Talking to Joe DeRosa About ‘The Half Hour’, Web Comedy, and the Best Fans
For the past 15 years, Comedy Central’s half hour specials have showcased the future stars of standup. Looking back, the early years of Comedy Central Presents included memorable sets from the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook and dozens more. Re-branded The Half Hour in 2012, the series continues to feature the best up-and-coming comics in the country.
For many comedians, it’s that history that makes doing a half hour special so significant. While a half hour may once have been a comic’s first major exposure, comedians now have many ways to build an audience. Almost everyone who taped a special this year does non-standup comedy as well, branching out into the worlds of podcasting, sketch and improv, web series, acting, and more. In this new series, I sat down with each of this year’s 16 Half Hour comedians to talk about their specials, their careers, and their generation of comedians. Each interview will also feature an exclusive clip from the special. All the interviews can be found here.
A regular on Opie & Anthony, Joe DeRosa’s half hour special is his second, having recorded a Comedy Central Presents in 2009. Days before he was set off on a month-long tour of the south, where he recorded his new album, I met up with him in his Gramercy apartment to discuss multiple specials, O&A fans, and being in the new wave of comedy.
How did the taping go?
It went very well. It was a special night for me. Getting to go back and do a second one was really flattering. I felt honored to get to go and do another one.
You’re the only one this year who also did a Presents. Why did you decide to do another one?
The opportunity was there to do a second one, so I felt like, why not? It was a really good chance for me to get new material on the television. It’s been a little bit of time since I’ve had anything on television, and it was an opportunity for me to get material onto television pretty close to the state that it would be in a club environment. That was important for me too. For some comedians, it’s hard to find TV outlets where you can kind of let loose and really be yourself, and you don’t have to worry about scrubbing and cleaning everything up. And aside from some bleeps in this special, I felt like it was pretty close to what you’d hear in a club. And then also with recording a new album and everything, I felt like, the first time I did one of these was four years ago or something, and it coincided with the release of my first album. So it felt like things kind of came full circle to where they were with the first time I did this and my first album.
What did doing your first half hour special mean for you?
I felt like after that first one, I started to get treated like an actual comedian. That was the biggest thing for me. I noticed that when I was doing spots in clubs and showcases, they started trusting putting me anywhere on the lineup, versus like, he’s a newer guy, he has to go earlier. It felt like the first step into that transition of becoming one of the New York guys, and being somebody that’s really part of the scene here.
And then what did it mean the second time around?
That’s a good question. I guess you have to wait and see if it helps push your career in a different direction or up the ladder. But I definitely felt a step up in maturity as a comic. Not to sound cheesy, but I felt very honored in a way to get to do it. Guys that I really love and admire have done a couple of these and I was really flattered and honored to be somebody that got to do two of those. And maybe now you can kind of focus on whatever the next thing is. It was a big night for me because a lot of the material that I did on the special and the bulk of material that I’m gonna do on this new album, it was all stuff I wrote—my mom had gotten sick last year and I’d moved home to Pennsylvania for two months to stay with her, to help her through surgery and help my dad out with stuff. And I wrote most of the material at that time, and the themes of the material were coming out of where I was at that time in my life, going into the hospital and the observations I was making in there. And thinking about life and that sort of stuff. So, it was really special, no pun intended, to get to do some of that stuff on TV in this taping, and then have my mom there in the audience, healthy. There’s a part where she’s on camera where I talk to her and talk about how she’s doing really well. It was just a big night, personally and professionally.
So, what’s your typical gig like these days?
It’s a little more mixed over the last year or two. I do clubs, but I also do a lot of one-night shows in not-comedy-clubs venues. Smaller music venues, coffeehouses on the road that are big enough to book traveling acts but not huge rooms. I really like doing those. Very different vibe, you know? People are coming in because either they’re fans or they’re fans of the venue, or both. There’s definitely more of a grass roots feeling to it. And I’m not knocking clubs, but it’s a different experience. Traditional comedy clubs are much more expensive, and I think sometimes the people in a comedy club audience that aren’t your fans, sometimes they’re fans of the venue, sometimes they’re just people wandering in. So it starts to get a little more jumbled with who’s enjoying you and who might not be. [Laughs] Or who knew what to expect and who didn’t. Whereas I feel like in these venues, there’s just a little more of that concept of, Hey, what are you gonna do? What’s your thing all about? Let’s experience it and see what’s up. Both are interesting and challenging in their own way.
I know you’re a regular on Opie & Anthony, which has a very devoted following. Do people expect you to be something from that show that you’re not on stage?
No. I’ve been lucky. Everybody that’s been coming out, the people that came out to the [Half Hour] taping in Boston, and the people that come out to the regular shows, they’re extremely supportive. They’re extremely excited to see the shows, they’re really respectful, and they’re really cool. I’ve had guys at shows where, six fans come out and then there’s a bunch of other people that don’t know who you are, and there have been those instances, I don’t like to think about them, and they are few and far between, but there have been those instances where the rest of the room is like, I’m not into you. I don’t like what you’re doing, I don’t like the comedy that you do. But those six fans, man, they love it. They’re right there the whole time. They keep you going through a show like that. And in any situation like that, they’re always like, “Fuck these people. They don’t know shit.”
And that helps?
Oh, yeah. Always. Beause it makes you feel like, maybe I’m doing something right. We’re just on the journey, trying to get it to the place where it’s great for everybody. We’re just gonna slowly build until everybody in the room is one of these six guys. But yeah, they’ve been incredible. There’s sometimes a thing on Twitter that gets annoying where guys want to tweet little slams and cracks at you. They think it’s funny, they don’t mean to be mean by it, but it does get annoying, because it’s like, dude I don’t know you. You’re a stranger who’s insulting me. And I get it, you hear us mess with each other on the show, but we’re friends, and that’s a rapport we’ve established. That takes time, and there’s a comfort level there. And you’re saying some really mean things to me right now. I’m not hurt by it, it’s just annoying. So sometimes that happens, but most of the time, it’s guys being super supportive and excited, which is such a beautiful thing to me. I really treasure that. I can’t even fathom that there’s anybody out there that looks at my comedy with a fandom. I’m just so flattered by that. It’s a dream come true.
I think it’s really interesting how many things comics do these days. This seems like it’s the first generation where you can’t just do standup.
Yeah. I was in the weird transitional gap of all that stuff. When I first came to New York, it wasn’t the thing yet to do web stuff, or to write. I remember hearing that Demetri Martin, when he was starting out, he would write these scripts. He was selling scripts, and that was a technique he used to stay afloat and do comedy. And I remember it being this very unique concept to me. Like, I guess you could do that. That’s interesting if you want to do that, I guess.
And then like all of a sudden everything shifted. And then it was like, you kind of have to do that. Which was fine with me because I had an interest in that stuff anyway. I always had an interest in making movies and writing sketches and stuff like that. It took discipline to start sitting down and actually doing it, and pitching it and selling stuff. But it definitely wasn’t like the thing that you had to do when I first came to New York. There was still like that concept of, just pound the pavement as a comic, and you’ll become…whatever. And it’s just slowly shifted out of that. I mean I remember when Super Deluxe [a comedy video site from 2007-2008] was giving these crazy deals to people to do web content. And I just remember being like, “Wait, what is it? The web? But that stuff looks crappy. What do you want? What is this all about?” [Laughs] I didn’t understand. The technology wasn’t there. It was like this weird new thing that I didn’t understand at all. I think I might have still had dial-up internet at the point. It just made no sense to me at the time.
But now I’m pretty involved in this second wave or new wave of all of it. It can help. A good podcast with a lot of downloads and stuff, that obviously helps with your exposure and getting the word out there. But as far as the other content is concerned, I don’t know if it really helps get your name out there. I think it more just services the people that want more of you. It helps that they can go to YouTube and dick around for an hour and watch stuff. Then of course they write to you and go, “I watched everything today,” because everything is three fucking minutes long now, “I’ve watched everything. Where’s more?” It’s like, “All that everything you watched today in 30 minutes took me two months to make. And it cost however many thousands of dollars.“ It’s a weird time we live in.
Do you find doing other things, whether web stuff, podcasts, or radio, informs your standup? Is it creatively helpful or is it a totally separate arena?
It’s separate. I mean, it certainly helps sharpen a certain tool, which is being conversationally entertaining, funny or engaging in some way. Being able to speak to somebody and create some interest for someone to want to listen to it. That’s a certain tool that is a necessity in this business, because if you sit down and do some televised interview or radio thing, if you’re a fucking bore, nobody wants to listen to it, and then they don’t hear your plugs and go, “Why would I want to go see him?” So in that sense, sure. But as far as informing the standup, sort of. I think it kind of breaks you down and teaches you how to be more conversationally funny and it helps you start stripping away. Getting to the point of what you’re trying to talk about. I think doing radio and podcasts teaches you to learn how to be a little more sound-bitey, and so does doing clip shows. I was on I Love the 1880s on the History Channel last year, and that helped. That helped me understand how to get to this joke about J. Edgar Hoover in two sentences, because they don’t have time for you to do this five-minute thing. It helped.
But there’s a downside to everything, and I think the downside to that is that, some things need to have layers and need to develop as pieces and don’t need to just be funny, funny, funny. George Carlin’s my favorite comic ever of all time, and Frank Zappa’s my favorite musician ever of all time, and they certainly were people that explored your ability to comprehend a piece, and your patience to sit and take in an entire piece. Versus, here’s some candy real quick. You know what I mean? And they did a good job of book ending the heavy stuff with the candy, which is another art form in and of itself. I don’t think every comic has to do that, or has to explore lengthier things, but I think if you want to, you should be able to. And you shouldn’t be hesitant to do so.
And then what’s next for you?
Well, my new album is coming out sometime. I don’t know the date, but it’s called You Will Die, and it will be out with BC Media this year. I have the web series We Should Break Up on Official Comedy with Nikki Glaser. I’d like more people to see that, because I’m trying to see that as a TV show, so the more people that see it, the better.
Joe DeRosa’s Half Hour airs Friday, May 10 at 12:30 am (technically Saturday morning). He’s on Twitter at @joederosacomedy.
Elise Czajkowski is a contributing editor at Splitsider and comedy journalist in New York City. She occasionally tweets at @EliseCz.