Robert Buscemi Interview
Robert Buscemi was a staple of the Chicago comedy scene for years. During his tenure, he won many accolades, including Best Stand Up (2009, Chicago Reader) and Best Comic (both 2005 and 2006, Chicago Snubfest). After being a finalist in the 2007 Chicago Comedy Awards, he was invited to perform at Rooftop Comedy’s very own Aspen Comedy Festival.
Robert is releasing his CD, “Palpable,” this Wednesday, April 28th, at The Annoyance in Chicago. Rooftop had idiot comic Nathan Timmel email Robert Buscemi some questions in advance of this event.
NT: You recorded your new CD “Palpable” at Chicago’s Lincoln Lodge, yet are holding the release party at The Annoyance. Any reason for the shift?
RB: Wow. Good question. Well, the Lincoln Lodge had sound equipment already set up for Cameron Esposito’s recording of her Rooftop CD, “Grab Them Aghast,” just a few weeks before mine. Like me, Cameron did the Rooftop Aspen Comedy Fest too. And I’m a long-time veteran of the Lodge, which has an unbelievably retro vibe to it, which fits my character really well, so it was a great place to record. And we really packed it.
And… The Annoyance is… I’ve cultivated a relationship with The Annoyance over the last few years, performing like 6 or 7 special, one-off shows there. That’s basically just hero worship on my part. I don’t know how much stand-ups outside of Chicago know this, but the Annoyance is like the Sex Pistols of sketch and improv. They’re absolutely legendarily decadent, and just revered as the cool kids in Chicago. There’s a ball cap behind the bar that just says “BORING AND GAY,” which really captures their… just… I don’t know. Just trust me: they’re cool. I always bust my ass to fill the house and then write them thank-you notes and give them any merch I have. I’m kind of gay that way.
Mick Napier teaches there, Susan Messing, Joe Bill, Mark Sutton… those people are legends in the improv world, and I just adore that theater. I used to do improv and tons of theater, so it’s really exciting for me to perform in a theater like that. In fact I’m in Chicago right now, having just hosted three nights at the Chicago Improv Festival, which was great. I hosted a roast for Mark Sutton, and I was just surrounded on stage by all this fantastic talent. I like to get my mind into other forms of comedy for some reason. I find it liberating. So I’m always getting onto improv and sketch bills to do sets or host.
It’s weird. Before I did stand-up, I always sniffed around stand-up shows and away from sketch and improv and theater, and now that I do stand-up, I love sniffing back into theater. I’m pretty restless in general.
NT: What kind of setup was used to record “Palpable?”
RB: Just a stage and a mike and a crowd. Maybe 100 people in. The Lodge is the back room of a pancake house; that’s literally what it is. And they have this fake mythology that it’s a fraternal organization like the Elks or the Moose. So you’re back there and it’s just perfect for my comedy, and Mark Geary has always had a really high-end production, considering the goofy space. So I think I wore a tie, and I didn’t get nervous behind the curtain exactly, but I kind of got pumped and did a little spontaneous air-boxing, which is weird for me. I usually just wander up like I’m getting into my bathtub. I’m not always successful, but I’m weirdly calm as a performer, even when a set isn’t going like I want it to. So Adam Burke opened, and he’s one of the very, very best in Chicago. And it was kind of important to me to try to run an undiluted headliner set and not chop a single joke in the editing room. Which we didn’t. The whole thing is in like 53 minutes of absolutely real time. I was really glad to pull that off. I think it’s the theater guy in me — I wanted it to be a “real” listening experience where you heard me from beginning to end, and that’s what it wound up being. And Nathan Winters mixed it really “warm,” he called it, like a record album, which I liked immediately. I don’t know how he thought to do that, but again, it’s perfect for my style
NT: Where did the title come from?
RB: It’s a joke on the CD. I say “When I perform on the road, people comeup to me and say ‘Wow. Robert Buscemi. The sexual mojo you bring on-stage is absolutely palpable. I want to take you out to my pickup truck in the parking lot and see if I can’t… ‘palp’ some of your… ‘bables.'” It’s really corny, but people get a kick out of how dumb and grandiose it is. And I don’t know, “Palpable” is actually what I want the album to be — clownishly, audaciously, moronically sexually and kind of obscenely stupid. Not that I’m blue, I’m not. But I like to be a jack-ass, and that word captures an aura of cheeky forwardness that I like.
NT: How long did it take you to write the material for your CD?
RB: Oh geez. Well. I mean… I’ve got jokes on there that are among the first I ever wrote ever, from like 8 years ago. And then others are far newer. But… it’s tough to say. It took years, really. I mean… I have to have new stuff that’s moving forward for me or I get bored, so there are jokes on there that are quite new. I’ve always done the same brand of buffoonery — some tiny brainless jokes and some long, insanely, ridiculously involved stem-winders that double back on themselves and roll forward and back and contain shameless word play and outlandish imagery. Sometimes that just appeals to me, that rolling-rolling-rolling goofiness, where a joke runs away from you. I always come back to bits like that.
NT: How do you feel Chicago has influenced you as a comedian? Is there a method to your madness, in choosing the path of stand up in a city revered for its Improv history?
RB: Geez. How did it affect me. Well, put it this way. I wandered onto the scene at a magical historical moment, where about 6 or 7 comedians who are now exploding every which way were doing the same open mike every single Monday, a place called the Lyon’s Den. That open mike had 50 people on it every week, and many were very, very, very good. Many
weren’t. But many were.
And the good thing about starting stand-up in any city other than New York or LA is that… there are no real prizes. There are really no cameras and no money, aside from some road work. And in Chicago, stand-up is very much overshadowed by improv and sketch and theater. So you have to just get good. You have to impress your peers, and you have to form your own community. There wasn’t even a centralized comedy club, just showcases in bars that comics would start up. Zanies is there, but it’s mainly a road stop from road comics, with just a few nights for locals.
So it was like having to play stick ball because you don’t have bats or balls or grass. We were on our own. But I like to think that made me scrappy and unafraid to be original and work to impress the smart people in a room and not care overly much for the lowest common denominator. And it’s important to develop that toughness especially if you’re a curve-ball, alternative comic like myself. Comics bitch about performing for their peers, but I find your peers more discerning and ready to reward genuinely original stuff, even if they can be cranky and stingy.
For some reason I’ve never objected to the label “alternative comedy,” incidentally. I guess it gives me at least some sense of identity and place to hang my hat. People have to call it something, and I always find it a comically unoriginal thing when a performing artist of any kind on a talk show will object to “labels.” Especially if they’re successful. Artists kid themselves that they’re more original than they are, I guess. Myself included.
NT: Is Chicago your hometown, or did you move there to pursue your stand up comedy dreams?
RB: Nah, I’m from Springfield, Ohio, which is why I have this twang everyone finds so sexy. I came to Chicago for improv and theater. Stand-up was always too scary. It really was a dream though. And I’d always kind of secretly collect these fly, retro clothes and hats and just leave ’em in my closet. And it would depress me at some level, because I kind of knew they were my stand-up character’s clothes. Isn’t that weird? I just got tired over the years of hearing myself swear I was going to do stand-up. I was getting boring. So I finally decided that no matter how painful it was, I would do it at least 20 times. And then if I wanted to, I could stop. But I knew that one or two times would just be too few to get any good read on it. And it was painful. So yeah, I was in Chicago for years, but I always wanted to head to LA and ply my wares there, which is why I’m there now working the scene like it’s a big dairy cow and I’m its mechanical milker.
NT: How would you describe your style of comedy to someone who hasn’t seen you?
RB: Very goofy, very silly, sort of otherworldly and strange. It’s very much a cult act, and people get it or they don’t. And I don’t mind telling you that can be frustrating. I always want to reassure people that I don’t take myself too seriously, but my pal Nate Craig, who’s one of the very best comics to come out of Chicago, he gets mad when I’m too… patient with new initiates to my style. He calls it me trying to make it easy on people by passing out “candy corn.” Comedy’s great that way. You have all these hard-ass stand-ups paying attention to your art over the course of years, and they really identify and care and want you to stick to your vision. I read somewhere that Sam Kinison used to throw chairs at Jim Carrey at The Comedy Store when Jim Carrey would fall back on some obvious or easy material. I think of that story a lot actually.
I’m very bawdy, but my character is just too loony and brainless to be genuinely crude or offensive. Hell, I don’t know. I love character comedians. Steven Wright. Or Jimmy Pardo. Pardo’s just Johny Show Biz, and it kills me. I love a performer who just knows he’s the king of the planet. Chris Elliot is that way too.
So I do a version of that — go up there and just throw nonsense out like my life depends on it. It’s really, really, really important to me, all this stuff I say. It honestly is. But I swear to you I haven’t the slightest idea where it comes from. Writing for me — and performing, actually — is like doing a Ouija board. I have NO idea who’s speaking or what their point is, but… I wind up speaking almost in parables. God knows. I mean … it’s such a fun kind of mega-riddle though. Life is. My material is. I just love it. I do.
My fave of all time is Steve Martin. Hands down. And I love Nick Vatterot out of New York. I like the really deranged, maniacal stuff, where comics can barely see through the blinding idiocy of some craven image they’re weaving. That’s what I try to do.
NT: I was struck by how you’re always dressed damn fine on stage; is wearing a suit something that feels comfortable to you, or a throwback to the days when seeing live entertainment was something people dressed up for? Both? Neither?
RB: Both. It’s the theater thing. I like a show. I always think of the musical Cabaret, and how the actors are all in pale make-up and wearing lots of red and kind of ratty silks and suspenders over bare chests. I like that. But yeah — it’s a throwback. I’m a throwback for sure. I think I crave a time where people were only doing one thing. Just one thing at a time. I think we all do. You sit. I talk. You listen. We laugh. I’m on stage.
It’s pointless, really. You could watch TV, movies, you could do any of 10 billion things, but you’re watching me, this mope who thinks he’s clever and cute, and he’s trying to get you to laugh beer onto your chin. It’s all so quaint and lovely to me. It’s so pointless. But yeah, I like to give ’em something to look at. It makes you identifiable and a bit larger than life. It’s like wearing a plastic nose and mustache and glasses. It’s corny, but it just says “Hey! This guy’s a card, I’ll bet!” It’s really me trying to be uncynical and show people I’m having fun.
NT: Do you have any creative rituals you follow when writing? A particular coffee shop you sit at, your dining room table, while driving, etc…
RB: Not really. I kind of listen for funny patterns in conversations with non-comedians a lot of times, and that will make me jot a note or turn it into a bit. I’ll be riffing with non-comedian friends and something funny just comes out. That’s how a lot of my material happens. I’m almost afraid to write sometimes. I’m just too… I just get so carried away. I’m afraid I won’t stop or something. Isn’t that weird? Sometimes I dream I’m just typing and typing and typing, or that words are just rooooooooooolling out of my mouth. I love that feeling.
I can say this, that my favorite time is when a joke is about 75% of the way there. It’s good, and you know it’s good, and you just… it’s just such an exciting feeling to have it taking shape over the course of a few weeks. It’s like dating someone new — you’re all excited, but you’re also unsure. You’re almost afraid for it and insecure for it. But it’s so great when it just comes out right one time on stage. That’s what happens to me a lot — I’ll be on-stage and the joke will just arrange itself in response to… the need to give it structure or tangibility for a crowd.
NT: Do you tend to take untested material to the stage, or do you first bounce it off others, looking for reactions from friends/family?
RB: Good question. I’ll… usually bounce it a bit. I’m not afraid to tell a stand-up joke on the phone to a friend, or to my parents, or… hell, I’ve done stand-up at a dinner party. I pride myself on being kind of shameless. That’s part of the Vaudeville thing. I guess I feel like people look at you and think it’s kind of cool what you do, and if they’re not going to see a show soon, hell, I’ll do a bit for ’em.
But I’ll drop a brand-new joke into a fairly important showcase. I will. And I always workshop and open-mike a lot. That’s just my nature. I like having roughed-out ideas on a note card and trying ’em out. That may be when I’m happiest. And the thing about being in comedy clubs is I’ve seen some real greats with notes, and for me that’s a treat. I’ve seen Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock both do that — actually bring up notes just like an open-miker or a show-caser. To me that’s fun. I like to see the journey. So yeah, I’ll work stuff out right on stage. Some of my best material has taken shape that way.
NT: In closing, any exciting plans for the future?
RB: Just to gnaw away at the scene in LA and spread the gospel of me. (Did I just say that?) Oh, and all the other usual human stuff — I’d like to avoid pain and death and sorrow and heartbreak and cynicism and find adoration and wealth and spiritual calm and solace and good hamburgers. Is that too much to ask?