Tom Shillue on Being a 'Supernormal' Storyteller at PS 122
Last year, stand-up comedian and master storyteller Tom Shillue won an ECNY Award for "Best One Person Show" for Supernormal, "an evening of stories so normal, they're radical." Now he returns with a new rewritten version -- featuring stories of his youth in suburban Massachusetts, his life in New York City, a high school reunion, and more -- running for three weeks beginning tonight, March 16 at PS 122 in the East Village in NYC.
"I suspect people sometimes cringe at the idea of a solo show," Shillue says. "I guarantee there’s no weeping, there’s no huge life revelations, there’s none of me kneeling down on the stage and coming to terms with my humanity. It’s mostly a funny show. It’s not a learning experience or a teaching experience. I don’t come out of any closets or go back into any closets. But it’s still a good time. So I guess that’s my weird ad for the show."
Shillue is a fixture in both the NYC comedy and storytelling scenes; he hosts The Moth live storytelling series in NYC and on tour, is involved in radio and online storytelling projects such as the new site Broadcastr.com, and performs regularly at the city's comedy clubs and alternative rooms. He has been featured on Comedy Central and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and he is also a former correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Earlier this week, Shillue was named "Best Storyteller" at the 7th annual ECNY Awards.
Back Stage once called Shillue the Top New York Comic. Read our candid Q&A to learn how Shillue embraces his normalcy and seeks to define a new genre of comedy, why you almost saw him on Last Comic Standing last summer, and more:
Blog Stage: So what is normal? What makes you “supernormal”?
Tom Shillue: In the old days, growing up in Norwood, Massachusetts, I thought I was a radical. When I was in high school, and when I was deciding that I was going to move my life to New York, I kind of thought of myself as an iconoclast. I used to look at New Yorkers and I’d think, “Wow, they must be so narcissistic.” And then I moved to New York and I realized that the real narcissists are people like us, who move from the suburbs to New York. The only reason we moved to New York is because we thought we were the coolest person in our town.
So that was the idea, that I moved to New York because I thought I was different, radical, iconoclastic, special. And then after being in New York a while, everyone in New York treats me like I’m out of a Norman Rockwell painting. So I call that “supernormal,” because I thought I was radical, and now that I’ve kind of settled into myself in New York, I’m not. I’m totally normal. So I like to call it supernormal. That’s my Zen state that I’ve reached. I don’t want to be different anymore. I don’t want to be special. I’m not rocking anybody’s world. I’m still the guy from Massachusetts, you know?
Did you try to rebel against that at first? “I moved to New York City and I’m starting a career in comedy, so I’ve got to be weird.” Did you try to force a personality or persona for a while before you realized, I’ve got to be me?
I did. In comedy, I didn’t really have an identity. You come from a small town, you come to New York, and you’re trying to kind of play with the big boys in the city. So when I first got to the city, I thought they were intimidating. I thought they were cool , they were aloof-- the New Yorkers, the people in this big town I was trying to break into.
The big town intimidated me, but I wanted to kind of play by their rules. So I tried to be edgy. I started stand-up and I used to wear the black leather jacket, like a lot of comedians would do. You get on stage and you try to be tough, you try to be edgy. But then the audience would always laugh at the wrong things! They’d be laughing at something I didn’t intend them to laugh at, and I’d think, “Wait a minute. These people aren’t treating me like I’m cool and edgy. They’re laughing at me because they think I’m a rube!”
It took me about 10 years to flip that around and realize what people were finding funny about me. They were finding the small town stuff funny. They were finding the real stuff about my life funny. I’d just talk about my dad and they’d be cracking up. And I was like, “What’s this? This is my old life. This isn’t comedy writing.” So it was kind of at that point I decided to mine my life stories for comedy, and I saw that people appreciated that old stuff, that persona that I tried to leave behind, that rube that I thought I was leaving in Massachusetts.
That seems to be a rite of passage for a lot of comedians. Starting out, you don’t want to be too introspective or maybe don’t think your life is interesting enough to talk about, so you stick with observational or absurdist humor. But eventually what becomes more satisfying is talking about yourself and your own experiences, and using your feelings to relate to other people.
Exactly. When you’re young, you want to create this persona. You want to invent some humor. You want to find it and you want to create it, so it’s for two reasons. One is that you don’t find your own life so interesting, because you don’t have the perspective to be able to look back on it yet.
And the other thing is time. These stories that I tell, I wasn’t telling them right after they happened. Something happens to you in college, and it doesn’t become a story until 10 years later, when you can look back on it and think of what you learned when that happened. But you don’t learn it at the time. When stories happen to you, you’re not like, “Oh my god, this is a good story!”
When you talk about gaining perspective over time for comedic value, I’m thinking of the old adage that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” You say that you changed your approach about a decade ago. Is that also when you began to devote more time to storytelling as opposed to joke telling? I would certainly classify you more as a storyteller than a joke writer.
I agree with that. If I have any missions, one of them is to bring the worlds together. There is this storytelling world, and then you have the comedy world, and I want to mash them together. I like to practice what I call “narrative comedy.” I want to explore this genre, because to me the best comedians talk about their life and how they relate to the world. The best comedians, to me, are always doing autobiography.
A lot of my show you wouldn’t call traditional storytelling, because it’s not like, “Guess what happened to me?,” and then you talk about an event. I think of it more like essays. I will talk about an issue, and then I bring in little details of my life, but it’s not one specific story. Sometimes I like to talk about a current event or issue, then I’ll go into a story, and then I’ll come back to the issue or I’ll relate the past to something that happened to me in the present. Hopefully this show will be step one in my creating a new genre, which I like to call narrative comedy.
Have you devised a formal definition of “narrative comedy?”
To me, it is using your own life in your comedy. It’s like comedy autobiography. Maybe there’s a better word for it. I like narrative comedy, but it could be comedy autobiography as well. I have to work this out. (laughs)
I think a major difference is that you’re sharing a story with the audience, rather than just talking at them. The classic stand-up delivery style is intended to sound like a conversation with the audience, even everyone is aware of the ruse. With your approach, I feel like you’re trying to connect more. Are you able to do that more with autobiographical comedy than you think you would otherwise?
Audiences are so different. The audiences you find in the East Village or Queens are so different from the audiences you find in a road room in Cleveland. So for me, the best way to relate to people isn’t to try to relate to them, but to just give them my story, and they can either like it or not.
I do one-nighters a lot. I’ll go to other cities to do a corporate gig or a private show, things like that. In fact, sometimes [my comedy] works better outside of New York, because my stuff is almost so suburban in nature. As long as you can groove to the “Irish Catholic from Massachusetts” vibe, you usually will understand where I’m coming from.
I much prefer this kind of hybrid scene between storytelling and comedy, because you get an audience that’s more hungry for real stories, and they’re also a little more patient listeners.
Have you converted many comics to join you in storytelling, in addition to stand-up?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t like to presume anything, but I feel like I have had an influence on the scene in New York, because I was a straight comic from the clubs, playing all the rooms – the Comic Strip, Carolines, etc. – and because I have my foot in this kind of alternative scene, and also the storytelling scene.
When I was doing my storytelling show at Comix, I called it “Worlds Collide,” and every show I would have one person from the Moth scene, that are exclusively kind of “Moth guys;” and then I would have one club comedian like Ted Alexandro ; and then I would have one person from the alternative comedy scene as well, like Matt McCarthy. So I wanted to bring all these three worlds together, and it was cool. Moth fans would come down and they would see Ted Alexandro, and they never knew the guy before. It’s kind of my little mission, bringing the worlds together. I feel like I’ve had an effect on the scene in that way.
It seems like there is a new trend of storytelling-based comedy shows, like Kevin Allison’s "Risk!," going on in the city.
This happens every couple of years, but I feel like it’s the best time to be in comedy. When I first got into it, you were like a slave to the clubs. There was one scene to break into in the mid-‘90s. Then a few years later UCB came to town, and you also had Luna Lounge and guys like Marc Maron and Todd Barry there, and it was kind of another scene. And I remember saying to Matt Walsh at the time, “This is the best time to be in comedy.”
And now I feel like it’s even better. There’s never been a better time to break into comedy, because it’s so much more a community now. It was dog-eat-dog, every man for himself.
But now everybody is working together, creating their own rooms and performing at new venues, and more independent from the clubs in a lot of ways?
They [comedy clubs] are the losers in this. I still like the clubs, but unfortunately their problem is that the young comedians coming in used to need them. You needed that club owner to give you the seal of approval so you could get on a showcase, and then do one of the late night shows.
Now, you could start a room in Queens, like the Creek, and then you can go from that to Comedy Central. You can get some of those people to come and watch you. You don’t need that same stepladder.
You mentioned Comix earlier. That comedy club closed recently, and I wonder if you think it’s because they opened after the club boom, and therefore didn’t have that fear-induced institutional recognition of “I have to perform at Comix to get noticed” like the other NY clubs.
I also think that they did try to tap into what’s happening in comedy now, in a big way. That’s what was great about Comix.
Absolutely. You talked about being able to blend multiple genres of comedy in one place, and I believe that was their biggest strength overall.
So that was their strength, because they tapped into the alternative comedy scene. The weakness of Comix was that their business model was the traditional two-drink-minimum club, with the cover charge, and that is becoming passé. It really is. It’s a business model that’s not gonna work for the future, because anyone I know under 30 does not go to a club. They won’t do it. They won’t pay a two-drink minimum. So they’ll go to the Creek. It’s like five bucks to get in there. They’ll go to UCB and see "Whiplash," which is free.
It is a generational thing. So I feel like the challenge for the clubs is gonna be that they have to change their business model. They don’t just have to bring in the comedians from the alternative scene; they’ve got to find an alternative business model.
I see the same thing happening with the cable companies. People are unplugging. They don’t need it anymore. They can find their content with their other devices, you know? And in the comedy world, people can find their comedy now without going towards this generic flashing sign that says “comedy.”
So as a creator of comedy content for people to consume, how does this shift alter a comedian’s ability to make a living? Has it affected your bottom line?
Big time. Yes it has. We’re out there in the jungle as well. We used to have a way that you could make a living: You would work the clubs, then you’d pass at the clubs, then you’d probably get on showcases, and then if you got be a middler or even a headliner then you could hit the road and make a living that way, and all the while you’ve got some manager or agent who’s trying to get you some deals for TV and things like that.
Now we can create our own content and get our own fans. But then at what point do you start making money? You get all these fans online, and you somehow have to turn that into a career that pays. That’s the trick. It’s more freedom; you’re more of an independent contractor. And there’s more freedom of expression, because you can do things that you find funny, that may not hit the mass audience, and if you can get that kind of cult following and then they can follow you on the internet. So the opportunities are bigger, but there’s not that security. But who needs security? What good was it before?
That safety net that you had before with the clubs— when you could go get the paid spots and then you could on the road, things like that – where did that safety net lead you? It often led you to a miserable 25 years where you were just scraping by, and spending a lot of time at the Red Roof Inn.
There was always that promise. You could always make a middle-class existence in the clubs. You could make your rent in the clubs. But then you were always shooting for stardom. Of course, that only happens to a very small percentage of people anyway, who get that kind of big Ray Romano success. Essentially, that security was a false promise. Now you can work yourself, work the clubs, do free shows for people, then put stuff on the internet. You sell some stuff, you make a CD, you get the fans, and you just have to do it effectively. You do have to be your own businessman now, but it’s better than relying on the old system.
And does that also force more creativity? Instead of spending four or five nights a week at one type of comedy club, you have to get out and force yourself to experiment with different styles and media more than you would have under the club system?
Yeah, definitely. Comics used to have their four-minute set that they were ready to pull out so they could audition for The Tonight Show. But that’s not gonna do it anymore. You’ve got have new media, or podcasts; you’ve got to mix it up.
Most of my nights out are spent improv-ing, and working on my new material. And then there’s probably 25 percent of the time I’m doing straight stand-up sets. Right now, I’m trying to get that four-and-a-half-minute set so I can take it and audition for Letterman. Because the spots are still there, and they’re important. I’m always preaching the gospel that the whole business has changed, but I’m still bucking for my next network TV set. I’m trying to get a Letterman spot.
Do you feel that your set for a TV audience is inherently less representative of the comedy you’re currently doing, or are you able to find a balance where you’re satisfied with the format of a four-minute stand-up set?
It’s funny, because I get in that mode and then I have to remind people that I’m not down on the stand-up world. I’m just always talking about how it’s changing. I take my new material, and I’m insistent on doing my narrative comedy, even in my TV sets. If I’m telling my story, it’s gonna have to be a four-and-a-half minute story.
That’s what I did when I did Last Comic Standing last year. I was cut out of the show.
I’ve been wanting to ask you about that, because I would see you in the background in every episode and figured, “Okay, we’ll see him perform next episode.” But they moved to the finals, and we had only seen the back of the your head in the background in the dressing room.
I got to the semifinals and I made it to L.A. When they cut it down from quarterfinals to semifinals, that’s when I was knocked out. But I was gonna be in four episodes. I did a different story each time. You can never guarantee getting into the final 10, so my idea was that as long as I’m on it, I’m gonna do what I’m doing now comedically, which is my stories. And I think in the end – I can’t assume, because people audition for the show and they’re cut out of it at various stages for whatever reason. But I think I presented them with a problem, because they like to cut short segments out of your act, and some of my act doesn’t make sense unless you hear the whole four minutes.
The thing that’s good about storytelling, or narrative comedy, is it’s more of a meal. I think of it as a complete meal, as opposed to “fast food” comedy. But the downside is, it’s hard to sound bite that. It’s hard to pick out one joke when your joke is really part of the whole story.
Comedian and Last Comic Standing finalist Mike DeStefano passed away recently. You knew him and worked with him. It seemed like he was moving in a similar direction, where he had his short sets of jokes for Last Comic Standing but what was becoming more satisfying was to see him tell his long-form stories and debut his one-man show. What was your relationship with him?
It was unbelievable when I heard the news, but then again I guess it wasn’t. I mean, the guy had such a history, with HIV and the past drug use, so he put a toll on his body. After the initial shock, I thought, "At least he had a good run." His last year, he was firing on all cylinders. It was a perfect way for him to go out.
I saw him about 12 years ago at Al Martin’s club, the New York Comedy Club. And immediately he was talking about his life. This was when I was just starting to do my narrative stuff. And he’s talking about his life and his wife dying of AIDs. I took him aside and said, “Mike, do this as a solo show.” And he said, “I’ve never done that.” And I was like, “Mike, I’ll direct it. I will direct your solo show.” So I always offered to him, “I want to direct your solo show,” and every couple of years he would see me and be like, “I still want you to do my show!”
I knew that he was a volatile character, and it did just come spilling out of him. So I thought it would be a real challenge for me to direct him in a show, because he was not a theatrical guy, he was a comedian. He liked to hold the mike in his hand, and he liked to go at it. I always had that standing offer that I would direct his show any time. Of course, it never happened.
Did you learn anything from watching DeStefano do stand-up? Once you see the types of stories he would tell about himself and his life, it seems like there’s no limits to what you can talk about on stage.
The funny thing is, you can’t get more polar opposite life experiences than me and Mike DeStefano. You see someone like him and you use words like “fearless,” and he goes to the edge and puts it all out there. And then you see my stuff. Mike and I did learn from each other, because we would bond after the shows and talk about our stories. We had such an appreciation for each other that you wouldn’t expect. I saw him as a peer and very similar to me as a performer, but I think the general public would only see opposites.
The thing is, it’s not just about being edgy. My life is not edgy. I have no edge. But I could learn from Mike because it feels raw and dangerous to talk about your life, even if your life isn’t raw and dangerous.
That’s exactly what I was thinking. You might not have the same shock value in what you’re saying, but it’s still personal, and that’s the risk.
That’s the thing. It’s not the shock value that was ballsy for Mike to talk about. Talking about drug use and AIDs was not what took balls for Mike. It was talking about the emotions under it. It’s harder to get up there and talk about what really makes you tick, than it is to talk about the edgy stuff or the dark side or anything like that. It’s not about the dark side or the light side, it’s about the inside. Ooh, that’s a good quote, huh? (laughs) That’s what’s dangerous. That’s why performing and telling stories and talking about your life isn’t about the edginess or the lack thereof.
As Mike DeStefano might have said, it’s about the truth.
You might not consider yourself edgy in your material, but I do sense some anger or even rage beneath your “normal,” quiet exterior. Would you agree that part of your comedy also involves rage?
Maybe. I don’t think of myself as having that veneer, that underlying anger, but then other people sometimes do [say that]. They come up to me after shows, and they say, “I know what you’re talking about, your Catholic upbringing in Massachusetts. It’s all about anger.” And I’m like, “Oh, is it really?” (laughs) It’s interesting that people take that away.
Or maybe it’s about repression, rather than anger?
Yes. It definitely is. I think repression is a better word for me than anger, because there are clearly a lot of things that I’ve tamped down and kept silent. I kind of believe in repression. I think repression is what makes a man great, because it’s the dark things that you suppress. I mean, if you indulge your dark side all the time, you get to be quite a bore, you know? When you bury that dark side, it’s like nuclear energy, and it can power your life. It can give you ambition. It can make you have strong willpower. So I definitely am a believer in repression.
Do you worry that the longer you’re on stage talking about yourself and sharing your stories, that you lose a bit of that repressed energy each time?
Good question. Yes, because part of the energy of performing a story is, “I can’t believe I’m telling you people this.” It’s about always finding new things and going a bit further.
At "Moonwork," a show I’ve been doing for years, I always like to bring a little something new. Even if I tell an old classic story, I like to put a new spin on it. Maybe I’ll introduce it in a new way, based on something new that happened to me. I’ll rebuild the essay based on new information. Every time I do it, I want to throw a little more in there, so I’ll reveal a little more.
Now it’s starting to sound similar to an addiction, and you’re chasing the high every time you get on stage.
I know, which is weird for someone like me, who is a very non-addictive personality. Obviously if I have one addiction, it is that. Every once in a while, I get the feeling that I’m gonna run out of stories. I’m gonna run out of stuff. But your perspective keeps changing. So I will tell a story that is about an event that happened specifically in 1989. But the way I told that story in 1999 is a completely different essay, because it’s a much older guy. The whole reason I’m telling that story is because it burned its way into my current life. So that’s what’s funny. You have the fear, “Oh my god, I’m gonna run out of stories,” but you never do, because you keep rebuilding your psyche every couple of years, so the stories mean different things.
I assume, based on your style and point of view and declaration of being “supernormal,” that you didn’t have the bad childhood that seems almost stereotypical among stand-up comics. What drew you to comedy, and who are your influences? Did you listen to storytelling comedians like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor?
I remember as a kid watching Bob Newhart, and he would get laughs without being silly. He wasn’t being goofy. He had barely any expression. He was able to get a laugh by pausing. And I thought, “Wait a minute. That’s not what funny people do; funny people are like clowns. How is he doing it?” So I remember analyzing comedy, and being like, “What kind of guy am I?”
I divide comedians into two groups: the people who are “on” all the time, who are funny in any room, and then there’s the analysis comedians, who are constantly looking for what’s funny about a situation. They’re the kid in the back of the room. They’re not the life of the party. So I knew I was the “back of the room” guy.
But not the class clown.
Yeah. With the class clown, you’re like, “Oh, that guy just wants attention.” I didn’t need attention. I was the guy saving my lines. “I’m gonna use that later on.”
I divide comics into those two camps. Who are the “life of the party” guys, and who are the analytical ones? I think there are way more of the analytical ones, because that’s really what keeps people in comedy. The life of the party comedian is a fast burn. It’s easy to burn out on that, which is why the “lived fast, died hard” kind of comedians are usually the life of the party ones.
And the more sober ones are guys like myself and my heroes growing up, like Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby. But I didn’t know about guys like Richard Pryor. I didn’t know George Carlin. Those albums weren’t allowed in my house. The albums that were allowed in my house were Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart. The first comedian that I used to sneak out to listen to was Steve Martin; his albums were not allowed in my house either. But I didn’t know about Pryor and Carlin, because they were off my radar. And most of the comics of my generation, you hear about them listening to George Carlin. No way. He wasn’t allowed in my house.
Supernormal runs March 16-April 2 (Wed., Thu. & Sat. at 8 p.m. and Fri. at 10 p.m.) at PS 122 in NYC.
-- Daniel Lehman