Richie Tozier: The Manchild Grows Up
Rolling Stone, November 2019
“The thing about being a comedian in L.A. is you wind up with a wildly skewed idea of what happiness looks like."
Unshaven and wearing his signature bug-eye glasses, Richie Tozier looks exactly how you'd expect. It's a mark of successful branding, and the reason why our interview gets interrupted by three separate groups of fans in the span of 45 minutes.
“Everyone in this industry either has a pill habit, or they can’t hold a relationship together for more than two months," Tozier explains. "Or they spend 16 hours a day on Twitter. Best case scenario is you find a way to be reasonably well-adjusted about your desperate need for strangers to laugh at you.”
“The more successful you get, the more you’re living that Pagliacci lifestyle, you know?" He pulls an expression of cartoonish dismay: "‘But doctor, I am that pathetic motherfucker from the SNL Angry Birds sketch!’”
Tozier seems more upset about how he left Saturday Night Live than the fact he got fired in the first place. It would’ve been better to get kicked off for something cool like cursing on air, or making a political statement, he argues. But it was indeed the Angry Birds thing that brought Richie Tozier's brief SNL tenure to an abrupt halt in 2012.
You’ve probably seen it on YouTube, or at the very least in .GIF format: A sweaty-looking guy in a cartoon bird costume, repeatedly stuttering over the same line until someone puts him out of his misery and cuts the camera feed to another actor. Unlike Tozier’s later, more headline-grabbing onstage meltdown in 2016, the Angry Birds clip is more cringeworthy than actively excruciating to watch. Although in reality, the true story of Tozier’s firing is even more ignominious. His on-air screwup was the final straw, following two demoralizing months as a junior cast member who clearly wouldn't make the cut. Recruited on the basis of his celebrity impressions, he reportedly had no skill for generating original ideas, and a patchy ability to learn his lines on time.
“Can you imagine how mediocre you have to be to get fired from SNL as a thirty-something white guy in 2012?” Tozier wonders out loud.
You seem admirably self-aware about it now, I suggest.
“Yeah, it probably won’t come as a surprise to hear I’m in therapy," says Tozier drily. "It’s weirdly great. You know, in a horrible way. Although I often think my therapist should be giving me a discount or something. I mean, the material I’m giving her! She can probably handle a normal middle-aged closet case in her sleep. But when I walk into your office and announce I literally paid a team of straight guys to write me a fake straight alter-ego with a fake straight girlfriend? Goldmine! I’m like the Evil Knievel of repression, I was constantly challenging myself to achieve new heights of bullshit.”
He’s not exactly wrong. In retrospect his relentless jokes about sex and women seem like transparent overcompensation, but the strategy was shockingly effective at the time. When Tozier forgot his own name during a stand-up show and vanished from the public eye in 2016, fans assumed it was substance abuse issues. The speculation was salacious and unsympathetic, dovetailing neatly with Tozier's salacious and unsympathetic image. No one could've guessed that he'd reemerge a few months later with a series of quiet appearances at open mic nights in New York and L.A., showcasing new material that felt noticeably different from what he'd done before. Then came the big L.A. Times interview last year, with its hand-in-hand admissions that he was gay, and that he'd been relying on ghostwriters for years. Richie Tozier's coming out was a surprise, but from a professional standpoint, the other thing was much more scandalous.
It’s not unusual for top-tier comedians to employ uncredited writers, but Tozier’s situation was uniquely extreme. He estimates that on his last U.S. tour, around sixty or seventy percent of his material was written by other people. And we’re not talking about the one-liners here. Most of those were Tozier originals.
Richie Tozier's writing team were hired to punch up his personal side, crafting a douchey stage persona who appealed to college bros and aging slackers. A faintly misogynist horndog who enjoyed classic ‘80s movies and had relatable complaints about Crossfit, Facebook, and the popularity of One Direction. His 800,000-follower Twitter account (now deleted because “it didn’t seem fair”) was run by a PR firm that specializes in boosting the profiles of teen TV stars. In short, the Richie Tozier of 2016 was the antithesis of our current trend for authentic, confessional comedy. He was America’s most notorious phoney.
“It’s a weird situation to be in,” he admits, drawing lines in the condensation on his Coke glass.
When we set up this meeting, Tozier was firm about our choice of location: "I don't want to do one of those zany interviews where we go truffle-hunting or fingerpainting or whatever." Apparently his attention span couldn't handle it, and he semi-seriously suggested a joint visit to a sensory deprivation tank. I pointed out that my audio recorder probably couldn't withstand a saltwater bath, so we compromised on a chic but nondescript hotel restaurant, where Richie compulsively folds our table napkins into a family of geese. (“I’m not a swan person. Ugly duckling, maybe.”)
To continue, though: He is indeed in a weird situation.
“I’m aware that to a certain extent, I owe my success to these guys who either don’t want to be publicly credited as my ghostwriters, or probably ought to count as shareholders in my career. Fortunately none of them are pissed at me now, although a lot of other comics are. Which I understand. Some people definitely see this new tour as another example of me failing upwards, but I’m hoping I can prove them wrong.”
Is he worried about being famous for having onstage meltdowns?
He chuckles. “I mean, the ship already sailed on that one, right? Unless I join a cult or save a baby from a burning building, SNL and my big public midlife crisis are always gonna be a key part of my, uh, my media narrative, as they say.”
“I actually discussed this with my boyfriend, back when I started writing this new show. I got all neurotic and asked him if I’ve become one of those people who’s mainly famous for doing weird shit in public, like Kanye. And then Eddie just gave me this dead-eyed look and asked, ‘Did you seriously just compare your shitty jokes to Late Registration?’ So now I have to win 21 Grammys and prove him wrong.”
“So yeah, I’m a little concerned about it, but I can’t exactly blame people for knowing me as the onstage breakdown guy. Hey, maybe it’ll even sell some tickets! I wanted to include a fake-out bit in the new show, but my manager vetoed it. He said it’s harder for people to focus on my comeback if I’m constantly reminding them of my past failures. Which is, you know, fair. But you’d think the fact that I talk about my boyfriend all the time might clue people in that I’ve turned over a new leaf.”
“Some blogger described me as the evil mirror universe version of Tig Notaro," he adds. "Which isn't totally inaccurate, I guess. Tig did a show right after hearing some horrible news, and absolutely killed it. Whereas I got some horrible news before a show and promptly tanked my entire career, an outcome that let's face it, I probably deserved.”
While Notaro’s cancer diagnosis show gained legendary status among stand-up comedy fans, Tozier’s “horrible news” is a surprisingly minor part of his disaster-and-comeback arc. Minutes before going onstage at that infamous gig in 2016, he learned about the sudden death of a childhood friend, prompting him to vomit off a nearby balcony and flee the stage after 30 painful seconds of sudden-onset aphasia. He's mentioned on several occasions that this phonecall had more to do with his breakdown than his sexuality ever did, but America loves a coming-out story. Plus as he freely admits, it’s easier to talk about being gay than it is to talk about grief. "At the risk of sounding cliché, it's not my story to tell."
So, how does New Richie differ from the old, pre-2016 Richie?
“Oh, god. Well for one thing, there’s literally no way that New Richie’s gonna make as much money. It's just not happening. The main goal of my old writing team was to cast the net as wide as humanly possible, you know? Whereas when I’m writing my own material, it’s just intrinsically weirder and probably offputting to a lot of people."
"The stuff I find funny on a day-to-day basis just isn't universally relatable. I’m a C-list celebrity with a bunch of deeply unsettling childhood trauma, and my idea of fun is like, reading the Wikipedia page for the Bermuda Triangle at 3am. I don't have kids, or parents, or the kind of problems you can turn into charming anecdotes. Even my gay jokes aren’t relatable, because I spent twenty years aggressively avoiding anything approaching queer culture. So when I talk about my personal life onstage, I’m not even attempting to engage with people in the same way I did when I was making jokes about, like, the Predator franchise or guessing women’s cup sizes.”
One of the napkin geese chooses this moment to fall over, and Richie turns his attention to refolding it, conveniently allowing him to avoid looking me in the eye. “I like to think I’m less of an asshole in this new show, too. Or at least my natural assholishness is less mean-spirited. I’m never gonna be one of those heartwarming stand-ups, but I think there’s different kinds of meanness. Like for example, my boyfriend is so mean.”
“It took me a while to figure out how to articulate it without sounding like a ripoff of John Mulaney’s whole “I love my wife and she’s a bitch” bit, but my boyfriend Eddie and I grew up together, so our basic state is like two obnoxious middle-schoolers trying to piss each off. Genuinely we had to make a mutual decision that I can never go to his office parties. Not because he’s worried I'd embarrass him - which is obviously a given - but because his coworkers all think he’s a grownup, and I’d break the illusion. They’re not allowed to see him in his natural state of betting me fifty bucks that frogs and toads are the same species, or telling me to go fuck myself because I broke the seal on one of his collectible Transformers comics.
"We just enjoy annoying the hell out of each other in a way that’s not fit for public consumption, which is a kind of meanness I really appreciate. As opposed to being paid to make fun of Lindsay Lohan, which in hindsight was a pretty hypocritical period of my career."
He’s referring to his first stint as a shock jock, back in the mid-2000s when there was a still an inexhaustible hunger for Howard Stern wannabes on the airwaves. Tozier’s weekday breakfast show Trashmouth led to more fame than anything else before his time on SNL, attracting lasting attention in a way you can only achieve by being memorably annoying during people’s morning commute. Trashmouth’s specialty was pop culture commentary and snarky celebrity roasts, delivered with a kind of careless unpleasantness that now seems painfully dated. His outlook seems to have changed a lot since then, as evidenced by an industry rumor that he turned down Joe Rogan last month.
“In the industry we have these endless debates about what qualifies as punching up or down, but I really think the peak example of the form is when you can roast your friends on a totally equal footing,” Tozier explains. “I didn’t know how much I missed it until I reconnected with some old, old friends a few years ago. But I’m honestly happier being relentlessly bullied by Eddie and our friend Bill [novelist William Denbrough] than I ever was when I was socializing with my actual comedy idols. Because you know, it’s cool to meet Chappelle or Seinfeld or Jim Carrey, who was basically my God in the ‘90s, but even if you reach the level where you bump into these people semi-regularly, it’s not like you’re forming genuine relationships. And I wasn’t exactly in a position to make meaningful connections anyway.”
“This sounds totally counterintuitive, but seriously - it's incredibly satisfying to just regress into a kind of middle-school mentality with Eddie and Bill and our circle of friends. We’re all basically settled in our grown-up careers and personal lives, but when we're together there’s no pressure to act like responsible adults because we've all seen each other piss our pants in second grade, or get caught shoplifting Playboys on a dare. Honestly it’s a strategy I’d recommend to any other semi-famous people going through an awkward public crisis: Go to you high school reunion. It won’t work if you’re like, famous-famous, because everyone’ll just think you’re cool, but trust me, there was no danger of that happening to me.”
The nebulous “unsettling childhood trauma” he mentions isn’t covered in his new show, but Tozier does spend a lot of time talking about his middle-school friends, a group that coincidentally includes two other public figures alongside him and Bill Denbrough: fashion mogul Beverley Marsh, and award-winning architect Ben Hanscom. The way Tozier tells it, they all bonded over having midlife crises at the same time, an idea that sounds like the premise for a rejected Richard Curtis movie. “It’s less cute than it sounds,” he assures me.
Starting in California and wending its way over to venues on the East Coast, Tozier’s comeback tour is subtitled Manchild. It’s both an accurate descriptor for his new material, and a self-aware deconstruction of his old celebrity persona. Still, you might be surprised by how much overlap there is between the Richie Tozier we knew before, and the version who emerged out the other side of 2016.
The cheap sexism and broad pop-culture references are gone, but Tozier’s slouchy Hawaiian shirts are still in action. He’s still a fan of bitter one-liners and dick jokes, switching easily between brash overconfidence and self-conscious gawkiness. He also still gets a kick out of uncomfortable celebrity encounters, although instead of making his own horniness a punchline (one of his old routines included a running bit about him accidentally staring down Winona Ryder’s dress), several jokes highlight the discomfort of being nationally famous for screwing up.
Previously known as the quintessential middle-aged douchebag who refuses to grow up, Tozier has arrived at a new thesis: Being a manchild isn't so bad, as long as you balance it out with some genuine empathy and introspection. And while he insists that his new material is unrelatable, I’m not so sure.
Tozier is a few years too old to qualify as a millennial, but his experiences reflect a particular kind of millennial neurosis: a constant awareness that he’s performing “adulthood” incorrectly, judging by a series of outdated metrics for success. He talks a lot about how mature and sophisticated his friends are by comparison, but it also sounds like his new relationship gave him a glimpse behind the curtain. His boyfriend Eddie (whose surname remains private) has what Tozier describes as a “painfully boring desk job,” and in many ways he’s a stereotype of responsible adulthood. A guy who wears suits and understands how taxes work, who insures his luggage before traveling, and buys groceries before they run out. He apparently installed a $400 water filter in the section of the fridge where Tozier used to keep beer and chocolate milk.
But according to Tozier's stories, Eddie is still that easily annoyed middle-school kid underneath, and the two of them can be equally immature. Eddie’s ability to behave like an adult is simultaneously real and performative.
Tozier’s earlier work often explored his awkward role as both an insider and an outsider in Hollywood, a recurring theme that now feels like obvious commentary on the closet. (“Completely unintentionally, because I’m an idiot," he responds when I ask about it.) This is one of a few ideas that carry through into Manchild, which Tozier invited me to see at a preview gig last month.
“Internalized homophobia is wild, man,” he said towards the beginning of the set. “I spent years feeling deeply paranoid about catching men’s eyes in the gym, in case they assumed I was checking them out. Like, I literally had a nightmare that a bodybuilder stuck my head down a toilet and it all got filmed for TMZ, my subconscious is not subtle. A few years ago I started telling myself that when people gave me funny looks or whatever, it was just because I was kinda famous, and they were trying to figure out where they knew me from. But ever since I came out, I think I’ve figured out the truth.”
“As you probably know, I live in L.A. So when I go to lift my five-pound shake weights or go on the running machine for the precise length of a bite-size educational podcast about chemtrails, everyone nearby either looks like Captain America or one of those shredded 28-year-old Riverdale teens. Hell, at the absolute bare minimum my own boyfriend looks like a shredded Riverdale dad, and he doesn’t even work in show business. But in the year or so since I came out, I’ve realized that these people really don’t give a shit if I’m gay, and they almost certainly don’t recognize who I am. They’re just taking one look at my noodly-ass body and wondering: What the fuck is this guy doing at my gym?”
After we’re done with the interview, I actually get to meet the infamous Eddie. I was momentarily apprehensive about this because from Tozier’s description, they could easily have been one of those couples who just fight all the time and pretend it’s romantic, which would be a demoralizing end to the story. Instead I’m happy to confirm that they are, in the absence of a better term, cute.
In Manchild, Tozier describes his boyfriend as having "a chihuahua vibe,” meaning he's adorable but full of rage. I’m probably not qualified to judge a grown man’s adorability, but when Eddie arrives at the restaurant he’s a compact guy in a tailored suit, saved from forgettability thanks to his aura of suppressed energy. By this point Tozier and I are both waiting in the lobby for our respective rides, and we’re standing far enough apart that Eddie doesn’t realize who I am.
“Hey, fuckface,” he says cheerfully, leaning up to kiss Tozier on the cheek, and Tozier breaks into a wide grin, eyes closing briefly like a happy cat in a sunbeam.
“Hi honeybunch. Just FYI, you’re on the record, so no funny business.”
Eddie finally notices me, his face creasing into a frown. “Rolling Stone?” he asks in a clipped tone, his hand still resting casually on the small of Tozier’s back. “The comedy columnist? I googled you. You gave Richie a three-star review in 2015, right?”
Concerned that I’m about to be savaged by Richie Tozier’s angry chihuahua boyfriend, I nod with trepidation.
“That was one star too many,” Eddie replies with finality, and for the first time this afternoon, Richie Tozier cracks up laughing.