For years Damien Lemon was known as much for his comedic skills as his legendary beater Toyota Corolla. With the way his career is going now, he’s probably due for an upgrade if he hasn’t done so already.
Lemon is one of the rising stars in the NYC comedy scene and has become a regular at most standup clubs, including the famed Comedy Cellar. He’s a cast member on MTV2’s Guy Code, and made his film debut two years ago in The Amazing Spider-Man.
On Friday, you can see his new special on Comedy Central as part of their Half Hour series.
I recently caught up with Lemon while he was on the road to talk about his special, what it’s like working on a summer blockbuster, and why he needs to take acting lessons.
How are things going? I see you’re headlining a lot now.
Yeah, I’m out in San Francisco. I’m headlining this weekend with Chris Distefano, and it feels good. It’s what you want, you know. We’ve worked for it.
What’s something you learned about headlining that you didn’t really think about going into it? Is there anything that you just didn’t expect?
You get tired of your material, which you already know, but it’s a good thing and a bad thing. The difference between headlining and doing a club for 15 minutes is you don’t have that pure momentum. Headlining, you’re on for at least 45 minutes to an hour; you want to have a beginning, middle and end. You take them on a journey. There may be some times when it gets quiet in the room and you just engage. You get to expand on your bits a lot more so it helps you. You start doing gags and jokes you never considered because you were worried about being done before a light comes on. It’s just a different approach. But I like it. I like crowds coming to actually see me. That feels good.
Yeah, absolutely. You said there’s going to be some parts of the show where it might be a little bit quieter in the audience, is that something you just have to get more and more comfortable with?
I think that actually helps you as a comedian, you get a little bit more experience. You’re more comfortable with the silence. When you just start, it’s unnerving when it’s silent. You’re like, “Do they like me?” You could almost second guess the material when the crowd doesn’t give you what you expect rather than substituting the material and seeing what happens. That’s the bigger thing. I think it definitely takes some getting used to. You learn the structure of your set a little bit quicker. You learn that, okay, this bit might be polarizing and I might have to get them back after that, so I’m able to put this bit right behind this bit. Things like that, or I want to open the set and see where that takes me. You have a lot more room to experiment when you have a longer set.
Let’s go back a little bit and talk about your start. You started in New York?
I did. I started in New York at Sal’s Comedy Hole down in the Village.
How old were you?
I was 27. I started in 2005. It was after years and years and years of putting it off. It took me that long to get the nerve up to finally get on stage. When I finally did get onstage, it felt like that’s where I should have been all the time. So for a few years, I felt like I was trying to make up for lost time. It doesn’t matter when you start, it’s just the fact that you started that’s the best thing.
What do you mean by trying to make up for lost time, just doing as much as you can?
Yeah, just doing as much as you can, doing as many shows as you can, trying to show the world who you are; you should have known about me. You just started, they have no way to know about you. I’m inspired by people like Eddie Murphy who, in retrospect, was such an anomaly with what accomplished when he was at like 22. And then with hip hop, you get caught up in this youth culture type of movement. You feel like if you’re not 20 with something to say, then it’s not really relevant. Age doesn’t apply in comedy as it applies in rap. You can be a grown man in your 40s and really find your voice then, find your crowd then. You know, you look at people like Louis CK and Carlin and Pryor, at that age they do it so well and still are just as vital to the comedy world as young kids.
That’s a really good point. It seems like most comics hit their stride when they’ve got some years under their belt, when they’ve got the right experience and the perspective to dig deep.
Exactly. The funny thing is you don’t realize how much you don’t know. You have strong opinions with a limited knowledge base.
Obviously, there’s plenty of advantages to starting out in New York. You’ve got opportunities galore, you’ve got a big network of people to hang out with and learn from. Were there any disadvantages in your mind?
Not that I can think of. I can’t really compare to anyone else. I felt like I had all the advantages in the world starting in New York. You just have so much stage time in New York, more than anywhere. You have time to develop your act and perform in front of people as often as you like. I think New York was the best place to start. I will say this though: the people I know that started in the Southern markets, they got on the road earlier. There wasn’t that many venues in their town so they had to go a couple towns over, to another state. They kind of understood what it meant to be on the road before someone from the city. But beyond that, I would never change where I started.
Is it a bit of a different muscle you’re working when you’re on the road versus in the city?
Yeah, definitely. Like I said, you’re managing the flow of a show. 15 minutes in the city, that’s quick, that’s a sprint, where [on the road] it’s a little bit more like a marathon. You’ve got to build your show in a way that it doesn’t feel like an hour show. It’s focused, but it doesn’t have dragging lows or things of that nature. It’s more of an experience.
Let’s talk about the taping. How did it go? Are you pretty happy with it?
Yeah, I haven’t seen it. I’m excited to see it. I was a little nervy just from the fact that I was running it and running it and running it and I didn’t want to cross nobody. I feel like I was in the moment. What worries me a little bit is I had a cold just before the taping. I was rolling back bottles of NyQuil and taking Vitamin C, drinking a bunch of tea and everything, juice and stuff so I wouldn’t be sick on the show. I think it actually helped out. I had fun, it felt good in the moment. It really had it all, an in crowd, like, “We’re really into it.” It felt good, so I’m curious to see how it all comes together.
Who did you tape with?
I was first. It was New York night. It was me, Yannis Pappas, Rachel Feinstein, and Chris Distefano.
And you had to go first?
I went up first.
So you had the tough spot.
I had to crack it open. I had to crack it open. It was good. They warmed up by the middle, maybe a little before the middle. Every couple bits did well.
I can’t wait to see it. For your first half-hour, are you pulling from material you’ve done since you first started doing comedy?
Yeah, but not that far back. This is material that I’ve done that I’ve been wanting to retire for a while. The thing about being a comedian that is still on the come-up and people have been asking if you’ve been doing it for a while, the thing is - you still have jokes that you love but you are tired of doing. But now I’ve put them out. It wasn’t in vain. You know what I’m saying? It was a great time. Move on. It’s a moment in time.
It seems like for your first time doing a televised half-hour like that, it’s totally acceptable to use older stuff because not a lot of people have seen it before. Other than your friends and people who’ve see you perform live.
You’re not gonna have seen all this material but you’ve gotta realize I was eight years in, so stuff I was doing eight years ago, that’s not really appropriate for The Half Hour.
Yeah, for sure. So the stuff that you put on The Half Hour, you’re gonna try to retire most of that then?
Yeah, that’s what I’m out here doing now. Just trying to work out these little bits and try to balance out the hour.
Tell me about The Amazing Spider-Man and how that role came about. That was pretty cool.
That was super cool. That came out of nowhere, really. My management gave me a call and told me they were doing auditions for a small part playing a cab driver in Spiderman. Everything was so top secret. I can’t remember the name of the alias they had for the movie.
The working title?
Not a working title, but something to throw you off. They can’t say The Amazing Spider-Man and get everybody excited. They’re very close to the vest with those types of movies. Like The Web or something crazy [Editor’s note: The Amazing Spider-Man’s fake working title was Fiona’s Tale]. So someone goes in there expecting a romantic comedy. But I get there, realized what it was, and I get there and I’m reading and it’s just me and the director, Marc Webb, and we’re going back and forth and we’re just running the lines and he’s like, “You want to improv stuff?” So we starting improvising and they called me back later that week.
This was the first time I’ve ever done a movie, especially something on that level. The first scene I did was under the Williamsburg bridge, where I had to destroy a cab. I had the cab and everything is so well lit and was like, “Wow this is amazing, look at this budget.” Like it was amazing. A huge deal. So next they had me drive the cab to go pick up the guy, which was an exceptional moment in history for a black guy to be driving a cab in mid-town Manhattan. [Laughs.] So then that was cool. It was a surreal experience. I didn’t tell anybody about it except my girl and some of my family. I kept it real quiet. I let it pop up on me. It was a great surprise.
That’s an impressive film debut right there.
It was fun.
Are you getting any other auditions because of it? I know it was a small part…
You know people thought I was snubbed from the Academy Awards. [Laughs.] I’ve had auditions, but what I need to do really though is take an acting class. Because I realize when I go to auditions, I want the role. I go to an audition and then I realize, “I want that role.” I want to be a little more confident and a little more practice when I read for roles. That’s definitely something I would like to add to my repertoire. If for any other reason, for the fact that if you see me on movies and television, you’re gonna have to come out and see my comedy live.
I always find that funny because you’d think acting would come easy to comedians, but that’s not always the case.
It’s one of those things. It’s definitely a different muscle. I think it’s similar to comedy that at some point you just have to not give a fuck. You have to make a bold choice and say, “This is the way I’m gonna approach it and this is gonna be how it works.” Whether they give me the role or don’t give me the role, this is my approach. This is my perspective on this character. It’s the same when you go onstage. After a while it’s like, I’m not trying to do a craft, I’m just trying to do what I find funny. And you go with that. Commit with that.
Are you still doing the Guy Code stuff?
I am. I am still with Guy Code. This is season four. Our last episode is next week. I’ve been there since the beginning, I got to write on the show. I love it. It was a great platform. That got me a lot of interesting experiences.
The other thing I wanted to ask was how long have you been performing at the Comedy Cellar now?
I started at the Cellar in April. I wanted to perform at the Cellar for a long time. I felt weird going into the Cellar as a non-Cellar comic. When you’re in, you’re in. It’s a community. I just put it into the world. A bunch of my peers were at the Cellar and I just wanted to see it. So funny enough, when I was taping with Scott Moran up in Boston doing behind-the-scenes stuff for The Half Hour, he said “Do you have any goals on the horizon?” And I said, “You know what? I want to be a Cellar comic. I want to be passed at the Cellar.” And literally less than a month later, I was passed at the Cellar.
It just felt good. I auditioned for [booker] Estee [Adoran]. She liked the audition, she brought me upstairs, gave me a three-by-five card with her information, I gave her a three-by-five card with my information. The closest thing I’ve ever had to an HR meeting since I started doing comedy. It was great, you know what I mean? It’s a beautiful community. You’re in there with the best of the best, you know what I mean? You look around and you see Chris Rock, Chappelle, Dave Attell, you can have a conversation about comedy with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, or Judd Apatow was in there the other day. It’s amazing. So I love it.
Congratulations on that and everything else. You got any other projects going on? You said you were trying to get into some more acting.
Some more acting, road tour, [Chris Distefano and I] are on the Salt-n-Pepa Tour. We got a couple dates, just a fun little tour we’re doing for the summer.
Salt-n-Pepa is back?
“Salt-n-Pepper Is Back” is the name of the tour. It’s playing off the fact that we both want to be female rappers. What else am I doing? I’m headlining Cap City, I’m excited about that. I’m just out there, just working.
And you’re staying put in New York right now? You have any LA ambitions?
No, but I’ll be in LA next week. I like it. I like it - I don’t know about LA ambitions just yet.
Yeah you just got the Cellar, you can’t give that up.
No, exactly. Exactly.
Damien Lemon’s Half Hour premieres Friday at midnight on Comedy Central.
Phil Davidson writes about performs, and produces comedy.