Sam Morril Has Seen Some Rough Comedy Clubs

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Sam Morril is standing casually, one foot slightly in front of the other, on the stage of Boston’s Royale nightclub. He’s discussing terrorism and imagining that the crowd might question whether or not he really hates terrorists based on his thick, dubious eyebrows. Then he says, “Fuck that Boston bomber kid. Screw that guy. I have family out here. When the bombing happened my first thought was, ‘Me and my brother, we don’t do anything together anymore.’” Cue sly grin. Roll awkward shifting of audience members in their seats.

Sam Morril has balls. His Comedy Central Half Hour premieres this Saturday night at midnight and it’s the darkest, edgiest set so far this season. Morril has a knack for making the potentially unfunny very funny, while still leaving enough bleakness lingering in the void to remind us that jokes are merely coping mechanisms, not problem solvers.

I had an inside baseball conversation with Morril about the new special, comedy club dynamics, and “offensive” humor.

Have you seen your Half Hour yet?

I have not. You hope they edit it a certain way. I hope it’s good.

It’s good. It’s by far the darkest Half Hour of the season. So, you’ve got that going for you.

That’s exciting. It’s nice to have something extreme going for you.

You come right out and waste no time with the crowd. It’s just joke, joke, joke.

That’s the New York style, I think. That’s kind of how we come up in New York, a lot of punchlines because you only get 12-15 minutes and you’re following a lot of heavy hitters.

Are you talking about sets at the Cellar?

Yeah, I’m doing sets like that, following some of the best in the world. In the city, you just have that style and it forces you to be punchy.

Are you at the point in your career where you’re past doing open mics?

I’ll pop in occasionally. I don’t get a ton out of it, to be honest. I feel like I can do new stuff on the road and get a better read than if I would do it at a mic. But it’s good to – every once in a while to keep you honest – just do a bad show. It doesn’t have to be a mic, necessarily. A lot of the time, those shows choose you so you don’t have to schedule a show that you know will suck.

Where is your favorite place in New York to go up?

The Cellar is the best club in the world. It’s not even close. No other club comes close to the Comedy Cellar.

How about on the road?

I play so many rough rooms that when I get a good room I really crunch my teeth into it. I did a week in Atlantic City this summer that was just like, “Why do I do this?” It’s funny that Bill Burr has a special called Why Do I Do This? because I think about that all of the time. Sometimes I’m about to go onstage and I ask, “Why do I do this?” Not only in a negative way. Sometimes you need to remind yourself of why you do this. But Atlantic City was terrible. I guess I hone in on the ones that are painful for me. I also didn’t get paid for that gig, so it hurts a little extra. After 30 years, the club bankrupted and the guy disappeared. He owes me a lot of money.

Using Atlantic City as a model, what makes a bad show for you?

Just trashy people in clubs. Here’s the thing, the clubs don’t police the rooms now. So few clubs do it and the ones that do are just better clubs. I got into a fight with a club recently. I bombed in front of my mom. I got heckled my entire set. I had a couple of clever lines out of the gate, but by minute eight of them talking through every punchline you’re like, “You do realize that I need momentum to establish a rhythm and you talking through it is kind of destroying it.” I started saying sarcastic things onstage like, “Most good clubs do something about this.” You get to the point where you’re passive-aggressively shitting on the club. Clearly the club doesn’t care when they favor a drunken customer over someone who regularly works the club. Not respecting comics is a big problem. The audience feels it when the comics are glad to work there.

In some rooms, if the club’s not good at controlling the crowd, the audience will self-police if they’re comedy fans who understand and appreciate the form. They’ll quiet the loudmouths and do some of the work for you.

Isn’t that hilarious? What makes you lose respect for a performer more than seeing them have to shush a crowd? Can you imagine anyone in any actual position having to… this is a pet peeve of mine. Sometimes the host will come up and do all crowd work out of the gate. Then I have to go on first and the crowd is like, “We get to participate!” That’s not what I do. If the host wants to do crowd work, that’s totally fine. Sometimes the crowd is stiff. But tell a couple of jokes so at least they know this isn’t all about them.

Once a feature performer or headliner has to shush the crowd, they’re relegated to the position of substitute teacher. No one respects the substitute teacher.

Yes, exactly. Can you imagine Obama being like, “Hey, can you guys keep it down?” He has people to do it for him. Not that I’m comparing myself to him. It’s just that if you do something that people respect… comedy is not that respected because most people think that they’re funny. No one will say, “I have a bad sense of humor.” Everyone thinks they know what’s funny.

Let’s talk about The Half Hour. You had a good crowd for the taping in Boston.

Did it seem that way? I hope it seemed that way. You saw the special, I haven’t.

It did. But here’s something I thought was interesting. The crowd was into the dark stuff. They liked it and you held it down. But there was an interesting moment when you did a Boston bombing joke…

Oh, they kept that one?

It’s in. It didn’t hit. They didn’t necessarily groan, but it kind of shut the crowd down for a second. So you follow it up with a fart joke that worked and a rape joke that killed. It’s was an interesting thing to watch the crowd not know if they could laugh about the bombing joke, but then be like, “Oh, but we’ll laugh at farts and rape.”

First off, people are sensitive to whatever fits for them. We were in Boston and it’s still sensitive. But the joke is about me. I think the problem is that they hear “Boston bombing” and they’re like, “We’re out.”

It’s a trigger.

If you look at that joke, it’s about me and my brother. That’s what I like about the joke. If you’re actually paying attention, you’ll like it. I like jokes like that are a little uncomfortable and then hit. You have to take those risks. It’s fun not knowing if a joke’s going to hit. It makes me more present in a set. And you’re right, people laughed at a silly fart joke, then a really dark joke right after that. Where’s the line? Where do we draw the line? Is there a line? I guess we know where the line is if it got a laugh or not. That’s the rush. I don’t where the line is going to be tonight.

Have you ever rewritten or dropped a joke after realizing that it was actually offensive or didn’t hit the mark?

I did, yeah. I did a joke where I said the word “tranny.” I didn’t know it was an offensive word at the time. I had someone come up to me after a show in Baltimore and she said, “We loved your show, but we had a problem with one of your jokes.” She wasn’t coming at me in a mean way. She was pretty reasonable, so I was like, “Let me hear it.” She said, “I think the joke is actually funny, but you said the word ‘tranny’ and it’s a slur. We’re parents of a transgendered child.” If I think it’s unnecessary, I’ll change it. I can still tell that joke. I just won’t use a slur in it. I’m curious to hear. I’m not the type of person that’s not open to having a conversation. I’m a work in progress, like most of us. I’m open to growing and being a better comedian by hearing people out and listening.