Seth Cowles Ended 2016 by Performing on Some of the Biggest and Coolest Comedy Shows to Come Through Dallas.
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.
It’s hard to think of a local comic who’s enjoyed more exciting – and enviable – opportunities this year than Seth Cowles. He wrapped 2016 by working recent shows with Hari Kondabolu, Joe Mande and Tig Notaro. All three of those acts have been able to build enough popular support to arrange national tours without depending on comedy clubs, and all three have enough clout among comics to make chances to open for them highly coveted.
Cowles has been part of Dallas’ comedy scene for roughly 12 years at this point. He started here, though he grew up in Boston. He’s done impressive work leading up to those aforementioned gigs, too. He has a knack for siphoning every drop of comedy from whatever subject he’s discussing, and he has the kind of confidence that allows him to craft self-deprecating bits that can really sting.
I talked with Cowles about his recent big opportunities, how the type of room you’re working in can influence your performance, and what his thoughts are on how to make yourself stand out among your peers.
So you’ve recently done some big shows. You worked with Tig Notaro, Hari Kondabolu, Joe Mande…
Those were my three recent ones that were theater shows.
First question – what the hell, man? I’m asking as someone who’s jealous, by the way.
Sure, and that’s a natural reaction. Everybody’s real happy for everybody till they get something they wanted. [Laughs.] I met the people who do the booking, and they book a bunch of different venues, and I met them when I was doing the comedy pub crawl with Paul [Varghese]. I had known one of the promoters through some mutual friends, because they mostly do music. What happened is these guys never really promoted comedy, never really promoted comedy rooms. But one of the agencies they worked with pivoted, and they all of a sudden got all these comics on board. So they were just starting to book all these headliners, and they didn’t really have a stable of comics. They had people that they knew that were comedians, so they just gave me a call and said, “Hey, is this something you’d want to do?” I said yeah. I had to go through the same process as if you were submitting to a festival or whatever – I had to give them my bio and send them a tape, and the comic’s agent had to approve it, and so forth. So it wasn’t handed to me, but the opportunity was put in front of me and I was able to take advantage of that. It worked out really well. I do well opening, the comics like me. There’s a lot of different personalities in the comedy scene – I’m sure you’re aware – but I’m not afraid of interactions with strangers or people I know. I’m from a sales background, so I can talk to people without being socially awkward. And if it does get socially awkward, I’m fine with that also. I’m a comic. So I’m like, “Oh, this will make a great bit.” So that worked out real well, and I’m just happy that I was in the right place in the right time, and had something together that impressed them enough to let me do it.
How have the shows been going?
They’ve been kind of eye-opening as far as the type of… The Hari show, he’d never performed in Dallas before, and I’m not sure how familiar you are with him, but he’s a very liberal, feminist, left wing type of comic, and he didn’t know how his following was gonna be [in Dallas]. And it was sold out at Sons of Hermann Hall – not a huge venue, but he really didn’t know what to expect. Then to open for Joe Mande, who was a writer for all these big shows, like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation. We had a small crowd, but the people who were there to see him were huge fans of his. Same thing with Tig, but on a much grander scale. You develop these people that follow you and want to see you. It was just cool to see these different sections of people I wouldn’t normally get to interact with. And they get to be exposed to me, and see how I do with their tastes, and so forth. And for the most part, everybody really liked me, I didn’t have any negative feedback or anything like that. Normally you don’t after a show, nobody’s gonna tell you that you fucking suck. And Tig was unbelievable because of the size of the room and the amount of people there, just the atmosphere, it was real electric.
Did you get much time to interact with the comics you’re working with on shows like these?
I usually get to spend maybe 15 minutes or so before the show chit-chatting with them. I try not to whip their ass too much about comedy, because you look at it like a brand new open micer coming up to you and wanting to talk to you about bullshit. I’ll be happy to talk to you about certain things, but every once in a while you see someone maybe asking you about stuff that shouldn’t concern you for a few years. And it’s fine – you don’t know what you don’t know, but I try and keep it real social and just talk about…maybe we have some common interests, or where they’re from, and just treat them like a person. Because most of them, that’s all they want to do, just talk about normal shit. I mean, I met Bill Burr one time at the Improv. I went to see him, and I had a Patriots hat on – he’s from Boston – I wasn’t talking to him, but he was talking to his feature, his feature’s from New York, they were arguing about football. Then I hear Bill go, “Hey you, with the Pats hat, you from Boston?” I said yeah. He said, “Get over here.” All he wanted to do was talk about sports, and we talked about sports for maybe 30 or 40 minutes, just bullshitting, and it was cool as hell. Yeah, I wanted to talk to him about comedy, but it’s not what he wanted to talk about. I felt like if I brought up comedy, he’d probably shut down. Or he’d have stock answers or whatever. I’d say all of them were very personable. Hari and I share some common friends. Joe was real cool, too. But Tig was really, really nice, and asking me inquisitive questions about my life, not just about comedy. She was really, really nice.
What’s your take on…maybe not new, but the new-ish trend of comics coming and doing theaters versus clubs?
I don’t know if it’s a new-ish trend…
I should probably say local to Dallas. It seems like it’s happening more here than it was in the past. Or maybe I’m missing stuff?
I think you might not have been tapped into it as closely, as you work clubs, then you work theaters when you can. It’s not like you just decide to work a theater, because a theater holds 500-plus people, where a club is usually 250, something like that. So it depends on your fan base, because now there’s definitely a different vibe for sure. I think they would rather work theaters, because the comic has more control over the venue, and the schedule than if they’re working the club. So I guess maybe that’s a newer trend as far as wanting to get to theaters faster than doing clubs. Because clubs are going to be more consistent because they’re already established, and they’re there, and you expect comedy to be there. You don’t expect comedy to be at the Texas Theatre, or Sons of Hermann Hall, or the Majestic every weekend. But I definitely like the theater experience, more so than the club experience as far as the two drink minimum thing, and waitresses and chatter, stuff like that. It’s a much more pure experience. But I was raised in a comedy club, so I say pure, but my sense of “pure” is actually in a comedy club, where the over-talking, and the audience wanting to contribute, and waiters and waitresses, who knows what’s going to happen. Whereas with a theater it’s gonna be most likely a pretty consistent show. People are gonna be respectful, they’re gonna sit there and they’re gonna watch. If they want to talk, they’re going to leave.
I was going to ask about the different vibes. How much do you think you change when you’re in a theater, versus a club, or versus a bar show?
I don’t know if I’m changing as far as the type of material I’m doing. I’m more conscientious about how I’m saying it, whether it be the speed, or how deliberate I am on my deliberate. With a theater you definitely have to work a lot slower, and pace yourself, because it’s a much bigger room, and it’s not as confined as a comedy club, where you’re not going to get that immediate reaction. And if everybody’s laughing – first of all, you’re not going to get 650 people laughing in unison unless you’re, y’know, some big time headliner. But if you’re opening at a theater, or you’re a lower-level headliner, you can see a lot more people. You can see a lot more people not laughing, and you can’t let that get to you. Because there are a whole bunch of people laughing, but you’re zoned in on the people that, “Oh, they’re not laughing, they’re not laughing – what am I doing?” You can’t panic, because once you panic, you start moving faster. And when you start moving faster, shit gets lost, and the audience doesn’t hear what they need to hear. It’s never a good idea to go fast, no matter what the club is. Now a bar show, you have to be prepared to go completely off-script if something happens, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Most likely, they didn’t even pay to get in, you may not be getting paid to perform. You might be getting paid in free beer, or whatever. You’re getting gas money. Don’t expect the same type of respect you should be getting at a club, or definitely at a theater. You’re just not going to get that. And if you do expect that, you’re gonna be wrong, and your performance is gonna suffer, because someone at the bar is gonna try to be funny. You have to know how to either handle it, roll with the punches, or shut them down, or whatever the case may be. Sometimes you have to be loud, sometimes you have to be crass, and that all kind of softens as you move your way up to the club, or a nicer club, or a theater, or whatever the case. I’d say my act doesn’t change necessarily, I may be more raunchy at a bar show than at a theater, but for the most part, I don’t try and adapt it too much to the crowd.
Did you start comedy in Dallas?
How long have you been performing?
About 12 years.
What are your thoughts on the Dallas comedy scene? How has it changed between now and when you started?
I’d say it’s a lot different than when I first started. There was a lot more sharing of ideas when I first started, I think. A lot of people talk about cliques, and groups. I think there was always that in some semblance. I think social media has really helped that, I guess in a negative way, helped make cliques easier to do, and easier to communicate in your group, or your clique, or whatever. There are always going to be comics who do certain clubs more than others, or feel that these are [their] home clubs, at Dallas Comedy House, or Hyena’s, or whatever. I felt back when I started that the bigger comics in the area were a lot more approachable, because we just wanted to kind of hang out and talk about comedy. I don’t see that a ton here. And I may just be missing it because I’m older and I have my own shit to do. We would get together and not write after shows, but sometimes…we wouldn’t assign writing sessions, but we would all hang out, and if there was a lull in the conversation, it would be, “Hey, what are you working on? What are you working on?” I think the worst thing you can do is get comfortable in your group. The best thing that I did when I was starting was to go do rooms I wasn’t familiar with, do rooms that had groups I wasn’t in. Because me performing in front of my friends and them laughing at my jokes doesn’t help my career, doesn’t help me get work. And also gives me a false sense of how good my material is. I remember doing certain jokes that my friends thought were great, and I was like, “Oh, this is really good stuff.” And I went and performed it somewhere else, and was told no. That it’s hacky, or “Why are you doing that?” Or, “That’s someone else’s joke.” Or whatever the case may be. [Laughs.] But getting that honest feedback is important. It sucks because you don’t want to hear it all the time, you want everything you do to be perfect, but that’s not the case. I think protecting yourself, insulating yourself at a home club, or with your friend group, is detrimental to you moving forward. I think there’s probably a little bit of that, and I think that when somebody gets a show, or they get a deal, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily better than you, and they don’t need to have their ass kissed. I’m happy for a lot of my friends that have good fortune, and I’m happy for the people I don’t really know well that have good fortune. But I’m not gonna change how I am towards them for their success, or their lack of success. I don’t think that’s fair, because we all sucked at some point. And we still write sucky jokes, just hopefully less than we used to.
Are you able to get around as much nowadays to different parts of the scene?
I’ve definitely found myself up and down, not as consistent as I would have liked. I used to be very religious as far as doing four open mics a week, at least. I’ve definitely felt that come down, and go up, and I’m lucky to where I’m in a place as far as how long I’ve been doing it, that I do somewhat consistently get booked, that I don’t have to try to get in front of people to get booked. I probably take advantage of that a little more than I should, because…if I’ve ever talked to anybody about basic advice of comedy, from the get-go, it’s literally three things: It’s writing, stage time, and hustle. That last one, hustle, is something I feel like is the biggest thing the new scene lacks. And hustle isn’t necessarily trying to make your own shows, though that’s part of it. It’s also getting to know the people in this scene. Getting to know who books these rooms, hanging out after the open mics. There’s something to be said when this person wants to book a show: “Who do I pick? I’ve been hanging out with Alex the last few months, we’ve been shooting the shit, taking shots, whatever.” And it becomes less about your comedy versus someone else’s comedy than their relationship with you versus their relationship with someone else. And it’s not cheating the system because it’s part of the system. Getting out and doing those open mics is really important. The more you’re doing it, not only are you getting better at your jokes, but you’re in that environment where you see people coming up with new bits, and it kind of inspires you, “Oh, I should be writing more.” The last time I did five open mics in a week was about a month ago, and I wrote three solid jokes that are now in my feature set that week. Just because my brain was constantly going like that. I still take some time to write with comics during the week. I think it’s important to find someone you write with well. I’ve tried writing with a lot of people, and it doesn’t always work. No matter how cool they are, or how funny you think they are, I sometimes can’t help them, they can’t help me. But finding those one or two people you write really well with is really important.
You did the Boston Comedy Festival this year, right? How was it?
That was especially cool because I’m from Boston, and I’d only done open mics up there. And to be able to go up there, and bring people out, made a big difference. Not just friends and family, people I grew up with getting to see me, but making an impression on those clubs as far as having a built-in fan base, or having having traction already. And they notice that, and say, “Oh, maybe we should see about getting you up here for weekend work,” and so forth. And that’s ultimately what the goal is. So that was awesome. And I met some amazing comics from the East Coast, and they were super cool. Everybody was really surprised I came from Dallas to do it, but once they figured out the family connection, it made sense. But everybody was real nice, the crowds were great, it was all sold out rooms. It was a great time.
So you’ve had so much come up this year – is there a big goal you’re shooting towards for next year?
I’m in a position financially where I can afford to do more festivals. Because you don’t make any money on festivals, it’s a loss. You’re going for networking and exposure, and every once in a while there’ll be a competition, and if you win it, great, but the odds are stacked against you for sure. But I’m in a position where I can lose some money, and just go out and have fun doing comedy in other places that I wouldn’t normally do. That and touring more – I have a trip planned for L.A. in the spring. Just to go out there and see some friends. I know a lot of people out there who’ve been asking me to come out there and do some rooms. I’m not trying to get famous up there, but it’s just all part of the comedy journey. Going out and performing in front of as many crowds as you can, and having a good time doing it. And if you can make a little money, great! I’m not trying to get a sitcom. I’m 41 years old, probably not gonna happen, but I’m alright with that. I’m in a position in life where my own business allows me flexibility and financial stability to do comedy, and enjoy it. I just like doing comedy. If you’re in it to make money or be famous, you’re not in it for the right reasons.
Cover image by KMG Photography.