Comedy is a vulnerable stage art. Thespians have playwrights. Dancers have choreographers. Musicians have composers. But comedy is a “me, myself and I” enterprise, and a comic’s failure to seduce an audience can kill a career.
“With basketball, if a guy is having an off night you still can say he’s a good athlete,” says Gary Gulman, who headlines Kung Pao Kosher Comedy shows next week at New Asia Restaurant. “But with a comedian, you see them in front of the wrong audience — and they can look like complete amateurs. It’s remarkable.”
Yet Gulman will be right at home with Kung Pao Kosher, now in its 21st year of serving up Jewish comedy — in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas — with 2013 co-stars Adrianne Tolsch, Samson Koletkar and Lisa Geduldig.
“I really shine in front of prominently Jewish crowds,” Gulman says. “Normally I really beat myself up, but as far as Jewish audiences go, I’m at the top of my game.”
Gulman, who has hilarious riffs ranging from Trader Joe’s etiquette to Discman nostalgia, has been crushed by a bad crowd. It was the first time he auditioned for a manager in New York.
“The audience was so indifferent, I ran through 10 minutes of material in four or five minutes,” Gulman says. “The host had gone outside for a smoke, and I was stuck up there after saying ‘good night.’”
The manager advised him to stay offstage for two years. But Gulman, with encouragement from a friend, didn’t listen. In nine months he was on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show” and Comedy Central.
Gulman, whose humor pokes fun at neuroticism without drowning in it, is highly observant.
Recent inspirations are an incongruous combination of Louis C.K., Eminem and fine art: “I went to the Whitney museum, and there was one spot of paint on a streetlight, and I thought [Edward] Hopper must have spent time deciding whether or not to put this big splotch of white on this light,” Gulman says. “It’s the equivalent to the time you spend deciding whether to keep a line or a word in that the audience may be oblivious to, but makes a difference to the joke.”
Although Gulman doesn’t use four-letter words often, he occasionally spices things up.
He says, “I sometimes throw in a couple of swears just to keep the Christian right off my tail. I wouldn’t want to be the tea party’s go-to comedian.”
IF YOU GO
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
Where: New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave., S.F.
When: 6 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Dec. 26
Tickets: $44 to $64