Saturday, September 20, 2014

Comedy Through Tragedy: The Sean White interview

If you still do not know who Sean White is, you’ve been missing out. He is easily one of the top comics here in Chicago today. A raw talent all the way from Huntsville, Alabama, Sean began in Atlanta, got seasoned in Hong Kong, and came to Chicago to make his mark. Yet, life threw a nasty curve ball at him, striking Sean with a sudden series of family fatalities joined by an unforgiving divorce. Rather than drowning in despair, Sean transformed himself into a comedic alchemist as he took his deep, dark pain and turned it into comedy gold.

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways: Either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” –Dalai Lama

Sean White is the real deal. In this interview, he could not have been any more professional nor more genuine. Sean is recording his debut album, Dead & Gone tonight performing two shows at 8:00 & 10:30PM at Timothy O’Toole’s. The show will also feature Adam Burke and Jeff Steinbrunner, all produced by ‘Comedians You Should Know’. Come out and see history in the making.

BACKSTORY

COMEDY OF CHICAGO: So how did you end up going from Atlanta to Hong Kong??

SEAN WHITE: Well, it was the best place I could find a job. I was just looking for jobs when I was graduating and when I was getting married. I taught debate at two universities, and I was also the house comedian for the only comedy club in Asia. I did that for two years.

COC: What’s it like doing comedy in Hong Kong?

SW: They had English shows and Chinese shows, but mostly English shows. There’s a very large expat population there, so it was like the entire audience would be all Australians one night, all Americans the next night, then all British and New Zealanders and Swedish the next night—so you never knew what you were gonna get.

COC: Wow. I’ve never heard anybody else doing anything like that.

SW: Ordinary methods = ordinary results, extraordinary methods = extraordinary results. That’s the idea.

COC: Did you pick up the language at all? What do they speak out there?

SW: Cantonese. And yeah, I can speak a little bit. [Sean then recites a phrase in Cantonese]

COC: Okay, whatever the hell that means... [moment of laughter]

DISASTER STRIKES

COC: Your act is centered around the fact that the majority of your family members are no longer with us. It is extremely terrible and unfortunate, and I hate to even bring it up, but afterall it is part of your story. I’d like to know, how did all of this happen?

SW: Well, everybody was fine when I moved to Hong Kong. I moved to Chicago five years ago, and the first year was fine. But then over a period of two years, my entire family started dropping like flies...

COC: Was it some kind of sickness that ran in the family?

SW: Na na, it was all separate stuff that had nothing to do with anything, nothing hereditary. And then, in the middle of all that, I got divorced.

COC: And how did that happen?

SW: When we moved to Chicago, she wanted to do improv and I wanted to do stand up. And ya know, it turns out she didn’t really wanna do anything. We eventually broke up because she wanted to be 21 again and I wanted to still keep going with my life and my career.

COC: You guys got married young?

SW: Yep, 21. So...SHIT decision! [laughs] But we were together for eight years, married for five.

COC: Are you guys still in touch?

SW: We don’t talk or anything because it’s just awkward to talk to somebody like that. But we don’t have any animosity towards each other. As far as I know, I’ve committed no sins against her, and vice versa. We didn’t have any kids, and it’s not like I have any jokes that disparage her or anything like that.

COC: Still, that’s rough. Especially for that to happen in the middle of grieving and mourning for your family...

SW: Well it really sucks because she’s the only one who KNOWS where I came from. She’s the only one who KNOWS who my family is. When I try to tell people where I came from, no one’s ever gonna KNOW, except for her. And right before we got divorced, I remember telling her, “You’re gonna leave me, and you’re gonna take the memory of ALL my family. You’re the only one who knows ‘em and no one’s gonna know them ever again...and you’re gonna take that with you.”

TALKIN’ SHOP

COC: What were your jokes about before you experienced all this personal tragedy?

SW: Uh...bullshit! [laughs] Just random, observational type stuff. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I did a lot of crowd work ‘n stuff like that. And when I was in Hong Kong, I saw a comedian from San Francisco named Paul Ogata, who’s a very good crowd work comedian—and I wanted to learn that. So I spent three months straight at that comedy club, just BOMBING doing crowd work—trying to learn how to do it. The main thing I learned in Hong Kong was crowd work.

COC: Crowd work is such a tough skill to master!

SW: And I love doin’ that. That is how you play a club AGAIN. But that’s not how you get the booking in the first place. You get a booking from material. It’s a good skill to have, but I don’t play it a lot unless I need to. If I’m hosting, I do that.

COC: Comics worry a lot about getting booked or not getting booked enough. Why is that such a big worry, as opposed to worrying about getting better?

SW: I’ll give you a quote from Kyle Kinane: “You can worry about who does and doesn’t book you, or you can be so funny they can’t say ‘No’.” It’s just about keeping your head down and working. When I first got here, I told everybody my credits and who I had opened for—told everybody ALL this shit—but they told me to fuck off! And instead of taking their answer as a negative, I was like, “Okay, fine!” I put my head down and I was determined to work and figure it out. Then, those same people came back to me later like, “Hey, sorry for being a dick to you when you first came in, but do you understand?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do.”

COC: Understand what, though?

SW: I needed to prove myself. And I did. And now they take me seriously. That’s how it is. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna repeat it to other people. It doesn’t mean it’s a seniors VS freshman kinda thing, but it’s just that people come ‘n go. You’ve GOTTA keep your head down ‘n keep workin’ and they’ll notice when you make ‘em notice. It’s never personal. It’s never ANYTHING. It’s arrogant to think that anyone’s tryin’ to hold YOU down. Just be SO funny they can’t say ‘No’.

COC: What about comics who feel they’re ready for a gig, but they’re still not getting it?

SW: They will come to you when you are ready. And you will always think you’re ready before you are. You ALWAYS will—that’s just how it is. Because, who is gonna believe in you before anybody else? Of course it’s gonna be YOU! [laughs] So don’t worry about what anybody else thinks. ‘Cause in the end, they’re not the ones who make the decisions. Your career is dictated by YOU and by what YOU think is funny. How can you possibly have your own unique voice when you’re listening to other motherfuckers the whole time, tryin’ to tailor to people?! Fuck ‘em! Be funny on your own and in your own way. That’s the only way you’re ever gonna make it. And it doesn’t matter if it takes 10 years or two years, or if you’re Bo Burnam and you make it before you hit fuckin’ puberty! [laughs] It doesn’t matter! Just hit it and keep goin’. Keep your head down ‘n work!

COC: Describe your creative process when crafting material.

SW: Right now, I’m workin’ on the album so I’m constantly trying to work on stuff in that particular realm. But when I’m normally working on material, I like to take four minutes of material—the standard open mic set—and I do that at every single open mic in the city for an entire week. The same set, three times a night, as many mics as possible, every single night of the week. Then I pick a different four-minute set, and I work on that. You should be able to earn four minutes a week—that’s my own personal standard. That way, by the end of the year, you’ve gotten A LOT of material.

COC: Being around the scene so much, you end up seeing a lot of the same people. Is it okay to do the same jokes in front of the same people?

SW: I don’t give a shit, I need to work on it! And if you’ve changed it, then who cares! If you’ve worked on it, and if it was better, you’ll see those SAME five motherfuckers have a different response. Stop worrying about whether or not you’re trying to impress somebody. That’s part of the whole, ‘Keep Your Head Down and Work!’ thing. You can’t be worried about what other people think. Don’t be worried about what ANYBODY thinks. JUST WORK! And also, you’re doing more than one mic on that night, so I doubt you’re gonna see the same comics at EVERY SINGLE mic. If you’re workin’ harder than they are, they’re not gonna keep up with you.

CREATING COMEDY THROUGH TRAGEDY

COC: How were you able to bring your pain to the stage and share it with an audience?

SW: I remember very specifically at an open mic, Seven Ten Lounge that used to be run by Bill Cruz. I remember trying to do my normal jokes and my normal bullshit, but then suddenly I’d slip into a rant about God and how I was mad about everything! After doing that for so long, my brain would just slip into a joke, and a joke would come out and they’d laugh. And I would go, “Oh! I got to talk about my pain AND they laughed?? That seems like a good bet!” [laughs]

COC: Would you say comedy is a form of therapy?

SW: It’s not therapy, but it’s therapeutic. It’s a cyclical effect. You talk about it on stage in a RAW format that doesn’t make any sense to anyone, but by SAYING it, it becomes real. And when it becomes real, you can hear it and then you can gauge a response based on the audience. Then I can take it BACK in, RETHINK it, RESAY it, and then the new thought becomes real again, which becomes criticized AGAIN by the audience. And I keep doing that again and again and AGAIN, over and over...until all of my emotions and thoughts are just laid bare. And I got comfortable with the idea of them existing, their response, MY response to their response, and then seeing where I wanted it to go. It’s not therapy per se, but it’s both very therapeutic to be able to vent AND THEN get feedback from a mass, as opposed to some individual.

COC: Very fascinating. Your act is raw, original, and real. It’s a tough thing for a comic to be able to do that.

SW: Well thank you for that...but it’s the only thing you CAN do when you have that inside of you. You hafta let it out. It’s either that or drown in it. A sense of humor is a self defense mechanism against something that HAPPENED to you. If you go up on stage and talk about the bank...now I KNOW there’s some REAL SHIT that’s happened to you. What the fuck are you talkin’ about the bank for?! Tell me what REALLY happened to you!

COC: Are you now drawn to darker, more serious styles of comedy, as opposed to the light, observational humor you began your career with?
SW: It made me love serious comedy so much more. Ya know? Just say it! Say exactly how it makes you feel. Tell me exactly where you came from, SAY IT! Tell me WHY you are funny. You tell it in a funny way because you’re a funny person, but I wanna know WHY. I wanna know what the fuck happened to you! ‘Cause somethin’ did, and I wanna know what it is.

COC: How do you feel about comics who tell simple, lighthearted jokes as opposed to the ones who get raw and dig deep?

SW: Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people make it very far based on just talkin’ about whatever. And you could be GREAT at it, and God bless ‘em. But you’re never gonna be one of the greats—and I’m not sayin’ I’m gonna—but guys like Carlin and Pryor, all they knew how to do was be themselves. And if you don’t do that, you’re not even in the running. You’ll make a living, sure. You can live off comedy without ever being real. But you’re not gonna make anyone’s life different. You’re not gonna be anything anyone talks about. You’ve gotta be real.

COC: Final thoughts / words of wisdom?

SW: People have it backwards: Don’t think what’s funny and try to say it...think about what you want to say, and then make it funny. Just pick whatever in the world is important to you, and that passion will carry you. But if you’re thinking, “Well, I don’t have anything funny to say about this ‘n that!” Well then you’re not doin’ your job as a comic! You’re supposed to be able to make ANYTHING funny. You choose the subject and be a funny person. Learn that, and then figure out what you wanna talk about. And don’t ever let anybody tell you what to talk about just because it’s convenient or because it’s easy. Fuck that! What means something to you is what matters. I’d rather fail talkin’ about something that matters, than succeed talkin’ about something that doesn’t—any day! Woody Allen said, “You can give the funniest line to an unfunny person and they’ll fuck it up! But, you can give a phone book to a funny person and they’ll make you laugh all night.”

Contributing Writer: David Gavri
David Gavri is a stand-up comedian, writer and founder of the online comedy sites Gonzo Fame and Comedy Scene in Houston.