The Art of Holding Nothing Back with Chris Laker

Chris Laker has nothing to hide. For fans of comics like Marc Maron or Patrice O’Neil, that can only mean better comedy. Laker has cycled through multiple career aspirations, gone through rehab, been married, divorced, accepted, and rejected. On their podcast This Week in Jackin’, Laker and Myka Fox delve into the masturbation habits and history of comedians such as Mark Normand, Giulia Rozzi, Dan St. Germain, and Ted Alexandro. Nothing is off limits.

Together with New Wave, Laker has released his first album, Moments of Greatness. On the album, Laker reveals some of the most intimate details of his life, as well as his take on topics that most people keep to themselves. Laker has honed a talent for elegantly discussing any subject matter with a level of ease usually reserved for those who know us best. Moments of Greatness stands right at the intersection of intimate and universal, and the result is an album that simply should not be cast aside.

I recently had the chance to talk with Laker about his journey into comedy, his views on the “alt comedy” label, and what topics he finds just don’t fly with audiences.

Did you just jump straight into the New York comedy scene, or were you coming from elsewhere?

I’m from New York, but I bounced around a bit. I went to a few colleges and went to rehab for a while. I started comedy in Philadelphia in 2004, but I was moving back to New York anyway. I was only there for like six months, and then I was in New York. But then I was working for a public accounting firm full-time, so I didn’t get to do as much comedy for about a year.

So, I didn’t start here but I came here very new. In Philadelphia, right before Helium opened, there were just these shitty places like Comedy Cabaret and Chuckles, places above a steak restaurant or at a Holiday Inn. I was doing guest spots within the first month or so, so it was fun but then I moved here in August 2004.

What got you to do it in the first place?

I’ve always loved comedy. I always wanted to be funny, but the idea of saying that I would do that was very odd to me for a while. In high school I thought I would be a filmmaker or a writer or something like that, and I was a Communications major for a while in college. Then I dropped out and was a PA on a couple of movies. I was like, “This isn’t for me, I’m just gonna be a regular dude. I’m just gonna be an accountant.”

Then I became an accountant. That kind of forced me to do something creatively. I was like “I’ll just try an open mic.” I always wanted to do it but I didn’t think I would.

Did you take anyone with you, or did you want to test it out on your own first?

I went alone. I thought I’d take a class or something, so I was Googling – or maybe… Was that before Google?

Ask Jeeves was still big.

Right, so it was probably Yahoo! or something like that. But I was on the internet, looking up how to start doing standup, and classes were like $300. I didn’t have any money and open mics were free, so I spent like 6 months just writing and thinking of jokes before I decided I was going to do it.

The first time, they gave me 5 minutes but I did 3. The second time I killed. People went crazy; I did really well. People couldn’t believe it was my second time. I thought everybody there was a comedian so I was like, “This is my thing.” But then I graduated and had an accounting degree that I didn’t give a shit about.

That was when you made the move to New York?

Yeah. I did open mics wherever I could. There was one at The Village Lantern, there used to be one at the [Comedy] Cellar… There used to be a bringer show there, too. On Fridays you only had to bring 2 people. It was at 7:00 on a Friday. I did that a few times and I remembered I did one with Eric Andre and Matt McCarthy. So I got roped into a couple of bringers… I also did a New York Comedy Club bringer, which was one of the worst things in the world.

It’s tricky. So much of the audience at bringers is full of very nice people who come out specifically to see their friends, who are also new comics, so they’re very receptive and easy to make laugh. But that’s all deceptive; it’s not like a regular club audience. Plus, eventually you start to feel like you’re just subsidizing your comedy career through your friends. 

Yeah, it’s an easy crowd for sure. I did this bringer at the Laugh Lounge and I did really well. This guy came up to me – and this is like a year and half in – and this guy came up to me from the Discovery Channel and he said, “You were really good, do you have any management?” Then he said, “I’m friends with Steinberg.” Steinberg then had everybody, like [Jim] Norton and Patrice [O’Neal] and all those guys. So they came to see me. I e-mailed him a few times and he brought them to come see me at a show. I bombed so hard. It was the late show, and didn’t think that was going to have any bearing on it, and I don’t know if that was the problem, but I never bombed that hard in my life. That guy never returned my e-mails; Steinberg didn’t make eye contact with me.

How’d you recover from that?

I just went wherever I could get a spot. I would do other people’s shows. Dustin Chafin started giving me spots at his shows; he used to run the midnight shows at Broadway [Comedy Club], Friday and Saturday night. He would give me spots every weekend for like a good two years. That helped a lot. It was more real people. And I worked on a lot of stuff for a while with Yannis Pappas.

You did a podcast with him, right?

Yeah, we did a podcast for a couple years. It was very sporadic. We had people who would do it every week and then we’d miss some. But I learned a lot doing it, and it was fun. We started early on enough that it stuck. It was great for me, because I always loved radio and podcasts kind of made that something that you can do on your own. I still love podcasts. We’ve also written stuff together and worked on stuff over the years, but now it’s like everybody’s off on their own. Yannis is in Miami, Nate [Bargatze]’s in LA…

And now you have a new podcast, This Week in Jackin’, where you talk to other comics about what they “jack it” to. That’s a pretty bold theme. You do present a lot of comfort around topics that would make most people blush; your album is another testament to that.

When I started, I thought that when something made me uncomfortable I had to talk about it. The things I talk about onstage are things I thought I would never talk about ever, but I say them over and over again.

When you’re going through ideas for new jokes and you’re touching on something that makes you uncomfortable, do you ever feel weird bringing it up the first time or is it just natural?

Nothing really makes me feel that uncomfortable to talk about. I think I’ve touched on everything that would make me feel uncomfortable. What is there really to feel uncomfortable about? I’m sensitive about my weight and that’s about it. That’s hard for me to talk about but I’ll talk about it. I fluctuate or whatever. But that’s probably more sensitive than what I masturbate to. That’s not sensitive at all. That’s a ridiculous thing to be sensitive about. Most people I’ve asked to do the podcast have been really excited to do it and then there’ve been a couple that have been like, “No.” And I understand that, but I don’t understand why. Because you don’t have to tell me anything that you don’t want to tell me, it’s not like I’m a hard-hitting interviewer, I’m not trying to expose anything. I think we cover the most interesting stuff anyway. Myka [Fox] and I interview one person for about a half hour, and then we just kind of go through the time line, like the first thing you jacked to when you were a kid and then we just kind of follow through with it, and that’s kind of innocent stuff. I mean, every kid has a story about how they found porn for the first time, and then it’s interesting to see how that formed habits. It’s a very scientific discussion, I don’t think it’s graphic or disgusting – well, it’s sometimes graphic but I don’t understand why anybody is upset by masturbation or any fluids that are a product of human beings.

Is there anything in particular that draws you to it as discussion material?

I do think it’s an interesting look into a person, you can usually see the connection between what somebody fantasizes about sexually and their regular life. It’s usually stuff that people never talk about on a podcast and people remember things they had forgotten. It’s always interesting.

How do you go about developing new material for your jokes? Is it along those lines, just sort of talking things through until you find the funny parts, or are you more structured with it?

I don’t write anything down; my notebook’s really just a word or two and quick thoughts. But I don’t write them out, I just think them through or I just know there’s something funny about it and I’ll go and flesh it out on stage. I do that in my show where I try not to do any material that’s older than 3 weeks. If I do something on that show older than that I feel weird about it. If for some reason there’s a real crowd there, I usually do crowd work and work on jokes and try to find stuff. I don’t follow a real structure in my mind of what a joke should be. It just feels done. Sometimes it sits around for a year and I just keep kicking it around and I’ll figure it out. Then there are some jokes that just happen right away and it’s perfect.

So would you consider yourself an alt comic?

I would, and I’d take that up against anybody. But I think that that’s kind of subsided, to a degree, because of that rant that Bill Burr had a year and a half ago about alternative comics. I love Bill Burr and I don’t care if someone does a rant about alternative comics or whatever, but it was when people took that rant and held it up like “See?” I try to stay out of Facebook fights, but it wasn’t like Bill Burr said you’re funny. And it’s like all these people say alternative comedy sucks, and it’s because they go in those rooms and they go “Oh this stinks.” Everybody does everything now, it’s so stupid to say there’s any kind of divide, but that’s the place that gave me. Those are the rooms that gave me the time to develop what I developed into. I tried getting into clubs for years and it just didn’t work for me. I do some clubs now, and I like doing it wherever I can, but then when I would say I’m an alternative comic, it’s like no one wants to say they’re a hipster or something like that.

So, those rooms exist [for alt comedy], and I think those rooms are great; they’re a good place to work out who you are, and I like those audiences. The term “alternative comedy” speaks more to the audience than it does to the comedy. I’ve seen friends of mine, like Dan Soder or Joe List, go up in those rooms and destroy and have a great time. Then there’s other people that go in there and struggle because they rely more on tricks that work with a certain audience. It’s the same thing: there are tricks that work everywhere. You can always trick people, but the same tricks don’t work in every place. There are certain things that don’t work.

I feel like the “alt comedy” label was at its height in the early 2000s, and back then it was still an era where, if you wanted to get noticed, you had to be in a club. But since then social media’s exploded, so you have new outlets like podcasting, YouTube, Twitter, et cetera, so you can kind of get your own audience. Do you ever think about how to reach an audience or do you just press on and hope it follows? 

I think about building my audience, that’s the only thing you can do. The only way you can reliably make a living is if there are people that want you specifically. And I do think that podcasts are probably one of the better tools we have as comedians to do that. It’s very personal, people get to know you, they like you. You’re not putting material out to them, they’re not hearing what jokes you’re doing every week, they’re just hearing what you’re doing on the podcast, and they follow. I love doing it. I have three podcasts. I know there are plenty of other comedians that have multiple podcasts, but it still isn’t mainstream. There’s still room to grow. Most people don’t listen to podcasts, so it’s wide open. I think every comedian should have one, I think it’s crazy if they don’t.

There are plenty of people that work now, that headline across the country, and they either have never, or rarely, been on television. We do have power to do whatever we want. Who knows how long that’s gonna go on for? I feel like eventually podcasts are going to be taken away from us. Comcast will somehow be charging everybody for licenses or something, but right now we have it.

On the album you talk about your divorce. Was it – or is it – difficult for you to balance time between comedy and relationships?

No. My girlfriend now is a comedian, so she gets it. We spend a lot of time together; we’ve worked on projects together. There’s no balance that needs to exist. It’s never been an issue. I don’t know if I’d be able to be with someone who wasn’t a comedian. I think that would make it hard to balance, but I know people who think the other way.

Yeah, I think that’s the most commonly expressed view, that comics shouldn’t date other comics.

That’s so stupid. I don’t understand why. And nobody sticks to that anyway. Everybody’s fucking each other.

What do you think the detriment is of dating someone who’s not a comic?

They’re not going to understand that every moment you’re with them you’re not doing what you really want to do. If someone works a regular job, then the times that they want to be with you, you are going to be gone. I’m not saying they’re incapable of getting it, but it’s going to be hard to maintain a healthy relationship. I don’t know if I’d be able to do it. But there are definitely problems with dating a comedian that maybe more exist afterward. With my current girlfriend, we’re equals in comedy in terms of funny, and we’ve both been doing it about the same amount of time. There’s no competition there. We’re also very different comedically, so there are no real crossover jokes or style. Sometimes you see comics who are dating and they start to become similar, which is fucking gross. You hear them both talking about the same dinner that went wacky or some bullshit. We don’t do that. We did a show for a year and a half together and we’re just very different. It’s a ridiculously easy relationship.

You’ve talked about how you had a job as an accountant for a long time. When you left that how did you make the decision not to go back into the 9-to-5 work world?

I got unemployment for a really long time. I got it for 99 weeks and I had money from that job. I kind of made sure at the time – I didn’t want to be a prisoner of that job so my rent was low, my expenses were low, I made sure to live pretty cheaply. I just figured, “Well, I’ve got a year and a half. I’ll figure something out.” And I went to Montreal that year, like a year later. I figured out how to make money, somehow. There’ve been ups and downs, but it’s worked out.

Is it mostly road shows that pay?

For me, it’s been writing stuff more than the road. I do as much road work as I can but I haven’t really been a full time road comic.

What do you write for?

I used to write for websites, the freelance stuff like that. I’ve written for Howard Stern for a little bit, roasts, whatever you need. Whatever comes along.

And you’re hopeful with each new thing.

There are so many things, you have a couple things out there and you think one of these things will be a thing. Then it always takes longer to get to the rejection than you think it’s going to, so you keep hoping for however long. Then finally it’s like “This thing’s not happening” and you’re like “Fuck. Another thing.” And then you just see all the stuff that everybody else is getting, and that’s a danger. All those guys had a bunch of stuff that didn’t happen too. Everybody has stuff that didn’t happen. And you only see the stuff that does happen. But whenever something gets shot down I think “This is it, finally.”

There are some people that get there quicker than others, but really, at the end of it all, we all hung out with our friends and told jokes, and after 40 fucking years you look back and you say “That’s what I did.” It doesn’t really matter. It’s weird how we get tricked into using the measures of the people that we despise. I feel like 90% of the people making money off of comedy who aren’t comedians are pieces of shit. But we do what we have to do. It’s all good to make money, and people want to make money. If somebody gets a commercial, good, that’s great for you. I’d love to get a commercial or whatever. But it’s no measure of success in comedy. None of it is. It’s the people that will show up to see us, and how funny you are when you tell jokes for an hour. That’s really what it’s about.

It’s hard, in comedy, to stay funny and be successful

Yeah, I think that it’s hard but that people seem to do it. Louis CK is rich. Patrice [O’Neil] put out one of the best albums ever, Elephant in the Room, and that’s a guy that had something to prove. I did not know Patrice at all, but from what I know of him and how he felt about his position in the business, I felt like that was him showing everybody that he was the best. I feel like the underdog. Maybe that has something to do with my comedy.

That’s a part of why a lot of people are comics. 

None of us are ever where we want to be, in comedy or in life or whatever. I don’t know that whatever I think will make me happy will truly make me happy. Because, in my mind, if I could fill the Beacon Theatre with people who want to see me perform, that would make me happy. But then I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t. There’s nothing that’s gonna make you feel like you are done. I find a very inspirational person artistically is Jack White. There’s this documentary called “It Might Get Loud.” It’s got Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge talking about music to each other. You’re gonna think of something that makes you mad, makes you jealous no matter what. There’s always a guy who’s more successful than you. I think we tell ourselves we need to suffer, and I think because we’re human beings we’re going to suffer. But I don’t know if we have to continually be broke.

Right, but that’s also what keeps people active creatively.

I never sit down and say, “Okay it’s time to write jokes about a certain topic.” You let your mind go into whatever state that is and thoughts kind of just come. I’ll see something that annoys me and then I’ll end up talking about it. And then sometimes something just strikes me as funny about something, or you just notice some type of trend that is interesting. I hear somebody say something and I just know… I saw this clip of a senator, Lindsey Graham, saying “There’s definitely going to be another 9/11 attack,” and then that just kind of set me off on a train of thought. So sometimes that sparks the whole thing, and maybe you see this whole thing that you want to comment on, or maybe it’s this one and you kind of follow that along until it gets to some new place.

Have you ever had a joke that you liked so much but it didn’t hit and you had to abandon it?

I think if a joke doesn’t get the response, then it’s not as good as you think it is. But I’ve found joking about cancer never works. I had this joke about something to do with cancer and that would get such a discontented groan, and then I had a joke about people responding to that joke, and that would actually make them more upset. It would really bother me that I’d say something about cancer and it’d be like, “Oh are you the person that had somebody in your family die of cancer,” like the idea of somebody thinking that they’re the only person who’s been affected by cancer, when almost everybody has had multiple family members… so I had a thing that went down that path. The last time I did it was at this show in Boston, and those people just hated my guts so much by the end of it. I was just like “I’m not going to bother with that anymore,” it just digs too deep of a hole. I tend to think about death a lot. It’s hard to talk about. Did you see Norm MacDonald’s [Me Doing Standup] on Comedy Central? He does I don’t know how many minutes, but a substantial amount of time up front about death. And it’s fucking hilarious and it’s brilliant and it’s made me very, very jealous. He did a whole thing about cancer. And I think it takes that long to be able to get to some of that stuff, but for the most part, it bums people out. I always find it interesting that we’re all just trying to forget that we’re gonna die. But it just gets to a point where everybody’s talking about it.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

The Art of Holding Nothing Back with Chris Laker