An Interview With Comedian John Roy
Comedian John Roy was in town a few months ago at the Grog Shop opening for James Adomian and he killed. If you missed it, no worries, he’ll be back at Reddstone this Wednesday! Tickets are only $7 at the door and it’s $5 burger and a beer night at Reddstone so it’ll be a very thrifty and insanely fun time for anyone who comes out.
Ramon Rivas: You’ve lived kind of everywhere. I’ve heard your name as a Chicago guy and you seem pretty well known in NY. What was your path to the west coast?
John Roy: I was a Chicago boy most of my life, growing up in Rogers park on the north side. I started in the Chicago comedy scene doing standup and improv and later concentrated on standup when it started to pay. I got a break in 2003 when I won the CBS Star Search reboot with Arsenio Hall and moved to Los Angeles after that. I’ve been in LA ever since. I did spend the summer of 2012 living in NYC working on the material that would become my 2013 album “Alexander Hamilton” on AST Records.
RR Having lived in most of the major comedy cities, can you give like a synopsis/rundown of the scenes in each?
JR: Chicago is an amazing scene to start standup. It wasn’t that way when I began, but since the late 90s, as people like Kyle Kinane, Deon Cole, Hannibal Buress, Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes, TJ Miller, and Matt Braunger began to make it, interest in standup began to build from a trickle to a flood. When I started there was one club in the city limits, one showcase room, and three open mics. Now there are 4 clubs, 10 showcase rooms in bars and theaters, and 15 open mics. There is no better regional scene in the country.
NYC has the most clubs and shows and there are attentive audiences all over the city. Standup is part of the culture in a way that it isn’t anywhere else. If you want the highest concentration of opportunity to do standup, NYC is the place, and that’s why I went there to develop my album.
LA has a wonderful standup scene where the best in the country do great stuff every night, but there aren’t as many shows and they are further from each other.
But Los Angeles is where you really learn to be a good comic because on any show, even a tiny show in a Chinese restaurant, you will be following the greatest comics in the world. Following Louis CK, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford on the same show is common there. Los Angeles is where you find out if you really have the goods to be a comedian, and it was a real awakening for me moving from the Midwest. I really had to step up my game.
RR How often are you touring these days? You’re currently living in LA?
JR: I live in west Hollywood but I am touring nearly half the year. LA is great to get seen by the industry and develop projects but there are way too many comics to make a lot of money there. You got to hit the road to earn real money from standup.
RR: You won Star Search back in 2003? How far into your comedy career were you? Did you feel ready for the opportunities that presented itself after that?
JR: Six years. And no, I wasn’t ready. I was headlining for more money than my act was worth and for a couple years it was a struggle. But I felt like moving forward was the only option. I couldn’t go back to being a middle so I just had to learn to swim in the ocean. I messed up some opportunities but I didn’t see any other way to do it. It was another two years before I felt I was a “real comic” skill wise and also before I was on TV again.
RR: What happened during those two years that helped level you up, for lack of a better term? What was the most important swimming lesson you learned during the rough patches?
JR: I just got to see good comics and go up in a more high pressure environment until my comedy muscles developed. One of the big lessons was how to follow a huge star. They’d bring off Chris Rock and they were just beaming from their celebrity encounter and then it’s like, “Who’s this not famous guy?” And it can bury your set. I learned to just keep the applause going and kiss the guy’s ass a bit more. “Can you believe you got to see Chris Rock?” for another minute and a half until you ring it all out of them and they are ready to listen after that.
RR: Your podcast Don’t Ever Change, has had some pretty stellar guests, how did the podcast come about and what do you do to make it stand out over others?
JR: I was originally going to do a podcast about the guest’s home town, but there was another podcast doing something similar (unknown to me) and when they heard about our idea they threatened us with lawsuits. Their threats were without merit, but I didn’t want to feel I was doing something someone else did. My mom suggested modifying it to high school and honesty I feel like that really deepened the places we can go.
Everyone went to high school and it really shaped them as people, so I am amazed by the different stories we get. And I still get to talk about their hometown in the first twenty minutes so I feel I get the best of both concepts. With the amount of podcasts out there, you really need to set yourself apart. Howard Kremer told me that and I am glad I listened.
RR: Any favorite episodes that you’d recommend a first time listener check out? And how about you get to book your dream interview for Don’t Ever Change, who is it any why?
JR: To get the range of what the different episodes can be, from serious to funny, listen to Moshe Kasher, Barry Rothbart, and my personal favorite, Howard Kremer. I think those give a good range of what we’re doing. My dream guest would be Steve Martin, because he was actually performing magic and comedy professionally at an amusement park when he was 15. Would love to know what that was like.
RR: Last time you came to town was with James Adomian. Do you tour with pals like that often or was it just a case of wonderful circumstances that led you to traveling together?
JR: That’s actually one of the first times I toured with a friend. James and I are frequent writing partners, having done “Maron in Space” for IFC and Funny or Die together. We had a video to write for Funny or Die featuring James as Jesse Ventura and our schedules didn’t really line up so I figured we could tour together and then write the video during that week and it worked out well.
RR: That brings up an interesting question. Would you prefer to tour with friends or hope that the comics you’re working with out on the road are cool? There’s a fine balance. A lot of more established comics will bring their own feature so they have someone to hang out with.
JR: I would much prefer to tour with friends. Mostly because I’ll have someone to hang with, and also someone who I trust enough to talk about our acts, and the show will be good. Your jokes get better with a respected colleague watching the development process. I can bring features to a lot of clubs and I would do it more, but feature money can be not large enough incentive to offer to a lot of my friends. “Hey man, want to fly from the west coast to Ohio and back for four hundred bucks?” It’s not a very enticing offer.
RR: Drugs are influential for a lot of comedians, have you ever experimented and gone onstage to perform?
JR: Yes, and it’s always the kind of experiment where the lab explodes. I can’t perform standup intoxicated. I just feel the difference in sharpness when I get up there. The joints must be smoked after the show or at least three hours before or it’s bad news for everyone in the room.
RR: You’ve appeared on Conan a few times the past few years. Can you walk us thru the preparation of a set for late night, submitting, polishing, etc? Was it easier the second time or just as challenging?
JR: I have actually only done Conan once. But I did the Tonight Show, two Craig Ferguson appearances, and premium blend. Late night sets are a collaboration between you and the booker and it is a piecemeal process of approval on each second of the act. I just started the process with the Seth Myers show and it is always intense. When you look at your act and you start looking at what can go on TV and what doesn’t need other jokes in your act to make sense, filling five minutes gets a lot harder than you thought it would.
RR: Now that you’ve done it a few times, do you write bits that automatically fit the TV mold/parameters or do you continue to just create and adjust them after the fact from the booker’s feedback/input?
JR: It would be easier if I just wrote for television but I don’t work that way. I think the best way to write is to write the truest material to the way I deliver jokes and what I think is funny and then worry about getting something on TV later. My material has a whole life beyond one TV set, and making sure it is funny and true to me is more important than one five minute set, even if it will be on the web forever.
RR: Music has categories like folk, pop, rap etc., to help casual music fans kind of find stuff that fits their palate. How would you label your comedy,and what band are you analogous to?
JR:I think once you start labeling comedy you are in iffy territory. My comedy is “John Roy Comedy” just as any other comic’s material is their own as well. I’m not sure there are two stand ups alive that are so similar that they share a “genre” beyond something as basic as “Dmitri Martin and Nick Thune do one liners” but even then there is something that makes them unlike each other.
RR: Alright, so I’m going to address this now and move on: you look exactly like Cleveland comedian Chris Hegedus. Like, exactly. Like a before and slightly before shot. Was it weird working with someone that looks like an alternate reality version of yourself?
JR: It was, but if I ever got confused, I would just look at my jeans. Chris wears black jeans and tucks his t shirts into them, both of which I would never do. It was a fun week though. Chris is a good guy and he made an off season (no tourists) week in myrtle Beach tolerable. You need someone to laugh with after you both bombed in front of nine people.
RR: On that note, if you could create an alternate reality split off from one moment, what would that moment be and what would that reality be like?
JR: I’d like to go back and buy apple stock with my Star Search winnings. Hopefully that reality would involve way less stress and way more lobster.