Believe it or not, there’s generally a line one has to wait on to enter The Quaz.
It’s sorta like a hot Manhattan club, with a bouncer and a rope. You arrive, you bring a warm coat and some patience, you chill until your time comes. Or, put different, I always try and have a backlog of Q&As, so I know—weeks ahead of time—that I’ll be ready come every Tuesday morning.
Today, Zack Levine cuts the line.
He sent in his answers two days ago, and I had someone else scheduled. But the trying-to-break-through North Carolina-based standup comedian put such effort and time and oomph into his answers that, well, I had to let him past Leon, the heavily tattooed 400-pound door guardian, and into the Quaz VIP room.
To understate, Zack is a fascinating dude—a sufferer of social anxiety; an empty-wallet guy performing for the love of the laugh; a Jewish atheist who grew up in poverty; funny as hell. One can visit his website here and follow him on Twitter here.
Zack Levine, being the 232nd Quaz ain’t no joke …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Zack, you website bio starts like this: “A few years ago, after not leaving his bedroom for a week, Zack Levine asked himself what was the most extreme thing he could do to get over his social anxiety? The next Thursday, he showed up to an open mic and hasn’t looked back.” So I know of social anxiety, but I don’t know social anxiety. Can you explain, in as much detail as possible, what that feels like. I mean, you’re in your room, afraid to leave. Why? How? What’s running through your mind? And how are you nowadays?
ZACK LEVINE: The biggest issue is that I feel like I’m constantly being judged. One example—and even with therapy, this something with which I still struggle—is this: If I’m meeting a friend anywhere, be it a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, etc., I can’t go in until the other person gets there. In my mind, if I go in alone, the employees and other customers will see me coming in alone and think, “Wow, what a loser, this guy here with no friends. I bet he was supposed to meet someone here and they didn’t even show up.” It’s like they will see me and think I’ve been stood up, but not only that: they will totally understand why that person stood me up. The strange thing is, if my plan is to go into either of those places alone to have a drink or eat, to sit down and write jokes or blog posts, work on my website, etc., then I’m totally fine. In those cases, I think the employees and other customers will look at me and think, “Oh, he’s got a notebook or computer with him. He’s just here to do some work,” and forget I’m there.
Or, if I’m going on a date with a woman, I’ll try and give her an out. If I’m meeting a woman I’ve talked to online, she’s seen my pictures and read stuff, either in the profile or my website, but people can look quite a bit different in person than pictures. That last part compels me to send one last message before we meet that generally says something like this: “Here’s where I’m sitting. If you come in and see me and think like, ‘Nah … not interested in that,’ and just turn around and leave, I’ll totally understand.” I don’t have much confidence in my physical appearance, so if that’s why she wants out, then I totally understand it. But if she was fine with that and sat down and later rejected me because she thought I wasn’t intelligent or that I wasn’t funny, well, that’s fine because I’ll think, “Those two things are obviously not true.”
It also expands to general anxiety. In my full-time job (I’m a lead environmental technician for a chemical production and water treatment company), I rarely talk to my bosses about anything of significance because I think if I were to sit across from them and ask for a raise, or tell them about concerns regarding other employees or safety issues or, really, almost anything, what they’ll see across from them is a coward, someone who’s weak and afraid to talk to them. They’ll laugh off my requests or concerns and know that I won’t stand up for myself.
Even doing standup I feel anxiety. Before I go on stage I feel what people call the “right amount of nervousness”—the nerves that compel you to do well. As soon as I walk off stage, though, I look at the floor and walk to the back of the room without making eye contact with anyone, regardless of whether I did poorly or great. I can tell how well I did when I’m up there, but when I walk off stage I think maybe rather than judging me for how well I did they’re judging me for how I looked, my clothes, my hand gestures or body language, and so on.
One benefit for me is that I am very aware of this being an issue for me. If I can catch it before it takes hold then I think I’m usually able to work up the courage to walk into a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop alone or talk to my bosses.
In large crowds, for reasons unknown to me as I’ve never been a part of something like this, I get very worried that something bad is going to happen that will lead to some sort of riot or stampede. At concerts I sit in the seats and wait until everyone has left before I leave; I’m the last person to get off a plane just so no one will push me to get off any quicker.
I’m also aware that behavior like this, at least for me, feels pretty narcissistic. No one in that coffee shop is looking at me except the person taking my order, and once I get my order, they probably don’t pay attention to me at all anymore. The customers certainly aren’t looking at me. My bosses don’t see a scared little kid, they see a guy who’s 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds with a big beard staring at them with zero emotion. And the crowd in that venue sees someone they either thought was funny or wasn’t funny.
The anxiety I feel, though, is still quite real, and even if I’m able to push away the anxiety for a brief period so that I can walk into that bar or talk to my bosses or talk to a woman, as soon as that particular situation ends, it’s like a sea wall breaking and a torrent crashing into me; the anxiety seems to double or triple: if I can push it aside for 30 minutes to talk to my boss, the hour after the conversation will be me dealing with all of the anxiety that I felt before times two.
I’m also generally against taking pharmaceuticals and other things like that and my therapist, who is not an MD, hasn’t pushed me to seek that solution, so I manage it as well as I can by generally being aware of the condition and trying to immerse myself in the situations that cause the most anxiety. I’ll arrive 20 minutes early; maybe the option of waiting 20 minutes outside a restaurant will seem more stupid than going in and risking people thinking I’m a sad, lonely loser. I’ll e-mail my bosses and tell them I have something urgent to discuss with them so that they bring it up first. I’ll sit in the front of an airplane. It’s tough, and dealing with the flood of anxiety that catches up later is burdensome, but being aware of the issue makes it slightly easier to contend with.
J.P.: It seems like comedy is a profession that calls the troubled, the awkward, the frustrated, the stunted. Why do you think this is? And do you see a bond among comics, from a social standpoint?
Z.L.: I think a lot of people who grew up in rough situations, dealt with trauma, have depression or anxiety issues, were picked on in school, or don’t feel like they belong to any sort of group, find an accepting and welcoming community in comedy. Comics want to speak and be heard and we’re often able to relate to an audience by sharing details of our past and current personal lives. We learn about each other in a more intimate way than those in other professions, and if it’s just a hobby, than for those in other artistic areas.
No matter what type of joke you’re telling, other comics get that what you’re doing is trying to make what you’re saying funny and are often very willing to help punch up a joke to make it more funny.
I like doing lots of weird, abstract, sort of tangential humor, but I also try and give those thoughts context by revealing more details of my past and personal life, so I will talk about what it was like growing up poor and living in a motel, my experiences in therapy, experiences with failed relationships, and so on. Having a community that understands, if not the exact nature of the experience than at least what it is you’re trying to do on stage with that experience, lessens the burden of the experience itself; it allows me to see those events in a different light and in several ways has helped me move past them. I think it takes a fairly intelligent person to deconstruct life events and experiences and reconstruct them in a way that allows that person to experience them in a new way and from a new understanding, both personally and on stage.
As for a social bond among comics, there is definitely that. All of my friends are either comics or people I’ve met through comics I know. With respect to the social element outside of the comedy club I think it comes down to this: Most of us aren’t going to be famous but we still love doing it and we still love writing jokes, making people laugh, and being around people who are funny just feels good. I have a few very close friends from doing comedy, and when we get together to hang out, write, or meet up for breakfast, what was going to be a quick 30-minute meet up ends up being two hours of obnoxious joke telling, writing and laughter. Even if we don’t come out of it with a new couple of minutes to try out on stage, it was still two hours of laughing like hell. From a social standpoint, and others as well, working up the courage to try standup and then stick with it for going on three and a half years, has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
J.P.: Your website bio sorta sucks (no offense—heh heh). So … who are you? Where are you from, besides merely Greensboro, N.C.? What’s your path from womb to here? What was your first standup gig like?
Z.L.: Jeff, comics are sensitive people; the extra day it took to get this written is from all the crying. Who am I? I’m a man who cries. I cried when I watched “The Martian.” I guess that’s why I only saw that girl once.
I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My dad, to whom I don’t speak anymore, is from Miami, is Jewish and his grandparents left the Ukraine to escape the pogroms and first ended up in, of all places, Nova Scotia. My mom, with whom I have a fantastic relationship, is from Tennessee. Oddly enough, they’re still married and live in the same house. I tell people I’m a Jewish atheist. That comes from, first, having a great relationship with my grandfather—he was an air traffic controller for Pan Am Airlines and traveled the world—and two, being an atheist. People ask how I can be a Jewish atheist and I always say, “I think most Jews are atheists,” but that really just comes from reading an interview with Geddy Lee, from Rush, in Heeb Magazine (when it was still in print), where he said he was a Jewish atheist.
I’m not sure where the poverty comes in or how it happened. My dad would say it’s because my mom is incredibly financially irresponsible and wasted all the money he earned as an engineer for Kimberly Clark. My mom would say it’s because my dad wasted all his money buying property, starting to build houses, and then abandoning those projects as soon as the holes for the foundation were dug. They’re probably both right.
You mentioned in another question watching one video of mine but I can’t remember which jokes I told during that set. I have talked on stage about the house I grew up in being an awful place that was ultimately condemned by the fire department and torn down. We then lived in a motel for a few months and after that in a trailer park where our neighbors across the street were arrested for possession of Methamphetamines and the neighbors down the street arrested for dog fighting.
In seventh grade my grandfather, mentioned above, died. He’d had heart surgery and the doctors recommended my grandmother, who had Parkinson’s Disease, go to assisted living while he recovered. She refused. A woman of privilege, she saw something like that as being beneath her. One day, not too long after his surgery, she fell and he went to pick her up. The area on his leg from where the veins for his heart were removed hemorrhaged and his blood stopped clotting. My dad’s sister came to the hospital and before my grandfather died took his credit cards and spent over $30,000. On Thanksgiving my grandfather died. My dad never spoke to his mom or his sister again.
In eighth grade my best friend for many years died after a football game from a brain aneurysm. I’d moved to a different middle school and it was my new team, North Rowan Middle School in Spencer, N.C., versus my old team, Knox Middle School in Salisbury, N.C. I was on defense and he was on offense. We saw each other, greeted one another, the ball was snapped and run, the play was dead. My friend jogged to his sideline, collapsed, went to the hospital, and died the next day. I blamed myself for years for his death. It’s only been this year, after going to therapy and trying a few different techniques, that EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) helped me with the burden of having carried that guilt and self-blame for so many years. There are many reasons I’m ethically (and hypocritically, since I still watch it three or four days per week) opposed to football, one of which is the reason you and I came into contact in the first place – domestic violence by players and inaction on the part of teams, owners and the NFL itself. This event, concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the growing number of youth football players that die every year now—nine reported so far this year—are also reasons I’m opposed.
In response to this my parents moved us again, this time to a new high school. One significant thing is that every neighborhood I’d lived in and every school I’d been to was greater than 50 percent black. This new high school, out of nearly 1,800 students, probably had 100 black students. I’m a Jewish atheist white kid, but it was a massive shock. I was the first kid in my middle school with Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me,” I watched “Martin,” and now I was in a school where kids listened to country music and watched “Andy Griffith.” I’ve never once uttered the n-word in my life, but it wasn’t until I moved to this high school that I really knew the word was a racial slur.
Cut to college. I worked two years out of high school before going to college. I went to Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in Winston-Salem, N.C. (also the alma mater of ESPN’s human shit spewing megaphone Stephen A. Smith). Within the first week of freshman seminar, they mentioned the chance to study abroad through the Office of International Programs. The next day I went and said, “Send me somewhere.” They said there was a new program called FIPSE-CAPES, an agreement between the federal governments of the USA and Brazil. I got a grant and a few credit cards and went for seven months. I returned to the United States after I graduated with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Brazilian Studies, I went to Israel with Taglit-Birthright. I extended my 10-day stay to six weeks and also went to Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.
When I got back, rather than going to law school, I moved to Washington, DC, where I struggled to find jobs for several years. I mostly worked in outdoor environmental education, teaching young students aboard a boat for Living Classrooms Foundation all about the biology and ecology of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, pollution, weather and climate, and more.
I moved back to North Carolina for graduate school, working at first on an MA in recreation management before moving to an MA in applied geography. If anyone that reads this wants to give me a job in stream restoration, watershed management, GIS (geographic information sciences), soil science, forestry, urban ecology, watershed ecology, or biogeography, please get in touch.
I actually started doing standup when I moved back to North Carolina. May 10, 2012 was the first time I stepped on stage at the Comedy Zone Greensboro. The last time I went on stage was yesterday. The Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point) and the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and Charlotte are the places I regularly perform, but these three regions of North Carolina don’t add up to Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, or any big comedy city, but I still perform, whether at a show or an open mic, at least four times per week. I try and make every one of those minutes on stage count.
When I’m not at work or doing comedy, I’m usually trying to find places to go hiking and camping. My most recent camping experience was in Grayson Highlands, VA, where a friend and I camped for two nights and spent three days hiking to and from the summit of Mt. Rodgers. I love traveling and language, also. I’ve been to 36 states, nine countries (I’m counting Palestine, sorry Bibi!) on four continents. I speak Brazilian Portuguese and am trying to regain my fluency in Spanish, although keeping fluency in both, for me, has not been easy. It’s one or the other or a strange mix of the two.
I also love cooking any and all types of food from any and all regions and countries. My mom didn’t work from the time I was in kindergarten to ninth grade, so I often tell people she taught me how to cook, sew, make quilts, and treat women with respect.
J.P.: I’m gonna call you a struggling standup, because it seems like all non-Seinfeld, Rock, Leno, Schumer standups are struggling. So what’s the grind? Like, how do you land gigs? How do you travel? How much does it pay? How hard is it?
Z.L.: The grind can be tough. I also work a full-time job. There aren’t too many stage opportunities in the Triad, so I’ll frequently go to the Triangle, Charlotte, and less often to Wilmington and Asheville. I have also traveled and performed in Athens and Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Whenever I travel for vacation I try and find open mic or show opportunities. I love performing in new cities and for new crowds for several reasons. The biggest reason is that those people have no reason to laugh unless they think I’m funny. At home or in cities I frequent, comics I know might be in the crowd and they can certainly influence a crowd with their laughter. It’s like people think, “Oh, all those guys are laughing? There must be something I’m not getting but I’d still better laugh.” Another reason is that I can dig into the well of material I have and do older material, material I love but don’t do as often, that particular crowd has never heard. I performed in St. Augustine, Florida recently and did several older favorites of mine, one of which I’d not done in over two years. My biggest worry is that I’d forget an important piece, but I was in the moment, the crowd was loving everything, and it worked.
To land gigs I really just have to e-mail everyone I can think of. I’ve traveled enough and try to network as well as I can, so I have a good-sized network to draw from. I’ll send out e-mails with headshots, my bio and links to one or two of my best videos. A lot of it, generally, is just being a funny person who is easy to work with. There are plenty of funny assholes out there who no one wants to work with. If you go somewhere and do great with your best five minutes people will remember you. From there your opportunities gradually grow.
You also might want to try and expand your presence outside of just doing standup. Lots of comics have podcasts that are focused on comedy and comedians. Some write and film sketches. I do both of these things, although I’m just getting to the point of actually putting the content out.
The biggest grind, I think, is just building an amount of material that works. Writing a joke is an involved process, beginning with cultivating an idea, then working it out on stage over the course of several weeks, trying to make it as funny as possible, then trying some more. Sometimes those jokes don’t and won’t work. Comics will tell you that a joke is never finished, and it’s true. I’ll come back to old jokes that were one isolated minute or so of stage time and realize I missed so many opportunities for tags and punchlines. Once you have five minutes, you work on building another five.
One thing that’s interesting is, two five-minute sets does not equal one 10-minute set. A 10-minute set involves, first, the stamina of just being able to tell jokes on stage for that long. You have to ride this wave of premise to punchline from joke to joke that, from a performance perspective, can be exhausting. I am at the point where I can comfortably do a 30-minute feature set. I write relentlessly and work on jokes as often as I can, whether it’s eating breakfast with comic friends or driving two hours to do five minutes at an open mic.
A lot of people would say there’s no way that’s worth the time, gas money, and so on, to not even get paid, but I’ve not felt many things greater than making an entire crowd of people laugh at an original joke you devised from premise to punch.
With traveling, generally I will try and arrange shows so I can go with at least one friend. We’ll both get time, have the ride there to talk about jokes, comedy in general, sports, movies and television, then have the ride back where we can commiserate over how poorly we both did.
LOL at the “How much does comedy pay?” question. It pays nothing. I might get gas money, free food and drinks, or the occasional $20. In the 3 ½ years I’ve spent doing standup, I’ve probably made a total of $500.
That part of it is certainly hard. It can come down to not doing a show because, even though they’re giving you gas money, you don’t have the gas to get there because you’ve got to go to work. Sometimes I’ll go do the show and rather than going home to sleep, I’ll drive back to work and sleep in my office just to cut out using a few gallons of gas. Doing poorly on stage is hard, for sure, but I’m to the point now where I can learn lessons from every show or open mic I do, even if I did well. I record all of my sets and go back and listen to find places where I slipped up, or where I could have put in a new tag I thought up on the drive back. But really—and this might sound corny—the positives of doing standup, for me, far outweigh the monetary costs of doing standup. I’ve made a great deal of friends, have laughed more in the past 40 months of my life than the 28 years prior to that, and I’ve truly been able to work through a few personal issues by going on stage and talking them out and trying to find the humor in them. Sort of like Jews did when faced with the Holocaust, only my problem is not being able to go into a coffee shop alone.
J.P.: I just watched a set you performed at the PORK Comedy Showcase, and you started by saying, “You guys are a sexy crowd. I’ve been staring at the back of your heads all night.” This might sound dumb, but do you start with something like that off the top of your head? Is it a line you use often? I guess what I’m wondering is, do the first few words matter, as far as tone, texture, etc of a performance? Or are they throwaway?
Z.L.: I don’t think I’ve used that line or even that entire first joke since. Usually the first line or little joke I’ll tell is just a throwaway thing that either has to do with something I’ve observed with that particular crowd, a particular way I’m feeling, or something that may have happened on stage before I went up.
The first minute of a set can truly determine how the rest of it goes no matter how much time you’re doing. I think in the first minute I try and accomplish two things: make the whole crowd laugh at least twice; and get them interested in what it is I’m talking about. A lot is made of the whole LPM metric (laughs per minute), where ideally you want minimum four LPMs, but less is made, at least for younger comics, of the importance of having a crowd actually be interested in what you’re saying. Sometimes this actually involves them not laughing and instead intently listening. Of course, you want them to laugh, and they’re there to watch comedy, so you want to make them laugh pretty much right away.
The first little bit of a set can kind of set the tone for how you might proceed. If I start off with, “I had an emergency session with my therapist today,” then you can see how that might send the set on one track. If I start with (as I do in a set I did at Foundry Ballroom in Athens) a joke about wearing a squirrel costume made of squirrel pelts, then you can see how that might go an entirely different track. Of course, with my particular style, I like to be abstract and go in weird directions. As I think it says on my bio on my website, I don’t really like to do a standard setup, tag, punch, A to B to C joke. My sequence might go: emergency meeting with therapist, the benefits to an adult for psychologically abusing children rather than physically abusing them, to why I wish I was a taco, to living in a motel.
The “wish I was a taco” joke was something I originally might have thought would be a throwaway. I was doing a show for a birthday party and had no idea all these people in their mid-30s would bring their small children. So I tried to think what little kids might find funny. I came up with why I wish I were a taco. Now I use it far more frequently than I ever thought I would. Sometimes it comes out when I’m trying to express frustration with therapy. For example, “How did that make you feel?” being asked of me several times over, until finally, frustrated that I can’t eloquently express my feelings, I blurt out, “I don’t know. Fuck, what do you want from me? I mean, seriously … sometimes, I don’t know … I wish I was a taco.” Someone angrily expressing that their true feeling is wishing they were a taco, at least to me, is very funny.
J.P.: How do you come up with material? Can you give an example of the development of a joke?
Z.L.: Here’s quick example of the development of a joke based on real life. I’m just going to type up the text of the joke as I imagine I’d tell it on stage …
I took a shower today. Anyone else in here like to shower at all, ever? I came out of the bathroom and my girlfriend noticed I was fully dressed. She asked, me, “Um, wait a second. Zack: Did you just get dressed … in the bathroom?” And I’m like, uh, yes, I did. Is there something wrong with that? And she yelled at me, “Yeah, Zack, you don’t get dressed IN the bathroom!” “Why not?” “Because, Zack, it’s hot and wet and humid in the bathroom. If you get dressed in the bathroom, you’re never going to get dry … because of all your crevices!” And I was like, “My crevices?” Do you know how much it hurts to have someone you love reference ALL of your crevices? I thought at most like, maybe I had two or three crevices. I said, “Well what am I supposed to do then?” And she said, “You go into the bathroom. You shower. You come out of the bathroom naked.” And I stopped her that because that is NOT happening. I do not like to be seen naked. I will come out of the bathroom naked if the power is out, at 2 am, and it’s a new moon. I seriously cannot risk being seen naked. She stops me as if I didn’t just reveal something deep about myself as a man. “Then you blow dry your entire body, otherwise, you’re never … going … to … get … dry.” And I looked at her and said, “Well shit, in that case, I have ALWAYS been wet. I’m like a clam, my junk is just always submerged under some small amount of water.” I was like, “Can I use your blow-dryer” and she goes, “Ugh. No!” And I’m like, “What the hell? It’s not like the blow-dryer sucks the moisture off of my body and into the dryer. It’s not gonna make your blow dryer dirty. Plus even if it did, I just took a shower! I’m clean!” And she goes, “You can buy your own blow dryer. Just make sure to get one with the snowflake setting.” I’m like, “The snowflake setting? What is that?” And she says, “It’s just a button with a snowflake on it. It blows cold air. But I guess I should know I’d have to explain that to you, since you didn’t even know you don’t get dressed in the bathroom.” I was like, “How much does a snowflake setting blow dryer cost?” She rolled her eyes at me and walked out of the room. I guess asking how much a snowflake setting blow dryer costs is like asking how much a Ferrari costs: if you have to ask, you can’t afford one. Also, I looked, they’re like $15. So yeah, I couldn’t afford one. We’ve since broken up. Because I can’t afford a $15 blow dryer. And also because I’m still kind of wet.
OK, so that joke comes from my ex-girlfriend basically explaining to me that I shouldn’t get dressed in the bathroom right after taking a shower, and that if I can’t get myself fully dry with a towel I should use her blow-dryer. I mean, it makes a lot of sense, really, but it never crossed my mind. I’m not one to do much of anything naked unless it is absolutely required that I be naked. Anyway, you can see how from me showering and her saying not to get dressed in the bathroom and to use her blow-dryer, from a comedy perspective, there’s a lot of potential routes to go with that. The trick (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t to find what’s funny about that interaction, because it’s likely that nothing is funny about it; it’s to find what’s funny around that situation: her telling me all that; what if she had said I can’t use her blow-dryer; what if she’d said all that about never getting dry; how would I respond to that; what might be funny about a blow-dryer to a guy who’s pretty much never used a blow-dryer and knows nothing about them except they blow hot air; and so on.
Then you take that premise on stage and you just work it out. A lot of times, when a crowd responds at one particular place, you can improvise a line to build on what they found funny to make it even funnier. This happened when I said, “In that case, I have ALWAYS been wet.” They laughed really hard and in the course of one second I thought, “What’s something that’s always wet? A clam! My junk is like a clam! Always wet!” Over time you continue building small pieces to it, even once you feel it’s perfect. To be quite honest, because her and I did break up, I just now came up with those last three sentences.
J.P.: What does it feel like to absolutely bomb? How long does it take to know it’s not working? And how hard is it to re-take an audience after you’ve lost it?
Z.L.: I think there are two categories of absolute bombing, both of which have happened to me.
One is when the crowd just sits there silent and gives you no response. Standup is designed, I think, to elicit a response, preferably laughter. But to get no response at all is very confusing.
The second is when a crowd just hates you and boos because they like you so little/dislike you so much they’re compelled to let you know not with silence, which is pretty passive, but with their voices, which takes energy. They have to really feel the hatred to boo.
Now I think I’ve been doing standup enough to get a somewhat decent read on the crowd and what they might enjoy, especially if I don’t have to open a show, but even then you can sometimes tell just based on the demographics of your audience. You can usually tell pretty quickly that it’s not working, and this goes into why I was saying earlier that one of the hard parts is amassing a wealth of material. If it’s not going well, you need to know when to pull the cord and move on to something else. Sometimes it’s not even that they wouldn’t find the joke funny, it’s that as a comic I’m not selling it hard enough. I flubbed one line that was crucial to the joke making sense, or not opening the joke with enough confidence. You, as the comic, have to know what you’re about to say is funny and that it will work. The crowd, I believe, can see any doubt or fear you as a performer may have. Once they see that, and if you believe that they’ve given up on you, then it’s probably going to be a difficult road ahead for the rest of that set.
One positive, however, about all crowds at a comedy show: They are there and they paid to be there to watch comedy. They want to laugh! They probably want to laugh more than you want them to laugh. They’ve already invested time and money into the experience of being at a comedy show. Once you realize the crowd is, almost by default, on your side, it’s hard to really, completely, absolutely screw up and bomb.
If you’ve completely lost a crowd I’m going to say, coming from someone who’s only been doing this for a few years, it’s not possible to get them back. You might have a joke they enjoy that they will laugh at, but getting them back full force where they’re behind you 100 percent isn’t going to happen. You’ve already put doubts into their minds, and likely your own mind, and it’s hard to fully erase that.
Even professional comedians—I’m thinking Jerry Seinfeld in “Comedian”—have to try out new material and it’s not always going to work. Perhaps on name recognition they’ll do well regardless because a crowd is there, most likely, to specifically see them. Whether or not they absolutely bomb or completely lose a crowd, I don’t know. But I’ve seen them struggle live just as much as less experienced comedians, which in a way is refreshing to know that never changes.
If you want to know what I was doing when I got booed, here’s that joke:
I had this idea about how global warming had finally started to affect the KKK. They’re sweating their asses off in some awful place with no air conditioning. And they call up Al Gore because he’s white, and they’re like, “Look man, it’s hot. We need some help. We’re willing to join your side in the fight against global warming. Can you talk to Barack Obama for us, because you know, it wouldn’t look good for us to talk to him?” Al Gore is like, “Yeah, for sure.” So Obama gives the KKK a call and they’re like, “OK, we’ll throw all the weight of racists everywhere to helping end global warming.” Obama is like, “Oh man, absolutely, that’d be great.” And the KKK is like, “One condition. You have to let us blame black people for it or it’ll never work.” Obama thinks it over and is like, “OK, that’s fine, but I have conditions of my own.” And they’re like, “OK?” And he says, “You can blame us for global warming, but everything else you blame us for? That’s gotta end.” The KKK is like, “OK, cool.” Then I talk about how it must feel for that one really old racist dude; he goes out to his garage and pulls a tarp off a big pile of junk, his wife comes in because he’s hammering inside the house and she’s like, “What are you doing?” And he moves, big grin on his face, and he’s hung his old “White’s Only” sign beside their air conditioner.
OK, that is probably just not a good joke, but I was a few months in and I thought the concept was funny. Maybe it’d be better as a filmed sketch, who knows? But I did that joke twice. The first time it was OK. The second time, I think the crowd heard me say, “blame black people,” and it was over for me right there. I still finished the joke, though, and I recorded it as well. I went back to listen to really see where I went wrong and really, just thinking the joke would work at all was probably where I went wrong.
J.P.: How does appearance play into a comic’s success? Like, could you wear a suit and tie and be the same guy? A Yankees jersey? Does the beard, the clothing do something?
Z.L.: A lot of comedians have their “uniform.” For many it’s just a black T-shirt and jeans. For me, it’s jeans and a hoodie. Others I’ve seen wear un-tucked button down shirts with jeans. There’s one comic I know who always wears a suit.
I’m honestly not entirely sure of the psychology behind it, but for me, wearing jeans and a hoodie, that’s basically how I dress all the time; like a 14-year-old child. I’m typing this in my office right now, at my job that pays me money so I can pay rent and eat food, wearing jeans, an oversized red long-sleeved shirt, a gray hoodie and boots. If they told me to shave or start dressing like a professional, I may just walk out. (To anyone who read my job solicitation above: I’ll totally shave and dress like a professional for you!)
When you’re on stage you’re, for lack of a better term, exposing yourself to the public: your thoughts, emotions, feelings, ideas, and so on. I feel like you want to give them your genuine self. If I wore a suit on stage it wouldn’t feel authentic. I don’t know if I could present a lot of my material, about growing up very poor and seeing a therapist and struggling with self-confidence issues and relationship issues, if I were clean-shaven wearing a suit on stage. All of that stuff is true, but I doubt it’d feel true if my outward appearance said something else.
It’s one of the reasons why people say very handsome and in-shape people can’t be standup comedians: If you’re super attractive no one is going to believe you’ve got some problem you just gotta talk about on stage.
What I wear on stage and my beard and glasses and general appearance—that’s genuinely who I am. I think my comedy expresses who I genuinely am, whether it’s some insane interaction I had with a guy carrying a dead horse around in the back of his old pickup truck or me talking about why black beans are the reason I don’t believe in God. I need to genuinely be myself on stage both inward and outward. It’s more believable for me and I think for the crowd.
J.P.: Hecklers—how do you handle them?
Z.L.: I am not good at dealing with hecklers. I wish I were better at it and maybe over time I will get there. My instinct to hecklers is usually to just threaten them with their lives. It’s not that I have a problem coming up with some witty rejoinder to their clever input; I just take what I’m doing up there seriously and I’m in a flow that I don’t like being interrupted.
Having said that, some people view anyone who talks at all during your set as a heckler, which I understand. For me, though, occasionally someone really loves what you’re doing and will throw out a comment that you can truly use to build on, whether it’s building that joke or a further and greater rapport with the crowd.
I have a joke about discussing suicide with my therapist (I’m not and have never been suicidal, by the way.) I go on to tell her the first time I thought of suicide was when I was in elementary school. She asked how I planned on doing that in middle school. I go on to tell her how and I get to the end of how I was, hypothetically, as an 8-year old going to commit suicide. This woman in the front is laughing really hard and goes, “It’s like mouse trap!”
I certainly did not view that as a heckle. Instead, what I said was, “Shit, you’re absolutely right! That suicide was like a Rube Goldberg machine. Too complex to ever really work. The people investigating would be way too focused on how I killed myself and completely forget about my body. Instead they’re like, ‘Hmm, how did he get this to work this way and this to react in a way that wouldn’t set off this other reaction, thereby ruining the whole process.’” To me, that made that woman feel like she was a part of the show and it made the entire crowd feel like, “This guy is on his toes. He’s really in the moment with us as a crowd.” I think a crowd loves that.
Threatening to kill a guy doesn’t always, although sometimes maybe it does, do that.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
Z.L.: Ah, the greatest moment now is you thinking I have a career as a standup comedian!
First, I’ll start with the lowest. I did a show opening for a pretty big-named national touring comedian It was very close to Christmas and there were lots of large corporate groups there. Everyone was completely drunk. I went up to do my set and it didn’t go well at all. There were lots of interruptions, people talking, and just generally lots of noise and chaos. Most of the people were there to get drunk and eat on the company’s dime, not really to watch comedy. That wasn’t really the issue. The issue was at the end of the show, I was waiting around with the other comics, shaking hands and talking to people in the crowd. A woman came up to me and shook my hand and said, “So, how long have you been doing comedy?” That doesn’t really express the way she said it; it was like she was talking to a child. I said, “Right at 2 1/2 years.” She makes this sad look on her face, like she’s trying to express empathy but it’s more like pity, and goes, “Yeah … it’s tough.” I don’t know why but that crushed me for probably two weeks. I guess it’s good she was honest, but I thought she could’ve just said, “Well that was good, then! Keep at it!”
I’ve had several best moments, but this one might take the cake. I did a show at Motorco Music Hall opening for two of my favorite people in the world—Johnny Pemberton, who was featuring, and Duncan Trussell, the headliner. I’d worked very hard to help the promoter sell out the show and we had a crowd of 300 people. I hosted the show, opened with 10 minutes, and it was so much fun and such an absolute blast that I totally forgot to say my own name. I was able to throw my name out there at the end, and it really helped me out; quite a few people from that night, even over a year later, come watch me perform at different areas around the state. Duncan gave me a huge hug after my set, told the promoter that I “was amazing” (his words; I have proof!) and told me the next time he comes through the area he wants me to do that again.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ZACK LEVINE:
• Five greatest comedians of your lifetime?: Two of them are dead. Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg. Others are alive: Dave Stone, Jarrod Harris, Tom Simmons.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Johnny Pemberton, Mark Brunell, handbags, Eddie Murphy, “The Wizard of Oz,” cat litter, Diana Ross, Michael J. Fox, cabbage soup, Heidi Klum, movie theaters: Johnny Pemberton, Heidi Klum, Eddie Murphy, Michael J. Fox, movie theaters, “The Wizard of Oz”, Diana Ross, cabbage soup, cat litter, handbags, Mark Brunell
• One question you would ask Steve Jobs were he here right now?: Who supplied you with mushrooms, how much were they and can I borrow the money to buy some for myself?
• In exactly 17 words, make a case for yogurt: Yogurt is full of protein, calcium, and live cultures, promoting muscle growth, bone density, and healthy digestion.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Several times. I usually smile at the people panicking, know I can do nothing about it, and just close my eyes.
• Five reasons one should make Greensboro, N.C. his/her next vacation destination: Greensboro has America’s highest ethnic Montagnard population outside of Vietnam. They brought a lot of their culture with them, including their food, which is amazing and is well-represented across several restaurants in the city.
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is located in downtown Greensboro. The Museum is located at the old Woolworth’s Building, where students from NC A&T State University began the sit-ins at the white’s only lunch counter. It opened in 2010, fifty years after the sit-ins sparked similar actions across the country.
The Greensboro Coliseum has the ACC Hall of Champions. The museum has numerous exhibits on the history of ACC basketball and ACC tournaments.
The Idiot Box, located in downtown Greensboro, is a local, independently-owned comedy club with a husband and wife team of owners that have spent tons of their time and money into ensuring Greensboro has a place for standup comedy to grow and thrive. You can even catch me there, along with plenty of other funny people, on Thursdays for open mic night and two shows each on Friday and Saturday.
There is a great theater scene in Greensboro, with Triad Stage and the Carolina Theatre having a full slate of plays, opera, dance, and more. Cone Denim Entertainment Center also hosts concerts, comedy, plays, and more. All three venues are within five minutes walking of each other, in downtown Greensboro.
You can come to Greensboro to eat great food, take in a bunch of civil rights and basketball history, then catch some live standup one night and a play the next.
• What are two interesting things you can tell us about your aunt?: She’s been teaching special education in Tennessee and Georgia for over 30 years. She’s lived in the same city, within 10 miles of where she was born, her entire life.
• In a Tweet you once wrote, “Holy nutsacks!” What are your other go-to Twitter expressions?: Haha, I only recently started using Twitter with any regularity. After my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I all but stopped using Facebook. I still need a way to promote my comedy and website and other stuff, so Twitter was that avenue.
• From a comedy standpoint, who’d be the person you’d want to become the next president?: I’m not sure if I’d have anything original to say about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, so I’m going to go with Bernie Sanders. He’s new to the national scene, he’s an old, cantankerous Jew and I feel like he’d give comedians a lot of places to go with his behavior, speeches, miscues and policies. It helps that it overlaps with my general choice.
• Sometimes I pick my nose and wipe it beneath the rental car seat. Thoughts?: Sometimes I find old raisins underneath the seats in rental cars and eat them.