After first getting noticed in the Boston comedy scene while attending grad school, Myq Kaplan rose to prominence for his clever jokes and domination of standup contests. In addition to strong showings on Last Comic Standing and America's Got Talent, Kaplan has performed on late-night staples such as Conan, The Late Show With David Letterman and Comedy Central Presents. A favored guest on today's comedy-podcast circuit, Kaplan makes regular appearances on Keith and the Girl and hosts Hang Out With Me. Kaplan has also released two albums — Vegan Mind Meld and Please Be Seated — and his latest special, Small, Dork, and Handsome, premiered on Netflix in 2014. We caught up with Kaplan — who'll be rotating between both Comedy Works outposts December 14 through 18 to discuss comedy festivals, America's Got Talent, and the anti-vegan bandwagon.
Westword: When you started out, you wrote comedy songs. When did you phase music out of your act, and what do you think it takes to make musical comedy work?
Myq Kaplan: My friend Micah Sherman and I still occasionally write and perform comedy songs, and sometimes we'll begin a set by saying, "Everyone loves music, and everyone loves comedy, so who doesn't love musical comedy? Everyone." Which, of course, isn't literally true, but does represent the suspicion or hesitation that so many folks might experience when they're about to witness musical comedy. In truth, I think it takes the same thing to make musical comedy work as it does to make non-musical comedy work: some combination of talent, work and luck. The first comedy songs I wrote were often just melodic setups that ended with a punchline. Of course, musical comedy can be so much more. Look at Bo Burnham or Reggie Watts or Tim Minchin. And don't just look at them: Listen to them. I recommend both looking and listening, if you can. The point is, standup can just consist of one stationary person telling pre-written jokes into a microphone, or there can be choreography, crowd work, props, PowerPoint, any number of possibilities, and the same is true for musical comedy. It can be innovative. It can be traditional. It can be anything. And like anything in comedy, it works when it's funny.
To the first part of the question, I started phasing music out of my standup act the moment I decided I wanted to do standup as opposed to being a singer-songwriter. The first time I performed at a comedy club, I filled my set with songs, because at the time, I was a musician looking for any opportunity to play my songs. Some of them were funny, so why not a comedy club? I discovered and fell in love with making people laugh with just words in between the songs, so I started playing fewer and shorter songs, and my first open mics as an aspiring standup would usually have me doing about four minutes of jokes and finishing with a quick, one-minute song. When I had enough non-musical material, I stuck with that. I do also still love writing and playing music.
What was your experience with America's Got Talent? Do you think comedians get a fair shake when they share the stage with magicians and acrobats?
In one of the rounds I performed in, I was up against several large dance troupes, multiple magicians, bands, jugglers and a woman who shot a crossbow that hit a target that fired another cross bow, and that kept happening until eventually an arrow went through an apple that sat on that woman's own head. So the question for the judges became, is my comedy funnier than a crossbow? Ultimately, she and I both did advance in the competition, so we were tied. I honestly believe that, though it seems like the odds might be stacked against a person basically just standing and talking when competing with so many others who are doing so many more exciting-looking things, as long as I did my best, I had a chance as a comedian. Because even if all the dancers were awesome, ultimately the show was a variety show, and at least for some of the rounds, the dance groups were more their own competition, not mine. If they started with three dance troupes, three bands, three comedians and three magicians, it makes the show more interesting to pick the best of each one and move forward, rather than end up with less variety. So that was the bulk of my experience. I think they treated me very fairly, and I'm grateful for the opportunity I had to perform for millions of people who otherwise never would have seen me.
You appeared in the Bridgetown [Comedy Festival] documentary, What's your history with that festival? What qualities make it more successful than other fests?
I believe I started performing at Bridgetown not the first year they had it, but soon thereafter. I love Portland. It's one of my favorite towns, so I always appreciate the opportunity to return and do fun shows there. I think that the festival being in Portland must be part of its success. Also the fact that I believe it was started by comedians, for comedians, to be fun. Some festivals are centered around competition, or specifically geared toward showcasing comedians for the industry, but if memory serves, the goal of the Bridgetown fest was simply to put on a lot of great shows in Portland. So they invited lots of great comedians, and got a lot of great audiences. I'm not a comedy-festival marketing researcher, so I can't compare and contrast anything more explicitly. I've certainly enjoyed my time at plenty of other festivals as well, like Gilda's Laugh Fest, Moontower, Just for Laughs, the Boston Comedy Festival, but Bridgetown and Portland and the comics and experiences I've had there do hold a special place in my heart. And if those other festivals are reading this, so do you! Sorry if this answer is boring. Next time I'll include more comedy-festival market research to spice it up.
Aside from maybe Juggalos, is there any demographic comedians target more aggressively than vegans?
Oh, I'm sure. Certainly, a lot of comedians may have the occasional line or two treating vegans as the easy target we seem to be: "We're not going to fight back! How could we? We're so weak! And kind! And don't want to hurt anyone!" Even Stephen Colbert, who I think is one of the kindest humans and most thoughtful comic voices around, one of my absolute favorites, will hop on the anti-vegan bandwagon once in a while. But no comedian makes a career out of just going after vegans, while some comedians do make a career targeting things like dogmatic religion, politics and whatever other powers could stand to have truth spoken to them. So I would say, if "the powerful" is a demographic, then that's the one that gets targeted the most, and deservedly so. It doesn't explain why so many comedians do attack the powerless vegans. It's just so easy, and some comedians are powerless themselves to resist. Not me; I am a super-powerful vegan comedian and have flipped this whole script. Be very afraid of me, but only conceptually, please. I am very small, and the tai chi lessons I've been taking are mostly for the meditative effects.
Your special Small, Dork, and Handsome came out in 2014. How long after recording does the process of writing a new hour begin?
Immediately. Sooner than immediately, actually. After I recorded my first album, Vegan Mind Meld, in 2009, I started the process of removing those jokes from my act and replacing them with new ones, like a verbal version of Theseus's ship. Some of the jokes that would join the act were already in the process of being written, and that's the way it's gone every time. I recorded my second album, Meat Robot, in 2012, and by that point I already had close to two hours of new material since the first one, so that allowed me to record Small, Dork, and Handsome in 2013, with lots of ideas still remaining to be recorded, plus new jokes that would be solidified by recording time.
A few months before recording my special in 2013, a girlfriend and I broke up because she wanted several children very soon, and I wasn't sure I wanted them at all. Other than that, the relationship was wonderful, so that was something that occupied my mental space pretty heavily for a while, and I started writing a lot of material about it. That material would eventually form the core for what would become the album I recorded earlier this year, 2016, building on differing thoughts about not wanting kids. It will come out in early 2017 and be called No Kidding. In the meantime, I currently have the skeleton for the next hour planned, and I'll record it when the right opportunity presents itself, possibly in the coming year. So the process of writing new hours is pretty much always ongoing. While I'm putting the final touches on the old hour, I'm already thinking and writing and planning the new one, getting it ready to be the next old one.
Where are your favorite places to go try out new jokes?
Anywhere, really. When I'm doing sets around NYC where I live, I'm working on new jokes almost all the time. Some shows I love performing on include Whiplash at UCB, Gandhi Is That You at Lucky Jack's, Sweet at the Slipper Room, Hush Money at Pink's, my own show at QED, Night Train at Littlefield, and places like the Creek, Union Hall and various Two Boots pizza places.
When I'm traveling outside NYC, some of my favorite shows in the past year or two have been independently produced and promoted by local comics/bookers/producers, because the audiences have all been coming pretty much specifically just to see me, which gives me a lot more latitude to riff and go off-book than if I'm at a club performing for audiences full of people who might not already know who I am and what I'm about. Specifically, some shows I've done with Deb Aronin in Durham, North Carolina, with the Secret Group in Houston, with Mississippi Studios in Portland, at Doc's Lab and other places around San Francisco: These types of shows have been some of the most creatively rewarding for me lately, because the environment and the audience are so welcoming and encouraging that I end up saying tons of new things during the hour I'm on stage, which ultimately may end up becoming part of the act. So I suppose my favorite places to try out new jokes are wherever there are open-minded, optimistic, comedy-enjoying audiences looking forward to discovering along with me whatever I'm going to do and say.
Which tropes, premises or joke clichés would you like to see other comics retire in 2016?
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I say keep up the unoriginal ideas, everyone else! The more people doing less innovative things, the easier it will be for me to do all the new stuff. Sincerely, though, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about art that I don't like, so nothing really immediately springs to mind. Plus the fact that the best comedians can find new perspectives on even the most well-trodden ground. Good luck, everyone!
Do you have any projects coming up on the horizon that you want to mention before we wrap up?
I do, thanks! In early 2017, I will have my new standup album, No Kidding, coming out on AST Records. Also, I have a new non-comedy music album coming out this very month, December 23, 2016. It's called Many Mini Musics, and it will be available on Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon and eventually everyone's brain directly, singularity-style, I presume. Everything else I've done in the past is available at myqkaplan.com, and everything I do in the future will be there, too, barring any Internet apocalypse. Thanks for asking all the questions. I appreciate you. And thanks for reading, everyone who's reading. I appreciate you, too.
Myq Kaplan is headlining Comedy Works with shows at both the downtown and Landmark locations from Wednesday, December 14 through Sunday, December 18. Visit the Comedy Works events page for showtimes and to buy tickets.