Talking with Taylor Williamson about Stand-up, His New Album, and Jokes vs. Storytelling

Los Angeles-based stand-up Taylor Williamson has been at it for nine years now, and he just put out his first comedy album, Laughter? I Hardly Know Her!, earlier this week. Since starting in comedy at age 17, Williamson has found a great deal of success, having performed on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, as a finalist on Last Comic Standing, and as the youngest stand-up ever on Craig Ferguson. His debut album, which presents an hour of Williamson’s best material, is a great introduction to the comedian and his precisely-crafted jokes for those who aren’t familiar with him, but it’s also full of plenty of new stuff for hardcore Taylor Williamson fans to enjoy, as well. I recently spoke with Williamson about the new album, the trials and tribulations of getting started in stand-up at a young age, and how it’s hard to get real people to come to comedy shows in L.A.

So, where’d you record the new album?

I recorded it at The Comedy Store in La Jolla. I started out down there in 2003. It’s just a great club. It’s super old school, and it just smells like a comedy club. It’s physically just perfect. It’s so old school that they have a piano-playing guy before shows – during shows even – and he set the place up to record CDs. I’m from down there too, so that was kinda fun too.

Do you go down there to perform a lot or do you mainly stick around L.A.?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I go down a few times a month because it’s easy to get stage time in front of real people. In L.A., there’s a lot of shows, but people have their arms crossed. They’re not impressed by anything ‘cause they see Ray Romano at Starbucks. Or they cast some bad sitcom or maybe a good sitcom or maybe they’re agents or they’re people whose friends work in the business. They’re jaded. It’s hard to get real people to come watch you in Los Angeles. It’s not a real testing ground for your material. It’s nice to be able to drive for two hours outside of L.A. and perform for real human beings and find out if jokes are actually funny or not.

You were a teen when you started performing, right?

Yeah, I started when I was 17. I used to be embarrassed about talking about this but now I don’t care. Pauly Shore’s sister has a comedy class at The Comedy Store and their parents own The Comedy Store. I was like, ‘Oh, cool. Pauly Shore’s sister has a comedy class. That’s good [on a] resume.’ So, I took the class. I dunno, I’m kind of against comedy classes, but I didn’t know any better. I got my feet wet, you get comfortable onstage and embarrass yourself in front of a small group of people. And then, they have a graduation show where you feel like you’re the greatest person alive because everyone in the crowd knows that it’s scary for you and they don’t want to make you cry.

I think everyone leaves a comedy class graduation show thinking they’re the greatest thing that’s ever happened in the world, and then you go to an open mic later, and you’re like, “What’s wrong with these people? Why weren’t they laughing at everything I said?”

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s gotta be a steep fall.

Yeah, I seriously almost quit a couple times early on.

What were those experiences like? Just really bad open mics?

Yeah, the first time I bombed really bad, it was terrible. [Laughs] It’s awful, you know? It’s just not fun.  I don’t have to explain it. You go on stage and say things and people stare at you like they hate you and they’re wasting your time and you’re bad at what you want to do with your life. Your hopes and dreams, they’re just looking at you like, “Stop it, you’re awful.”

But now when I bomb, I can spin it around where I blame the audience. [Laughs]. That’s a really good mindset, to never take the blame for a bad performance. Always blame the audience. That’s what I try to do. I’m being silly. a little bit. But I don’t get as hard on myself if jokes don’t work. If I know the jokes are good and I’m in a bad environment, I’m not gonna go sit in a bathtub with my clothes on with the shower on, crying. I still don’t like bombing. I try not to do it as much as possible because it makes me sad, you know? I don’t like being sad. I feel like that’s what keeps me funny is I love comedy and I hate bombing, so I try hard not to be sad after I do shows.

That’s a good mindset to get in. I think more comedians should try that.

[Laughs] It’s funny, though. There’s a lot of people who bomb and they’re really happy afterwards like they don’t know.

Like they don’t realize it or they don’t care?

I don’t think they know that it didn’t go well. It’s very weird to me. I don’t know if I’m jealous of that quality, but I never understand it, like how you can you have a horrible set where the crowd hates you [and] just walk off. And they always have hot girlfriends. The guys who bomb all the time, they have beautiful girlfriends who are just happy to be with them. I’m like, “What is happening here? What is going on in the world?”

I mean, it probably means I’m crazy that I’d rather be super self-critical and self-aware and be funny than not funny and really happy all the time… I hope I’m not coming off as miserable at all. I worry that I come off like that on paper. I sound sarcastic and dry, but it’s silliness, you know?

We can try to push things into a more positive direction.

I appreciate [that]. I have a fear because I did an interview with an 18-year-old college student once at the university. I said things very sarcastically. I was sitting with her, and she laughed while I was saying stuff. She titled the article “The Dark Side of Laughter.” Because I said silly morbid things. She’s like, “Who’s your favorite comedian?” I was like, “Well, I love Mitch Hedberg and Greg Giraldo and Zach Galifianakis. Obviously, most of my favorites are dead now.” She misquoted me too, and said I said Zach Galifianakis is dead now. She made me seem like a miserable person. Don’t do that to me, Bradford. [Laughs]

In your comedy, it seems like you’re more of a joke writer than a storyteller. Do you ever see yourself going more in that direction?

I actually have. I think it’s more out of fear that I write quick jokes. On my CD, I do have a story about having a mouse in my house… I’m really excited about [the CD]. It’s scary to put stuff out. It’s like a time capsule. You’re never done. After you put something out, you’re always like, ‘Oh, I should I have added this! I should have changed this!’ or you think of a tag for a joke, but you can’t live your life like that. You have to put it out at some point. It’s a time capsule with your best jokes on it. After nine years of comedy, I have a lot of jokes. I have a lot of stuff that I don’t tell anymore that still works but I’m kind of over… I put out a CD that if I died tomorrow, I’d be happy with that. Some comedians put out their B-sides and when they perform live, they go, “Here’s a CD of stuff you didn’t hear tonight!” But, I decided to put out my best stuff. It encourages me to write more when I perform live and to come up with more material.

But the storyteller thing, it’s scary to tell stories. I have a story about getting carjacked, which really happened to me. Two minutes in if they’re not laughing, it’s just very awkward to go, “Never mind.” [Laughs] “This isn’t going anywhere. All right.” It’s much safer for my ego to write 20-second jokes. “Here’s a joke, I hope you like it! Here’s a joke, I hope you like it!” vs. “Here’s a five-minute story! Please laugh! If you don’t, it’s very uncomfortable!”

I would like to do more stories. I’m jealous when I see storytellers because it’s easy for them to be more prolific and write more and create more. If I write three jokes in a month, I have a minute. If Pete Holmes writes three jokes in a month, he’s got twenty minutes, maybe… I’m trying to get better at telling longer bits… It’s hard and scary, but it’s really rewarding when it works out.

So, what are some topics you enjoy discussing most onstage recently?

I talk about dating a lot. I don’t know if it’s my favorite topic, but some of my best jokes come from it. Bad things just happen to me when it comes to dating. [Laughs] Thankfully, I get to create jokes out of it. I get a girl’s phone number and if she doesn’t call me back, I can get a joke out of it… So, I have a lot of bad dating experiences I get jokes out of. But the problem of me being positive and optimistic about this is [if] I have the same thing happen to me twice, there’s no positive spin I can put on a girl saying, “All right, let’s meet for coffee. I’ll see you at seven o’clock and then she doesn’t show up.” I already have a joke about this. This isn’t helpful, God!

What was it like starting stand-up when you were 17? Was it strange being around comedy clubs when you were so young?

Yeah, it was weird ‘cause I never went to parties and stuff in high school. I wasn’t that cool. I know that’s hard to believe. I would hang out in comedy shows and it was just extreme alcoholics. I’ve never been around such creepy 40-year-olds. It’s a very unhealthy environment for people at any age, I think. Not everyone’s like that, but there’s several guys… My role models in life and in comedy were like, “I don’t want to be like that guy. I don’t want to be like that guy.”

I don’t want to sound like “poor me,” but there was hazing stuff that I didn’t really get and I took too personally. It’s not like people [were] ripping my clothes off or shoving things in my orifices. None of that kind of stuff, but people were being mean to me. I didn’t have any self-confidence and I didn’t know how to deal with it. People just weren’t supportive. Like, the manager of the comedy club in San Diego was like, “Wait ‘till you’re 21 to do stand-up comedy.” I kept asking him to watch my set so I could get approved to be past the open mic. He was like, “I’m 32. I’ve been working this shithole for eight years, you think I’m just gonna watch you and pass you?” I’m like, “Yeah, maybe!”

I was maybe too idealistic about what the world was like. To be fair, I’m sure I was annoying too. I’m sure it’s annoying to have a 17-year-old just hanging out. It was 21 and up and I wasn’t allowed inside, so I had to hang out outside the shows. I couldn’t watch the comedians… I would just do my set, then I’d have to come stand outside again. But I wanted to hang out, you know? So, I would hang out. But I’m sure I was annoying and not in a mean way. I’ve met people like how I think I was. Just a nice guy but he just doesn’t get it, you know? To be fair, I’d rather hang out with a nice guy who’s a little bit annoying than a creepy 40-year-old who’s just a creepazoid. My vocabulary’s pretty limited obviously. [Laughs]

I think it actually helped me as a comedian by not watching the guys locally because I was only influenced and inspired by comedians who I saw on TV who were Zach Galifianakis or Mitch Hedberg or Greg Giraldo, Norm Macdonald. Guys like that who are smart and great comedians. These guys locally were influenced by guys that they watched locally who weren’t doing anything artistically or career-wise. I don’t want to sound shit-talky, but there were a lot of guys who were getting laughs by not being clever or intelligent, like many comics out there. As a young comic, I may have seen that, been like, ‘Oh, this is how you get laughs. You say homophobic, lowest common denominator things’ or you say shock value things that aren’t funny. So, I was kind of protected by not watching that happen.

So, what can people expect from the new album?

I’m more excited about this than anything I’ve ever done. It’s 57 minutes long, which is very scary for a one-liner comic because it’s all jokes. Like we talked about, it’s not a bunch of stories. I’m not retiring the jokes, but when I do live performances, I’m going to try to do as few of them as possible. The jokes that are older are my “relationship” jokes with my mother because I didn’t have a girlfriend, you know? When you’re young, you don’t have a lot of stuff to talk about. “So, my mom’s weird.” There’s a little bit of that stuff in there. I talk about people think I’m gay… which apparently is a popular topic among awkward, skinny white guy comedians now. It’s weird being at shows in L.A. where I’m the fourth comic going up saying, “People think I’m gay.” The new “black people and white people are different” is “people think I’m gay.”

[On the album,] I talk about my grandma’s parents being first cousins, online dating, labradoodles… standard stuff. I’m just really proud of it. There’s nothing I would have changed on it. It’s an hour of silly, dry, ridiculous comedy. I really hope that I’m gonna look back on it and not regret anything about it. I know I will. [Laughs]

Taylor Williamson’s debut comedy album, Laughter? I Hardly Know Her!, is now available on iTunes and Amazon. Check it out!

Here’s an animated version of a track from the album called “Online Dating Is Weird”:

Talking with Taylor Williamson about Stand-up, His New […]