JT Habersaat Talks About Bringing the Punk Ethos to Comedy, and What It’s Like to Have Doug Stanhope Open Your Show.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
JT Habersaat has seen the comedy world catch up to his idea of infusing stand-up with the spirit of punk rock.
When he started doing comedy in Austin in 2008, Habersaat modeled his approach on the trajectories of some of his favorite music acts. That led to bold early choices, like bypassing the open mic circuit and diving straight into booking shows at whatever music venues were receptive to having stand-up comedy.
It was a major gambit, and during my interview with him, even he’s hesitant to tell someone to start in the exact way he did. But, hey, it’s paid off for him. Habersaat has earned opportunities to work with prominent comics who were also looking to work outside the club system, and go on to pick up a deal with Stand Up! Records too.
He only continued to buck tradition after he took his shows on the road, where his tours get arranged to look more like a band’s touring schedule than a comic’s, preferring one-night performances at rock clubs and other venues to extended weekend shows at comedy clubs. Sure, his shows were more anomalous in 2008, but here at the end of 2016, comedy is thriving outside of comedy clubs.
With a conversational style, and material that’s dense with absurd, sometimes sordid, imagery, Habersaat can produce terrific content that stays comfortably outside the trappings of conventional stand-up. His work is great for comedy fans, and for the cynics who bristle at the familiar. His approach to stand-up as a career should be studied by any comic looking for ways to move ahead without feeling bound to traditional lanes.
Habersaat’s latest tour wrapped in Dallas, where he took the stage at Three Links in Deep Ellum. It’s the same stage where he filmed his latest special, Misanthrope. I caught up with him before he kicked off his final show to talk about forgoing the traditional comedy career path, his methods of self-promotion and how he would up with comedy cult icon Doug Stanhope working as an opener for one of his shows.
I’m catching you at the end of your latest tour, right?
Indeed. This wraps a couple of weeks of shows with Brian Zeolla.
Can you run through the dates on this tour?
This was kind of a horseshoe routing. We started the day after the nightmare election in Tucson, Arizona. As the results were coming in, we could see Juarez from outside our window from our hotel in El Paso, so that was real gnarly. And then we went through Phoenix, did most of California, including Sacramento, and Santa Cruz, and a bunch of other shows. And then we shot over through Reno into Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City into most of Colorado, including Boulder and Denver. Then we shot south through New Mexico, and now we’re doing the northern part of Texas, ending in Dallas.
You tend to travel under the Punk Altercation name. Can you talk about what that is?
I used to run a magazine called Altercation, and I have a record label called Altercation Records, with a label partner in New York, and it just kind of sprung out of that brand. I started doing stand-up in 2008, and I wanted to launch my version of like The Ramones, but a punk comedy version. So I just wanted to have a gang of comics – similar to what the Comedians of Comedy were doing. We played a lot of alternative venues, stuff like that. It slowly evolved from… well, having five people on tour together was unsustainable, for a lot of reasons. Whether it be a financial crunch of too many mouths to feed, or just too many people in the car, mentally. [Laughs.] Because touring is hard! So it’s evolved generally down to me headlining and bringing one, maybe two [comics] with me, and utilizing local comics, which I like doing anyway. But that was basically it. And the punk aspect was largely the DIY end of things. I handle all my own booking. I do have a publicist, and I am signed to a label, but it’s very hands-on as far as the show routing and all that sort of stuff. And also just doing a lot of shows – I’ve been averaging about 130 shows over the last three years, so that’s, y’know, The Black Flag, Fugazi school of just getting in the van and doing the work.
What’s it like having the burden of self-promotion on you?
It can be a burden, but it’s also that thing of, I’ve talked to booking agents and stuff, and they’re like, “Honestly, you can pay me 15 percent to do what you’re already doing, or less.” [Laughs.] The early years are really tough, and it still can be hard – this tour can be particularly hard because of the political climate, and a lot of other factors. But ultimately, I like relying on myself. I always know what I’m getting into. And more times than not – I’d say 90 percent of the time – the deals and the situations are what I’d expect them to be going in, because I booked them myself. It is a burden because it is a lot of work, and a lot of details to keep in your brain, but the payoff of knowing what I’m getting into, and being able to rest easy in that knowledge is well worth it. Not to say we don’t get fucked sometimes still. We got ripped off by a venue the other night. But by and large it doesn’t happen that much.
Were you ever a comedy club guy? Did you go through the clubs at all?
I never really went through the way you’re supposed to, which is typically, when you’re starting comedy, you go to open mics all the time, and you slowly over many, many months work your way up to a 10-minute hosting set. Then you eventually feature, then you eventually headline. That’s the “right” way to do it. That never appealed to me, which some would call… you could tag it either way, you could either tag it as arrogant, or you could tag it as forward-thinking. I choose to think of it as forward-thinking. When I got to Austin and decided I wanted to try comedy, I didn’t go to any open mics, I just booked a rock and roll venue for my own show, and booked some locals based on profiling them on their Facebook page, or MySpace page back then. [Laughs.] I was like, “I have 25 minutes, I don’t want to do three minutes at an open mic for a while.” I didn’t want to do that. And it kinda worked. Not to say that first show was great – it was fine. I feel like I jumped and saved myself a lot of time doing it that way, because when alternative comics who weren’t playing the clubs came to town – like Janeane Garofalo, or Brian Posehn or Doug Stanhope, the first thing they did was ask who’s the comic in town that would be the best fit, and most people would say me, because I wasn’t doing the club thing. I was kind of outside that box. So it was weird when I was new to town, because a lot of people didn’t know me personally, and suddenly there’s this dude in town who’s not going to the open mics, but he’s opening for those type of people. It’s like, “What the fuck?” Y’know? But it’s also that dice roll where it could have gone the other way. And in some sense it does, in that more mainstream-y club things, there’s festivals that are curated and booked by clubs that don’t like that I did that, so it can be a double-edged sword. That isn’t to say I don’t like doing comedy clubs; we did comedy clubs on this run. I’ve done the Improvs. I’ve never worked at the Helium, but they have a really good reputation. It’s like anything else, man. There’s some that are dinosaurs, and operate on a weird territorial format that I would never succumb to. But there’s others that are just like, after grinding it out and doing rock clubs, to do a club where people are coming there to see comedy can be like shooting fish in a barrel. It can be way easier. And generally, it’s 50 in one hand and 50 in the other at this point, but a lot of times comedy clubs pay more. I’m not anti-club by any means, it’s just not the path that I started out at.
What kind of reaction do you get from other comics when you talk about forgoing all of that?[Laughs.] Well now, because the climate’s so different, and because I’m signed to Stand Up! Records, and it’s more of a known thing, they’re more like, “That sounds bad ass.” But when I was starting, it was like, “You’re fucking crazy.” I also toured a lot with bands. I’ve done a lot of shows with The Riverboat Gamblers, Off With Their Heads and Lower Class Brats — bands like that. And those crowds can be tough. Especially if they’re not expecting comedy, those can be a real adversarial dynamic until you win them over — which I always liked. I always rose to that situation, because I come from a punk background. So a lot of comics, though, are like, “There’s no way I’m getting up in front of a band, there’s no way.” But there’s also, because we do one-nighters, and the typical comedy club thing of when you’re middling or even headlining, you go to a club somewhere, you fly in, you do one show Thursday, two Friday, two Saturday, you fly home. We go out for two weeks at a minimum, pretty much, and do a show every night. We don’t really have a night off unless we have to by whatever default, or can’t find a show. That’s romantic. It’s the rock star thing of being in a band and hitting the road, and it’s exciting. You’re in a different city every night. It’s that pirate life. As opposed to, “Well, I’m in Iowa at the Zany’s, and I’m in this hotel all day watching TV. And then I go to the show, and then I fly home from Zany’s on Sunday.” That, to me, is not exciting. Part of the appeal of doing comedy, in addition to loving the craft of it, is I love seeing other places, traveling around, and being there, and then gone.
You’re doing this show at Three Links tonight. You recorded your special here, right?
I did. The new album, Misanthrope, was recorded here. It’s a four-camera shoot. It’s out now on Stand Up! Records, and it’s a full hour DVD special. And there’s a bonus documentary on there, which documents a lot of offstage stuff. There’s some onstage material as well. Bonus material. But there’s a lot of, just, the rest of the time, what it’s like to be on tour. So there’s behind the scenes stuff from Philadelphia, New Jersey and Arizona. Some Texas stuff. Some people make appearances, like Brian Zeolla, who I’m on tour with now. David Heti, who’s a comic from Montreal and also signed to Stand Up! Records. Mishka Shubaly, who I’ve toured with a lot. Doug Stanhope makes an appearance hosting for us one night. Lot of guest people.
You had Doug Stanhope hosting for you?
Yeah. Doug did one show last year, and it was an unofficial show he was hosting for myself and Mishka Shubaly in his hometown.
How did that happen?
I’ve been friends with Doug since about 2009. I put on a show for him and opened and, basically, the second act was late, and I was doing really well with the 10 minutes I was allotted, so he just had me keep going, and I ended up doing almost half an hour. We hit it off after that, and just became buddies. And so whenever I’m going through Arizona, if he’s home, we definitely see each other. And I’ve done the Stanhope podcast a lot. And Mishka and I actually met via Doug. Mishka’s a musician – kind of a Tom Waits-esque musician, and a Bukowski-esque writer. And so he toured with Doug for a while back in the day, and so we met via him. And now we tour together a lot, Mishka and I. And so, yeah, he [Stanhope] doesn’t announce it, but he sometimes shows up and does 10 minutes off the top and hosts for us. Which is the equivalent of going to train at the gym and having Muhammad Ali show up and spar with you. [Laughs.] But Doug’s great, he’s just a friend by this point — one that happens to be brilliant, so it works out.
Let’s talk about how your writing has changed from 2008 to now.
A lot. Part of it is a matter of just, I just turned 40, and when I started I was barely 30. So there’s a degree of just worldly outlook, I think. And also it was a punk comedy tour with a capital P when I started. There was more references, there was more talking to a specific audience I was trying to cultivate, so there was a lot more pop culture references. Henry Rollins’ spoken word stuff was a big influence on me early on, a very similar kind of rant-y style, story-based style — which I still have, but it’s broader now. And that’s just the nature of touring so much, and also getting older and having more… I’m intentionally less referential, because I want it to be broader. And I always say it’s more middle-aged angst now, rather than twenty-something — y’know, younger — angst. So it’s more, “Get off my lawn you kids!” and less, “Fuck the man!” But I like to think that’s it’s broader and a little more universal in terms of the topics and themes I’m hitting on.
You did your album here, you’ve done a fair number of shows here. Do you have an impression of our comedy scene?
I don’t have a real big overview of the comedy scene, specifically, because most of the comics I’ve met have been through doing shows at Three Links, because of Scott [Beggs], the owner there. We knew each other a little bit from way back in the day. He’s been really great to work with as far as a home base. And Deep Ellum has changed so much in the last ten years, since I’ve been in Texas. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve done shows at Double Wide, and that was really tough going. [Laughs.] It was really hard, because people go there just for music. And that was a while ago. This was six or seven years ago. Once Three Links got here… I’ve done stuff at Dallas Comedy House, back when that was first starting. But that was very improv-heavy, so we were a little bit of an odd duck. But they were very nice to us. But, I mean, the comics that I know here… Brian Breckenridge, from Arlington; I got to be friends with some comics in Denton because I did the venue Rubber Gloves quite a bit; Clint Werth is fantastic, and he’s on the show tonight, just a super funny Dallas comic; Asher Allen, I actually met via the staff here at Three Links, he’s a buddy of Scott’s and showed up one night, like, “I’m getting back into it!” And there’s good clubs up here; there’s Hyena’s and all that. The Addison Improv. I haven’t really worked those. I have a lot of friends who have, and I hear good things, but usually with Dallas I’m in for a night, and that’s it. And being based in Austin, I’m very attentive to the fact that I never want to outplay my draw in my home state. Like in Austin, I do three, maybe four shows a year, including big festival appearances. And people show up! And I get good deals because of that. So I’ll do drop-in stuff here and there, kind of unannounced things. But if I’m gonna do a show, I’m gonna make it kind of an event. So this will be the last Dallas area show I do at least until the spring sometime of next year, maybe longer. My small experience with the Dallas comedy scene has been nothing but positive. I just don’t know it quite as well as I should, being a Texas resident. That’s just the nature of being here for one night then bouncing.
So what would your advice be for a comic who feels like the comedy club environment just isn’t right for them?
Well, the climate now is so different from when I started. I would say don’t be limited by your city. For a lot of comics, the proper way is to go to New York or L.A. if you want to get any sort of career out of it. I always say, well, you always have to go to those places if you want to be seen, but you can be in, like, a Chicago or an Austin or a Dallas or a Memphis or any of those places someone will know. And then just tour those places. You don’t have to live in L.A. — unless you want a sitcom, and then you have to live in L.A. Or if you want to write for The Daily Show, you have to live in New York. I would say make your own opportunities. It doesn’t mean… I’m not encouraging everyone to do what I did and just book your own headlining show, because if it falls on your face, it can be a really tough hole to climb out of. There’s other ways to do it. If you feel frustrated by the club circuit, you don’t have to just say, “Well, that’s the way it is. That’s the only way to build this box.” Fuck that. Papier-mâché that fucker. I guarantee there’s other comics that feel the same way. Just kind of network around, and use the internet to your advantage to find alternative venues that do comedy — which is a lot easier than trying to build it from the ground up a lot of the time anyway. There is a plethora of bars and art theaters and burlesque houses and weird spaces and rock clubs that are open to comedy now — way more than when I started in 2008. I would just say don’t feel like you’re handcuffed to the club circuit, because it’s a different world now.
Cover photo by Dave TeeVee.