by Ryan Meehan
Comedian Paul Oddo recently released his debut standup comedy album, “Lost In Thought” (Recorded in Austin, TX) and his first book, “Nothing Too Fancy” which he wrote and illustrated. The two can be purchased on his website as a pair. Paul has performed at The Boston Comedy Festival and Competition, which he won in 2012 taking home a prize of $10,000. He has also been featured at SXSW, The Out Of Bounds Comedy Festival, Bridgetown Comedy Festival, NY Comedy Festival. He is a Featured Performer at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NYC. He has been seen On “The Late Show With David Letterman”, “AXS Gotham Comedy Live” and “‘Best Of’ AXS Gotham Comedy Live”. His last name is pronounced, “Oh-Dough” like “Frodo”, and he’s my guest today in 10 questions.
RM: When you were younger, were you typically the one in your peer group who could always be counted on to tell jokes or inject humor into any given situation? When was the exact moment you knew you had what it takes to be a stand-up comic?
PO: I was always the “other funny guy”. What I mean by that is, there was always an obvious funny guy in the groups of friends I’ve been a part of. I wouldn’t say that I was viewed as that guy, because in all honesty I wasn’t (in my opinion) nearly as funny, consistently. Those guys I’m talking about are still, and will always be more naturally funny than I am. I tended to stay somewhat reserved and punch up his stuff, or take the roll of bringing a joke to a more complicated situation. Times of stress or sadness were my places to bring humor. I could also be depended on to plan a funny thing – a prank or stunt, essentially a sketch – looking back now. I could work extemporaneously, but I never even thought that I could be the specialist in that, as far as groups of friends went. When people told me I was funny it was almost surprising to me that they thought so.
My exact moment of knowing I could do standup was at a standup comedy show at the now closed Houston Laff Stop, a legendary club. A friend of mine had been pressuring me to try standup and eventually he and I and some other friends went to a show. We saw a comic who was on a sitcom at the time. He had a packed crowd and just destroyed. We all laughed and had a lot of fun. Not meaning this as any disrespect to him, but during the show I removed myself from watching him and started looking around and weighing the situation. I listened to his material and saw the reactions. I gauged the complexity of what he was saying and knew, for a fact that I could write at that level and beyond. My problem wasn’t the writing, it was that I had zero performance experience. So, to answer your question I guess it was a combination of that moment and the first successful open mic set I did (maybe a month later) that I knew. That was when I was 20 or 21…More than 15 years ago. At this point I’m pretty certain of my ability, most days.
RM: Your bio says “Paul is originally from Houston, TX. He lives and works in NYC, somewhat begrudgingly.”…Do you think that if you had grown up in a city much smaller than Houston that arriving in New York wouldn’t have been such a culture shock? Could you give us an example of something you have seen recently that you probably wouldn’t get to witness back home? Did you move to LA, or are you just working there at the moment?
PO: I actually did grow up in a smaller city. I truly grew up in a suburb of Houston called Friendswood, which is about as Pleasantville as it gets for the 80’s. It was like Stranger Things without the monster. I believe that unless you grew up in NYC there’s no way for living there to NOT be something of a culture shock. Even Chicago or Los Angeles, which obviously have their own “big city” qualities (and things to accept as normal that aren’t anywhere but there), I’ve known people who have come to NYC from those places and they are overwhelmed for a time. I don’t think there’s any place quite like New York City. I always recommend that if you live in the US that you spend a year in New York, just to gain the perspective of this very special part of our country. It’s the frontline. I’ve been here almost 10 years now and I’m not fully used to it. I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s so dense and constantly changing around you, there’s no way to absorb it all. There’s certainly no getting bored of it. It’s like a maze that keeps shifting as you run through it. If anything you just get addicted to the chaos and the energy.
The things I witness here that I wouldn’t find at home are vast. Insane things that just fold into the larger insanity, but the most valuable difference to me is the proximity to other people…The lack of a bubble. Just about every other place I know of, it’s possible to ignore people and their existence, or them in general. Clearly, there are people everywhere, but you see them in other cars or across the street. There’s an insulation that is missing in NYC. You have to touch strangers here. Cramming into public transportation. You have to smell them. You can’t spend 30 minutes on the way to work, alone in a temperature controlled environment having imaginary arguments with people, and winning every time. That’s just not available here, unless you’re a wealthy person and at that point you’re already in a bubble. You’ve got to get along with people and share the experience. I think that is partially why New Yorkers get the bad reputation of being rude or cold. I don’t believe that’s true, they’re just in their own heads a lot, because that’s their form of insulation. Headphones or their smartphone. It’s the alone time so many of us take for granted, but in public. As far as being in LA, I was just there doing some shows to promote my album and book. I still live in NYC.
RM: What can you tell us about the GoFundMe project you were a part of which recently raised over four thousand dollars for your cat Theo? How did you come up with the idea of doing customized pet portraits to raise a majority of the money; and will you continue to do so after Theo’s surgery in order to continue to fund his recovery?
PO: About a year ago I bought my now fiancé (Ashlee) a cat (Theo) for her birthday. A few weeks shy of having the cat for a year, she was coming around the couch and accidentally stepped on it, breaking its hip. We have both grown to love the cat, but she was particularly devastated. The kind people at the animal medical center said to fully repair the cat he would need a total hip replacement, which costs $3500. We were already $1000 deep in X-ray and medicine at that point. We decided to go for the surgery, because among other things, I feel like you can’t tell a thing that you love it over and over, but then when it gets hurt and it’s inconvenient to you, you just tell it to fuck itself. Seemed like a character testing crossroads. Plus, I view the cat as an extension of my fiancé and her happiness, so I really had no choice but to do everything in my power.
Ashlee had been building up the cat’s Instagram since she first got him. At the time of the injury he had just under of eight thousand followers…it’s a cute cat. So we decided to reach out to people for help, being that we are pretty broke and don’t come from well-to-do families. I draw and paint well, so I offered to do custom portraits of people’s pets on my iPad with a stylus for donations of $100 or more. These aren’t traced or drawn over existing pictures…I look at the image and render it by hand. They are honestly worth more than $100 if you figure each one takes me about five days to finish. Anyhow, people kept helping us and donating. It amazed us how supportive people were. I have done five pet portraits and still have about nine more to do. We asked for $5,000 because we assumed there would be other costs, plus we needed to stay with the cat for a few weeks to allow him to heal. We raised – as you said – over four thousand dollars. I’m still amazed by the outcome of it all. The GoFundMe saved us and the cat. He had the surgery, and he is now almost fully recovered. The story is even longer than what I’ve said here, but it’s something that truly made me see the world as a nicer place than I had viewed it just a few weeks before. One of the positive side effects of all this is that it forced me to be more artistically active. I have always drawn and painted exclusively for my own personal pleasure and relaxation. I’ve never really thought about using that skill as a money making commodity, but people keep asking so I’ll continue doing it for now. I’m happy people enjoy what I do…It’s very flattering. As far as using any more money I make via that to pay for the cat, I suppose all of my money is in some way used for that, so technically, yeah, but I’ll also use it to just live my life, which includes having a pet. I guess it’s all the same in some ways.
RM: How would you best describe the record release/book release party that took place Wednesday the 13th of July at the UCB on Sunset? Are you the kind of guy who can really take something like that in and enjoy it for an evening, or were you already onto the next thing in your own mind?
PO: The shows I have done for my album/book release (and the one I’ll be doing in Houston this month) are showcase shows. I’m putting shows on with some of my favorite comedians and friends. I host the shows and do a set at the end, so they’re very fun and casual. They’re more of a gathering of friends with a great comedy show mixed in. It’s funny you put it the way you did. Can I enjoy things? That must be a running theme for comedians and artistic types. The short answer is “I try to”. I make a conscious effort to be happy and present, trying not to just look for the next goal. I’m getting better at it, but it doesn’t come easily to me. I’m looking forward to the final show in Houston. It should be a great time, but if I’m totally honest, I’m looking forward to working on the next thing. That’s very exciting to me.
RM: Which took you longer to compile: Your book or your stand-up album? What was the biggest challenge associated with each one?
PO: Hands down, the book. Easily. I have done hours of standup and thrown them away, knowing that they weren’t really something I wanted to record for posterity. They were all just helping me get better and ready to record the album that I just released. Some of that material is older, but most of it was worked out in the span of a couple years. The book has been getting compiled for something like seven years. Not in a true, focused effort with any kind of discipline attached to it…Just things I make that I stuffed into a folded called “my book”. For some reason it always seemed slightly impossible to finish. I made the ordeal much more complicated than it needed to be. I wanted it to be perfect, but I didn’t even really know what that meant. I felt a similar way about the album, but I knew that was its own animal. I really just needed a great set in a great room. That’s not as challenging to me as laying out a bunch of comedic illustrations and stories. Learning how to use Photoshop and InDesign and proofreading and fine tuning and all of the other things that I had no clue how to do. The book was scary – as a goal – but I wanted to put them out together so that it would be an unusual achievement. Something different and show more of my range of ability.
In order to finish them both I not only had to start going to therapy, but I also set a date for the release show before I was actually finished with either of them. I had to do that to freak myself out enough to make it all happen. I gave myself two months. In those months I worked with friends, stressed out and timelined stuff. I kept counting the days and mapping it all out, all the while knowing it wasn’t even really done. Long story short, I didn’t actually have the books done and in my hand until three days before my release show. It worked! I don’t recommend it, but it worked.
RM: What are some advantages and disadvantages of performing your stand-up in festival and competition settings? Would you consider that setup to be more high-pressure than a club setting, especially when you consider how many more comics are present and everybody is constantly trying to one-up whoever was on stage before them?
PO: Just to answer your question quickly and simply, yes, competitions are more high-pressure than clubs, in my opinion. Advantages of competition settings would be (again, my opinion) focus and specific time parameters to work within. That can be useful in a field of creative expression. Also, the opportunity to win some money is objectively good, that being contingent on whether or not you win. If you don’t win, you pretty much lost money on the deal…Not much grey area there. It’s tricky to rope all festivals into the same category, because thankfully not all festivals are competition based. One of the things that I am most proud of about having won a major comedy competition, is being able to still say with confidence that I still hate comedy competitions. I have always had a problem with them. I think they take everything that is good about comedy, the fun and the mutual enjoyment and the camaraderie and melt all that down to something more marketable, hostile and significantly less fun. I understand the use of competitions. I guess it does more good than bad, in that it brings attention to comedians and theoretically generates opportunity, but they are still gross to me. An audience of people who have come to a comedy show to simply enjoy that for the very special thing that it is, that is the best you can get. Those are people who paid to try and just have fun. Most of them will have fun because they made an effort and an investment in trying to. They aren’t being catered to, or treated like they can’t handle it. It’s a mature way to appreciate a creative performance art, puppet bullshit notwithstanding. Comedy competitions are a regression of the art form. They are a way for people who don’t do this thing well to harness, claim and capitalize on the energy of those who do. Comedy is not a competition. It’s unnatural to put it in that setting. That’s like walking out of the museum of fine art and saying, “Monet won. He was the best in there.” You’re a dummy if that’s how you think. However, a good chunk of people are conditioned to think that way because of the culture we exist in, and they have money to spend. So this is how you get those goofballs to come to a comedy show. Promise them a quantifiable winner and loser. All this competitive stuff makes me sick. Can you imagine George Carlin, Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce “roast battling”? Of course not. That would be a waste of their energy. Comedy is better than competition. It’s above it. Sorry to go off on this, and feel free to cut this out, but it kind of disgusts me. Competitions and bringer shows and all those things fall into the subject of “Dream Profiteering” to me. I think they should be against the law.
That said, the $10K I won really saved my life. The comic who won the year after me gave it back to all the other comics in the contest. That’s admirable. I never tell comics to not do competitions. I just say go into them knowing that they are. I also don’t want to seem ungrateful or unhappy about winning the Boston Comedy Festival. That was a big deal in my life and helped me in a lot of ways. I just want to relay to comedians who fantasize about being in that position that it isn’t the thing that makes or breaks you. It’s just a game. Your career and artistic pursuit is the important thing to keep focused on. Competition is below what we do.
RM: Did the fact that “Red Eye with Tom Shillue” airs at 3AM do anything to calm any nerves you might have had regarding appearing on a late night panel show? What is the atmosphere like behind the scenes of that program; and how confident would you consider yourself to be with regards to discussing politics in an election year?
PO: The late night air time of Red Eye didn’t really occur to me as being a good or bad thing. The only drawback to me was the idea that less people might see the show, but nobody watches things when they air, aside from Game Of Thrones…obviously. The backstage atmosphere is incredibly relaxed. Everyone there is so friendly and fun, you almost forget you’re at the News Corp Building until Lou Dobbs walks out of the bathroom. I don’t consider myself very politically (or generally) informed. I tend to do well on the show, I believe because I do something unusual, which is I listen and then I react. That’s not a very popular method for people discussing contemporary issues today, but it allows me to have fun with it and not need to toe any kind of line. I don’t have much of a plan as to what I’m going to say beforehand. I try to at least read up on the topics, but that’s about it. The rest I just trust to my instincts. So far, so good. I’ll be back on August 15th, as of now.
RM: What have you learned about yourself as a writer over the past few years that you never would have thought you’d realize? Which portion of the writing process would you say is your specialty; and in what area do you tend to struggle the most often?
PO: Over the last few years I’ve come to realize that I enjoy and excel at writing on stage. I used to spend a long time crafting things to say before I got on stage, but in developing what is now my first album, most of that material was never written down and I was happy with it all. I still think that my specialty is true pencil to paper writing and rewriting, but now my current struggle is learning how to bring the two styles together in a way that doesn’t cheapen either of them.
RM: How long have you been crossbowing? Is that an activity you engage in to sort of escape from the rest of the world and clear your head, or have you ever came up with any great bits while you’re out doing that?
PO: HaHa! Approximately 6 minutes. I assume you’re referring to a post (above) on my Instagram…I was at my friends place in LA and he has all kinds of toys. One was a crossbow. I’m the kind of guy who sees something like a crossbow laying around and needs to play with it. It was pretty fun, but I put it down after I hit one bullseye. That shot just happened to be the one he filmed.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
PO: That’s the question I’m also trying to answer. I’m always looking forward to doing new standup. That’s a constant. I’m trying to sell more books and albums, so I’ll be starting a podcast soon along with continuing to work on a hundred other things. I think maybe the first thing I’ll do is prioritize…That seems important.
Official Website: http://www.pauloddo.com/
Paul on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pauloddo
Paul on Twitter: https://twitter.com/PaulOddo
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