In 2016, we interviewed over 150 people from the comedy world, from established and rising standups to figures on or behind-the-scenes in film, television, streaming shows, podcasts, books, improv, Twitter, and more. To wrap up the year, we asked our interviewers to round up some of their favorite notable, entertaining, and insightful quotes from their conversations over the past 12 months:
GETTING INTO COMEDY
Kwon Swank: I like attention a lot. A lot. Ever since I was little. That’s what my teachers told my parents every time it was parent teacher conference: Kwon likes attention. At first, my parents thought I was a show-off. Then it was an issue because I was getting in trouble too much. But I need the attention now. It’s what I want. I’m just always jolly, I’m always happy. I like putting a smile on people’s faces. I feel like if I meet somebody if I don’t put a smile on someone’s face or at least make you laugh, I’m doing something wrong.
Nicole Byer: I grew up in Jersey and went to an acting school in New York, and then fucked around for a while and kind of found the Upright Citizens Brigade and truly was like, “Oh, this is the only thing I’m good at. I’m only good at making people laugh. I can’t work in an office. I don’t know Excel. I can’t learn those skills, it’s too late for me. Gotta do comedy.”
Joe List: I guess there was a lot of shameful or embarrassing stuff in my life from not living properly. I always try to make jokes about it. I guess it goes back to when you’re a kid: you try to make the jokes before the bullies can.
Mike Recine: I did an open mic in a Panera Bread when I was 15.
Emma Willmann: I think when I found what I wanted to do, it changed. I would spend hours figuring out ways to cheat and other hours networking to set up a system for cheating. I even got an Adderall prescription just to have something to barter. Clearly if I had just taken the Adderall as prescribed, we all would have been better off. When I stopped cheating is when I started really doing comedy. It’s the ultimate equalizer.
Chris Gethard: To me, the only reason to keep doing this after this long is to just try to connect with people, so I keep building projects that are hopefully allowing me to really try to click — and not just for their sake. It makes me feel less alone when people like my work and have nice things to say, especially when they click in with some of the weirder impulses I have. It’s like “Okay, great, I’m not a complete fucking crackpot.” I have this urge to try some more experimental things, and some people actually embrace it. That just makes me feel less crazy. A lot of me doing comedy as my career is an effort to feel less crazy by connecting with people.
HEROES & INFLUENCES
John Early: Well, there are so many I’ve built shrines to over the years. Countless IMDB pages I’ve set to my homepage to track every movement of their careers. Like I was essentially Toni Collette’s publicist and manager between 1999 and 2002 and she has no idea. But the women I’ve loved the most primally and ripped off the most frequently are Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Amy Sedaris, Lisa Kudrow, Laura Dern, Sandra Bernhard, Variety Shac, Mo’Nique, Margaret Cho, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, and Ana Gasteyer, Jennifer Elise Cox and Christine Taylor in the Brady Bunch Movies, Kristen Johnston, Kate Berlant, Jacqueline Novak, and Divine. I’m leaving so many out, it’s freaking me out. Melanie Hutsell?
Colt Cabana: I’ve never had the platform to say this before, but one of my first influences, after I became a wrestler…was Demetri Martin’s half-hour special on Comedy Central. I saw it at the perfect time. I was four or five years into my wrestling career and considered myself a performer, but seeing him do standup, but crazy outside the box standup, it really hit me. It was one of the first times where it clicked for me that you could take a genre and play with it as much as you wanted. You didn’t have to play by the set rules. Once I saw Demetri Martin I started to seek out other comedians who weren’t doing traditional standup comedy. It really changed the way I thought about performing, and comedy and wrestling.
Paul Reiser: 1972 seems like a thousand years ago. We were watching Johnny Carson do 90-minute shows and this seems so antiquated, but if you wanted to watch the show, you had to stay up. There was a commitment and a relationship with Johnny that is not something that can be duplicated … Not to canonize him, but he made everybody comfortable. He had a lot of hip guests, he had a lot of square guests, and he had a lot of America watching him. He made it palpable for everybody. You were watching Vietnam and riots in the news and then you go home and you watch it through Johnny Carson’s monologue and you felt like we were going to be okay.
Violet Ramis Stiel: I definitely am missing [Harold Ramis]’s wisdom and perspective now more than ever, because he had a great way of taking a long view of things. He knew a lot about history, he was very balanced in his thinking, and he definitely would’ve had a lot to say about all of this. But also, he was reassuring, and that’s what I’m looking for right now. I would like to hear someone tell me everything’s gonna be okay, this has happened before, we’ll make it through. But also, he could make you laugh when you were worried about stuff, and so I think it’s not to distract us from what’s important but to be able to help us think about things not in a straightforward way but with humor, with faith, with all of those things.
Eric Andre: When I got to music school, Napster came out, everybody had a CD burner on their laptop, and the music industry shit the bed. I was like, “Ah, shit.” Toward the end of school, I had a band. I was doing shows around Boston, and there were all these fliers for open mic comedy nights. I was like, “Oh, I should just try that.” I really wanted to try it. And I loved it. I fell in love with it instantly. I knew the history professor who was teaching about Charles Ives; he was a 20th century composer. He invented life insurance. He was a billionaire in the 1920s and ’30s. He’d take the train from his mansion in Danbury, Connecticut to New York City every morning to work, where he created life insurance. He would compose all of his symphonies, all his works on the train. Ives talked about how you can never make money doing music or your musical composition will always be compromised, because even on a subconscious level you’ll be worrying “Will this make me money?” That just resonated with me in that moment. I was in my end-of-college quarter-life crisis. I was like, “You know what? I want to keep music sacred and fun. I just want to do comedy and comedy will be my day job. Music will be my passion.”
Alan Spencer: Marty Feldman was a friend and mentor to me, and I asked him, “Marty, what’s the difference, you feel, between British and American comedy?” And he said, “In British comedy, you can make fun of literature and history and art and world events as well as movies and television. In American comedy, you can only make fun of the last two weeks.” I just thought that was brilliant, and that’s kind of where we’re at: We want to make sure we get the joke and everything’s a topical reference, or recent reference, and 30 years from now people will look at it going “Well that’s outdated.” But strange and bizarre and demented never grows old.
Matthew Broussard: I love comedy, but it’s one thing to love comedy and another thing to expect the world to pay you to do it.
Pat Brown: Everybody wants to do comedy because comics are so good it makes people think it’s easy. It’s like golf. If you watch golf you’re like, “They’re just hitting the ball with a stick.” Then you go out there and actually try to hit a ball with a stick and you’re like, “Oh my God.”
Katie O’Brien: We just did anything to get noticed. We did so many midnight shows, and shows for no people and solo five minute material. It was constantly doing stuff, because that is how you find your voice is just literally doing it a million times over. You get to this point of, “Fuck it. I don’t care anymore.”
Daniel Sloss: I remember my first hour. Nobody else remembers my first hour. Nobody remembers my second hour. Nobody remembers my third or my fourth. This is my seventh hour. People are only going to remember the most recent one.
Nikki Glaser: I’ve never been too eager to do things before I’m ready to do them; I’ve always been cautiously proceeding through my career. I don’t wanna do anything I don’t deserve; I don’t want anyone to be able to say, “Why is she getting that?”
Emily Heller: The hardest part is that you have no fucking idea about what’s about to happen next. You have no control, no foresight as to what your year is going to look like. Everything I’ve done has been fun and rewarding, but I’ve never been able to predict it.
Brook Van Poppelen: You come to realize that 13 years of hosting a comedy show in a dirty bar on a Sunday night suddenly has given you a set of life skills that you didn’t realize might come in handy in a professional setting.
Kamau Bell: The art of comedy can get people fired up but that can’t really fix anything. I just have to keep it that way for myself. I definitely thought as a younger comic, “I’m going to change this and that in people blah blah.” Then you’re married and have kids and think, “I’m just gonna keep these kids on the planet, get money to feed them, and I hope my jokes don’t make the world worse.”
T.J. Miller: I was talking to Kumail [Nanjiani] the other day and he was like, “You are the hardest working man in show business, you are.” And it might be true. You know for my peer level, I really work hard. That’s kind of why I’m the Mucinex man.
Hannibal Buress: I did an interview with a dog the other day. Obviously the dog wasn’t talking, but it was me and a dog. This dog has an incredible social media following so I was like, “Well, gotta push this special. Time to talk to Frenchie the Bulldog.”
Derek Waters: Every day I’m like “Thank God for this.” Am I part of the Make-a-Wish foundation? I don’t know. But I’m not questioning it, I’m just enjoying this little choo-choo train ride and seeing how far it can go. All aboard. All aboard. The little engine that could.
Theo Von: I wouldn’t trade my path at all, man. It’s been miserable, wonderful, disheartening, depressing, positive, and nurturing. It’s been everything.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts: I was told by an old timer that if you ever felt like you had the perfect match you should go back to the locker room, take your tights off, put them in a pile, and light them on fire. Burn them and never go back in the ring. The day you quit learning is the day it’s over.
STAYING TRUE TO YOURSELF
Rory Scovel: I think in the debate on how to come up with the material, I don’t think you can define what works or what doesn’t work; we’re all just coming from a different place where you just have to go with what works for you. If you try to fit into some kind of mold, you’re probably going to miss out on some kind of personal epiphany you could discover about yourself and your craft.
Shamikah Martinez: As an artist, I think some of the early time was spent not doing enough of exactly what I wanted to do or not writing that lyric because would people get it? Then at one point, all of sudden, you stop trying to write something that everyone will get. Then it’s like “If we get it and if we like it, it’s fine.”
Michael Che: I’m arrogant enough to think that what I’m saying is important and I’m not leaving until you people listen.
Katy Colloton: The thing I always say is to create your own stuff, but then to also find your voice. Because the more you create for yourself, even if you don’t want to be a writer and you just want to be an actor, or you just want to be an improviser, but you don’t want to act, to me the more you create and put yourself out there, the more you’ll find your own voice. Once you know your voice, you’re golden. You can’t find it just waiting for other people to cast you in stuff. You can only do it, in my opinion, creating stuff for yourself.
Mike Sacks: There are some general rules I’ve seen across the board. And that is basically you have to stay true to what you think is funny, you have to work within the medium that you like. If you don’t want to write sitcom scripts, you don’t have to. If you want to write a graphic novel you can do that. If you want to write for the stage you can do that. But you have to figure out what you want to do the most and what gets across your writing the best. And just do it. You have to take advice, but you also have to know when not to take advice and just stay true to your own vision. But really it’s just keeping at it. Whether it works or not, no one really ever knows that themselves. Mel Brooks still thinks he hasn’t made it. He’s still pushing. He’s still struggling. If someone like Mel Brooks struggles creatively and professionally I think it’s a lesson that anyone at any level is going to struggle at times. It’s not easy. People go crazy writing jokes. If you work in electricity or if you’re a plumber or a doctor, after 40 years you know what works and what doesn’t work. A joke writer, it’s still a mystery to them whether a joke will hit or not. That’s part of the excitement. It can also drive you crazy.
Conner O’Malley: I’m constantly trying to get to a place where I’m not feeling self-conscious. When we shot the New York one and I was going into a Bernie rally with a “Make America Great Again” hat on, it felt like walking through a Holocaust museum with a swastika armband. I felt so self-conscious and so horrible, and that kind of doesn’t go away. But once you get a couple interviews under your belt you get warmed up, and you get to a place where you see something and then you just go after it. And especially with the Vines, there wasn’t ever any master plan behind all those. It was just this incremental improvisation of “We’ll start here. Where can it heighten? Where can it go?” It escalates naturally, and I’m just trying to stay open to that. I want to go where that takes me.
Jen Kirkman: I know my type of comedy is never going to be the type that has mass appeal and everyone likes. That’s okay, but also why aren’t I the type everyone likes?
Lizz Winstead: When people go, “Oh are you preaching to the choir?” I go, “If I am preaching to the choir, I don’t know why the choir can’t have more songs, or I can’t grow a choir of my own.” No one would ever say to a butcher shop, “You don’t sell fish, you should sell fish.” Here’s what I sell, if you like it, come and enjoy it, and even if you like what I sell, you might not like the way that I’ve flavored it. It’s always a crapshoot, and that’s part of the fun.
Billy Domineau: I feel like for many years I’d been trying to chase after what seems to be popular in the marketplace by modifying my voice in order to suit it, or by trying to tackle various media that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to my brand of humor. Eventually, about a year ago or so, I said to myself “No more of that. You’re just going to write and perform and create in a manner that you’re most interested in and you’re most comfortable in, and whatever happens, good or ill, that’s fine.” I was getting sick of the feeling of chasing after this thing and not getting results and not enjoying the process, so ultimately, this is the type of project I was happy to take on — not expecting really anything from it with the process being its own reward. And luckily, there’s been a reward on top of that.
DEPRESSION, ANXIETY, & WORRY
Dana Carvey: I’m heavily medicated, yeah.
Jessi Klein: I feel like I’m never gonna be good enough all the time. I think the only difference between now and then is I am more aware that that feeling will never go away and that there is no end for anyone. When you have that view of it, suddenly, ironically, or counterintuitively, it starts to evaporate a little bit, like “Oh, there is no point at which anyone feels completely content, and so maybe I should stop worrying about it.”
Christi Chiello: It’s weird to think, but I think it’s exciting, the whole uncertainty of things has truly never scared me in a way I think it scares other people, with not feeling stable and not feeling like you have security, and not knowing. But I take a lot of comfort in that. I like thinking that what I’ll end up doing might be a thing that doesn’t exist yet. I think that’s great. That, to me, is possibility. It doesn’t frighten me. I really do have a ton of faith in myself and my abilities, and optimism. That has a lot to do with just my character, too. Standup aside, I’ve always kind of been that way – just faithful and hopeful, and not terrified.
Eric Andre: That’s just what I like. I’ve had panic attacks on acid and mushrooms and it’s been a really bad time. I kind of want the show to feel like that. It’s like a progression of that feeling. I’m very nervous on TV and just sweating all the time. I stay in the room interviewing without air conditioning, so I’m really sweaty and the guest’s really sweaty. It’s a celebration of all my neuroses and putting both me and the guests through all the worst of my neuroses.
COMEDY & TRAGEDY
T.J. Miller: The idea was to build this infrastructure so people can turn to me in these different mediums, and say, “I trust this guy to take me out of this awful situation. My uncle has cancer, I’m fighting with my girlfriend, my job feels like it’s good, but it’s kind of a dead end.” My comedy says, “Hey, get out of that for a minute and laugh, let me make you laugh.”
Dave Hill: Not to be too dark with it, but I know where my mom is buried in Cleveland and I’ve driven right past it and I’ve never visited it because I’m like, “That’s not where she is. That’s where her body is.” We’re connected energy-wise. She’s not in that cemetery. She’s more with me or kind of everywhere.
Chris Kelly: For me, any time something is so tragic, I’m always looking for the comedy in it. Partly because it’s a coping mechanism, partly because I’m just aware of, you know, “God, we’re all just on this little fucking marble together and it’s all so bizarre!” It’s not even that it’s funny, but it’s so sad that it’s comical. It’s just so bizarrely comical how much something can suck. But then also, if I’m having a totally nice day and I’m sitting around with friends and we’re all laughing, in my mind — like during comedy, during a wonderful moment — in my mind I’m like “We all will die soon.” So I’m always inserting comedy into very tragic moments like my mother’s death, and then on just a totally pleasant day, if you’re talking to me and I’m laughing, in my mind I’m thinking about how you’ll be dead one day. [laughs] The two are always right there in my mind together.
Arturo Castro: Every day I woke up with a plan and every day I knocked on doors until eventually they opened. The reason I decided that is because I’m a true believer that when you want to do something, especially something as fickle as media, you can’t just want to be a guy that survives. You want to be the person getting to the height of the career you want. There is no plan B. For me there was never a plan B. There are many other things I could have done. It was really hard not to take a day job to be honest. I was really broke for a long time. There were moments where I had to pick between a Metrocard and a meal. But I chose the Metrocard every time because I knew that eventually it would be pay off. For me a day job would have been distracting.
Alan Spencer: Everyone’s playing it very safe right now on television, in general, because of the investment involved. What I’d like to see is people who dare to fail — that there’s a chance of failure for something, to stick your neck so way out that you’re gonna get the guillotine, or like a term Mel Brooks used, you hit notes so high only dogs can hear. And that comes from the Andy Kaufman school, because I knew Andy, and he dared so much. And Borat — it was so thrilling to see something like that because you hadn’t seen it before. One of the disappointments I feel about places like IFC is that they don’t take chances; they’re basically an SNL subchannel, and you don’t see new voices. Everything is based on a podcast or it’s talented SNL players coming back, but people daring to fail and daring to perplex people where people are turning off the TV going “What did I just see?!” …instead of trying to hit the bullseye, just trying to do collateral damage and to take a wacky shot that, even if you missed, people are talking about it or wondering what you did or missed.
Tim Dillon: I think what happens in comedy — and what surprised me about comedy — is how much of a pack mentality it is. It’s not at all different from anything else. Comedians like to think that they are different from a bunch of guys that are just filing into an office somewhere in Midtown Manhattan. They’re not. It’s just humanity. People want to be comfortable, they want to be liked, they want to be important. I think that causes people to, in many cases, just try to embrace this community aspect. To that end, you see a lot of people not taking risks, not being funny. I think funny comes from the willingness to be unpopular, or to fail… to make the joke that is not what everyone is thinking.
Brett Gelman: It’s a big thing that’s present in the white liberal community. That, “I’m talking about it so I’m doing something.” No, you’re just talking about it. And you’re talking about it usually to other white liberals. You’re not really doing anything here. Talking is not action.
Anthony Atamanuik: I would say my greatest message, for me and the show, is to really get young people — especially young progressive people and young comedy people who announce that they’re progressive but don’t vote, or announce that they’re liberal but don’t take to activism — to understand that it’s not enough to push your thumb on Twitter, it’s not enough to go see a comedy show and boo the fake Trump. When are you going to actually take action in the world? When are you going to realize that your job is to take action in the world, not in a hashtag fashion, not just voting up or down on an idea on a social media website?
Kamau Bell: And I’m not really asking for it, but I feel that’s one thing, that power to sit down and have an awkward conversation, and we have a lot of them on the show with different people, is that you have people exchange information and ideas in a way that you don’t normally see on television. I think you see it in podcasting a lot, but I don’t think you get to see it on TV. I just want people to take away the fact that maybe if I have more awkward conversations in my life, the world will be a better place.
FAILURE & SUCCESS
Henry Phillips: Failure is funny. I think earlier in my career I was a little bit afraid of showing that. But as you get older you’re sort of like, “What the hell? We’re all clowns.”
Adam Cayton-Holland: When you’re kind of younger in your career and haven’t really gotten anything, resentment is really easy to have. But there’s a kind of nice phase when you turn the corner and realize that none of it actually matters. The three of us are literally living our dream right now doing this TV show. I don’t think any of us resents the others. We’ve all kind of won the prize.
Aparna Nancherla: One of the unexpected positives of depression for a lifelong perfectionist is you worry less about failure, in that showing up or engaging, regardless of quality, can be an accomplishment in and of itself.
Lizz Winstead: You know that you can’t wallow in the disappointment or relish the success. Your whole life and your art is a moving part. It’s always going to be liked by some people and not by other people, and so you just accept that fact. I think that once you develop a maturity and understand all of that stuff, and you develop likes, dislikes, a frame of reference, a point of view, and you understand that not everyone’s gonna share that — even people you love, it all becomes much more clear. Your confidence can become much greater because you understand that it’s not you.
Drew Michael: Part of getting better is failing. It’s like lifting weights. If you want to get stronger you have to lift some shit that you can’t lift until eventually you can.
Mike Sacks: There are lots of themes that run through these successful people. One of those themes is “I don’t know what’s going to work for you, but this works for me.” And they’ll say basically “I worked hard, put my head down, did what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, didn’t do it for money and just moved forward.” Whether it happens or not is not guaranteed. It’s not like taking two graduate courses and you get a degree where it’s all written down. You’re operating on your own which makes it really interesting and scary. The highs are going to be higher. The lows are going to be lower.
Mike Birbiglia: I think that [fame]’s an inevitability of recognition and achievement, so there’s nothing you can do about it, although I will say that I think America has the sense that success equals visibility, and I think that success has more to do with connecting with people and helping people. We have these improv theaters in America where people can make things that move people and make people laugh. Especially in this climate where all of these tragedies are happening back to back in America, it’s hard to laugh right now, and at these small improv theaters they have the ability to make people laugh on days they didn’t think they would laugh. That’s a real gift. To me, that’s success. So the other stuff — the visibility and the exposure — it’s a little bit misguided. And I was certainly someone who fell into that trap with believing that in my 20s. Now that I’m in my 30s, I feel like I have the perspective of knowing that’s not actually what it’s about.
NEW YORK, LA, & BEYOND
Chris Geere: I’m continually astounded by the cultural differences between England and America. I feel like I’m a guest here. The food is amazing, the weather is amazing. You drive anywhere for half an hour in one direction and you feel like you’re in a different country. In Manchester you drive half an hour in one direction and it’s still raining and the buildings still look the same. As much as I love it, it is what it is.
Ali Siddiq: Some of the greatest comics aren’t from New York or LA. Comedy is huge. Most people are not LA or New York. Most people are average America.
Ramon Rivas: When I go to New York or LA and get to do awesome shows it’s cool, but it feels a little hollow to me. A dope show in Cleveland feels like it’s building towards something. It feels like it has a momentum toward something.
Naomi Ekperigin: A lot of my standup is informed by my emotional response to something. A lot of times the pleasure for the audience comes from me getting so riled up about something that is really fine to someone else. In the case of Broad City it’s about being a young twenty-something in New York. I know that world well. New York forces you to…you’re constantly surrounded by people, butting up against them, and everywhere you go everybody’s got their own agenda. It forces you to stand your ground and learn to speak your piece or else you’ll get rolled over.
Max Silvestri: You have that Fear of Missing Out in New York; you have access to everything. You have places to go, concerts, and culture and movies. Having those serendipitous Friday nights where you’re at a bar on the Lower East Side and “Oh, this person is over here, I’m going to walk ten minutes and meet up and have this unexpected thing.” I think those were things that were just less and less in the rhythm of my life. Like, I go to the grocery store and pet store a lot. I feel like I’m not fully taking advantage of the wonders of New York. Instead, it’s just like a small, tight place where as soon as you get a puppy, you realize how much garbage there is on the streets and there’s only so much energy I have for clawing chicken wings out of my dog’s throats every morning. You know what? Fuck seasons. Seasons are cool but I want sunshine 300 days a year, I want to live in a place where people don’t eat chicken wings in their cars and throw the bones out the window. I don’t understand that impulse. What is this grab-and-go chicken wing culture that I live in? I don’t think this is my life anymore.
Nate Fernald: One thing that is great about LA is that the crowds usually stay for the whole show. Going out is an event. In New York people can pop in, check out the show for 20 minutes and go do something else. But LA feels like there’s a lot of pressure. There’s so much industry out there, so every time you do a show you get the sense that somebody’s watching. In New York I feel a little more off the radar and more comfortable in trying stuff out.
Henry Zebrowski: You have to have a bunch of fat, gross people doing comedy. It can’t just be pretty people.
Tony Rock: Regular people laugh harder. Industry people are stuffy, very judgmental. You can tell who the industry are in the room because they’re the ones sitting there critiquing and not laughing.
Aparna Nancherla: Networks and online outlets seem much more willing to take risks on more interesting, outside-of-the-box stuff. It’s exciting to not have to pitch everything within the structure of a mainstream demographic if that’s not what you’re really going for.
Brett Gelman: Look, the reality is the whole business is misogynist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. The oppressed people need to deal with the state of our business every single day, and as much as we move forward, that is still present — not necessarily consciously, but it is subconscious. And this is the thing that everybody, especially straight white men, have to realize not only about the system but about ourselves: We are subconsciously conditioned to be comfortable, and we might be looking the other way without even knowing we are looking the other way. We might be making racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic decisions without knowing that we are actually doing so because we are conditioned to be comfortable. That is the thing that we all have to realize, and when we make mistakes we must not defend ourselves; we just must move forward and change our policies, and apologize and acknowledge that we’ve made that mistake.
Stephen Falk: I think the hallmark of our show is that characters go through profound changes and then it’s revealed that they’re still exactly who they were. I think that’s very normal. I do believe people can change, but it’s probably a lot harder than people may think. Any revelation they might have, there’s always that ability to backslide, and I think that’s a very human trait.
Adam Conover: I feel like there’s a desire for people to want to prove the show wrong. I saw it a little bit last year and I feel like it’s a little bit more this year. Like, “He got something wrong! You can’t trust Adam because he’s not always right.” One thing I want to be clear about is that the show does not claim to tell you the absolute truth. The process of the show is the process of investigation. We do our research and try to find the best answers we can, then we show our work. The goal of the show is a journey of questioning, investigating, and asking. It’s not the end point.
Gillian Jacobs: I think on the surface she feels very different than who I am as a person, but if you really go down to the basic emotional needs or the core of the issues that she’s struggling with, I think I relate to it more. Wanting to be loved, feeling dissatisfied with your life — all those kind of big, big driving forces behind her I can relate to. And it’s funny too, because I thought that we weren’t really alike, and then my family watched the first two episodes and they were like “I saw so much of you in there!” and I was like “Really?!” And they were like “Your sense of humor!” and all these things, so I guess it’s also not exactly clear to me too, because you sort of fuse with it. It’s hard to be objective; I can’t see myself and my day-to-day life from somebody’s perspective. So it surprised me, but it was nice to hear that my family felt like there was a lot of me in there as well.
Derek Waters: I think getting to do a fourth season of a show where I get drunk with my friends and have famous actors reenact it will always be strange.
Jonathan Krisel: I remember I was at the bookstore and there was a book called How to Be a Showrunner, and I thought ”I should probably read that.” But then I was like “Ah, who cares?” It doesn’t really matter — I’m gonna do it the way I do it, we’re gonna make the show that I would want to see, and whatever it turns out to be, it is. I know in my mind what I’m gonna make it be. I don’t know if it’s right or correct, but we have these awesome people involved, and as a fan, I want to see those people take something to the next level.
Richard Linklater: I’m not interested in improv. I never have been. It never made much sense to me. But I do spend a lot of time sitting with the cast reading through the scene that’s written then elaborating and blocking ideas. I’m just forever collaborating with the reality in front of me. From the time you cast an actor you’re not collaborating with the lines on a page but with a human with their own humor, their own energy, and their own view of the world. I’m trying to integrate that into my movie and make it seem real. To me that’s the magic moment. That’s when we find new stuff and have fun with it. That said, if it’s 11 at night and we’re all playing pool and someone says something interesting, I’m always working. I’ve always got the antenna up. I do look for last minute inspiration. I did come up with the line “I feel like the Astros are going to make it to the World Series” when the naked girl was on top of Finnegan in between takes.
Ben Falcone: I’m not fooling myself in thinking that what we do is as important as what teachers do or doctors do or firefighters or fill in the blank of these important professions, but I do think that particularly in an uncertain world, there’s something fun about going to a theater and just laughing hard or watching your favorite TV show and just laughing. The thing that I think is great about comedy is that it reminds you how much you have in common. You know? Sitting in a theater laughing because you all found something funny is a great way to remember that we’re all kind of in it together. Not to get all philosophical about it, but I do find meaning in the work. Again, I don’t think it’s the most important thing on the Earth, but I do think it’s a pretty good thing when people can forget about their stuff for two hours.
Mike Birbiglia: And this is a lesson from Elia Kazan in his book on directing: When you’re interviewing an actor, ask them what drew them to the project, and don’t lead them to the answer. That’s one of the mistakes I make, because as an improviser I want to say “Why do you want to work on the movie?” and they’ll be like “Cause it’s funny..” and I’ll be like “And dramatic!” You know, I’m finishing their sentence so that they’ll be wanting to do it for the reason I want to do it. But it’s not always the case, you know? And if people aren’t in it for the same reasons, then you are losing a certain piece of synchronicity that you need to have to make a movie. You need every single person — all 100 people who are in production and post-production — to be making the same movie.
Chris Kelly: One of the things I did remember autobiographically from that time of being with my mother while she was sick was that I was constantly — and this is very not healthy and I’m the first one to admit it — I constantly remember feeling like “Ooh, I’ve seen versions of this in cancer movies, but this real-life version is way sadder, way less glamorous, and way less melodramatic. When am I going to learn that beautiful lesson all the characters in cancer movies learn? When is somebody gonna sit me down and fucking teach me something so gorgeous? When does the music swell?” I’d never been through the experience before, so I kept trying to grab onto something to relate it to, and I could only relate it to other movies I had seen. And you know, in all those movies it’s so glossy and gorgeous and everyone is sick but the whole movie’s looking beautiful and the score is touching, and I just wanted the opposite of all that. I wanted it to be very matter-of-fact, I wanted no score, I wanted everything to feel very naturalistic to the point of it being almost frustrating for the main character, because this just kind of plays out in real, ordinary life. I didn’t want a lot of bells and whistles in the movie, I just wanted it to be presented naturally.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
Bobby Moynihan: It’s certainly harder, but that’s our job to make people laugh. I think a lot of comedians would agree that they make themselves laugh so that they don’t feel sad. We just try to focus on what we do best and get everyone to laugh again and laugh with us.
Oz Rodriguez: Time is very compressed on SNL so that’s why so many times you just have to go with your gut. You have to read the script and figure out what will work best for the sketch and sort of plan out how you would like to accomplish it. You almost have to think about how you’d do it on a perfect day in perfect conditions, but then when you shoot you’re facing the realities of the day where the schedule has been changed, you don’t have a lot of time with the host, and you’re constantly battling these different schedules and you have to think on your feet. You always need to be thinking of what you need to tell the story. I’ve never done anything like it — where you sort of prepare, but at the same time know that there’s gonna be chaos.
Ana Gasteyer: People definitely bring it up for sure, but not in a way that’s haunting – in a way that’s nice. It’s a mafia that you join pretty willingly, so I’m proud – it’s nice, it’s really nice.
Vanessa Bayer: I think you always have moments where you really can’t believe that you’re there. But at the same time, once you start working there, you’re working so much that you’re just really in it, so you aren’t thinking about it as much. But I think especially as new people come in, you start to realize how long you’ve been there because things are always changing. But yeah, I don’t think you ever feel totally comfortable there, because everything happens so quickly and it’s so last-minute and it’s always exciting in a way that keeps you on your toes.
STANDUP & IMPROV
Emma Willmann: One of the things I love about standup is that it’s like inventing in that each one of your jokes, your overall act, and you as a performer are like an invention, your team is like your invention support, back-up and distribution, and ultimately you are able to get ‘product’ feedback every night. And comedy ultimately is always honest, people are into it or they’re not. Then you take it from there.
Noah Gardenswartz: There’s a lot of hard work in the practice, going over the set. Telling the jokes so many times that I know them. But at the same time, in the way that athletes rely on muscle memory, once it’s game time, if you’re thinking too hard you won’t be at your best.
Ali Wong: In terms of jokes about race and sex I start with myself and I ask, “Does this make me laugh?” Then I go out and test the joke. I’ll give it 20 shots. If it makes me laugh it’s worth 20 attempts.
Rachel Feinstein: This friend of mine was telling me some story about having a threesome and I said, “What was it like?” He said, “You have to make a choice. You’re either going to watch it or you’re going to experience it. You have to do one or the other.” That was how it felt with the first special.
Martha Kelly: After a while of being with other sober people I started doing standup again and it’s been more fun than it ever was when I was drinking. I used to hate doing it. The only time I liked it, even when I drank, was right after I got offstage. Everything leading up to that I hated.
Sean Donnelly: It took me a long time to realize that most shows — I would say 98% of shows, maybe 99% — the audience is on your side. They want you to do well.
Nate Fernald: We had a ritual before a show…we would hit each other in the balls. That was when we first started doing comedy and every show we were so nervous about. I think that hitting each other in the balls was a way to distract us from thinking about performing.
Jen Kirkman: As a standup I think it’s funny I’m not uncomfortable in front of an audience. I’m comfortable in the uncomfortable. I had no idea there was a good job for that.
Matt Walsh: I think akin to seeing a live rock ‘n roll show, you have to be in the room to feel the whole potential of it and the group mind of that event. Improv is a disposable art form but it’s kind of freeing in that way too because things can fail and the audience is a little more forgiving. And they’re also engaged on the journey as well. It’s a very ephemeral art form though, yeah, and I think that can be very freeing. That’s sort of what makes me keep coming back.
Big Jay Oakerson: The person who wins is generally the person who stays the most comfortable. If somebody in the audience is turning on you, it’s easy just to make them just as uncomfortable by asking, like, “What happened there? What’d you guys not get? What’d you guys not get about the joke? Do you think I’m being a genuine racist, do you think I’m being a genuine misogynist?? And you kind of pull the curtain on that stuff and it reaffirms what everybody’s roles are here, and they tend to fall in line.
Mamoudou N’Diaye: People don’t want to be uncomfortable; unfortunately we’re going to be in an uncomfortable situation for four years. Whenever I do standup, most of my jokes are about being black in America and the realities of police brutality, and I’ve done them before where people say it’s a good joke or even give a clap break, which is great. Two weeks after #AltonSterling –and that little bump I get whenever bad things happen to the world — I did a set, and someone said “too soon…” It’s like, this has been happening for a very long time.
Wyatt Cenac: There’s something nice about going and just doing a spot on another show or at a club, because the host is already there and sets the table, so you don’t have the same type of responsibility — you just have to come and be funny and then you get to leave. As the host you’re kind of creating a relationship with the audience, and you wind up setting the tone for the rest of the show. Initially I was somewhat hesitant about hosting shows because that responsibility is a weird thing — to have to keep checking in with the audience and keep the energy going and all those types of things. I’m not the kind of person who wants to host a party. I’m more of a person who, you know… I’ll maybe say hello, and then you’ll find me in the corner slowly drinking all your whiskey.
Bo Burnham: If comedy is all about surprises and pulling the rug out from under someone, I want to make the surprises live within the structure of the show. The show lies to you and tells you that it’s lying. My first instinct isn’t to fight the man. My first instinct is to have a silly, weird, strange show that you never really get your footing in. It seems honest and then it’s not. It seems silly and weird and then all of the sudden it gets serious.
Matt Besser: So many comedians, if you asked them “What’s your priority in standup?” it’s probably gonna be to make people laugh or to entertain them. That is just way down on my priority list, if on my list at all. I’m into breaking records. If I can do a set and break a record and get no laughs, I’m happy. Screw the audience…but that’s what audiences should be appreciating. If they see a set that’s really really funny and then they get to the end of the set but yet not one record has been broken, they should ask for their money back, in my opinion. Like, what’s their takeaway? A few laughs, sure, but they can’t say “I was there. I was there when the most references in one joke was told. I was there when the longest parody song was sung.” I once parodied “American Pie” — that’s a ten-minute song — I did a parody of every single verse. Most parody songs last two minutes at best. I even went five extra minutes beyond the original song as part of the parody — it was fifteen minutes. I, at one point, held the record for most offensive joke — it concerned a rape at a concentration camp, someone was yelling the N-word…I offended the audience several times. When most comics tell an offensive joke, they’re just offending one minority — you know, one victim. I don’t think it’s even an offensive joke unless you’re offending multiple minorities.
@OpenMicComic: It’s like everyone who’s not on top is obsessed with everyone who is. Everyone who’s trying to make it is not looking at themselves. They’re all looking at who’s on top, what they do right, what they do wrong. I think there’s a righteousness that comes from it. The last couple times Seinfeld spoke up and said something people don’t like, he said something about, you know, colleges being too sensitive and a few months before that he had a diversity remark. All the sudden, all these people who I only know because I’ve done mics and shows with them, all of a sudden these people have these long eighteen paragraph posts on why Seinfeld doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. If you disagree with him, fine. But wouldn’t you at least give the guy the respect of an amazing thirty-something year career to hear him out? He doesn’t… he hasn’t done enough to earn your respect, other not famous guy? What the hell’s the matter with you? Why wouldn’t you just listen? No one listens.
Alexis Wilkinson: On Twitter, brevity, spelling, and punctuation make all the difference. I’ll spend time just moving commas around, capitalizing things, analyzing the effect of “titties” vs “tiddies” vs “tatas.” All very important.
Ben Falcone: Melissa [McCarthy] and I, we do a lot of writing in the car. Because it’s one of the only times we’re sort of just with each other and driving around. Literally we’ve written stuff on napkins and stuff like that, I don’t know why. I really should just get a notebook in my car, but it’s almost like if I got a notebook in my car then it wouldn’t be a special place where we’re not supposed to write.
Chris Kelly: When we started [at SNL] it was Seth Meyers, and because he’s such a good writer, he always wrote the best stuff every week, so that was inspiring. But he was always just such a good person, too. At six in the morning on Tuesdays he was working on his own stuff and scrambling to get it in, but he was always, always willing to put it aside and read your stuff and give a new person thoughts and notes and ideas. So that set a bar, I think, for both me and Sarah right away. It was like “Okay,that’s what a head writer is.” It’s not just being a good writer, it’s being a good person — being able to look outside yourself and your own stresses in the moment of thinking of the whole show and thinking of the new people and thinking of the whole staff.
Lee Ellenberg: You’re at a party and somebody asks what you do. And you say “I’m a comedy writer.” I usually get the same reaction, which is: “Oh, I’m really funny. I could be a comedy writer too.” My feeling is always: “I bet you are funny. But it’s Saturday night, you have a drink in your hand, you’re with your friends, you’re in a good mood. It’s easy to be funny.” The challenge of being a comedy writer is doing it when every instinct in your body is not to be funny. It’s Monday morning, you got the flu, a girl just broke up with you, and you have to go to a wedding over the weekend and you don’t have a date because your girlfriend just dumped you. Now be funny. That’s the difference between being funny and being a comedy writer.
Nikki Glaser: It’s because of me spilling my guts on podcasts that I’m in a position now that my life has completely changed.
Kulap Vilaysack: Podcasting maybe more than anything has changed my life. I’ve said it many times before but it doesn’t mean I mean it any less. Having a place to be every week and to do the show with Howard [Kremer] and be accepted for who I am is a huge, huge gift.
Paul Welsh: The evolution of [Hard Nation] hopefully is the same thing that we do now; it starts from a grounded reality of what’s going on in the news and what’s interesting and funny talk about, then it goes wherever it goes.
Mike Mitchell: Nick [Wiger] and I both like that kind of like not too prepared, but also not completely meandering — a focused but fun free-flowing conversation. That was why we wanted to do the podcast, was to have an outlet to do something like that. To feel like being in your basement after school and talking about stuff and riffing on it and that stuff being food specifically. We’ve done some segments where we’ve built up stuff and written it out, but I think the most fun part of the podcast is whatever tangent we’re on.
Rhys Darby: Scott [Aukerman]’s great. I think the two of us could probably talk for hours about nonsense, trying to screw each other up and make each other laugh. He was telling me he tours that, even taking it to Australia, and I thought “Wow! Just sitting on stage talking bollocks in front of a thousand people? Man, I could do that.” It’s inspired me to maybe get something going on with a podcast. It seems like the easiest, laziest way to entertain, just sort of sitting there with a couple of mates. It was fun.
Tom Segura: I think to be a great conversationalist you need to be interested in being in said conversation. Oddly enough, I think you need to be a great listener, and I do think I’m a good listener. I think that’s my asset — I always listen to people when I talk to them, and that’s a big thing you have to have in life and in podcasts. I think a lot of comics struggle with that because they’re always thinking of what to say next. Especially if they’re a very “joke joke joke” comic, and their mind’s going into what they’re going to say next, joke-wise. We’ve had guests where you start talking to them and you can tell right away that they’re not going to be a good podcast guest.
@70eeks: Being relatively anonymous helps here. People are less likely to try to pigeonhole a muppet baby’s sense of humor than they would a thirty-something lady’s. A stuffed dog can also get away with a concerning amount of emoji usage. I like that I am added to lists with names like, “Funny F*ckers” and not “MomJokes.”
@Thugtear: I know sometimes people hate admitting that a social platform like Twitter can be impactful and mold them as a person but I’m fine with saying it changed my life. It gave me knowledge and perspective that no modern education could. I wasn’t the greatest person before I was exposed to the different voices on that site, and I can see it by looking back at my old tweets.
Michelle Wolf: I use it as a tool to communicate jokes or ideas. I don’t respond to people — I only respond to my friends. I feel like as soon as you engage, you’ve already lost. If you have to defend a joke, you’ve already lost. There’s no one you’re gonna convince. I’d rather just be like, “Ah, fuck you, I’m gonna move on to my next joke.” I mean, I want to fight that person…
@Neshathewicked: Sometimes I feel weird tweeting about social justice or more personal intimate things when my last tweet before that is like, “my pussy just farted in line at starbucks can anyone relate,” but, I mean, I never said I was a role model.
Jaboukie Young-White: My favorite topical tweets are the ones that put a tweet in context so it illuminates a deeper truth or societal trend. That being said, I get transcendentally lit whenever a pop icon like Drake does some miniscule goofy shit and Twitter goes wild. The internet has created so many niche audiences that when millions or even thousands of people can be on the same page it’s a truly special thing.
Joel Kim Booster: Most people aren’t seeing all of your tweets so depending on the time of day I either look suicidal or a monster with a liberal arts degree. Ultimately the one constant cross-over is the importance I place on the double exclamation point. Nothing sets the tone better than a frantic scream!!
KIDS THESE DAYS
Artie Lange: Young kids in their 20s and early 30s — millennials, some call them — they’re uptight and they don’t know how to laugh. They don’t know what a sense of humor is. It’s very scary.
Gilbert Gottfried: I’ve always said this: I think the younger you are, the more unrealistic you are, or irrational. So, being young I thought, “Hey, I’ll have a career in show business, and I’ll be someone who can go up on stage and people will laugh, and I’ll be in movies.” Nowadays, if I were to think about it, when people say to me like, “I’m starting out,” or “I’m a struggling actor or comic,” I think, “What are you, nuts?”
POLITICS & THE ELECTION
James Adomian: I think it’s actually a breath of fresh air to make fun of someone like Bernie Sanders, who’s not only a great person but also a light side Jedi, and also way smarter than me. I’ve made fun of all kinds of people who I hate, and I’ve made fun of people who I agree with too — I like Jesse Ventura a lot and I make fun of him — so I do impressions of people whether I like them or not. It’s whether they make a big impression on me, positive or negative, that causes me to want to do an impression of them. In Bernie Sanders’s case, it’s a majorly positive impression he makes on me, which then makes me motivated to want to take that impression he makes on me and share it with the public. And the ways that I’m making fun of Bernie Sanders are the ways he looks and sounds and his reliance on hard facts and statistics, and I think if that’s what you’re being made fun of for, you’re a very good person.
Zhubin Parang: The level of ludicrousness in our politics does sometimes make it hard to think, like, “Where can we take this that’s funny? It’s already hilarious.” It kind of relates to the issue of gun violence, when you think about it. The silliness of our politics right now is being played out against a backdrop of very severe problems for this country, and I think that’s where you can find the visceral reaction that gets you comedy: the fact that this country’s infrastructure is crumbling, the fact that half the globe right now is on fire, the fact that we are radically repositioning America’s place in the world right now, and to react to it we have this orange blowhard rallying people to kick out people based on their religion. I think the contrast there is endlessly renewable in terms of what you can make fun of. Because politicians act so foolishly, but they all mean it. It’s that gap between what these people are asking us to give them — our trust and our consent to be governed — versus how they’re going about doing it that I think is a target of comedy. I think that’s the thing: If it’s not funny, you can make fun of it.
Robert Smigel: Back when I did this 12 years ago, in 2004, generally the Democrats had a better sense of humor about me roaming around — although I got thrown out of both conventions that year. Now it’s somewhat of a challenge; it’s double-edged, because you get better access and more people are willing to talk to you, the way Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was willing to talk to Triumph so frankly in the first special, which was fantastic, but on the other hand you want to be able to agitate people a little bit. And I don’t go out of my way to do that, but I enjoy when Triumph baffles people a little bit. I still enjoy the people who don’t have a clue who this dog puppet is.
Mike Still: Not to get too deep about our silly show but you are only ever seeing the most extreme versions of both sides. And then people kind of become their own parody. “I have to believe this thing even harder because I just defended it to someone.” Does the left have a better sense of humor? As someone on the left, I think that we also think that we’re handsomer, and smarter, and have better taste.
Jordan Klepper: I talked to a young student who was 18 years old, and he was talking about how this is his first election. He was wearing all Trump gear, and he was kind of coy and soft-spoken and just excited about the political process. Even my producer and I were like “You know, this guy said some things that might buy into some of the more extreme rhetoric that Trump’s said, but this is just a kid who is excited about politics.” And then suddenly a young female protester walks up, and all she’s wearing is a sign that says “Love Not Hate” — that’s it, that’s as far as it goes — and this kid, and all the people around him, immediately start to call her a bitch and the c-word; they just lay into this person who is simply wearing a sign that says “Love Not Hate.” You can feel this group dynamic shift people and make it okay for these deeper-seated balls of rage to come out, and that was the first clue I got that there was something kind of seedier taking place.
WISDOM & ADVICE
Paul F. Tompkins: It’s funny to curse sometimes!
Michael Ian Black: The taste and intelligence of humor will be so great [in the future] that only computers, specifically quantum computers, will understand it. Everything will be interconnected. We’ll be laughing, but we just won’t know why.
Catherine Cohen: Velvet is a year-round staple, underwear is useless, and paying money to get rid of your pubes is fucked!!
Abbi Crutchfield: Doing it makes you a comedian. Doing it well means you might get paid to do it professionally. The quest to be famous is the opiate of the masses. You should always give advice to newcomers, because it’s a kindness, but you should never expect them to listen, because they haven’t grown ears yet.
Tom Papa: When everyone is getting loud I think that going a little more quiet is a powerful move.
Jessi Klein: The two biggest things I didn’t know that I wish I had known: I wish I had been more open to taking risks earlier, and I also think I just couldn’t hear enough of the words “It’s gonna be okay.” A lot of people say that, but when you’re younger, you’re going through a lot of things for the first time, and they go deep, you know? Emotions are really intense. The first time you get your heart broken or the first time things don’t work out, you don’t have the life experience to know that it’ll come around and it’s gonna be all right. I’m a big believer in saying to people “It’s gonna be okay.” And, in fact “It’s okay right now,” to be really cliché and Buddhist about it.
Joe Machi: When people give you advice on how to be a comedian they’re giving you advice on how they think a comedian should be. The more different and unusual you are, the better.
Andrew Santino: Your friends in comedy are never going to tell you that they didn’t like your stuff because everyone’s a fucking liar.
Charlotte Newhouse: Just work hard. Whatever avenue you pick, just go with it and work your ass off. Well, don’t work your ass off.
Jake Hurwitz: Try not to have expectations is number one, and number two, you will be surprised at how far just being a good listener gets you. I think that’s what everyone wants, men and women. People are really just looking for someone who is respectful and is a good listener. So if you can listen and have empathy, you will be a Casanova.
Roy Wood Jr.: I just want us to be able to better understand one another. And if someone is moved by my comedy to feel differently or to look at something differently, then I’m appreciative of that, that’s great. But I’d be lying if I said that was the goal out the gate the moment I step on stage. I feel like if you do that, you’re measuring yourself by your ability to change minds rather than make them laugh. You can still laugh at someone even if you didn’t agree with them.
Cate Freedman: If someone tells you “No” and your heart tells you yes, fuck that person that told you no. We’re talking about auditioning for stuff or auditioning for certain world famous comedy theaters and such, and I think it’s really important to know that if a crazy, wizard scientist tells you no or tells you “You’re not good at this” or “You’re not good at that,” you don’t have to listen to that. That is not true. You’re going to hear “no” a lot. Even if you’re like, “These people are probably right. I probably do suck a lot of doo-doo,” move forward. Continue on. Follow your heart and don’t give up. Make stuff with people and be kind to people. Just be decent and it will be okay.
Kate Micucci: If you’re having fun, don’t stop. Even if you’re in your forties or fifties or sixties or even people who are wanting to start something and they’re thinking “Oh, I’m too old to start.” You’re not! I think that especially with any of the arts, you can do it at any age. I would say just follow what makes you happy. I know it sounds cheesy, but I mean it.
Jonny Sun: I think… acknowledging we’re all going to die. If you recognize that, then you really know that your time is limited and you just have to do what makes you happy. That means you have to find love, you have to do the things you want to do, you have to make things, you have to follow your interests and your passions and yeah, that you’re going to die one day. You’ll want to have done all that stuff before you’re gone, I guess. I don’t know.
Mark McConville: I never understood why people said “go make stuff” until I went and made some stuff. That’s just what we did. We didn’t ask for permission, we just started making stuff and didn’t stop. No one is going to tell you what to make or when to make it. You just have to do it. Dive in. Learn. Don’t take the stuff too seriously, until you have to take it too seriously. Make the best stuff you can make. Don’t cut corners. It’ll be hard and dumb and frustrating and you’ll laugh and make mistakes and then you’ll have this big pile of stuff! Some of it will be laughably stupid and terrible. Some of it will be great! You’ll even forget that you made a bunch of the stuff, but when you dust that stuff off down the road, you won’t believe that that stuff came out of you. I’m smarter, funnier and a better man because I spent a decade making stuff.