Casey James Salengo on the Importance of Just Enjoying Yourself
I spoke with Casey James Salengo fresh off his return from taping his Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents, set to premiere tomorrow. From what I’ve seen of him on shows over the last few years, Salengo has never been someone to either overestimate or underestimate his own comedic talents. He’s never appeared all too concerned with much else but enjoying his time on stage and the company of whoever’s around. In a day and age when it seems like all anybody in entertainment is concerned with is how their joke is doing on Twitter or Facebook, or how their peers see them, or whatever the hot new take is on some industry scandal, it’s a relief to find a comedian who genuinely seems to want a good time. Salengo brings this to the stage to great effect. Sitting in one of his favorite bars in Brooklyn, we discussed the power of a good crowd, the confidence of knowing you’ve got a friend, and what it is that keeps him going.
Firstly: congrats! Secondly, did everything go as expected?
It went better, I would say. The morale was… I’ve been in a few of these situations before, a big stage where I’m really filled with terror. Right before I go out, my body goes numb. This time, for some reason, right before I stepped on stage I just felt confidence. This crowd was on board. They’re all very excited. It was a lot of drunk, older women, which are my favorite audience members; they’re just having fun and just “wooing” and dancin’ around. So, yeah, it went way better than I could have expected.
I came out doing some wrestling poses. I literally came out like Macho Man and I did a spin and I did the Razor Ramon thing at the front of the stage, and I think that I should start every set like that cause it really got me hyped up.
Was there anything in particular that went better than you thought it would go?
Oh hell yeah! I had to do this weird thing where I came out and did an encore because, for legal purposes, there might be a few of the bits I can’t do because I recorded them for another show, which I didn’t figure out until two days beforehand. Then they told me “Oh, can you just add eight more minutes?” I was like, “Fucking no. What? What’re you talking about? I’ve been running this set for like two months.”
But weirdly that made me feel more free, because I was kinda getting sick of running it over and over. So this way I weaved in a few other jokes that I’d forgotten about. For the encore I didn’t give a shit if they went well or not because they were just extra. There’s this one bit that I do that a few people love, but it bombs everywhere. It’s called “Where Daddy gonna sit?” and I just pretend I’ve got fake teeth and I keep saying, “Where Daddy gonna sit?” The whole crowd started saying, “Where Daddy gonna sit?” and it was probably the greatest moment of my life. When I do it a lot of other places, people say “Why are you doing this?”
Was it hard to let yourself just sink into the set and not be distracted by the occasion?
No, the crowd was so good and they were just on board right from the start, so I just slipped into feeling like it was a normal set, just doing what I wanted to do. That’s why I wanted to run it so many times beforehand, because I’m not a word-for-word kinda guy. It’s more the energy I put behind it. So I wanted to make sure it was all in place so I could put the energy behind it and be excited.
Is that how you’ve always felt about your performance style — that you’re not so much of a wordsmith? Or is that something that you’ve grown into?
I think since the beginning, because I just realized that what’s funny about me — when I’m in the moment and I’m really feeling it and I can have fun. Me having fun is what’s funny about me. There’s been so many times since I’ve been doing this that I’ve sat down and tried to write these wordy, intelligent jokes, and then I try them and I’m too in my head, trying to think of the words too much. It disconnects me from what I’m doing. Maybe if I told them a few more times it would be okay, but I just gave up on that because I realized it’s funny when I actually get behind it and I’m in the moment.
When did you get your start performing?
Well, I did this stuff in college where there was this big dance show, like the biggest show on campus, and every semester they were looking for hosts. Me and my buddy Brenden auditioned to be hosts and we got picked, so we got to write our own sketches between every dance and we got a huge audience. It went great. This is what made us both think we wanted to do comedy. We were just writing in our voice and we got to do what we wanted.
Did you watch much standup when you were a kid?
Yeah. I loved watching standup. On Comedy Central, Friday nights, it was all standup. They had all the Comedy Central Presents and I would just watch Mitch Hedberg, Jim Gaffigan, Dane Cook, Brian Regan — these are all guys I liked growing up. I would just watch it all the time and then I made some buddies in high school that were also into it, and we would just drive around listening to standup in the car. I always wanted to do something in entertainment, even when I was little, but I didn’t think I could do that. I was like, “It seems too scary. I don’t think that’s for me.”
You’ve told me before that you moved around a few times when you were growing up. Whenever you’d switch to a new school, did you usually try to make friends through being funny or were you more quiet?
Yeah, I think I developed that as a tool to like… I needed to make friends because I was so desperately lonely and I wanted friends. So I’d go to the new school and I would have to do something to get people’s attention. I would be very shy until I made one friend and then I’d finally get the confidence. It’s almost like doing standup now — if one person in the crowd likes me, I have the confidence to be funny for everyone. If nobody likes me, there’s nothing I can do. But I think that definitely made me branch out and try to be more performative to get people noticing me, yeah.
You started here in New York, right? What was it that brought you here to begin with?
I was doing acting, but I was like, “I’m okay at acting, but this isn’t exactly what I want to do.” I saw a little hot dog restaurant place that had a sign like “Open mic comics wanted,” and I was like, “Well I’ve always wanted to try this,” so, I literally went in there and did like 20 minutes my first time of just everything I’d ever thought of. It went better than it should have. So I just started going to open mics. The first week I got here I started going to open mics. I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
One of my favorite memories in comedy was from a show that you and I were on like two years ago. It was in a kitchen in a trendy Brooklyn apartment on the ground floor, and there was an open window and a woman walked past the window walking her dog and you somehow got her to come in—with her dog—to watch the show.
I remember that! I think I got her in with the joke that’s gonna close the half-hour, actually. It’s about dog-walking and I’m talking about the notes that you have to leave for the dog saying whether they pissed or shit or whatever. And I just go into these crazy, disgusting details. But anyway, the bit opens with me going, “I’m a dog walker. Anybody else a dog walker?” And the lady out the window went “Yep!” cause she was listening through the window. So yeah, I told her to come in and that whole thing, she enjoyed it and it made the show cool. So that was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me during a set. It seemed like I set all that up! Things couldn’t have fallen into place better.
Was taping this special part of a goal that you’d set for yourself? Or did you just sort of luck into it?
It happened, man. I did not foresee this coming for years. It’s literally been like a big year where everything… I literally was just doing open mics with no plan for how this is gonna turn into a career. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m walking dogs. I’m telling jokes at night, hanging with my friends. Everything’s pretty cool.” And then things have just started falling into place. I’m not a good planner and I don’t… I’m not one of these people that has a vision for what I want in my future. I’m just kind of doing it cause I like doing it and I think it’s fun. And then I just recorded it and submitted it, and I was just so shocked when I got it. There’s so many people ahead of me that I thought were gonna get it. I almost felt like, “I don’t deserve this. Other people deserve this before me.” I struggled with that for a little bit afterwards. People would be like, “Oh, this guy shoulda got it. I can’t believe this guy didn’t get it.”
Has it changed how you approach your career?
I guess. Now that I recorded it and it went well, I feel like I have to start planning things out. I have to start figuring out how to make this a career. I’d like to go touring and I need to figure that out a little bit and set some things up for myself. I’d like to start consistently making money doing this. I don’t want to walk dogs forever. It’s getting a little tiring, even though I love walking dogs.
But, you know, I don’t know how these things are perceived in the industry anymore. There’s still a lot of people I know who have done these who are still back here at the open mics with us and stuff like that. So, I don’t really know. It’s just a crapshoot and there’s a lot of luck involved. But a few cool things are falling in place and I hope I can build on that momentum and just get things going.
It couldn’t hurt that you just seem to genuinely enjoy standup for what it is.
I really love it. I’ve never been a very passionate man. I almost failed out of high school. I’d just watch TV and hang out or whatever. I’ve never really had anything I could care about that much. But this is the first thing I’ve done that I’m genuinely obsessed with, and I just want to do well and keep getting better. There’s nothing pushing it other than just the desire itself. It’s not like I think it’s gonna bring me money, it’s not like I think it’s gonna lead to better things. I just wanna be good at this and do whatever it takes to do it.
Now that you’ve put all this material into that half hour, how are you approaching new material?
I’m excited! I’ve written a few new jokes since taping it and I’ve definitely had more confidence since I came back. I’m sure it will fade again in like a week, but I’m feeling very confident. And when you feel like that, you feel better trying new stuff because you feel like you trust yourself a little more. It was a lot of jokes that I haven’t told in years since usually we get, like, 7-10-minute sets here, so you have specific jokes that you’re doing. So a lot of them I hadn’t been doing for a while. I’m kind of excited to get these things out there and work on what’s next and not think about that shit anymore. Because, you know, you grow and your perspective changes and you get older. So sometimes you tell jokes from two years ago and it’s like, “I don’t really connect with this anymore.”
Have you felt like other comics interact with you differently now?
Yeah, there’s been a few people that are talking to me more, and, you know, I don’t mind it. Even if their intentions aren’t necessarily “true” or whatever, I like people being nice to me. I just wanna get along with everybody, and even if that’s why people are talking to me, I like being friendly. If that opens the door to us being friendly with each other that’s fine by me. So, there’s definitely been a few instances where it’s like, “Oh, you didn’t really fuck with me before and now you seem interested. That’s strange.” But, if that’s what it takes, I don’t care.
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.