by Ryan Meehan
Nat Towsen is a writer, comedian, and actor from Manhattan, New York. He was recently called a “comedic genius” by Time Out and a “polymath comedian” by the AV Club. He writes for VICE and CollegeHumor and hosts Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre East Village. He lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Alyssa and their cats, Foggy and Nutmeg, and he’s my guest today in 10 questions.
RM: How would you best summarize the first two years of your career in stand-up? If you could go back in time and change one thing about your approach during that twenty-four month period, what would it be and why?
NT: If I could go back in time, I would disabuse myself of any notion that I was actually good at standup. I was decent for my level of experience and I was learning to write jokes, but I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. Arrogance is a defense mechanism that protects you from the pain of criticism and rejection. But that pain is important. It forces you to think “how can I get so good that I never feel this way again?” That’s when you start to be honest with yourself about your shortcomings, as hard and embarrassing as that can be, and actually improve. It’s important not to insulate yourself from that pain.
RM: The second line of your bio containing the AV Club classification would suggest that you are viewed by audiences as a comedian who relies heavily on wordplay and a vast array of knowledge for their act, most notably comparable to that of comics such as Demetri Martin and Myq Kaplan…How accurate would you say that comparison is to what people actually see on stage; and how do you ensure that you’re never “speaking above” the room or going over anyone’s head with references they may not understand? Do you have any sort of a mental measuring stick or set of guidelines in place which you use to avoid such a pitfall?
NT: I don’t believe I use wordplay at all, actually. It always felt cheap or corny to me when I tried it. I love watching Myq perform. Even if he weren’t a friend, he’d still be one of my favorite comics to watch. But it’s not the wordplay that draws me in, it’s the layers upon layers of ideas, the tangents that loop around when you least expect it, the way he can weave a bunch of quick puns into a larger idea that gets a deeper laugh.
I would never say that I have a “vast array of knowledge” because it sounds pretty pompous. But I am interested in knowing as much as I possibly can know. I have definitely struggled with wanting to be as intelligent as I can onstage while also wanting to reach every audience member. I used to try to be broader, but that always seemed to remove the identity from my material. These days, I try to be authentically myself onstage, and that often includes talking about complicated concepts or referencing things with which the audience might not be familiar. I’d rather be smart and get good at making complicated concepts comprehensible than get good at dumbing down my material in hopes that more people will laugh at it.
RM: On a scale of one to ten with one being Stephen Hawking and ten being early eighties Robin Williams, how would you rate your energy level when you are on stage doing stand-up?
NT: First of all, you don’t know what’s going Hawking’s head. I bet he’s high-energy! He’s just physically disabled. Anyway, I’m about an 8 – Martin Mull in the ‘70s. But inside my head, I’m more like Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element.
RM: You’re the host of Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety hour, which takes place the first Monday of every month at UCB East…How do you go about creating differentiation with your show given that there are so many others going on throughout the five boroughs every night of the week? Who are some of the comics that have just absolutely crushed it there as of late; and why do you think they do so well within that live performance environment?
NT: I try to give any show that I produce a unique identity. I have no interest in putting up five standup comedians, making a flyer that says “featuring the FUNNIEST comedians in New York!” and calling that a show. In the case of Downtown Variety, it’s more of a talk show with interviews, presentations, and trivia, in addition to performers of various disciplines. It’s focused on the Lower East Side/East Village, which is where I grew up, so it’s a personal show with a specific feel to it. I don’t think anyone else could put on this exact show, and that’s what I want: to create something that you can’t see anywhere else.
Janeane Garofalo has done the show about a dozen times and is always a hit, but her latest set was particularly impressive. She has this way of sounding like she’s lost her train of thought until the moment the punchline drops and you realize she’s been in control the entire time. I was in awe watching her. Baratunde Thurston closed out a recent show and, after taking a long break from standup to be a producer at the Daily Show, brought the house down. He’s just someone who knows what he believes and is completely consistent in his opinion, while also being a solid joke writer. And I had Jo Firestone on for a standup/interview combo. She is a hell of a lot of fun to improvise with, so that interview ended up being one of my favorite segments we’ve done.
RM: What can you tell us about the experience of writing for VICE; and what kind of relationship do you have with Shane Smith? What are some of the topics you’ve gotten a chance to explore in the pieces you’ve done for them, and which one was your favorite?
NT: I’m a freelance writer, so I’ve had little contact with anyone at VICE beyond a couple of editors. I wrote a column called The Hidden Language, which focuses on slang and jargon specific to different subcultures. A few favorites: kinksters, restaurant kitchens, mall santas, hospital nurses.
RM: You recently did a theme show called “Order in the Disorder: Breakups” back on August 20th at The Tank…Which area of the storytelling portion of comedy would you consider yourself to be highly skilled at; and where do you think your storytelling abilities tend to struggle the most?
NT: My standup consists of longer bits, usually 3-8 minutes in length. Often, when I finish a set, people will say “I liked your story.” It shouldn’t irk me (it’s a compliment, so I don’t complain) but it does. Because it’s still standup. I just don’t tell one-liners.
Having focused on standup more than storytelling, my strengths lie in density of humor (packing in as many laughs as possible) and overarching structure. So I’m well-poised to get a lot of laughs at a storytelling show because I’m used to doing standup in the shape of a story or essay.
RM: What do you think is the most underrated aspect of the comedic writing procedure? How do you go about making sure a great deal of attention is paid to that particular facet of crafting funny material without overanalyzing an idea in that stage of the process?
NT: The most underrated aspect of comedy writing, in my opinion, is being sure you know the message of your jokes. A lot of comedians figure out how to get laughs, so they cling to that without thinking about what they’re saying with their jokes. For me, that’s inexcusable. If I deconstruct a joke and it stands for something that I don’t believe in, I stop telling that joke, even if it gets big laughs.
I don’t worry about overanalyzing. Comedians often worry about that when they should really worry about under-analyzing. What’s the opinion of your joke? If you can’t answer that question, then why should you have the privilege of speaking to a large group of people while no one else talks?
RM: You had a Facebook post back on September 7th which read “A comedian sharing a meme is like a pro athlete showing up for a game and just screening a VHS tape of 1983 sports highlights…” Do you ever get concerned that too much of the industry of comedy is taking place on smartphones and behind a keyboard as opposed to on stage, or are you kind of torn on that subject given that you also write articles for websites such as CollegeHumor.com?
NT: I don’t really worry about that. I do think that people who rarely see live standup don’t realize how much they’re missing when they watch a recording. If you haven’t seen a comic live, you can’t really have a full opinion of them. But that’s been a problem as long as standup has been on TV.
The internet is great because it allows people with little access to live comedy to still see comedians (whether it’s standup or another format). I recently did a project where I made a new comedy video every day and shared it online for two week. I was amazed by how many people watched them.
I worry more about the drive toward “viral” content. More and more platforms want content that is designed to generate a reaction, rather than to be the funniest or most innovative. A lot of websites that once had strong written sections have devolved into repositories for hastily assembled listicles.
As for memes (actual memes, not just pictures with white text on them), they’re the least courageous form of humor creatable. Adding to a pre-existing meme is just using someone else’s premise to make a joke – it’s relying on something that’s already been agreed upon as funny. I dare you to be less creative while still technically creating something.
RM: Other than recognizing a joke that another performer had done previously, what are some warning signs that might be present which may suggest a comic might be purposely doing stolen material? What was the most blatant example you’ve seen of that happening; and with all of the online avenues it can be proven that someone else may be doing a lifted bit does it surprise you people are still doing it?
NT: I have rarely, if ever, seen a comedian intentionally steal another comedian’s joke. What I’ve seen a lot more often is amateur comedians emulating a famous comedian’s style. That’s normal. It’s what you do before you find your own voice, before you figure out what’s funny about yourself. There are a lot of watered-down Louis CKs out there right now. That’s fine. I was a watered-down David Cross or Bill Hicks for a while, then a watered-down Andy Kindler, then Daniel Kitson, and so on. It’s training wheels for comedy.
RM: Which one of your feline companions is the troublemaker of the pair? What advice would you have for any current cat owner that is looking to bring another one into the mix; and are there any life lessons that you have learned from being a pet dad which you can apply to the practice of stand-up comedy?
NT: Foggy is the one who I often find on the high shelf where we keep the cat treats, but that might just be because he’s bigger and can jump higher. My cats are from the same litter, so I never had to integrate them. They’ve been spooning since Day One. I will say that, if you’re going to introduce a new cat to your current pet cat, do some research on the proper method. You and your cats will be happier if you do.
Pets are a good lesson in symbiosis. You and your pet each provide an emotional response that the other needs. Similarly, a good comedian is should strive to simultaneously be selfless and self-serving. A lot of comedians are just selfish.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
NT: Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour continues on October 3 with a special comics-themed show tying into New York Comic Con. I’m also moderating a panel at the con, on Friday at 11, called “How To Succeed In Self-Publishing”.
I’ll be doing a few weekends out of town: Boston on November 3-6, Philadelphia and DC at some point too. I just won Comedy Hack Day (a hackathon where you make funny apps) in New York for the second year in a row, so the DC guys invited me down for their Comedy Hack Day.
On November 18, I’ll be hosting Dance For Dance, a gala event/dance party that raises money for Mark DeGarmo Dance. MDD is an organization that provides arts/dance education to underfunded public schools, where it’s desperately needed. Most of the schools are in the neighborhood where I grew up and my mother was a dance/movement teacher, so it’s a cause that’s close to my heart. It’s also close to my stomach, as I plan to eat a lot of appetizers.
Nat on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nat.towsen
Nat on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NatTowsen
Downtown Variety Hour on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DowntownVariety
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