photo: Mindy Tucker
Austin-born, NYC-based comedian Lucas Molandes has the veritable King Midas touch except with tarnish, a wonderfully pitch-dark after-afterglowing palette of gallows humor, languor, and self-deprecation. Whether discussing drinking, drugs, stage moms, or slave wages, there’s no escaping the pull of Molandes’ worldview. Even the inspirational children’s story character The Little Engine That Could is imagined well after its moment of glory has faded into lurid squalor. However, Molandes is also an ardent proponent of carpe diem even if his motivation is seemingly the horror of the golden years. Where some see middle-aged men behaving badly as a mid-life crisis, he hails a “mid-life revival.”
Lucas Molandes, who won the 2010 Funniest Person in Austin contest, is an exceptional talent who has reassessed his approach to stand-up comedy and who traffics in a personal and conversational earnestness teeming with insight and sharp observations. Sourcing his life as an open book makes for a thrilling live experience and is evocative of Marc Maron, who has twice championed Molandes as a guest on his WTF podcast. Lucas Molandes is unquestionably funny but as you’ll learn, he isn’t satisfied with simply making laughs. Comedy Moontower recently sat down with Lucas at the Cap City Comedy Club in advance of his much-anticipated and highly recommended Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival appearance.
Steve Birmingham: Can you tell me about your Catholic upbringing?
Lucas Molandes: At the time I don’t think it really registered that it was different. Because since then my parents haven’t gone to church in a long time and they were the ones who made us do the whole sit down and kneel and praying for an hour long and trying not to fall asleep and then going into church class, which I ended up getting kicked out of after eighth grade. I made a voodoo doll out of felt and I thought it was funny. And our teacher just had had enough of us. Yeah, so we got kicked out of church class and then my parents just stopped making me go to church. Just sort of gave up. I think they were like, “We tried.”
SB: Was the voodoo doll something you thought that was just fun to make or was it also kind of some measure of commentary on how you felt about being there?
LM: I don’t think it was commentary… I didn’t understand church and religion really in that way but I did understand being subversive and doing something just to mess with [people]. One of my favorite books is “Confederacy of Dunces” and where they talk about the guy who works in the bar. He’s sweeping the floor but he only sweeps the dirt in a line. So the dirt’s still there, it just looks cleaner. And so it’s just little things like that that I’ve always admired— people who do stuff that’s like giving the finger. That was my way of giving the church the finger. It’s like Tarzan. You can put him in a suit but he still wants to go back to the jungle. That’s how I feel.
SB: Did you ever go to confession?
LM: I did but when you’re seven you don’t really know how to confess anything other than the standard. They basically give you an outline for what you should talk about. Like, “Here’s the last time I went to confessional. I’ve sinned this many times and whoever is on the other side of the fence says, ‘Say your ten Hail Mary’s, then you’re good.’” I haven’t confessed in so long it’s probably like (on an emotional level) if I went to a dentist right now it’d just be a cavity ridden mouth. I wouldn’t even know what to confess. I wouldn’t know where to start.
SB: Do you feel to some degree though that you are doing that onstage?
LM: Yeah, I guess so… in the Catholic Church you talk to the priest and he’s the guy who communicates your sins to God and I think that’s kind of how it went. I never really got into it. My sister is super Catholic, I don’t know if the word is “orthodox.” She has six kids and all that stuff. I talk about it on stage a little bit. I feel like her version of church is a fear of something she did in her past. I mean she wasn’t that way and now she goes to church like it’s homeschooling her kids. I don’t know. She’s got something in her past that I think she feels guilty about and I think religion is her way of handling it instead of dealing with it on an actual intellectual level.
SB: Is she your only sibling?
LM: Yeah, I haven’t seen her in a couple years.
SB: Where are you originally from?
LM: I was born in Austin and then grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas, and then moved back here at seventeen. I graduated high school a year early just so I could move here earlier. I had had enough of living in a small town.
SB: When did you start hitting open mics or what was your entrée into stand-up?
LM: I’d always been a big fan of comedy. My dad had Bill Cosby albums lying around and I’d listen to them and I’d take his routines to school in 5th and 6th grade because his material is super clean and I’d quote it at school and I’d pretend it’s my material. Then I started watching Conan O’Brien in ’92 or ’93 when he first started coming on. I would stay up and watch him and tell his jokes at school. And then I moved back here in ’97. And Charlie Sotelo (who books SXSW Comedy) had a TV show called The Show with No Name. He’d put up these bootleg clips of comedians. So I got to see actual…
SB: Bill Hicks.
LM: Yeah, Bill Hicks, Dave Attell, and probably Louis C.K. Like the first tapes of people doing open mics; early clips that showed me that comedy wasn’t what you saw on Comedy Central or late night television— which is a very clean tight five minutes.
SB: And when did you first start hitting open mics?
LM: In 2004. I was going to summer school. I was doing some engineering algebra— calculus or something. I was sitting on the bus one day because it was just one class and I had to commute by bus. I would just sit there and write all these things. “What am I going to do with all this material?” And I realized the only thing that ever kept me from being a comedian was like, “I don’t know how to write material. I don’t know how to be funny.” And that stuff probably wasn’t even funny but it was enough to make me be like, “I got to get on stage.” And I looked up the Velveeta Room and they had open mic, the notorious open mic. I was like, “Shit, I don’t know what to expect.” Then I went there for a month before I actually got on stage for the first time. And I went up last and did three minutes and completely forgot everything I’d written down. I thought, “I’ll just memorize it and go up on stage,” and the light hits you. I don’t know if you’ve ever been onstage but it’s like being bathed in amniotic fluid, like things floating, and you can’t see the people. It’s just a very otherworldly experience the first time. And then I think like literally a week later I dropped out of college because I thought, “Okay, I found my calling.”
SB: And where was college?
SB: So despite forgetting your prepared material, that first experience definitely made you feel like, “Okay, this is my calling”?
LM: Yeah. I didn’t drink at all. I just sat there and watched the entire [show]; it was about two and a half hours before I got on stage. And as soon as I got on there, like I said, I forgot everything and I started talking about stuff and trying to bail myself out of a set that I had planned on doing. And it got laughs. There were only two or three comics in the room at that point (it was like 1:30 at night). I got on stage and a couple people told me I did well. Then I walked back to my car and I felt like I was floating, like you see Dracula floating. I realized I was really high off just doing that one set for three minutes in front of four people and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since [laughs].
SB: Need more and more to match that first taste. I’m kidding.
LM: Yeah, my dad high-fived me when I told him I dropped out of college to do comedy.
SB: Honestly? That’s so excellent.
LM: One of my most proud moments was him high-fiving me. I think he wanted to do comedy when he was a kid. He grew up in Nacogdoches, which is where my grandparents lived so we went back to be with them until they passed away. Then we stayed there like another thirteen years. But he had been in a talent show at his school. He wrote his own comedy set. He was a big Bill Cosby fan even back then and he would listen to whoever was on the radio and he wrote his own set. And some kid came in and did another popular comedy act that was going around at that time verbatim. And my dad lost to that kid and I think he lost his aspirations to be a comedian. But he was like twelve years old at the time.
SB: That’s so cool that your folks supported you. Can you talk about the period when you’re starting to hit open mics and then if you were working at Macy’s at the time? What was the period between starting out and getting to where…?
LM: Becoming part of the regular scene? I think there were two angles to this. I was 24 at the time and I had been in a relationship for four years. And the life I’d had, everything leading up to that point was very specific to a particular way of life. You go to school, you get a job, and all that stuff. I was going to college to get the good job and hopefully make good money and live with my girlfriend and maybe get married and so on. I did comedy that one time and everything else became irrelevant up to that point in my life. The relationship suffered horribly for three years because we ate our feelings. We’d go out to eat every day because it was either that or just sit in silence and eating out helped get rid of that. So pretty much everything just fell off. She and I didn’t have the emotional or intellectual ability to say, “Well, this isn’t working. We should probably break up.” It became more like, “Well, we’ve been together this long, we have to stay together. Our families are going to think this and that. We’d always had holidays together.” And rather than just break up, it just went horribly wrong. And then college stopped. I was working at a place called Garden Ridge in South Austin and I was a cashier. Then I worked in data entry, which I preferred because I don’t really deal with people very well. I mean, at a customer service level. At Garden Ridge you shouldn’t be here in the first place. This store could close down today and your life would not be any worse. And I’m like, “You want to come in and complain that the silk flowers weren’t up to speed? Go fuck yourself.” And then you start looking at everybody with the initial attitude of “go fuck yourself,” even if they’re sweet people and that’s not how I want to view humanity. So I sat in the back and pretended I was working.
SB: To what degree did performing stand-up afford some sense of hope or positivity while having a sell-your-time-for-a-wage job? As you know, musicians, all sorts of creative types, may have a crappy day job but that’s not how they identify themselves. They have this other endeavor but until you get some traction with that creative endeavor… how was that?
LM: It didn’t give me a sense of hope because I didn’t know any better but the novelty of comedy gave me a sense of, “This is cool, it’s still cool. I’m having fun.” When you sign up at the Velveeta open mic you go last the first couple weeks. And then you get your first good spot and you’re like, “Ah shit, I have to bring my “A” game because there’s still going to be a crowd when I go up.” That’s kind of how you get into the scene. You just show up and show up enough until eventually you’re funny. It’s a meritocracy but you also get grandfathered in after a while. So, I was moving up that way. I was asked to host a week or do a guest spot, a seven minute spot on a Friday. I was super high. I remember calling my girlfriend and saying, “Oh my god, it’s coming true. We’re going to make it.” Sort of like Johnny Cash in that movie Walk the Line, when he finally gets a record deal— that’s how I felt. Now I do guest spots whenever I want, it’s not the same. I don’t even know what would make me happy at this point comedy-wise. I mean, I do— having a steady career right now in comedy. But yeah, I moved up that way. There were progressions. There was a way to judge that you’ve moved forward so that was enough for me to be like, “I got a day job but I’m having fun and I’m really enjoying life now.” It doesn’t matter what you do for money as long as you enjoy your life. Now, I’m kind of stuck in this pattern where it’s like having a job is more like, “Am I just going to be in this pattern for the rest of my life where I have a day job and kind of do comedy?” It’s just weird because the reality of my world doesn’t really apply to the reality of most people’s worlds, which is you have stability in your world and you work 9 to 5 or you work some steady job where you get a paycheck at the end of the week or the end of two weeks, however long. And I get paid every once in a while; it’s a freelance lifestyle. I can’t punch in anywhere and say, “I’m a comic now.” I’m a full-time comic now but I can’t prove it to people because they’re like, “Well that’s what you do in life. You get a paycheck every week. Just get a new paycheck, pay your bills and that’s how it works.” But I’m like, “You have tools and you have a job that specifies what your life is.” Whereas the only tool I have is a crippling sense of anxiety and a sense of maybe I shouldn’t have dropped out of college [laughs]. That’s the only tool I have to make my job work.
photo: Cassie Wright
SB: I believe your Leap Year and March 1st performances, that these two dates are the second time being a headliner here [at Cap City Comedy Club]?
SB: And in all sincerity, you are a headliner with really outstanding material. And I don’t mean this question to be a Catch-22 for you to have to impart braggadocio or modesty but I see you as a unique and gifted headliner, rightfully earned. But do you have a sense that being a touring headliner is right within reach? This question is kind of shitty but do you know what I mean?
LM: That’s the tough thing because I understand I can stand onstage for an hour and make people laugh and it’ll be a fun show. But that doesn’t mean anything, really, in comedy. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t talented who have somehow figured out how to put on a blazer and smile and give people what they want and then they stand around after the show and hand out business cards. I don’t know if that’s what it takes to get more gigs. I don’t understand if there is a formula but if there were I probably wouldn’t want to do it because I don’t want to do the formula. I don’t want to follow someone else’s success. Just because I headlined here doesn’t really mean anything. It’s only currency in this town. You can’t spend it anywhere else. It might be cool for a while. But in New York, nobody cares that I headlined a club here (and not that they should). There’s just a specific set of currency tools there— like if you’re doing a late night show, if you’re a writer for something, or if you have a really fun show that sells out every week or every two weeks. That’s the stuff that works there. And so maybe if you have that stuff, you get in with headliners in New York who can take you on the road; that’s how it started here with me. I knew a bunch of comics who were already touring like Matt Sadler, JR Brow, and Matt Bearden. And these guys were headlining and they were like, “Hey I got a one-nighter, you want to come and feature?” So I would go to Texarkana, Arkansas, and realize half my set didn’t work. And that would cause me to tweak it and figure out how to make it broader and then the next time I did that town (or the next night I would do another one-nighter) it would be better. I would be able to relate to people and show them that I don’t have Austin humor— I have humor. But I don’t know how to sell that to people who book clubs. I don’t know how to say, “I’ve been on television.” I’ve lied to club owners, “Hey, I’ve been on Conan O’Brien, blah, blah,” and no response. Nobody gives a shit. You have to have management or something or an agent that gets that gig.
SB: It’s awesome Comedy Central rightly put you on Live at Gotham to be seen and have video to show but did you feel a tangible benefit from that?
LM: I would have if I hadn’t stopped doing comedy immediately after [laughs].
SB: After winning the Funniest Person in Austin Contest in 2010, which was the 25th year of that contest, did you then go on an East Coast tour with Bryson Turner? And was it also with a couple other guys?
LM: Yeah, the contest ended in May and I did the tour starting in August through October. We went at the late end of August, did September, and then got back to Austin on October 16th or so. Then the local guys [Matt Bearden, Bryan Gutmann, Martha Kelly, Eric Krug, Bryson Turner plus Lucas] recorded the podcast with Marc Maron [WTF Episode #120]. That was kind of the highlight, crescendo or whatever. And yeah the tour was Bryson Turner, a guy named Jason Marcus out of Boston and then M. Dickson. Her name is Emily Dickson but she goes by “M” because people always call her Emily Dickinson.
SB: What was the name of the tour?
LM: The Quarter Life Crisis Tour.
SB: And how was that put together?
LM: M set it up. M and Bryson had met, I think, in North Carolina at a festival. They set it up. And Jason out of Boston was able to get a couple gigs together. And Bryson put a couple gigs together and M put a couple gigs together. And it all worked out that they all kind of fell into this. I was standing outside the Velveeta and Bryson was like, “Hey come over here. Let’s talk for a second. We’re doing this tour. We think you’d be perfect for it. You would be kind of like the voice.” I was the oldest one on tour. I was 30. Quarter Life Crisis is like 20’ to 30’s. And I feel like in a lot of ways that tour broke me but also rebuilt me because we would stay up driving for 30 hours at a time. We did a 24-hour straight drive. No sleep and that would happen every night. We’d have to go to the next town. We’d leave after a show or get like maybe four hours of sleep, drive all night and watch the sun go down and come right back up. We’d hang out in the lobby of the hotel until 11:00 A.M. when they’d start getting new people in for the day or you can get rooms at 11:00 in the morning of whatever. After so many nights of sleeplessness, something happens and everyday blurs into the next. It’s like a photograph with multiple exposures. You can’t remember what happened on what day. And something happened in my head, I think, where all my material started getting smeared together and I hit a certain level like, “I don’t need to make people laugh anymore. I just want to start talking.” All this weird artistic bullshit went through my head.
SB: I wouldn’t call that bullshit. Was that tour at more traditional venues, like traditional comedy clubs, or was it a mix?
LM: We did two comedy clubs, the Improv in DC and one that’s no longer around called Comix in New York. The rest of them were little theaters, like little black boxes, 25 to 100 seaters.
SB: I kind of stepped on your previous comment. When you’re onstage, I view you now as having a conversation with the audience. And you seem comfortable with a pause of any length and also with letting audiences get quiet. Do you feel like that is true or am I misreading?
LM: I think it’s context specific. At Cap City, for example, silence means people are paying attention. If you’re doing a bar show silence can quickly turn into just chatter. So you’re pacing has to be different. I think as a comedian (if you’ve been doing it for a little while) you think all silence is bad. Here it’s just nuanced. There are different types of silence. Like Eskimo snow, it’s just different words for silence. Like this is a good silence, you’re in control. As long as you don’t give up control of the room, the room is yours. I have seen people stand up onstage and be silent and get laughs from it because it makes people uncomfortable and it’s another tool you have. You can make people uncomfortable and make them laugh at things they’re not expecting to laugh at. And you’re in control. It’s like a weird sort of torture. Every comedy show is you emotionally torturing the audience. But instead of making them cry you’re making them laugh.
SB: I especially like comedians whose material is dark. I hate to throw out the word “taboo” but you do delve into edgy stuff like drugs and guys who are into underage girls (but in a funny, insightful fashion and not one of advocacy). And you are ribald at times but I’m not suggesting this stuff plays as intentionally “shocking.” But to what degree are you consciously thinking, “Oh, this subject might get this reaction?”
LM: Right, then what is the motivation if it’s not to shock? Why pick taboo subjects if you’re not trying to shock people?
SB: What do you think?
LM: First of all, I feel like there’s no topic you can’t talk about on stage. And I think people get trained to react before thinking a lot of times. So when I talk about underage sex, for example, to me it’s a great challenge to talk about this in a way people will accept. Just accept and not judge immediately. I think if I’ve got the audience on my side then I’m doing something right on another level. Anybody can tell jokes but not everybody can be likable. And in the hands of the wrong person, my material would probably come across as hateful or just very suspect. In my hands however it’s honest for me. It’s how I look at the world. So a taboo subject is a good way to gauge whether the audience likes you or not or if you’re approaching the subject the right way. Left and right politics only exist to define itself as left and right politics. In reality, when we’re standing in an elevator, nobody is going to be like, “Fuck that guy, he’s a leftist whatever.” It’s trying to take that immediate knee-jerk power out of people’s hands and replace it. If I can train you to think for yourself while I’m onstage so that you can relate to me, then there’s nothing we’re going to talk about that’s going to be offensive. The more offensive thing would be if I sold you guys out by giving you stupid material. To me, that’s more offensive— throwing people’s intelligence under the bus for 45 minutes and then coming out and posing with them. Like, “Yeah, I’m a great comic and I got business cards.” There’s a weird sociopathic nature to that.
SB: Let’s go back to that tour where you made the conscious or subconscious decision to speak more honestly about the things going on in your life and your willingness to come at this from the way you want to come at it.
LM: I think the impetus for that was probably from dropping out of college; it was like, “Well, I’m choosing this.” So if I don’t do it the way that makes sense for me than why did I drop out of college? If I’m doing something that anybody can do then I’m not doing what I want to do. The first time I ever felt alive was doing comedy. So why would I shit on that? Why would I not do what I want to do? But on the tour (and like I was saying about the fact we were staying up so many hours) there was that element of when you drink to be onstage to get comfortable with the crowd and you sort of break down that wall between you and them because sometimes if you go to a comedy show, you’ll watch comedians who just stare at the back of the room the whole time. They don’t really acknowledge the crowd. Something about that not sleeping and being sleep deprived and going immediately to do a show, the wall was already torn down. When every day feels like the last and you can’t tell when this day started and the last one ended, you don’t really see yourself as different from the crowd anymore. When I say “the artistic bullshit,” how do you translate a general sense of “We’re all here together, let’s acknowledge this,” into funny? Artistry is great but it also has to have skilled hands to pull it off. And so I think early on, at that point, I just got comfortable throwing everything to the wall to see what it was that I was actually trying to say and do. I don’t know, I just felt delirious half the time anyway. There might have been some delirium in there, some sort of weird PTSD that comes from driving 16 hours. I don’t know.
SB: It’s certainly a heightened, altered state of mind where you’re kind of floaty from long distance driving.
LM: And your ego breaks down, too. To go back to the torture thing, people who are tortured eventually just break and they tell you whatever you want them to tell you. After that many hours on the road, you just break and you just tell people exactly what you want to tell them. There’s no ego at that point, you can sit in the silences a little bit more. You’re not so dependent on something having to happen right now because with 16 hours in the car you don’t skip songs. You’re going to listen to every CD you have at least four times so don’t skip songs. It’s like the same thing. Just enjoy the length of things. I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s happening now [laughs].
SB: [Laughs]. It’s all good. I think it’s a real feat to pull off being confessional and conversational. But then too, a lot of times you’ll make an astute observation that by design in and of itself wasn’t going for a big laugh or designed to be a punchline, which is not to say you’re not up there garnering laughs throughout the whole show. They might lead to something or be a transition, but am I off-base?
LM: Those are scary; the ones that get laughs. I say this thing, “I’m 32, it’s not old but it’s the oldest I’ve ever been.” And that gets a laugh. I never understood why that gets a laugh. But I’ll keep telling it but that’s what’s scary when you don’t understand why something’s funny because it’s like I’m in control of this, right? And that’s the scary part about going into taboo topics. So for example, I might one day have (if I haven’t checked in with myself) like a Rush Limbaugh opinion where suddenly everyone is turning against me. People [would be] like, “Wow, you really just got racist on that one.” And “Nah, it’s a point I’m trying to make.” Like, “No, you actually just said something horrible and you don’t realize it.” And I think that’s what racism or ignorance is: You don’t realize you’re doing something insane. It’s a danger of picking certain topics because you’ll be like, “No, the point is it’s okay to set your house on fire after you kill your kids because of this.”
SB: Okay, comedians are rightly loathe to describe their style but your style strikes me as not neurotic but that you have a “Hello darkness, my old friend” flavor where, for example, in the grief loop, if it’s like denial, anger, bargaining, then acceptance— it seems like a nice portion of your set is coming from this kind of dark acceptance of things.
LM: [Laughs] That’s funny, I hadn’t thought about that. I got the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival. And I’ll probably never get it again because the person I was for the first couple years of comedy was the guy who had something to prove on a comedic level, like on a peer level. I was driven to be considered funny and I wanted my friends to think I was funny and I wanted to be working here. Then 2007 came, the relationship had ended, and I met somebody else. I had never really been in stupid love. I hadn’t been in high school love. Like all the things you do in high school, playing the boom box over your head in front of her. I had never gone through that. I just never thought there was ever going to be that or it didn’t even dawn on me that it actually existed. It was almost TV-like and then went really bad, really quickly.
SB: And what went really bad? The style you were doing?
LM: At the time, the material I was doing was not like set up-punch, but catered more toward seven-minute sets of tight material and less rambly. Then I met the girl and it was like immediate infatuation. We both were doing stupid teenage stuff together. And then that fell apart. It was the first time I realized that things don’t have to work out. Just because you really want something doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. And no matter how much you cry or beg or plead, it’s not going to change anything. So I pretty much quit comedy after that. I just didn’t have it in me. Nothing felt funny to me anymore. I feel like I’m a pretty good conduit for what I’m feeling. If I’m feeling in a good mood, all my material would be a different way than if I were in a bad mood. And when you just feel that level of despair and sadness, I’m going to ruin whatever reputation I do have by just going up there and being sad all the time. It might be fun but it’ll be fun in the way you see severed heads on the side of the road after a car crash. You stare at it but it’s more rubbernecking comedy at that point… That was September 2007 when I quit. And that’s when everything I had been working towards started taking off. I’d gotten Montreal. I took 2nd place in an NBC “Stand Up for Diversity” showcase. They flew us out to LA. I got Live at Gotham a few months later on Comedy Central and I moved to New York. And I hadn’t been on stage for like three weeks when I did the Gotham. All the things I had worked for were now not even important.
SB: And when did you move back to New York?
LM: I moved there in May of 2011. I’ve been gone from Austin pretty much except I came back to record a CD on October 21st and 22nd 2011, at the Velveeta Room.
SB: Cool. Is somebody like Stand Up! Records putting that out?
LM: Yeah, Stand Up! Records, [label president] Dan Schlissel is a good guy
SB: For sure. You spoke about drinking since you’ve been back performing in Austin. I heard this is a common thing from people who move here from other cities that have an established scene or from people who move from here to LA or wherever; they realize that the Austin comedy scene has a fairly inherent…
LM: A drinking problem? [Laughs]
SB: What are your thoughts? Do you find that to be true?
LM: I flew in on a Thursday. Got in like at 12:30 at night and my friend Ryan drove me and [NYC-based comedian] Brooke [Van Poppelen] directly to a bar called Bender Bar & Grill on [State Highway] 71. We immediately went to the bar, squeezed in as many shots as we could. And we drank on the plane. I don’t like to fly, so I drink anyways. Then after two drinks you’re like, “We should have another drink.” I feel like now I just perform to justify drinking. It’s not that bad. The thing is I’m not a bad drinker. I know how to handle myself. That’s actually the other problem when I started doing comedy (added to just having the dilemma of being 24 years old and doing comedy for the first time)— drinking heavily for the first time, too. I drank before but never at the level comedy pulls out of you. And so all your feelings become distorted and you don’t know how to respond to them anymore. You don’t know which ones you should trust. I was out every night until 2:30 or 3:00 drinking and hanging out with people that I wanted to impress. That probably created the biggest hurdle.
SB: You commented that it’s less expensive to buy a bottle of beer here.
SB: Do you think the fact that there’s this sort of drinking/party element to what is an exceptionally great comedy scene— is that somewhat from it being quote unquote less of an industry town? Or do you think it’s just a tighter knit community here or it’s just Austin’s kind of a, “Hey, let’s have fun” town?
LM: It’s hard to say because I know in New York I can’t afford to drink every night there. And I don’t have to drink to perform. I enjoy it and I’m actually better when I don’t drink because I don’t slur as much. I paid $7 for a Corona in New York the day before we flew out. And the next night, I probably spent maybe $4 on three drinks. It’s a very enabling town. There’s a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn here! [Laughs]. He woke up every day and supposedly had coffee with whiskey or something in it. I mean that’s when you know. That’s a bad sign. There are guitars all around the city painted different colors. This city’s built around drinking, I think. The culture’s very strong here.
SB: And that’s how live entertainment largely makes its money.
LM: We did a show in a place called Kick Butt Coffee last night. I mean the people working there may not like our comedy, they may not think we’re funny. But the fact is we come in, we buy beers, and we tip. It’s a Wednesday night, which is traditionally a slow night. So it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship because coffee drinkers probably don’t tip. They tip maybe change. But I tip a dollar for every beer I buy, gladly. So what should be a slow night is great. Then we take our act to the next show and we do it there and we drink some more. And like I said, I don’t know which one we’re actually doing, comedy or drinking? But I don’t think it hurts the scene. I think what hurts the scene is, yeah, maybe there isn’t industry and so every day is Casual Friday in Austin. There’s no like “You got to get dressed up!” But I think the lack of industry creates a lack of ego in this city. When you have industry you’re always threatened by… your successes are defined by what somebody else’s failures are. Like, if somebody didn’t get something then you might have a better chance of getting it— so you kind of root for everybody to fail. On some small level you’re always like, “Why are they always picking that person to do that? I could be that person. Nobody ever looks at me.” You don’t have that here. Only once or twice a year you do. Everybody’s friendly. If you’re around during the [FPIA] contests, watch the comics. They’re definitely changed. They’re friendly and they love each other but everybody’s threatened by who’s going to win it this year. “That guy wasn’t as funny.” “I didn’t get advanced.”
SB: Well the FPIA contest has become this colossal thing. Everyone brings his or her “A” game.
LM: Hopefully [laughs]. There’s some train wrecks.
SB: [Laughs] There’s some whittling down. It’s a long process.
SB: You also half-kiddingly noted from the stage, “I get paid in alcohol.” [Laughs] I mean, not exclusively.
LM: [Laughs] Yeah, there’s a little bit of money.
SB: …You’re not wheeling a keg home but that is a factor with performing.
LM: Last night we also did a show at a place called Nasty’s. It was after the Kick Butt show. And the guy who put it together comes out with two pitchers of beer. “Here you go everybody.” Everybody who did the show got a free glass of beer.
SB: Austin is a comedy town— from the audiences, the media support, to our talent, to Out of Bounds, the New Movement, ColdTowne, SXSW, and now with the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. I think because everyone’s not going to a commercial or sitcom pilot audition every day; there might be more of a sense of stand-up as the end game in and of itself or at least not inherently a steppingstone. There are certainly a lot of examples where a comedy or music scene flourishes and does really creative things when they’re insular (for lack of a better word).
LM: I compare it to a New Zealand platypus that has the duckbill and lays eggs. That’s how a lot of comics are here. It’s interesting but what do you do with it? I don’t understand how to market this as a thing. The scene is insulated and there’s definitely freedom to grow here. The currency here is being funny and being creative. It’s not like what you have done. But in another way, I don’t think I would have gotten Montreal if I were living in New York when I did the auditions. I don’t think I would have gotten Gotham (maybe I would have). I might have been more driven if I had started there. But all the things that motivated me here would have existed there just in a different light. I would have been doing shows…or there might have been an industry or management who would have known me for years. But the thing is if you’re in Austin, you’re always the new guy who comes out of nowhere to get those spots. It’s a very great way to standout living here. But it’s also limited because there is a ceiling. And it depends on what you want to do. For me, I would love to be on the road and live in Austin. But I can’t even get on the road and I don’t know what the steps are, like I’ve said before. All the comics I enjoy have been on TV at least once. That’s where New York comes in handy but I feel like I’m too damaged to be on television. I’m not going to be on a sitcom.
SB: Despite all of his Letterman appearances and his special genius, Bill Hicks was embraced by Europe well before America started to catch on. For Doug Stanhope, touring and not so much TV (The Man Show notwithstanding), I think, afforded him the space to do his…
LM: I think it brought bigger audiences to see Stanhope. It may not have been the people who he wanted to come see him but he then was able to reach out to the few people that did stick around and became that new fan base of his. What he’s done is pretty amazing. He’s figured out how to, for lack of a better word, market his image and his persona to people who need that. I think he offers a very good service to society right now but he also has a very bleak point of view, as you were saying— the perpetual state of accepting the darkness. Look at what Bill Hicks did and everybody thinks about how great he was. Look at what Jon Stewart is doing on a nightly basis. And has the world changed? I mean at the end of the day then it comes down to them being able to sleep at night. So no matter how much you try to change people or try to change the world, it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. And what direction is it heading in and how are we helping that?
SB: I’m just wondering as an exercise… I can’t think of a name for what I would call your style of humor but it seems to hinge on the notion of the reality of how shitty life can be sometimes (first world shitty, needless to say). Your stage presence isn’t dour despite trading in darker material. But there’s this awareness of, I guess, the reality of how messed up things can be. And I don’t know that that’s a named genre? You know what I mean? But, why am I feeling a need to label something is a great question for me to ask myself. But somebody with your intellect or goals, working crappy retail back when…
LM: I’ve been told I work in retail because there’s some mental disorder where you work lower jobs so you can feel better. Like if you have a bad job and you’re, “This place would crumble without me.” [Laughs] You can tell yourself that all day long and have a great feeling.
SB: Well, put it this way though, I don’t feel like you’re pining to sit in a cubicle looking at Excel spreadsheets all day.
SB: I feel like you are charting your own path. It’s a more difficult path but perhaps more rewarding eventually, if not now.
LM: My goal is two-fold when it comes to the audience. I want people to laugh at me and I want them to think, “Wow, he [really] said something.” It’s the reason comedians do comedy: to be liked and to be appreciated on some level. But you don’t want to be appreciated by people who don’t know why they like the things they like. And in my bits I try my hardest to do this, I try to show people that there is power and small victories in life— even the bad things. There was a comedian last night who stopped in the middle of his set and he said, “I don’t like who I am as a person,” and it got the biggest laugh. It was just this very sincere and honest moment. But it was the way he said it. And in AA that would be somebody talking about the worst thing in their life. Last night it was the funniest thing ever. How do we take these things that are supposedly bad and make them into small victories? Because everybody has things they deny but it’s like why do you deny them? They can be good if you frame them the right way. So I try to frame things the right way.
SB: Would you indulge me with your joke about Goths who wear black?
LM: Yeah, the back-story was that I was being shown around Macy’s the first day and I just remembered everyone was wearing these nice uniforms and how sad they looked. As I’ve gotten older there’s far worse things to wear than black to express how depressed you are. Try wearing a confetti color polo as part of the required uniform at Red Lobster. How’s that not more depressing? At least black is slimming.
SB: [Laughs] Classic Rumplestiltskin!
LM: When you’re a kid you’re told to wear nice clothes to church. And as you get older you realize nice clothes don’t represent anything spiritual. They represent you being oppressed in a lot of ways. The best jobs in the world are the jobs where you can wear whatever you want. I think it’s the best life, too.
SB: Where are you at now with your feelings about living in New York?
LM: Eric Krug, a good friend of mine, asked, “How’s New York treating you?” I told him, “I live there and I tell jokes. That’s about it.” And then I’ve heard it said better: Whether you’re moving slow or fast, the goal is to keep moving. But then again the problem I have with New York is I don’t feel the desire to impress people there. Like crowds, yes, but you don’t perform for crowds very often. You perform for tons of other comics because they’re the only ones who come out to the shows. Very few shows have actual followings. And I’ve already gone through that phase of wanting to impress peers and stuff. And I got credits and, to me, the best thing is writing a funny joke and writing something I’m proud to talk about onstage. But I don’t have to live anywhere to do that. I’ve got my point of view regardless. I think the only thing is running the risk of becoming bitter and I don’t want that to happen because that’s when you start doing the racist jokes and you think you’re funny.
SB: I don’t think you’re in danger of getting anywhere near that point. Your second appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast…
LM: I haven’t listened to that.
SB: It was different. You weren’t in his garage; y’all were on the road.
SB: I believe I recently heard that his podcasts have been downloaded at least over 40 million times. Did you have a palpable sense of that exposure after [Episode #198] was available? Did the phone ring a little more?
LM: I don’t think so. I mean, I can’t speak for how Maron feels but I think he did the podcast just for something to do. And then the phone started ringing after [a while] because people were downloading it. He’s a great interviewer. He gets interesting people. Comics in general are very fruitful. They have a lot of great stories and insights, stuff they’ll never say onstage but just as important or maybe more so…
SB: [Laughing] Tell me a great story.
LM: [Laughs] But It took him a while for people to pay attention. The podcast episode came and went. I was on the same week as Andrew Dice Clay. The day it came out I was doing an open mic at a comedy club called the EastVille Comedy Club in New York. I’m doing an open mic and I posted it on Facebook. “You heard me on WTF, now you can catch me at open mic today. Free show.” And then Maron texted me, “Are you actually at an open mic?” “Yeah, I’m here right now.”
SB: People genuinely cheered for you when you won the FPIA. Do you get a sense that Austin’s rooting for you? Or, to paraphrase, our warm wishes and smiles aren’t really paying your bills.
LM: Right, it’s hard to say because I promoted this show all week at Nasty’s. And you know we got there and we had a good crowd. In a month, if I stayed here, this would not happen again. People are good at promoting their comedy as a model or something and I don’t understand how that works. I don’t understand how people get followings. I don’t understand if what I’m saying is sort of one of those things like, “Yeah, we saw him. We don’t need to see him again…” I was thinking about the set, Thursday last week, I think I opened it up by doing a joke about killing myself [laughing] or like trying to convince people to kill themselves.
SB: Refresh my memory. You did the joke here [on March 1st] about what we’ve done with having to pay a parking meter until midnight and then blowing your brains out as an act of protest so a jorts-wearing meter maid would at least have to clean his uniform. Was there a different suicide joke?
LM: No, that was pretty much it. It’s like, yeah, the next time you come back to your car and it doesn’t have tickets on it: You’re welcome. That’s my contribution. Now that’s how I made your life better. I say, “Just pay it forward, good karma.”
SB: Not that’s just material and not a signal, right? Buddy? Pal?
LM: Yeah, that’s the funny thing. It’s like, is it? No [laughs]. That’s one of those things that’s not really that sad. It’s sad but, yeah, I don’t know, I’m not there yet.
SB: Didn’t George Carlin’s do like 20 minutes on suicide on his last HBO special? Some people tuned out but I loved that George Carlin could be so dark.
LM: Yeah, he was a bleak guy, too. He didn’t see humanity as being anything beyond the time between living and dying. I mean people die so dumb anyways. If there were like honorable death in the world, maybe it would feel more important to live? If people died more doing what they loved, maybe our lives would mean more.
SB: You have a line saying what comedy feels like which slew me. Is it still kind of the case for how you feel right now?
LM: Yeah, comedy is like the first time you ask your girlfriend to watch you jerk off. Like, “She’s going to be into this.” And you look up and she’s not happy. Not even at all. “Well there’s 45 minutes of my life I can’t get back.” I feel that way sometimes. I wrote that line one night as a way to save a joke that didn’t work. I was like, “Yeah, you’re going to love this bit,” and then people are like “Why is this guy doing this?” You know, “You might as well just be like a homeless man on a bus jerking off.” Like, “Why is he doing that?” Oh, I guess I’m being self-indulgent. But I think that’s the thing, too. I feel like masturbation isn’t as fun when you get older [laughs]. So, it’s like I don’t want to do this as much as you don’t want to see it. It’s like you see people in a centrifuge and they spin and throw up. That’s how it feels. Why would I subject you to that? It is a way to save a joke. I don’t feel that way too often though. I feel like I’ve gotten better at explaining my point of view in a way that is relatable. If not, they don’t cry at the end of it at least.
Lucas Molandes is Marc Maron’s special guest at The Mohawk on Thursday, April 26, 2012.
Doors at 8pm / Show at 9pm.
Stay tuned for other appearances and announcements.
To purchase tickets for individual performances as well as festival badges ($129) and VIP badges ($799), go to www.moontowercomedyfestival.com. You can also get them at the Paramount Theatre box office or by calling 512-474-1221. The box office is open Monday – Saturday 12pm – 5:30pm and is closed on Sundays.