All across this city, there are funny people who want to make you laugh. But how to find the best ones? We asked the city’s comedy tastemakers—club bookers, improv teachers, already-famous comedians, borderline-creepy groupies—to tell us about their favorite up-and-comers. Then we invited our ten nominees to the Gotham Comedy Club to perform a show. For each other. (They are comedian’s comedians, after all.) Later, we assembled the stand-ups for a postmortem at New York’s offices.
New York: So, how did you enjoy performing at 5:30 in the afternoon for a room full of other comedians?
Reese Waters: The idea was scary. But in reality it was okay.
Ophira Eisenberg: The fact that there was a stage and a mike made this better than a lot of gigs.
Sara Schaefer: Yeah—I think most of us have done shitty open-mikes that were way more awkward than this.
NY: Was there a joke you heard from someone here that you wished you could steal?
Carla Rhodes: I’d never seen Hannibal [Buress] perform before. He cracked me up. I just liked his laid-back energy with the clever, almost surreal scenarios.
Claudia Cogan: I really like Kumail’s “Cheese” joke. [“Have you heard of this new drug cocktail called Cheese? I looked it up and it turns out that ‘Cheese’ is Tylenol PM and heroin. So really—it’s heroin. Heroin is doing the heavy lifting. My advice? Just do the heroin. It’s very powerful.”] You really ripped that apart. It was very intellectual but also visceral. I want to mimic that.
RW: I love when comedians create situations like that, where they can just repeat themselves and it keeps getting funnier. I’ve tried, but I can’t do that. People just look at me like, “You said that already.”
Kumail Nanjiani: I say “heroin” seventeen times in that joke. I had a friend count for me once.
NY: There wasn’t a lot of political or topical humor in your acts—it was mostly observations and stories. Is that a sign of the times?
Max Silvestri: The problem is that, when you comment on political news, it doesn’t feel new. Especially in New York. You’re performing to an audience that’s so media-savvy. They read blogs all day, they watch The Daily Show, so by the time you comment on something, how are you going to improve on all that?
RW: When I first started, I didn’t want to reveal too much about myself, so I’d talk about stuff that was as generic as possible, like the bus or the sandwich shop. But I noticed that when I talked about things I cared about, like dating or sports, my inflection changed. My delivery changed. Because I was excited to talk about those things.
SS: I was the opposite. I started out telling personal stories, and only recently learned to talk about topical things. To me, that took confidence—I had to convince myself I had something to say about current events that would relate and be accessible.
NY: Have you noticed a change in the comedy scene because of the recession?
OE: The recession has been good to comedy in New York. Because comedy is cheap.
CR: I think art always flourishes during down periods. We cheer the world up.
NY: That’s refreshingly optimistic. Does anyone care to share the bombiest bomb they ever endured?
Craig Baldo: I once did a gig on a cruise for eight hundred 80-year-olds from Ohio. And when you bomb the first night, then you’re stuck on a boat for a week with eight hundred 80-year-olds who hate you. I’d pass old women who’d say, “There he is, Harvey. There’s the comedian we hate.”
The Comedians Perform for Each Other
Born: Louisville, Kentucky
Idols: Shari Lewis, the Marx Brothers
Signature Joke: “I was really different growing up. People used to tease me for wearing makeup and dresses. But now that I’m a female, no one seems to care.”
Photographs by Jake Chessum
Comes From: Karachi, Pakistan
Idols: Woody Allen, Zach Galifianakis
Signature Joke: “I was in Coney Island, and I rode the Cyclone. Terrifying. When I got off, I found out that it’s one of the oldest functional roller coasters in the world. Do you know what year the Cyclone was made? 1927. They should change the name of the ride to “1927,’ because that fact is way scarier than any cyclone.”
Comes From: Richmond, Virginia
Idols: Madeline Kahn, Conan O’Brien
Signature Joke: See saraschaefer.com/ss/goldseeker.
Comes From: Washington, D.C.
Idols: Chris Rock, Sam Kinison
Signature Joke: “When we watched sports growing up, my parents always rooted for the black guy: the black coach, the black quarterback. You can’t do that anymore because there’re so many black people in sports. So now they root for the black guy”with the black wife.”
Comes From: Chicago
Idols: Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K.
Signature Joke: “I saw two Hasidic Jews walk past each other without speaking. I thought that was weird. If I saw someone with the exact same outfit as me from head to toe, I’d at least stop and say. “That’s a nice hat.’”
Age: Let’s just say I’m becoming a lesbian that guys don’t want to watch.
Comes From: New York
Idols: Sandra Bernhard, David Letterman
Signature Joke: “Until the financial crisis, I thought a 401(k) was an unusually long marathon. I couldn’t understand why my co-workers kept signing up. To me, it was just a way to mess up a Sunday.”
Comes From: Calgary, Alberta
Idols: Woody Allen, Tina Fey
Signature Joke: “When the economy fell apart I thought, Oh no! What’s going to happen to me? And then nothing happened. Because I have ” nothing. No savings, no investments, no mortgage. It’s like the world is rewarding me for being a transient screwup.”
Comes From: Diamond Bar, California
Idols: Bill Hicks, Eddie Izzard
Signature Joke: “I can’t wear vanilla-scented lotions, ’cause I can’t be the fat bitch that smells like Rice Krispies treats.”
Comes From: Boston
Idols: Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K.
Signature Joke: “The sentence my dictionary gives for “whale: to beat or to hit’ is “Dad went upstairs and whaled on his son.’ Not, “Dad went to prison for whaling on his child.’ It’s basically, “Dad, apropos of nothing, walked upstairs to the one room his son felt safe in to whale on him for no other reason than his knuckles were thirsty.’”