Interview with Chase Williamson

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Like the character he plays, Chase Williamson got thrown into a pretty unbelievable circumstance when he landed the part of Dave in the upcoming comedy/horror film John Dies at the End. He’d never done a feature-length film before and suddenly he was sitting across the table from Paul Giamatti, working under the direction of horror legend Don Coscarelli. Fortunately, he happened to be a horror movie aficionado and to have plenty of experience with comedy in his own right (he performs regularly as part of the sketch group Bowling for Tiffany). We talked yesterday about his work on the film and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: Were you a fan of horror movies before you did this?

Chase Williamson: Oh yeah. I’m a lifelong horror fan. And a big horror/comedy fan as well. I was a fan of Bubba Ho-Tep in my early high school years. I got Army of Darkness for Christmas when I was ten or eleven. I loved it and I got really into Evil Dead. I don’t know what about it appeals to me. I guess just the subversive humor of all of it. When I heard that the Bubba Ho-Tep guy was doing a movie, I was really scared and intimidated and then I read the script and just got obsessed with it. It’s definitely exactly what I wanted to do–like exactly.

BB: Did you feel like you really connected with the character of Dave?

CW: Yeah, I just remember reading the script and saying to my roommate and friends, who are actors, “This is me. I don’t understand.” Even the writing style–I do a lot of sketch comedy and I write a lot of really weird sketches–the tone of it was such a perfect match for me. I couldn’t believe it was real. It seemed like I had written it in another dimension. It was really weird. But people feel like that about roles all the time. I didn’t think I was going to get the job, so when that happened, it was crazy.

BB: It’s interesting–I know the author David Wong loves Phantasm, so it must’ve been pretty crazy for him when he heard  Coscarelli was interested in adapting his book. It seems so weird that everybody else was kind of in the same camp.

CW: Yeah, it’s like from all sides. Very serendipitous. The stars definitely aligned on my end.

BB: Was there any challenge for you as an actor switching between horror and comedy and maintaining a consistency in your performance?

CW: Not really. The tone is so specific in the script and in the book. It was pretty easy to get. It doesn’t really switch from comedy to horror from my perspective. The comedy sort of comes from the character’s attitude towards what is going on.

BB: What do you think are some specific strengths required for the kind of acting in this film?

CW: Timing first of all, because there’s a very specific rhythm to the script and the dialogue. But also, there’s so much crazy shit happening to me the whole time that just going in with an attitude of abandoning all logic and diving into the circumstances of whatever’s happening is the only way to do it. You can’t get distracted by the zaniness of all of it when a mustache bat is supposed to be biting your face.

BB: Since you brought up the mustache bats, was there a lot of you having to react on the set to computerized visual effects that weren’t even there when you were shooting?

CW: Well a lot of them were practical, which is really awesome as an actor to have. It’s also awesome just to see how the art department can make that shit happen. Like with the mustache bat, a mustache rips off this guy’s face and starts flapping around in the movie. They had this fake mustache with this gore under it, and this guy just tied fishing wire to the end of it and puppeteered it a little bit. It gave me a lot to work off of and it was really cool to just see all the artistry that goes into that.

BB: Yeah wow. There must be a lot of underrated geniuses in the prop and art departments of low budget films.

CW: Yeah, like we had this baseball bat with nails in it that got lost or something and then they just melted together a bunch of plastic and made an exact replica of it in like twenty minutes. Just created it out of nothing.

BB: So what was it like working with Paul Giamatti in your first feature length film?

CW: The fact that it didn’t seem real made me not afraid. It was hard to even get nervous about it because it was hard to believe that the guy I was sitting across from was this guy that I’d been a fan of for all this time, who matched the idea I had of him in my head, because he’s a really down-to-earth dude. Looking back, I can say “wow that was incredible,” and it was amazing watching him work, but it wasn’t this big scary thing at the time.

BB: I’ve heard Coscarelli say in an interview he’ll do five to eight takes of something if he knows exactly what he wants and fifteen to twenty if he doesn’t. Did you end up doing a ton of takes for every scene?

CW: I never felt like it was an excessive amount of takes. I’ve definitely done other shoots where people were getting excessive coverage. He taught me something that was really helpful. He said to do one take small, then do one broader take, and then do one take for yourself–have fun with it and see what happens. Usually if you only have three takes, one of those will work. I felt at the time like I had such a clear idea of what I wanted to do with every single part of the script, because I was so into it. I wish I had given him a little more variety.

BB: What are some of the things that you do physically to embody the character of Dave?

CW: Well it was right after I graduated from college and people kept telling me I needed to get ripped to work as an actor. So I was trying to work out a lot around the time I got the part and then once I got the part I didn’t do that anymore. I just drank a lot of beer and started smoking a lot more cigarettes, because he’s kind of a slacker. I didn’t want to look like some douche from the movies. I just wanted to look as slobby as possible.

BB: That is one of the most casual descriptions of method acting I’ve ever heard.

CW: (laughs) Yeah, it worked out. It was all things I loved to do. And then I had to get out of that after it was over, which was hard.

BB: What were some of the biggest challenges in shooting for this film?

CW: I don’t know if I’d call it a challenge, but definitely a point of education was seeing how a set works. I had no idea how anything worked, none of lingo or any of that. So soaking all that in while also trying to do my job was kind of an overload but it was cool. I learned a lot in a really short amount of time. It was just sort of challenging to maintain my focus when I was in awe of everything around me.

BB: What’s a scene where the final product looks drastically different than what you were working with the day of the shoot?

CW: I really like the way the epilogue turned out. You’ll know when you see it. There’s this part where it ends and then there’s sort of the beginning of the next chapter as the credits come up. The aesthetic that they captured for that wasn’t really how I imagined it, but it was hilarious and amazing. And it’s cut in between the credits, so it’s all this comic timing within the editing that I never pictured.

I’ve seen the film five or six times now in the different festivals I’ve gone to and every time I watch it, it’s been a little bit longer since I did it, so I kind of bother myself more every time I see it. But I love the movie. I’m proud of it. I want to do another one so I can come at it from where I am now instead of having to watch myself two years ago.

BB: What was it like working with Doug Jones?

CW: Oh my God. Have you met him? He is literally the sweetest, nicest, warmest–almost cartoonishly warm, but genuinely warm–person I’ve ever met in my life. And watching the kind of stuff he can do with his body is insane. I’m definitely not a physical actor. My weaknesses in college were definitely in movement class, so watching someone who’s an expert with what I struggle with is crazy. Just the tiniest movements that he can make speak volumes. It’s really nuts to watch. But he’s also just a really good actor. And then he’s the sweetest man ever and anyone who you ever talk to who’s worked with him–an he’s worked a lot–will say he’s the nicest man in the world.

BB: What is something you learned from filming John Dies at the End?

CW: I think I learned to completely commit to everything that I do. The fact that it was so appealing to me in all those ways and I was a fan of everything about it–I really, really became obsessed with it. I read the script over and over and over again. I thought about it all the time. I think to really be successful in any role, you need to do that, even if it’s not something that you’re immediately attracted to. You need to find a way to let it matter that much to you. And it’s hard to do that, but I think that’s the key.


You can see John Dies at the End through your local video On Demand provider this December. It will be coming to a theater near you in January. 


Interview with Eliza Skinner

Eliza Skinner says she envies people in the entertainment industry who can just pick one craft and stick with it, but her more all-over-the-map approach certainly made my job as an interviewer easier. It’s hard to be at a loss for questions when you’re talking to someone who is lauded for her improv, standup, writing, acting, and freestyle rap battles, among other things. When Eliza’s not teaching and performing musical improv at the UCB Theater, writing scripts, and acting in videos, she can be seen co-hosting the weekly standup show Magic Bag with DC Pierson. In fact, the only real challenge on my side of the interview was figuring out how to cover such a vast and varied talent in one 40-minute Skype session. We talked last Sunday afternoon and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: You’re hosting Magic Bag in a couple hours right?

Eliza Skinner: I am, yeah.

BB: How’s it been, doing it every week?

ES: It’s been fun. I really like working with DC and having to do a show every week kind of forces you to write new material. I’m not always great about writing new material for every show, but it does kind of motivate me to add some new stuff. It’s really low stakes, low pressure. It’s not something we invite industry to. We don’t tape there. It’s just a place where it’s safe to try new stuff out. It’s been really more fun than anything.

BB: You do standup, improv, acting and script-writing. What do you think is the advantage of having a split focus and doing a lot of things at the same time?

ES: For me the advantage has been momentum. When I try to focus on just one thing, I feel very dragged down and stuck. A few years ago, I remember having a meeting with a manager and she was like “well, are you gonna be an actor or a writer? You have to pick one.” And I was like “oh, okay, she knows what she’s talking about,” so I decided to just focus on writing. I couldn’t just do acting. I would be very uncomfortable not being able to generate my own material, having to wait to have somebody call me. So I tried just being a writer and writing just one kind of thing. I couldn’t do it. I would just sit there and stare at my computer. And while there is something to having some discipline and pushing through those moments, I’ve found that when I’m busy, I stay busy. If I go to a show, when I come home, I’m kind of jazzed up and I don’t want to just watch TV; I’ll sit down and write something. And if I’ve been writing all day, I want to go out and do some new standup jokes. And if I want to interact with other people, I can do improv.

BB: So it’s kind of an overall mindset changer to have these different things to do.

ES: Yeah, and for a long time I was like “be a good girl, chain yourself to the desk, and do the work you’ve assigned yourself.” Then I realized that just depressed me so much. (laughs) I couldn’t work that way. I kind of have to zigzag all around and likewise my career has zigzagged all around. I very much envy the people who know the exact one thing they want and just go after that, because they reach it much quicker.

BB: Yeah, but I guess it’s not altogether natural for most people. What if DC hadn’t written a novel just because that’s not conventionally what improv/sketch comedians do? That perception seems kind of dated–that you have to choose one thing.

ES: Yeah, I think it is too. As I said, I did talk to that one manager who told me that and that was a few years ago. Now, I feel like it is seen as an advantage; those are the types people want to work with and it’s exciting because the finished product that they make is more multifaceted. Like DC’s stuff–his book at one point had a playlist that went along with it and that’s going to inform when it becomes a movie. If he was just a novelist sitting in a room, writing a book, I don’t think that he would have even thought to explore all those different avenues. I think you’re right; it is very dated to just do one thing, unless that’s what you want to do, in which case that’s fine. My sister is an actress and that’s all she wanted to do and all she does and she hit it really early.

BB: Yeah, you grew up with that, right? With her auditioning and stuff?

ES: Mhm.

BB: Did that sort of shape you and what you’re doing now?

ES: Yeah, definitely. It probably almost held me back in ways because, you know, I had little sister stuff where I was like “oh, I’m not gonna be like her.” Just, any things that a little sister would see in a big sister and go “ew,” were things I equated with actors. When in fact, I’m a performer. I should’ve just gone with it. Finally, I had to be like “oh those are decisions you made when you were a child. You can let go of those decisions now.”

BB: Did you see yourself as anything creative? Did you see yourself as a writer or a performer in any capacity in those years?

ES: I didn’t know about all the jobs that were available. I knew about acting because of my sister and I knew about musical theater, so I liked those. I wanted to be an actor or maybe a director, but mostly an actor. But the whole time, I was writing. I used to write funny stories all the time when I was a kid and win little prizes for funny stories and I loved comedy. It took me a long time to realize that jobs like sketch comedy were real jobs and that I was better at them than just anybody would be, because, you know, everybody’s funny. Everybody jokes around. So, to think that you’re better at it than everybody else isn’t most people’s first thought. It’s like saying “I’m better at breathing. I’ll do that for a living. I’m gonna be a professional breather.”

BB: (laughs) So for you, when was the turning point of realizing that you were better at it than the average person?

ES: I went to school in this little college town and there wasn’t anything else there besides the school, so there wasn’t any form of entertainment besides the local improv group. And one of my housemates wanted to go audition for this group. They would have auditions once a year and between one and two hundred people would show up. They took all day and they would just eliminate people until they had gotten down to just a few, and out of all of those people, my roommate and I got cast. I’d never seen them perform. I had just gone to keep my roommate company and I had no idea that I was going to be good at it, so I instantly was like “whoa improv! That’s my thing!” And I went online and found out about improv festivals and tried to get the whole group to go and they wouldn’t, so I just drove myself to an improv festival halfway across the country. It was great. Then after college, I was like “well, I’m done with that. I’m gonna be an agent.”

BB: Really?

ES: Yeah, absolutely. I thought I was going to be a talent agent. Did that for four months.

BB: What is the career path for that? Did you Google “how to be a talent agent?”

ES: Well my sister was an actor so I was like “do you know any agents?” And she was like “I know mine. You can go be his assistant.” So that’s what I did. I stayed there for four months and it was the worst. It was not fun at all. Possibly, being an adult with a job was shockingly unfun to me at that point, but it was pretty bad, so I stopped working there and started working at a hotel. But I thought, “I shouldn’t live in NewYork just to work at a hotel. What could I do to make it worthwhile?”

And I remembered improv, so I started taking improv classes again. I took a couple improv classes–like one class with a few sessions–and I wasn’t crazy about it, but then they were having auditions for their touring company so I just showed up. I got an audition and I got cast again out of a lot of people. I just kept falling into improv and having it work out very easily without a lot of effort, so I thought “what if I actually put effort into this? What if I tried,” which, in your early twenties is not a cool thing to do, but I decided to really give it a shot. The part I always liked the most was the musical improv stuff–improvising whole musicals or even just songs. Because I had grown up doing musical theater, I kind of had those pathways in my brain already, so it was fun and easy.

BB: Was there ever, at that beginning stage, a confidence issue? To have never done it before and to just jump in and be like “oh, I’m really good at this…”

ES: I’m sure a little bit. You kind of learn some things as craft, growing up doing musical theater. Things like where you look–that your eyes should go right above everybody’s heads, that you should stand up straight–all these things that basically ape confidence. I learned that no matter how you feel, once you get on stage, you do these things and that creates a certain level of confidence, which ended up being a huge boon to me with improv and is actually something I teach in my classes now. I would’ve walked around looking like I was terrified to be on stage as any sane human would be. But I also really have this (laughs)…thing with fear. If I notice fear, I kind of grab onto it and go after it…

BB: Like in an aggressive way?

ES: Yeah, like “oh, that thing scares me? Well then I’m gonna do that thing.” It’s almost like a childish approach to fear. Not with physical stuff, like I’m not going to jump out of a plane, but the way that I act and who I interact with and how I interact with them. That idea of fear is kind of a motivator for me and it’s a challenge. In any kind of improv, I love being given those challenges and having to figure them out and figure out “well how do I do a whole song that rhymes and has feeling to it?” It’s a fun little game for my brain to unpack. I was always far more distracted by that than by any kind of terror or insecurity.

BB: You said when you were on A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume that you really liked being around people who inspire you in your work. Could you talk about how and why that’s important to you?

ES: Yeah well, it’s fun to bounce ideas off of people. When you’re with funny people and you’re joking around, you’re coming up with ideas that can be used other places. I love it when that is the way standup is done. A good friend of mine–Baron Vaughn, hilarious standup–you’ll be hanging out with him and you’ll say something funny and he’s like “that’s a bit. Write it down right now.”

And I’ve started doing that to people also. You get up on stage and try to make those little snippets of things from conversations into whole standup bits, which makes you feel like your general funniness isn’t for naught. You’re not losing those little thoughts you have all day that you would lose if someone wasn’t sitting across from you saying “hey, write that down.”

Also, seeing what people are capable of helps me. I feel like a lot of people have a very negative connotation with the idea of competition. I think competition is great. When I see one of my friends doing some new, cool thing, I’m like “oh, that’s a thing we can do?” Like with DC (Pierson), it’s like “we can write a novel?” It opens these doors you wouldn’t have thought of.

BB: You’ve said that emotion is very important to musical improv. How do you access it consistently?

ES: Oh, by being a raw nerve of a human being. (laughs) I’m joking but it’s a little bit true. I just try to remember emotional experiences. In my classes I get people to sing songs about things that are important to them. Sometimes those are dark things and sometimes those are small things, but if they’re important to somebody, then there’s a lot of feeling attached. I don’t think there’s any point to having a song that is about something you don’t care about. Nobody sings songs like (singing halfheartedly) “yeah I have an old box in my room and I should get rid of it,” unless they can attach some meaning. It’s music; it’s essentially just emotion heightened.

BB: The thing you brought up about remembering emotions made me think of method acting, where you remember a sad moment in your life to bring out an emotional performance. Does that actually come up a lot?

ES: Oh yeah. For me, I’ve been doing it so long, I don’t still have to make associations with certain people and instances. I just kind of have buttons in my head that trigger certain emotions. It’s like there’s a getting-broken-up-with button, and a feeling-lost-and-abandoned button. But when I first started out, it was a lot of going to those specific times and places and feeling those feelings. It’s very cathartic and there’s some crazy in there too. I’ve dated people I’ve performed with and I remember doing a scene in a musical improv one time about a boy who had to give up his cow. I was playing the cow and my ex-boyfriend was playing the boy and suddenly the audience was like “what is going on? The boy and the cow are both crying but they both want each other to have good lives…” It just got real messy. So I’m glad I’ve moved past that.

BB: So do you think that doing musical improv is a little more imparting of yourself than doing standup? Because I would think it would be the other way around.

ES: It is the other way around. Well…as far as content goes, it’s the other way around. Like when I’m doing standup I’m saying things that actually happened to me, but with musical improv, I am kind of turning myself inside out a little bit. Like people can see what’s going on inside me in a different way than they can with standup…

BB: A less informational part of you.

ES: Yeah. More like “oh this is the goop that makes up you.” (laughs) “And I don’t know what the goop means or spells, but I can see what shape and viscosity the goop is,” to make it more complicated.

BB: (laughs) What are some of your favorite characters to play?

ES: The worst ones. The terrible people. I really like the baddies, because I feel like those are the parts of us that everybody’s scared of. Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy but everybody’s worried they’re the bad guy. Know what I mean?

BB: Yeah, I’ve noticed it’s a lot of people who don’t know they’re really bad people.

ES: Yeah, well I think most people who are really bad people don’t know. Everyone thinks they have reasons for doing what they do and if they could just explain it to everybody, then everybody would get it. And I think, like many of us, I’m scared that at my heart I’m just a bad person, just a sea-witch of a human, so, to get close to that and explore that is really fun, and I think that it’s fun for audiences. It’s also fun as a woman because so many of the parts that are created for us from a male gaze are women who are just plot points, rather than characters. Or they’re just kind of black and white–either very, very good, or just pointlessly terrible. So, playing somebody who’s bad but complicated, and for a reason, and just shamelessly ugly, is really fun.

BB: Who are some of the comedians you really liked when you were younger?

ES: Fozzie Bear.

BB: Excellent.

ES: I didn’t know that he was a bad comedian. I just liked that he got to go on stage, delivered punchlines and then said “waka waka.”

BB: So you liked his punchlines unironically?

ES: Yeah, I always liked the rhythm of comedy. I think that happens with a lot of people, at least musical people. Even when you’re too young to get the comedy, you understand the rhythm of it. Like “da dum, da dum, da dum.” I loved The Young Ones. It was more gross and terrible people living together. I loved French and Saunders. I always loved Jennifer Saunders–Ab Fab. She’s really great and, again, creates these unlikable characters and then makes you like them. I remember really liking Ellen Degeneres and her whimsy and her stream-of-consciousness stuff. And I loved Steve Martin, Bill Cosby–those were albums that I had and would listen to. I liked Monty Python a lot. I had a bunch of Python albums, specifically the music that they would have on their shows and that was probably a big influence. I don’t think I’m that absurdists but I think a lot of the people I liked were pretty absurd and character-based. Loved Martin Short. Big Dana Carvey fan.

BB: Where do your tastes go now?

ES: Honesty. People talking about how they actually feel, so Louis CK. I like a lot of my contemporaries, like people who are a couple steps ahead of me like Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress.  It’s hard to just name a couple names, because it’s kind of like asking “what foods do you like?” I can name a lot of foods that I like but I’m eating all day long. I’m listening to comedy, going to see comedy…I fell like it’s all pretty relevant and exciting.

BB: Is honesty something you try for in your own standup?

ES: Yeah. One of my pet peeves is hearing people say they did something on stage that they definitely didn’t do. Like if they’re like “this dog came up to me and I punched him in his face and stole his collar.” You didn’t do that. I would find it much more interesting if you said “and I wanted to punch him in his face and steal his collar.’” That distinction is pretty important to me. But even when people are being absurd and silly, I feel like if they’re really letting themselves connect with the audience somehow so we’re like “oh you’re making that all up, but I feel like you’re really letting us know you,” I still really appreciate that.

You can see Eliza’s standup at Magic Bag, every Sunday at 8pm, at The Little Modern Theater in Hollywood, CA.


Interview with Tom Shillue

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Photo by Mindy Tucker

Maybe it’s the fact that when I talked to Tom Shillue he’d just landed a surprise booking on Jimmy Fallon for later that day, but he gave a pretty excited interview. His answers were long and comprehensive, with the same kind of streamlined precision he brings to the comedy clubs, and by the end of our talk, I thought “yeah, I could definitely see this guy being able to come up with twelve albums in twelve months.” On November 6th, Shillue will release an album (entitled Better, Stronger, Faster) that he assembled in a matter of weeks. Then, he’ll repeat this process every month, until the year runs out, or, until his head explodes–whichever comes first. He’s bringing together old and new material, recording his storyteller standup in every kind of venue from the giant theaters where he opens for Jim Gaffigan to the tiny clubs where comics go to work out. I called him last Wednesday to talk about this momentous project and what follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So, twelve albums in twelve months. Has anyone told you yet that this sounds insane?

Tom Shillue: Yeah, other comics have. Hopefully this will impress more than just other comedians but, yeah, a lot of my peers are like “really?” I had the idea originally that I would do five albums. I had plenty of material to do five, but then there was extra material and I thought “you know what, I could do ten.” Then I thought, “wait a minute, since we’re doing ten, let’s just do twelve.”

BB: How much of this is pulling from material you already have and how much is planning ahead to write on the fly?

TS: It’s probably half and half. I could probably dump out six albums tomorrow from shows I’ve done, because I record all my sets. But at times I’ve done shows like Whiplash at UCB, where I’ll go perform a story based on something that happened in the week or whatever.  And it will be like 20 minutes of new material that I’ll perform that night and then just leave and never do again. So, I thought I could probably do albums out of this material–take those stories, go back and work them up. I only have a few weeks so, I go out on stage, record it, see if it works, and if it does, put it on the album. If not, rework it and do it again. Sometimes I think I do better material when I’m under the gun.

BB: So, right now, how far into this twelve album series are you?

TS: I’ve got two done. I’ve got a bunch of files I haven’t even listened to yet of my recorded live shows, then I’ve got stuff in GarageBand. And then I have notes for sets I’ll be doing that hopefully will be making the albums. The third album is in GarageBand now, and that has to be released in early January, so I’m going to get that to my guy at BC Media as soon as possible. I’m sure this whole year is going to be a major headache for my guy who is releasing the albums. He’ll be calling me late at night all the time but hopefully we’ll stay ahead.

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BB: The album Big Room consists of two different spots you do opening for Jim Gaffigan in Denver–an early show and a late one. I noticed before you went on for the late show you said “if you hear me repeat a joke, let it go; I’ve gotta stay alive out there.”

TS: (laughs) I was worried I was gonna do that. I’ve had people complain to me on twitter because I wrote some funny tweet and then reused the line when I was doing Red Eye on Fox. They’ll be like “I’ve heard that joke before,” like I’m not allowed to use the same joke on TV and twitter. (laughs)

And in this case, I was trying to cut an album, but I’ve also got an audience to entertain. They’re there to see Jim Gaffigan, so I’ve gotta give them my A-Game and there’s a thousand people in the seats. The idea is I may do that. I might go into some old material and get some laughs and then get back into the new stuff. Some of my stories overlap. Some of my bits are in several of my stories. The albums are all independent of one another but the thing about comics is, we have a tendency to repeat ourselves.

BB: I’ve noticed just in the two albums that I’ve been able to hear of these twelve that a lot of times, you’ll start in the same place but go to a very different place.

TS: Yeah, definitely setups will be repeated. There’s only about four things that I’m interested in, in the world. At some point you have to say to people “look, it’s all the same crap that I’ve been saying.” (laughs) We’re all rewording ourselves, and if I’m telling a fifteen minute story, I think it’s kind of fun to see how an old bit works in the context of this other story–how comedy gets repurposed in a different way. Some of my favorite artists like Woody Allen will constantly repeat themselves but as long as they do it in a new context each time, it’s great.

BB: So in opening for Gaffigan, you were in a big theater venue, and then in Better, Strong, Faster, it was a smaller room. Is there something that appeals to you about contrasting the different kind of venues that comics play in?

TS: Oh yeah. I love small rooms. When I get out there in front of Gaffigan’s crowd, it’s great to be in front of a crowd, but you do need to be a little more on-message. And I think you can hear that on that album; I’m definitely doing more punchy material. But I like small rooms because I like going around and working new material in front of more intimate crowds because you can be more loose with them. You can go to interesting places, do more interesting material, more jazz–it’s just like with jazz guys who are playing for the other musicians, because you’re playing for the other comics in the back. You can’t do that in front of a big crowd.

I love going up there in small rooms and not worrying about your laughs-per-minute but just kind of working on a piece. And people there in the audience like it, but it’s sometimes considered too loose for recorded comedy. That comes out of an older attitude of making albums–like record albums. Now in the digital age, I feel like people just want to consume stuff. Some of my favorite comics, if I could listen to them work on material and get it in my inbox once a month, get their scratch-tracks, I would love that. This project is kind of an in between of that; they’re not scratch tracks, these aren’t my notes, I’ve really worked on them, but on some of these albums you will be hearing improvised material for the first time.

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BB: Why do you think you gravitate towards storytelling comedy as opposed to something like what Steven Wright or Demetri Martin does?

TS: I think everybody gravitates to stories in the end, even those guys. Like, look at Demetri lately. His latest stuff has a kind of story-like arc to it because we kind of learn more about Demetri. When you become a fan of someone, you want to get into that narrative. And it’s the same with Steven Wright. When I saw him a few years ago, he was on a show at Emerson College–we did this big reunion show. He went out on stage and he did all new material and it had more of the storytelling. I feel like a lot of people gravitate that way because these big names have a loyal following and the audience always wants to hear more. Like with Bill Cosby, his fans want to be able to hear what’s going on with Bill Cosby now. He can go up there as a legend, sit there on stage and talk about brewing a pot of coffee, and the audience is right there on the edge of their seats.

I’ve always been more about stories than jokes because that’s what I like–that’s what I want to hear. And some of my favorite comics, my favorite stuff of theirs is their stories, after a show. We’ll go and have a beer and I’ll be laughing so hard. That’s what I’ve always got a charge on, even as a comedy fan. Stories go deeper and they give you insight. And it’s a little bit more of a meal when you have to tackle it on stage. It’s like serving up slow food vs. fast food. If you can take your audience into the story to the point where they’d buy it without the laughs, then it’s like, alright, take it to the bank.

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Photo by Mindy Tucker

BB: You’ve finalized two of ten albums. Are you still as enthusiastic as you were at the start of the project?

TS: Yes. More so. As I’m doing it, it’s all very doable, until the last album or two. Those extra two albums are what kind of scare me. I don’t have a plan for them at all. I think during the course of the year I’ll come up with enough material for those last two, but by the time we get there, I may have to just walk out on stage and do an album. It’s like when you’re driving on the highway and the tank’s on “E” and starts to glow red. It’s that feeling of excitement, “am I gonna make it?”

But I’m seeing these things take shape. I need a deadline to make any of this stuff work; if you set a deadline, you’ve gotta fill it. On Jimmy Fallon tonight, he’s gonna say on national TV “this guy’s doing twelve albums in twelve months.” It’s like “alright, I’m committed now.” There’s something about that that gives you energy. I better come up with it, you know?

Better, Stronger Faster, Tom Shillue’s first album of the twelve will be available for download on November 6th.