If there’s one thing that drives Kurt Metzger’s comedy, it’s anger. Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, Metzger was angry that he was forced to believe in something he doubted. In his early 20s Metzger left the faith and became a standup comedian. He currently writes for Inside Amy Schumer and co-hosts the Race Wars podcast with comedian Sherrod Small. In 2013, Metzger faced some controversy after the Daily Dot posted an article about his defense of divisive jokes. Metzger strongly believes that a joke is either funny or it’s not, regardless of the content. I spoke with Metzger about hecklers, hacks, and the moral components of comedy.
You were recently on WTF. One of the comments that struck me was when you discussed being a Jehovah’s Witness and the amount of guilt you felt when you left. Do you find that the guilt is still with you or if it drives your comedy in any way?
I guess I would say maybe it’s still with me. It’s not still with me like I consciously feel it. There might be a tinge of maybe I was the one who was wrong. You still have that programmed in you a little bit. What kicks me out of that is when I speak to other people who left something. As far as comedy I wouldn’t say it’s driven by guilt. Most of my comedy is driven by some kind of impotent rage I’ve had since childhood.
It seems like guilt and anger can play big roles in developing comedy.
Well, I’m lazy. I don’t have a work ethic. So luckily I have an anger problem to push me, plus a terrible ego. Basically none of my good qualities have ever helped me.
How does that work?
It’s a process. Something upsets me and I think about what I should have said or done. Or I have a feeling that I got suckered. My religion, for example, I feel like somebody took advantage of me by putting that bullshit in my head. Then I dwell on it and get angrier and angrier and hopefully those angries turn into clevers. They have to cook for a while ‘til they’re nice and tender.
The anger replaces the work ethic.
It’s a kind of very childish anger. Like I’m saying “No fair!” That plus arrogance. Having low self-esteem and a huge ego. And I’m probably not going to go get therapy.
I’ve heard some creative people say they fear therapy because by solving their problems it might take away that creative part of them.
I don’t want to go to therapy for the opposite reason. I think it doesn’t solve shit. I mean if you saw live combat or were the victim of a violent crime, sure seek out therapy. But I know a lot of suburban types with minor problems who just keep going. I’m like when are you done? When does it fix your problem? It’s not fixed and you just have to keep paying this person? If it wasn’t so expensive it may be worth it. The people that I know that go, I don’t know why they’re there. I’m like you’re boring, does your therapist stay awake while you’re talking? I guess because I went to a family therapist as a kid, and it was a huge waste of our time and money. It just seems very suspicious to me.
Do you find that being on stage is a form of therapy for you?
I’ve said that before. I don’t know if it is. I’ve felt like that, sure.
The euphoric feeling after a show could be the same one those in therapy aim for after a session.
If they do well. [laughs] I actually wrote a sketch because I have made that comparison that [standup] is like therapy. I was like does your therapist heckle you? Like “my dad never loved me…” “Boo!” I wrote that in a sketch for The Jim Norton Show on Vice where we got Gilbert Gottfried to play the therapist.
How do you react to hecklers? Is it different than when you started?
Yeah, it’s much different. I don’t freeze up when it’s not going well. I can’t be hurt like that at this point because I’m a lot more numb to everything. My weakness was never hecklers. My weakness is someone giving me a dismissal. That’s what I have to work on constantly. Like let’s say you were just talking over me and I said something to you and you kind of raised your hand like “okay go on and tell your little jokes.” That would trigger an anger in me that’s unbelievable. A heckler is engaging me so that doesn’t really upset me like that. Also I feel like if you do heckle me you already lost because you’re engaging me so now you have my attention and you can’t win. But dismissing me or just talking over me like I’m not there, that can fuck me up, that’s a distraction, someone acting like you’re not there. If you insult them too much the crowd will turn on you. So with any kind of heckling I wait for the mandate from the audience. I’ll let the person who’s ruining the show ruin the show for the crowd first. Then I’ll come in and do what I want. That way the audience is on your side no matter what you do.
You’re very involved in both Facebook and Twitter. Do you engage the people who comment on what you post?
It depends. I like to engage people. I’m not famous. I can do that. Amy [Schumer] can’t do that because she’s famous. With me there’s a good chance they’re just regular people. Since I’m nobody we can still talk like we’re regular people. If I was really famous I would have to just ignore everything. For the time being I can. It’s a good way to get guests on my podcast. I’m always trying to find people who don’t agree with me to make the show interesting and [social media] is a good way to find them. I’ve made the mistake of responding a lot but sometimes I’ve responded and it turned into something really cool. This one guy was really going at me hard. I just drew him out more and more and got him onto my show. He was some racist dude that we got on the show, but him and Sherrod [Small] ended up being really cool with each other at the end. I’m not going to say we turned this guy around completely, but from now on when he is saying something racist he has to think about how he really loved Sherrod, that has to be in the back of his head now.
I feel like if you’re in an argument with people online it’s hard to get them to understand, but once you meet in person you’re just two people talking to each other. The internet allows for anonymity.
That’s right. What tends to get to me is not when I think I’m being controversial; I’m expecting someone to take offense. But what happens is a lot of times I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I was like well what are you mad about? What did I do? And then I’ll obsess. Why does this one person now hate my guts? And I’m just obsessing and obsessing about it. I don’t care about the people that really enjoyed it. I’m like well I already have you on my side. I’ll take you for granted. Why does this one person not like me? It’s always because I didn’t expect that response. It takes me back to a childhood thing like this is isn’t fair and now I’m mad.
2013 was a controversial year for you. 2014 seemed quiet.
Because I was busy. I have a job and I don’t have time to put free entertainment out. That’s the thing that bugs me when someone is mad on Facebook. I’m like well just don’t look at it. I’m not charging you to look at this. I don’t need you on my Facebook. I need maybe three people on here. Most of the time I have a loose idea that’s not even funny that I want to get some feedback about before I even finish writing it. I don’t need 5,000 people for that. Every time they’re offended I’m genuinely shocked because I wasn’t taking Facebook that seriously. I don’t take any social media that seriously. But social media is like the real world to some people, which I just don’t get.
You have the attitude of something is either funny or it’s not. Something that was controversial recently was Louis C.K.’s monologue on SNL a few weeks ago, most thought it was funny, but some were offended by it.
Yeah, it was funny. And the bottom line is that’s the only way you judge the joke. Was the joke funny? Well I don’t think that was funny. Okay. Fair enough. The end. That’s funny but you shouldn’t say it because this, this, and this. I got no respect for that because my whole life revolves around something being funny. I don’t believe in any moral component to it whatsoever. My funny is based on being in school and the teacher is trying to teach a class and we are directly disrupting the teacher from teaching with our bullshit, our immature bullshit that we didn’t have to do. This poor person is trying to teach us and we’re being assholes and thwarting them when they’re trying to help us, which is hilarious to me.
Now, instead of the class clown being the comedian, it seems like the teacher is the comedian. If you’re being disruptive you’re interrupting their teaching. They’re like we’re progressive teachers that are trying to help society and either you’re helping us or you’re disrupting class and you have to be sent to the principal’s office. My whole fucking life is like a series of getting sent to the principal’s office and I don’t understand why.
The one time I’ve heard you mention a moral component to your comedy was with the Comedy Central Roasts you used to write for.
That’s a good example. The job’s a good one to have. The people at Comedy Central really wanted to make sure I got the job and very talented writers I respect are all writing it and very funny people are on it, but I felt really down that I couldn’t put my finger on why. Patrice [O’Neal] made me understand it better. The night before the Charlie Sheen roast was the last time I spent hours talking with him. He really laid out the whole entertainment industry and changed my attitude about it. Especially the brass ring shit. Whatever you want gets dangled above you like “you want this, right?” And it’s easy to lose yourself in that.
Last Comic Standing is a better example of that shit feeling. Last Comic Standing is a perfect example where you show up and there’s an ugly energy around because you’re in a competition with a bunch of people you’d be friends with normally. And you’re going to be judged maybe harshly by comics you admired. Then you realize you aren’t even competing against all the other comics, just the ones of your same gender and race. It’s not that any one person is evil and rubbing their hands together. It’s just everyone gets together and some kind of ugliness forms out of it, for people that you like that you’re not even against and who aren’t against you. There’s something about it that’s shitty and gets you down.
You prefer it to be less competitive. You want to be on the same side as your peers.
Any comedy competition is intrinsically fucked to start with. Especially if America votes on it.
Comedy can be hard to set up rules for.
It’s a very simple thing. It’s not really having to learn it, it’s having to unlearn a lot of bullshit that gets in the way of being funny. It’s like any other kind of art. Like when I went to art school. They were like just draw what you see. Don’t draw what you think you see or what you think should be there. Look at what’s there and draw it. That’s comedy. Don’t put what you think it should be. Don’t put what you think the moral thing should be. Just look at a thing for what it is and just say that. And sometimes it might not jive with your politics. In that case I’m not going to suppress it when it doesn’t. I’m a liberal, but maybe I’m observing something that’s not going along with my liberal ideas. I’m not going to suppress it for the greater good. I’m going to just say what I thought. It’s not propaganda. It’s a pure thing. And the people that make up these rules want it to be propaganda. They have a political agenda and everything must serve that agenda or it must be gotten rid of. And that’s not what comedy is.
For me being funny started with goofing off in class. Someone was trying to teach us for our own good, and because we were assholes we were cracking jokes and being disruptive. We were only hurting ourselves. But that’s what’s so funny about that. You’re not supposed to be doing this, but you are. That’s the essence of comedy to me. Especially stuff you shouldn’t laugh at. That’s the stuff I like best. There’s a huge school of thought now pushing that humor away. I can’t even survive in a world like that. So that’s why I have to be against it.
You discuss hacks a lot. What makes a comedian a hack?
Hey, I’m a fucking hack. In my opinion 80% of the time I’m a hack. I write 20 jokes and 1 or 2 will be memorable and the rest is pure garbage. Everybody is a hack at some point. It’s not like I make this separation between myself and others. I know when I’m being a hack. We’re all going to be that at some point. There seems to a lot of people who don’t want to look at their own shit because it hurts too much. When I have to look my garbage that I wrote, it’s like stabbing me. So that’s just a matter of being able to take the fact that you suck and acknowledge it. I don’t think it’s a sin to be a hack. I think the sin is not admitting to yourself when you are one. Maybe you did great with the crowd, but you know you sucked. It’s just being honest with yourself.
I feel like I know exactly how good I am at what I do. I know the exact amount. It’s not as good as I want it to be, but it’s not as shitty as my worst fears. I know people who quit comedy that should never have quit and I’m mystified. And there are some people that are in it for years and I’m like what are you still doing here? It’s stage deafness. I think that’s Jay Leno’s term, when people are stage deaf. It’s a good way to put it. I don’t want to be stage deaf. A good way not to be stage deaf is to record yourself and watch it. It’s painful to do, but it really does help. You have an image in your head of what you were doing on stage and then when you see the actual recording you can make the adjustments you want to make.