Greg Fitzsimmons wasn't born in Boston, but the comedy community in town has claimed him as one of its own all the same. A graduate of Boston University in 1987, he came of age in a golden era for Boston comedy, and his act bears all the hallmarks of that era — notably a stubborn smart-ass persona that's never afraid to make people angry, because he knows he can always win them back with a joke. Fitzsimmons documents both the anger and the comedy of his early years in his introspective and moving memoir, Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox. He’ll return to Boston this Saturday to play the Wilbur Theater as part of the Magners Comedy Festival. I spoke with him in Venice, California about his memories of his early days, his love of the uncomfortable, and his thing with Asian feet.
“I like to get into a fistfight on stage. I like the audience to challenge me. I don’t back down. I steamroll them.”
YOU WRITE ABOUT THE IMPACT THAT OLD-SCHOOL BOSTON COMICS LIKE STEVE SWEENEY, KEN ROGERSON, AND DON GAVIN HAD ON YOU, AND THE WAY THEY SEEMED TO GET BY ON PURE ATTITUDE. WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THEM THAT STRUCK YOU? What they do is, they show up somewhere, they get up on stage, almost it seems like when they feel like it and slightly begrudgingly, with a drink in their hands, they shit on the crowd, they act like they don't care, and then they leave. To ask for somebody to like them would be to invalidate everything that they do. This aloofness and this cool that you see really in Boston more than anywhere else. It's almost like you were born doing it, there's nothing else you would do, there's no way you would fail. It's a little bit like you're put upon to have to do it.
HOW HAS THE COMEDY SCENE CHANGED SINCE YOU'VE LIVED IN BOSTON? The comedy community has been gutted entirely. There used to be six or seven full time rooms in downtown Boston. And, the crowds were always great. Boisterous, drunk. Again, they liked that wiseass sensibility. It allowed you to go on stage and be yourself, in a way. As long as you had confidence in what you were doing, you didn’t have to do a full written act’s performance. It could be just jokes. “Here’s a joke, bam bam bam bam.” But behind it all was an attitude that you really developed coming from there, because the crowds were so rowdy.
BOSTON COMEDY CROWDS ARE A STRANGE MIX, LIKE THE CITY ITSELF, OF TOWNIES, COLLEGE KIDS, RACISTS ... Well, the comedy shows are mostly the racists. That’s why I like it. You get people that are very opinionated. I mean, very opinionated. You can play off of that. You can either pander to it and be racist on stage, which has always been a successful thing in Boston, and it has a bad reputation for that, or you can tap into it a little bit, and as an Irish person, you can really make fun of being Irish. There’s an acute awareness of what your ethnicity is in Boston. If you’re a black comedian, you talk about being black. If you’re Italian, you talk about being Italian. I’m from New York, and like, the Bronx in particular, you can say, in this radius, on these blocks, you’ll find Italians. On these blocks, you’ll find Puerto Ricans. Boston holds onto that.