Andrew Heaton is an up-and-coming NYC comedian and the author of the newly released From the Monkey Cage: Fixing Politics Through Wit & Cartoons. And he’s very funny and smarter than us, so let’s all shut up and see what he has to say.
Man Cave Daily: Alright, let’s get right to it. Working on any new material?
Andrew Heaton: Yes, I’m headlining at Desperado’s in Washington DC this weekend, and I’ve been developing new material leading up to it. I’ve also been on set a fair amount for a web sitcom coming out in July.
MCD: And what does your new set focus on?
AH: I’m shifting away from political jokes–they can be used in specific situations–and doing more general observational humor as pertains to regular human life. For example (and it loses a lot of punch in only text form) I feel superior to other people in the elevator if they punch a lower floor than me. Even if I’m headed to a proctologist, and it has nothing to do with where I live on income level.
Last week I started a bit where I describe a fictitious archetypical situation between a boyfriend and his girlfriend, where he says, “Okay, if Sharon is mean to you, you should quit talking to her. We’ve already had this conversation three times. I assume you’re asking me for input because you want me to fix a problem for you. Let’s make a graph of actionable steps you can take to neutralize this problem. Let me get a graph out…”
MCD: Do you feel the kind of comedy you employ has remained the same, or has it shifted with the subject matter?
AH: Overall the sort of content I’m attracted to is the same: most of my jokes are built around the Seinfeld observational mold. What’s changed is my delivery, which is still conversational but hopefully more engaging, and the mediums I perform in.
MCD: Deliverywise, you’re very strong even compared to other comedians who have been working a long time. What are your discoveries as you’ve refined your method?
AH: There are a lot of tricks that it takes a while to grasp and then intuitively implement. For instance, from the outside it often looks like comedians are telling stories about themselves. This is fairly rare: most of the time we’re making largely applicable observations, but using our personal experience as a medium. So if the joke is about my high school experience, or a day job, or finding roommates, it’s not really about my own unique situation so much as how I can use that to give a new spin on something people are already familiar with.
Then there are showmanship elements. Confidence comes naturally the more you do it; speaking loudly over the mic; learning how to engage people in the audience who are otherwise distracting, emotionally crushing hecklers.
MCD: Has a heckler ever crushed your emotions?
AH: I’ve had it fairly easy thus far. There is a fairly big difference between comedy in America and in the United Kingdom (in the UK it’s established that the relationship between audience and comic is adversarial, and that they will make fun of one another). In the United States 90% of your hecklers are drunkards who believe they are contributing. Sometimes they can help your set, other times you have to disengage them, or ignore them entirely.
Most the hecklers I’ve dealt with have just been distracting. I don’t recall any that lead to rocking back and forth in a bathtub drinking gin later that evening.
MCD: Have you, in turn, ever decimated a heckler?
AH: No. Audiences have an astonishing sense of justice. They do not like jokes where an innocent party is unjustly victimized, but they’ll laugh at a smug character who gets his comeupons. They also have a very keen sense of proportionality. You can go about one step past the heckler, but if they’re just smarting off occasionally and you try to tear them apart in an episode leading to therapy, the emotional violence is so intense that you alienate the audience.
Plus that kind of display is rarely needed. Anyone who is truly disruptive is going to get handled by the staff. In general, though, you have a microphone and the attention of an entire room full of people. They are one voice, probably drunk. So they taper off fairly quick.
I like audiences, however. I want to make them laugh, so I’m never mean to them. I might chat, but usually the worst thing I do is ask someone what their name is. That just signifies that I’m aware they’re talking, and they should stop. Most times the audience and I pal around.
MCD: Neat trick. Where does one get a plaid, silk smoking jacket?
AH: Oh, you find these things if you keep your eyes peeled. I got my smoking jacket in Edinburgh. I have my eye on a reversible blazer that turns into a smoking jacket. Next time I have a good payday, I’ll buy it, maybe start hanging around cocktail bars.
MCD: Do you have a pipe to go with it? You look like a gentleman who would have a pipe.
AH: I used to occasionally smoke a pipe in college, but have stopped for health reasons. Most of my friends agree I will make a terrific crotchety old man, so I need to zigzag around cancer until we cure it. But I do really enjoy a fine single malt scotch, and I’ll sometimes use that as a prop. (Before drinking it.) It’d be swell if I could become some kind of comedic spokesman for Laphroig.
MCD: Hold up–they have humor in Scotland?
AH: Haha, yes. A little bit different in its orientation, but definitely there. I spent a year getting a masters in Scotland, and did comedy at night. I was the resident comic at a cabaret in Edinburgh. I went on stage in between a guy who eats light bulbs and a burlesque dancer.
MCD: Ah so it’s more like part of a traditional burlesque show.
AH: Indeed. At least that time. The main difference between British/Scottish standup and American is that they tend to have more of a storytelling framework, whereas on this side of the pond we’re very much straight out of Vaudeville. (Setup, punchline. Setup, punchline.) If you hear British people start prattling on about “irony,” they’re just emphasizing that they think they’re smarter than you. Pay no heed.
MCD: You seem to have an interest in regional distinctions and identities. Is that a fair assessment and is it due to anything other than simply traveling? Follow-up* question: If there’s a hell, who is surely there?
*follow-up = non-sequitur
AH: I think I developed the habit when working as a tour guide–I’ve done so both in the UK and more recently has a Segway tour guide in Washington, DC. “Where are you from” is an easy question to ask people in the crowd, and once you realize that those same nationalities/cities will be coming back, you can shoot off a lot of material that seems entirely off-the-cuff. It’s good for crowdwork, and it’s a good opener, because it’s not overly cerebral comedy but it doesn’t involve poop jokes.
Hmmm, hell. Not a terribly funny answer, but if hell exists, I’d like to think it’s the same approximate location as heaven. But truly evil, wicked people are going to absolutely hate all that radiant love and milling about with happy people trying to hug them all the time and singing and whatnot. Then again, maybe evil people will realize what @$$#()!%$ they were and come around.
In any case I’m hoping the more virulent strains of Southern Baptists are wrong, because if not I’m screwed.
MCD: Describe the experience of giving Segway tours of DC in five adjectives.
AH: Fun, novel, zippy, electric, and nerve-wracking.
Not for the tourists on the last one. But if you’re a guide, your head is swiveling around like a meerkat looking for hawks constantly, for fear a visitor will shoot off into the Lincoln reflecting pool
MCD: Has anyone ever gone into the drink?
AH: Not with my company. But one of the other companies in DC used to loan out Segways to people who signed a waiver. I’m told that they stopped this practice when somebody managed to haul a Segway out of the Tidal Basin.
MCD: So what is your oddest experience giving the tours?
AH: I think I tried to get a few phone numbers while on a Segway, which in case you’re curious, never actually worked. But I did make several friends out of the experience. I’m friends with a Dutch family–I’ve even visited them in Amsterdam. And there’s a lovely couple from Ohio who sent me a bobblehead of James Thurber. We meet up whenever they’re in New York.
MCD: Interesting. Both in that there are Thurber bobbleheads and that they mailed you one.
Maybe I should have laminated that thing. Yeah! I’m a huge James Thurber fan, and they were from Columbus. We started chatting about him, and by the end of the tour they asked me for my address. EXCELLENT charges to have!
MCD: How has Thurber influenced your humor?
AH: I started writing humor a long time before I ever got up on stage. And I read a lot of humorists. When I was a kid Douglas Adams probably had a more profound effect than most of my secondary schooling. A few years ago I stumbled onto James Thurber, and was astounded at how well his style of humor holds up.
If you read Chaucer, and someone tells you, “this is so funny!” You think, “Really? I mean, I guess this bit about a mandoline is kind of amusing…” Whereas Thurber is writing around the turn of the century, referencing his Civil War vet grandfather. And you could slip him into any publication today and it would fly.
MCD: Well he was sort of father to that dry, weary reserve you see in Woody Allen and the like. Chaucer goes for easy laughs.
AH: Haha, yes, Chaucer with his “scat verses.” You can trace a lot of humorists back through writers. I love Dave Barry, and he was very influenced by Robert Benchley. Who was a contemporary of James Thurber–they mesh well. I think Thurber is dry, but there’s a light-heartedness, too. It’s a very upbeat kind of dryness.
MCD: Yeah. It’s sitting on a summer porch, reflecting on life kind of humor.
AH: Definitely. But with a little bit more punch to it than Garrison Keillor.
MCD: And now for a question I ask comedians who don’t talk about how screwed up they are — are all comedians screwed up?
AH: No, I don’t think so. Although there is a profound, truly inspiring amount of negativity. I don’t think it’s innate, though. There is something of a convergence. You get a lot of comics who have something which deeply troubles them, and they want to work it out on stage, a bit like therapy. Which can be done hilariously or very, very sadly.
Then you get other comics (I’m in this camp) who are kind of goofy and really enjoy making people laugh. But once you’ve sat through the equivalent of a college degree sitting through open mics, with comic after comic telling horrible penis jokes, you get a little jaded.
I think the commonality among comics is a propensity for risk. Similar to skydivers. If you take, say, a guitarist, a guitarist can learn how to play guitar by himself. I know people who never play for anyone. And if they do get on stage, and you don’t like them, it’s more of a stylistic preference. Whereas with comics, we generally interpret bombing as a complete rejection of us as people. Which is a little horrifying.
If you’re giving a speech at the local Rotary club, you don’t have to make people laugh every twenty seconds or “fail” in the attempt.
So doing that requires a kind of person who is either utterly fearless (surprisingly rare with comedians, even advanced veteran ones) or someone who routinely forces themselves out of their comfort zone.
MCD: Do you have any methods for the latter?
AH: For dealing with getting up on stage and stepping out of your comfort zone? The first time I went on stage, age 19 or so, I did so horribly that I didn’t return for five years. Then, I got tunnel vision, but powered through because I had really memorized my set. Most everything since that time has been much easier.
Now I’m aware that, while I’m a little nervous, that feelings disappears once I get a laugh, and I enjoy a really energizing high. If something should go amiss, and that happens in open mics sometimes, you just chalk it up to growing a thick skin and learning to deal with grisly situations.
One coping mechanism I have is to grip the mic when I first start. I have benign tremors, so my hands shake if I drink coffee, miss a meal, get even slightly excited, or even slightly nervous. I can be really stoked about a show, and very confident about it, but the frenetic energy will make my hands shake. I absolutely hate that. So I will grip the mic stand in one hand, and the cordless in the other, for the first couple of jokes. Once the audience laughs there’s a WOOOOSH and it goes away altogether. Then I’m very calm and focused, and can enjoy myself.
MCD: What comics would you say you style yourself after?
For structure Jerry Seinfeld is my model. I really like Norm Macdonald, and I pattern my conversational style a little after him. There are a good many other comics who I think are hilarious, but a lot of them have very distinctive styles that doesn’t really work with me. Todd Barry, for instance, is probably the only guy who can ever be Todd Barry.
I think Patton Oswalt is one of the funniest human beings alive, and I’d love to be able to harness his energy on stage. But I think my style is more of a funny professor.
MCD: Fair gauge. Who’s funnier than you in your life?
AH: I have a lot of really funny friends, but there are three people I’m close to who make me consistently belly laugh. My best friend, Andrew Young, my Uncle Gary, and my friend Adam Hepburn. I’ll add my brother Adam to that as well. They all have completely different senses of humor, but they’re all incredibly jovial and can say virtually anything in a funny way. I don’t think you could capture it on paper, but their voices and intonations are masterfully funny.
For me to pin down a joke might take a week to write it out and trim it down, then test it repeatedly. And they’ll just talk about a washing machine or a photo on Facebook or some random observation and be hilarious.I have a very extroverted sense of humor. He’s funny too, but doesn’t remotely care if you laugh or not. It gives him a really fresh take on things that makes me laugh.
MCD: So tell us about this web series.
AH: Capitol South–a sitcom about life among congressional staffers. I’ve been working with Rob Raffety, the director, and several really talented actors and writers, plus a one man production team named Travis. I’ve seen some of the rough cuts, and I’m really happy with how funny it’s all turning out. Plus the quality of footage and editing is amazing.
I’m a writer on the show, and also the lead actor. I play Elliott Clarice, a new chief-of-staff who is trying to hold a sinking office together while also looking at post-Hill lobbying opportunities and chasing a girl who is (possibly) a spy. After July 8th we’re releasing two episodes per week for a month, plus a lot of random content in between, like faux attack ads and vignettes about staffers taking constituent phone calls.
[Watch a clip from Cap South below, and turn the volume down so your boss doesn’t angry about how funny Andrew’s cursing is.]
MCD: Solid plan. You’ve done quite a bit of politicking yourself. Have you put any of your personal anecdotes in there? Has anyone you’ve dated ever exhibited spylike behavior?
Surprisingly, very little of my personal narrative crept in. Which is strange, given the amount of hilarious phone conversations I had with constituents when I was a congressional staffer. But we wanted to steer clear of inditing any politicians, and likewise to avoid partisan content. Rob has been very adamant from the get-go that we’re making a comedy which happens to be set in Congress, not a political lesson we’re sugar coating with jokes.
I went on some dates with girls who, for a moment, I thought might be spies. But that was probably just personal insecurity (why is a beautiful multi-lingual woman on a date with me?) plus a really good imagination.
Suspecting others of spying is exactly what a spy would do. Are YOU a spy?
Absolutely not! Although I am a diplomatic representative of a foreign country. In January I visited Hutt River, a small but proud country located within Western Australia, and was appointed by its sovereign, Prince Leonard, as Honorary Special Envoy to America. Excuse me, to New York. That title would be “consul” under normal circumstances, but requires mutual diplomatic recognition.
Back to Cap South and politics, we’ve managed to avoid putting in much of our own aggregate political opinions. But I’ve got my first book coming out the same week, which is a bunch of funny articles and cartoons on politics From the Monkey Cage: Fixing Politics Through Wit & Cartoons.
MCD: What nations does that give you diplomatic immunity in?
AH: There are a few, but none presently in North America or Europe. For the moment.
MCD: Do you have any consular duties?
The main thing is to be a contact in New York, available for Hutt River if something comes up. I get e-mails from interested parties periodically.
MCD: What are you most proud of having contributed to Cap South?
There’s no one single thing which I’m proud about in Cap South, but there are a lot of specific jokes and a recurring gag that I think are very funny, and I’m proud of.
It’s been an incredibly fun experience, but it’s also a really interesting vantage point. It’s a high-quality production working with a very limited budget, and it’s not the sort of thing we could have done fifteen years ago. Film and television are democratizing very quickly, and it’s neat to be on the vanguard of that.
MCD: It’s true. Our phones have more filmmaking technology than the entire production of Mean Streets.
Haha, yes! And literally more computing power than the Apollo Missions.
MCD: Alright, tell us about your book.
AH: From the Monkey Cage: Tackling Politics with Wit & Cartoons, is a collection of pithy articles I wrote detailing anything that I thought was either interesting or irritating about politics. There are a lot of cartoons in it, too, because I’m aware that people no longer enjoy reading. It’s hitting the market the second week of July, because I’m going to be at Freedomfest, in Las Vegas.
Which gives an indication of my viewpoint: socially tolerant, limited government, booze-drinking, and fun-loving. If P. J. O’Rourke drew stick figures, it would be a lot of the same stuff, I think.
MCD: Sounds like our kind of society.
AH: Exactly! I think it’s a viewpoint that will gain traction, too. I’m for privatizing most things, which sounds very Republican, but I’m also strongly in favor of gay marriage–less competition for me.
MCD: What three changes would you make if you were dictator for a day?
AH: I would get rid of political parties, cut down on the defense budget, and abolish five or six federal agencies. The book has two major themes to it. The first one is that there are a lot of government regulations and programs that appear to be beneficial to society or people, but are really just corporations using the government to carve out a market for themselves. Here in New York the recent laws against Airbnb are a good example of that.
For those unfamiliar, legislation was recently enacted to prohibit people from renting their apartments out for less than a month. Ostensibly for public safety reasons, but really because hotels were losing profits to people like you and me when we go on vacation and rent out our room.
There’s all sorts of that kind of stuff, from farm subsidies to cigarette taxes. The other main point I make is how destructive tribalism is.
[re: cigarette taxes] It’s ostensibly enacted to help people making poor decisions. And it does lower public smoking rates. But the figures I’ve seen indicate that it effects people who smoke moderately, not heavy smokers, which tend to be lower income. So when you increase cigarette taxes you wind up making poor people poorer, not convincing them to smoke less. It’s also very popular with politicians because its a method of raising revenue without having to raise taxes. Plus, philosophically, I don’t think you need to be protected from yourself, unless you have schizophrenia or something like that. While I don’t smoke pot, I don’t care if you do. Our society would have a lot less assaults if we legalized it. Plus we’ve clearly lost that battle in the drug war.
(When I say less assaults, I mean that alcohol, which is legal, is a lot worse on a societal level.)
MCD: You were saying about tribalism…
AH: Right. In comedy you find that a lot of jokes revolve around death or sex, because these are aspects of human nature which everyone can relate to. Something I’ve learned later in the game is that tribalism is every bit as widespread, but people rarely think about it.
In a political context, that means instinctively hating “the other guy,” then fumbling around for a reason to back up your bias. It’s nonsense.
There’s only one real team in America, and we’re all on it. When I was on the Hill I worked for a Democrat, and most of my friends were Republicans. There are a lot of good, smart people on both sides, and a good many who are independent like myself.
Incidentally, the book is very funny. It’s not a long screed like this. Can I provide some visuals?
MCD: Sure thing.
AH: I made a Rorschach test out of blatantly gerrymandered districts.
Here’s an excerpt regarding the history of the American space program:
“Four years later NASA leaped ahead in the space race when President Kennedy suspected that there might be women on the moon. We spent eight years and $25 billion figuring out how to get to the moon and potentially introduce its inhabitants to JFK. By the time we actually landed there, Nixon had become president, so the space program’s main priority shifted to finding novel locations in which to play golf. Then, in the 1980s the Russians ran out of dogs to launch into space, thus formally concluding the Cold War.”
MCD: And with that, we’re off to buy a copy. Thanks, Andrew!
AH: It’s been a pleasure, thank you for letting me ramble about comedy.