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Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Talking with Jonah Ray About His New Stand-Up Album, the Nerdist Podcast and His Aversion to Niche Comedy

As co-host of the Nerdist podcast, one of the best and most popular comedy podcasts going, Jonah Ray wields a lot of power in the comedy community, but the show, which he hosts with Chris Hardwick and Matt Mira, is just one of the many projects he currently has his hands in. Ray is also a writer for The Soup, as well as an accomplished standup who hosts the awesome weekly show The Meltdown along with buddy Kumail Nanjiani in the back room of the L.A. comic book store Meltdown Comics.

Jonah Ray’s new album, Hello Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello, drops today on A Special Thing Records, and I recently had the chance to talk to him about the album, the podcast, the fading line between mainstream and alt-comedy, and how he determines what material is off-limits.

So, how has the Nerdist Tour been going?

Well, it’s not so much a tour as it is we just fly out every other weekend to go do shows around the country. The shows have been crazily awesome. I’m really surprised about how many people are coming out to these shows. We do standup up-front, which is great because the audiences know us. It almost seems unfair. I get kind of angry after I walk off the stage because it’s like, “Aw, this is fake. I didn’t earn this.” I get a little self-conscious about it, but meeting all the fans afterwards, it’s just neat. It feels like I cheated my way into the situation.

How so? Just because people know you already through the podcast, or how do you mean?

I think it’s not that I feel like I snuck my way in. I think it’s more just I feel really fortunate that I get to do this stuff, to have people come out. It’s neat too seeing the different types of fans that the Nerdist podcast has. Sometimes, I’ll get in my head like, “Aw, they’re all here for Chris.” But then a couple guys will show up with my first record for me to sign, and I’ll go, “Oh, this is neat. Just a neat thing.”

Who are some guests you guys want on the podcast who you haven’t had yet?

Personally, for me, I would love to have Mel Brooks on. That’s the one main guy who I think would be great to have on. This sounds a bit morbid, but I just wanna see Mel Brooks in the flesh. I don’t even have to meet him or talk to him. I just wanna see him in real life before he dies. Even if he’s just speaking somewhere introducing a movie. I got to see George Carlin before he died, and I feel really fortunate that I got to see him perform before he went away.

I would love to have Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi on the podcast. I don’t imagine too many of the listeners knowing who that is, but for me, it’d be pretty special. But Mel Brooks would probably be the all-time, and you know, Christopher Guest and Carl Reiner.

How does performing at Meltdown Comics compare to other venues?

The Meltdown is probably the funnest place I’ve ever performed, and I’ve felt that way for quite a while. There’s been shows there for a few years now, like four or five years. Something about the stage and the low ceiling, and the crowds… are just there to have fun and they’re not expecting anything more than that. Compared to other venues around town, I think it’s better than any of the clubs or theaters, which is fun.

Yeah, and it seems like you can get away with making nerdier references onstage.

You know, it’s weird because a lot of comics come in, and they think they have to do that. And you don’t. Tom Wilson, you know the guy who plays Biff in the Back to the Future movies, he came on. Everyone was like, “Oh shit, it’s Biff,” which is a great thing, but his jokes are real family friendly, real clean, they’re not really nerdy at all, but he still killed because it’s just a good audience. I’ve seen comics try to make comic book references but they weren’t funny, and people don’t care.

Just references for the sake of references.

Yeah, which is always kind of a dangerous road to take anyway.

What’s the nerdiest wormhole you’ve gone down onstage when it comes to a specific topic?

Probably zombies. I was drunk at a show at the R Bar once, which is a really good show that DeMorge Brown puts on in Koreatown. I did a zombie joke, and then I started talking about zombies, and then I just started talking to the entire crowd about what their thoughts on zombie preparedness are. It really was an entire 12-minute — a roundtable discussion of your preferred zombie weapon, where you’re going to go. It was a lot of fun. That was probably the [biggest] downspiral I’ve ever done when it comes to nerd stuff.

On the record that’s coming on, I got an Alien Nation reference wrong, and someone had to correct me. That’s the danger of doing that in the back of a comic book store.

How often do you cycle through your material? Do you retire jokes, or do you have a limit on when you’ll stop doing old jokes.

I have a two-year kinda thing. I’m not really doing many bits from two years ago. That’s kind of the cycle that’s been happening. Sometimes, if I’m doing a longer set, and I just wanna buffer newer material, I’ll just pull up stuff from older sets. Stories, I think can be—I don’t like the idea of retiring a story because a story is still something that happened to me, and it still feels fun to tell ‘em.

You tell a story on this album about, I don’t wanna spoil it, but the dog story–

Let’s just say I had an unfortunate sexual incident with a few dogs.

[Laughs] That’s a good way of putting it. Is there anything onstage from your life that is off-limits? That story seems like something that’s definitely pretty personal.

No, I don’t believe anything really should be off-limits. If it’s uncomfortable for the performer, then it’s gonna be uncomfortable for the audience, but if the performer owns it, the audience will feel it’s okay to laugh at and it won’t be such a cringe-worthy thing. There will be some elements of that, but I’m not comparing myself to this in any way, but if you think about the stuff that Richard Pryor talked about, that’s some pretty heavy, heavy stuff. But he’s okay with it and he’s talking about it. I don’t think anything should be off-limits unless it’s off-limits to you personally.

Do you feel like when you perform people only expect you to talk about nerdy things, based on the podcast?

Um, maybe a little bit, but it’s never really been my thing. If they listen to the podcast, nerdy references aren’t really my thing. I think there’s a little bit of element up there. People kind of lump me into the stuff that Chris [Hardwick] and Matt [Mira] do, which is more nerd-referential stuff. But I’ve always tried to just keep my own voice when it comes to being on the podcast and stuff.

I think you definitely do, and on the album, you stray away from that subject matter quite a bit.

There were a couple people there [at the album taping] that I saw that I was like, “I think you never heard my standup, I think you came because of the podcast.” And that’s great. Hopefully, they didn’t have any expectations of what I would talk about because I started off right off the bat talking about drinkin’. Even sometimes on stage, I’ll talk about doing drugs, and I’ve noticed that it kinda makes people clench up.

Do you think that’s just specifically the Nerdmelt room where people clench up?

It’s like when we do the live Nerdist shows, which we’ve been doing a ton of, but normal audiences don’t seem to mind. And the Nerdmelt audiences, they aren’t really—there’s nerds there, but it’s just a lot of comedy fans.

I’ve been there a lot, and I don’t think it’s too nerdy of an audience, but sometimes I’ll see performers who come on stage and start talking about it’s a nerdy audience and they feel they have to make comic book references.

It’s funny because last week, when Robin Williams showed up – he shops at Meltdown and he was shocked to see a comedy show taking place in the back of one of his favorite comic book stores. He made some references, and some people got ‘em. I think he quickly realized it’s just a comedy crowd. It just happens to be in the back of a comic book store.

I don’t like the idea of niche comedy where it’s like, “Oh, this guy’s a nerd comic. He’s gonna talk about nerd things.” I’m fine with that being an element of a personality or a little bit of a style, but when it comes to just having to be that person, I feel it’s kinda selling the comedy short.

For booking the Meltdown Show you host with Kumail Nanjiani, it seems like you guys get a lot drop-ins. How does that come about? Does the show have a reputation now for big names popping in unannounced?

It’s something that just kind of happens here and there. It’s never really a planned thing. Certain comics like Aziz [Ansari] and Brian Posehn, they just want to be able to come in and do a set without having people come to watch them, so they can keep the process of working on new material more pure.

I don’t wanna necessarily get known as a shown where any big name can happen because you get stuck in this thing where people are going because “Hey, we gotta go to the show because you never know who’s gonna show up.” I’d rather people go because me, Kumail, and Emily Gordon happen to book people who are consistently funny.

That’s the difference with that crowd too. When [a comic] comes out on stage, and they don’t know the person, they don’t go, “Okay, let’s see what this guy’s got,” which happens at a lot of these other shows. Our crowds, it seems like they get even more excited, like they’re gonna see somebody else who they’re gonna really like. That’s what I hope stays consistent with the reputation of the show. There’s a bunch of people who you might not know, but you know they’ll be good because they’re on the show.

It seems like you guys definitely make an effort to pull in comedians who people in L.A. don’t know who are just in town.

Yeah, and sometimes there’s a pre-conceived notion where people are like, “Oh, this is an alt room. This is a real alt room.” No, it’s just a comedy room. It has some of the elements of being an alt room, but everyone’s just there to have a good time and laugh. Jake Johannsen, who by all means is a club comic, if he can come in and still do just as well as anyone who just does the bar scene or the alt rooms, that’s great.

It seems like the line between alt comedy and club comedy is getting blurrier and blurrier.

I think that’s great. I’ve never liked the distinction. It had its place, I believe, in the 90s, but there are ways to just have a comedy show and not have it be so precise.

***

Jonah’s new album, Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello, comes out today, and you can order it at aspecialthing for $10 here or digitally for $8 at Amazon and iTunes. It’s also available as a limited edition 10” white vinyl, limited to just 500 copies, and includes a dropcard for free digital download.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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