Matt Nagin is a comedian, writer and actor; here is a link to his website:
Q: When did you know you were funny?
A: I recently watched an old home video from when I was seven years and pretended to be Mahatma K. Gandhi. The fact that I was doing an impression at this young age shows that on some level the need to entertain has always been integral to my identity.
I also remember being a real showboat at my Bar Mitzvah. It was a shared Bar Mitzvah. To save money and increase efficiency two other children were Bar Mitzvahed with me. But I remember outshining them and really singing my Haftorah portion like I was auditioning for American Idol.
Hence, while I didn’t perform standup until seven years ago, humor has always played a preeminent role in shaping my existence. I’ve used it to fend off bullies, pick up women, improve my relations with my family, deal with a devastating chronic illness. I even used humor during my grandpa’s eulogy!
That being said, I’m not sure I ever KNEW I was funny. There was an overall sense I had potential, but I never KNEW for CERTAIN. To this day I still wonder, at times, if it’s an illusion. Just because I say I’m a comic doesn’t mean it’s accurate. People can call themselves whatever they want. Then, too, you question your priorities. Why am I even going out on stage every night? I could be doing something important…like joining The Peace Corps.
I think this self-doubt and self-questioning is critical to the development of many artists. If I KNEW I was funny I wouldn’t have the same drive to perform. For it would already be PROVEN.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve gotten up on stage more than a thousand times over the past seven years and quite often have terrific sets. It doesn’t matter that I had a very successful one man show that obtained four star reviews. Even after a set where I kill, and go home feeling great, the next day I’ll wake up, go back to a club or open mic, and have to prove myself over again. Comics spend their lives CONVINCING THEMSELVES that they are funny. And, in the end, you’re only as good as your last show.
Q: What kind of day job do you have and how does it influence your comedy?
A: I work as an Adjunct Professor of English Composition. This job has helped my comedy in a number of ways: it has helped me be more expressive; it has taught me the importance of conveying matters in a way that is simple and lucid; it has given me confidence talking to a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds; and it has inspired me to devise a myriad of strategies to relate to an audience.
A critical challenge with being a teacher and a comedian is these are two vastly different worlds. I often go over feminist theories in one of my classes yet I discuss raw sexual encounters with a series of women I explicitly portray as doltish in my standup. One persona does not neatly overlap with the other.
A College Professor is a very strong persona; you are expected to convey a certain level of professional distance and objectivity while in that role that is almost directly oppositional to what is expected from a comic. Most comics unveil what is deepest and most personal—they try to eliminate anything like a professional distance. Plus, they often act like fools; another polar opposite to the prototypical highly intelligent lecturer in a tweed jacket.
Q: How do you deal with a heckler?
A: Many standups fear and/or despise hecklers. I consider a heckler a gift. The reason for this is that in most cases the audience gives you carte blanche to make this rude intruder look foolish. I have always been able to think quickly on my feet, and am willing to be honest in the moment about my own flaws, as well as being perceptive about the flaws of others, so I do great with hecklers. Some of my best sets have involved making hecklers look foolish. This could also be partly the result of my teaching background—as an instructor you learn how to keep troublemakers in line.
Incidentally, I’m also not a big believer in having prepared heckler material—it seems better to respond in the moment. Stock lines seem too forced. It is like a guy using a pickup line at a bar. Few women take such a wannabe Lothario seriously. I think you are better off being authentic and responding honestly and authoritatively. There are different opinions on this, of course, as with everything, but the critical element is that the comic must win the battle with the heckler. If not it is the kiss of death.
I remember one of the few tough sets I had when it was pretty much a tie. The reason is I was being heckled by a grandma. Female hecklers, in general, are trickier for a male comic. The reason is if a comic eviscerates a female heckler he can easily come across as a total jerk. These feelings are only compounded when the heckler is a grandma. No one wants to see someone rip apart a nice old lady. Well, this old lady screamed out “not funny” during an edgy joke and mocking her in a way that didn’t come across as too cruel yet enabled me to continue the show was challenging. That was probably my toughest heckler in recent memory—not because of what she said so much as because of what she represented to a lot of audience members.
Q: What is your strangest teaching story?
A: My first year teaching, at a local community college, I had a student with Tourette’s Syndrome in a racially-diverse remedial class. Her condition was such that she could not control the urge to yell out racial epithets. Needless to say the other students hated her. Every day the class was on the verge of a race riot. Because she had a medical note specifying she couldn’t control what she blurted out I had to be sensitive to her condition. At the same time, I had to keep in mind that she was pissing off the entire class in a highly disruptive fashion.
I tried to suggest she do her best to control her condition which only seemed to make matters worse. The class was a nightmare. Every day was jarring. I’d routinely kick students out. I had them all sign behavioral contracts stipulating that certain poor behaviors would get them an F. I gave surprise quizzes and complex homework assignments in a futile attempt to gain control of the classroom dynamic.
Then, one day, during another heated exchange, where I threatened to fail one student who was being rude to the girl with Tourette’s, he stood up and said that if I didn’t pass him he’d come into school and shoot me. He went on to describe how he’d do it graphically. Given all the school shootings at the time that was a very endearing threat. Then he stormed out and slammed the door.
Remarkably, he ended up passing the class. Not because his intimidation worked. I would rather die than lose integrity. But because, in spite of his behavioral problems, his writing was at a level that was ready to move onto the next class. It was terribly inappropriate behavior and, in retrospect, I should have reported him to the Dean’s office. But he probably moved on from it, and, hopefully, never threatened to kill any of his other instructors.
Q: What are some key ingredients for strong comedic writing?
A: One key ingredient for strong comedic writing is it has to fit the persona of the performer. What is funny in one person’s voice is not funny at all in another’s. Anyone can write a joke. So the critical element that separate’s comedians, in my opinion, is the stage persona, the way they convey a joke, the delivery, the particular charm of the individual.
Another key element with comedic writing is timing. The punchlines need to come in unexpected places. The set needs to play against expectations, to create disruption, to build contrast, and to develop in such a way that the audience cannot see where precisely the performer is taking them. This can all be established in the writing.
A: Yet another key element of comedic writing is depth. When a performer has depth in his set, when he really conveys something of substance, it stands out from the endless performers who merely try to be amusing.
Q: Of all the people you have opened for, who was the funniest in person?
A:I am reluctant to answer this question directly—because I hate to pick favorites. But some of the funniest individuals in person are not who you would expect. I think being funny off-stage is almost a separate art and some are better at that then they are on stage with prepared material. I know performers who can riff brilliantly off stage an entire hour and have it be better than what most comics take fifteen years to come up with.
Q: Who are some of your comedic influences?
A: I try to be influenced from all areas—film, painting, writing etc. My favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick, and I was hugely influenced as an artist and human being by Kubrick’s dark sense of humor, his psychoanalytic streak, and his cynical perspective on mankind’s foibles. Films like Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange, all mix the humorous and the disturbing in ways that have always intrigued me. Woody Allen was another huge influence as I feel I am in the tradition of neurotic Jewish self-loathing intellectuals—only I would say my sensibility is much filthier. Obviously, I am not in his league—he is a brilliant filmmaker and was a terrific comic—but I like to learn from what I consider the best. Other standups I really enjoy are Sarah Silverman, Bill Burr, Don Rickles, and Gilbert Gottfried.
Q: What about human nature is fundamentally comical?
A: I think humor is a natural defense against the tragic. I am sure Jews during the Holocaust were telling each other one-liners. My 94 year old grandma told me that what helped her family get through the Great Depression was a sense of humor. Not savings. Not stories. Not love. Not family. Humor.
Wherever there is the most sorrow and anguish there is the greatest need for humor. We are currently in a very troubling era; global warming, a country ruled by a military-industrial complex, corrupt politicians subservient to corporate interests, bailouts for corporate criminals who have destroyed the national economy, unheard of infringements of civil liberties—the list goes on. In such an era, humor is essential as a means of coping, synthesizing and responding to the collective madness.
But, really, in any era, there is a need for humor. For human life is so fragile. It all goes by before you know it. We are at the mercy of bowel movements, urination, snot, body odor, sexual emissions, and come into the world helpless and then go out of it the same way. We pretend to have great importance when we are on a rock hurtling through space at more than 67,000 miles per hour. Meanwhile, our incomprehensibly vast galaxy that is but one of hundreds of billions of similarly massive galaxies. Given all these realities, how could you not see our reality as inherently comic?
Q: Are there any subjects you consider off limits?
A: I once had the opportunity to talk with Robert Klein and ended up discussing the same question. He essentially said that you can joke about anything. No topic is taboo. But he felt that if you are going to do jokes about very sensitive topics like 9/11 or child prostitution, say, the material had to be that much more hilarious.
So, to answer your question, no, I don’t feel any topic is off limits. That said, some topics will be easier to develop material from than others. But any topic, to me, is fair game. It all comes down to execution.
Q: Will you tell me a blogger joke?
A: Many people are very upset the NSA is spying on us. All communication is potentially being monitored by this agency. Nothing is completely personal. But this doesn’t bother me at all. My one hope is that the NSA will start reading my blog. No one else is.
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