Rob Gagnon: Slow and All Over

April 3, 2019

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Richard Goodwin

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This week we finally get to sit down with one of Austin’s treasures, the unofficial bearer of “the world’s best Rodney Dangerfield impression”, and husband to previous guest Ariel Greenspoon, one Mr. Rob Gagnon.

Valerie Lopez has been vying to grab some time with him over the years, but--despite describing himself as “slow” and even-paced--Gagnon is about as busy as you can be in this scene. He performs as a triple threat, in standup, improv/sketch, and film, most recently appearing in Christina Parrish’s comedy Call Me Brother. He hosts or co-hosts multiple shows, including the experimental comedy Sandbox; ATX Comedy Hour with Lisa Friedrich; Laugh, Darn It!, the family friendly live comedy game show, and its sister show Laugh, Dammit!; and Stoned vs Drunk vs Sober, which Laugh Button calls one of the “9 great and unique comedy shows in the nation”.

Gagnon got an earlier start on his comedy exposure than, well, just about anyone we’ve interviewed to date. Munching on PB&J’s with his father, watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, isn’t exactly the kind of afternoon you expect to hear about as part of a kid’s kindergarten routine, but it’d be inaccurate to say it didn’t result in setting a good direction for a performance career. A family that catered to humor, either Gagnon’s own shenanigans and riffs, or gathered round the tube for shows like In Living Color and The Simpsons, served to further boost the signal.

In a bit of a likely-unconscious parallel to Ferris, Gagnon turned performing into a way of getting around mundane work for his high school senior project by pivoting his love of stand-up into a community outreach comedy show. The show involved a bit of performance art that ended up with his “artificially enlarged” nipples on full display, but the money went to charity, so...we think everyone wins? It’s not the last time he’d end up with his clothes off on stage, as he recounts to Valerie.

Which isn’t to say Gagnon is wont to working blue (or in the buff) on the regular. In Laugh, Darn It!, which recruits an under 18 contestant to attempt to keep a straight face during a comedy set, you see another bit of him on full display. We’re talking about heart here, people. Whether it’s a show like Laugh, or tales of entertaining kids as a camp counselor, or giving guidance or assisting on projects for other comedians, Gagnon constantly puts his energy to use helping the community, comedy or otherwise.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Between what I’ll forever call “The Nipple Show” and today, Gagnon had plenty of road to travel in building his comedy chops in his native Connecticut. After high school, he often found himself driving to and from red-eye shows to do sets, getting back home in time to do special education teaching at 7 am. In a pleasant surprise, he took home an award in a competition at the local Funny Bone, bolstering his confidence in a time when he was still busy finding plenty about himself and his talents to criticize. Even today Gagnon will knock memories of past and recent performances, but you can hear that it’s now become the tone of someone who has high standards and is constantly striving to meet them.

After the decision to move to Austin, Gagnon pulled the gutsy (by virtue of not knowing the local scene) move of trying his first set at the Cap City open mic. As one of the more well-known shows, the crowd can be both discerning and completely random in turns. In other words, even the most seasoned comic can catch a tough night, and Gagnon certainly did. Little did he know that some of the audience at that show, including Maggie Maye, would go on to be some of his best friends, and successes in their own right, in his future.

Wanton serendipity is a theme that continues in Gagnon’s life, stumbling intentionally or by happenstance into opportunities and performances that he never expected. “It’s that thoughtless ignorance that lets you do wonderful things, and terrible things, and great things,” he says of his planning, or perhaps lack thereof. Riding the electric high of yerba mate in his interview with Valerie, he confirms that people often think he’s from an improv background: “A lot of people think that...because I’m so bizarre, and do so many impressions and experimental bits,” he notes. Contrary to how it may sound so far, Gagnon does like a bit of control, even if it seems random at times, and found that the improv life just didn’t suit him as well as standup. “I don’t have to check in with anybody, I can screw it up myself,” he jokes.

“I don’t have to check in with anybody, I can screw it up myself." Rob Gagnon

This unique mixture of control and entropy comes through in the assortment of shows in which Gagnon’s involved. Laugh and Stoned vs Drunk vs Sober, which pits three pairs of comedians in various states of inebriation against each other, highlight his showmanship and playfully competitive streak. Stoned is one of the best shows I’ve seen; I like the unexpected, and few things are less predictable than when the performers themselves sometimes aren’t quite sure what’s happening. It’s a risky proposition, but some of that Gagnon control ensures that it comes off smoothly (and safely), and if it’s not your cup of er, tea, his showcase ATX Comedy Hour highlights local and touring comedians in a more traditional setting.

As if these aren’t enough, Gagnon also has a rich history of past shows and concepts whose spirits live on in Sandbox, which has elements of Austin eccentricity, game shows, and live music, and the audience even gets a unique snack at each performance. In perhaps a nod to his own playful self-flagellation, Gagnon opens every Sandbox show with “We’re gonna see some failure!”, encouraging the audience to clap and get ready to enjoy the screw-ups right along with the successes.

In addition to his film work in Call Me Brother, Gagnon worked with Comedy Wham friend, and comedy videographer extraordinaire, Dustin Svehlak, to produce The Dang Moon! with fellow Sandbox alum Rob Lechler. He’s even working on an art installation; it’s an autobiographical passion project that, he readily admits, “no one asked me to do,” and was born after (once again, randomly) finding a stick and an intense passion to whittle it. There’s also a marble involved, far more intensively than I can possibly do justice to explaining here. I can’t make this stuff up, but I’m damned glad Gagnon can.

Throughout the interview, it’s clear that Gagnon is harder on himself than any of the performers he shepherds to and from the stage, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s unwarranted. But if it’s the kind of introspection and drive that keeps him churning out the inventive and successful shows and projects that have become his signature, well, it’s hard to argue with success. Whatever comes his way, he keeps a humble perspective on his goals: “to be a good person in the process, and give other people opportunities, and not leave too big of a negative footprint.”

“[My goals are] to be a good person...and give other people opportunities, and not leave too big of a negative footprint.” Rob Gagnon

Check out Valerie’s full interview with Rob Gagnon for even more about his history, current and future projects, and how to paint without a paintbrush.

There’s a lot, so remember to take it slow.

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