By Leo Goodman
These days there’s a lot more for a comic to do than just stand-up. In the world of youtube, I-tunes, and every other digital medium that all you young punks take for granted (I’m 31 and ancient), there are lots of ways for funny people to make great and accessible work for those who don’t actually go out to comedy clubs. One of those funny people is Ryan Conner. As a comic he has an easy-going style that’s incredibly charismatic (you’ll see what I mean at the end), and as the creator of multiple web series and a popular podcast he’s constantly working on new ways to get his jokes into your head. I met with Ryan in a midtown coffee shop, and as muzak played overhead we discussed comedy, the surrell-ness of British news, and why you shouldn’t take things personally when dealing with club bookers.
BCT: All right, sitting down with Ryan Conner, local comic. Say hello, Ryan.
BCT: I don’t know why I did that, I’m going to transpose this anyway it’s not like they’re gonna be listening to this.
RC: (Laughing) Can you please transcribe that part?
BCT: (Also laughing) Absolutely.
RC: “Please say hello,” “Yes, hi.”
BCT: I will.
RC: And then the part about “I don’t know why I said that.”
BCT: Every word that we’re saying right now will end up in this thing. Every word.
RC: No one has regretted clicking on this yet.
BCT: At all, at all. You can stop reading this at any time. I don’t know why you would. So, Ryan, you are a comic in New York, I know you came up from DC originally, that’s where you started doing shows.
BCT: Which scene do you prefer, New York or DC?
RC: Oh, New York. I mean, when we started in DC there were so many great comics starting at the same time. I honestly think that ten years from now that’s gonna be one of the scenes … people talk about Boston in the 80’s, San Fransisco in the 80’s, I think people are gonna talk about DC in the early … aughts. (Laughs) So when I first came to New York, you know, aside from shows at the cellar and weekend shows at Carolines and Rififi I liked DC better because you always had a good crowd.
RC: But then after, I don’t know, after a while I started liking New York much more. There are so many opportunities for shows, and there are so many good comics that it forces you to be constantly writing.
BCT: And you said you used to do clubs like the Cellar, and all the regular clubs that most of our readers are more familiar with, but you don’t quite do those types of clubs any more.
RC: You know, when I first moved here … I actually moved here when I did because I was only two years in and I passed at the Cellar, Carolines, and Comix, and I think a couple more clubs, I can’t remember, but I was doing the Cellar a few times a week. I did that for three years. You know, probably 300 spots there, or more, and I haven’t been there in the past, like, three years but there’s no bad blood there or anything. It’s just one of those things where there are so many comics, and Estee has to book people who are in town for things.
RCT: So you haven’t been doing those regular clubs but you’ve been by no means inactive.
RC: Right, right.
RCT: There are still huge amounts of opportunities to perform in this city without being at the clubs that everybody’s heard of, who doesn’t do comedy themselves.
BCT: For instance, you host your own show at The PIT.
RC: It’s called Free Health Care, it’s twice monthly, first and third Wednesdays usually. Occasionally we do a special show on Thursdays in the main theatre there, but we’re usually in the basement. It’s great. Nothing against … the Comedy Cellar is my favorite place in the world to perform, but aside from that I prefer these shows to other clubs in New York.
BCT: And you run that with Meg Cupernall.
BCT: Now, you’re not on Saturday Night Live but you write jokes for Saturday Night Live.
RC: Not anymore. I wrote for them from 2009 to 2011. I wrote jokes for Weekend Update every week.
BCT: How did you get into that? Did you just send them a bunch of jokes and say “hey, what do you think of these?”
RC: Kind of. Somebody recommended me for a job at Fallon. And I got my jokes to them too late.
BCT: You got your jokes to Fallon too late?
RC: Yeah, yeah, and they’d already hired somebody. My jokes weren’t good for Fallon anyway, to be honest. They were just too long. But it was just like, I wrote these jokes, I spent two days writing topical jokes, which I hate, and I had to do something with them. So I sent them to a friend who writes at SNL. He sent them to the producer, and the producer emailed me just a few hours later and asked to have me on as a contributer.
BCT: The lesson being that procrastination can still work out in the end.
RC: (Laughing) Right, right.
BCT: Had you gotten those in on time you’d be at Fallon instead of SNL.
BCT: I mean, they’re both great places to work at, I’m sure.
RC: Fallon jokes … I started to try to write for Fallon again last year, to try and submit. One of my friends is a former head writer there, so he said to just send him some stuff and he’d help try to steer me. That is the hardest guy to write jokes for. The construction of his jokes is so foreign to stand-up. His set-ups are like four words. You know what I mean?
BCT: Meaning like … it’s not just one-liners, it’s not just short jokes?
RC: I mean they’re so short … I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s a web site that just transcribes everybody’s monologues, and I read it. Jimmy Kimmel has a very natural delivery so it feels like stand-up, Letterman does, too. Fallon’s is so short and precise, it’s really unique and I couldn’t do it. I tried again and I just couldn’t.
BCT: Not saying it’s bad.
RC: No, no, it’s good. His voice is just very different from everyone else’s. That’s a good thing.
BCT: Is that … all comics write for themselves. What is that like, as an exercise, to write jokes specifically for someone else?
RC: Here’s what I do, I … don’t. I just write them in my own voice and hope they can see the jokes in their voice. (He laughs)
BCT: “I hope this guy’s as funny as I am.”
RC: Basically the jokes I wrote for Seth Myers felt more like Norm Macdonald jokes. They were just way darker then the stuff Seth Myers would do, and it was just, well, maybe he’ll like this and do it anyway.
BCT: So if you were watching SNL from 2009 to 2011 and every now and then you watched Weekend Update and thought “wow, that was a little dark,” that may have been Ryan Conner’s joke.
BCT: You mentioned that you hate writing topical jokes, but I know that you did post election coverage for the BBC in 2008.
BCT: Are you gonna do that again? Because that’s topical. And was it …
RC: You’re right.
BCT: So what exactly did you do? Was it funny? Was it jokes?
RC: It was so weird. Here’s what we did. And I had so little time to prepare. I got a call from a producer of BBC in DC. He said they’d found some political jokes I’d done online, about Obama, actually, and they said “any chance you’re in DC, or can be in DC in a few hours?” It just so happened I was at my parents’ house in Northern Virginia. They said “we would love to have you on, this is for our broadcast tomorrow. We’re taping a piece on presidential transitions. Can you come in?” I was like “yeah.” So I got in the car, and this is the most dangerous – this is more dangerous than driving drunk. I was driving in heavy traffic, writing jokes on 95. (I laugh) I was talking to another comic, Andy Klein, on the phone, bouncing ideas off him. He was throwing tags at me and stuff like that, and I’m driving with my left hand and writing with my right. I still have the paper.
BCT: Not even just recording it into a recorder, physically writing?
RC: Physically writing on the passenger seat (yes, we’re both laughing at this point). And it was just like, you know what, I could die, but I could also write some golden shit here. So here’s what we did. I sat down, I can’t remember the anchor’s name. We ended up shooting at the DC Improv. I sat across from the host, or producer, or whatever, and she interviewed me first, and then she had me do jokes on stage just to her. She was the only person in the club. And before I did it I was like, “won’t this be kind of weird, if I’m doing stand-up and you’re the only person in the room?” And the producer goes “no no no, don’t worry, trust me, this is a bit of a surreal piece.” And I was like “you guys do surreal on the news? They don’t even do surreal in comedy in the United States.” And she said “no, we like to intersperse our programs with a bit of comedy.” God, I wish I lived there.
BCT: You’d do pretty well in England, I imagine.
RC: I would love to do shows there.
BCT: Now, you have a podcast, let’s talk about Caligula’s Grotto for a second.
BCT: How often does that come out?
RC: Weekly. We’re on a few week hiatus right now because we’ve done 35 or 40 in a row and we just needed a break.
BCT: So it’s you, other comedian Erin Conroy …
RC: Yep, and one of my best friends Alan Skontra, who’s an amazing writer.
BCT: And it’s the three of you just talking about various whatever, topical things?
RC: Kind of. There’s a little bit of topical stuff but we structure it heavily with certain features. That’s why we gotta take a hiatus, because every other podcast they’re interviewing people, or talking about stuff that just kind of writes itself, and we’re trying to come up with unique features every week and it gets to the point where you just wanna fucking kill yourself. It’s so hard to have a new hour every week, we end up recycling shit.
BCT: I listened to one where Alan was reading a review of something.
RC: When Hot People Write.
BCT: Al was reading something that someone had written about Mariah Carrey …
RC: Oh, yeah, yeah.
BCT: And you guys were just tearing it apart.
RC: Yeah, that’s a feature called When Hot People Write. That is my favorite thing we’re doing now. He found a column written by someone called Rachel Manzer in a North Jersey entertainment magazine called Metropolitan Nights, and it’s like there’s no spell check, no editing …
RC: It’s like it’s written by an actual retarded person but it’s okay to make fun of her because she’s not retarded.
BCT: So Caligula’s Grotto is the podcast that you do yourself but it’s not the only audio recorded stuff that you do, you have a thing on Sirius Radio that you do pretty frequently with Jim Breuer.
RC: Well, I don’t have it, it’s Jim Breuer’s show called Fridays With Breuer. He’s had me on a few times and been really nice to me about it.
RC: He had me on actually three weeks in a row and I didn’t wanna push it, you know? But I’m sure he’ll have me on again in the future. Yeah, have you ever heard the show?
BCT: I haven’t.
RC: That dude is the best radio person there is.
RC: He’s incredible. Jim Breuer is fucking incredible. It’s like a one-man show every week, just the way he performs, it’s so great. He doesn’t know what he’s gonna talk about until the show is starting.
BCT: Really? He doesn’t go in with any sort of plan? Cause you just said the hardest thing about Caligula’s Grotto –
BCT: – is coming up with ideas of what to do, and of course you do that beforehand.
RC: Right. We were on Memorial Day Weekend and we were talking, which sometimes he does remotely. So he’s recording from home, I’m in the studio, he’s talking to me and the producer. He’s saying “oh, I don’t know what we’re gonna do today,” and he said something about playing wiffleball, he asked me if I was gonna be playing wiffleball, and I was like “dude, my family is black, we don’t play wiffleball we play basketball,” and he goes (snaps his finger) “that’s what we’re talking about.” It was a combination of Memorial Day barbeques, wiffleball, and me coming from a black family.
BCT: Ryan, for those of you reading this, is very white.
RC: Yeah, he just comes up with a show on the fly like that, goes for two hours and always has a perfect arc to it.
BCT: So we’re going through all the different types of medium that you do, we talked about stand-up, we talked about podcasts, let’s talk about Crucial Element and Ass Crash Monster.
RC: Crucial Element and Ass Crash Monster were two web series that I made, which I stupidly just had on my own web site and didn’t put on youtube until recently. (I laugh) I actually had Ass Crash Monster finished for over a year before I released it, because Funny or Die wanted to this exclusive thing but they wanted me to chop it up into two to three minute segments, which sacrificed the story. Then it was just goofy sketches. So we did one for them like that. It got a ton of views, but …
BCT: And it’s you doing a specific character, tell us a bit about what it is.
RC: Crucial Element, those are two characters, it’s me and my friend Quincy, who’s my best friend growing up. We grew up in Woodbridge, Virginia. Which is a place I describe as, 30 percent of the people in the town walk down the street pretending they’re dribbling a basketball. (Laughing) So with that, 10 percent of the population are wannabe rappers who are trying to sell you their CD’s, constantly.
BCT: Like walking down the street in New York, except less people.
RC: Less people, and everywhere. The best were the ones in the mall food court. So we’re basing it on these people trying to sell CD’s in a mall food court, and we were pretty much playing them to a T. And the series is us coming to New York and trying to make it, cause we figure we’ve maxed out the food court. Ass Crash Monster is a series about two hipster friends. I did it with my friend Chris Fleming, who has another great series, GAYLE. We’re two hipster roommates who’re living off his dad’s money, and when the financial markets tumble, he cuts us off. So we become hipster entrepreneurs.
RC: And we keep failing.
BCT: So the running theme is, Crucial Element is you kindly mocking these people you saw on the street in Woodbridge –
BCT: And Ass Crash Monster is a different type of people, it’s all about playing people who are stereotypes.
RC: It’s all based on people I can’t stand.
BCT: People you can’t stand.
BCT: Guys selling rap CD’s on the street, and hipsters.
RC: We’re in the process of making … God, we’re writing three series right now.
BCT: Who’s we?
RC: Me, Quincy, and our friend Mike, who is the co-creator and director of Crucial Element. We’ve written a really good series about undercover cops. Not that I can’t stand undercover cops, this is just a goofy one, but it might be a little too elaborate to shoot.
BCT: So with all these projects you’re doing, you’re still doing lots of stand-up. I know you were recently in Atlanta with Colin Quin.
BCT: Did that go well?
RC: Oh, it was awesome. Atlanta Punchline, one of the best clubs in the country.
BCT: And you’re gonna be headlining at Helium in Philly. Is that this week?
RC: I’m headlining on Wednesday, and then I’m featuring for Jim Breuer Thursday through Saturday.
BCT: Jim Breuer again?
RC: Yeah, he’s been very nice to me.
BCT: And you’ve also got one DVD out, of your stand-up.
RC: I do.
BCT: Chinese Secrets.
RC: Chinese Secrets, I recorded that at the DC Improv November, 2010.
BCT: The DC Improv, you worked there for a while.
RC: I did, I worked there during the day. I did marketing, booked private events.
BCT: And is that the type of thing, actually working behind the scenes at a club, is that something that helped you as a comic?
RC: Oooooooh, yeah. Well, for one, I understand the stand-up business. I understand that if you can’t get booked in a place you can’t take it personally. It’s that this booker is getting bombarded every day with people. If they don’t know you, if they haven’t already seen you personally you can’t expect to get in. If a booker doesn’t respond to your email it’s because they got 200 emails from comics that day. But I also got to see the best comics in the country every week, which taught me a lot. Cause if you’re just doing open mikes, and you’re just seeing those guys, you know, what you’re shooting for are people who are essentially your peers or a little bit better. But when you’re seeing the best of the best you see that that’s the ceiling. So it keeps you working.
BCT: And having done DC and now lived in New York for a while you are now getting ready to tackle the other market.
BCT: The other big market.
RC: Going to LA.
BCT: When does that happen?
RC: November or December, as soon as my fiancée is able to get a job.
BCT: Oh, you’re engaged?
BCT: Congratulations on that.
BCT: Oh, so is she the one who wants to go to LA, or you want to go to LA and she’s cool with it?
RC: It’s kind of the latter. We both wanted to go there, her best friend lives there. I’ve wanted to go for about five years, and I’ve always had things that have kept me in New York, so now I’m glad that I’m finally getting to go. I’m actually happy I didn’t go before because I’m way better at stand-up than I was then.
BCT: Being in New York has really allowed you to grow and build.
BCT: So you want to do that, so that by the time you’re out there trying to impress the –
RC: The power brokers, right.
BCT: And finally, just to finish up, could you give us one good heckler story?
RC: I actually don’t get heckled a lot, can I tell someone else’s?
BCT: You don’t get heckled, ever?
RC: Well, I’ve been on shows where people are being disruptive to everybody, that’s always gonna happen, but not a lot really directed at me. Actually there was one time where I thought I was being heckled, this is funny. I was on stage and I tried a new joke, and it didn’t go over that well. It didn’t bomb, it just had a few little laughs. Then there was this moment of silence, and then this woman just did this really sarcastic sounding “ha ha,” and I slammed her because I thought she was coming after me. It turns out, and I know this because she actually wrote the club complaining about it, that she liked the joke, she just didn’t get it as fast as everybody else, and her laugh just sounds like that.
BCT: She just had a sarcastic sounding laugh?
RC: Yeah, but I thought she was actually trying to slam me, so I went after her and she got really upset, because then it seemed to her like I was coming after her for being stupid in not getting the joke quick enough.
BCT: So your one real heckler story isn’t even a real heckling.
RC: Now here’s one that happened to another guy, it’s really good. This happened to a friend of mine, Jon Mumma. He was doing a show at the Baltimore Comedy Factory.
BCT: For those of you reading this, the Baltimore Comedy Factory is known for having particularly rough crowds.
RC: Oh, it’s like performing at Oz. Anyway, Jon’s on stage and the crowd’s not really with him, and eventually he notices that right in the front row is this guy, and the guy’s girlfriend has her hand down his pants.
BCT: Shut up.
RC: Right in the front row.
BCT: So she was actually …
RC: She’s jerking this guy off right in the front row, and Jon stops whatever joke he’s telling, he turns and starts talking to this guy, and the guy looks up at him and is like “dude, why you cock-blocking?” And a minute later security comes and takes this guy out, and the whole time he still doesn’t even seem to get why what he was doing was in any way wrong.
BCT: So there we have a start contrast between Mumma, who is a really nice guy but apparently people will just get hand-jobs right in his crowd …
RC: Really nice, real funny, too.
BCT: And you, who apparently don’t even get heckled except by accident.
RC: Well I don’t do a lot of stuff with the crowd, and I really try to never be too negative, so that’s a lot of it. I mean, even if somebody is not laughing, or not enjoying the show, I try to not call it out or anything because for all I know that guy’s just having a really bad day and doesn’t need to get picked on by the guy on stage. So I don’t really invite a lot of heckles, I guess. It’s always best to keep it positive on stage, and that’s what I try to do.