Talking to Jonah Ray About ‘The Half Hour’, ‘Nerdist’, and Zombie Jokes
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.
Jonah Ray is best known as one of the key members of the Nerdist empire, co-hosting the original podcast, appearing on the BBC America’s spinoff show The Nerdist, and hosting his own podcast Jonah Raydio. He also co-hosts the popular LA standup show The Meltdown. I caught up with him over the phone to chat about his non-nerdy comedy and the value of a creative outlet.
So how did the taping go?
I feel it went well. Normally, I hate every performance I’ve ever done in my life. I walk away from most shows, be it at a bar, a club, or a taping, feeling like I want to murder myself. Not even commit suicide, I want to violently murder myself. But walking away from that taping, I felt good, which is rare. And that convinced me that it went horrible.
Yeah, I feel good about it. It’ll be fixed in editing, but I messed up my last line. I literally stumbled over the last five words of the entire set. But I still had fun, and that’s more important than any other fucking thing. Recovering from that and joking around with the audience like a real person, instead of somebody that was just going off of their pre-planned set, was probably my favorite part of the entire night.
What did doing a half hour special mean to you?
It means a lot to me. I’m not gonna act like it’s just a thing that I deserved. I feel pretty fortunate and lucky, lucky more than anything else, that I got it. It’s weird. When I started doing comedy, its something that I always wanted to do, never was really sure that I would get to that place. I’m never really thought that I would be a guy that got spots on TV and stuff like that. So for it to happen, it leaves me a little dumbstruck.
As far as my career, really in the end, it’s a credit. When you keep on moving on forward in comedy, it just becomes a thing they’ll put after your name on a flyer. That’s really the gist of it. It doesn’t do anything more than maybe help you get another gig. That’s all it really does for you career wise. In the end it’s just another notch in the sequence of your life and career. Sorry, that sounds nihilistic of me.
Is that not how you mean it?
It is. I’m over the moon that I was able to do one, and the fact that I got to do it on the same show as one of my best friends, Sean O’Connor, that’s the kind of stuff that meant a lot to me. But if I were to be realistic about it, it’ll air maybe a few times and then we’ll on move on with our lives. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m sounding so dark and nihilistic. I’m sorry.
It’s okay, if that’s what you feel. Obviously, people know you from Nerdist. Do you find people don’t know what to expect when they see you live?
Yeah. I mean, the way I joke around with my friends is usually a lot darker and meaner than I am with my actual standup. But I feel that if they know me, they know where the jokes are coming from, then it’s not too much of a shock or surprise. There is a bit of, when they think about the three of us on the Nerdist podcast, they think of us as being a bit more cheery or nerdy than we really are as individuals. I don’t really talk about nerd stuff necessarily and that’s always sometimes like a shock. Some people will be like, “I expected you to talk about zombies the entire time.” I’m still just a guy and a comic trying to make jokes about myself, and I think that’s the one thing. They’re expecting more nerd humor, which it isn’t really up my alley. I have jokes about doing drugs and that always really throws them off, where they’re just like, “But you’re so pure!”
What’s your typical gig like, at this point in your career?
I’m in the back of a comic book store one night a week. That’s where I’m at in my career.
Actually, I went to the pilot taping of the Meltdown show when I was in LA. How’s that coming along? Any news?
I just saw a cut of it, and it’s looking really good. I’m really happy with it. No news. You know, I’m really just pleased to have this little documented footage of our show. We’ve all worked really hard to make it good, so whatever happens, happens to it. It feels really good. If it gets picked up, that’d be great. But you can’t wish for things that might not happen. It’ll just bum you out.
Almost everyone who did a Half Hour this year does something else, like podcasting. Do you find that having different outlets ends up informing your standup?
Oh, yeah. I mean, the more you talk in way where you’re trying to be funny, or the more of a creative output you have, the more you’ll know yourself as a creative person. Like for podcasts, the more you talk and the more you’re just trying to joke around, the more ideas you have of how to be funny for yourself, and how to be true to your voice. And the same thing with if you’re working on a web series. In comedy in general, it’s more important to just always have some creative output, so you can know where your style is, and where your strengths are. And the more you do, the more you find out what strengths you have. If you’re an illustrator, you have to just draw, you scribble on a notepad all day, every day. You kind of have to be drawing so you’ll find out what you’re good at, what you’re style is, and what defines you as a creative person. Podcasts, I think, are great for that, because you just have to fill up time. You have to talk, and you kind of know yourself more by doing it. It’s kind of like going to therapy. You hear yourself talk and you organize your thoughts in a way to convey what you mean, and it just helps you understand things better about yourself.
[When I talked to Jonah in March, he has just returned from the shooting in the UK for the BBC America Nerdist show.] How was the UK?
It was a lot of fun. I’d never been out there before, and I really tried hard to look up an open mic or a comedy show to hop on, but I was really scared. I was really scared, because the whole idea of just—I know I’m funny, but would I be funny to someone that doesn’t speak like me. I was a bit frightened, but I’m going back to the UK in a couple months and maybe this time I won’t be as scared.
You’ve also released two comedy albums on A Special Thing Records.
Yeah, I had two EPs. I have a 7-inch record that I put out in 2006, and then I put out a 10-inch record last year, which was about twice as long on AST Records. I put them out on vinyl and then they’re on iTunes as well. But for me it was just kind of a dumb punk rock fantasy to be on vinyl.
Is there overlap of the material with the special?
There’s scattered bits from those records that will appear on the special. I kind of figured, [The Half Hour] was my shot to kind of put together—I don’t want to say greatest hits because that sounds pompous, but my favorite bits. It’s kind of a compilation of my favorite bits from what I’ve done in the past eight years. And I’m actually planning on releasing a limited edition 7-inch record with some of the bits, or like a couple stories from the special.
And what comes next? Do you think you’ll work on an hour, or focus more on TV?
I don’t know. I’m probably going to work on trying to figure out what it takes to do an hour special. I have my own little dumb podcast called Jonah Raydio, which is a lot of fun. We play unsigned bands, as well as just mindless jibber-jabber drivel. We try and get bands exposure that we feel deserve it. And I’m just kind of developing and working on shows and stuff like that. I kind of want to step away from hosty-type stuff and work more on narrative and acting, which I find a lot more fun.
Jonah Ray’s Half Hour premieres on Friday, May 24 at midnight. He’s on Twitter at @jonahray.