Fifteen years ago, Joe List started doing standup straight out of high school. Despite earning the respect of his peers and audiences in Boston and New York, it took well over a decade for List to crack into the national spotlight. That opportunity came last year in the form of a coveted spot on The Late Show with David Letterman. Since then, List has appeared on Last Comic Standing, his podcast with Mark Normand – Tuesdays with Stories – is gaining in popularity, and this Saturday night he will appear in his very own The Half Hour on Comedy Central. I talked with List about the special, his struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, and avoiding the poison of career entitlement.
What are you into today, Joe?
I just recorded an episode of my podcast with Mark Normand. After this interview, I’m going to watch some baseball.
Do you find watching baseball relaxing, or does it stress you out?
Watching the Red Sox used to stress me out. I was actually hospitalized during Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series. I was having panic attacks. Ever since the Red Sox won the World Series, I got into a healthy relationship, and had some success in standup, sports I don’t take as seriously because I have a quality life.
In your material you talk a lot about panic attacks and anxiety issues. Do you feel like you have a lot of that under control now?
Definitely. It’s still interesting to write about and I still have anxiety, but I’ll meet people after shows and they’ll say, “You must be having a panic attack,” or, “You must be freaking out.” I’m like, “No. I’m actually fine.” It used to be a horrible problem. I have most of that under control now. I’m definitely better with it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a nervous guy. I’m nervous right now as we speak. I’m not having a panic attack at least.
Good. I don’t want this interview to hospitalize you.
No, I don’t think I’ll be hospitalized any time soon. It’s definitely something you have to stay on top of. I do a lot of meditating and reading.
How did you feel when you were preparing to film The Half Hour? Was there a lot of stress?
Not too much, really. There was some some anxiety, but I think there was more excitement, anticipation, and emotion. I shot it in Boston, which is where I started doing comedy. My family all came, which adds a level of anxiety, just because you’re kind of dealing with the, “How are they getting there?” and the technical aspects of having family there. “Where are we going to hang afterwards? Is everyone getting along?” Stuff like that. For the show itself I felt pretty good, pretty confident. It’s material I’ve been doing for a while, stuff that I liked. I know it works. Once somebody approves a set, it feels like, “OK, this must be pretty good if they watched the show and said it’s good enough to be on TV.” Things I have control over I have a lot less anxiety about. I’m worried about Global Warming more than I am about recording a comedy special.
During the Half Hour you came out, asked the crowd a question, got a tepid response from the audience and said, “No? OK. Biggest night of my life. You guys really stiffed me there.” Do you feel that this special is the biggest thing that’s happened to you so far?
It’s tough to say. The Half Hour was amazing, but doing Letterman meant a lot to me because it was my first time doing network TV, or late night. It’s something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. I loved Letterman as a kid. I feel like that opened the doors to some things. It also validated me personally in my own eyes. So I feel like that might have been bigger. But The Half Hour is a big deal because it’s more material. It’s a comedy special. You’re showcasing more of what you do. That was certainly a goal of mine as well. It’s definitely Top Two.
You’ve been doing this for 15 years, right?
Yeah. Last week I was in Winnipeg and celebrated my… well, I just acknowledged that it’s been 15 years since I started doing standup.
You’ve had a lot of ups and downs, especially in trying to get recognized and being in the right place at the right time. Do you feel like within the last couple of years you’re where you want to be, or where you should be?
The “should be” thing is one of those things I’ve become more accepting of. You’re always kind of where you’re supposed to be. Should be is kind of a hard thing to say, I guess. I would always say, “I should be further. I should be doing this …” You kind of are where you’re supposed to be, not to sound too much like a douche. I think I’m in a position and place that I want to be and feel happy with the last year or two. I feel good about where I’m going and where I am. The eight to ten years before that I felt like I should have been doing better, been further along, been making more money, whatever. The last of couple years I feel really good about where I’m at and where it’s going.
You’re right about the term “should be.” That’s loaded. It makes you bring your ego into it. Then you start saying, “I should have gotten that.” Or you’re watching people come up around you and maybe they pass you, or get opportunities you don’t. “I should have that,” can be very poisonous thinking, self-destructive to your creativity if you don’t keep it in check.
That was a problem that plagued me for a long time. That ego of, “I should have done this,” or, “I deserve this.” That feeling that somebody had done something to me. They kept me from doing something. They are preventing me from doing this. It’s a poisonous way of thinking, an inaccurate way of thinking, typically.
What do you do to keep your ego in check, especially after you’ve achieved success?
One thing that’s helpful is that there are so many generations that have come before. You can watch the mistakes they made, or see how their career went. You can see that you have to keep pushing for more, working for more. It’s not hard for me. I take it a moment at a time. I can say, “I did that. It went well. Now I have to keep working towards that next goal.” It’s a myth that you used to be able to just do The Tonight Show then you would be a star. There were a ton of people who did it and didn’t become stars. There’s not really a thing that makes you big anymore. You have to keep moving forward and find other avenues to be seen and make money.
What are some of your goals now?
Thats what I have to figure out, I guess. My ultimate goal is to keep building a fan base. My goal is to build an audience of people who came to see me, as opposed to people who just came to see comedy. I would like to perform to 1,000 people who were like, “Let’s go see Joe List perform.” I also want to continue to do work that my peers like and respect and that I think is good. I have the podcast Tuesdays with Stories with Marc Normand. We’re trying to get that to keep growing. I’d like to do Late Night, Conan and eventually, an hour special. Then, annually have albums come out that people like and can buy.
Building a fan base requires self promotion. Do you have any issues with that? A lot of people don’t like to mess with it.
Yeah, I’m not great at it. It’s never been my forte because I’ve always been insecure and feel pretentious and stupid. I’m getting better at it with Twitter, Facebook, and the podcast. The podcast helps build the fan base. You’re giving them an hour of entertainment and in exchange, we promote shows we’re doing. It feels like a fair trade. “You’ve been entertained. Now, here are some commercials for what I’m doing.” I think you need to pick your battles. A lot of people who promote all of the time aren’t spending time on their acts. You have to have a balance. I try to put more effort into the act than promoting.