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Ramy Youssef, Taylor Tomlinson and the Stand-Up Roundtable

Ramy Youssef, Taylor Tomlinson and the Stand-Up Roundtable

Ramy Youssef, Taylor Tomlinson and the Stand-Up Roundtable

The six comedians who gathered for THR’s first Stand-Up Emmy Roundtable insist they don’t worry about their comedy being fact-checked in this moment. Sure, the sextet — Mike Birbiglia, Alex Edelman, Jacqueline Novak, Jenny Slate, Taylor Tomlinson and Ramy Youssef — read TheNew Yorker profile of Hasan Minhaj from last September that said he exaggerated or made up stories for effect in his specials. But several present suggest the hullabaloo was at best confusing and at worst absurd. “It speaks to a massive integrity void in our society that we look at entertainers and stand-ups the way that we do,” says Youssef. “A politician talks, and the [common person] is like, ‘Yeah, he’s probably lying,’ and then they’re like, ‘But this comedian!’ ” The hourlong conversation at The Georgian Hotel moved beyond emotional truths, of course, as the funnymen and women got deadly serious about their deepest fears, their evolving bucket lists and their complicated impulses to make comedy out of tragedy.

You’re standing onstage and you look out at the audience. Describe the audience member that you dread the most.

JACQUELINE NOVAK A man! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

MIKE BIRBIGLIA It depends on the joke, because if you tell a joke that is fundamentally crossing a line of some sort … Like, I have a joke in my new hour where I say, “I love my daughter so much. I do not like her friends.” I go, “I don’t know if you’ve met any 8-year-olds you’re not related to, but this is an insufferable bunch. When I’m with her friends, it makes me really not understand pedophilia.” And it’s a joke.

ALEX EDELMAN Obviously it’s a joke.

NOVAK It’s amazing.

BIRBIGLIA But if an audience does not laugh, I go, “Oh no, this has become not a joke.”

RAMY YOUSSEF I thought you were going to say you didn’t want to see an 8-year-old in the crowd.

EDELMAN I thought you were going to say you don’t want to see a pedophile in the crowd.

NOVAK But so many people have that look.

BIRBIGLIA Oh my God.

Who do the rest of you dread seeing in the audience?

NOVAK The figure in the joke.

TAYLOR TOMLINSON I think anybody you know is a really good answer. I’ve had people from high school come and sit in the front row, and you’re like, “No, please not there.”

NOVAK Why did they do that?

EDELMAN They think they’re supporting you.

TOMLINSON They do, and they are, and we appreciate it. But I’m just like, “Sit halfway back, right when the darkness starts.” And any folded pair of arms in the front row, no matter who they’re attached to, you’re kind of like (winces), “Let’s unfold those over the course of the night.”

BIRBIGLIA People you know are not who you want in a stand-up comedy audience. Jacqueline and I toured together, and we always compared it to being an exotic dancer or a stripper. It’s like, you don’t really want your friends to be there when you’re stripping.

JENNY SLATE Your non-comedy friends?

BIRBIGLIA Your non-stripping friends.

EDELMAN Maybe they tip more, though.

Mike Birbiglia; Styled by Rima Vaidila. Brooks Brothers suit; Zegna sweater. Grooming by Fabiola.

Photographed by Beau Grealy

Jacqueline, did I read that you check the names of who’s there each night? That sounds risky….

NOVAK Not every night. But the night before opening my show at Cherry Lane, I was very nervous and I started looking at the names, the ticket sales. Like, literally, I’m a log-in girl. I like to get into the backend and see it all alive.

EDELMAN That’s scarier to me.

NOVAK And I just went through names I didn’t know. I remember one, [in a dramatic voice] Laura Breath.

SLATE Is that a real name?!

NOVAK And I just sat there with John Early, who was directing it, and I was like, “Laura Breath. Who is that? Where is she?”

BIRBIGLIA Let this be a warning to all future comedy audience members: We’re watching you!

Does anyone else check to see who’s coming?

SLATE I would never look at the list. Way too scared.

NOVAK I swear I did it one night. One night!

TOMLINSON I mean, I don’t have famous people coming to my shows. I think I’m the only person here who hasn’t met Taylor Swift…

NOVAK The silence is humiliating.

How do you all define a bad show? There have got to be some memorable disasters in this bunch.

YOUSSEF For me, it just feels like not connecting with the people who were there. So, if I’m just saying things I could have said to myself in my hotel room, it’s a pretty bad show. I feel like I didn’t give people what they needed because I wasn’t able to get present enough. I’ve gotten to a point where if I’m not ready to fully be myself, I’ll just stay home.

EDELMAN At the Comedy Cellar, sometimes a bad show is a show where you fucking crush. You go up there and destroy, people are like, “Great set,” and you’re like, “No, I wanted to try new stuff.” But I tried a half-new joke and it didn’t work and I lost faith, so I was like, “Well, here’s 15 minutes of stuff that I know is going to do well.” It’s like a figure skating routine — success is not based on what they land but on what they said they’d do ahead of time and whether or not they met it.

A lot of you have talked openly about your embrace of therapy. I’m curious, what catharsis do you get from stand-up that therapy doesn’t supply? Taylor?

TOMLINSON Oh my gosh, I was just sitting here going, “I’m so glad I didn’t tackle this bad show question,” because Ramy and Alex had these very artistic answers and I was thinking, “acoustics are pretty important, a high ceiling is a nightmare.”

NOVAK I mean, you’re not wrong.

TOMLINSON “When you crush, it can be a bad show”?! I was like (feigns horror), “Oh no!” (Laughter.)

NOVAK “When you’re at the Comedy Cellar …” Nope, not passed. [Editor’s note: Being passed means, among other things, that you get paid to perform at the club.]

EDELMAN You can’t be passed without auditioning!

BIRBIGLIA Wait (turns to Novak), can I tell the actual story of this?

NOVAK What is it?

BIRBIGLIA I got the [Comedy Cellar] owner to come to your show. Loved it. I said, “Can she call in avails to the club?” “Absolutely. Anytime. I think she’s hilarious.” You never did.

NOVAK No! I remember you said, “I sent him to the show and he liked it.”

BIRBIGLIA No, loved it.

NOVAK And said, like, “Those jokes will work at the club.”

BIRBIGLIA Passed. Call in!

EDELMAN You have a winning lottery ticket you haven’t cashed yet.

NOVAK Holy shit.

SLATE I haven’t done it. Too afraid.

NOVAK I am, too.

Jenny Slate; Anna Quan jacket; Collina Strada dress; No 6 pants, Catbird jewelry. Hair by Ryan Richman; makeup by Kirin Bhatty.

Photographed by Beau Grealy

What are you afraid of?

SLATE I can be overly concerned with having to do what’s important to me within an environment that feels set. And sometimes — and I’m not saying this is necessarily true and it can sound like a cop-out — but if something feels old-school male …

NOVAK Mm-hm.

SLATE And I’m not saying everybody that goes there is that way, but there is a part of me that’s like, “I reserve the right to say this is not important to me.” I just want a stage where, for me, I can get past the things that separate me from other people. Which is also, by the way, why I go to therapy. To try to achieve intimacy, which also means not hating parts of myself. If you think part of yourself is essentially bad, you’ll probably hide it, which means that then you can’t be truly intimate. And everyone does whatever we’re doing for different reasons, but for me, I’m like, I’m sensitive. I already feel bad enough. It’s not because I’m undeveloped, it’s just the kind of mammal I am. And I just don’t want to go into a legendary place and feel like I’m not good enough. But also, for real, I can’t do less than a 48-minute set. (Laughter.)

NOVAK Totally!

SLATE I could never audition for the comedy festivals or whatever because they’re like, “Bring five minutes.” It would just be like, “I don’t have that for you. It’s just not what I’m like; I’m a long-distance runner on this one.” And I don’t want to be in plays, but I do want to stand onstage and talk for a long time.

NOVAK Maybe that’s why I didn’t internalize the [Comedy Cellar] opportunity. Because when you guys talk about giving 15 minutes that you know works, I’m like, “Tell me about that 15 minutes.” I’m like 46 to lure them in, 47th minute, you got them. Boom.

SLATE The people I’ve done comedy with for years will be like, “No, Jenny, you can do 15 minutes. You just don’t.” And it’s like, “Yeah, but it feels like if I do this one [bit], then I’m not going to be able to go to sleep for three days unless I do that one [bit]. But if I do that one, then I have to do the other one.” So, I don’t know, maybe I have OCD.

Taylor, you’ve said that audiences weren’t as interested in hearing you tackle darker subject matter like your mother dying when you were younger. How did you gauge that and when did it shift?

TOMLINSON I just started really young, so watching a 19-year-old do stand-up at all is very uncomfortable — people are already scared for you and nervous about the show. So, I don’t think I had the maturity as a performer to pull those jokes off. It took a few years of performing anywhere and everywhere you could.

Taylor Tomlinson; Styled by Tara Swennen. Halo jumpsuit; Electric Picks, Melinda Maria, 8 Other Reasons jewelry. Hair by Kiki Heitkotter; makeup by Amber Dreadon.

Photographed by Beau Grealy

How do you know when it’s not working?

TOMLINSON People aren’t laughing, and it’s devastating. It’s what I would call a bad show. For other people, it’s when people are laughing too much and you’re like, “None of this is new!” (Laughter.) No, it’s when people are sad and uncomfortable and looking at you, like, “Are you almost done?” What’s so great about stand-up is that you know pretty quickly if something does or doesn’t work.

Are there subjects that the rest of you have felt audiences won’t go to with you?

NOVAK Yeah. But Birbigs said something to me, like, “There’s your agenda and then the audience’s agenda or the booker’s agenda, work your agenda.” For me, that meant, I’m going to put [my show] up in New York, but [I need to work it out first and so] I’m doing it at The Juke Box in Peoria and I know it’s not going to [land well.] I mean, some people might find it interesting, but I’m planting my feet and saying the words and I’m maybe burning my chance in the room. Or I did it at The Punch Line in Philly and my boyfriend, we talk about it now, and he’s like, “Yeah, the way you went up in Philly and just bombed, and it was great because you had to do the thing you did.” I was like, “I bombed?” I was always like, “What do you mean? I stood up there doing my art.”

BIRBIGLIA Mm-hm.

NOVAK It was almost delusion, required delusion. But this phrase, “my agenda,” really helped me almost not listen to the crowd, and it was huge for me. “My agenda. Doesn’t matter, tonight, everyone in this room might hate me, this club will never hire me again.” And I had a lot of bad nights before [her run at the Cherry Lane Theatre], nights where I had to just stand there and say my words and get them in my head.

For all of you, what felt, at the time, like the riskiest bit?

BIRBIGLIA I did a show called The New One. It was on Netflix, and it was about all the reasons I never wanted to have a child and about how I had a child and all the ways that I was right and then I was wrong. It’s an emotional turn, and there’s a moment where I say, “At my darkest moments, I thought, I get why dads leave.” (Laughter.) See, comedians laugh at that. Humans don’t. There were times early in the process of that joke where the audience felt almost betrayed by the show — that I led them down a comedic path and then all of a sudden I’m essentially [making] my deepest, darkest, dark-night-of-the-soul confession. I even had a prominent reviewer say, “He lost me when he said he gets why dads leave.”

NOVAK I smiled when you said that because I’m like, “That’s cool, Mike.” I’m really proud of you for losing him because you know how to get him back.

SLATE Because you have to see, right? I had the thing, after I had my baby, where I was trying to talk about the changes in my body, but I didn’t want it to sound cliché — like “after the baby” body material. But also, there was some stuff that really weirded me out about my own body and it was really hard to do the material because it was uncomfortable. Sometimes I’d do it and it would hit the right spot, and sometimes it would just seem like I didn’t like myself and I was asking people to be like, “Yeah, you’re ugly and your body sucks as well.” I couldn’t figure it out. Eventually, I gave up and I really regret it now. But I just didn’t want that feeling of — the word that comes to mind for me is “abomination.” “She made us eat shit with her. We thought we were invited to a party with cake and she shat and she made us eat her fucking shit.” It’s like, “Oh my God, I just wanted to talk about how my nipples used to be for sex and now they’re not.”

BIRBIGLIA That’s why comedians like spending time with other comedians. It took comedian friends saying to me, like, “No, no, go toward that, say the thing that’s really deep in your subconscious.” Audiences will be like, “Yeah, easy on that.”

YOUSSEF But then, on the other end of figuring out the joke, the audience is so happy that you did. But, yeah, there’s that middle, like growing your hair out, where it’s just a little weird.

Is there a clear third rail for each of you?

TOMLINSON I don’t do jokes about people in my family or friends of mine or people I’m dating without running it past them. Because I just don’t think it’s worth destroying your relationships for 90 seconds. When I was 21, I was like, “Burn it all down to be a legend.” But then you get older and you’re like, “Oh, I’m alone.”

YOUSSEF I always have to be dragging myself into it if I’m talking about somebody else. It’s never really about anyone other than myself, and I think that’s kind of the solo act of it. But I don’t know, none of this is that risky.

EDELMAN It’s also tricky because all the power is in the third rail. Some comics are like, “There are all these things you can’t talk about anymore,” and it’s actually more exciting. Comedy is about the buildup and release of tension, and you have free tension.

Alex Edelman; Styled by Mark Holmes. Paul Smith suit, polo. Grooming by Jenna Nelson.

Photographed by Beau Grealy

Alex, after October 7, you called one of your producers and asked if you should just cancel the rest of your shows because, you said, “Who can dance in the slaughterhouse?” Did it actually feel that way when you went back onstage?

EDELMAN It was a complicated moment, and it remains a complicated moment. (To Youssef) We can edit this out if you want, but Ramy was one of the first people to call me and we had a really amazing, really fulsome, helpful-for-me conversation, and I really appreciated that. It was hard and it’s made me more mindful of the fact that it’s still hard. After a while you get inured to human suffering, because that’s the way that thing works, but I’ve been constantly reminded not to, which has made it difficult getting onstage. I had a conversation with Mike after, where I was like, “What do you do? Do you change the show?” And I thought that the best thing to do is make the show conversant with the moment that we’re living in but still an escape from it. But it makes me sad. (Edelman gets briefly emotional) So, it’s really tough, but at some point going onstage and talking about not that feels like a real problem. And I’m glad we didn’t cancel the shows. Right before I went onstage in San Francisco for that first show after October 7, I was standing in the back of the room, and I just saw a thousand people on their phones watching a war and I was like, “OK, maybe [doing this show] is a better thing to do than not. At least it’s getting people away from a war for an hour and a half.” But I wrestled with whether or not this is right all the way through, and I put some new lines in to talk about this feeling.

Ramy Youssef; Styled by Ilaria Urbinati. Todd Snyder jacket; vintage shirt; Cotton Citizen tee; King & Tuckfield pants; London Sock Co socks; Gucci shoes; his own hat and glasses. Grooming by Anna Bernabe.

Photographed by Beau Grealy

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Ramy, you were also doing shows at the time, and you spent the first few minutes of each talking about how you weren’t sure you should be there. What did you learn about yourself and your audience in those performances?

YOUSSEF My audience has always been open for these conversations, and it’s why I’ve never felt stand-up is actually that risky — I’ve kind of always been in conversation with an audience that has a really global perspective about tragedy and suffering. And there is a way to go at it that leads with connecting hearts, because the news is very much talking heads, and, literally, it’s mental and what we get to do gets to be emotional. So, it’s very liberating. And anytime anything gets too factual or even too overtly historical, I’m just like, “This stopped being comedy.”

EDELMAN Mm-hm.

YOUSSEF And it’s interesting because my special is much different than what I thought it was going to be. I probably left 40 minutes of other material on the table because I felt like, “If I’m actually present with the moment and with the audience, there’s something totally different that they should be hearing.” And we’ve talked about this, but I went and saw Alex’s show, and he has a diverse audience but also a really Jewish audience.

EDELMAN What?! (Laughs.)

YOUSSEF That was really fun for me because there’d be a bunch of Orthodox Jews who were like, “Yo, dude, I’ve seen your show,” because we pray a lot on my show [Hulu’s Ramy] and Orthodox Jews like praying.

EDELMAN Three times a day, they’re obsessed.

YOUSSEF They’re like, “Wait, we do a version of that.” But then the same thing with my audience, obviously there are a lot of people who are Muslim. So, I’ve always felt that there is a space to have where you’re talking to people who need to hear a specific thing they can’t hear somewhere else and also challenging them to hear something that they might not want to hear and getting to play with that. That is what’s fun about it, and it’s the very little thing that we can do. I constantly contend with how important that piece is. And a lot of the language around that can feel a little hard for me to stomach when there are people who really put themselves on the line to try and help the world, because I’m always going for the joke. So, the space I want to have in the conversation is really small. Like, really small. I want to be like the doorman, letting people into a room where there are actual interesting things happening.

There’s a big conversation around truth in this moment. Do you worry about being fact-checked?

BIRBIGLIA After the Hasan article came out in The New Yorker, I got a lot of text messages that said, “I hope you jumped through that second-story window,” referencing a show I did many years ago where I jumped through a second-story window.

EDELMAN I heard it was a first-story window. (Laughs.)

BIRBIGLIA I don’t know about you guys, but that was definitely something people wanted to talk to me about a lot after that piece. And I love Hasan, and I think the intent of that writer remains very nebulous in why they’d write that. It’s very confusing to me.

YOUSSEF Yeah, it’s not a thing to fact-check. I don’t want to break anyone’s heart.

BIRBIGLIA It’s not something people do. I think you have a sense of what level of truth the person is telling and you take a guess and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.

YOUSSEF Of course.

SLATE It’s also really interesting in terms of what’s true to you. I thought a lot about this when that article came out because I was like, “Everything in my special is true, but a lot of it also is about my perception.” I didn’t hear what the people who decided to send me an audition to be Pennywise actually thought when they did that. I just showed how confounded I felt but also humiliated.

YOUSSEF It’s all about the how, though. And I have to say this, because we’re in this comedy thing: The first-ever one-person show I saw was Jenny’s at UCB. It literally made me go, “I want to do that.” I was 17 or 18.

ALL Aw.

YOUSSEF I just loved how you did it and it was all about that raw energy. And I think that’s all that this is. So, to fact-check it is so weird because I think it speaks to a larger integrity problem. We have a spiritual void, as a society, because for the common person, a politician talks and they’re like, “Yeah, he’s probably lying.” But then they’re like, “But this comedian!” So, I don’t care. I don’t care where Mike jumped from. I don’t care if Alex actually went to a meeting [of white nationalists, which is the premise of his show]. It doesn’t matter because it’s all about what the approach is and the how and why you’re approaching it that way. And, at the end of the day, there really is nothing funnier than a fart joke, and that should tell you something about this whole art form.

SLATE I agree. There’s nothing funnier than a fart joke.

YOUSSEF Like, it’s proven. The best part of any of our specials would be if we shit our pants, it would be the funniest thing.

ALL (Nod heads in agreement.)

Jenny referenced Pennywise, so I’m curious, do you feel Hollywood knows what to do with all of you?

BIRBIGLIA I think a hard-core “no” over here. (Laughs.)

Early on, you got a CBS pilot, which I’m guessing was the thing you thought you wanted?

BIRBIGLIA In my 20s, I just wanted to be a star. Then, at 30, I was given my own sitcom at CBS, and they shot the pilot and Bob Odenkirk played my brother and Nick Kroll played my cousin and it was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” And then by the time it went through the factory that is the studios and networks, it just wasn’t my life, it wasn’t my creative vision and it didn’t get picked up to air. And thank God. I went back to New York, I mounted [his first comedy show] Sleepwalk With Me. Nathan Lane put his name and reputation behind it, and it changed my life.

EDELMAN And then you did that for us, too. [Birbiglia produces Edelman’s and Novak’s shows.]

YOUSSEF Did you want to do a late night show, Taylor?

TOMLINSON No, I only ever wanted to tour theaters. I took After Midnight because they were like, “We film Monday through Wednesday, so you can tour on the weekends.” And once you’re on tour by yourself, you don’t see other comedians much, so I was like, “Oh, you can just play around with other comedians on TV for half the week? That sounds great.”

What did the rest of you come into this business thinking you wanted, and how has it changed?

EDELMAN I always wanted to be seen. There’s a romance in being seen. And longform [comedy] so works for me because I require a good amount of explanation. People are like, “What are you?” (Laughs.) And I’m like, “Here, let me just talk for an hour and then maybe you’ll see.”

NOVAK The brass ring for me was an hour special on HBO like Chris Rock. I mean, that was it — the center of my vision board. And not that it’s a constant question of, “OK, if I died tomorrow,” but [now, having put out an hour,] I’d feel a lot better dying tomorrow than I would’ve felt five years ago. It’s like, “OK, we got one on the fucking books.”

Jacqueline Novak; Tibi shirt, shorts; YSL shoes. Hair by Greg Lennon; makeup by Nick Lennon.

Photographed by Beau Grealy

What’s left on everyone else’s bucket list?

TOMLINSON This isn’t an answer, but (to Youssef) it was cool to see you on SNL. You were so good.

YOUSSEF Thank you. It was surreal.

BIRBIGLIA That’s Taylor’s bucket list, to see Ramy on SNL.

TOMLINSON And I can die now.

NOVAK Mine is to see Jenny at the Comedy Cellar.

EDELMAN Telling setup-punchline jokes.

NOVAK You know I’m making a joke, right? It’s not like I missed the point deeply.

SLATE I do. Oh yeah.

TOMLINSON Was that a bucket list for you, Ramy?

YOUSSEF Yeah, SNL is still SNL.

EDELMAN That was one of the first things I thought, hosting SNL. I almost was like (to Slate), “What’s being on SNL like?”

SLATE That probably was my bucket list. It’s weird to get the bucket list and then be like, “Oh, I guess I’m not sure it was what I wanted.” But, yeah, if I hadn’t been on it, I’d be trying to be on it still. And when I watch it, I still feel magical about it.

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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