How many comedians have you heard of whom once attempted to be an FBI agent? Our guess is zero.
Enter Carmen Lynch – the Clarice Starling of comedy. The New York-based comedian has performed all throughout both the city and country, making her late night debut on the ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ last November. Her career in stand up began after moving to New York to be an actress, yet once she stepped foot inside a comedy club a passion was discovered. And despite a short break – one which only solidified more so her desire to be a comic – Lynch has never stopped performing, claiming there to be nothing like a live performance.
She recently sat down with us to talk the FBI, acting and how to bomb like a pro.
The Smoking Jacket: First off, congratulations. You just did your first Letterman. How was that experience?
Carmen Lynch: It was amazing! It’s something that I’d been hoping to do one day. It was funny because they were supposed to come see me at Caroline’s one night and couldn’t because they were working on someone else’s set. I ended up going to the Comic Strip to do a set and they saw me there by accident.
TSJ: That’s fantastic! Is that how they usually do it? Having people scout in the audience?
CL: It depends. Sometimes they have showcases; sometimes it’s word of mouth. For me, it was amazing.
TSJ: Most people don’t realize how difficult it is doing a Late Night set, I think. You have to narrow your set down to an exact time, right?
CL: About four and a half minutes. You have to pick specific material they like for the show, and some that you want, obviously. Slowly, it shrinks into this four and a half minute set. At first, they see maybe nine or ten minutes; then it shrinks to seven and so on.
TSJ: There’s so many talk shows today between Letterman, Fallon, Conan, Kimmel, etc. With this being your late night debut, was it the show you wanted?
CL: Letterman was the one I was really hoping to do. When you’re in the running for it and working towards it, it kind of feels good to wait and let that happen. I know there are other showcases for shows out there but this one was the one I really wanted.
TSJ: Of course. It’s Letterman; he’s a living legend.
CL: Exactly! And plus, he’s a New York guy. This is where I started comedy so it felt right.
TSJ: Is there another one you’d like to go on?
CL: I love Kimmel and Conan. I’d do all of them though, honestly.
TSJ: So when you heard they were putting you on, was there ever a moment of doubt from you?
CL: Not really. It was a goal that I had been working so hard towards. When it comes you still can’t believe it’s happening but you’ve been working for it. I was ready.
TSJ: I don’t know if this is at all true, but did you apply to the FBI before stand up?
CL: [laughs] Yes, I did! I was actually selected in the first round. They were looking for people who were fluent in a different language; I’m fluent in Spanish. I took the psychology and math test and am pretty sure I did okay; they were looking for a certain profile and personality. A lot of the multiple-choice questions were right but I just wasn’t who they were looking for. Once I got the skinny envelope I knew I wasn’t going to an agent. [laughs]
TSJ: You must be the only person who has that story, from FBI to stand up.
CL: Yeah! It was back in the days of Clarice from ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ you know? I wanted to be her! So I tried it out. Then I was in Virginia and took an acting class and loved it. I knew that New York or LA were great for acting so I went to New York because it was closer, never thinking about being a stand up.
One night I went to a comedy club and was blown away. I thought it was amazing. How could they be doing this? I thought they were born with this gift; I didn’t know it was something you worked at. And this was a time when ‘Seinfeld’ was on and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ I had heard they were stand ups so I thought it was a good way to get into acting, to try stand up. I did it as a stepping-stone, took a class and just loved it. I still did acting but stand up was it.
TSJ: Where did you take a class?
CL: [laugh] Well, the first was a three-day class at some annex.
TSJ: Learn how to do stand up in three days?
CL: Yeah, I know. But the third day they took you to Stand Up New York, and you had to do a five-minute set. I did two minutes and ran out of material. When I tried it I knew I wanted to be a stand up; then I took a real class, an eight-week class at Caroline’s.
TSJ: A lot of stand ups say they are shy off stage. How long did it take for you to get comfortable?
CL: It’s weird; it’s almost like I was shy as a person but because I was in control of putting myself onstage and doing it all on my time, that voice that never spoke growing up had a chance to speak.
TSJ: That’s very cool. So then from the class to now, how have the sets, the material and your style changed, if at all?
CL: I’ve always wanted to write autobiographical material and I think as I’ve grown more as a stand up I’ve gotten darker and more personal. In the beginning I spoke about being tall and my Spanish mom, and I was always very short in the beginning. I’ve learned to expand.
TSJ: To me, I always love when a comedian is personal, maybe showing the darker side of it.
CL: I think it’s fun to talk about personal stuff. There’s a part of me that thinks that’s cool because it feels as if no one can take that side away from you because it’s so personal. I could have a great subway joke and give it a twist, making it my own style, but doing a joke about my father is much more rewarding. Sometimes there’s a problem in making it relatable to people but I will always find a way to do that.
TSJ: How many years into it did you get onto ‘Last Comic Standing’?
CL: About two and a half years. I was on season one. I waited in line for eight hours and I was about to leave when the guy I was dating at the time said, “What are you going to do, go back to your temp job?” [laughs] He was right, so I waited and made it to the next round. I was kind of the new girl who made it in line. Then I was on it in season seven, the last season.
TSJ: Had you noticed a difference in the show between seasons one and seven?
CL: Oh, a huge difference!
TSJ: From what I’ve heard it grew to be something that could really help a career.
CL: I definitely got some things after being on season one. That season, I was scared. I was with guys that had been doing stand up for so long. And season seven was just so fun. In season one I wasn’t sure if it was more about the house or comedy. Season seven was strictly stand up. It was really different. I was also a lot more experienced and confident.
TSJ: You’ve grown to be a successful stand up. Is acting still in the works?
CL: Absolutely! I love acting. I’ve started a web series with my roommates, Apt. C3, and to be able to act in most of them has brought my love for acting back. In a lot of them I’m the crazy character; it brought me back to how much I like acting like a weirdo. I hope to do more of that in the future. It’s funny though because a lot of my stand up can be deadpan but when I act I love doing the opposite, being more insane.
TSJ: If you were ever given the chance to act, would you ever go back to stand up?
CL: I could never stop stand up. I’d always go back to do it. Actually, I would do both at the same time.
TSJ: That’s the cool thing to me about stand ups. It’s almost like they cannot leave the stage.
CL: There’s something about live performance that’s so refreshing. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
TSJ: That’s the terrifying thing to me I think. Every one is different.
CL: Yeah, but terrifying at year two and terrifying at year ten are completely different. When I was having a horrible show when I first started it took me forever to get over that, and it still sucks now when that happens but you can blow it off much more easily.
TSJ: The idea that you can shake it off on a bad crowd is great.
CL: Yeah, or sometimes you’re off. Sometimes you just had a bad day or your timing is off. There’s nothing you can do really.
TSJ: How often are you on the road?
CL: I’d say twice a month. It depends. Sometimes I’ll do colleges and sometimes clubs. I just like to leave New York really. It keeps me sane. Plus you get longer sets. If there’s nothing to do in that town you can go crazy but sometimes staying in a hotel and not my apartment is so good for my head. I just sit and watch TV. It’s almost like I’m forced to relax. I don’t have to do anything; it can be great.
TSJ: What about writing? How often do you find yourself writing new material? Because with your web series, going on podcasts, honing the set you already have, being on social media, how and when do you find time to actually sit and write new material?
CL: I think sometimes it’s on the train; if I’m doing a show in a little room and I know no industry people will be around I will force myself that day to write for two hours because those are the rooms I like to work things out in.
TSJ: And you’ll try it out that night?
CL: Yeah. I’m not saying all that material was created that day but I’ll go through notebooks or stuff on my phone and make sure I do that that night. But if I have spots all week at really good clubs I usually don’t write much that week.
TSJ: Are some clubs better for trying out new material?
CL: I think little hole in the wall type of places. Even then I’ll just stick something new in the middle of two things. Sometimes I’ll try an old one in a new way. But with AptC3, we usually improvise a lot of it.
TSJ: Do you find that harder, to improvise?
CL: No, it’s actually easier to me. I don’t have to stick to a script and don’t know what the other actors are going to do. If we just have a goal, like the purpose of this scene is to do whatever, then we can go from there.
TSJ: I know some people say they love stand up because it’s just them. Do you find it difficult to work with other people, such as improvising on your web series?
CL: No, I think we all collaborate well together. Some episodes lean more towards a certain person, so then they’ll be more in charge that day.
TSJ: The series is on YouTube, right?
CL: Yes! It’s me, Liz Miele – she’s a comedian, and Chris Vongsawat – he’s a fashion photography and videographer. It’s called Apartment C3. (www.aptc3.com)
TSJ: Do you ever take that improv to the stage?
CL: I do. In some rooms I can go into it saying I don’t know where this dating bit is going but I’m going to try it. I haven’t written anything down but I’m just going to do it.
TSJ: Wow. So at that point the thought in your head is I don’t care if this bombs or not.
CL: Absolutely! It feels really good!
TSJ: How do you sit there when people are not responding to it?
CL: I know that if it bombs I’ll probably note that it bombed or jump into something that I know works.
TSJ: I guess then the fact that you had mentioned it bombing creates funny.
CL: Yes. They’ll laugh that I made a point of the fact that it sucked. Or I’ll pick at somebody who obviously wanted to laugh but didn’t. A lot of times I like to link the new ones to a chunk that I already know works. At least then I know something will be salvaged.
TSJ: Do you find that if you take the same set at two different clubs, the crowd reactions differ?
CL: Oh yeah. You can find that in New York alone, based on the region, the time, whether the crowd is drunk or not, or if I’m into it or not. Either way, I love trying new stuff. It keeps me less bored.
TSJ: That makes sense. There has to be a point where you’re just spouting out the same old, same old.
CL: Definitely. And sometimes I’m just tired and will do stuff that works because I don’t feel like thinking. [laughs] But trying stuff out, to me, is so fun.
TSJ: When did you get to that point?
CL: Oh god, I used to do the same stuff all the time. I still don’t think I do enough new stuff. Because I got ‘Last Comic Standing’ so early on I felt the pressure to always kill so I used to do the same stuff for years. Then I stopped doing stand up after five years in. I was burnt out; I didn’t feel like I was doing it for the right reasons. I didn’t know if I was just doing it to rebel against my conservative parents or what. So about five years in I stopped and wrote for a year. I kept three or four spots that I had already had but it took me about a year to realize how much I wanted it.
I had a normal life; I got a job at an insurance company and started dating a regular guy. Then I thought no, stand up is what I want. So I dove back in and felt like I was starting over. When I first started I had this feeling like I was always being watched because I had gotten ‘Last Comic Standing’ and ‘Premium Blend’ early, so I had this pressure to always do well. I couldn’t get past that so I was constantly doing the same material and I think that’s what killed me.
TSJ: That must have been hellish, doing it for five years then jumping into a 9 to 5.
CL: It was depressing. I didn’t see it as quitting though; I saw it as let’s see what I want to do. The paycheck was nice though.
TSJ: What was the final push back into stand up?
CL: I think I just realized that I really wanted it. Something clicked inside. But also, I remember the insurance company was owned by AIG. When AIG got into trouble I knew we were going to get laid off. It was only a matter of time. So it was April 15th – tax day. We were all assembled into the conference room and some voice from Texas gets on the speakerphone and said we were all laid off. I was so excited! It was what I was waiting for.
TSJ: I guess that pushed you.
CL: Just to do stand up, yeah. I haven’t had a day job since. There were people in the room crying and I was like yes!
TSJ: You are the third or fourth comic that I’ve spoke to who remembers the exact date and year of their last day job. It must be liberating.
CL: It was!
TSJ: The material that you wrote within that year, was it at all different from what you had been doing?
CL: It was so much more personal. It wasn’t about just being tall. It was a great feeling.
TSJ: Did you find that the audiences responded to it differently?
CL: I don’t know about that but it made me feel good. It made me feel like a complete person and I knew this is what I had to do.
TSJ: You mentioned before about your parents being strict. How do they feel now?
CL: They’re excited now. About three years ago they stopped pushing me to go to grad school. It was kind of when I went to perform for the troops that they stopped. Maybe because my Dad was in the military, I don’t know. But I also put my foot down eventually and said they had to stop asking me if I’m putting money away into mutual funds, because I’m not. But since I performed for the troops they have been great.
TSJ: How was performing overseas?
CL: Oh, it was awesome. I would love to go back, go to Afghanistan or something. You are so protected by them. It’s insane. I’d go to the bathroom and come out and there’s a guy standing there with this big gun. I was like I’m not J’Lo. This is not a problem. [laughs]
TSJ: How long were you there for?
CL: The first time was ten days and this year was only five in Kuwait.
TSJ: Is it at all like performing for an audience here in the city? Or are they just so thankful that someone came?
CL: They’re so thankful! Half of them are like twenty-years-old; they’re so young. They’re giving you plaques and just so excited to have you there.
TSJ: You said before that you were fluent in Spanish. Have you performed stand up in Spanish?
CL: Yeah, actually I did for the first time this year. I went to Spain in February and did shows in four cities. Then I went to Costa Rica; they started a comedy festival. It was their second I think. It was completely different. I don’t really have a place here to practice my Spanish stand up, so when I did it there some of it worked and some didn’t. [laughs]
TSJ: How are the audiences?
CL: They don’t really get sarcasm. Some of my drier/darker stuff they don’t realize is a joke. Somebody came up to be afterwards and actually said, “Wow, you really talk about yourself.” I think they’re more about observational and such.
TSJ: So with your love of acting, do you think you’ll say goodbye to the East Coast soon?
CL: I’d love to, but stand up is so important to me right now. New York is where I want to be. With all of the comedy here I don’t know if I want to go anywhere else. Having said that, you do have to get out every once in a while because it will make you insane. [laughs]
Check out Carmen Lynch’s website HERE.
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