In an industry that spans from visible-forehead-vein-throbbing men upset they can't do their favorite accents anymore to comics who are willing to prioritize "safe" comedy at the expense of punchlines, Chris Gethard describes Martin Urbano as one of his favorite comedians who successfully toes the line in between. While introducing Urbano to Chris Gethard Presents, a public access show that Urbano's hosted three times, Gethard throws in one caveat.
"Maybe something someday will come out about Martin, and we'll all be like, Oh shit. He was serious the whole time," Gethard said.
It's an odd way to introduce a comedian—until you watch Urbano's work. He often leans into a persona of a sex creep, which, as Gethard mentions, can only really work if you're for sure not a sex creep. Right now is a particularly jarring time for such jokes, with several high-profile comedians being accused of behavior ranging from creepy to felonious.
"When that Chris D'Elia story came out, I was just like, I gotta hop back on real quick for this. There's probably going to be many more to come," Urbano said. (There have been: Bryan Callen was accused of sexual assault and misconduct, and Jeff Ross is facing allegations of having a sexual relationship with a minor.)
Despite this tinge to Urbano's humor, or perhaps because of it, Chris Gethard's fanbase, which I've previously described as "almost obscenely positive," is very supportive of Urbano—something he doesn't take for granted.
"I always credit Chris for showing me there is a way to be successful and have fans who are smart, cool, with good senses of humor, and are just fans, not just fuckin' mean," Urbano told VICE.
Urbano has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and is a featured comedian on Will Smith's comedy series This Joka, coming out later this year. Every Monday, on Planet Scum, he hosts Who Wants $2.69 with Martin Urbano, a game show that's a satirical, DIY version of the higher-stakes classic series Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The questions blend actual trivia with Urbano's dark sense of humor, and his guests are fellow comedians. Though it's a humorous show, Urbano does stick to his rules, and in one instance, eliminated a guest in just ten minutes.
Aside from his comedian friends, Urbano also selects a fan to play for a portion of the show. If contestants are stumped, there is no option to call an acquaintance, only a request to get a "blessing" from Urbano. These blessings range from straightforward hints to prompts for the contestant to taunt God to kill them.
VICE spoke to Urbano about his comedy, his game show, and the expenses of his new hosting gig.
VICE: How did Who Wants $2.69 with Martin Urbano come to be?
Martin Urbano: After I'd done my third Comedy Amateurclass, I was like, what else is there to talk about [in] comedy? It's a very shallow pool, once you start making the same jokes over and over again. At the wrap party for the third episode of Amateurclass, I was talking to Jersey Dave, the producer, and I mentioned to him, "I want to do a quiz show. Hear me out: it's going to be called Who Wants Two dollars and 69 Cents?" And he was just like, "OK. I'm gonna need more to know." [laughs] And I was like, 'OK, I'll think about it.' And then the pandemic happened, and I lost my job. I was like, Ah, shit. All my money came from live performance and I was like, maybe that's it. So I stewed in that for two to three months. After I did that, my producer on this show, Adam Gold, came to me and said, 'Hey, Planet Scum is doing this really cool stuff, they have a good-sized community. They want you in. I want to work with you. Do you have an idea?' And I figured this would be the perfect time to do it. I fleshed it out with Adam and with Chris and Jersey Dave, and they were kind enough to give me a weekly spot on a really cool thing that they've built out.
Obviously, the format of the jokes is to get a reaction from the audience. Do you put that together with the producers, or do you workshop those with anyone else before putting them into a show?
I take pride in my questions in that I write them all by myself. But I definitely try to run them by my lover, my girlfriend [and fellow comedian] Kelsey Caine, whose opinion I respect probably one of the most in this world. She and the producers see it. But I usually cut it pretty close to the wire before the show starts. Usually, I'm flying in blind and hope it's good.
You have a heel persona, especially in the Gethard universe—it's known that it's a character you play. But if someone came in completely blind and watched, they'd think you're a huge asshole…
[laughs] Well, thank you. It's a testament to my work. Honestly, I had a realization a while ago: There's a lot of talk about characters and what's your character on stage and what's your persona, and what I came down to is it's basically just me telling jokes. So I'm not afraid to let that irony veil down if I want to. I'll also keep it up if I feel like it. I don't want to be dictated by the audience. I do what feels right in the moment.
Someone like Carmen Christopher plays the heel a lot more. He'll actively tell the audience, like, 'Fuck you all, I'm the best!" He creates this rapport with the audience where it's fun to boo him. I've seen him do things like that. For me, I want the audience to be in on the joke, because that's what makes it funnier. I also don't like to give myself too many pats on the back. Maybe I'm getting a little too complimentary towards myself, so I'll shut it down.
Is there one show so far that went particularly well?
I really feel like I get better every single episode. The newest one on Monday with Rachel Pegram—I was just blowing through it. We had a contestant from last week, Andrew Tabs, and shout-out to Andrew Tabs; he set a record for most money won, which I think is 25 bucks.
A turning point was with Yedoye Travis. That was a good episode where I stuck to my guns. Spoiler alert: He was eliminated after the second or third question. And he had blessings left. He was answering, getting into the whole groove of the show, getting confident, and then he got it wrong and he was visibly upset, as many fans pointed out. I thought it was so funny, he was like, 'Give me another chance.' I just didn't. I cut him off and that was it. This is what the show's about: Somebody being actually upset, somebody wanting to play more, and then, no, that's it. Those are the rules of the game, you are eliminated. That was a fun one.
How much money have you paid out?
[laughs] Do you want to know? Let's see here. $13 the first episode, $31, $22, $27, $13, $12, $13, and the most I have lost is this past one, with $34. So, I guess an average of about 20 to 25 bucks a show? Would it be more impressive if I had an exact number?
I was just wondering because I was watching and was like, it's not zero dollars you're giving away. It's money.
I was prepared to lose a lot of money going into this. But we have contributions for the shows, so I am not doing too terribly. But I definitely don't have a main source of income coming in right now; I'm scraping by. I've lost $165 doing this show. Actually, let's call it a cool $169, not including all the equipment I've had to get and stuff. So I've definitely invested in the show. But I really think this is something that I could see myself doing for a long time. I came into this wanting proof of concept, and I think I have that in spades, and I'm only getting better. So hopefully something cool happens with it that I get to start making a little bit more money, giving away a little bit more money. That'd be fun. Bigger. Better. Harder.
The contributions haven't put you in the black yet?
For legal purposes I cannot reveal how much people have given. I will say that with the tech shit I've had to buy because I was totally unprepared for being online-only—and I'm trying to up the production value every time, and the fans have been very nice, inconsistent in contributing to support and help the show [laughs]—and after I pay out the producers and after I pay out the contestants, I've broken more or less even. My incentives to make the contestants lose and put on a show and keep all that money are definitely there.
My parents will ask, like, 'So, how's the show?' and I'll be like, "Mom, I'm making art."
'Who Wants $2.69 With Martin Urbano' streams every Monday on Twitch, with previous episodes available on YouTube.
Follow Ashwin Rodrigues on Twitter.