Stand-up comic Phil Hanley has had a great last couple years since moving from Vancouver to New York to take his comedy career to the next level. He's appeared multiple times on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, as well as shown up on John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show on Comedy Central. He's also a regular at many of the top clubs in New York City.
But when I spoke with Hanley in advance of his upcoming apperances at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, I learned that the move from Vancouver to New York was not easy. Despite a burgeoning career back in Canada (appearing multiple times on CBC's The Debaters and having a Comedy Now special), it was basically like starting over, having to fight for stage time as an unknown -- granted, an unknown with lots of proven material!
Hanley and I talked about that transition, how the tough New York scene motivates him, the (sometimes frustrating) need to have a social media presense (he's @, and what Winnipeg audiences should expect to see from him at this year's festival. If you do happen to be in the Manitoba capital this week, be sure to check out the Saturday, April 12 Late Gala ("Special Delivery", hosted by Tom Green) at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre at 9:15pm, or the Sunday, April 13 taping of CBC's The Debaters at The Metropolitan Entertainment Centre beginning at 2:00pm.
For information about all the great shows at this year's festival, and to pick up your tickets, visit winnipegcomedyfestival.com.
Paul Little: As cliche an opening question as it is, what first brought you to the stage the first time you performed stand-up?
Phil Hanley: I had done improv before, and a friend of mine who I'd improvised with was encouraging me to do stand-up. He thought it was something I'd be good at. And after putting it off for a long, long time, I finally just tried it.
PL: And obviously something about it made you want to keep doing it.
PH: Oh absolutely. I remember my sister came to the show, and I remember walking back -- it was like 20 steps to the table -- and I rememmber thinking, "How can I do that again?" It wasn't even the next day -- it was like the second I got off the stage I realized it was something I had to do again.
PL: That's awesome, when you can have that instant reaction.
PH: Yeah, I don't know if I've ever had that any other time in my life.
PL: Well then I guess you're doing the right thing!
PH: Yeah, it was definitely what I wanted to do. And then over the years, I remember talking to comics who are on the fence about maybe doing something else, and I've just never questioned my decision to do stand-up.
PL: You're based in New York now, but you spent quite a lot of time touring across Canada before that. What was it like back when you were paying your dues working clubs and gigs across Canada before you ventured into the U.S.?
PH: At the time, it was great. I certainly had gigs I was happy to do then that I wouldn't contemplate doing now, but I loved it. In Vancouver, you go to Kelowna a lot -- there are lots of smaller towns in B.C. -- and you can play a lot of rough shows. Or even right in Vancouver, I knew I had to get out as often as I could. So I did a lot of bad gigs, even in the city, but at the time it was just building skills that I needed. And now that I get to do better gigs and stuff, I don't need those skills as much. Like when you're starting out, it's not just that you're performing for people that might not like your comedy -- like, they're not there for comedy at all. You're just forcing them into a show. They're the complete opposite of a captive audience.
PL: Have you found that you've had to do a little bit of that again since you moved down to New York, or did you establish yourself enough that you got a head start in the U.S.?
PH: I felt when I left Canada -- people say, "It's so hard going to New York, and it's so weird to start again," but I thought, "Ah, it'll be fine!" But no, I absolutely started from scratch again. It was tough at the very beginning, but you have all that experience behind you, so you're able to make a good first impression. I think if you move anywhere you're kind of starting from scratch, but the thing about New York is there are so many people -- if you move to a smaller scene, you can move up quickly because people are excited to have a new person. But if you move to New York, people are like, "Oh geez, another comedian?" No one wants another comedian. Clubs don't want another person. At shows, no one's excited that you're there.
PL: *laughs* Even though obviously there are more comics in New York, there are also more clubs than any other city other than maybe L.A. So is there at least a little more balance there, with places to get stage time?
PH: There are just so many comics. There are a lot of clubs, but there are also a lot of famous comedians -- the best comedians in the world live in New York. And the reason they're so good is that they work; they're always working on a special or working on new things. So it's not just that there are a lot of comics. Even though there are more clubs, it doesn't really balance out. Like I'm phoning into clubs for spots, and the booker is looking at my name and then looking at the guys who I watched even before I started comedy, guys I was looking up to. You would think that it balances out, but the city is so swamped with comics. And there's a huge up-side, because you get to watch these guys, and the fact that New York is so competitive, people are just so driven. I think when you see guys like Louis C.K., you see their special and you just assume that they just sit down one afternoon and write an hour. But (in New York) you get to see these guys that you look up to working on new jokes, showing up and doing multiple spots at night, you kind of come to terms that this is the process. And obviously, it's easier for someone who's been doing it for 25 years, but you realize you're on the right track doing what you're doing because you see the people you look up to doing the same thing.
PL: Yeah, and I'm sure it serves as motivation. Like, "I have to put in the time, 'cause even these big names are putting in the time."
PH: Absolutely, it's so motivating. And then you have friends pitching TV shows and stuff like that, and you kind of see the process and that's really motivating, too. The plus side is so great that it's certainly worth it. But I was surprised -- it took a long time. You can have a great set, but so did the guy who's been friends with the booker for 10 years. You have to be really patient as you ingratiate yourself into the scene.
PL: I'm certain I've seen your Comedy Now special, but when your name popped up that you were coming to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, I immediately thought of your appearances on The Late Late Show. Do you like working for television, which you'll be doing again here at the festival? I know it often involves perfecting a short set rather than having the room to develop things with a club gig or even your own special.
PH: I love the TV stuff. I mean, I love doing longer sets and having the freedom to riff and expand jokes and stuff like that, but I really like putting together a (tight) set and trying to figure out what to call back or which joke works best at the end. I really enjoy that.
PL: I saw a YouTube video from the digital series "Modern Comedian" about you and your crowd work, and how it may go back to your improv background a little bit and how you can be quick with things. How much of your longer shows involve crowd work, and is that something you like to keep in your back pocket?
PH: It's not really an influence from taking improv classes and doing improv scenes. It came from doing rough gigs where, you know, I had to direct the show directly to or about the audience to get their attention and then lead it into a joke or whatever. And it varies, depending on the night and the audience and what's going on with the crowd. If I'm at a club, and it's a late show on a weekend and people are drunk, and weird things are happening in the room, I'll totally run with the situation. Where as if I'm in a theatre and people are more well-behaved, it'll probably less improvising and more my act. But even that can vary depending on the evening. I try to not plan it out to much, and just wait and see what direction the show's gonna go in.
PL: Has your approach to joke-writing evolved a lot since you first started? I know a lot of people have called you a really skilled joke writer, so I'm just curious about the process and if it's changed at all over time?
PH: I've always kind of told shorter jokes. But I'm mixing it up more, so there are jokes, but if I'm doing a longer set I might tell a story, and that's something that's developed over the last year or so. I guess it is changing, although besides the stories, I would look at a joke and say that it's different than I used to write -- but it's pretty subtle. So I don't know, if you've seen me a year ago, you might not notice. But I'm more open to, if a story happens, I'll try to tell that. I like the idea of being able to vary it throughout the set.
PL: A lot of comics have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. It's a great platform to able to tell short jokes that may not be a part of your set, but at the same time, once people start seeing that, they expect you to be funny on there with regularity. How have you approached social media as a stand-up comic?
PH: This is a really bad thing. I mean, I'm motivated to sit down and write, and do as many shows as I can do. But the social media side, which is such an essential part of show business now, I'm just not as motivated. And I'm getting better. Part of it is that I'm dyslexic, so Twitter's not -- I'm better vocally than I am writing something down and having it punctuated properly and spelled properly. But it's something that I should embrace more. It's even to the point now where audience members are coming up to me and saying, "Hey man, you really should put more stuff online."
I'm having a little bit more fun doing it these days, but if I'm gonna write a joke, I'm not thinking, "I want to try this on Twitter." I'm like, "I want to do this in front of a crowd." To me, the fun is having a new idea, and saying it into a microphone and seeing if people agree or people think it's funny. I mean, some people love Twitter, and tweet all the time. Another thing is, because I'm dyslexic, I'm with a friend and they're tweeting as we're chatting. And for me, I feel like I've gotta tell them to turn the music down at the coffee shop, take a few deep breaths, and really concentrate on getting the correct spelling and all that stuff. So it's not a lot of fun, and even though I'll sometimes enjoy it, it's not something that comes naturally.
PL: Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming appearances at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival? You're doing the Saturday Late Gala called "Special Delivery" with Tom Green Hosting, and then you're doing a Debaters recording as well. What can people look forward to with those two very different appreances.
PH: Yeah, I haven't been to the Winnipeg festival yet, so I'm looking forward to it. The Debaters is one of my favourite things that I get to do -- I've been doing them for maybe five years or something. It's so fun to do. Steve (Patterson) is so skilled at his job -- he's so perfect to host The Debaters -- and he's really fun to be on stage with. And Richard (Side), the producer of the show, is really great to work with. So I'm really looking forward to that. And any time you can do a short set at a theatre show, it's always really fun. I'm extremely excited about Winnipeg.
PL: The galas in Winnipeg are always themed. Have you tailored a set specifically for the "Special Delivery" theme?
PH: Yeah, I pitched part of my act that isn't just straight jokes, and they liked it, so I'm excited to do it!
PL: Beyond the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, what's next for you?
PH: Coming up I'm doing The Pete Holmes Show. I'm excited about that. And I'm doing more festivals in Canada -- I have the Halifax Comedy Festival coming up. So I'm basically on the road all of April. And my favourite thing to do these days is just to be in New York and run around town and do the clubs in the city. When I first started in comedy, I saw the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian, and that's what he was doing. So even before I started, I was like, "Oh my God, if I could do anything, I'd be in New York City, running around, and doing spots at all these clubs." So that's what I have planned for May. So the next couple months, it'll be fun to be on the road, do the festivals, and do a TV taping, and then I'm excited to come back to the city and start working on new stuff and doing as many spots as I can.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)