Joe Matarese has been performing stand up since 1989 and has become a staple of the New York scene.
When did you develop an interest in comedy?
When I was a teenager. The first job that I actually liked was being a DJ at a bowling alley. I'd DJ at parties, bars, and weddings. I'd tell jokes in between songs sometimes, even though they didn't want me to. I had all of these comedians' acts memorized because I listened to them all the time. There was one bar where the owner liked it when I did the bits. A friend of mine did an open mic in Philadelphia at a place called The Comedy Works, which is no longer there. He came over to my house the following day, told me about it, and I started going once a week. That was in 1989.
What were you like in school?
I always had trouble in school. I was smart but couldn't focus. Years later I'd learn that I had a learning disability. It had to be something I really loved or I couldn't focus on it. Comedy was the first thing I ever loved and the first thing I was able to focus on.
I was not a class clown. I only had a few friends in my high school and was pretty quiet. I wanted to do comedy when I was in high school. I almost entered the school talent show, but thank God I didn't because when you're a comedian and you first start you're terrible.
Were you doing any writing at the time?
No. I would do a lot of impressions growing up. My friends would always ask me to do it. I used to tape record myself and do skits with my brother. That was my first outlet. I would tape things off the TV. I would tape movies. My friend and I used to listen to whole movies while we did our paper route in the 9th grade. I'd have the tape recorder in my bike basket and we'd just listen to the movie Rocky.
And what was the first open mic like?
I probably went on twenty-seventh out of twenty-seven comedians. The audience left throughout the night, so by the time I got on there was only one person in the audience. How well can you do in front of one person? But I still enjoyed it. I came back and realized early on that it's a process that requires a lot of work.
How old were you at the time?
What were the next couple of years like for you?
It was a once a week thing. There were two open mics right across the street of each other on Chestnut Street in downtown Philadelphia. One was at the Comedy Factory Outlet and the other was at The Comedy Works and they were both on a Wednesday night. Sometimes I'd sign up and if I had a really bad number, I'd go back to my parent's house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, wait a few hours, and drive back to do my set. I always felt like an outcast at the open mics. It was like high school, where I didn't fit into the cliques. It's very cut throat right in the beginning. I wasn't that clever as a comedian starting out while some of the other comics were more highbrow. One guy I started with is now the head writer for Saturday Night Live and has written and directed some well-known movies. There was a little clique of intelligent smarmy comedians that I couldn't get along with. Back then I was easily intimidated by people that were different from me.
Were there any crazies at the open mics?
A lot of the guys that show up to do open mics are crazies. You get a lot of weirdos.
Living so close to Philadelphia, did you often go to comedy shows?
No. I didn't know that there was a comedy scene at that time. There was a comedy club in Cherry Hill that I'd go to called The Comedy Cabaret. Back then I thought the worst comics were unbelievable because I didn't know any better. Years later, I'm like, "Oh my God. Why did I think that was good? It was terrible."
What was your early material like?
A lot of bad impressions. I don't do any now.
How long was it before you moved up to emceeing and middling?
It took about two and a half to three years for me to start emceeing. I moved to Florida about three years in. I had a friend of mine that was interested in stand up. He moved down to Tampa, Florida because he wanted to be a tennis pro. His mom said that if he finished college, she'd pay for him to go to this tennis camp where Jennifer Capriati and all of these pros trained. I moved there with him. There were a lot more road clubs in the south back then in Georgia and Florida. I'd drive all over the place and do these weeklong emcee gigs.
Is emceeing something that you enjoy doing?
No, I'm not good at it. I have pretty low energy and am not always in a good mood. Good emcees are usually very upbeat and positive. I speak the truth a lot. If I'm in a bad mood, I'll tell the crowd I'm in a bad mood, which isn't a good move for an emcee.
How long were you doing comedy before you felt some sort of difference?
I didn't figure out that you had to make a niche in comedy until I met this guy Juston McKinney in New York City. We were friends and he was doing all of this material about how his dad was homeless and how he was a cop in this really poor town in Maine. The networks took notice and gave him a lot of money. This was after Seinfeld got his sitcom. All of a sudden comedians were getting deals if their acts were about something and not just jokes. All of a sudden, I had a strategy: let me start coming up with material about me. I started talking about being a DJ, music, and being a single guy. That was about the six-year mark.
How much time would you dedicate to writing every day?
I've never been disciplined with that. I've never been a guy that sits down and writes. It comes in spurts. I often tend to talk about what happened to me onstage and see if it would turn into anything. I write most of my bits onstage.
How many times do you perform a particular bit before your confident with it?
Sometimes it comes out funny, but the true test is to see if it's funny the second time. Sometimes things are funny because you just made it up in the moment. I would say that within four times I can feel confident with it, but my bits never stop evolving. I've had bits for five years that only recently did I figure out how to change for the better.
What's your opinion on stand up courses?
I never took a stand up course, but I taught one while I was in San Diego because I needed the money. I don't think that it's a bad idea for someone who doesn't know much about comedy to take a course. There's a lot of stuff that if I had known early on would have saved me a lot of time. If someone had said to me in the beginning, "You need to figure out who you are and that's what you should talk about onstage." I never realized that. I just thought, "I'll go up there and make them laugh." I was too young and immature to realize that there was more to it than that. When I taught my course that was one of the things I talked about right away. You need to be different and find out who you are.
What do you think of bringer shows?
Bringer shows are fine. Whatever a new comic needs to do to get stage time is fine. I did them when I started out and it was how I would make tapes to get future work. I wouldn't do them forever. You have to eventually get to a place where you have to do mostly paying gigs. I'm not a fan of these clubs that do all bringer shows. It makes people think that's what live stand up is. To keep the comedy crowds coming we have to keep the shows great.
When is it that you moved to LA?
I had a development deal with Overbrook Entertainment. They sold it to NBC and they hired a writer, Matt Wickline, who created DL Hughley's sitcom The Hughleys. He flew out to the east coast to meet my family and was the hired show runner. What happens in show business is that you get representation wanting you. They never want you when you don't have anything, but now I had something so this agency came on board with me. I gave them ten percent of the deal, which they did nothing to get. I was very naïve. I decided that I wanted to move to LA to help write the pilot and I had an agent so I could audition for things.
What was the pilot about?
It was called Left of the Dial. I was a DJ in an independent radio station, which we based on the radio station WFMU in Jersey City. We went there, watched what was going on, and thought it would be interesting. I'm a guy that has a show in a little market, but it's very embraced. It was like Howard Stern's Private Parts where I get a job in a bigger station and they won't let me do what I want to do. The basis of the show was a guy trying to find himself and the right career at the same time. I was single, wanted to get married, couldn't find anyone, and couldn't decide what the right career for me was.
How long were you in LA?
I lasted almost two years and then I couldn't take it and moved back.
How does the LA comedy scene compare to the New York comedy scene?
There's only about three regular clubs in LA: The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, and The Improv. New York City has fifteen great comedy clubs and on the weekends it's packed, but in LA it's empty on the weekends. No one really supports comedy. It's a showbiz town, so on the weekends no one wants to go out and see more entertainment. In LA, you can't get up onstage like you do in New York. In New York, I can get up three to five times in one night, while in LA I'm lucky if I get two spots in a week.
What changes have you noticed in comedy since getting involved?
The development deals that I spoke of that were happening in the 90's don't exist anymore because of reality television. Now, if you get a development deal for a network it's for small amounts of money. I knew people getting five to seven hundred thousand dollars for a development deal. Now if you get fifty thousand you're happy.
Stand up has gotten more intimate. When I started, everybody was doing Jerry Seinfeld. These basic observations about nothing. A comedian now will be more accepted with really honest comedy.
Are there any misconceptions about stand up that you'd like to clear up?
Most comedians I know are very to themselves and dysfunctional. People probably realize that comedians aren't normal people. That's why we become comedians.
I often hear people say that they want to move to New York to pursue a career in comedy. When do you think that they should make such a move?
I think four or five years in you can move to New York or LA. I think you should move to New York if you want to be a comedian and not a screenwriter. Don't move too soon because it's really hard.
What do you think of the term alternative comedy?
I don't mind alternative comedy. I don't do it, but I like performing in alternative comedy rooms because I can be more honest. I like the audiences that go to those clubs. It's easier to perform for people that get it.
What do you think are the proper conditions for stand up?
All you need is a low stage. I hate high stages where you're much higher than everybody. Lighting, so you can see me, and a good sound system. I don't like clubs that have a bar in the room. People tend to talk when they sit at the bar. I'd rather have it be a big room. I don't think comedians like when people are eating during the show. I don't mind bar food, but I hate certain rooms that have full meals. As a comedian, I like a club where the staff is on the comedian's side. If someone's heckling or getting out of hand, they should kick that person out.
How do you feel about college shows?
I'm starting to get older and as my material evolves it seems to get harder to do colleges. I don't know if college kids want to hear me talk about trying to get a mortgage or being married to a psychologist.
Are you noticing that comedian is a career that young people aspire to have?
I feel like it always stays the same. Certain people with particular dysfunctions in their lives realize that comedy would suit them because they can express themselves. I don't know if more people are trying to be comedians now. I think more were starting in comedy when those development deals were flying around.
What qualities do you think someone should posses if they're interested in getting involved in comedy?
It helps if you have a thick skin and don't mind the word no being said to you often. You get rejected constantly, so if you're really insecure it's probably not a good thing for you.
What was your Last Comic Standing experience like?
It sucked. They're looking for comedians to be in a house together, so they don't pick the best comedians. They pick comics that they think America wants to follow. I don't think comedy is something that you can do in a contest situation. With singing, it's easier to say, "That guy is better than this guy." But with comedy, a guy I think is funny someone sitting right next to me could think is terrible.
When is it that you plan on releasing your third CD?
I'm in the midst of working on it right now. I thought I had it done, but I listened to it and realized that I want to change some things on it.
What are some other projects you're involved in?
I'm constantly creating new ideas and pitching them to networks. I'm shooting a hybrid show that revolves around comedians' problems and group therapy this month.
It reminds me a bit of when Metallica made a movie of them going into group therapy and then they put out an album. I haven't seen the movie or listened to the album, but the impression I got from people was that Metallica went through all that effort to put out an album that ended up being kind of, "Meh."
It's hard to maintain creativity over many years. There are only two or three comedians that stayed funny for over twenty years. Billy Cosby is amazing. I saw him recently and thought, "This guy's still good." Some people get burned out. I saw him at the Apollo and he spoke with me after the show. My cousin, dad, and I went and we had backstage passes because we have a friend that knows him. When he found out that my cousin and I were comedians, he had the stagehand bring chairs out, and talked to us for forty-five minutes on the stage.
What sort of things did he say?
He had great advice. In my new CD that I have coming out, I decided to take some negative moments from my career where I got mad at the crowd or did something stupid to get fired and put them on the CD. I narrate them before each piece. I say, "This is what was going on and this is me showing you what it's like behind the comedy." One of the tracks is where I made fun of the club too much and I ended up getting fired. I struggle with anger a lot and to channel it and to make it funny verses uncomfortable is hard. Sam Kinison found a way. That's why he was a genius. He found a way to channel anger and make it hilarious. When I'm on with my anger, it's the funniest I can be, but it's a very fine line.
I asked Bill Cosby about that because in the middle of his show at the Apollo, there was all this noise backstage. He didn't get mad. He took his wireless head mic off, sat it down on the chair, said to the crowd, "Give me a second," and went off stage. Thirty seconds later he came back onstage, put his mic back on, and said, "Now, where was I." I laughed. I think I was the only one in the theater that laughed because I knew what that was like. He was so professional that he didn't let the crowd see that he was pissed at somebody.
I told him, "I was really impressed by how professional you were and how you didn't let the crowd see how mad you were." He started cursing, which was funny. It was weird to see Cosby turn into a real guy. He started telling me that he gets pissed a lot. I told him about how I'm not confident sometimes onstage and that when I loss my confidence I tend to get angry. He told me to read a chapter of a book that he wrote called Cosbyology. He said, "Don't buy it. Just go in the book store and read the chapter."
In this chapter, he tells a story about getting a gig in Chicago that he thought that he wasn't good enough to be at. He took that onstage and ended up bombing. When they introduced him, they said, "Here's a really funny up and comer from New York City, Bill Cosby." Half the room applauded, he came up, bombed, came off stage, and the owner of the club came into the green room and said, "What the hell was that?" Cosby said, "I'm sorry. I'm not good enough to be here." The owner stopped him and said, "Yeah, you're right. You're fired, but can you do me a favor? When you go back to the hotel, can you get Bill Cosby and get him to perform at the eleven O'clock show? I don't know who you are, but I want Bill Cosby." The late show comes up, he comes walking in, and this time they introduce him as, "Here's Bill Cosby." From the back of the room, Bill Cosby yelled at the guy, "What about up and comer? Last show you said up and comer." Everyone started laughing. Cosby had a dialog with the guy who introduced him and the crowd started going crazy. He said that he did a quarter of his jokes and that the rest was improvised, but he killed. He came off and the owner came into the green room and said, "That was great. From now on you should perform as Bill Cosby. I don't know who that was, but I don't want to see him again."
The point he was getting across to me was that you can be insecure, but don't perform as that guy. I talk about my insecureness onstage, but I talk about it in a confident way. I can't go up there and say, "You guys are making me really insecure right now." No one wants to hear that, but I can say, "I'm a pretty insecure guy, but I feel secure onstage right now." It was cool to hear it coming from a guy who has been doing comedy his whole life.
What are some insecurities that you encounter onstage?
I tell a story onstage about how I got really insecure at the Apollo. I got booed off stage within ten seconds. I tell it onstage. "Is there anything about my act that would make you think why is this guy not at the Apollo?" But the truth is that I was insecure when I hit the stage and they let you know when you're at the Apollo. You can't show fear. You have to be like a lion up there. My manager told me to just start cursing and act crazy so that they can't show it on TV, so that's what I did. I tell the story onstage, but I'm not going to tell it now. They can buy my CD if they want to hear it. It's going to be on the new one, which doesn't have a title yet.
To find out more about Joe, including when his third CD is coming out, visit Joematarese.com