The ability to be an actual presence onstage is a rare one in the profession of stand up comedy. Among the cavalcade of comics, comedian Kyle Kinane has discovered a way to not only create that said presence but also to hone it and own every platform he performs on.
Kinane’s comedy lies in the realm of long-form stories, near conversation-like, and today he’s found himself to be a heavily desired act. He’s made television appearances on CONAN, Carson Daly, and Comedy Central Presents, and podcast appearances on shows such as Doug Loves Movies, The Nerdist, You Made it Weird, Comedy Film Nerds, and The Adam Carolla Show.
The Smoking Jacket: Before I get to my questions, did I just see you in the crowd at the Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne Barr?
Kyle Kinane: Oh yeah! Me and my buddy Jeff went and got real hosed. [laughs]
TSJ: That’s great. How’d you enjoy it?
KK: It was fun. Those things always eventually turn into hearing the same jokes after a while but it was fun. It was nice to be in town and have something to do.
TSJ: I always feel bad for the actors that get up there and try to best the comics. They never seem to do well.
KK: Yeah, they can’t seem to do the pre-written jokes. You can deliver lines, why can’t you deliver the joke? I’m not trying to undermine what I do, but you know.
TSJ: No, I get it. So you grew up in Chicago, which has a great comedy scene. But you started in music, right?
KK: Yeah, in a very loose definition. I played in bands with guys from Addison and such.
TSJ: Was that the initial goal? Music?
KK: I think the goal was just to always have something to do, to have something creative to occupy my time with. I had a good lot of time just sitting and smoking pot and watching other people play video games but that got old quickly for me. I knew I had to be doing something with my time, something to show for life.
TSJ: So what made you switch to stand up?
KK: Well, it was ’99 and the music thing was getting to be more frustrating than it was rewarding and I was going to Columbia College for writing. I was trying to make people laugh with what I wrote. Nineteen-year-olds who want to be writers aren’t usually joyful people. [laughs] So felt a little out of place trying to make these people laugh. Then I saw stand up and thought oh I could just tell these stories and try to make them laugh.
TSJ: Being in Chicago, home of Second City, was there ever any urge to do improv?
KK: I tried it at Columbia. But like the band, it was a group of people I had to worry about. The isolation of stand up was nice. I’d write something and go out and try it.
TSJ: There is something cool about stand up being solely yours.
KK: Yeah, that’s true. But then you have to take full responsibility – both good and bad. [laughs] You’re up there by yourself.
Kyle Kinane Baby in a Car
TSJ: What were the early days of stand up like for you? My thought is that a lot of comics go into it emulating the people they look up to. Who did you look up to?
KK: Oh, Mitch Hedberg all the way. He had a good self-defense mechanism: Eyes closed and to the floor. It was good for someone who was terrified of being in front of people, just looking at the floor. And also, he had efficiency, just a few sentences and bam, the joke. I like the economy that he had.
TSJ: He was definitely unique.
KK: Yeah, he was different too because he wasn’t the guy that came out onstage on TV with a blazer talking about how he’s married. I didn’t relate to that at all at 22.
TSJ: That’s true. You’ve mentioned you had a punk rock persona when you started stand up. Was that because of the music?
KK: I wouldn’t say it was a persona. I wasn’t trying to be in people’s faces or anything. But it was an idea of not doing what was expected. If the ultimate punk rock thing is to not do what was expected of me, then I guess the idea of doing comedy and being potentially entertaining is not expected of being punk rock. It’s a lifestyle, kind of.
TSJ: That’s a cool way of looking at it.
KK: Yeah, but some people go off the branch to be antithetical to whatever’s popular, but if the thing that’s telling you to be antithetical is now popular you have to go another route.
TSJ: So what made you head out to LA from Chicago?
KK: Well, I was living with my parents till I was 26 [laughs], and if I was going to move I was going to move far away. [laughs] I liked having disposable income. My friends moved 20 miles away to the city but they were so broke they never did anything. And my parents were cool, so I got to have money. Not a lot of money but I had a few extra bucks. I didn’t have to worry about bills really. But I thought if I was going to move I’d do something ridiculous with it. So I went out to California to see if it would work. And nine years later it worked. [laughs]
TSJ: I know that some comics from Chicago drifted to either LA or New York. What made you decide LA? Was it the weather?
KK: Yeah, I had been here when I was eight or nine years-old. Don’t get me wrong; I like New York a lot. But I grew up skateboarding and BMX riding.
TSJ: California seems like the perfect place then.
KK: Yeah! Also, I thought let’s go where they make movies. It might have been an odd choice but I like it out here man.
TSJ: I don’t blame you. It’s beautiful there.
KK: Exactly. It’s ridiculous. I’m at a stupid shopping mall looking at a bunch of people with fake parts. [laughs] But there’s equally good parts to it. People come to LA and just go to Sunset and say it’s terrible. But it’s like — you didn’t do your research.
Kyle Kinane Takes on a Heckler at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago
TSJ: Yeah, the real life is in those neighborhoods. The places you don’t see much.
KK: They don’t travel the right way.
TSJ: Something that’s very interesting about you is that when you settled in LA you maintained a full time job. Why? Was it just that you had to pay bills or did you not think stand up would work out?
KK: Well, there were guys in Chicago – by the way, not to stop but I’m in the shadow of Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard right now. I just realized. It’s the Fox building.
TSJ: Right now?
KK: Yeah. I still get a kick out of that. That’s still awesome to me.
TSJ: That is awesome.
KK: Call me a simpleton. I still get a kick out of that stuff. [laughs] But the job thing, I knew guys in Chicago who would go out and work the road and make lousy money playing to lousy crowds. And that kind of just would ruin what I love doing, the purity of it. So instead of doing that route, I decided I’ll move here and make the rounds. And the day job, even though it’s a little money I like knowing exactly how little money I’ll have each week. It’s, like, okay you’ll make $400 a week, every week, not up and down. I still enjoy stability in some sense. It was terrifying to quit.
TSJ: What was the thought when you quit? Comedy was just working?
KK: I couldn’t do both anymore. I couldn’t take any more vacation time because of the roadwork. So it really was what are you? A comedian or a guy who works in an office and babbles? Thankfully, the choice was really made for me.
TSJ: Today you’ve really seemed to hone the craft quite well. You’ve got a presence onstage that I think is rare. You own the stage. How did that come?
KK: Just going up as much as possible. That’s it. It wasn’t easy, you know? Just perform as often and as many different places as you can.
TSJ: What were you like before that?
KK: Like Hedberg but without the jokes. Spaced out, looked at the ground, up at the sky. I still get that. There’s still self-conscious moments.
TSJ: Is there a fear?
KK: Not so much fear. Maybe a little but that’s why it’s exciting. That’s why I love stand up. You can never predict how it’s going to go. Right when I think I can do something, something surprises me. I can’t prejudge a show.
TSJ: That’s exciting, isn’t it?
KK: It is. I’m lucky I found something. There’s people that haven’t found what they want to do.
TSJ: Absolutely. Also, the ones who do know what they want to do but are too afraid to go after it. It’s terrifying.
KK: Oh man. Yeah.
TSJ: I watched this video of you at the Lakeshore Theater in Chicago dealing with a heckler. The guy was being a real dick all night. When you got onstage you dedicated your entire time to taking him down. There was no written material. Have you always been that upfront?
KK: No, I had to learn it. I hate hecklers, man. That’s why I couldn’t go out on the road right away. More places should have their audiences trained a little better. That sounds a little weird but it’s like, don’t talk, turn off your phone. Come on. You paid money to be here. Enjoy the show. And I think a lot of places were not like that early on. It’s like you’re just babysitting drunks. I’m not a babysitter. I have no interest in babysitting people. That particular night, it was an open mic past midnight. There was nobody there and that guy wanted attention. So I said all right, come up and talk to me.
TSJ: The writing process, how do you write? Onstage?
KK: Yeah, it’s more conversational. Not necessarily punchlines, but stories. Though you can tell at the end if it’s kind of boring. [laughs] But it’s been more of writing onstage as of late. And I can see that sometimes the part of the story I didn’t think was as interesting is the part that does better. If you’re writing a story you realize that setting it up is as important as the actions. That’s the fun part. It expands.
TSJ: That’s true. Then before you know it a two-minute story becomes a five-minute story and so on?
KK: Exactly. Plus it’s a good way to fill up time. [laughs]
TSJ: You’ve performed in a lot of different places. What differences do you notice between the New York, Chicago and LA comedy scenes?
KK: I don’t think it’s the cities as much as the attitudes. You can go up in New York in the middle of Times Square, a tourist area, and people just come in without researching it. They don’t know who they’re seeing. But then last night I played at Meltdown Comics, which is in the back of a comic book store. Everybody that goes there knows what kind of comedy they’re getting into. I think every show you have people in the know. I like that. But then some comedians think if people come in I should be able to entertain you. I’m on the fence with that. As a skill, my old punk rock days says fuck it. This is what I’m going to do. I’m not trying to be exclusive. I don’t think any good art should be for everybody.
TSJ: True. You’re not there to pander to everybody.
KK: Yeah, I’m not going to be for everybody. It should hit real hard with some people and not so much with other people.
TSJ: Do you find that the LA crowd is bit more accepting to the array of artists because of the fact that Show Business is out there?
KK: Maybe but I think things are flipping over.
TSJ: So are you working on anything new?
KK: Yeah, I’m standing here with my buddy Matt Braunger. We’ve got a couple things that I don’t like to chitchat about but some things that might keep me in LA a little more often. I’m hopeful!