Sean Donnelly is a New York comic that is not as tough as he looks. But he's just as funny and equally nice. Recently, he's made waves all over basic cable from closing out an episode of Conan to taking on Comedy Central's Half Hour. That's just the beginning. Working hard for the past nine years, Donnelly has groomed his stand up from the unsure but confident mess of a new comic to become a seasoned vet on a war path to stardom. He has a new album, Manual Labor Face, that just released. I recently got the chance to chat with Donnelly about his growing career, thoughts on comedy and dealing with tough crowds.
I’m very happy for you, actually, I saw you on Conan this week and then I realized that you have a half hour [out] on Comedy Central.
It’s pretty nuts. It’s been a busy week, man.
Are you getting so much adoration and praise from everybody?
Yeah, tons of it. It feels great. But I also feel like I’m clogging everybody’s news feeds because I know a lot of people on Facebook. [laughs] So I know there’s some people out there like “enough of this you jerk! Relax! Enough of this kid.” I get a ton of it and they’ve been really, really nice. I’ll tell you, I just had somebody negative tweet at me about the Conan thing and they created their own account to do it. They have one tweet and it’s to shit on me.
That’s the kind of power you have right now. You’re that level of comedian that you’re able to get somebody to make their own account and basically talk smack about you.
I never had that before really. I never had people go to the trouble of signing up for Twitter just to negatively tweet at me.
Does it make you feel like you’re at a higher level than you already are?
It made me feel like crap for a second because I’m a sensitive comic and we take everything seriously. We take any insults like that to truth. And then it made me get defensive and want to write back “why don’t you tell me who you are so I can kick your ass?” But I’m not a really tough guy so I don’t know why I was saying that. And then I thought “Wow, I can’t believe someone actually created an account.” The third step was me going “I guess people know who I am. I don’t know who this guy is but people are creating accounts to neg me for –“Is that what the kids say? He’s negging me.
I think that’s what they say. Why don’t you tweet out a link to your album so that that person has to buy your album and talk negatively about that too?
Yeah right, exactly. [laughs].
Speaking of Manual Labor Face, how long have you been working on that?
The album was tapped in a weekend. And I think it was in May or June. How long have I worked on the material? That material was from the last six years. It’s jokes that have been written in the past year and jokes that go all the way back to like five or six years ago. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve never put anything out like this before so it’s a lot of stuff from most of the time I’ve been doing comedy. I’ve been doing comedy for nine years so I guess you can say all nine years has been leading up to what this was.
Nine years. Was comedy the first think you ever wanted to do?
I’ve always loved comedy. I’ve loved comedy from when I was a kid. I never had the guts to do it. Then, when I got older – I started when I was like 28 so I just got the courage to do it. I was like “I’m going to give this a year. I’m going to see how it goes.” My biggest fear was being the guy who wasn’t funny but was being delusional thinking he was the greatest at comedy and nobody was telling him. So I gave myself a year and if it gets any better, I’ll keep going. The rub on that one is after the first year I was like “Oh, I’ve gotten better. I’m going to keep going.” But I’m nine years in now. If I went back and saw myself when I was two years in, I would’ve quit.
As you go, you know more and more stuff. So I kind of went into it with a thing like – I grew up on comedy, I was obsessed with comedy for a long, long time. I always wanted to try it but didn’t have the guts to do it and then, when I got it, I just kept going. I’m like “Oh, I’ll keep going with it if it goes well.” So I kept going and going and I got it this far. I hadn’t gotten to the part of me putting out an album or having a special. I didn’t think that was going to happen. I think that’s just me doubting myself. But I’m so glad…I’m over the moon that it happened.
You said that it was you doubting yourself a little bit. During your Conan set, you kind of did what he does. You kind of self-deprecated yourself for the sake of a joke. Is that part of your normal comedy routine?
Yeah that’s a big part of it; I’m very self-deprecating. If you come to a live show, I do crowd work. And the self-deprecating stuff works out perfectly because – not to get too technical about it – basically if I make fun of somebody, it’s on an even playground because two minutes before, I just made fun of myself. I try to be as inclusive as possible with that. I think it’s not as bad if I say something about a guy in the front row as long as I’m kind of joining in. I’m like “Hey I’m no ivory tower over here. I got problems too.” And I describe those. The self-deprecating thing is probably a huge part of me; definitely a huge part of the album and a huge part of my comedy. I don’t know if it’ll keep going like that. It’s part of me. That’s how I am in everyday life. It’s just kind of an amped up version of that.
With your album, I’m looking at the album cover right now, does it have any sort of overarching theme? Just, like, working in jobs and that in tandem working with comedy? Or is it your life cycle?
The comedy is supposed to be “Hey, this is a guy you want to have a beer with.” I think that’s how it comes off and that’s what people have told me before – I’m not trying to be too high and mighty here. Basically, the album cover is supposed to come from a place of no matter what or where, I could be in a tuxedo and I still look like I should be working construction or working electrical union. You know what I’m talking about? That’s the whole idea of it. I think that also, now that you put it that way, comedy is like that. I wanted it to come off as conversational as possible. I wanted it to be like we’re hanging out. There definitely is an arc of -- not an arc of my life but an arc of the whole vibe of comedy should be [as fun as possible].
You like having fun on stage. And you seem very comfortable actually. Are you able to control the ebb and flow of the crowds’ laughter or do you find that a difficult strange process with each different set of audiences? (I restated my question) [If they’re kind of a tough crowd, are you able to mold yourself into their types of feelings?]
I think what happens is you always try. You always try and adapt to whatever’s going along in the room. What happens to me is if they’re not into the first bit of something, you kind of duck and move a little bit in your mind and say this’ll work and you try this and you try something else, you talk to somebody in the front, you go for a joke you don’t really do. You’re always trying to MacGyver the situation as much as you can if you run into a really tough audience. I’m a guy who believes there are…there’s some comics who don’t believe there are bad audiences and I don’t think that’s true. I don’t want to try to get delusional where I’m saying if only you bomb and everyone else on the show does well, then they’re a terrible audience; that’s just ridiculous. I’ve seen firsthand a whole show of comics just go up there and bomb bomb bomb and they’re professional comics. If that happens, it’s not on those comics. It’s not that the five comics on this showcase show happen to all have a bad night at once. I think what happens is the selective subconscious of things that happen to some crowds where they decide “we’re just not into this.” They’re almost talking telepathically, not literally, but it’s like they almost decided vibe wise “Nah, we’re going to be tight. We’re going to make them work for it and we’re not going to give up too much.” I think that does happen. But if it does happen, what I think you do is try to adapt. You do your time and you battle through it. You do your best in the situation you’re given.
Because of those [tough] audiences, I think I spent a lot of my comedy time thinking coming up in New York, it can be a lot of tough audiences. So I spent a lot of time thinking “Oh it’s New York City and I’m going to win you over.” Now I realize, with the more road stuff I’ve done, most people are coming into a show to have a good time. If you think of it that way…if you think of it like “They’re on my side already and I’m going to keep doing fine, it does get easier in my brain. It does get easier to deal with tough crowds. [You realize] there are some people here to have a good time. You point out the obvious. If they’re tight, you point that out. There’s still tricks you can do to get them on your side. At the end of the day, if they don’t like you, they don’t like you. I’m doing it long enough where I’m okay with the fact that they’re like “We hate this guy.” But at least I tried. It’s one of those kind of things.
And you’re in one of the toughest markets for comedy in the entire world. With being in New York, are you able to get out every single week and do a show and make a living off of this?
Yeah. I’m able to do a bunch of spots in the city. I go up every night. I’ll go up multiple times if I can. Some of the clubs that I work, I’m able to make a living off of clubs spots and things. Not a hundred percent living; I think road stuff does that as well. In New York, you do so many spots that you can make a living off of it. I’ll go up every night of the week if I can. Lately, I’m trying to take one day off a week. You can go up multiple times in a week if need be. And if you’re taking it seriously, that’s kind of what you do. Even if you’re at an open mic club and you’re filling in at an open mic at every night of the week. Because it’s available, that’s why it’s so great there because, even if it can be rough sometimes, it’s available and you’re able to get up on stage. It’s productive.
How often are you writing?
The way I do it is I’ll come up with ideas and I’ll usually…I’m not a page to stage kind of guy. I’ll write it down the way it’s done. Usually I come up with an idea, I say it on stage and it gets a reaction. I work off of that and then I might add to it off stage and try something else. It’s trial and error over and over again. I don’t write as much new as I’d like. I wish I was a hustler and writing every day. But I’ll try and come up with a couple of new things a month. A lot of the time, I’ll get rid of something or -- if it hasn’t been working a lot, obviously you get rid of it – if I’m not having fun saying something, I’ll forget about it or I’ll use it down the road. I try to be more conservative about it if I don’t write as much as I should. I should be doing new every single day.
You just mentioned the word conservative, speaking of that, are the New York crowds a little bit more open to diversity when it comes to comedy? Are they open to weirder stuff?
I think you can get away with a lot more in New York. A lot of the times, you don’t have as many taboos. They can get offended, sure. I have some things that are offensive. I’m not an uber offensive comic so I don’t really run into it as much. Some things I do. I have a couple jokes that involve…I don’t want to say it. But it basically one that involves abortion but it’s not what you think. I’m comparing White Castle to abortion. You say the word abortion and people get offended. It happened before. I have a joke now that involves amber alerts. Of you say certain phrases, they can get uptight in New York. On the whole, they’re open to different kind of stuff; weirder stuff, darker stuff. You can surprise yourself. They’re really open minded and they’re into whatever.
Out of all of that, I’m pretty sure I’m more offended that you mentioned White Castle.
[laughs] Me too. I’m offended I mentioned that too. I hate it.