Jane Ganahl, Chronicle Staff Writer, Tuesday, December 23, 2003 Comedians are not the coolest group. The quality of cool -- the ability to walk into a room and arrest attention with your sexy savvy -- is not as high on the list of desirable attributes for stand-up comics as an interesting (if not bizarre) personality, lightning-fast wit and, obviously, the ability to make an audience laugh. In fact, most comics fall somewhere on the Cool Scale between a 5 (Dana Carvey: sweet but awkward) to a 1 (Drew Carey: downright dorky). Very few score upward of a 5 and almost no one ever scores a 10.
But Greg Behrendt, the Marin County-born-and-raised comedian co- headlining the big New Year's Eve comedy blowout at the Palace of Fine Arts, was a 10. I say "was" because, alas, he is no longer cool. Sure, he still looks it -- low-slung jeans, chain wallet, multiple earrings and multiple tattoos. More like a rock star (which makes sense, since he's also played in bands) than a comedian. But, as Behrendt tells audiences almost every night, the dude is past his prime.
He's just turned 40, he's married and has a baby daughter, and has moved to the 'burbs. He has become his worst nightmare: uncool. "I went to see the Foo Fighters the other night," Behrendt tells a Punch Line audience in his trademark staccato. "And, as I approached the venue, the security guard says, 'Excuse me. I'm going to have to take your chain wallet.' So I ask, 'Why, because of the recent terrorism and the upgrades in security?' And he tells me, 'No. Because you're 40.' " And yet, Behrendt realizes that some vanishing vestiges of youth are not worth grieving. "I remember going to rock concerts and there would always be some creepy old guy there. I don't want to be the creepy old guy," he says. "So now I go to adult rock shows; they start at 7 and they play one hour, tops. I don't want to go to any more shows where I have to stand next to some 16-year-old all f -- up on gin and guava juice or whatever he stole from his parents' liquor cabinet." "This is cashmere, dude!" he admonishes theatrically, stroking his imaginary sweater. "Back it up! Back it up."
He also suggests that perhaps it's time for rock bands to start peddling something other than T-shirts to people his age who still rock. "How about Weezer day planners or Rage Against the Machine espresso makers?" Who could have guessed that this difficult transition in his life would enable him to strike comedic gold -- both in terms of subject matter and material rewards? Settling into the couch of the Punch Line greenroom after the show, Behrendt, a club favorite for the past decade-plus, is happier than he's been in his life, despite the sudden shift in his coolness factor.
His heart is warmed by being a new parent ("it's beyond anything I imagined"), and his bank account is warmed by having been signed by NBC to write and star in his own sitcom. The premise? "My life -- my coming of age," he smiles. "And my current act and new CD, which are also titled 'Uncool.' I got asked to host a showcase and used this material, and Mark Hirschfeld of NBC came afterwards and said, 'That's a show!' It's basically Suburban Dad 2.0 -- the new version. I still rock 'n' roll, and I also go to Gymboree." It's not the first time the Ross native has plowed the fertile earth of male culture. His one-man show, "Mantastic," was an exploration of what it meant to be into heavy metal -- and also obsessed with the thread count of your sheets and the proper moisturizer for your skin type. It was made into an HBO special; soon after, Variety named Behrendt one of Ten Comics to Watch. When told that show established him as the first metrosexual, he laughs. "No, that was James Bond," he corrects. Since moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1996, it's been a steady ascent for Behrendt. He was integral in the "new comedy" crowd that rejuvenated the craft, which included David Cross, Janeane Garofalo (with whom he was romantically involved) and Ben Stiller.
He was featured in his own half- hour Comedy Central special, and created a pilot for that network called "The Lemur," which was not picked up but was called "uncanny parody of morning radio" by the New York Times. And late-night hosts like Letterman and O'Brien have been knocking on his door. He also got the dream gig, by male standards, when he was asked to become a story consultant on "Sex and the City." "Michael Patrick, who directed me in 'Mantastic,' was directing 'Sex and the City.' And they had no straight guys on the staff. They'd run scripts by me, and I'd tell them, 'The guy would never do that.' It was pretty amazing -- I'd sit around and talk about sex with all these beautiful women." It was also indicative, he says, of a comedian's need to think outside the box -- and off the actual stage. "When you get to L.A. and realize you're not gonna be the next Jim Carrey, you have to open up your mind and find interesting things to do. I'd go crazy if I weren't working all the time."
Behrendt admits he has a fairly obsessive personality. Where now it's funneled into work, it wasn't always the case. If the walls of the Punch Line's greenroom could talk, they'd tell tales of 25 years of comedic debauchery among comics to rival Rome before its fall. Drugs in the '80s, booze in the '90s. For Behrendt, an avid participant in the merry mayhem of the early to mid- '90s, those days were both happy ("there was rock music and I'd frequently wake up in Mexico") and happily left behind. It doesn't benefit a comic to aim for the brass ring with hands trembling. "Seven years sober, can you believe it?" Behrendt smiles, noting that his character in the new sitcom will also be in recovery. All the better to enjoy your coming of age, he notes.
He is infatuated with his toddler daughter, True Behrendt, and his wife, Amiira, a writer. Still, he realizes, cute domestic stories have their limit. "Having a baby puts you in a cult," he says. "And most of the world doesn't get it. Don't bore people with your cute baby stories! It's the same as dog stories. If your dog doesn't explode or speak Spanish, don't bother." Behrendt's stories about his family are far more befitting someone who is, well ... cool. "I wanted to play some rock music for True, and I found out that babies do not enjoy Black Sabbath jams. It makes them cry. But babies love 'Where Is Thumbkin' -- it's their 'Free Bird,' man." So, in a twisted homage to his daughter, Behrendt now closes his show with a heavy-metal version of "Thumbkin," complete with crashing guitar and screeched lyrics, with which the audience happily chimes in.
Rock music has informed a large amount of Behrendt's career. He performed the role of Duff McKagen in the cult rock musical "White Trash Wins Lotto," based on the life of Axl Rose. He's planning an entire album of children's songs set to metal, under the band name Black Rattle, and has a monthly show at Los Angeles' hippest nightclub, Largo, called "Bring the Rock." "I keep trying to find ways to rock," he laughs. "I guess I'll never give that up entirely. It's too much a part of who I am." Exiting the greenroom, Behrendt is greeted by comedian Joe Bartnick, who shakes his hand heartily. "You are an inspiration," he tells him, noting that he is also soon to become a father. "You have a kid and you're married but you're still goddamned hilarious." Behrendt blushes. "Thanks, man! It's all about going with what you got.
I've had a nice ride; every year it gets a little better." He heads off into the night, to his parents' house in Ross, where he always stays -- in his old room -- when he comes home for a club run. Cool is such a relative term.