Andy Haynes on Midnight Run, 9/11 jokes and getting heckled during his own comedy special

Andy Haynes is a veteran of several standup scenes, moving from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, then from New York to Los Angeles, cultivating his sharp joke-telling style and putting in strong appearances on Conan and the Comedy Central Half Hour. Haynes is also known for his Midnight Run comedy showcase, which gets comedians unreasonably stoned and then lets them sort through the weirdness onstage. A natural fit for the Sexpot Comedy brand, Haynes is in town this week to bring his Midnight Run showcase to an appreciative and equally stoned Denver audience. In advance of the April 17 date, Westword talked with Haynes about Midnight Run, 9/11 jokes and getting heckled.

See also: Chris Fairbanks on Sexpot Comedy, suicidal civil engineers and the Tosh controversy

Westword: Are you doing any other shows while you're in town besides Sexpot?

Andy Haynes: No, it's just a one-nighter, which is too bad because I love Denver. I wish that I had a couple more gigs in town. I was going to stay all weekend, but I'm booked somewhere else the next night, out of town. Unfortunately, I'll have to fit all my brain-damaging into one evening, rather than have a whole Denver weekend to damage my brain.

So, is this a special road installment of the Midnight Run showcase you've been running in L.A. for a while now -- or do they just have the same name?

No, it's a road installment. I started doing it more on the road than in L.A., though we will be doing a show on the 20th in L.A. because of the holiday or whatever. I kinda like to do it more at festivals. I did it at Riot L.A. and Sketchfest, then at South by Southwest. I'm doing it at Sexpot, there's that 4/20 show, and after that it'll be at Bridgetown.

Have you had any comics react adversely to getting too stoned before performing? The reactions in Denver might be less dramatic because being too high is basically a default mode for a lot of the comics here.

Yeah, when we started the show -- and it's kind of still run this way -- it's more fun to get someone who's not a regular stoner to do it. It's even more fun to get someone who never smokes weed, that's the best. When I started the show in New York, and there were a couple of people -- and we still occasionally get them -- who would smoke weed for the very first time ever before going up. At the Riot L.A. show, Whitmer Thomas, who's part of this group called Power Violence, he went up after smoking weed for the first time and tried to do standup. That's the best.

I've had a couple people react badly. One person looked like they were going to faint; I've had people ask to get off stage early. Last year when we did it on 4/20 in Portland at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and I was just about to put Andrew Orvedahl onstage, he ran up to me panicking and said, "I can't do it." I think Adam Cayton-Holland had to walk him around the block a couple times to calm him down. They were gone for hours. Orvedahl kind of went to the dark side but I was too involved with the show to take care of him. That's probably the most dramatic response to the show I've seen.

That's funny. Orvedahl's one of the few Denver guys who wouldn't take to that format like a duck to water. That's no way to represent Denver.

Yeah, he's not a big pothead, which is part of the goal. You want those people that aren't super comfortable with it. There's a few people that are regular stoners, and being high makes them better. Rory Scovel, who just did Sexpot, for example, tries to do the show whenever he's in town. He's just phenomenal in that environment. There's two different caveats that change the vibe of the show, which are: How stoned is the audience and also how stoned are the comics? I try to make sure we don't get, like, brain-dead, before the show really happens. I try really hard to keep the energy up with the comics and the audience. Sometimes I have to do like audience coaching -- I'll go in and tell them, "Hey guys, you need to step it up because these comics are freaking out back here." Keep reading for more from Andy Haynes.

What about your personal habits? I know Rory Scovel prefers to get high before every show. Does it effect you much one way or the other?

I don't think it makes a huge difference. I tend to smoke during the day, so I'll have a residual high left when I go up, but it doesn't really change me much at this point. I'm just kind of a stoner.

In my experience, regular-old anxiety can be a much worse impairment than being intoxicated. I guess weed makes some people more anxious, but I think a lot of comics become regular stoners because that's how they relieve that anxiety and be present in the moment.

It's kind of bizarre; I do think it can help a performance, but at the same time a lot of people fall into the habit of just smoking pot and hoping that it will spark something funny if they just wing it. I think you have to be more disciplined than that. I'm part of a newer school of stoner where I'm still pretty on it. I'm organized, I make lots of lists; for me it's important that I'm still the guy who gets shit done. I do like being in my own world a bit when I'm performing because then the audience has to come to me.

The point of the Midnight Run show is basically to just pull the rug out from under these comics because you get these spontaneous and special reactions that you wouldn't get with other standup sets. Most likely, the comics are going to be pretty uncomfortable. They can't throw up their defenses or really rely on their act, so they have to be vulnerable. Most of my audiences are 420-friendly if that's what you want to call it -- they're stoners -- so they are simpatico. It's like truth serum. I'll see people go up and try to tell a joke but it's just not the right time to tell a joke, and they'll scramble and start breaking down and telling everyone their deepest secrets. One guy said, "I'm such a fraud."

For comics, it's a reason to watch your friends again. I don't mean to paraphrase Bill Hicks, but I'm gonna: Your act is what you do after you're done; it should be like your last resort. I like crafting a good joke, but it's much more fun to have something spontaneous that you can't recreate.

I read something about you getting heckled during your Comedy Central Half Hour? What happened there?

Yeah, I was just about to finish, and I have this joke about 9/11. There was a guy in the crowd who started booing and I thought, "Well, that's fine; people don't like joking about 9/11." So I kept going and he kept booing, so I asked him, "What are you mad about?" and he said, "I already saw this joke on YouTube."

Oh, man, so he was just an entitled comedy nerd? Not standing on any sort of principle?

Yeah! It's YouTube! Not late night or anything. I don't have control over what gets posted. So he decided to boo and then got kicked out and I closed on a different joke. So it was a little bit of a bummer, but it is a good story. I'm happy with the way they edited the special together.

So, clearly they didn't leave any heckler footage in the special.

No. I almost wish they would have, though. It was kind of funny. Keep reading for more from Andy Haynes. I'd still watch it. I like to see the messy side of live performance. I like the awkwardness of it. Kristen Schaal's special was pretty weird, but it seemed like that was more arch and deliberate.

Yeah, she's doing that next-level, variety performer, Andy Kaufman-like anti-comedy. For me, though, I just want to kill. I'm selfish and pretty simple. I want people to talk about my jokes.

I get that. I really just want audiences to like me, or at least acknowledge that I'm very clever. I'm trying to shake the obligatory feeling that I have to earn my time up there through continued laughter.

Exactly. Eventually you do need to get comfortable in silence up there. One of the biggest times of growth for me was when I wasn't really getting the response I wanted, so I just kind of embraced the silence. I was new, I didn't have an act, and I knew that I was capable of writing better jokes than I had. At the same time, it's really important to have the confidence to blow over it. To say, "No, fuck you. This is funny." Sometimes, saying really powerful stuff can come across as anti-comedy, or like they're bombing.

It takes a really good comic to work through an unpalatable premise. Some new guys try to be Stanhope too early and end up just alienating people.

Yeah. I used to try to emulate guys like Stanhope and Bill Hicks, and that's like going zero-to-sixty without a driver's license. That was something I had to learn. I had to learn not to be such an asshole. You can't start out unlikeable when no one knows you. You can't crush people's value systems right away and then expect them to enjoy what you're saying. I think of some of the best guys right now, like, Jerrod Carmichael -- who should definitely come to Denver if he hasn't already, that guy is phenomenal. He has some tough premises that he has to work though, like he'll say, "You know, moms aren't as important as everyone thinks," and then work through that thesis. He doesn't have to worry about silence, though; that guy always crushes.

He has a kind of instant charm that makes him watchable.

Yeah, I'm so jealous of that. I'm not a warm guy... I try to be, but for the most part I come across pretty cold. I seem like a good guy, but not a nice guy.

So, do you have any projects coming up on the horizon or are you more focused on touring right now?

I'm touring a lot, I have an album that I'm going to be releasing very soon. I just finished editing it, I think it'll be coming out sometime June-ish? I still have to do the design and that kind of business. That album is the most substantial thing. I write for a show on TBS called Ground Floor and that'll be picking up again in the next month or so. I'd love to write something of my own, but that requires talent and people liking you, which we already discussed. I gotta work on those things. I also have to stop smoking so much weed, which is getting difficult with this show being such a success.

With Andy Haynes headlining and a lineup featuring Billy Wayne Davis, Noah Gardenswartz, Ian Douglas Terry, local chieftains Nathan Lund and Brent Gill, and, as always, ably hosted by Sexpot's go-to emcee, Jordan Doll, this show is the perfect way to kick off your 4/20 holiday three days early. Doors open at 7 p.m. for an 8 p.m. showtime on Thursday, April 17, at the Oriental Theater. Tickets cost $15 and are available on the Oriental Theater website.

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham