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. 
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