by Andrew Wantuck
This week I spoke with Steve Byrne a comic that has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has two hour long Comedy Central specials. We spoke about the secret to joke writing, going on a USO tour and seeing his brother in Iraq, and comedy stalkers.
Andrew: Tell a little bit about your writing style. Some comics take a premise on stage and some guys write out their punch lines, where do you fall on this spectrum?
Steve: I'm the Toyota Prius of Joke writing. Where I am a Hybrid of both I guess. Before I used to do all observational stuff and it was all very physical and animated. And then over the past two years, it's turned into a bit more monologist. I spend a lot of time at the LA Public Library. I just write stuff out and sometimes I write full on jokes, but other times they are just ideas and premises that I try on stage.
Andrew: So you will write for a couple of hours whether you have ideas or not?
Steve: Well, my first special I did was called Happy Hours. All observational, silly kinda random thoughts. I think that's what most hour long specials are. I have a new special airing July 25th on Comedy Central. It's called the Byrne Identity and I came up with this theme for the special and it was all about identity, whether it's your race, or people stereotyping people through music, or your sex. So I came up with the theme of identifying people and how would I identify myself. It was more or less figuring out how I would define myself, and then through that defining other people. So that last one was a theme, and the third special I am writing now is thematic as well. I find that's what works best with me.
Andrew: You have entertained the troops a few times. Can you tell any interesting stories from those experiences?
Steve: My very first one was at the height of the Iraq war in 2004. I was with Colin Quinn. My brother was actually serving there at the time and Collin knew that because we were working at the Comedy Cellar in New York City. So he asked me to go along, which was an incredible experience to, not only entertain the troops, but to get to see your brother while you're over there. Very few of us will ever get to experience something like that, so it was pretty cool. Kind of daunting to see your little brother, a kid who you used to give wedgies too, carrying around am M16, so that was a little scary. But this one flight, I remember, we were on a C1-30 which is a huge cargo plane. And the pilot invited Colin and I sit up in the front of the plane. When you sit up there, they did not have any extra headsets. So we just kinda set there and we were taking off and flying and you know the windows are not as big as you would see in the Millennium Falcon. So we are flying and I see these bursts, kind of like sparks, and I'm like oh those are just fireworks or something. Basically what they told me is those sparks were heat seeking flares they had shot off because we were getting shot at. So that's just how naive I am and what a moron I am because I just thought oh those must be fireworks they must be celebrating us taking off or something. But the best part was if we did get shot down, Robert Kelly was in the back all by himself, so at least I would of had the other pilots and Colin to go down with and hold their hands. But Bobby would have been sitting in the back wondering what the hell was going on?
Andrew: Have you ever been in the room when you saw someone else doing your material? And if so, how did you handle it?
Steve: I was in a room when I saw somebody do the Bruce Lee joke I have done for years, it's like a Kung Fu/Porno kind of joke, it was my closer for years. Anyways, I was in a club where I saw a young comic doing a Kung Fu sex bit, and I remember Chris Rock and I were having a conversation, a bunch of young comics were at the Comedy Cellar, and he was saying if I ever see somebody that's doing a premiss of mine or that is too close to home, Ill keep writing, because it means they are too weak and they need to do something like that. Where as we are strong enough to generate our own comedy. And that was at a time when I was like I gotta stop doing this joke, it's been too long. I have to start writing some new material. I mean I have seen it and it's just uncomfortable. But at the same time it was like well, if you need something that bad, then take it. I learned that I should just keep writing.
Andrew: You have opened for Kanye West and Modest Mouse. Is there a difference between doing comedy for a rap audience verses a rock audience?
Steve: No, there is no difference at all... OF COARSE there is! It's the psychology of yourself going on in front of a room full of "Democrats" and hoping that the set goes well because I've seen showtime at the Apollo, and I don't want to get booed off stage. Then Modest Mouse is just a bunch of hipsters that are drinking PBR, too cool for school, and stroking their chins. So it's either a deafening silence from the hipsters or an incredibly loud boo from a bunch of "Democrats." So I'd rather take the judgement by the hipsters any day. But thank God those shows went well. I started off doing the urban rooms in NYC when I first starting doing stand up, they were the ones that let me go up all the time, so it was nice. So I have always felt comfortable, my first TV appearance was on BET's Comic View of all places.
Andrew: It seems as if there is a lot of talking going on and people are not really expecting comedy before a concert. Is it difficult to go up in front of a music crowd?
Steve: Yeah, its not fun. I remember I opened up for Mariah Carey in Cleveland once because her original opener didn't show up, and they ran over to my gig and asked me. They introduced me like "ladies and gentleman welcome to the Mariah Carey Charm Bracelet tour" and the place would go crazy. Then they were like and now, Steve Byrne. Next, It was totally quiet, they were like who is this guy? Geek Squad? Why is this guy on stage? They didn't announce that I was a comedian. So the first time I didn't even acknowledge it, I was so young. I just started going into my jokes. They liked me, so I went on tour with her, and I remember I was at Red Rock in Colorado, it's like 16,000 thousand people. I'm literally in the middle of joke, I set it up and right before the punch line I just hear this lone effeminate voice scream, "Where's Mariah?" Pretty embarrassing.
Andrew: [Laughs] I know you have the new special airing on Comedy Central July 25th at 10pm, but what else are you currently working on?
Steve: I wrote a treatment for a show that got interest from a production company. The folks encouraged me to write the pilot because they thought I did a good enough job on the treatment. So I went ahead and wrote it and we are going to start shopping it around. Other than that, it's a lot of touring, you know I have been booked pretty much since last year around January. I do not have a week off in 2010, so, it's been crazy.
Andrew: How do you deal with the road?
Steve: I learned all the tricks early. You know, perform in a casino, you don't bet because you want to come home with money. Don't go to the strip clubs, because again, you want to come home with money. You got to stop eating at the comedy club, because you can only have so many mozzarella sticks before three weeks later your like why am I starting to look like Ralphie May? I think ultimately you have to have a goal at the end of the day. If you're just out there in orbit, floating around in space, then you have nothing to look forward to, it's easy to fall into one of the traps that's out there.
Andrew: So what is your finish line?
Steve: My finish line is writing another hour of great material. Not just jokes that get laughseither, but jokes where there is thought behind them, the kind that hits home.
Andrew: Have you ever had an outlandish fan do something to your face that was hilarious or absurd?
Steve: There are definitely some whack jobs out there that's for sure. When somebody shows up three weeks in a row and sits in the front by themselves, it's just like alright, now we're in crazy town. I always tell the manger at the club that if I don't show up here tomorrow it means I'm dead, and that's the women that killed me. I've had a few incidents like that where the first few times you are like awe, like, how nice? I'm going to dedicate this last joke to this fine young lady who has been supporting my career. Then, the third time, your like I don't even want to make eye contact with this crazy bitch.
Andrew: [Laughs] What advice do you have for a comic that is just starting out?
Steve: I remember when I first started, all the comics that I ever met always used to tell me just to write and perform as much as I can. And I know it sounds like a curt answer, but it's the truth at the end of the day. I mean you think of all the comics making living doing it, it's literally like a bunch of salmon swimming upstream and some fall by the wayside, but eventually you want to get all the way up to that pool where everybody chills out and is comfortable. I think that anybody that wants to do it you really has to want to do it, but working and writing and getting up on stage as much as possible is the key.
Andrew: Can you compare The Comedy & Magic Club to other clubs across the country?
Steve: I would say its the only club in the country where no matter what level your on, They treat everyone like a headliner. They are very hospitable and I have never been to a club like that before.
Steve Byrne is headlining The Comedy & Magic Club on Tuesday, May 4th 2010. Reservations at (310) 372-1193 or comedyandmagicclub.com. ER.