Keeping Things Fresh with Sean Donnelly

Comedian Sean Donnelly answers the phone from his Brooklyn apartment, a space he shares with his wife and cool-as-hell English Bulldog, Rickles. He’s just wrapped up watching a block of old-school game shows on the Buzzr network. If his devotion to this channel is in question at all, allow me to mention that he once tweeted to Buzzr’s official account in excitement over seeing the same contestant on two different game shows. A native of Long Island, Donnelly has spent the last ten years climbing up the ranks of the New York comedy scene. The final quarter of 2015 was a big one for the comic, as he released his debut standup album on the eve of his Comedy Central Half Hour. I talked to Donnelly about his recent projects, keeping old jokes fresh, and when to blame the crowd.

What you are into today?

I’ve been watching the Buzzr channel. I don’t have cable, so I got one of those HD antennas and there’s a channel that pops up called Buzzr. It’s all old game shows. I just watch Super Password, Family Feud, The Match Game, stuff like that. Besides that, I have some spots tonight and I have to go audition for a movie at 4 o’clock. A full day. A full hardworking day.

I love those old channels. There’s one I watch called MeTV that plays reruns of Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Cheers, The Golden Girls. I find it so comforting.

I was just about to say that. I don’t know how old you are, but isn’t it so nostalgic? I watch these game shows and they’re announcing the prizes when they’re closing the show and I get like… I don’t cry, but I come close to crying sometimes. It makes you feel like you’re eight years old again or something. I have a joke in my act about how I watch Murder, She Wrote all the time. It’s nostalgic, man. It reminds me of going to my grandmother’s house. People our age, I think TV raised us a lot of the time. You stay in and watch so much TV as a kid that it becomes part of your family.

Your album Manual Labor Face dropped in November. How has the response been?

It’s been really good. I’ve been getting messages from people who didn’t know who I was before and they seem to enjoy it. You do standup all of the time and you don’t realize that if you put something out there’s going to be a reaction to it. That didn’t register. But then people started messaging me and I was like, “Oh yeah, you can get this wherever. It’s not just in New York where people see me live.” But the response has been good. I only had one guy who tweeted at me to shit on me. And he created a Twitter account just to do it.

You recorded it in Madison, Wisconsin.

Yeah, at Comedy Club on State.

Why did you choose Madison? Do you have ties there?

No. It’s an amazing club. It’s a really cool club in a college town. Any comic I’ve known who has gone to this club has absolutely loved the weekend they did there. Mark Normand recorded his album there and talked about how great it was. I listened to the album and it’s amazing how the crowd was. It was my first choice to record my album. They were great shows. The album came out great. The people were really, really nice. The way I describe the people at the shows is smart, but not cynical. In New York you get great audiences, but they have so many choices for what to do for nightlife that they can be like, “Ok, make me laugh, fatso.” I’ve run into that so many times. This Madison room, the attitude of the people there is like, “Ok, I’ll take this ride with you.” There’s more of an optimism there. The more you go on the road the more you run into that. You have audience members who come up after the show and say, “Thank you for coming to our city.” They know you traveled for it and they appreciate it. It makes me fall in love with comedy all over again. It makes me not get jaded or burnt out.

I heard that this album is the accumulation of six years of material that you’ve been working on.

Yeah, I would say realistically six or seven years.

If you’re like me, it’s easy to get sick of a joke after a couple of months. As a comic who probably goes up multiple times every night, how did you keep the material fresh enough so that it sounded good on the album, even though you’ve been telling some of the jokes for years?

I like doing crowd work. On the album, I tried to get into the jokes from a crowd work standpoint. Talk to somebody, get into a joke. You come at the joke from a fresher area. If something would come up about a certain topic, like pets or dogs, I can do my dog joke. It’s never going to be as fresh as you want it. If I’ve been doing it for so long I’m probably sick of it and you can probably hear it in my voice. So the beginning of the joke I try to get to it in a different way each time. The more I change it up, the fresher it will be. Maybe that’s getting into it, or playing with the order, or doing a new joke before it to satiate my appetite for doing new stuff. It’s about not doing it in the same stale way each time. I talked to Louis CK once. He had been doing comedy for 30 years. He asked how long I had been doing it and I said, “Nine years.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing.” I asked him the same question you asked me and he said, “I do new all the time, no matter what. Every set I do I do something new.” So as long as I do one new thing I’m happy with that part of the set even if I have to do some old stuff.

This is kind of on topic, but off topic as well: It took me a long time to realize that most shows – I would say 98% of shows, maybe 99% – the audience is on your side. They want you to do well. When you come up in New York comedy you’re dealing with some of the hardest audiences in the country and you get this idea in your head that it’s me versus you and I’m going to win you over. Only recently have I realized within the last couple of years that they want you to do well. If I go in with that attitude it makes it a lot more fun. The set goes better.

Do you feel that a bad show is ever the audience’s fault, or is it the responsibility of the comedian to deliver even if the crowd if full of monsters, three bachelorette parties, and a bunch of drunk frat dudes?

This is a very debated topic in comedy. I think there are absolutely bad audiences out there. Am I saying that you can’t get every audience? I think you can. Sometimes there are audiences out there that you don’t want to get because they’re shitty audiences. What I mean by shitty audiences is not the delusional idea of, “Everyone else did well, but I bombed, so they’re a shitty audience.” I mean that you’re watching amazing comics go up and get nothing and then you go up and get nothing. What else do you draw from that? If you’re watching professional comedians go up who you know are funny and they’re not doing well, 9/10 of the time it’s the audience. I think there’s a subconscious thing that goes on between audience members that they’ve decided to be tight and shitty for the night. It’s almost like they telepathically agreed. I think there are other factors: early shows, the vibe of the room. Can every audience be gotten? Yeah, but I do believe there are crappy audiences. And maybe there are some audiences who I don’t have the strength to get yet. I’m ok with that.

How was your experience recording your Comedy Central Half Hour?

It was great. Comedy Central is awesome. It was a lot of fun. I taped on the same night as my buddy Sam Morril, so we were hanging out at the hotel with everyone else taping around that time. Boston is really cool. The evening itself is such a great setup. It’s relaxing because they’re taping then editing later. It’s not like a comedy club where you’re on the chopping block. They even said, “If you screw something up, try it again.” The audience they get for those things is so hot. They’re into it. I messed up a joke twice and they still applauded and lost their minds the third time. I had an absolute 4 star experience. I felt like Karen in the wedding scene in Goodfellas.

Keeping Things Fresh with Sean Donnelly