Right after I started doing stand-up comedy in Los Angeles, a friend dragged me to an art theater in a scary part of downtown on a weeknight. It made me mad. A dude tried to break into my car before I’d even gotten out of it, which set a certain tone. She promised I’d see the best comedy show of my life, and I crossed my arms and pouted and acted like a big dummy who knew this was going to be some hipster nightmare I was going to judge unfairly while drunk. Then I witnessed a show called Holy Fuck!, which immediately became one of my favorites in L.A.
Ross had been in stand-up only a couple of years longer than me, but he was already producing perhaps the most important indie comedy showcase in the nation, for one of the most diverse crowds you could imagine. Ross channeled his upbringing as punk fan into fostering a comedy community that was overwhelmingly positive and built on a hug-based economy, which encouraged attendance by, for instance, downtown vampire DJ weirdos and crust-punk kids who migrated from The Smell next door.
In the years since, Ross has made appearances on Drunk History and had a sketch show on IFC, but my favorite project has been a long running podcast for the Nerdist network called Terrified, where Ross gets personal with guests from the comedy and music worlds. That show is coming to an end, so I sat down with the host to talk about his journey in comedy and what he learned from being too honest on the internet.
Where does a Dave Ross come from?
I grew up as a military brat who moved around the country a lot, but I hit the East Coast in middle school, and L.A. for college. I started trying to do stand-up in 2006, and it fucking sucked. I’d shake and cry and almost pass out because I had this terrible stage fright. I’d been a stand-up fan my entire life, running home from school to catch those Comedy Central Presents special marathons. It had never occurred to me that “regular people” could do stand-up with our “regular people” problems. Then I spent three years being too afraid to try it again.
Eventually, a friend started hosting this open mic and her co-host quit and she asked, “Do you want to host this with me?” Not even performing, just standing in front of people and bringing the next comic to the stage. And I gave this shaky, bullshit excuse. So she called me a pussy every day for a week, and I gave in. I got bullied into comedy. But I would never tell anyone I was so afraid of performing because I was terrified to be honest about my shortcomings and personal failings. Now, I tour the country and I’ve overcome so much of that, but I also tell people I’m scared much more often now, just because I’ve gotten better at the whole honesty thing.
How did your show Holy Fuck! come about?
I was booking a comedy show for an illegal speakeasy, and the day before the show it got busted by vice cops. So we needed a new venue and the Downtown Independent theater said we could perform there — I said no. It was way too big for a comedy show. But then we couldn’t find anything else so I got committed to this gigantic space. I started booking for it: I got Matt Braunger for our first show and Kyle Kinane for our second. Neither of them knows this, but the show only happened because I was afraid of letting them down. They’re both friends of mine now who I can just hang out with, but back then they were the dudes I looked up to and I was so scared I was going to fail them and — I don’t know — that Matt Braunger would then publicly humiliate me for being a bad person or something? I couldn’t let them down, so we started a big dumb show in a giant movie theater where comedy should never happen.
Sean Patton was also one of those comedians I grabbed early on, and now we tour together. Last week, we did a show for the Entrepreneurs of Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska. Do you know what it takes to have a membership in that group? The only rule is you needed to make $1 million in the last year. Do you understand what I’m saying? Every single person in that room was a millionaire. It is the exact opposite of every comedy show I’ve ever done. Sean came out very strong. He opened by shouting, “Who here is cheating on their spouse?” They thought that was hilarious.
During Holy Fuck! you started a sketch group with Allen Strickland Williams and Jake Weisman called WOMEN. What kicked that off?
We were coming up at the same rate and we literally said “We should be on the internet more.” That was the only idea. So we started making dumb sketches with a flipcam. At one pointed I texted them “What if we called the group WOMEN?” and they both responded: “That’s dumb.” Which meant we had to do it. Then we found a director in Pat Bishop, who we all agreed is maybe funnier and better and talented then all of us? So we asked him to join the group. I can say confidently he is the most talented person I have ever met.
WOMEN got to do two rounds of filming for IFC. What’s going to be coming from that?
That’s … over. No bad blood or anything. They reached out and asked if we wanted to make some sketches, we did two rounds for them, and it was interesting. Working with Comedy Central is great because you tell them what you want to make and then you act in it and they handle everything else. IFC involves sending them budgets, hiring people, filming it, editing it, and turning in a final product. Both versions are really cool. I like creative control but also just acting in something is the opposite of work, so …
Where did the idea for Terrified come from?
Years and years of anguish. That’s not a joke. At 23 I wrote a memoir. Let me say that again: At 23 I wrote a memoir. I had so much to say, you see. I was anxious and had no way to accept that. I thought if I got it down on paper, I’d be able to accept myself. I also listened to an album called Maniacal Laughter by the band the Bouncing Souls. I went to this very ‘90s stereotype high school where the dudes were tough guys and the girls were vapid and I was taught you had to be mean to girls to fit in. Then I heard this album and the lead singer talks about how he hates himself and cannot talk to girls, but set to this fast fun music. It had never occurred to me that I could be a nice guy who could have friends and have fun. That’s weird to say now.
I had co-hosted Sex Nerd Sandra for Nerdist for two years. I didn’t like talking about sex, so I left. What I did like was the feelings part of those discussions. I wanted to start a show that could help people open up and let others know they aren’t alone. The show is called Terrified but I ask them one of two questions: “What are you afraid of?” and “What do you dislike about yourself?” I’m only really interested in the second question. Why didn’t I call the show I Hate Myself? What I hate about myself is how terrified I am. Depression is a never ending battle. You have to keep up, you have to stay on top of it. One way to do that is to be reminded frequently that you’re not alone.
Let’s talk about how much you hate yourself and how vocal you are about that.
I still call myself a “little bitch” all the time. And I don’t really feel that way, but America has convinced me that feeling or being weak makes you inferior and not worth love. And that’s the scariest part. You start to think you’re not worth love, and then you reject love. I had a bad year with that last year. I went so far down that rabbit hole of not accepting love from people. That’s the closest to suicide I’ve ever been. I pulled myself out of it. Jesus, I can get close though.
That’s also one of the reasons I’m ending the show. I’ve had people ask me not to end it because it’s important to them. You start to take on the weight of other people’s shit. I was in a pit of depression that was the worst it had ever been, by far, and I was saying things about myself that I wouldn’t say about someone I hate. I was talking to my then-girlfriend. She asked “How do you feel?” and I said “I am trash. I am garbage. I am shit.” I had never said something like that out loud. I said it out loud and immediately knew it wasn’t true, but depression is not an active thought. You make assumptions about everything around you. Then I said “Oh, shit, I’m wrong. That’s not true.” That was a breakthrough and I cried a bunch and was fixed a little bit. I started looking at my whole life and seeing mistakes based on my flawed perspective. But also that kind of anxiety and sadness doesn’t change overnight. Now I need to keep my head above water, so each conversation about negativity or sadness sends me into that same rabbit hole.
It made me leave my therapist. I wanted to fucking kill myself.
I just said all of that, but we are also 30 seconds after me saying that and I’m already feeling ashamed. You weren’t depressed, you’re just a coward. That’s a voice in my head. I think my growing up is taking the form of understanding how we affect each other. In my life I was being passively sweet before, but now I’m trying to be a good person actively. I’m not sure I’ll get rid of that “pussy bitch” voice but, hey, we all went to high school.
Hearing other people’s pain helped me through a lot of shit. But this was also an overwhelmingly good experience. But I don’t want to be the Depression Comedian. If I was 15 years into comedy, this would’ve been a better choice. Personally, I felt like I was taking myself too seriously. All my jokes suddenly became about changing the world, but I miss being a moron. That’s a whole side of comedy I completely ignored for a while.
I travel the road doing stand-up, and now I have this thing where I talk about pain and people who through that too find it. In every city I go to, I meet people who I’ve directly helped with this shit. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Terrified will live online forever. There’s also a limited number of ways to be broken, so I hope people use it as a tool to laugh and help others.
What are some of your favorite episodes from the show?
There are some that are insanely unique. Baron Vaughn was destroyed financially and he’s one of my favorite comics but I had no idea. Anna and I did a Chris Conley episode at his house [ed: lead singer of Saves the Day] and he prefaces statements with “I’m super-emo guy, so I did this” because he lives in his head. Ty Segall’s episode was great and funny and he was worried about flipping out. That’s a real fear but it’s also so punk rock. The Sean Patton episode was great. We talked for an hour about comedy and then he brought up his horrific OCD at the very end and I was like “Wait, why didn’t we start with that?”
Who was the dream guest you didn’t get?
I actually got him! Hasan Minhaj was a comedian I came up with. He was a very successful club comedian who had all of these very general but good bits about hip-hop and dating. And then one day he turned his back on that to start talking about growing up bullied for being an immigrant and his career exploded. He’s a correspondent on The Daily Show and now doing a successful one-man show off-Broadway. He calls in for the final episode.
What did this show give to you over the last two years?
Podcasting and interviewing is an itch I need to scratch, and it’s such a great form. I want to host a talk show or something. I just like it as a medium. Also, this made me feel better in every way. Terrified is not about people feeling sorry for each other. You say what’s in your head and why and then we share jokes about that. I got to be around my friends and be dumb and tell each other it’s going to be okay. What else could you want?