How are we supposed to make any sense out of this year in comedy, 2020? There’s only one way I know how…that’s by reuniting with Jason Zinoman of The New York Times, the Siskel to my Ebert in comedy criticism, to hash out 2020 and give some shout outs to the most valuable players in comedy…so let’s get to it!
Among those shouted out: Dave Chappelle, Conan O'Brien, Eddie Pepitone, Beth Stelling, Mike Birbiglia, Amber Ruffin, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Cooper and all of the other selfie stars who made us laugh on social media this year.
Michael Kosta is a Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Prior to The Daily Show, Michael co-created, produced and starred in the E! network’s The Comment Section, guest-hosted G4’s Attack of the Show and co-hosted Crowd Goes Wild on FOX Sports with Regis Philbin. He also served as a correspondent on The Soup spinoff series The Soup Investigates. Kosta has made the late-night rounds over the years from NBC to TBS and back to Comedy Central, and at the end of 2020 has released his first one-hour stand-up special for Comedy Central. Michael Kosta: Detroit. NY. LA includes material filmed in a theater in his native Michigan, as well as club sets at New York Comedy Club and the Hollywood Improv. Kosta joined me over Zoom to talk about making the move from tennis pro to stand-up comedian, lessons he’s learned along the way and more, so let’s get to it!
Kansas native Jeremiah Watkins trained at both The Second City and The Groundlings, and has become a fixture at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles as part of several trademark shows; among them, he was one-third of “The Wave” for Roast Battle as it developed and grew from late-night Tuesdays to multiple seasons on Comedy Central. He’s still the bandleader for Monday’s Kill Tony. And for more than a decade, Watkins has hosted an improvised riffing showcase there called Stand-Up On The Spot. You also may have seen and heard Watkins as the the saxophone-playing roadie for The Goddamn Comedy Jam. As a solo artist, he hosts his own podcast, Jeremiah Wonders, and was a New Face in Montreal’s Just For Laughs in 2018. At the end of 2020, Watkins has released his first stand-up special through Comedy Dynamics. “Family Reunion” really does bring it all back home quite literally for Watkins, as he filmed his special over the 2019 holidays with his family and friends in attendance at The Comedy Club of Kansas City. Watkins joined me in New York City to talk about the special, his career and more, so let’s get to it!
Colin Quinn seems to have his finger on the pulse of stand-up comedy and America just about as well, if not better, than almost any other comedian in America these days. His most recent solo stand-up special, 2019’s Red State Blue State, poked holes in how united Americans could be in this digital era where everyone’s opinions can carry equal weight, no matter how outlandishly crazy or off-base they might be. Quinn’s special even premiered on CNN, although it’s now on Netflix along with his previous two shows (Unconstitutional, and The New York Story). He followed that up with a book, “Overstated: A Coast-to-Coast Roast of the Fifty States” And when the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down American businesses and comedy clubs with it in mid-March, Quinn not only predicted the near future for stand-up (performing for cars at drive-ins) but also got an HBO Max showcase for himself and his friends. It’s aptly-named Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show. I sat down with Quinn over Zoom this week to find out what else the comedian and former Saturday Night Live Weekend Update anchor can tell us about the state of comedy, SNL and America today, so let’s get to it!
Sam Reich was 21 when CollegeHumor hired him as its first Director of Original Content in 2006. In a few short years, the success of in-house webseries such as “Hardly Working” and “Jake and Amir” got Reich and CollegeHumor a sketch comedy show on MTV. While that show didn’t last, Reich helped executive produce, write or direct several others. Among them: Adam Ruins Everything for truTV, Hot Date for POP, and "Rhett and Link's Buddy System" on YouTube Red. In 2020, Reich acquired CollegeHumor from IAC, where he continues to oversee the making of original comedy videos for the channel’s 14 million subscribers on YouTube. He’s also CEO for Dropout, a subscription-based streaming platform he founded — its shows include Um Actually, Dimension 20, and the game show, Game Changer, which Reich himself hosts. It’s been a long, strange trip making comedy videos, and it’s not over yet for Reich, so let’s get to it!
Negin Farsad began her comedy career while advising campaign finance policies for the city of New York, and over the course of the 2010s, she has mixed social justice and comedy on stage and on the road. She made and performed in a road-trip documentary across America in 2012 called “The Muslims Are Coming!” She has delivered multiple TED Talks, one based on that documentary, and another on her book, “How To Make White People Laugh.” Since 2016, she has hosted a weekly podcast on the Earwolf network called “Fake the Nation,” and has become a regular on the NPR comedy quiz show, “Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!” She also has appeared on HBO’s High Maintenance, and written for Jena Friedman’s Adult Swim specials, Soft Focus. Farsad sat down with me to focus in on her own career and how she remains optimistic about comedy’s ability to positively influence public perceptions and policies. Even on the eve of the 2020 election. So let’s get to it!
Melinda Hill moved 27 times as a kid before making her biggest move from Kansas to Los Angeles to make it as an actress. She studied with The Groundlings, where she performed as a tooth fairy alongside Kristin Wiig. She starred in a Creed music video. She competed on America’s Got Talent. She performed on Adventure Time, Lady Dynamite, The Late Late Show, and Reno 911! She made a webseries for Funny or Die with Maria Bamford, and another one for My Damn Channel called Romantic Encounters. And for 10 years, she helped run a popular Monday night stand-up showcase in Hollywood called What’s Up Tiger Lily. This year, she performed in an upcoming movie with Diane Keaton and Jeremy Irons, started a podcast called Let’s Process This about creative people overcoming trauma, and turned her own personal trauma into comedy in her debut stand-up special, Inappropriate, out now via Comedy Dynamics. So let’s get to it!
J-L Cauvin is a native New Yorker who started his stand-up comedy career in Washington, D.C., while going to law school at Georgetown. His first big break came in 2007 when he performed on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, but J-L has found many more fans and followers thanks to his uncanny impersonations, whether they’re of people he has been told he looks like, which includes Barack Obama, Adam Sandler, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or by lampooning other comedians such as Louis CK, JB Smoove, George Lopez, Gary Gulman, or Adam Carolla. J-L’s Carolla impersonation got the attention of Carolla himself, leading to multiple appearances on his top podcast in recent years. Since 2016, J-L has found his mockery mark in Donald Trump, releasing multiple videos and two “Fireside Craps” albums as Trump that have hit #1 on the iTunes comedy charts. At the start of the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020, J-L released a video, “Donald Trump vs. God on Easter PPV” that went viral, with more than 2.5 million views so far. J-L caught up with me just prior to the 2020 elections to talk Trump, why he hasn’t done a Biden impersonation, and his own long and winding career, so let’s get to it!
So much has changed in the world since the last time I caught up with Lewis Black in September of 2016. But last things first, obviously: Black managed to film his last live show before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live stand-up comedy, recording his March 13, 2020, performance at Four Winds Casino in Michigan and releasing it in October 2020. It’s called, appropriately enough: “Thanks For Risking Your Life.” Black spoke with me over Zoom about the special, about his longtime support for the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY, and about America’s seeming lack of community in 2020, which prompted me to ask Black if his former boss, Jon Stewart, won the battle against CNN’s Crossfire but ultimately lost the war against cable news. So let’s get to it!
Adam Conover is a comedian and writer best known for the truTV series Adam Ruins Everything, which he created and hosted from 2015-2019. Conover’s comedy career began while still a student at Bard College, where he was part of the sketch comedy group, Olde English, along with future Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Olde English performed at the HBO Aspen comedy festival in 2007, and in 2012, wrote and released the feature film, The Exquisite Corpse Project. Conover also began writing and making videos for College Humor, where his 2012 parody Mitt Romney Style has earned more than 64 million views and counting on YouTube. College Humor also helped give birth to Adam Ruins Everything. Conover sat down with me in Los Angeles in February 2020, just as he began his newest gig as host of the Nickelodeon game show, The Crystal Maze. We spoke about the heady early years of Internet comedy videos, and how Facebook and other factors brought it all crashing down, even before the COVID-19 pandemic took the comedy industry by storm. So let’s get to it!
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything in March of 2020, thousands upon thousands of comedians suddenly experienced the existential dilemma that comedian Mike Birbiglia had depicted in his 2016 movie, “Don’t Think Twice.” Birbiglia himself didn’t think twice, however, quickly starting a nationwide fundraising campaign called Tip Your Waitstaff, with proceeds going to the employees of comedy clubs suddenly shuttered for who knows how long. His conversations with other comedians has prompted Birbiglia to start his own podcast, Working It Out, in which he and other stand-ups riff on premises with hopes of turning them into full comedy routines. Birbiglia already has successfully mined his own life and observations into four one-man shows, Sleepwalk With Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Thank God For Jokes, and The New One. The first he adapted into a feature film; the latter three he filmed for Netflix, and the newest one, so to speak, also is a new book that includes more poetry from his wife, J. Hope Stein. You may have heard him tell his stories on Ira Glass’s This American Life, or also recognize Birbigs from the movie Trainwreck or from his TV roles in Girls, Broad City, Orange is the New Black, and Billions. So let’s get to it!
Calise Hawkins is a stand-up comedian and writer based out of Jersey City, where she raises her daughter, Asha. You may have seen her stand-up on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC), Russell Simmons Presents Live At The El Rey (Comedy Central), Stand Up in Stilettos (TV Guide Channel), and Nick Mom’s Night Out (Nickelodeon). She was a cast member of Oxygen's Funny Girls and has written for multiple shows on Comedy Central and the Disney Channel. Among them: Disney's Walk The Prank, Disney's Just Roll With It, Adult Swim's Soft Focus, Comedy Central’s @midnight, Comedy Central's Hood Adjacent, MTV’s Totally Clueless, Girl Code, Charlemagne’s Uncommon Sense. For her 40th birthday in 2020, she recorded and released her first comedy album, “Calise Hawkins is 40 AF.” Hawkins spoke with me over Zoom about helping other comedians in show business, learning to help herself, single motherhood, how Hollywood writers room experiences left her feeling insecure, and what she learned in the making and writing of Comedy Knockout on truTV. So let’s get to it!
Beth Stelling grew up in Ohio before moving to Chicago to study with the Steppenwolf Theatre, after which she began pursuing her career in stand-up comedy. She was named best stand-up in Chicago the year before she got New Faces at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival, then moved to Los Angeles. She has released two comedy albums, “Sweet Beth” and “Simply the Beth,” performed on Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and recorded half-hour specials for both Comedy Central and Netflix. More recently, Stelling also has found success behind the camera as a writer on series such as I Love You America with Sarah Silverman on Hulu, Crashing on HBO, and provided on-set punch-ups for the 2019 movie, Good Boys. That year, she also launched a podcast with her mother for Earwolf’s Stitcher Premium series called “We Called Your Mom.” Beth’s first hour stand-up special, produced by Team Coco, was filmed March 7, 2020, in Minneapolis — Beth Stelling: Girl Daddy premiered in August 2020 on HBO Max. I sat down with Stelling over Zoom to talk about all of that, as well as where the comedy industry may go from here in treating women and women of color better whenever we re-emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. So let’s get to it!
Joe List began his stand-up career in Boston in 2000 after graduating from high school, rising up the ranks in Boston’s heralded comedy scene before moving to New York City. He has toured with the likes of Louis CK and Nick DiPaolo, and since 2013 has co-hosted the popular podcast Tuesdays With Stories with comedian Mark Normand. List’s singular credits include performing on The Late Show with David Letterman, half-hours on Netflix and Comedy Central, and reaching the finals of the final season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. List has recorded two previous comedy albums, and his first solo hour special, “I Hate Myself,” premiered in August 2020 on Comedy Central’s YouTube Channel. It had earned more than a half a million views in its first week, which is when I sat down with him over Zoom to talk about his life and career. So let’s get to it!
The world knows Stephen Glover as Steve-O, a daredevil famous for his stunts with the Jackass crew on MTV, a spin-off series Wildboyz, and four Jackass movies. It’s landed him on Dancing with the Stars and a Comedy Central Roast. When I met Steve-O in 2010, he was newly clean and sober and pursuing a second life as a stand-up comedian. We reconnected in the summer of 2020 over Zoom in two separate conversations. We talked about getting mentored in comedy by Dane Cook, how he joined the ranks of touring stand-up comedians almost immediately because of his celebrity, and had to figure out how to give everything he had to make it work. We also discuss the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College (he studied there, while I didn’t get accepted), his relationship with his father, and his new comedy special, Gnarly, which is available now through his website at steveo.com. So let’s get to it!
Sebastian Maniscalco met Pat McGann in the early 2010s, when Mansicalco was headlining Zanies in Chicago and McGann was the house MC. They eventually became friends and working partners, with McGann warming up the audience for Maniscalco’s Showtime special which taped in Chicago, and then traveling with Sebastian on the road for the past several years as his opener or feature act. All while Maniscalco’s star rose to include arenas such as Madison Square Garden and roles in major motion pictures. In July 2020, Sebastian paid it forward for McGann, executive producing and introducing McGann for his first solo hour: Sebastian Maniscalco Presents Pat McGann: When’s Mom Gonna Be Home? It’s available for rent or purchase online now. Sebastian and Pat sat down with me on Zoom to talk about the working relationships between headliners and features, and how their own career paths came together. So let’s get to it!
Discussions of racial representation and onscreen depiction of the police both hit home for Carlos Alazraqui. Born to Argentinian parents, Carlos has spent the most time onscreen as Deputy James Garcia on Reno 911!, which aired from 2003 to 2009 on Comedy Central, spawned a movie in 2007 and has returned to mobile phones courtesy of Quibi in 2020. You may recognize his voice from a multitude of animated toons over the past three decades, starting with Rocko’s Modern Life on Nickelodeon and including Family Guy, The Fairly OddParents, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Adventures of Puss in Boots, Camp Lazio and many many more. He won the San Francisco Comedy Competition in 1993, defeating fellow finalists Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt, and gained even more notoriety in the 1990s for voicing the chihuahua in Taco Bell’s radio and TV commercials. We talk about all of that, plus how he continues working during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how he navigates debates about race and culture. So let’s get to it!
Jamie Kennedy still may be best known for playing Randy Meeks in the big-screen Scream franchise, but Kennedy has enjoyed a wild and varied acting career since he broke out of background work in the late 1980s. His credits include Romeo + Juliet, Bowfinger, Enemy of the State, As Good As It Gets, Three Kings, and his own vehicle, Malibu’s Most Wanted. On the small screen, he recurred on both the drama Ghost Whisperer and the animated toon, The Cleveland Show, but created and starred in his own sketch/reality show for the WB, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment. Kennedy celebrated turning 50 in May by releasing his newest stand-up special, “Stoopid Smart,” via Tubi. You also can see him this summer on Pluto TV hosting the latest season of Comedy Dynamics’ stand-up showcase series, Coming To The Stage. I spoke with Kennedy in June, so some circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests may have changed since then, but the facts of Kennedy’s career remain the same. So let’s get to it!
Smosh became the first popular YouTube channel in 2005 and has remained among the most popular channels on YouTube ever since. It would take almost 15 years, however, before Smosh followed other YouTubers by embarking on its first live tour in February 2020, which ended just as the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping the globe. As of June 2020, Smosh had earned more than 25 million subscribers to the main comedy channel, plus another 7 and a half million for Smosh Games, and another 7 million for Smosh Pit. Over the first 15 years, they created mobile apps and games, made a feature film in 2015 and another movie specifically for YouTube’s premium customers, and lost a co-founder along the way. Co-founder Ian Hecox sat down with me over Zoom to talk about it all, from the humble beginnings in flash animation on Smosh.com to now working alongside and for fellow first-generation YouTubers Rhett & Link, and more, so let’s get to it!
Greg Warren grew up in St. Louis the son of a wrestling coach, and enjoyed a successful high-school and college wrestling career himself before he discovered stand-up comedy while still a student at the University of Missouri. Neither stints at West Point or Proctor & Gamble could sway Warren as much as stand-up has, a career he has pursued, consistently touring comedy clubs on the road for the past 20 years. His “Flute Man” bit ranks as one of the most requested bits in the history of the Bob & Tom Show on syndicated radio. Warren has performed on late-night TV, put out a half hour Comedy Central Presents, and recorded albums and specials for SiriusXM and Dry Bar Comedy. After using Los Angeles and New York City as bases while working the road, Warren moved back to St. Louis, and last summer, recorded a new hour special across the Mississippi River in Illinois. “Where The Field Corn Grows” comes out in June 2020 as both an album and a video special via 800 Pound Gorilla Records, and Warren joined me over Zoom to talk about his new special and more. So let’s get to it!
Ramy Youssef is the son of Egyptian immigrants, growing up in New York and New Jersey, who jumped into sketch comedy as a teenager. It paid off for him initially with a role on the Nick at Nite sitcom See Dad Run. Youssef took what he learned there, as well as his work on shows such as Mr. Robot, and friendships with the likes of truTV’s Friends of the People and NBC’s The Carmichael Show, and applied it to his own show, Ramy, which premiered on Hulu in 2019. Youssef won the Golden Globe in 2020 for best actor in a comedy series for portraying a young Muslim in New Jersey trying and often failing to do the right thing. Ramy and I spoke over Zoom about celebrating Ramadan in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how he and we might wonder how to do the right thing in real life, even when we’re unsure what the right thing might be. So let’s get to it!
Rhys Darby is an actor, writer, podcaster and stand-up comedian from New Zealand. North American audiences first got to know him as Murray the manager from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and more recently as Nigel the guide in the Jumanji movies. His other film and TV credits include Yes Man, The X-Files, Wrecked, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. His sound-effect skills and voiceover work can be heard in such projects as Voltron: Legendary Defender, as well as his four previous stand-up specials. A fifth special, Mystic Time Bird, is due out in 2020. Also new from Darby: a Spotify podcast about aliens, called “Aliens Like Us.” Darby caught up with me via Zoom from New Zealand, so let’s get to it!
When I sat down with Fred Willard in February 2020 inside his home in Southern California, he was noticeably weak — I held his microphone for him throughout our conversation — but his mind and his sense of humor was quite intact, and he was still working. In fact, Fred received a phone call during our interview inviting him to the Modern Family wrap party, and talked to me about being ready and willing to drive into Hollywood with only a morning’s notice to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Willard was a deadpan king of comedy and an improvisational genius in all sorts of supporting roles in television and movies from the 1960s until his final days. We spoke about all of it over the course of an hour, from how he got involved with The Second City and Ace Trucking Company, to Fernwood 2 Night and Real People, hosting Saturday Night Live in 1978, meeting Christopher Guest and his memorable roles in This Is Spinal Tap, For Your Consideration, and of course, Best in Show. He had a funny story about how he scored a role in Everybody Loves Raymond. Willard also talked about what would be his last venture, playing Steve Carell’s father in the new Netflix farce, Space Force. Willard died peacefully at home on May 15, 2020. He was 86. He was the only live-action actor in a Pixar animated movie in WALL-E, perhaps because he always animated every project he worked on. Fred Willard most certainly will be missed. But let him tell you why in his own words, so let’s get to it!
Josh Thomas is an Australian comedian, actor and writer who broke out on the scene as a teenager, winning best newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2007 for his first solo show, “Please Like Me.” Thomas went on to stage his stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe and Montreal’s Just For Laughs before developing his first TV series, also called “Please Like Me,” which documented his coming-out process and aired originally on Australian TV before getting picked up for multiple seasons in America via the Pivot cable channel. His follow-up to that, “Everything’s Gonna Be OK,” premiered in January 2020 on Freeform. The first season in full is available for streaming on Hulu. Thomas sat down with me via Zoom to talk about all of that, why working with bugs and teenage girls makes perfect sense, and more, so let’s get to it!
Over the past 25 years, Judy Gold has starred in her own half-hour stand-up specials for HBO, Comedy Central and LOGO, has won two Emmy Awards for writing for The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and appeared on numerous daytime and late-night talk shows. Gold has written and starred in two Off-Broadway solo shows: The Judy Show – My Life as a Sitcom, and 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. Her recent TV credits include Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here and FX’s Better Things. She has performed in New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park, portrayed Linda Tripp in Clinton! The Musical, and had gotten cast in her first Broadway production for fall 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic shut that down. At least she still has a new book ready to come out in July 2020, “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians We Are All in Trouble,” as well as her own podcast: “Kill Me Now.” Fortunately she’s still alive and well and willing to talk to me during quarantine over Zoom — so let’s get to it!