From Modeling to Standup with Phil Hanley

Former model turned comedian Phil Hanley is a example in structure. His jokes and stage presence are delivered with a cool, collected pacing, even when he’s incorporating his own signature style of crowd work. In speaking with Hanley, his daily routine seems just as structured. He wakes up, eats breakfast, writes for an hour, goes to the gym, performs co-hosting duties on the We Know Nothing podcast, comes home, writes some more and then heads out for the night to hit as many New York comedy spots as possible. I talked to Hanley – who recently had a Comedy Central Half Hour and will soon be recording a full length album – about his early days of modeling and improv, the benefits of being a comic in New York City and what it’s like to tape a Comedy Central special.

You started out in Vancouver. How was the scene there?

I’ve been in New York for four years. Now when I go home I’m basically just going back to do a weekend at the the club or whatever. I’m so out of touch with the Vancouver scene now, but when I started it was great. You could get up every night during the week. When I first started I thought the scene was really good. To me nothing compares to the New York scene, but Vancouver was a really good place to start. Plus, we had a festival, so once a year they would bring in lots of great comics, comics that I looked up to at the time and now I get to do shows with in New York.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought I saw that you started out doing improv because you wanted to get commercial work and then that led to standup.

What happened was – and this is crazy and ridiculous – but I started out after high school as a model in Europe. I got asked to do a car commercial and got to improvise a little bit. I was like, “Oh, this is fun.” So I took an improv class years ago because… I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. Modeling was ridiculous, or at least I felt it was. Now I look back and I’m like, “That was a decent gig.” But I did a commercial and then took an improv class in England because I thought it was going to help me with auditions and stuff.

Where did standup come in?

It was through improv, this class. I made strangers laugh for the first time and I was like, “This is a blast.” I couldn’t believe making strangers laugh was as fun as hanging out with my friends in high school, being a smartass and making them laugh. I went back to Vancouver and took some more improv classes and met a comedian and actor named Nathan Clark. He was adamant about me trying standup. I was like, “Okay, fine.” I did standup once and I haven’t done improv since. I dedicated myself to standup after the first time. I did improv and thought it was fun, but when I did standup it was like night and day.

What do you prefer about standup?

I liked being completely in control as far as the preparation and what you put into it. Also, it felt like more of a rush getting a laugh when it’s just you onstage, as opposed to a whole team. The whole thing was more intense.

Those two fields work different muscles.

When I was taking improv classes the teachers would always refer to it as a muscle. I didn’t do improv for years and years and was asked to do it when I was back home in Vancouver one time and it is such a muscle. It’s crazy. I tend to riff, talk to the crowd and improvise in my act. People tend to think that had something to do with improv, but I think it’s something I would do anyway. But it was nuts how out of practice I was. It’s really something you need to stay on top of. Just like standup, if for some reason I take a couple of nights off and then go back to it, I feel rusty.

The more you increase your frequency in standup, the more crucial it becomes to either maintain that schedule or continue to increase it. If you’re used to going up every night and you take a vacation and don’t perform for a few days that first show back is always weird. It doesn’t feel right.

You also get nervous. It’s like, “Woah, I haven’t felt nervous in a long time.” You get out of the groove of it. That’s what I like so much about New York. You can do three shows a night, sometimes five. A lot of the time it comes down to the geography of the city. But that’s the beauty of New York: it becomes normal to do that many sets.

In watching your clips, I noticed that you have somewhat of a particular aesthetic: a lot of button-downs, ties, cardigan sweaters. Is that how you dress daily, or do you wear different clothes to perform?

I did for years. I wore a shirt and a cardigan. I haven’t worn a cardigan onstage in a while, but I wore shirts and cardigans before I started doing standup. When I started doing standup people would comment on it all the time and I would be like, “What? I’m just wearing a cardigan.” But then I just started getting really comfortable performing in it. I liked that I looked different from everyone in the crowd, which is something that I heard the bass player from The Clash say you should do when I was a kid. I just got in a habit of always wearing the same thing. It was really easy to pack two cardigans and three shirts for the weekend. It was last summer in New York and I’m doing five spots on a Saturday and it was crazy hot and I was still wearing a cardigan and a shirt. I got so hot and I kept having to change my shirt. So for the summer I just started wearing a t-shirt onstage and now I haven’t worn a cardigan in a long time. I totally would though.

Do you think that what a performer wears onstage is important? Should there be guidelines at all? For instance, I’ve had conversations with people recently about the no shorts/no flip-flops thing. I’ve heard from female comics who say they’ve been pressured by bookers to dress a certain way for a number of arbitrary reasons. Some people say there should be a certain decorum that shows respect to the art. Others say no one should tell anyone else what to wear onstage and that it should just be about the jokes and being funny. Have you given much thought to that?

I think it’s up to you. It’s weird to tell someone what to wear. But you’re performing and a lot of people are staring at you. I think you should make a conscious decision as to what you wear onstage. You owe it to the audience. You’re a performer and you should think through what you’re going to be performing in. It’s also a visual art.

Your Comedy Central Half Hour came out not too long ago. Most of the people who had Half Hours this year I talked to before they aired. I’m interested in finding out what the response has been since yours aired.

It’s been really good. I got a big bump in Instagram and Twitter followers. A lot of people have reached out on my website and have been complimentary. I’ve talked to people on road gigs and after shows and they’ve said they enjoyed it, stuff like that. I’ve been really happy with the response.

A lot of the other comics mentioned that the environment that Comedy Central set up for the show was super warm, the vibe was good and that you had the freedom to do what you wanted. How would you rate your experience shooting the special?

It was unbelievable. Comedy Central treated us so well. They gave us a bunch of gifts and one of them was a hoodie with our name on it, which for someone who was never in organized sports, I enjoyed it. I’m wearing it right now. They treated us so well. You could do whatever you wanted. Mine ended with bringing an audience member onstage. They were like, “Yes, of course, for sure.” They were really cool. The day before you tape you have a meeting with them and they really made it feel like it was your special and you could do what you want, which is great because it would be easy for them to just say, “This is how we do it.” “Can I bring someone onstage?” “No.” But they were great. I had written a couple of jokes that were brand new because I had been doing a ton of sets and had been on the road right before I taped it. I had new material, a couple of things that were brand new, even since I had submitted my last transcript. They were really cool and super accommodating.

From Modeling to Standup with Phil Hanley