Sean L. McCarthy has got it made. Blogger of comedy for The NY Daily News, New York's Funniest Reporter , and he spends his nights hanging out with some of the funniest people in the world. A truly enviable position! What's his secret? How did he get to where he is? Gothamist wanted to know and found out!
You recently won the Funniest Reporter competition. How'd you prepare?
The New York Underground Comedy Festival said it’d pair each of us up with a mentor of our choosing. I asked for Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. I got Macio . Close enough, right? Not sure what the other reporters did, but I ended up meeting with Macio a couple of times, and he forced me onstage at the Comic Strip, yielding a few of his minutes so he could watch me two nights before the contest. It was my first time onstage in six months, and it showed. I expected him to tell me which jokes he liked and which ones to junk, but his advice was all about my stage presence and confidence, which was great, and curiously enough, made all of my jokes funnier in the contest.
What'd you win?
No trophy. No money. Emily from Gawker judged the contest and later wrote that I sounded “just like a professional comedian.” So you’d think there’d be bragging rights, but to paraphrase Boston comedian Myq Kaplan, out of the thousands of reporters in New York City, I am the funniest...of the six people who were in the contest.
Are your co-workers treating you differently now?
They’re waiting for me to quit my day job already.
You've covered comedy in a few cities. How does New York compare to the rest?
How did you know that? Are we Facebook friends? Anyhow. Yes. I’ve written about comedy in New York City, Boston and Phoenix and performed in Seattle before that. I’ll always have a fond place in my heart for Seattle, because that’s not only where I started performing improv and stand-up comedy, but it’s also where an editor had the brilliant idea to make me an entertainment reporter. Before that, I covered City Hall, government and crime. Seattle and Boston are both great places to start out and develop an act. Seattle comics tend to move to Los Angeles, while Boston comics head for New York. You’d be surprised to find out how many comics in this city started in Boston. New York, though, literally and figuratively towers over all the other comedy scenes. There’s just so much going on here. It’s where everyone comes to make it, and even when they’ve made it, they’re still here to work out new material or just socialize. I suppose you could make a case for L.A., but there seems to be more of a disconnect out there, partially because of the geography of having to drive everywhere, partially because of the Hollywood industry and mentality. New York’s comedy scene feels more like a community.
How'd you become the comedy reporter for NY Daily News anyway?
Shhhh! I’m not quite sure they’ve picked up on that yet. Let’s just leave it our little secret.
I think the secret's out, so you might as well come clean.
Well, do you mean how'd I end up writing about comedy for them, or did you want my whole back story, in which I go from Princeton to Twin Falls, Idaho, for two years at a small daily newspaper, then out to the Seattle area for six years in and out of newspaper jobs and also starting up a career in comedy (improv, then stand-up, a summer as a professional clown, another six months as an elevator operator at the Space Needle), then following my heart to Phoenix where I did a little bit of everything at the Arizona Republic, then back near my family at the Boston Herald, where I wrote entertainment and features as well as a weekly comedy column and daily blog, and then moved down to Brooklyn in June and happened into the offices of the Daily News. They said they were open to new ideas online, and I launched the Funny Business blog in late July. Apart from weekly coverage in Time Out NY, your interviews, a few blogs and the odd piece in other New York papers, no one really was offering any sort of comprehensive coverage of the comedy scene in what could be considered the hub for all comedy. That still sounds crazy to me as I say it. And that's about a short an answer as I can give you for that.
Hold on, you were a clown?! How'd that happen?
I was writing for the Federal Way News, a twice-weekly paper owned by the Seattle Times, back in...what was it...1997...when my editor, who knew I was a bit of a goof because I was in an improv group and just exploring stand-up in Seattle (where I lived), thought it'd be fun for me to write a first-person about trying out for Ringling Bros. clown college. This turned out to be the last year the Clown College operated. I went. I tried out. When I finished and walked down the hallway, a few people followed me and said if I didn't make it into Ringling but was still interested, they'd hire me to be a real clown. So I did it for a summer, working child birthday parties and company picnics. The company was Clowns Unlimited in Seattle. They put you through a training class first. Lasted several weeks. We learned how to make costumes. Balloon animals. Magic tricks. Dealing with kids. All that stuff. I had my own name. I came up with Flibber T. Gibbet (sometimes adding Esq., and/or Dr.). I had a first-person story in Boston where I got to be a clown with Ringling Bros and that was so much fun I left my makeup on for the rest of the night.
So, what's your favorite venue to see comedy in the city?
I go out a few nights a week and try to mix it up a bit for variety and to see new faces, but invariably, I’ll stop by the Comedy Cellar and Rififi more than the others. The Cellar remains the undisputed best place to see stand-up comedy in New York City. And it’s still the city’s comedy clubhouse, so everyone shows up as much to hang out and talk shop as they do to tell jokes. For those of you who haven’t done so, watch Seinfeld’s great documentary, “Comedian,” and you’ll see what I mean. Or just go eat at the Olive Tree Cafe and take in a show downstairs. Rififi has a similar clubhouse feel for the so-called alternative community where you’ll find the comedians who contribute to “Best Week Ever,” Super Deluxe, and the like.
You've served as a judge on several comedy contest panels. What criteria do you use to judge comedy?
Comedy is so subjective, which makes contests such a delicate subject for performers who wonder why they didn’t win and for judges who sometimes don’t know how to decide between two or more equally funny people. Most contests have scoring sheets for things you can gauge such as audience response, stage presence and originality, but if you haven’t seen a lot of comedy, how do you know how original a stand-up is? Of course, I just competed in a contest and entered another one (New York’s funniest stand-up, come see me Nov. 1 at Stand-Up NY!), so who am I to judge, anyhow?
Have you ever been threatened by a bitter comedian?
No, I tend to emphasize giving press to comedians who deserve to be seen by more people, which tends to decrease their bitterness.
Once comics know who you are, do you notice them turning on the schmooz factor? How do you resist their charms in order to ensure fair coverage?
I notice it a lot more with PR people than with comedians. I’ve hung out with comedians socially for years, although since I began writing about comedy, more often I’ll find comics worried about whether everything is “on the record” than trying to charm me.
Has all of your comedy coverage given you any extra insight into why bachelorette parties come to comedy shows?
They keep saying that women like men with a sense of humor, right?
New York's also got a lot of comedy going on its streets. What's your strangest or funniest "Only in New York" moment?
Just the other night at the Cellar, I watched alongside comedians and club staff as comedian Robert Kelly got married in Maui via live Webcast, went downstairs and saw Chris Rock deliver a new half-hour, followed by Dave Chappelle, who rolled in on a skateboard. Then I went back upstairs where Dave Attell was screening footage for a wickedly weird new live-action/animation hybrid he’s planning for Adult Swim.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
I’d like to have all the subway pimpers on the same train at the same time, competing for everyone’s attention. Actually, that sounds like either a reality TV show pitch or an Improv Everywhere prank. I’m so hack.
Under what circumstances would you leave New York?
I just got here!
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
Anyone who comes here with nothing but a pocketful of dreams and turns it into a reality.
What do you consider a perfect day of recreation in the city?