The last time I talked to comedian and actor Andrew Santino he was celebrating two releases, his Comedy Central Half Hour and his comedy album Say No More. This weekend Santino has two more big releases, both on Showtime: his first hourlong standup special Home Field Advantage and the new series I’m Dying Up Here, wherein he plays the character of Bill Hobbs, a club favorite at a ‘70s era spot modeled after The Comedy Store. I talked to Santino about recording his special in his hometown of Chicago, his biggest comedy influences, and how I’m Dying Up Here pays homage to some of the early pioneers of standup comedy.
The last time we talked was in February of last year. Your Comedy Central Half Hour and album had just come out. You said that 2015 had been one of the best years of your career. Looking back over the last year or so, how would you say things have been going since we last spoke?
It’s only gone downhill. It’s been terrible and I’m really not happy about anything right now. No, things are fantastic. I have nothing to complain about. It’s been a great little stretch of time. Last year was a great year capped off by filming my special in Chicago and the Cubs winning the World Series. I did a few different things on TV and now I’ve got my hourlong special coming out on Showtime as well as I’m Dying Up Here. It’s been a long time coming and I hope people like it. If not, I’ll just hide away in my little cave until next time.
I thought it was nice that you had your grandma bring you up for your special.
I keep it real old school. I stick with the family to intro me. I had a great comic named Matty Ryan from Chicago open up and then my grandma introduced me. I was born and raised in Chicago and I kind of wanted to go home to where I’m from, where my roots are. This is the first time I’ve done an hour special, and it meant a lot to me because my family and friends were there – friends of friends, people I grew up with who I haven’t seen in years. It was a pretty remarkable moment. The material and jokes and the show…there’s so much build-up, but when you get to film it with family and friends it kind of makes everything feel okay. It washes away all that weird pressure and you get to have fun and enjoy the moment.
A lot of the material in the special plays to the Chicago audience. You talk a lot about the city, the people there, and stories about family and friends. Is that material that you have been sitting on for a while – before your half hour and album – until you could get back home to do it?
Yeah, kind of. Comedy Central had offered the half hour. I wanted to do an hour with them and they said, “Well, you can just do an hour on the album.” So there are one or two bits on the album that end up overlapping joke-wise into my hour because there was stuff I had before that I wanted to put on TV. In retrospect it was fine, but I kind of wish I didn’t even do the first album and just saved that. I had to be picky and choosy in piecing together what bits I wanted to go home with. A lot of the bits that are very Chicago-related and about me growing up in Chicago with my black friends and thinking I was black is stuff I wanted to save because I knew it would play well at home. I knew the people of Chicago would receive that stuff well. Every comic will tell you that a lot of crowds play differently to different social commentary. Some people are really uptight about stuff like that. Some people just enjoy the fact that it’s your experience and they want to hear you mock and joke about your life.
You’ve mentioned before that Bill Burr is one of your heroes. I can definitely see the influence in this special. Who are some of your other comedic heroes?
It’s different from the past than it is in the present. I can’t say enough good things about Bill Burr. I think he’s unequivocally the best standup comedian in the game right now. I think he’s a genius writer and performer and he’s a great person. He’s the embodiment of what I’d like to strive for. I do think he influences me in driving my opinions home. He does the same thing I do in that, yeah, you might not agree with me, but I’m here to tell you a joke about my viewpoint. I think standups, a lot of times, get lost in making sure they don’t upset anybody and making sure they stay with what the masses agree with. I kind of think that’s bullshit. Your job is to tell your joke, story, opinion, side. If they like it, great. If they don’t, but it makes them think, that’s even better. There are a lot of guys in the game that have forced me to feel that way. Carlin was always the guy I loved growing up. I found him so powerful and striking and intelligent. I was so jealous of that because I knew I would never be that way. I’m not a smart guy. I’m a dummy. I knew I would never be able to articulate my feelings as well as Carlin did. You know, when Swardson came out with his first Comedy Central special I thought it was amazing. I thought, “That’s standup at its best.” It’s a dude just telling stupid moments of his life and being self-deprecating. It was beautiful. The way Swardson came into the game was perfect to me. It was what every young comic wanted to do.
It’s interesting that you bring up Swardson. I don’t know how many people would say that they know him as a standup comedian. I think more people know him from movies and TV. But I’ve been hearing his name come up more and more among comics as somebody that really influenced them.
Another guy like that is Joe Rogan. He’s found his niche and his voice so specific and he is so strong at what he does. It’s very impressive to watch Joe do his thing. To tie in what you just said, guys like Joe are known by a heavy audience of UFC fans and by a very heavy audience of podcast fans. He has always been and always will be a great standup comic. But you’re right, nowadays your market becomes wherever they receive you. I’ve had people tell me, “I didn’t know you do standup. I thought you were just an actor.” That’s fine. I don’t care how you see me as long as you enjoy what you see me do. I don’t care if you see me doing some sponsored piece of material on the internet as long as you enjoy it and found it funny.
At the end of the day this is our career. It’s a business and we’re trying to do as much as we can and be true to what we want to do while also making a living. I think that gets lost in the matrix of comedy fans, which I have a problem with sometimes. Diehard comedy fans are a very small market. America’s huge. Comedy fans are in LA, New York, Chicago, major cities. But people forget that there are not a lot of diehard standup fans in other parts of the country. You have to appeal to them in different ways, whether it’s TV, film, web series, premium cable, Netflix, all that stuff. I think the more audiences that you can appeal to other than the diehard comedy nerds who are picking apart every word you say, every set, criticizing you, writing bad blogs about you…I think you have to open up the spectrum of who can receive you. However they receive you is a wonderful thing as long as they can keep up with you and enjoy what you’re doing. I’m not shitting on comedy fans. I just think that we get so wrapped up in the standup comedy world of “What are the comedy fans going to think about this set I did on Conan or taped for Comedy Central?” We get so worried and insecure. We need to remember that the country is bigger than that and the world is even bigger than that.
I don’t know if this qualifies as a personal mantra, but you just said something almost verbatim that you told me over a year ago, which was, “I don’t care what people know me for as long as they know me for what I’m proud of.”
Yeah, I just want to do what I like. As I was just saying that to you I remembered saying it. It is kind of a mantra for me. I’ve been asked that kind of question in a million interviews but I probably haven’t given that quote but twice to you. I can’t control how people see me or what they see me as. Society is going to put you in whatever box they want to put you in. If they see me as a standup, great. If they think of me as a great comedic writer, an actor, or good in some sketch that they saw, that’s awesome. Comics are so insecure and picky. They’re their own worst critics. A lot of times we can get in our own way. As I’ve gotten a little older in comedy I’ve become more grounded in where I am and where I’m headed.
Speaking of where you’re headed, I’m Dying up Here premieres this weekend. One of the things that interested me about the show is that we are seeing a period in comedy that we haven’t really seen before in other shows, the ‘70s. There are so many shows with comedians as main characters, but they’ve always been contemporary. Each character in the main cast is an version of a notable comic or comics from that time. Who is your character Bill Hobbs influenced by?
We like to say that the characters pay homage or are derivative of people of that era. This is why they wanted to do a show set in 1972 – there are a lot of shows now about standup, like Louie and Pete’s [Holmes] show. Those are great shows, but I think showing the birth of standup, where this all came from, is very important. My character Bill is somewhat derivative of Bill Hicks. His characteristics and mannerisms – other than not being born in the South – are very indicative of Bill Hicks, someone who was very critical, had a lot of anger inside of him, was very sardonic, and very blue. Granted, the standup of Bill Hobbs is not like Bill Hicks, but I feel like the personality traits are derivative of someone like Bill Hicks. I love Bill. I think his posthumous career is very symbolic of a man who was mad at the world and then the world loved him when he died. The irony of that is why it’s so beautiful.
Ari Graynor – who is amazing on the show – is an amalgamation of every female comic who started in the Belly Room of The Comedy Store, everyone from Joan Rivers to Sandra Bernhard. She’s a big mishmash of all of the strong, powerful women that had to pave the way in a male-dominated industry, which it still is, but then so much more difficult when they were pushed aside. Melissa Leo, a ridiculously good Oscar-winning actor, plays Goldie, who – and you shouldn’t say this to her – is based on Mitzi Shore. Melissa created Goldie as a character of her own and she wants it to stand alone in its own little vacuum, and I totally understand that. But comics who grew up in that world know that’s where the character comes from. Everybody on the show takes from the past and creates something new.
Home Field Advantage airs on Showtime tonight at 9:00pm, and I’m Dying Up Here premieres Sunday night at 10:00pm.