With about 20 years experience as a standup comic, Michael Gelbart feels comfortable and confidentabout his ability to connect with an audience and make them laugh.
But connecting with readers through a novel is new to Gelbart.
A Montreal native who moved to Toronto with his family in his early teens, Gelbart has built an impressive career since he started doing standup at the Yuk Yuk’s comedy club when he was still in high school.
Since then, he has starred in two comedy specials that aired on CBC and CTV, written for film and television, and landed a couple small acting gigs.
Most recently, 37-year-old Gelbart, who spends most of his time in Los Angeles, wrote a self-published debut novel titled The Other Oprahs, about four women who share a name with one of the most famous, powerful women in the world, Oprah Winfrey.
He said he was inspired to write this book when he performed a show with Greg Behrendt, who wrote He’s Just Not That Into You.
They talked about his rise to fame after he had written the book, and Behrendt told him that his book – which has since been made into a film – didn’t really become a huge sensation until Winfrey featured it on her talk show.
“That was a light-bulb moment, where I was like, ‘Wow, Oprah has so much power. It would really suck if your name was Oprah because no matter how good you are… even if you had a huge accomplishment in your life, people would [hear the name] and always think of her,’” Gelbart said.
He decided to write a work of fiction that combined this idea with the knowledge he gained from relationships with ex-girlfriends.
“I decided to write a work of fiction and put some of my thoughts or ideas or observations about women and give them to the characters.”
Oprah Goldstein, the first of four Oprahs – who Gelbart said was named as a “shout out to his fellow Jews”– works in advertising and desperately wants to overcome her fear of singing in public.
Professionally, life is good for Oprah Winston who is a tough, determined, successful real estate agent who hosts a local TV show. But her teenage son wants nothing to do with her, despite her efforts to reconnect with him.
Oprah Star is an aspiring model/actress who stumbled on her raw talent as a boxer. She considers embracing her talent – but only if it’ll help her lose four pounds.
Finally, Oprah Fanning, a celebrity memorabilia collector, is the reason the four Oprahs find each other. She started a chat room for anyone who shares her first name. On this forum, the women support each other through their successes and failures, while building relationships.
Gelbart said he was apprehensive about creating four female characters and contemplated giving the idea to one of his female writer friends, but eventually chose to tackle the challenge himself.
“If you’re going to write four completely different women and you’re not a woman and it seems cumbersome, the best thing to do is not see them as women, but as human beings,” he said.
“I had to get over the fact that they were women. I took observations I made throughout my relationships, I took little things from different women I dated.”
In fact, while Gelbart attributes his ability to create female characters to a number of failed relationships, he joked that it’s also the reason he isn’t more famous.
“I’ve been in some serious relationships through the years and spent more time dating than I did focusing on my career at some points. So times when I should have been working hard, I was on the phone with some girl going, ‘No, I didn’t say that, you said that!’
“But I don’t want to view any of that time as wasted, because I learned a lot, and when I came up with the idea for the book, that was when I realized that I could take all that knowledge I obtained in those relationships and turn it into something positive.”
Now that his latest project is complete, Gelbart is ready to present it to the world in a format that he thinks he invented.
During a book signing he’s doing at the Indigo bookstore in the Manulife Centre in Toronto on Feb. 17, Gelbart said he plans to have female comedians and actresses play the characters.
“These are four women speaking in the first person, so it would be really weird if I was reading as them. I know a lot of actresses and comedians in Toronto, and they were eager to do it.”
He added that if he is doing a book signing in a city that doesn’t have local talent, he’ll organize an online contest that asks people to submit videos of the four characters speaking and viewers can vote on the best ones.
While he’s north of the border promoting his novel, Gelbart will also be using the opportunity to so some stand-up.
From Feb. 10 to 12, he’ll be in Halifax, headlining at the local Yuk Yuk’s, and from Feb. 16 to 20, Gelbart will be performing at the Toronto Yuk Yuk’s.