Arts feature: Music & Comedy with Justin Golak and Matt Monta

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Justin Golak

You probably want to watch comedian Justin Golak at the Backstage Bistro next Tuesday.

Named one ofAlive's People to Watch in 2012, Golak has plied his trade in Chicago since his move there in 2014, so opportunities to catch him without traveling are much rarer now than when he was among Columbus' busiest comics.

The local stop is part of a run of Midwest dates for Golak leading up to the June 30 Chicago recording of a new album.

“I've been on the road doing half-hour or hour sets since the beginning of May. It's one of the reasons I'm coming through Columbus,” Golak said in a phone interview. “I'm taking everything I've written over the last year-and-a-half to two years and turning it into an hour-long act and getting it recorded. Then I start pushing that rock up the hill again. If you enjoy pushing the rock, it's not too bad. And that's what comedy is for me.”

Pushing the rock, for Golak, is making new material. And it's one of the reasons he left Columbus.

“I was doing comedy full-time my last year [in Columbus] … but I kind of had reached about the level I could get,” he said. “I had some friends in Chicago, and I was thinking either there or New York. A friend asked me what I wanted to do in comedy, and I said I wanted to write more, and he said this was the place to come. The advice worked out really well.”

The upcoming recording will be Golak's second since the move, and his general rule is once material is recorded, he stops doing it.

“Nothing that I'll be doing in Columbus is stuff I've done there before. Even if you saw me the last time I was through, this is all new,” he said. “I put out an album about two years ago and started writing new stuff right away.”

But don't ask to see Golak's notebooks, at least if you want to find out where his jokes come from. Golak practices writing from the stage.

“I'll go to an open mic or local show and I'll have an idea and some tent posts I want to hit, and I'll just talk it out on stage,” he said. “Usually once I have it good, I'll jot down some notes. If you look at my notebook, that's all stuff I wrote down after I performed it. I'm not someone that goes to a coffee shop with a computer to write. To me, thinking, writing, telling … if you do it that way, it's like translating it twice. I just kind of have to talk it out.”

This keeps Golak's set fresh and imbues it with a sense of adventure. He said around a quarter of any of his sets is spontaneous, a space he allows himself for on-the-fly ideas, audience interaction and just to feel out the general vibe of a room. And it appears to work for performer and audience.

“It‘s kind of that thing like, ‘What's he gonna say? Does he know what he's gonna say? Did he forget what he was gonna say?'” Golak said with a laugh. “If there's that one illusion you're trying to perpetuate in live performance, it's that kind of spontaneity and the idea that anything can happen. Keeping myself a little uneasy, there's no better way to create something.”

Golak is creating jokes, make no mistake about it. He said comedy is hard but it's not complicated.

“Set-up, punchline. Musicians, writers, comedians — they're not making or inventing new things. It's where you add your voice that makes the difference,” Golak said. “In the plainest sense, it really is just set-up, punch. You pick your topics. You find your voice. And you arrange an act in a particular way. That's what makes it unique.”

For added unique-ness, Golak invited friend and local musician Matt Monta to join him for his show on Tuesday, June 20. The two have performed these joint shows on occasion in the past. Golak does a 30-minute set backed by Monta's musical accompaniment. Then Monta plays a half-hour solo set.

“Our styles work well together. We're used to each other,” Golak said. “I'll match my speaking to his playing. He'll match his playing to me speaking. And we meet in the middle.”

“I just try to figure where he's going and then try to go in that same direction,” Monta said. “I can read when he's setting up a punchline, or if he's just riffing and going off in a different direction. I'm just backing him up and letting him do his thing, letting him shine.”

“You get a little comedy, a little music,” Golak said. “I've never had more fun than when we're doing these shows.”

Backstage Bistro

8 p.m. Tuesday, June 20

503 S. Front St., Brewery District