Gabe Mollica’s show, Solo, is a perfect cohesion of theme and structure in that it is a one-man show about, well, feeling alone. Where a lot of stand-up shows may revel in the theatrical or over-exuberant, like your most dramatic friend telling a juicy story at brunch, Mollica’s work is quieter but no less engaging, more akin to an intimate conversation tucked in the corner of a crowded party. It’s almost ironic that the show centers around Mollica confessing that he has no friends since his energy is so welcoming and his presence so warm that by the end, you consider him part of your own inner circle. Paste spoke to him over Zoom about his show, his comedic influences, and his process.
Paste Magazine: Do you want to start by telling me a little bit about how the show got started and how it evolved?
Gabe Mollica: I started out knowing I wanted to do solo shows specifically. I was singularly focused on putting one together largely because of the Mike Birbiglia special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Seeing that changed my life, and I immediately was like, “Oh, I think I could do that,” even though I hadn’t really been interested in comedy before that formally. That one and Hasan Minaj’s Homecoming King are the ones that I’ve printed out and marked up and figured out. I’m really obsessed with them, both structurally and joke-wise.
I ended up doing a version of my show in 2019 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but I hadn’t been doing comedy very long, and the show was not very good. I basically bombed for a month, and I got better, but I did it in complete obscurity, and that was really good for me. I heard Hasan Minaj talk about Greg Walloch on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast, The Old Ones, so I looked him up and learned that anyone can reach out and hire him. I did sessions with him (and he eventually became my director), and I did sessions with Ophira Eisenberg, just on story structure, turning the knobs on characters, and trying to make this work almost like a narrative like a movie.
For a long time, I focused heavily on the betrayal aspect of the story, but eventually I got to a point in my life where I was like, “This happened when you were 22 years old. Why does it matter to you now?” Once I started asking that question, everything started to fall into place. I was like, “Well, I had a friend who was like a soulmate. And then that didn’t work out. So who are my friends like now?” And suddenly I started thinking about not just who I was then but who I am now and how they’re related, and once I had that friendship lens on everything started to click.
Paste: Open mics and comedy shows in general, and specifically in New York, can often be geared towards traditional stand-up material rather than longer form storytelling. How did you hone your craft in both storytelling and stand-up?
Mollica: Well I would go to The Moth a lot, and I would listen to it a lot since I really like that structure. I think of storytelling as cardio, in that it’s more long form, and then the jokes are more like heavy lifting. But as a comedian, we have this thing where we’re always asking, “Well, was it funny? Did it make you laugh?” I think that’s really important to me, because every comic wants the respect of their peers, and to make people laugh. But in this show I have to be reticent that the jokes are not the most important thing. Neal Brennan once came to see the show, and his Netflix special 3 Mics had just come out. He showed me his Instagram DMs, and there’s just hundreds of messages from people who watched the special, and he goes, “None of these are about the jokes. Every single one of these is about what I reveal about myself, what I admit to, and the story.” Basically saying, don’t worry so much about the comedy, the comedy will be fine, people will like it, but you have an opportunity and an obligation to reveal something about yourself. So I don’t see that as a limitation anymore. I think storytelling is a cool opportunity to do something else and reveal different parts of you.
Paste: At the start of the show I saw, you came out and said, “I’ve done this show for sold-out theaters, and I’ve done it for three people, and I’m excited to do it for you now.” As an audience member, that is so reassuring and it immediately puts us at ease and puts us in your corner. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to start the show like that?
Mollica: Yeah, I have a couple, like topics or lines that I like to say at the beginning. That one’s been more popular recently because it works for a big crowd and it works for a small crowd, too. I use certain lines, or talk a little about my day at the top of the show because I just want to be very present. I want it to feel like you’re in my living room and I’m just talking to you, so I try to break down those audience/performer barriers a little bit. I saw a show in Edinburgh this year where a comic waited at the door and shook everyone’s hand as they got into the theater. That was my original idea, I was like, “Oh, I’d love to greet everyone as they were coming in,” but my director, Greg [Walloch], was like, “I think you can do that with your words.”
After the show, I run outside. I have my microphone still on and I peel the tape off my back because I want to rush out there to thank people for coming. I want it to feel like you know me afterwards. Mike Birbiglia did that in his last special, The New One, where he came out and he wasn’t wearing the microphone yet. He put it on as he was getting ready, and it felt very casual and welcoming. So the beginning is a very intentional choice to not just start and immediately be like, “I turned 30 and two things happened.” I want to ease into it.
Paste: In the show you talk about how you were a music student for a long time. Do you think that studying music affects how you approach performing or your performance style?
Mollica: Totally. I used to be obsessed with this choir director named Anton Armstrong—he was the director of the St. Olaf Choir—and he would talk about singing with people rather than singing at people. The best choirs invite you in on the experience, it’s not just an outward noise. Also, singing audiences are just so there with you, they’re such great audiences. Singing is very inviting, like, “Hey, come enjoy this communal experience.” I want to create that in my show as well.
I also wanted to be a choir director for a long time, and a lot of that is public speaking, communicating, making people feel comfortable, and getting them to do what you want them to do, which in music is singing the right notes and pronouncing things the right way. But in comedy, the things you want people to do are laugh or feel a certain emotion. When I was studying music I would think, “I’m gonna teach this music passage, how can I communicate this clearly? How can I make people laugh? Do I have a bit for this?” And those are the same skills I use onstage. I heard Michelle Wolf once say, “I don’t want to do cool teacher comedy,” and my whole thing is cool teacher comedy, that’s my whole vibe.
Paste: Do you have a favorite part of the show?
Mollica: The ending has actually changed quite a bit, we’ve turned some levers and now suddenly the big reveal is getting gasps. We’ve also added a couple of big jokes to the ending, so now the last seven minutes are so fun for me because it’s new. The way I see the show is that you have all these ingredients for like 65 minutes, 70 minutes, and then at the end you see what you make. We have all these threads we set up that we have to close the loop on, so anytime I get to close the loop on a new thread I’m always really looking forward to doing that. It’s really exciting, those big payoffs at the end.
Was there any part of the show that was particularly difficult to write?
Mollica: I’d say the drama leading up to the reveal, and making sure I get the details of the betrayal right. Every time you start working on a show you start from the beginning, so the first act is great and tight. Then you have the ending because you know where you’re leading to, but then that section between halfway and the end is always the weakest. I got to a point where I had done the show so much and I was like, “I have to figure out this emotional stuff.” One of the changes we’ve made is that I give myself a minute to be really mad in that moment, because I want the audience to feel exactly how I felt that night. Afterwards we loosen the tension a little bit and I talk about them more lovingly and more appreciatively, but I had to have faith in the audience that they can trust me—and I can trust myself—to really share how I felt that night. You know it’s my story, and I’m allowed to tell it, but it’s my job to be respectful and show a little bit of grace as well. This is not a revenge show, but I think it’s just being honest about my experiences.
Paste: The general concept of the show—realizing that you’re not as close to people that you thought you were close to—feels very relatable, even if people haven’t experienced the specifics you reference. Do people often come up to you afterwards and talk about that?
Mollica: Yeah, people are really into the friendship idea. I specifically talk about male friendships, but people of all genders come up to me and say, “Oh, this is true for me, too,” and that’s been very satisfying. I don’t always know what to say to everybody in the sense that I’m not like a friendship influencer, I’m just making stuff and observing it. And I have some takeaways, call your friends more, don’t be afraid to talk about heavier stuff, that sort of thing. But I don’t have all the answers, I’m just poking and prodding at this thing and that’s all I really know how to do.
I also never know which part is going to resonate with people. For some people, it’s the singing parts, for some people it’s the summer camp stuff, for some people it’s that they have a brother or sibling with a disability and they know what it’s like to care for them. Sometimes it’s a tiny little detail that I would never have expected. It’s really fun because people come up to me and they could be about to say anything, which is really exciting.
Paste: Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you want to talk about more?
Mostly just that I’m very honored that I get to keep doing this. I don’t want to be famous, I just want to work and I just want people to see this thing. Every time people show up, big crowds or small crowds, I’m very, very appreciative. I love doing the show. It really is my favorite thing. A day where I get to do the show is like infinitely better than I did that day that I don’t get to do it.
Solo is playing through February 25th at the SoHo Playhouse, you can get tickets here.
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.