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.