An old man in white socks sips whiskey next to a Goth wearing a nose ring. She cuts him a glance and glides toward the crack of pool balls. The bartender pops a beer, nudges it forward. Not much of a crowd. Twins in hoodies. A hair-gelled guy with muscles hunting a smoke as a night breeze whirls in like a ghost.
The lights are dim in the Little Joy club in Echo Park. A half-way famous comic sits at the bar with a couple of rapt disciples. More funny people arrive. A man from Indiana with a tattoo on his belly; a lesbian in a blazer. Someone yells a stand-up show is about to begin. Five patrons flee. Their patter draws a laugh from Jon Gabrus, a big, bearded man with lobster art on his shirt who has driven in from West Hollywood for “eight-ish” minutes on a narrow, black stage.
“Hey,” he says from a table against the wall, “the crowd is never more excited than when a 35-year-old man is trying out new material.”
Comedy is war without eulogies. No take of the door, a coupon for a comp drink and an Uber pool home, replaying mangled punchlines and thinking about next month’s rent. Gabrus has been at it a while. He’s edged up the marquee to the point where a phone call from the right office could turn him into a name you’ll remember. He’s quick and brash. His naughtiness is mixed with a boy’s impetuous wonder, as if he discovered that a prankster at the back of the class was preferable (and safer) to the discarded dream of being a Navy Seal.
He performs at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood — ground zero of an exploding improv scene. He appears in small roles in TV sitcoms and hosts a podcast, which delves into sci-fi films and dead dads, while his Boston terrier, Arthur, gnaws on a bone and naps. He has dressed up as Ben Franklin, played a weird pizza delivery guy and took a job whispering jokes through a head set to a TV host on a show called “Winsanity.” He wonders, “will Mom give me money for Christmas” — and debates whether he should bring up the very public sexual encounter he had near a flag pole during a high school pep rally in Long Island.
He was a freshman.
“Well,” he thought at the time, “high school’s going to be pretty awesome.”
Like thousands of comedians hustling in Los Angeles, Gabrus is a man of layers: writer, actor, storyteller, stand-up and former lifeguard, construction worker and sports mascot. He is in constant motion through a string of gigs and clubs that have taken on a rock ’n’ roll air for a new century. Mainstays like the Comedy Store are now part of a splintered universe that includes backyards, rooftops, basements and walk-ups with sketchy facades. They churn into the wee hours with acts, skits and podcasts that are clean, filthy, cosmic, satirical, sexual, witty, awful and mind-bending.
Most comics don’t make it, casualties of too many things to mention. Gabrus and those like him exist in a hard-driven middle ground, the kind of characters you see on “Crashing,” “Louis CK” and the latest Judd Apatow dip into the potty-vernacular complexities of humanity. They pitch scripts, phone agents and their nights often seep into pre-dawns of commiseration over mis-timed lines, too crude metaphors and small crowds of canyon silences and joyless faces. They press on through dry spells and humiliations until the rhythm hits and funny stuff spills out in abundance. Or not.
“The hard part for me is not to panic and go for big swings that I know won’t work, like a super dirty joke or something screwed up and dark. ‘Oh, there’s some children I have kidnapped living under some floorboards.’ And you’re thinking, ‘I’m sorry I’m just floundering here reaching for a joke.’ It’s that pitch a little too far outside and there’s that glorious strikeout.”
Gabrus’ strikeouts are fewer these days. His comedy veers from verbal and physical and at times unabashedly filthy.
He did a night of improv at UCB recently with Zach Woods (“Silicon Valley”) and Lauren Lapkus (“Crashing”). Dan Aykroyd was in the audience. The crowd, including Gabrus’ wife, Tiffany, and relatives in from New York, was mostly young: ball caps, beards, vapes, lumberjack shirts, selfies and a magenta ponytail. Gabrus had traded in his camouflage shorts and go-to button-down lobster shirt for a pair of gray pants and a shirt that looked like a blast of confetti.
In one skit, Gabrus played a husband with an “esophageal flutter” and a fixation on “Les Miserables.” The on-the-fly story veered to a police station and a doctor’s office. Comics quipped and spun scenarios, playing off one another and edging for spotlight. Gabrus held firm at the center, grabbing imaginary prison bars and whispering melodrama like a forlorn Frenchmen: “I thought everyone needed bread.” The crowd cracked up but the best gag came when he explained “Les Miz” to a dying girl; the plot he unfolded, however, was “Top Gun” and the exploits of Maverick and Goose.
It was a fleeting, crystal moment of energy and laughs, the kind that keeps doubts in check and leaves a man not as crazy as he thinks he is, trying to make a life out of idiosyncrasy and pulling humor out of thin air. “I know nothing about Les Miz,” Gabrus said afterward. “It’s what we call in improv being pimped into a situation, and that’s when I’m pretty good, when I’m completely unarmed.”
Gabrus was born on Long Island and wears a tattoo of it on his arm. His mother is a nurse and his late father was a union lighting technician for Fox 5 10-o’clock News. He grew up on “Cheers” and “Taxi” and was drawn to such “Saturday Night Live” stalwarts as Chris Farley and Adam Sandler. He wanted to be a Navy Seal or an FBI agent but took to comedy when he hosted a high school talent show. He drifted toward improv and joined a comedy club at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. One summer break, while a lifeguard at Jones Beach, he ventured on many nights to the UCB club in Manhattan.
“I was a punk 21-year-old who would get off the beach, get on the Long Island Railroad, show up in flip-flops and a just-dried bathing suit and do improv,” he said. He later went on unemployment, smoked dope and worked on his comedy in a Brooklyn loft. He did odd stints, including getting paid $500 to wear a wrestling uniform and scream for untold minutes into a camera.
“There’s a bunch of stuff I’ve shot in my life, like, I could never be president. Actually, no I could. We know who the real Teflon Don is. Nothing sticks to this guy [President Trump]. International conspiracies. Legitimate sexual assaults. He’s got a super power of some sort.”
Gabrus can summon the accent of an Italian butcher (his repertoire includes a cold cuts skit) channeling Donald Trump. You don’t know if you’re going to get whacked or fleeced. He’s large, bear-like, but he’s got the mischievous, handsome face of the amusing guy next door; the one who sets off fireworks at 6 a.m. just to see who notices. He aims sentences like arrows and hides dark slivers in the funny parts. He has turned insecurity into armor.
Conscious of his weight, he’s skilled at self-deprecation. He had a troubled, unresolved relationship with his strict father, John, who died of brain cancer in 2011. On his podcast the following year, Gabrus and writing partner, Justin Tyler, whose father had also recently passed, talked about “dead dads” for 50-plus minutes. As his father was failing and incognizant, Gabrus bathed him and changed his diapers; he still thinks of the family living room in Long Island as the “spot where my father was dying.”
Losing a parent, he said, changes your sense of mortality.
“Death becomes way easier.”
Gabrus and Tiffany, a marketer for Starz, moved to Los Angeles in 2012. He has stayed busy with writing projects and has appeared on a number of TV shows, including the “fat, token white guy” on MTV’s hip-hop series “Wild ‘n Out” and a hobo on “Another Period,” a Comedy Central show created by Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome that satirizes the American rich in the era of “Downton Abbey.”
“Jon is just the funniest dude, so fast, so smart,” said Tyler, who has collaborated with Gabrus on pitching scripts for feature films and TV pilots. “People look at him and think, ‘Oh, big, goofy guy.’ But he’s the smartest guy in the room.” Tyler added that Gabrus once stunned an audience by riffing on art styles from pointillism to postmodern. “He’s always trying to find the edge.”
A FINE LINE
That means getting his work out on all kinds of platforms, including podcasts, which have become increasingly popular for comics. He earns between $500 and $800 a month for his podcast “High and Mighty” on the HeadGum Network. The show has more than 30,000 listeners and is recorded in his apartment in a room scattered with ball caps, slippers, shoes, an old silver fan, Listerine, a dragon statue and a painting with a caption: “Jesus surfs without a board.” On a recent episode, he and comedy writers and actors Ben Rodgers and Ryan Stanger discussed the lingering importance (ha-ha) of “The Running Man,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1987 sci-fi thriller about a television show where contestants must escape death.
“A good early violent movie,” said Stanger.
“It’s prescient,” said Gabrus.
“A sort of less intelligent ‘RoboCop,’” said Rodgers.
Not everyone is enamored. One listener complained in a posted comment that Gabrus will “say any horrible thing that pops into his head and not lose any followers. Like Trump’s deplorables, his so called [followers] remain loyal to a fault even as their narcissistic leader ruins everything good about podcasting.”
Over drinks in Echo Park after the podcast, Gabrus was bothered by the rise of political correctness that has led to accusations of racism and insensitivity, even against comedians Amy Schumer and Louis CK, the royalty of modern stand-up. Such pressure has forced Gabrus to self-censor at times. His acts can be foul. He occasionally refers to women as “chicks” and recently quipped the joke “that’s like asking a fish not to swim, a bird not to fly or a black dude not to wear boots to the beach. That’s arguably kind of racist but it’s really just a cartoony observation.”
“It’s a very fine line,” he said. “I truly think there are people out there just looking for something to get angry at.” Mentioning Katie Rich, a writer suspended from “SNL” for a tweet mocking Trump’s 11-year-old son, Barron, Gabrus said “she got fired and Trump hasn’t been fired for some of the … he’s said. We hold a comedy writer from a show that almost created political satire to a higher standard than we hold our president.”
Gabrus wants to improve his stand-up, which brought him to the Little Joy club on a Monday night. He knew a few comics, including the Lucas twins, Kenny and Keith, deadpan, hushed-voice men who sat in the corner huddled over a joke book. Their Netflix special was days away from airing. About 15 people showed up, most of them comics, like the lesbian from a “white trash family” who described an ideal lover: “You have a prison record and a chest tattoo: I will sign a loan.”
Gabrus took the stage, face red, sweating, grabbing the mike. “Spoiler alert, I’m overweight.” Then. “Obviously my dad’s dead. I’m up here screaming at strangers.” He conjured Long Island life, schemed on his mother, did a bit about paper towels and masturbation. The crowd laughed but, as he would note later, a gag about pubic hair and dirt went on too long. He finished his eight minutes and went to the bar.
“I’ve always been sort of good at a lot of things. But Hollywood’s not the place to be well-rounded, it’s the place to be really … good at something,” he said. “I just don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s a strange analogy but it’s like video games. I’ll make a character that’s an archer but I’ll play him for two hours and say, ‘Is this the way to go?’ Maybe I should be the guy swinging the big battle ax or maybe a wizard.”
He finished his drink and headed out into the night as a cool wind blew in from the west.