The Polish stand-up scene is like a kid who struggles to eat with a spoon. When he’s two years old, it’s cute, but when he’s 12, it’s a sign of serious mental problems. That’s why when I wanted to delve behind the scenes of the world of stand-up comedy, I looked for someone who knows his craft. Meet Charley McMullen, a succesful Colorado stand-up comedian and the author of comedy album Zen as Fuck.
Michal Puczynski: I’ve listened to your Zen as Fuck album and I know Charley McMullen the comedian, but I want to know the person you are after you leave the stage. If there’s one thing Louis C.K. has been trying to tell us, it’s that stand up comedians aren’t as funny and happy as they seem. So, are you a funny guy in general, or are just a funny comedian?
Charley McMullen: First off, I should establish right outta the gate that self-perception has always been an issue with me. It’s something I continue to work on, but it’s possible I could be completely wrong in answering questions about myself. That’s just how I’m wired.
Am I a funny guy in regular life? I try to be. Being funny has always been the best way for me to make a good first impression with people. I’m very entertaining to my wife’s relatives at barbecues and birthday parties. My daughter’s friends tell her I’m funny after seeing me on YouTube. At best, I’d like to think I’m what’s called a „comic’s comic” -the comedian who can make the other comedians laugh, based on what my friends tell me. On some nights, what happens on stage doesn’t have shit on what happens after the show when 6 comedians are standing around a cold bar patio, passing a joint, trying to make each other laugh.
I can never gauge how funny I’m being at any given time, though. If you can be a quick smart ass without being mean about it, you’re a funny dude. In my day-to-day life, I’ve worked a lot of otherwise unbearable jobs where it makes the day easier if someone can make you laugh. It takes me a while to get there, though, because I start off really quiet and introverted when I meet new people, like when I start a new job or something. A lot of people tell me „I thought you were so creepy when I first met you, but you’re hilarious!” after a couple weeks.
Louis CK is right that it isn’t uncommon for the unhappiest people to turn out to be the best comics. There are a lot of reasons for that and everyone has their own. I guess, for me, making other people happy can make me feel a little better about myself. There’s no quicker, more instantly-gratifying way to make complete strangers happy than by telling them jokes. Plus, people with problems want to laugh at those problems. I -just as a typical, geeky American with a moderate amount of daily stress- am way more likely to relate to material about depression and social akwardness than material about love and confidence, you know? I think depression is a lot more common, but nowhere near as debilitating, than people think.
MP: How does one become a stand up comedian? I don’t suppose it’s a sudden idea: hey, I should try comedy now. When did you realize you want to do stand up?
CMc: The „why” is different for everyone. I just always got a charge out of making people laugh. When I was growing up I would watch and record hour-long comedy specials on HBO and watch them all over and over again. My favorites were Richard Pryor: Here and Now, Robin Williams: Live at the Met and George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York. Carlin, especially, had some of the greatest moments in the history of American comedy on HBO. I wanted to be liked by people the way I was liking those guys.
I never thought about doing stand up until I was 16 and my dad had gotten us tickets to see George Carlin when he toured through Colorado. We were sitting third row center. That remains the best show I’ve ever seen. The way it felt to be in that crowd was the way I wanted to make people feel. I had kicked around the idea for a while and gone to a couple of open mics, but I had my daughter when I was 18 and things got changed around a bit, so I didn’t really start pursuing it in earnest until I was 30. I was performing with an improv group and started opening those shows with 5 to 10 minutes of stand up and it got to the point where I enjoyed the stand up more than the improv show, so I just started going to open mics as often as possible. That’s the „how”.
It’s also my favorite thing about comedy; it’s a 100% completely level playing field where there is no edge anyone can get with better equipment, better software, better anything. It’s just you and your material and the funnier you are, the better you are, period. The only way to get better is to write and perform -the only two things a comedian can do- until you’re better. The „how” is the same for everyone.