Over the past few years, Damien Lemon has checked off multiple significant boxes in his standup career. He’s appeared in films and on TV shows (The Amazing Spider-Man, Guy Code), was named a New Face at 2013’s Just For Laughs in Montreal, debuted his Comedy Central Half Hour special in 2014, and now, he’s landed a TV hosting gig on truTV. The network’s new half-hour series Comedy Knockout pits three comedians against each other and awards winners by audience applause (think @midnight without the Twitter), and Lemon guides along contenders like Jim Norton, Sherrod Small, Jamie Lee, Chris Distefano, and Arden Myrin in a way he says sometimes makes him feel like a substitute teacher. Ahead of Comedy Knockout’s premiere tonight, I spoke with Lemon all about the show, from how he got involved to his job as host to the one comedy goal that will always be his top priority: live standup.
Hey Damien! How are you feeling about the show’s premiere coming up?
I’m excited! I’m ready to see how it does out there. I’m excited for the world to see it.
Based on the first episode, it looks like it tapes in New York – is that right?
It tapes in New York, yeah. Exactly.
You mentioned how much you love New York the last time we interviewed you. Was it nice not to have to leave?
Yeah, it always feels good to be home. I don’t have anything against LA. I’ve never been out there longer than maybe ten days until I get homesick, but I love working in LA, you know what I mean? I just think that when you go to LA and you’re not working, you realize you’re not working. [laughs] It’s just one of those things.
How did you get involved with Comedy Knockout?
They had a shortlist of people they wanted to test for the host spot, and my management brought me the opportunity and we did the test at the top of the year, and it went from there.
What do you like about being a host? Are there certain challenges you had to adjust to?
There’s definitely certain challenges. Being a host, you set the tone a bit – you have to make sure that you engage the audience and make sure that you get the most out of the contenders. It is also like being a bit of a substitute teacher, especially with comedians. You gotta be the guy that’s like “All right, all right, we got it. We got what we need – let’s reel it in!” You kinda gotta be the red light in the comedy club sometimes. It’s different, coming from being a comic and then telling a comic “all right, all right,” you know, because you’re very sensitive to that; you know that. You feel the laugh developing and you feel like they’re on a roll, but sometimes we need to shut that down cause we gotta go to this next game.
You mentioned setting the tone, which I wanted to bring up. Because I noticed you take a very chill approach to hosting, which I think keeps the show grounded.
Yeah, I think that’s just my demeanor. I’m a mellow type of fellow that’s laid back – that’s quoting Big Daddy Kane. But I guess I’m just cool with it, chill…you know, I can get excited, but I’m not Guy Smiley. I’m not the guy who’s like “All riiiight! Let’s do this!” But it was fun! It was good times.
How would you describe Comedy Knockout to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?
It’s a hilarious show. You need to get cable so you can be in the loop. Everyone’s talking about it already… [laughs] No, how I would describe it is it’s three comedians competing to see who’s the funniest comedian in the room that day, and I’m just hosting. I’m setting them up with premises, setting them up with various games to riff on, play, display their funny, and hopefully rock the crowd that’s in that room. It’s a live studio audience, and those are also our judges. They judge Apollo style, so you really have to be connected to what’s going on in that room and bring it. As we eliminate, the eliminations are even fun – the first person to get eliminated has to go sit in the audience with the same people who voted them off, so that’s always fun. And then when we do the face-to-face, one person reigns victorious and gets a trophy while the other person has to apologize for sucking at comedy, and they have to read a pre-written apology that they’ve never seen before that’s talking about them, so that’s always a fun moment too.
What’s the setup behind the scenes? There’s a full writing staff?
Yeah, there’s a full staff of writers and they put all that stuff together – I’m not even privy to what the apologies are, and I kind of like it that way. So in the moment, I’m seeing it as well, so I’m just as surprised as the person reading it and the audience.
There’s lots of roasting in the show. Do you identify in any way as a roast comic?
Nah. I don’t consider myself a roast comedian. I can roast – I can get busy, I’ve been doing that since I was a kid – but I’m more observative, more commentary. I’m more focused on my own life and what I see and what I see funny. I’m not really sizing up other comics and writing to come at them. I appreciate it, though. I think it’s a great talent to have and I think you should definitely have that in your pocket just in case you need to light somebody up, but I wouldn’t say that’s the thrust of my comedy.
It seems like every year there are more opportunities for standups to get time on TV. As a standup who’s been working for a while now, do you think it’s getting better?
Absolutely, yes. There are more opportunities out there for standup comedians – at least over the last five to ten years there’s been this renaissance, you know? There’s a lot of comedy and there’s a lot of platforms for comedians to get their stuff out, and it’s not limited to just doing five minutes on a late night show anymore. You kind of get to see something a little more unbuttoned.
Has having a regular hosting gig affected your ability to perform standup regularly at all?
No, I can still do both. It’s pretty fluid. The way we shoot is we take out a couple weeks and we really go in and tape the shows. So those are black for standup, but then after that you’re back on the road. So it’s not anything that takes up too much time. I’m about to go on the road now – I’m going to a few cities across the country as early as the week after next. And I get up in the city all the time too. I love standup.
Is touring regularly a constant goal for you?
Currently, yeah, I love to be out there and in front of all types of different audiences. And travel, too. That’s the other thing about it – you get to see the world, and you get to see people laugh all over the world, so I love that. You get to see how different people respond to your material all over the world. So yeah, the touring element is still a great priority to me.
Aside from standup, what kinds of projects excite you in terms of sitcoms, movies, and things like that?
I don’t want to limit myself, and all opportunities I get I’m gonna consider. But as far as goals, I wanna put out my comedy album, I’d like to do at least one hour special, I’d like to write a movie. I like acting – I’m getting a little better at it, I’m starting to work with acting coaches and audition more. I like it all. Currently my favorite thing is still being on stage doing standup, so a lot of that stuff just helps me gather a bigger audience to come see me live.
Got any new projects coming out soon?
I did a couple things that are soon to be announced. I have a podcast called In the Conversation on Stand Up Labs that drops every Wednesday. I’ve been doing that for a little over a year with a fellow comedian Vladimir Caamano and a filmmaker Ali Muhammad. What else? I’m on the road. I’m going to Arlington, then I’ll be at the Onion comedy festival in Chicago in June, then I’m going to Denver, I’m going to Philly…I’m on the road. I’m out here.
Do you want to endorse a presidential candidate? [laughs]
Do I want to endorse a presidential candidate? Uh…well, I’m gonna hold my endorsement – not just yet – but I like Bernie. I’m feelin’ the Bern, you know what I mean? I’m feeling the Bern, I can’t even lie. I even like saying that: I’m feeling the Bern. And no, it’s not STD-related, so that’s cool. How about you?
Yeah. I’m feelin’ the Bern.
There we go. We’re both Bernin’.
Comedy Knockout premieres on truTV tonight at 10:30pm.