Kyle Kinane Discusses His Best Joke

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Kyle Kinane. Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

This post was edited to include a full transcript of the podcast interview.

“Hey, anybody ever make that mistake when you wake up in the morning and believe in yourself?”

That terrific joke, from Kyle Kinane’s 2010 debut album Death of the Party, became the comic’s mantra — his thesis. His stand-up career was plateauing and uncertainty was creeping in when the line just came to him, opening everything up. It was a point of view, pessimistic yet oddly hopeful, or vice versa, that Kinane could use as a filter for his comedy. He has since emerged as one of the best and most prolific stand-ups of the last decade, putting out three hours on Comedy Central since 2012, each ranking in the top three in our top-ten stand-up specials list the year they came out (including No. 1 last year).

On this week’s episode of Vulture’s comedy podcast Good One, Kinane talks about coming up with the joke, finding answers in the biggest bomb of his career, and whether he is a misanthrope or Hipster Larry the Cable Guy.

Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of our discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Where were you, mentally and physically, when this joke was recorded?
It was the summer of 2009. I was writing closed captions for television and getting to the point of like, “Okay, I’m getting enough work being a comedian.” So I quit, and then I recorded that. I remember not knowing what to think, because I wasn’t even on the road as a headlining comedian. You just have all your bits. You have your collection of ten-minute sets that you do around town, and [the comedy record label] A Special Thing was like, ”Do you want to do a record with us?” It was them asking me. At that time, and even still to this day, their roster is always comedians I respect. I’m like, Well, if they’re asking me, I’ve gotta say yes. So I better get these ten-minute sets glued together somewhat. I need to fool the audience enough to make it look like it’s an hour of actual material. I wasn’t going around like, “This stuff’s all ready to be on a record.”

What’s the longest set that you had done before then?
I had done a few longer sets, and maybe headlined here or there, but it was just a greatest hits compilation of several notebooks spanning however long. Your first album is your whole career. There were jokes in there that were eight, nine years old.

How long had you been doing comedy at that point?
Ten years. I started in 1999, in Chicago. I had some old ones where I was like, Well, this is still good. I don’t do it a lot, but we can dust this one off.

How long had you been in L.A.?
About six years.

A lot of the record is about a person who’s about to quit their day job. You’re this guy who’s just trying to get through. What was your emotional state?
I had written a majority of that stuff at these demeaning day jobs. That’s what resonated at the time. I didn’t hear a lot of other people ragging on student-loan debt and looking at the idea of, What if your dreams are dumb? And, I’m going to make $12 an hour for the rest of my life, so I can be sad about it, or I can find small, whimsical, imagined occurrences in life.

For the first section of the joke, do you remember when the first part of it happened?
The waking-up-and-believing-in-yourself part came to me while I was driving somewhere. I was trying to figure out, Oh, you’ve got to have a voice as a comedian. What’s your voice? And I was like, I don’t know, and then I came up with the joke.

Before that, for the longest time, I was writing jokes I wasn’t attached to. You can write a structurally sound joke that has the right rhythm: There’s a setup, there’s a punch line. And then nobody laughs at it, because nobody cares. You can write a song mathematically, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good song. You can do the same thing with a joke. You can break it down into algebra and fill in all the letters and you have a joke, but it’s not good. That’s kinda how I used to write.

Then in 2007, I went to the HBO Aspen Comedy Festival as a “new face,” and I bombed. I thought that was the end of my career. Zach Galifianakis has a similar story about this. When his failed, he’s like, “Oh, I had my shot and it’s gone. Now it’s this world of absolute freedom.” I thought, I got the shot and I blew it, so now I get to talk about whatever. I don’t have to worry about alienating an audience.

That’s when the beard came in. I was like, I’m not trying to look good for anybody. I’d just clicked over 30, and I’m not going out for young roles. My hair’s already thinning, so may as well just live in my pajamas. Everything short of wearing a swimsuit every day. I really started embracing that. “You make the mistake where you believe in yourself” was the whole attitude. Like, “Man, remember when you really moved out here and you thought you were going to make it, you’re dumb. Anyway, I still got a show tonight and this is how I feel.” I started writing a lot more from how I felt as opposed to, “Well, it’s a joke. Look at it on paper. There’s a clear punch line.”

You became the person you were going to be onstage, and onstage you became the person you were in your everyday life.
Instead of worrying about the actual wording of the joke, it turned into, “What’s the mood right now?” And the mood was, “I can show up late to work.” I was the perfect example of not doing well enough to get promoted, but enough to not get fired. I was going out and doing shows every night and being like, “Hey, I guess I’m just gonna pay student loans back until I die.” A lot of people in the audience were like, “Oh, that’s what we’re doing too.” Talking about how bullshit my creative arts degree was, and everyone who moved out there was like, “Oh yeah, we all did the same thing.”

A lot of people knock L.A. as being a place you can’t grow as a stand-up, but it was the right place for you. There’s a lot of millennial age-ish people in L.A. like, “Oh, we’re the generation that follows their dreams.” And then you’re doing comedy like, “Maybe it doesn’t work out.”
Yeah. Maybe your dreams are dumb. But I’ll defend Los Angeles. There’s so much here, and I’m surrounded by a city of people who do have dreams. I would rather be around a bunch of dreamers than a bunch of people who are like, “What? Dreams? Yeah, maybe if you’re 16. But if you’re 19, get rid of dreams and get a job.” That’s way more depressing than people with failed dreams still pursuing their dreams. I’d rather see a 50-year-old waiter in a restaurant going, “Yeah, I’ve got an audition tomorrow,” then I would see a 28-year-old with three kids going, “Well, there was no other option. There was nothing else I could have done in life.” Yes, there was.

You literally just summarized the entire plot of La La Land.
[Laughs.] Well, yeah. That’s how I busted my knee. I was dancing up on Mulholland Drive. You know me, big tap dancer.

You said you first thought of that part of the joke driving. How did the specifics of it evolve? How did it all come together?

The thesis was the waking up and believing in yourself. I was like, Oh, that’s a good open. Now how do you back it up? Then the technical part of the digital alarm clock [that at 8:00, it looks like “BOO”], that just came together. I’m like, That’s a great observation on its own, but it plays in with the whole theme. Talking to the laundry, that was a drunken swagger I had at the time, where if I said any kind of ridiculous bullshit in a certain cadence, I could pull it off. But that was true. I thought I was doing great, because I had two roommates but I was in the master bedroom with my own bathroom. And I was like, You’re doing pretty good, buddy. Thirty years old and you’ve got your own bathroom now? Nice.

I was in Burbank, and it’s not like I moved in with friends. All my friends were in Los Feliz or somewhere in Hollywood. I was spending a lot of nights just making my own fun. I’m really good at that — just having a few drinks and getting a little stoned in my room and making myself laugh. I was like, What if you said some of this stuff? What if you sent some of these secret giggles that you have out into the world? I never wrote “Champion” on my mirror, but I always thought it would be a good motivation.

There’s a specific phrasing that defines a lot of your comedy. In your special you talk about how you have a creative writing background. Do you think that helped?
Well, you can paint a picture of a house the colors you’re supposed to use for a house — or you could have a pink house with a yellow roof and a green door, and the grass is purple and the sky’s orange. It’s still a house. That’s how I look at language. If I just say the sentence, it’s boring. A lot of times, I don’t even know the actual meanings of the words that I’m using. I’ve heard it used in context and I’m like, I think this is where that word would fit. It’s just a little more spice in the dish.

Do you have a favorite line?
When I thought of, “Do you ever wake up in the morning and believe in yourself?” I’m like, Oh, this is how I can open every set. This is what everybody means by “voice.” You keep hearing from people, “You don’t find your voice until eight to ten years into comedy.” And this was the ten-year mark, and that summed up everything. With that theme at the top, I started writing with that in mind. Defeated but still happy about it.

Essentially you used it as the Rosetta Stone for yourself. Where essentially it translated yourself to yourself.
It’s like when someone gets a tribal tattoo and all of a sudden the rest of their life revolves around one facet. Like, “Oh, I guess I gotta start wearing sleeveless shirts. And it turns out I wear big chain necklaces and I think I’m into rap-rock forever.” Said as someone with terrible tattoos, so I know what I’m talking about.

You’ve had three specials since 2012, which is more than most. Do you think that having this clear perspective is part of it?
It was just being on the road so much. You’ll notice when comics first start going on the road, a lot of their material is airports and hotels. Mine was too, because that’s your life at that point. Whereas somebody that just has kids, their jokes are about their kids. You’re reporting back. You’re the journalist from a land that nobody cares about except yourself. Hopefully you make it interesting enough.

Yeah, I think you have two airplane jokes on your second album, Whiskey Icarus.
Yeah, I did two stories on that, and even I was like, “Man, two airplane stories … It’s a bit much.” But I was flying every weekend to go to shows. I just turned 40. It’s an arbitrary number. It doesn’t matter. It’s how you feel. But I don’t want to party so much. I don’t feel like, “Well, somebody’s got a bag of drugs and we’re going out.” I’m like, “Eh. Yeah, I know what happens on those now.” I still say yes to some crazy situations. But now it’s more about traveling, seeing new places, meeting a bunch of new people — just, “You wanna try this? You wanna see this thing?” Yes, give it all to me. When your filter is comedy, you process everything through it. I was constantly processing it and writing it down, and hopefully it was a funny enough joke or story to work onstage.

When is a joke done?
They’re never done. If an hour worked onstage, well, let’s record it. ’Cause I’m going to forget this. It’s never like, “Oh, here I have an hour. Finally, I’m gonna just say this stuff for five years.” It’s more to keep my sanity. “This is what I’m saying this month. And cameras are on? That’s a special. Print it, get it out of here. I never want to do it again.” The joke’s never done; I’m sick of it. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s so perfect now.” It’s just like, if I say this again, you’ll see my eyes roll back in my head.” I’ve seen comics where you could tell they’re on autopilot, and there’s a disconnect. I wanna be like, “I’m here. We’re all here. Let’s enjoy this together.” I do new jokes that I’m still excited about; even if the audience doesn’t like it, man, I have a good time with them.

You said the voice in this joke is the voice you’d been writing towards. Do you think of it as a character named Kyle Kinane?
No, it was always pretty genuine. I know people that won’t allow themselves to be happy for fear of losing the act. I was like, “No.” There’s positivity through everything I’ve done. I don’t think it’s ever been like, “Blow your brains out because it doesn’t get better.” It’s always been like, “Yeah, it sort of sucks. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself.” That theme ran through, because that’s how I felt. Like, My dreams were ridiculous to begin with, and they’re probably not going to come true, but my friends are pretty fun and I don’t have it that bad. I got my health. How much can you listen to a straight white man complain in America? After a while, you’d just be like, “Shut the fuck up. You’re fine.” “But I’m lonely.” “Shut up. Go on Match.com. You’ll be fine.”

There’s less despair as your career’s been getting better. And you note that. You’ll be like, “Comedy’s going pretty good.”
Yeah, I don’t want to be as fake. Then you just become Larry the Cable Guy. My friend Bryan Cook called me Hipster Larry the Cable Guy once. Which I was like, “Oh god, that’s good.” And my girlfriend calls me Skateboard Mr. Peanut, because I have a cane right now because my leg’s screwed up. But, yeah, when it’s disingenuous, or where you see someone be like, “Yeah, world’s terrible.” It’s either you’re starting to sound so depressed that I hope you get help or, if it’s fake, knock it off.

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