For the past 15 years, Comedy Central’s half hour specials have showcased the future stars of standup. Looking back, the early years of Comedy Central Presents included memorable sets from the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook and dozens more. Re-branded The Half Hour in 2012, the series continues to feature the best up-and-coming comics in the country.
For many comedians, it’s that history that makes doing a half hour special so significant. While a half hour may once have been a comic’s first major exposure, comedians now have many ways to build an audience. Almost everyone who taped a special this year does non-standup comedy as well, branching out into the worlds of podcasting, sketch and improv, web series, acting, and more. In this new series, I sat down with each of this year’s 16 Half Hour comedians to talk about their specials, their careers, and their generation of comedians. Each interview will also feature an exclusive clip from the special. All the interviews can be found here.
Baron Vaughn’s talents can be found in many genres; he played Leo on USA’s comedy drama Fairly Legal, he explores philosophical ideas on his podcast, Deep S##! w/ Baron Vaughn, he’s done two sets on Conan, and he released his first album, Raised by Cable, on AST Records. I caught up with him over the phone to talk about eclectic lineups and only taking interesting paths.
How did your taping go?
I really enjoyed my taping. I start doing standup in Boston, so in a sense it was a bit of a homecoming for me. Actually, the place that we taped was around the corner from the first place I ever did standup, so it was very important to me to go have a meal in that restaurant that the comedy club is in before my show. Jonah Ray and I ate there and talked comedy before our tapings.
Also, I really liked my night. I was the night with three people, a triple taping, and when I would look at the lineups, they had the headshots of all the different comedians that were paired together. And, in my opinion, every one looks like they’re in a band. Like, the duo headshots are how about, like, “Guys with facial hair? What about two brown people with blue eyes? Black guys with glasses?” And then my night was kind of, “A Latina —she’s interesting; black dude—I don’t know what he’s about; and also Brody Stevens [who taped a special that will be used for his upcoming Comedy Central show]. Who knows, it’s gonna be fun.” So I felt like my night was, “Who knows? Night” and I embraced that.
What did doing a Half Hour mean to you, either practically or symbolically?
Well, symbolically, it’s a right of passage. It’s nice to be told that what I’m doing counts, and to be given this opportunity means, “Hey, people are paying attention to you. Keep going,” which is always nice and encouraging. And then at the same time, watching those early versions of Comedy Central Presents—and I’ve been watching Comedy Central since before it was Comedy Central. There were two channels. I remember there was The Comedy Channel and HA! That’s how you had to say it, because it had an exclamation point at the end – “Haaaa”. And then there were a lot of a shows like Lounge Lizards and Two Drink Minimum that kind of bled into when Comedy Central started, so I was watching all of these shows and watching all these comedians. And so I would like to think that I am in the place I should be in my career as was the same for other people who did Presents at their time. Like, where I am right now is where Brian Regan was when he did his. So that’s cool to know I’m on the same path as a Brian Regan or a Louis C.K. or a Dave Attell or all these different, brilliant comedians that we all know and love. But everyone’s kind of moving up. And that’s the other thing, from a practical sense. I’ve shown myself I can do a half hour on television. I can do an hour at a club. Again, I’m where I’m supposed to be and that’s always a good thing to kind of check in and be like, “Alright, I’m on the right path,” instead of being like, “Wah,” which sometimes I do a little too much.
What’s your typical gig like these days? Are you on the road or doing colleges?
Well, I’ve done all that stuff. I did colleges pretty hardcore for about three years, and now I’ve transitioned into doing more club work on the road. I live in LA, and I would say this was true in my last two years in New York – 85 percent of the shows are shows I’ve never done, with venues I’ve never been to, and are mostly comedians I’ve never heard of or don’t personally know. Because stage time is stage time is stage time. So I tend to not have an ego about what shows I will or won’t do. I have to build an act, I have to figure that out, and I want to be able to have an act that translates to all different kinds of rooms and all different kinds of audiences as much as I can. So I spend a lot of my time doing those little shows, working out bits in 10-minute chunks.
Colleges taught me how to do an hour. They taught me how to structure an act that would extend that long. Because most people get six 10-minute sets and they put them together. And that works and that’s fine, but for me, I have a big swath of time, and just knowing that it’s that much time allows me to kind of deviate and fill spaces in places I wouldn’t normally do in a 10-minute set. And then doing the road at a club is really great because I’m doing hours every single night, and then during the day, I should write and re-think everything I did the previous night. I’m allowed, in an hour set, to do a lot more explanation because I’m gonna be up there for awhile.
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You have a podcast, and you also act. Do you find that doing several other things ends up in informing your standup?
Oh definitely. I mean, it’s the age of the multi-hyphenate. The reason I started doing a podcast in the first place is [because] it’s a way for me to find out how I actually feel about things before I turn them into jokes. I can just talk about all sorts of things, so I’m trying to figure out ways to connect to my natural, spontaneous sense of humor. And see what kinds of themes keep coming up. So that informs my standup, and my standup informs my podcast because I’ll talk about certain things on stage and sometimes a similar idea will come up in the podcast when I’m talking to other comedians about that kind of stuff. And then acting has always informed my standup because I don’t remember a time I was uncomfortable being on stage. Comedians come from all walks of life, so some people have that stage fright, and it takes them a long time to figure that out. But I was already had figured that out before I even got on stage to do standup.
Because you trained as an actor, and then you got into standup later, right?
Well, standup led me to acting. Because I liked standup and I saw people on a stage, and the closest, nearest thing to me was doing plays. It was like, that’s the same thing as standup, people are on a stage, they’re being seen and saying things, so because of my love of standup, I moved towards acting. Because I didn’t know that you just had to go do standup. You had start going to open mics and developing an act. I was always just like, “Standups are making it up.” A lot of people have that myth about standup. And so it wasn’t until I was in college for theater school in Boston that I realized I can actually start going to open mics and figuring this out. So standup led me to acting, which led me back to standup.
That’s a very interesting path to have taken.
[Laughs.] I only take interesting paths.
I guess I feel like a lot standups sort of fall into acting once they hit a certain point, but your path is a bit more circular. You’ve done both your entire career.
I think any good standup or actor is part philosopher, part psychologist and sociologist, because you’re constantly recreating behaviors. You’re reporting on what you see people doing, and what you see yourself do, and you have to get into the psychology of well, “Why do I do that? Why are people doing that? What does that mean that they’re doing it?” [In a Seinfeld voice] “What’s the deal?”
There was a little bit of a an professional actor/professional comic conflict [when recording the Half Hour] because it was pilot season in Los Angeles, and this taping fell right in the middle of one of the busiest times for unemployed actors in the year. Fairly Legal was cancelled, so it’s like, I got to get a new job. Daddy needs a new pair of shoes. So there was always this looming threat that I might have to tape an audition for myself in a hotel to send to Los Angeles, which didn’t happen until the day of my taping. I spent four hours learning and recording and trying to email an audition to Los Angeles on the day that I was supposed to tape. I didn’t really want to be thinking about that on that day.
What’s after this for you? Where can people find you?
I will be on tour a little bit. You can find me on the Twittersphere. You can find me on the Instagramasphere. Here’s the best place that people can find me. Go to this website called Google. And then type my name into it. So much stuff.
Baron Vaughn’s Half Hour premieres on Friday, June 21 at midnight. He’s on Twitter at @barvonblaq.
Elise Czajkowski is a contributing editor at Splitsider and comedy journalist in New York City. She tweets at @EliseCz.