Writing Jokes with Shane Mauss (CONAN, Comedy Central)
There is a whole camera crew between you and the audience.
[@shanemauss on Twitter]
Do Mausses secretly hate Mosses? What’s the etymology behind your last name?
I’m told my ancestors were Jewish and went by the name “Mosche” (Hebrew word for ‘Moses’) in 17th century Switzerland. They changed it to Mauss (pronounced ‘mose’ in French) when they learned Jews couldn’t own the land in France that the king was giving away. I’m German (and Irish now, so I can’t make jokes about how stereotypically Jewish that move is.)
I never cared for my name and almost changed in to Moss at the start of my comedy career but never got around to it. I’m jealous of the Mosses. They make everyone’s life easier.
You caught your first break at the HBO US Arts Festival. Can you walk me through what that day was like?
I seemed to be having really standout performances during the festival. I was very drunk the whole time, having fun, and making new friends. I wasn’t taking it terribly seriously but it was weird because people kept on walking up to me in the streets and raving about how funny I was. It was felt like I was a celebrity all of the sudden.
On the day of the awards, people running the festival kept on making sure that I would be there so I figured something was up. After I won the awards, I had my pick of managers and agents. One of the Conan bookers was there and had me on shortly after. It was life changing.
You’ve performed on Conan five times. What advice would you give a comedian that’s making his or her first appearance on TV?
It’s a different environment than performing in a club. It’s not usually not nearly as intimate if it is late night. There is a whole camera crew between you and the audience. And many audience members are looking at you, they are watching the monitors, or the camera crew, or the hosts reaction. It’s strange to look up and see people who are watching you but not looking at you. And don’t forget that people didn’t show up there for a stand-up comedy show. They showed up to see how a taping of their favorite host works and maybe see some big celebrities. It’s important to have your timing down the way you want it ahead of time and don’t let the audience effect it negatively.
How did Here We Are first develop?
I’ve actually recorded over 80 episodes at this point. I’ve always been interested in science and reading about it here and there. Years ago I was in a new relationship and had just gotten out of a bad one so I was writing a lot of relationship material. I was also smoking more weed than normal and therefore watching a lot more Animal Planet. So I was writing a lot of animal jokes as well. The two started coming together and I started writing about and researching mating behavior.
Studying mating behavior led to an obsession with evolutionary psychology/biology — which led to branching out into more and more life sciences. I was working on putting a few ideas for projects together and reached out to some scientists for help. I became friends with some scientists and enjoyed our conversations so much that I thought it would make for a great podcast. It’s been a really fun project. I learn a lot.
Why do you like talking about science so much?
I’ve always been a big thinking and a day dreamer. I like learning about big ideas and have questions about what I learn. Ideally I would just have the right person to call anytime that I have a question. Maybe that will happen eventually. Maybe that will be another project down the line or maybe something I eventually do as bonus episodes once I have a big enough network of people.
What do you like and/or dislike about the Los Angeles comedy scene?
I don’t like that the clubs act like it is your privilege to spend your whole evening driving to and waiting around to do a short set to a mediocre audience. Appreciation should be a two-way street.
That’s one of the many reasons that I like all of the indie shows in town. Some of them like Meltdown are just so much better than any club show you will ever do.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen on the road?
In five words or less, describe your comedy writing technique
Free-write, research, add, edit, test.
What makes a joke funny?
I’ve had three podcasts on this topic and I still can’t tell you everything about it. Humor is surprisingly complicated. There is a theory of psychologist Peter McGraws that a joke needs to be just the right parts benign and a violation. Surprise is usually important. So is delivery. Also what makes people laugh and what is funny aren’t always the same thing. This is an endless conversation. Listen to my podcasts about it for more.