A few nights before he recorded his set for Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents (which premieres this Friday night at midnight), Shane Torres dropped in at New Orleans’$2 12 Mile Limit for a quick set at the Bear with Me open mic. He had been touring the South running his half hour at off nights at clubs. The taping was less than 48 hours away, but he was at the mic because he felt that he still had work to do. “Every chance to get onstage is an opportunity. Sometimes it’s a terrible opportunity, but it’s still an opportunity.” That night he performed the Guy Fieri bit, which has now gone viral thanks to the release of his debut album Established 1981 and his recent appearance on Conan. It’s a goofy bit that takes an oddly inspiring stance against dogpile culture and makes the audience ask themselves a single question: Why are we so mean to nice people? Sticking up for a pop culture punching bag is the kind of guy that Shane Torres is. He’s also the kind of guy who will let you raid the beer fridge in his hotel room, which is exactly what I did as we chatted before the taping about coming up in the Portland scene, quitting your day job, and the value of hanging out with people who are funnier than you.
You’re coming up on ten years of standup. Do you remember your first show?
The first time was at The Hungry Tiger Too, “too” as in, “as well.” Portland, Oregon. Went up pretty late. Was pretty drunk. Did my closer for my opener and another minute of stuff I can’t remember.
Why did you decide to go to The Hungry Tiger Too to try comedy?
I had spent some time bouncing around the open mic scene kind of watching.
You were a lurker?
Yeah, a little bit. Not that long, though. Maybe like a month. I would go with a notebook, write my own jokes, and watch the show. The hangout mic in Portland was a shit show called Suki’s. It was in the basement of a Travelodge hotel. Nobody was that interested in the show, but you’d do it because that’s where the comics would go and get obliterated. I was sitting there one night and this gal Kristine Levine said, “Why didn’t you go up? You clearly want to go up.” I was like, “I’m scared.” She said, “Next time if you want some Valium I can get you some.” It was the sweetest way a comic could approach you. She kind of mama-beared me a lot. She’s a good woman. But I went to The Hungry Tiger and was finally like, “This is the place I’m going up.”
People always talk about their influences and name Carlin, Pryor, Cosby, Hicks. But who was your biggest non-famous influence when you were coming up?
That’s easy. My close friends who I started around the same time as. Ian Karmel, Ron Funches, Sean Jordan, Whitney Streed, Christian Ricketts, Amy Miller. They were all people I spent a lot of time with and developed with. It’s vital to be around comedians who make you work harder and better. If you’re the best person around you’re not in the right place. You have to surround yourself with crushers.
When did you quit your day job?
I’ve quit them a couple of times and have been fired a couple more. Things come gradually, but are bigger than the last thing you got. I quit my day job in March of last year. I got the Conan thing and had a couple of guys ask me if I wanted to open for them and that helped a lot. I was piecemealing together dates like, “I think I can do this if I’m smart about it.” I had tried quitting my job once before. There were six months or so where I was just doing standup the whole time, but then money ran short. Knock on wood, hopefully I won’t have to go back to one. It took a lot. It took me hustling my ass off on club dates, hanging out in a city for three days because…for instance, I was in Chicago and was supposed to be in Milwaukee the next week and I just had to hang out because I couldn’t afford to take a flight. But to be fair, that’s when I got a lot of my work in, just going up at every show in the city I was stuck in for a few days.
What do you get out of standup that makes you want to make it your career? Of all the jobs, this is one of the most difficult in terms of risk and reward.
I know it’s hard work, but it’s never felt like a job. You can go to medical school and become a doctor and still end up hating your fucking life. I love this. It makes me very happy. I’ve chosen it over a lot of things. I was pretty in love with it from the start. Like a good relationship, you fall in love more and more if you’re lucky. It can be very hard to appreciate sometimes. I’ve been lonely for a week, but I have to realize that someone is paying to fly me out here, put me up in a nice hotel room, give me money to perform on national television, and put me in a position that a lot of other people are very envious of. This is the only thing I’ve ever been good at that I love doing. There were things I loved that I was terrible at. I wanted to be a singer forever. I took vocal performance in college. I was really going to sing, but I wasn’t very good. And I was never cool enough to be a singer. When I found comedy I was like, “Man, these people are weird.” Not all of them, but a lot of the funny ones were.
What is the funniest thing in the world to you?
Terrible comics with one great joke. You’re just like, “Jesus Christ.” I always remember those jokes so well.