Comedian Paul Varghese Won’t Turn Down The Money To Be Made Performing in Theaters, But He Still Can’t Resist A Good Bar Show.
When we spoke, Paul Varghese described working in comedy as something that almost felt thrust upon him.
But those early opportunities in Dallas kickstarted a career that’s seen its share of highlights, as Varghese has made appearances on Comedy Central and even competed on a season of Last Comic Standing. And what sets him apart from other comedians on his level, perhaps, is that he’s stayed in Dallas even as his profile has grown. He says this is because he doesn’t know of anywhere else that would give him better stage time.
And, let’s be clear, stage time is something Varghese can never seem to get enough of.
That desire has paid dividends for him. Varghese pushes himself to craft an act that’s dense with punchlines — he confesses in the below interview that he’s still uncomfortable hearing himself talk for too long without getting laughs — but his skill as a performer has been honed to the point that he can reap rewards while taking risks. He can be acerbic and charismatic, and he can keep an audience on his side even as he needles their preconceived beliefs. His topics vary, but he’s consistent in his commitment to delivering killer comedy to crowds.
I talked to Varghese about how the DFW comedy scene has changed over time, how the city shapes performers, and how your level of success — and your background — can change your relationship with comedy clubs.
It’s good time, too: He’s wrapping the year by headlining Backdoor Comedy Club’s New Year’s Eve show.
Your New Year’s Eve show is with Backdoor Comedy Club. Can you tell us a little about it?
I’ve been doing New Year’s there for almost… I don’t know, maybe a decade? It’s the biggest show of the year for them, maybe 200 people. There are two shows – 8 and 10. Eight o’clock tends to be the better crowd because it’s a crowd that wants to party, but wants to be home before the drunks come out. I close the shows and, at 10 o’clock, the last 10 minutes of my set is people getting noisemakers, and they just get kind of rowdy. But it’s cool. I consider that club my home club, because I perform there more than any other club in the city. Even though they’re not the first club to put me onstage, they’re definitely the club that’s been the most integral in building my set. I’ve also performed at New Year’s shows out of town, and there’s something weird about performing at New Year’s in a city where you don’t know anybody. It feels very lonely. So it’s kind of cool to be able to do New Year’s in the city that you know. A lot of people come out to that show that only come out to that New Year’s show — that’s the only show they come out to in the year — and it’s cool reconnecting with those people. It’s just a more fun crowd, and I get to do more time there than I get to do normally at Backdoor. It’s good times. Plus, Linda [Stogner] and Jan [Norton] are awesome.
So the people you described that go once a year. Do they recognize you, or you recognize them? What’s that dynamic like?
They come every year to that show, specifically, because I think the weird thing about New Year’s and Valentine’s is people want to go to… Basically, there’s a reason people watch The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy, and it’s because they know what to expect, and it’s safe. It’s always a shot in the dark to how good the night’s going to be, especially with a comedy show, where you’re like, “I don’t know who these guys are. Is this going to be offensive? Are we going to have fun?” or “If we go to this bar, is it going to be fun?” Whereas, if you go to this show [at Backdoor Comedy], you know what to expect, as far as, “OK, it’s going to be this level of quality.” Depending on how inebriated everyone is. But you kind of know what to expect. It’s kind of a safe place – it sounds dumb to say “safe place” – but it’s a safe date night for everyone.
They know what to anticipate.
Yeah. And I think Backdoor itself has become that brand. It’s the reason most of the shows are sold out. It’s word of mouth that people know exactly what they’re going to get. That’s the scary thing about stand-up, if you don’t know what you’re walking into, it could be a terrible date night. At least at Backdoor, at the worst, it’s a safe date night. Nobody’s offended, everybody’s just… they might be bored at some point, but that’s the worst case scenario, as opposed to somebody being super offensive, or people have to walk out, or there are hecklers, stuff like that. It’s fun.
Backdoor’s different from the other clubs in the area, since it uses the showcase format, where you have more comics doing less time. What does a format like that mean for you, as a guy who’s used to doing 45 minutes to hour-long shows?
It’s cool because in order to do showcases for any network or any festival, you have to do seven minutes – five to seven. And so you have to know that. For any comic moving to L.A., you have to have a showcase set. A five-minute set, a seven-minute set, maybe a ten-minute set. And if all I did was headline, I wouldn’t know how to do those sets, you know what I mean? And I grew up doing short sets. My 45-minute set is not really, like, I decided to write 45 minutes. It’s [that] I eventually wrote 45 minutes’ worth of stuff. I didn’t sit down and go, “How am I gonna shape this?” It eventually just kind of grew on its own, because all I knew was five-minute sets. But I love having to connect with the crowd in five minutes. To me, that’s more of a challenge. At 45 minutes, you can sit back, you don’t have to worry about a joke bombing, because you have 44 minutes to get them back. But with seven? If one joke bombs, the momentum’s done. And I love that pressure. I love being able to be on my toes for that. With New Year’s, it’s a lot more pressure for me, because I feel like I’m responsible for their night being fun. This is their big night to go out. For us, it’s just another chance to go and perform. For them, they’re dressed up, showered, they got sitters, they paid, y’know, $100 to go see us. I feel that pressure, you know what I mean? Before, I never really felt that pressure. If I had a bad set, I was mad that the crowd sucked, or I bombed. Now I feel — maybe it’s because I’m getting older — but I feel like I ruined their night if I bomb. There’s a weird creative freedom I got when I realized, “OK, I’m funny. I know what I’m doing.” Now I need to make sure that they get what they came out to see. I can still work on my new stuff, but I still need to provide them with a show. If I go up and just do 30 minutes of what I want — everything’s what I want to do and say I do 30 minutes of, “I just gotta work on this new stuff” — it’s not fair to the people who spent $49 to come see it, to come be entertained. To me, that’s what open mics are for, to work on the new stuff. So when you have the big show, you know what to work on. You know what to do.
You started comedy here in Dallas, right?
When did you start?
June ’01. June 6, ’01 was my first time onstage. I took Dean [Lewis]’s class February of that year, then my very first time was going up at the Improv. He advised us not to go onstage beforehand, which was smart. Your first time onstage should be in front of supportive people, I think. Unless you’re wired differently. I think if I’d went up in front of an open mic crowd, never being onstage – I mean, I’d been onstage doing theater stuff in high school and college, but nothing by yourself, that doesn’t compare to going up by yourself. I probably would have been at the end of the night, in a bar. And this is back when they only had three clubs, four clubs in the city. And so I probably would have been going on at one in the morning. And none of those clubs had open mics, except for Backdoor. So I probably would’ve been onstage Thursday night at Backdoor at 12:30, in front of two people. I probably wouldn’t have even realized there were two people, meaning I probably would have expected raucous applause, and been like, “Why is nobody laughing? I guess these jokes suck that Dean helped me write.” And then I probably would’ve quit. But I remember that night — in hindsight, I had no idea who he was, but this was back when headliners would come in and do Wednesday through Sunday — Mitch Hedberg was the headliner that week. I had no idea who he was. I was a year out of college, I was 24. They basically just had all of us do a show before him, and he closed. And I think that was just to get people to come in on a Wednesday night, because Wednesday nights are the deadest nights, and he wasn’t even huge back then, I think he had just had a Comedy Central Presents, but this was before the Internet – before YouTube, not the Internet, before YouTube – but he still wasn’t a household name. I feel like he became a household name after he passed away. He was meant for YouTube. Twitter was meant for Mitch Hedberg. But yeah, he closed out, and I remember watching him afterwards, after my set, and it was just awesome to watch him, but had I not had that supportive crowd there, I probably would’ve quit. I just wanted to see what it was like to be onstage. Honestly, when I was done – I had a good set – when I was done, I was like, “Well that was fun.” Now I’ll just go back and get my fuckin’ Master’s degree, go get a regular job. Back in ’01? You never thought about being a stand-up. I never had aspirations to do it, I just wanted to see what it was like to be onstage. They [the club] asked me to do a guest set, so I would just do a guest set, and I would just do the same thing I did in Dean’s class. Then they asked me to do another guest set, and after the second or third one, I was like, “I need to start writing more stuff. I don’t want them to think that’s it.” I didn’t know how stand-up worked, I didn’t know you could keep doing the same set. I was like, “I gotta keep writing new stuff.” So I kept doing open mics, so that the next time they asked me to do a guest spot, I’d have at least one new joke. Even though you realize they’re not even watching your guest set. By the time they watch it, you have a brand new seven minutes anyway, or five new minutes. That’s the only reason I kept doing it, because they kept giving me work. Had they not, I would’ve been like… even now, it’s not as bad as it was a few years in, but I still feel lucky that people ask me to perform, because it’s so fickle, man. People love the new guy, coming in with the brand new five minutes. And then they realize, “Oh shit, he’s not writing anything past those five minutes. Let’s go back to Paul, because he’s the steady guy that’s been doing it.” So you always kind of realize, I’m still lucky, and so glad, that people book me to be on shows. Or that people come out to shows. It’s never been a dream of mine, if that makes any sense.
You wanted the experience more than anything else.
Yeah. And then people start paying you, and you’re like, “OK, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.” Then you just keep plugging away. I enjoy writing, I enjoy performing, it’s the main reason I haven’t left, because I love performing. And I love the amount of stage time I get here. Meaning? I know in New York, there’s more clubs there, but there’s not the amount of time that I get here. Here, I can do two 15-minute sets a night, which is, to me, better than five six-minute sets a night, if that makes any sense. You can learn how to build a set doing 15 minutes at once, as opposed to doing three five-minute sets.
You can learn how ideas bounce off each other.
It’s a weird thing that, I don’t know what other city I could get that in. I know L.A. – because L.A. is the only logical move – but I know the second I go out there, I’m basically putting this set on hold for a year or two, as I go to auditions and stuff. But I can’t imagine not doing it, dude. It’s the only thing that I get a rush out of. There’s nothing that compares to it. You can drink as much as you want, but nothing’s close to a new joke destroying. Last night, we did a bar show, and I was texting one of the guys about how the rush I get from a bar crowd laughing is way bigger than when a comedy crowd is laughing. I can’t explain why. There’s just something really beautiful when a bar crowd fucking goes nuts over a joke, as opposed to doing a joke at Backdoor and them laughing. OK, but you guys came to laugh, I feel like I’m cheating.
But a bar show, there’s TVs all around. If they go crazy… if you get an applause break at a bar, to me that’s the equivalent of a standing ovation. To me, it is.
So you still feed off of that…not hostile, but…
I love the chaos of something could completely go off the rails. I don’t like the sterility of, “We’re all here, we’re going to sit here and wait patiently for your next joke.” I feel like it’s fun, it’s like dessert, but I need the fact that these people… Last night, I got heckled. I was doing really well, and I got heckled halfway through, and I love the fact that that throws a wrench in the set that I wanted to do. Now I have to start improving, to figure out how to get out of it. It just keeps me on my toes. I love that side of it. It feels more organic to me. You hear that thing about how Chappelle left, because he felt he wasn’t getting organic reactions from the crowd. That’s what happens when you get famous — not that I wouldn’t want to be famous, but it would be so easy to write material if I was famous. I don’t understand how hard it is when they’re already meeting you and they can’t believe you’re there, so 80 percent of the way, they’re there. You could write a new hour every two months, it feels like. I watch these guys, and I’m like, “Well, if I wrote that material, it would bomb.” I don’t know if it’s because they can deliver it, or because they are famous. It’s such a thin line. I kind of like the idea that the laugh you’re getting is organic. People at that bar show didn’t laugh because they know who I was. They laughed because that joke genuinely made them laugh. There’s something pure about that that I love.
You were talking about the scene that you came into when you started, and it sounds so different than what I remember being here when I started, which happened later.
When did you start?
I started coming to Dallas at the end of November 2013. I think the week after Thanksgiving 2013.
The big glut of guys had already left before you started, right?
It’s weird, man. I don’t ever want to be that “back in the day” guy, and there are perks to the new group that’s in, but I knew those guys for about 10 years. I’m biased to them because we went through the same shit shows together for 10 years. But we all tried to push each other. Civil War is my favorite movie – Captain America: Civil War – but there’s a line at the beginning of that movie where someone says that generosity is correlated with guilt. It’s when Tony Stark’s going to the elevator. I remember when I started, I got pushed up really quickly — I was headlining like a year in. I wasn’t ready to headline, I had maybe 10 minutes, but they gave me the opportunity, I’m not gonna say no. And The Improv kept giving it to me. They were like, “Well, if you just keep writing, we’ll keep giving you these Wednesday nights.” You eat shit for a year, but they let me eat shit for years. They could’ve easily said, “You’re not ready.” But they said just keep writing, and eventually it’ll come together. Who’s going to turn down 45 minutes at a club? Especially back then, when the Improv was such a big deal to get into? I remember giving all my friends sets, and having them open for me all the time, because I remember thinking, “These guys are way funnier than me, and I feel guilty that they’re not getting these opportunities.” Eventually they’re going to catch on and realize I’m not that funny — that’s how I looked at it. And they all tried to be funnier than I was, and make it impossible for me to do 45 minutes. They were doing 15 minutes, which… it’s easy to overshadow the 45 minute guy by doing a killer 15. I think we all pushed each other. When we were all doing open mics. I’m following Mark [Agee], and Mark has to follow Jason [James]. When you’re following guys on that level, I don’t want to compare it to New York, but it’s why people go to New York. You have to follow heavy hitters. Those guys are heavy hitters that you want to follow. If you’re not following guys who really killed, you have to really motivate yourself to remember what killing really is. If there are 40 people at open mic, and everybody’s eating shit, everybody feels comfortable eating shit. “Oh, it’s just a regular open mic night.” You don’t learn anything from it. You have to really be like, “I have to destroy this room.” You have to set your own bar for how good you’re going to be. It’s a lot easier when the guy before you completely destroys and it’s like, shit, I gotta follow that. I think it’s just a different mentality now because nobody’s really… not that you have to kill at open mics, but there should be some sense of urgency, the idea that I’ve got to entertain this crowd, as opposed to, “I’m supposed to come in here and eat shit.” It’s a mentality that I know Tone [Bell] had when he came here, that Chris Lehman had when he came here, and Dustin [Ybarra] had — just that level of you kind of owe the crowd something, without pandering. You don’t want to do all your A shit at the open mic. But there should be a level of how hard you’re gonna kill. You don’t want to be the weak link on the show. Sometimes, when I see shows now, everybody’s cool eating shit. I remember when I used to eat shit, it would fucking ruin me, and the comics who killed would make fun of me, and we used to take shots because we were sad, and you move on. But now I feel like when people eat shit they don’t know they’re eating shit. Why are you so happy? You bombed, it should hurt your soul. And I think a lot of that, it may not be just them, they may not have the passion for stand-up that I do, that Jason does, that Aaron [Aryanpur] does, and Mark does, because when they bombed, you could see it. They’d melt down onstage, they’d be pissed. I don’t really see that now. I don’t think it means they’re delusional, I think it means they maybe don’t have the same passion we did. I think it’s also that now you almost have to be multifaceted. It’s like, you’ve gotta do a podcast, and this, and this, and this, and this. You don’t get to channel all your energy into one specific street, which is what we did. All we knew was, “I want to write this killer closer, so the next time Raj [Sharma] sees me, he’s like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’” I’m sure it exists in the scene, but I haven’t found those people.
Do you think it’s the scene that’s changed? The people? Or was that group you came up with the anomaly?
I think it was an anomaly just because it was such a big deal back then to get work at the Improv. I guess maybe it’s kind of a big deal now, but back then, we were so happy to get that stuff. And we all went to all the open mics together, and there’s something about that. Me and Mark specifically went to all of them together. So he would see me melt down, get drunk and fuck up onstage, and I would see him do that. But we would also see when we all killed, and we have all this shared history together. You haven’t met Mark, but Mark’s an incredible writer – performer, too – but I think we all just shared that same idea. We didn’t think about… you don’t think about podcasts back in ’03, that word didn’t even exist. A pod was like something in Star Wars back then, you know? I’m sure it exists now, but I think back then we all thought we would be working comics, and that’s it. But now it’s almost looked down upon to be just a working comic. You’ve got to be a working comic, actor, host, podcaster, all this shit. And I’m just old-school in that I just like doing stand-up. That’s what’s gotten me to whatever small place I’m at.
What was it like transitioning from doing comedy to doing comedy as a profession?
I only jumped into it as a profession because I was working retail, I was working temp jobs. I only worked professionally because I had to start filing taxes, I started getting enough money to where I had to start filing shit. And at that point it was like, “Shit, I guess I’m doing it full-time.” I still had the same energy I had when I was working my day jobs, because I didn’t like my day job. But I never chose to do it full-time; it was an “It Chose Me” kind of thing. I think the bigger transition is mentally, you don’t want to suck, because you feel like every set is dependent on you getting more work. But it kind of coincided with me getting better, too. I don’t really know what came first.
I don’t know how long it’s been since the last one, but Raj talked about doing Indians at the Improv in the past, and he talked about how you were the first Indian comic he’d ever seen, and how it felt like a revelatory kind of thing. Is that something you ever contemplate? Is it something that still comes up?
I know when I started, the only reason I actually jumped into it was because the ideas in my head, I had never seen anybody do them. I was like, “I’ll do it until somebody better than me comes along that’s speaking what I’m thinking in my head, and then I’ll quit doing it.” That’s literally what I had thought when I took up Dean’s class. Had I started now… I mean, right now, I’m so specific in my own brain I don’t really see anybody out there that’s doing what I’m doing, but had I grown up, and just started now, and I saw Russell Peters or Aziz Ansari, or even Bill Burr, I could say, “OK, I can live through that guy, that guy’s funny enough.” But there’s something to be said about seeing someone who looks like you on TV, and I think people lose sight of the fact. When people talk about diversity on TV, they’re talking about black and Hispanic, they’re not really talking about Asian. We’re so far down the road. But there’s something to being able to watch a show and seeing an Indian person on there. You’re like, OK, you actually can do that kind of stuff. I never thought of myself as being one of the only ones. I never really planned on doing it. I was gonna go back and get my Master’s and just be fine with it. And Raj happened to come in – probably six months into stand-up is when he saw me – and we did that show just to have a night at the Improv. Probably about two years in, we quit doing the show, and that was just because I was headlining my own night at that point. Now there’s brown comics everywhere. You go on YouTube and there’s so many brown comics, so many Persian comics. I never really saw myself that way. Now, in hindsight, I’m probably one of only two or three working clubs back in the day. I think Russell Peters was probably the only other one that I can think of, but I don’t know, because I didn’t have the Internet. I mean I had it, but Google didn’t really exist – I don’t think it existed in ’01 and ’02, I think it was just AOL search engines. But you don’t really think about it, especially being Indian. You’ve always been the outsider, you’re expecting that nothing’s going to be representative of you. I still don’t think it is. But it’s weird now, seeing as many people as I see. And whenever I hear about a new brown comic I always look them up on YouTube to make sure they’re not doing my material, basically, because you never know. The weird thing about Indian comics is the guys who are big are humongously huge. I consider myself middle ground, where some people know who I am, but most people don’t. I haven’t been on TV enough. But the guys who are big are, like, the guy who’s on The Daily Show, Hasan Minhaj, and Aziz is doing theaters, and Russell’s doing theaters, and Mindy Kaling doesn’t count, but they’re huge. There’s no guy that’s just headlining Improvs that’s about to break through. It’s just, there’s doing Madison Square Garden, and then me. [Laughs.] There’s no guy who you can see as the next big thing. That standard is so ridiculous. You’ve either got to be headlining the AAC, or you ain’t shit. It’s a weird jump that they all made.
That is a crazy scale to think about.
It is. Normally, you can kind of see that a guy’s been headlining the Improv circuit for four or five years, they’re training him to be the next big thing. As opposed to, here’s this guy doing massive 30,000-seat theaters, or is one of the major faces on Comedy Central, and you don’t see this slow burn over five to seven years. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen — that’s what I’m hoping happens to me — but it’s just weird to see that that’s the bar. If you had to ask people how many Indian comics they know, they probably only know two, and they’re massive. The odds of it… There are maybe 10 Indian comics right now working clubs, and four or five of them are theater-filling? The percentages on that are ridiculous. And I don’t know the reasoning behind it, I really don’t know what it is. It doesn’t really make sense to me. I just want that money, I want that theater money, dude. [Laughs.]
We’ve talked a bit about writing material. How has your writing changed over time?
I don’t want to say it’s easier, but the ideas come to me way more often than they did before. Because my brain’s constantly going, I don’t have writer’s block, it’s just a matter of how to make a joke work. I’m never starved for ideas. If I have writer’s block it’s because the jokes just aren’t working. I always say that whenever anything pisses me off, or I make someone laugh in conversation, I write those things down. Even if it’s just one line in conversation. One of the ways I write is similar to how Eminem supposedly writes songs. He writes lines that rhyme, whatever comes to him during the day. That’s kind of how I am with material. If it makes someone laugh, I can use that line for a joke I wrote three months ago. I’m never starved for that. It’s hard for me to write stuff onstage. It’s hard for me to just wing stuff. I can, I just feel like I’m wasting time. I hate my voice, so I hate hearing my voice, so I feel like I’m wasting they’re time if I’m talking for 20 seconds and they’re not laughing. I have to write everything down.
Is it strange being from before the age of social media comedy, and having to adapt to that, and put content out on Facebook or Twitter? Do you worry about that stuff at all?
I write short as is, I don’t really do stories. It may sound like a bit to someone, but it started out as a one-liner, then progressed to a two-minute bit. Facebook is where I get the most feedback. If I get 50 likes on something, I know that premise could work onstage at some point. Twitter… I have some followers but I don’t get enough feedback on Twitter to know what works on it. If anything, Twitter helps my editing, because I have to keep it to 140 characters. But I don’t have any feedback as to what works based off of Twitter. Facebook is what really works for me. And that’s also what helps if I can’t just throw ideas with someone, if I throw it out on Twitter, just a premise, and a bunch of people like it, I know I can build from that. And every now and again I’ll throw in an old joke that works onstage onto Facebook, to see if that many people like it again, just to figure out where the bar is. If somebody’s laughing at something written, the second you add inflection, it’s going to work. Plus, when I perform new stuff onstage, I’m really monotone with it, I really try a bare bones delivery. I don’t want the material to get laughs contingent on me bugging my eyes out, or doing an accent. That’s like seasoning I put on at the end. I want to make the dish first, just see if the words work.
You put on shows in Denton, at RT’s. You’ve been doing shows in McKinney. It still kinda surprises me that someone on your level will still take on booking shows like that.
It’s the whole bar show thing. Technically, I could do the show by myself, but I want to give people chances to perform. And I hope they get the same love for bar shows that I do. I love that idea. The weird thing about clubs is I’m at that point where they don’t care how funny I am, they care how many tickets I sell. That’s what ruins comedy for me. The Catch-22 is I’ve hit the ceiling for how far I can go on my own. If something pops viral… everything’s by chance now. If I end up cast on a show, or I end up on this, yeah, you go to the auditions, but it’s all chance at this point. They don’t give a shit how funny I am. That got me to the point where I could headline rooms, but that’s all I can control now. Just because I write 10 new minutes that are awesome — they already know I know what I’m doing. Now they’re worried about what’s going to separate you from this guy: “You don’t sell tickets? Neither does that guy, but I’ve known that guy for longer than you, so I’m gonna bring him in.” Or: “I can’t have three Indian comics this year, that’s too many.” It’s weird dynamics like that. They would never book me and Raj on back to back weeks, even though we’re totally different comics. That’s the weird thing about being Asian, specifically. I feel like because you have guys like Aziz and Russell that are so big and pull such a diverse audience. I know from my experience, if I headline any club out of state, or even in state, they judge my turnout based off how many brown faces are in the crowd. Even though most of my material has nothing to do with being brown, they can quantify it in their head. “OK, so only 10 brown people showed up, and the rest were from our genius club marketing.” People who aren’t brown can come watch a show, it’s totally fine. That’s what Aziz has, that’s what Russell has. But they’re also in theaters, so they can argue that. But at my level, it’s just, how many tickets are sold, and how can we quantify who actually came to see you, and who just popped in randomly. You have to look at it from their perspective: They see a black headliner come in, and mostly black people come to see a black headliner; mostly white people come to see a white headliner; mostly Hispanic people come to see a Hispanic headliner. But when you have an East Asian or South Asian, you rarely see 300 Indian people come in to see a show. Which, I don’t think they would like my show, anyway. They might like parts of it. I’d like to think my material’s universal enough to where it crosses over. I’m at that point where, the thing with bar shows is you don’t have to worry about the turnout, you don’t have to worry that only 30 people showed up, you just focus on your set, and making them laugh. As opposed to a club, I have to hear management telling me about how only 30 people showed up. Why am I hearing that stress? I have to go up and do my time anyway. And technically, that should be the club’s issue, to pull people in, because I’m getting a flat rate. If I could pull 300 people on a day’s notice, I wouldn’t be doing a club. I can get a space. I know you’re providing a space, but I can get one. Especially now, with the internet. People will show up here, at this coffee shop — they don’t care where it is. They’ll go to any space. If they want to see the person, they’ll show up. The idea of a comedy club isn’t exotic to people anymore. Where’s our favorite guy performing? Is he in a theater? In a coffee shop? Is he in the back of a warehouse? They’ll show up. Doug Stanhope is the perfect example of that. He’s in the back of a pool hall sometimes, and they’ll show up. He doesn’t need a comedy club logo behind him to validate what he’s doing. You see that at Backdoor. Even if 20 people show up, they’re not disappointed that they’re at Backdoor; they came to see a show. They don’t look at it like that. That’s another thing I love about Backdoor: Linda doesn’t give me stress about how only this many people showed up. She lets me focus on my craft, which is how it should be. Talk to me about it afterwards, but don’t make me feel stress about it when it’s your club. This isn’t just local, this is national. What are you doing all day to promote your club? If I could pull a thousand people in a weekend, I wouldn’t be there, and then you’d be mad that I wasn’t there. You can’t win. And I’m at that weird level where it’s what’s going to pop to get you to that next level? Or are you always going to deal with that stress?
What would you say to potential comedy fans in our scene to get them to come out and see more shows?
I’ve traveled enough to know most of the scenes. The cool thing about Dallas is that there’s no definitive style in the city. Everybody sounds completely different, everybody’s talking about different things. We’ve had big comics come out of here, but you go to certain cities, and they have a distinct style, and most of them pretty much copy the most famous comic to come out of that city. Here, no matter how successful comics from here have been in L.A., and they’ve been really successful, the comics here don’t sit here and copy what’s come before. Everybody here sounds completely different. A lot of that’s because of what Dean and Linda started, which is just to be true to who you are, and experiment, and be personal. I think every comic, whether they know it or not, adopts that style; it’s all about trying to be who they are. You see somebody trying to be different, and it’s almost cliché. I get it, everybody’s trying to be different. But if you just become who you are up there, which is what most of the Dallas comics are, it’s a lot less stress. It creates all these different perspectives. Every showcase I’ve ever seen, whether the comics kill it or not, nobody sounds the same. They delivery doesn’t sound the same, the topics are different. It’s rare that you see Dallas comics talk about anything topical, everybody’s talking about their own personal weird opinions, which is cool to see. You go to other cities, you’re going to see every comic doing Trump material. Comics here are seeing, “This guy’s talking about his life, and that guy’s talking about his life, and that girl’s talking about her life, so I should just talk about my life.” It’s the most unique city. I know other scenes can claim to be better, but they base that off of industry coming in, or off the numbers of successful people from that city, but just percentage-wise, because we have less comics here, the comics who’ve done really well from here, the percentage of that is way higher than any other city. The percentage is, what, a handful of people went to L.A. — 10 to 12 — and half of them are doing really well? The percentage of that is ridiculous. I think that a lot of that is because here we foster originality. Be who you are – you don’t have to be different, just be who you are. It always drives me nuts when I see comics going up onstage, trying to be a persona. It’s like, you can be who you are, nobody’s going to criticize you, you can talk about whatever you want. You can never be too offensive for the crowd. I’ve said way more offensive stuff onstage than people probably even know me for. The city knows what you give it, and I feel like this city specifically, because it’s not a performance-based city, you’ve really got to earn a laugh here. People leave here and go, “The city doesn’t get me.” That’s what it’s supposed to be! A crowd is not supposed to get you. Because they don’t know who you are, and they’re not supposed to know who you are, because nobody knows who you are. Plus, Dallas is a metropolitan city – it’s a transplant city. Everybody moves here for work. You’re getting people from Chicago, from New York, from L.A., from Houston, from San Francisco, so it’s a melting pot. People think this is a red state, but this is a blue city. People aren’t laughing not because they’re conservative, but because it’s not funny. I know this because I’m a brown guy doing jokes against conservatives in the city, and people don’t heckle me because of that. So if I can get away with it, if you’re not brown, and you’re worried about them being conservative, you’re not going through the same obstacles I had going up saying the stuff that I’m saying. It has nothing to do with the politics of the city, because the city’s not conservative at all. All the big cities in Texas are super liberal. This city, you really have to earn your laugh. They don’t laugh because they’re supportive; they’ve come to see something. It’s a great city to work on your set, to figure out what all the coasts laugh at, because there are so many transplants here. And if people argue against that, look at all the people in L.A. who’ve made it, that are making it and doing really well. They’re a testament to how the scene shaped them. And they’ll tell you how the scene shaped them.