Off the Cuff with Damien Lemon

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Season 2 of truTv’s Comedy Knockout premieres tonight at 11pm and I recently had the chance to catch up with the show’s host, Damien Lemon. Lemon is a New York-based standup who has been seen on Comedy Central’s Half Hour, MTV’s Guy Code, and Russell Simmons: The Ruckus. We chatted about Comedy Knockout, Kanye, and whether or not a comedian should ever have to apologize for a joke.

Your podcast, In the Conversation, runs the gamut of current events, culture, and social issues. You’re not very political on stage. Do you find that your podcast is an outlet for you to talk about some of those deeper issues?

Maybe. I think podcasts are good in terms of working out a lot of stuff. I always say that podcasts are nothing but mixtapes for people with opinions. I don’t get that political on stage that much because I don’t really stay informed politically. The presidential election, that’s like the finals. I look at politics like sports. I’m casually invested. I see what’s going on the local level. When it heats up and stakes are higher, then I tune in and buy into the drama of the moment. I’ll read up on who the key players are, things of that nature. But on the day-to-day I’m not really that guy. Plus, the election is like the elephant in the room. If I’m going to polarize a room I’d rather do it with material. If you’re going to feel some way I’d rather you feel a way about something that I said rather than something that someone I might politically agree with said.

I read that you were a psychology major and that at one point you considered being a child psychologist.

Right.

With that in mind, how do you think Kanye is doing right now?

I don’t know. I mean, I think something’s going on. It was enough for him to check himself in and be looked at. He lives his life on the stage. He’s married to a woman who lives her life in front of the camera. He’s more visible than your average artist. He’s got a lot going on. His wife was just robbed in Paris. He’s probably overwhelmed by a bunch of things. He might have some mental illness. He’s talked about various antidepressants on his records. All I can do is speculate. I hope he’s alright. I like his music. We’ll see. I’m sure he’s going to rebound.

Season 2 of Comedy Knockout premieres December 1st on truTV. Before the show had you ever done anything in that style, like a game-show host?

No, this is my first time being a game-show host. The closest I’ve ever come is hosting comedy shows. this is definitely a different job, a different opportunity. But I’ve had fun with it. I’m making the most of it. As I’ve been going forth I’ve been throwing myself more into it. Initially I didn’t know how to attempt hosting. I didn’t even see myself as a host. I came into comedy to be a comedian. The host is a job. You can be a great comic and a great host if you’re good at it, but I’d never really considered it. I started looking at other hosts, kind of looking for a template of what’s expected. Ultimately I realized that the reason they picked me for the job is because they want me to be me. You’ve got to be yourself and trust that being yourself is enough. Just like in comedy, just like anything else, you’ve got to be more you. You’ve got to bring more of you to the table. I think I did that in this second season. I engage more. I throw jokes out a little more. We had fun.

Putting comedians up to challenges like that is a great way to see who can be funny off the cuff, not only for you as a host, but also for the comics on the panel. In a game show environment you sometimes watch comics who usually crush effortlessly on stage, but when presented with an impromptu challenge, you can see the gears working as they struggle to be funny.

It’s less calculated. It’s riskier. There’s always risk when you go onstage with jokes you wrote, but in the moment you’ve really got to trust your funny. You have to shoot your shot. Don’t shoot it reluctantly. If it goes in, that’s great. But if it bricks and clanks off the basket you’ve got to own that and shoot again. I noticed that in the room the comics that weren’t really flustered by the crowd not immediately warming up to them, or being taken aback by something they said, after a while if they just stuck to their guns they typically pulled through and the crowd would get on their side. It’s an interesting challenge and I think it brought out the best in a lot of these comics.

One of the components I find interesting about the show is that the loser has to apologize at the end of the show. That’s something that no comedian wants to do. I feel like crowds are more sensitive than ever and a lot of comedians get themselves into trouble with audience members that want to pick at every word. How do you feel about the subject of apologizing for something you said as a comedian?

It depends. If you genuinely feel like you need to apologize, if you genuinely feel like you hurt somebody, that’s your choice to make. However, you’re going to offend somebody. Everybody’s not going to agree with everything you say. You talk for a living and you’re probably going to say the wrong thing at the wrong time at some point. I feel like if the intention is to be funny, if the intention is benevolent, if the intention is not to tear down, then I don’t necessarily think you have to apologize. It’s case by case. But I think you have to be careful about what you apologize for. You don’t want to be somebody that is now always forced to apologize.

I found an old clip of you talking about a particular time in your career where you had just gotten on TV and your standup was going pretty well, but at the same time you felt like your money wasn’t right. It hadn’t caught up yet. You said that you have a manager, but also a caseworker. That’s just where you were at the time. How are you feeling now about your career?

I’m feeling more stable. I don’t have a caseworker anymore. I make rent. I want to be a little more proactive in the next stage of my career and have more fun. I’ve established myself in here and now I’m just trying to really go all out, flourish in it, really relish in the fact that I get to do comedy professionally.

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