I met up with Nick Vatterott in the new “alt mecca” that is Williamsburg, Brooklyn where we arrived wearing the exact same London Fog overcoat (“Take that, Nick Turner!”). He hands me the new promo item for his debut album, For Amusement Only, something he sees as the future of comedians hawking merch after shows. Instead of carrying around a big box of CDs, he hands me a card with a download code that he can sell for less cost. He knows some people may not be 100 percent comfortable not taking home a CD in their hands like they’re used to, but Vatterott’s download cards are not like others. It’s a flip book of him acting out the concept of his album artwork, which is him bursting his head and hands through a board and becoming a human pinball machine. I laugh when he hands me this because it’s so “Nick Vatterott” of him.
Nick Vatterott is not a traditional stand-up comedian, but he doesn’t want you to call him “alternative” either. Vatterott prefers his act be labeled “no-name” comedy, but one could never watch his creatively bold material and not think of it as a product of the alternative movement that has taken place over the last 20 years. Whether it’s zany concept material like doing comedy as an unintelligable monster or battling the common tropes of stand-up, the Chicago-native is always trying to come up with a unique idea that allows him and the audience to have fun.
It’s that type of drive that earned him a slot on Montreal’s Just For Laughs New Faces showcase in 2010 and won him the prestigious Andy Kaufman Award in 2011. In just the past few years, he has been let loose upon the national stage with several late-night talk show appearances, a special for Comedy Central’s The Half Hour and his own TV show with T.J. Miller, the sketch-comedy/stand-up hybrid show Mash-Up. Now his first stand-up comedy album For Amusement Only is available on iTunes from Comedy Central Records. Vatterott and I talked about how he keeps his material fresh and fun, audience perception, and what he thinks is really at the heart of comedy.
So I listened to the album. When it finished on the final track, I realized I had been listening to the whole thing on shuffle, which is totally the Nick Vatterott way of listening to a Nick Vatterott album.
That’s amazing. That’s how it should be done. God, now I want to do a conceptual thing where you have to listen on shuffle and everybody gets a different experience.
It should come with that instruction.
That’s so funny! Call backs become call forwards. You’re like, “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe he had the foresight!” At first I thought you were going to say at the end there was a hidden track, so hidden I didn’t even know about it. But maybe there’s a better running order that you found than the one I put together.
It was fun. You had this director’s commentary running through the whole album. It was so meta.
It’s such a fun thing to play with live on stage, to have a director’s commentary happen. To do it on the album and have it make sense, even if it’s shuffled, was super fun. It was an idea that I was sort of playing with for a long time. You know one of those things you wrote in your notebook late one night? “What if a director’s commentary pops on during the live show?” Then I just didn’t know how to do it and forgot about it. Then I was on tour with T.J. Miller last February and we did this tour, 20 cities in 25 days or something like that. I don’t want to say it’s really easy to get bored of your act that fast, but after so many shows, about halfway through the tour, I’m thinking, “What’s something else that would be fun to do?”
It was in between shows in Cuyahoga Falls I was going through notebooks. I wasn’t super psyched about the first show; it was fine. I wanted the show to go well, but I felt like I was doing a show that I was just hoping went well and wasn’t doing a show that was fun for myself. So in between shows, I gotta do something fun for me for the second show and I was looking through an old notebook when I found, “Do director’s commentary the whole way through.” Now during that tour, I had been doing a thing where I plug my phone in on stage and mess with my own sound cues and do my own weird stuff. I pre-recorded a bunch of stuff and figured I could deliver it that way. There was one joke I was getting super frustrated by. It had been working in super alt-y rooms, but when I was going in front of clubs they were kind of just staring at me. It was happening every time, so I thought, “That would be hilarious to have a pre-recorded bit where I call out the fact that they’re just sort of staring at me.”
There’s such a different world between alt rooms and comedy clubs. There’s a difference of expectation, a different perception of what’s about to happen. Comedy club audiences have a preconceived notion or expectation of what’s about to go down and if it doesn’t completely fit into that expectation, or if you don’t lead them along into your world, they get a little off-put by something that wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.
“Where’s the Seinfeld?”
Yea, where’s the “busting our balls”? Where’s the making fun of us? But if you do it in the back of a bar, a black box theater or a rock and roll club, they’re going, “This already feels different than a comedy club.” So when the comedy’s a little bit not exactly in the vain of a comedy club-type show, people are already comfortable with that because the context of the comedy is different. Also, the people who go to comedy in black box theaters or rock clubs are more open to what it could be. Their expectations are removed. Comedy club audiences, by no fault of their own, just don’t see as much comedy. They’re just going out to have a good time. It’s by no fault of their own that there are some jokes that they just stare at.
I think the reason that mainstream audiences often aren’t in love with the types of comedy that happen in those alt rooms is because there’s a disconnect. Not that all of alt comedy is commenting on stand-up comedy, but let’s say in an alt room you make fun of a nuance in comedy. That audience is in on the joke, so you connect with that audience. If you make fun of a nuance in stand-up at a stand-up comedy club, not everybody is familiar with the nuances so there’s a disconnect of what he’s talking about. That’s why it’s really easy to make a comedy club show work better by coming out and connecting with the audience: talking to them, getting on the same page as them. Sort of like putting your cell phone/getting drunk, relationship, marijuana, Internet humor at the top, that humor they connect with better.
Then you can kind of go into your weirder stuff. That’s a way to connect with an audience is at the top. Even though I’m not in love with flip phone humor, it’s kind of a trick to get that audience into your sensibility. But if you come right out and do “Monster Hands”, they’re like, “What? I can’t connect with that. That’s not something I can relate to.” To do that type of joke at the top and then have that pre-recorded comment that they don’t connect with this— that is funny. As the rest of that tour went on and I was doing more of that director’s commentary, there were things that would happen as I did that that I could add on to the commentary to comment on that. Even when I was doing the director’s commentary, that first night when I did it, they’re still going, “Why is he not busting our balls? Why is he not talking about getting drunk? Why is he not talking about the things that I’ve observed in life, the things that I’ve thought?”
Really the heart of comedy, the thing that strikes the chord with the most amount of people, is coming up with that thing that everybody thinks that no one’s thought about. That [make you] go, “I’ve thought that! I just never thought about how I think that.” Then they go, “I’ve thought that, too,” and that’s why people nod their head up and down. That’s why they clap because they go, “Yes! I’ve also thought that, too!”
So after a couple of nights of them just staring at me doing the directory’s commentary, I said, “Fuck it. I’m gonna comment about how you’re staring at the director’s commentary.” Then I think they finally have something to connect to. “Oh! Finally something I do think about what’s happening right now.” Then you start to build that connection with the audience. It’s fun for me because I’m not whipping out the getting drunk jokes just to serve the purpose of connecting to them.
You’re not pandering.
Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. I feel like I’m connecting with them in a way about what I think is funny. Now you’re sitting there going, “Yes, I did think this is weird and you are calling it out. Okay, I’ll see where this goes because I’m not sure I know what’s happening.”
It’s almost your way of busting their balls, commenting on their thoughts.
Right, but not in any way of, “I’m so smart.” At that point, I’m just having fun. You may not find any substance to any of this, but at this point you’ll get that I’m just trying to have fun with the whole thing. God forbid you had fun in comedy.
Tell me about your first set.
My first set I went up and bombed. It was a comedy contest where they put three guys who’ve never done comedy before. Those three guys went up and did five minutes each, then the feature and the headliner went up. It was Déjà Vu Comedy Club. I told a bunch of Ecstasy jokes because it was 2001 and it was the new thing everyone was talking about. So I did all these Ecstasy jokes and the audience had no idea what I was talking about. I ate it and the feature went up on stage and completely threw me under the bus, made fun of me like, “Got the raver comedian up here. How many drugs has that guy done?” Then afterwards he came up to me. I thought he was going to apologize or give me notes or give me some sense of encouragement but then he came up and said, “Hey man, know where I can get some Ecstasy?” I told him, “We’re going to some party. I might be able to get you some there. So we went to the party and found him some guy who got him Ecstasy.” That was my first networking.
Some [new comics] will hit me up for notes, but there’re not better notes than that audience that night. There’s no better director for your stand-up than the audience. There’s no better input that you can get from anybody on how your act is than those people who laugh at that joke. I feel like you need to give a joke ten times. Which I think is a little over— and it’s also just a round number. If you do a joke ten times, you should get a sense if that joke is good or not. A lot of times we do a joke one time and it kills and we chase that dragon. There’s something about that first time that we can’t capture again. You do a joke the first time it doesn’t do well, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad joke. Give it a couple more times. If you think it’s funny, give it a couple more go’s. If you do it five times in a row and it works every time, good chance you’ve got a good joke. If it bombs five times in a row, it’s probably a bad joke. If it’s going either way, I think you can tell after ten times if it’s good or not. There are so many variables: bad audience, you’re not you, maybe the momentum of the show is bad, maybe the comedian in front of you did something weird. I think after ten times all of the variables kind of even out.
A lot of people use the term “alt comedy” for things or “alternative,” but you really are an alternative comedian. You’re different. Your Late Night with Jimmy Fallon set is one of my favorite late night sets, by far, because it’s something I’ve never seen before. Did you ever start trying to do traditional stand-up or have you always been doing something a little quirky?
I think in the beginning I was just trying to get laughs for five minutes, whatever that was. In Chicago, every Monday night there was this thing, the Lion’s Den mic. That was sort of how all these Chicago comics know each other. It was a great comraderie. It was actually the highlight show of the week. No show had as much prestige as the open mic on Mondays at the Lion’s Den. Everybody in the scene was there and you had to bring it. Because you would see comic after comic after comic: [Kyle] Kinane and Hannibal [Buress] and T.J. Miller and Jared Logan and Pete Holmes and Kumail [Nanjiani]. Everybody was just crushing. But also, there was an amazing crowd there every week but it was kind of the same people so I kind of felt like I couldn’t lean on the same material ever. I was almost a little OCD about it that I wanted to do a completely new five minutes every week, for better or worse. I did that for years until the Lion’s Den closed down.
When you sort of set that up, you kind of do a lot of weird stuff just to fill that five new minutes every week. So some weeks you kind of have the “waiting tables” five minutes. You also have stuff like, what if I did a weird character for five minutes? What if I went up there and just talked for five minutes about how I lost my milk jugs and how sad it is that you lost your milk jugs, and then somebody yells out, “Your milk jugs are behind the stage!” and you get up and do a big Dirty Dancing-themed song and dance with milk jugs. I don’t think I would have thought of that the first week of stand-up in any dimension but after you try to fill five minutes every week, you start trying anything that you think is funny.
That was also a really supportive room that was really open to whatever. Brady Novak used to go on stage and say, “Guys, I can fall asleep at will.” Then he would spend his whole five minutes trying to fall asleep at will. Anytime the audience would laugh he would say, “Guys, I need complete silence,” and they would keep laughing. It was one of the most hysterical things I had ever seen. “You’ll know I’m asleep because I’ll put my left hand up in the air.” Or T.J. MIller would get up there in camoflauge and have a fake toy gun and would try to attack the audience.
Or he’d have a ball-and-cup and in between jokes, he couldn’t tell the next joke until he got the ball in the cup. I love that people were trying whatever. That was so awesome and inspiring. It fueled this whole thing that you can do whatever on stage. Of course, you go outside the Lion’s Den and you go to clubs and realize there’s a different perception of what’s happening. That was my introduction to stand-up comedy, was that scenario. Especially in Chicago, there was nothing to gain and nothing to lose. There weren’t a lot of industry there. In New York, you’re watching your peers get this or who’s watching this show. In Chicago, there’s no NBC in the audience. There’re no agents or managers. It’s just art for the sake of art.
It sounds like a playground.
It totally was! You know, you talk about alternative comedy and I don’t even know what that means anymore. In Chicago, we had heard of alternative comedy, but we didn’t really know what it was. We were sort of doing it. We were just trying whatever we thought was funny, stand-up being your own sort of one-person show until you get offstage. Why does it have to be specifically social commentary or specifically one-liners? It can be anything you want it to be. When I first found out what quote-unquote alternative comedy was, it just seemed like comedy that wasn’t in a comedy club.
You know and then when guys like Bill Burr and a lot of other guys started shitting on alternative comedy, I completely agreed with every qualm they had about it. There’s a guy, Ken Barnard, he started calling it “performance comedy” or something like that. I tried doing a show one time calling it “alternative stand-up theater.” Anytime you start to bring— perception is such an obstacle to maneuver in comedy, like the comedy club thing. At a comedy club, there’s a perception that you have to maneuver with that audience. When you hear the term “alternative,” you have a perception of what that is going to be. You picture a comic with their notes out on stage listlessly leaning against the wall telling quirky stories about their day. That’s not all that it is. I almost feel like to label anything alternative sort of sets up expectations. I like no-name comedy. No labels.
You’re the a-gendered people of comedy.
I want no label. That’s my label. [No Label] is my favorite label.
I think you really do that on the album. I listened to it, in order, today. There are these big chunks that sound like stand-up but then all of a sudden I’ll get reminded that this Is Nick Vatterott, whether it’s the director’s commentary or some kind of odd thing that you do. It was a great mix of the two.
I like framework a lot in comedy. Whether it’s The Set List set or for a whole show to have a framework to it. Even if it’s just me doing the marijuana material, which is a beaten to death topic, and I know it’s not the most original subject matter in the world, but I do still enjoy telling those jokes. The album is sort of like my ideal show. That’s why I did it at Chicago Underground Comedy. That’s my favorite place in the world to do stand-up because I used to be able to try out whatever there. To go there and do this mix of weirder and alternative stuff, or the no-name comedy stuff, with the stuff that I do at the clubs, is awesome. I do like telling those jokes because even though they’re marijuana jokes, they’re my version of marijuana jokes.
So long as you’re having fun! It seems like that’s what you do. That’s what the album did and shows like Mash-Up. It seems like you’re about the fun.
It should be fun! It should be ridiculous. I would eventually like for the act to be bigger than the venue. I would like to not have to cater or pander that night based on where I am at. I liked going to a place to do an album where I was free to do whatever. I hate that I’ve compromised what I want to do because I want more work at a club. Or I give up working at a club because I stuck to my guns of what I want to do. That’s the challenge is to find a way to do as close to what you want to do wherever you go.
There’s a decision I feel I have to make when I go on the road. Do I give them what they want or do I give them what I want to do? I’ve done shows where I’ve done what I want at that club and that club never asked me back. I stuck to my guns, but I’m a broke comedian. I could use the work. I’ve done other clubs where I go, “Okay, I’m going to give them what they want,” and I’ve been asked back and have gotten more work out of it but I also leave that club that week feeling like I pandered. I feel a little empty inside. I think the goal is to figure out how to meld the two together.
Check out Nick Vatterott’s website www.nickvatterott.com for more of his videos. Nick Vatterott has a podcast, The Nick Vatterott Show, where every week Nick Vatterott doesn’t show up and “someone” fills in for him. For Amusement Only is now available on iTunes.