Two Dinners With Comic Dan Soder
by Chris Shott
In Food Republic’s new column, Bang Bang Talky Talk, we take a cue from comedian Louis C.K. and bring interesting people to dinner — twice, in rapid succession (bang bang!) — in the hopes of coming back with a doubly good interview. Next up: actor and comedian Dan Soder, whose first hour-long standup special, Not Special, premieres on Comedy Central on Saturday, May 21, at 11 p.m. ET/PT.
Soder, 32, doesn’t drink. Not anymore anyway. So instead of cold beers, we’re sucking down Jarritos-brand Mexican sodas sometime after midnight at Coppelia, the 24-hour Latin-themed diner in New York City. “Another Tamarind please!” Soder shouts to our server.
But don’t call him Dan Sober. As he frequently confesses during his standup routines, the guy smokes “a lot of pot” — or, perhaps more accurately, “enough fucking pot to sedate a circus lion,” as he puts it during our very aromatic walk to the restaurant.
Suffice it to say, this professional funnyman has something of an addictive personality. “Raging,” he confirms. “So if I get into something, I get into it.” Other obsessions have included cigarettes (see the video clip below), baked goods (“I was eating a bag of Tates Cookies a night”) and one habit he has yet to kick: comedy. “That was a good thing to get into,” he says.
The late-night circuit has Soder fully hooked. Perhaps you know him as cohost of the weekly SiriusXM program The Bonfire, or doing standup on Conan, or his appearances on a bunch of Comedy Central shows including the irrepressible Inside Amy Schumer (check him out in “Chicks Who Can Hang“). But on Saturday, May 21, Comedy Central is giving us the full Soder with his own hour-long special called Not Special. Don’t be confused by the name. This is, in fact, a very special moment in the life of a comic. “It’s huge,” says Soder. “It’s like the first album for a band.”
Oh, and you might also recognize him from his surprising dramatic role on a little Showtime series called Billions, one of this reporter’s own guilty pleasures. “It’s a big-budget show with a great omelet bar in the morning,” says Soder, who describes life on the set as a food-obsessed actor’s dream, full of film shoots at high-end restaurants and catered meals that transcend the usual TV-crew fare. “We had lobster tails one time for lunch,” he says.
Dining out with a guy like Soder is about as comical as you can imagine, and dining out twice in one night (Coppelia is the second stop on our back-to-back Louie-style bang bang series of dinners this evening) is doubly funny. But dining out twice in one night with a funny dude who used to work in the restaurant industry is comic gold.
Before making it as a full-time standup, Soder spent about five years waiting tables at Dos Caminos in midtown Manhattan. The experience supplied him with a lot of material. Over plates of crisp flautas and crunchy chicharrón-laced mac and cheese, he regales me with hilarious hospitality tales, like the time an elderly patron caught him secretly stuffing his face from a dessert tray in a stairwell, and the time he showed up to work so stoned that he “couldn’t remember the word empanada.”
“I was always a terrible waiter,” says Soder.
A few hours earlier, we’re sitting down for our first meal of the night at Maialino, the scene-y upscale Italian trattoria inside the posh Gramercy Park Hotel. It’s shortly after 9:30 p.m., and Soder has just finished his standup routine at The Stand, a comedy club just a few blocks away on Third Avenue. Our night is only beginning. After this meal, we’ll head back to the club to catch Soder’s next set, at about 11:15 p.m, and then wrap things up with another meal afterward — “bang bang” in multiple senses of the term, you could say.
Soder, it turns out, is quite familiar with the back-to-back dinner concept. “It’s one of my favorite episodes of Louie,” he says. Robert Kelly, the comedian who plays Louis C.K.’s brother and dining companion in the now-famous double-dining segment, is a friend, Soder says. “Eating with Bobby is one my favorite things in the world — it’s like an erotic thing for him,” he says. “I’ve bang-banged with Bobby,” he adds proudly, before quickly reconsidering. “Actually, I take it back. I missed the bang bang.” Forgive the fuzzy memories. “I smoke a lot of pot,” he explains.
Fittingly for a self-described pothead, Soder grew up in Colorado, the current epicenter of the American marijuana-legalization movement. But that was long before the legitimate retail stores and “budtenders” of today, back when you had to buy weed in Taco Bell parking lot (see the clip below).
“I grew up eating pretty well,” says Soder, noting that his father once worked as a cook in the U.S. Navy, a particular source of pride for a young man of a certain era. Soder was in fifth grade when the film Under Siege came out, featuring the action-movie star Steven Segal working as — you guessed it — a Navy chef. “I told everybody it was based on my dad,” he says. At home, the old man ably whipped up his own original recipes, including a pasta dish called Noodles on Dean, Soder says. “I don’t really know the ingredients. It’s almost like a cheese lasagna, done with three different cheeses. It was so fucking good.” Hearing about his dad’s culinary exploits and later learning of the elder Soder’s Swedish heritage, I’m a little surprised that the quick-witted son hasn’t previously drawn the obvious connection. “You’ve cracked the Di Vinci code,” he laughs. “I’m the son of the Swedish chef!”
Soder became interested in comedy at a young age, inspired by the likes of Dana Carvey, Eddie Murphy and a then-lesser-known comic named Dave Chappelle. (Don’t even get him started on the greatness of Chappelle’s seminal role in the Mel Brooks spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) But it’s food that provided his funniest childhood memory. “Smoking pot, I always remember these moments that made me laugh as a kid, like really laugh,” says Soder, recalling the time his six-year-old self fed spoonfuls of peanut butter to a dog owned by his father’s girlfriend. He goes on to loudly mimic the way this canine furiously licked his chops. “I thought it was the funniest goddamn thing in the world,” he says.
“You only do two days at Dos Caminos — the day you go in and the day you come out.”
Choosing to dine at Maialino on this night is poignant for number of reasons beyond its proximity to the comedy club. Like Soder, the restaurant has also appeared on the Showtime series Billions, though this is the comic’s first time at the restaurant himself. “I’m kind of uncomfortable in places like this,” he says, “because I’m used to working on the other side.”
Maialino is also one of several NYC restaurants to have recently banished the customary practice of tipping, instead factoring in the cost of service into its menu prices and paying its servers a steady wage. It’s a move the ex-waiter applauds. “Here, you at least know what you’re going to make,” says Soder, noting that income can be wildly inconsistent for tipped staffers. “It’s hard to set your budget when it goes up and down. Around Christmas season, I’d make great money. There’s all these holiday parties. Plus, people are very generous at that time. Then you get to mid-April, and people aren’t tipping. Taxes! It’s like the way a fisherman learns about the sea, you figure out when it’s going to be prosperous and when it’s not. There should be a farmer’s almanac for servers.”
Soder doesn’t speak too fondly about his time in the restaurant industry. “I really had a feeling that I was going to die working there,” he says. Like many people, Soder waited tables as a way to pay the bills while striving toward a career in show business. He describes it as a weird sort of double life. “At night, it was the best, hanging out and doing comedy, going to Barcelona Bar and getting hammered,” he says. “Then, you know, waking up at 8:30 to be at work, hungover, smelling salsas. During the day, I had to take everyone’s shit. And then at night, I could say whatever the fuck I wanted to. If I was funny enough, it didn’t fucking matter.” Soder was still working the lunch shift at Dos Caminos around the time of his initial appearance on the comedy showcase Live at Gotham, and he remembers the first time a customer recognized him from TV. “I’m clearing this girl’s Cobb salad, and she’s like, ‘I saw you on Comedy Central,’” he says in his most nasally feminine voice. “It’s kind of nice now, knowing that I’m doing an hour show and that I left that place five years ago.”
The day he was finally able to quit is etched in memory: December 11, 2011. His parting words included a reference to the gritty TV drama The Wire: “You only do two days at Dos Caminos — the day you go in and the day you come out,” he says. “It was the closest I’ve ever felt to being released from prison.”
But for all the disparaging remarks about his days as a waiter, even Soder admits that the experience came in handy when stepping into his first major TV role on Billions. For those unfamiliar with the show, Soder plays a brash young trader at a New York hedge fund, working under a megalomanic billionaire (played by the actor Damien Lewis) who is under federal investigation for suspected insider trading. Soder says he got the role by knowing the show’s creators, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. “I figured I’d be some stooge for two lines and that’d be it,” he says. Imagine his surprise when those guys came back with something more substantial, effectively telling him (in his own words): “You’re going to play a douchebag in the office.”
It’s the exact kind of character that Soder knew all too well, the kind of guy he used to take orders from while working in the restaurant. He didn’t know it at the time, but all those days spent slinging salsa trios, it wasn’t just a day job — this was Method acting. “I’m Jane Fucking Goodall — I lived among the apes for years,” he says. “Especially working a midtown restaurant for lunch. We were right by Blackstone, we were right by Bear Stearns, we were right by all these hedge funds. I would deal with these guys who were basically what my character was: young, arrogant, rich. And I was the waiter. I caught all of that….It’s like, ‘Remember that guy who wouldn’t look at me at lunch? I wonder what he would do now.’”
If he seemed uncomfortable at first, Soder appears to be settling in nicely to his new role as restaurant customer by the time the food arrives. We plow through a plate of salumi, two pasta courses and an incredible pork chop that has the comedian repeatedly proclaiming “Holy shit!” Says Soder: “It’s unfair to call this a pork chop. It’s easily the most succulent pork chop I’ve ever had in my life.”
Later on, we return to the Stand, where I’m immediately struck by just how much food culture has infiltrated the comedy scene. One of Soder’s colleagues is raving about the burger at the Comedy Cellar, one of the city’s top clubs. “Great burger,” Soder concurs — and “best wings in the city,” he adds. Not to be outdone, a waitress wielding a platter of some fancy looking ice-cream sandwiches hypes The Stand’s own menu. Options include (no joke) cheeseburger dumplings and spicy tuna tartare cannolis. Meanwhile, up on stage, one comic riffs about the annual rate of fatalities from vending-machine accidents, while another jokes about getting kicked out of Chipotle for bringing her own foodborne illness to the restaurant.
If Soder was paying attention to the latter disgusting story, it doesn’t affect his appetite. After his own hilarious set, the comic digs into our subsequent meal at Coppelia with just as much gusto as the first, although he can hardly muster a full bite of the restaurant’s bracing ceviche. “I gotta stay away from that thing,” he says, citing concerns about acid reflux. “It sucks because I know it’s from all my years of smoking cigarettes and eating burgers at 2 in the morning, and I feel like now is the time in my life where I want to be able to eat late.” The other stuff (chips, guac, flautas, mac ’n’ cheese and multiple Jarritos) poses no problem.
I ask whether his work on Billions has interested him in more serious acting roles. “I’m only a comic,” says Soder. “If I do anything actor-wise, it’s to put eyes on my comedy. My intention is, if you like me on Billions, why don’t you watch me do standup? That’s how you build an audience…. I’ve been on the road, and I know what it’s like to have nobody come see you, and that shit sucks.”
But no matter what hardships come up in the life of a comic, Soder will tell you that it definitely beats waiting tables.
“I feel incredibly lucky that I was one of the ones that got out and was able to do what I love,” he says. “I have to get up tomorrow at 10 a.m. to go talk to a bunch of suits at a network. There’s another guy that has to wake up and go to work at 50th and Third and he’s going to be pissed because he has to set up chairs.”
Coppelia, 207 W 14th St., New York, NY 10011; 212–858–5001; coppelianyc.com
Maialino, 2 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10010; 212–777–2410; maialinonyc.com
Originally published at www.foodrepublic.com on May 19, 2016.