I’m not what you would call a “Big TV Guy.” If I’m being honest, I could count all of the combined episodes of cultural landmark shows like Game Of Thrones and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and The Big Bang Theory and CSI that I’ve ever seen on one hand and still have a majority of my fingers left over. Sure I’ll watch baseball nightly and the occasional West Coast NHL or NBA game in the MLB offseason. But otherwise, aside from absurdist-but-grounded-in-reality comedies like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, it takes a lot to get me to care about a TV show and so the remote is better served in someone else’s hands.
And so maybe a year-and-a-half ago, probably while waiting for yet another rewatching of Letterkenny, the Hulu default screen showed the trailer for an upcoming show called This Fool. There was a graffiti tag of something called “Hugs Not Thugs,” followed by a slow pan across a group of tough-looking, face-tatted Latino guys sitting in front of a wall sign that said the same. There was Michael Imperioli lecturing the group about regaining their lives over a breathy soundtrack that I think was Enya but might have been Sade, I’m not sure. There was yoga and there was a clean-cut counselor-type informing a mustachioed ex-con about legal counseling and rehabilitation and job development courses and dental insurance plans, and so of course this was the makings of yet another feel-good docuseries. And then the mustachioed fella asked the counselor fella why, if he had dental insurance, were his teeth still fucked up. From there, the true nature of the series was revealed.
For the uninitiated, This Fool centers itself on the life of the aforementioned counselor-type – portrayed by comedian Chris Estrada – and his life in and around Los Angeles’ hardscrabble South Central neighborhood. Estrada’s character, Julio, works at the ex-offender rehabilitation program Hugs Not Thugs under the tutelage of flawed white savior Imperioli, where one of the “thugs” is none other than Julio’s cousin Luis (portrayed here in pitch-perfect fashion by Estrada’s friend and fellow comic Frankie Quinones), who was fresh out of an eight-year stint in prison. It’s brilliant and funny and it’s done with a sense of heart and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also somehow both absurd and super real, both of which I can attest to as someone who spent many years working in a correctional reentry-type program in an overwhelmingly Latino community, albeit with 100% less cupcake.
Oh, and did I mention it’s funny? I did, right? Because it’s hilarious. In addition to occupying the starring role, Chris Estrada – a standup comic for the last decade – also serves as creator and writer, loosely inspiring the narrative arc after his own life and upbringing. Why am I telling you all of this on a punk rock website, you might ask? Astute observers of This Fool will notice that Estrada’s Julio character doesn’t seem to be a follower of the hip-hop culture that his neighborhood has so long symbolized. Instead, as evidenced by his wardrobe, it seems Julio is a bit of a punk. It’s evidenced not in cheesy, over-the-top, too-pristine-to-be-real placement of a Green Day or Good Charlotte poster. Instead it’s his wardrobe, with subtle nods to Strummer and Television and Love And Rockets and wait, was that a Channel 3 shirt? Yeah, that was a Channel 3 shirt. Holy cow.
And so it’s no surprise that Estrada himself is a punk rock fan. Like, a HUGE punk rock fan. While he’s never played an instrument or sang in a punk band or put on underground shows, Estrada has lived and breathed punk rock since his formative years. He’s a huge enough fan that next month, he’s hosting not only a weekend of tours at the critically-acclaimed Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas, but a comedy show (featuring Fat Mike!?!?) and a screening of a few episodes of This Fool. He’s a huge enough punk fan that visiting Ian MacKaye and the Dischord House on a trip to DC was as at least as monumental an experience as his first appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. Yes, really.
I caught up with Estrada over Zoom last weekend for a lengthy and far-ranging conversation and almost immediately found in him a kindred spirit, inspired and informed by the very ethos and music and words that influenced my own upbringing, despite our growing up not only more than 3000 miles apart as the crow flies, but in cultures that, in some ways, could not be more polar opposite. Estrada was a first-generation immigrant from a non-native-English-speaking family, whereas…well let’s just say that the Stones departed England 388 years ago bound for the greater Boston area and, yeah, we’re still there.
If you were alive and aware in the 1990s, you’re not doubt familiar with Estrada’s old stomping grounds of South Central and Inglewood not as synonymous with punk rock but with hip-hop and, unfortunately, of gang violence. The community was largely African-American and had been for generations, through was also seeing an influx of first-generation Mexican and Central American immigrants. And while the music and the rhythms sounded different, Estrada points out the similarities in the overlapping themes contained within punk rock and hip-hop. “For a lot of Latino kids growing up in LA, if they’re first-generation immigrants, I think there’s this weird thing of trying to find yourself, so you don’t want to love your parents’ music, because you’re trying to assimilate. And then, at the time, rap felt like something that was for and by black kids, and so you’re kinda looking for your own thing. For me, I found punk rock.” He adds “what’s funny is that the way that rap music and hip-hop spoke to them and their anger, I felt like punk rock did the same thing for me.”
Like many others who found entry to the punk rock community in the mid-90s was through the two-headed beast that was the “EpiFat” sound. “It was the tail end of the compilation era,” Estrada explains. “I remember Punk-O-Rama volumes 1 and 2 were really big for me.” It was also the days when FM radio A) still existed in a meaningful sense and B) still played punk and underground music, especially in Los Angeles. “The big radio station out here, KROQ, had Rodney On the ROQ on Saturday or Sunday nights, and he was a guy who broke the LA punk scene – The Germs, The Adolescents, The Screamers, he played the Ramones early on. And by the time I was listening to him, he would still play those bands and newer bands. That was definitely an entry point for me.“
As you might imagine, Estrada was a bit of an outlier growing up a punk rock kid in South Central and, later, Inglewood. “I could be playing The Clash or whatever on my headphones, but if I took them off, I could hear people playing hip-hop or people playing Mexican music or Central American music. There was always a sense that all of that music was always around me informing me, you know?” Estrada explains. I’ve said a few times on these pages that at my high school, despite being one of the largest in New England at the time I was going there, there were only a handful of kids in each grade who were really “punk rock kids.” For Estrada, it was no different. “I went to high school in Inglewood, and I think if you lined us all up, there were maybe like 20 kids? Maybe?“
Little-by-slow, however, the scene would grow, though in a metropolis as sprawling and diverse as the City Of Angels, this meant different scenes comprised of different cross-sections of participants. “There were two types of scenes, really,” states Estrada. “If you went to go see a show in Hollywood, where a bigger band was playing, there would be a few Latinos there, but not a lot. But if you saw a local show in South Central or in Inglewood or in Compton, it was mostly Latinos with a few black kids there. I remember going to see NOFX very early on. I was like fourteen. There were a couple Latino kids there, but it was mostly white. Maybe a few black kids or Asian kids sprinkled in. But it wasn’t really until a lot of garage punk bands started popping up that it started becoming a thing.“
Even though he didn’t play in a band or contribute to the scene in that manner, Estrada carried the flag for punk rock in a meaningful way. “I really loved it and I was just a nerd about it,” he explains. “Getting into Japanese stuff and all that. I literally got a job pretty early on just to buy CDs, you know? I saved up and bought a record and started buying 12-inches and 7-inches.” That behavior carried through the years, even when regular show-going took a backseat to working two or three jobs in order to afford to eventually live on his own. “It was also tough though because as I was getting older, and as I was having to pay rent and have more stability, it seemed like the scene was flourishing more. I wasn’t necessarily a participant in it, but I was definitely an advocate of it. I felt so excited by it, and if I had a chance I would go see shows. Or I’d go buy a 7-inch or find the band on Bandcamp. So as I got older, I wasn’t there at every show, but I was just so excited that I could advocate for it.”
As time progressed, Estrada felt stuck in the rut of working regular jobs – labor jobs and warehouse jobs and the like. “I was really vicariously living through musicians, seeing these men and women doing whatever they wanted and taking their lives into their own hands,” he states. “I was miserable that I couldn’t do that, and that I wasn’t doing that.” And so eventually that brought a dedication to trying something different; stand-up comedy. And while that didn’t involve punk rock in a musical sense, it certainly involved a punk rock ethos and work ethic. “I remember that I saw that Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo…and I was so inspired by that. I said ‘I’ve just gotta do what they did’.”
Estrada began his comedy career as many do; on the open mic circuit. “I remember my first open mic, I had a really good set, and then my second mic, I bombed my dick off. It was humiliating, but at the same time, I knew when I said ‘okay, I’ll try it again tomorrow,’ that I could get over it. That actually made me feel more like a comic than having a good set.” One set a night turned into two and three and four sets a night, sometimes spread out across the city. Again, the roots found themselves in punk rock. “Like, if you read Get In The Van, the (Henry) Rollins book, Black Flag would constantly practice. So I started viewing my practice as getting up at open mics two or three or four times a night if I could. It was really cool to apply that; that this was my version of it, so I would apply that Minutemen/We Jam Econo work ethic to it.”
The more he kept honing his craft, the more he realized he was part of his own version of a punk rock scene. “I remember when I started doing comedy,” he states, “there was a scene there, and I felt excited because I found my version of punk rock to actively participate in. So then I started going to shows and doing open mics and hosting open mics and throwing shows and really being part of the scene. It felt really exciting.“
The story of how, after a decade or so of plying his wares in standup while working at least one day job, Estrada got the seemingly unlikely call that someone was interested in him writing and starring in a TV show based on his life has been told other places so we don’t have to rehash it here. It involves the guys that created the Comedy Central show Corporate and eventually fellow unsuspecting punk rock aficionado Fred Armisen and then eventually Hulu. And as I mentioned above, even though (or maybe because?) the show is loosely based on his life, Estrada made it a point to make nods to his punk rock roots. “I just wanted to casually put punk stuff in there without being try-hardy about it and not making it a big deal,” he explains. “My character in the show casually just wears punk rock shirts; not every episode, but you try to make it in a way that it counts when you do it…I think that sometimes you do those things and it feels forced, you know?” In addition to the visual nods, the show’s soundtrack pays constant homage to the more underground bands that inspired Estrada’s upbringing. “We got music from bands that I knew in LA. Latino punk rock bands, like this band called Generacion Suicida from South Central Los Angeles. This other band called Tozcos, we used some of their music. We also used like a D.O.A. song, so we try to mix it up.”
There’s no official word on a Season Three of This Fool yet; get your shit together, Hulu! If/when it does officially find its release, it’ll no doubt be as funny and pitch-perfect and full of punk rock Easter eggs as ever. Maybe we’ll even see a Dying Scene shirt. Wait…that’s actually a good idea…we should send Chris a Dying Scene shirt! In the meantime, you can check Chris out at the Punk Rock Museum next month (12/15 – 12/17) and you can especially keep scrolling and read our full chat, where we bond over mutual admiration for Ian MacKaye and Joe Strummer and Mike Watt and about how punk rock is about more than just fashion and so much more.
The conversation below has been edited and condensed for content and clarity. Yes, really.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): I was just looking at my list. I’m closing in on 200 interviews that I’ve done over the years, and I’m pretty sure this is the first one I’ve done with someone known more for acting and comedy than for music. So this is pretty awesome!
Chris Estrada: Yeah, I’m not even a musician, I just love punk! (*both laugh*)
And you never were, huh? Never played in bands in high school or whatever?
Nope, nothing. I don’t know how to play a lick of an instrument. Never sang, never anything. I just loved it. When I started getting into punk, I had no inkling to want to play. I just loved watching it. I wanted to be an observer and to participate in whatever way I could, whether that was by going to shows and buying albums and things like that. I just loved it. Sometimes I think that I should have participated more. Maybe what I did was enough, I don’t know. I just love it.
Yeah, but you carry the flag for it, and we need that. That’s ultimately what I do. I don’t play guitar outside my dining room most of the time – I think much to my wife’s chagrin because I probably have too many guitars for somebody who doesn’t play guitar – but we need people carrying the flag; taking pictures, telling stories, so that people know that the scene is more than just Green Day and The Offspring. Those bands were awesome, and they were a lot of people’s entry points to punk rock, but the scene is so much bigger and more diverse than that.
Yeah! I have a show and in the show, I just wanted to casually put punk stuff in there without being try-hardy about it and not making it a big deal. My character in the show casually just wears punk rock shirts; not every episode, but you try to make it in a way that it counts when you do it. It’s not a thing that we make a big deal out of, we just kind of let it be. I think that sometimes you do those things and it feels forced, you know? But I also like to wear band shirts of bands that I like, and who I grew up loving, and contemporary bands. On the show, we got music from bands that I knew in LA. Latino punk rock bands, like this band called Generacion Suicida from South Central Los Angeles. This other band called Tozcos, we used some of their music. We also used like a D.O.A. song, so we try to mix it up.
Let’s not gloss something over; you said you have “a show” – your show is amazing.
Oh thank you, man!
I love This Fool. My wife and I binged both seasons when they came out.
That really means a lot, thank you!
It’s different, it’s honest, it’s funny. It’s done with heart, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. You mentioned the ‘try-hard’ thing before; there are a lot of boxes in the show that you could check that could be try-hardy if you didn’t get them right. The fact that you base it in your neighborhood, South Central, there’s your culture, there’s the music tie-in…it could seem like it’s checking boxes, but it’s so real and it’s so authentic and relatable and I say that as somebody who is obviously from the complete opposite side of the country in every way you could be.
Thanks so much, man. That really means a lot. I just try to make it feel really casual. In my mind, when I was growing up, it was a big deal to me but…I think when you grow up in certain areas and maybe a lot of people aren’t into what you’re into, you kinda learn how to just be friends with anybody.
So you might throw on a Clash t-shirt or a Spazz t-shirt or whatever and some of the people in your neighborhood are like “oh, that’s what he’s into” and you find other ways to relate to them, you know?
You grew up rather famously in South Central, and Inglewood, and you were doing so in a time – the 90s – where that neighborhood and that part of the world were in the midst of being memorialized in history through hip-hop.
It was sort of ground zero for “gangsta rap” as the media referred to it. But that area and that scene were right in the middle of this cultural moment. What was your experience growing up through that time? I grew up in New Hampshire listening to all of that music – in addition to punk rock – but what was your experience actually growing up there?
My experience is that it was very working class. There was a lot of gang violence in LA. I know there still is, but at that time, it felt very big. But it was definitely very working class. It’s kind of interesting to me because the world was very black and Latino to me. That part of the city is a historically black neighborhood, and then you started getting a bigger Latino population and at some point, it was more of a 50/50 split. My experience was knowing the world as a very black and Latino place, and sometimes there’s racial tension, sometimes there’s gang tension. Sometimes there’s not, though, you know? Sometimes it’s not that sensational, and it’s just as mundane as any other neighborhood. But then sometimes there’s a lot of shit going on, like NO other neighborhoods, you know? So it was interesting in that sense. I always used to say that I grew up liking hip-hop, but the thing I gravitated toward passionately was punk rock. I illustrate it like I could be playing The Clash or whatever on my headphones, but if I took them off, I could hear people playing hip-hop or people playing Mexican music or Central American music. There was always a sense that all of that music was always around me informing me, you know? And trying to be a square kid, you know? I wasn’t a cool kid, I wasn’t a nerdy kid, you know? I was more of a stoner kid. I liked smoking weed and listening to records. And listening to punk, there weren’t that many of us, you know?
I was going to ask that…how big a punk rock community was there in South Central?
There was a handful at the time. I went to high school in Inglewood, and I think if you lined us all up, there were maybe like 20 kids? Maybe?
How big a high school are we talking about?
Maybe 2000? So there were always a handful of (punk rock) kids throughout the different grades. Some of us were friendly with each other. Some of us were tighter with each other. I remember there was this punk rock kid who got his ass kicked by some gang members because they didn’t like it. They didn’t like that he had piercings and he had green hair. It probably didn’t feel masculine to them or something, you know? And because there was racial tension, we had race riots sometimes at our high school. But what’s funny is that the way that rap music and hip-hop spoke to them and their anger, I felt like punk rock did the same thing for me. And I remember when I was in high school, I found out that there was a powerviolence band from Inglewood.
Yeah, Despise You. It was a big deal to find out that they were from Inglewood. At the time, it was probably a little weird. Sometimes you might be mocked for liking that kind of music, people would call it “white boy music” or whatever. But you had to stand your ground, you know, and say like “Rage Against The Machine is diverse,” or “what about Bad Brains?!” or you’d find out that like Chavo from Black Flag was Puerto Rican. I think finding those people in the scene helped you realize, okay, this is for everyone.
Of the twenty kids at your school who listened to punk rock, how diverse was that crew?
Majority Latino. I’m sure there’s a lot more black kids now who are into rock music and into punk, but back then it was a majority Latino. I think for a lot of Latino kids growing up in LA, if they’re first-generation immigrants, I think there’s this weird thing of trying to find yourself, so you don’t want to love your parents’ music, because you’re trying to assimilate. And then, at the time, rap felt like something that was for and by black kids, and so you’re kinda looking for your own thing. For me, I found punk rock, and even if I was listening to English bands, I don’t know that I necessarily thought about it as white (music), but it was the emotion of it that I really gravitated towards, you know?
Who was your entry point? Who was your first band that made you go “oh, this isn’t just cool music, this is who I am and what I am”?
You know what? It was the tail end of the compilation era. I remember Punk-O-Rama volumes 1 and 2 were really big for me. That mid-to-late 90s Epitaph/Fat Wreck Chords sound was an entry point for me. I was also listening to the big radio station out here, KROQ. They had Rodney On the ROQ on Saturday or Sunday nights, and he was a guy who broke the LA punk scene – The Germs, The Adolescents, The Screamers, he played the Ramones early on. And by the time I was listening to him, he would still play those bands and newer bands. That was definitely an entry point for me. But when I listened to that Punk-O-Rama, I remember the weirder stuff standing out to me. Like, I remember The Cramps were on one of those Punk-O-Rama comps, and I was really taken back by them. Even stuff that was like maybe not the traditional Epitaph sound, like DFL. They had a song on there, and they sounded like an 80s hardcore band. Things that sounded a little different, like “Coffee Mug” by the Descendents was on one of them, and that really informed me. And obviously things like Rancid and Social Distortion. And then I started digging deeper. And The Clash. They were a big deal for me, and still are.
Oh for sure. I am a couple years older than you, I think, but I think for our generation, Joe Strummer has become almost a mythical person. I think he and The Clash are probably more important now than they were in 1983 or whatever. I certainly think they’re more important to me now than they ever have been. I never saw The Clash – I was six when they broke up or whatever, but they’re more important to me in my early 40s than they were even when I was in my 20s.
They really informed me so much. When I was 15, a buddy played an album for me, and I remember listening to “Janie Jones,” and “White Riot” and “Complete Control” and all that stuff and I was completely blown away. And I remember as I got more into them and bought albums, I would think “oh, I remember this song! This really cool song I used to hear on the radio is also them!” And then, like “oh ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is them too!” But they also informed me so much because they knew how to take a photo! There was something iconic about looking at them. There was something so great about the imagery around them. About their album covers.
But it also seemed so authentic, too.
Yeah! And by the time I was getting into London Calling and Give ‘Em Enough Rope and Sandinista! and seeing the cover art. Like opening the liner notes to Sandinista! and they had a map of Central America and realizing they named that album after a left-wing revolutionary party in Nicaragua, all that stuff really informed me a lot. I just loved them. That was another entry point, for sure. But also the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and then a lot of independent stuff that was going on in California. There was this label called Ebullition Records here in California – in Goleta – and they were putting out a lot of great records, like this band Los Crudos who I got into through them.
From Chicago, yeah?
Yeah, from Chicago! They had a split with this Bay Area band called Spitboy, an all-female band. Getting into those independent hardcore 90s bands was super influential for me. I really loved it and I was just a nerd about it. Fucking getting into Japanese stuff and all that. I literally got a job pretty early on just to buy CDs, you know? I saved up and bought a record and started buying 12-inches and 7-inches. Getting into bands like PiL and even at the same time getting into mainstream stuff. Like, I loved At The Drive-In when they broke. I saw them early on at an independent venue out here called the PCH Club, and I would go see bands like The Locust and At The Drive-In and all these cool bands.
At what point did people stop sorta teasing or making fun of you for being “the punk kid” because you just got so into it, so they were just like “well, that’s Chris…”
Nobody really made fun of me. Maybe my cousins – my older cousins – they were like gang members so they were like “What is this stuff?”. And you know what? When I was growing up, I didn’t really dress punk. Maybe I had a band t-shirt, but then I would just wear like a jacket and jeans, but it was like one of those windbreaker jackets. You could tell I was into something, but I didn’t look like I was in Rancid, you know? And also, very early on, I got into Minor Threat and Fugazi and all of that Washington DC stuff, and I saw that they didn’t have mohawks or dress like that, and I thought that was dope, like “oh cool, you can just be a regular dude, a regular fool, and just rock whatever you want to rock.” That really informed me a lot; that it didn’t have to be about fashion.
You mentioned Fugazi…I’ve tried to think about this a lot in recent years to figure out what the first band I really got into that was a punk band was, and it was either Bad Religion or Fugazi. And you’re right, neither of them dressed “punk rock.” Jay and Greg from Bad Religion had leather jackets for a while, but that was about it. And I got into both of them through Pearl Jam, oddly enough. I was a super big Pearl Jam fan right when they broke, and in those days you would read interviews and read liner notes and see who your favorite bands mentioned, and Eddie Vedder always talked about Fugazi and Ian Mackaye. So it became “well, if Eddie likes them, I must like them.” And then, I forget if I heard Repeater first or In On The Kill Taker, but thinking “holy shit, what is this music!?” It was unlike anything I’d really ever heard at that point.
Yeah, for me it was kind of the same way. Songs like “Public Witness Program” or “Facet Squared.” I remember Rage Against The Machine’s first album, looking in the liner notes to see who they thanked, and I remember them thanking Joe Strummer and Ian Mackaye and wanting to learn more. Or then sometimes buying things based off a cover. I remember when I was a kid, I went to this record store and I saw a Reagan Youth CD where they were dressed like Klansmen. And I remember it taking a second for me to wrap my mind around it. The album was called A Collection Of Pop Classics, and when I looked at the back, the titles of the songs sounded kind of leftist. And so I went “okay, I think they’re playing with imagery and they’re being ironic on the cover. I think I could buy this.” (*both laugh*)
And that was really before you could Google it. I mean now if you go to the record store, you can Google it or you can just take a picture of the cover and search that and it pulls up everything you wanted to know. But back then, yeah, you had to kinda do a little research on your own.
Yeah! Like, I would go to Tower Records or whatever record store I could take the bus to when I was a kid and buy like Punk Planet or of course Maximumrocknroll. Or even the popular magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone would cover punk bands sometimes. I would find other ‘zines, like there was this zine out here called HeartattaCK Zine that I would buy and find out about these independent bands and learn more about their scenes.
So let’s fast forward to Punk Rock Museum opening up. I’ve not been yet; I’ve never set foot in Vegas, and honestly I haven’t really wanted to at many points over the years until Punk Rock Museum became a real thing. And not like a cheesy thing, but a real and cool and authentic thing. Where did your involvement with them come from?
I remember I was following them on Instagram when they put up their Instagram page and I was like “yo, this is cool!” I wasn’t ever skeptical, but I was definitely like “how’s this going to be?” I was so curious. And when they opened up, I kept following them, and they had reached out to me and told me that they were fans of This Fool and whatnot. I was planning to go out there, and then what ended up happening was they invited me out to do a live podcast with Damian (Abraham) from Fucked Up.
Oh I’ve heard it! It’s great!
Yeah! We did the live podcast. It was Damian from Fucked Up, and then Fred Armisen was going to be there doing tours and he did a cover set, where he played lots of punk rock covers in the bar that they have called the Triple Down Bar. That was really the start of my involvement when they asked me to come. I was really blown away. It’s such a real museum and at the same time, it’s interactive. It’s curated so well, and people that I’m a fan of helped curate it. People like Brian Ray Turcotte who did that book Punk Is Dead, Punk Is Everything, and he did Fucked Up + Photocopied. There was another guy who I follow on Instagram @AncientArtifax whose name is Brian too, he’s a really sweet guy. He and Bryan Ray Turcotte I think leant some of their collections of memorabilia. But also, a lot of musicians lend them their stuff. So I went there the first time and I had a blast. I had a great time. They asked me if I would be willing to do tours and maybe even a comedy show, and I said “yeah man, I’d love to!” I think it’s such a great place and I’m so happy it exists. And I’m not a Vegas fan. I grew up in California, and Vegas is only four hours from us. People often drive there for the weekend. So not being a real fan of Vegas, this gives me an excuse to go. I’m really excited to give tours there. They have a really impressive Clash and Joe Strummer collection.
Yeah, I saw that his family was just out there.
Yeah! I’m really excited. I got to walk the museum when Fred Armisen was giving a tour…
What a brilliant musician, by the way. Wildly underrated as a musician, I think.
His brain works on a different plain, I think.
Yeah, it’s crazy. He played in this great band called Trenchmouth who opened for Fugazi.
They put out a few great records. He brought punk to SNL. Those great sketches on SNL with Ian Rubbish and Crisis of Conformity.
Yeah, and the wedding band!
Yeah! I’m really excited to give tours. I think I’m going to get there a day early, because I want to have a game plan.
I was going to ask, is that overwhelming or intimidating?
It is but in a good way.
Obviously you’re a fan of the music, but to know what you want to highlight and how to tell the story…
Yeah, that’s a big thing! I want to have an idea of what I want to highlight, and I want to make it fun and interactive. I want people to have some fun with it, and I’ll be funny if I can. I’m really excited because it’s such an amazing place. And then we’re going to do a comedy show. It’s going to be me, this comedian named Bryan Vokey who used to play in punk bands. He used to play in a band called Neon Piss. And then this other comedian whose name is Nicole Becannon. She’s really funny. She doesn’t come from the punk world, but I just think people would love seeing her. She’s going to be a part of it. And then Fat Mike’s going to be there.
I heard that!
Yeah, it’s going to be pretty funny.
I heard your podcast with Damian and Fat Mike, especially the second part, where it was just over Zoom or whatever…and I have to say that you’re a phenomenal interviewer, for what that’s worth.
Oh thank you!
And even the Pete Holmes podcast from last year, where the two of you are just sitting on his couch, where you weren’t necessarily the interviewer, I still think that you’re a phenomenal interviewer. The way that you ask questions and the thought that you give to how you process questions and how to follow up, you do a really really good job.
Thank you! Yeah, I try to be thoughtful about it. When we did that podcast, me and Damian, it’s called Killed By Punk, and we just thought “let’s be a little more introspective and a little more critical, without being annoying.” Just the idea of having an introspective conversation on punk, it’s a thing I’m always thinking about.
And Mike especially is an interesting to get your feet wet at interviewing. He can be tough to wrangle sometimes, having talked to him a few times.
Yeah, he’s such a personality, and he’s not an asshole, but he’s an abrasive person in a sense. It’s in a joking way, but if you don’t know he’s joking than it can be a lot. But also, he has a lot of ethics and a strong belief system about what he’s doing. He’s a really interesting guy.
I think in a lot of conversations he does, he’s always in charge. Mike steers the ship, even if he’s the subject and not the interviewer, and I think a lot of that is by design to still keep a little bit of a wall up. Like, he’ll be really forthcoming, almost uncomfortably so, and exposes so much of himself so that you don’t pull back the curtain of what’s behind that sometimes, but I think you did a great job of sort of disarming him and you could tell he was really thinking.
Yeah, yeah! He was so interesting. So he’s going to do the comedy show with us, and then I’m going to screen two episodes of This Fool and do like a Q&A.
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s such an awesome place. It’s curated so well, and at the same time, it’s a work in progress. The way you see the museum is not the way it’s going to be forever.
It’s a living thing, yeah.
Yeah! They are doing an exhibit now with James Spooner who did the AfroPunk Festival
Oh yeah, one of our contributors just did a little spotlight piece on him.
I think that’s so cool! I heard him on NPR and he plugged the museum. He said the most brilliant thing – he wasn’t showing necessarily pictures of black punk bands, but they were showing photos of black punk audiences. And he was showing that it wasn’t just bands, there were black kids going to shows as audience members. I thought it was brilliant. Such a brilliant take on that.
I want to go back to something you were talking about earlier, and that was the idea of racial tensions, particularly in South Central and Inglewood in the 90s when you were growing up. What was the scene like when you started going to shows? Was it mixed race or did you kinda stick out as being non-white?
There were two types of scenes, really. If you went to go see a show in Hollywood, where a bigger band was playing, there would be a few Latinos there, but not a lot. But if you saw a local show in South Central or in Inglewood or in Compton, it was mostly Latinos with a few black kids there. I remember going to see NOFX very early on. I was like fourteen. There were a couple Latino kids there, but it was mostly white. Maybe a few black kids or Asian kids sprinkled in. But it wasn’t really until a lot of garage punk bands started popping up that it started becoming a thing. When I got older, there was a band called Hit Me Back that was these young Latino kids from South Central Los Angeles playing really fast hardcore. That was really exciting! Or I’d find out about these bands from East LA, like Alice Bag and The Bags, and I found out about the Stains and other bands like that. And I’m not from East LA, but then you’d find out that there were other bands out there so you’d start going out there. It was a pretty majority Latino scene but you would have other kids mixed in. There was a big backyard scene, a big independent scene that felt like it was flourishing more as I was getting older and I was having to go to work so I had less time to go. But it made me happy to see it. I was so excited by it. I remember going to see Fugazi. There weren’t a lot of Latino kids, but there were a couple of us there. I went to the Palace to see Fugazi on the Argument tour, and I just loved it.
What was your first show?
My first punk show that I remember was …oh, man, I’m trying to think. I could be wrong, but I think it was either NOFX or The Vandals. One or the other. I saw them both around the same time. It was maybe like ‘99? ‘98 or ‘99, somewhere around there? Yeah, I think it was 1998. And then there was a band that I saw pretty early on that was a hardcore band that would mix hip-hop into it, and they were called Downset.
Oh yeah! I remember them. I feel like maybe I remember them playing with like Shootyz Groove or Primer 55 or something.
Yeah! I think I saw them open for Sick Of It All. My buddy was a big Sick Of It All Fan, so we went to see them and they opened and then I think maybe Vision Of Disorder played too? (Downset) came out of the LA hardcore scene. There was a venue out here called the Macondo that they came out of. And they were pretty diverse. The singer, Rey, was from South Central Los Angeles, and some of the other members were from different parts of LA, but they all came from a graffiti background. They were in some pretty established graffiti crews out here. They had a hip-hop element to it, but they also came from hardcore. The singer would have like a Crass or an Agnostic Front patch on.
And if that was late 90s, that was sort of when that crossover between hip-hop and rock and metal were all really flourishing.
Yeah, and Downset. blew us away because they were pretty diverse. So yeah, it felt like if you went to see bands in Hollywood it was a little more white, but if you went in your neighborhood when there were a lot of backyard shows going on, those felt mostly Latino.
Would those shows be musically diverse as well? Like if the punk scene was smaller in Inglewood or Compton, would there be more variety of bands on one of those shows?
Sometimes, they could be. Like, you would have a street punk-sounding band play with like a ska band. Or maybe a metal band would be on a show, or a more new wavy band. Yeah, I think you’re right. Not every show, but some shows definitely felt a little more diverse musically.
Did going to shows change what the music meant for you? Like did you have that moment where it went from just music you liked listening to to really feeling like it was a scene you were now a part of?
Yeah, it felt that way. It felt exciting. It was also tough though because as I was getting older, and as I was having to pay rent and have more stability, it seemed like the scene was flourishing more. I wasn’t necessarily a participant in it, but I was definitely an advocate of it. I felt so excited by it, and if I had a chance I would go see shows. Or I’d go buy a 7-inch or find the band on Bandcamp. So as I got older, I wasn’t there at every show, but I was just so excited that I could advocate for it.
Yeah, because you do have to work, at some point. Or you have a kid. In my case, I knew pretty early on that I was going to be on the “go to college, get a real job” route versus trying to play in bands forever, so at least I can help run a website, you know? Or teach yourself concert photography so you can feel like you’re contributing.
Yeah! Totally! And I think with punk sometimes, and with music in general, you can let it be a soundtrack to your life. That can be good or it can be bad. I think sometimes when I Was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life, I was vicariously living through other people. But it wasn’t until I decided to do something that was “my thing,” because I didn’t want to just work at my job anymore. And there’s nothing wrong with just having a job, but I just wanted to do something else. I think when I started in comedy, that felt like part of a scene. Through punk, I was more of an advocate because I was buying records and going to shows, but I wasn’t necessarily taking photos or throwing shows, and I didn’t play any instruments, so I was really more of an advocate of it. But I remember when I started doing comedy, there was a scene there, and I felt excited because I found my version of punk rock to actively participate in. So then I started going to shows and doing open mics and hosting open mics and throwing shows and really being part of the scene. It felt really exciting.
Yeah, so then that was your way of doing the same thing that the punk rock kids were doing.
Yeah, it felt that way! I also felt so frustrated; like I was really vicariously living through musicians, seeing these men and women doing whatever they wanted and taking their lives into their own hands. I was miserable that I couldn’t do that, and that I wasn’t doing that, so when I finally did, I remember that I saw that Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo, and I was – and am – such a big Minutemen fan and a big Mike Watt fan, and I was so inspired by that. I said “I’ve just gotta do what they did. As much as I love it, I’m not a musician, so I’m not gonna go up and play music, but I always loved comedy and always wanted to try it, so I would go to open mics and just apply that approach. That documentary – and punk rock in general – were really influential to my approach because it helped to have a work ethic. To get up every night and go to two or three mics a night. Like, if you read Get In The Van, the (Henry) Rollins book, Black Flag would constantly practice. So I started viewing my practice as getting up at open mics two or three or four times a night if I could. It was really cool to apply that; that this was my version of it, so I would apply that Minutemen/We Jam Econo work ethic to it.
I got to talk to Watt once for one of his projects – he’s got so many that I don’t even remember which one it was – and it was just such a touchstone moment for me. That band and Watt himself as a solo musician in the 90s were such a barometer of, like, the cool people – the cool music fans and the cool punk fans, they were Mike Watt fans. And so to get to pick his brain for an hour or so and meet him and shake his hand was just amazing.
Yeah, that documentary was so instrumental to me. Around that time, I just remember being so bummed out, because I truly was just living vicariously through other people, and I was almost doing that thing that you shouldn’t do and looking at these people as idols. Because they’re telling you “look, anybody can do it!”
Especially in punk rock, yeah!
Yeah! Like whether it was Martin Sorrendeguy of Los Crudos and Limp Wrist or Ian Mackaye or Mike Watt, or even like Patti Smith – I realized that I was living so vicariously through them that I was putting them on the idol pedestal and I was looking at them like “oh, I can’t do that…they’re special.” But the whole thing is they’re telling you anybody can do it! (*both laugh*) So I thought to myself that I always wanted to do standup, so let me just do it. And if I didn’t like it, or I didn’t like the feeling, that’s okay. At least I tried it. And then I started doing it and I liked the feeling. I mean, there were nights where I didn’t like the feeling, but I chopped it up to like “well, I’m sure these bands had bad nights, you know?”
Did you get that feeling right off the bat? Like, that first open mic, especially after you said “okay, even if I’m still working at a warehouse, I’m a stand up comic”?
Yeah! Because with so much of comedy, you can be a comic and still have a regular job. I remember my first open mic, I had a really good set, and then my second mic, I bombed my dick off. It was humiliating, but at the same time, I knew when I said “okay, I’ll try it again tomorrow,” that I could get over it. That actually made me feel more like a comic than having a good set.
Oh sure! Part of the honesty in comedy is the struggle.
Yeah! So I just thought that if I could bomb my dick off and then wake up tomorrow and go alright, we’ll try it again” I think that’s really what comedy is. Good sets are amazing, but it’s when you can survive a bad set.
When did you get to the point where you could be a full-time comic and leave the rest of it behind? Was that once This Fool started?
There is something about having a profession that pays you to just keep doing that that makes you feel validated. But also, at the same time, the idea that I was working a regular job at a warehouse and I was getting up every night and doing open mics and getting booked at bar shows or produced shows at clubs – even though I wasn’t a professional comedian, I still felt like a comedian. I was living that lifestyle. I might have a real job, but that’s okay.
People in punk bands have real jobs too, right?
Yeah! Absolutely. Just because somebody is a math teacher when they’re not touring doesn’t mean they’re not a musician. And that’s what standup felt like. It consumed my life. I was getting up every night and going out every night. But I also wanted to make sure I worked with a purpose. The thing about comedy is that it can give you a Peter Pan syndrome, which I’m assuming music can too, in that if you don’t take it seriously and you’re just enjoying the hang, before you know it, ten years have passed and you’re still just hanging out. You’re not really working towards anything. So even early on, I said to myself “have fun, but make sure you’re working. Make sure you’re putting in the work and writing new jokes and asking to be on shows, and when you’re on those shows, make it count. Try your best to do good so you can get on the next show and you can build more time. It was validating once I got the show, because I considered myself a writer – I always wanted to be a writer – and I was inspired by movies and TV and I wanted to make things. So getting to make the show felt like that next level, where I got to start making things.
Was standup a mechanism to get in the door of the writing world? Was writing more the long-term goal?
A little bit. It was funny because I was trying to become a writer but I didn’t know a way in. And so when I wanted to do standup, somebody said “well, if you want to try standup, just do standup, because if someone sees you out, you might be valuable to them, because you can write and also do jokes. But then my life became so consumed with standup that I was just always working on standup, and I felt like it was informing my writing. It also had an immediacy to it. When you write a script, sometimes before you are comfortable enough to show it to a friend to give you notes, it might be a month or two. As opposed to with standup, you write something and you go up that night and try it and it’s immediate, whether it’s funny or it bombs. That immediacy to it, so I got into writing, and the habit of writing made me write scripts more, because I was always thinking about jokes and stories. It definitely informed my writing.
Do you find it easier to write a joke that’s going to work well in a standup set versus to write a situation that’s going to be funny on a TV show? Are they two different things?
It comes from the same brain, but it’s a different thing, yeah. A joke lives in the moment. With a script, you have to get notes passed, and then sometimes something might get lost in translation. But it’s still fun.
We talked about of your musical keystone people, but who were they in comedy for you? Who are the people you looked up to, especially once you became a comic?
Oh man. Even before I got into comedy, there were comedians that I enjoyed listening to. Like Maria Bamford. She was a big one.
She’s a riot!
Rest in peace.
Yeah, rest in peace! He was from Boston. There was another guy named Greg Giraldo that I really liked.
Rest in peace as well. He was a big Clash fan too, I think.
Yeah! Yeah he was! People like that, people like Patton Oswalt, Felipe Esparza. They’re all people I enjoyed. It’s funny because they never really inspired me to do standup, because they were so funny that it was intimidating. What was really inspiring to me was going to open mics and seeing people who were still trying to figure it out. Because I was like “well, if they’re still figuring it out, it’s okay for me to go up there and try to figure it out.” But now, I feel so inspired not just by comedians who are older than me, but I feel inspired by my friends. People who I started with and who are still doing it and starting to get careers. I feel inspired by them and their minds and how they view the world and how they view the world. Like my friend Ramsey Badawi, my friend Opie, Bryan Vokey, Paige Weldon. All these people that I started with and we’ve been in the trenches for like ten years now, they’re exciting to watch.
I think Frankie Quinones from your show is a riot!
Yeah, yeah, Frankie! That’s my buddy! I love Frankie.
He is so funny. And so, one of the things that is really I guess special to me about This Fool is that most of my professional career was spent working in like correctional reentry settings, working with people on probation and parole and getting out of prison. That’s what I did for fifteen years or so. So part of the Hugs Not Thugs thing is near and dear to my heart. And most of my time was spent in a community that was overwhelmingly Latino. Lawrence, Massachusetts, is an old mill city, so it’s always been an immigrant city; it was French Canadian and then Irish and then Italian and then starting in the 70s Puerto Rican and more recently it’s majority Dominican. That’s where I worked and who I worked with for a long time, and Frankie’s character and the way he plays it on that show is pitch-perfect. It’s so spot-on. I know it’s a different side of the country and different cultures, but there’s a lot of overlap.
Yeah, it resonates! Truly. And that character is based off of my cousins. But also, what he brought to it was his own upbringing. Even though he wasn’t a gang member himself, he had family just like I did who came from that world, so he brought a lot of that to the role. He’s a guy who took me on the road with him years before we had the show. He saw me and he was like “come open up for me!” so I would open for him a lot. He’s a great friend. He’s hilarious.
To bring things full circle to punk rock, obviously one of the big things that everybody holds in the highest regard in the punk rock community is authenticity, and the whole idea of “what is punk rock” and selling out and all of that. Now, I think a lot of it is bullshit, but there is some validity to part of it, and I think that a punk rock thing that your show gets is the authenticity of the experience. Not playing those people as caricatures. Not using the neighborhood or the people as “the joke,” but portraying them in such an authentic way that’s still fun.
That was such the goal. Showing the world and letting the world and the characters be. Don’t glorify them and don’t dehumanize them, just let them be.
That’s a tough needle to thread, I imagine.
Yeah! Yeah, it was tough. It’s a tough needle to thread sometimes because it’s tough to write. I come from that world and I know what it’s like to not glorify it and not demonize it, to just let it be. It’s tricky, but (Frankie) did a good job of humanizing that character. Even the fact that I’m bigger than him is funny. (*both laugh*) The idea is that not all these guys are over six feet with tattoos on their faces. We always joke around that he brought not just a vulnerability but like a Joe Pesci kind of bravado to it.
That’s the idea. To humanize it, and to not be didactic either. We’re not trying to change anybody’s minds, and not trying to justify anybody’s humanity. Just show the world as it is and as I know it, and let people make up their minds. Give the show heart without being saccharine. Without being corny or too sentimental.
Do you get feedback from people in the old community about that? About how well you got the tone? Or are there people who were critical of it?
Yeah! There are people who were critical until they watched it. And I get that. If I thought something was about my experience, or close to my experience, or about where I grew up, I would come in with a sense of skepticism. But most people have been really nice. I’ve had people give me compliments and say “man, you really nailed down not just the culture, but the idea of working-class people, of that specific part of LA.” I’ve had Latino people and black people from that neighborhood tell me that they liked it. I think the goal is I always try to write something that resonates with working-class people, but also might resonate with academics, and doesn’t pander to either/or. And that also puts funny first. There are a lot of shows now that are comedies but they ride the line of being “dramedies.”They skew a little more dramatic than funny. Our idea was to ride the line of being incredibly funny but also telling real stories. We can make a show as funny as Workaholics or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but we can ground it in reality.
That rooster story has to be real, right? It’s so absurd that it had to be real.
Oh yeah! Yeah!
That’s what I kept thinking in watching that whole narrative arc, that “oh man, this is obviously a thing that happened.”
Yeah, that was a real story that happened to me a number of times throughout the years in whatever neighborhood I lived in. My black neighbors would complain about the Latino neighbors having roosters. That was a real thing. I remember when I took my friends who I created the show with out and drove around the neighborhood – because they’re not from there – and we passed by a house that had roosters and chickens out. And we’re in the city, right? It was a thing that really cracked them up. I was put in those situations where a neighbor would be like “you gotta talk to Don Emilio … that thing has to go!” (*both laugh*) That was totally based off a lot of real situations that happened.
Now that you’ve seen a modicum of success with the show and you’ve been opened to a wider audience and had new experiences like getting to do Jimmy Kimmel and things on that level, and getting to meet whoever you’ve met since having the show…do you get more star struck in situations like that, or did you get more star struck about things like going to the Dischord House.
Oh man…(*pauses*) going to the Dischord House. I went there and I was pretty awestruck in the sense that it just meant so much to me. Fugazi is one of my favorite bands, and they just meant the world to me. And also that label, and growing up and reading about that scene as a kid, and being into bands like Nation Of Ulysses and Slant 6 and those types of bands. But at the same time, I do get it like…so Michael Imperioli is on the show, and when I first met him and he came to set – I had only met him over Zoom – but when he first came to set, it was intimidating not necessarily in the sense that I was starstruck by his sense of fame, but I was intimidated by his talent. Because I’m not a seasoned actor by any means and he is, and I’m going to have to act alongside him. That was incredibly intimidating.
Also a musician, though!
Yeah, also a musician, right!
Our good pal Jared runs the record label that put out Zopa’s record.
It’s Mount Crushmore, right?
Yeah, Mount Crushmore! Jerry is a friend of my wife and I. We have a little crew down there in New Jersey that we try to go visit and go to shows with a couple times a year. And for him to put out that record, for what it meant to that little crew, was super rad.
That was super exciting. I love his band.
Totally. And you don’t expect it from Christopher Moltisanti.
Although I have to confess – I have seen one episode of The Sopranos in my life. I never had HBO, and I also have a thing about not wanting to start a show when I’m so far behind – eight or ten seasons or whatever. It seems like so much work to get into.
I understand that. But you should watch it. It’s one that you’ll enjoy because it’s actually a very funny show. And it’s a show that you’ll enjoy because if you watch a season, you can kinda take that season in…it’s serialized, but it’s not as serialized as other shows. Sometimes it’s slightly episodic. But yeah, getting to work with him, and then we had Bill Pullman on an episode. I wasn’t necessarily star-struck with him either, but I was intimidated by his talent. It was like “wow…this guy is a very talented actor who has been on his game for decades…” I do remember one time I got star-struck, and that’s when I saw Joe Strummer before he passed away. I saw him three times; one at the Hootenanny, which was a festival out here in southern California. It was mostly roots and rockabilly-type music, but on this one, they had Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros and they had X there, and maybe Chuck Berry played? It was pretty exciting. So, I saw Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros there, and then I also went to go see them at the Roxy, and then at the Tower Records they did a signing. I’ll never forget the tie I saw him at that outdoor festival. I was up front, and I yelled out “Janie Jones” and they went into it. Now, I don’t necessarily think they went into it because I yelled it out, but because I had been yelling it out, he looked over at me and pointed at me and winked and then they went into the song. I was starstruck by that. The Clash were so important to me as a band. Just the way they progressed. You can listen to them playing the most raw punk, like “1977,” “Janie Jones,” “White Riot,” “Cheat,” “Hate & War,” and then you can listen to them play songs like “Safe European Home” and “Tommy Gun” and then you can listen to them playing these amazing songs off of Sandinista! that sound nothing like the rest of them. And then came songs like “Know Your Rights” and “Car Jamming” and “Sean Flynn” that sound like nothing else. I just love how they progressed and I love their story. I always tell people “even their worst album is better than most peoples’ best albums.” Even if you don’t love Sandinista!, you have to love the story of it. The idea that they would put out three records for the price of one, and then they said “we went far on London Calling, let’s go even farther. Let’s name this album after a left-wing revolutionary militia in Nicaragua.”
Exactly. Like, “in case you still didn’t know where we stood…”
Yeah! Exactly! You don’t have to love all the sides of that album. It has its imperfections, but even the imperfections on that album are phenomenal. As an art and as a story, I loved it.