Dan Soder wears the most painful parts of his life like a badge of honor in his first-ever HBO special, Son of a Gary. His father’s alcoholism and subsequent death, as well as growing up “20% white trash,” are prime fodder for his dark style of comedy.
“[C]omedy, great comedy, is born out of a lot of pain,” Soder tells me in the skyscraper Warner Media calls home. He has a booming, charming voice that makes the glass-walled conference room a little less sterile.
Soder worries about the devaluing of people’s suffering, which he claims is a byproduct of recent changes in the comedy scene which have aimed to make spaces more inclusive for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people. “Listen, I understand I’m a straight white male and I understand that there’s been a lot of privilege allowed with that in my life, but, great, I acknowledge that,” the Colorado native explains, “So now you’re going to tell me my life wasn’t hard when my dad died or when my sister was killed in a car accident or when I grew up without any money? Like what are you gonna tell me about my life that says I don’t know what pain is?”
The new state of comedy—sometimes derided as an off-shoot of so-called “woke culture,” but also celebrated for opening doors to comics traditionally shut out by the establishment—has been a hot-button issue for Soder as of late, considering that Shane Gillis, one of his “closest friends” and a frequent guest on his podcast The Bonfire, was fired from Saturday Night Live over racist and homophobic remarks. In Soder’s eyes, “I think a lot of people should be very, very ashamed of themselves and how they acted because it—you didn’t help fight racism, you buried a man that you don’t know, a man that I know very well.” He acknowledges that Gillis used the “worst words possible for a joke,” but stands beside his friend against what he considers the gentrification of comedy.
“It’s been very disappointing to see how people have reacted to Shane,” Soder says, “because there’s no context. There was no humanity involved.” Humanity is an interesting word to use. The slurs which Gillis uttered have long been employed to dehumanize the Asian and queer communities. No action precipitated this ire; their mere existence has historically been considered enough reason for both populations to experience prejudice.
Next to humanity, Soder also values open-mindedness. “I love Chloe Hilliard, and I like Shane Gillis. How is that possible? I don’t know, I have a fucking open mind, you know what I mean?” he expounds. “I like—Michelle Wolf and Shane Gillis were both in my green room… What’s up now?”
Soder’s freedom of thought extends to his own comedy. He knows he’s ever-changing, and jokes that on his next special “maybe I hate Shane Gillis, or maybe I hate Michelle Wolf, who knows? It’s—you know, it’s one of those things where you don’t know what the evolution’s going to be.”
“I like evolving throughout the act and throughout the specials, and so I’m kind of interested to see where the next is,” he says, “‘Cause this one I talk about being single and not knowing what I want. And since I’ve wrote those jokes, I’ve gotten a girlfriend, and you just kind of see like, oh, what if my next special I have a family?”
No matter the change in subject, though, Soder’s morbid sense of humor is deeply rooted in his upbringing. While he got his delivery from his mother—who he brings up often in Son of a Gary—he inherited his comedic stylings from his bartender father.
“I think I definitely got my sense of humor from my dad and my Aunt Karen and my sister, who were all very much like, fuck you, Imma make this a joke,” he tells me. “They all kinda had that about them… Like eh, I think this is funny, this might be inappropriate but I think this is funny, and usually it was, so, yeah.”
All of this seems to be a part of his fairly libertarian world-view. When I ask for any parting words for Paste readers, he replies promptly, “Make your own opinions.” He continues, “Make your own opinion and—and also, if you don’t like something, you don’t have to pay it attention. You got a lot of options. Do the stuff that you enjoy, and don’t be miserable because you think someone else wants you to… You can choose to be miserable, you can choose not to be.”
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.