Unless you’re Grover Norquist, or David Vitter, or Frankie Muniz or Gilbert Arenas, you probably find Joe Mande pretty damn funny. Mande is a clever New York-based stand-up comic and writer who has carved out a niche on Twitter as a reliable scourge who will call out bullshit from superficial celebrities and public figures. His recent feud with Orlando Magic Guard Gilbert Arenas was especially entertaining and even made headlines in the sports and entertainment blogospheres.
But don’t reduce Mande to a comedian who spends all his time lurking on the internet. Mande, 28, is an accomplished performer who is currently attracting a lot of industry “heat,” in the words of stand-up comic and WTF Podcast Host Marc Maron. Mande co-hosts with Noah Garfinkel a popular weekly show at the UCB Theatre, Totally J/K, and will soon open a number of college dates for headliner Aziz Ansari.
I recently caught up with Mande to talk about his rough start in comedy, his new writing jobs, and why he’s decided to lay off Frankie Muniz.
How long have you been in New York?
I moved here in 2005 after I graduated.
Did you have a day job when you first moved there?
I worked at a glasses store for a couple years in SoHo.
What were you doing?
My dad’s cousin owns the place so I kind of got progressively demoted. [Laughs.] I started out as an associate sales person and then by the time I left I was a delivery boy. I clearly had no interest in eyewear.
Not exactly rising through the ranks.
I was doing the opposite of rising. I was falling. Fast. [Laughs.] Because you know I was doing shows every night and staying out until two in the morning. I was a complete zombie. I couldn’t give a fuck about glasses and I just kept getting pushed further and further away from customers and merchandise.
You were able to pay the bills though?
Oh yeah. It was a good job. I wasn’t getting any less money, I was just getting less and less responsibility. It was actually pretty funny. [Laughs.] And then I quit a couple years later and started doing standup and writing full time.
Was that pretty nerve-wracking when you decided to give up a steady paycheck and take the leap into comedy full time?
It was a little bit, but I had a friend who basically told me “you’re not going to get a writing job if they know you have a day job.” My friends told me you have to make that leap or else you’ll never get hired as a writer in the first place. That was a good point. You have to be available for it. It was nerve-wracking, but everything is nerve-wracking to me. I’m a very nervous person.
OK. Well that makes it easy then. Did you get any writing jobs early on?
Early on I was doing a lot of freelance stuff for MTV and VH1, like the game shows and panel shows and I started doing Best Week Ever on-camera stuff through that.
When did you first get into comedy? College?
I started doing improv in high school. My high school had an improv team. Then I started doing sketch and standup in college. And I always figured I’d end up in New York.
Do you do any improv anymore?
No, not at all. I’m not fast enough to do it, I don’t think. I feel like if I were to do improv, I would ask for suggestions and then tell the audience I needed 15 minutes to figure my shit out. [Laughs.]
That’s funny. So you started doing open mics when you first moved to New York?
Yeah, I was doing a lot of open mics kind of aimlessly and I was having a real bad time. And then in the fall of 2005 I found out about Rififi and UCB around the same time, so I sort of found my niche.
And by that do you mean playing at the alternative rooms as opposed to the standard comedy club route?
I wasn’t even performing much when I first got here. I was just going to a lot of shows because I was having such a bad time at the open mics I was going to. I was just trying to figure out what felt right. I started going to a lot of shows at Rififi and I loved all the comedy there. It felt right. I was performing for people who thought I was funny, rather than people just staring at me or heckling me.
Did you feel like those crowds early on just didn’t get you?
Yeah, literally. The open mics I was doing when I first got here were at 4 or 5 in the afternoon or whatever and I was getting heckled by the other comedians. It was bad. [Laughs.] It wasn’t supportive. It felt like cartoonishly cutthroat, like they were trying to prove a lesson or something. But yeah, the shows at Rififi and UCB just felt better.
It seems like it’s a different set up at a place like Carolines versus UCB in that the comics at Carolines have more broad appeal. Granted, this is the interpretation of someone who has no clue what he’s talking about. But at a place like Carolines they’re playing more to the tourists who probably aren’t as open-minded as the comedy nerds at UCB, right?
Yeah, it’s a different expectation I think. I don’t feel like one’s better than the other, but when you’re performing at a comedy club, you’re performing in front of people who spent $20 for a ticket so they expect A+ material, whereas the more alternative crowds or whatever, they’re excited by new stuff.
So you’re headlining now when you go on the road. How’s that going?
Yeah, in the last year I started headlining. It’s been fun. I can’t complain at all. It’s definitely a whole new thing to do 45 minutes to an hour in front of strangers who don’t know who you are.
How long does it take you to come up with an act that you can use on the road?
I don’t really know, because I didn’t really have a set act for such a long time. I knew I had jokes that worked, but I was coming up in a community where I always did new stuff every time I went on stage because that never felt wrong. I was constantly writing stuff. It actually took me a couple years to realize I don’t have to keep coming up with new stuff every time. I realized I should probably figure out and hone the good stuff into an act, you know? It probably took me a few years to realize how comedy worked. [Laughs.]
I enjoyed your set on Conan a couple weeks ago. How was that experience? That was your TV debut, right?
Yes, that was my first late-night TV set. The whole thing was kind of blur. It was really surreal. I was nervous. They shoot live on tape, so you’re sitting in a green room for 55 minutes and then someone hands you a microphone and pushes you in front of some curtains and all of the sudden you’re doing standup in front of a bunch of cameras. It was fun and exciting and weird. I was happy with it, but honestly it was such a blur I barely even remember it.
How did you decide which jokes you wanted to use, beyond ones that were safe for television?
There’s a guy at Conan whose job it is to help you figure out what jokes work for television, what the censors will allow, all that. I was kind of surprised what jokes he felt the censors wouldn’t allow. I wasn’t willing to change the wording on a few things, so that was the set we ended up with.
Moving on to Twitter, when you first became aware of it, was your initial reaction “awesome, here’s a new way I can fuck with people?” Cause that seems to be a lot of the use you have for it. You know, messing with people like Grover Norquist.
I avoided it for a long time actually, because I didn’t understand what it was at first. To me, I thought it was going to be another Facebook. I thought it just another self-promotion tool, which it is, but it’s a lot weirder than that. Once I found out how weird it is, I was on board 100 percent. I mean famous people are on it and either divulge too much, or are obviously self-delusional. I love the fact that these retarded celebrities share their thoughts. That’s my favorite thing. It’s so much fun to do, but I don’t wake up in the morning and rub my hands together thinking about who I’m going to mess with today. I have a list of celebrities and a list of corporations and if I see something that makes me laugh out loud then I’ll do something with it. It’s hard not to do and I’m actually trying to rein it in a little bit. I feel like a lot of people are doing that now. And not that I’m some kind of innovator at all, but when I started fucking with those celebrities it wasn’t like a lot of people were doing that. And now a lot of people are and it’s starting to take the fun out of it.
Yeah, but they’re not as good.
Also it’s so funny that when people write mean things to me, I take it so personally. [Laughs.] I have no right. I’m such a hypocrite. What’s funny is I can’t retweet things that my friends write that I think are funny because they think I’m making fun of them. My twitter personality is such an asshole that I can’t have any friends.
That’s hilarious. And the other difference with you is you go after very deserving targets.
I try. To be honest, though, I don’t know what Frankie Muniz has ever done to deserve what I’ve done to him. [Laughs.] I’ve tried to stop it with Frankie. He’s not on par with Karl Rove.
Whatever, Frankie Muniz has millions of dollars. He can take it. So how do you pick these people? Because there are so many shitheads out there who are on Twitter.
Honestly, I’ll be watching TV or listening to the radio and I’ll see a person on TV like Grover Norquist or whoever and I’ll think “oh, he’s an asshole. Does he have a twitter account?” If they do, I’ll start following them.
It’s weird to even be discussing Twitter, but you can’t avoid it now. It’s everywhere.
I don’t know why anyone would use Twitter if you’re not a comedy writer or a journalist. I don’t know why anyone else would want to read the thoughts of anyone who wasn’t funny or had useful information to share. [Laughs.]
You’ve been name-dropped in several articles recently by well-known comedians like Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron as someone to watch out for. Does that add some pressure?
I appreciate it very much. I’m nervous about everything but that kind of thing doesn’t make me nervous. I would love for more people to see me do standup. It’s great because I’m headlining now but I get to open for people like Patton and Aziz and Donald Glover. Those are great opportunities.
I know you’ve written a book. Are you working on any screenplays or any of that stuff right now?
Well, I’ve been writing for Delocated all summer, and I’m about to go out to LA for a couple months to write for Nick Kroll’s Comedy Central show.
Congratulations. Delocated is the best comedy on television for my money.
I agree, man. I was very excited to work on that show.
When will that air?
I’m not positive, but I believe they said January, but that could be totally wrong.
Is writing for television a career path you’d like to pursue?
Yeah, why not. I don’t really understand how show business works, but I’m open to anything.
Phil Davidson is a copywriter (in reality) and a comedy writer (in his head).