just stupid long and my fingers are long and they taper; my hands are nothing but dorky and it’s perfect. I love them…

I’m aware [on stage] that people are laughing at things that are just happening. I don’t know how to harness it entirely yet, but I’m pretty sure that when I do, it’s gonna be funny… I’m such an odd conglomeration of parts and to see it work together is seeing a whole person; that’s really cool. I would love to be able to do that but in the same way I can’t dance and I close my eyes in a fight, I am uncoordinated on a level that I don’t understand… I’m so stumbly and when I’m thinking about how I’m supposed to move I’m [like] autistic-crab-claw-tension. I can’t see it and I have to think about each body part; unless I just let it happen, its not fluid. I trust that eventually I figure out move around in a joke.

CC: Do audience members approach you after shows?

Gill: Sometimes. When I get off stage and do I do well and people don’t talk to me, that’s weird. When I feel like I don’t do well and people talk to me that’s EXTRA weird. There are times when it happens, that I know I did well and the crowd tells me I did well after, and that feels great.

CC: What is the usual reaction that people give you?

Gill: I did this show at a wrestling match… an audience member threw a beer can at me (which, it’s not out of context.) I don’t blame him. It’s the sort of show where that kind of thing might happen. [Then] I spent fifteen minutes, with the crowd loving me, ripping this guy to shreds. It’s on the internet, there’s visual proof. He was wearing a hat that said “Shitty Fucker”; I’m sure it’s a band that I’m not cool enough to know about but it still said “Shitty Fucker”. And on his chest was tattooed a vagina and a butthole. You can’t really ask for a better heckler; he makes it pretty easy to say mean things about him.

It was cruel… so many insulting things about him and his family and his friends. I got off stage and ran right over [saying] “Thank you so much, you were such a good sport! I was so glad that you let me play with you like that, thank you.”

You can throw a beer can at me [at a wrestling show] because [there] I can scream in your face and I don’t have to take it. In the street, I have to let that kind of shit fly. So yeah, throw it at me up [there] where I can do something about it. But as soon as I get off stage I’m demure and deflective, gushing with thanks and apology.