Connor McGrath is funny.
I don’t mean funny in the, “Oh, chuckle chuckle” sense of the word. Nope, the Deering Center, Maine native is absolutely hilarious, and if you don’t believe me, well, watch this. And this. And this. His stuff is electric, and unsparing. And, best of all, original. Watching Connor at work actually reminds me of the early Chris Rock days, when it’d be, “Holy shit, where did that come from?”
That’s how I feel with Connor McGrath.
But there’s more. Connor is both funny and a guy with Asperger’s—which hits close to home for very personal reasons. And what I like about his work is the way it takes ownership of a syndrome many people fail to understand. Connor doesn’t tiptoe around Asperger’s, or address it mildly. Nope—it’s a part of who he is as a person and a comedian. And, I’d argue, it makes him great.
Connor is the two-time Maine Comedian of the Year (as selected by readers of the Portland Phoenix), as well as (I truly believe) a future star of the medium. You can follow him on Twitter here and Facebook here.
Connor McGrath, this isn’t the Pu$$y Bank.
It’s just the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Connor. You’re a stand-up comic, and you’re a stand-up comic with Asperger’s. Which has sort of become, early in your career, what you’re best known for. Yes, being funny. But being funny with this condition. And I wonder, through your eyes, if that’s a good thing? A great thing? A non-thing? How does it make you feel?
CONNOR MCGRATH: It’s something that I have gradually learned to accept as a good thing. There was a fairly lengthy period of time in my career where I didn’t mention being on the spectrum at all during my sets cause I was afraid I would be pigeon holed as the “Asperger’s Comedian”. However as I continued down the comedy path, I realized that it’s best to acknowledge the condition. I’m not the type of comedian who can craft killer absurdist one liners or has rueful observations about the state of the world. I talk about my life and it’s very hard to talk about myself without talking about being on the spectrum.
In its own very weird way, I think my stand up is educational and inspirational Some of the proudest memories I have of doing stand up are when people on the spectrum or parents of children on the spectrum come up to me after shows to tell me how much seeing someone like me onstage meant to them. Almost anyone can get a laugh but to create a moment is something special.
J.P.: My brother has Asperger’s. Only when we were growing up it wasn’t a diagnosis. So he spent years not knowing what was wrong/different. Then, when he finally figured it out, it was a huge relief. What about you? Did you know from a young age? Was there a moment of clarity?
C.M.: I was diagnosed when I was in 5th grade. So I have lived all of my adult and almost of my adolescent life knowing that I had it. I don’t think there was a huge specific moment of clarity, for me personally but it was relieving to get the diagnosis cause it cleared up a number of questions I had.
I spent a lot of my earlier elementary school years, bouncing between regular education and special education classes. I never felt like I fit in entirely with either group. My 12 year old reaction to being diagnosed was mostly “Oh so that’s why that is.” Then I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to figure out what it all means.
J.P.: This might sound odd, but does having Asperger’s make you funnier? Like, is it a part of you that adds humor? Or are you a naturally funny guy who has Asperger’s?
C.M.: It’s hard for me to answer this question since I’ve never been a comedian without Asperger’s so I can’t really compare and contrast. I think a lot of the behavior patterns of people on the spectrum are conducive to writing comedy. The best stand up comedians are socially awkward people with unique takes on life that go against society’s norms. Repetition of phrases is a great way to drive home a joke. Repetition is a symptom of Asperger’s. To me, being on the spectrum and performing comedy have always lined up. It’d be more absurd if I was on the spectrum and a theoretical physicist.
Adversity breeds humor so I think, in a lot of ways, it does make me funnier. Now there are other aspect of being on the spectrum that make comedy more difficult than it would be if I was a neurotypical. Mostly just the difficulty I have in translating the words I have in my head into the words that I have coming out of my mouth.
J.P.: How did this happen for you? I mean, you’re this guy from Deering Center, Maine, living your life. Then–standup. How? Why? Were you the funny kid? Cracking jokes? Etc?
C.M.: I was definitely a class clown in elementary and middle school. I always wanted to make people laugh and feel good about themselves, even at my own expense. If I had a dollar, for every time my mom told me “Make sure that people are laughing with you! Not at you!”, I might have enough to move out of her house. Those words still reverberate a bit.
Anyway, I’d always loved performing in school plays and being onstage. There hasn’t been a time that I can really remember well in my life where I haven’t been performing onstage, in some capacity.
As for stand up specifically, I just slowly came to the realization one day when I was in my early 20s, that my favorite parts of being onstage were was when I was all alone, just being myself. Very slowly, I came to realization that I really enjoyed performing stand up. It started with me watching and reading a lot about stand up (my senior thesis at Marlboro College was on stand up comedy) then eventually, transitioned into performing a lot! It took me a while but I made it from the shallow part of the pond to the deep end, baby.
J.P.: You have a segment I just watched on YouTube called, “Pu$$y Bank.” It’s hilarious and original and awesome. And I would love to know how, soup to nuts, you brought it to life.
C.M.: I’ve always wanted a New York Times best seller to ask me about the writing process behind my Pussy Bank bit.
That was inspired by one of life’s dumb, little moments. I was hanging out at a BBQ, waiting for the food to be served, and one of my friends smelled something good and declared it to be the 2nd best smell in the world. When we asked him what he considered to be the best smell in the entire world, he answered resolutely “PUSSY!”
A few weeks later, I was on a tour of the Midwest with my comedy brothers Aharon Willows and Will Green, I recounted this dumb anecdote to them and they cracked up. From there, I explained my belief that in order to be the best smell in the entire world, it has to be a great smell in any situation. I yelled “I don’t want to smell pussy…at the bank!” Aharon and Will roared and the “Ah! This might be a bit!” light flashed above my head.
With that setup and jumping off point, three of us were able to workshop it from being a dumb, brief anecdote to a dumb semi lengthy comedy bit.
That joke is testament to how you’re never really done crafting bits as I’m still tinkering with it here and there. I’ve gotten some complaints recently about it being misogynistic. So I’ve made a point to emphasize (in a comedic and not preachy) fashion that I’m not anti vaginal odors, I’m just against the idea of vaginal odors being considered the best smell in the entire world.
J.P.: So you’re the back-to-back winner of Maine’s Best Comedian, as voted upon by readers of the Portland Phoenix. And I was wondering—are there, factually, great comedians and awful ones? Like, is it merely a matter of taste and opinion? Or do you feel like some folks are just, factually, funny?
C.M.: Hooo boy. This is a really good question, Jeff! I lean more towards it just being a matter of taste and opinion. Some comics are able to translate their world views to wider swaths of people but at the end of the day, I don’t think anything is guaranteed. There are crappy comics with their own TV series and there’s geniuses who are slugging away at crummy one nighters. Persistence, luck, and a certain je ne said quoi are as much determining factors for a comic’s success as actually being funny.
J.P.: What does it feel like to completely bomb? And what’s the story of your worst experience?
C.M.: It does feel like the wind has been knocked out of you when you bomb really, really badly. Patton Oswalt describes it well as being like a swaggering gunfighter who just got his shins shot off. It can be almost like an out of body experience. Bombing is a permanent lingering threat in the back of every comics mind. When I’m on a streak of hot sets, I have a nagging fear that the next time I go on stage, I’ll eat my genitals.
On the other hand, bombing is something you have to begrudgingly accept if you want pursue comedy with any sort of seriousness. There was a great discussion on my Facebook feed the other week about bombing actually. My friend Ray Harrington, who is a terrifically underrated comedian out of Rhode Island. said “I’d rather bomb than have a 5/10 set.” A year or two ago, I would think he was insane but now I totally accept if not outright agree with it.
There are so many other factors as to why a set bombs (venue, what’s happening in my personal life, other comedians on the show) beyond the jokes I’ve told themselves. If I bomb horribly, I can usually pinpoint what went wrong. It is actually more difficult to make sense of one of those mediocre, 5/10 sets.
If you bomb all the time, you’re out of comedy. If you just have a bunch of 5/10 sets, then you’re stuck in comedy purgatory, doing feature sets in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Huntsville, Alabama.
Worst I’ve bombed was my one and only time performing at the late Comedy Connection in Portland, Maine. Invited my whole family out and just blew ass for 8 minutes. Briefly considered walking next door and throwing myself off of the Maine State Pier after my set.
Most uniquely terrible set though—performing stand up at intermission of a burlesque show at a community arts center that used to be my daycare center. Just one of those nights where my mind ended up resembling a melted bowl of rocky road ice cream. I got Stalter & Waldorf’d by some grumpy gus in the balcony and it totally railroaded my set. I thought I could win the audience back by taking my shirt off and throwing it in the crowd but then I couldn’t get my shirt back. Backstage after, one of the burlesque dancers told me that you don’t throw your clothes in the crowd if you want them back.
J.P.: How do you know if something is funny for an audience? What I mean is, aren’t there differences between “funny inside your head” and “funny to 200 people in a room”?
C.M.: One of big determining factors is how relatable is the idea/premise. Is this an idea that can be considered humorous by a machinist in Auburn, Maine and a barista in Cambridge, MA? If someone asked me to describe what stand up comedy is in one sentence, I would say “Everyday problems addressed with unique points of view”
There’s really no way to see how a borderline funny idea plays out except onstage. And I’ve written jokes that went over like gangbusters on Facebook and Twitter that let out a wet fart when I told them onstage.
J.P.: In an article you said school was always tough, in the way of social awkwardness. So how did you compensate? Or did you?
C.M.: I think my awkwardness in middle school, high school, and college came from trying and failing to be somebody that I wasn’t. I kind of tried to mask my autism to an extent and I don’t think I was really comfortable with being myself.
I was able to compensate by engaging in extracuricular activities (drama club in high school/college and stand up comedy in the grown up world) that allowed me to show my creative side. Over the years, I’ve been able to corral a group of lovable, rag tag misfits who accept me for I am. Them loving me allowed me to love myself.
J.P.: What’s the goal? Twenty years from now you are doing …
C.M.: In twenty years, I would love to be making a living, writing and/or performing comedy as a career. Will also just be merely happy with surviving whatever cataclysmic weather events happen in the next two decades.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CONNOR MCGRATH:
• Five all-time favorite comedians?: Richard Pryor, Mitch Hedburg, Chris Rock, Maria Bamford, and George Carlin.
• Are 9.11 jokes OK yet?: If it’s well told, well thought out, and not from a place of hatred or indifference, sure.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Cindy Blodgett, Lil Wayne, toenails, farting in private, little bags of pretzels, Tony Parker, Florida Georgia Line, Eddie Murphy: Eddie Murphy (wrote part of my senior thesis on his career. If you asked me to list top ten favorite comedians, he’d be on there), Cindy Blodgett (brought UMaine Women’s Basketball to heights unseen), Tony Parker (just terribly odd seeing him in a Charlotte Hornets uniform), little bags of pretzels (essential part of any Concord Coachlines bus trip from Portland to Boston), farting in private, Florida Georgia Line, toenails
• One question you would ask Harrison Ford were he here right now: What enticed you to do Morning Glory?
• In exactly 16 words, make an argue for Pink’s induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame: “Don’t Let Me Get Me” is one of my favorite inspirational pop anthems of the ’00s.
• Five reasons one should make Deering Center, Maine his/her next vacation destination?: 1. Home of Evergreen Cemetery, the final resting place of the “Father of Prohibition” Neal Dow; 2. Stevens Avenue is one if not the only block in America, where you can meet all of your educational needs. You can attend pre school, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college on the same street!; 3. During warm weather seasons, you can take your beloved to the Treehouse Cafe. It’s a lovely fine dining restaurant where the outdoor patio is like a bougey ass treehouse; 4. The Quality Shop, America’s finest corner store. It is truly a quality shop; 5. Short five-minute drive to Hadlock Field, home of the 2006 Eastern League Champion Portland Sea Dogs (Double A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox). In addition to some quality minor league baseball, the Portland Sea Dogs employ the finest mascot in sports, Slugger The Sea Dog. A truly exceptional performer. Even if he is a coward and won’t accept my challenge to a foot race.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and a one-armed Aaron Judge? How long does it go?: Aaron Judge punches my lights out in 3 or 4 rounds even in that state. My best hope, as a member of Red Sox Nation, is that MLB suspends him indefinitely after the fight for brutally assaulting an autistic boy.
• Tell us a joke: Uou were asking about 9/11 jokes earlier so I’ll tell you what’s a sick joke…
Performers working for free!
You can find me every Monday at Blue and every Thursday night at Lincoln’s in Portland, ME! And you can see if I’m coming to a town near you by liking Connor McGrath Comedy on Facebook.
• How do you feel about John Tavares leaving the Islanders after all those years?: Went to a Islanders game at Barclays Center a few years back with my brother. Hideously bad sightlines for hockey. Maybe he was tired of hearing about that. I don’t begrudge him for leaving and wish him well in Toronto.
• Can the DMV ever be funny?: Absolutely not.