Johnathan Appel (@johnathanappel) is a comedian and writer based in New York City. His writing has been featured in The New Yorker and McSweeney’s. He also writes for the BoogieManja sketch team Dropout Kids and performs with his character team, Poughkeepsie. He co-hosts a monthly variety show, Very Nice People Saying Very Nice Things, at Q.E.D. and runs Some Fun Lines, an open mic for satire and humor writing.
This week, Johnathan and I talked Anton Chekhov, the AP Stylebook, and white dudes who love David Foster Wallace.
How did you get into doing comedy?
When I was 8, I wanted to be like Jim Carrey in The Mask, which I guess means a comedian? But my dad told me it was an “unstable career choice” so I dropped it until I got to college. When I saw the improv group there, I got so excited I auditioned four times and never got on. So then I did plays (I was Lopakhin in Cherry Orchard for you Chekhov-heads out there). I graduated college and went to teach in a small town in Taiwan for a year, but the only English-language performance there was stand-up comedy. I started running an open mic there, fell in love with making people laugh, and I’ve been doing comedy back in NYC in different forms ever since.
I’ve always been a really bad procrastinator. I wrote 70 pages of my college poli-sci thesis the morning it was due. I always make deals with myself like Okay, go get coffee but then write or Catch a few Pokemon but then write, but future Johnathan breaks the promise. So I tweeted this to make fun of myself when I was trying to just sit down and focus. Also, after I posted this tweet, my mom did text me that she was proud of me! So Twitter brings families together.
Has social media changed your sense of humor at all? Do you think it has changed the way you write or tell jokes onstage?
Yes! It’s made my sense of humor a lot snappier and weirder. I feel like every time I’ve had a tweet I’ve been proud of, it’s been very much something only I could write but also clear. That’s bled into my writing and performance for sure: Get to it fast and make it as me as possible. It’s completely changed the way I write, because I’ve met some of my favorite co-writers over Twitter. Every one of those pieces I got their thoughts on or co-wrote with them is weirder and better because of it. I’m an adult with internet friends and I love it. Also, sometimes it’s cool and anxiety-inducing to see how people respond to jokes I make about them on Twitter. Like the time Anthony Scaramucci got mad at me or when the AP Stylebook retweeted a nerdy piece I wrote about them with my friend Lillian Stone.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the comedy scene right now?
I think it’s the toxic and stubborn idea that comedy is about innate talent rather than learned skill. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “You have it or you don’t.” Every performer or writer needs to take classes or find a place to practice and fail around people willing to teach. But in comedy, sometimes people ignore this and just say “Get good at mics,” which means ignoring how prohibitively high the prices of classes are for many people. Also, believing this means that we forget about the massive amounts of rejection successful writers and performers have faced — and still face! The only reason I’m still plugging away at comedy is because most of the many rejections I’ve gotten have been kind and encouraging. We need way more of that in the scene.
I love this tweet because 16-year-old me would stop conversations to talk about how edgy atheism was, and current me will stop a conversation if a cute dog walks by. Especially if it’s fluffy. And doubly especially if it’s wearing a sweater (it’s that time of year after all). So this is deeply personal but also not at all.
What’s your favorite aspect of doing stand-up?
I love editing and rewriting, which I realize as I’m typing is the only part of stand-up that is homework (is it weird that I miss the regimented structure of homework?). It feels like a puzzle to me: Why did something go well one day and so badly the next? It could be the sentence structure or which words I’m stressing in which way or that I need to move around more or stop moving my hands so fucking much. I also love that stand-up can be absolutely anything as long as you and the audience are having fun.
To get this tweet, you must know that white straight men have an obsession with name-dropping David Foster Wallace and that I am very much a white straight man. If I could be one of Mumford’s sons in Mumford & Sons, I’d be so very happy. I lived in his room and didn’t talk about it. But I just did so I am also the butt of my own joke. I really love talking about and punching up at whiteness and masculinity in my comedy, and this tweet definitely shows that.
Remind me one more time: Whose dorm did you live in in college?
Oh, I never used to talk about this, but it was David Foster Wallace’s dorm room. If you ever read his work, especially Infinite Jest, remember to look at the footnotes. Take notes because they really tie the world together and oh God what have I become?
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