Comedian Shane Mauss is one of the industry’s rare gems in that his love for stand up exists not only on the stage but also (and perhaps even more so) when he is alone on the computer, the hinge for where his material is formulated. Shane’s adoration for the writing of jokes makes him a stand out stand up comedian, perhaps part of the reason he made his television debut just shy of three years into his career. Having now performed for 10 years, Mauss has generated an extensive resume of television credits and stand up spots as well as a respect within the community heavily yenned by nearly all of it’s denizens.
He recently spoke with The Smoking Jacket about writing, his take on the audience and a hope to one day confidently bomb.
The Smoking Jacket: So you’re from Wisconsin. How did you make the plunge into comedy?
Shane Mauss: Comedy was always something I really wanted to do. It was also something that I knew nothing about; I wasn’t inspired either. My dad didn’t play Cosby albums or anything like that. I just got this idea in my head that I wanted to be a stand up comedian, and I didn’t even understand what that meant, but I just started watching all of the stand up that I could. I planned on doing it right after high school. I saved a bunch of money but then I started drinking like a crazy person. Five years later I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing any of the stuff I said I was going to do. I’m 23 and working in a factory.’ So then I moved to Boston. The idea of starting where anyone that I knew could see me was terrifying.
TSJ: I would agree. That must be daunting.
SM: It never made sense to me. I have a lot of respect for people who do it. A lot of people say they’re going to be a comedian and then they invite all of their friends to watch them. They must not know they’re going to suck. [laughs] I knew it was going to be hard in the beginning and I was going to be terrible, so I didn’t want people seeing me. I guess a lot of people don’t realize that you’ll suck for a long time.
TSJ: Agreed! I don’t understand the mindset of going into it right away thinking you’ll kill. I’m sure most of them are leveled immediately after.
SM: Pretty much. Or it’s a room full of their friends and they laugh at everything. Then when their friends don’t come out the next time all of their hopes and dreams are crushed. [laughs]
Shane’s first appearance on Late Night:
TSJ: So why did you choose Boston over New York or Los Angeles?
SM: I was aiming for New York or LA. I knew nothing, so I thought comedy was only in New York or LA. And I didn’t know much about geography either [laughs] and I thought that was close enough to New York that I could shoot down there once I leaned how stand up worked, which was true. But I just really didn’t know what I was doing, which is how I ended up in Boston.
It turns out it was very serendipitous because Boston was a fantastic scene to start out in. There was unlimited stage time, not quality stage time but stage time still. I hear about people starting out in New York, how they have to bring people in order to perform. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I have a lot of respect for people who start out in New York or LA because I find myself having a hard time to break into that market with tons of TV credits, and these people are just starting out. I don’t know how they do it.
TSJ: Here in New York, when you start out they give you very late spots I believe. Is it the same in Boston?
SM: Yeah, a little bit. The open mic that I started at, it was a true open mic. If you signed up, you got to go on. It would last for like six hours sometimes. There was never an audience, just comics around. They would get us to stick around and keep drinking by giving out free pizzas at the end of the night. If you stayed you could have a slice or two. So all of these homeless people would come and do spots.
TSJ: Really? Homeless people? That’s something to see.
SM: It was interesting to see these drifters walking in and doing weird schizophrenic sets. It would be sometimes entertaining and sometimes sad.
TSJ: And terrifying I’d imagine. Was “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” your first TV appearance?
SM: Yeah, I’d been doing stand up for three years when I got that. It was just before my third anniversary, so it was really quick.
TSJ: I’m curious, Carson’s “Tonight Show” was big back in the day for making a comedian’s career. With all of the shows out there today, and the Internet, was doing Conan still something big to look forward to?
SM: Well, it’s weird. Back then I was on such a run. Looking back on it I’m like wow, I can’t believe all of that happened so quickly for me. Looking back, it seems incredible. But at the time, my career was moving forward so quickly I was like I guess this is the way it’s going to be for me. I’ll keep shooting up and up to be the biggest comedian in the world. [laughs] But, as things do, when they plateau, you realize this is what reality feels like. So looking back, yes, I have a much greater appreciation for what my trajectory was early on. I think if someone fifteen years in started catching the breaks I was then, they’d have been more excited. But Conan was great; that crew had me back almost right away. They’re amazing.
TSJ: I recently saw you on Jimmy Pardo’s “Write Now!” How did you enjoy that? I’ve seen it live and it must be sometimes challenging to the performing comic.
SM: I thought it was fun! The point of the show it to roast the person, and I sort of wish they had roasted me more [laughs]. I thought it was a little mild; they could have been harder on me. I wish they were harder on me and I wish the people on YouTube were easier on me. [laughs]
Shane on HBO Canada:
TSJ: I heard you on Pete Holmes’ “You Made it Weird” podcast.
SM: Oh good! That was one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done.
TSJ: It was a fantastic conversation. During it you had mentioned that you never really enjoyed audiences. Has that gotten any better as your career progresses and you gain more experience as a stand up comedian?
SM: [laughs] Not really. Here’s the thing: I love individual people. I hate mobs of people and I hate mob mentality. All it takes for a show to go wrong is for one asshole to yell out something and be a little rowdy and have a comic go on before that makes the audience think that’s acceptable. Then you went from performing in this nice club to performing in front of a rodeo.
TSJ: I get that.
SM: I have a joke on my CD about traveling back in time and impregnating myself. It’s a really strange joke and sometimes disturbing. I get why people in a room feel uncomfortable and wouldn’t want to laugh at that. It’s because they’re then being judged by the people around them. So if someone is sitting in an audience and are about to laugh at a strange joke, they think about how they don’t want to be the only one laughing, and questioning if these people are going to think they’re weird. So this joke, it always bombs. Always. But something in me told me it was funny and I didn’t care that it bombed horrifically every time I did it. So when I go to make this CD, just for kicks I decide to do this joke. And for the first time ever it does well. I decided to leave it on the CD, and everyone that listens to it or reviews it says if you’re going to hear one track you have to hear this one track about traveling back in time and impregnating yourself. I get people telling me after shows how much they love it and such. So when you listen to the joke by yourself you don’t have to worry about other people.
TSJ: Right. You can separate yourself.
SM: Yes! You can laugh at what you think is actually funny. So that’s why I don’t like audiences. I feel like that comes off really wrong but I don’t mean it to. I like people but it’s the responses that I don’t like.
TSJ: Do you think other comedians think that way? It makes perfect sense to me, that these people are unable to separate themselves from their own heads so that they can laugh freely. But do you think a lot of comics go up there thinking like you?
SM: I don’t know really. I see some people that can just go up and bomb so confidently. That, I think, it’s absolutely amazing. I wish I had that skill. I could watch someone like Rory Scovel or Jon Dore, someone who can go onstage and just completely be comfortable with not only utter silence but also looks of confusion. I hope one day that I have that confidence. I feel like I get those same weird looks but when I get them I go ‘Oh fuck. I can’t do that joke.’
TSJ: I think those two are probably perfect examples of that. Nobody seems to confidently bomb like them. But then that itself turns into funny and makes them even more entertaining and hilarious.
SM: Yeah, they’re amazing! I wish I could do that. Those two are so much fun. I would rather watch them than myself. [laughs] But those guys, that’s what I hope to have one day. It’s amazing, that endless amount of confidence. It’s hilarious and impressive.
TSJ: One of the interesting things about you is that you truly enjoy writing. I’ve heard you say that sitting down and writing jokes is indeed your favorite part of the job. Why do you think you were shifted to performing as opposed to writing?
SM: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I just never knew what I was doing. Somebody told me when I was a little kid that I should be a stand up and I think I just got that in my head, and it’s always been there. Probably wrongly. [laughs]
Also, I don’t like the idea of writing in another person’s voice. When I’m writing I’m still imagining myself performing. Usually I’m in a theater with 5,000 people and just crushing. Then I laugh about how hard I’m crushing. [laughs]
TSJ: You’re a pretty heavy road comic, correct?
SM: Yeah! I love the road. My biggest structure in life is wondering if I’m getting enough roadwork in, and if that’s going to continue forever. If my next five years were booked with the road I’d be so happy. A lot of comics look at their calendar and are in dread when they see the weeks of roadwork because that means they’ll be out of LA. I have no ambitions to be any kind of an actor, not that that’s never going to happen. But when and if it does it’ll be because I’ve been pushed into it or an opportunity that’s too good to turn down. If I could just be on the road as a stand up comedian I’d be so happy. I don’t need much to be happy. I just need a stable income and places on the road to try out material.
TSJ: I think that’s a healthy way of looking at the road. I know some people disagree.
SM: Yeah, the thing is what everyone else dreads about it – sitting in a crappy hotel room alone –
TSJ: You love that.
SM: I love that. It’s not that I don’t miss my girlfriend or anything, but I could sit in my hotel room with a computer and just write jokes all day long. I have my own schedule and do what I want. I never turn on the TV; I just write. Then I go and try it out. My act turns over ever year. If I have a club that I go to annually it’s a different act each time. That’s not necessarily an intentional goal; it’s just naturally what I do. When I come home, that’s my vacation. I don’t like being home for too long. I can’t be going to the beach and watching movies all the time. I’d never get anything done.
TSJ: Have you always been that guy? The guy that loves writing?
SM: Yeah, I think so. I became a full time comedian three years in, which was a phenomenal experience. Travel gets to you, obviously. I hate airports, but when I’m at a new place I’m happy. Sometimes there are those condos. Some are as bad as comedians say. Though, there are very few of those now, which is encouraging.
TSJ: I was going to say, I didn’t know those were still around.
SM: Yeah, they are. I was booked at a place in Denver; that condo is nicer than any hotel a club will put you at. The fridge is stocked with wine and groceries. It’s amazing. But then there are places that smell like dead bodies. Every club owner who suggests to put comedians up in a comedy condo should have to stay in it one week out of the year. I think that should be a law. When I’m President of Comedy I’m instituting that law. [laughs]
TSJ: It seems that some comics like staying in the New York, LA, Chicago and Boston markets while some, like yourself, enjoy going out on the road. Do you think there’s something comedians can gain from doing the road that they can’t by staying in one of the markets?
SM: I definitely do – the diversity of audiences that you can get on the road. There’s no way that you can get the diversity in audiences you do on the road in LA, New York or anywhere. There’s going to be diversity like the hipsters, UCB, or industry people who blankly stare at you wondering where you’ll fit in their movie, obviously, but nothing compares to being on the road. Nothing compares to being in one of the best clubs in the country in Minneapolis and then doing a string of one-nighters on the border of Mexico, wondering if you’re going to get paid.
As hard as it can be sometimes, what it does for my act, it makes me know what jokes will work for any crowd. I’m talking about evolution in my act for almost an hour and I’m doing rooms in Texas, a crowd that hates everything to do with evolution. The difference is that I’ve figured out ways to get them to laugh and connect with them. But I think the biggest problem is that people find a little bubble where they feel comfortable in and they never leave that comfort zone. It’s sometimes not reality. For me, I’ve always liked the idea of being a hybrid comedian.
TSJ: That versatility is really interesting considering how you feel about an audience. I like that considering your view of how rowdy and disrespectful they can sometimes get, you still want to perform for every type of person that you can.
SM: Of course. Ultimately, any audience is going to disappoint me in someway. [laughs] No audience is going to be fully onboard with what my true sense of humor is because it’s a random mix of people. Until I’m a name draw and am filling a club with people there just to see me, I don’t think it’ll be different.
Now, having said that, I always grant respect to the audience. Just because I’m in Sarasota, Florida, performing for the oldest audience in America, I don’t go into it thinking they’re going to hate me or all of my science stuff. That’s not fair. I give them enough respect to do the same material that I’d do anywhere. I try not to presume that they aren’t going to get it, because I don’t find that to be true.