Growing Up in Comedy with Dan Levy

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Analyzing Dan Levy’s comedy career reminds me of watching the movie Boyhood. Spend an hour or two online tracing his comedic history, watching old clips, and reading interviews and you get to literally see a comedian grow up before your very eyes. Dan started comedy at the age of nine — when his mom enrolled him in improv classes — and never stopped. His work has always represented exactly where he is in life, whether it’s talking about fake IDs, buying condoms, or doing the college circuit while he was still in college. Now 35, Dan is focusing on his day-to-day life as a husband and father in his newest special Lion, which premiers today on Seeso. I talked to Dan about the new special, his maturing comedic sensibility, and whether or not he should revive his old AOL impression.

I think anybody that’s followed your comedy career probably has a sense that they’ve grown up with you in terms of the evolution of your material.

That is totally true. That’s funny, especially looking at my hour special because the first real jokes I ever did were about how I love buying condoms. I wrote that joke when I was 19. The whole joke was that if you’re buying condoms you’re having sex and if you’re having sex you’re awesome. It wasn’t a great joke. Now my special is like, “I have two kids. I guess I never really used those condoms that I bought at CVS in 2001.”

Can you return them?

Yeah, they’re still in the box.

Is it true that your mom enrolled you in a comedy class when you were a little kid?

Yeah, back when I was nine I was very hyperactive and had a lot of problems in elementary school. My mom didn’t know what to do because I wasn’t really into the things my friends were doing: baseball, video games. I didn’t really do any of that stuff. My mom found this place called Curtain Call that did improv classes. I started doing improv classes when I was nine and continued doing that through middle school and high school. I was in a comedy troupe in high school and that’s basically what I’ve always done since then.

When did you do standup by yourself for the first time?

I did some stuff when I was in high school. I remember I wrote this show where I was making fun of my high school. But when I was a freshman at Emerson, like the third week that I was in college, I went to Dick Doherty’s Comedy Vault and did the open mic night. That was the first time I went on stage like, “Here we go. I’m doing standup in a city. Let’s do it!”

“I’ve got a hot take on condoms…”

I wasn’t even doing that bit yet. I had much worse jokes. I do remember I was wearing a teal blue Adidas jumpsuit. I was talking so fast that I didn’t pause for laughter, which was okay because I wasn’t getting any. That night Dan Mintz went on after me and killed. That was very frustrating.

It wasn’t that long after that that you started getting some buzz as a young comic. You won Best College Comedian in America in 2001.

A title that I still hang on to every single day of my life. In 2001 there was a comedy contest going on in Boston through a website called Nibblebox, which no longer exists. They did this contest and picked the top five comics and flew them to Aspen. I was 20. It was pretty amazing. I won that competition and from there got a manager and an agent and started coming out to LA for auditions and all of that kind of stuff while I was still in college.

You were a reality show host on MTV for a couple of shows and you did a couple of college comedy movies. Doing humor for the college demographic became your comedic identity. Did you feel that that was who you were as a person or just where the entertainment path took you?

That was just my sensibility at the time. Like you said, I’ve grown in my point of view and my sensibility for comedy. I was literally doing a college tour when I was a senior in college. I would go to these shows and do an hour of material. I don’t even know what I talked about. I guess because I was performing for my peers it was very easy for me. I stayed in that world because I was that age. I had a reality show, the MTV show, and a string of weird, bad movies. I did an album at the end of that. My first album, Running Out of Minutes, has all of those jokes in it. Drug stuff, condoms, fake IDs.

At the time that you were doing full hours for these college crowds did you feel like you knew what you were doing or did you feel that you were propelled into it and just had to do it.

I was pretty confident because I was performing so much. When I say I don’t know what I was saying I mean that looking back now I’m sure it was garbage. But at the time I believed in it. I used to close my sets with an impression of signing on to AOL. I would do the whole thing, “Beep, beep, boop, boop,” and then I would just scream and say, “Lost connection.”

Retro stuff is cool again. You should bring that bit back into the rotation.

I should wear some Cross Colors onstage and do a 90s set.

Now you’re talking about trying to stay fit, your wife, your kids. You’ve definitely gone full thirty-something.

I feel like this is the first time in my career where I’m talking about things that I fully believe in that really affect my life. Everything in that special is something that is happening to me everyday, real people I know, real things that happen. This is the most fun I’ve had doing standup.

You shot your special in Seattle. Do you have a special relationship with that city?

I’ve always had amazing shows there. I did a big tour leading up to the taping. I wanted to be close enough to LA so that my wife wouldn’t divorce me by the end of the tour, but also not in LA. I felt like Seattle was perfect.

Your last album, Congrats on Your Success, came out in 2012. Is a new album in the works?

No, all of my material is in this special. I plan to work out new material for the next thing sometime soon. But Jesus, Isaac. Come on. I just did a special. I don’t have any more jokes. I’m exhausted.

Photo by Scott Garrison.

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