What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they're comedians? No, that's not it. It is a fact, though, that America's biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a new recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York's vibrant comedy scene. It's called Meet Me In New York.
Hari Kondabolu and I shared a condo in Aspen four Februarys ago. Wait. That sounds weird. Hari Kondabolu is a funny stand-up comedian who's from New York City, but spent time away from the city to develop his comedy skills before coming back. Now look at him. Specifically on Friday, you can look at him when Comedy Central debuts his first half-hour Comedy Central Presents. Let's get to know him better.
Name: Hari Kondabolu
Arrival date: December 2008
Arrived from: Seattle
When and where did you start performing comedy? I did standup for the first time on January 14, 2000, when I was a 17-year old senior at Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens. I started a comedy night called "Comedy Night" and closed it out with approximately 20-25 minutes of horrible standup comedy. I continued doing horrible comedy during my college years at Bowdoin College and Wesleyan University and during trips back to New York City on breaks from school. I started to perform regularly around October 2005 after I moved to Seattle and discovered a burgeoning alt-scene and a supportive home club in the Comedy Underground. I learned to be funny and hone my skills in Seattle.
What was your best credit before moving here? I performed at the 2007 HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen and Jimmy Kimmel Live (also in 2007) and then Comedy Central's Live at Gotham in 2008.
Why did you pick NYC over LA or anywhere else? I grew up in Queens, so moving to NYC was me finally coming home. My parents and brother are here, so I knew I'd be well-supported. It's not quite the same as someone starting fresh in a new city.
How long did it take to get your first paid gig in NYC after moving here? Don't remember. Maybe a couple of months. It was maybe in the range of $5-$20.
How is this scene better/same/worse than the scene you moved from?There are more performance opportunities each night in New York City, but I was definitely getting more consistent, higher quality stage time in Seattle each week. By "higher quality," I mean shows where I could do longer sets (15 minutes or more) in front of decent-sized audiences who were attentive and supportive. Seattle audiences can be really thoughtful and fairly well-read, which worked to my strengths. Polishing a joke in NYC seems to take a lot longer than it did in Seattle and I so I relish every trip back there. Practically speaking, NYC has industry and Seattle does not, so you're limited from a business standpoint. (Though not creatively.) Also, you can't be lazy if you want to make it in NYC and the talent level here is extremely high, so once you kind of know what you're doing, it speeds your development into a more serious comedian.
What tip would you give to any comedian who moves here? Be patient. There are many comedians, and lots of really good ones, in New York City and you have to earn stagetime. I had 2 TV credits and a major festival appearance before I moved back here and my first year in New York kicked my butt. I was doing 5-minute sets in the back of a tea house in Chinatown trying to figure out what went wrong. The best advice I could give a comedian is to NOT start in NYC. Start in a place where you can get lots of stagetime early, build confidence and develop an act. I learned how to feature and headline in Seattle, as well as how to do a tight 7 minutes. I developed my voice and learned how to perform for different audiences. Obviously, there are amazing comedians who started in NYC, but since stagetime is harder to get, you don't get as many opportunities to do long sets early. You have to be better faster here if you want to move up. The comics I've met from Boston, SF and Chicago definitely seem to have a leg up when they get to NYC. (Boston comics are particularly good with their short game and I think Rick Jenkins and the Comedy Studio has a lot to do with that.)
Additionally, NYC is a hard place to live, especially if you're an artist, so you better have your shit together before you come here. Come with a plan and lots of strong videos of yourself. If you're killing it in your old scene, tape yourself as much as you can. Have something to show people when you move. Build relationships with other comics. Try to avoid starting from the ground up again and if you have to start from the bottom, go up a lot and stay focused. If you're here to do this, there's no use getting discouraged and not performing...even if it's the shittiest spot in the world. You came here to do comedy, so do it whenever and wherever you can.
How did growing up in NYC shape your desire to be in show business?
The proverbial "they" always tell new comedians to embrace the things that make them unique but also relate to the audience. If you're overweight, joke about that right away. If you have a different ethnic background, address it! That's what they say, anyhow. I don't even know who they are. In "Manoj," a short film by stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu that screened at this summer's Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, Kondabolu visits an alternate universe where a comedian named Manoj is getting all of the laughs by "Indianing it up." It makes a statement not only about what Kondabolu must be thinking from time to time about his own comedy, but also about how and why the industry rewards whom it does. Worth watching. Live footage shot at the Comedy Underground in Seattle, with roles for the club's longtime ass. man. Carl Warmenhoven and comedian David Cope. Enjoy. Note: Some language is NSFW.
So, while in Montreal, I completely forgot to set my DVR to record last Friday's edition of Live at Gotham. Sorry! So I, like you, must make do with Internet videos. Here are two routines from Chelsea Peretti that she performed as part of the New Faces in Montreal at Just For Laughs. The other stand-ups from this episode (Bob Biggerstaff, Hari Kondabolu, Mike DeStefano, Hugh Moore and Ryan Sickler) get clips, too, after the jump. Enjoy!
Friday in Aspen: The 2007 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival
Stand Up D
Hosted by Hyla Matthews, who had a recurring bit pretending to go through all of the relationship steps with a guy in the front row. And now for your comedians.
Kyle Kinane. I met this guy the first night I got into Aspen and he wore a bizarre beret that he even said was not a beret. That’s the bizarre part. But when he grabbed the mic and said, “What’s happening, snowflakes and fingerprints?!” I knew to expect some comedy gold. And Kinane delivered, with a sharp self-deprecating style. He might have thought his volcano barbecue bit didn’t go so well, but he shouldn’t worry so much. Good job.
Hari Kondabolu came next, and (full disclosure: condo roommate) he impressed me with his social commentary on the diversity of white people, selling people to India, and immigration.
Then Dan Boulger came up. So rewarding to see him just slay an audience of complete strangers (and important industry types). The audience slowly rose to a boil, and as soon as Boulger’s Bush/Hitler joke landed, they were roaring til the end. Nicely played. Boulger told me the audience reacted similarly the previous time, and he wondered if he should move the Hitler bit up. I said no no. You’ve got it timed just right. Let ‘em warm up to you. By the way, I love Boulger, and I hate him, because he made me stay up way too late Thursday night (so if you were lacking for blog posts, now you know). And now for your next comedian.
Michelle Buteau. Heyhey! What? Hello! The Jamaican/Haitian lady says, “You know how I got so light? It’s called colonialism.” Heyyy!
Owen Benjamin. Opened with a joke about how silly it is that people couldn’t distinguish between Superman and Clark Kent. Followed that with a joke about how he’s tall, so people think he plays basketball. Um, yeah. He did rebound (ahem) with material about his gay and gayer parents. And a good diamond joke. And I found some funny videos of him. So that makes up for his opener.
Lavell Crawford delivered some spot-on jokes about Aspen. “Heated sidewalks?” he said. “I’m telling all the homeless people I know about this!” His closing bit about Subway dragged on a bit, though. Just saying.
Wednesday in Aspen: The 2007 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival
Twenty-four hours after I boarded a Silver Line bus in Boston for the airport, I’m sitting in a condo on the side of the mountain in Aspen, coasting on my fourth wind into what already is shaping up to be one of the craziest weekends of my life.
Notwithstanding marriage and prison.
And those are two entirely different stories, mind you.
Focus, readers. Focus.
But first, an examination of how we (meaning I) got here.
Listed departure time for my United Airlines flight from Boston’s Logan airport: 7:49 a.m Eastern
Actual departure time: 9 a.m.
Why? After getting out onto the runway, the pilot announced we might have a delay in Denver, so we need to fuel up. Don’t we have enough fuel? Regardless. Or perhaps not without some regard, we taxi back to the gate, put some more petrol into the plane, and finally take off.
Listed arrival time in Denver: 10:30 a.m. Mountain
Actual arrival time: 11:30 a.m. Mountain
Why? See above.
Still plenty of time to catch the 12:43 p.m. flight to Aspen, only the flights are canceled. They’ve all been canceled. Wednesday and Tuesday. What to do, what to do. United Airlines books us on buses, which board and leave Denver from the airport tarmac. Yes, really. Our bus pulled away from gate B73 at 3:15 p.m., arriving at the Aspen airport five hours later, just in time to see the lights of an actual airplane landing there. What? Not that it could’ve helped us. That flight had arrived from Chicago. Apparently, not all planes are created equal, and the new planes from Denver somehow lack the wherewithal to land in Aspen unless the weather conditions are idyllic. Not that this should surprise anyone who has flown into Aspen before. The airport isn’t merely tucked or nestled among the mountains. From the air, you don’t even know Aspen or its airport runway exists until you’re on top of it.
Anyhow, my roommate for the week, comedian Shane Mauss, endured an even more arduous journey on Tuesday. He and other performers, including fellow Bostonian Dan Boulger, had attempted the flight from Denver, only to turn around just before landing in Aspen -- they then had to wait hours for a bus, which took six hours to reach Aspen since the mountain passes, were, um, not quite passable. They missed their official unofficial “warm-up” industry showcase. And they didn’t get their luggage until Wednesday afternoon. So who was I to complain? Exactly.
Anyhow. The luggage arrived with me, and we both made it to base camp, aka the festival and the condo, by 9 p.m., or a half-hour before George Carlin’s scheduled performance.
A brief high-altitude sprint and a well-placed phone call led me to the Wheeler Opera House with minutes to spare. The p.a. announcer noted that Carlin is celebrating 50 years in comedy (as is Don Rickles, subject of a special ceremony and panel later in the week), and film clips displayed Carlin’s transformation from goofball to social critic to what he is now, ultimately a little of both. A critical goofball.
He came right out and announced he planned to deliver 77 minutes of all new material. If the audience didn’t like it, well, please consult any of the seven dirty words.
“The audience doesn’t really figure into my plans,” Carlin declared. “The way I see it, you’re here for me. I’m here for me. And no one is here for you.”
So what about him?
Well, Carlin delivered closer to 80 minutes. He did acknowledge that the altitude might make the gaps seem longer as he caught his breath, and he noted more than once that he would rely on his notes and that this was a workshop. Not a show. But almost a show.
The strongest sections appeared to include a 15-minute riff on the b.s. we accept without questioning it, followed by a 10-minute discussion on people who won’t shut up, and ways to perhaps induce them into silence.
Among the less-successful, completely throwaway lines were a few disgusting street jokes and a joke that literally and figuratively felt ripped from a scene in There’s Something About Mary, as well as an oft-told bit about how all athletes shouldn’t be praising God for their success.
Carlin did share some insight by recasting the nuclear proliferation into religion and class issues, and ended with a different take on human rights.
The workshop should prove useful as Carlin develops his new act.
After a brief break, Carlin re-emerged for a few photographs and a few questions for the press -- the only other media reps there were a woman from the AP and a guy representing Sirius radio. Holding down the anchor slot, Carlin immediately noted my Irish name and Boston reference, asking me what county my family hails from. Carlin also comes from Irish stock. At any rate. Got in a couple of good questions and received some solid answers which will resurface soon enough.
But onto the next show.
Arrived at the night’s last stand-up showcase too late to see Mauss, but saw TJ Miller and Erik Charles Nielsen. Former local Jon Fisch hosted this group. I’d seen Miller and Nielsen before, but only on tape. I want to hold off on saying more until I see that group as a whole in one show.
Boulger spotted me when the lights came up, and we were off to the VH1 party at Bar Aspen. Plenty of comics and industry types milling about, taking advantage of the limited (two-hour) open bar. So Boulger and I didn’t stay long, instead heading back to the St. Regis, where I spotted two civilians talking to Steven Wright in the lobby. Without too much coaxing, I got Boulger to join me in engaging Wright in about a half-hour of comedy talk in the lobby. I won’t tell you exactly what Boulger offered Wright, 1) because I don’t want to spoil the surprise if he accepts, and 2) because I could barely contain myself from laughing at Boulger’s offer.
Everything went quite swimmingly. So much so, in fact, that I implored Wright not to say too much until I could break out the official recorder and notepad for a later date. Even at 1:30 a.m., you have to know when business and pleasure are getting awfully close to one another. Especially in a place like this comedy festival, where everyone feels so comfortable so quickly.
Another area of the St. Regis main floor has become the Sierra Mist Lounge. Ah, the commercialization of comedy. Searching for the appropriate cliché here: Perhaps, the more things change…
The lounge had specialty drinks, foosball and ping pong. Mauss and I teamed up for a friendly pong exhibition against Hari Kondabolu and Chris Fleming. We won. Not that you can win an exhibition. But we won.
Kondabolu also happens to be staying in our condo (or, should I say, I’m staying in his), and he quickly earned good vibes from me when Google notified me that he has New England connections -- having studied at Bowdoin and performed before at the Comedy Studio -- and that he moved from New York to Seattle last year (which, for anyone who knows anything about my own personal comedy history, translates into major bonus points). He and I already have played the name game quite well. More to come on that front, as he gets his first showcase on Thursday.
But the Sierra Mist lounge -- pretzels, mini corndogs and all -- closed all too soon, though, and after more than a bit of banter, we arrived at the UCB house after-party. More comedians, more amusing incidents. Met Seth Morris, artistic director for the UCB’s Los Angeles branch, who informed me that they’re going to launch some sort of “Wicked Pissah Funny” series this spring highlighting all of the Boston comics who’ve migrated to the Left Coast’s La La Land.
But that’s for another day and another post.
It’s now time for the first installment in the Shane Spotlight, in which I ask stand-up Shane Mauss about his day in Aspen -- at the very end of the day. Tonight’s installment occurred at, oh, somewhere past 4 a.m.
First, a news bulletin.
Mauss went up first tonight in his showcase -- biting the bullet, as they say -- only he chewed up the bullet and spit it out, letting everyone know that he would be bringing the funny this week.
So, Shane, how was your Wednesday?
“I woke up in dirty clothes with fuzzy teeth. My teeth were fuzzy,” he said. “I refused to buy a new toothbrush for three dollars because they said my bags were going to be here any minute now. Next thing I know, it’s been two days and I haven’t brushed my teeth or changed my clothes. And then I got all my stuff.”
How about your first show?
“I was the first comedian up after the host, Jon Fisch,” he said.
Had you met him before?
“I’d worked with him in New York a little bit.”
Did that make you more comfortable about starting the show?
“Going up first, I knew that might not mean the right number of people in the audience. I was more worried about people not showing up until after my set. But I almost preferred going up first tonight. I had a good time.”
Did it feel different at this festival compared to other gigs?
“I don’t know if I was nervous or my throat was really dry from the altitude. But I felt different. I felt nerves from time to time. Not that often.”
Whom did you meet today?
Mauss consults the program guide. “I went to Stand-Up A, I liked the bottom three the most,” he said. “But my group won.”