Talking to Kurt Metzger About Starting Out in Comedy, Patrice O’Neal, and Standup Controversies

If you’re a person who believes that comedy has any sort of social mission, Kurt Metzger probably isn’t the comic for you. But if you’re a fan of funny for funny’s sake without any punches pulled, he’s your guy.

Metzger is a veteran NYC comic who in recent months has found himself at the center of some of the stand-up world’s prevailing controversies. He publicly called bullshit on the Upright Citizens Bridgade Theater’s practice of not paying comics for shows that charge admission, which sparked some heated philosophical debate about the business of comedy that went viral and eventually drew a response from the UCB’s founders. He also waded in the more recently publicized dispute about rape jokes vs. artistic freedom by sparring with a feminist writer on Facebook and inviting her to debate him on stage. (Metzger is a bit of a shit-starter on Facebook and frequently authors posts that draw hundreds of comments. Definitely worth following).

When he isn’t coming up with new material via his Facebook rants, Metzger, who grew up a Jehovah’s Witness and was an ordained minister, is an accomplished comic and writer. He’s a regular at the New York’s famed Comedy Cellar and has written for several TV shows, including Inside Amy Schumer and Chappelle’s Show.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Metzger about his start in comedy as well as the rape joke and UCB controversies.

You went to art school to become an animator. When did you start getting into comedy? Was it something that just developed later for you?

I always liked it. I was really into it when I was a young kid. I was really into watching standup. I really liked the idea of doing that, but I was like “How do I do that?” I knew comedy clubs existed, but I just saw TV standup. I remember seeing a comedy club one time on our way to something, but it was like, “How was I going to do that?” I never tried doing it until I got to Philly. There was a club right by where I lived called the Laff House. Actually, I went to a club in Jersey first. Anyways, I got hooked on it. I wasn’t really good at it either. There was this little black room, and I really sucked. They were pretty nice to me, all things considered, because I did suck, but I just got hooked on it.

Did you feel like it made you better or faster working in those clubs as opposed to a more supportive scene?

It beats the bullshit out of you a little bit. It beats the preciousness out of you, which is really good. There’s a real alternative delivery that comes from doing comedy in front of your friends and well-wishers. You’re so comfortable stammering out jokes, and that’s because you’re just sitting there comfortably. You don’t have to worry about people taking advantage of where you’re coming from. You’re gonna fail for no apparent reason, that’s just gonna happen. Any of these rooms, for some reason, you’ll go somewhere where it just won’t work. But I think if you have jokes that are good, they’re gonna go over nine times out of ten. All those rooms, it is really all the same funny; there’s no different funnies, those are just for marketing reasons.

And you do them all, right? You’ll perform anywhere?

Yeah well I’m broke, so… I don’t have any choice but to do that. I’d like to develop my own special craft so that people will just come to see me, but…

Do you change up your approach much when you’re doing a club versus an alt room versus a bar?

The main thing I try to do is to not make it the same show I did the day before. If I fuck up, it’s usually because I did that. If I did really well somewhere and I go, “Oh, I’ll just do what I did yesterday–” You really just gotta be in the moment. Jokes will work and everybody will wanna polish them, and I’ll get stuck doing and repeating the same ones over and over, like a rhythm. You can still sometimes do well with that, but then it starts getting boring, and then I start to bomb on jokes that were just killing, and I get so depressed just doing these same jokes so I pull up new jokes.

The audience can pick up on that.

They can tell. When I’m not having fun with it, they don’t have fun. And that’s not good feedback if no one’s having fun.

With the UCB thing, you kind of raised some hell. You seemed to enact some changes there–

Yeah, they stopped having Friday standup shows. [Laughs.] We did it!

Hey, it was all about the principle.

I go on Facebook to work on jokes, see how many “thumbs-ups” I get. And maybe one in eight are pretty decent on my Facebook, but the rest are just me yelling, “Look at me!” It just helps to get the jokes; that’s the main reason I go on Facebook. But sometimes things like this start out [as] some kind of dissatisfaction on my part, and so I thought I’d turn my grief into something clever eventually. So that just came out of that, the UCB thing.

Ultimately, the argument about them not paying is that they were using the pre-hashed, old L.A. Comedy Store arguments. I hadn’t read that book I’m Dying Up Here at the time, and this guy from the New York Times Jason [Zinoman] was like, “You’ve got to really read that book,” and I really wish I had pushed that more, but it is what it is. As long as other places don’t try to take a cue and start to not pay. You can get spot money in New York, but you don’t really get that in L.A., and it’s just accepted because people have jobs. New York’s a good standup scene in that there’s a bunch of clubs and you can get to them really quickly and they pay. That’s what’s cool about it. I wouldn’t say it’s a monopoly on talent, but you can get on, and you can get paid to get on.

Did you get a lot of support from comics as this all went down?

Yeah, and from improv people too. It’s not my side. I’m not bringing in a new argument that you are getting a profit at the door and some of that should go to the performer. It’s not my side, it’s just how the fuck it works. I didn’t bring up some kind of new point. The Comedy Coalition about seven years ago, where the clubs raised their shitty pay to a slightly higher shitty pay, that was a whole thing, and it’s amazing that seven years later it’s back … Someone was trying to blackball us from working in music clubs, saying it was gonna ruin their business, so we couldn’t possibly. Of course, they didn’t close. There’s more clubs than before, these fucking assholes! Hey man, there’s fucking more clubs because that’s a great way of selling drinks.

The improv people never did that in their own world, but there are people who’ve gotten sick of it and they wrote to me. It’s like you’re not doing me a favor giving me a stage at this point, I’m doing you a favor showing up at your stage at this point. So don’t put it to me like that. It’s almost like, “We’re not paying you, so you don’t have to do that good of a job.” I don’t want to fuck around, I want to try to do a good job, so give me a cut of the thing if you enjoyed it.

I just did [the free UCB standup show] Whiplash last night, for example, which I love. I don’t have any problem doing free shows. Like I said, they’re fun because you don’t have to do a good job. But money nights, I shouldn’t be rushing to get to a spot, it shouldn’t cost me money to get to that spot because I’m doing a friend a favor who’s running the room … Raise ticket prices. If you raised ticket prices five dollars, it’d make the crowds better, and it’ll be just better. And [UCB] won’t do it. I’m against this “Free shows are a beautiful thing.” They don’t make the crowds good, they make the crowds entitled little foodies. Like they have taste. Then my challenge during the show is to hold back my fucking rage at these little dickheads and not project this on them because they didn’t do anything wrong.

Yeah, it kind of cheapens it.

All those supposedly vicious black rooms will pay 75 bucks on a Monday or Tuesday night. The crowd is there. You may have a shitty black show, but more often than not, they show up to see a show. If you’re starting in black rooms, you’re starting with open mics full of audiences. You’re not just where it’s a whole bunch of other comics. Especially when you’re starting out, it’s so bad to not have a resource or an audience. If you want to be a comic, you need an audience, people who aren’t comedians, to listen to what you’re doing and judge it. You can’t have a room full of other comics where the whole thing is just to ingratiate yourself into their clique and they start laughing these Ed McMahon laughs. You do want to ingratiate yourself to people and make connections and all that shit, but you don’t want to be tied into a scene like that where you’re gonna have an insulated sense of humor that doesn’t work outside your little scene.

That’s why I worry about not getting on the road enough and doing the [Comedy] Cellar too much because I get stuck in the Cellar, and it’s my favorite place to do comedy, so it’s not good for me to be in one spot for too long. When I do a road show, I forget I’m not in a crowded basement in New York where everything goes immediately with the crowd. I forget basic skills. On the road, I need my Thursday night to fuck up so I can just engage with people who I’m talking to and make up for it the rest of the weekend shows.

Do you do your own booking? You don’t have a website.

I have a manager now but no booking agent. I used to have that done by my old manager. I don’t want to make calls by myself. I’m not good at it, I’m terrible at money, I’m not good at marketing, I don’t want fucking merch, which I should probably have, but I don’t have it and kind of hate it. I just want to do the comedy part; I don’t want to do everything else. I don’t want to make business cards. I took this job to not have business cards, and to not do all the job shit you have to do in other jobs, like watch what you say and wear a certain outfit. I guess that’s my whole thing that I hold really dear to me. I get inordinately angry about it.

What was your first writing job?

Marc Maron’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks. It was a show on VH1 for like five minutes, when Zach Galifianakis had his show. The new phase of VH1 before that guy got fired who was in charge of VH1, so that was over.

Is that something you submitted for?

I met Marc in Queens at the grocery store and asked him if I could write for the show. I had watched this thing about Sid Caesar and thought I should try to get a writing job because I was watching this thing about how crazy these guys’ jobs were writing for a TV show. SNL’s probably gotta be a hard job too. A weekly live show. It’s crazy how long the days were doing this shit. So I figured I could probably write jokes and get money for it. That was my first job, and I was like, “Cool, I’ll just do this from now on, make money on this.” That’s how I felt, that I could just get a job after that, but then I had no job for months. And then I wrote for Chappelle’s Show, and then I didn’t get any jobs for a few months. I’d pick up steam and then lose it, and then pick it up again and lose it.

You’ve written for some Comedy Central roasts as well, right?

Yeah, I wrote for the Charlie Sheen roast.

How does that work? Do you get in a room and write jokes for everybody who’s not a comic on the show?

And for the comics. The writers were all awesome writers, I was very intimidated.

None of those guys were standups though, right?

They were a lot of ex-standups. The head writer was very good. I was there for like a week. They bring in an extra guy. I wasn’t part of the core team. When you work on a show with somebody and become a part of a team, that’s the core group. So I wasn’t really part of that, I was just a mercenary. My jokes ended up …  Sheen did a couple of mine, and [William] Shatner did a couple of mine, and I worked with Patrice [O’Neal] mostly.

That made the job for me. I was already friends with Patrice, but he wouldn’t talk to any of the writers, he would just talk to me, which was kind of a source of tension. He said he didn’t want any smarmy white guy looking at his shit, which is understandable, because these guys are tremendous writers, but Patrice is a fucking performer, man. He wasn’t just a writer. He was a fusion of both those things, like a talking animal. I had to go to his hotel, and that was a long day working on that show. I had to be up the next day to shoot, but I had to go to his hotel the night before, and we were just bullshitting for a long time. That was the last time I hung out with him really. He was such a comic genius.

He was certainly beloved.

But I think a lot of people hate his guts because he would say just whatever the fuck he wanted. He did this thing where if you had any phoniness around him, he would just break down. If you were phony at all, which technically we all are, just to make it in society, he would totally ignore it. He would give me a good ten-minute lecture on how I said “hello” to him the wrong way. I could see how people wouldn’t want the emotional hurdle of having to deal with him telling you how you said “hello” to him the wrong way every time you see him, and you’ve gotta get over that before you can even talk to him.

To me, it was worth it just because he was a funny dude. So goddamn funny and just an insightful guy. I would suffer through all kinds of shit just to hear what he had to say. To me, it was awesome, and everything Patrice did was a huge influence on me … One thing I got from TV and really took to heart from talking to him, he was saying this business is really like a gangster fucking business, always trying to make you afraid of having something taken away. And he was like, “My career has been over six times already.” He really had lost all fear of it getting taken away from him. That’s what I felt and got from him, just getting my head out of the roast, because that’s what I wanted.

I really want to stay away from the roast and don’t want to write mean jokes about famous people and shit. I got a completely different feeling. I was trying to work my way up to being on the roast; I wanted to be one of the guys roasted, you know? Now I look at it in a different way and think it’s kind of ugly. A roast is supposed to be your friends that love you roasting you, and then it’s not hurt feelings because it’s out of love. The way it’s done now, it’s too mean. After the one I worked on, it was decided that the next one was going to be classier or some shit. It was supposed to be nicer, but these aren’t framed around the person! They’re just trying to get viewers. They’re not roasting people, they’re roasting some famous guy or a woman that doesn’t know them and saying the worst shit they can put their minds too about them. It’s weird. But not Sheen. He was really cool with everything; he got the spirit of it. But there was that whole Steve-O thing where Amy [Schumer] made a joke and people were sending her death threats. I don’t know how joking is getting taken way too seriously now.

Do you feel like there are jokes that are offensive?

The only valid criticism of a joke is that it’s not funny. It’s not a moral thing, it’s, “That joke you told is not funny.” That’s the only valid criticism of a comedian: “You weren’t being funny. Your job is to be funny.” Now you get this shit where you’re criticized because of political reasons. All this shit coming from this activist type who’s going to start cleaning this place up, starting with jokes. This is the shit I left Jehovah’s Witnesses to get away from. When I was religious, people that weren’t in our religion were called “worldly,” you know like how the Irish call people English. They call you worldly: “In the world, they just say whatever they want, do whatever they want.” So that’s why I left it, to join the world, so I can say whatever the fuck I want! And then I get here, and it turns out people are saying dumb shit. “Better watch what you say!” and that fucking sucks, man.

To me, all entertainment is a reflection of the other mess. Cleaning up that mess, we should be changing that other mess, and entertainment will change and reflect that. Instead, because it’s a pain in the ass to do things, people go, “Well, we’ll start cleaning up this thing that was never…” Entertainment is a symptom, man, that ain’t the fucking sickness. That’s the laziness of people here, worrying about what a fucking comedian says … I don’t read this same moral controversy because, frankly, I find it outrageous that Sam [Morril] would be getting this kind of attention telling rape jokes.

First and foremost, my anger is the fact that, where’s my blog against me? I had eyebrows and rape jokes before Sam Morril was there! So that’s outrageous. But then, Sam’s point, I think is funny. The joke that [the blogger] was mad about is a great joke, the funniest fucking joke. There’s no morality to it. There can be, but funny is a force, it’s like a hurricane or something. It can’t miss it. It’s not like, “Well, hurricane, can you please target a more deserving…” or “Hurricane, why are you attacking people in trailers? Why don’t you attack the rich?” “Tornado, why don’t you attack the powerful?” It’s a force that falls on everybody, man. It’s not like that.

If you’re funny, you get it. Funny is funny, it’s like a force. People feed on the energy of funny being around. You need to feed. There’s nothing helping the world, you just feed off of it. Nothing good in you is making you do this. It’s something despicable in your character. Just instead of becoming a murderer or a criminal, you turn it into something relatively positive – not particularly useful to society – but important. The only things that carry through in this are your worst characteristics, selfishness, and inflated sense of ego. Those are reinforced and validated the longer I do this. It always surprises me that people think funny is a make-the-world-a-better-place thing. You don’t go into it because you’re an activist, you go into it because you’re a selfish person who doesn’t want to have a job. It doesn’t mean that just because you’re a political thing you’re a hack, but the funny comes before the political message. It’s not propaganda. Comedy’s not Christian, but they have this same mentality about it, like, “What purpose does it serve if it’s not contributing to the utopian society we imagine?”

I’m uncomfortable just with the idea of analyzing comedy.

It’s what people do. You can do that, but it’s like a magic trick. You’re seeing how the sausage is made on stage, but it’s a trick. You’re doing a trick onstage; you’re making people that are strangers feel like they’ve known you and are buddies. A lot of people are funny. A bunch of the people I grew up with are funnier than me; I just decided to go pro with it. You’re pulling a con on people because they’re funny themselves but you’re getting them to pay money to see you be their funny friend at a show, but do it really intensely. So if you want to sit and break down their funny trick, you can do that, just know it’s not magic that we’re doing. It’s a fucking trick!

When I hate entertainment, now that I’ve been in comedy for a while, I don’t hate it in that deconstructive way. I look with immaturity, like “This was supposed to make me laugh, right?” And if it doesn’t, I have a tantrum. I don’t have jealousy of that kind of stuff. When I do, it’s more literal and babyish. I’ll be railing on a show, or whatever it is I’ll be yelling about. I hate not liking a piece of entertainment because you fancy yourself an expert. I don’t think I’m an expert. I just want to get entertained. I can’t accept anyone acting like they do what I do and then trying to criticize me on that level, which is what these bloggers and shit do, like, “Well, you see, comedy’s best when–” How do you know what’s best, you don’t fucking do it. Do your part.

That blogger sort of exposed herself.

Yeah. Again, I didn’t read much of that one, but I read the other one, the open letter to male comics. First of all, why are you just addressing white male comics? Are there separate rules now governing it? And I love the, “Why all the hostility? Just because someone speaks her mind…” I asked that to a plumber one time, “Why are you being so hostile? I’m just standing over your shoulder telling you how to do your job that I’ve never done. Why would you react this way, plumber?” Nobody wants to be told how to do their job by someone who doesn’t know how to do their job.

She finishes it with saying, “Comedy belongs to everyone.” No it doesn’t. Blogging belongs to everyone. Comedy belongs to a few privileged people, and you get to look at it. Just be funny, man. This chick says that comedy has a gender problem. No, it doesn’t. You’re just not funny, and now you’ve decided to project it on the world. Meanwhile, there are plenty of females that are perfectly funny. You’ll never fail out of this business because of circumstances of your birth; that’s a fact. If you fail in comedy, it has nothing to do with your gender or your skin color. It’ll be your funniness. People can recognize when you’re being funny. It’s not a regular job where there’s this many of this group of people working here.

They try to do that with writers now, to have a quota hire. No! You’re getting hired off of your writing. If you have to put a photo in with your writing… writer’s don’t have headshots, and it’s also not understanding how favoritism works, because it doesn’t go off of anything racial, and it’s not a boys’ club. It’s a Guys Who Went to Harvard club, and if you want to break down the privilege of it, make it like, “It can’t just be your friends who went to Harvard,” because that’s how a lot of these shows started, all the guys who worked at The Harvard Lampoon. It’s not a white male, but that’s who did work at The Harvard Lampoon. Really the clique is people who know each other. I just don’t want this to be like a regular job. That’s my one passion in life, that this job I took is not like any other and doesn’t follow any of the rules of regular jobs. There’s nothing helping the world. Am I helping people? Instead of becoming a murderer or a criminal, you can turn it into something relatively positive. The only things that carry through in this are your worst characteristics, like selfishness and inflated sense of ego.

You don’t go into it because you’re an activist; you go into it because you’re a selfish person that doesn’t want to have a job.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Talking to Kurt Metzger About Starting Out in Comedy, […]