An often-tapped source of material for comedy writers is personal experience. For Chris Fleming, that meant drawing from his childhood in Stow, Massachusetts –– a small town west of Boston. As an aspiring stand-up comedian in Los Angeles, Fleming’s big break came in the form of a YouTube series.
Fleming’s show, “Gayle,” stars himself as a high-strung suburban mother in New England. Since the series’ inception in 2012, Fleming’s channel has exploded to over 19 million views and over 130,000 subscribers.
The Lantern sat down with Fleming to talk about the beginnings of his comedy career.
Fleming’s “Showpig Tour” will be at Columbus’ Lincoln Theatre, 769 E. Long St., on July 9.
Q: How long have you been producing videos?
I started in high school, when I was a little twerp, but I think I would say professionally since 2012. And “producing” –– that’s a generous term, I like that you said that. Usually with YouTube it’s just like, “How long have you been spewing videos?” I think that’s the verb for YouTube –– it’s simply spewing.
Q: What sparked your interest in acting?
I was a real fan of the show Mork & Mindy when I was in kindergarten, I remember seeing that. It was a show where Robin Williams played an alien and just had free rein, and as a child I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s the only job.” I think I just wanted to be in that show. But that’s what originally got me into it, I got some parts, I got a supporting lead in high school, and so I got the bug, and by the bug I mean narcissistic personality disorder.
Q: What was the inspiration behind your series, “Gayle?”
Gayle was a character that I brought to my stand-up, and that was the first thing I did in stand-up where I was like, “Oh, this is from my heart, this is my experience.” It’s just a slightly hyperbolized version of what I saw in my small town of New England, just the ruthlessness and everyday terror that I saw there from the competition among the adults and whatnot, and just the cul-de-sac cred. The inspiration there was simply just growing up in the Puritan state of Massachusetts and being raised in the community that I was raised in. Being in a middle-upper class family in a middle-upper class town, and all that stuff. That’s just kind of my love-song. “Gayle” was my love-song to that world and that life.
Q: You mentioned your stand-up –– what other creative outlets do you use besides YouTube?
Community acrobatics. A lot of that. Lots of pottery night classes –– not really –– and I have stand-up. And live performance is a great outlet, but then also –– the immediacy of being able to have an idea, rig up the camera and shoot a video for it and then edit it, that’s so great and so much faster than having to workshop your five to seven minute set in front of a smoky audience of angry divorcees or people about to get divorced, for like months, seeing what works.
I’ve been making a lot of really shitty music lately, and that has been really freeing for me, creatively. I’ve been making these horrible songs, like absolutely disgraceful. A lot of desperate synth stuff, like I’ll hear a song on the radio, and then I’ve got this music program called “Logic” and then I’ll basically just smash my forehead against the keyboard and try to record my take on these pop songs from the 80’s or whatnot.
Q: How did “Gayle” go from a stand-up character to a fully produced series?
All of the actors are all just people in my family, or family friends, and whatnot. My creative partner Melissa Strype and I started in early 2012. I was just festering on this manager’s roster of talent, she was sending me out on one glue commercial audition a year and that was it. I was like, “I gotta do something here,” and so we just kind of meticulously planned the first five episodes, and storyboarded and sketched all these pictures of Gayle. It was kind of all I had left in the cannon, you know, in the trebuchet, I was just loading everything in that I had. I knew that if this didn’t get me on track then I would be completely screwed and I would definitely just be a substitute teacher in Tallahassee for the rest of my life. So we went back home to Massachusetts and shot it, and it started getting a moderate fanbase, and it’s growing, and that’s kind of how it came to be. And like I said, my friends are musicians, so this guy, Brian Heveron-Smith, he makes all the music for “Gayle,” and he’s just a freaking savant. I’m just lucky to know a lot of really freakin’ talented people. My mom plays Bonnie, the antagonist of the series and Gayle’s best friend, kind of like the Antichrist to her but they’re also best friends. She’s just freaking incredible. We kind of rolled into a lot of talent, very fortunately.
Q: Do you think there’s a stigma against YouTube-based personalities and writers?
It’s humiliating to be on YouTube, there’s no other way around it. You hear the term “YouTuber,” and what comes to mind is a boring, kinda-hot Christian who does cookie dough reviews. It’s definitely got a stigma. Whenever someone describes me as a “YouTuber,” I have to just sit by a reservoir for 24 hours to think about things. I think YouTube is great, and I’m very grateful for what it’s brought to me, I look (at) it just simply as a platform –– I think younger people don’t see it that way, like teens don’t understand that YouTube is just the dregs of society who have just been relegated to the internet. They don’t understand that they don’t have to have anyone say “Yes” to get it on, which is a terrifying thing, but also great for content creators. So, I totally understand the stigma, but again, it’s so perfect for us right now, because we just have absolute freedom to do whatever the hell we want.