Joe List is the comedy underdog everyone seems to root for. A longtime fixture in the New York comedy scene, List had the reputation as the gifted standup comic who could never catch a break.
But to paraphrase Seinfeld, a List obsession, 2015 could be the Summer of Joe.
After a killer debut on Letterman last year, List is finally getting his due. He’s headlining more clubs, co-hosts the popular Tuesdays with Stories podcast with Mark Normand, and his peers recently named him a comedian to look out for in 2015.
I recently caught up with List to talk about his start in comedy, the mistakes he made when he first moved to New York, and why the idea of the tortured comedian is a myth.
You started out in Boston. It seemed like a pretty vibrant scene back then.
It’s hard to tell because your time always seems like the best time. Because you’re young and you’re it. Everyone I know thinks their time was the best and now it sucks. I guess that’s natural. I remember it being pretty good, but most of the big guys had left, like [Bill] Burr, Gary Gulman, and Patrice [O’Neal] and Dwayne Perkins. They were gone already. I started in 2000. There weren’t a lot of guys that are big names now. Well let’s see, I started out with Myq Kaplan and Shane Mauss. But it was definitely a good scene. When I first started I started going to this open mic at a place called Chops Lounge near Fenway Park. It was like the truest open mic I’ve ever been a part of. Literally, they’d have hobos getting up. Everyone got on.
You were how old at the time?
I was 18. Just graduated from high school.
Did you know pretty early on that comedy was what you wanted to do? 18 seems pretty young.
Yeah, I never had anything else planned at all other than baseball player.
I guess for a moment I thought I’d be a firefighter because my uncles were firefighters and it seemed similar to comedy. Actually it still seems similar to comedy. There’s a lot of downtime sitting around telling stories, getting drunk, bullshitting. And then you have this thing most people fear. Not to compare fighting a fire to standup, but I’m doing that. [Laughs.] But then I found out that to be a firefighter you also had to be a paramedic and give people stiches and shots so I decided that career was out.
It kind of sounds like standup was your destiny then.
Yeah, that’s all I really wanted to do. And also, I think I was babied as a kid, which made me lazy. Standup didn’t seem like something with a lot of work involved. Of course I realized after 10 years I was way off. That’s why I haven’t been successful for most of my career. [Laughs.]
So you were pretty young when you moved to New York?
I was in Boston for about 7 years. I moved to New York in April 2007.
What were the early days like?
It was interesting. I didn’t do it right. I came to New York with a chip on my shoulder. I was very entitled. I had been opening for Nick Dipaolo for a year so I knew DiPaolo and I had performed at all these real clubs on the road. And then I opened for Dane Cook a few times as well. So I had performed in front of 3,000 people when I was 22. I had worked with Dave Attell, I knew Colin Quinn. So when I moved to New York, I was like “here I am, I’m the guy.” I found out very quickly that in New York they don’t give a shit. There are people in New York that have hour specials that can’t get spots. I was one of the big guys in Boston so I felt like I was owed something. I would just go back to Boston every three days when I first moved to New York and act like I was doing well in New York. People doing well in New York don’t leave every three days. I was also drinking way too much.
How should someone who’s already done well in another market approach New York? Go in with your head down and approach it with more humility?
I think so. Eventually, after being in New York for four years, I went back to open mics. I went to the Creek and the Cave and just started hanging out there and meeting the new crop of guys. Younger guys. I gave myself new peers. I was like, “I’ll just re-come up with you guys.” I just worked on the act and got stronger. I mean I would literally sit at my apartment and wait for people to call me. It’s hard to tell though because there are some people who move to New York and start getting stuff right away, which I don’t understand.
Do you think those people are more aggressive with promoting themselves? Because that seems to be a whole other part of comedy now. You have to be business savvy.
Yeah, definitely. I just ignored twitter for a while because I was just lazy. Well frankly I was a drunk. [Laughs.] I was very close-minded. I was way behind with all that stuff. I’m not good at asking for favors and pushing myself. It’s also important to hang at clubs and meet people but I never did any of that. I was like “why would I hang out at a show I’m not on? I opened for Dane Cook!”
I wanted to ask about the Interrobang article. It was cool to see so many comics mention you as someone to watch out for in 2015. Do you feel any sense of that? Do you feel like you’re turning a corner?
Yeah definitely. I feel like I’ve been a strong act for a long time. I feel like I deserved more, but that attitude is not helpful. You have to curb that. And once I curbed that and just focused on what I’m doing, that’s when things started to happen. It’s certainly been a slower process for me than a lot of people. I’ve been doing comedy for 15 years now. A lot of that is self-inflicted. Right now it does feel like things are loosening up and I got more stuff coming up. I did Letterman last year, which was really helpful and I’m starting to headline more clubs. I feel like I’ve had the respect of my peers for a long time, but now the industry is starting to come around.
Some of your peers had more success than you early on. I’m sure that was frustrating. How did you deal with that?
Yeah, not only did my peers go further quicker, then I joined a group of peers that was much younger and much newer and then those guys blew past me. [Laughs.] Dan Soder was much younger than me and I would take him around and show him clubs, and now he’s lapped me 10 times over. Mark Normand is kind of like that as well. At first it was very hard. I was bitter. It made me resent those guys and other people. But then I stopped drinking and that helped a lot. And I got into some Buddhist stuff and that’s helpful to get your mind in the right place. I did some spirituality bullshit. Quote that, “spirituality bullshit.” And then you realize that these people are my friends and they’re doing well because they’re great… It took me a while to realize this, but those guys who passed me were working WAY harder than me. For the most part, if someone’s doing well in standup comedy they are working really hard. So I started working a lot harder and that’s when things started to come around.
Going back to your sobriety, do you feel like it’s improved your comedy? You’re more productive without hangovers, but has it improved your writing or other areas?
I think it’s helped the writing, the performance, all those things. I’m not one of those people who believes you have to be tortured to be a comic. I don’t know anyone like that. When I’m depressed or hungover or tired or sad, I can’t write or be funny. It seems like there’s some sort of romanticism that comics are tortured. I write and am productive and run around doing my best work when I’m healthy and grateful and happy. And that’s what sobriety did for me.
You mentioned that you were Nick DiPaolo’s opener for a while before you moved to New York. That had to be a good crash course in learning how to headline.
Definitely. You know because Bill Burr and Louis C.K. have been so successful over the last few years, I think there are a lot of people who may not realize that Nick DiPaolo at his best is better than anybody. He’s the funniest person that I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been around professional comedians for most of my adult life. He’s funnier on another level. Both offstage and onstage. I really learned how to write a bit and put a joke together watching him. I would watch every show. Instead of writing and listening to my sets, I would get as drunk as possible and watch him. I remember one story where we did a show together in Wisconsin and there was an air show happening so he couldn’t get a hotel room so he stayed at the comedy condo with me, which is hilarious to think about. I remember I was watching a Brewers game and I looked over and he was sitting in his underwear with two notebooks open listening to his set. I remember being like, “What the hell is he doing? That’s weird.” Looking back, I realized oh that’s why he’s headlining and making ten grand and I’m middling and making nothing. During the day, he’s working. That was definitely a lesson.
I like asking anybody who works at the Comedy Cellar about their audition. How did yours happen?
It’s weird because I’ve had two auditions at the Cellar. I was passed there, and then stopped working there for years and had to re-audition years later. I got passed there when I first moved to New York. DiPaolo recommended me, and he had never recommended anyone before. So the booker said, “wow, you must be really something.” So I did my five-minute audition and killed and got passed. I did one spot and it was my first club gig in New York, I had never had done any TV, and I was nervous, and I went after Sherrod Small, who murders. I think at the time you did 20-minute spots, and I was just so nervous I ate a fucking bag of cheese. I was shaking. It stunk. I felt like I didn’t belong. It just showed. I wasn’t even mad that I didn’t get booked anymore. I didn’t work there for like 6 years or so. I had to go back and audition again, but this time I had Gary Gulman, Dan Soder, Amy Schumer and Robert Kelly all putting in a good word for me. So it was much easier and this time I felt like I belonged. But yeah, when you’re first starting out you want to work the Cellar because it’s a status thing, but then that goes away real quick and you want to work there just because it’s the best club.
Let’s talk about your podcast Tuesdays with Stories. It’s great.
Well thank you. I love it. Yeah, people seem to love it, which is great because we have a lot of fun doing it. It came from an idea I had to have a bunch of comics get together to have lunch at a diner on Tuesdays. We’d have a big roundtable where comedians could tell stories about their weekends. The problem is it’s impossible to get comedians together and to commit to anything. I always liked the idea though. So I thought I’d try it as a podcast, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it other than Mark, because Mark is the funniest person I know, and we both have an obsession with Seinfeld and George and Jerry, which you might be able to tell if you listen to the show. It just felt like a perfect thing. It seems to be really popular amongst comics. We have a ton of comics listening to it. Every time I’m on the road all the local comics tell me they love it. It’s nice to have something that comics like.
Any other projects you got coming up?
I wish there were. There should be. Mark and I are developing a couple TV show ideas but they are such in their infancy that I don’t even know if it’s worth mentioning. Just standup and working the road and getting back on TV and plugging away. Trying to make a living and be a better person and boyfriend and friend and comic.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.