In arguably one of the country’s greatest comedy scenes, comedian Joe List has become a regular in many of the New York clubs. Starting out in Boston, where he honed his act, List was eventually invited to join the great Nick Di Paolo on the road as his opening act; something he admits helped him learn a great deal. Having now relocated to New York – a city he believes makes comics work their hardest – List now concentrates on tightening his comedy in order to better himself and keep up with the incessant competition that exists within the New York scene.
He recently spoke with The Smoking Jacket about comedy in Boston, the New York competition and how guys like Louis CK and Bill Burr are making everyone else in the business work harder.
The Smoking Jacket: I’m thrilled to be speaking with you. I saw you perform a little while back at Caroline’s, opening for Nick Di Paolo. How did that happen?
Joe List: It’s a fun story. I first knew him from the Comedy Connection up in Boston, which is no longer there, but it was my home club. I was there and would occasionally open for national acts as they came through. I was asked to open for Nick on a weekend. That Thursday, I couldn’t do it, so my buddy, Owen, opened for him that night. Apparently, they were sitting in the green room and Owen goes, “Hey Nick. How long have you been doing this,” or something. Nick, who’s a bit of an angry guy, goes, “Hey, we’re not girls! We don’t need to force the conversation. Just sit quietly!” [laughs]. So Owen called me and said don’t try to talk to him. He said he’s crazy. [laughs]
So I opened for Nick Friday through Sunday just sitting in the green room silently. I wouldn’t talk unless he asked me something. And at the end of the weekend he goes, “I like you. You stick to yourself and you write good jokes. You want to go on the road?”
TSJ: What a great story.
JL: Yeah, so now I’ve been opening for him for about six years. I think the first year or so I never spoke to him; I just sat there silently. And then finally we started arguing about politics and sports.
TSJ: He’s quite a presence. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him and was biting my nails for a little bit.
JL: Yeah, he can be intimidating for sure. He’s a great guy, though.
TSJ: Were you always into comedy?
JL: I’ve wanted to do comedy ever since I was a kid. I feel like it always sounds contrived or something but it’s true. Ever since I was eight or nine and my uncle showed me George Carlin, I was obsessed. I used to watch comedy before school when I’d eat my breakfast. And when I graduated high school I started doing it. Looking back, I think I could have started when I was in high school. I went to an open mic right next to Fenway Park and eventually started going every week.
Joe List — 5 Minute Set
TSJ: I know a lot of comedians say when they went on the first time they were terrified. They also say they bombed incredibly. Was it a similar experience?
JL: I don’t know how terrified I was, honestly. I was nervous, definitely, but I remember just thinking this is all I want to do. I had no other options so I knew I had to make it work. I wasn’t thinking career-wise, I was just thinking this is what I wanted to do.
But I do remember being pretty awful. I remember saying, “Take my wife, please,” at one point. Then I did a joke, “I went to Cheers and nobody knew my name.” I probably just did like four minutes, and it went pretty well. The guy who hosted the open mic, he gave me his card and I remember thinking I was in show business then. He said to come back next week and I was like oh man, I’m in!
TSJ: So when did you start thinking about it as an actual career?
JL: Well, I think like a lot of comedians, I’m not good at the career thing. I never thought about it; I never set goals, even now to this day. [laughs] So I think after a few years I started really thinking about it, but I still could be a lot better, business-wise. But back then I knew I just had to keep doing it. Then slowly when I started making a little money I thought if I could make a little more I wouldn’t have to work. Somehow I miraculously pulled that off.
TSJ: How long were you performing before you moved to New York?
JL: I moved here in 2007, so I performed in Boston for about seven years.
TSJ: And why did you decide on New York? I know some opt for LA or Chicago.
JL: I always wanted to live in New York, even when I was a kid. Also, I constantly heard that you go to New York to be a comedian and you go to LA to be in movies and TV.
TSJ: Yeah, I think there’s truth to that.
JL: I mean, the Comedy Cellar, Caroline’s; those are all such famous clubs. Plus I just love this city. It seemed like this is where comics came. It’s where the best of the best come to be the best. I’m not saying I’m one of the best but I know I want to be here.
TSJ: Well, it’s better to surround yourself among the best.
TSJ: Do you think you’ll ever head out to LA?
JL: I’ll entertain the idea now, but only for about five minutes. It’s not for me. Don’t get me wrong; I love LA. I love going there. It’s a fantastic city, but I don’t think I could live there. Even if someone was like, ‘Hey, we got you a sitcom!’ I would really have to think about it.
Joe List — Breast Preference
TSJ: Having performed in both the Boston and New York comedy circuit, have you noticed any immense differences between the two?
JL: The big difference – and I hope my Boston friends aren’t mad – is the work ethic. In New York, people are more conscious of the business, of management and of getting work. They pay more attention to turning over new material and writing more. It compels you to actually work harder because everyone else is. You see some guy has a new five or another has a new ten or a new manager, and you’re forced to want to keep up.
In Boston, it’s more club house-like. There’s a couple guys working really, really hard but I think some are farting along and having fun, which is why I like going back there. [laughs]
TSJ: Do you think that’s just because part of the industry is in New York?
JL: Oh definitely! That’s a huge thing. I also think that’s the way it’s been here for so long. Plus, another good thing about New York is that you can run around and do three or four sets a night, and that makes you write more because you get tired of your sets more easily. In Boston, you can maybe do two shows a night.
TSJ: So you find yourself writing more ever since you’ve gotten to New York?
JL: Most definitely, yeah. Especially in the last couple of years because of Louis [CK]. What he did has sort of had a trickle down effect. He’s putting out a new hour every year, Bill Burr too. People all the way down are realizing this is what we should try to do. Louis is kind of making all of us work harder, which is great.
TSJ: It does seem like the more comedians I talk to, they do say they’re trying to turn over a new act every year. I imagine that must be so difficult though.
JL: Well, for me, nobody has heard my first hour [laughs] so it’s not so much that I have to keep doing it; but you want to keep writing to keep growing and get better and have better material. Of course, I’d love to trade places with Louis where everyone wants to see a new hour from me every year, but then again, it’s kind of nice being able to not have that pressure. I don’t have to sweat too much.
TSJ: I know you traveled the road with Nick Di Paolo, but now with “The Nick & Artie Show” that he’s more confined to New York, do you go out often?
JL: I’m on the road a lot. I’m actually heading up to Boston tomorrow; it’s my third weekend in a row there. I love going back up there. But yes, I’m on the road a lot now. When I went with Nick I did all of his dates so that was probably twenty-five weeks out of the year. But since he’s not working as much I’ve had to get it on my own. I’m one of those guys who can’t stay in one spot for more than a week.
TSJ: So you really enjoy it?
JL: Oh, yeah. I like doing the road and I like being home in New York. I’m one of the lucky ones, I think. Most people hate one of them. [laughs]
TSJ: Do you think you can gain something from the road that you can’t by just sticking to one city?
JL: Well, for me, even aside from comedy I love the road. I love hotels; I love trains; I love driving, planes; I like meeting people; I like the bars, seeing the country and such. I love it for reasons aside from comedy. But the road helps you experience more so that you can write more.
Also, you’ve got to get up in different spots in front of different audiences to see how your act works in Omaha, Nebraska, or something. When you do that or one-nighters in Maine or Detroit, then LA, then Seattle, then you’re doing comedy. To me, if you’re going to be good or great or a real comic, you’ve got to get out of that comfort. I like it; it’s a challenge. You get to see how your jokes work. Maybe you can be a little dirtier in some rooms, maybe cleaner in others.
TSJ: Do you do many adjustments?
JL: Not a lot. Minor adjustments. But maybe if it’s a bar room in the middle of Pennsylvania I’ll say fuck a little more. No offense to Pennsylvania.
TSJ: No, of course not.
JL: But with the road, you’re working your act to make it better.
TSJ: I saw a small interview with you and you had mentioned that you’re naturally a nervous guy. I’m curious, when you get onstage does that make you more or less nervous?
JL: People don’t believe this but that’s when I’m the least nervous. I have horrible anxiety. I have panic disorder and anxiety disorder but when I’m onstage that’s when I feel comfortable. It sounds cheesy but that’s when I’m the guy I want to be.
TSJ: No, that makes absolute sense to me.
JL: I think then I’m in control. My anxieties are constrained. I think that’s what I’m looking for, a controlled situation. And usually any nervousness onstage is a bit of a put-on.
TSJ: So with the anxieties and panic disorder, how did you not shy away from the spotlight of stand up comedy?
JL: See, it’s weird. I don’t know. I wasn’t as anxious as a kid. When I was in high school I was a runner. So I was running eight miles a day and I didn’t drink. Between hours of cardiovascular work, not drinking and not having to worry about money or a career, my anxieties didn’t really act up. They didn’t start rising until I stopped exercising, started drinking and needed a job. And like I said, I think I was nervous to start doing stand up – it’s a nerve-wracking endeavor to get into – but it was all I ever wanted to do. Now it’s time to do it, I thought. I can’t not do it. I wasn’t going to get a job; that’s crazy. [laughs]
TSJ: Of course. That’d be insane! This year you started doing spots on Robert Kelly’s “You Know What Dude!” podcast. How’s that experience been?
JL: Yeah, I started in March I think. It’s been great. It’s so much fun. I loved Bobby when I first started. Him, Dane and Gary Gulman would always come up to Boston together and I loved them.
TSJ: They’re all Boston guys too. It seems so maybe great comics come from that area.
JL: It’s pretty unbelievable. That’s another reason to start in Boston, to be one of those guys, you know?
TSJ: It’s a great place to hone an act.
JL: For sure. There’s a good camaraderie there. It’s a great comedy scene. Everybody loves each other and helps one another. It’s a tight-knit group. I think the problem lies in that you eventually have to get out of there.
TSJ: Obviously when you performed there your act changed, but when you got to New York did you notice any other changes that needed attention? Perhaps because the business is more in New York?
JL: Oh, yeah. The main thing was when I got here I was like I have to work a lot harder. People work so hard here. Plus there’s a higher concentration of good comics and higher competition. That’s good though, because it made me change my act in order to be a stronger comedian.