Chris Fleming is going beyond ‘Gayle’
Comedian Chris Fleming would stand out nearly anywhere, with his lanky 6-foot 3-inch frame and mop of curly hair. Waiting in line at Veggie Galaxy in a natty tan suit and complementing socks with different-colored polka dots, he is spotted almost immediately by a fan of his absurdist, energetic work.
“Oh, my God, are you Chris Fleming?” says a young woman behind him in line. “Your videos sustain me!”
Fleming is flattered and polite with his fan, but he’s also somewhat embarrassed by the attention. He’s had to get used to it, though. Last August, he sold out the Regent Theatre, in Arlington, and spent nearly an hour after the show taking photos with fans and talking about his hit Web series, “Gayle,” and other comic videos. He’ll likely be mobbed again after his show Thursday at the Wilbur. His fans feel he’s speaking to them, and they aren’t shy about telling him.
“They usually don’t say it in such an earthy way,” Fleming jokes. “I think that’s just the nature of a vegan restaurant. They talk about sustainability.” It’s been a strange but enjoyable experience for Fleming. “Here’s the thing about the online audience becoming the live audience, for me. They’re kind of wild, but they’re kind of polite. In Philadelphia last week, a girl after the show handed me a bra. She said she wanted to throw it onstage but didn’t want to cause a scene.”
Fleming’s career got a huge boost when “Gayle,” which follows an aggressive, competitive suburban housewife, took off after its 2012 debut. Fleming played Gayle Waters-Waters with ferocious comic intensity, flinging his body around and holding his mouth in such a tight position he joked on a morning show recently he had to stop for a while to save the muscles in his face. It resonated. The premiere episode has almost a million and a half views on YouTube to date. Margaret Cho took a liking to it and appeared on an episode. Fleming started doing “Gayle Live” shows, and the fans followed him.
There has not been a new episode of “Gayle” since December 2015, and Fleming has put aside the “Gayle Live” format for a mix of stand-up and video in his shows. That’s part of why last year’s show at the Regent was important to Fleming. “That felt really good because that was the biggest venue I had done straight stand-up in,” he says.
He is still producing videos frequently, with a scattered range of topics. Sometimes it’s just Fleming talking to the camera in his car. Sometimes he’s playing a character, like his impression of Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearings for US secretary of education in January. He imagined a Christmas with Santa Claus being replaced by “Gigi the Christmas Snake,” who will bring you tennis balls if you’ve been “chill.” One of his more popular videos was a song, “I’m Afraid to Talk to Men.”
The song was inspired by an oncoming family barbecue, where Fleming knew he’d have to make the kind of small talk about sports and such that he’s never been comfortable doing. He heard what he describes as an “incredibly masculine” country rock song on the radio and that became his vehicle. “I was like, wow, I would love to make a song, really roadhousey, but about the most emasculating topic,” he says. “And I was like, oh, I could make it about how I’m afraid to simply converse with dudes.”
When he finished the video, he was unsure what the reaction from fans would be. “I thought it was going to ruin me,” he says. “It was one of those things where, in my head I was going, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I was so obsessively recording it in my house. I was like, ‘Could this be recognized as humor in any culture?’ ” It turned out to be his most popular post-“Gayle” video, getting attention from LA Weekly, Splitsider.com, and The Advocate.
The comedy, for Fleming, is in those ultra-specific details. The way Gayle holds her mouth. Or the question, when talking with men, “If we’re talking about Miatas do I scoff or nod?” He says there’s a character in “Show Pig,” the title of the new production, based on people’s boyfriends he keeps meeting. “The kind of guy named Nikolas, someone who has many opportunities to abbreviate their name but takes none of them,” he says. “If you meet a Nathaniel, you know they think highly of themselves because they’ve given up not one but two opportunities for abbreviation. It’s only a matter of time before I meet a boyfriend who’s going to be on all fours and just mansplains to me the entire time why it’s beneficial to walk on all fours.”
Fleming says he’ll never leave “Gayle” behind completely, but it has been important to establish that he has more to offer. “To get beyond that is what I’m trying to do right now,” he says. “I’m basically trying to bust out of my YouTube prison right now.”
There was some laughter of recognition at the Regent show when the first few frames of the “Paint Nite” video popped up on the screen. It has been gratifying to Fleming when these new bits score with a live audience. And he’s not throwing himself around quite as much as he would have playing Gayle. “It seems sustainable,” he says. “I’m not injuring myself as much. I feel better about this show that I’m doing right now than I’ve felt for any live show I’ve ever done. It’s an amazing feeling.”
CHRIS FLEMING: SHOW PIG
At the Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont St., March 9 at 7:30 p.m.