Tom Shillue performs at clubs all over New York City, has a Comedy Central Presents half hour special, has appeared in commercials for Audi, Heineken, Ameritrade, Snickers, and provided voiceovers for Verizon, for Amex, and Met Life. He'll be headling at http://comixny.com/event.aspx?eid=69&sid=221on the 14th.
You were part of show called Meow Mix House . For the benefit of readers, could you explain what that was?
I was hosting a reality show for cats in the vain of Big Brother. A bunch of cats live in a house, each one voted off by human beings visiting meowmix.com. They had contests, highest jumping cat, cats that paint competition, but they didn’t get voted off in shame. They were adopted by a loving family. So, the animal rights people were happy, Meow Mix got some free promotion, and I was able to work for a couple of weeks.
How much interaction did you have with the actual cats?
I only had to go in during each shoot. So I'd come in, they'd shoot for a couple of hours, and I'd go home. But they lived in this house with the people from the AFPCA. I was like the classic host who they bring in just for the cameras.
Was this just an hour of cats running around the house?
There was a twenty-four hour web cam so that the real cat people could tune into the website and watch these cats anytime. The shows that were on Animal Planet were only ten minutes long.
Whenever I see a show like World's Funniest Pets, I don't know why, but I'm always enraged by all of the puns and jokes that have.
Being the host of one of these shows is a rather difficult position. I found myself in that on Meow Mix House. Had you seen it, you might have been even more outraged because the stuff on America's Funniest Animals was probably high comedy compared to the stuff I had to do on Meow Mix House. You had a cat food company putting their two cents in, so the comedy gets camped down a bit. It was not high hilarity. In fact, the only people who enjoyed it were cat people and they didn't even want to look at me. They wanted to see the cats. It's a very thankless position being the host of one of these animal shows.
Did you interact with any cat fanatics?
Yes. I did some autograph signing, but, more often than not, the people wanted to go directly to the cats. They didn't really have a lot of regard for the host.
Was there a particular pun on the show you enjoyed most?
My weekly catchphrase "You are Meowta here!" Not that it's not a stupid thing to have to say every episode, but I always wanted my own TV catchphrase, like Fonzy or Freddie Prince. Or Trump.
Your Premium Blend set one of the most, for lack of better words, alternative leaning that the show has featured. Was that difficult to run by the producers?
I insisted on it in an odd way. It wasn't because I was trying to do something very iconoclastic or weird. I was actually hoping that Comedy Central was going to offer me a half hour special. They came to me and offered Premium Blend where you get to do six to eight minutes and I thought, "Well, I'll probably get a half hour special in six months or a year," because I was cocky. And I said, "I don't want to burn through eight minutes of my valuable material that I could use for my nice showcase, my half hour special." I thought that instead of turning it down, I'd do something weird. I decided on this piece that I had only done twice before at Luna Lounge and people laughed at it. I thought, "The audience is probably going to just stare at me, but maybe the comics in the back of the room will get a kick out of it and we'll all have a laugh about it." But it turned out better than I thought it would. I did the thing at this big auditorium, everyone laughed, and now I get more e-mails for that segment than I do for my half hour special.
You mentioned performing for the comics in the back of the and some might say that performing only for the comics in the back of the room is a trap in stand up.
It's definitely a trap. In fact, I think that there are comics out there who have been lingering in obscurity because they are playing to the comics in the back of the room and don't step up to the plate to do material that would resonate with a larger audience. Maybe they don't want to and want to be like Charlie Parker, playing for the other musicians, but even Charlie Parker created material that was able to resonate with a large audience. At some point you have to move beyond that because, although it's always fun to get the recognition of our peers- it means more than anything, really-at the end we're trying to entertain people. I like to work both rooms. I love working Caroline's, Gotham, and I'm going to be headlining at Comix. These are nice mainstream clubs. Classy places that people go with their wives and girlfriends or when they're visiting from Wisconsin, and you want your material to translate to these people. At the same time, if I performed only at mainstream rooms like that I probably wouldn't come up with new and interesting material. If I go down to Rififi and do something new, it works with that audience and, eventually, I can turn that into material for my more mainstream set.
I've heard some mainstream comics say, "Alternative Comedy? What's the alternative to comedy: not funny."
There's always going to be brilliant stuff and non-brilliant stuff, and you can't blame that on the genre. There are a lot of people in the alternative scene who have great disregard for what they call mainstream comedy, but if they went out and saw a major headliner like Brian Regan or Jim Gaffigan, who I'd put up next to any of the so called alternative acts in terms of edgy, original, and inventive material, they'd think differently.
What does the word edgy mean to you?
This is a topic for endless discussion in the Shillue home. My logo should be the word edgy with a red line through it. The word is overused and I think that, like anything, it's in the eye of the beholder. People are always looking for edgy material and the industry is always saying, "Oh, who's the new edgy comic?" And then they anoint this guy the new edgy comic and he's got to go mainstream on the Tonight Show or HBO and he's going to lose a bit of the edge because he's going to have to appeal to that large audience. People are talking about Borat as being very edgy comedy when, in fact, it goes a lot further than edgy for most people. Edgy is when you walk the line between making people laugh and making people uncomfortable. There's a zone that people walk in, so someone who's pushing the envelope is called edgy and someone who goes far beyond that is still called edgy.
What are some other traps that you think that comedians should watch out for?
I often say this to new comics who work difficult rooms. They get up onstage and they perform for a small audience that's not giving them a lot of love back, so their act starts to reflect that. This kind of hardened attitude onstage where you act as if, "I'm bombing, but I'm going to do this anyway. I'm having a good time even though you guys aren't giving me a lot back." So you'll do a joke and you won't get a lot of laughs and you get a little bit of hostility in the way that you're delivering your material. Then, you get a good audience, say Premium Blend, and you're delivering your material like you're still working in a crappy room, but you're not. You're on national TV, but you forget because it gets in your bones and you can hear it in your voice, even if the audience is cracking up. The comic is onstage, treating the audience as though they're not giving them any love. I can see this on comics when they get on TV and they have that same attitude and it looks like they're working a dark, dismal room with four people in it, even though they're in front of a nice big audience. They have to, at some point, step up and feel the love, essentially.
Do you mean the sort of crowd one might encounter at an open mic?
Yeah, which is why when people ask, "Should I take comedy classes," I say, "Sure, by all means." Even if you don't have a great experience with the teacher, the class still ends with a big show where the whole class invites everyone they know to the show and it's always a good show because everyone is supportive. People think it's great to work out your comedy muscles in front of hellish audience, which, in some cases it is, but, if that's all you perform for you'll have a warped view of what the entertainment industry is about. It's good to perform for very friendly audiences, even push overs, because you can learn a lot from an audience that loves anything that comes out of your mouth just as you can learn a lot from an audience that's not buying everything that you say. There's ways to grow in both of those rooms, which is why Bill Cosby is so brilliant. If tough audiences is what makes you grow stronger, Bill Cosby would be lousy because he never performs in front of a tough audience. People worship the guy and laugh at anything that comes out of his mouth. That's why he's able to do such interesting, person material because he's used to talking to an audience as though they're his neighbor or his friend. A lot of comics don't realize that there's a value to performing for people who love you and buy into your stuff.
New York open mics have a reputation for being horrendous. A room full of eight, cross-armed comics all thinking, "I'm not going to laugh at you, but you're going to laugh at me."
Yeah. Sometimes I'll perform a guest spot at a bringer shows, where these guys go out and bark and flyer. The audiences are pretty open. They come in off the street, and they don't know what they're going to get, but obviously they're open minded folks because they took a flyer from somebody's hand in Times Square and thought, "Hey, let's go see a show." Often, those audiences are good, but the old school open mics where people have to come and sign up, buy a drink, and you get five minutes are probably still pretty grim, although I can't say I've been to one of those in at least ten years. I don't think that's anyway to work out material. You might as well meet your buddies at a dinner in Astoria and save the swipes coming into the city.
I saw Patton Oswalt at Caroline's recently and there was a woman in the audience who went to high school and he talked to her onstage, which was very funny. Have you ever had such an experience?
I played a theater last year in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Justin McKinney, who's also from New England, was also doing that show. Somebody from my high school was in the balcony, and this is a big theater, and they were screaming, "Tom, Norwood High School, we love you!" And I said, "Great," moved on, and did more of my stuff. It was someone who went to school with me, but, apparently, it didn't bother her that she was ruining the show for me. She kept yelling out, "Norwood High School," in the middle of my act. I don't know why she thought that was helpful, especially since she started off with, "Tom, we love you." If you love me so much, why are you interrupting the show?
Do you have any roadwork horror stories?
I don't do the road much. I always want to have those stories and be one of those stand up cowboys who has all of these good road stories that involve a Red Roof Inn and some bad Chinese food, but because I do so much advertising- I'm in a lot of commercials and make most of my living doing voice overs- I'm kind of stuck here in the city, in a good way. It's a luxury being able to perform all these clubs in New York. You don't make much money in New York. You go down to Rififi and we're doing it for the love of comedy. It's great to be able to do these sets and not have to worry about paying my rent with money I make at a nightclub. I sometimes wish I had some of those hardened road stories, but it changes your act. You see comics who travel around the country from one club to another and they play these tough rooms all the time and it's reflected in their act. They get onstage and they're funny, getting laughs, but there's a war torn sense about them and the act has become a kind of Teflon coated work of art. It can work in any situation, but the originality and personality of the act suffers because of that, I think. So I'm fortunate to have not had that.
Do you have any experience with advertising people sitting in on comedy shows as a means of generating ideas for ads?
I would be remiss if I criticized the great copywriters of America because they tend to employee me, but, I'm telling you, these guys do go to the clubs. I don't know how many gigs I've been on where I get on the set if it's a commercial or in the booth if it's a voice over, and the copywriter says, "Hey, Tom." Now, I'm not that famous of a guy. Not many people know who I am, but it seems like every copywriter knows me because these guys love to go out to the clubs. Now, why they're in the clubs I won't speculate.
Do you think that alienation and outsiderdom are essential components of being a comedian?
Being one type of comedian. I think that there's many types of comedy, but, essentially you have the comedian who's up there saying, "I'm one of you. You know when this happens? Blah blah blah." Some of the top comedians in the country are like that. "Did this ever happen to you? Don't you hate when blank?" And the audience is with them. "Yeah, that happens to me everyday. I can't believe it. I'm laughing." And then you have the people who are a little weird. They get up there and talk about things that no one has ever thought of and the audience thinks, "That has never happened to me. That's so bizarre. I'm laughing." I'm sure which one of those I am because I'm a little bit weird, but I'm also a pretty mainstream guy. I feel like that's another thing. Not only do I work the mainstream clubs and alternative rooms, I've never really figured out whether I'm that guy who's a little bit weird or, "Hey, I know that guy. He's my neighbor. He's my friend. He's like me." So, no, you don't have to be an outsider. You can do very universal material. I think a lot of people find the outsiders interesting, so it helps. Even these mainstream folks, who some might call "Fratboy Humor", they still tend to see themselves as outsiders. That might be the reason they went into comedy, but they don't appear as an outsider out stage. I was certainly not the class clown in life. I was the one in the back of the class looking at the class clown and thinking, "I'm funnier than that guy."
Do you think that bad comedians know that they're bad?
I don't think so. I certainly didn't and I was clearly bad for the first three or four years. I think if we comedians had any realistic perspective of our acts, we would have quit in the first year or so. I remember performing at Catch a Rising Star at Cambridge. I did two open mic nights and then went up to the manager and I said, "Robin, when are you going to give me a weekend?" He looked at me like, "What, are you kidding?" He couldn't believe it, but I was serious. I wanted to know when he was going to book me to headline on a weekend. I had already done two sets and they seemed to go pretty well, so when was I going to get my weekend? That kind of absurdly high self-esteem gets you by in the lean years and then, when your act does get good, it all catches up with you. There are people out there who have been doing stand up for fifteen years and they don't seem to understand that it's not going anywhere, but God bless them. I don't want to put a timetable on it, but maybe it'll all come together after twenty-one years. It took me three, maybe it takes some people twenty.
How's your CD going?
It's nightmare of a project, but it will be coming out. I am working with a guy out of Georgia called BSeen Media. He's releasing the CD, but I've been very involved with the recording process, getting the sound just right, and the artwork for the cover and inside. I look at it as a real artistic project that's going to be out there for a long time and I want to get it right, so the delay has been ridiculous. But, I feel that when it comes out it's going to be good and I'm going to be proud of it. I'm not thinking in economic terms, otherwise I'd get the thing produced, get it out there, and start selling them. For anybody's who's interested, I want to make it good and make people want to buy it and actually hold it in their hands because I download a lot of stuff off the Internet, but if there's somebody I really like I want to buy the CD. So, for those people, I want to produce something that's quite good so that I can say, "Yeah, this thing is nice." It won't be out by Christmas, but hopefully after the first of the year it'll be released. It's called Over Confident and it's playing into a lot of the stuff that I was talking to you about. The idea of guys like myself who suffer from high self esteem, hold a high opinion of ourselves but aren't sure why, and it tends to keep us going in this business.
What do you like to after a performance?
I like to eat. I like to go to late night restaurants, like Baltazar and eat at like two at the morning. Split a bottle of wine with someone and just have a nice meal. It's also great to go out with other comics.