I had heard a lot about Matt Kirshen before talking to him, and I had always promised myself that I would eventually take the time to sit down and do more research on the fellow. The thing you need to know about me, though, is I like to pretend I'm a busy guy. Part of pretending you're a busy guy is you tend to spend a lot of time saying you're going to do something and then never actually doing it. He was name checked on a bunch of podcasts I listen to, comedian friends of mine spoke very highly of him, and the people whose opinions I trust on these matters all said that he was worth checking out. I would always say "Yeah, I'll Google him, I'll get right on that!", and would then go home, eat some Wheat Thins in the dark and pretend to be a mysterious rebel that did not have time for nice things.
Then, last fall, Kirshen came to Winnipeg as part of the Just for Laughs touring company, and did a surprise drop-in set at a show I was in. The fact that he was hilarious only made me feel like a bigger tool when I remembered that he was the guy I had been telling people I was going to check out for months. I did not introduce myself, because I assumed he would have somehow been able to tell that. That night, I went home and got his album (I Guess We'll Never Know), and vowed to myself that I would never neglect the wise words of everyone I knew ever again. Kirshen is definitely one of the sharpest comics working today, and I was a fool to have overlooked him for so long.
I'll be honest, it is doubtful I will live up to that vow. At least I'm saying that now, so when you find me in the Wheat Thin cave a few months from now ignoring another amazing comic, you can't say I didn't warn you. It was great talking to Matt Kirshen, though. We spoke about the nature of festivals all over the world, his science-based podcast ("Probably Science"), and how he crafts a set for a show where he is required to be 'Dark and Stormy'.
Matt Kirshen is one of the busiest performers at this year's Winnipeg Comedy Festival. He will be headlining at Rumor's Comedy Club (8:00pm) on Tuesday, April 10th; is part of "The Observational Comedy Disorder" Gala (9:15pm) on Friday, April 13th; and makes two appearances on Saturday, April 14th with "The Debaters" (2:00pm) and "The Dark and Stormy Show" (10:30pm). More information on these and the rest of the shows in the festival are available at winnipegcomedyfestival.com
J.D. Renaud: You've been to Winnipeg once before. What were your initial impressions of the city?
Matt Kirshen: I don't think I saw much of the above ground of the city. It was freezing. I hadn't realized the whole city has an underground network.
JD: It's essential. We need it.
MK: Yeah, a sort of underground community.
JD: You went all across Canada with the Just for Laughs tour. What do you think audiences in Winnipeg are responding to the most?
MK: I don't remember really, to be honest. Everyone at all the shows were there for the same reason, and it was always in a big theatre. I think the type of venue affects the type of audience far more than the location. The bar gig we did in Winnipeg was more responsive than the theatre gig, and the same is true of all the bar gigs we did across Canada. They were a good crowd at both shows in Winnipeg, though. They were sharp, they were attentive, they were responsive. It was cool.
JD: You've played festivals in the U.K., America, Australia, all over. Are Canadian audiences more responsive than audiences in other countries? I'm finding that we are considered a lot more reserved than the rest of the world can be sometimes.
MK: No, I think Canadian audiences are good. Canada sort of sits in that weird middle ground between the British audiences and the American ones. They're not as reserved as the British can be, and at the same time they're not as argumentative either. So no, I like them. You get the regional variances, American audiences can be more 'whoopy', Australian and British audiences can be more 'heckly', Dutch audiences are the most pragmatic and very stone-faced. You kind of have to explain to them that laughing is the appropriate reaction to comedy. The Dutch are the oddest audiences, because they'll sit there completely straight-faced through your set, and then applaud wildly at the end. I've worked in Holland, and I've had to explain to them at the beginning, "By the way, if you find something funny, laugh. The reaction will make us feel better about all of this as well." They take that in and go, "Okay, cool. Will do." They need to be told that, and need to be explained that that's what the rest of the world does when they respond to humour.
JD: You could just tell them that comedians are talking about them behind their back.
MK: I tell them to their faces. I'm all for honesty on stage. If they would just laugh more, it would really help us out a lot.
JD: I checked out your podcast ("Probably Science") and I really, really enjoyed it. What's the nexus of starting a podcast about science? I can tell all of you that are involved in it are very passionate about it, but that it's something you're not all 100% clear on all of the time.
MK: Exactly the case. All three of us on the podcast have vague science backgrounds, but we're not experts. I've got a math degree, Andy (Wood) has an engineering degree and worked as an engineer for a few of years, and Brooks (Wheelan) works as technician in a science lab. None of us are experts. I approached the other two because I knew they had science backgrounds, and I realized no one else was doing that. There were funny, topical news podcasts, and there were straight-faced topical science podcasts, but there were no podcasts doing the most up-to-date topical science with comedians. There are plenty of ones where comedians take straight from the news, but not the science news and certainly not from people who actually had a vague idea what they were talking about. It's quite a fun dynamic, because for every topic at least one of us sort of has a grasp on it. Whenever one of us does and the other two don't, we can always drop down into the idiot roles while the other person explains it. We've had guests on who so far at least have had no scientific expertise, either.
JD: The one I listened to was with Kyle Kinane. He did his part and he was enthusiastic, but he admitted several times throughout that he really had no idea what you guys were talking about a lot of the time. It was hilarious.
MK: That's great, thank you. Kyle is a hilarious comedian and has no scientific knowledge whatsoever. It's really fun kind of going, "Ok, well, not only do we have to get the jokes out, but we're explaining these topics. We have to make sure the guest can understand it." The guest is not only there to be funny, but is also the barometer of whether or not we're getting the point across as well as explaining the news.
JD: You're also doing the "Dark and Stormy" show this year, which usually sells out and has gained a lot of infamy at the festival. I've kind of gotten the sense by seeing that show in years past that there is a friendly competition between the comedians in that show to try to out-do the previous act and have the most remembered set of the night.
MK: I hadn't realized what a big deal it was. You're the second journalist who specifically brought that show up over all the others. My problem is that I have a big smiley face and an English accent, so whatever I say always comes across as generally nice. It's quite remarkable. I could come off stage having just finished a long sex story and then tell a joke full of swear words, but after the show I'll have someone come up to me and say, "I like how you didn't use profanity and kept it clean." I didn't at all, but clearly that's how it came across, just with the combination of how I look and sound.
JD: Have you put any thought into what your set for that show is going to be? I get the feeling that they want to be offended by a nice man with a good smile and a cheerful accent.
MK: I really don't know what I'm going to do on stage until about three minutes beforehand.
JD: Is that all sets pretty much?
MK: At something like the gala, you kind of have to decide in advance what you're going to do because you have to let them know. They have to clear it for TV, lawyers have to look at your material and make sure you're not going to get them in trouble. Generally when I'm doing normal gigs I used to plan everything out, but nowadays I just go on stage. I might know where I'm starting for my first few minutes, and then from then on I'll just see where it goes.
JD: Do you write anything resembling a set-list before a show? Say you're doing an hour, do you have it in your head how you are getting from point A to point B?
MK: If I'm doing a festival one-man show then yes, but only if it's a specific show where I know where I'm going. If I'm doing a headlining set at a comedy club where I'm just there to make the audience laugh for an hour, I'll maybe know where I'm starting and then I'll kind of let the audience take me the rest of the way. Maybe I'll talk to someone in the audience, then that will take me in a different direction, then that will make me think of something else, and so on. The set at Rumor's will be like that. I'll know what the first few minutes of my set will be, but beyond that I'll have no idea what I'm going to do.
JD: Your album released a few years ago (I Guess We'll Never Know) got a lot of acclaim. Do you have any sort of plan on how you're going to keep releasing material?
MK: It was really nice, a lot of comedy websites gave it a really good rating. I've been noticing that a lot of people have been finding my album through places like Pandora or Spotify. People discovering my album through places like that have been great, because it means that maybe when I come through their town they will be more likely to come see me. People are far more likely to buy it on Amazon or iTunes, or hear about it on satellite radio or something. I'm tempted to record a new album soon, because I know I've written an hour worth of good material since the last one came out. As far as how I'm going to release it, I don't know. Louis CK kind of broke the mold when he self-released his special. Of course, he's in a much more privileged position because he has millions of fans. Still, it's an interesting thing. When he did that, I know a lot of comedians took notice. I know Jim Gaffigan is doing the same thing. Sure, I can't afford a six camera shoot in a massive theatre, but I could still do a smaller production, release it myself and recoup the cost. It's worth thinking about.
JD: Are you going anywhere after the Winnipeg Festival that you want people to know about?
MK: I'll be back in London for a month, then America, but the best way to keep up on that is to go to mattkirshen.com, or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. If you Google me, I'm still the only person with that name.
JD: I checked, if you type "Matt Ki" into Google you're the first name that comes up, so you're off to a good start.
MK: That's good to know. In the UK Matt King still beats me.
JD: Well, not here. You're moving up in the world.
MK: Great, excellent. I can pretend I'm more famous there than I actually am.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.