The subversive project is a real passion project for Gad, a veteran of both film (The Rocker, Love And Other Drugs) and television (he was once a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart). Harking back to the days of wilder comedians like Chris Farley and Jim Carrey, the character of Gigi adheres to a simpler yet physically taxing style of comedy style that’s been largely overlooked in recent years.
With Gigi’s episodes already in motion, Gad himself won’t have much time to watch them. Also this week, the Broadway musical/comedy The Book Of Mormon debuted, in which Gad plays a Mormon slacker shipped off to Uganda to spread his faith to the natives. The play is the brainchild of South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the reviews have been through-the-roof positive.
In his eyes, Gad is having the best week ever. Complex recently caught up with the busy actor to discuss how Gigi is more Bean than Borat, why the character should have worldwide appeal, and The Book Of Mormon.
Complex: How did Gigi come about?
Josh Gad: We set out to do something that was a lot more physical-comedy-based. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, to do a character who’s a lot more physical than what you normally get to see today. A lot of the comedy right now is in that Apatow thing, which is brilliant, but it’s much more dialogue-oriented, and I wanted to just get back to comedic basics, and challenge myself to do that. So that’s how it started.
BBC saw an episode that we did years ago, just for our own shits and giggles, and it was just a foreigner in a bathtub learning English. And they were like, “We would love to make this a series,” and I said, “Well, I don’t know if there’s a series there or not.” [Laughs] So we sat down, looked at it—by “we” I mean the Lost Nomads, my comedy troupe and I. We decided that there actually was a lot more there than we had ever imagined. And then My Damn Channel came along and helped to finance it, and helped to create the vision that we came up with.
What did you base the character himself on?
Josh Gad: I think that I’ve always been fascinated with foreigners. My dad was born in Afghanistan—he’s a Jew who was born in Afghanistan. [Laughs] That kind of language barrier always fascinated me. I’m surrounded by a lot of people in my life who are that way, and I’m always amazed by the foreigner with the American dream. I think it’s honestly hilarious, so that to me has always grabbed my interest.
In terms of the comedic bent, my biggest hero in life is Charlie Chaplin; he’s somebody that I’ve always looked up to. I’ve never been as blown away by what a comedian has done than I am by Chaplin and Buster Keaton and people like that, because they did so much with so little. They couldn’t rely on dialogue, necessarily; they had to rely on other tools. And, to me, I’ve always wanted to do that kind of comedy, but there’s no outlet for it anymore. They don’t make those kinds of comedies anymore. So it was something that I wanted to challenge myself to do, and that’s kind of how it all began.
It’s interesting, because that style of comedy is so classical, and it always seems to work. Why do you think there are so few people doing it these days? Is it solely the Judd Apatow influence?
Josh Gad: I think it’s certainly partly the Apatow influence. Comedy, like all art, goes into different phases, and it’ll come around again. In the ’90s, we saw this style of comedy I’m talking about with Jim Carrey, and there was definitely that physical comedy appetite. To a certain extent, I think we’re starting to get back to it a little bit, with things like Paul Blart: Mall Cop—that’s not necessarily my type of movie, but It clearly shows that people still enjoy that type of comedy.
To me, physical comedy can never go out of fad, because it’s the only universal language we have. People can all laugh at something that’s visually stimulating, as opposed to something that depends on language, and something that depends on your understanding of English, or whatever your language may be.
I was just going to say that Kevin James definitely works in that kind of comedy style.
Josh Gad: Yeah. And look, the guy’s making a fortune doing just that! So I certainly think there’s an appetite for it. I just think that a lot of times there’s this mentality that, “Well, it’s less smart.” And I don’t believe that; I think it’s actually more difficult to use your body to create comedy to appeal to the masses, as opposed to coming up with a joke based on language.
One semi-recent example of that kind of comedy that always makes me crack up is the scene in Hot Fuzz where Nick Frost tries to hop the fence but just falls face-first into it.
Josh Gad: Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are the perfect example of what I’m talking about. And that’s a more British sensibility. There are certainly British influences in Gigi, specifically from Rowan Atkinson and Mr. Bean. You can definitely trace the lineage of this character to Mr. Bean, and BBC certainly picked up on that. They helped create that character and give it to the world. The Brits have a very keen understanding of that kind of comedy, from Charlie Chaplin on. So, you’re absolutely right—those guys, from Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, definitely rely on that to a certain extent. Stephen Chow is another one, who did Kung Fu Hustle. He’s one my favorite filmmakers alive right now, because anybody can laugh at that movie; it doesn’t rely on your understanding of language. It relies on something a lot more innate.
"Physical comedy is the only universal language we have."
For the generation I come from, the reference for physical comedy has to be Chris Farley. Watching Gigi, I started remembering some of Farley’s stuff. There really seems to be a heavy Farley influence.
Josh Gad: One of my heroes. The guy, to me, is the funniest performer in Saturday Night Live history. Every single time one of his sketches comes on I still start crying with laughter, whether it’s the one he did with Patrick Swayze, or if it’s “I live in a van down by the river,” he is just so damn funny! I would imagine that anybody in any country can turn that on and start laughing.
When you’re creating a fish-out-of-water character, how difficult is it to keep things fresh and innovative? That type of character has been done so many times already.
Josh Gad: Well, that was certainly the challenge at first. We weren’t interested in doing this if it was in any way going to resemble Borat or anything like that. We just didn’t want to tread on old water. For us, it was about creating a story that is unique to this kind of personality, and this archetype, and what we found is that, in the simplicity of telling a story about this foreigner, we don’t know his background, or where he’s from or how he got here. We’re not interested in answering those kinds of questions; we’re interested in seeing what he has to learn and what he has to gain from pursuing the American dream. And also what interpersonal relationships are like for a guy like this. Not to give too much away, but there is a love interest, and there are these elements that we build on that challenge him and provide crazy new obstacles that I don’t think have been done before.
It’s about the execution of what we did, as opposed to the conceit. At the end of the day, everything’s been done before—there’s nothing new. But it’s about how you approach the material that makes it unique.
The Borat connection seems like one that is almost unavoidable to make. Were you conscious of that going into this project?
Josh Gad: Always aware it was going to happen, but I think it’s an unfair analogy to make before you’ve actually seen Gigi. In the Twitter-verse that we love in right now, it’s very easy to pass judgment on something immediately. [Laughs] People go there without really doing their research, and it is easy to make that connection. I don’t think it’s a fair connection to make, though; this exists a lot more in the world of Mr. Bean than it does Borat. But, you know, people will compare regardless.
The “web series” format is a really interesting route to take. What about the web appealed to you for a project like this one?
Josh Gad: I love the potential of the web. It is a breeding ground, and it’s such an unbelievable creative outlet because it gives you the opportunity to experiment without all of the hoops you’d have to jump through for a network, or even to get film financing. There isn’t all of that pressure, necessarily, so you get to experiment without consequence, and I think that’s an amazing opportunity for artists.
Switching gears, you’ve also got The Book Of Mormon starting up right now, and there’s a huge amount of buzz surrounding that play. How’d you get connected with Trey Parker and Matt Stone?
Josh Gad: It’s one of those things that I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved with from the beginning. The very first workshop that we did was three years ago, and it was only one act. At the time, Trey and Matt were just literally figuring out whether or not they wanted to make a movie, or an actual musical piece of theater, or just can the idea altogether. It was an experiment, and that experiment wound up blossoming into something much bigger than anybody ever expected. Over the years and over the course of six workshops, it was developed into something that has blown away all expectations. We’re really, really fortunate and ecstatic that people are responding the way they are.
Did you have to audition in any way, or were you friendly with Trey and Matt before things began?
Josh Gad: No, I mean, I’m a huge South Park fan; I saw the movie, I think, four times in the theater. It was a dream come true when I got the phone call. It was in response to some work of mine they’d seen, and they thought it would be the right fit. And, yeah, from there it just developed. It’s been amazing.
What’s your character all about?
Josh Gad: My character is Elder Cunningham. He’s an 18-year-old who’s about to become a missionary, and he is the antithesis of what a good Mormon missionary should be. [Laughs] He’s a schlubby mess, and I don’t think he’s ever even read the Book of Mormon; he’s much more fascinated by things in pop culture, and he loves Star Wars. He definitely belongs a lot more in Revenge Of The Nerds than he does in any sort of religiously motivated film. [Laughs]
I think that he’s the odd man out, and he gets paired up with a perfect, young, strapping Mormon boy, and the two of them get shipped off to a dangerous part of the world, where God is definitely not something that they look up to and revere. It’s about how we convert them, or if we convert them.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone were on The Daily Show recently and they talked about how the Mormon community has really embraced the play, and how they probably didn’t even realize that no one involved with it is actually Mormon.
Josh Gad: I have always said, from the very beginning, that it’s one of the most pro-faith shows I’ve ever seen—I really believe that. The message, at the end of the day, is in support of belief systems, and Trey and Matt make it clear, which is their brilliant gift, that, while they may disagree with the beliefs, they respond to and respect people who can find that kind of value in faith. That’s what makes the show so great—it presents that from both sides of the spectrum, and does it so hysterically well.
That’s their genius expertise. On many episodes of South Park, they’ll actually have the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen to say, “This is what they really believe,” so that you can pass the judgment yourself. They’re just presenting the reality of what it is, and sometimes it’s just hard not to laugh at the absurdity of certain situations.