Each of the three times I've seen you at Here's the Thing, you did a completely different set. What's your work ethic when it comes to joke writing?
I'll do a joke for a week and then I'm sick of it. Every now and then I'll think of something that might turn into a joke and I'll mess with it. I think it's boring to do the same stuff over and over again. I'll only do that if it's a showcase set. I think it's better for the crowd too because I'm more into the jokes. If I'm excited about it hopefully they will be too.
How much improvisation do you usually incorporate into your performances?
It depends on the show I'm doing or how the set is going. If it's going really well then I'll start riffing on something. If I tell a joke and it goes really well, I'll try to expand on the joke right there. I feel that they're already with me so I might as well try to come up with some new stuff. The only time I won't improvise is if I'm doing a showcase six minute set.
Do you usually work out your jokes onstage or write them out before hand?
I write them out. I'll write down a bunch of ideas I had and I'll see which ones have the most potential. The first time I do it, I go up with a rough idea of what the joke should be and see if it can manifest in front of an audience. When you're sitting at home, you sometimes come up with things you think will work, but I feel that being in front of the crowd and seeing what's working and not working is better.
Growing up in Manhattan, did you see many comedy shows?
No. The first time I went to a live stand up comedy show was 1996 or 1997 at Stand Up New York. This girl I knew from an acting class was doing a bringer show.
What do you think of bringer shows?
Some are more positive and others are clubs clearly using you to get more money. The first one I did was good because I had friends there specifically to see me and the other people were there to support their friends. It was a very good way to get your feet wet, get up there, and have a supportive crowd. It's a good way to start, but it does get tough. I feel that, at times, the clubs take advantage of younger comics. They act like they're doing you this big favor, but then you get three or four minutes and they charge your friends all of this money. I got sick of that real fast.
How do you feel about the atmosphere at an open mic or bringer show at a comedy club and an open mic at a coffee shop or bar?
I used to do bringer shows at The Comic Strip because I took a class there and the atmosphere was pretty good. I did other ones at other clubs and it was clear that they didn't care and just wanted my friends' money. It didn't matter what I did there. It was just, "Get up there," and no one would give a shit. They'd rush me up there, have me do my four minutes, and then have the next dude. You know it's a bad bringer show when there's twenty people booked at a show. Twenty people doing four minute sets is no fun for anybody.
I used to live in LA and they had open mics at coffee houses. Those were more laid back. It was just a bunch of comics being supportive of each other. There are open mics here that are good and some of them are not. Sometimes you go up and you can just feel no one giving a shit that you're up there. As I got into it more, I stopped doing bringer shows and went to more open mics. I didn't have to have my friends go to the show and have them have a horrible time at thirty-five dollars apiece. I still go to open mics every now and then if I have a brand new idea that I don't want to do at a show. I'll just go to an open mic with it and mess around with it onstage. I think open mics are better than bringer shows.
What was that comedy course like?
I had done stand up in college. I was taking an acting class and as an assignment we had to do a stand up comedy act. This was in Texas. The professor took me to an open mic and I did a set. That was my first time. I didn't do it for years after that. When I was back in New York, I was really scared and didn't know how to do it. I talked to someone who did a class at The Comic Strip where they did a showcase at the end Basically, you went in and each of us would read out jokes and the teacher would tell us what was good and what was bad. I wasn't taking it to learn how to do comedy. I did it because I knew I'd have to go up at the end. It wasn't horrible and it wasn't great. It was a means to an end.
What sort of role did comedy play in your life growing up?
When I was in elementary school, I always wanted to be a stand up comedian and people would tell me I should do that because I was always joking around. I was the class clown. When I was graduating from elementary school we had to say what we wanted to do when we grew up for the yearbook and mine was, "I want to be a comedian because I like making people laugh." I think it's strange because now I actually am doing that. A lot of the kids probably put, "I want to be an astronaut," and I don't think they're astronauts. It came naturally to me and it helped me acclimate to new people.
After sixth grade I went to a brand new school where I didn't know anybody. I can be shy, but I can be really funny. I made friends because I was known to be the funny guy there. It's always been a big part of who I was and something that made me stand out.
Did you move around as a kid?
No, my parents just sent me to a different school. Then I went to performance art high school in Manhattan in the upper west side. I was in the drama department. I went into it as a sophomore and didn't know anybody.
What sort of creative outlets did you have in high school?
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I took a drama course where we did Improv. People thought I was funny and good at it, so I thought I'd be an actor. I took an acting class in eighth or ninth grade and the woman there said I should audition for LaGuardia, the performing arts school, and I got in. When I went there, I thought it was cool that I was going to study acting and drama, but the other kids were very serious and wanted to be actors. That was the first time I thought that I would actually be in the entertainment industry. We'd read plays, do scenes, and had an audition class. That was a great school. There were so many talented kids there. Kids that were in my class then have become very successful. Now that I look back on it, it was a very good artistic environment to be in. They were very focused, confident, and went and did it.
What'd you do after high school?
I went to Southern Methodist University. I studied acting there. That was at a time when my ambition was to be an actor. SMU had a reputable acting department at the time and they gave me a scholarship. I studied acting, but other stuff too, like business. And that was when I did stand up for the first time. I really didn't like it and thought, "I'm not going to do that."
How did the jokes you told then compare to what you'd later do?
They weren't funny. That was the main difference. I actually have some jokes now where I took those old jokes and expanded on them. I think that back then, I just didn't know how to even write a joke. Some of my earliest jokes were about horror movies and how stupid they were. That's a glimpse of what my jokes are now where I'll take a pop culture reference and dissect how stupid it is. I barely remember what I was saying. I remember talking and looking at people, who were kind of laughing. I couldn't even believe what I was doing. It was so strange to be standing on stage with people staring at me and that I had to be funny right there. It seemed very unnatural. Now that I've done it a lot I try to be as much me as I am when I'm funny off stage when I'm onstage.
What do you think of comics that start as early as sixteen?
I think it's great. The first time I did it I was nineteen and when I look back on it I wish that I had kept going with it. The younger the better. You can go through those first years of getting used to doing it and being onstage. Once you get through that in about three or four years and start finding your voice, you're still young and way ahead of it. You could be twenty-two and start moving into that next phase of knowing who you are comedically. I wish I had stuck with it after that first time. It was about six years before I tried it again.
What are some things that you know about stand up know that you would have liked to have known when you had started out?
I wish I had known, earlier on, what I was in for in terms of the business end of it, getting into it, how competitive it is. When you start out, it's so exciting and everyone's happy about it. And then you realize it's not like that. I always thought that I'd go up, be hilarious, and everyone would see me once and say, "He's so great." But it's not like that. Even if you are funny and people see that you're funny, people may dislike you more because of that. I had to find out the hard way. I was young. I just assumed that I'd be funny, that everyone would love it, and that I'd be embraced with open arms, but it's not like that. That's the thing about stand up. There's no one-way to do it. You have to learn everything on your own. There's no way to be taught it. It's catechism by fire. You just have to go out and learn what you need to learn.
After college did you move back to New York or is that when you moved to LA?
I moved back to New York and moved to LA three or four years later. When I came back, I was taking an acting class. The only things I really liked and got positive feedback in was comedic scenes. A couple people, again, said I should do stand up. A friend of mine had written some sketches. Me and these two other dudes did this sketch show. We were put up at Stand Up New York. I did that for a year and was around comedy clubs more. I'd watch stand up and think, "I can do that and be at least as funny as that dude." It was about four years after graduating from college that I did stand up again. I moved to LA a year after I started doing it, but to get out of New York more than to do stand up.
How would you compare the LA and NY comedy scene?
I was there for two years. I didn't move out there to do comedy. I didn't have anything to do since I didn't know too many people, so I'd look for places to go up. I got more into stand up out there. I met comics out there and they told me I was funny, which gave me more confidence. There's only three main clubs and two of the clubs are almost impossible two get into. There were really funny people that were there for years and even they couldn't get spots. I was just starting comedy and I felt that LA was not a good place to develop your art. That's where you go when you want to exploit your art. It's not a very nurturing place. I didn't want to be there for eight years without getting better or moving up. I was thinking of moving to Boston or Houston, a place where I could get a lot of stage time and develop. I eventually came back to New York. New York's hard too, but it's definitely better. There are more places to go up. In LA, it feels like it's almost impossible to break into the next level of doing comedy. In New York, it's hard, but at least more doable.
When would you recommend someone move to New York to do comedy?
I started here because I lived here and I came back because I felt comfortable being in a city that I knew. It's good to know your voice and have a pretty decent set. When I moved back here, it was hard to get stage time. I know people that work in small circuits and a big comic, like Lewis Black, will take them with him to tour with him. If I were one of those people, I'd stay and see if I could get enough stage time as I could and get seen by bigger comedians. Maybe, once you've made those connections you can move to New York if you have a reason to. Sometimes I wish that I'd have started at a smaller place. I would have gotten a lot more stage time and it's easier to do the road in those places.
What are some changes that you've noticed in the New York comedy scene in the last couple of years?
The alternative comedy scene has gotten a lot of attention lately. I do clubs, but it's a different vibe. You do some of these alternative shows and it's a scene. It's almost like a beat poet scenes. It's a hip, cool thing that people feel belongs to them, while at clubs people are like, "Yeah, let's go to that club. Some guy on the street was handing out tickets." At alternative shows people are really into comedy and pride themselves on knowing what's funny. It's an experience for everyone, not just comedians.
Other than stand up, do you do any other writing?
I've written a lot of screenplays. I wrote one about a year and a half ago with a couple of comics. We had it optioned, but it hasn't gotten past that point. The option will run out and they'll want us to resign the contract. I took screenwriting courses and I've written about seven screenplays. It's something I've wanted to do since before I've done stand up. I would like to write screenplays, but I think that so many people write screenplays and it's really hard to get anyone to read them. I couldn't even get friends of mine to read them.
A little over a year ago, I started keeping a journal about my job where I took care of my nieces three days a week. One of them was four and one was one and a half. I would always get in these ridiculous situations. As it went on, it turned into a novel. Right now, I'm working on the first three chapters and a synopsis. I'm going to give it to a few people I know in publishing. That's what I'm pursuing right now.
What do you like to do after a performance?
Depends on where it is and how it went. If it's a place where I know other comics on the bill and it was a good show, I'll hang out and get a couple of drinks. If it didn't go well, I'll have a couple of drinks and leave. A lot of times, you're adrenalin will be pumping and it's hard to go straight home, so I'll have a drink to unwind.
Visit Tom's Myspace to read jokes and to see where and when some of his performances will be.