Myq Kaplan is a comedian that comes at you at rapid speed. To see him live is to not necessarily know which joke just hit, because the next one is already underway. Within his rapid fire delivery, there is this positive and well-intentioned intensity. It never shouts in your face like it would with some comics, but it does make you sit there and give you plenty to ponder over. And also laugh. We can’t forget that.
When you listen to his new album, Myq Kaplan: A.K.A., which is out on Blonde Medicine, you get this sense of just how important it is to have material as well polished as this is from comedian’s these days. Everything is moving faster and faster it seems, and Myq is right there with them, spitting jokes and stories out like you couldn’t even believe. As an audience member, it is important to stay on track. For if you zone out for a moment, you’ll find yourself lost.
We recently spoke to Myq about his latest album, turning negatives into positives, staying creative, his favorite places to perform, why he chose to record his album at the ACME Comedy Club, and learning lessons in comedy.
Thanks so much for doing this. I really enjoyed the album, and there’s something that sort of rings true given what’s going on right now. You have this ability as a comedian to turn even the most bleakest of things into something with a positive spin. And it seems like you can do that sort of thing with basically anything at this point, if that’s fair to say?
Uh yeah. I remember long ago, when I was not as experienced as a comedian. And I felt, at that time, I didn’t have necessarily a choice about what to talk about. And I think it’s a spectrum over the 14 years. As you gain sort of control over your experience or find who you are as a human, as an artist, as a comedian. And you may need more things to decide where you want to focus your attention. But in the beginning, it felt to me that jokes would come out of the blue. Some of them would be about social justice, some of them would be just absurd wordplay, some of them would be about my life and my family, some of them would be about movies that I don’t care about. And whatever the jokes were, I would try them. And then whatever jokes worked the best, I would just do those. So I felt like the jokes were more telling me what they were supposed to be. I would be telling them as well.
And I feel like that is a thing that still exists, but now I realize, by looking back at what I have done and what I know I am capable of doing because I have done it, I can make a choice to talk about a specific thing, to write about a specific thing. And so now, I might still have all of the ideas come to me about things that are what I would call quote unquote less important or things I’m less interested in. And sometimes, if they’re funny enough, I’ll still see them through to fruition and maybe try to make something out of them. Because I also think there is value in silliness. There is value in just momentary joy that doesn’t necessarily connect to any major or particular life topic. But the major life topic of joy for joy’s sake is its own benefit as well. And also I realized that I can talk about things like death and religion and all the things that a lot of people think about, a lot of people talk about. And if I can find things that are new and valuable and personable to me, and funny, then yes. I do think if I look at a topic or an idea or something long enough or hard enough, then most of the time I can make some comedy of it that I’m happy with.
Exactly. There’s something oddly joyous to your delivery of even the most grim subjects. And as far as your rapid-fire delivery goes, it’s the sort of thing where, as I’m listening, it seems like the sort of thing where the audience has to be with you 100 percent of the way or else they’ll just get lost. There doesn’t seem to be a chance to catch up after they’ve missed the boat.
I had a thought recently, when on the phone with my mother. And sometimes when I speak to my mother, she has a similar quality like I do, and I’ve only recently come to understand how similar we are, in that she might ask me a question or I might ask her a question. And then she will speak for an extended period of time on all matter of topics that are connected, in an almost jazz, virtuosic, improvisation connections. I think descriptions of my comedy might also be apt descriptions of phone calls with my mother. And every once in a while, if I zone out for a moment or if something catches my attention in the room I’m in, and I turn back a second later to the conversation, I might be like “I don’t know who this story is about. I don’t know exactly where we are.” And that actually makes me feel connected to if you’re in the audience at a comedy show, and a server asks you for your order and then you look back up and I am three steps ahead of where I was when you stopped listening a moment ago.
I’m glad that the album gets to be recorded so that if people need to, they can pause it, go back, listen again, slow down. But yeah, in a live performance, it’s a team effort. It’s a symbiotic relationship where it is important- I mean it’s important for me to listen to the audience. It’s also important to listen to myself. The only thing I can do is to be myself at the rate that I am myself and then offers it to the audience and then hope that they are there as well listening, paying attention, and following along for the ride as much as possible.
Circling back to the album itself, what made you want to do it in Minneapolis? Being an East Coaster, were you looking to do something specifically in the Midwest?
Very specifically, I love the comedy club ACME. I think in the past, I performed for the first time there just about 10 years ago, right after I was on Last Comic Standing. It was the first comedy club I performed at where people came out to see me because they had seen me on T.V. very specifically. I had heard good things about the club, and when I got there, I experienced it. I don’t know if I’ve been there every year since, but more years than not in the past decade, I’ve performed at that club. And they just do so many things right to treat comedians and audiences well and get great audiences there for great comedians. And I recorded my second album there, Meat Robot, in 2012 I believe. Somewhere between 2011 and 2013 I recorded it and it came out. And the audiences there are of such a high caliber of quality and quantity. Like I don’t know specifically. I think Minneappolis, the Twin Cities, as I understand it they have a very vibrant and large art scene. I heard that they actually have more theaters per capita than New York City does. And I just know that the way the ownership and the management of the ACME runs is… There’s no drink minimum, so the audience doesn’t have to buy drinks. But the drinks are cheap, so they can buy drinks. There’s food in the building, but not in the room, so there’s no distractions and people aren’t clanking and eating while you’re performing. It’s these very sort of simple, straightforward things that not every comedy club does and not every comedy club has to do. But they curate the experience.
So I think there are some things that are specific maybe to the Midwest. Maybe the Midwest is full of kind-hearted, open-minded people. And also Minneapolis is this artsy town. And also ACME fosters such an environment where comedy is sacred in a way, where comedy is respected. And so because of that, the positive experiences I’ve had there both in recording the last album and all the times I’ve been there, I just know that when I do the 2 shows Friday and 2 shows Saturday there, there’s very likely going to be a lot of material going the way I want it to and getting the response I want it to.
And I’m sure after all your years touring on the road, you can easily pick out which are the cities that are great for comedy and some that might be less-than-ideal.
For sure. I mean, if a comedy club invites me to perform anywhere, I love performing for people who want me to perform. And sometimes, at comedy clubs, sometime I don’t know if it’s some combination of the city, the people, the actual producers and promoters of the comedy. There’s a music venue in Durham, North Carolina called Motorco that I’ve performed at at least three times I believe. And every time, Deb Aronin’s brought me there, she’s a comic and local producer there, and they’ve got several hundred people into this building multiple times over the past couple years. And they’re people who, like ACME, they’re there for a reason. They’re either there to see good comedy that they trust because they’ve seen it before there, or me specifically because they’re interested in seeing my comedy because they know it and want that.
And so there’s some very specific venues and some very specific cities that I love, for sure. I love Portland, Oregon. I love the San Francisco Bay area. I love Boston, I love Chicago, Atlanta and Athens, D.C., I love Boston where I started out. Any big city, really any city, that has a comedy club or a comedy scene, and if they offer a community… Like I love performing in Alaska, I love performing in Alabama and Nashville and Louisville. There’s people all over the place that are potentially and actually an ideal audience for my comedy and what I do and for comedy in general. Just for comedy.
There’s no place that I’ve been, even if I didn’t have a good time in a certain comedy club or a certain place, that I wouldn’t go back pretty much. Because I’m always generally optimistic. Also, if somebody didn’t enjoy a show that I did in the past, well I’m probably better now so I think I’ll do a better job and they’ll think I did a better job if they come back. And yeah. There’s my favorite places, and if I had a chance to just go to all the places that I named, and then if somebody’s like “Hey, do you also want to come here?” Yes, absolutely. So there are favorite places but no unfavorable to me.
Are you able to then turn any experience, even a show where you may not have had the greatest time onstage, into a positive experience afterwards?
Great question. I’ll answer like this. There’s a comedy show in New York called Whiplash. And it used to be every Monday night at the UCB. And it was one of the most fantastic shows for comedians, for audiences. The same kind of thing where they fostered and curated this wonderful environment. And especially one where the comedians could experiment and the audience would come with you. And almost kind of anything that you did or said, you couldn’t say something that they wouldn’t love. Because they were there to love it. And all that said. Sometimes, in a set there, maybe if you said something that didn’t get as big a reaction as everything else did from this loving audience of comedy loving fans, then that would be a noteworthy thing to be like “Oh. Maybe there’s something about that particular thing. Good to note that.” And the reverse can also be true. If there’s ever a show that I do that the audience is the opposite of generous and open and there for me and my comedy or there for comedy in general. If the default for that audience is not responding at all, there could be a few things happening that I could think positively from it.
One: If anything gets any reaction in that situation, be like “Well maybe there’s something special about that.” If one thing could make an audience full of disinterested or hostile or aggressive or otherwise not my favorite audience, if I could make them laugh at something, then perhaps there’s something very special about that thing. And then also I would say sometimes that offers license to discover more things in the moment. Like if my best jokes aren’t working, then why not create something brand new that I’ve never created before. And so I’d say that in sort of the fires of adversity, new beautiful things can be forged. So maybe it won’t be the best that night, but maybe seeds will be planted so then a year later, will have grown and blossomed into a beautiful new joke harvest. And so I think it is important. It’s important to have both of those experiences or at least the spectrum where it’s great to have a night where everyone thinks you’re the best. But it’s important to know that might not happen all the time. And it’s also good and humbling to have a night where everyone doesn’t think you’re the best because that helps you get better and be aware of those possible situations.
So I’m not saying that I walk away from a show where mostly people didn’t laugh thinking “What a great lesson I’ve learned! I’m so happy!” I will think that perhaps I’ve learned a lesson. But I’m not saying “I feel good in this moment talking to you, sharing about it.” But in the same way like if you broke a limb and it hurt a lot and later it was healed and you could say “Wow, that hurt a lot! That didn’t feel good. I feel okay now talking about it. But for sure, at the time, breaking something wasn’t my favorite experience.” And so learning lessons isn’t always pleasant in the moment but it’s often joyful afterwards.
I love that. For all the times I’ve talked to comedians about a bad show or when something didn’t go right, it’s nice to hear the positive spin of “This was a learning experience.”
Thank you. And to be clear, it’s possible that if I continually had experiences with one venue… I actually heard a story once that Brian Regan and Kathleen Madigan were the two favorite comedians of this one club owner somewhere in the South. And this club, 25 weeks out of the year had a redneck act. And 25 weeks of the year, they had a Def Jam act. And then the other 2 weeks of the year, they had Kathleen Madigan and Brian Regan who were neither Def Jam nor redneck. And the story I heard was Brian Regan was at the time of his career, he wanted the work, needed the work, and was happy to be invited, but would not do well at this club. And it’s hard to imagine Brian Regan not doing well, but the audiences didn’t know what to expect because they were trained to expect one of two these things, but he was neither of those things. So he wasn’t set up for success, and he didn’t succeed by how he would’ve liked to. And he asked the club owner “Why do you keep inviting me back?” And the club owner’s like “Well, I love you. So I need this. I do the rest of it for the business, but for at least two weeks of the year, I bring my favorite comedians here even if they don’t do quote-unquote “well”.
So my guess is that at a certain point in Brian Regan’s career, he stopped going back to that club. That old thing they say “Keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” Which is not technically true. But also, doing the same thing over and over again, such as performing for audiences is actually a good way to get better as a comedian. So it makes sense to expect a different result normally. I’m not saying that I would take as a challenge the gauntlet thrown down by every place I’ve ever had a learning experience. Maybe I’ll be like “I’ve learned enough for right now and I’m happy to go have a victory creative experience. And if I have too much victory, then I’ll go back and learn some more later.”
Totally. I don’t think it matters who you are. Even the most seasoned and biggest name in comedy could still go up and bomb in front of an audience.
Oh yeah. I mean as a comedian you have experience that non-comedians don’t have… And we all as individuals have experience that others don’t have, and we know that some things are communal experiences and some things are unique to our own personality or our own family or our own culture or our own community. But we don’t always know which ones are which. Like if you found out that somebody hadn’t heard of a think you’ve heard of, you’re like “Oh wow. Does everybody know this thing? Or do I know a thing that other people don’t know?”
And here’s a specific example. I started out performing at a club in Boston called The Comedy Studio. That was my home club. And they had a program called the comic in residence. And the comic in residence does the opening set for every show for a month. So I remember performing at the club on Thursday and performing on Saturday. And the comic in residence is a friend of mine who is a very funny comedian. And on Thursday night, there was a smaller audience. And the comedian had kind of a lower energy. And so the reaction was what it was. I thought she was funny and the audience responded. And then on Saturday night, the audience exploded. It was a packed and it made sense. A larger quanity of audience to respond for. So I knew that she was doing the same set, but a friend of mine who was not a comedian who was there with me, and she was there at both shows with me and said “I think she was funnier on Saturday. I think she did a better job on Saturday.” And to me, she did almost literally word for word exactly the same thing.
So my friend was seeing the reaction. She must have been doing something different in order to get that reaction. And maybe she was slightly. Maybe she fed off the energy slightly. But to me it seemed like she was doing literally the same set and got a completely different response, because from night to night, the audience is a variable factor. And I don’t think it’s useful practically to blame an audience. There is a range of audience to be like “That audience was more reactive than that audience.” But I’ve also seen some comedians go in front of a previously un-reactive audience and then bring them to life. If you think you can or think you can’t, either way you’ll be right. And if you see other people being like “Oh man, this audience. I don’t know. And maybe that will make you think “Well, I guess the best I can do is only okay. But if you think “This audience remembers me more because this is a brand new opportunity for both of us,” then it only makes sense to be optimistic in advance and then realistic in hindsight.
Is there a moment on the album that you weren’t sure if it’d work and you were happy to discover that it worked just as you had hoped for?
That is a good question. Over the course of creating an album, there are some jokes that come into being and are right quicker than others or at different times than others. And I’m like “Oh, I’m not worried about that one at all.” And then there’s others where… Even the whole album was worked out in advance with what I would say exactly. And then there’s a couple of jokes, like in the Nickelback chunk where some of it is me sharing my legit thoughts, in a comedic context. But that was one in particular that never settled exactly in my thing with the exact same words every time. So when I listen back to the four performances we recorded, they were like four slightly different ways that it came out. So I am glad that at least one of the ways that it came out was a way that I wanted it to or at least in retrospect got the reaction that I wanted it to. And there’s maybe one of two places like that on the album.
And the main answer would be the final minute of the album. There’s like a final few callbacks that only can work if the whole show has been successful. So by the final line working as well as it did, it infuses retroactively the rest of the album with success. And even though I was aware that it was going well the whole time, it’s nice to have that button as an additional extra confirmation that the show did what I wanted it to and what I hoped it would do.
Now finally, during these pretty strange times and with you having just cemented your last hour with this album, are you able to take these quarantined days and turn it into something creative?
I would say short answer, yes. Long answer, yeeeeeeees. I’m actually trying to figure out whose joke that is. I heard a comedian say that and I don’t know the original source. But it’s so useful in times like this. I mean, I think these two things can exist simultaneously, in a way. Mostly the challenges as well as the benefits that can arise.
Here’s a very specific, non-pandemic related example. Two weeks ago, my grandmother passed away at the age of 91.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
Thank you so much. It’s two weeks ago, that’s like almost years ago in pandemic time. She was going through some stuff. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was still a sad thing. My mother is her only child, I’m my mother’s only child. So the thing that’s come out of this is that I’ve been talking to my mother almost every day. Whereas like a year ago we’d maybe talk on the phone once a week. But in this time, due to both reasons, the uncertainty of the world, economy, and health and psychology and emotional state, and also the loss that we share in our family… The positive thing that has arisen from that is additionl amplified closeness with my mother that I’m very grateful for. I wouldn’t wish a person to have a loss so that one can experience this additional connection and communion and closeness with the people that are alive and around and we love. But it happens.
There’s a quote I love by Kalil Gibran from The Prophet that’s “The greater that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” And it’s not that the joy replaces the sorrow or makes the sorrow go away or you forget about the sorrow. It’s that the sorrow exists and then, when you can, you can find joy, find some things.
Here’s kind of a joke that I had the other day, or a thought I had shared with a friend about these times and my grandmother is that because now, so many people have more free time, it’s possible that there’s even more people that’s reaching out to me to express care and compassion and being there to talk if I need in my time of personal loss. And I’m like “Wow. Are there more people that are having more time to pour out this kindness and compassion into the world?” Or, even without the pandemic, would all these people be offering the same amount on just a different schedule, obviously. Not all day every day because they have to go to work. So I’m like it’s too bad that I didn’t have identical twin grandmothers that I couldn’t have one of them die during the pandemic, and have one of them die at a time that was completely unrelated to the pandemic so we could measure it and see how much people are going to react. And it’s a thought that I found funny and I thought “It helps me in my time of dealing with what I’m feeling and it might not be a joke for everyone.”
But to answer your question, yes. I do think that this time, and so frequently, comedy’s function needn’t be but can be to take difficult things, challenging things, horrifying things, scary things, uncertain things, and use them to connect with other people who are either experiencing the same thing or are learning about an individual experience. And in this case, it’s something communal that most people are sharing.
Myq Kaplan A.K.A. can be found here.