Guy Branum has been on stage in Madison before. But not as a comedian. As a combatant.
While attending college at the University of Minnesota, Branum was a member of the school’s college bowl team, traveling the Midwest to match wits with other college teams.
“Of course I’ve been to Madison,” Branum said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve been to every college town in the Big 10 and Madison is, of course, the jewel. Although, while Madison is the best city in the upper Midwest, I do think that Iowa City is an underrated gem.”
Branum returns to Madison to do standup at the Comedy Club on State, 202 State St., on Thursday and Friday. While he says he’s “no longer in fighting shape” to field trivia questions on geography, world history or potpourri, he said the skills he learned in college bowl have proved surprisingly applicable in his comedy career.
“I do think just having to be on your toes and ready to access the knowledge in your brain is a really valuable thing for any standup comedian,” Branum said. “The thing that was most valuable to me is to know that I was never the best in the room at something, but always able to make a contribution. Just learning ‘It’s all right Guy. You’ll get two or three questions. Just do what you can.’”
Being able to contribute and play well with others has been a hallmark of much of Branum’s career. In addition to his standup comedy, Branum was a popular panelist on “Chelsea Lately,” as well as one of the hosts of the now-retired Maximum Fun podcast “Pop Rocket.” He also hosted two seasons of TruTV’s “Talk Show the Game Show,” which melded the two titular genres in unexpected and delightful ways.
Branum said he thrives on thinking on his feet and reacting to the unexpected. It’s a knack that he brings to his standup shows, where he interacts with the audience more than many comedians.
“One of the ways I got comfortable with standup was accepting and embracing the chaos, and understanding in many ways the chaos is, in so many ways, your audience,” he said. “You can integrate your audience and bring them into your show. I think I do that more than a lot of other comedians do. Most of the time, let’s hope, I can react to what they’re giving me.”
One thing Branum won’t do is go for the obvious joke, and particularly the obvious putdown, when he talks to an audience member. There’s been much talk in the comedy world — or, at least, around the comedy world — about “punching up” vs. “punching down” in comedy, sparked by the recent fiasco surrounding comedian Shane Gillis. Gillis was hired by “Saturday Night Live” to join the cast this fall, only to resign after critics found podcasts of Gillis making racist, sexist and anti-gay remarks.
But what really bothered Branum wasn’t just that what Gillis said was offensive. It was that it was so lazy.
“If you’re going to say something terrible, at least don’t say it the same way that everybody has always said it,” he said. “Don’t be a hack. He wasn’t pushing boundaries at all. He was telling the same schoolyard jokes that people have been making for decades. Even on a podcast we should expect better.”
It was also noteworthy, but not surprising, that while much of the controversy focused on Gillis’ remarks about Asian-Americans, his anti-gay remarks didn’t cause as much of a ripple. Branum, who is gay, said that comedy’s reluctance to address homophobia ends up driving away both gay comedians and gay audiences.
“It’s one of the things that’s hurting my business,” he said. “Goodness knows we should not be behaving as though there’s only so much liberation at the table. But yes, it’s something that within comedy that has been taken for granted. We don’t talk about the fact that there are no successful gay male standups. People take it for granted, and if you bring it up, people would say it was a frivolous issue. It’s a shame.”
For his part, Branum said he wants everybody to feel welcome at his shows. Which doesn’t mean they’ll always be comfortable.
“I want people to come and have a nice time,” he said. “I want to challenge them, but I don’t want them to feel like it’s a space that doesn’t respect them.”
Branum is also the author of a memoir (“My Life as a Goddess”) and is currently working on an adaptation of the rom-com “How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days” for the streaming service Quibi.
“I love romantic comedies,” he said. “I think that they are the most fun. 'How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days' — it’s two very appealing, very charming people falling in love. That’s always going to be a good time.”
Branum admits that he has an ulterior motive for coming to Wisconsin this week — swinging by Osseo for pie at the Norske Nook.
"The people of Madison are merely a tool in my greater quest for pie," he said. "You could get one of your crowd-pleasing pies. But if they have any of the old-school ancient arts? I'm talking a sour-cream-and-raisin pie? That is what I am going for. I want old-school Norwegian Lutheran women or German Catholic women to have the opportunity to use their ancient arts on me."