TSJ Interviews Comedian Myq Kaplan

Comedian Myq Kaplan has traveled the country spreading his uniquely intelligent sense of humor to all who will listen, which is certainly a lot of people. His points of view on both life and society along with spot on delivery have not only caught the eye of fans in comedy clubs across the states but also television shows such as CONAN, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,and the now defunct Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. Since his appearance on the 2010 season of Last Comic Standing, his career has skyrocketed. He has appeared on podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF, Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny, Professor Blastoff, Keith and the Girl, and various others.

The Smoking Jacket: You’ve got a Master’s degree in linguistics? How did you get from that to comedy?

Myq Kaplan: Well, I actually started pursuing comedy right around the time I was starting in grad school. I got out of college with my undergrad in 2000 and started pursuing a music career. I went to the Comedy Studio—which was the first comedy club in Boston that I ever performed at—but mostly pursuing music, so my senior year of college they let me perform a few songs. Then over the next couple of years I would go every once in a while and bring some friends. I wasn’t pursuing comedy at all.

I started grad school in 2000 also and part of my reason was because I liked linguistics and thought I’ll study it more and give myself a chance to quote on quote ‘be discovered’ as a musician. I didn’t want to get a job. I was working at a coffee shop and as a Resident Assistant at grad school. I had free housing, a flexible job and started doing a paid linguistics internship that had flexible hours.

In 2002 is when I started trying to be a comedian. But basically, the desire to do linguistics and comedy are sort of concurrent. It was, “Here’s the things that are going on in my head, the things I’m thinking and the things I care about and find interesting.” That’s just the way I operated—that’s the source of my interest in linguistics and my interest in comedy.

TSJ: So were you always interested in it?

MK: No. I liked jokes but hadn’t really known much about stand up before I started getting into it. I had never really been to a comedy club. I knew famous people did it, like Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, Denis Leary, Norm MacDonald and people on SNL but I had no sense of how one became those people. Most of them were TV stars so I figured they could do comedy. As opposed to a lot of people who started in stand up and then used that as a way to gain exposure, fans and opportunities to do those TV shows. I didn’t know there were just aspiring comedians. I didn’t know there were less known comedians because, of course, they were less known. I didn’t know of the local Boston comedy scene until I started becoming a part of it.

Myq Kaplan on Craig Ferguson

TSJ: So starting out in Boston and performing all over the country, is there a difference in the audiences?

MK: I think there are different audiences everywhere, but there are different audiences on the local level as well. If you look at a city like New York there’s Williamsburg audiences, there’s tourist audiences in Times Square, there’s friendly hipster audiences and there’s ugly hipster audiences. There’s also locals. Same thing in Boston. There’s the Comedy Studio that’s across from Harvard and they would attract a lot of college kid audiences. They try to put on a certain type of comedy show that say a bachelorette party wouldn’t be suited for. Not that any comedian loves to entertain bachelorette parties.

TSJ: I’ve heard those can be horrible.

MK: They can be. There could be good ones, but I feel it’s mostly the fact that they aren’t like, “Let’s go see a comedian we like tonight.” They’re like, “This is your night. Lets go do a thing out in public and it happens to be at a comedy club.” Sometimes they’re like, “Our friend is the center of attention,” when, in fact, that is not the way a comedy show operates. To answer your question, it depends on the venue your at. I love going to a club in Minneapolis called Acme. It’s one of the best clubs in the country.

TSJ: There’s been a couple of comedians that have said that. What is it about that club?

MK: It’s a few things. I think after a certain point the owner knows what he’s doing. He’s a great businessman. Obviously he wants to make money but he’s doing it by staying on the cutting edge. He’ll bring in new and young comedians who are funny that people might not have heard of, and then he’ll bring in your Maria Bamfords and Andy Kindlers and Doug Bensons. There’s a certain class of comedians that he has access too because he attracts good audiences. There’s a few things, too, that he does great. For example, there’s no drink minimum. There’s a restaurant but you have to eat before hand so there’s no clanking. The show is respected. There are drinks that are priced very well. Everybody is just treated very well. There’s a few clubs like that. The Comedy Cellar here in New York is great.

TSJ: I’ve still never been there, but I’ve been dying to go.

MK: Oh, you should. They have signs saying it’s a ‘three drink maximum.’ They’re really out to respect the show. I think if you have a party of more than four they split you up. I think they’ll put four of you on one side and four on the other.

TSJ: It’s a tiny club, right?

MK: Yeah, it seats over 100 but I’m not sure how many. But in the same way that they’ve built a reputation for going to watch comedy they have the reputation of the greatest comedians in the city and the world stopping in. I’ve been there when Seinfeld or Chris Rock or Louis CK will stop in. Dave Attell, Colin Quinn and Aziz Ansari too, when he’s in town.

Myq Kaplan on Letterman

TSJ: The Cellar is famous for that.

MK: Oh, yeah. Any comedian of that caliber can go to any club in the city on pretty much whatever basis they want. That’s the cool thing about being in New York in general. It can happen anytime. But The Cellar has a certain prestige to it. People go there knowing it could happen.

TSJ: So when you started, what was the reaction of your family and friends?

MK: My mom was always very supportive. My dad was always very practical. You know, how are you going to live? Where are you going to live? What is your backup plan? That sort of thing. I told them I had it under control. I’d sell coffee for as long as I needed to. That was legitimately my plan. My parents have always been great in saying ‘You can do anything!’ Then when I grew up I realized I can’t do anything but I can do the thing that I want to do and hopefully am good at and work towards it. But they are so supportive now. My dad has a mailing list saying ‘Hey, my son’s doing this now.’ My friends in college thought I wasn’t any funnier then them and that’s sort of true. For the first few years I wasn’t the best, as is everyone. But a few years later I remember one of those friends came to a show and said, ‘Hey, you’re funny now!’ But I did have a segment of very supportive friends as well.

TSJ: Your act is very on point and tight. Is there any improv involved in it?

MK: There’s definitely a lot of improv in the construction and development of new jokes. I don’t just go on stage with a blank mind. Though, Paul F. Tompkins, to see him live, sometimes the first 10 to 20 or more minutes of his act, he’ll just free form like he does on his podcast. He’s amazing at it. When I’m in front of audiences that I’m comfortable with, if I can find something that just happened recently or in the show I do aim to be in the moment. I will do that as much as I can. It rarely makes it to the 20-minute level but then also throughout the set, if the audience is with you new ideas sort of flow from old ones. When I started I was like, “I have 5 minutes, 20 things on the list and with the ones that work I’ll tell tomorrow and the ones that didn’t, well, the end!” But now, even if something that doesn’t work you can be funny still. As you advance in comedy you get a little more confident in your instincts to be like well even if one audience didn’t laugh at that maybe I need to say it different, maybe I said too much, maybe I said not enough.

TSJ: The ability to be funny like that in the moment is amazing.

MK: Thank you! Did you hear that? I’m amazing! There’s different ways that people are funny. Some people are into writing things in advance only. There’s a guy who criticized my methods of writing. He thought it was disrespectful to audiences to bring them something that was untested. We had a lengthy back and forth. He’s done stand up but says he’s more of a comedy writer now so he’s definitely focused more on the writerly side of things. But on the other end there are people like Louis CK or Bill Burr, I think, say they almost exclusively talk things out. The thing shapes itself on stage. For me, both are important. I think I probably go onstage with more of an idea of what I’m going to say than Louis does coming out with a new idea. But I also am happy to access that part of me that is free to be myself.

On Craig Ferguson again

TSJ: I remember someone, maybe Marc Maron, saying you think about jokes as a math problem.

MK: He did, which is not unfair. But I don’t think that tells the entire story of every joke. I think my mind does work in a mathematical way more than a lot of other people. Certainly there are many people whose minds work mathematically as well. But I do like math. One of my first comedians I got into was Mitch Hedberg. I feel he was mathematical in a lot of his ways. Any comedian that does one-liners, there’s a certain degree of precision that is potentially needed to go from beginning to end.

TSJ: So from going to writing jokes on the pad to just being in the moment, were you bored from the original process or did you just have a new confidence?

MK: I definitely was never bored. It was seeing people like Micah Sherman—he was always in the moment—and Rory Scovel. He [Rory] is a guy that loves improvising. He’s amazing at it. Like Paul F. Tompkins, Rory can just riff. He told me that two of his most favorite shows he’s done are almost improvising for an hour. And, for me, it was almost like, “Oh you can do that!”

TSJ: It’s a very interesting thing. There are no boundaries.

MK: Right. It doesn’t have to end where you think or thought it needs to. So I started going back through my older material. The more you do comedy the better you get at it and you see how you can do an old joke better. Something that was a one-liner seven years ago is now a three minute bit. There are some comedians that I love that can really wring out the maximum percentage of humor from a topic. Gary Gulman is really masterful at it. I recently saw him open with something that I saw him do a few months ago, which was just a few minutes, but now it’s like twenty minutes. It’s built on one initial core and just expands.

TSJ: So as you move on in comedy do you just notice more things that can be seen as funny?

MK: I guess I don’t know the answer to that. I know Emo Phillips once said, and I’ll paraphrase it, that as he gained more experience he became more accurate at determining the things he thought were the funniest. I think that’s what it was. And to me, I’ve always written a lot. For the most part things start small and get gradually bigger for me. Stylistically, that’s changed for me because I didn’t really do that in the beginning so much. I was like ‘here’s an idea. Is it good or not?’ So my willingness and realization that I could do more than just a series of connected one-liners and that I could do something that was longer form has certainly shifted.

TSJ: What was your experience on Last Comic Standing?

MK: I was happy I was on a season where it was all about stand up with respected comedians as judges. I feel real fortunate that I got to be involved. I had auditioned a few times before I actually got on, which was in 2010.

TSJ: Do you think the show helped your career?

MK: Oh absolutely. It’s has been the biggest help of anything that has helped. Most of your rise in status and success in comedy comes gradually. It used to be you try to work towards the Tonight Show with Carson but now there’s so many more opportunities, but no one now is the king maker that Carson was. The Tonight Show [with Conan O’Brien] was the first national broadcast I did.

TSJ: So because there’s no one king maker anymore was doing Conan’s Tonight Show still exciting?

MK: Oh my god, it was amazing! The fact that it was Conan was super. I love Conan and was thrilled that he was doing the Tonight Show. Then in retrospect, finding out two months later that he wasn’t doing the Tonight Show, finding out that I got in at this amazing time, I was thrilled. I just got to do Letterman last year and that was something I’d been hoping for and working towards for probably the longest.

TSJ: Is it more daunting performing in front of all of those people rather than a comedy club in front of an audience, also knowing so many millions of people will be watching?

MK: There’s sort of a disconnect for me with the fact that millions of people are going to be seeing it. I still don’t know what that means. I don’t know what millions of people are. As humans, I think you can only truly know 150 people. Then once it’s more they’re just people, just a group. Even when I perform, for the most part, I’m talking to ‘the audience,’ or ‘the group.’ So there’s not a ton of difference for me. It was certainly a higher stakes experience, of course. Ultimately, I know that I can only control what I can control. I can only control my output, not how things are perceived.

TSJ: To be able to get over that hump where you basically don’t care if the crowd doesn’t take it the way you want them to and just think ‘well the crowd just wasn’t on tonight,’ is a pretty unique thing.

MK: My philosophy in life is there’s nothing to fear but death and pain.

TSJ: That’s really how you feel?

MK: Oh yeah. Emotional pain can be obviously problematic. I don’t mean to minimize that. Losing a person is death; it doesn’t have to be your death and pain. But embarrassment? I do my best to be myself and then hope that people like me but beyond that I can’t make somebody feel something. If you’re confident in what you’re doing then that’s that. Comedy is subjective. All art is subjective. No comedian is universal. Taste is an interesting thing. I always knew that comedy was hard. I always knew that I would go onstage in the beginning, do five minutes and if three jokes worked I’d be like, “Great! Three jokes worked!”

TSJ: That is great attitude to have. Is there anybody you love working today?

MK: I would say loads of people, obviously any of my heroes. I’ve gotten to open for Louis [CK] a number of times. Every time I get that call it’s the same kind of thrill. The fact that I know him is a thrill, so that he has entrusted me to open and thinks I’m funny enough to not ruin his show is amazing. Working with [Mike] Birbiglia too, or Patton Oswalt and Todd Barry, that’s always incredible. I also opened for Steven Wright once; that was exciting. I also love doing shows with my friends too. I love doing shows with anyone that I love hanging out with.

TSJ: Are you happy with where you are in comedy?

MK: Stand up is what I love doing the most. If other things come up then great—writing, acting, podcasting—but I love stand up. One of the best parts is just hanging out with the like-minded people I know.

TSJ: There’s a very unique community there.

MK: Yeah, for me, it’s a uniting factor where you all share the same thing. I think that laughing is very closely related to a concept that I have of enlightenment.

TSJ: You seem to have a good outlook on life.

MK: Oh yeah, I’m really good at being a person.


Myq Kaplan is online here.

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