If there’s a stand-up comedy competition happening, and Myq Kaplan is involved, just go ahead and bet the farm on him. He’s like the Secretariat of these things, with wins at New York’s Funniest Stand-up Competition, the New York Comedy Contest and Caroline’s March Comedy Madness, and shows at Last Comic Standing (2010 Top 5 finalist) and Comedy Central’s Open Mic Fight (2007 finalist), among others.
The cerebral and genial Kaplan is quick to downplay the significance of comedy competitions, but he’s obviously doing something right. He’s now headlining clubs across the country and opening for the likes of Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt and other comedy kingpins even though he’s only been doing stand-up for nine years.
I recently chatted with the New York-based Kaplan while he was out in Los Angeles doing some shows. We talked about a new album he’s working on, his start in comedy, and the lure of a writing job.
What brings you out to LA?
I try to get out here every couple months at least. Whether or not there’s a specific thing to do, I’ll do a bunch of shows that are fun, record some podcasts, take some meetings, you know, general comedy doings.
What differences do you notice when you’re performing in LA vs. New York?
It’s a difficult question to answer in general because both New York and LA have different kinds of crowds at different kinds of venues. Like in New York, some of the clubs are full of tourists that don’t speak English, some of the clubs are full of awesome audience members who know what’s going on, and some alternative venues are full of the most comedy-savvy folks. Some of the alternative shows are full of only other comedians…The biggest difference between New York and LA is just the sheer volume of comedy opportunities. LA has a bunch of clubs and a bunch of rooms, but New York has massive amounts more. Just every night of the week, there’s at least a dozen to several dozen full-time clubs and one-night rooms, bars, restaurants, etc. With that, obviously there’s more of a range in New York. There are tons of great shows, tons of amazing clubs, tons of wonderful rooms, and then there’s the opposite as well.
How often are you performing in New York if you’re not on the road? Are you out there every night?
If I’m in New York and not travelling, I’m generally performing every night. I may take a night off now and then, but usually if I want to perform, there’s somewhere that I can perform, and I usually want to perform unless I have a girlfriend or something. I’m currently single so I’m currently in performance-every-night mode.
When you have the time and you don’t have other obligations — we’ll call it your non-girlfriend mode — do you feel compelled to get on stage every night? Do you ever have to force yourself to get up there?
It can depend on my mood. As winter approaches and it gets darker earlier and earlier, and I’m sitting alone in my apartment, there are times when I’m like “Ah, I could just sit here under a blanket, watch a movie and not go out into the world.” If I have something booked, I’ll be like, “I guess I have to go do the thing that I’m supposed to do.” But generally, when I’m doing it, I love it. I like interacting with people, I love doing comedy, I love being around my friends who do comedy. In years past, I’ve been sick physically sometimes when I have a show, and I could cancel, but I force myself to go. I feel like performing physically rejuvenates me as well. It’s never really a thing where I’m like, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” I feel way better when I’m performing every night than when I’m not performing.
And you feel like you get better every time you perform?
That’s the going theory…Any comedian who’s been doing it a long time will tell you, “Just do it and you’ll get better.” I don’t know if it’s like the stock market where you’re like, “Yeah, just put your money in and eventually your IRA will have more money. Oh no, this 10-year period sort of dipped off.” Certainly there are some nights that can be demoralizing, but you learn from negative things as well. You learn from mistakes that you make or that audiences make. I think there can be diminishing returns in some cases, but I don’t think anything ever brings you backwards…If there are people who don’t go out every night, I don’t think that they’re doing the wrong thing. I’m also fortunate that I don’t have a day job, so I can “do my living during the day.”
[Laughs.] Did you ever have a day job?
I was in grad school when I started doing comedy. I was an RA at my university. I was in a school for linguistics and I got a linguistics-related paid internship that I did between 10 and 20 hours per week for several years while I was doing comedy. It was great because it was flexible and allowed me to show up when I needed to or when I wanted to. If I wanted to get all my hours in in two days and then go on the road for five days, I could do that. I did that from 2001, until 2007-ish.
And what got you to try out stand-up in the first place?
I came into it through music. That was what I wanted to do since high school. My parents were music teachers and I was sort of made to play the violin as a child, which I hated. But it helped provide a knowledge base that made teaching myself the guitar very simple. I started writing songs and decided that was what I wanted to do…Eventually I was in Boston in school and was looking for a place to perform music and one of the places I found was the Comedy Studio, which is a comedy club near Harvard and Cambridge. I just started playing songs there, and then shifted organically into talking between songs. And then I thought, “Well, let’s see if I don’t need to play the guitar the entire time.” So then I started writing jokes that I didn’t need the guitar for. Basically, I guess the reason I’m doing comedy now instead of music is that you don’t have to carry a guitar around. [Laughs.]
Did it take long for you to look at it as a career possibility? Were you initially looking at it as a fun thing to do on the side?
I performed comedy for the first time at this place during the two years or so after college when I was just doing music. He would have me on once a month, or maybe every couple of months. At that point, I was still pursuing music, but not pursuing anything really hard-core. If you want to be a performing artist, there are tons of places you can go, and that’s what you have to do; you have to seek out everything. I didn’t know that at the time. Around 2002 is when I really started focusing on doing comedy and not music, and I learned “Oh, there’s other comedy clubs. There are other comedy clubs in Boston…” The three factors that go into success are talent, hard work, and luck. There are a lot of talented people who don’t do it all the time, cause maybe they have other things that they are focusing on, like a job they don’t want to give up, or a family that doesn’t allow them to travel as much, whatever the case. Me, I was unattached, and I decided you can’t control how much talent you have, you can’t control how lucky you are, all you can control is the work you put in so that’s what I focused on…When I started performing as regularly as I was, I didn’t have a specific endpoint in mind other than to do comedy for a living if I could.
Do you feel like having a master’s in linguistics helps you as a performer? Or is it like having any other background?
I think that my interest in linguistics stems from the same place internally that some of my interest in comedy comes from. They are both symptoms of the greater illness within me. Not all of my comedy is just about words, but the part of me that’s interested in that writes those kind of jokes, and also enjoys learning about the differences between different languages and the word orders they use, and the sounds that they have…I gravitated towards both comedy and linguistics because of who I am.
I know you open for guys like Louie C.K. and Patton Oswalt who have large followings, and they speak highly of you. Do you learn much when you’re on the road with them?
Obviously I watch them do comedy. I got into comedy because I love comedy. Actually, that’s not true, I got into comedy because I didn’t want to carry around a guitar, as I mentioned earlier.
I actually didn’t watch tons of comedy growing up. I didn’t know it was a thing like a lot of people do. I mean I saw Seinfeld do stand-up on his show, and some specials here and there, but I didn’t know it was a thing that happened with unknown people in all these crazy places, which I think comedy still suffers from. Everybody goes to movies, everybody listens to music, not everybody goes to comedy shows.
I grew to love comedy and I became a student of it. I gravitate towards people who believe in something, who know what they are doing, who are good at something…I think this is a Lil’ Wayne lyric, and it goes something like “Be good or be good at it.” I think that really encapsulates things. Obviously when people are both, somebody like Louie who’s an extremely proficient comedian, but also is saying really valuable things, it’s special. But then there’s somebody like Brian Regan, who I’ll watch, and he’s not illuminating any great truths about the universe necessarily, but writing the crap out of and performing the crap out of anything, any idea, a thimble, a book, a plumber. Watching any comedian who’s been doing it 20-plus years, who has this wealth of experience built up, I don’t watch them and explicitly say “Oh, that’s what I’ve learned from watching this guy.” It’s just the same way that doing makes you better, absorbing does the same thing as well. You know, people become an art critic by looking at a lot of art. Not that you can become an expert in comedy just by watching comedy, but it’s all part of it. It’s the lab, and the reading, and the practical and the hypothetical…Another thing, when I work with Louie…there’s time between shows or we’ll be riding in the same vehicle and we’ll talk. He’s a good guy, he’s an interesting guy to listen to and to talk to. He’ll tell me about his experiences coming up in the business. With anything, you can learn a lot from anybody, but especially somebody who’s doing what you do, and who knows what they’re doing at it.
Is Hollywood attractive to you at all at this point? Have you thought about pursuing writing jobs or anything like that? With your joke-writing ability, it seems like you’d be a prime target for that kind of work.
I definitely want to do stand-up for as long as I can imagine. I can’t imagine not wanting stand-up to be the main thing that I’m doing. I’ve gone on some auditions in New York and LA to act in things or be a host of something or other. Stand-up is where I have the most control and ease and knowledge of what I’m doing. It’s sort of where I feel the most “myself.” I have written some packets and submitted to shows like Bill Maher’s show, Demetri Martin’s show, Letterman’s show. I have a writing packet that exists. Comedy writing is something I do like, and it’s something I think I would be good at if I were on one of these shows. But there are tons of people who also would be good at it, are good at it and are also pursuing it more rigorously…Obviously it’s very competitive. The truth is it’s definitely the kind of thing that I have considered and I would definitely be happy to have a job like that for some time, but not forever. I like not having to wake up in the morning.
That is nice.
But yeah, I’m not disappointed that I’m not doing that currently, but I would be happy to do it. Same thing with acting.
I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Last Comic Standing. Does that still help you sell tickets? What do you take out of that entire experience?
Looking back now, it’s the largest jump in my career, due to the number of people that were watching. Generally, comedy’s a marathon. I got to sprint a little bit. I got a little ahead of the game. A lot of people have varying opinions about Last Comic Standing. It is a reality show. It is a competition. I sometimes thrive in competition situations. Writing shorter jokes serves you well when you only have two minutes to make an impression. It doesn’t define the best comedian in the world, but a lot of great comedians have been on the show. I loved watching Doug Benson and Gary Gulman and Todd Glass and Kathleen Madigan…I auditioned in the past also. There’s no real downside. If you’re standing in line, then you lose however much time you’ve spent in line. Nobody’s career gets worse from not making it on the show, even if they make you look bad for a few seconds, which they did one year to me. They don’t put a headline in the paper “This guy is not on the show!” Worst-case scenario is you have the same career you had before you did the audition… Ultimately, it allowed me to work at clubs that I couldn’t work at before just because my name means something more now to more people than it did in the past, and that’s very valuable.
Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman are recording a live musical comedy album over three nights in Boston this week. The shows are tonight at 9 pm at ImprovBoston, and Wednesday and Thursday at 8 pm at the Comedy Studio.
Phil Davidson is a copywriter (in reality) and a comedy writer (in his head).