One of the hardest things for a comedian to do is to find out who they are. This is an industry of constant evolution, where even the biggest and most successful stand ups of all time are not immune to change (such as George Carlin, who had a noticeable three tiers to his comedy career). Given the nature of the business, there is not just one way to approach your career. Each comedian will have a voice unique to their own after a certain amount of time.
For Julian McCullough, the voice comes from not daily observations, but instead himself. As you watch him onstage, you’re not so much watching a performer conveying a finely tuned persona as you are watching a performer as himself. As he paces around the stage, he invites you inside to his universe, and for an hour, you can all but discover what it is like to be Julian McCullough without ever having to get complicated and messy surgery.
His debut hour-long special Maybe I’m a Man, airs tonight on Comedy Central. Set in a small, intimate theater, it plays to Julian’s biggest strength, where you feel as if he is a lifelong friend, who is holding court at a local bar, waxing words of wisdom for the world to hear.
We recently spoke with Julian about the new special, playing Vegas, life on the road, his new podcast, and so much more.
Where are you calling from??
I am in Vegas at The Comedy Cellar. Working their new club at the Rio this week.
Are you typically a Vegas Guy? How are the audiences there?
No, this is my second time playing this club in a month. Before that, I never played Vegas before in my life. And I guess there are three kinds [of audience members]. There is the audience that comes to see you because they love you and they love comedy and they know the difference. They’re great crowds. Then there are comedy club crowds who are at least there to see comedy and love comedy, but they don’t know who you are. And then there is the casino crowd, where they don’t know who you are and they’re not really excited about comedy either. But they’re there and you have to win them over. This club is better than that because they built an actual low-ceiling replica of the Comedy Cellar in New York in the Rio. So it feels like a real club, and it’s much, much better than most casino gigs I’ve ever done. Like I did a casino gig in one place, I won’t name it, in Minnesota. And the comedy club is set up in the lobby of the main theater. So it was like you’re doing comedy, and you can hear people having way more fun next door watching Bon Jovi. It’s really funny. That’s a bad example of a casino.
Do you still encounter gigs like that these days?
Yeah, I feel like until you’re famous, you always will have gigs where you’re like “Oh, Jesus Christ.” But you did it for so long that it doesn’t really phase me anymore. Some gigs are really awful. Most gigs are great. I love working comedy clubs. And you get to do some fun stuff, too. When I toured with Jimmy Fallon, that was really exciting because it was like sold out theaters. So that was really fun.
So let’s talk about your new special. Tell me how it all came together.
Well I had done a tape at Edinburgh [Fringe Festival] to get a special the previous year. And I had written an hour that was very personal. It wasn’t like a one man show, because it wasn’t like there were serious parts, but almost kind of. I don’t know. I was just trying to do something super autobiographical. And it was good and the people at Edinburgh liked it, but Comedy Central was like, “There are too many quiet parts to make it a stand-up special.” So I had to go back and go on the road and punch up my act a lot and take out a lot of the longer stories that weren’t really that funny. And once I did that, then we got a production company called Den of Thieves who do massive stuff. They do like the Video Music Awards and stuff like that. They wanted to get into the stand-up special world, and they were like “Can we pay to shoot your special and then we’ll try to sell it somewhere?” And I was like, “Uh yeah, I was trying to do that.” So we did it that way and they did an amazing job. And then my manager Molly Mandel, who also manages Kumail and stuff, she found the venue in Venice, and I loved it. It was very intimate, it was very 60s themed, which I appreciate because my dad was a child of the 60s and we used to listen to that music together all the time. So anyway it felt very comfortable. They did an amazing job shooting it. Lance Bangs directed it. And we sold it to Comedy Central and they were like “You now have enough jokes. We will buy this thing.” But it’s still pretty personal. There still are some long, personal stories in there.
After doing stand-up for 17 years, did you just have a feeling that the time was right for your first hour special? How did you go about gauging that?
That’s a good question. Yeah, I think I had been ready for a few years, but if you aren’t gearing up to make one hour that’s cohesive and stuff, you’re just doing stand-up and doing the road. And I realized I needed to actually focus and make an actual hour rather than just do a bunch of jokes. So once I realized that was what was missing and I put it together, it was able to happen.
But I did a half hour years ago for Comedy Central, like 2010 or something like that. And that was amazing. That was a really fun night and the biggest thing I had done up to that point. And I thought ‘I’ll probably get the full hour next year even though I don’t have another hour yet.’ And then it just took a while for me to focus and put it together.
I feel like intimate spaces always lend themselves well to stand up specials, particularly when it’s someone’s first big one.
Yeah, I wanted a smaller crowd because even though I didn’t do much crowd work in the special, I usually do a lot of crowd work. I enjoy meeting people from the stage. And I didn’t so much in this special, but I still prefer that feeling like I could with the intimacy. Like I’ve done theaters, and they’re fun. But it’s basically like reciting a monologue. You’re just kind of doing your act. And I like the idea of you can interact with the crowd. Theaters are fun and they’re exciting, but it’s a very different thing. It’s like doing a play.
Let’s talk about this one particular moment from the special, which is the story of getting the butterfly tattoo with tears to impress the girl you were dating. Did the tattoo freak her out when you showed it to her?
Yeah, she was not into it that much. Kind of, but not really. And basically in real life I showed it to her, and I had found out that she had been cheating on me the whole time. With a guy with way more tattoos, so I guess I didn’t have enough? I don’t know. And I did it too soon. I was like 20. And I had it forever and I had learned to come to terms with it for myself. And then when I realized “Hey, I can actually make this a story for my act and put it on T.V., and then get rid of it,” that’s what I did. I got it covered up. I don’t have that tattoo anymore.
What did you cover it up with?
I got it covered up with the rolling rock horse and roses underneath. So there is closure. I had to cover it up, I really wanted to. And I’m not a tattoo person, so it didn’t occur to me that someone could do a good job with that. I thought it would be too elaborate to do. But Christian at Magic Cobra in Brooklyn did it, and he did an amazing job.
I really like the way you just go for it and are able to own the moment of your past with the story. It feels almost cathartic.
It takes a long time as a comic to get to the point where you can write a story like [the tattoo story] because I was actually embarrassed by it. If you are actually embarrassed by something as a comedian, it’s very hard to make it funny. You have to like heal and then look back and make fun of it. But if you are actually still embarrassed, it’s not going to be funny. So I had to come to terms with it and realize that I could beat this thing and that’s what I did.
How long did it take you, as a comedian, to feel comfortable being so personal and so much of yourself onstage?
It’s funny, I was very personal right away because I worked at a comedy club from like 20 to 25. So I saw everybody all the time back in the early 2000s. I saw Patrice O’Neal, Colin Quinn, Greg Giraldo, all of those guys. The huge guys. Louis, Bill Burr. I saw them all the time in the clubs. And so when you see all those people, you’re like “All of the premises are taken. Everything’s been taken. So the only things that I can write about that nobody else can write about is what happened to me. I can try to make that universal for everybody.” So that’s what I did. So I was very personal right away. It took me 5 to 7 years to feel really good onstage.
Do you still enjoy touring?
Sometimes. I like being onstage, but everything else… The travel doesn’t really bother me that much. Hotels bother me. I can’t really sleep in hotels. I like seeing the country though. But it would be nice to get to that next level where I’m making more money for each gig so I feel a little bit better for leaving my family. That would make me feel a little bit better. I wish I could take them with me, but I’m not at that level. Jim Gaffigan tours on a bus with 6 kids. It’s a grind, but I’m grateful that I get to do it. I’d rather have the work than not. You have to have your fun, and that’s why you have to keep writing jokes so you don’t get bored.
Let’s talk about your podcast, The Soft Spot. How is that going?
It’s going great, and I co-host that with my fiancé, Meg, who is fantastic and funny. We’ve had John Mulaney, Kyle Kinane, Paul F. Tompkins. We bring people on and ask them to talk about the thing they have always loved the most. If there’s one movie or one album. And we talk about it and have fun with it. And it’s been a real nice thing. We’re only on our tenth episode I think, but it’s really great and it’s growing. I love it.
What is your soft spot??
I love 80s ballads. We did power ballads with Kyle Kinane and that was his soft spot. That was so fun because that’s kind of why I started the show. One of the inspirations for doing a show like this is that I wanted “What kind of show can I just talk about power ballads?” A lot of 80s ballads, that’s what I listen to when I’m feeling stressed out or want to get into a good mood.
And finally, what would you like your legacy to be?
I would like people to say that when they saw me live, it felt genuine and different every time, and I was actually sharing who I was with them, and not just killing. Because I feel at a certain point, almost anyone can kill. I like to make people feel like they got to know me a little bit. And I was honest, I was a legit performer. That’s all. Oh, and that I made millions of dollars. Can my legacy be millions of dollars? You can put this in print that Comedy Central paid me a record $17 million dollars for this special. So I’m the highest paid Comedy Central special of all time. And that is inaccurate, but let’s just see what happens.
Julian McCullough: Maybe I’m a Man’ premiere’s on Comedy Central tonight at Midnight E.T.