Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Interview With Mikey Manker

Mikey Manker is one of Chicago's most prolific comedians working today. He has performed on every stage in the city many times, including high-profile local showcases such as Comedians You Should Know, The Lincoln Lodge, and Chicago Underground Comedy. Mikey is also one of the producers of the critically acclaimed Thursday night show Stand Up Stand Up. His debut album, Beg Borrow, & Steal, debuted in the Top 20 on iTunes the week it was released, and on January 29th, he is recording his second album, IDIOT, in Stand Up Stand Up's intimate basement showroom. In this interview, Mikey shares his backstory along with some comedy advice & wisdom, and of course his thoughts & goals for his upcoming album recording. Enjoy!


COMEDY OF CHICAGO: In your interview with “Backstage Chicago #33”, when asked who your comedy influences are, you said how you don’t follow mainstream comedians. Why is that?

MIKEY MANKER: HAHA! I forgot I said that. I don't like to keep myself too concerned about what mainstream acts are doing. When I do that I start to get a little jealous and mad at myself for not yet being at that level. That's never healthy and very stupid. But I always remind myself that comedy, like everything else in life, is a process. You'll get there when you get there. Don't rush it, enjoy the trip.

COC: Who are some comedian friends of yours that you look up to?

MM: It’s different for different attributes. Mike Lebovitz, because he is instantly likeable on stage. I wish I had Emily Galati's writing and work ethic. Dale McPeek, because he just doesn't give a fuck on stage, and he’s cool and laid back off it as well. Kevin White's drive. But overall, I think it’s Sean Flannery. I think he is one of the funniest people I have ever seen do comedy. The fact that he isn't on TV or touring theaters and not insanely famous is a crime. But, I'll drop whatever I am doing and run into the room if I hear Bobby Budds’ name called. Just ridiculous. 

COC: Why did you choose Chicago of all places after St. Louis?

MM: I've always, at least since I discovered comedy, wanted to live here. I originally moved up here for improv and to study at the iO Theater. Chicago is great because I am 5 hours away from St. Louis and my family. Going and visiting them isn't too expensive and time consuming. And I realize as I answer this question that I need to start doing that more.

COC: You’ve been doing stand up since 2005. Do you think you’ve “found your voice”? What does that phrase mean to you?

MM: I don't know if I've found my voice yet. I hope so. If not, I think I'm pretty close. I think the phrase "finding your voice" just means finding your place in comedy and writing the material that makes you the most comfortable and confident as a performer and as a person.  


COC: You began with improv, and then you got into stand up. What was it about stand up that appealed to you more than improv? Do you still do improv? And if not, why not?

MM: When it comes to performing, I'm very selfish. I want to be the only person on stage at a given time. I also like to take full responsibility on how well my set goes. Stand up is amazing because of the rush you get. It's so dangerous and scary. I love when people say, "I can't believe you do stand-up! I could NEVER get up there in front of people!" I love hearing that. I love hearing that I can do something that scares a majority of people. I also love the creative evolution of a stand up bit. I love thinking about something in the shower in the morning, jotting it down on a piece of paper in the afternoon, and doing it on stage that night. I haven't done improv in over 5 years. I just want to do stand-up.

COC: Stand up & improv don't seem to mix well—for the most part, people either do one or the other. Why do you think there’s so much separation between two comedic art forms?

MM: I think it’s because the goal of each is to make people laugh. They’re two very different art forms, but the end goal is the same. I think performers have a ton of pride in what they do so naturally they will side with their craft. Its the same reason why Cubs and White Sox fans bicker. Its all about pride. That being said, if T.J. Jagadowski called me tomorrow and said "Hey, do you wanna do a two-man show with me?" I'd say, "Yes. When is call-time?" Of course I would. I'd be stupid not to.

COC: What were some major obstacles you had to overcome throughout your pursuit to becoming a stand up?

MM: When I was growing up, I had a terrible stuttering problem. The thought of public speaking scared me to death. But I got tired of living in silence and fear that I just went out one day and auditioned for a school play. I willed myself to speak and it worked and I got a part. The next challenge was improv comedy. Did that. The next step was going on stage with a microphone. And I did that. Don't get me wrong, sometimes the stutter comes back. But not like it was when I was a teenager. Nothing makes me prouder than beating that disability.


COC: What annoys you the most about open mics & open-mikers?

MM: Honestly, probably the only thing is when comics don't thank the host(s) afterwards before they leave. Being an open-mic host can be awful. You spend upwards to 4-6 hours out of your night doing what is pretty much a thankless job. They don't have to put you up, but they do. After your set, just say "Hey, thanks!" It goes a long way. Really.

COC: Is there such thing to have a joke that “kills” anywhere, any night? If a joke works wonderfully one night, but another night it gets zero response, what is that?

MM: Nope. Even if you think you've written the perfect joke, with the perfect timing, perfect beats, perfect set-up, and perfect punch. And you've done it every night for a year and get a standing ovation, you will eventually run into a crowd that just doesn't like you, or the joke. That's the law of averages.

COC: Follow up to the previous question: Is there such thing as constantly “killing” night after night? Or, is the comedian still bound to bomb, no matter what level of experience / success they reach? 

MM: Still bound to bomb. Again, there is going to be a time when the audience is just not into you. Great example is Dave Chappelle. When he returned to stand up a few years back after his hiatus or whatever it was, he was getting heckled at venues by his own fans because he wasn't quoting lines from his TV show. He walked off stage a few shows. Dave Chappelle, one of the greatest stand-up comics to ever live, and he was forced to walk off stage.

COC: I understand that you must do the same joke(s) over & over to be nice & polished. But, how long is too long to be doing the same joke(s)?

MM: Once the performer stops caring about the joke. An audience can tell when a comic doesn't care about something he/she is talking about. If the material doesn't mean anything to you anymore and you're not excited about it when you write it on your set list, then give it the ax. Or put it away in a box until you are ready to do your "Farewell Special" in 2045.


COC: What are your thoughts on comedy festivals?

MM: I haven't done too many festivals, but I love the idea of them. You get to meet a ton of new people and see old friends. You can sometimes travel to a place you've never been to before. You get to perform comedy in front of a brand new audience. Sometimes you will get put on a show with some awesome comics.

COC: What about those application fees? Worth it? Or are they a scam?

MM: I think some can be a scam. But the cool thing about comics is that we watch out for each other when it comes to that department. I've heard plenty of guys tell me NOT to apply for a certain fest because of that very reason. A fest that takes money and fucks over comics is usually called out pretty quickly. However, anytime you basically pay someone to watch a clip of you and tell you if you are good enough to come to a festival is always a gamble.

COC: Do you think festivals make you better as a comic? 

MM: I'm not sure if festivals make you funnier, but any time you move outside your comfort zone and perform somewhere new, with new people, new audience, etc, it will always benefit you.


COC: What inspired you to come up with the title for this album?

MM: Idiot, to me, is such a hilarious word. It perfectly describes the theme of the set and myself at certain moments of my life. 

COC: Beg, Borrow & Steal was the name of your debut album. What inspired that name?

MM: My mom actually came up with the name. We were once talking about her childhood and teen years, and how before she had a job she had to get money from her mom. She said, "We'd have to beg, borrow, & steal sometimes." I thought it was just a really cool phrase, so I "stole" it. 

COC: Beg, Borrow & Steal debuted in the summer of 2011. How have you changed since then--both comedically, and as a person in general?

MM: I've slowed down. I'm more calm and relaxed on stage. I've learned to take my time. Back then, I would try to cram as much material into a set as possible. I'd wind up talking too fast and stuttering, and not making any sense. Now, I can spend an entire short set just talking about one thing. Personally, I am more mature. Which is funny considering the title of the album. I'm much more calm and relaxed off stage as well. I don't drink alcohol like I was, or really ever. I'm not as self-absorbed as I was 3 years ago, or even last year. I know that doing an album like this seems self-absorbed, but I can assure you it’s because I want to do this and document my current material, hopefully get my name out there, and then move on to the next project.

COC: What are some things you may not have enjoyed about your debut album, that you hope to improve for the upcoming album?

MM: It's short. 33 minutes, I think. I've only listened to it a few times. There is some really solid material on it though. Part of me wishes I would have held off on it and did it all in one go. That would have been amazing. Also, I released it at a time when I didn't really have any kind of marketing. Then again, people really enjoyed it. I got great feedback and I am definitely proud of it, sure.

COC: By making the album recording a scheduled event, does it add extra pressure to make it a “perfect” recording? What would happen if your set does not record to your liking?

MM: It does. Believe me, I've been stressing like shit over it. I want it to be perfect but I know that's impossible. If something happens where it doesn't come out right, then that's fine. I'll still release it. Why not? Its a live recording of a comedy show, and not all shows are amazing. That being said, don't show up and heckle me.

COC: When do you think is the “right time” for a comic to record an album?

MM: Whenever they are ready to. I believe there is no right or wrong time for anything. It's all about then the person is ready, and wants to do it. 


COC: What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t done already?

MM: Get a TV credit so my family will stop asking me when I'll be on TV.

COC: Is moving out to one of the coasts in your sights? If so, what do you hope to accomplish by doing that?

MM: I definitely need sunshine and warmth. I think L.A. would be a good fit for me. Even if comedy doesn't work out those first few years, I can still spend my nights sitting by the ocean. You have to have other passions in life, too. You have to remember to be a person and take part in other activities. As much as I love Chicago, I dislike having 7-8 months of cold and overcast a year. I don't like sitting inside.

COC: What goals do you have on improving your act & your craft?

MM: I think my next goal in my writing and performing is going to try to at least talk about my beliefs on certain things, without coming off too preachy. I love telling stories on stage and if I can find a way to somehow combine the two, I'll be happy. 


COC: Final thoughts / words of wisdom for other comics?

MM: Show up to mics, be thankful to the hosts, be generous to the bartenders, and be grateful for life. The big one for me. We as comics get to do something that brings joy to people. It's really easy to be cynical about things when they aren't going your way, and I'm the worlds biggest cynic at times. But I've learned this past year, and most people in the scene hopefully learned too, that life isn't a guarantee. We only have a certain amount of days on this planet. We need to make the best out of them and support each other. It doesn't matter who gets booked for what show, or how much exposure a certain comic is getting, or who get's named "Top Comics To Watch" or whatever. All of that is arbitrary. The only thing we need to be worried about is how we treat one another on and off stage. There is going to be a time when we aren't doing this anymore. Whether it be a year from now or 30 years from now. And when that day comes, none of this trivial shit will matter, and we'll be mad at ourselves for wasting so much fucking energy on it in the first place. Also, do mushrooms. 

Staff 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.