Staying Present with Will Miles
Will Miles moved to New York City three years ago from Chicago alongside two of his closest friends Kenny DeForest and Clark Jones. Thanks to their talents as comedians, a strong work ethic, and the handy ability to be genuinely engaging, the three have risen quickly in the New York scene. Only a few years after having moved to New York, Hannibal Buress passed on the beloved Sunday show Comedy at the Knitting Factory to the three of them.
Miles recently recorded his first album, Good Year, back home in Chicago, capturing what he treasures most in his act: finding the humor of the present moment. The album is a hilarious account of Miles’ anxieties, love life, and all-around approach to life.
I recently sat down with Miles to talk about his experience recording the album, how he overcomes social anxieties, and the importance of staying present.
A lot of comics, when they record an album, face the question of whether to record it in front of a group of people that they know and love or to record it for just regular crowd. You did yours in Chicago, right?
In front of family and friends?
My parents were at both shows, and I had some old friends and coworkers there, and then I had people I never met. It was kind of a good mix. Even the friends and co-workers hadn’t seen some of the material yet so it was cool for them to watch it from the beginning.
Right, a mix is perfect. I think people are afraid that a crowd of friends and family will sound forced, but a random crowd might just not be into them that night.
Right, that’s why I was like, I want to make sure that if it is people that have seen me go up before, they don’t know these jokes, really, so that I can get the fresh laugh. I hate a not fresh, forced, fake laugh. I didn’t want any of those on my album.
One benefit to that type of crowd, though, is that you had a good number of people who know where you’re coming from, personality-wise, in your jokes.
Exactly, and that’s the comforting aspect of it. I think I can come off as nervous on stage sometimes, but that’s just how I talk. I think I appear nervous. I had a friend in college, one of her friends was like “Why is Will always so nervous when he comes to the all-female dorm?” I’m like, “Oh, I’m not nervous, I just don’t know… I have social anxieties I’m dealing with at all times.”
Were you nervous for the night you recorded, or had you relaxed into it?
I’d relaxed into it. Now the nerves before performing are more, “Oooh, I can’t wait to get on stage and do this!” I have more confidence than I did when I was beginning. I go into it knowing that they’re going to laugh, almost. I mean, I hope that doesn’t sound too cocky, but I am. I’ve been doing it a long time.
Sure, you’ve recorded an album, I should hope you have faith in what you do.
You should know they’re going to laugh. It’s like, I go in there knowing they’ll laugh, but I’m nervous that I don’t say it the way I want to. But I’m excited for their energy to feed back into me and me to feed back into their energy. It’s a fun process.
Yeah, that play between the comic and the crowd can be the most rewarding part. I think a lot of comics think they’re introverts, but at the same time they feed off of that sort of extroverted interaction.
I think I can be extroverted. I think some of it is… My dad is a politician. Growing up, I would go to functions with him and then look at how he interacts with people. He’s very much himself when he interacts with everybody, but he’s got to ramp himself up. One thing about our family is that what we’d rather do is be sitting at home. It’s a big deal when we’re out of the house, just because it’s so much fun at home. You can watch TV, you can eat food you want. But then when you’re out, you’ve got to make the most of it. It’s like, I might as well see how many friends I can interact with. People make their own conversations interesting, but you want to hear how everyone’s doing, and you want to hear all these different stories. I just like hearing other people’s stories.
So is it specifically restorative for you to socialize or just something you enjoy?
I think it might be. It’s my response to social anxiety. I’ve always just made friends. I figured that out in high school because I guess some people said I was a “class clown” in elementary school, but I was so shy that I don’t know how they could ever get that impression. In high school, something broke where I was able to… I broke into the hip-hop scene with the people who freestyled and rapped after school, and once they accepted me, I was like, “Oh, that wasn’t that hard to make friends. Now I can see how many friends I can make.” It’s been ongoing with that mode since that day. Since like sophomore year of high school when I was like, “Oh, I can probably make as many friends as I want if I actually try.” I just never tried.
Do you have anything that helps you connect to people that you meet? A lot of times when people try to make friends they just go for variations on their own personality type, whereas you do seem to be pretty broad with your friendships.
I think that it’s mostly just not trying, it’s just doing something in the present. I look at a moment in the present, and I try to stay as present as I can in any situation, and I hope that comes through. That’s what I want to come through in my comedy, is that I’m really in the present. That’s why I like getting the album out. When I get into a situation I look at our surroundings, look at something that I think I saw them laugh at, or if they glanced at the basketball game, I know I have that in there. I’m like, “Oh, I like basketball. Let’s talk about basketball.” Just whatever commonality we have, I’ll try to come up with it organically, or introduce that person into like “Oh, yeah, did you do this the other day?” If I saw them at open mic. “Do you know that person? Cool,” or, “We probably have this in common.” A lot of times it’s weed.
Ha, yeah that seems to be one of the greater points of commonality throughout comedy. You talked about how being present is important to your album. Do you mean that as in your style in general?
I always want to talk about things that are affecting me at that moment. In an hour, it’s hard to have things that are affecting you directly at that moment, but I feel that it’s all stuff that directed me, that reflected my situation in the last year. I talked about just having a girlfriend as something that reflected the situation that just happened. A little bit of Brooklyn, all that stuff, coming back to Chicago, romance, how much I loved it. I was still able to reflect on it as a new thing. Even the past stuff — the romantic comedies joke — is kind of an older one from Chicago, but it fit into the storyline of the album because it was still part of my present. I prefer it to be stuff that I’m thinking about pretty consistently that day.
There’s a lot to be said for that. I feel like the funniest things are almost always the things that relate directly to a present moment that we’re all sharing.
That’s why I’d rather do it on an album, because you’re not going to deliver it the same way if it’s like ten years later. If somebody can go back and listen to the album, you’re delivering it the way that it happened to you that day… That’s way easier to understand.
Totally. The title of the album, “Good Year,” is a reference to one of your day-to-day, present moment jokes that we all kind of have. Did you go with that for everything we just talked about? Like, humor in the moment?
It took a while to get to that title. I had all these other ones I was going to go with, and then I was like, “Oh, ‘Good Year’ seems to be a theme of the album.” I say it in the first and the last joke, I had a pretty good year, one of my best in comedy so far, so I’m like, “I might as well, it makes sense.”
What were some other potentials for the album names?
“Dude In The Background.” I have that joke about how I always wanted to be that dude in the background. That also reflected some of my early days in comedy, because when I started really starting to gain traction, it was more, “This is a good comedian,” but it was also, “This guy opens for all these people. He opens for Hannibal Buress.” It’s like, “He’s the dude in the background in some of those pictures of Hannibal Buress.”
You moved here from Chicago with a group of comics. Do you think that made the transition easier or harder? Often, if you’re moving with friends you’re probably more likely to just cling to that group as opposed to branching out.
I think it made it easier, especially with everyone that moved around the same time that we did but specifically with Kenny [DeForest] and Clark [Jones]. Those are two of my best friends anyway, and we’re all sort of social in the same way, so I knew I had those two to go to open mics with, but I also knew the three of us could meet new people pretty easily and branch out. So I was like, “Yeah, I’m going with those two, and that’s going to make us go up every night because we have each other to be like, ‘Alright, let’s go to these four open mics. What else are we going to do? We all live together.” My brother lived here, but I didn’t have too many friends here at the time. So we’re like, “Let’s all go to these opens mics.” Then we’d get there, be very welcoming as far as, “Please enter our conversations, that would be great. We’d love to make more friends.” So that made it easier. We got to know more people through that.
That’s a great mentality to have, though it’s definitely hard to maintain. At a certain point, it’s like you’ve just met too many people to handle. To that end, it’s really fitting that you write for Chris Gethard, because I think he shares that mentality of just keeping things open. “You want to help out? How do you want to do it?”
Chris has been great, also. He’s been a big influence in my career in the last two, three years, just watching how he works. Everything is based on the silliness, like we deal with a lot of issues relevant to society, and mental anxiety, and depression, and different things with mental illness, but, that’s not the goal going into it. It just naturally happens.
I think that anytime you talk about your own life, things are going to come up that are going to help other people and that’s sort of his mentality too. So, while the show was based in silliness, I feel like we’ve dealt with a lot of issues pretty well just because of dealing with the situations that we all dealt with on a personal level, especially Chris. It’s easier to relate to people when you’re just being specific to you and making sure you’re as nurturing as you can be.
That’s the art of it, right? Taking something that’s really extremely personal and finding the point of commonality. Which is, again, like your approach to conversation. You’re just being you, but you’re actually paying attention to the other person as opposed to just being in your own head the whole time.
A lot of conversations, especially new conversations, people are like, “All right, I gotta hit these points so this person likes me.” But, it’s more about… Are you present with this person? Because that will make somebody like you a lot more.
I find that interesting that your dad is in politics, because that is such an overlapping set of personality traits for comedians. The ability to be taken seriously but also be down to earth and be present and focused on people around you.
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people have had family members that were like preachers and stuff, and that influenced their ability to do comedy, and I think that’s great. I think politicians are some … they’re certainly no preachers, but there’s some aspect of that where, yeah, he had to deliver speeches, I had to watch him prepare for his speech and deliver it. And also certain situations that also relate to life as a comedian where I could watch that and be like, “Okay, so if they give you a response like this, this is how you come back from that response.” “You start the speech, this is how you end the speech, and the speech should always tie itself up in the end.” That aspect of it, watching that growing up was what I brought into comedy.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Will Miles hosts the ever-popular Comedy at the Knitting Factory alongside Kenny DeForest and Clark Jones every Sunday at 9pm at The Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He hosts a podcast with his girlfriend and fellow-comedian Giulia Rozzi, Hopefully We Don’t Break Up. Miles also writes for The Chris Gethard Show which airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on Fusion.