Writing Jokes with Neel Nanda (Flophouse — VICELAND)

Comedians become comedians because they’re fans of comedy.

[@neelnanda on Twitter]
Neel Nanda: Comedian / Actor / Writer — He has no haters

When did you realize you were funny?

When I was in middle school I was glued to Comedy Central. I would go home every day and watch hours of Premium Blend, Comic Remix and Comedy Central Presents. I used to sit down on the floor in front of my TV and write down every joke that I liked word for word so I could tell it to my friends at lunch at school the next day. I was 13, so I didn’t realize that I was just stealing jokes for years.

When I got to high school I realized I needed to write my own jokes and I used the same notebook to start writing my own jokes based on the joke writing structure that I mimicked from all of my favorite joke writers. I started testing these jokes on friends and girlfriends who quickly became ex-girlfriends and eventually I decided I was funny enough to try it on stage in front of people. I performed my first open mic set when I was 19 and the set consisted of one-liner jokes I wrote in high school.

What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?

My dad was a computer scientist until I was in middle school. We had just moved into a nice neighborhood, and less than three years later my dad was laid off. So I quickly became the poor kid in the dope neighborhood. My dad then opened a liquor store and we were broke for a long time, but at least I got free red bulls in high school.

My mom worked in a grocery store pharmacy where she got me my first job as a pharmacy technician when I was 15.

How does the comedy scene in Atlanta compare with that in Los Angeles?

The Atlanta comedy scene is incredible and continues to become more incredible every time I visit. Some of the strongest emerging comics in the country were once based out of Atlanta: Clayton English, Matt Broussard, Mia Jackson, Noah Gardenswartz, Rob Haze, Caleb Synan just to name a few. The thing I loved about doing comedy in Atlanta was that the open mics were generally packed with audience members who wanted to laugh and, even if they weren’t, the comedians were supportive and would listen and laugh if your joke was funny. For this reason alone, Atlanta is an incredible place to write and develop material.

Los Angeles also has an incredible group of comics that push you to be great. I’ve had countless sets in L.A. where I’ve had to follow a comic who I used to watch on television before I moved to L.A. At first it was intimidating, but after a while I started enjoying the challenge.

Stage time is tougher to get in LA so this city has forced me to start writing, acting, producing and directing. Even if I direct and produce something I’m not proud of I’m always happy that I at least gained some experience doing something comedy related that I enjoy.

Season 1 of Flophouse on VICELAND was one of my favorite things to watch. How did you get involved with the show?

It’s actually a pretty uncommon story that a lot of people think is a common story. I was in San Francisco doing a set at Lost Weekend Video, (one of my favorite spots that unfortunately no longer exists) and Lance Bangs (the director of Flophouse) was watching the show. Lance was in town to tape the San Francisco episodes and I happened to be in town at the same time.

He saw me perform that night and asked if I could be on the show the next day. I couldn’t believe it. I had been a fan of Lance’s work (mostly Jackass) and I even said, “Can you really do that?” and he replied “Of course I can, I’m the director.” and sure enough I did the episode the next day. I reconnected with Lance in L.A. about a month later and we talked briefly about doing an episode in Atlanta. Lance was definitely on the fence about Atlanta because he had other cities in mind, but I convinced him that Atlanta has one of the greatest comedy scenes in the country and he started planning an episode at The Hangar.

Can you walk me through your general joke-forming process? How do you form premises, build punchlines, etc.?

I walk around with a notebook and have a notebook next to my bed in case I think of a premise to jot down. Then I sit down and look at that material the next day and try to figure out how to tell it on stage. I don’t always have stuff to jot down and I try to spend every day writing material so some days I just tag old material. I’ll look back at my old material and reflect on what works and what doesn’t work in the bit and try to punch it up accordingly.

@NeelNanda on Twitter

I like to take a lot of time with my material. Some comics frown upon doing a lot of old material, but honestly I feel like some of my old material is never done because it evolves and becomes tighter every day. I generally keep my sets around 70-percent old and 30-percent new because I want to throw a sprinkle of my new material in to see if it’ll be seamlessly strong in comparison to my old material. I’ll also sometimes write on stage. Generally if a new joke isn’t working I will try to save it by riffing. Last week I was on stage doing a new bit and I was doing a joke that involved numbers and I found a funny mathematical comparison while I was on stage and so I just said it and it landed (which is one of the most incredible feelings) so now its permanently part of the joke.

How did Unnecessary Evil show at Westside Comedy Theater come about?

My buddy/co-producer Tushar Singh was moving to Los Angeles and we had talked about starting a show together so I was looking around the city for venues. I had performed at the open mic at the Westside Comedy Theater a few times and had seen a few shows. I quickly fell in love with the venue. The stage, the seating, the bar and the location is perfect for a dope comedy show. I was hanging out at the theater one night before an open mic in order to inquire about booking a show at the venue. I was standing outside when a dude with a giant smile and a bigger mustache was hanging out right outside the door smoking a cigarette. I asked if he worked at the theater and he said yes and then we had a brief conversation about what I wanted to do at the theater and he after he finished his cigarette he told me he was one of the owners of the theater (Sean Casey). At the time the theater didn’t produce many stand up shows and he was excited to bring more stand up to the theater.

MI Westside Comedy Theater

We exchanged emails and when Tushar moved to LA we had a meeting in Sean’s office and we picked some dates. We had no idea what we were doing but we somehow packed out each show and we starting booking more dates from there.

Why do you think comedians become comedians?

I think the traditional answer is narcissism or depression, but I’d like to think that comedians become comedians because they’re fans of comedy. Like I mentioned before, I used to be glued to Comedy Central and when I first started writing jokes and I would watch a copious amount of stand-up on Comedy Central and whatever I could get my hands on online. I fell in love with Carlin at around 16 or 17 and I watched every one of his specials. I still love Carlin because if you watch his specials chronologically you can see him grow as an artist and as a human being. His early specials are nothing like his later work and I’ve always appreciated how much he grew and adapted to each decade he was doing comedy in. I became a comedian because I loved the craft. I loved writing jokes and as soon as I started telling them I fell in love with that too. I feel like the comedy came before the narcissism and depression for me.

What advice would you give a comic that is trying to advance his or her career?

Keep your head down and focus on your jokes. Write every day and try to perform every night. Treat comedy like a job and it’ll become a job.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a lot of stuff that I’m keeping on the down low for now, but I’m also constantly working on my material.

What makes a joke funny?

Intent. If your intent is to make a joke funny and you believe its funny and you do everything to execute what you find funny about it then I think any subject matter can be funny. There has been a lot of “don’t joke about this” or “don’t joke about that” lately and I think if your true intent is to be funny you can make a joke about anything funny.

Comedian / Rapper / I have no haters. Comedy Central / Viceland / your basement or garage show

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Interview by Zuri Irvin (@withzuri)