I GO WHERE I’M ALLOWED AND TELL JOKES. Interview with CHARLEY McMULLEN
The Polish stand-up scene is like a kid who struggles to eat with a spoon. When he’s two years old, it’s cute, but when he’s 12, it’s a sign of serious mental problems. That’s why when I wanted to delve behind the scenes of the world of stand-up comedy, I looked for someone who knows his craft. Meet Charley McMullen, a succesful Colorado stand-up comedian and the author of comedy album Zen as Fuck.
Michal Puczynski: I’ve listened to your Zen as Fuck album and I know Charley McMullen the comedian, but I want to know the person you are after you leave the stage. If there’s one thing Louis C.K. has been trying to tell us, it’s that stand up comedians aren’t as funny and happy as they seem. So, are you a funny guy in general, or are just a funny comedian?
Charley McMullen: First off, I should establish right outta the gate that self-perception has always been an issue with me. It’s something I continue to work on, but it’s possible I could be completely wrong in answering questions about myself. That’s just how I’m wired.
Am I a funny guy in regular life? I try to be. Being funny has always been the best way for me to make a good first impression with people. I’m very entertaining to my wife’s relatives at barbecues and birthday parties. My daughter’s friends tell her I’m funny after seeing me on YouTube. At best, I’d like to think I’m what’s called a “comic’s comic” -the comedian who can make the other comedians laugh, based on what my friends tell me. On some nights, what happens on stage doesn’t have shit on what happens after the show when 6 comedians are standing around a cold bar patio, passing a joint, trying to make each other laugh.
I can never gauge how funny I’m being at any given time, though. If you can be a quick smart ass without being mean about it, you’re a funny dude. In my day-to-day life, I’ve worked a lot of otherwise unbearable jobs where it makes the day easier if someone can make you laugh. It takes me a while to get there, though, because I start off really quiet and introverted when I meet new people, like when I start a new job or something. A lot of people tell me “I thought you were so creepy when I first met you, but you’re hilarious!” after a couple weeks.
Louis CK is right that it isn’t uncommon for the unhappiest people to turn out to be the best comics. There are a lot of reasons for that and everyone has their own. I guess, for me, making other people happy can make me feel a little better about myself. There’s no quicker, more instantly-gratifying way to make complete strangers happy than by telling them jokes. Plus, people with problems want to laugh at those problems. I -just as a typical, geeky American with a moderate amount of daily stress- am way more likely to relate to material about depression and social akwardness than material about love and confidence, you know? I think depression is a lot more common, but nowhere near as debilitating, than people think.
MP: How does one become a stand up comedian? I don’t suppose it’s a sudden idea: hey, I should try comedy now. When did you realize you want to do stand up?
CMc: The “why” is different for everyone. I just always got a charge out of making people laugh. When I was growing up I would watch and record hour-long comedy specials on HBO and watch them all over and over again. My favorites were Richard Pryor: Here and Now, Robin Williams: Live at the Met and George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York. Carlin, especially, had some of the greatest moments in the history of American comedy on HBO. I wanted to be liked by people the way I was liking those guys.
I never thought about doing stand up until I was 16 and my dad had gotten us tickets to see George Carlin when he toured through Colorado. We were sitting third row center. That remains the best show I’ve ever seen. The way it felt to be in that crowd was the way I wanted to make people feel. I had kicked around the idea for a while and gone to a couple of open mics, but I had my daughter when I was 18 and things got changed around a bit, so I didn’t really start pursuing it in earnest until I was 30. I was performing with an improv group and started opening those shows with 5 to 10 minutes of stand up and it got to the point where I enjoyed the stand up more than the improv show, so I just started going to open mics as often as possible. That’s the “how”.
It’s also my favorite thing about comedy; it’s a 100% completely level playing field where there is no edge anyone can get with better equipment, better software, better anything. It’s just you and your material and the funnier you are, the better you are, period. The only way to get better is to write and perform -the only two things a comedian can do- until you’re better. The “how” is the same for everyone.
MP: What were your first steps in comedy?
CMc: In retrospect, my first step in comedy was to answer an ad in the paper for a KJ (karaoke host). Up to that point, I would often go to karaoke for fun, and even filled it for a host one night, so I figured it would be a good way to pick up some extra cash at night.
I still host karaoke almost 10 years later. It taught me early on that once you gain an audience’s trust, you can take them wherever you want. A lot of KJs who ran the shows I had been going to make the mistake of trying to “outcool” an audience and put on some kind of ridiculous DJ Persona. I called bullshit on that right away. I have always tried to be myself whenever I’m in front of a crowd. An audience respects sincerity, even if it’s wrapped in a dick joke.
In 2007, I answered another ad in the paper, which was an audition for an improv troupe. I had joined Razor Wit -what started as an 11 person team, was later whittled down to 8, then 6, then 4, then two, then four again. The constant two were me and Paul Abeyta. He is still the best improv actor I’ve ever known. Eventually, we moved onto other shit, and mine was stand up.
I don’t know if I’d recommend my background to others necessarily, but karaoke and improv make great building blocks to be a comedian. It’s the practice you need to be a good emcee at a comedy show. That’s usually the first stage. Hit enough open mics at a comedy club and the owner might ask you to host a weekend; that’s 15 minutes at the top of the show, introduce the feature, comeback and give shout-outs to the wait staff, introduce the headliner, come back and say goodnight. Five sets over three days. An emcee is lucky to get $50 for hosting a whole weekend. Do enough weekends, do them well, and then get bumped to feature, then after a number of years, to headliner.
MP: What about your first performance?
CMc: My very first stand up performance was for a talent show in the sixth grade, if we’re going for total accuracy. I don’t remember much about that other than getting a stage boner and hiding it discreetly and successfully. What I consider my first official performance was at an open mic at a bar across the street from a call center where I worked. I don’t remember any of my jokes, other than something about Pope Benedict’s questionable past and another one about dwarves. That was in 2006. I had no idea how to prepare for that. I wrote jokes down word-for-word the way I planned to tell them on stage. I know now that that’s absurd and you should never be that rigid with yourself when you’re trying to get an audience to relate to you.
I didn’t do stand up again until 2010 when I would open the improv shows Razor Wit was doing. Another member of Razor Wit was James Amos, who had joined up after Paul and I had appeared in a community theatre production with him. In late 2010, Razor Wit had more-or-less disbanded and James and I started hitting the open mics in surrounding cities pretty regularly. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
MP: Let’s talk a little bit more about your first show. You’re behind the curtain, you’re waiting for your turn (correct me if it didn’t look like that at all). What do you feel?
CMc: The first Razor Wit show I opened for was in Pueblo, CO at a club called The Red Raven. It wasn’t “officially” a club because it didn’t “officially” have a “liquor license”, but somehow every audience that ever went to a show there was drunk as shit, making the very tall staircase entrance a true survival-of-the-fittest situation. There wasn’t a curtain because the space was just a ton of square footage and high ceilings, but nothing really built-in, so I was standing behind one of those Japanese screen room dividers before my first set. I was wearing a white shirt with a black suit and a black tie because that was usually how Razor Wit would dress on stage, so I was multiple kinds of uncomfortable.
I was told to do a 10 minute set. I was poring over my notebook, thinking of last minute changes in wording, worrying about how I look, worrying about how much of my shit will be too weird for people to get. I felt my blood pressure spike and forced myself to take deep breaths and hold it together despite how nervous I was. Pretty much all of the same things I still worry about every single time I go on stage.
At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I was pretty damn proud of myself afterward. Truthfully, the jokes in that set were pretty hit-and-miss, but I feel like I earned every laugh I got because it was so far removed from the vibe of the improv shows, where I had props and other peoples’ set-ups, and whatnot. Stand up just felt like such a pure way to make people laugh. It was just me, my material and them.
MP: So a joke misses. What do you do? Do you keep going with your routine or change it and improvise? You said you got nervous and that’s the part of performing before a live audience… but do you always manage to stay calm, or at least to make that impression?
CMc: I hope I manage to give that impression. I’m not calm at all when I’m onstage. I’ve probably done it a thousand times at this point, but I still get butterflies every time I go on stage. If a joke tanks, I mention it if I can think of something quick and funny. Once I poured a little bit of my bottled water on the floor in honor of a joke that just died. The worst thing you can do is tell an audience they didn’t get it. That just lame. One should always assume they got it and simply didn’t find it funny.
MP: What if you’re not in the mood? Have you ever been in a situation where you had to do a show but had a bad day and didn’t really want to smile and tell jokes? Can you just switch into the “funny” mode?
CMc: I think I actually lucked out a little in that respect because I’m frequently told by other comics I work with all the time that I’m funniest when I’m sad, angry or frustrated. A rotten mood has never hindered my ability or desire to do a set. Being an emcee, on the other hand, can absolutely suffer if you’re in a depressed mood and the audience is counting on you to re-energize them if someone bombs. Trying to manufacture that kind of energy is a necessary evil of being a professional. Again, I think the karaoke gig was good training for that.
MP: Have you confronted any hecklers?
CMc: Sometimes. I’m usually the type to ignore people if they’re just yelling random shit out. If you respond to that, you have to first figure out what they’re saying, then make it funny, then use it against them. If someone’s good at crowd work, I say make that your whole set. It’s hilarious if you’re doing it right. I’ve never been much for crowd work. I think that’s because I’m an extremely non-confrontational person in my everyday life. However, if someone yells something about me or something I said, I’ll respond. It can look weak to the audience if you don’t at least defend yourself.
MP: Do you ever run out of jokes? I’m asking because I can imagine there’s some kind of pressure to write new stuff, or to fill the running time of a show or an album. Do you ever struggle to come up with a joke, or do your jokes just write themselves?
CMc: Oh, this shit writes itself!! No, not really. Like most people in creatively-driven professions (notice resisted using the term “artist” because not all humor is art. If I’m proud of a joke for how smart I think it is, I can call it art. If I’m proud of it for a pun, or a shocking misdirection, or just an admittedly dumb punchline, I’ll tell it if it seems like the right crowd, but I can’t consider that art.), there is a lot of pressure to remain productive. Also, like most other art forms (fuck it.), there are times when you are just blocked and in a slump. All you can do is refocus your brain to something like comedy until you get past it. For instance, right now (FEB. 21st, 2015) I have been doing stand up constantly, but haven’t been able to draw anything for anyone (an occasional source of supplemental income as a cartoonist) in months.
Being productive in whatever way you can be is just sort of a responsibility for any person, and it’s not always easy. For a comedian, the pressure to keep writing new material is especially hard when you’re starting out. If you’re like me, the first two months or so of your comedy career were spent in front of roughly the same audience made up of your friends and people your friends were able to bring. Especially in a small town. That’s the case until you go out of town to perform. Even then, you’re performing to an audience of other open mic comedians most nights, and they have already heard a lot of your jokes. If you DON’T write new material, other comedians notice and hold that against you.
After my first year of doing stand up, I made a rule for myself to do at least one brand-new joke at every show. If it’s an important show that someone is paying me to do, I won’t do that because in that situation it would be an unprofessional dick move on my part if one new joke tanks a whole set because it does so poorly. But most nights I still do it. That’s the primary reason I have for using social media.
The first place I put a knew joke is Facebook. I do that because it gives you a date and time of when you came up with that joke. Also, I take stock of how many people “Like” a joke in the first two hours and, of them, how many are other comedians and, of them, whose opinions do I value the most. Facebook, to me, is like an audition for a joke. If it does well, I do it at an open mic and, if it does well again, I’ll do it in a showcase, and so on until it’s on an album. Once you have solid, rehearsed jokes that you can get a lot of time out of because of the performance, collect them until you have about two hours of new material, then that’s edited down to your next album. That is the metamorphosis/life cycle of a bit! Once it’s on an album, I -if not completely retire it- only do it once in a while.
MP: You have some really good jokes, but is it the only requirement to be successful at stand up? There are celebrity comedians that seem more popular than movie stars, but nonetheless some of them are labeled as painfully unfunny. I guess I’m asking if stand up is a part of the American dream: do you only need to be good at comedy and try really hard to get rich and famous, or is there something more behind successful people? Advertising budget and connections, perhaps?
CMc: Stand up is definitely part of what I consider to be my version of the American Dream. That’s my ultimate goal: Do stand up for, let’s say, 9 months out of the year (that’s not a paternity joke, by the way. It just seems like a round number, though it’s literally an odd number.), and spend one month on an issue of a comic book (that I could sell at live shows the following year, then spend a month on other shit; short films, podcasts, etc, then regroup for a month). Stand up would be the backbone of it all for me.
I’ve seen a lot of guys whose American Dream is to be famous, in which case stand up just looks like the easiest stepping stone. Even when it works, you have nationally touring comedians who are getting so popular because their material is so dumbed-down and mass-marketed. Guys like Gabriel Eglasias, Dane Cook, Tyler Perry and Larry the Cable Guy are great examples of success achieved through popularity rather than being genuinely funny. They all have material that feels intentionally broad and dumbed-down so that it will appeal to the most people. Which is fine if you want do be a movie star, but it makes it that much more of a stretch for the educated audience when legitimately-funny comedians are trying to get them to take a chance on paying to see a live comedy show. Fame is the American Dream for those guys. I’ve also seen hilarious comedians quit out of frustration because they refused to even relate to an audience, much less pander to one.
Luck -especially regarding connections to other people in entertainment to sneak you past the gatekeepers- is definitely part of it, but I think a good comedian who deserves success is one who has found a way to be themselves and and make that funny. I’m not likely to ever have a catchphrase, is all I’m saying. Although, on the other hand, If a writer approached me with a script, and I really thought it was funny, and a studio offered me Madea-money to star in it, I would totally do it if I really, truly thought it was funny. I don’t think that is a requirement for people who just want to be movie stars, thus a whole lot of painfully unfunny performances in a lot of painfully unfunny movies starring former comedians.
But, we’re all entitled to our dreams. My simple one that I’m still trying to achieve is no more or less heartfelt than the enormous one Carrot Top has already achieved. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you are free to be as dumb and successful as you can be!
MP: Let’s talk about your album “Zen As Fuck”. How did the process of making the album look like?
CMc: The album was my idea and, in retrospect, I kind of feel like I took that initiative a bit prematurely. At the time I decided to record an album, I was hosting a weekend for the second time at a comedy club in Colorado Springs called Loonees. Hosting a weekend at a club means you do 15 minutes at the top, bring up the feature who does 30 minutes, then come back, thank the waitstaff, advertise for next weekend’s show, then bring up the headliner who does 45 minutes to an hour.
So far, I had seen every feature and headliner that I had opened for carry in boxes of their own CDs, sell them after all five shows and, in some cases, make more than what the club was paying them. After all the karaoke and filmmaking projects, I had learned a fair amount about recording sound, so I just booked a show in Pueblo at a place that was not normally known for comedy, and let people know that I was going to do 45 minutes to an hour -which was the longest by far that I had ever done up to that point- and that I was going to record it for an album. I even advertised it as Charley McMullen’s Album Show and recorded everything by hooking my video camera (Canon XL-H1) directly into the soundboard, then usind a second on-stage mic facing the other way to record the audience. It was a learning process, but we just uploaded the footage from the camera into John Brown’s Mac, isolated the audio from the video, deleted the video, and we had a recorded album that could be edited in GarageBand for absolutely no money invested. That’s why we gave it away for free on Geek Juice. I like the DIY approach and am using what I’ve learned with Zen as Fuck for the next album, tentatively titled “Like A Gentleman”.
The material on Zen as Fuck represented what I thought was the best I had as of 2013 and, almost two years later, there are a couple of really good jokes that I still do sometimes, but a lot of that record sounds now like a more nervous and awkward version of who I am after those extra years of experience. I love the record, but if I had it to to over again, I would’ve waited another year or so before recording an album. It’s blowing my mind how well it’s been received by the online community. As a guy who started out on a podcast, I can say you guys really support your own.
MP: What are your perspectives? What are your goals? How far ahead do you plan your career?
CMc: My perspective is something I struggled with early on. In the beginning, I learned that I didn’t have a “hook”. If a guy is overweight, his whole set could be about that, if a guy is black, or Hispanic, or gay, his whole set could be about that. There’s nothing about me for an audience to grab onto right away. Eventually, enough people started responding to the weirder material and wordplay jokes, so I just kind of settled on “confused outsider”. Now, comedians who look like me (beard, glasses, black hoodie) are practically their own sub-genre. I guess my perspective caught up with me. My goal is to do comedy for a living. How far ahead do you plan for something like that? Overall, my plan for the future is to do be a comedian for the rest of my life. In the day-to-day, I just try to book my next show every day, so planning ahead for me is dictated by who’s willing to let me be a comedian. I pretty much just go where I’m allowed and tell jokes.
MP: Many thanks for the conversation. Where should we go to listen to Charley McMullen’s Zen as Fuck?
CMc: My album is still available for free download at www.geekjuicemedia.com. While you’re there, check out the other shows, podcasts and articles on the site. Those little weirdos are doing good work over there. Thanks for the interview, man. I LOVE YOU, POLAND!!