For eight seasons on the shameless sketch comedy series MadTV, comedian Bobby Lee cracked audiences up with his impersonations of celebs like Connie Chung and Kim Jong-il…but just as often by simply running around naked, even to the point where one sketch featured an Intervention-style sit-down with his concerned co-stars. It was a career-launching experience for the California native, who makes his Montreal debut this week as the host of Just For Laughs The Nasty Show. With his successful podcast introducing him to new fans, the 47-year old is happy to reflect on the good ol’ Mad days and share just how nasty he plans to get.
James Gartler: How did your popular TigerBelly podcast get started back in 2015?
Bobby Lee: My girlfriend asked “how come you don’t have a podcast?”And I said, “No one will listen if I have one.” So, she went to the store and bought all the equipment and told me “Well fine, I’m going to do it on my own then,” and for a couple of weeks she did. One day I just walked by the room and she was sitting by herself looking so sad, so I said “Fuck it, okay, I’ll do one with you”.
It turned out really well and we started accumulating a couple of episodes and building some good traction and eventually I was able to get really good guests, like Jordan Peele, Eric Stonestreet, Craig Ferguson and others. It kind of reinvented me in a sense. People wanted to see me again. So it’s been great.
JG: Do you feel podcasts are great medium for comedians? It seems like an open-mic night that can go on for as long as you want it to and no one can censor you really…
BL: Also you find your real audience that way, I’ve done a lot of different things – a couple of lines here and there in movies, TV shows and whatnot – but podcasts were the way to reach the people that share my real sensibilities and people that enjoy what I have to say. It’s reinvented my shit, man, and I’m pretty happy.
JG: Have you never performed in Montreal before?
BL: I’ve never performed in Montreal before. I’ve done Vancouver a bunch of times, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, all those rooms, but Montreal is the one festival I’ve never done, which is weird because I’ve been in the game for so long.
JG: You’re hosting JFL’s The Nasty Show, which is a popular ticket. How do you decide what material works best for that kind of evening?
BL: Well, not every joke I’m going to tell is going to be a dirty one. I feel like I’ll do an act that I would do in L.A. and that’ll suffice. People say that I’m really dirty – I don’t see that. I could have done The Ethnic Show a couple of years ago, but I decided that maybe the dirty one was more up my alley.
People think that when I perform that a lot of Korean people come out. I have no Asians come out. My audience is a mix of everyone. Obviously, I have Asian people that like me, but I wouldn’t say that’s my audience. If you see someone like Jo Koy, he has a huge Asian audience. I don’t think Asians like me that much.
JG: Why’s that?
BL: I won’t tell you who it was but many years ago there was a Korean actor at The Comedy Store who saw me perform and he came up to me and said: “you’re a disgrace to your people”. So that’s when I knew, “ohhhh, I don’t really connect with them really” (Laughs). Like, if you look at my audience, the people have tattoos on their eyeballs, or they have some weird thing they’re doing with their hair, they look a little dirtier, much like me. I’m just a dirty ethnic guy.
JG: On MadTV you showed a real propensity for running around naked. Did they request it or did it evolve over time?
BL: I just had this thing growing up where I just kinda liked being naked. It’s a control thing, to be honest with you. The other reason why I do it is because I never thought that I was that sexy, but once I started getting naked and being more comfortable with my body is when I feel like women started going “Oh – he thinks it’s good. Maybe it is good?”
It was a way to build my self-esteem, really to be honest with you. And also, getting naked on MadTV was nothing – I used to do some crazy shit. I used to poo in people’s dressing rooms. I pooed in the executive producer’s office once. So being naked is not the worst thing I did.
JG: So by comparison they overlooked it…
BL: Oh yeah. But MadTV taught me so many things about life. It really influenced me because it was so difficult being on that show, especially in the late 90s/early 2000s.
I was a little Korean guy on an American sketch show and that rarely happens.
For me to be able to get that show and learn how to act and memorize lines and perform on TV was so valuable. And also it taught me that “oh shit – maybe you can make it”. Getting there was so important to me on so many different levels.
JG: And a lot of the cast has moved on to great things. Alex Borstein, of course, has her great voiceover career and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are doing well for themselves. Who are most jealous of, from your costars, if anyone?
BL: Honestly, I’m not jealous of any of those guys because those guys are all family. I’m more jealous of people who are more my type. When people my type do better than me, then I get a little crazy.
JG: What’s your type?
BL: I think my fear is that when other when other Asians make it people think that I’m that person. Like when Ken (Jeong) got Hangover and it became a big hit, I would walk down the street and people would roll down the window and yell “Hangover!” so people thought I was Ken for years. That’s what I dread the most – when other Asians make it and people think that I’m them.
JG: Was there a backlash for MadTV alums after you left the show? The material didn’t pull any punches. You made fun of everything and everyone and it was hilarious. Was it hard to go into an audition and say “hello and yes – I’m the guy from MadTV”?
BL: At the time when we were doing it, it felt like… We had no control over what the show was.
When Keegan and Jordan and Ike (Barinholtz) were there, I knew, even though we weren’t really a hit, we were under the radar, but I still knew that the level of talent on MadTV that could rival SNL. I’m not saying we were better, but I was able to see so many good guys.
When I joined the show, Alex was still there, Will Sasso, Michael McDonald…all those guys are my friends and it was just a great introduction to comedy. Keegan and Jordan and Alex and all these people being successful only helps my cause. I feel like Key & Peele reinvented the way the industry views MadTV. I know that Key & Peele was their own thing, but they are MadTV people and they met on MadTV. The kind of talent I was exposed to completely and utterly blew me away.
And also, I got sober on that show. I discovered recovery on that show. I relapsed, I got sober and that’s how I was able to do movies after that. So even though there was some darkness, I have fond memories when it comes to Mad.