Brian Gaar has your back: We talk with the comedian about esports, gaming, and fatherhood
Brian Gaar is the kind of stand-up comedian who’s willing to spend a solid minute describing exactly what’s going on in the background of the last level of Street Fighter IV to set up a joke. He knows full well that it might not work. That the room won’t be willing to come along with him to a world of fighting game humor. But he tells it anyway. It’s a dedication, maybe even a defiance, proof that even as his career blossoms, he’ll never abandon who he is and what makes him laugh.
Brian Gaar is 38, which means he’s been a geek for a lot longer than you. “I beat Battletoads and Mega Man. I’ve got a résumé; I’m an adult,” he jokes on his latest album Never Be Famous. And even though he’s now got a kid and an office job, he still makes time to stay current. Right now he’s perhaps the best (and only) comedian on Twitter you can count on for great League of Legends and StarCraft screengrabs, living proof that it’s possible to grow old gracefully in gaming. “I’ve had more than one person say that when they’re a dad they want to be like me."
As esports becomes more relevant and more mainstream, it's going to need guys like Gaar to help smooth out the transition. I have serious anxiety about the day League of Legends shows up on ESPN and millions of well-intentioned middle Americans decry it as an unmistakable sign of the apocalypse. For every joke Gaar makes about video games on Twitter and onstage, we’re a little better prepared for the cultural injection.
I caught up with Brian to talk about growing up with gaming, how he initially heard about League of Legends, and his greatest World of Warcraft moments. His newest stand-up special, Jokes I Wrote at Work, is on Vimeo right now.
So how did you first start playing games as a kid?
I go back to the Atari and Intellivision days. We got an Intellivision, and it was branded as “intelligent television.” It was supposed to make you smarter or something. The graphics were these giant blocks on the screen, it makes Nintendo games look beautiful by comparison.
But the real love came a couple years later when my parents got me the original Nintendo Entertainment System. There was a huge shortage in Texas where I grew up, like there weren’t any left in the whole state. So I remember my grandmother in Louisiana drove to some Radioshack to get it for me. To this day that was my best Christmas memory. I stayed up all night playing Super Mario, and I took back all my other presents so I could get Legend of Zelda. We were all floored that you could save your game.
You’re obviously a grown-man now, and you’re still playing a ton of games, and I remember for me I had a certain moment where I realized I’d probably be sticking around and playing games for the rest of my life. Did you have a moment like that?
That’s a good question. I remember taking a break for a few years in college when I discovered girls and dating and stuff like that. But something happened when the PlayStation came out in the mid-’90s, especially with Final Fantasy VII, which was amazing and represented a leap forward for computers. I rekindled my love for it, and I’ve been pretty hardcore ever since. There were definitely some moments in my late 20s where I was really overdoing it. I got really into online games; I have no idea how you kids go to college and get work done. Like I had the Internet, but it was early Internet. You couldn’t waste your entire life there.
But I got really into World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI, and it took a couple years to realize that those games take up way too much time and you’re not “accomplishing” anything traditionally. The days where I come home and game for 10 hours straight might be over.
What’s your favorite game of all time?
Probably Metroid. I don’t even know why I say that, but it’s the one I probably played the most. It was one of the first games where you could kinda go anywhere, and it was obscure to figure out. I remember loving that. Otherwise I’d probably say a great RPG like Final Fantasy III or Grand Theft Auto III. I remember the first time I played that; that’s an amazing game.
Talk about your peak World of Warcraft days.
Well before that I was playing a ton of Final Fantasy XI, and when WoW came out, everyone switched over. I really loved that camaraderie with everyone, where you’re trying to cooperate but also competing with everyone. I played that for a couple years, and when I say I played it, I’m talking eight to 10 hours a day. It’d keep track of your total playtime, which was terrifying. So I eventually stopped playing XI after the game got kinda broken because of these Chinese gold farmers that locked down certain parts of the world, and Square never fixed it. Sometimes Japanese developers are weird like that.
Anyways, so I start playing World of Warcraft, I played an Undead Rogue and I spent a lot of time sneaking into towns and killing everyone I can, just completely griefing people, and that was awesome. I think I’m just a troll at heart. It’s so much fun to fuck with people online and get away with it. There’s nothing like sneaking into Ironforge and seeing what you could do.
So let’s talk about League of Legends. How’d you hear about the game and what kept you around?
Sometime last year—I was kinda late to the party. This is going to sound like the most old-guy explanation ever, but I read an article about it in the New York Times. I’d never played a MOBA before, but I watched a video of the game and thought it looked fun and played it on my Mac like a lame 38-year-old dad. I just love all the trash-talking online and how relentlessly mean people can be. I get way too worked up and competitive, so it’s fun. I’m not good at it by any means, but I’m just sorta there to enjoy it. Back in the day, I played StarCraft 2 and tried to be competitive in it, but there’s no way I can invest the time a kid can. It’s not that they’re designed for them necessarily, but that’s who will get the best at them, and that’s fine. I still have a lot of fun even though I’m a dirty casual.
How long did it take you to actually understand what you were supposed to be doing in League?
I try to research and learn and get obsessive over studying better players. I was playing Blitzcrank, so I watched a video of this dude on how to get good hook shots, and learn how to flash hook, and how to get your masteries right. It’s complicated because everything is so situational with that game. There’s a bunch of different scenarios where you’ll be switching out your runes, but I don’t want to let my team down. I don’t need to be the dude with 27 kills, but I also don’t want to be the guy with 27 deaths.
You’ve posted a number of screenshots on Twitter of people recognizing you in League of Legends. I imagine for someone like you, getting recognized in a video game must feel pretty cool.
Absolutely, I like it whenever it happens. It’s a very cool feeling. It’s not like I’m anything more than some guy on Twitter making jokes, but everyone is always super nice. It’s fun to meet people that way, because it’s just like, “OK let’s play a game!” I give out my Wii U name all the time so we can race Mario Kart, even though everyone is constantly trying to red-shell me.
Do you keep up with the League pro scene at all?
I’ve seen a couple of the matches, but it’s so clear they’re playing at a crazy high level. The coordination is amazing. It really does feel like a sport—or at least a sport you can play while drinking Mountain Dews.
You’ve been playing games for a long time, and obviously back in the day you couldn’t get rich and famous playing Zelda. How do you feel about these 18-year-old kids becoming legitimate celebrities playing video games?
I think it’s awesome. Do I wish that had been around when I was a kid? Yeah! Or maybe it would’ve been awful because for every one of those guys who’ve made it, there’s a million who are still trying. But yeah I think it’s great. It’s cool how you hear in Korea it’s treated like a real sport with televised games and such. From my perspective it’s cool to have seen it evolve. When I was growing up, games were for kids or nerds. I love seeing these guys making a bazillion dollars and are completely fucking cocky about it. It makes me feel like a proud dad, or at least the older brother. I get to tell boring old stories about the original Nintendo; it’s a huge part of my comedy and a huge part of who I am. Kids in their 20s and in their teens might not have played what I’m referencing, like you probably didn’t play The Legend of Zelda when it came out, but you still know what it is. I’ve had more than one person say, “when I’m a dad, I wanna be like you.”
You have a joke on your latest special where you’re forced to spend a couple minutes explaining what Street Fighter IV is, and what the last level of Street Fighter IV is, and that provides enough context for the joke. I love it, because obviously I already have that context, but I wonder does it ever get daunting for you to be onstage in a room full of strangers explaining a fairly esoteric thing for a bit?
That’s a good observation, and that’s one of the problems with that joke. If you go to my website, you can find a video where you can watch a video of the game as I’m telling it, which helps. It’s one of those things where sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I still love that joke. It’s one of those things where if I was doing it at E3, it’d go over a lot differently than if I’m doing it in a random comedy club.
Have you thought about starting a Twitch channel?
Yeah I have! The other day. But I’m not good at anything anymore, so I’m not sure who’d watch it. At a certain point with a job and a 2-year-old you run out of free time to do things. But you see these dudes in ponytails playing Minecraft with a million subscribers, so I think I should give it a try. So maybe I’ll play some Mario Kart or maybe it’ll just be me being my horrible self, I like messing with people in chat and stuff like that.
What is your greatest League of Legends moment?
I was playing as Caitlyn in the bottom lane, I was the ADC, and I just completely screwed it up. I fed the other team repeatedly, like eight times. They just started destroying us, and it’s completely my fault. And the other guy in my lane just messaged me in all caps “DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW TO PLAY.” That was awesome. I also love kill-stealing, if you’re working on someone, I love coming through to come through and get that last shot.
Can you promise us that no matter how famous you get, you’ll never stop telling video game jokes on stage?
Never ever ever. Unless someone pays me a lot of money not to. A lot of that is just who I am. I love doing it, and it feels good now. When you’re a kid, it’s not something you advertise about yourself, but now you get to own it. I like sticking up for us.