I found it was tough to get people to laugh at the kind of absurd one-liners I was telling when I first started out. But once I’d written a joke where the twist at the end was mean, the reaction was so much bigger. It was just guttural. That was a lightbulb moment for me, and I thought everything should have a mean twist. I think the biggest laugh is when someone laughs at something they don’t think they should be laughing at. It’s just a different kind of laugh, and that’s the only laugh I want from an audience.
I never set out to find my voice. It just happened organically. I’ve been doing comedy 30 years, so it’s hard to pinpoint when my persona developed. I never thought I really had a unique cadence until people started doing impressions of me to my face. As far as advice for comics about finding their voice, I would just say keep going onstage, and it will happen eventually.
Question: How long did it take you to figure out your persona? Is there a video out there of you early in your career making Gaffigan-esque jokes?
Answer: No Gaffigan-esque videos out there, but it took me years to put this persona together. Just endless nights of open mics and trying new things.
I've always been fascinated by dark subjects, especially people's reactions to them. Why are people so uncomfortable talking about death if everyone dies? And why do people sometimes laugh at these horrible things? And why do they seem to laugh harder when it's about a dark subject? Plus, no one else seemed to be doing it.
I just noticed that audiences didn't want to laugh at me because of the way I looked, so I just went with that. It seemed fun to play a villain on stage and I wanted my jokes to be so good that I could just calmly tell them on stage. I didn't want to show any neediness. It was important to me to be cool up there.
I kind of call that my "inside voice," which is me talking for the audience. I mean, I use a woman's voice...but some of it is we all have an inner critic and I'm giving that critic a voice. The judgmental tone is that critic, but also some of it might be interpreting some of the faces in the audience. Because you're never going to please everyone with your material. It's also a tactical thing, as a writer, you can establish a point of view but the "inside voice" can have the opposing point of view. So I can be for bacon and then the "inside voice" can be against bacon. Or they comment on my overall performance...we all have voices in our head, I'm just giving one an outlet.
I'm considered a "clean comedian" or "family friendly comedian," but that's just how it comes out. There's no incredible calculation behind being clean or family friendly; comedians talk about what they can get away with. Chris Rock or Lewis Black are just gonna do the type of comedy that they're going to do. If you know them, it makes sense what type of comedy that they're doing. I'm always hesitant to be identified as a clean comedian because all comedians, whether they be clean, female or African American or transgender, the only adjective they want is to be funny.
I sometimes I feel as though "clean" is this asterisk that kind of disqualifies some of my success. People are not coming to...
My journey hasn't been any darker than the average person. I grew up with a family who liked to be funny and made me a laugh a lot so I think that's why I like to goof. As for the "genuinely" thing... I do genuinely love all kinds of comedy. Remember those spoof movies around a decade ago that came out once a year for awhile? I'd go to them and laugh my head off and I had a friend who was like "But ironically right?" No! If I'm laughing, it's genuine and I don't question it. THIS IS A PAID ADVERTISEMENT FOR "DISASTER MOVIE."
I didn't set out with a plan or specific style in mind, I just wrote, and it came out of me fairly deadpan. Then as the years passed, I grew closer and closer to my own personality, which is a little more lively. I would say the style is inspired by Robin Williams, Jimmy Carrey, Maria Bamford, and from doing Speech (the Humorous Interpretation category) in high school.
I think that i share everything as a way of not feeling guilty about it or shame about it. If i am able to put it out there it is not weighing me down. I say things that I shouldn't and that i wish i could take back, but that's just the way. I. am.
Comedy is the weirdest thing in the world. You can’t practice it in your bedroom. You can’t explain timing. You can’t explain any of it. But it was the late, great Patrice O’Neal who said to me back then, “Dude, that’s not you up there.” I was like, “I know, I know.” Then all of the sudden I started telling my real stories and talking the way I really talked and people were saying, “What is he doing? He’s blowing it.” Twenty-six years later …
It takes 10 years to become funny, first of all. You don't start thinking about your voice until you REALLY realize that you're funny. I pretty much know who I am as a person, so that's why my voice is so real. Because I'm honest. It took me a long time to accept myself, people, and once I did, it was on and crackin.'
When I first started taking improv classes (2003), I never used my own voice once in a scene. I really didn't feel comfortable doing that. I was a distinct character in every improv scene I did until I moved to NYC and started taking UCB classes (2008). So all of that character practice was great, but dropping them was also huge for me because it was easier for my performance style to translate to TV work.
When I started out, I was doing more conceptual bits that were just kind of silly. And then gradually, I expanded my premises. Everyone when you start out, for the most part, your material is very brief. You don’t trust that you can stay on stage for that long and get laughs. You don’t want to overstay your welcome. So you tend not to flesh out your premises that much. As you get more confident and more relaxed, you’re able to give a premise the treatment that it deserves and really explore your ideas. That’s what happened with me—I gradually expanded, and my comedy slowly became more about me and less about high concepts.
Finding a scene where it was like, “Oh, this is the kind of stuff I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t in the clubs in Philadelphia.” I wasn’t able to completely see myself on stage and be funny in the way I truly wanted to be. The alt scene helped me shape a much more conversational style and gave me the confidence to be as creative as I possibly could be, and not have a voice in my head saying, “That’s going too far, people need that club rhythm in order to digest what you’re saying.” The alt scene showed me a different way of doing things.