That laughter you hear from the basement of the Drama Bookshop on Monday nights isn’t the ghost of French playwright Moliere chuckling anew over one of his seventeenth-century farces. No, it’s coming from the Arthur Seelen Theatre, where every week the shop hosts Late Night Open Mic, a chance for stand-ups, old and new, to try out fresh material.
We caught up recently with the show’s emcee, Matt Alspaugh — a bookshop staffer (hey, even Clark Kent had a day job) and stand-up comic in his own right — and talked to him about acting, comedy, stage fright, and how important it is to check yourself out before you go onstage.
VIVA: How did you get started in comedy?
ALSPAUGH: I guess I was always into making people laugh… I remember watching Mel Brooks and Woody Allen movies with my father. Then I had these “public speaking” jobs — I was a tour guide in college, a substitute teacher for awhile — and I found myself resorting to humor every now and then. One day, I just decided that I’d like to get paid to make people laugh.
V: Is your father a funny guy?
A: He’s funny to me! He uses humor as a kind of self-defense mechanism. If there’s an awkward pause in a conversation, for example, he’ll always tell a joke.
V: Were you the class clown?
A: I got picked on a lot in grammar school. Having a sense of humor kept me going… I remember I wrote a story about my Irish heritage… It was about the “McDougal” family. I read it to the class in this real bad Irish accent. They liked it so much, I was told to go read it to other classes! Soon, I was taking “requests” — kids were asking me to do other funny voices. That’s when I started doing impressions.
V: You’ve also been an actor. What’s harder, acting or stand-up?
A: Acting, because I was always wondering if I was doing it right. There are so many different techniques, so many different notions — it was hard to figure out where I fit in. With comedy, I know I fit in.
V: So even as an actor, you preferred doing comedy?
A: Yes. Drama was always very hard for me. My best experiences as an actor were always when everyone was collaborating on a comedy.
V: The age-old question: what’s harder, comedy or tragedy?
A: It’s harder to be dramatic, because I don’t always have a lot of sympathy for the character I’m playing. In drama, you’ve got to be honest and open with your character, and that’s very hard to do… In comedy, as difficult as it is, there’s a reward — the laugh… If you’re a control freak, I think, you’re probably more into comedy.
V: Writing or performing?
A: Writing. Most of the time, you feel like you’re spinning your wheels. When you’re performing, though, once you’re up there, you’re up there.
V: Now that you mention it, have you ever had stage fright?
A: Oh, yeah — before I go up there, I definitely feel stage fright. I think, what if this joke doesn’t land, what if that joke doesn’t land…
V: How do you overcome it?
A: By focusing on the laugh, and thinking about what I’m working on. Using a baseball analogy, I treat each gig as batting practice, not an actual at-bat. I also try to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. I try to minimize it — to take my work seriously, but not myself. Never myself. Know something, though? It’s still nerve-wracking.
V: Describe your writing process.
A: I write on the subway. Whenever I think of something funny, I write it on a scrap of paper, so that later I can try to break it down — figure out why it’s funny. Over a day, I’ll write for an hour or more, but it’s twenty minutes here, half-an-hour there… And sometimes it’s frustrating. You could end up working for a long time on the wrong joke. That’s when you’ve just got to step back… Seinfeld once said that the most important thing for a stand-up is the ability to sit down and write… Comics are very bright people, very astute.
V: How about your rehearsal process?
A: I was rehearsing a piece on my way here!… I rehearse at home, too. This one rehearsal… I’d booked a ten-minute gig at a club. That’s a lot of material. Problem was, it wasn’t just one ten-minute gig. It was two five-minute gigs. I didn’t know that. They didn’t tell me… I don’t work in front of a mirror. I try to stay very self-aware, keep a mental notepad. I like to try stuff out on my friends and co-workers, sometimes. I’m a very visual person, too, so if I can see the words on a page, it’s much easier for me to memorize them.
V: What is life like for a young stand-up?
A: Frustrating. You give yourself the responsibility of trying to figure out what humor is. Yet you’ve got to keep it simple, and try to decide what you like about a joke, what makes it funny.
V: Your opinion of open mics?
A: You’ve gotta use them, but you can’t be totally dependent on them. Plus, clubs rotate their open mic schedules all the time. That’s why it’s nice to know that every Monday night, there’s an open mic here at the store at nine o’clock.
V: You do a lot of open mics?
A: For rehearsal. I also do “bringer” shows, where I have to bring my own audience.
V: Tell me about your worst stand-up experience.
A: I went up to the mic, and my fly was down… I had just gone to the bathroom. It’s a good lesson — always check your fly before you go onstage. Now I always, always, always check to see if my fly is open. That night, I couldn’t see the audience — I was under the lights, and they were in the dark–but I could feel that they weren’t with me, at all. I finally get offstage and this guy says to me, “Yo — your fly was down.”
V: How about your best?
A: In general, the times I’ve hosted here, and gone off on something that someone else said, turning it into my own joke.
V: What was your worst experience hosting the show here at the shop?
A: This one woman came on and just ranted at the audience. It disheartens me to see comics using the stage as a platform for social change. You don’t want an open mic in which people do badly because they came in with the wrong intentions.
V: Favorite old-time comic?
A: Richard Pryor.
V: New comic?
A: Ted Alexandro.
V: What do you think of working blue?
A: If that’s your shtick, and you can get a laugh… but I don’t do it.
V: Insult comics?
A: A good comic sees what the audience brings to his act — a great comic capitalizes on it.
V: Gimmick or prop comics?
A: They need to die!… No, seriously — it’s almost like they’re hiding behind stuff, rather than exposing themselves… Prop comics are remembered for the stuff they do, not for their perspective on things.
V: Ever been heckled?
A: Not by a fan. By another comic! I did a joke about Ricky Martin coming out of the closet, and this guy in the audience, a comic, said, “He really did? Wow! You lying?”
V: Let’s look ahead a few years. You’re a huge success. Lots of big-time comics end up doing sitcoms. What would be the ideal sitcom for you?
A: A combination of “Seinfeld”, “The Simpsons”, “Arrested Development”, and “The Office”. They all have lots of characters, but each show has an underlying intelligence, too. I enjoyed moments of “Everybody Loves Raymond”, but I never liked the way everything always worked out. I like comedies where everything doesn’t always work out.
V: Finally–heard any good jokes, lately?
A: I’ve got two. I just wrote them… You know, my Dad is retired now and living in Florida. I was really happy for him, until I found out that now, it’s MY responsibility to call HIM. And every time I call him, I ask the same thing: “What are you doing?” And he always says, “Aw, nothin’ — just drinkin’ and watchin’ TV”… And every time I hear him say that, I think, “Wait a minute. When you’re drunk and doing nothing, isn’t it your job to call me?” One more. I just read this in the paper. If you’ve got $6,000, you can book a ten-minute sitdown with Robert DeNiro at the Kennedy Center in DC. Only problem is, he doesn’t say much, so you won’t be talking with him, you’ll be talking to him. And he isn’t doing it for charity, either. He’s doing it as part of his research for his next movie… “THE WORLD’S BIGGEST IDIOT”!
(The Drama Bookshop is at 250 W. 40th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, and can be reached at 212-944-0595, 212-944-0595. Matt Alspaugh can be contacted there, or at 203-217-8355).
INTERVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien