Talking to Max Silvestri About Brooklyn, Twitter, and Big Terrific
Brooklyn-based comic Max Silvestri has been in the business for a decade now. His free weekly standup show Big Terrific, a New York comedy scene staple that he started with friends Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate, celebrated its fifth anniversary this past March. Since Liedman and Slate moved to LA, Silvestri’s been running Big Terrific on his own, and in addition to his weekly hosting gig, he’s writing reality cooking show recaps for Grantland and Eater, appearing in web videos all over the place, and keeping busy as a standup, all the while maintaining a consistently very funny Twitter presence.
On August 2nd, Silvestri recorded his debut standup album for AST Records at NerdMelt in Los Angeles. The week before, I got the chance to sit down with him and talk about writing vs. performing, New York vs. LA, and other things, all before he went to learn archery on camera for a web video.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in New Jersey and moved around a little bit. I lived in New Jersey for five years, and then in the Poconos, which is kind of this resort-y area in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania. It’s kind of famous for this billboard for the Mount Airy Lodge that has a really cheesy, ’70s-’80s feeling, like, romantic getaway. And we lived there because my parents had a business building houses and there was a lot of building there, but the only time I’ve heard the Poconos mentioned on TV or movies or something was as a punchline of a place where weird real estate scam artists send people. Like, “Oh yeah, we’ll sell ’em a condo in the Poconos.” “Poconos” is kind of a funny word. But then when I was 11, I moved to Massachusetts and that’s where my family lives. So I grew up mostly there. I say “wicked” sometimes, which is a Massachusetts thing. I don’t really have an accent, but I still call it home.
Did you move straight to New York from there?
I went to college in Providence, so I wasn’t that far from my home, but kind of knew within the first year that I would end up in New York. Most of the friends I made in school were from New York, so I would go and visit a lot. And I never really liked Boston; I wasn’t like a Boston kid or anything. I sort of didn’t get the city, and driving made me really anxious. I started doing comedy in Boston when I was in college but knew that as soon as I finished I would live in New York … As soon as I got a job in New York, I moved. I moved in March of 2006, so I guess, a little less than a year after I graduated. I was sure I’d come here.
What kind of comedy were you doing in Boston?
I was doing standup. I started doing comedy, I guess, in college, doing improv and some sketch. People did standup at my college, but there was a group that met … I went to one meeting my first month of college, and I was like, “I’m going to do all the comedy things!” And I went to this one meeting and I was like, “I’m getting a weird vibe. I don’t know that I really want to do standup.”
But then someone I met through the improv group who had done it professionally … and then he got me started in Cambridge. I was just doing standup, and I sort of lucked out. He lied to the club owner at this great alternative club in Cambridge – it’s still there, it’s called The Comedy Studio. That’s where Eugene Mirman started, and Brendon Small and Jon Benjamin and all these great alternative acts that came out of Boston. And so it was a really cool scene, and my second year of comedy, I opened for Louis [C.K.] doing an hour and neat stuff like that, but he just sort of lied to the owner and was like, “Oh this guy opens for me on the road all the time, he’s like my college opener.” So my first time doing standup was like a Saturday at a pretty good club. But it went…fine? Like, good enough. I think they say that the first time feels really easy and it’s the next thousand times, or whatever.
I guess my comedy was pretty similar then but it was filled with a lot more lies, if that makes sense. It was very like, nerdy and writer-ly in the sense that sometimes they’d be real stories but then the punchline would be a lie because that was a funny, absurd thing, which I’ve grown out of because I think anyone realizes, in finding their voice over a decade or whatever, that weird lies aren’t as funny as true things. People are going to laugh harder and longer and remember true things, not this real story and then, like, “and then I masturbated!” or whatever the stupid ending is. I actually still use one of the jokes in my act, but kind of illustrating how different it was.
And did you move right to Brooklyn?
I did, yeah. I lived for three weeks in this terrible apartment in Crown Heights. It was a new building … It was this couple’s first time renovating a building, and they didn’t know they had to get a piece of paper to turn on the oil burner, or the gas, so we didn’t have a stove. And they just gave us a hot plate, and hot water never worked, and they were very defensive about it, like, “You should be very lucky you have a roof over your heads,” and we’re like, “We’re paying $1000 a month,” or whatever we were paying. So after less than a month there I moved to Williamsburg, and I’ve been in Williamsburg ever since.
How long is that?
Do you ever feel pressured to move out to LA because of career opportunities and your colleagues being there?
Yeah, sure. Whenever I visit LA, it’s friends saying, “When are you going to move to LA?” because this happens cyclically in that people get to a certain point and all move out. I think maybe it has something to do with turning 30 or like, “I gotta do it!” There’s always a movement west in New York; it happens again and again. But … it felt more intense this time around, this past year and a half. I mean, everyone I started with moved. And we were a particularly tight group as well. When I started at Rififi, it was Joe Mande, Noah Garfinkel, Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman, later Gabe Delahaye… it was this really core group of friends who hung out all the time. And then within the span of literally a year, everybody got jobs and moved. It was such a one-after-the-other, you couldn’t keep up with the going-away. People would just stop throwing parties. They were just like, “Well I’m moving.” Like, I went out there a month ago and it happened to be one of these friends’ birthdays, and they had like a potluck at their house and it was literally all comedians and all exactly people that I would’ve hung out with. It was as if New York had been transplanted there.
So that’s a bit of pressure … I’m not in a rush…I don’t need to be the last white guy in line trying to get comedy writing jobs out there. There’s plenty of that. I don’t think there’s a real good reason to move unless you’re compelled to. There’s a lot out there, do it, but also New York is great too. And with everyone moving, there’s kind of more work here, because everyone’s now in LA. People just kind of assume you’re in LA now. I go to shows and people are like, “Oh, I thought you moved to LA!” and it’s like, “No, that would be statistically the right thing for you to assume.” I’m sure I will move out there at some point, but I don’t want to move out there with just some dreams. I would move out there for work and for things I had to do. Everyone says when they move that they’re going to be bi-coastal and they’re going to come back in a couple years, but that happens very, very rarely. Have you been out there much?
No, I haven’t. My sister lives out there and I want to visit.
It’s pretty mellow. People are like, “Oh, LA people are this or that,” but everywhere is filled with a ton of shitheads. You don’t have to hang out with them. You know, if you go to a shitty LA bar with a firepit in the middle and you’re mad at all the douchebags, you can find the exact same people in New York. Like, just hang out with nice people … My first experiences in LA were renting a car and being stuck in 405 traffic and being like, “This is a nightmare,” but it doesn’t have to be. You can make a very nice life there. Why am I selling you on LA? I’m selling myself, I think, on LA. The point is, I would totally move to LA.
What are your favorite things about New York and Brooklyn, then? Besides the job opportunities.
Oh, that’s not my favorite. I love walking places. I love taking cheap cabs home. I love how good the food is here. In LA the food is great, but there’s also, like, four good restaurants in LA, and they would be really forgettable in New York. The genuinely ethnic food is much better there in the sense of small Thai, Vietnamese, sushi places… but the sort of restaurant you get a lot of here is very special when you find it there. I really like eating out more here.
What made you decide to record your first standup album in LA?
Well, I copied the idea from Gabe Liedman, who did his album with the same label last year. I’ve had a free show for five years that I do a lot of the same jokes at every week. I do different stuff and I host more now, so it’s more riffing, but ultimately if you’ve wanted to see my jokes in New York, you’ve had ample opportunity to see literally thousands of shows.
So the idea was, “Well, I’ve only been to LA a dozen times, I feel like it’ll be more likely to be new to people out there.” I always have good shows when I go there and that theater [the NerdMelt] specifically is really, really fun. Kumail [Nanjiani] and Jonah Ray’s show [The Meltdown] is like, and this is an offense to other LA shows, but the most New York show – the crowd feels really smart and into it, not judge-y, not like, “Who are you and what are you showcasing?” It’s very loose and fun … Also, I do well with deadlines and breaking up my routine, like this feels like, “Oh, I’m doing an album and I’m flying to LA next Thursday and doing an album Friday. That’s what I’m going there to do.” As opposed to, I’m in my house and I’m in my bed and I’m making lunch and, “Oh, today’s the day I walk to Cameo or to UCB and record an album.” I would not be as good at separating that off. So it felt like, “I’m going to go here to do this thing.” So that’s why I did it that way.
Are you using material that you’ve done before? Or are you doing mostly new material?
Oh no, it’s all old material. I’ve been doing standup 10 years. None of it’s 10 years old. I want to just get rid of a lot of material; I’m lazy about writing but just, having my own show with very few limits on time and the audience is very much on my side means instead of writing tight, short jokey bits that win over a crowd … All of my jokes are like, six or seven minutes long now. Which I’m fine with, but what it means is that I’m not working particularly towards a standard TV-ready way of doing comedy, where it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got this bulletproof clean five minutes, and I can get on Conan” … Once [the album]’s all done, I’ll have a pressure to write new material, which is also what I want to do. Because that’s the thing, you as a comic develop stuff until it gets good and then someone puts it on TV and you’re like, “I don’t do that anymore.” I have to write more things. Nobody’s putting my stuff on TV, so I was like, “I need a reason to get rid of it and to give it to people.”
Also because I do a lot of other writing, I don’t treat standup very clinically, which is a problem. I think all the big standups listen to their act a lot and identify weaknesses and restructure things. Obviously. Not that they’re necessarily doing that on paper or tightening out their bits, but they’re treating it like homework, as you should, it’s your job. But I’m not good about doing that. Putting together this hour has made me do that.
So does writing, say, TV recaps for the Internet come more naturally to you than standup?
What’s your most natural form of writing, then?
There is no natural form of writing; writing’s the worst. Writing’s so hard. Talking prompted by somebody else, in the sense of like, riffing and joking based off of a thing, is natural. Performing is natural. Being on camera feels natural. Just the sense of, being myself feels natural. Writing is always super hard. That doesn’t mean I don’t like writing sometimes. Like everybody, I like having written, not writing. And I can get in the zone where it feels good. I would like to do anything I can to distract myself from writing.
I don’t love writing recaps. I mean, obviously a lot of people like to do recaps; I don’t love writing them. They’re a lot of work and they’re such an ephemeral format in the sense of like, what meaning does this have a week from now, for how much time you’re putting into it?
TV recapping is like, yeah you talk about what happened, but you’re writing jokes on the assumption that people have seen it and that they’re connecting it. It’s like writing a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 where you’re also describing the movie and that’s just really potent to have in an audience … But it’s very exhilarating to know your audience has all watched what you’re talking about. It’s like giving you so many joke prompts; it’s very satisfying. Because you don’t have to do the setups, almost — like, the setup is the show. But I hate that they take hours to write and that they’re about TV shows. If I never do another one, I’d be okay with that. It’s weird they’re so popular though. People really like TV recaps.
I think it’s just that people watch the show and want to read about it and think about it more.
Right, talk about it, I guess?
Listen to somebody else talk about it.
Yeah, when I’m watching a movie and I really like it, I like reading reviews after that agree with me, if that make sense? Or agree, also like the movie, but have more intelligent ways of articulating why it was good. It feels satisfying and edifying to be like, “Oh yeah, it is good and here’s why” … They’re so long; they’re all so long. And I mean, I can’t make fun of it because I do it, but, like, websites that just recap old shows, which The A.V. Club does a ton of, where it’s like, “We’re about to start watching Taxi from the beginning, get on board, 2000-word recap every week.” And people are clearly into it enough that they keep doing it, and I’m like, “We don’t need all these words on these shows.” The greatest minds of our generation are being wasted talking about television. That’s not true, but you know what I mean.
It’s a dramatic statement.
It’s very dramatic; make that the headline — “The Greatest Minds of Our Generation.” What I’m saying is that people that write TV recaps are the greatest minds of our generation. And you can quote me on that.
Do you consider Twitter an important part of your comedy? Or is it just a fun thing on the side?
Both? In the sense that I don’t treat it as important in the sense that I don’t work at it in any smart, ambitious way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, like a lot of people use Twitter quite effectively to build fanbases or do what they’re doing. I literally feel like it’s just a place where I feel like I can do whatever I want and be as silly as I want and make fun of as insider-y things as I want because I know some people will appreciate it. I’m not trying to hit it out of the park with everyone. So I don’t treat it as important and I find it to be this silly side thing, yet it’s undeniable the power it has to build fans, to connect with people.
I’m really into Joe Mande’s bot search right now. I don’t know how he started it – I think it’s because he found out or had a suspicion, that really big, weird celebrity brands, like Newt Gingrich, purchase most of their followers. There’s these weird shady bot networks that are basically run out of strange offshore computing networks where they create all these fake accounts that follow and kind of tweet and you can basically pay money, and Twitter tries to eliminate them, but the network is such that it’s literally constantly generating new ones. And the purpose is, you can pay money to up your follower account. So he has just sort of, as a joke, has become obsessed with bots … I think he’s gotten like 100,000 new followers in the last week and is constantly tweeting about being a bot. And it’s really, really dumb and makes me laugh a lot. He’s very smart on Twitter. That’s been said in many interviews before. Don’t print that because I don’t want his ego to be — just kidding, please print it.
How much do you rely on current events, like the Carlos Danger thing, when you’re tweeting?
The Carlos Danger thing is Twitter at its worst. Like, I don’t want to look at this site for a few days because it’s so ripe and obvious for jokes. I must have seen like 15 “My middle name is Danger”s. It’s very exhausting. And I get why everyone does that, and I’m guilty of it all the time, but I get really grossed out about it. Also, I really don’t get why everyone needs to be funny on Twitter? Y’know? Like, I don’t follow all comedians. Thank God, comedians are the worst people. I follow a lot of different people, but it’s like, you’re a New York Times reporter, I follow you because you write about interesting things. You don’t need to get in the “clever game,” for the sake of retweets or favorites. I get that you’re supposed to be building your social media brand or whatever your boss says, but it’s also like, enough. So when stories like that hit, I almost check out of Twitter completely. But then sometimes I don’t, and I’ll come up with a joke that I’m like, “Oh this will hit really hard because everyone’s reading Carlos Danger jokes.”
How do you think hosting Big Terrific has helped you in your career?
I mean, in all the ways. Big Terrific is everything. The very obvious — it’s a platform every week, building up a place where people can always come and see me. Also, I loved comedy already, but without Big Terrific, I might not have stuck with standup in the sense that standup is a grind, and a lot of shows aren’t fun, and a lot of comics aren’t fun to be around. And it’s a commitment to do, but the love I have for Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate and respect for their work has always been so unrelentingly overwhelming that it really made standup such a happy, big, great thing. We started the show together, kind of out of a bit of a necessity, in that we were both doing shows on our own. They were doing shows together every other week, I was doing a monthly, and I wanted to do a show more frequently.
So yeah, that show has been everything, it’s been fantastic. It’s still a blast, it’s just a different vibe, because every comic I know has moved away, and so the booker who produces the show puts people on all the time I don’t know, and they’re great. I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry I don’t know you, you’re great.” Instead of like, “This week I’m hanging out with Jenny and Gabe and Kumail and Pete Holmes and Joe Mande. This’ll be a show for the ages. These people are all going to be famous.” They now all left to be famous. And New York is a constant supply of talent, and people I have on this show now will also be famous, but it’s just different than it was. Now I’m the old guy, I guess? I mean, I’m only thirty, but it’s just different.
But I don’t want to stop it, I mean it’s such a treat and pleasure to have as smart a crowd as we have with very little effort to come every week. We don’t promote it very hard; we’re lucky if we get a tweet about the lineup out by 2 PM the day of the show … We don’t have a webpage that works, we don’t have a Facebook page. We’re not very organized in the way that most modern, smart people are with their professional pursuit. But it’s great, it’s like “Oh, I can roll in around 8:15 and there are a bunch of people who are excited for the show.” It’s a problem with a lot of great shows, that super comedy fans come all the time, and it gives it this intense, “Impress me this week,” or, “I saw that material already,” or whatever. I never want Big Terrific to feel like that, and every week when it’s like, “Oh, who’s new to the show?” it’s always such a surprisingly large percentage, which I really relish. Sometimes it’s kind of tourist-y fans; I don’t want people who are there to judge Aziz’s new ten minutes and write about it on their website. The idea is that it’s people game for having a good show and people can do whatever. It’s free so you can’t really get mad about it.
Max Silvestri is on Twitter at @maxsilvestri.
Jenny Nelson lives in Brooklyn and writes and goes to school.