Comedian David Huntsberger is admittedly a curious guy, which is perfect because along with fellow comics Tig Notaro and Kyle Dunnigan he hosts the podcast ‘Professor Blastoff.’ Situated on the Earwolf network, ‘Professor Blastoff’ discusses and explores not only comedy but also wonders of the world such as astrology, science, and mythological studies with fellow comedians and the occasional expert.
Having begun stand up in Austin (with a little in San Diego), Huntsberger is now a desired act who seems both comfortable and thankful for his position within the industry. His podcast is one of the most popular around, and surely among one of the funniest. He recently took the time to speak with The Smoking Jacket about Professor Blastoff, his approach to stand up and a love for ‘Magnum P.I.’
The Smoking Jacket: So how long have you been performing?
David Huntsberger: Since 2002 — a little over ten years now.
TSJ: How did you get into comedy?
DH: I just didn’t want to pursue a real career after college. Everyone has those stories of always wanting to do it or a friend forced you up and all of that. Maybe it’s like being a model where you’re told you’re pretty all of the time and there’s a little part of you that’s like, Am I? Am I? So I kind of wanted to see if I was funny.
TSJ: Where did you start?
DH: My first open mic was the Comedy Store in San Diego.
TSJ: Was there a big comedy scene there?
DH: I remember several of the people there; I’m still friends with them. I remember it being not particularly inspiring or welcoming. Then I went to Austin and that was where I feel I really started; that’s what I call my home. It was way more conducive to doing comedy. People were helping each other out and supporting each other. It was like being a part of a family. It really is a great scene; there’s so many different styles. In San Diego, it was basically the same version of joke telling but at different volumes.
TSJ: Did you hear tell of how great Austin was for comedy or had you experienced it and then moved?
DH: A little of both. I had a friend from college who lived there. San Diego was expensive and I was looking for somewhere where I could really devote a lot of time to just laying around on the couch and try to be an artist. I wanted to spend a lot of my time being creative as opposed to paying bills. I knew Austin had a couple of clubs. I also knew that moving to LA from San Diego would be the logical step, but I thought it’d be kind of funny to zigzag to Austin and then LA. All of those factors kind of fed into it. On one hand it was a well thought out decision but on the other I might have been just like, Wouldn’t this be funny? [laughs]
TSJ: Do you think you would have gotten that same experience had you gone to LA or New York?
DH: Probably. I think that’s one of those free will type questions. If the past that you had were any different would you be the same person? I’m pretty comfortable with how my comedy evolved. I think if I had gone to LA there might have been more of me trying to develop a commercial side, maybe a more desperate tone – it could have been a number of things. Or I could have been telling the same jokes I am now. I’ll never really know. But I thought Austin was really good for having a lot of quiet time to think about things and internalize them; all of the things you need to do in order to tell jokes.
TSJ: You had mentioned something on ‘Professor Blastoff’ about that couch in Austin, saying it’s almost more acceptable there to lay on the couch and think things out and be creative as opposed to LA where everything is now, now, now.
DH: Yeah. I think there are people in LA who get to do that but you probably need a trust fund or something. But in Austin, my rent when I started there was like $415 and that included all of the utilities.
David Huntsberger “Robots & Black Holes”
TSJ: That’s awesome.
DH: It was really great! I could just substitute teach here and there and transition to working in the kitchen at the comedy club. So I could work three nights a week at the comedy club and make enough money to get by. Then I’d just go out and drink quite a bit and be around comedy and open mics. I was laughing a lot with my friends.
During the days I was drawing comics and writing stand up. I’d have this sketchpad next to me while I watched a lot of ‘Magnum P.I.’. [laughs] That was really influential. There was an eleven o’clock Magnum and a one o’clock, so a productive day was if I could catch both the eleven and the one. [laughs] But after the one o’clock ended I had nothing so I would write.
There was a great view out of my living room of just trees. I remember staring out of there thinking, Man, I have nothing to say. [laughs] But over time thoughts filtered in. I thought it was good though because I only had a television that had three channels – thank God ‘Magnum’ was on one of them – and a lot of people were doing jokes about what was on TV. I was more interested in finding jokes that came from somewhere else. Austin was really helpful with that.
TSJ: I think that feeling of having nothing to say is normal when you’re young. How long did it take you to get into a groove where you felt you had something to bring to the stage?
DH: I don’t know. I always liked stories of people like Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy and Bill Hicks, who started really young. I wanted to start at that age. I actually went to a club when I was fifteen with a whole design of how I was going to get up there, but when the opportunity came I just froze. I had nothing to say.
TSJ: Yeah, it’s terrifying.
DH: It is! That sort of continued through college. I remember being in college thinking I needed life experience. And even when I did start I was just talking about things on TV and going to bars and relationship-type stuff. There wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done already. I think there might have been something to them though, some nucleus where you realize something there is worthwhile. Then you hope they don’t drift away.
TSJ: If they do, is that just maturity that causes that?
DH: Maybe. It’s like if you have a music collection, you’re able to go back and listen to albums and laugh and think how ridiculous it was that you liked what you did. With a joke, you rarely go back and say, I want to hear that joke I did years ago. As a performer, if someone brings up an old joke you can easily forget it. But then there’s the side of comedy where if you are passionate about something you can fool people.
TSJ: Do you think you can fool them?
DH: I think so. I’m sure everyone has been at a show where they had a great time and then go, Wait, what did I just see? There’s something about the energy of a bunch of human beings together. People go to a comedy club to have a good time and enjoy themselves. Comedians are the only ones who can stand in the way of that. If a person is likable onstage and has a good energy there’s a good chance it could show. When you’re starting out you just can’t get the laugh you like. Then you see someone go up and do well; it’s like a mythical power.
TSJ: Oh, definitely! It’s a how do you take control of a room sort of thing.
DH: Exactly! Have you tried it?
TSJ: Stand up? Oh, no. To be honest, I’m terrified of it. I feel as if I’d write okay material and then freeze onstage. That’s how I feel. I’d look at their faces and know they expect me to speak and I’d freeze. Plus my delivery would most likely be embarrassing.
DH: Oh, man, I hope you try it. It’d be so funny. [laughs]
“There’s something about the energy of a bunch of human beings together.
People go to a comedy club to have a good time and enjoy themselves.
Comedians are the only ones who can stand in the way of that.”
TSJ: It’s petrifying thinking about it.
DH: Yeah, I get it. [laughs]
TSJ: So your writing, how do you approach it differently now as opposed to when you were younger?
DH: I’m lazier now, which I don’t know if it bums me out. It’s like anything you’re involved with; you have to have an open wound that is very sensitive to anything blowing over it or touching it. A lot of time people say you build up a callus, but however you exercise or use it you need to be close to it.
In the beginning my pockets would be filled with scraps of papers and notions. Now I have ideas but very few stick with me. If I have something that stays with me I write it; and I feel because it stuck with me I want to write bout it. Like if you’re an actor you do auditions nonstop and then after a while you can be like I just want to be with this one. It’s like I’ve done something similar and know how it will go. I try not to repeat the same process with a joke. A lot of jokes are like what’s the deal but to dance into a joke from a different angle, it’s more fun. It’s like if musicians are trying top find a way to create a new sound.
TSJ: Do you think about that stuff onstage or is it in the moment?
DH: I’m like you; I’m not naturally a good performer. It took me forever because it was so intimidating.
TSJ: Yeah, I get it. Why would they like me sort of thing.
DH: Exactly! But as you do it more you get better. Now I could get up and just riff. I used to write a joke and go up and tell it. Now I’ll think about it and tell it off the top of my head to just see how it plays. Then I’ll go back and see which part of it worked. I like to have just a concept to see where it goes onstage. Sometimes it happens in the middle of the show. Letting the show meander a bit can be good.
TSJ: The thing that’s interesting is when you first start you have these scraps of paper in your pocket because you don’t want these people to hate you onstage, but ten years down the line you think of something and go I’ll try it tonight, and the fact that they may not accept it isn’t the biggest deal anymore.
DH: Right. It’s a shame that it is true that the first 30 seconds and the last 30 seconds are the most memorable. People will forget a lot of the middle. I don’t like when profession comedians say ‘Oh, that was new.’ I think you should have your chops enough where you can live with it not doing well. That takes me out of a moment more than a joke failing. That could just be my idiosyncrasy though. There’s the notion that when you are onstage riffing, you should trust your intuition. There’s a thing being a comic where you have to know if something is funny. It’s a bummer when it’s not. [laugh]
TSJ: There’s something cool to riffing. It’s real and in the moment.
DH: And I think audiences want to see that. It’s funny to see someone’s mind work in the moment.
David Huntsberger “Brains”
TSJ: Have you noticed more people coming to your shows because of Professor Blastoff?
DH: Yeah, definitely. It’s cool because some people who have listened to the podcast want to hear my stand up, but others followed me and then started listening to the podcast. It works as a good bridge, much better than stand up clips. It adds another element.
I think it’s a great medium for comedians. For the previous fifteen or twenty years you had to a get on TV and do late night spots. Now when you do them it’s almost like it’s a patch you can put on a poster. If you go to a comedy club you can see on a poster that they’ve done comedy central. You think wow they must be good. They must be good. With a podcast it’s like, you’ve heard their voice and they’re funny on the podcast so you want to check out their stand up. There’s an element that you know them.
TSJ: I always say this with podcasts; the intimacy is amazing. Especially with Professor Blastoff, you guys have an amazing chemistry. And with what went down with Tig, people get to know you all. It’s very cool for comedy fans.
DH: Yeah! I think for Tig in particular, this has been so bizarre, but people feel they know her now. As opposed to before they knew who she was but they didn’t know much about her. And Kyle, he has so many personal stories that people know him. They know him.
TSJ: It must be weird for comics because fans know you — but you don’t know them.
DH: I think that’s why people buy celebrity magazines. You feel you know them so when you can see them you can be like, What is up with that stepson of yours? [laughs] But yes, with the podcast, people feel as if their friends are having a conversation.
It must be disappointing for them coming to a show if they feel someone walks past them. They realize the comic has never seen them or spoken to them. I hope that isn’t the case, though.
TSJ: You mentioned Kyle’s many stories before. I remember you disclosed one which caused an uproar with listeners. They loved it! I interviewed Kyle the day after that episode dropped and he seemed thrilled that you shared.
DH: They’re always pressing me to do that. [laughs] It seems like such a double-edged sword. There’s a watercolor artist, Edward Hopper, who painted scenes that were provocative; people would ask him to tell him about his life. He’d say, “The man is in the art!”
I don’t know if comics can say the same but I feel comedians are even more personal than that. That seems like enough. If people know that much about you, and they’re strangers, I think that’s fair. I don’t know why people would have to know everything about my personal life.
TSJ: I get that. As a comedian, you’re in front of strangers unleashing thoughts most are afraid to admit to having, so in knowing the deepest thoughts, why share anything else?
DH: Definitely. Why do you need to know if I urinated the bed at a sleepover? [laughs]
TSJ: On the podcast, you seem to be able to hold a conversation with anyone, whether they are a professional in a field of study or a comedian. Do you study up or are you just naturally curious?
DH: I think I’m just curious. I don’t say anything that’s very knowledgeable; it’s just questions. I get so many negative tweets and comments about that. I just have questions about a lot of these subjects. People are like, He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!
TSJ: Oh, wow. I took that as the exact opposite.
DH: Oh, well that’s good to hear! I get the sense that people get a little frustrated. It’s nice to hear that’s not true. I love having conversation on the podcast and asking questions’ the notion of the podcast was that.
We are going to do an episode about ego, and that’s the only one I researched a little. I don’t know much about the ego so I did look up stuff to ask questions. Even experts on that won’t have all the answers.
But I think a lot of times people believe there is a definitive answer to things and our podcast is like yeah, but what if… And it’s fun to hear experts think yeah, it could be but really think we’re insane. [laughs] So I don’t do a lot of research. I feel it’d be disingenuous to the topic if I did. You can tell when someone fakes it.
TSJ: I think there’s something very cool in having an expert on and telling them we don’t know about this; tell us.
DH: Yeah, I love it! It’s such a cool resource to have. Plus people will contact us if we need an expert. A lot of stuff happens that way. Then there’s people like Lake Bell, who was so passionate about something and came in and talked to us with so much care and passion; it’s immediately noticeable.
TSJ: So between the actors, comics, and professionals, do you have a preference?
DH: I like a mix of both, just for the show’s sake. The experts are harder to come by. It’s easier to have talks with comedians. Actors and musicians — it’s cool because it’s a different part of entertainment. It’s fun to get their views. They intermingle [with us] so well. Musicians listen to comedy and read books, etc. They’re all nourishing each other.
Then academia, those people are foreign; I don’t know them very well. When they come in and are knowledgeable and personable it’s interesting. It’s great to interact with legitimate geniuses. They understand everyone isn’t as smart as them. We’ve been lucky that everyone is communicative and affable. I like that because it’s a little more foreign.