Max Bruno is a Brooklyn-based comedian who is part of a group of stand-ups who regularly host and/or perform at the weekly comedy showcase, Live From Outer Space at Cobra Club in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Others include John F. O'Donnell, Amber Nelson, Erik Bergstrom, and Ben Kronberg. Originally from Ohio, Bruno began his stand-up career in Oklahoma City while part of a teaching program. He eventually decided to pursue stand-up comedy in New York City, and he further contributed to Live From Outer Space by often working the show's soundboard. He now also hosts The Zen Boogie Comedy Show with stand-up comedian Irene Fagan Merrow at The Footlight in the Ridgewood area of Queens. I interviewed Bruno at Cobra Club where he discussed growing up in Ohio, the role of religion and Santa Claus in his comedic and intellectual development, his development and approach as a stand-up, and his creative community in New York City.
On early comedy influences
"Sometimes all you need is something to kick you out of gear for a second."
I grew up in Ohio in a small town. Not super small, but it was very generic. It was very blank. Saturday night you can go to Applebee’s, you can go to Wal-Mart, you can kill yourself. Those are your options. Or God forbid, you already went to Applebee’s and Wal-Mart, you can go to church if you don’t want to die. But that was it. So I think there was a desire to disrupt and to sort of shake yourself. I saw such a virus of complacency and inertia. That’s the thing that I fixated on and still do. People get caught in a routine, in a frame of mind, and they can completely miss that they are disintegrating. Or that they are essentially a pile of laundry that bumbles around from point A to point B.
Sometimes all you need is something to kick you out of gear for a second. Growing up there, I don’t know what it was that kicked me out of gear. But I got snapped out of, “I’m the little boy, and I put on my shorts, and I go to school, and this is every day, and I’m going to grow up, and I’m going to go to college, and get my job.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but at some point I got knocked out of it and knew I didn’t want to stay. Growing up in my family, everyone in my family is funny. So I think there is kind of two sides to that, where we didn’t fit in to this town. My parents—we’ve talked about it. They have some regrets about raising us there because we stayed in the same town the whole time. I think they moved there because they heard there was a really good school. But they’re very funny, and humor was always really important in our house. There was a rule that if you said something, and maybe it was mean, or maybe it was offensive, or maybe you swore or something—if it made everybody laugh, you couldn’t get in trouble. If it was funny and well-timed, you were fine.
So you could be at the dinner table and say something about a pussy, or say, "shit" or something like that, and if it was perfectly timed and made everybody laugh, they were like, “Well, that’s the rule.” Then you’d get away with it. So there was this sort of weird agreement among all of us, and I think it made us funnier. But if you bombed, you still bombed with your family, which is bleak. So there was a lot of humor in my house growing up. Then taking that and going out into the world where that rule does not apply, and knowing that you said something really funny and then still getting in trouble for it, or they were not locking in the way that you wanted, I think it instilled in me this desire to push back against that complacency. That default state of mind that is letting things happen to you instead of actively doing things. The blind spots. Because so much of my life, I find, is pulling back curtains and being like, “Oh, shit, this is a very obvious idea or practice that I have been fucking up and was totally blind to.” I think you have to go back through your files. So many people don’t do that, and I think comics are definitely ahead of the game in going back through their files. You have all this shit and your brain just stores it in piles and leaves it in there. If you don’t go back and check it, you’ll find that you believe or are doing things that [you shouldn't].
"My dad and I stood in a stadium full of dudes and were told about the right way to be a Christian man, the role of a man, the role of his wife, and then we all cried and it was real weird."
I know what shook me up. I just remembered. Despite the happy and comedic vibe of my family, we were raised very Christian and were very much into church. I did Young Life, where you sit on the fucking carpet squares and a guy in a polo shirt with a goatee does a really bad "Brown Eyed Girl" and then tells you that Jesus is going to save you, but to save yourself for marriage. That’s the idea. I went to Promise Keepers. My dad and I stood in a stadium full of dudes and were told about the right way to be a Christian man, the role of a man, the role of his wife, and then we all cried and it was real weird.
I remember being nine or ten years old—so I’m right on the end of when you believe in Santa. We did the whole Santa thing. I was a kid, and what blew my mind is my mom is a scientist. She got a PhD in polymer science. She had a very scientific frame of mind. Her whole side of the family is like that. So I’m very critical and everyone in my family is extremely critical, which I think is also an important comedic thing. You have to look at things, and you don’t just accept. You critique and you ask questions, and you want to go into it. So there was this weird dissonance between, “All right, we’re religious and Santa is real," and also being critical, funny, and edgy. There was this schizophrenia to my upbringing that eventually leveled out. So... Santa. How does the mall Santa work? I was the kid who was like, “OK, so maybe he has a crew of people that he hires out to go and do this.” I would find elaborate explanations like, “OK, he’s got the ability to stop or slow down time. He must exist and be able to navigate different dimensions. This is crazy.” So I’m finding the absurdity of it as I’m finding this very critical explanation. But instead of trying to dismantle something, I’m just trying to build up what I already believe. I’m trying to justify how Santa definitely exists. I would defend it, too. If kids said, “Santa doesn’t exist,” I would say, “Yeah, he does. I’ve seen him, and here’s the evidence: there was one time when he came down and the cookies were eaten, the carrots were eaten, and I saw the reindeer footprints.” I was a real apologist.
I have two younger brothers. We all slept in the same room until the time that I moved, because I was getting a little older, hitting puberty. So I went and got my own room a little after this. But I was nine or ten, and it’s Christmas Eve, and my mom’s acting weird as she’s putting us to bed. There’s just something off about her. She seemed like a replicant. Like someone put on my mom and was wearing her like a costume, because she’s acting all weird. But it’s because she and my dad had a plan, unbeknownst to us.
So she said, “Make sure you fall asleep because, if Santa sees you not asleep, he might pass us over and not get to us until later.” We’re like, "OK, whatever, mom. Thanks." Then she says, in her best mom acting ever, “Oh, what is that?” and points over at the window. We look over and there’s fucking Santa in the window. This is the second floor and there’s a porch out there, and Santa is there standing at the window. He gives us a little wave and a wink, and then he just scampers off into the darkness and my mom goes, “Oh, there he is, guys. Well, goodnight,” and then just shut the fucking door. I lay there having my entire world exploded.
My whole consciousness collapsed and I felt if I closed my eyes I’d just be seeing kaleidoscope colors because I realized I’ve been saying that I believe in Santa, and I’m telling everyone that Santa is real, and I have all this justification for it. But as soon as I see Santa, I’m like, "Wait, that means elves are real. Magic is real. There is a flying reindeer, and there’s a workshop in the North Pole where talking snowmen make the toys. That exists in the same world that black holes, the Mariana Trench, and an octopus." It still vividly brought the dissonance that I had seen in my head, and it made me believe. I realized I had been saying I believe this, but I didn’t believe it. I had just been letting myself go along with believing it, and then I realized, "OK, so that’s not real. Is that a serial killer? Now that’s just some drunken psychopath waiting to creep into my bed and gut me at night. He’s going to deck the halls with my fucking intestines, and my mom is an irresponsible parent for accepting this obviously fake thing." Turns out it was my dad, obviously. In a crisis, I came to them later and they admitted to it. What I very quickly realized from that is that, not only was I saying that I believed in Santa when I didn’t, but I was doing the same thing with God. Then I was like, “I don’t believe this either. This also does not make any sense to me.“
"I think that’s what I want comedy and art to do—help people break out of whatever their thing is. It doesn’t have to necessarily be your religion. It could be your racism, or it could be your lostness, or your inability to figure out what you want to do with your life."
Over time, I gradually was able to communicate to my parents that I was not into this anymore and I didn’t believe it, and they were understanding, I think, because they’re smart and they’re funny. I think they’ve sort of grown over time, too. My brothers then in the next few years both admitted that they grew out of it, too. Then actually in the last few years, both my parents have. So we all kind of broke out of that. I think that’s what I want comedy and art to do—help people break out of whatever their thing is. It doesn’t have to necessarily be your religion. It could be your racism, or it could be your lostness, or your inability to figure out what you want to do with your life. There are these moments and absurdity that is so powerful when sometimes it’s just being silly and being absurd that lets people say, “OK, I can try something else," or "I can think something else.” It opens those curtains, it opens those windows, it lets in the air, it lets in the ideas, and I think that’s what it’s for.
On pursuing stand-up comedy
I always liked comedy. When I was growing up, I was sure I was going to be a writer. That was going to be the thing. "I’m going to be a novelist." But I just liked being funny so much that I would want to write funny things. Then I would go and do the live readings and things like that. I liked the performance aspect of it. That was important to it. So I always wanted to do comedy.
I’m still thinking about back in Ohio right now, because I remember even in high school there was another moment that sort of snapped me a little bit. So now I’m this sort of frustrated kid who’s like, “All right, I don’t believe in this stuff I was taught and raised. I don’t feel like I’m fitting into this town, and I’m kind of trapped in this school.” There’s a hostility, an anger, and a sort of a tendency towards confrontation and ideological violence. Wanting to fight, wanting to push, wanting to knock out—and comedy, I think I realized, was a way for me to channel my desire to just flip things over and say, “Hey, no, wake up,” but in a healthy way.
I started in Oklahoma. I ended up there after college because I did a teaching program where the idea was to be placed in an underserved school, and then you teach for two years. So they sent us through teacher boot camp. It was very selective. We weren’t education majors. I was a creative writing major. We went through this boot camp for a summer where we student-taught during the day, took classes at night, lived on a campus, and then we’d get shipped off to a school. So I, straight out of college, moved to a different state where I didn’t know anybody and started teaching middle school kids. I met a guy, Tom Joyce, who was a great friend of mine and who I think is still a comic performing in Austin. We haven’t kept in touch as much, but I still see him posting jokes out there. I’m not sure what it was for him, but it was the first time that I was in a city. It was Oklahoma City, but I grew up in a small town in Ohio and then I went to college in another small town in Ohio. There was nowhere to do stand-up. So as soon as there was a place to do it, I was like, “I’ve always wanted to try this.” I still thought I was going to be a writer or something like that, but this is something I wanted to try. There was one comedy club in all of Oklahoma City, called The Loony Bin. It’s one of those places where you go in and they have framed black-and-white pictures of people who you don’t recognize, but they’ve got a goofy shirt on and an infinite silence behind their eyes that is paradoxically screaming right out of the photo. So we go in there, and I didn’t like that place. We ended up doing our own shows just because it was like a relic. It was a weird time capsule of a place.
"Honestly, just go to an open mic. If you are intimidated, you’ll see that there’s a lot of working it out, and people who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t care. So if you go and see that, it’s one of the greatest confidence boosters."
But we’re like, “All right, we both want to try stand-up. Let’s go watch an open mic. Just check it out. We’re not going to do it. We just want to go see what it’s like and see if we can—if we feel ready—and then we’ll talk about it afterwards.” So we go to this open mic at The Loony Bin, and it’s your standard bleak open mic. There’s a couple of people there, mostly comics just kind of waiting their turn. Kind of a quiet room. The first guy goes up, and he just looked like he was a heckler the night before who thinks, “All right, I can do this.” He was a little bit of an older guy, but he had a real young-guy haircut with lots of product in it, and he had one of those button-up shirts with studs on it. He wanted us to believe he arrived on a motorcycle and not in a Toyota. But he went up and he didn’t talk into the microphone. He just kind of held it so no one could hear what he was saying. He mumbled one or two jokes, and then he freaked out, jumped off the stage, ran through the middle of the room, out the door, and out of the building. We looked at each other and we’re like, "We’re doing this next week, right? We can do better than that." That’s what I tell anybody who wants to get started in comedy. Honestly, just go to an open mic. If you are intimidated, you’ll see that there’s a lot of working it out, and people who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t care. So if you go and see that, it’s one of the greatest confidence boosters.
So then we started doing open mics around the city and meeting comics that way. It was a really small scene in Oklahoma City. It’s not a huge cosmopolitan mecca of the arts, but I kind of liked that. I think it was valuable in that it let me kind of incubate, find my voice, and figure out who I was on stage. I think that would be a lot harder to do here [in the NYC scene] just because there’s so many people in it. It’s a little more hostile and competitive. In Oklahoma City, the ceiling’s pretty low. You’re doing great if you’re doing the local bar shows, maybe opening for somebody cool when they come through town. That’s mostly it. So people are a lot less cutthroat and closed off, and it was a good way to be part of a nice little comedy community and try things out.
"So much of the pain and dissonance I felt growing up went away when I came to a place that was vibrating at my frequency."
So we did a shitty podcast, we made some videos, and we did a lot of stand-up. I think when it comes to moving to New York, it dawned on me that, "Oh, this is what I was supposed to be doing. I’m not a novelist. I still want to write a novel, but it will be a funny one." It became clear that, “OK, this is where my voice makes the most sense.” Then I looked to New York. I visited seven or eight times throughout my life, and every time I came it clicked like, “Oh, here’s where I’m supposed to be. This is where there are more people who feel like me.” I guess I felt like an alien in Ohio, and I felt like an alien in Oklahoma, and when I came to New York I at least felt like I wasn’t just completely out of place. So my career and my life isn’t exactly where I want it to be. But I’m at least in the right place, so I have that element worked out. I would recommend that to anybody who is thinking, “Should I go, or should I wait another year? Do I want to move to New York, or do I want to move to...” wherever you want to move to. You may want to move to Thailand or something, but you have this thing like, “I want to go to this place. I feel like I belong there.” You should absolutely go there. So much of the pain and dissonance I felt growing up went away when I came to a place that was vibrating at my frequency.
On pursuing stand-up in NYC
I did kind of an embarrassing thing right when I first moved to New York. I signed up for a stand-up comedy class. I’d already been doing stand-up for a few years. What I figured was this would be a good way to meet people. I wanted to meet other comics because I moved here knowing nobody, and I’m like, “All right, I’m going to go there and I’ll find some friends,” because it’s so hard to make connections here. I remember when I started doing stand-up in Oklahoma, I was able to establish a base of comic friends pretty quickly. So here, I was hoping to make friends. I went and I took this class, and I really misread what it was going to be. I thought it was going to be comics going in and working bits and things like that, but it really was a bunch of people who had never tried stand-up before. We’d go up in a theatre room with no mic and no audience, start to talk a bit, and the teacher would interrupt and critique in the middle of it. He definitely had some strong ideas on what was funny and what wasn’t. He didn’t like me at all. I don’t think he had any problem with me personally, but he definitely wasn’t on board with what I was doing comedically. So I ended up skipping a couple of them. But at the end, we got to tape two sets at the Village Underground. They had a real audience. That was worth the cost of admission—especially since I went in and crushed both sets. So I had this great tape right off the bat and was able to use that to do a couple of festivals in that first year when I moved here.
"The real art of it is not just the material—it’s the energy, being comfortable, finding where your head is, and reacting to things that happen."
[The class] was so totally backward in that you’re not in the environment. You’re in a well-lit room, there’s no stage, there’s no microphone, and there’s no energy. I think that’s where a lot of people in the class are screwed. You can’t learn it by taking a class. There’s shows, and there’s open mics. Shows are where people go and they perform, and they throw out their material. They’re going to go up there, and they’re going to give you what they’ve crafted. Then the open mics are where you go to practice. It’s usually mostly comics, and it’s usually kind of bleak. It can be. But what I explain to people when they say, “This open mic is so shitty," or "I went to an open mic and it was so bad,” well, if you want to learn to draw, you can sit in your room and draw. If you want to learn to play guitar, you can sit and practice guitar, and you can learn notes, and you can learn the chords, and you can practice your handwork. Stand-up you can only practice by doing it. So it's as if the only time you could learn guitar was when you had to go up in front of a crowd of people and try to work it out. That’s why open mics are bad, but they’re critical. You can’t necessarily judge them for that because it’s people experimenting, learning, doing their finger exercises, and learning the chords. The real art of it is not just the material—it’s the energy, being comfortable, finding where your head is, and reacting to things that happen. That’s when you see a lot of comics lose people: if something happens. It could be something as simple as someone dropped their phone. You hear this “ku-donk” in the room, and everyone heard “ku-donk,” and it doesn’t matter what you say even if you’re in the middle of something. You have to say something because if you don’t, it breaks the illusion that you’re in conversation here with these people. Everyone wants to feel like they’re talking to you and that you’re aware of them.
Honestly, the other night I felt a little off, and I figured out what it was. There are two spotlights here [at Cobra Club]. We have a broader one and a more focused one. The more focused one hits you right in the face, and you can’t see anybody. I feel so much more grounded in my set, and with the audience, when I can look people in the eyes. There’s a lot of unsettling eye contact as part of my performance. I find people to lock in to, and it grounds me because I like to feel like I’m in conversation, too. So, losing the audience because you’re not addressing something. Those are the things you only learn by doing it and by watching people do it. When I see Amber, or Eric, or someone else host, and I watch them react to things, then I do that too. I pick that up.
On tech at a comedy show
There’s so much chaos around what happens in a show. There’s so much chaos around technology, even when you listen to somebody’s podcast or when someone’s trying to record their hour—things like that. You hear people talk about, "Oh, we had audio problems and it fell apart." There are so many different factors that go into it, especially when you’re at a stage where you don’t know what the crowd’s going to be like. You don’t know if people are going to show up, you don’t know what the vibe is going to be, and you kind of only have one shot at it. You can’t be like, "Oh, we didn’t get it. We’ll fix it in post." You don’t have the budget to do that. So when I see people get good tape, it feels good because I know that there are so many people who are really talented who just can’t get that lucky moment where they say, "All right. I have the camera tonight, it all worked, it recorded, and the audience was on board." There is this sort of randomness to it, in that sense.
People record their sets [at Cobra Club] all the time. One guy set up his camera, and he was there to record his set and was like, “I’m going to do a tight five and get that taped.” He goes up and everyone’s having good sets all night, and it’s a good show. Only during that five minutes does a guy who has been shit-faced the whole time pass out, knock over his table, and glass shatters across the floor. He’s bleeding and needs to be led outside with a flashlight shone in his eyes. Of all the times that could have happened, it was just during the five minutes that guy was recording a set—and that was the funniest part about that set, unfortunately for him.
Audio is critical, particularly with my style of comedy. I use the mic to make sound effects, play with my voice, and things like that. It’s an instrument, so you want it loud enough, obviously, and you want it to pick those up. I’ve done shows where it’s a little too muted, and then when I do, say, my bit where a strange man blowtorches a child’s Bratz doll, it loses all of the soundscape of it. I know less about the technical side of sound, so I’m thinking from a performer standpoint. There is a real music to particularly the story-style jokes, and it’s a risk because you kind of jump off. I think John does this a lot, too, where you have a jumping-off point, and then you’ll throw in your details, and you’ll throw in these actions, and then there are hits and punches in it, but a lot of the times the laughs come from almost a relief. Then it’s like pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and pushing—ta-da! and you present this thing. I enjoy playing with sound in my comedy so much. I do voices. I’ll scream, whisper, or breathe, and those elements you couldn’t do without the mic. Some of the people do the lav, like the one that’s attached to their face. I think there’s something really important about the stand and the microphone. The way that you cup it, the way that you hold it, and your posture all inform all of it.
On Live From Outer Space
"I came in and I immediately knew, 'I have to come back here all the time.' I just wanted to be here."
I’m not a tech guy. I don’t think I got brought on [to Live From Outer Space] for any sort of technical skill. Essentially, a drunk monkey could do it. It’s easy. It’s one switch. You move it up and down, just picking playlists and playing the songs. What really kind of happened was—I know that they had a guy running the sound for them, and they needed someone to do it. John asked me, I think just because he knew I was always here. Once again, it comes back to moving here, not knowing anyone, and not knowing where to go. I was just going to shows around, just randomly drifting in and out of doors trying to find a spot to go to. Then I came to this show. At that time all three—Amber, Eric, and John—were on the show. So I got to see all of them do what they do, and the kind of vibe of the room, and the sort of frenetic but joyful nihilism of it. I came in and I immediately knew, “I have to come back here all the time.” I just wanted to be here. It wasn’t a plan to get involved. I just wanted to come back to watch it. I wanted to come watch people whose work I appreciated because there is so much to learn. You can go to open mics and practice, but I think a lot of people forget how important it is to just watch, take it in, and take mental notes of what people do, particularly when it comes to hosting and working a crowd. I think I’ve seen and learned a lot from them there.
But I came to Cobra Club, and it just became my Church of Satan. It’s one of the few constant things in my week. My schedule moves all over the place, but I’m always here. That was the case before I started on the show. I think I just saw John do a set and came up and spoke to him afterward. He’s such a warm and open dude that he’ll give anyone a chance. He’s not someone who will suffer fools, I don’t think. He’ll definitely shut you down. We’ve gotten into conversations with people sometimes where I feel like he enjoys making fun of people when they don’t know that he’s doing it, and that’s a fun game. So I hope he wasn’t doing that to me early on. I don’t think so. But we hit it off and started talking. He found out I was a comic, and so we got along and I would see him after shows. Amber was the next one I met because John would go down to D.C. and I would still be here.
All three [hosts] are very different comics, but there is a philosophical spine that I think all of their comedy kind of shares. There is a genetic sort of primordial common ancestor, but then they have evolved into these completely different creatures.
John, I like to call him an anthropomorphic explosion. He just goes out there, he blows up, and he runs through. I think his delivery system is one that’s closest to mine, the way that we deliver our jokes. I think we talk about very different things, but it’s closest there. There’s a theatricality to it, but then there’s a desire to educate. I think what he’s trying to do with his comedy, and what he often does, is plant seeds and open little doors in people’s brains. He’s not going to go in with a whole treatise. But if your mind is a house, he’s going to go in and open a window, and leave it open so that a breeze blows in that you weren’t expecting, and that mixes things up.
Amber has got the Southern sensibility, but without the stereotypical ignorance. People associate the South with ignorant. But she’s so sharp and very against the mainstream. So whatever the expected idea is, she’s a bit of a contrarian. She is going to try and subvert it, but do it in this physical and goofy way, and then alternately aggressive. She commands a room. She’s one of my favorite people to watch host, if not my favorite. Just when she’s hosting the show, she can ride that wave, and sometimes you’ll see her practically grab the audience and shake it like, “Hey, this is what’s going on! What are you guys doing? This is awesome!” But she can do that conceptually, just pick up that baby and shake it, which you are not supposed to do. But sometimes they’re too sleepy, and she needs to wake them up.
Eric’s a sniper. He’s got jokes in his chamber, and he will just shoot them out—and if he is not hitting you, he’ll reload and fire more out. He’s got that voice and that kind of presence where he does not need a lot of energy. I wouldn’t say he’s low energy, because it is more like his energy is concentrated. He’s like a vibrating column, like that thing in 2001 at the beginning. It’s just there, and everyone can feel the energy coming off of it. But he doesn’t need to run around and scream to exude it. It just comes naturally. It’s very cool.
On other venues and shows
"I don’t think there’s any shortage of opportunity. That’s what’s great about coming here, that there is a room for whatever kind of comic you are."
I started Zen Boogie with one of the few friends I managed to make here. Her name is Irene Marrow. She is a very funny comic. We met at an open mic. I think we were both pretty new to the city and grasping for something, and we wanted to try to start something. We had a similar sense of humor. The show is honestly driven by diversity, and that’s kind of a buzz-y word right now and people react to that. But diversity means a lot more than just race or gender, which we try to have diversity of, too. Diversity can be in experience, so it can be newer comics and established comics. Diversity can be in tone. We see diversity in tone here at Live from Outer Space.
Eric and John have very drastically different tones. You don’t want everyone to have the same voice. You have diversity in the subject matter. It’s not everyone talking about their college problems. It’s not everyone talking about being a working-class dude. It’s all these different perspectives. So just creating a show that’s more of a spectrum, like an experience that flows together but comes from all these disparate parts. So we’ve been doing that for a little more than a year. We started off out of the back of this little bar in Crown Heights. Then they stopped calling us, so we went to another place. Then we went to the Experiment Comedy Gallery, and we were there for both of their locations, since they moved. We recently moved over to The Footlight where Laura Regan, the owner, is an awesome lady whom I’ve actually known since before they even opened it. She is a friend of John's as well. Her now-fiancé, Tim Shea, is a hilarious comedian who has done our show before. Now he hosts a thing called The NYC Talent Show, which he and Victor Varnado started a couple of years ago, but which now has returned in this whole new form. It’s an “open mic,” but it’s not like your standard open mic. Sometimes it’s better than half the shows I see because they get this interesting variety of performers to come. There will be a stand-up comedian, and then there will be a guy playing the piano, and then there will be an interpretative dance, and then there will be rappers, but it all fits together in this awesome community that they have created over there. So I’m really excited to be at that venue just because it’s so nice. I love the people. I love the community, and our show went great last time.
Honestly, I don’t play Manhattan that much. I hosted the show at Bunga’s Den a while ago that Danny Vega runs. That was a great show. But I feel like maybe it’s such a big city, there’s not even one comedy scene. There’s kind of all of these different scenes, and it’s weird when they sort of overlap each other. I’ll see like, “Oh, here’s the kind of middle-aged-white-dude Manhattan scene,” or “Here’s the radical-feminist-twenty-year-old scene.” I think there is a tribalism at times among little scenes of comics.
I don’t think there’s any shortage of opportunity. That’s what’s great about coming here, that there is a room for whatever kind of comic you are. That’s sort of the double-edged side of those different groups is that sometimes, “Oh, this is not a room for what I’m doing.” But that’s okay. You can’t play to every room, especially if you are trying to push the envelope a little bit. So it's about finding these key little areas. That’s why I think [Cobra Club] kind of became such an important one to me because, “OK, here are people who think what I think is funny, is funny.” There are rooms who do a completely different kind of humor, and that’s fine. Ideally, you want to cross over as much as you can, but you also don’t want to dilute yourself to such a point that you become sort of a non-identity. You think, “All right, I’m just going to assimilate to whatever this room is." That is a skill, and I think there are some people who want to be that comic, like, “I can just go, and I got my tightest jokes, and I can drop them, and I can make any room giggle.” That’s important, but I like the ones who are a little riskier, who are a little less afraid to go a full minute without getting a laugh. Back to that music—if you can create that tension, you can break it later. Then if you miss it, it’s like a skateboarder who falls off trying to do a trick. Well, you tried. But it was still kind of cool to try, and you’re going to have emotional scars rather than a cast. Fortunately, no one can tell when you have those until they talk to you.
On utilizing social media
"The President and the Pope have Twitters. They maybe have their staff, but when you see something on the news, it’s tweets. It’s where the conversation is happening in a lot of ways."
What’s wild is even the comics who are coming up now, like people who are at my stage and people who are at John and Amber and Eric’s stage, the paths are all different. Because the landscape is changing so quickly, the idea that, “This is how you do it. This is how you get the show. This is how you get the thing,” the path is no longer clear. But I also think there’s more paths. It used to be, "Here’s how you get to this. You've got to do this set, you've got to get your tight five together, you get passed at this club, you go do a late-night show, you get a comedy special, or you try to get a sitcom." It was a very clear direction. Now, it could be you live-tweet something, or you create a social media profile, or a video, or just any little thing that takes off, and all of a sudden you can access your fan base more directly. I’m not a pro at it. I like using YouTube. I like using Twitter. I like Twitter because it’s the Wild West. There’s no censorship, unlike what you’d see on Instagram or Facebook. The President and the Pope have Twitters. They maybe have their staff, but when you see something on the news, it’s tweets. It’s where the conversation is happening in a lot of ways. I mostly use it to post pithy bullshit, but it is like a notebook. I don’t do a lot of quick short jokes on stage. But just the seed of an idea can be on Twitter, and I found so many premises just by trying to make a funny tweet, like a quick line. Then you can take that and, like a singer, nurture it into something that you could do on stage. So it’s really useful that way, and I think that’s what I mostly use it for. I don’t have as many followers as I’d like, so now it’s just like a notebook. I’ve only got about 1,000. So as far as accessing fans, I’m not at that point yet.
"We’ve gotten to this climate where no matter how insane something is, it’s still believable."
On YouTube, I was doing this thing. Nobody watches it, but it was just an exercise, and it made me feel good. I got Donald Trump’s book, and I would do these videos where I would say to the camera that I was reading it verbatim and without judgment so that people could make their own decisions, and that was it. I would sit and I would read piece by piece, offering no commentary or anything, reiterate that it’s verbatim—except everything that I said, I made up. I said the most insane shit I could think of. It didn’t work how I wanted it to work, in that people who watched it were like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. He’s so crazy. Isn’t he the worst?” The joke of it was that we’ve gotten to this media and political climate that is so insane. I told a story in it about him hanging out with George Zimmerman, and then threatening a masseuse with a gun, and people are like, “Geez, that’s a crazy story.” We’ve gotten to this climate where no matter how insane something is, it’s still believable. You could believe it came out of his mouth. That’s kind of the joke, is that it’s like, “Look how crazy it’s gotten, where I can say that and you kind of don’t know if I’m joking.” I feel like satire is falling apart, in the sense that what would have been a joke is now very easily believably real.
On his reading habits
I mix it up because I like to read both fiction and non-fiction. I think there’s purists on both sides who say, “I just read non-fiction because I want to learn,” or “I just read fiction because non-fiction is boring.” I think non-fiction can be so compelling when you get an interesting science book, or an interesting philosophy book that just walks you through something. It’s important to be a good writer in that way. Then also, there’s so much truth in stories, so fiction is not necessarily just fluff. But recently, I was reading a book by this philosopher named D.C. Dennett. It was about humor, and it stuck with me because it gave me the tools to talk more eloquently about what I think we’ve been figuring out the whole time as comedians. That it could either be a fluke, or there is an evolutionary reason that humor exists. Why does comedy happen? What is that phenomenon? There’s a physical reaction like a burp that is involuntary that comes out of you when what happens? What is comedy?
I think part of what they were talking about, and part of what they identified, is that you can think of your brain like a program. Like I was saying earlier, you have your files. You have all these different things, but your files are now files on a computer, not files in cabinets, and there are programs going through this brain machine that you have. Then there are bugs in your programming. There are things that are erroneous that you believe. There are things that are harmful that you do. There are things that you are wrong about that you don’t realize. From an evolutionary perspective, it improves your survival to debug your consciousness. You want to minimize the amount of bugs. So there is this incentive, which is the pleasure and endorphin release, and the way that you feel when you laugh. Because what it has done is, it has revealed one of your bugs and helped you decode it. You’re like, “Oh, I was being dumb in that way," or "Oh, I did have that wrong.” Or it’s something as simple as (at the most basic level) a little one-liner that makes you believe one thing. It plants the bug in your brain. Some jokes plant a bug in your brain, and give you an example.
Steven Wright would do that in an incredible way. One of my favorite, favorite Steven Wright jokes of all time still makes me laugh so hard. He says he’s driving across the desert with a friend for like 18 hours, and they only had one cassette to listen to the whole time. Then he offhandedly goes, “Can’t remember what it was.” But what he’s done there, the bug that he planted in your brain is, of course, by creating that context, the assumption that you make is that, “Oh, of course.” Then this is just buried in your head, and you’re so annoyed with it. To flip it on you go like, "What is wrong with you? What do you mean you can’t remember what it was?" But he shows that you made an erroneous assumption. He planted the bug that time. So that’s one kind of joke that plants a bug, and then flips it on you, and it’s like, "Ha, ha, it’s just a cute little joke."
I think Eric does a great job of that, too. He is able to plant bugs in people, which I think Steven would think is appropriate. He shoots bugs into people's minds. But then there’s another kind of joke that finds the bugs that are already in there. I think it could be assumptions you’ve made about different groups of people, or assumptions you’ve made about different ideas. I think that’s an important kind of comedy, too, in that it’s actually going in and finding bugs where it’s like, “Oh, I did have this prejudice," or "Oh, I did have this assumption," or "Oh, I was doing this self-destructive thing, and now I see that it makes more sense to me now. My mind is open a little more, and I see that I am not alone. This other person had this same bug, and we have that in common." It’s very unifying, and it’s very pleasurable. I think it’s ultimately constructive, and better for us as evolving monkeys wandering around, giggling at each other and tweeting.