It was just a bunch of writers, sitting around talking. This group of scribes happened to come up with the scripts for the HBO phenomenon “Sex and the City,” and Greg Behrendt was the only straight male among them. Then one morning a few years ago, one of the writers was complaining about how the man she had been dating for a month had declined her offer to come up to her apartment after a night out together. She couldn’t understand it. Her fellow females at the table sympathized, trying to come up with excuses for the reluctant date’s behavior.
It was then that Behrendt, who was casually listening to the conversation, uttered the phrase that would change his life: “He’s just not that into you.”
Eureka! The women were struck by the logic of this explanation, which came from a guy who had been in the reluctant man’s situation more than once in his dating life. It was that simple: The chemistry just wasn’t there. So move on, Behrendt urged his fellow writer, and find the person who is right for you.
The revelation became a storyline for a “Sex and the City” episode. It was so well received that Behrendt, a standup comedian by trade who had never fancied himself an author, wrote a self-help book about the topic with “Sex and the City” colleague Liz Tuccillo. “He’s Just Not That Into You” skyrocketed to the top of the charts and became a New York Times bestseller. Early next year, a movie of the same name starring Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Ben Affleck, and Drew Barrymore is scheduled to be released.
You might think Behrendt, who brings his standup act to the Stress Factory in New Brunswick on Thursday through Saturday, October 9 to 11, would be tired of talking about the topic. But in a phone interview, the 45-year-old Los Angeles resident is happy to muse about its success. “I’m not sick of it, no,” he says. “Because it’s the main thing that people know about me. I’ve told the stories a lot. I’m grateful for the life that it affords me, and I don’t care how people come to my standup as long as they come. They realize then that it’s not a lecture about relationships. I was a standup first and foremost. That’s how I got on ‘Sex and the City’ in the first place.”
Behrendt was born in San Francisco and got into comedy by accident. “I was an actor,” he says. “I joined an improv troupe that comedienne Margaret Cho was in. She said ‘You should try standup.’ I didn’t realize that I was actually being kicked out of the troupe.’ Both his parents were in the business — his father was general manager of the NBC affiliate in San Francisco and his mother did children’s theater. “Both of my parents were really smart, and they owned a couple of radio stations together,” he says. “My dad is a Stanford graduate. They were both really funny and theatrical. I hated it. I thought it was all retarded.”
Behrendt’s late mother pushed him in the direction of theater and standup, and he is glad she did. He has been doing standup for 19 years, and it is what he does best. “The time on stage is awesome. There’s an element of unpredictability, but for the most part it’s just a rush,” he says. “I don’t think anybody chooses to stand in front of a room full of people and make them laugh. But it’s what I am. It’s how I define myself.”
In addition to Cho, Behrendt’s circle of friends include other well-known comedians — Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, and David Cross. “My buddies, as much as they’ve had films and other success, it’s all just to sell tickets to their standup,” he says. “I’m good at thinking through people’s problems, and I don’t really know why. But I define myself as a standup, and from that wellspring comes everything else. All my friends are the same — we just love doing it. We still go to open mikes, do a free show on a Friday night. Other things are so temporal. There are a few exceptions, like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, where you just find that niche. That was my hope for my talk show, but it didn’t pan out.”
“The Greg Behrendt Show” was a syndicated television program that focused on relationship problems, and it ran from 2006-’07. “I just didn’t quite get the drill,” Behrendt says. “As much as I enjoyed elements of it, it wasn’t the thing for me. It wasn’t as light and fun as the books (Behrendt wrote a second book, “It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken,” with his wife, Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt, in 2005), and there was a lot of heaviness and exploitation I didn’t like.”
Behrendt’s comedy chops got him the writer/consultant job at “Sex and the City,” which lasted for three years. “It was awesome,” he says. “I got paid to sit around and talk about sex. I was the token straight guy.” Tuccillo was an executive story editor for the show, and it was her idea to write the book. Behrendt wrote the second book with his wife because Tuccillo wasn’t interested in doing another one. “And my wife had been a silent partner in the first book,” he says. “She did some heavy lifting on that. We had both been in horrible breakups before we met and had done the same things to heal. We came through with this system (described in the book). She’s a great writer, and they said ‘Let’s do it.’ It wasn’t as popular as the first one, though it did sell very well.”
“With ‘He’s Just Not That Into You,’ we hit lightning in a bottle, man,” Behrendt says. “It was a guy from ‘Sex and the City,’ so he could be trusted. The other book is prescriptive. And we have another one coming out next year about dating.”
On Behrendt’s blog, numerous women thank him, Tuccillo, and Ruotola-Behrendt for their help in weathering through their relationship woes. “The rewarding part of all this is that someone felt sh**ty and this made a difference to them. Being a sober member of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), I know what it’s like to walk into that first meeting and say, ‘I’m going to be okay.’ “
Behrendt’s brand of standup comedy has been seen on “The Tonight Show,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Comedy Central, and HBO. He’ll be shooting a new, one-hour special for Comedy Central next month, which is scheduled to air in April, 2009.
At the Stress Factory shows, his routine will touch on the “He’s Just Not That Into You” theme, but with much more. “If they like me from the books, they’ll get more of the same, but in person it’s so much better,” he says. “I talk about everything from snack crackers to elephants to sex. It’s an evening of standup comedy. I’m not boasting, but people say it’s the best because it’s live. There’s a little bit for everybody, but it’s not a pick-on-guys thing. And 10 percent of all the proceeds go to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.”
Behrendt says he loves standup, but there is a downside: “Being away from my girls. That’s the hardest part. They’re six and three, and I hate being away from them and my wife.”
At 45, Behrendt’s once-chaotic life is in order, and he is busy with multiple projects. His family is foremost in his mind and his future looks bright. “It’s pretty good,” he says. “With the exception of hurting when I get up in the morning and the fact that I can’t see without my glasses, being 45 is pretty good.”
Greg Behrendt, Thursday, October 9, 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, October 10 and 11, 8 and 10:30 p.m., the Stress Factory, 90 Church Street, New Brunswick. A former writer on “Sex and the City” and the author of “He’s Just Not That Into You.” $25. 732-545-4242 or www.stressfactory.com.