Seeking Adventure and Demystifying Philosophy with Danny Lobell

danny-lobellDanny Lobell has done some strange things for money. Running a hairless cat breeding business, selling Jackie Mason’s cassette tapes on Broadway, starting a hipster egg company with his Ecuadorian gangster neighbor — all this and more will form the subject of his upcoming one-man Edinburgh Fringe show Broke as a Joke starting August 4th, coinciding with the release of his second album The Nicest Boy in BarcelonaLobell also hosts the podcast Modern Day Philosophers, where he’s invited guests like Marc Maron, Reggie Watts, Maria Bamford, and more to discuss philosophers and the thoughts that they devoted their lives to. Far from having his head in the clouds, Lobell and his guests come together to render often inaccessibly intricate subjects more comprehensible and accessible to his listeners.

Because Lobell had never studied philosophy at any great level of depth prior to creating the podcast, he sought out comedian Alex Fossella to handpick the most appropriate thinkers and theories for each episode. For the episode featuring Maron, Fossella selected Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch-Jewish philosopher who championed rationalism; for Watts he selected John Cage, an American composer and philosopher who is noted for experimenting with non-standard use of musical instruments; and for Bamford he selected Jean-Paul Sartre, best known for the line “Hell is other people.” As Lobell says in our conversation below, “I never thought of myself as an academic person or a highly intellectual person, but my feeling is that all the knowledge in the world is accessible to everybody, it’s just sometimes hidden in code.”

I recently spoke with Lobell about what he loves about performing abroad, his goal of demystifying the world of philosophy despite the anti-intellectualism that haunts much of modern comedy, and the importance of being funny by not always trying to be funny.

I’m sure you’re excited for Edinburgh! How long did it take to put together the show?

It’s been a long process. I started by compiling pieces, I would say nearly a year ago. I did a preliminary show in my backyard for friends and ran everything to see how it would go. Then from there I started working on it for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which I did this past month. It was an awesome run. We did four shows and three out of four of them sold out. It was really fun!

Looking at the list of things that you’ve done for money—like running a hairless cat breeding business, selling Jackie Mason’s cassette tapes on Broadway, starting a hipster egg company with your Ecuadorian gangster neighbor—those all seem pretty out there and unrelated to one another. How do you tie them all together?

Yeah. It wasn’t easy. I had help from my friend Matty Goldberg, who is a terrific comedian in his own right. He helped me curate the pieces. He came to the backyard show and did warm-up and watched the show. From that—he’s got a great writer’s brain—he would like, “Okay, I think these pieces really worked, but I don’t think you need these pieces, and I think you should flip the order, and even if they’re not necessarily in chronological order it still flows better to go from this to that.” It’s helpful to take a little artistic license, which is something that should have been obvious to me, but it took Matty saying it to make me be like, “Oh yeah, of course.” It doesn’t have to be in perfect chronological order for a one-man show.

Is there anything in particular that you’re concerned about when it comes to, I guess, “translating it” for the Edinburgh crowd?

I’m more curious than concerned. I feel like the material is strong enough at this point that I’m not concerned, which I hope doesn’t sound arrogant, it’s just that’s my honest feeling. I think even if, let’s say there are 10 points in the show where I feel like the references might not cross over, I feel like the other stuff will make people forgiving, because they’ll be like, “Okay well I know it’s quality stuff even if I don’t get that one thing.” But my curiosity is, what won’t they get? The thing I’ve done in the past that I don’t want to do when I play overseas is change the references to suit them. Like in the past I’ve changed JCPenney to Marks & Spencer, but I’m not gonna do that this time. It feels inauthentic to the story.

For sure. It’s such a personal thing in a solo show. Like those things are integral, actual features of you and your life story, not something to be tailored to an audience.

Exactly. I feel like if they don’t get the reference then maybe they can google it afterwards or ask me. But why not get something that’s foreign? First of all, nothing is terribly foreign anymore, because our main export from America is television and movies. But if there is something that seems kind of foreign and interesting, I think that’s only going to make it better.

And the theme is presumably relatable the whole world around — the concept of being broke and just desperately looking for something to bring money in.

Yeah. I’m hoping that’ll resonate with a lot of people. Especially walking around the Fringe Festival, I don’t think it’s too many millionaires as much as just people who are just looking for a cheap show and a good time.

Do these stories you talk about in the show predate your career in standup or is it a through-line?

It’s a through-line. Standup has always been in the foreground and this stuff has always been in the background. But yeah, these are all the things that I’ve done rather than get a traditional job at the café, which I have also done, but these were all attempts to stay out of that.

Have you enjoyed the stranger things more than the traditional jobs?

[laughs] I like calling it “the stranger things.” Yeah, I like them better because you never know what’s gonna happen with them. It’s like standup comedy: the possibilities are just endless. I love an adventure.

And I imagine having these experiences would translate into having more interesting perspectives on what you talk about on stage.

Yeah. I don’t do the things to get material, but I love things that can develop into material from them. I grew up on the Tintin books. Tintin has a little dog and he goes on all these adventures. There’s just part of me that’s always wanted to be Tintin. I just want an adventure. I like an exciting life, the idea of it. Even if the excitement comes out of mundane stuff.

Do you think that came from growing up Orthodox, that you’ve just wanted to explore outside the community that you were raised in? Not that you necessarily didn’t like the community, but that you were just curious about the world beyond it.

I think that’s a fair assessment. And yeah, I liked the community. I think also, the part that might surprise people is that growing up in an Orthodox community also made me more imaginative in a lot of ways, not just in a longing kind of way. All the stories from the Talmud, all the stories that you hear in yeshiva, are very imaginative stories. Sometimes people who are skeptics get mad at the stories; they’ll be like “There is no way somebody lived in a fish!” or whatever. But I love that stuff. I love fantastical ideas.

And, to speak to that point, part of what I really like about Modern Day Philosophers is how you sort of condense the philosophers and their stories into something that’s more comprehensible and relatable.

I’m glad you feel that way. That’s what I hope to do. I like to break them down and unbox them. I never thought of myself as an academic person or a highly intellectual person, but my feeling is that all the knowledge in the world is accessible to everybody, it’s just sometimes hidden in code. That also goes back to studying the Talmud. One thing I always used to get a little frustrated with was that you’d have to unbox it so much to get to the story. I’d be like, “Just give us the story!” Why does it all gotta be in code? Let’s just simplify this. Let’s break it down to its basic things, so everyone can understand it, and everyone can enjoy it. I want everybody to be able to be like, “Oh, this stuff is for us! This is cool.” I mean, it’s the universe. It’s life. It’s knowledge. These people gave their life, these philosophers, to picking apart concepts and ideas. Why should we have to go through another whole lifetime to get to those conclusions if they already gave us theirs? We should be able to have access to that stuff in a way that’s not gonna frustrate us and put us off, rather than just inspire us and open up our minds.

Yeah, and often in comedy there’s sort of an air of anti-intellectualism, but what you’re doing is showing people that these big topics are open for consideration if you don’t just dismiss them, if you just approach them the right way.

Yeah. I really find that true. Especially at first, that was one of the things that made me really nervous about doing the show. I almost thought people were gonna see me as less comedic for getting into this intellectual stuff and be like “He’s become stuffy” or not funny. I was at the Comedy Cellar one night, upstairs at the Olive Tree, and someone told Dave Attell—who I still haven’t gotten to do an episode with, but I really want to—about my podcast. He comes up to me, and he’s like, “I hear you’re doing a philosophy podcast.” I did feel a little embarrassed at first, so I was like, “Well yeah, you know.” He’s like, “That’s so great! That’s such an awesome idea that you’re doing that with comics.” That really felt validating, and I was like, alright, I have nothing to be embarrassed about with this. I’m just gonna go with what I think, and screw this whole anti-intellectualism thing that we’ve put over comedy.

Some of the most awesome comics are very philosophical and intellectual. Look at early George Carlin. He puts on this real blue collar New York accent a lot more. Then as he matures as a comic and gets older and he drops it. He leans on that voice less and less and gets more comfortable with these bigger ideas. He never loses his silliness though, which I love. But that early voice was him hiding it a little bit.

Right. Yeah, a lot of comics sort of conceal anything that might seem smart. I’ve noticed Bill Burr will say something really smart, almost philosophical, and then he’ll tag it with, “But I don’t know, I don’t read.” I guess he’s sort of finding a way to say something smart so that everyone can go, “Nice!” but still feel comfortable. He’s kind of saying, “Look, these are just thoughts.” You don’t have to feel like they’re intimidating in any way.

Do you think part of that is him making himself feel comfortable with sharing that though? Like, “I’m still like you guys, don’t worry about it.”

Yeah, “Don’t separate me from you!” And with your podcast, the added benefit is that you and your guests talk about these things sort of casually, but you still capture all the important points.

Thank you. But you know what’s funny is that at first, before it had a good reputation, a lot of comics would come on, and there was this sense of insecurity about talking about things that aren’t necessarily supposed to be a laugh every minute. I had really great comics, people who you wouldn’t think are particularly insecure, and they’d be a little uncomfortable. They’d be like, “Am I coming off… Am I not being funny?” I would always cut that part out. I’d give them a reassuring speech like, “Don’t worry about it. The show is funny, but it’s not all about that. Just go with it, relax into the format and let it happen.” And then great stuff would happen! I was surprised, because it wasn’t like one or two people, but there was a whole bunch of people that would come on and would be so trained to be like, “All right, I have to make this punchy!” It’s like, no, just come off as real. Just allow yourself to explore these ideas with me, and you’ll be funny anyways.

I had this teacher at The Groundlings who was really great. His name is H. Michael Croner. I was in his class, and I remember I was trying to be funny. He pulled me aside, and he’s like, “Danny, you’re naturally funny. I don’t even want you to try to be funny in the scenes anymore.” At a certain point, you have so much training as a comedian, so many years, you don’t even realize when you’re funny. You’re naturally funny, which is totally the opposite of everything you’re trained to think as a standup. But he was like, “Just live in the scene, and I guarantee you you’re gonna be hilarious in it.” I applied that thinking in the podcast and I think it’s worked.

Certainly. Once people get comfortable with themselves and their own thoughts, they let themselves do what they genuinely want to do. Well, what else have you got lined up?

I have a second album coming out. It comes out the same day as my first Edinburgh show, which is not intentional, but it’s cool. It’s called The Nicest Boy in Barcelona. It’s on Stand Up! Records. I recorded it about a year and half ago in Barcelona. There are at least two pieces of material that are in the solo show, although they’re almost unrecognizable as material now because they’ve gone through such a metamorphosis.

What brought you to Barcelona for the album? Is there something about performing in Europe that particularly appeals to you?

I like performing in other places. I don’t know, it’s just like when I listen to rock albums, I always love hearing when they’re outside of their comfort zone. That’s always been exciting to me, so I like to do that with my albums. Even The Beatles, when you hear their stuff in Hamburg, I always thought that was really cool, putting the artist in a different environment. But Barcelona specifically because of my family. I’m a descendant of Spanish Jews that were kicked out during the inquisition.

Sephardic Jews?

Yeah. I’ve traced my family roots back to the Barcelona area, although not Barcelona proper. There’s a Jewish museum now in Spain, in Girona, where I believe my family lived. The family names are in the museum there. I went a few years ago and I did a run of shows in Barcelona. I got booked from an agent in London and I had a really good time. I thought it would be really cool to do an album there at some point. Like after 500 years, being kicked out, and then come back and do an album.

A real big-picture kind of album concept. Was it a lot of expats who made up the crowd, for the most part?

That was the thing that was so surprising. The first time I went it was like 90% expats who came to the shows. I was like, alright, it’s still cool, it’s in Spain. I just wished I could perform for the Catalan people, but a lot of them don’t speak English or go out to comedy. Then when I came back a few years later and did this album, it was about a 50/50 split in the audience. That was amazing. I’m not sure what to attribute it to. It might have been because the location was different. It might have been because comedy is catching on more there. I don’t know why the demographic shifted. But it was just really cool. I was really surprised that half the crowd were actually Catalan people.

Do you have any other plans for something new later in the year or are you going to kind of take a moment to recoup?

Well, the other thing I’m working on that I’m really excited about is this comic book. The first one should be out at the end of the summer. I have this terrific illustrator, Amy Hay, she’s illustrating the first one. The name of the comic book is Fair Enough. It’s also stories from my life, but I turned them into comic books. When I was a kid I used to make my own comic books and photocopy them at school and sell them at the yeshiva for money, since I didn’t have an allowance. I always had this Stan Lee dream. Then it went away for a while, and in college I saw the movie American Splendor. It inspired me and changed the whole trajectory of my life. I wound up becoming friends with Harvey Pekar. I started out at that time making comic strips for the school newspaper, and getting back into comics. But I was also doing standup and I couldn’t figure out a real way to balance the two, and it kind of fell away again. Now I’m doing the Harvey Pekar model of writing them and making notes for every panel and finding illustrators to illustrate them.

And that’s coming out at the end of the summer; when are the rest planned to come out?

I’m hoping to put out four a year. That’s the plan. If I can get picked up by a big publisher or something and get some funding behind it, then maybe I could increase the number, but for now, the plan is four a year on my own.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

From Our Partners